cshirky

Bald. Unreliable. Easily Distracte

Uncertainties in amateur media for 2012

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.


Last post about politics and media, this one less about 2008 than 2012. My final assignment to my ITP class on amateur media and the election (i.e. created by political amateurs, not necessarily media amateurs) was to ask them write a memo with advice on the subject that would be relevant to the 2012 Presidential election The responses ranged in style from a memo to Schwarzenegger to a letter from a young Democrat to Republican friends.

One that became clear from reading those memos were the critical uncertainties -- issues that will matter enormously, but whose outcome we don't yet know, something I can describe best using an example the students brought up in class in the early weeks of the semester:

In August of 2008, a video called Sing for Change went up. Made by a Venice, CA music instructor, it featured a couple dozen kids, ages 5 to 12, singing a song their teacher had written about Obama. The video itself was fairly straightforward -- it was just the kids standing on stage, wearing "Hope" t-shirts made for the occasion, and singing a song about how wonderful Obama is.

As you might imagine from that brief description, the video is a horror. My class skews liberal, and we all watched it slack-jawed, animated by a single question: "What were they thinking?" When it launched, the Republican blogosphere went nuts, while the Democratic reaction was mostly a muted "Well, I guess she was trying to help..." The public feedback was so intensely negative that the makers quickly took it down, but the warranty ran out on that strategy long ago, and copies were instantly re-posted, many with explicit references to Hitler Youth or North Korea in the title.

The videomaker may have thought she was advancing the cause, but she was actually preaching to (and with) the choir; there was a "Look at me!" quality to the work that destroyed any intended political utility. It's clear that not one person involved said "Let's see...kids too young to vote, in identical costumes, singing words we've literally put in their mouths? Maybe we should re-think this..." before the video was uploaded. It takes a truly jaded mind to understand that people who disagree with you have to be engaged, not just emoted at.

So here are two key uncertainties for 2012 (Congressional as well as Presidential), extrapolating from Sing for Change and my students' work:

1) What happens to the motivational landscape? Amateurs differ from professionals in part because of motivation -- Barely Political's Obama Girl video was designed to get attention for...Barely Political; name recognition for Obama himself was a side-effect. In 2012, will the motivations driving amateur political media be more political and strategic, or will they stay largely personal and attention-getting?

2) Will the average quality of politically amateur media rise or fall? Average quality of amateur digital production rises over the long haul, but there are also periods where the in-rush of amateurs floods the zone with dreck (desktop publishing ca. 1990, web design ca 1995) before communities of practice can form.

Two uncertainties produce four possible futures. Consider the future where the motivation of amateurs turns political and average quality rises; we could label this "The New Agora", where online video becomes a key arena of political argument. The opposite of that world would be most amateurs making video for personal motivation, and falling average quality. In this world -- call it "Lost in the Noise" -- in-jokes and me-tooism would make amateur political video a sideshow, compared to 2008.

One can also imagine a world of mainly personal motivation by the creators, but rising average quality. You could call this "Obama Girl Nation" -- there's lots of great political material people tune into, but its effect on the campaign will be secondary to the pursuit of boffo laffs. The opposite would be more political engagement but falling quality. In this future, call it "A Few Gems", most of the work wouldn't be worth the time of day, but there could be a couple of game-changing works by amateurs. (You could also call this future "Status Quo Plus", since it's closest to the election we just had.)

That, of course, is just one set of uncertainties played off on each other (and of course different futures can come true for different groups of people.) There are several other open questions: How much more active will the campaigns be in trying to shape amateur production? (Too much and they risk buzz kill, the FEC, and being damned for work they didn't produce.) How much coordination will we see, away from media mostly produced by individuals and small groups, towards media produced and spread by large organized collectives? How much will mobile devices change the landscape? How much will new archives allow crowdsourced opposition research? And so on.

Some of my students have agreed to let me release their memos; they make good reading for politics junkies trying to think through what's next. As Don Derosby of GBN says "There's no data on the future. That's what makes it interesting."

Zipped file of 2012 Amateur Political memoranda. (The students whose memos are linked here are Alexander Reeder, Amanda Bernsohn, Amit Snyderman, Andrea Dulko, Cheryl Furjanic, Corey Menscher, Dave Spector, John Dimatos, John Randall, Kristen Smart, Matt Parker, Steven Lehrburger, Thomas Robertson.)

TNH FTW! A final post and a question for you.

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.


As I hand off the magic wand of guest-posting on the last minute and second of my tenure here, there's one Boinger I want to thank in particular: Teresa Nielsen Hayden. I remember, early this decade, when bB turned comments off because the haters and random trolls were simply too much, and it is a testament to TNH and her folks that the comments are back on and as good as they are, at an audience scale several times what it was in those days.

TNH gets this medium like Gretsky, which is to say she skates to where the puck is going to be. You could see this with her invention of disemvoweling in 2002, which Time magazine flogged as a hot new (uncredited) idea in 2008. Oops. And, as has been Time's MO since Phil Elmer-Dewitt put bogus net-research on the cover with no consequences, Time won't update the story to reflect what TNH understood about the value of visible governance, half a dozen years ago. (Fck Tm mgzn, I say.) Because of all of that work on governance (not just disemvoweling), reading the comments has been a real pleasure.

So in honor of TNH, I'd like to try an experiment, making my last post here a question to you rather than a pointer elsewhere. Here's the question: what do you think you know about the future that few other people understand yet? What's going to happen in the next five years or so that will catch most of the rest of us by surprise, but not you? (And no fair faking the timestamp and predicting financial meltdown.)

Thanks to BoingBoing for letting me guestblog, and over to you in the comments...

Meetup's Dead Simple User Testing

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.


meetup_ux2.jpg

Every now and again, I see a business doing something so sensible and so radical at the same time that I realize I'm seeing a little piece of the future. I had that feeling last week, after visiting my friend Scott Heiferman at Meetup.

On my way out after a meeting, Scott pulled me into a room by the elevators, where a couple of product people were watching a live webcam feed of someone using Meetup. Said user was having a hard time figuring out a new feature, and the product people, riveted, were taking notes. It was the simplest setup I'd ever seen for user feedback, and I asked Scott how often they did that sort of thing. "Every day" came the reply.

Every day. That's not user testing as a task to be checked off on the way to launch. That's learning from users as a way of life.

Andres Glusman and Karina van Schaardenburg designed Meetup's set-up to be simple and cheap: no dedicated room, no two-way mirrors, just a webcam and a volunteer. This goal is to look for obvious improvements continuously, rather than running outsourced, large-N testing every eighteen months. As important, these tests turn into live task lists, not archived reports. As Glusman describes the goal, it's "Have people who build stuff watch others use the stuff they build."

Mark Hurst, the user experience expert, talks about Tesla -- "time elapsed since labs attended" -- a measure of how long it's been since a company's decision-makers (not help desk) last saw a real user dealing with their product or service. Measured in days, Meetup approaches a Tesla of 1.

Glusman and van Schaardenburg have also made it possible to take Jacob Nielsen's user-testing advice -- "Test with five users" -- and add "...every week." Obstacles to getting real feedback are now mainly cultural, not technological; any business that isn't learning from their users doesn't want to learn from their users.

On my way down after seeing the user test, the woman I'd seen on the screen got onto the elevator, and I mentioned I'd seen her trying the new interface. "Oh", she said, surprised. "I didn't realize anyone was actually paying attention to me."

Hurst: Time elapsed since labs attended | Nielsen: Why You Only Need to Test With 5 Users

Comfort with meaninglessness the key to good programmers

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.


programmer_test.png

It is famously difficult to teach people to program, and CS lore says that there are simply people who get it and people who don't. Saeed Dehnadi and Richard Bornat, two computer instructors at Middlesex University in the UK, put that idea to the test, and ended up not with two kinds of people, but three.

They devised a basic aptitude test for first year students of computer programming, and then administered it on the first day of class, before the students had learned anything. (One of them maintains this was a mistake, the other claims it was planned.) The result was an almost perfect correlation between the results of the test and the student's subsequent performance.

The test asked simple questions about assignments (example shown in the image above.) The group tested broke down into three camps: people who answered the questions using different mental models for different questions, people who answered using a consistent model, and people who didn't answer the questions at all:

Told that there were three groups and how they were distinguished, but not told their relative sizes, we have found that computer scientists and other programmers have almost all predicted that the blank group would be more successful in the course exam than the others: “they had the sense to refuse to answer questions which they couldn’t understand” is a typical explanation. Non-programming social scientists, mathematicians and historians, given the same information, almost all pick the inconsistent group: “they show intelligence by picking methods to suit the problem” is the sort of thing they say. Very few, so far, have predicted that the consistent group would be the most successful. Remarkably, it is the consistent group, and almost exclusively the consistent group, that is successful.

Interestingly, this correlation is unrelated to correctness -- being consistently wrong in your mental model of how a computer works is better than being inconsistently right, because if you are consistently wrong, you only have to learn one thing to start being consistently right.

Dehnadi and Bornat's thesis is that the single biggest predictor of likely aptitude for programming is a deep comfort with meaninglessness:

To write a computer program you have to come to terms with this, to accept that whatever you might want the program to mean, the machine will blindly follow its meaningless rules and come to some meaningless conclusion. In the test the consistent group showed a pre-acceptance of this fact: they are capable of seeing mathematical calculation problems in terms of rules, and can follow those rules wheresoever they may lead. The inconsistent group, on the other hand, looks for meaning where it is not. The blank group knows that it is looking at meaninglessness, and refuses to deal with it.

(It will be interesting to see how long it will be in the comments before someone chimes in with the snake oil of the industry: "But method X/language Y is so intuitive that it solves this problem!" Dehnadi and Bornat's literature review should be required reading for this group.)

Dehnadi and Bornat's programming aptitude research

UPDATE: In the comments, Greebo points to research trying and failing to replicate the salience of consistency as a predictor, in a paper suggesting that "...the consistent group may actually contain two distinct subgroups, one that does much better than the inconsistent group, and one that does much worse." That paper is also interesting for its engagement with the larger issue of replication of experiments involving humans, as they were not able to fully replicate the research (self-selecting group, not given on first day of class, etc...) and use those issues as a platform for illustrating the difficulties with this kind of research generally.

On the Difficulty of Replicating Human Subjects Studies in Software Engineering

Youngest Twitterer EVAR?

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.


Corey Menscher, an ITP student, has designed a kick sensor which monitors his pregnant wife's belly, and generates a fetal tweet whenever the baby kicks.

kickbee.png

Update: Corey explains the technical details of the project in this comment, with more details here.

KickBee on Twitter

Adaptive Design Ass'n: MAKE Magazine meets the AMA

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.


The Adaptive Design Association is an NYC non-profit that "works to ensure that children with disabilities get the customized equipment they need to participate fully in home, school, and community life." Lofty goal, but pricey, no? After all, regular equipment for disabilities is already expensive; how can customized equipment be in the reach of anyone but the rich? By constructing it out of cardboard.

Picture 19.png

The beauty of the Adaptive Design folks is that cardboard engineering lets them create work that is custom, playful, and cheap, and improves the quality of social life and autonomy, rather than just defending against medical harm. Pictured above is a before and after picture of a chair made for a child who can't sit on her own; she was in 3rd grade and it was the first time she could join her classmates in the cafeteria and sit properly.

Below is Hannah; Adaptive Design has created over two dozen pieces of equipment for her over a few years, because rapid prototyping with cardboard lets them move from a design regime of one-size-fits-all to one-size-fits-one, even for growing kids. And of course all of this is R&D for patterns that can be further adapted for other children.

Picture 18.png

They run training and workshops to help others adopt this kind of form-fit/rapid design/personal need approach to adaptive technology. They're also operating well outside the traditional reimbursement economy of the health care system, so they live on grants and donations--they're listed on JustGive.org, and run the whole thing on just $42K in administrative expenses a year.

Says my ITP colleague Marianne Petit, who first showed me this stuff "I know these items are so intensely low tech that you can't believe they don't exist or no one has created them, but, they don't exist. And in the case of most of the kids they work with, their needs are so completely individual there is no way for something to be pre-made - hence the fantastic-ness of working with cardboard."

Adaptive Design | Adaptive Design catalog | Adaptive Design on JustGive

S&P Returns and the Remarkable Case of 2008

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.


SP_from_1825.jpg

This is a graphic of the Standard and Poor's stock index's annual returns, placing every year since 1825 in a column of returns from -50% to +60%. As you can see, it is a rough bell curve, with 45 of those 185 years falling in the +0-10% column. There are only 5 years each in the 40-50% and 50-60% return columns, and, through 2007, there were only one year each in the -31-40% and -41-50% columns. You can see where 2008 to date falls.

(UPDATED: From DailyKos, via Greg Mankiw.)

The Newspaper Industry and the Arrival of the Glaciers

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.


In light of Sam Zell's Tribune newspaper empire filing for bankruptcy today, I was reminded of Ron Rosenbaum's piece beating up on Jeff Jarvis -- The Good Life of a New-Media Guru -- for being unfair to journalists who "have been caught up in this great upheaval" of the print business model. (The piece is sub-titled "Is Jeff Jarvis gloating too much about the death of print?") That in turn reminded me of something I'd written back in 1995 called Help, the Price of Information Has Fallen, and It Can't Get Up. It's not my best writing, but having just re-read it, there's not a conclusion I would change:

The price of information has not only gone into free fall in the last few years, it is still in free fall now, it will continue to fall long before it hits bottom, and when it does whole categories of currently lucrative businesses will be either transfigured unrecognizably or completely wiped out, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

and

Newspapers make an enormous proportion of their revenues on classified ads [...] however, this arrangement is something of a kludge, since the things being sold have a much more intricate relationship to geography than newspapers do.

You might drive three miles to buy used baby clothes, thirty for a used car and sixty for rare coins. Thus, in the economically ideal classified ad scheme, all sellers would use one single classified database nationwide, and then buyers would simply limit their searches by area. This would maximize the choice available to the buyers and the cost able to be commanded by the sellers. It would also destroy a huge source of newspapers revenue.

This is happening now.

I don't post this because I think I had some unique vision back then. In fact, I'd only arrived on the net in '93, a complete newbie, and most of my opinions about newspapers came from talking with Gordy Thompson of the NY Times and Brad Templeton of Clarinet. Instead, what struck me, re-reading my younger self, was this: a dozen years ago, a kid who'd only just had his brains blown via TCP/IP nevertheless understood that the newspaper business was screwed, not because this was a sophisticated conclusion, but because it was obvious.

Google, eBay, craigslist, none of those things existed when I wrote that piece; I was extrapolating from Lycos and it was still apparent what was going to happen. It didn't take much vision to figure out that unlimited perfect copyability, with global reach and at zero marginal cost, was slowly transforming the printing press into a latter-day steam engine.

And once that became obvious, we said so, over and over again, all the time. We said it in public, we said it in private. We said it when newspapers hired us as designers, we said it when we were brought in as consultants, we said it for free. We were some tiresome motherfuckers with all our talk about the end of news on paper. And you know what? The people who made their living from printing the news listened, and then decided not to believe us.

So I'm calling bullshit on the Rosenbaum thesis, because no one has been "caught up in this great upheaval." Caught up? That makes it sound like a tornado. This change has been more like seeing oncoming glaciers ten miles off, and then deciding not to move.

By the turn of the century, anyone who didn't understand that the business model for newspapers was a wasting asset was caught up in nothing other than willful ignorance, so secure in their faith in the permanence of their business that they assumed that those glaciers would politely swerve at the last minute, which minute is looking increasingly like now.

Tribune Co. Files for Bankrupcty Protection | The Good Life of a New-Media Guru | Help, the Price of Information Has Fallen, and It Can't Get Up

Video from the Presidential Campaign, Republican Division, #2

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.


Here's another video made during the 2008 Presidential election, from the Republican side of the house. Like Dear Mr. Obama (and like everything my fall class at ITP was concerned with), this wasn't made by political professionals. The "video" is in fact mainly audio -- a 4 minute radio clip overlaid with pull-quotes and editorializing, taken from a 2001 WBEZ interview with Obama, where he is discussing the inequalities of rights vs. inequalities of wealth:

If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court. I think where it succeeded was to invest formal rights in previously dispossessed people, so that now I would have the right to vote. I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order as long as I could pay for it I'd be o.k.

But, the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and of more basic issues such as political and economic justice in society. To that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasnt that radical. It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as its been interpreted and Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties.

This kind of material can sometimes be political gold ("The Warren Court wasn't radical enough!", "Breaking free of the Constitution!"), but this video, though it was seen a couple million times, didn't have that effect, in part because it didn't come out til the last week of October, when people's mind were already largely made up, and when other economic issues had become more pressing.

So why, since the material had been sitting there since 2001, did no one use it til a week before Election Day? No one found it. Search engines have made text search trivial, but audio and video are still hand-craft jobs.

Had some enterprising Republican found this in July, the McCain camp could have made use of it, possibly finding some way to make Obama respond. (That McCain would have lost anyway doesn't matter for future uses of the technique.) Seeing this, candidates starting exploratory committees for 2012 may try to harness partisan amateurs to find 'gotcha's in the increasingly large but hard-to-search audio and video archives coming online, through 'tag it and flag it' searches of an opponent's historical multimedia record.

Assume that every potential candidate for president has generated an average of 100 hours of audio or video a year to date; that to avoid wild goose chases, you want every minute listened to or looked at by ~5 different people; and that the average volunteer will review ~10 minutes of audio or video. With those constraints, a campaign would need something like 30,000 volunteers to cover every minute of a decade's worth of public speech, per opponent. (You can move the input numbers up and down some, but 10^4 users per decade of coverage seems like the right order of magnitude.)

These numbers are high, but not insuperable, and being able to swing this kind of distributed opposition research during the primaries may be an early show of strength. Howard Dean introduced the net as a fund raising tool, and Obama as a proselytizing and 'get out the vote' tool, but I think NakedEmperorNews has shown us the template for distributed opposition research and 'gotcha' political ads created off the candidate's books.

PS. Speculation bait for commenters: why do some videos generate almost all the traffic at a single YouTube version (e.g. Obama Girl) while others, such as this video, get reposted several different times to YouTube, even though the content is not altered? What makes one video have a canonical version and another not?

Obama Bombshell Redistribution of Wealth Audio Uncovered | Naked Emperor News | (Earlier: Video from the Presidential Campaign, Republican Division)

Facebook and the Social Dynamics of Privacy

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.


James Grimmelmann of New York Law School has written a terrific essay on privacy issues and social networks services entitled Facebook and the Social Dynamics of Privacy.

Grimmelmann is trying to do nothing less than re-shape our attitude towards privacy on social networks, building an erudite and extensively documented argument that our framing of privacy problems, and most of the solutions we have in mind, are bad fits for social networking services.

There are no ideal technical controls for the use of information in social software. The very idea is an oxymoron; “social” and “technical” are incompatible adjectives here. Adding “friendYouDontLike” to a controlled vocabulary will not make it socially complete; there’s still “friendYouDidntUsedToLike.” As long as there are social nuances that aren’t captured in the rules of the network (i.e., always), the network will be unable to prevent them from sparking privacy blowups. [...]

Another reason that comprehensive technical controls are ineffective can be found in Facebook’s other "core principle": that its users should "have access to the information others want to share." If you’re already sharing your information with Alice, checking the box that says “Don’t show to Bob” will stop Facebook from showing it Bob, but it won’t stop Alice from showing it to him. [...]

There’s also another way of looking at "information others want to share": If I want to share information about myself -- and since I’m using a social network site, it’s a moral certainty that I do -- anything that makes it harder for me to share is a bug, not a feature. Users will disable any feature that protects their privacy too much.

For me, the essential pair of insights in this paper are that a) our attitudes towards privacy are shaped by industrial norms -- the individual vs. the corporation or the state -- while on social networks, the most important class of privacy violations are in fact peer-to-peer and b) that these violations, when they happen, are a side-effect of the system doing what it is designed to do, which is to facilitate the spread of personal information.

The first challenge is re-shaping our sense of what a privacy violation means in the context of social network services, and the second is to accept that, since a full stemming of these violations is prima facie impossible, we need a new set of practices around minimizing them where possible and improving recovery from them where possible.

Because of the enormity of the head-shift required to think through peer-to-peer privacy risks, and because Grimmelmann has worked through the issues so carefully and thoroughly, I think this should be required reading for anyone thinking about privacy as it is actually lived.

Facebook and the Social Dynamics of Privacy

The price of oil in perspective

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.


As the price of oil has fallen from its dramatic highs of just a few months, ago, I often find myself thinking back to an essay by Yegor Gaidar, an economist and acting prime minister of Russia from 1991 to 1994. The essay, The Soviet Collapse, is subtitled "Grain and Oil" and tells the story of the end of the Soviet Union as the interaction of the price of those two goods.

The Soviet Collapse starts with the history of centrally-managed grain production, an unmitigated but slow-motion disaster, which they then proceeded to patch by importing grain with the budget surplus from rising oil prices, starting in the 1970s. That worked for a while, and then it stopped working.

The timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to September 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices, and Saudi Arabia quickly regained its share in the world market. During the next six months, oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed by approximately the same amount in real terms.

As a result, the Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive. The Soviet leadership was confronted with a difficult decision on how to adjust. [...] the Soviet leadership decided to adopt a policy of effectively disregarding the problem in hopes that it would somehow wither away. Instead of implementing actual reforms, the Soviet Union started to borrow money from abroad while its international credit rating was still strong. It borrowed heavily from 1985 to 1988, but in 1989 the Soviet economy stalled completely.

For an economics essay filled with price and output charts, it's a surprisingly gripping read. It's also a reminder of what's at stake now. Because oil consumption matters more than production to English-speaking countries, our press often covers the price of oil as a question of how often people drive to the mall. For countries like Russia, however, now as much as then, the price of oil has profound existential ramifications. Re-reading this, I got a picture of how geo-politically dramatic 2009 could turn out to be.

The Soviet Collapse: Grain and Oil

Video from the Presidential Campaign, Republican Division

My fall class at ITP has been tracking the creation and distribution of video produced by people other than political professionals, and I wanted to share some of the things they found here. The story of 'Obama <3s teh internet <3s Obama' has been told many times; less well appreciated is the effective Republican/Conservative use of video.

There is a certain (inevitable/dangerous) triumphalism in the Democratic win, because losers always take better lessons from the battlefield than winners. (It's hard to remember now, but before the 2004 election, much the political conversation was around describing the dominance of the warbloggers.)

Looking at Republican uses of video that my students analyzed was quite instructive in this light, because a) those strategies weren't just weak mirrors of the Democratic camp, they were strong but different ones and b) these strategies are going to become much stronger in 2010 and then again in 2012. I'll point to a few of these examples while I'm guest blogging.

First up, and my vote for the single most affecting video of the election, is Dear Mr. Obama, above. I am an anti-Iraq-war Democrat, and it nevertheless brought tears to my eyes (and I don't cry easy -- will.i.am's Yes We Can left me fairly cold.) Watch it all the way through, or, if you can't, skip to the end before you close it.

This is a video made by people who knew exactly what they were doing. Stuff like the American flag draped just in frame looks hokey to the godless/ sodomite/ baby-killing wing of the Democratic party (my people), but is part of a "plain speaking and right thinking" package that clearly hit just right with the target audience. It was seen 13 million times in 3 months, which topped Obama Girl in absolute views, and I've got a Crush...on Obama was up a year and a half.

This is why this video is really really important: the simple message and Blair Witch production values (good enough to be effective, bad enough to seem unplanned) made this video like Democratic kryptonite. The video was largely circulated via homophilous forwarding along conservative channels. Despite the incredible viewership, I'm betting that the ratio of BoingBoing readers who have seen Obama Girl to those who've seen Dear Mr. Obama is at least 10:1. (When my students presented it to ~100 NYU students on election eve, something like 3 of them had seen it.)

The lovely non-partisan view of voting -- make your case to everyone, see what happens on election day -- masks the fact that there are really three different voter games being played in elections. The first is 'Mobilize the base' -- at ~50% voter participation, there's a lot of juice in just being able to get people who want you to win out to actually get to the polls. The second game is 'Swing the undecided.' There is, to a first approximation, no such thing as an 'independent' voter. People who don't make up their minds until late in an election are less political, less involved in the issues, and less likely to vote overall than partisans, so their minds have to be changed with something emotionally engaging. And the third game is 'Depress the turnout of your opponent' or, at the very least, to avoid enraging them to the point that they are willing to do something rash, like vote.

And in that regard, Dear Mr. Obama was a trifecta. For the base, a muscular but polite attack on the very issue that brought Obama into the spotlight. For the undecided, the emotional charge is much likelier to sway them than argumentation. And for the Dems -- nothing. The video might as well not have existed for all it was seen in Democratic circles. Since the video's sole speaker can't be criticized without making the criticizer look churlish at best, almost no Dems forwarded it, linked to it, talked about it.

For most of the life of the Republic, it was not just possible but imperative to say different things in different places -- what politician would tell auto workers and orange pickers the same thing! That old world had a stake driven through its heart by the Macaca Moment; every politician knows that anything they say to anyone, they say to everyone everywhere.

Now, the job of saying one thing to one group, and something different to another, falls to the supporters. The social solidarity of weblogs and mailing lists replaces the old world of media buys and Chamber of Commerce speeches, recreating through the echo chamber what was once the province of geography and cost. Dear Mr. Obama was music to Republican ears while being inert in Democratic hands; expect it to be a template for 2010.

Jeff Smith's comic RASL



Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.


One day, back when I was 17 and a Zep-head, my girlfriend popped a tape into the car dash, and this sound came out. It was my first time hearing the Violent Femmes, and their songs were everything that Led Zeppelin's had stopped being -- simple, direct, urgent, short. I was reminded of that moment when I came across Jeff "Bone" Smith's new comic RASL.

In the year of "Watchmen: The Movie", it's great to see something this simple. It's a cat-and-mouse story whose protagonist is an art thief with a getaway device that is part teleporter, part subtle knife, being pursued across various universes by a lizard-like human with a gun but not, so far, very good aim.

The back story would fit on an index card, there is about as much sub-plot as there is vermouth in a martini, and the graphic style looks like something you'd draw on a napkin, if you were really good at drawing on napkins. (The gun, for further old skool cred, even goes "Pow Pow Pow".)

It's a black and white rendering of a very 'shades of gray' world; by my count, every character but one is deeply morally compromised, and the one exception suffers because of it. It's also written and drawn by the same person, and an issue costs less than a Grande Frappuccino (there are three out so far; the next one is in Spring 09). In an era when creating a graphic novel can occupy a staff the size of a B1 bomber crew, its great to see a single person trying to tell a simple story well.

Smith's Site | RASL on Heavy Ink

Clay Shirky Boing Boing Guestblog posts:

* Video from the Presidential Campaign, Republican Division
* Jeff Smith's comic RASL
* Publish Without Perishing
* Here Comes Clay Shirky (The Changing of the Guestbloggers)