Author Archive

Save PadMapper

by on Jun.25, 2012, under general

If I had to list “most indispensably useful websites on the Internet”, PadMapper would be near the top of my list. PadMapper, the brainchild of Eric DeMenthon, is essentially a site which extracts apartment listings from major websites and maps them on a Google Map. Add in super-smart filters and email alerts and voila: you have your perfect apartment-hunting companion.

A few days ago Craigslist ordered Eric to cease and desist his use if Craigslist postings. Fans of the site have organized an email campaign to try and get them to reverse their decision.

Here is the email I sent to Jim Buckmaster (CEO) and Craig Newmark (founder):

Hi Jim, Craig –

My name is Chris Peterson. I run web communications for the MIT Admissions Office, am a grad student in the Comparative Media Studies Program, and am affiliated with the Center for Civic Media.

One of the things that I have always appreciated about Craigslist is the way it built itself up from a very simple service proposition to a whole community and social platform. PadMapper is, hands down, the most single valuable extension of Craigslist I have ever found. Every time I have searched for an apartment, I have used PadMapper. I have recommended it to countless others. Between myself and the rest we must have used Craigslist (through the portal of Padmapper) thousands of times.

The amount of apartments on Craigslist makes it valuable, but the UI/UX of PadMapper makes Craigslist usable. It is simply impossible for me to run the sort of queries – and visualize the sorts of results – that I’d like to on Craigslist proper.

I am deeply disappointed in your decision to cut off PadMapper. To me, it represents a betrayal of what I thought Craigslist stood for. I will not be using Craigslist in the future, because a company which inexplicably severs one of its most useful, usable, and beneficial apps is not a company that I either want to do business with or, frankly, trust with the right vision or mission moving forward.


– Chris

If you feel the same way, I’d encourage you to send your own note in support of an awesome service like PadMapper.

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Thinking About User Generated Censorship

by on Jun.14, 2012, under general

This fall I will be taking a leave from my job to be a full-time graduate student in CMS at MIT. More on that later. For now, this post lays out the contours of my proposed master’s thesis, both to help me organize my own thoughts and also in the hopes others will help me think about them.

In 2009 a loosely-knit group of conservative Diggers founded the Digg Patriots, a highly active “bury brigade.” Hosted in a Yahoo!Group and facilitated by a variety of post-tracking technologies, the Digg Patriots would link each other to what they deemed unacceptably “liberal” posts or posters so that they could team up to “bury” them by downvoting into obscurity. According to Phoenixtx, a founder of the Digg Patriots, “The more liberal stories that were buried the better chance conservative stories have to get to the front page. I’ll continue to bury their submissions until they change their ways and become conservatives.”

In 2008, a conservative blogger accused “the left” of similarly strategizing to flag conservative YouTube videos as spam or abusive for takedown. And, almost a year ago today, links to a U.K. strike site began being blocked as spammy on Facebook under strange and unexplained circumstances.

These incidents differ in important respects but they are characterized by a common dynamic: end-users repurposing certain algorithms to remove content from the stream of conversation.

It is my argument that today’s dominant information ecosystem which has widely distributed the means of information production has also widely distributed the means of informational removal, and that as Internet intermediaries have designed and deployed tools to incorporate “social” feedback into quality assurance algorithms, users have begun to strategically repurpose these tools in order to silence speech with which they disagree. And the goal of my research is to document and define user generated censorship as an emergent practice in relation to the mediating technologies which enable it.

Why “user generated censorship”?

For one, it nicely mirrors and invokes user generated content. Besides the rhetorical flourish, the invocation actually has an intellectual purpose, because the technological affordances and social practices which are associated with user generated content are the same affordances and practices which allow for their opposite. Put more plainly: the design of reddit lends itself to the earnest upvote but also the strategic downvote. The sorts of end-user power and input which characterize social production / Web 2.0 / whatever empowers users not only to produce content but also to remove it.

For another, the word “censorship” is controversial and contested, and I am going to try to use that historical weight to hammer home why this matters. Censorship – as opposed to repression – is something that we think of as being an exercise of centralized power. A pope censors. A king censors. Even a local autocrat draws their power ex officio.

But the reason we worry about censorship has nothing to do with the structure of power which enables it but rather the results which obtain: the silencing of ideas, of culture, of alternative perspectives.

“Internet censorship” has been done to death in the academic (and popular) literature. But it is all the old dynamic in a new medium. One worries about Google in China – or just plain China or Google alone – because of the power that large centralized authorities can wield over their constituents (and each other).

The Digg Patriots, on the other hand, have no office and no formal power which exceeds that of any other individual user. But through their strategic behavior they were able to repurpose the power usually reserved by and for centralized authority towards their own ends.

This is interesting and new and different, I think. Facebook has a lot of centralized power over the links shared in its news feed. It would never, I think, explicitly put content up for vote: “should we allow people to link to J30Strike?” Nor would it, I believe, allow its engineers to block content with which they politically disagree. But by allowing end users to make a nominally neutral decision (“is this spam”) and then enforcing that decision with the full power of a centralized network, Facebook – and everyplace else – has effectively delegated the power associated with the center of a network to a subset of the nodes at the edges.

So there is my project as a series of concentric circles. At its core, it is a journalistic enterprise, documenting what I believe to be an emergent dynamic between users and technology. But that dynamic operates within a larger context, not only of why information matters but how this new dynamic is an entirely new configuration of user power in the context of networked social intermediaries.

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Facebook, Network Effects, and the Birth of Giants

by on Jun.04, 2012, under general

Benjamin Mako Hill, an excellent activist and academic associated with the Center for Civic Media and Berkman Center (among others), has a widely-circulated blog post up entitled Why Facebook’s Network Effects are Overrated. This is something I wrote about in Losing Face.

Ben makes a lot of really good points, but there are a few with which I disagree, and I wanted to comment on them further here. He writes:

And the relationships between services aren’t always peaceful coexistence. Remember Friendster? Remember Orkut? Remember Tribe? Remember MySpace? MySpace, and all the others, are great examples of how social networks die. They very slowly fade away. MySpace users signed up for Facebook accounts and used both. They almost never just switched. Over time, as one platform became more attractive than the other, for many complicated reasons, attention and activity shifted. People logged in on MySpace less and Facebook more and, eventually, realized they were effectively no longer MySpace users. Anyone that has been on the Internet long enough to watch a few of these shifts from one platform to another knows that they’re not abrupt — even if they can be set in motion by a particular event or action. Users of social networking sites simply don’t have to choose in the way that a person choosing to boot Windows and GNU/Linux does.

First, Facebook is bigger than these other examples. A lot bigger. So much bigger, in fact, that I would argue the difference is of character, not of degree. Metcalfe’s Law tells us that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. If this is an accurate way to think about social networks – and I believe it is – then the fact that Facebook now contains almost a seventh of the world’s population is very meaningful. Remember: Ma Bell never died. She had to be killed. And her dismembered bits and pieces are slowly oozing back together.

I don’t think the appropriate comparison for Facebook is MySpace, or Friendster, or Tribe anymore. Those sites remind me, in hindsight, more like Path or Instagram or Pinterest: much smaller, segmented, affinity communities for particular populations. Facebook has become something almost more like electrical current or railway gauges, or even the TCP/IP stack: yeah, there may be global variations, but generally speaking everyone is using the same thing.

Ben was talking about network effects; I’d like to add in the concept of a natural monopoly. It seems to me that it makes sense for there to be one big social network site for everyone. It doesn’t need to be the only one (and Ben makes this point about Diaspora having its own valuable niche). But just in the same way that we’ve realized it doesn’t make sense to have multiple Internets (goodbye CompuServe, goodbye AOL), I’m not sure it makes sense to have multiple social network sites of global aspiration. Facebook is there already. And if Google can’t beat them – with more users worldwide than Facebook has through search, GMail, etc – then no one can in the foreseeable future.

Second, I don’t think the switching costs are lower for social network sites. The Data Liberation Front and Facebook’s archiving system are nice. But they’re also trivial. They’re trivial because the point of privately enclosed social intermediaries is not the things but the people enclosed within them.

Network effects + Metcalfe’s Law means the social network site which contains the largest subset of my set of friends is the most socially useful site to me. There may be design or affinity differences which add a weight to the equation but the general arithmetic holds true. I might have stopped using Facebook a long, long time ago, except that even if I wanted to I can’t; it’s where all of my friends are, where they plan events, where they post links that I find useful / informative / entertaining, and until they are elsewhere I must remain.

That’s a much harder decision to make than what OS to boot into. I can boot my Macbook into OSX / Windows / Ubuntu. For that matter, I can emulate any of them in VMWare. And, because of hard-fought interop battles (and the economics of software publishing houses) I can increasingly rely on some cross-platform compatibility in key software tools. Every day there is less vendor lock-in in the software space that actually limits me. Tableau is Windows only? Fine. I’ll install XP on VMWare and run it under Unity View. To me, the user, it’s transparent. I’m not trying to trivialize interop / OS wars / lock-in here. I just think that, for me, the decision to drop Facebook is about a billion times more difficult than what OS I boot into.

The real thing that is interesting to me, though, is something Ben mentions only in passing, presumably because it is such a complex and difficult question to grapple with:

Over time, as one platform became more attractive than the other, for many complicated reasons, attention and activity shifted.

What exactly did happen here? How the hell did Facebook get so big so fast? How did it penetrate so many markets so completely? And could anyone else do what Facebook did (which it would need to do in order to replace it)?

I don’t know all the answers to all these questions. But I think I’ve got a dim sense of one.

In June 2005, when I was graduating from high school, I remember standing in the high school cafeteria with my friend Erica Getto. We were practicing the graduation walk and chatting idly about life in college. Erica asked me if I had heard of TheFacebook. She had, from her elder brother, and she said that “all college kids are on it” and it was how they kept in touch.

When future historians go back and try to figure out what the key was to Facebook’s success I’d be willing to bet money that it was in their (completely accidental) market positioning. They went very, very deep into the college demographic, which is different from going deep into the hipster demographic or goth demographic or punk demographic because while college students are certainly demographically distinct from their age cohort a lot of different people go to college at one point in their lives. It’s as if rather than Facebook trying to capture one branch of a social tree, they instead caught one four-year long segment of the trunk. The thing is, as time goes on that segment graduates, and then goes out into the world, but still has a Facebook account with all of these ties, and a new group comes in.

In other words the thing that made Facebook a success (I think) is that it deeply penetrated a broad set of people in a narrow set of time / life experience. This meant that people who graduated could still use it, and people who were entering college would get indoctrinated in, and it just grew from them.

Incidentally, I think the same thing is about to happen to Apple. At MIT and at every other college where I have spent time Macs are used at a rate disproportionate to the adult professional population. Most of industry, enterprise, government, etc is still old PC boxes. But Apple has had such deep penetration into a generation of college students that I have to think they will demand (and eventually receive) Macs in the workplace going forward. Anecdotally this has already begun to happen.

Again, this isn’t the only explanation. It’s one explanation in a complex ecology of explanations. But I think there is something to this idea of deeply penetrating a broad-base, time-slice cohort, and then hoping that it grows and networks out as it moves in time. The takeaway is: build a tool that’s useful for a slice, and they, like Rick Astley, will never want to give it up.

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Made in Whose Image?

by on Apr.17, 2012, under general

Three awesome quotes from chapter 3 – “Hip Hop is Hurting Black People” – of Hip Hop Wars:

White consumption of hip hop…didn’t just mean a bigger market for hip hop; it also pointed to the fact that what soon became the most profitable and desired images in hip hop reflected the ideas about black people most commonly held by its audiences.

The cycle looks like this: mainstream white consumers drive hyper-demand for these images (whites are raised on images of black thugs – images that appeal and seem authentic to whites), thereby fueling higher sales given the size of the white consumer market, which then encourages unscrupulous corporations to demand more of these images to make greater profits.

Black people didn’t look at a map and say, “hey, let’s migrate to the ghetto, that’s a good place to live.”

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Facebook’s “Groups for Schools”: A Harmless Example of a Scary Trend

by on Apr.13, 2012, under general

Today brings a guest post from MIT senior (and good friend) Paul Kominers. Full post after the jump.

(continue reading…)

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Data Is Like Wheat

by on Apr.10, 2012, under general

danah boyd directs us to this essay on the grammar of data. Excerpts:

The word of which ‘data’ is purportedly the plural has simply disappeared; this means two things. Firstly, passively, it creates a linguistic space into which ‘data’ can drop – there is no ambiguity in using ‘data’ in a singular sense. Secondly, and more importantly, if ‘datum’ has effectively disappeared, it tells us that ‘data’ cannot be simply its plural; unanchored, it has moved away from this simply derived meaning, to a distinct and independent meaning of its own. It has accordingly accreted usage rules of its own, unencumbered by any latin past.

‘Data’ no longer means just one (damn) datum after another. Twentieth-century ‘data’ refers to a mass of raw information, which we measure rather than count, and this is as true now as it was when the word made its 1646 debut. This universal perception of data as measured rather than counted puts the word firmly and unambiguously in the same grammatical category as ‘coal’, ‘wheat’ and ‘ore’, which is that of the mass, or aggregate, noun. As such, it is always and unavoidably grammatically singular. We would never ask ‘how many wheat do you have?’ or say that ‘the ore are in the train’ if we wished to be thought a competent speaker of english; in the same way, and to the same extent, we may not ask ‘how many data do you have?’ or say ‘the data are in the file’ without committing a grammatical error.

I now have to unlearn using data as a plural and instead begin reusing it in the way I intuitively learned it; as an aggregate singular noun.

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The Minerva Delusion

by on Apr.06, 2012, under general

This week the tech and educational press has been buzzing about the launch of Minerva University. According to its founder, Internet entrepreneur Ben Nelson, Minerva is intended to "tap into the demand for an elite American education from the developing world’s rising middle class." His proposition is simple and compelling: there are more smart students in the world than there are seats in Ivy League schools, and the elastic enrollment afforded by Minerva's online format will provide an elite electronic education for those huddles masses yearning to learn.

In support of his subversive educational enterprise Nelson has mustered both heavy artillery and covering fire. The former comes from Benchmark Capital, the VC behemoth which has invested $25 million dollars to found Minerva. The latter comes from the long list of luminaries Nelson has recruited to form his advisory board, including such superstars as Larry Summers (former President of Harvard), Senator Bob Kerrey (former head of the New School), and Pat Harker (president of the University of Delaware and former dean of Wharton, Nelson's alma mater).

I am a big believer in educational access. Education is awesome. Extending education to those who cannot presently achieve it is extra awesome.

And yet I'm troubled by the Minerva Project; specifically, by the lack of credible answers to a few questions that the painfully shallow news coverage have yet to actually address. So I'm posting them here and trying to think through what some of the answers might be. 

(continue reading…)

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Where Do Information Curators Come From?

by on Apr.05, 2012, under general

This evening I attended ‘Adapting Journalism to the Web’, a communications forum sponsored by the MIT Center for Civic Media, featuring NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen and Center director Ethan Zuckerman in a wide-ranging discussion about where / why journalism has been and where it is going.

(continue reading…)

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Don’t Blame The App. Blame The Ecosystem.

by on Apr.02, 2012, under general

Over the weekend John Brownlee’s posted an article entitled This Creepy App Isn’t Just Stalking Women Without Their Knowledge, It’s A Wake-Up Call About Facebook Privacy to CultOfMac. It detailed an app called “Girls Around Me”, which used publicly available data from the Facebook and Foursquare APIs to locate nearby girls and provide would-be pickup artists with their pictures, interests, and information.

The story blew up over the weekend, with summaries on Slashdot, Gizmodo, and BoingBoing. Within hours Foursquare killed the app’s access to it’s location information too.

In the immediate term this constitutes a win for Facebook privacy – something about which I’ve blogged extensively.

In the long term, though, it doesn’t fix anything. The problem is not the app, creepy as it may have been; the problem is the ecosystem which the app inhabits, the nutrients which support it, the root system upon which it draws for sustenance and support.

The problem, in other words, is that we have a design and information paradigm in which there is poor understanding among users about how and to whom their information is available, and a poor understanding by tech companies about how to design spaces in a manner which enables contextual integrity.

Shutting down “Girls Around Me” is akin to a gardener cutting off the head of a dandelion. It removes the most evident, colorful, obvious problem – but underneath the weed remains, and soon grows anew. Brownlee gets this. Hopefully others will too.

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Kony 2012 reminds me of Loose Change

by on Mar.09, 2012, under general

So the Kony 2012 campaign – and the backlash against it – has been eating up the Internet for the last 48 hours. If you somehow missed it, read Ethan Zuckerman’s primer here.

I’m one of those who is decidedly not a fan of the Kony 2012 movement. There’s the shady finances, the evangelical ties, the exclusion of African agency and, oh right, the seemingly important fact that Kony isn’t even in Uganda.

So why is Kony 2012 so popular? Probably for the reasons identified by the Nigerian author Teju Cole, as quoted here:

Seven thoughts on the banality of sentimentality.

1- From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.

2- The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.

3- The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.

4- This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.

5- The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

6- Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.

7- I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.

Another question to ask is how is Kony 2012 so powerful? How has their message propagated?

Invisible Children released a very powerful 30 minute documentary which received over 30 million views in 24 hours. It’s got lots of moving music, poignant shots, and terrible, misleading facts.

In many ways it reminds me of Loose Change 9/11. In 2005, when Loose Change broke out on Google Video and the early days of YouTube, it seemed like half the Internet watched it and began to think 9/11 was an inside job based on a lot of “facts” presented in a compelling narrative. The only problem was almost none of it were true. Specific claims which were made were false. But it was wrapped in a compelling narrative, and it was on video.

I have a feeling that the dynamics which drove Loose Change to success might be driving Kony 2012 too. Not just in terms of slacktivism but also in terms of a viral video which can be passed around and facts just presented to people to inject into their brains.

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