AMC Day 2: The Benefits of Exile in Cyberspace

Summer is conference season and MAP is reporting live. Over the next few days I’ll be reporting from the Allied Media Conference in Detroit and David Faris will be reporting from the Global Voices Summit in Nairobi.Check out this blog and ourTwitter streamfor reports and ourFacebook pagefor photos

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People come to theAllied Media Conferencebecause of sessions like “Radical Organizing from the Dancefloor.” The conference, its presenters, and participants are not afraid to look for deep cultural meaning – and opportunities for resistance – in seemingly benign practicese.

Exilic space facilitates new expression of gender and dance in Jamaica. Exilic spaces exist online as well.

The session was co-lead byanthropologist/DJLarisa Mannandimmigrant rights activist/media producerThanu Yakupitiyageand explored how to create safe spaces for the creation of joy and social capital at the intersection “political activism and the pleasure and experimentation of the dancefloor.” Yup, sounds awesome.

During the session Larisa brought forth a concept from her research: “exilic space” – spaces of exile. In a blog post explaining the concept she writes:

Subordinated people have always relied on “exilic spaces” for survival and renewal. These… spaces are carved out by practical and creative acts. In exilic spaces like underground dance events, the uncivilized can make the most of their independence from the constraints of “civil” life: the unruly and vulgar embrace grime and glamour, playing with categories of gender, sexuality, race and class.

What happens in these spaces could be called “leisure” or “parties” or “hedonism.” But serious work can happen… if it is truly exilic. People create and share cultural/material resources on terms not dictated by mainstream society…. People play out alternate identities….

While exilic spaces can be sites of struggle against dominant power, they are often not seen as revolutionary either by more mainstream political movements and organizers, or by the state or elites, who prefer to police them in relation to concepts of propriety and property.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? It reminds me of insular online communities like 4chan and groups like Anonymous where members also develop alternate (or anonymous) identities in a space not governed by civil life through creative media-making. The outside world sees their activities and creative output as acts of hedonism, trolling, or perversion, but these are also spaces for the development of new culture (4chan had a major roll in popularizing visualmemes).

Larisa studies physical exilic spaces of music and dance culture, but these spaces exist in the online world too, and may be seen as analogous in that they are also spaces for the safe germination of new ways of being. Isolation in cyberspace can be harmful, but is can also be helpful in nurturing the subcultures that keep mass culture innovative and resilient.


GV Summit Day 1: War of Positions

So I’m here in Nairobi, Kenya for the 2012 Global Voices Citizen Media Summit. The wrinkle this year is that a group of about 30 academics has been invited to hold a partially parallel conference and to talk about things — ontologies, assemblages, performativity — that will either make you want to impale yourself on an elephant tusk or get you running to the computer to download the latest issue of Journal of Theoretical Politics. But it’s actually a big, gift-wrapped piece of dream candy for MAP – the opportunity for activists and reporters to share information, perspectives and ideas with the academics who study them, and vise versa. Continue reading

Allied Media Conference: Social Media that Isolates

Summer is conference season and MAP is reporting live! Over the next few days I’ll be reporting from the Allied Media Conference in Detroit and David Faris will be reporting from the Global Voices Summit in Nairobi.Check out this blog and ourTwitter streamfor reports and ourFacebook pagefor photos

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Day 1 @ the Allied Media Conference, where people come together to share tools and tactics for transforming communities through media activism

“We help move people from the tweets to the streets.”

“We need technology that we can use, not that uses us.”

“We don’t want to be the products being sold.”

“How can we ensure that the internet is not private property but public property?”

“We can use communication technology not only to know the world, but to change it.”

These were but a few of the wise and inspirational statements made by participants at the network gathering convened by May First/People Linkon day 1 of the Allied Media Conference(AMC). MF/PL is a non-profit web service provider that operates like an activist co-op: collecting dues, buying equipment, and providing services to people who might otherwise not have them. Today they brought together media rights activists with technologists, hoping to surface activist needs which could be met by developing new software. However, in the age of social media, creating new software is not always the best strategy for supporting activists.

As a way to get the ball rolling a number of technologists presented some examples of open source software designed for activists: Decider, Riseup Pad, Facebook alternatives Crabgrass and Diaspora, DropBox alternative SparkleShare, Twitter alternative, and Flickr alternative openphoto. Other than being open source, these tools allow greater security, autonomy, and data control because they can run off of any server, not a centralized server owned by a corporation.

This is good, but it is also not so good. It is good because it provides a more secure alternative for activists who may be under surveillance and ensures there is some level of competition, and thus user choice, in these market niches (Firefox works particularly well in this regard).

They are not so good in that the social media platforms – Crabgrass, Diaspora, and*cut activists off from the majority of the world’s citizens, who are using commercial platforms.This marginalization is why many of these tools have failed to gain much of a user base. The value of any social media platform increases with the number of members it has, a principle encapsulated in Metcalfe’s Law. Without members these platforms have little pull, except for the hard core of activists.

The truth is that mostopen source software is only used by technical elites and those who have been directly trained and educated by elites (Firefox being a major exception). This doesn’t mean that open source’s impact is small, just that the user base is usually small. For example, Apache serves more than half the world’s websites, but its actual user base is a relatively small technical elite of developers.

Open source projects work best when they operate well using a small user base. Mobile crowd-mapping application Ushahidi has dozens of instances, but for each instance only one person needs to be able to manipulate the software – the person who installs it. Everyone else just needs to be able to send a text message. Guardianwould love for thousands of people in repressive countries to use their mobile encryption tools, but if even several hundred key activists become users, they have made an impact.

Social media, on the other hand, requires scale to succeed, and this is why open source alternatives have failed. A social network with 500 people won’t succeed unless the people already have strong ties because casual users will become dormant or leave. By building alternative social networks, open source activists have create walled gardens that propose marginalization and isolation more than meaningful radical space.

During a break-out session, I proposed an alternative to this self-defeating strategy: “enter the mall.” The mall – ugh! We hate the mall. It is banal and commercial and trivial and corporate. But it is also where everyone hangs out. If you build a small alternative fair trade market down the road you may attract those who are already your ideological allies, but in order to really scale you will need to go to the mall. Now, you could enter the mall and advertise for your alternative market down the road. You could also set up the market inside the mall, between Hot Topic and The Gap. It would mean entering the belly of the capitalist beast, but it would also give the ideals of fair trade to a much larger audience and give the ideas potential to scale. I am using a rather goofy analogy, but there are serious issues of values and strategy to be worked out if supporters of alternative media were to consider using corporate media to extend their ideological reach and further their longterm goals.

Of course, open source still has value and open source technologistsinterestedin supportingactivistsshould focus their efforts on security and niche tools,like Ushahidi, that provide a specific functionality to a specific user group. However, because open source projects need to define success within the scope of a small user base, technologists building social networking, where mass is critical, will find they are fighting a losing battle. It was worth experimenting with open source social media platforms. Now it is time to access the results.

Newsweek Digital Power Index – Live Video Chat today @ 1pm EST

Several weeks ago I was invited to be part of a nominating panel for the Revolutionaries section of Newsweek’sDigital Power Index. The 100-person list is mostly Silicon Valley types and the digital activist (Revolutionaries) list has precisely one woman and is composed exclusively of hackers, Wikileaks, and Middle Eastern activists – but it’s a start! (I’ll share my own list of nominees over the coming weeks on this blog).

The list goes live today and I’ll be participating in a live Google Hangout with some other panelists at 1pm EST today.


You can participate in the chat @


An Organization is a Tactic

When a public problem presents itself, people come together to solve it.

The structure of the collaboration – if it has durability – is called an organization.

But an organization is just a tactic.

It is the best available structural solution to a collective action problem in a given context.

But contexts change.

Changes in context turn efficiencies into inefficiencies and impossibilities into realities.

What once was effective and profitable is now ineffective and unprofitable.

Newspapers and governments are two examples of organizations that were once thebest available structural solution.

They are now ineffective and unprofitable.

Each organization – each media company, each national government –
is only a tactic to solve a collective action problem.

If the collective action problem remains –

a need for information discovering, analysis, and dissemination

a need for public rule-making and service-provision

– then the organization must be reformed

or a new organizational types must be created.

What organizations will we create to respond to these age-old problems in the new digital context?

What will our tactical innovations be?

The Interoperability of Digital Activism

It is difficult to convert online power into offline power to achieve political change.

[UPDATED] This month John Palfrey and Urs Gasser published a book calledInteropabouthow complex systems work together. This concept applies to digital activism as well, because successful activists must convert online power into offline impact. It’s not always easy.

Even outside the realm of activism, interoperability is often lacking. You know how your iPhone charger won’t plug into your friend’s Nokia phone? How your Mom’s old version of Word won’t open your new .docx file? How you can’t plug your hairdryer into a European socket? These are all examples of technologies that should work together but, because of design choices, do not.

We can think of the interaction of online space and offline space in a similar way. Theworld of bits and the world of atoms, in Zeynep Tufekci’s terms, are two complex systems. Sometimes they interoperate well: think ofonline payments. When you buy something online, your bank account reflects that change. When you take cash out of an ATM, you can see that change when you log into your account online. Sometimes they don’t. Think ofonline dating. Someone can look great on their profile and sound great in their emails, but when you meet, you have absolutely no chemistry.

Activism is another activity for which interoperability between online and offline space often does not work well. The Kony 2012 campaign gained more video views in a shorter period of time than any digital video in history. One can assume that at least some of these 100 million+ viewers were honestly moved by the documentary and wanted to do something to catch Kony and help child soldiers. But there was a problem with interoperability. That intensity of interest and concern online did not convert into the capture of Kony offline. The realities of international politics and central Africa geography refused to interoperate with the aggregation of interest and will that the network permitted.

In Egypt, activists were able to use a blog community and a Facebook group to grow a small, young, liberal, and pro-democratic civil society in the early 2000’s that was critical in bringing down Mubarak but is still under-strength when compared to much older and better established groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Interoperability is more difficult when the task is more difficult. Using online and offline space to organize a rally is more easier than using online and online space to nominate and elect a candidate for national office. (In the US,America Elects had a similar problemof interoperability when they tried to nominate a presidential candidate online.)

This is the problem with many instances ofso-called “slacktivism”– the organizers were unable to figure out how to transform online interest into offline impact. They could not figure out how to get the two systems to interoperate. Even when solutions are found, they can have a short shelf life as the opponent counter-innovates. Just think of once-formidable Wikileaks.

Interoperability is difficult because online and offline spaceareradically different systems with radically different rules. It is difficult to transfer power between the them. The offline world is geographically-divided, money-driven, and hierarchical. The online world is networked, free/low-cost, and peer-based. Trying to transfer networked people power into a hierarchical political system can run up against fatal rode blocks. Trying to transfer massive online interest into massive offline action is also difficult, even when trying to mobilize a single group of individuals.

Even these distinctions blur, because the two systems influence one another. We have seen ways in which the offline space has influence the online and vice-versa. The Pirate Party brought the peer production of the network into the hierarchicalstructureof government. The Chinese government used censorship technology to create its own national intranet that would match its geographic boundaries and abide by its national laws.

Successful interoperability between online and offline worlds requires a strong understanding of both, from the mechanics of Twitter to the arrest process used by the capital police.

Yet someactivists are figuring out how to digital and physical space can interoperate better. InSpain, activists used quick and peer-based crowdfundingsubmit a legal complaint to the slow and hierarchical Spanish judicial system. In Egypt, theFront to Defend Egyptian Protesters has worked out a resilient system (image, left) to link protesters in danger with offline assistance by using a range of digital tools. Interoperability is not easy, but it is possible, and activists are understanding it better every day.

Crowdfunders vs. Banksters: New Hybrid Tactic from Spain

In contemporary activismit’s not a questions of online or offline, but how to integrate the two. Tactics are likely to be hybrid, making use of tools and processes in digital and physical space. Here’s a new example of that trend from Spain, where indignados areusing online crowdfunding to lodge an offline legal complaint against the mismanaged financial institution Bankia.

Bankia was created during the financial crisis from a number of troubled local banks who had made bad housing loans (a similar situation to the US). It was not a smart move. Now, instead of many small indebted banks there is one large indebted bank that could do serious damage to the national economy if it fails. The bank sold shares to raise funds, but international investors knew better, so Bankia sold the faulty shares to their own customers and other Spanish citizens – shady! Now the bank is in an even worse mess, asking for $24 billion in bailouts, and the shares’ value has decreased by 75%.

In the US, these kinds of financial shenanigans have met with outrage but little action. However, while our Occupy is stalling, Spain’s 15M movement is roaring, and they took action – ingeniously. According to Global Voices:

people in Spain raised money from donations to submit a complaint before the court and meet the requirements to conduct a legal investigation efficiently. The initiative has had a massive following in social networks under several hashtags, one of which is#CrowdfundPaRato[es]. In 24 hours, more than the €15, 000 (Euros) of the required funds were raised

Unlike the bank, whose dealings have been dishonest and underhanded, the organizers of this hybrid tactic have been thrifty and transparent. They even stopped soliciting money when they reached their fundraising goal.

In his[es], [documentary filmmaker and campaign organizer] @fanetin explains how the money will be broken down:

  • €200 for the shareholder’s authorization before a notary.
  • €6 000 for the lawyer (for everything the case implies, among other things questioning approximately 80 people).
  • €1 000 for the attorney (compulsory)
  • €3 000 for trips to Madrid by the attorneys, witnesses, etc (during a year).
  • €5 000 for paperwork, research, and communication.
  • €1 300 for the Crowdfunding Goteo platform

None of the perpetrators of America’s financial crisis have been prosecuted, and while this has annoyed people (see cartoon, left) no one has successfully tried to do anything about it. But Spanish activists are bolder, not letting governmental foot-dragging stop them from seeking justice. According tothe website of the crowdfunding project:

we won’t be able to count on the instruments of the State (not that we trust them very much). And they think we can’t do it because of lack of money, but what they don’t know is that we are many, and that with a small contribution from each one of us we will do it.

On June 14th they submitted the legal complaint. As activists get a better sense ofhow to channel online power into offline institutional processes we’re likely to see more of these strategically targeted hybrid tactics.


Net Freedom Policy: Stuck in Crisis Mode

LifeStraw is a crisis response to lack of clean water, just as US net freedom policy is a crisis response to the un-free internet. Neither offers a longterm solution.

[UPDATED] The image at left shows a woman drinking from a LifeStraw, adevice for filtering unclean water so it is safe to drink. When you see this picture, you should think of the internet.

Why you should think of the internet may not be clear. This woman is drinking from a rural stream and probably lacks internet access. However, LifeStraw is an excellent metaphor for US net freedom policy.

In the case of LifeStraw, the goal is that everyone on the planet has access to clean water. The obstacle is a global shortage of clean water. LifeStraw is a technical crisis response to this global shortage. It allows people living in areas without clean water to filter water for their personal using aningeniouspiece of technology.

Yet is does not scale. It does not solve the problem. The solution to the clean water shortage is not to buy millions of $20 LifeStraws for people in developing countries. The solution is to build clean water infrastructure, to give people access to actual clean water.

US net freedom policy works in a similar way. According to the State Department’s Internet Freedom program, the goalis “a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” The obstacle is that “numerousgovernments seek to deny the rights” to connection, collaboration, expression, and personal empowerment that the internet enables.

Despite its high ideals, the US government’s response has been of the LifeStraw variety. The internet is unfree but, rather than implementing a policy to free the internet, they are increasing tools and skills to allow individuals to be safer in the unfree internet. From a recent State Department request for statements of (funding) interest:

In past years, U.S. government-funded Internet freedom programs have contributed to the development and deployment of anti-censorship and secure communications technologies in countries where Internet use is heavily filtered and monitored; grantees have conducted digital safety trainings… and NGOs and universities have greatly advanced research and understanding of the nature of threats to Internet freedom around the world.

Circumvention and encryption tools are the LifeStraws of the un-free internet
. Digital safety trainings are teaching people how to suck… to use these software tools to filter the unclean and un-free internet.

Unlike LifeStraw, these solutions do scale. You can create software or an online training tool [disclosure: I am working as a consultant on the latter type of project] that can be used by thousands of people globally and at marginal cost.

However, like LifeStraw, the technology does not actually solve the problem. It does not make the internet free. It just makes the unfree internet less harmful. If the un-free internet is a muddy puddle, current net freedom programs are the LifeStraw that makes it safer for some individuals without solving the underlying problem.

Current US net freedom policy is crisis response, not solution creation. Crisis responses are critically important. Every person who has a LifeStraw and uses it properly will undoubtedly have better health outcomes. Every person who learns how to use Tor or has Guardian installed on their mobile phone will be safer from surveillance and persecution. This is important work and it should and must continue.

Yet the State Department should also be funding longterm solutions based on a workable theory of change of how the US government can act to bring about a free(er) global internet. Funding research is a start. Engaging in public and high-level diplomacy is a start. But more ambitious thinking is needed. Much of the infrastructure of the internet is still American, but this is an opportunity that won’t last forever. What can the State Department do to safeguard the internet at the level of international regulation, at the level of the ITU and ICANN? What can the State Department do to prevent American companies from selling surveillance and censorship software to repressive governments? What can the State Department do to help enact legislation that upholds legal rights to user privacy on American social media platforms?

These are but a few suggestions at securing the infrastructure of a free global internet. Because in the end, as with access to clean water, the longterm answer to a free internet is strong public infrastructure, not quick fixes for individuals.


The Best of Personal Democracy Forum 2012

[UPDATED]Person Democracy Forum is the best digital politics conference in the country, maybe the world, because it’s a forum for radically idealistic new ideas. It just ended last night. Here are my favorite parts:

Day 1

  • Alexis Ohanian of Reddit’s funny meme-filled pitch for the bat-signal of the Internet (we are all Batmans, we all have online Gothams, we must protect them). Key insight: People sharing their likes and dislikes online isn’t the new slacktivism, it’s the private conversations we’ve always had around the dinner table. It’s just that they are public now. If anything this idle talk is more powerful for that reason.
  • Yochai Benkler of the Berkman Center shows day-by-day network graphics of the anti- SOPA campaign, putting to bed that alternative notion that it was just Google lobbyistsall along. Everyone wondered: how did he make those infographics and can I borrow his software?
  • Jaron Lanierof Microsoft gave my favorite keynote of PdF 2012. That man is straight brilliant. Without any slides he presented a bold and complex new idea for maintaing the middle class in the information economy: institute a system of micro-payments for all net content, which goes back to the creator. This would apply to our usage data too (the stuff people like Google and Facebook already monetize), so it is not uniquely a plan to benefit creatives. Among his best insights that the internet actually creates a more sustainable democracy if it is not totally free and, at this point, we can re-engineer society by re-engineering the internet.
  • Jan Hemme of the German Pirate Party described their new software LiquidFeedback and the term “liquid democracy.” Both represent a new midpoint between representative and direct democracy: temporary proxy voting. The system allows people to temporarily assign a proxy to vote on their behalf on internal policy decisions, but that proxy can be rescinded any time, not every 2 to 4 years, as is now the mode.

Day 2

  • Peter Fein runs Telecomix, which I had never heard of before, and which was apparently “tech support for the Arab Spring,” circumventing internet shut-downs with fax machines and the like. Democracy is obsolete, he argued, it’s time for adhocracy. Also, if you want to get something down, do it without money.
  • Sascha Meinrath of the Open Technology Institute showed us the surprising scope ofindependentintranets (mesh networks) around the world. The US, with its restrictions onmunicipalcommunicationsinfrastructure, is far behind the rest of the world.
  • Artist An Xiao Mina showed us amazing political memes from China, which were a bold and beautiful response to the censorship of text. They included online and offline images of sunflower seeds as a protest against the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei, and a sunglasses meme in support of blind activistChen Guangcheng. I hope the slides get online soon.
  • Chinese journalist Michael Anti talked about the psychic wounds of self-censorship. He urged Americans to help the Chinese people by defending their own online freedom of expression. Repressive regimes love to cherry-pick censorious policies from Western democracies.
  • Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen talked about successful anti-democratic online tacticsused against Russian activists. One interesting one was the “hand-made” DDoS -style attack on activist Facebook pages. Trolls (from India, for some reason) sign up for the pages en-masse and leave inappropriate – but not threatening – messages on the wall. The rate is so fast that admins cannot take them down quickly enough, the credibility of the page is undermined, and the admins themselves get punished by Facebook for blocking too many page members. Facebook, please fix this!
  • In a personal and moving speech, Cheryl Contee of Fission Strategy talked about the new digital divide of class, race, and gender. In the US the divide is not internet access or social media use anymore. It’s inequality of employment and investment. (News flash: not only young, white, male, Harvard drop-outs make good tech.
  • David Karpf of GW explained why the internet has not enabled a third party – as the vaunted America Elects effort attempted to do – because there is no radical center.
  • Mayor Alex Torpey of South Orange argued that American could still be filled with independent elected officials because the internet allows powerful tools for broadcast and fundraising outside of party structure.

And finally, a few critiques. There were a lot of main stage keynotes – I counted 40 in two days. This means at times we were in our seats as the non-interactive audience for two and a half hours at a stretch. While some keynotes were excellent, others were only okay, and a couple were not. An attempt to introduce interactivity into the keynotes, by using the Berkman Questions tool, did not work out, probably because the event was often running over time.

Also, the afternoon panel discussions, while they do allow PdF to comp tickets for interesting people, are never the highlight of the event. Too often it is yet another audience experience, with more (short) presentations andpreciouslittle Q&A. Making an non-interactive event for the interactive set is strange strategy. Even bringing back the stage-projected tweet stream would have helped. Others likely felt the same way as the audience dropped significantly from Day 1 to Day 2 (they roped off a number of back sessions of the auditorium to cluster the remaining audience at the front.)

Finally, there were a lot of men in dark suits and precious few tee-shirted geeks and jeans-wearing activists. To me this indicates more vendors and nonprofit types whose organizations can afford to send them and less of the young and Ramen-eating people who are doing some of the best and more innovative work online. (When you can offer a $100 early-bird discount, that’s the sign of a damned expensive conference ticket.) They’ve priced-out an important demographic.

PdF is a can’t-miss annual event for me because of the wonderful ideas they present, but they need to cut back on keynotes and create more truly interactive and inclusive intellectual space – and not only during the coffee breaks!


Tom Friedman and the Revolution

Tom Friedman, delivering more insights from taxi drivers and luxury hotel staff

The chorus of pundits gleefully declaring the end of the “Facebook Revolution” continues today, when none other than Thomas Friedman gets in on the action. Friedman does little other than recapitulate Francis Fukuyama’s piece from last week (and at least admits that this is what he is doing). But that doesn’t mean the argument is any more coherent.

Three points are important to consider: Continue reading

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