The Ethics of Attention (Part 2): Bots for Civic Engagement

Cross-posted from the Department of Alchemy blog.

Last month, Ethan Zuckerman of the Center for Future Civic Media (MIT Media Lab) posted a great article on his blog called The Tweetbomb and the Ethics of Attention (constituting Part I to this story, so make sure you read it!), in which he calls into question the practice of flooding particular users with Twitter messages to support a particular cause. The emergence of tweetbombing as a practice on Twitter is very intriguing, particularly around the assumed norms of participation:

Ethan had written previously about “the fierce battle for attention” when covering journalistic integrity and Foxconn; the tweetbomb story, meanwhile, focuses on emergent practices around gaming attention in social media platforms (modern infrastructures for communication), away from the usual norms situated around attention in news-sharing ecosystems.

These practices relate to what Ethan calls “attention philanthropy”: if you can’t move content yourself, see if you can motivate an attention-privileged individual to do it for you.

The problem is that attention is an issue of scale: how do you get the attention of everyone?. Social capital becomes a literal currency; we exchange the value embedded in networks in an attention economy. There are a number of assumptions underlying traditional mass media technologies, like radio and television: broadcast, primetime, the mass audience; but with the internet (like with cable and satellite radio), attention is splintered, across a multitude of channels, streams, feeds.

The issue with social media platforms versus mainstream media outlets is that for the most part there are many individuals who can bring attention to content that aren’t protected by the media institution (for instance, Ethan discusses well-known BoingBoing blogger Xeni Jardin, who manages her own personal Twitter account). In the attention economy facilitated by social media, then, we potentially deal with vulnerable actors.

The Low Orbit Ion Cannon, changing human consent into a social “botnet” for distributed denial of service attacks. What if you could use a similar automated program for political gain?

But what if you don’t have powerful people or institutions to help you garner attention? Or what if you can’t convince others to help you?

Become the Gepetto of the attention economy, and make some bots.

Tim Hwang’s Pacific Social project has shown that Twitter bots can influence Twitter audiences to an astounding degree. The projects’ results show that bots successfully interact with other human users, but the bots also aid in connecting disparate groups of Twitter users together.

This leads me to ask: Can you create bots for civic engagement?

How could a bot work in favor of civic engagement? Well, civic engagement has traditionally been measured according to two factors: 1) voting, and 2) social movements. But it’s increasingly evident, especially in today’s social-media-laden world, that information circulation also helps inform citizens about critical issues and educate them about how to make change within the democracy. We see platforms like Reddit able to spread information to audiences of millions (helping to generate success for campaigns like SOPA). While many complain about “slacktivism,” it’s undeniable that mass attention can generate results.

Bots have a useful power to move information across social networks by connecting human individuals to others who care about similar topics. What if you could essentially use an automated process to optimizes online communities into stronger partisan networks by connecting those with similar affiliations who do not yet know each other? Or, perhaps, use bots to educate vast networks about particular issues? KONY 2012, for instance, utilized student social networks on Twitter as seed groups to help mobilize the spread of information about the campaign.

But there’s also potential for the manipulation of information, and while manipulating the masses is likely though complex, having an army of coordinated bots to do your bidding is much easier, especially when a peripheral effect of bot participation is the perception to human users of important information spreading.

This morning, Andrés Monroy Hernández of Microsoft Research linked me to a timely project by Iván Santiesteban called AdiosBots.

AdiosBots tracks automated Twitter bots set up by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico. According to Iván’s English project page, one of the contenders from this party for the upcoming elections on July 1st has been utilizing fake Twitter accounts manipulated by bots to spread information to “publish thousands of messages praising Enrique Peña Nieto and ridiculing his opponents. They also participate in popular hashtags and try to drown them out by publishing large amounts of spam.”

In other words, they are “used to affect interaction between actual users and to deceive.” And in total, Iván has found close to 5,000 of these bots.

In this instance, there is no need for attention philanthropy: the bots act as an automated social movement mimicking positive political affiliation while denouncing the opposition’s supporters. But it’s clear that vulnerability plays a huge role in attacks on political individuals and the spread of false information. There’s also the ethical question about what users do not know: is it a problem that individuals assume bots to be human and merely helpful rather than programmed to exploit and optimize human behavior?

Bots of civic engagement also call into question the ethics around social media norms. Should people assume interaction with automatons will occur? Or is this a question of media literacy, where users should be educated enough about the ecosystems they use to be able to point out misinformation, or even find discrepancies between “organic” information and automated information (even when it’s used with beneficial motives)? What if the bots are so convincing that they can’t?

Bots for civic engagement was an idea that almost led me to apply for an annual Knight Foundation grant. If you’re interested in building this idea into a tangible project, please email me.

Alex Leavitt is a PhD student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. Read more about his research at http://alexleavitt.com or find him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/alexleavitt.

Is Anonymous vetting presidential candidates?

Anonymous Hispano's announcement on Twitter

Anonymous Hispano, the Spanish-speaking branch of the famous hacker collective, issued a statement a few weeks ago announcing that, despite their efforts, they “could not find any evidence of corruption” to incriminate the Mexican presidential candidate López Obrador. The group prefaced their message by clarifying that they “do not have any partisan agenda and do not support any one” of the candidates. The message ended with an invitation to followers to send evidence of corruption; a second tweet quickly followed, inviting the public to submit evidence of corruption of any candidate, suggesting specific hashtags for each of them.

The newspaper El Economista spoke with collective members and reported that Anonymous Hispano acknowledged having hacked into López’s financial accounts without finding any transactions that would indicate wrong-doing:

[T]the collective broke into the computer systems linked to payments or any kind of money transactions, or political influence, stored in the digital files of AMLO [the candidate’s initials] and his colleagues, and found nothing incriminating him, so the collective is still looking.

The statement received a fair amount of attention beyond the Twitter-sphere, reaching influential political blogsReddit, and mainstream news media.

Beyond the supposed lack of evidence against this particular politician, or whether Anonymous actually hacked into his accounts, there are a few aspects of this story that I find particularly interesting.

First, the coverage of Anonymous’s evidence-free statement might indicate a substantial amount of symbolic capital accumulated by this group. For example, they could have released evidence of their breaking into the candidate’s accounts; however, they confined themselves to a statement on Twitter. In the sciences, negative results are almost never reported, and more generally, the lack of evidence for something does not prove or disprove anything. So why did they get media coverage? One possible explanation is that Anonymous, after a long (by Internet standards) history of hacktivism, has accumulated the necessary credibility to pull this off. Do they have enough symbolic capital to achieve this in a country with stronger institutions? What would have happened if they had issued a similar statement about a US presidential candidate?

Second, an obvious question: why this candidate? One possible answer is that this could be a means to publicly vet and, in a way, endorse this candidate by using their tools at their disposal. It is hard to know if there a direct link between Anonymous Hispano and the rest of Anonymous, but it would be interesting to see if this signals a direct incursion on mainstream politics in the future.

Third, does this represent a move from public shaming to public endorsement? For the most part, Anonymous hacktivism has focused on public shaming by “doxing” government officials and corporations. I think this might be the first time Anonymous has changed their method, resembling a role more common to governmental transparency organizations. It was interesting that none of the reactions I read raised any questions about the ethics of hacking into politicians’ accounts.

One thing is clear to me: traditional institutions need to figure out how to grapple with Anonymous, or collectives inspired by them, as their presence and political power is only going to increase in the future.

Cross posted at Culture Digitally.
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Reflecting on Dharun Ravi’s conviction

On Friday, Dharun Ravi – the Rutgers student whose roommate Tyler Clementi killed himself – was found guilty of privacy invasion, tampering with evidence, and bias intimidation (a hate crime). When John Palfrey and I wrote about this case three weeks ago, I was really hopeful that the court proceedings would give clarity and relieve my uncertainty. Instead, I am left more conflicted and deeply saddened. I believe that the jury did their job, but I am not convinced that justice was served. More disturbingly, I think that the symbolic component of this case is deeply troubling.

In New Jersey, someone can be convicted of bias intimidation for committing an act…

  1. with the express purpose of intimidating an individual or group…
  2. knowing that the offense would cause an individual or group to feel intimidated…
  3. with which the individual or group on the receiving end believes that they were targeted…

… because of their race, color, religion, gender, handicap, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

In Ravi’s trial, the jury concluded that Ravi neither intended to intimidate Clementi nor believed that his acts would make Clementi feel intimidated because of his sexuality. Yet, the jury did conclude that, based on computer evidence, Clementi probably felt intimidated because of his sexuality.

As someone who wants to rid the world of homophobia, this conviction leaves me devastated. I recognize the symbolic move that this is supposed to make. This is supposed to signal that homophobia will not be tolerated. But Ravi wasn’t convicted of being homophobic, but, rather, creating the “circumstances” in which Clementi would probably feel intimidated. In other words, Ravi is being punished for living in a culture of homophobia even though there’s little evidence to suggest that he perpetuated it intentionally. As Mary Gray has argued, we are all to blame for the culture of homophobia that has resulted in this tragedy.

I can’t help but think of Clementi’s parents in light of this. By all accounts, their reaction to their son’s confession that he was gay did more to intimidate Clementi based on his sexuality than Ravi’s stupid act. Yet, I can’t even begin to imagine that the court would charge, let alone convict, Clementi’s distraught parents of a hate crime. ::shudder::

I can’t justify Ravi’s decision to invade his roommate’s privacy, especially not at a moment in which he would be extremely vulnerable. I also cannot justify Ravi’s decision to mess with evidence, even though I suspect he did so out of fear. But I also don’t think that either of these actions deserve 10 years of jail time or deportation (two of the options given to the judge). I don’t think that’s justice.

This case is being hailed for its symbolism, but what is the message that it conveys? It says that a brown kid who never intended to hurt anyone because of their sexuality will do jail time, while politicians and pundits who espouse hatred on TV and radio and in stump speeches continue to be celebrated. It says that a teen who invades the privacy of his peer will be condemned, even while companies and media moguls continue to profit off of more invasive invasions.

I’m also sick and tired of people saying that this will teach kids an important lesson. Simply put, it won’t. No teen that I know identifies their punking and pranking of their friends and classmates as bullying, let alone bias intimidation. Sending Ravi to jail will do nothing to end bullying. Yet, it lets people feel like it will and that makes me really sad. There’s a lot to be done in this realm and this does nothing to help those who are suffering every day.

The jury did its job. The law was followed. I have little doubt that Ravi did the things that he was convicted of doing. But I am not celebrating because I don’t think that this case made the world a better place. I think that it simply destroyed another life.

The Power of Youth: How Invisible Children Orchestrated Kony 2012

To many people unfamiliar with Invisible Children, the Kony 2012 campaign looked like a brilliant example of “viral” media spread. The center of the campaign is a compelling 30-minute film where a father talks to his son about the evil practices of the Ugandan war lord Joseph Kony. The father makes it clear that his number one goal is to make Kony a household name in order to “raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.” In the days that followed, critics stepped up and critiqued the simplistic narrative (and colonial rhetoric) put forward by Invisible Children. (If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend Ethan Zuckerman’s “Unpacking Kony 2012.”) Yet, what about the media campaign itself? Activists (and brand marketers) everywhere are in awe of what appears to be a magical campaign that came out of nowhere. But there’s more than meets the eye here.

Over at the SocialFlow blog, Gilad Lotan (my partner) analyzed two aspects of the Invisible Children campaign:

  1. how pre-existing networks helped create the viral spread;
  2. how people targeted celebrities to garner attention philanthropy. There are many important aspects of this blog post, but I want to focus on the role of youth in this process.

Invisible Children is not a new organization. They have spent tremendous effort over the last decade reaching out to youth. They have widespread reach in high schools, colleges, and churches throughout the United States. Many youth are (uncritically) committed to helping stop bad things from happening to other children in Africa. Invisible Children has focused for years on the value of attention philanthropy. They work diligently to do whatever it takes to get people to pay attention to bad things happening in the world. They raise money to raise attention. They leverage celebrities and Hollywood film tactics to reach wide audiences in a hope to activate them to create more attention (and, thus, both funding and political pressure). They engage directly with churches, where word-of-mouth networks in the U.S. are strongest. For the last decade, they have worked on creating films and bringing in celebrities to raise attention to what is happening in Africa, first in Sudan (Darfur) and then in Uganda.

Much to the horror of many human rights activists, Invisible Children is not known for spreading accurate information as much as it’s known for spreading information widely.

Most of how they’ve gotten the message out is by engaging youth. Earlier films have been shown directly to youth (in schools and churches) and youth are actively encouraged to join the organization and participate in their campaigns. They provide toolkits for participation with the primary goal being to amplify attention to a particular issue.

The stories that Invisible Children create in their media put children at the front and center of them. And, indeed, as Neta Kliger-Vilenchik and Henry Jenkins explain, youth are drawn to this type of storytelling. Watch Kony 2012 from the perspective of a teenager or college student. Here is a father explaining to a small child what’s happening in Africa. If you’re a teen, you see this and realize that you too can explain to others what’s going on. The film is powerful, but it also models how to spread information. The most important thing that the audience gets from the film is that they are encouraged to spread the gospel. And then they are given tools for doing that. Invisible Children makes it very easy to share their videos, republish their messages on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr, and “like” them everywhere. But they go beyond that; they also provide infrastructure to increase others’ attention.

Invisible Children knew that it was targeting culture makers and youth. And Twitter users no less. Indeed, check out the list of “culture makers” that they encouraged youth to target. It’s an interesting mix of liberals (George Clooney, Ellen Degeneres, Bono), conservatives (Rick Warren, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly), geeks (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg), big philanthropy names (Oprah, Angelina Jolie, Warren Buffett), and pop stars (Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Jay-Z, Justin Bieber). Plus others. They also recommended contacting political figures. (Interestingly, they start with G.W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice and don’t list Obama at all.) As Lotan points out, these celebrities got pummeled with thousands upon thousands of messages from fans, predominantly young fans. And many of them responded.

When celebrities receive this kind of onslaught from their fans – and, especially their younger fans – they pay attention. And so they post out about this. This is exactly where the fuzzy feelings towards attention philanthropy kick in. Young people feel like they did something by getting a celebrity to pay attention to a cause. A celebrity feels like they’ve done some by talking about the cause to a wide audience. And, voila, Invisible Children taps into the attention economy to get their message out.

Yet, there’s more to this. It’s not just anyone who’s paying attention or a small cluster of people that are paying attention from which things radiate. This tag cloud from the SocialFlow blog represents the words that were in the bios of the accounts of those who posted about #stopkony or #kony2012.

Now, check out this network graph of the tweets:

The initial tweets that came out came from seemingly disconnected youth living in Midwestern and Southern towns who frequently refer to Christian values in their bios. In other words, these tweets appear to be coming from communities that Invisible Children had already activated prior to launching Kony 2012. Not only did they then each turn on, but they spread the messages to their friends. This allowed the conversation to “pop” and then spread. The one profile that does have a lot of cluster is the Invisible Children profile, highlighting how their audience was indeed ready to respond to them. But you also see tight clusters that geographically disparate who bridged from the organization and then spread in their local community with a level of intense density. With this kind of graph structure, it’s not surprising that it quickly became a trending topic on Twitter. And then, it could easily spread. Attention begets attention.

I’m especially intrigued by Gilad’s note on the role of religious youth in all of this. Gilad has only begun looking at the data so he doesn’t have a good scope on all of what’s happening, but I’m not surprised by the presence of religious language in the accounts of those who tweeted this message. I very much suspect that a lot of what made this pop has to do with strong pre-existing Christian networks. I’m always surprised at how often people in the tech community regularly underestimate the power of religious networks.

Architecturally, this is a brilliant campaign. It’s really too bad that the message is so deeply flawed. (Again, if you haven’t read Ethan’s post, read it now.)

The fact that privileged folks – including white American youth – can spread messages like this is wonderful, but my hunch is that they’re structurally positioned to spread information farther and wider than those who are socially marginalized. What happens when they try to speak out on behalf of marginalized voices instead of helping marginalized voices be heard? I’m really bothered by how Kony 2012 is all about white people – and primarily white Americans – talking about what should be done in a foreign country to help “poor black people.” I’m glad that NPR and a few other news organizations have sought out Ugandan/African perspectives, but none of those perspectives have broken through the tornado of chaos that has followed this event. So I can’t help but wonder… with the rise of attention philanthropy, are we going to see a new type of attention colonialism?

Stop the Cycle of Bullying

[John Palfrey and I originally wrote this as an op-ed for the Huffington Post. See HuffPo for more comments.]

On 22 September 2010, the wallet of Tyler Clementi – a gay freshman at Rutgers University – was found on the George Washington Bridge; his body was found in the Hudson River the following week. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, was charged with 15 criminal counts, including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, and tampering with witnesses and evidence tampering. Ravi pleaded not guilty.

Ravi’s trial officially begins this week, but in the court of public opinion, he has already been convicted. This is a terrible irony, since the case itself is about bullying.

Wading through the news reports, it’s hard to tell exactly what happened in the hours leading up to Clementi’s suicide. Some facts are unknown. What seems apparent is that Clementi asked Ravi to have his dormroom to himself on two occasions – September 19 and 21 – so that he could have alone time with an older gay man. On the first occasion, Ravi appears to have jiggered his computer so that he could watch the encounter from a remote computer. Ravi announced that he did so on Twitter. When Clementi asked Ravi for a second night in the room, Ravi invited others to watch via Twitter. It appears as though Clementi read this and unplugged Ravi’s computer, thereby preventing Ravi from watching. What happened after this incident on September 21 is unclear. A day later, Clementi’s body was discovered.

The media-driven narrative quickly blamed Ravi and his friend Molly Wei, from whose room Ravi watched Clementi. Amidst a series of other highly publicized LGBT suicides, Clementi’s suicide was labeled as a tragic product of homophobic bullying. Ravi has been portrayed as a malicious young man, hellbent on making his roommate miserable. Technology was blamed for providing a new mechanism by which Ravi could spy on and torment his roommate. The overwhelming presumption: Ravi’s guilty for causing Clementi’s death. Ravi may well be guilty of these crimes, but we have trials for a reason.

As information has emerged from the legal discovery process, the story became more complicated. It appears as though Clementi turned to online forums and friends to get advice; his messages conveyed a desire for getting support, but they didn’t suggest a pending suicide attempt. In one document submitted to the court, Clementi appears to have written to a friend that he was not particularly upset by Ravi’s invasion. Older digital traces left by Clementi – specifically those produced after he came out to and was rejected by those close to him – exhibited terrible emotional pain. At Rutgers, Clementi appears to have been handling his frustrations with his roommate reasonably well. After the events of September 20 and 21, Clementi appears to have notified both his resident assistant and university officials and asked for a new room; the school appears to have responded properly and Clementi appeared pleased.

The process of discovery in a lawsuit is an essential fact-finding exercise. The presumption of innocence is an essential American legal principle. Unfortunately, in highly publicized cases, this doesn’t stop people from jumping to conclusions based on snippets of information. Media speculation and hype surrounding Clementi’s suicide has been damning for Ravi, but the incident has also prompted all sorts of other outcomes. Public policy wheels have turned, prompting calls for new state and federal cyberbullying prevention laws. Well-meaning advocates have called for bullying to be declared a hate crime.

As researchers, we know that bullying is a serious, urgent issue. We favor aggressive and meaningful intervention programs to address it and to prevent young people from taking their lives. These programs should especially support LGBT youth, themselves more likely to be the targets of bullying. Yet, it’s also critical that we pay attention to the messages that researchers have been trying to communicate for years. “Bullies” are often themselves victims of other forms of cruelty and pressure. Zero-tolerance approaches to bullying don’t work; they often increase bullying. Focusing on punishment alone does little to address the underlying issues. Addressing bullying requires a serious social, economic, and time-based commitment to educating both young people and adults. Research shows that curricula and outreach programs can work. We are badly underfunding youth empowerment programs that could help enormously. Legislative moves that focus on punishment instead of education only make the situation worse.

Not only are most young people often ill-equipped to recognize how their meanness, cruelty, and pranking might cause pain, but most adults are themselves are ill-equipped to help young people in a productive way. Worse, many adults are themselves perpetuating the idea that being cruel is socially acceptable. Not only has cruelty and deception become status quo on TV talk shows; it plays a central role in televised entertainment and political debates. In contemporary culture, it has become acceptable to be outright cruel to any public figure, whether they’re a celebrity, reality TV contestant, or teenager awaiting trial.

Tyler Clementi’s suicide is a tragedy. We should all be horrified that a teenager felt the need to take his life in our society. But in our frustration, we must not prosecute Dharun Ravi before he has had his day in court. We must not be bullies ourselves. Ravi’s life has already been destroyed by what he may or may not have done. The way we, the public, have treated him, even before his trial, has only made things worse.

To combat bullying, we need to stop the cycle of violence. We need to take the high road; we must refrain from acting like a mob, in Clementi’s name or otherwise. Every day, there are young people who are being tormented by their peers and by adults in their lives. If we want to make this stop, we need to get to the root of the problem. We should start by looking to ourselves.

danah boyd is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and a research assistant professor at New York University. John Palfrey is a professor of law at Harvard Law School.

How Parents Normalized Teen Password Sharing

In 2005, I started asking teenagers about their password habits. My original set of questions focused on teens’ attitudes about giving their password to their parents, but I quickly became enamored with teens’ stories of sharing passwords with friends and significant others. So I was ecstatic when Pew Internet & American Life Project decided to survey teens about their password sharing habits. Pew found that one third of online 12-17 year olds share their password with a friend or significant other and that almost half of those 14-17 do. I love when data gets reinforced.

Last week, Matt Richtel at the New York Times did a fantastic job of covering one aspect of why teens share passwords: as a show of affection. Indeed, I have lots of fun data that supports Richtel’s narrative — and complicates it. Consider Meixing’s explanation for why she shares her password with her boyfriend:

Meixing, 17, TN: It made me feel safer just because someone was there to help me out and stuff. It made me feel more connected and less lonely. Because I feel like Facebook sometimes it kind of like a lonely sport, I feel, because you’re kind of sitting there and you’re looking at people by yourself. But if someone else knows your password and stuff it just feels better.

For Meixing, sharing her password with her boyfriend is a way of being connected. But it’s precisely these kinds of narratives that have prompted all sorts of horror by adults over the last week since that NYTimes article came out. I can’t count the number of people who have gasped “How could they!?!” at me. For this reason, I feel the need to pick up on an issue that the NYTimes let out.

The idea of teens sharing passwords didn’t come out of thin air. In fact, it was normalized by adults. And not just any adult. This practice is the product of parental online safety norms. In most households, it’s quite common for young children to give their parents their passwords. With elementary and middle school youth, this is often a practical matter: children lose their passwords pretty quickly. Furthermore, most parents reasonably believe that young children should be supervised online. As tweens turn into teens, the narrative shifts. Some parents continue to require passwords be forked over, using explanations like “because I’m your mother.” But many parents use the language of “trust” to explain why teens should share their passwords with them.

There are different ways that parents address the password issue, but they almost always build on the narrative of trust. (Tangent: My favorite strategy is when parents ask children to put passwords into a piggy bank that must be broken for the paper with the password to be retrieved. Such parents often explain that they don’t want to access their teens’ accounts, but they want to have the ability to do so “in case of emergency.” A piggy bank allows a social contract to take a physical form.)

When teens share their passwords with friends or significant others, they regularly employ the language of trust, as Richtel noted in his story. Teens are drawing on experiences they’ve had in the home and shifting them into their peer groups in order to understand how their relationships make sense in a broader context. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone because this is all-too-common for teen practices. Household norms shape peer norms.

There’s another thread here that’s important. Think back to the days in which you had a locker. If you were anything like me and my friends, you gave out your locker combination to your friends and significant others. There were varied reasons for doing so. You wanted your friends to pick up a book for you when you left early because you were sick. You were involved in a club or team where locker decorating was common. You were hoping that your significant other would leave something special for you. Or – to be completely and inappropriately honest – you left alcohol in your locker and your friends stopped by for a swig. (One of my close friends was expelled for that one.) We shared our locker combinations because they served all sorts of social purposes, from the practical to the risqué.

How are Facebook passwords significantly different than locker combos? Truth be told, for most teenagers, they’re not. Teens share their passwords so that their friends can check their messages for them when they can’t get access to a computer. They share their passwords so their friends can post the cute photos. And they share their passwords because it’s a way of signaling an intimate relationship. Just like with locker combos.

Can password sharing be abused? Of course. I’ve heard countless stories of friends “punking” one another by leveraging password access. And I’ve witnessed all sorts of teen relationship violence where mandatory password sharing is a form of surveillance and abuse. But, for most teens, password sharing is as risky as locker combo sharing. This is why, even though 1/3 of all teens share their passwords, we only hear of scattered horror stories.

I know that this practice strikes adults as seriously peculiar, but it irks me when adults get all judgmental on this teen practice, as though it’s “proof” that teens can’t properly judge how trustworthy a relationship is. First, it’s through these kinds of situations where they learn. Second, adults are dreadful at judging their own relationships (see: divorce rate) so I don’t have a lot of patience for the high and mighty approach. Third, I’m much happier with teens sharing passwords as a form of intimacy than sharing many other things.

There’s no reason to be aghast at teen password sharing. Richtel’s story is dead-on. It’s pretty darn pervasive. But it also makes complete sense given how notions of trust have been constructed for many teens.

(Image Credit: Darwin Bell)

Are Internet companies using us to fight against SOPA?

Like many of my colleagues I oppose to SOPA and PIPA. I have been a proponent of Free Culture for many years (which I know is funny to say next to the Microsoft logo) and I have studied young people’s perceptions of intellectual property because I find the topic fascinating and extremely important. However, there is a lingering thought that grew out of conversations with my friend Benjamin Mako Hill back when net neutrality was the debate du jour. Basically I can’t stop wondering if companies are just using us to fight these debates.

It seems to me that lot of these tech debates are fights between companies with opposing business models: in the case of Net Neutrality it is Internet companies vs telcos, in the case of SOPA/PIPA it is media companies vs Internet companies. However, both of these debates are often framed as it they were “the people” vs the evil companies and their lawmakers. I suspect that at some point the interests of the same Internet companies we are indirectly helping today will no longer be in the best interest of the rest of us. What will we do then? What will happen when it is oil companies asking for support against weapons companies? Will we always need to find opposing companies that can help us fight back? 

We need to talk about piracy (but we must stop SOPA first)

Much to my happiness, the internets are in a frenzy about the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (aka SOPA). Congress is currently in recess, but the House announced a hearing on the potential impact to the Domain Name Service on January 18 and everyone expects the Senate to begin discussing a similar bill “PROTECT IP Act” when they return to DC on January 24. There’s a lot to these bills – and the surrounding furor – and I’m not going to go into it, but I recommend reading the actual bill and Open Congress info, the Wikipedia article, EFF’s blog, and the various links at Stop American Censorship. Tomorrow – January 18th – a bunch of geeks are planning a SOPA Blackout Day to voice their discontent.

I abhor SOPA for the same reasons as other geeks. I’m horrified that Congress has crafted a law that will screw with the architecture of the internet in ways that will undermine free speech. I love Josh Kopstein’s post “Dear Congress, It’s No Longer OK To Not Know How The Internet Works.” And I’m glad that geeks are getting vocal, even if – as Clay Johnson has pointed out – geeks don’t quite get how Congress works. I’m stoked that the White House has asked for a civil conversation around piracy (while also opposing SOPA’s key pieces). And I find it utterly hysterical that Rupert Murdoch has come to geeks’ turf (Twitter) to convey his pro-SOPA opinions, even as Obama steps in to state that he opposes SOPA.

In talking with non-geeks, I can’t help but be fascinated that the debate has somehow been framed in the public eye as “pro-piracy” vs. “anti-piracy.” Needless to say, that’s the frame that Murdoch is advocating, even as geeks are pushing for the “pro-internet” vs. “pro-censorship” frame. What’s especially intriguing to me is that the piracy conversation is getting convoluted even among politicos, revealing the ways in which piracy gets flattened to one concept. Teasing this issue out is especially important when we’re talking about regulations that are meant to help with piracy. There are many different aspects of piracy, but for simplicity sake, I want to focus on two aspects that feed into bills like SOPA and PROTECT IP: piracy as a competitive issue vs. piracy as a cultural issue. This can often be split as software piracy vs. media piracy, but not always.

There are actually reasons to not be in favor of all forms of piracy, even if you’re an unrepentant media pirate. Imagine that you are an appliance manufacturer in the United States. You make things like toasters. You are required to abide by American laws. You must pay your employees at least a minimum wage; you must follow American safety regulations. All of this raises the overhead of your production process. In addition, you must also do things like purchase your software legally. Your designers use some CAD software, which they pay for. Your accountants use accounting software, which they pay for. Sure, you’ve cut some costs by using “free” software but, by and large, you pay a decent amount of money to software companies to use the systems that they built.

You really want to get your toasters into Wal-Mart, but time and time again, you find yourself undercut by competitors in foreign countries where the safety laws are more lax, the minimum wage laws are nonexistent, and where companies aren’t punished for stealing software. Are you grouchy? Of course you are. Needless to say, you see this as an unfair competition issue. There aren’t legal ways of bending the market to create fair competition. You can’t innovate your way out of this dilemma and so you want Congress to step in and make sure that you can compete fairly.

Combating software piracy in the supply chain is a reasonable request and part of what makes bills like PROTECT IP messy is that there’s a kernel of this issue in these bills. Bills like this are also meant to go after counterfeit products. Most folks really want to know what’s in baby formula or what’s in the medicines they purchase. Unfortunately, though, these aspects of piracy quickly gets muddled with cultural facets of piracy, particularly once the media industries have gotten involved.

Since the rise of Napster, the media industry has been in a furor over media piracy. Not only do they get pissed when people rip and distribute media content on the internet, they throw a fit whenever teenagers make their own music videos based on their favorite song. Even though every child in America is asked to engage in remix in schools for educational purposes (“Write a 5-paragraph essay as though you were dropped into Lord of the Flies”), doing so for fun and sharing your output on the internet has been deemed criminal. Media piracy is messy, because access to content is access to social status and power in a networked era. Some people are simply “stealing” but others are actually just trying to participate in culture. It’s complicated. (See: “Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property” and “Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates” to go deeper.)

Most in the media industry refuse to talk about media piracy beyond the economic components. But the weird thing about media piracy is that Apple highlighted that the media industry could actually innovate their way around this problem. Sure, it doesn’t force everyone to pay for consuming content, but when was that ever the case? When I was in high school, I went over to friends’ houses and watched their TV and movies without paying for them. Even though the media industry is making buckets of money – and even though people have been shown to be willing to pay for content online when it’s easy – the media industry is more interested in creating burdensome regulations than in developing innovative ways for consumers to get access to content. (Yo HBO! Why the hell can’t I access your content legally online if I don’t subscribe to cable!?!?) I guess I shouldn’t be surprised… It’s cheaper to lawyer up than hire geeks these days.

Of course, it’s not like there aren’t a bazillion laws on the books to curb media piracy. What frustrates the media industry is that they don’t have jurisdiction over foreign countries and foreign web servers. Bills like SOPA aren’t really meant to curb piracy; they’re meant to limit Americans’ access to information flows in foreign countries by censoring what kinds of information can flow across American companies’ servers. Eeek. I can’t help but think back to a point that Larry Lessig makes in “Republic, Lost” where he points out that there are more laws to curb media piracy on the books than there are to curb pollution. Le sigh.

Don’t get me wrong: there are definitely piracy practices out there that I’d like to see regulators help curb. For example, I’m actually quite in favor of making sure that companies can’t engage in unfair competition. I agree with the White House that certain kinds of piracy practices undermine American jobs. But I’m not in favor of using strong arm tactics to go after individuals’ cultural practices. Nor am I interested in seeing “solutions” that focus on turning America into more of a bubble. Shame on media companies for trying to silence and censor information flows in their efforts to strong arm consumers. This isn’t good for consumers and it’s certainly not good for citizens.

As we go deeper into an information age, I think that we need to have serious conversations about what is colloquially termed piracy. We need to distinguish media piracy from software piracy because they’re not the same thing. We need to seriously interrogate fairness and equality, creative production and cultural engagement. And we need to seriously take into consideration why people do what they do. I strongly believe that when people work en masse to route around a system, the system is most likely the thing that needs the fixing, not the people.

These issues are challenging and they require people to untangle a wide variety of different conflicting and interwoven practices. Unfortunately, challenging cultural conversations are really hard to have when the government chooses to fast track faulty legislation on the behalf of one industry and to the detriment of another. SOPA has turned into a gnarly battle between old and new media, but the implications of this battle extend far beyond the corporate actors. My hope is that SOPA goes away immediately. But I also hope that we can begin the harder work of actually interrogating how different aspects of piracy are affecting society, business, and cultural practices.

In the meantime, I ask you to stand with me to oppose SOPA. Learn what’s happening and voice your opinion. Legislative issues like this affect all of us.

In Defense of Friction

1903 telephone operator (John McNab on Flickr)

There is no doubt that technology has made my life much easier. I rarely share the romantic view that things were better when human beings used to do the boring tasks that machines now do. For example, I do not think there is much to gain by bringing back the old telephone operators. However, there are reasons to believe social computing systems should not automate social interactions.

In his paper about online trust, Coye Cheshire points out how automated trust systems undermine trust itself by incentivizing cooperation because of the fear of punishment rather than actual trust among people. Cheshire argues that:

strong forms of online security and assurance can supplant, rather than enhance, trust.

Leading to what he calls the trust paradox:

assurance structures designed to make interpersonal trust possible in uncertain environments undermine the need for trust in the first place

My collaborators and I found something similar when trying to automate credit-giving in the context of a creative online community. We found that automatic attribution given by a computer system, does not replace the manual credit given by another human being. Attribution, turns out, is a useful piece of information given by a system, while credit given by a person, is a signal of appreciation, one that is expected and that cannot be automated.

Slippery when icy - problems with frictionless spaces (ntr23 on Flickr)

Similarly, others have noted how Facebook’s birthday reminders have “ruined birthdays” by “commoditizing” social interactions and people’s social skills. Furthermore, some have argued that “Facebook is ruining sharing” by making it frictionless.

In many scenarios, automation is quite useful, but with social interactions, removing friction can have a harmful effect on the social bonds established through friction itself. In other cases, as Shauna points out, “social networking sites are good for relationships so tenuous they couldn’t really bear any friction at all.”

I am not sure if sharing has indeed been ruined by Facebook, but perhaps this opens new opportunities for new online services that allow people to have “friction-full” interactions.

What kind of friction would you add to existing online social systems?