Demand Led Growth in Social Media

One part of this intriguing interview with the creator of the Medieval Reactions Twitter account really caught my eye:

I saw a couple and I googled medieval pictures and there were already pictures flying around on the internet, but the real hard part was writing the captions. That took about a week because there were no captions there, and that changed in a short while as I was running the account. I noticed that the most engagement came from tweets dedicated to nights out, so I changed my angle halfway through and made them related to drinking. And then it sort of took off.

Demand led content growth is a scary new world for content creators, one that really makes the old guard feel uneasy.

Notes & Quotes from Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You”

“To my preteen self, it seemed clear that the Internet was going to democratize the world, connecting us with better information and the power to act on it. The California futurists and techno-optimists in those pages spoke with a clear-eyed certainty; an inevitable, irresistible revolution was just around the corner, one that would flatten society, unseat the elites, and usher in a kind of freewheeling global utopia.” pg 3

The Filter Bubble introduces three dynamics we’ve never dealt with before: first, you are alone in it, as it is you own personal bubble. Second, it is invisible in its actions. Finally, you don’t choose to enter into the bubble. pp 9-10

“As the cost of communication over large distances and to large groups of people has plummeted, we’re increasingly unable to attend to it all,” leading to what blogger and media analyst Steve Rubel calls the attention crash. p 11

The world of personalization is appealing as a “return to a Ptolemaic universe in which the sun and everything else revolves around us.” p 12

“In the filter bubble, there’s less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning” p 15 My reaction: What does Kirzner have to say about this?

“To be the author of your life, professor Yochai Benkler argues, you have to be aware of a diverse array of options and lifestyles. When you enter a filter bubble, you’re letting companies that construct it choose which options you’re aware of. You may think that you’re the captain of your own destiny, but personalization can lead you down a road to a kind of informational determinism in which what you’ve clicked on in the past determines what you see next—a Web history you’re doomed to repeat.” p 16

Robert Putnam defined two kinds of social capital: in-group oriented bonding capital represents those events when you meet an old friend, while bridging capital occurs when lots of people from different backgrounds come together to meet each other, like in a townhall. p 17 Continue reading

Saying “If You’re Not Paying, You Are The Product” Is Wrong

This week I heard the phrase that haunts tech policy. You know it. If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. 

Concise? Yes. But wrong.

The product is actually an ad, positioned on the site and tailored for you. Countless weeklies across the US run under a free model and have done so for decades. The New York Times has defrayed the expense of printing by ad supplement since its beginning. And the first newspapers, which popped up in the trading ports of Venice and Amsterdam, helped merchants sell excess to offset expensive parchment.

But it makes sense why the pithy phrase has staying power.

Mull it over again.

If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.

Naturally, we wonder next, wait, am I being violated? It is a tradeoff dripping with ethical accusations. Steven Pinker gives us one way to understand it in “Better Angels of Our Nature,” when he reviews the work of political psychologist Phillip Tetlock:

Tetlock distinguishes three kinds of tradeoffs. Routine tradeoffs are those that fall within a single relational model, such as choosing to be with one friend rather than another, or to purchase one car rather than another. Taboo tradeoffs pit a sacred value in one model against a secular value in another, such as selling out a friend, a loved one, an organ, or oneself for barter or cash. Tragic tradeoffs pit sacred values against each other, as in deciding which of two needy transplant patients should receive an organ, or the ultimate tragic tradeoff, Sophie’s choice between the lives of her two children.

Are we selling a kidney? No, we are giving a small part of our attention for an ad that won’t be remembered 60 percent of the time. Advertising ethically can be done, as Derek Powazek, who helped to build Technorati, points out:

There are ways to do [ad supported media] while still maintaining respect for the consumers. We’ve been doing it for years.

Saying that you are the product if you aren’t paying for it, disintegrates under just a minimum of scrutiny. It’s time to get rid of that phrase.

Social Networks and the Proliferating Performances of Identity

Tom Chatfield’s essay on technology and language groks Walter Ong and under-appreciated Medium theory. He begins at the genesis of the written word and makes a huge arc to today’s moral themes. First the problem of information scarcity:

The vast bulk of that story is silence. Indeed, darkness and silence are the defining norms of human history. The earliest known writing probably emerged in southern Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago but, for most of recorded history, reading and writing remained among the most elite human activities: the province of monarchs, priests and nobles who reserved for themselves the privilege of lasting words.

Yet the world is now one of information abundance and mediums of exchange:

This sheer quantity is in itself something new. All future histories of modern language will be written from a position of explicit and overwhelming information — a story not of darkness and silence but of data, and of the verbal outpourings of billions of lives. Where once words were written by the literate few on behalf of the many, now every phone and computer user is an author of some kind.

Leading to, among other things, new expressions of identity on the Internet:

All interactions, be they spoken or written, are to some degree performative: a negotiation of roles and references. Onscreen words are a special species of self-presentation — a form of storytelling in which the very idea of ‘us’ is a fiction crafted letter by letter. Such are our linguistic gifts that a few sentences can conjure the story of a life: a status update, an email, a few text messages. Almost without our noticing, we weave worlds from these snapshots, until an illusion of unbroken narrative emerges from a handful of paragraphs.

Chatfield is right. The biggest gulf between digital natives and digital immigrants lies in the negotiation of an authentic social performance. Just some food for thought, what again is wrong with the Auschwitz selfie? You should go read Chatfield’s essay.

Research Undermines Prevailing Theory that Technology is Isolating

An ever-present theme in the commentary of modern technology is its isolating effect. Yet the truth is far more complex. This Boston Review article on technology points to a paper supported by the Annenberg School of Communication that seems to suggest we are becoming more social. By conducting a content analysis of films from four public spaces over a thirty-year period, the behavior and characteristics of 143,593 people were coded. A couple of key findings:

  • Importantly, people are spending less time alone and increasingly more time in groups.
  • Women are now far more prevalent in public spaces, while men and women tend to spend more time together in public.
  • Despite the ubiquity of mobile phones, their rate of use in public is relatively small.
  • Mobile phones users appear less often in spaces where there are more groups, and most often in spaces where people might otherwise be walking alone.
  • Mobile phone use is associated with reduced public isolation, although it is associated with an increased likelihood to linger and with time spent lingering in public.
  • The increased tendency to spend time in groups while in public contrasts with evidence from other research that suggests a decline in American public life, and that mobile phones have increased social isolation in public spaces.
  • The increase in group behavior, women, and lingering in public may have positive implications for engagement within the public sphere.

A Great Paragraph from Henry Jenkins

From this article:

History teaches us that old media never die. And before you say, “What about the eight-track,” let’s distinguish among media, genres and delivery technologies. Recorded sound is a  medium. Radio drama is a genre. CDs, MP3 files and eight-track cassettes are delivery technologies. Genres and delivery technologies come and go, but media persist as layers within an ever more complicated information and entertainment system. A medium’s content may shift, its audience may change and its social status may rise or fall, but once a medium establishes itself it continues to be part of the media ecosystem. No one medium is going to “win” the battle for our ears and eyeballs.

Notes & Quotes from Daniel Boorstin’s “The Republic of Technology”

  • “An athlete of steel and iron with not a superfluous ounce of metal on it” exclaimed William Dean Howells when he recalled the gigantic 700-ton Corliss steam engine that towered over Machinery Hall at the Philadelphia International Exhibition.   A festive crowd cheered as the engine set in motion a wonderful assortment of machines—pumping water, combing wool, spinning cotton, tearing hemp, printing newspapers, lithographing wallpaper, sewing cloth, folding envelopes, sawing logs, shaping wood, making shoes—8,000 machines spread over 13 acres.  Others, especially visitors abroad were troubled by the American spectacle.  Said Thomas Henry Huxley: “I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by your bigness or your material resources, as such. Size is not grandeur and territory does make a nation. The great issue, about which hangs a true sublimity and terror of overhanging fate, is what are you going to do with all these things?” p 1
  • For the most of human history, the norm had been continuity. Change was news.  Daily lives were governed by tradition. The most valued works were the oldest. The great works of architecture were monument that survived coming antique. Furnishings became increasingly valuable by becoming antique.  Great literature never went out of date. “Literature,” Ezra Pound observed, “is news that stays news.” he new enriched the old and was enriced by the old. Shakespeare enriched Chaucer. Shaw enriched Shakespeare. It was a world of the enduring and the durable. p 4
  • The importance of a scientific work, as the German mathemtician David Hilbert once observed, can be measured by the number of previous publications it makes superfluous to read. p 4
  • Each political revolution has its ancien regime and so inevitably looks backward to what must be redressed and revised. Even if the hopes are utopian, the blueprint for utopia is made from the raw materials of the recent past. p 22
    • Like each political revolution, every technological revolution has its ancien regime, an order that must be overthrown for the new.
  • We cannot forecast what will be the ruiles of any particular new world until after that new world has been discovered. It can be full of all sorts of outlandish monsters; it could be ruled by diabolic logic. Who for example coulpd have predicted that the internal-combustion engine and the automobile would spawn a new world of installment buying, credit cards, franchises, and annual models—that it would revise the meaning of cities and tranform morality by instigating new institutions of n-fault reparations? p 24
  • Gamut Fallacy:
    • “Gamut” an English word rooted in the Greek “gamma” for the lowest note in an old musical scale, means the complete range of anything.  When we think, for example, of our future political life and our governmental forms, we can have in mind substantially the whole range of possibilities… But the history of technology, again, is quite another story. We cannot envisage, or even imagine, the range of alternatives from which future technological history will be made. p 31
  • When looked back upon, the series of events between 1776 and 1789 are interesting not so much for the rationalized political ideology, but for the political technology—the application of English ideas to the circumstances of time and place. p 49
  • The Declaration of Independence was not like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen or the English Bill of Rights, it was a set of grievances. It was a list of practical problems that the Crown had failed to properly consider.
  • The Swiss writer Max Frisch once described technology as “the knack of arranging the world that we don’t have experience it” p 59
  • The Census of 1890 declared that there was no frontier line.  In 1893, Turner published his thesis on the Frontier, connecting American virtue with the openness of the country. Once manifest destiny had ended, the country soon closed itself off to others. In 1917, Congress adopted a comprehensive immigration law which required a literacy test, added new classes of exclusions and established a barred zone in the Southwest Pacific which excluded immigrants not already kept out by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 and the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907-1908. p 78-83

Don’t Believe Everything you Hear

It seems intuitive that the rise of the Internet and social networking sites has made us all more lonely. Because we are all constrained with our time and because online connections seem shallow, it logically follows that the more time we spend online in lieu of face-to-face interactions, the more lonely we are. Though, the empirical evidence is not as clear on this as we have been lead to believe.

Fortunate or not, I remember the days when a phone call across the country to family was expensive and short. Now, I regularly have free conversations with friends a couple of continents away.  Advances in cameras and expanding bandwidth speeds have made those experiences more immersive and intimate. Simultaneously, social networking sites now allow us to more easily stay in touch with acquaintances, helping us to build and maintain much larger social networks.

Sociologists and psychologists tend to agree,

His new book, Still Connecteddefinitively refutes the Marche thesis that Americans have grown more detached. Drawing on 40 years of social surveys, Fischer shows that the quality and quantity of Americans’ relationships are about the same today as they were before the Internet.

I am not worried…

For all our talk of self-reliance and rugged individualism, Americans are actually far less likely to live alone and enjoy key forms of personal autonomy than people in other countries, including France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Britain, and Japan. What distinguishes Americans is not that we are more isolated, but that we spend more time and energy worrying about whether we are.

Notes & Quotes to Ithiel de Sola Pool’s “Technologies of Freedom”

  • A public network interconnecting computers must be license and, according to present interpretations of the 1934 Communications Act, may be denied a license if the government does not believe that it serves “the public convenience, interest, or necessity” p. 3
  • The Constitution, in Article 1, Section 8, gives the federal government the right to regulate interstate commerce, but in the First Amendment, equally explicitly, it excludes one kind of commerce, namely communication, from government authority. Yet here is the FCC trying to figure out how it can avoid regulating the commerce of the computer industry (an authority Congress could have given, but never did) while continuing to regulate communications whenever it considers this necessary. The Constitution has been turned on its head. p 3
  • The phrase “communications policy” rings oddly in a discussion of freedom from goverment. But freedom is also a policy. The question it poses is how to reduce the public control of communications in an electronic era. A policy of freedom aims at pluralism of expression rather than at dissemination of preferred ideas. p 8
  • Communications policy can be mapped on a few central questions
    • Definition of the domain in which the policy operates
    • Availability of resources
    • Organizations of access to resources
    • Establishment and enforcement of norms and controls
    • Problems at the system boundaries p 9
  • The physical printing plant was potentially hostage to state action and so the physical

‘Filter Bubble Thesis’ Popped by Real-world Evidence

SOPA and PIPA overshadowed a number of newsworthy releases at the end of January, and in the scuffle, a study dissecting Facebook’s information networks seemed to have been lost. However, it lobbed an empirical salvo in the Filter Bubble war.

Working with Facebook, Eytan Bakshy, a newly-minted PhD in information theory, ran an experiment on the social network to better understand how individuals share information through their web of relations. Conducted over seven weeks in the summer of 2010, the experiment randomly suppressed links shared through the Facebook “Like” button—so some users wouldn’t see links that would normally have appeared in the Facebook “News Feed” of content shared by their friends. However, they weren’t completely cut off from these links, as users could still share links through information outlets other than Facebook.

Bakshy’s experiment was not a shot in the dark. In the early 1970s, sociology expanded into network theory when Mark Granovetter published his seminal paper, “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Granovetter studied people who found jobs through personal contacts. Of those surveyed, nearly half said they found their then-current employment from someone that was was “not a friend, an acquaintance”—people that they knew, but had minimal contact with. From this, Granovetter correctly surmised that the people we are not close to (what he called weak ties) play an extremely important role in social cohesion and information sharing.

People who are similar tend to interact with one another. Homophily, as this is called, is a well known social dynamic. Conversely, those who do not interact often tend to be dissimilar, which also extends to the kind of information that they have. As Granovetter helped to show, weak ties tend to have novel information, and thus when the gap between clusters of close relations are bridged, novel information flows between the two groups. However because this doesn’t often occur, any particular piece of information is less likely to flow between two groups.

As Bakshy explains in his summary posted on Facebook,

We found that even though people are more likely to consume and share information that comes from close contacts that they interact with frequently (like discussing a photo from last night’s party), the vast majority of information comes from contacts that they interact with infrequently.  These distant contacts are also more likely to share novel information, demonstrating that social networks can act as a powerful medium for sharing new ideas, highlighting new products and discussing current events.

This finding seriously undermines a number of arguments proclaiming the Internet has a tendency to trap us in echo-chambers. In the most recent example, The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser questioned the benefits of personalized content like Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm, Netflix’s movie suggestions and Amazon’s book recommendations. Pariser argued these “filters” narrow the range of voices to which users are exposed, fracturing the “marketplace of ideas” and “enclosing” or “feudalizing” our society’s discourse about key subjects. Pariser should be commended for taking the bulwarks of communication theory (framing, agenda setting, and priming) seriously, but filtering is considerably different problem than media scarcity. Where we now filter views, previously there just wasn’t as many views expressed.

Pariser’s worries are similarly echoed by Cass Sunstein, who noted in Republic.com, that the Internet allows “people [to] restrict themselves to their own points of view—liberals watching and reading mostly or only liberals; moderates, moderates; conservatives, conservatives; Neo-Nazis, Neo-Nazis,” resulting in fewer of the “unplanned, unanticipated encounters central to democracy itself.”

While there is still much to learn about information processing, we know that Facebook and other social networking sites have the tendency to increase weak ties, which, as Bakshy shows, will tend to increase the exposure to novel information.

These notions of feudalizing social discourse are also not informed by history. In The Good Citizen, the most nuanced history of citizenship available, Michael Schudson documents the transformation in our expectations of citizenship. He takes on the idealized “informed citizen,” which, as he rightly points out, was not an expectation in eighteenth-century political circles. Rather, it took hold in the later part of the nineteenth century as education began to spread, finally becoming the yardstick it is today when the Progressives coupled public education and civic participation. His telling of the transformation of late 19th century politics reads as a warning to those who think we are losing the “unplanned, unanticipated encounters central to democracy itself,”

Both sides of this political equation—on the one side, lively political campaign and deeply held political loyalties; on the other, a politics light on ideas or efforts to arrive at a public good, a politics of sections, jobbery, ethnic, racial, and religious scares and slurs—must be recognized as one of the cultural contradictions of democracy…

[As the power of the partisan press begun to diminish] the act of reading a newspaper and the process of political education changed; the discourse of citizenship and citizenship ideals was transformed. The outcome was a world in many respects more democratic, inclusive, and dedicated to public collective goals, and, for all that, less politically engaging.

Schudsen’s history and Bakshy’s research, as well as others, suggest a longer trend in knowledge—rather than becoming more constrained in their views, people are actually becoming more informed about a wide diversity of opinions.

Unsurprisingly, Slate’s coverage attempts to undermine the study’s credibility:

At the same time, there’s an obvious problem with Bakshy’s study: It could only occur with the express consent of Facebook, and in the end it produced a result that is clearly very positive for the social network… If Bakshy’s experiment had come to the opposite conclusion—that, say, the News Feed does seem to echo our own ideas—I suspect they wouldn’t be publicizing it at all.

Although longstanding theory actually predicts this outcome, the benefit for Facebook is far greater than most are pointing out in their coverage (as is the reputational benefit for a network researcher in a tight PhD labor market). Not only does Facebook gets concrete information about the diffusion of information on their social network, it dispels a growing source of concern about Facebook’s effects on society—and, indeed, suggests Facebook probably increases the diversity of our experiences of the world.

Ultimately, this study complements the nuanced view that serious network theorists, communication scholars and psychologists are constructing about knowledge acquisition on the Internet, a nuance that can hardly be extended to policy prescriptions meant to “pop the filter bubbles.” Evgeny Morozov recently suggested that we should  “nudge search engines to take more responsibility for their index and exercise a heavier curatorial control in presenting search results for issues like ‘global warming’ or ‘vaccination.’” Beyond the obvious first amendment issues, Morozov drastically simplifies how information is gathered online. It could be that simple solutions solve complex issues, but having an incomplete grasp of informational diffusion on social networks will never allow for those solutions to be realistic.