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April 16 2013

05:24

The View from MIT on the Boston Marathon Explosions

Here's what we know:

At 2:50 p.m. two explosions occurred along on Boylston Street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Police later detonated a third device further down the street.

As of 6 p.m., two people are dead, and nearly 90 injured, according to the Boston Globe. At MIT's Civic Media Center, we have been following along through both broadcast and social media, including the Globe's liveblog and Completure's News Scanner.

The Boston Marathon is one of the country's pre-eminent sporting events. It draws athletes and spectators into the beating heart of one of the world's best cities.

Civic is located almost directly across the river from where the explosions occurred. The blasts were audible from the MIT campus. Members of the immediate Civic family have checked in. Some were at the marathon. All are safe.

Not everyone has been lucky enough to contact their loves ones as we have. On the Boston Marathon website you may search for runners and check their status. Google has launched an instance of their People Finder for the emergency. The Red Cross' Safe and Well system appears at the moment to have been overwhelmed by demand.

Geeks Without Bounds is maintaining a Google Doc of resources, including spreadsheets where people can both offer and request housing.

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I write this as a native. My mother grew up in Everett. My father grew up in Melrose. Like my Civic colleague Matt Stempeck, who attended the marathon today, I was born in Reading. I love Boston. I love its people. I love its tradition. It is my home. My heart hurts. And then I think of Carlos Arredondo.

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Arredondo became a peace activist in 2004 after he lost one son in Iraq and his other committed suicide in grief. A Costa Rican emigrant, he became a citizen in 2006 with the help of the late Ted Kennedy. He happened to be near the finish line today and rushed to assist first responders. A man who has suffered such loss, such grief, continuing to do all that he can to help other members of the nation he can now call his own.

Arredondo gives me hope. He reminds me that, despite all evidence to the contrary, there is good in the world. As did Patton Oswalt, the acerbic comic, who today wrote some words I will try to always remember: "So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, 'The good outnumber you, and we always will.'"

As a wise man once said:

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RELATED READING: Social Media Offers Vital Updates, Support After Boston Marathon Bombings

Chris Peterson is on leave from MIT's Office of Undergraduate Admissions, where he has spent three years directing web communications, to be a full-time graduate student in MIT's Comparative Media Studies program. In addition to overseeing all web and new media activities for MITAdmissions, Chris liaised with FIRST Robotics and had a special focus on subaltern, disadvantaged, and first-generation applicants. He continues to be involved with MIT's awesome undergraduates as a freshman advisor. Before MIT, Chris worked as a research assistant at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and as a Senior Campus Rep for Apple. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Coalition Against Censorship, as an Associate at the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, and as the sole proprietor of BurgerMap.org. He holds a B.A. in Critical Legal Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he completed his senior thesis on Facebook privacy under Professors Ethan Katsh and Alan Gaitenby. He is interested generally in how people communicate within digitally mediated spaces and occasionally blogs at cpeterson.org.

A version of this post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

May 04 2012

19:48

Jonathan Zittrain Takes the Stage at ROFLCon

Today with MIT Civic Media Center's Matt Stempeck and Stephen Suen, I'm live-blogging ROFLCon, a conference for things and people who are famous on the Internet. The livenote index is here.

Christina Xu, the event organizer, starts off ROFLCon to cheers. It's an amazingly packed venue. "One out of eight people in this room have done something crazy on the Internet," she says.

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Zittrain on memes and society

Jonathan Zittrain is an Internet phenomenon. Emerging from humble beginnings as a longtime CompuServe forum sysop, he is now professor of law at Harvard Law School where he co-founded the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

He starts by saying that fame can be tricky: "Just before the talk, someone came up to me and said, 'are you the huh guy? I thought you were the huh guy! I'm not that famous. I can aspire. In this room is the engine that makes the Internet sing ... Who's minding the store? Is this going to be a day without memes?"

"Where's Tron Guy?" asks Zittrain. Tron Guy, in full costume, raises his hand, and the room bursts into applause.

Zittrain says he isn't sure if he's one of these "Internet ROFL people" -- hence the tie. It's hard to explain what you're doing this weekend to friends and family who are not part of this tribe, he quips.

But he does have some background in the Internet. He shows us a picture of him using a Texas Instruments home computer with a 300-baud modem, with the obligatory model rockets, and the Webster's Collegiate Thesaurus -- just because you might run out of words.

Zittrain used to work for CompuServe and also got involved in politics. He threw his weight behind Mondale/Ferraro 1984. "At least I carried Minnesota," he says. "And the District of Columbia." When he wasn't doing those things, he was usually spending time stuffed inside a locker. "Whatever that does not stuff you so that you die, makes you stronger," he noted.

Zittrain thinks the image of a nerd stuffed in a locker helps us understand memes -- the dramatic moment of pathos.

"They're all crazy; I'm normal ... they're bad, and we're good. And here's to us for being good," he says. But that opens us up to the charge that this culture, the Internet, is not real life, and is rather a form of retreat. At the base of a lot of memes is some authentic, unguarded voluntary moment, Zittrain says. There's artifice around it, but there is often something authentic beneath it. That's not always the case -- consider Dramatic Hamster. Sometimes a hamster isn't a hamster. But there are other times that it's striking closer to a certain chord.

Wires can be crossed when this culture is commercialized. The nerds struck back against Hot Topic when they produced a T-shirt of Rage Guy.

unstaged authenticity

There's something about commercialization which is always at arm's length of Internet culture. Zittrain talks to us about the most recent Calgary Comic Con, where they invited the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Going to the cons involves waiting in lines to get your photo with the cast. It has an Apple Commercial 1984 feel to it -- take a photo with the cast, you cannot touch the cast. He tells us about one of the least proud moments of The Oatmeal, a contest for advice features. There appears to be a negative attitude towards those who intentionally try to "engineer" a meme. People don't like being prompted -- it feels like trying too hard, feels inorganic.

We like unstaged authenticity, like Disaster Girl, who grins deviously as a house burns to the ground behind her. She rather enjoys the attention, and we are pleased to see her embrace her inadvertent success, but there are still lines that you can cross. The point at which you're running your own network and have a store-- maybe not.

Internet Fame is like winning the lottery -- it seems good until someone gets killed. What better example of this ambivalence than Star Wars Kid? So far as he knew, this was an exercise that would be completely private. He didn't realize that when he turned the camcorder in at school that it would be posted to YouTube. Jonathan shows us the video of the the Matrix Version of Star Wars Kid. In Wikipedia, there's a debate on the talk page on whether or not it is right for Wikipedia, the knowledge repository of record for humanity, to include his name in the page. Ultimately, they decided not to name him, despite the fact that the mainstream media has done it several times. And people on Wikipedia fell into line-- upholding the process with which they disagreed.

Can we build an infrastructure of meme propagation that respects people's preferences. He shows us one of the Awkward Family photo sites, with an image that says, "Image removed at request of owner." There are enough yuks to go around, so why not take down private content when someone asks us to?

Jonathan would love to see an infrastructure built native to the web which makes it possible for people to opt out of the celebrity of being a meme. This isn't DRM, but maybe something like robots.txt (a directive that tells web crawlers like Google which subdirectories not to index). Search companies respect robots.txt. No Internet organization created this. But people and companies respect it anyway-- a way to say, "Do you mind?" This is often used with court documents. How could we build this into our technology and our culture? One guy made a T-shirt that reads, "I do not agree to the publication of this photo."

In short, how can we enjoy the culture of Lulz which also respecting people's wishes?

A longer version of this post can be found on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

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