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July 13 2011


More ethical dilemmas…

Thanks to Amanda Emily (who loves to toss stuff into the gears of both large and small minds), we have yet another tool for ethical debate. Well, not so much debate – it’s wrong in oh so many ways. But interesting nonetheless.

According to a report in newscientist.com,

AN IMAGE processing system that obscures the position from which photographs are taken could help protestors in repressive regimes escape arrest – and give journalists “plausible deniability” over the provenance of leaked photos.

Simply put, if the bad guys can figure out where you were standing when you took the photo, they might be able to identify which person with a camera took photos of protestors. Then it’s good-bye cameraman.

Noble intent…but dangerous. An artificial image is created in an arbitrary location using information from several photos taken from other locations. A pretty white lie, intended to protect the innocent whose intent is to expose corruption and abuse. But who’s to say it wasn’t taken further and more manipulation was done?

Have fun with this one kiddos!

June 30 2011


At MIT Knight Confab, Public Activism Looms Large

The smell of public activism wafted across this year's Knight Civic Media conference at MIT.

Mohammed Nanabhay from Al Jazeera English (AJE) spoke about how Al Jazeera covered the Egyptian revolution. Political consultant Chris Faulkner spoke about Tea Party activism; Yesenia Sanchez, an organizer for the P.A.S.O./Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, talked about the "Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic" campaign; NPR's Andy Carvin spoke about curating and verifying tweets from Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab Spring; and Baratunde Thurston, digital director of The Onion, gave a tremendous riff about his own -- and his mother's -- activism.


If discussions were not actually about Tahrir Square, Tunisia or the Gay Girl in Damascus, they were infused by the same spirit.

Given this activist spirit, it was highly fitting that, at the start of the conference last week, Chris Csikszentmihalyi announced that Ethan Zuckerman would be succeeding him as director of MIT's Center for Civic Media (where the conference was held). Zuckerman has been a central figure nurturing, filtering and aggregating civic media over the last decade at Harvard's Berkman Center and particularly through Global Voices Online that he set up with Rebecca McKinnon in 2005.

Civic media is hard to define, Zuckerman told the audience. It combines at least three elements:

  • Organizing in a virtual and physical space simultaneously
  • Self-documentation using participatory media
  • Use of broadcast media as an amplifier

Digital Tools for Civic Purposes

In Tunisia, for example, people recorded themselves protesting and then published their recordings on Facebook. In Egypt, Facebook helped people organize political meetings and support groups. Zuckerman referred to other examples across the world where people were using digital tools for civic purposes. In Russia, people have been tracking wildfires using Ushahidi at Russian-Fires.ru. (Ushahidi is a Knight News Challenge winner.) In the United States, at LandmanReportcard.com, farmers and landowners have been keeping records of visits from "Landmen," negotiators for oil and gas companies, to expose disinformation and make sure they get a fair deal.

In Egypt, the public and the media learned from one another, AJE's Nanabhay told the conference attendees. People recorded themselves protesting and published it online. Al Jazeera amplified those recordings. As a consequence, people recorded themselves more. It was a self-perpetuating cycle of public media that grew and grew.

People are now all too conscious of the power of self-produced media, Nanabhay said. In the past, people committed dramatic "spectacles of dissent" in the belief that this was the only way of grabbing the attention of mainstream media. Now they stand with "a rock in one hand and a cell phone in the other," recording, publishing and promoting themselves and their causes, he said.

In the United States, the grown-up children of illegal immigrants have been taking videos of themselves "coming out" as having no documentation. The more people who take videos of themselves and publish them on the Net, the more empowered they feel, and the more others join them. See, for example, this YouTube video of an Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic rally in March.

NPR's Carvin spoke about how many of his connections and sources in Syria, who had started tweeting anonymously, were now using their real names and pictures. They had crossed a line, they said, and there was no going back. If they were to die, then they wanted others to know who they were.

The conference captured the flavor of how people are now using digital tools to empower themselves and give volume to their dissent -- though this is by no means all about public anger and protest. Cronicas de Heroes Juarez, a project that came out of the Center for Future Civic Media, gathers and projects good news stories from the town of Juarez, Mexico. It was set up to balance the many bad news stories coming from the town that were creating an impression of a place in hopeless decline.

Public empowerment

A number of this year's Knight News Challenge prizes reflected this feeling of public empowerment, of people taking control of their own representation and information.

The biggest prize winner was The Public Laboratory, a project that initially appeared less digital and more paper, scissors, stone. The project uses string, balloons, kites and cameras to take aerial photographs of landscapes. These photographs are then threaded together digitally to provide detailed information about land use, pollution, and the progress of environmental initiatives. The project found its calling after the Gulf oil spill when satellite photographs simply were not detailed enough to see the spread of oil or its impact on the environment.

Zeega, another of this year's big winners, will help people video their own stories and edit them together on its open-source HTML5 platform. NextDrop gets even more practical still. It will provide a service that will tell communities on the ground in Hubli, Karnataka, India when water is available. The Tiziano project emerged from work done in Kurdistan and is intended to give communities the equipment, tools and training to illustrate their own lives.

These projects are highly pragmatic, focused on the public, not media professionals, and apply existing technologies to real-world problems. They don't start with the technology and then figure out what you might do with it.

In this world, in which the public organizes and records themselves, the role of the news media changes. Mainstream media shifts from recording media content itself to gathering existing material, verifying it, contextualizing it, and amplifying it. Other Knight News prizes recognized and were directed at this shift: iWitness and SwiftRiver, and -- for data -- Overview and Panda.

The Knight News Challenge has evolved a lot since its inauguration in 2006. But its strength lies in the consistency of its aims, and in the growing relevance of those aims: helping to inform and engage communities. Long may it continue.

July 30 2010


Research: the limits of social networks for organising the social

Ulises Mejias has written a wonderful paper (subscription required) on how social networks don’t just enable participation – but limit them. Or as he asks: “Whether social network services engender publics (where opinion can be expressed freely) or masses (where opinion can be expressed freely but is not realised in action)”.

It’s a fascinating counterpoint to the ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric (think Twitter and the ‘Iran revolution’) that surrounds so much writing on social networks.

If you’re able to get hold of a copy, I recommend reading the paper in full, as there’s far too much of interest to summarise here. But if you can’t, here are some of the points that Mejias makes:

  • Networks have gone from frameworks based on observation to “actualized models that normalize a particular kind of privatized publics” – in other words, they are technical constructs based on observation of physical and virtual behaviour
  • We should make a distinction between corporate and public providers of social networks, just as we do in other fields of media
  • Freedom of action expands but so does corporate determination in restricting that freedom (through implementing functionality and features)
  • The commodification of collaboration (it takes place in the context of advertising, for instance)
  • Diversity of voices is countered by homogenisation of platforms
  • A level playing field is countered by reproduction of social inequalities (which resides in access to certainpositions within the network, not just access to the network)

The central point of his paper, however, concerns how social networks present an obstacle to alternative forms of social organisation – a point he expresses through the concepts of nodocentrism and paranodality.

Nodocentrism is explained thus:

“A network is quite incapable of recognizing things that are not nodes. If something is available in the network, it is perceived as part of reality, but if it is not available it might as well not exist.

“Nodocentrism means that while networks are extremely efficient at establishing links between nodes, they embody a bias against knowledge of �" and engagement with �" anything that is not a node in the same network. The point is not that nodocentrism in social networks impoverishes social life or devalues the near: nodes behave neither anti-socially (they thrive in linking to other nodes) nor anti-locally (they can link to other nodes in their immediate surrounding just as easily as they can link to remote nodes). The point, rather, is that nodocentrism constructs a social reality in which nodes can only see other nodes.”

Think egocentrism, and you get the idea.

As for paranodality – this is a concept to describe “that which resists being part of the network.

“In the network diagrams we are all familiar with, the outsides of the network and the space between the nodes and links are rendered in perfect emptiness. But this space is not empty. It is inhabited by multitudes that do not conform to the organizing logic of the network.

“Only the paranodal can suggest designs for social constructions that exist beyond the epistemological exclusivity of nodes.”

This is important because, as Rancière argues:

“New forms of political subjectification are always accompanied by a disidentification from society as a whole and the places we occupy within it. The paranodal becomes, to use Rancière’s terminology, the part of those who have no part.”

Mejias is at pains to point out that he is not calling for a rejection of the network as a model for organisation, just a more sophisticated understanding of it:

“Balancing the benefits and disadvantages of nodocentrism (suggesting virtual possibilities, but also immobilizing them as soon as they are actualized) will thus require a new form of network ‘literacy’ that incorporates the concept of paranodality. By far, the greatest obstacle today to the emergence of this critical literacy is the unquestioning embrace of networks as tools for change (an embrace that can get us to overlook, for instance, how social network services contribute to the formation of masses, not publics). The network is currently seen as an effective model (if not the only alternative) for organizing political opposition [...] But perhaps we have taken too literally Hardt and Negri’s declaration that ‘It takes a network to fight a network’ (2004: 58). Can the kinds of knowledge and ethics necessary to resist nodocentrism emerge from the same network logic? Is the goal simply to design a ‘better’ network? Or do we need to unthink network logic altogether?”

More thinking required.

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