Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, looks over Micah Sifry and Daniel Ellsberg.
The dangers of personalized search, turn off your laptops & more
I‘m back from a week in New York, where I co-presented a Mobilize Your Cause Bootcamp, spoke on a panel at Personal Democracy Forum, met with clients and sat in on a number of thought-provoking sessions. Here are a few observations and juicy bits:
• Here’s my Flickr photo set of PdF. For whatever reason, there were significantly fewer cameras and video cameras at this event than any other conference I’ve attended in the past year. I captured video interviews with Nicola Wells and Rachel LaBruyere (on mobile tech), Matisse Bustos Hankes of Witness.org and Deanna Zandt (on her new book “Share This!”), so look for those in the weeks ahead.
• The Mobilize Your Cause Bootcamp I put on with Katrin Verclas of MobileActive.org was a hit, with 50 social activists, nonprofit executives and political campaign strategists coming out for the daylong workshop at CUNY. I have a short writeup at Socialbrite.
• I spoke on the panel “Refining Your Social Media Smarts: Campaign Successes From YouTube to Facebook to Twitter,” along with Jonah Sieger and Barnet Zitron. Chiefly, we discussed campaign strategies in the social media age.
• I was floored by MoveOn co-founder Eli Pariser’s presentation. He argued persuasively that the public interest is ill-served by what he termed “filter bubbles” — the personalization technologies of Google, Facebook and other Internet giants. Google now uses 57 different personalization filters to customize what we see on the Web.
Did you know that when you conduct a search on Google, and the person nearest you conducts the same exact search, you’re presented with often radically different results? A search on the BP oil spill might turn up results weighted toward the environmental cleanup (news focus), or the financial performance of BP’s stock (business focus), depending on your search history.
Said Pariser: “We need to get over the idea that code is neutral — it’s inherently political.”
The new levels of data personalization threaten to hamper civic engagement by keeping us from being exposed to new ideas and viewpoints — even when we go out of our way to expose ourselves to opposing points of view. (Eli can’t see his conservative friends in his main Facebook stream.) What’s particularly disturbing is that these personalization behaviors take place even if you’re not logged in, and there’s no easy way to opt out of them.
For more on the filter bubble:
• The New Digital Divide (CauseGlobal)
• Eli Pariser on Filter Bubbles (Ethan Zuckerman)
Close your laptops (and other good advice)
We’ve been saying for some time that online action goes only so far and that change makers need to connect the online world with real-world efforts. So it was refreshing to see the impassioned talk by Scott Heiferman, co-founder of Meetup.com, imploring the 600 to 700 attendees to close their laptops and use new tools — like Meetup Everywhere — to connect with others offline. “It’s easier than ever to get pseudo members and harder than ever to get real members,” he said. “The most exciting thing in the future is not TV on your phone — it’s people using their phones to meet up together.”
NYU Professor and author Clay Shirky echoed that theme in his talk Friday. “Digital activism has, in a large part, trapped itself in a tragedy of the commons,” he said. The fact that it’s now so easy to use social media tools like online petitions to influence legislators means that those signals are being entirely discounted, and digital activism runs the risk of being turned into little more than “crowdsourced PR” for any number of do-good causes.
More on Shirky’s prescriptions for online activism:
• Fixing social media
Clay Johnson, director of Sunlight Labs and co-founder of online political strategy firm Blue State Digital, also weighed in the same theme, saying social activists need to focus less on using social media to build email lists and focus more on getting people active offline solving social problems. He cited the social network Momsrising.org as a good example of a community that’s engaged, including a nice feature — a “Moms Score” — to help catalyze offline protests and social change.
A political visualization from WebSeer
• Susan Crawford: This year, 75-85 percent of the U.S. population will have only one choice of Internet provider for 50-100mbps speeds: their local cable operator. Comcast is now the nation’s largest cable TV company, with 24 million customers, and no. 1 broadband company, with 16.3 million high-speed customers.
• Brian August showed off Watchitoo, a start-up that enables candidates or officials to hold town hall meetings with hundreds of constituents or voters online. The multistreaming live interactive video service lets you chat or tweet with participants or access digital files, shared in a playlist, such as videos, images or documents. And the event can be archived and played back later. Very cool.
• GrassrootsMapping.org is a start-up that aims to empower citizens affected by the BP oil spill. It helps Gulf Coast residents take high-resolution aerial photographs of the spill with the goal of compiling an ongoing public record of the spill and its impact.
• Marc Smith on global warming: “I prefer the term global weirding” – some areas of planet are getting hotter, some colder. (That’s why we call it climate change.)
• Interesting new site: Smith’s Social Media Research Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to open tools, data and scholarship related to social media research.
• I chatted with Haley van Dyck and Dan McSwain of the Federal Communications Commission about the FCC’s revamped new media department and its role in modernizing the agency, including opening the rule-making process to the public through online input, reforming the way the agency communicates internally, the launch of the Reboot.FCC.gov blog and the notion of government agencies evolving into “social agencies.”
• Overheard or overseen — the sites Transparency Data (from the Sunlight Foundation — search state and federal campaign contribution data); Politiwidgets (also from Sunlight — the new home for up-to-date, embeddable political infographics); VoteiQ (it help you learn more about the issues and revolutionizes the relationship between voters and their elected officials); VisibleVote (advise Congress on how to vote on the major upcoming legislation); Localocracy (learn about the issues and elections in your community and make your voice heard); the Campaign Finance Institute’s Interactive Tool for Citizen Policy Analysts, and Web Seer (cool visualization service — see example above).
• 127 million people are using social media in the U.S., according to a recent study by Nielsen. Continue reading