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.
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.
A few days ago I was have a Facebook back-and-forth with Julian Dibbell about this Atlantic blog post about the now infamous Lt. Pike of the UC-Davis police force.
To roughly summarize the Atlantic argument: Lt. Pike, like all of us, is the product of an institution: the police force. Institutions socialize individuals into them. What Pike did is not as attributable to him as it is to the institutional practices of policing. And we should be focusing on those rather than the corporeal person through whom those practices manifested themselves.
In the discussion with Julian I pointed out that I don’t actually disagree with the merits of this argument. Like my good friend Will Frank, who in his thesis articulated something that had been stewing in my head for years in a less coherent fashion, I don’t believe that human beings have free will sufficient to meaningfully assign moral praise or blameworthiness. We are all fundamentally products of systems and of institutions; the behavior which comes out of us is not because of us, but because of what happened to us.
But I also feel strongly that it is OK – more than OK, it is important and necessary – to condemn Lt. Pike for his brutal actions, and to make a strong stand against them as things which are wrong and bad.
In the week or so since this discussion took place I’ve been trying to figure out how I can hold both of these ideas in my mind at the same time.
Just returned from the IvyPlus conference, which this year was held at Yale. Lots of admissions folks from the Ivies (“plus” Stanford & MIT) were there.
Great panels, great food, and lots of learning. One of the most persistent threads was the difficulty in the present environment with so much mania over the high app counts to selective universities, and the strains that places not only one our processes and time but on our psyches.
But I was fundamentally reassured by the good people who were there. Lots of folks I spoke with were very intelligent, talented individuals, who could be doing (or had previously done) any number of things but had committed themselves to this work because they thought it important. That was a nice, validating experience to have.
One of the great things about working at MIT is that you have some incredible opportunities available to you. Soon after I started working here, I was approached by MIT student Paul Kominers. In addition to being brilliant, Paul is also hilarious, and is what we call a “glue” kid – the sort of person who really makes things happen, who glues a community together, etc.
Paul is involved in the administration of SPLASH. Here is the Splash description:
One weekend in November, thousands of students of all types flood to MIT just for ESP’s Splash program to learn anything they want. From fractal fun to Hungarian history to aircraft analysis, Splash participants are introduced to a huge variety of topics by over 400 classes taught by teachers from the MIT community. Want to take a class on Egyptian mythology? Origami? Chemical sensors? All are possible.
Over the course of 20 hours during Splash, you can get your feet wet with a short introduction to any number of subjects—things you always wanted to learn, or topics you never knew existed. Or you can dive head first into an in-depth seminar or intensive workshop. The whole thing happens over the course of two intense days on the MIT campus, with classes taught by MIT students and community members.
On this Saturday past, I spent two hours teaching 130 10th-12th graders about the privacy architecture of Facebook. It was a lot of fun. Bunch of great jokes, sharp kids, cool concepts that were mostly interesting and new to them. Caught Paul running around with a top hat on, making sure everything went as planned for all of the 2700+ local students who were attending dozens of classes.
Great opportunity, lots of fun, and I can’t wait to do it again.