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Bruce Sterling at SXSW 2013

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Just another post about a tragedy

[Don’t waste your time reading my hasty post before you read Ethan Zuckerman’s take: “Mourn, and take action on guns.”]

Another senseless American tragedy with much chaotic wailing in social media, including my own. More traditional media, as ever, is ready and willing to tell us what we are thinking, if not what we should be thinking. The Onion manages to be more real than “real” news in this:

Americans reported feelings of overwhelming disgust with whatever abhorrent bastard did this and with the world at large for ever allowing it to happen, as well as with politicians, with the NRA, and above all with their own pathetic goddamn selves, sitting in front of a fucking computer instead of doing fucking anything to help anyone—Christ, as if that were even fucking possible, as if anyone could change what happened, as if the same fucking bullshit isn’t going to keep happening again and again and fucking again before people finally decide it’s time to change the way we live, so what’s the point? What the hell is the goddamned point?

Roger Ebert had an interesting take on the media’s role in his review of Gus Van Sant’s film “Elephant,” inspired by the Columbine shootings. I’ve seen this quote 2-3 times on the interwebs over the last 24 hrs:

… I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

12/12/20115 Austin American-Statesman

Austin American-Statesman front page, 12/12/2015

This news is everywhere. It filled the front page of Austin American-Statesman today, with a max point size headline saying “Our Hearts Are Broken Today.” The New York Times says “Nation Reels as Shooting Details Emerge.” I don’t question the sincerity of most responses, though there were also outrageous viral hoaxes like this one, posted on Twitter (I fell for it):

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Community: listening and leading

For the last two decades I’ve been preaching about the limits of “community management” – no one can “own” a community or tribe; top-down approaches fail. You can lead, you can facilitate, but you can’t dictate – you have to listen to the community, and be sensitive to community input.

At larger scale, this is the rationale for democracy, “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Democracy is difficult, you can’t have a true and pure democracy and make it work – but when we talk about democracy we’re seldom talking about a system that’s purely that, a direct democracy. We always have vertical hierarchies, however flat they might be, and we always need leadership. Few members of a community will have the understanding and perspective required to make decisions; success depends on their input. But success also depends on a system that supports a sense of open, public discussion preceding whatever decisions are embedded in policy.

We see this in micro in online communities and social networks. On a platform like Facebook, for instance, there’s a persistent tension between what Facebook wants to do and what its users will accept; Facebook-the-company has been forced to back off on policies that were perceived by users as too constraining. It’s an ongoing dance, and to the extent that the users of Facebook are its product (sold as eyeballs to advertisers), the system must empower its users while at the same time depending on a more passive form of information consumption (the kind that makes advertisers happy). Facebook is a company, it makes platform decisions, but to the extent users feel locked out or ignored, they’re cranky and might ultimately walk, if they feel they have no input, no control over the online environment. You didn’t have this with television, because television doesn’t create the same sense of place or community. It was media, but not social media.

Coding Horror has a post that about online social space and community empowerment, quoting the 1990 paper “The Lessons of LucasFilm’s Habitat.” Habitat was an early online game/community, “one of the first attempts to create a very large scale commercial multi-user virtual environment.” This quote could have been written about any number of online platforms that have emerged over the last two-plus decades:

… we shifted into a style of operations in which we let the players themselves drive the direction of the design. This proved far more effective. Instead of trying to push the community in the direction we thought it should go, an exercise rather like herding mice, we tried to observe what people were doing and aid them in it. We became facilitators as much as designers and implementors. This often meant adding new features and new regions to the system at a frantic pace, but almost all of what we added was used and appreciated, since it was well matched to people’s needs and desires. As the experts on how the system worked, we could often suggest new activities for people to try or ways of doing things that people might not have thought of. In this way we were able to have considerable influence on the system’s development in spite of the fact that we didn’t really hold the steering wheel — more influence, in fact, than we had had when we were operating under the delusion that we controlled everything.

The author of the Coding Horror post, Jeff Atwood, points to his earlier post about lessons learned managing the Stack Overflow community, “Listen to Your Community, But Don’t Let Them Tell You What to Do.” That strikes me as a good description of the process of practical democracy: those who hold power (community managers, legislators, executives) must listen (actively, seriously), but they have to make their own decisions from their perspective, which is different from the perspective of the average community member or citizen. As Atwood says in his “Listen” post, “Community feedback is great, but it should never be used as a crutch, a substitute for thinking deeply about what you’re building and why.” I.e. leaders have to work hard at having the right perspective and understanding to make meaningful, “right” decisions. He goes on to say that “half of community relationships isn’t doing what the community thinks they want at any given time, but simply being there to listen and respond to the community.” Spot on.

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Trust, reputation, collaborative consumption and service networking

This TED talk by Rachel Botsman describes the online evolution of trust and reputation that’s feeding into new ways of doing business, “collaborative consumption” (AirBNB) and “service networking” (TaskRabbit). More people doing business directly with other people via virtual mediation. Via this trend, people are learning to be more trusting, and with more trust there’s more of this kind of biz.

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Cliff Figallo on the acquisition of the WELL

I recently posted about the acquisition of the seminal online community, the WELL, by some of its members. At Social Media Today, my friend and former WELL director Cliff Figallo has an informative and insightful post that gives some context. “The people who log in and participate can be numbered in the hundreds,” he says, “but thousands of people have been active members at one time or another and many of them still think of the community as just that – a true online community that they consider to be their first home in Cyberspace.” He notes its history and influence:

In many ways, The WELL called attention to the social imperative in the early days of the Internet and the Web. It was one of the very first businesses to get an Internet domain name in 1992 – well.sf.ca.us. It inspired early Web developers to design platforms that would support social interaction. In 1996, Wired Magazine put The WELL on its cover, calling it “The World’s Most Influential Online Community,” and documenting some of the melodrama and technical “exploration” that had made it something more than an online forum.

When Katie Hafner was writing that piece for Wired, which later became a book, she interviewed me, and in her office she had a diagram that showed how the WELL derived influence from the communal movement in the sixties, and how it conveyed that influence to the larger Internet and the World Wide Web. Along with the BBS world, Usenet, and email lists, as Cliff says, the WELL inspired the social web – but not just developers, also users who, like me, were discovering that computers are platforms for communication and social connection.

Many of us who are still members of the WELL, and dissatisfied with a lack of depth in drive-by interactions on social media platforms, are hoping to see new growth within the community following its acquisition.

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The WELL owns The WELL

I came to the Internet via the The WELL, an online community that started as a bulletin board system in 1985. I read about The WELL in the Whole Earth publications: CoEvolution Quarterly/Whole Earth Review. An avid follower of Whole Earth in its various published forms, I was eager to get closer to the community of people who wrote for, read, and published the catalogs and quarterlies. I got a loan, bought a PCs Limited 8086 computer and 300 baud modem so that I could dial in, and spent months winning my wife over to the idea of a huge long distance bill to dial into Sausalito from Austin, Texas. Later the WELL and I both connected to the Internet, so I could use telnet to log in. I invested more and more time and conversation in the community. My membership in the WELL led me to a new career, a set of friends I never would have found otherwise, and various paths to venues for writing and cultural foo.

Salon has owned the WELL for quite a few years, allowing it to be its own thing and sustain its vibrant community of conversations. Now the WELL has been sold – to a coalition of its members.

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 20, 2012 — Salon Media Group (SLNM.PK) and The Well Group, Inc. today jointly announced that The WELL is now under the ownership of The Well Group, Inc., a private investment group composed of long-time WELL members.

The Well Group, Inc. consists entirely of long-time WELL users with an average tenure exceeding 20 years. The purchase marks the first major online business taken private by users of the business itself.

The WELL represents one of the earliest platforms for online dialogue, supporting lively debates and conversations since its founding in 1985. The Well Group, Inc. is excited to take over the management of The WELL, and continue offering the valuable products and services that subscribers have come to expect over the years.

“The WELL welcomes the opportunity to support its existing base and extends an invitation to like-minded individuals looking for a social network that puts the free exchange of ideas at the forefront,” explained Earl Crabb, CEO of The Well Group, Inc. “We are extremely grateful to Salon Media Group for working with us to make this transition a success.”

“In a world where online platforms come and go, this is a testament to the dedication of a truly remarkable community,” explained Cindy Jeffers, CEO of Salon Media Group. “As a true pioneer of the digital age, and a forerunner of today’s ubiquitous social networks, The WELL has played a central role in the origin of countless creative endeavors and cultural movements. We wish The WELL countless more under their new management.”

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Howard Rheingold on the state of the WELL

Howard Rheingold’s written a good short piece for the Atlantic explaining why the WELL is historically important, and how the WELL exemplified online community (and was probably the first). He also mentions the WELL’s importance in influencing the evolution of the World wide Web of today, something I suggested in an earlier post.

Here’s Howard talking about the WELL, also featuring John “Tex” Coate:

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The WELL has been an important driver for evolving Internet culture

At bOING bOING, Cory Doctorow explains what’s happening with the WELL. I commented there, reposted here:

My view is that you can’t overstate the significance of the WELL and its parent, Point Foundation/Whole Earth. Early bloggers (like those at boing boing and yours truly) were influenced by the structure of reviews in the Whole Earth publications, and adopted a similar style. For many of us, our WELL accounts were our pathway onto the Internet. Much of the culture of the Internet post 1990, especially the concept and execution of virtual community and the way it evolved into contemporary social media, was inspired and driven by experiences on the WELL. In my own case, I built an Internet career starting with my volunteer work at the WELL, and made many of my connections there. I became an editor for boing boing and Factsheet Five through connections on the WELL, a writer for publications like Mondo 2000, cofounder of FringeWare publisher of FringeWare Review, all via connections and experiences on the WELL. I became an active member and supporter of EFF and cofounder of EFF-Austin because of the WELL. I’ve had a number of major author interviews on in the Inkwell conference on the WELL, as well as the annual state of the world conversation Bruce Sterling and I have had every January for 13 years – we doubtless wouldn’t have done that without the WELL. I first heard the word “weblog” when Bruce applied it to his posts in the Mirrorshades conference that we cohosted on the WELL. I also recall, when Katie Hafner was working on her book about the WELL and interviewed me at her office, which was then in Austin, that I saw a diagram on her wall that she’d been working on, that showed how communal movements in the 60s fed into the WELL, and the WELL fed into the evolution of community and social aggregation on the Internet. From my perspective, the WELL’s influence has been huge.

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The Art of Conversation

John McDermott at Financial Times writes “How to have a conversation”:

What makes a good conversationalist has changed little over the years. The basics remain the same as when Cicero became the first scholar to write down some rules, which were summarised in 2006 by The Economist: “Speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.” But Cicero was lucky: he never went on a first date with someone more interested in their iPhone than his company.

Reading that, I realize I suck as a conversationalist (but wait, I shouldn’t talk about myself…) A commitment to learn and act on those principles is in order… online and off.

Later in the article, McDermott mentions “the ‘six ways to have a better conversation.’ These, according to the school, are: 1. Be curious about others; 2. Take off your mask; 3. Empathise with others; 4. Get behind the job title; 5. Use adventurous openings; 6. Have courage.”

If you take off your mask, will you disappear?

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Code Across America ATX: A Civic Innovation Hackathon

ATX Codeathon

Google-funded Code for America was in Austin Saturday for a codeathon using data accessible via the city’s data portal. I dropped by the geek chic coworking facility Conjunctured, where the codeathon was happening, and hung out long enough to get a sense of the projects the ~40 coders were tackling. Those included a Bike Accident and Route Safety app, an app for finding miscellaneous stuff around town, and a “garden dating” app (to help people who want a community garden find a space). What was missing? For at least one project (Find It), there were fewer sources of data than the developers would’ve liked. I realized that it’s not enough to bring coders together to create apps – we should also be cultivating data sources. A project to build databases and facilitate citizen input would be a logical complement to the various codeathons.

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Resilient Communities

Elements of Resilient Communities

Follow John Robb and pay close attention to what he has to say, because he has his finger on the pulse. He’s currently promoting the concept of resilient communities, defined here:

A resilient community is the path to a safe, prosperous, and vibrant future for us, our kids, and our neighbors — despite an increasingly chaotic world…. We take control of our future. We implement the only solution that can give us the a safe, secure, and prosperous future. We become resilient. We find ways to help local people, businesses, and municipalities to PRODUCE, and that’s and important word, more of what we rely upon…. Fortunately, we now have the technology and the insights required to produce with quality and efficiency at the local level like never before.

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Iron Sky

Looking forward to this zany bit of participatory cinema, with lunar ufo Nazis attacking earth:

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Bots can shape social interaction

Scientists experimenting with Twitter bots found that the bots could “shape” activity on Twitter to some extent. They’re continuing their studies to get a better understanding of what they’re seeing. [Link]

The origin of the study was explained by Tim Hwang, one of the authors of a research paper describing the socialbot experiments. “A lot of people you can hire now say they are really good at community engagement. Can we measure those claims?”

From the paper linked above:

… although each socialbot was able to connect only a relatively small portion of users from its target group, the findings of this study are extremely signi cant. These findings indicate the fi rst successful attempts at automatically and programmatically shaping the topology of online communities. Further, while the scale of this study was relatively small, socialbots are designed to be light, efficient, and entirely automatic { and thus, easily deployable in large swarms. We believe this study marks the rst step towards demonstrating the ability of such technologies to shape online communities at a large scale.

Wonder if this means we’ll have swarms of marketing bots flooding Twitter and other social systems?

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Contact Summit: “It’s time to take back the net”

At the Contact Summit. Photo by Steven Brewer

At the Contact Summit. Photo by Steven Brewer

This week, on October 20, a diverse assortment of forward-thinking, Internet-savvy, solutions-oriented people gathered in New York City for Contact Summit, a project-focused event organized by Doug Rushkoff and Venessa Miemis. I was originally planning to attend, and was plugged into the small team of organizers. I couldn’t make the event, but have been available as a resource for organizers of related global Meetups, and will help sustain the converation following the event.

Doug had created a prologue video for the remote Meetups scheduled to occur synchronous with the main event. Here’s a summary of his comments in that video – this gives a good idea what the gathering was about:

It’s time to take back the net. Currently the Internet is much too concerned with marketing, IPOs, and the next killer app, and too little concerned with helping human beings get where we need to go. We want to use the Internet effectively to promote better ways of living, doing commerce, educating, making art, doing spirituality. To collaborate on ideas about how to use the net well. There are a lot of projects that need our assistance. From Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, people are rising up. We need solutions. Contact is about finding the others, and working and playing with them to find solutions to age-old problems. In New York on October 20th, we’re having unconference-style meetings plus a two hour bazaar where people will demo their projects. We’ll select projects that most need help, help them get funding and move forward. What it’s really about is planting a flag in the sand, saying the Internet is really about us, not about aiding the bottom line of a few corporations. This goes as deep and as far as we want to take it. The Summit is just a trigger point. It’s time to fold the fringes of the Internet back into the middle and re-ignite the passion and practicality of the Internet. If there were another name for Contact, I would call it “Occupy the Net.” We will collaborate to bring disparate projects with similar goals into harmony, so that anything we can dream will emerge.

Here’s a list of the winning projects from the Bazaar:

Here’s a list of winning sessions (selected by attendees):

Upgrading Democracy: Representation is a fundamental concept of our governance, but is encoded in the technology of the 18th century. The modern networked world enables a truer form of representation known variously under the names Dynamic Democracy, Liquid Democracy, and Delegable Proxy voting.

Local Foodsharing platform: I don’t have details on this yet

Kick-Stopper – Crowdsourced Unfunding: This group is dedicated to creating online organizing tools to organize large scale divestment and debt strike campaigns. Join here: http://groups.google.com/group/debt-strike-kick-stopper

Online General Assembly: This group folded itself into the Upgrade Democracy group, but has its own mandate: to create an online version of the General Assembly technique (as practiced by Occupy Wall Street) for consensus building.

Collaboration Matchmaking Application: The idea is to create an application that helps creators, particularly artists, find collaborators on projects. During the final session on this concept, participants decided that this project should grow at its own pace and with a relatively smaller circle.

DJ Lanphier shot video at the event, and has gradually been uploading those to http://www.youtube.com/contactsummit. Here’s an example, a video of Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation: “We are discovering together how we should be working.”

Photo by Steven Brewer.