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. Read the rest

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. Read the rest

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.

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. Read the rest

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.

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.
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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.

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

KickBee on Twitter Read the rest

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.

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.

They run training and workshops to help others adopt this kind of form-fit/rapid design/personal need approach to adaptive technology. Read the rest

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.

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.) Read the rest

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.

Read the rest

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.

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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.

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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.

Read the rest

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 Read the rest

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). Read the rest