Posts about publicness

What should Google do?

Twitter was abuzz last night with links to the David Segal’s amazing NYTimes yarn of a bad internet actor who says he uses — and eggs on — customer complaints to get more links and mentions online, thus more Googlejuice, thus more business.

The Times didn’t go the next step to ask what Google should do about this. And Google didn’t help itself by dispatching only an unnamed spokesperson who then, Segal complains, didn’t send a followup email. Google would have been much wiser to have hooked Segal up with Matt Cutts, the company’s wizard in the game of bad-guy whack-a-mole, to discuss the options and implications.

It’s not as simple as it seems, for Google and its algorithms are now a set of laws of the web and if you intervene in one way, you may trigger the law of unintended consequences in another.

What if Google sensed the positive or negative sentiment in links and used that to guide its placement in search, as some suggested? Makes sense in the case of bad-guy Borker and his virtual eyeglass store. But as someone pointed out on Twitter last night, if Google did let sentiment affect rank, then what would it do with the negative links regarding Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, to Islam or GM? How would you write that law, remembering that the code is the law?

What if instead Google intervened in a case such as this and, seeing all the complaints, manually downgraded the guy in search? The first problem with that is scale: how do you find and investigate all the bad guys? The bigger problem is whether we want Google to be the cop of the world. Google has been sued by companies it decreed were link-bating spammer sites, downgrading them in search, while the sites said they were legitimate directories. This is the one case in which Google holds the power of God in a market and it’s a dangerous position to be in.

I have suggested before that Google should set up a jury of peers to adjudicate such cases. I didn’t use the verb “crowdsource,” for crowds can be gamed, as Mr. Borker amply demonstrates. But a trusted (cue Craig Newmark) jury could give Google distance from the decision. I say peers — fellow business people — because in cases such as this, their interests and those of Google and us, the users, are aligned: We don’t want bad guys to game search. Google, especially, wants to — in Cutts’ words — find more signals of quality and originality so its results are of higher quality and relevance.

What I’m really saying is that as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other private players come to be the law of the land on the internet, they need to start acting like public players with Constitutions and Bills of Rights and the means of enforcement and adjudication with due process. I’ll be exploring this notion in Public Parts.

In the end, Segal’s story looks like a failure of search, Google, and the internet. The internet made it possible for a bad guy to win. Well, so does Wall Street.

But I don’t think this was Google’s failure (cue fan-boy accusations). The moral of the story should be that if you search Google for the name of Borker’s company, you see plenty of loud complaints in the results. The internet doesn’t nullify the First Law of Commerce: caveat emptor. When I had my now-legendary problems with Dell, I kicked myself for not doing a search of “dell sucks” before buying my computer. That’s my responsibility as a shopper. And, as I pointed out at the time, Google would have given me the information I needed. Ditto for the lady in Segal’s story. If I think of buying from a new vendor, I’ve learned my lesson: I search Google first because fellow customers, using Google, will help protect me.

That is the lesson The Times should have given its readers: Use Google to guard against those who would use Google.

P.S. In fairness to Dell, I should add that we made up and it became a leader in social media. I figure everybody who comes here knows how that story ended, but in case not….

: UPDATE: Google responded to the story and the problem; here’s the blog post explaining. The NYT does a followup, the last graph of which kind of deflates the entire story and its premise that being bad is good for business:

At the blog Search Engine Land, Byrne Hobart also wrote in a recent posting that the review-generating strategy was not the driver of Mr. Borker’s success. His analysis found that Mr. Borker benefited chiefly from various “black-hat tricks” to improve his site’s standing, including links from what he called auto-generated spam pages. He also found that the store was frequently linked to by mainstream media sites — The Times included — when references were made to high-end eyeglasses.

Who says our way is the right way?

As I sit on the board of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, I have been thinking about the different ways people learn. RFB&D gives students the tools to learn by listening. We call that a disability. I think it may soon be seen as an advantage.

A group of Danish academics say we are passing through the other side of what they wonderfully call the Gutenberg Parenthesis, leaving the structured, serial, permanent, authored, controlled era of text and returning, perhaps, to what came before the press: a time when communication and content cross, when process dominates product, when knowledge is distributed by people passing it around, when we remix it along the way, when we are more oral and aural.

That’s what makes me think that RFB&D’s clients may end up with a leg up. They understand better than the textually oriented among us how to learn through hearing. Rather than being seen as the people who need extra help, perhaps they will be in the position to give the rest of us help.

And I thought that as I read Matt Richtel’s piece in the New York Times today: Growing up digital, wired for distraction. It starts off lamenting that a student got only 43 pages through Cat’s Cradle. But as @HowardOwens responded on Twitter: “Gee, a 17-year-old only gets 43 pages into his summer reading assignment. Like, that’s never happened before.”

Richtel and the experts he calls blame technology, of course, for shortening our attention spans, just as Nick Carr and Andrew Keen do, lamenting the change. But the assumption they all make is that the way we used to do it is the right way. What if, as I said in Short Attention Span Theater (aka Twitter), we’re evolving:

“Maybe the issue isn’t that we’re too distracted to read but that reading can finally catch up with how our brains really work.”

Richtel, to his credit, focuses at the end of his piece on a distracted student who can, indeed, focus — not on the books he’s assigned but on the video he’s making. Maybe that’s because he’s creating. Maybe it’s because he’s working with tools that give him feedback. Maybe it’s because he is communicating with an audience.

I spend time on this topic in my next book, Public Parts (when I can concentrate on writing it — that is, when I’m not blogging and tweeting as I am right now): Technology brings change; change brings fear and retrenchment. Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein reminds us that for 50 years after the invention of the press, we continued to put old wine in this new cask, replicating scribal fonts, content, and models. That’s what’s happening now: We are trying to fit our old world into the new one that is emerging. We’re assuming the old way is the right way.

Mind you, one of the joys of writing this book is that I’ve had cause to start reading books again. I’ll confess I’d fallen off the shelf.

Now I’m enjoying reading books as part of the process of creating, sharing, communicating. I’m learning not just by reading and absorbing but by rethinking and remixing. And I’m thinking the result of my next project after this one may not be a book but something else — a talk, for example; a book may be a byproduct rather than the goal.

So is this new generation distracted or advanced? How can they best learn? How can they teach? What tools can we use today besides books? What new opportunities do all their tools present? That’s what educators should be asking. That’s the discussion I’d like to see The Times start.

: @SivaVaid(hyanathan) just said on Twitter: “There are no wires in the human mind. So it can’t be ‘rewired’ Get a grip.” Right. What can be rewired are media and education and that’s what we’re seeing happen — or what we should be seeing happen.

The kids are all right

Yesterday, I held a session on privacy and publicness as part of a news literacy event held at Baruch’s journalism school, intending to exploit these young people by interviewing them — rather than lecturing them — for my book on publicness and privacy. I came away greatly heartened about the wisdom and savvy of the NYC teens I heard from there.

I started the day, though, depressed as GMA weekend anchor Ron Claiborne delivered a propagandistic defense of all things professional, closed, and corporate in journalism and an attack on this internet thing. “When was the last time you saw a correction on a blog?” he demanded. I muttered, “fuck me,” and then had to remind myself of the company I was in. So I muttered on Twitter that I’ve seen countless corrections on blogs since I last saw one on network news. Claiborne was telling the internet to get off these kids’ lawns. I got grumpy. My mood didn’t improve when nobody showed up for my first of two sessions. “Well,” I joked with fellow faculty, “they say kids today don’t care about privacy today. I guess this is the proof.”

But in my second session, the room filled with three or four dozen young people (and a few teachers) and I began interviewing them. Boy, was I impressed. Random notes….

No one in the room uses MySpace. They scrunch their collective noses at the name. Not so very long ago, MySpace was said to be the service for young people, particularly urban young people. Well, no more. Rupert’s Folly has fallen off a cliff. It’s clear this is why he’s giving it two quarters to climb back up or he’s setting it adrift.

Almost none of them uses Twitter. They say it lacks context; it is too fast and fleeting; and they don’t care about much of what they read there (which makes sense when your friends aren’t there). When I tweeted that, the NYTimes’ @zimbalist asked why. I think it’s because they’re not publishers (yet). They’re connecting. Whether this is a matter of the the age or their age, I have no way to know; we’ll have to wait to see the impact on Twitter when they grow older.

But I’ve seen this elsewhere. This summer, as my son and I drove up to Facebook’s headquarters to interview Mark Zuckerberg for the book, Jake said he thought Facebook had invented something entirely new in the Wall. Its inventor disagreed; Mark said people always have, in his word, signalled. But I side with Jake. On his Wall (when I’m permitted in) I see him and his friends holding conversations there, in the open, as if in the hall at school. They use the Wall as a place to communicate. I see the Wall — as I think others my age do — as a place to publish or broadcast; we instinctively see it as media. So Twitter fits our reflex; Facebook theirs. But I think the young people are making use of the internet that is truer to its nature: It is not a medium but is a connector.

All the students post photos to Facebook; many post videos there; a few had posted videos to YouTube — interesting that so few do, because some of them come from a school for the performing arts. One young woman says she was going to take down her account because her videos are dumb and pointless, in her view: just her talking. One young man had just put up some impressions and he enjoys the idea of having a public there. Will we see more of that; is it their ambition to make media and audiences? Again, time will tell. I’ll bet we will as they find their public voices.

Every student in the room uses Facebook. They confess to being on it for hours at a time — three or more a day. My son’s was in the first class able to use Facebook in high school four-plus years ago. I thought it might seep down to middle school. So far, not so much. These students say they started using it in high school. I’ll confess relief. I found it fascinating that a few of the students with younger siblings were quite protective of them and did not approve of a 9-year-old using Twitter.

To a young man and woman, the people in this room confirm what I’ve learned from danah boyd: that young people do care about their privacy; that they do protect it; but also that they have to learn this. As danah says — countering Murdoch, btw — young people are not “digital natives” who are born with TOS in their DNA.

These students are very aware that what they tell a few friends on Facebook could end up anywhere, seen also by people they do not know. They post with that fully in mind. Backing up what danah says, many of them seemed to have been burned once and taught the lesson. The biggest challenge to privacy, then, is not so much Facebook or the internet but blabby, gossipy friends. Ever thus.

They are also aware that their parents and other adults are watching. Even if your parents aren’t your “friends” someone else’s may see what you write on their Wall. So they’re careful. Nonetheless they decry classmates doing stupid things (though they also know that folks often exaggerate on Facebook). Like what? Like showing themselves drinking. What could come of this? They could get caught.

Or there’s the college admissions problem. For these kids — bright, active, and mostly college-bound — that’s an issue. I ask whether they think that college admissions officers — and later, employers — should not be allowed to look at their Facebook presences. Surprisingly, none of them seem to object as a matter of principle and right. To them, it seems to make sense to check someone out online.

Almost all these students have changed their privacy settings, restricting their Walls, photos, birthdays, or contact information — even though, again, they know that anything could be repeated. They seem very much in control and like that control. They have other means of control as well: I ask whether they speak in code that they understand and parents don’t; they all laughed and nodded.

Is there, as media would lead us to believe, a sudden explosion of bullying? No, they tell me, there’ve always been bullies; it’s probably just easier to see them now. A teacher complained that fights get bigger crowds because students tweet the location and a mob gathers. “It doesn’t go down like that,” one of her students tells her. “There’s no texting.” Crowds gather the way they always have.

These students are not slavish fans of Facebook. One student argues that Facebook dilutes friendship; he says he doesn’t use it to communicate with his close (real) friends. Another says she unfriends people with some regularity because in reality friendships do change. A few others say they did discover new friends through Facebook. They all expect to use Facebook to stay in touch after they graduate. The point, says one: “Different people have different reasons to be on Facebook.” Some use it to connect with others; some use it just for fun. Which are you? I ask him. A bit of both, he says.

At the end, I ask what I’d missed and one student wants to be sure that I knew about the benefits of using Facebook and the publicness it brings. Oh, yes, I do, I assure her.

Germany, what have you done?

Street View is online in Germany and it includes — or rather, excludes — 244,000 addresses that Germans have demanded be pixelated. They have, in their word, demanded their Verpixelungsrecht.

It is more offensive than I had imagined, a desecration of the public demanded and abetted by German politicians and media on a supposed privacy frenzy.

See this building on Hugo-von-Königsegg-Straße in Oberstaufen, Germany.

Screen shot 2010-11-02 at 8.03.01 AM

Ugly, isn’t it? As someone in the audience said when I spoke on the topic at a meeting of the Green party in Berlin a few weeks ago, it is as if they are digitally bombing the German landscape.

Now you can drive to Oberstaufen and stand across the street — between the Edele bookstore and Dr. Fassnacht’s building — and look at the building all you want because you would be exercising your right to be in public. But not online, not in the land of Deutschnet, you can’t. Germany has now diminished the public. It has stolen from the public.

This is not a matter of privacy. And don’t tell me it has a damned thing to do with the Nazis and Stasi; that’s patently absurd. If anything, the Stasi would have exercised their Verpixelungsrecht to obscure their buildings from public view, taking advantage of the cloak of secrecy the idea provides. That’s the danger of this.

This is an issue of publicness. These are public visions now obscured. This is why I am writing a book about protecting the public, from assaults such as this. I can’t write it fast enough.

MORE: Here’s Der Spiegel (in German) under the headline: So Google pixelates the Republic. Don’t blame Google, folks, blame yourselves. It notes that the mayor of Oberstaufen, however, welcomed Street View. With a cake.

: UND AUF DEUTSCH: Zeit Online translated a version of this post — a message to Germany — into German, guaranteeing that the next time I visit Germany, I’ll get hit over the head with a mass of cameras. If you care, I’ve pasted the English original after the break.

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To rally, perchance to dream

I had many reactions to Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity — all good. These thoughts were stored up like nuts in a squirrel’s cheeks during the rally as AT&T couldn’t cope with so much sanity, and so I tweeted them in a flurry afterwards and will expand on them here.

Rally for sanity

Stewart’s close was pitch-perfect, presenting optimism, perspective, honesty, and humor in exact proportion.

He brilliantly separated himself from media, politics, and government, setting him closer to us, the people. In other circumstances, that might sound like a populist’s positioning: Stewart as Evita (don’t laugh for me, New Jersey). But that’s why the apolitical nature of the event matters: He wasn’t selling an agenda or buying power. He was leading and inspiring. He was recognizing and supporting the best in us.

Stewart was raising a standard for how our alleged leaders should respect us so we could respect them in return. “Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false,” he said. Stewart was doing nothing less than resetting the relationship of the powerful to the public. He was re-empowering us. His speech and his event were profoundly democratic. Not Democratic or Democrat—democratic.

Media took most of his barbs and for good reason. I must confess that I came away feeling a bit ashamed to be a member of the media and journalism tribe (even as I played hooky from the Online News Association’s annual and newly exuberant confab uptown). Stewart and Colbert rightfully castigated us. Oh, yes, they aimed mostly at cable news. “The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems but its existence makes solving them that much harder,” Stewart said.

But the rest of us in the news business are not blameless. We, too, monetize fright. We are evil coaches on grade school playgrounds, making sides and then pitting them against each other. When we in the press included TV and cable news people in our journalistic club and rejected bloggers and citizens, we legitimized them. When we don’t repudiate their ways, we excuse them. Shame on all of us.

The coverage of the rally I’ve seen so far tends toward the dismissive, as does its play on the home pages of The New York Times and Washington Post. “Nonpartisan bits, musical entertainment and gentle ribbing of the purported enemies of incivility,” is the Post’s view of it. Cute. Unimportant. A trifle. Pay no heed to its criticism of us; it’s just a joke, after all. Ex-Postie Howie Kurtz was surprised at the size of the event. He underestimated. I didn’t. He called it “shtick” and “weak” at that. His was an entertainment review. That’s how The Times saw it, as “part circus, part satire, part holiday parade.” You know how those kids love a parade with clowns, yet.

Well, judged as entertainment, Kurtz isn’t entirely wrong. Except it wasn’t entertainment. The event used entertainment to be something else, to make a different point. At least The Times’ wunderkind, Brian Stelter, got a blogging chance to call it what it was: media criticism. But sadly, the media don’t even realize they were being criticized, not really.

There was so much about the day that was so encouraging.

It was indeed wonderful and hopeful to hear Cat Stevens/Yusef/Joseph/Joe sing Peace Train. On Twitter, @msbellows said its humor advanced the cause of Muslim moderation 20 years.

It was equally wonderful to hear Stewart thank the un-tolled masses for massing. “Sanity,” he said, “will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine. Thank you.” On Twitter, I observed that these people came not for a show but for (a) reason. (Stelter, by the way, agreed.)

I was most heartened — overjoyed, really — by the fact that I shared this day with so many people my own age and just as many my son’s age. I was lucky that he happened to have taken the weekend away from college and could come with me, along with a high-school friend of his. I was crammed in in front of them. To my left were more young people. To my right and ahead were people my age who understood what a big deal it was for Cat Stevens/Yusef/Joseph/Joe to return to a musical stage — and share it was Ozzy friggin’ Osborne (which made it worth the frustration of hearing Peace Train interrupted after all these years).

My son’s friend, Ben, said he’d never been to a rally before. Emily Bell tweeted that she used the opportunity to introduce her newly arrived sons to the idea of rallies and had some trouble explaining to her 6-year-old the reason for them.

No, this wasn’t their Woodstock 2.0. It was just a rally. In my youth, in our fabled ’60s, we had them all the time because we had cause and because we believed we could — must — change government and society. That was change we could believe in. Now Stewart has given us reason again to come together, to set new standards, to expect real change, to celebrate democracy (not government), to communicate (around media) — in short, and in every sense of the word, to rally.

Rally for Sanity

: Oh, and I almost forgot: I was also delighted to see NPR and other haughty temples of journalism get shit from Stephen Colbert for forbidding their employees unless assigned from attending the rally. As son Jake said afterwards, it was an insult to the people at that rally. What, do we have cooties on us? Damn it, every one of the journalists on those staffs could have learned a great deal today. But they weren’t allowed to. Because that’s not officially journalistic. Well, once again, Jon Stewart proved to be closer to the public than the journalists charged with serving them. That’s why we trust him and not you, media people. He’s not afraid to get a little of us on him.

: The morning after: The Rally to Restore Sanity was about media, but media didn’t hear. The New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, MSNBC, and, of course, Fox News all played it down on their home pages; the Guardian and Die Zeit Online played it bigger.

Big Brother’s Big Brother

Here are paragraphs about Wikileaks I just inserted into the chapter of Public Parts that I happen to be writing right now about government. Very much beta. Take a look:

* * *

Wikileaks has pushed the definition and question of transparency to its limit and beyond, releasing hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through media organizations including the Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and OWNI, a French site devoted to digital journalism that built a crowdsourcing tool so readers could cull through the docs to find important bits. The U.S. government screeched indignantly about the leaks, calling them illegal and dangerous. But then, the leaks revealed government actions that are or should be illegal. Who holds the higher ground?

The media organizations Wikileaks worked through said they redacted names and published only documents that would not endanger individuals. So they decided, in the end, what would be secret. Whom do we trust more to make that declaration: government, the leaker, Wikileaks, or the press? And does it much matter now that any whistleblower has the power to leak information anonymously via computers that run in countries beyond the arm of the law from other countries? Wikileaks’ Twitter profile lists its location as “everywhere.” Now nothing, not even war, can be carried out in assured secrecy.

The only solution to leaks is then not more secrecy but more transparency. If we trusted government to determine what needed to be secret—if its default were public and it had nothing else to hide but things that would be harmful if public—then leaks would be a clear violation of our norms and of the common good.

One way or another—by force of through sanity—we are at the dawn of the transparent age. But it’s not going to be a pretty or easy transition. For the first facts to be dragged into the sunlight will be the ugly ones that somebody thinks need to be exposed. Only when and if government realizes that its best defense is openness will we see transparency as a good in itself and not just a weapon to expose the bad. Only when governments realize that their citizens can now watch them—better than they can watch their citizens, we hope—will we see transparency bring deterrence to bad actors and bad acts. Then we become Big Brother’s Big Brother. Or we can hope.

A taxonomy of transparency

I’m writing the section of Public Parts on truly public government — transparency leading to collaboration. I am trying to come up with a simple taxonomy of transparency, a list of what should be open by default. Help me with my definition and list of buckets:

* * *

The first step to public government is transparency. My definition: opening up the information and the actions of government at every level by default in a way that enables any citizen to take, analyze, and use that data, extracting or adding value to it and overseeing the actions of those who act in our name, with our money. That data should include:
• Our laws and regulations—as they are being considered and after they are enacted, showing who did what to each along the way.
• Government budgets and spending, including information on who is paid.
• Government’s actions. I want to see crimes, complaints, actions, conferences and other events, even useful correspondence.
• Government information of every sort. The New Republic says making weather data public “produces more than $800 million in economic value.” Global positioning data enabled the creation of now-indispensible smart phones and navigation systems. Agricultural data saves and makes money on farms. If the government knows it, we should know it.
In What Would Google Do? I joked—well, half-joked—that the Freedom of Information Act should be repealed and turned inside out so that we no longer have to ask government to open up our information; government must ask our permission to keep it from us—especially now that technology gives us the tools to make use of it. There are a legitimate reasons not to release data: because it reveals personally identifiable information about citizens (e.g., your tax bill—though, again, that’s published in Scandinavia) or it compromises security or criminal investigations. Other than that, our information is ours and so we need access to it. In our developing information economy, this data has real and growing value. So cough it up.

* * *

Of course, the discussion is all the more timely thanks to Wikileaks’ latest deluge of once-secret data. The further question is how anything can be held in secret and what the appropriate line is for secrets. In the midst of the last Wikileaks disclosure, I suggested that the only cure for leaks is transparency: when the public trusts that a secret is secret for good reason, then revealing it is more clearly a violation of norms and the common good. But when most government actions and information are held from us, then exposing them is more just but will bring the collateral damage of also exposing things that should properly be held in secret. Whom do we trust with that judgment? The government? Wikileaks? The Guardian and Times? That’s what is being wrestled down right now.

In any case, I’d appreciate any help with the organization of thinking around what’s properly public and not. Thanks.

Books as makers of publics

Here’s my talk to the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in Frankfurt before the Book Fair there, in which I argue that books are tools for making publics and now that we all have presses publishers must ask how they can play a role in helping us make publics — and how they can protect our tools of publicness.

I’m having trouble setting the width of the player, so go to the “more” link and you can watch the videos.
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