Shouting Fire in a Crowded Hashtag

Narco Censorship

The press is one of the many casualties of Mexico’s ongoing violence, in particular, the local media. Newspapers and TV stations are caught in a battle between censorship, control and threats from the drug cartels, and the local governments. In some cities, people often witness shootings, grenade attacks and other violent events, but when they try to find out what happened, their local news has nothing to offer. Some newspapers have officially announced a policy of self-censorship when it comes to reporting drug war-related news.

The result for a lot of Mexicans is that local media is no longer a source of news. Some citizens claim that their local news sources are paid off by the local government in an effort to minimize the violence; others argue that it is the cartels who have bribed them; while others, especially the journalists, say they are being threaten to stay quiet. What is certain is that journalists are being murdered and their murders often go unpunished.

Hashtags Save Lives

Knowing if there is a shooting going on in a certain part a city, is not just about satisfying one’s own curiosity, but about one’s safety. Many of the recent violent episodes in Mexico last long enough that knowing about them can be a life-saving piece of information. Since main stream media no longer fulfill its role of informing citizens about these events, people have turned to social media.

Twitter in particular, with its unidirectional follower model and its hashtags, has become one of the main sources of citizen-driven news in Mexico. People often “report”, “confirm” and re-tweet information about violent events using hashtags. In several cities, hashtags have emerged as shared news resources. One of the first cities where these hashtags were used was Reynosa, with #reynosafollow, followed by Monterrey with by #mtyfollow and, more recently, #verfollow for the coastal city of Veracruz.

A word count analysis of more than a quarter of a million tweets using the hashtag #mtyfollow over the course of nine months (11/2010 to 8/2011) shows how hashtags are used as a common resource. People hook into the hashtag to “report” (“REPORTAN”, in Spanish), issue warnings (“precaución”, “cuidado”) and request confirmation (“confirmar”) about shootings (“balacera”, “detonaciones” “balazos”) in certain areas of the city (“zona”, “Cumbres”, “Av”, “Sada”). You can also see the popularity of some user handles in the messages. Together, people such as @trackmty, @AnaRent, and @cicmty, have more than 85,000 followers and 65,000 tweets. These people have become reliable information news sources.

Most common words in 252,431 tweets using the hashtag #mtyfollow

Twitter Terrorists

Last Thursday at 11:56 AM, @gilius_22 tweeted a message using the #verfollow hashtag. He claimed that five kids were kidnapped at a school:

#verfollow I confirm that in the school ‘Jorge Arroyo’ in the Carranza neighborhood 5 kids were kidnapped, armed group, panic in the zone

The message was re-tweeted by twelve people, one of them was @VerFollow, a popular account with more than 5,000 followers that was created to report on the violence in the city. Immediately after these tweets, the rumor started spreading like wild fire. There were reports saying that one the of drug cartels was threatening to kill a child for each cartel member killed. People spread the news via Facebook, emails, and text messages. @gilius_22 reported that the cellphone network went down. Additionally, several other twitter users reported other incidents related to schools and to helicopters supposedly flying at low altitude.

By 12:00 pm (only four minutes later) the governor tweeted a message dismissing the rumor. However, by then it was either too late or the governor was not considered a reliable news source (probably a bit of both). Many parents rushed to to pick-up their children from school, causing massive traffic, chaos and panic across the city. Many parents did not take their kids to school the next day and businesses reported a 70% productivity loss due to the incident.

Mentions of the hashtag #verfollow in the month of August. Note the spike in Aug 25, the day of the rumors. Source: Topsy.

By 12:05 pm the governor tweeted his support for freedom of expression but urging people to make sure information is reputable before acting on it. Three hours later he posted that the government would go after those who spread the rumor on the basis of “terrorism”:

We have identified today’s misinformation sources, I want inform that this will have legal consequences according to Article 311 (terrorism)

Wikileaks-inspired logo of the anti-censorship movement in Veracruz.

The same day, the government website issued a statement listing sixteen twitter accounts involved in the rumor and threatening to take legal action against them. The statement also mentioned the name of the person associated with the account @gilius_22. By Saturday, @gilius_22 and @maruchibravo were arrested on charges of terrorism. Today, the total number of arrests has increased to three. Some of them have claimed to have been tortured by the police and forced to sign confessions. At the same time, many Twitter users across the country have rallied in opposition to the arrests. Many have mocked the government  by calling themselves “twitteroristas”. There is even an Anonymous video  “denouncing the government’s reaction against social media and the “lack courage” of the local media to report what is happening in the city.

Social Media Fail?

It is unclear what the motives and roles were of those sixteen people charged with spreading the rumor. Did they shout fire because they thought they saw flames or did they completely invent it? What led to the fast viral spread of this rumor?

The rumor would not have spread as easily if there was not already a widespread sentiment of vulnerability. It is unclear what did happen that day. There are several reports of military mobilizations around the same time of the tweets. If that was true, it probably added legitimacy to the rumors. Shouting fire in a theater carries a lot more weight that shouting fire in a pool.

The rumors spread faster because of a weak information “immune system.” Main stream media and the government are no longer considered reliable information sources in some of these cities. Social media has taken the role of the main stream media and that comes with its own challenges. Social media (i.e. Twitter) has fluid reputation mechanisms, which is positive because it helps protect people’s pseudonymity in light of the real danger faced by journalists. On the other hand, these fluid reputation mechanisms are problematic for assessing the reliability of information.

Many citizens do not trust the government. For example, the official Twitter account created by the local government to report violent events had six times less followers than some of the citizen journalists on Twitter. Many people claim that the government often downplays or completely denies the existence of any kind of violence under the motto “no pasa nada” (“nothing happens”). The governor himself has explicitly denied saying such thing:

I have never said that in Veracruz ‘nothing happens,’ we are fighting crime with all of our power so we can live in freedom, that is what is happening.

The circumstances were fertile ground for spreading misinformation. However, prosecuting Twitter users raises some questions. Yes, their actions caused panic, but does it actually amount to terrorism? Also, it is likely that these arrests will have a chilling effect on social media in Veracruz and maybe other cities, destroying citizen’s last resort for news. Another possible outcome is that social media might be pushed underground, making it even harder to develop reputation-building mechanisms.

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Thanks to Nick Diakopolous for his feedback on this post.

UPDATE: Related interview on CNN and RWW article.

How much is a life worth in pixels?

Analysis of yesterday’s news coverage of the Mexican massacre

Mexican Tweets

More than fifty people were murdered yesterday in what is now the most violent episode in the ongoing Mexican Drug War. Most of the victims were women, some were pregnant. After learning about the horrific massacre in Monterrey, I spent several hours reading the reports coming from México via social and mainstream media. I exchanged messages with friends and family who live there (I went to college in Monterrey and my parents live no too far from there). The Twitter trending topics in México showed anger, desperation and hopelessness. One of the hashtags people often use to report violence in the city, #mtyfollow, was full of messages of repudiation and of people trying to help others find their loved ones. Some of the most retweeted messages were those with the names of the possible victims, as you can see in this chart.

 Twitter activity on a popular keyword right after the massacre
Mexican Twitter users helping find missing people after the massacre

American Silence

The massacre  happened only  140 miles south of Texas in one of the largest metropolitan areas in North America. Yet, as Nancy Baym put it,  the American twittersphere was mum. Why? In part, I think, because most of the news websites in the US were ignoring the event.

One could understand the lack of coverage in the first few hours. The news coming out of México were talking about “only” four deaths, so it is possible the events might not have caught the attention of the American news websites at first. However, ten hours after the attack the official number was already above fifty victims, with some reports as high as 61, yet sites like gave little attention to the story. The link to the article of the massacre was buried among articles such as one about actress Rose McGowan’s childhood.

I know CNN is not known for its high-quality news coverage so I decided to check out one of America’s most trusted news outlets:  the New York Times.  I was disappointed, again.  I had to scroll all the way down to the “More News” section to find a 10 pixel-font link to the article titled “Arson Kills 40 in a Casino in Mexico.”

Pixels per Victim

Frustrated by this, I decided to get a more objective assessment of the coverage by counting the number of pixels different news websites were assigning to the story of the massacre. I know web designers put a lot of work into every single pixel on the screen, especially of high-traffic websites. Visitor’s attention is scarce and every pixel counts. So I took screenshots of  the front pages of some of the major news websites and calculated the amount of screen real state assigned to the story of the massacre. For example, the the New York Times, gave the story 291×11 pixels, a mere 0.27% of the screen real state (in a window size of 1439 x812 pixels). CNN gave it even less at 191×10 pixels, representing 0.16% of the screen. But what about other websites? Did any other websites in the English-world gave it more space? Yes. Read on.

I decided to look into non-American websites. If my calculations are correct, it turns out that Al-Jazeera and The Guardian alone gave more pixels to the story than CNN, the Washington Post, FOX News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, MSNBC and the Houston Chronicle combined. Americans might be better off getting news about  their southern neighbor from a British or a Qatari website than from many of the US ones. The two exceptions were the LA Times and the Huffington Post. They both gave more pixels to the story than any other news source I analyzed. CNN was at the bottom of the list though. Click here for a slideshow of the websites I analyzed.

To summarize my results, I generated a ranking of the number of pixels per victim each news website devoted to the massacre. Yes, this issue is much more nuanced than pixels per victim, and I am not a journalism expert but I hope it can help start a discussion (or continue an existing one). If my calculations are correct, CNN devoted 38 pixels per victim, 76 times less than the LA Times which gave 2,920 pixels per victim.

Closing Thoughts

The Mexican Drug War is a complex geopolitical conflict closely linked to the United States’ financial stability  and national security. If American news websites do not give enough attention to the massacre of 50 people, what can we expect of less dramatic stories with perhaps more structural and long-term implications? I list here some of the recent related stories that I wish had gotten much more attention and that I hope you get to read to understand the complexity of the problem:

  1. The Guardian’s article on “How a big US bank laundered billions from Mexico’s murderous drug gangs.”
  2. The LA Times’ article on a senate report on how the “U.S. can’t justify its drug war spending” (there are many more articles about this).
  3. The NY Times story on how US-officials “allowed nearly 1,000 guns to flow illegally into Mexico” (also check this campaign to stop gun smuggling).
  4. Chomsky’s excellent synthesis of the whole Drug War problem  with a historical perspective that only Chomsky can give.

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My summer internship: On finding gender

I showed up at NERD with a set of questions about the relationship between making physical things, producing information, and being part of a community of peers that I thought I could answer by looking at food blogs. I knew only a little about food bloggers so I decided I had better start with macro-level questions about the size and network structure of the food blogosphere, mid-range questions about the demographics of food blogs and food bloggers, and then arrive at the juicier questions about how and why food bloggers do what they do.

Methodologically those questions translated to:

  1. a network crawler
  2. a survey
  3. semi-structured interviews
  4. hanging out on the blogs and twitter

In terms of publications, I was always aiming for a book, a whole stinking book.

Here’s what actually happened.

The crawler never made it in to MSR because it was deemed too risky. An intern in some other group had run a badly behaved crawler last year and Microsoft Research was not ready to go down that road again. Fine. I ran it from home with help from my CS friend.

I got lots of feedback on the survey from the entire SMC group which resulted in a shorter, tighter instrument overall. After disheartening reports that food bloggers had to fish my emailed invitation out of their spam folders, I leaned on twitter and ended up with a response rate better than 30%. As a complete stranger, it was easier to look like a real person on twitter than it was over email. Go figure.

Speaking of meeting strangers, I spent the majority of my summer interviewing 27 food bloggers about why and how they blogged about food. What mattered to them turned out to be writing, photography, and the reliability of the recipe not the taste, smell, or other physical qualities of food. I was so excited to hear about the privileging of food information over the food itself because my initial interest was in the way that the physical process of making and eating food related to the process of producing the information to recreate that experience in one way or another.

What I started to realize (like a dummy who cannot see what it right in front of her) was that the way food blogs are produced has a lot to do with the gendered history of food production. Women have historically been home cooks while professional kitchens are populated mostly by men (and even if they aren’t populated by men, they are some of the most hypermasculine spaces I have ever been in. Thank you, dissertation field work.) Devoting time and energy to the production of *information* about food in the form of writing and photography has a different gender-valence than producing food for friends family, or oneself in home kitchens. Food blogs bring the food out of the home into the public sphere, a step away from the feminine space of the kitchen, into the masculine space of participatory discourse. This move away from the feminine is further emphasized by the way food bloggers dedicate energy to writing, photography, and the technics of blogging.

Male food bloggers are few in number and I was only able to interview three of them (I am aiming to get at least three more men to speak with me). The three I talked to were all fairly ‘advanced’ food bloggers who had either been doing it for a long time or had quit their day jobs to do it or some combination of both. They all identified themselves as food professionals from the beginning of the interviews – one referred to himself as the father of food blogging. The women usually talked about the importance of external recognition in the process of professionalizing; the men I interviewed simply adopted whatever professional title they aspired to have without too much dallying in the ‘becoming’ phase.

I went into this project with the hunch that by situating my gaze at a border crossing – from the physical to the digital – I would be able to have a deeper understanding of the importance of tangibility and the cultural capital of information in relation to the physical. While that may not be exactly what I found, I think I was able to reveal something about the way gender is both structured and structuring. I chalk it up to the decision to sit at that border crossing – watching assumptions that hold up in one context fail to be translated in a different context is a good way to figure out what is holding up those assumptions in the first place.

It’s not all that surprising that by looking at a historically gendered practice – food production – I ended up finding out about the relationship between gender and professionalism. I’m so excited to write this research up – have three articles and a chapter in mind.


Before I head back to Brooklyn, I want to share my gratitude for the opportunity to be part of the intellectual community at Microsoft Research this summer. I recommend this internship without reservation to anyone interested in studying what happens on screens and between screens, especially when those screens are computer screens. The intellectual community is phenomenal, the space is better than any university I have ever seen, and the amount of work that fits into a day here is simply greater than what fits into a day back in my department.

Random thoughts about piracy

Living in the US, I see signs of media piracy all the time. I have numerous friends who are unrepentant music/movie/TV/book pirates. And while I buy a surprising quantity of my media, I also pirate that which I cannot get due to international rights laws or due to foolish business decisions on behalf of media companies. (Dear HBO, some of us True Blood fans would actually pay for your content if you would just make it available without requiring us to own a TV/cable subscription. ktxby.) Whenever I travel to Europe, my friends complain incessantly about how they cannot get access to American media content without pirating it. Yet, whenever I hear people around me talk about their practices of media piracy, it always comes with a coating of guilt layered on the top like molasses. Even my unrepentant friends frame their practices in terms of how they refuse to feel guilty because of XYZ corrupt institution. Guilt prevails as the dominant Western discourse to respond to when engaged in acts of piracy.

Not in India. I was absolutely enthralled with how the discourse around piracy in India was radically different than anything I had seen elsewhere. In India, piracy is either 1) a point of pride; or 2) a practical response to an illogical system. There is no guilt, no shame.

I loved hearing people talk about mastering different techniques for pirating media, software, and even infrastructural needs (like water, electricity, even sewage…) There was a machismo involved in showing off the ability to pirate. To pay was to be cheated, which was decidedly un-masculine. Of course, getting caught is also part of the whole system, but the next move is not to feel guilty; it is to bribe the person who catches you. Ironically, people will often pay more to bribe inspectors than it would’ve cost them to pay for the service/item in the first place. Again, we’re back to pride/masculinity. Pirating was an honorable thing to do; not pirating is to be cheated.

Money is certainly an issue for many Indians, but a lack of resources doesn’t fully explain the practices of piracy. Another factor at work has to do with the role of conspicuous consumption in India. It’s perfectly reasonable for a well-to-do Indian to spend an obscene amount of money on an expensive car, a fancy electronic item, or brand name clothing. But that’s different, because those items are to be shown off as a symbol of status. No one shows off the fact that they bought a legal copy of software or a legal version of the latest Bollywood flick. Showing off the fact that you paid full price for something that could be obtained for free would make you look foolish, not important. Pirating is a completely naturalized practice.

The issue of piracy is certainly complex and I’m being overly simplistic in what I’m offering (see: Adrian John’s “Piracy” for a more proper treatment of piracy). But I can’t help but think about the significant cultural differences between the US and India whenever I hear Americans talk about the “problem” of piracy. Piracy means such radically different things to Americans and Indians and, more importantly, the guilt that makes many Americans comply with anti-piracy regulations is completely ineffective in India.

I really wonder how these kinds of issues are going to play out… Will corporations find new ways of forcing Indians comply? Will Americans’ attitude towards piracy become less guilt-ridden? What will all of this mean for software, media, and even infrastructural elements? One thing’s for sure… social norms will still dominate any legal or technical regulatory intervention.

What We’re Reading

We’re a diverse bunch here at the SMC, but what we have in common is that we are nerds who read a lot. I went on office patrol to find out what my compatriots have selected as their August summer reading.

danah boyd

Books danah boyd is reading
Parenting out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times, by Margaret Nelson
“It’s a phenomenal examination of two different common parenting strategies and their class dimensions.”

The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman
“It’s so relevant even to today. Through fiction, [Goodman] shows the different players from different angles seeing the dot com boom and crash play out. I think in the tech industry, we tend to forget about these different angles.”

Danah is also reading The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, a critically-acclaimed steampunk/dystopia. She and I share a love for YA, sci-fi, and YA sci-fi.

Kate Crawford

Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings, by Erving Goffman
“It’s a classic, but nobody’s read it. Eytan [Adar, visiting researcher] and I are using it to think about the London riots.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
“Danah recommended this, because the theme of cell propagation is bizarrely relevant to [the paper they’re working on about] Big Data.”

Eytan Adar

Books Eytan is reading
The Taming of the American Crowd: From Stamp Riots to Shopping Sprees, by Al Sandine
“I bought this but haven’t read it yet. It’s for Kate and I’s project on the London riots.”

The Magician King, by Lev Grossman
“If you want junky books, I just finished the Magician King. I’m actually looking forward to the sequel. ”
I also just finished this, so I responded that a) it was written by the book critic for New York magazine and therefore is de facto not junky, b) it was a lot better than its predecessor, “The Magicians.”

Heather Castells

Paying for Sex: The Gentlemen’s Guide To Web Porn, Strip Clubs, Prostitutes & Escorts – Without Humiliation, Job Loss, Bankruptcy, Infection, Bloodshed Or Incarceration, by Kerr Fuffle and Roscoe Spanks
“Danah and I found this on Amazon. It’s a self-published guide for people who want to buy sex with escorts and prostitutes and how not to get caught. We wanted a better view of what the demand side looks like in human trafficking.”
Me: Is it written from a male perspective?
Heather: They say in the beginning of the book that it’s aimed solely at men.

Laura Norén

Books Laura Noren is reading
Look at Me, by Jennifer Egan
“I allow myself to read fiction in the summer. I loved the Goon Squad.”

Personal Connections in the Digital Age, by Nancy Baym
“This relates to research I’m doing. I’m excited for the chapter on communities and networks, because I think it’ll be relevant to my project on food blogging. I’m also excited for the chapter on authenticity, which apparently everyone has trouble pinning down.”

The Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, by Sharon Zukin.
“I did not like this. It’s primarily about authenticity in the East Village and Red Hook, and I live in Red Hook.” Note: Laura also goes to NYU which is pretty much in the East Village. “I got my hopes up, meaning it was easy to disappoint me. It didn’t do quite what I thought it was going to do. On the other hand, it did help me understand how personal an experience of shared space is.”

Alice Marwick

Note that these are fake quotes from me, since I don’t talk out loud to myself, at least not usually

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
“I stayed up til 2 am last night finishing this. It’s about video games and 80s nostalgia in a dystopian future. I couldn’t put it down.”

Gender Circuits: Bodies and Identities in a Technological Age, by Eve Shapiro
“I’ve been working on a book chapter about gender and social media and really struggling. The snippets of this book I found on Google Books convinced me to buy it. I’m hoping it comes from Amazon tomorrow.”

What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly
“I haven’t started this either, but I’m interviewing Kevin Kelly next week and I’m pretty intimidated. I hope reading his latest will help me put together some non-idiotic questions.”

What are YOU reading?

Do Anonymous Websites Work?

Meme: Not sure if Facebook or 4chan
Hateful content gets posted on "real name" websites too

Some advocates of “real name” policies argue that pseudonymity is far too easy to abuse. They suggest that “real name” policies help reduce spamming and trolling. This might be true, however, you can still get a fair amount of troll-like behavior and hateful discourse in “real name” sites. Just sit on these Facebook searches for a few minutes and you will see the things people are willing to say using their real names. But what about anonymity? Do anonymous websites get run over by spammers and trolls until they collapse?

In a recent paper, my colleagues and I explored how anonymity looks in the wild. First, we started by mapping out the design choices for social sites. Some recent discussions on “real name” policies might imply there are only two options: real names and pseudonyms. This dichotomy is, to a degree, limiting and inaccurate. So we start by mapping the range of design choices for online identity along two axis:

A. Identity Representation

This refers to the identity metadata of a participant that a system displays when he or she interacts with others. Identity representation ranges from strong identity, such as Google+ and Facebook’s “real name” policies, to pseudonymity, such as Twitter @handles, to anonymity, such as 4chan’s complete lack of user names. It is important to note that the information a system collects or requires from the user is not necessarily the same as the one it displays to its peers. For example, most websites collect (at least temporarily) the IP addresses of their users but few show them to others (Wikipedia does this when not logged in). Even anonymous websites like 4chan bans users based on their IP addresses.

B. Archiving Strategies.

This axis refers to the longevity and availability of content associated with a specific person in the system. These strategies range from permanent archival, such as Google’s everlasting logs, to temporary archival, such as Twitter’s limited history, to ephemerality, such as 4chan’s five-minute post lifespan (from our paper).

online identity deisgn choices
Design choices for social websites.

Of course, even these two axis are a simplification of the design choices available. Many websites use clever hybrid models, for example, Formspring lets people link their accounts with their “real names” (using Facebook) and post content pseudonymously (with their Formspring user name) and anonymously (without user names at all). Similarly, Canvas uses a unique hybrid model that combines some of the options described above.

I mentioned before that even “real name” websites have a fair amount of inappropriate and offensive content. Pseudonymous websites are not strangers to that either, in fact, it might well be possible that they are even more likely to host undesirable content. However, pseudonymous websites can also be highly prosocial. Two of my favorite online communities, StackOverflow and Reddit, often display astonishing examples of altruistic and pro-social behavior.

But what about completely anonymous communities? Do they eventually get run over by spammers and trolls until they eventually die? The answer is not exactly.

In our paper, we analyzed a specific community with anonymous and ephemeral content: 4chan. Say what you will about 4chan, but the website has already survived Friendster, MySpace and Digg (OK, these sites are not gone, but you know what I mean). Despite its archaic visual design and its offensive and extremely inappropriate content, 4chan is a thriving community with more than 7 million users and with about 400 thousand posts per day in only one of its boards, /b/.

OK, 4chan has been alive for seven years and it is still thriving, but what about its content? The media coverage of 4chan has portrayed the site as “the Internet hate machine“. But the reality is much more nuanced than that. First, 4chan has several discussion boards. Some are more offensive than others, but the one that grabs the headlines is the random board /b/ because of its “rowdiness and lawlessness“, as 4chan’s creator put it. Indeed, a lot of /b/’s content is pornographic and offensive, sometimes it resembles public bathroom graffiti or even dadaist art, as Amy Bruckman once said to us.

The media has placed a lot of attention on the cases of off-line harassment that originated in /b/. However, our data showed that only 7% of the posts intend to agitate off-line action. The rest are mainly people sharing funny image macros, themed discussion, links, personal stories, sharing the grievances of everyday life or even asking for advice. Most of the agitation to action fails to gain any traction, they get shut with responses such as “/b/ is not your personal army”. Participants take nothing seriously and are happy to make fun of everything (except violence against cats or puppies). Understanding 4chan is also complicated. Uninitiated users might take the posts at face value which does not always capture their real intent or meaning. For example, participants often call each other “/b/tards” or some version of the word “fag” (e.g., “newfag” to refer to new users, “eurofag” for Europeans). These terms are clearly offensive, but in the context of 4chan words and insults are often re-interpreted and co-opted.

word cloud of five million 4chan posts
Common words used on 4chan's /b/. Word cloud of five million posts.

4chan’s /b/ is probably not the strongest example to argue for the value of anonymity.Protecting activists, victims of abuse or whistleblowers, to name a few, are much stronger reasons for anonymity. But what I am saying here is that anonymity and ephemerality, even at it its worst, do not necessarily lead to a community’s collapse. And in fact, 4chan’s long record as the birthplace of a lot of Internet culture and memes might suggest anonymity is conducive to social creativity.

Update: interview on MarketPlace.

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Riots, social media, and the value of ‘first responders’

David Cameron has vowed to do ‘whatever it takes‘ to restore order after the riots: this seems to include blocking access to social networking sites.

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media,” Cameron said. “And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

We’ve heard a great deal about the use of social media for rioters to organize, as well as boasting about their ill-gotten gains – posting images of stolen goods and inciting others to do likewise. Exactly how much incitement to riot was occurring in these spaces is unclear. Mobiles, too, are implicated, as BlackBerry’s BBM encrypted messaging service was purportedly used by some to coordinate looting.

Is it desirable, or even possible, to shut down access to social and mobile media networks during times of crisis? Exactly what does Cameron have in mind?

To find examples of technical feasibility, we have multiple examples in the Middle East, where access to the internet has been cut off several times during the events of the Arab Spring. Egypt, Libya and Syria have all severed net traffic during protests, and with considerable effectiveness. It’s not the kind of list we’d expect a mature democracy like England to want to join. If Cameron is thinking about something more individualized, where only some people are restricted, this will still land him with some very sticky civil liberties issues.

But is shutting down networks – in part or whole – even a good idea? To answer that seriously, we need to look at the whole range of activities that occur in social media spaces like Twitter and Facebook. Social media spaces are complex: they perform critical roles of sharing information, news gathering and emotional support, while also being conduits for rumor and abuse.

If we take the case of the London riots, we have seen extraordinary acts of pro-active social engagement: from #riotcleanup which rallied people to clean up the streets, to various forms of citizen journalism that have made substantive contributions to media coverage (for example, see Leon Piers‘ @BristolRiots on Twitter or Casey Rain’s Tumblr, Birmingham Riots 2011). Malaysian student Asraf Haziq, who was attacked at knifepoint by rioters, became the focus of a social media campaign to raise money for his recovery.

These significant social responses, organized and distributed via Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, would cease to function if networks were restricted or shut down. We can consider the people on social media sites who engage in community rebuilding as ‘first responders’: before government programs respond or insurance claims can be filed, people are organizing via a range of space (some online, some not) to organize and assist those who have been most affected by a disaster or a riot. We saw similar actions in response to the devastating Queensland floods: first responders used Twitter to share information and assist flood-affected communities. If governments restrict or paralyze these networks, they also bring to a halt precisely the kinds of pro-social organizing that communities use to fill the gaps long before many official institutions can respond effectively.

Instead of considering the complex ecology of social networks, we are being told they need to be shut down and, as Cameron argues, greater policing of communication channels. There’s considerable research that points to this being ineffective, and more likely to increase community fragmentation and anger (see, for example, the discussion of the sociological literature here) There’s a need for more research to show the complexity of activities that occur in network spaces during acute events (I’ve been doing some work on this in Australia with Jean Burgess and Axel Bruns). But while many of the negatives (looting, rioting and the like) will occur regardless of social media’s availability – we need only look to Paris in 2005 or countless other ‘pre-Twitter’ riots – many of the ‘first responder’ positives rely on social media networks to function. The #riotcleanup idea could not have occurred on such a scale had it not been for Twitter. As Debbie Chachra writes on Twitter: “Urban rioting existed before SMS/social media. You know what didn’t? Large-scale community cleanups, spontaneously organized within hours.”

If the riots remind us that cities are always vulnerable spaces of politics, negotiation and rupture, Cameron’s realpolitik underscores that social media networks are also fragile. They are susceptible to challenges, both technological and political: including hackers, accidental system overloads, and politicians who wish to censor, restrict or block them, be they in democracies or dictatorships.

Behind the Meme: People’s Champion

SMC alum Alex Leavitt posted this fantastic documentary on his Tumblr. It’s a behind-the-scenes breakdown of the infamous Eli Porter rap battle, which got like 4 million YouTube hits and has been referenced by Kanye West and T-Pain, among others.

People’s Champion: Behind the Battle from Trent Babbington on Vimeo.

As Alex wisely says:

“I could say a lot about this documentary, about race, class, school life, discrimination, subculture, celebrity. And about the power of the internet as a network for recontextualization. But it really boils down to this: “There’s so much about it that’s dope, in a non-laughing-at-him kind of way. There’s something about him that I really want to listen to, regardless.”

My fascination with internet celebrity is well-documented and I’m pumped to see more stuff like this. What’s it like when something you’ve made, or been in, has the visibility of a network television show? What is it like when people know you, but you have none of the traditional trappings of fame to protect you?

Anyway, this is excellent procrastination fodder as it’s only 30 minutes long and very funny. The producers are trying to Kickstart Part II.

“If you don’t like it, don’t use it. It’s that simple.” ORLY?

We’ve had a controversial week here at SMC, with both danah and Bernie jumping into the fray over Real Names (TM) and social network sites.

I’m not engaging with that mess, but I am interested in the response to it. Over, and over, and over again, when anyone– academic, pundit, journalist, blogger, regular person without a fancy appellation– criticizes social media, you’ll see a plethora of comments like the following (real comments from various things we’ve written with names removed):

“How dare you write software and give it to me for free under terms with which I disagree? That’s an abuse of power!”
No, it isn’t. Get your sense of entitlement under control.

The solution is rather simple – don’t join Facebook.

The internet is a big place. There’s room for all kinds of social networks. You don’t have to join every one of them.

It’s common, and easy, to say “just don’t use it.” There’s actually a term for this– technology refusal– meaning people who strategically “opt out” of using overwhelmingly prevalent technologies. This includes teens who’ve committed Facebook suicide because it causes too much drama; off-the-grid types who worry about the surveillance potentials of GPS-enabled smartphones; older people who think computers are just too much trouble; and, of course, privacy-concerned types who choose not to use Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, websites with cookies, or any other technology that could potentially compromise their privacy. (This does not include people who can’t afford internet access or computers, or who live in areas without cell towers or broadband access.)
Continue reading ““If you don’t like it, don’t use it. It’s that simple.” ORLY?”

Real name sites are necessarily inadequate for free speech

Recently on this blog, danah boyd set off a firestorm by suggesting that the imposition of real names on social media sites is an abuse of power…or even authoritarian. The obvious retort is “don’t like it, don’t use it”, or learn how to segement one’s network (i.e. bend to the system, because its your problem). But I’m here to take another angle on this one: real name sites are necessarily inadequate for online audiences. Yes, necessarily inadequate. I once had a dream that people could seamlessly manage their social networks on any site through some combination of visulaization and clever user interfaces. It was based on the visualization of Facebook networks. People who see these networks, as I’ve discovered in many interviews (early work discussed here), readily identify the myriad social contexts in their networks. One cluster is clearly family, another is clearly coworkers, and so forth. As such, it seemed like the next step would be to use this information to create some sort of selective sharing interface. These are Google+’s social circles (or Diaspora’s Aspects), except determined semi-automatically. Then one could simply select which context, and read from it, or post to it.

Network drawn from namegenweb
Old Facebook personal network showing many social contexts

This is “the myth of selective sharing” (as Marc Smith calls it). Its an engineer’s dream based on a misunderstanding of the key distinction between offline and online life. Offline we assume that our conversations are not encoded and thereafter not available to people outside of our immediate audience, by default. Yes, some lucky people give talks to large audiences, they get on the radio or tv. Most don’t. But everyone has some reason to share things with one person but not another. We don’t need to go as far as whistle blowers, political dissidents or closet cases in religious areas. Lots of people have grievances with their bosses, or find someone else attractive, or have problem students / subordinates they need advice on. Lots of people need advice on their own issues, be it alcoholism, drug abuse or gambling. When people do this offline, they do it in situations: temporally and spatially bounded contexts for action. The pub after work; the patio over a cup of coffee; the closed door meeting.  Continue reading “Real name sites are necessarily inadequate for free speech”