Thursday, January 31, 2008

Do Internet Uprisings Matter?

The Internet has long been viewed by political activists as a promising vehicle for organizing protests and other forms of collective action. They must be looking on with glee at recent events. Consider...

  • MySpace users have organized thousands of people to participate in "International Delete Your MySpace Account Day" as a show of protest against the "glitchy pages" and never-ending amounts of spam that define the site in its present incarnation.

  • Digg users mobilized last week to protest a change in Digg's algorithm which would have made it more difficult to get a submitted story on Digg's front page.

  • Ebay sellers are, even at this very minute, trying to stage a "mass exodus" of what they are calling "FeeBay", demonstrating their outrage over the company's new policy of lowering fees to list an item on the auction site, but raising the fees for when an item is actually sold.

  • Facebook users recently revolted against the website's new advertising system known as Beacon, which became controversial for broadcasting Facebook users' purchases on outside websites to all of their Facebook friends.

What the heck is going on?

Internet uprisings are nothing new and have been chronicled since the Web's earliest days. What is new is the prominence with which these uprisings are starting to occur. Rather than computer programmers and hackers engaging in protest through technical means, ordinary people are becoming far more emboldened. One big question is why?

As Web 2.0 sites have become an extraordinarily popular forum, people have quite naturally begun to perceive their content as their own. But remember that "MySpace" is really "TheirSpace" - the company still creates and controls the rules of the environment. This often sets their private commercial interests at odds with those of the users, who increasingly think of the environment (or at least their personal pages and content) as their own. Conflict is, as a result, inevitable as these interests clash.

Some may argue that these recent uprisings don't ultimately matter too much; that they are basically symbolic. After all, MySpace is still the largest social-networking site, Digg has kept the change to its algorithm, EBay remains obstinate in its new pricing structure, and Facebook kept the Beacon advertising system in place (although it did grant users the ability to opt-out).

How consequential these uprisings turn out to be has not yet been determined. However, the shift in public perceptions over the question of ownership - and what really amounts to property rights - in cyberspace, may have even longer-term effects.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Reforming the Copyright Reformation...

The greatest internet political issue on the agenda is not the regulation of pornography, free speech, or taxes - it's copyright law, hands-down. To anyone who's ever downloaded music, looked at someone else's pictures, posted their own, or done, well, everything that most of us do, you should be aware of what's at stake.

Without getting too legalistic, understand this: The idea of copyright law has always been to protect the creators of material so that they'd be willing to add their creations to our common culture. For example, when J.K. Rowling writes a Harry Potter book, copyright law forbids others from making photocopies of its pages and selling or distributing them. BUT, at the same time, copyright law does permit some "Fair Use" exceptions to this rule - educators can make limited copies to spur classroom discussion, journalists can quote parts of the book for news reporting and public commentary, and late-night talk show hosts can use its contents for parody. Additionally, after a few decades, the book enters what's called the public domain, where nobody can claim a copyright on it anymore.

Then the internet "introduced two critical changes: it made it easier for folk-users of copyright to find each other and spread their creations and copies farther than ever, and it made it easier for enforcers to find them and threaten them".

But the bottom line remains that copyright law is ultimately intended to enhance our common culture.

Famous blogger, Cory Doctorow, has a must-read article in The Guardian today in which he argues that copyright law needs to distinguish between commercial and cultural uses. He accurately points out that every single one of us "copies" ideas, or learns, from other people. As corporations attempt to "strengthen" copyright law by using technology to limit and control how creative material can be used, they not only turn all of us into criminals, but ultimately diminish our shared culture.

Too often this issue is framed by the mainstream media as one between internet piracy anarchists versus authors or musicians who just want to earn a living off their work. But that's a false depiction. The cause here is not making everything on the internet free, but in reforming copyright law so that the activities that all of us do (and have done for decades) don't suddenly define us as criminals.

Doctorow recommends the creation of a new copyright regime "that reflects the age-old normative consensus about what's fair and what isn't at the small-scale, hand-to-hand end of copying, display, performance and adaptation". As corporations try to reform the law to "strengthen" their positions, the true cultural need is for legal reform that brings the focus back to the issue of basic fairness.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Questions About Facebook Etiquette...

As an avid user (and fascinated observer) of social-networking websites like Facebook and MySpace, I'm constantly trying to figure out what is considered socially acceptable behavior. And I'm definitely not the only one. Most people I talk to are equally clueless, and a number of blogs such as Maz Hardey's "Practising a Proper Social Demeanour: A Guide To Facebook Etiquette" have popped up to give it their best shot.

So here are a few questions I'll pose to the world from a head-scratching participant in the digital New World Order:

  • Is it socially acceptable to refuse friend requests from people we only marginally know? This goes to the issue of why most Facebook users have an absurd number of friends. The Nerfherder Gal, for instance, has 239 "friends", yet can't find anyone to watch "America's Next Top Model" with her (besides me) on any given night.

    But I digress. The practical advice I'm seeking help with deals with this scenario: I recently participated in a small group activity consisting of myself, Joe, and Sam. We all got along, but I would actually go out for drinks at some later point with Sam. Now that the activity's over, and they've both sent me friend requests, would it really be acceptable for me to friend Sam and not Joe?

    Would the smart move be to friend them both, then remove Joe from my friend list shortly thereafter? Or would that be equally offensive, just in a different way?

  • To what extent is it acceptable for a 30-year-old guy to become friends with teenage girls? TO BE VERY CLEAR, I'm not referring to any type of pedophilia or illicit activities of any kind. I raise the question because I'm Facebook friends with my younger teenage cousins, as well as all of the Nerfherder Gal's teenage cousins, which I never gave a second thought about until a co-worker friend of mine recently asked what was up with me having over a dozen teenage girls on my friends list. Perceptions do matter, and no one wants to be "the creepy older guy". But what, if anything, should I do about it?

  • When are we obligated to actually communicate with our friends? Here's something that all of us have experienced: you re-connect with an old friend who you haven't talked to in years, they accept your friend request, then neither of you ever actually writes a message to the other. Can this even be considered "re-connecting"? Now this person's on your friend list but you still haven't spoken in years. Have we made the situation completely awkward, or should we consider it no big deal?

  • When is cyberstalking still considered socially unacceptable? Spending hours looking at pictures of friends (again, very loosely defined) has quickly become a social norm, yet many people's guilty conscience still rears its ugly head once in a while. The question is when? Only you, deep down, can answer this question for yourself. But can we use that inner sense of guilt as a barometer for determining moral behavior?

While I continue to grapple with these questions, one conclusion that I am sure of is this: the limited profile option doesn't solve any of these problems.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Counter-Intuitive Observation on Second Life Economics...

The big economic news yesterday was that the Federal Reserve is slashing short-term interest rates by 75 basis points in an attempt to mitigate the effects of a forthcoming recession. But while the U.S. and global economies struggle, localized communities in cyberspace, such as that bastion of alternate realities, Second Life, are taking an even larger hit.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, a shutdown of the banking system in the virtual world of Second Life is wreaking serious economic havoc on its 12 million users. Linden Labs, which runs the website, just "pulled the plug on about a dozen pretend financial institutions that were funded with actual money" from its users. They did so in response to certain banks' inability to repay deposits, after speculation led to a mad rush of people looking to withdraw all of their funds. Picture the Depression-era scenes from "It's a Wonderful Life", only through avatars.

As I've written about before, the Second Life economy is seriously robust - comprised of a banking system, stock exchange, currency market, bond issues, and even fledgling regulatory institutions.

All of which is proving a development that is, to many, completely counter-intuitive: the innovation and novelty of the Second Life culture and economy, defined by its pioneering ethos in a new cyberspatial frontier, is actually resembling, more and more, the characteristics of the real-world. From last year's decision to ban gambling on the site, to the current round of financial crisis, the Second Life markets are demonstrating their inability to adequately protect consumers and investors, resulting in greater regulatory intervention from a familiar breed of institutionalism.

In the end, Second Life may be doing less to instruct us of how new cyberspatial economics work, and instead doing more to reinforce our established ideas of why we have the real-world policies that we do.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Podcast's Tale for Cracking the iTunes Top 20...

Any schmoe off the street with a microphone and internet connection can create a podcast. But as anyone with a blog or website can tell you, just having an internet presence is not enough. The million dollar question remains how to build an audience and get noticed.

So it is with a guy, a girl, and their podcast. Helen Zaltzman and Oliver Mann created a comedy podcast - "Answer Me This" - but quickly became frustrated with finding an internet audience. Their tale is instructive. Realizing that the key to their podcast becoming successful was through iTunes - where people easily download and subscribe to podcasts more than on any other repository on the Web - Zaltzman and Mann decided that they HAD TO get listed, somehow, in the iTunes Top 20 list.

The strategy makes sense, but it's a whole lot easier said than done. Because of the business agreements Apple has with the major music labels, certain MTV-familiar artists are relentlessly promoted on iTunes - to the chagrin of small-time musicians and podcasters. Cracking the Top 20 is an extremely daunting task.

So what did they do? They figured that they could still attract attention through iTunes by simply cracking the Top 20 List for any single country. They targeted the tiny nation of Luxembourg, and set out on a road trip to promote their podcast, figuring that in such a marginally populous country, even a relatively small group of downloaders could quickly launch them onto the list.

And it worked.

Not only did they reach as high as #4 on the podcast charts, but their story quickly became a media fascination and their audience around the rest of the world grew as a result.

What's the lesson of this story? First of all, despite the Web's promise to democratize systems and create an equal level playing field, media bottlenecks - such as iTunes - continue to dominate the content industry online. This should be a serious cause for concern to anybody who believes in reducing the influence of the gatekeeping media elite and their related role in agenda-setting. Second, as Zaltzman and Mann demonstrated, this can nevertheless be overcome with a good dose of ingenuity.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Violence in Kenya, brought to you by YouTube...

The protests and violence over the past few weeks in Kenya has been covered, to varying extents, by the mainstream news media. Already, thousands of Kenyans have been killed, and it's estimated that about 350,000 others have been displaced.

Here's a new wrinkle in the reporting: the role of YouTube in providing, not only additional video footage on the events taking place, but also a forum for people around the world to comment and create a dialogue based on that footage. As Google's Public Policy Blog reports:

Kenya's largest broadcaster, NTV Kenya, started a YouTube channel to broadcast news from around Kenya. Though Kenya's third-world economy affords less than 1% of its citizens broadband Internet access, NTV Kenya's YouTube presence has become a critical way for the Kenyan diaspora to connect with what's happening back home. The channel already has almost 3,000 subscribers and is one of the top 100 channels viewed in the last month on YouTube. The channel documents the death and violence, but it also broadcasts the efforts of the international community to rescue the nation from internal strife".

A conversation amongst YouTubers -- Kenyans and others -- has developed over the conflict there, and the National Democratic Institute (a global nonprofit that provides election assistance in Kenya and other fledgling democracies) has started a channel that documents the election efforts in Nairobi and beyond.

While the phenomena of citizen journalism and user-generated media continue to develop, this case also serves as further evidence of the market demand for supplementary media in both information niches as well as less-covered news stories.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Nerfherder Gal Returns!

The following is a post written by contributing author, The Nerfherder Gal. Rob will return next week from vacation.

While the Nerfherder is traveling overseas enjoying himself, I am stuck in the states doing blog entries for him. Only a truly dedicated girlfriend would agree to do something like this, either that or a very bored one. In our relationship, I must admit that am the one who is not very adept in politics, and I probably wouldn't pay much attention if it wasn't for my dorky, politics-obsessed boyfriend. However, while he's been away I have found myself not only missing him, but missing the cable news that is constantly battling it out with my shows like America's Next Top Model and Sex in the City. I am reaching, grasping for whatever bit of news on the campaign trail I can get my hands on. The small TV in the elevator of my office building, my MSN home page, anything! After the New Hampshire primary, I was interested in the figures of who voted for whom, and I can't stop asking everyone who they are voting for the way that the Nerfherder does. Is it possible that he's rubbing off on me in a good way? Or am I just becoming a bigger dork? I also can't wait for him to finish the organized part of his trip, so that when he gets to his cousin's we can webcam! ACK, I am becoming a dork! I love the idea that I can use the webcam to talk to people I'm missing, I can't help it! I suppose for better or for worse I am becoming interested in the things that the Nerfherder finds such joy in, and I think I can safely say that he finds a little joy in America's Next Top Model too, even though he pretends to hate it.

The Nerfherder Gal

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Wish List...

The following is a post written by contributing author, The Nerfherder Dad. Rob will return from vacation in another week.

Let’s get one thing straight right up front: I am not as political as the Nerfherder, nor do I aspire to be! I enjoy watching TV – even junk TV like The Apprentice or Deal or No Deal, and I consider myself an expert on sitcoms thru the ages. But having grown up in New York City, and being a part of the hippy generation (am still a child of the 60s), my wishes have always been driven by what’s hot in pop culture!

Given that, why should things change in the 21st century? This past week saw the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show come to Las Vegas, and if you care about new tech toys, this was THE place to be! This brings up my wish list... For many years, I keep this list of things I really would like, but can’t justify getting them for the life of me! I keep the list so if any of my 4 children ask me “Dad, what do you want for your birthday?” I can start rattling off things from the list … and then they’re sorry they even asked. Yup, I’m cruel. My wife loved the idea … so now I keep a list of things I know I should get her … but I’ll never be able to! Sigh!

Anyway, I thought I’d share some of the list with you … as you should all be techies if you read the Nerfherder regularly! And I’ll try to sprinkle in things I want … but that I don’t think anybody sells! If you have ideas about stuff you want, let me know them too, and we’ll make a bigger wish list!

So here goes: At the top of my list is small SUV/Crossover-type car … which of course is a hybrid, and gets at least 50 MPH highway. Yeah, that’ll be in my parking space in my lifetime! But seriously, you know how you can grab both ends of a dining room table, pull it apart, and put in the ‘leaf’ to make the whole table bigger? Why can’t the carmakers do something like that: allow for an expansion area for those times you can’t squeeze everything into the car on that vacation trip?

Ok, that’s crazy you say … but while we’re driving, what about GPS’s? Damn things are so chatty … but they can be of great use (even though they sometimes get very confused.) Something’s missing though for me … why can’t I simply talk to it? Like just say “find nearest Chinese restaurant”. It talks to me! Why can’t I talk to it? And maybe more important, why can’t the damn thing be hooked into the traffic reports and work around them? Is this too hard? The traffic data IS data you know!

Little things: like many of you, I have a nice screen from my cable company that displays all of the programs by channel and hour. Why can’t the damn remote have a scroll wheel (like the wheel button on a mouse), or even an iPod kind of circle thing? Is this technology too tough for people to build? If I’m going to be a couch potato, someone needs to build necessary tools to increase the experience!

Phone stuff: I’m sure many of you have your own Wi-Fi setups at home … cool, yeah yeah yeah. And with VoIP, I can make a call over the Internet at a truly minimal cost that simply sounds great. So can’t somebody figure out how to make my cell phone kick in as a VoIP phone in the house using Wi-Fi, but use the outer world network for all ‘external’ calls? Am I asking for much???

More on phones: Voicemail is a wonderful thing … but what about visual voicemail? Right now, my provider (those V guys) provide fine service … but when I have to call in to get my messages, I have to listen to my oldest message first, then the next one, then … hey guys, sequential processing is 30 years old?? With displays on all current cell phones, not just the Smart phones, why couldn’t there be a simple list displayed of the caller, the time, and the duration of the call. Then let me scroll down and select the message(s) I want to listen to … duh!

Text messages: well, my thumb has never gotten the workouts it gets lately! But shouldn’t there be an easier way to convert a text message to an email, and visa versa? C’mon!

Little things I love: have you tried Google Maps? I love it that I can double click on the map and zoom in, and that I can click on my mouse and drag it to a new location on the map, while the updated map is filled in underneath. LOVE IT!

But speaking of dragging: we really need more touch screen stuff all around technology. Last month, I went to a technology conference where I got my hands on an iPhone … and contrary to the Nerfherder who abhors Apple technology, that touch screen was simply wonderful! I love turning it … and using my fingers to browse thru my list of contacts. If only they could work on eliminating the fake keyboard and concentrate on voice input instead? Hmm, don’t iPhones already have microphones???

Stuff that sounds great: Something called a Slingbox, and a Slingcatcher. The box streams media files from your TV to your laptop anywhere you are on the Internet, while the catcher simply streams your TV to another TV! Can they make ‘em so they stream my own content to my PDA, Smartphone, or dumb phone too?

Can’t believe I liked it: I brought my iPod to that conference last month, and they had an iPod speaker system (Bose I think) where I just inserted my pod, and it played (and charged) right thru the speaker … quite delicious. I didn’t have to fiddle with stereo equipment, fumble for the pod cable, nor bring a laptop or charger. And the sound was, delicious. I’m seriously considering going that route in my living room!

Finally, something old fashioned: I really would love a new chair for my home office with 2 arms, a back and wheels so I can kick away from my desk every now and then like I did when I was a kid.

Ok … that’s about it for now. Again, if there are toys you use and you can think of features that would make ‘em better, let me know ( Maybe somebody out there is actually listening!!

Thanks NerfBoy, for the opportunity to talk to your people … now, for us old folk, its back to my dinosaur cave!

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Effects of Citizen Journalism on the Iowa Caucuses...

Only four days into the new year, the Iowa caucuses have elevated Barrack Obama and Mike Huckabee to front runner positions in the presidential election campaign. The caucus system is not a straightforward vote, but rather a type of meeting where people discuss the candidates openly. Because the caucus is an open dialogue and not a secret ballot, is it possible that there was a "YouTube Effect" that affected the final results?

As this Wired article describes, not only were many of the caucus debates recorded on video-enabled cell phones and digital cameras, but newspapers and television stations such as the Des Moines Register and CNN even encouraged people to do so.

If Iowa citizens knew there was a strong chance that they'd end up on YouTube, to what extent did that alter their behavior at the caucuses?

It seems reasonable to expect that 1) some people became inhibited by the cameras and did not speak their mind fully, 2) others became more brazen and emboldened to speak up louder than usual seeing an opportunity to reach the attention of a much wider audience, and 3) voter turnout, which saw an 80% increase over 2004, was similarly affected.

Democracy certainly requires open dialogue and the free exchange of ideas, however democracy also must balance such openness with privacy issues. This is evident not only in the "secret ballot" system where we vote behind a closed curtain and in how juries deliberate behind closed doors, but it is also entrenched in our institutions, such as Supreme Court deliberations. The logic is simple: people are more likely to stick to their convictions when they have no need to fear a public backlash.

The internet has tremendous potential as a democratizing force due to its ability to create openness, and "citizen journalism" is an avenue towards decentralizing the power of the media and leveling the playing field. However, millions of Little Brothers recording your every move ultimately has the same effect as one Big Brother doing so - the chilling of free speech. Advocates of citizen journalism ought to beware that they don't negatively alter the presidential selection process and scare citizens away from participating in the political process under the guise of "openness", even if that, in and of itself, also is a noble pursuit.