Posts about twitter

The responsibilities and opportunities of the platform

Technology companies and news organizations have a lot to learn from each other about the responsibilities of running platforms.

I have been arguing that news organizations should reimagine and rebuild themselves as platforms for their communities, enabling people to share what they know and adding journalistic value to that. As such, they should study technology companies.

But technology companies also need to learn lessons from news organizations about the perils of violating trust and the need to establish principles to work by. That, of course, is a topic of conversation these days thanks to Twitter’s favoring a sponsor when it killed journalist Guy Adams’ account (later reinstated under pressure) and its abandonment of the developers who made Twitter what it is today.

One question that hangs over this discussion is advertising and whether it is possible to maintain trust when taking sponsors’ dollars — see efforts to start app.net as a user-supported Twitter; see Seth Godin suggesting just that; see, also, discussion about ad-supported NBC ill-serving Olympics fans vs. the viewer-support BBC super-serving them. I have not given up on advertising support because we can’t afford do; without it, my business, news, would implode and we’d all end up with less and more expensive media and services. So we’d better hope companies getting advertiser support learn how to maintain their integrity.

In the discussion on Twitter about Twitter’s failings in the Adams affair, Anil Dash suggested drafting the policy Twitter should adapt. Even I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. But I would like to see a discussion — not just for technology companies but also for media companies and governments and universities of institutions in many shapes — of the responsibilities that come with providing a platform.

For the opportunities and benefits of building that platform are many: Your users will distribute you. Developers will build and improve you. You can reach critical mass quickly and inexpensively. As vertically integrated firms are replaced by ecosystems — platforms, entrepreneurial endeavors, and networks — huge value falls to the platforms. It’s worthwhile being a platform.

But if you lose trust, you lose users, and you lose everything. So that leads to a first principle:

Users come first. A platform without users is nothing. That is why was wrong for Twitter to put a sponsor ahead of users. That is why Twitter is right to fight efforts to hand over data about users to government. That is why newspapers built church/state walls to try to protect their integrity against accusations of sponsor influence. That is why Yahoo was wrong to hand over an email user to Chinese authorities; who in China would ever use it again? Screw your users, screw yourself.

I believe the true mark of a platform is that users take it over and use it in ways the creators never imagined. Twitter didn’t know it would become a platform for communication and news. Craigslist wasn’t designed for disaster relief. That leads to another principle:

A platform is defined by its users. In other words: Hand over control to your users. Give them power. Design in flexibility. That’s not easy for companies to do.

But, of course, it’s not just users who make a platform what it is. It’s developers and other collaborators. In the case of Twitter, developers created the applications that let us use it on our phones and desktops — until Twitter decided it would rather control that. If I were a developer [oh, if only] I’d be gun-shy about building atop such a platform now. Similarly, if a news organization becomes a platform for its community to share information and for others to build atop it, then it has to keep in sight their interests and protect them. So:

Platforms collaborate. Platforms have APIs. They reveal the keys to the kingdom so others can work with them and atop them. Are they open-source? Not necessarily. Though making its underlying platform open is what made WordPress such a success.

In the discussion about Adams and Twitter, some said that Twitter is a business and thus cannot be a platform for free speech. I disagree. It is a platform for speech. And if that speech is not free, then it’s no platform at all. Speech is its business.

When a platform is a business, it becomes all the more important for it to subscribe to principles so it can be relied upon. Of course, the platform needs to make money. It needs to control certain aspects of its product and business. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But if it keeps shifting that business so users and collaborators feel at risk, then in the long-run, it won’t work as a business.

Platforms need principles.

All this can, of course, be summed up in a single, simple principle: Don’t be evil. That’s why Google has that principle: because it’s good business; because if it is evil, it’s users — we — can call it out quickly and loudly and desert it. As Umair Haque says, when your users can talk about you, the cost of doing evil rises.

There are other behaviors of platforms that aren’t so much principles as virtues.

A good platform is transparent. Black boxes breed distrust.

A good platform enables portability. Knowing I can take my stuff and leave reduces the risk of staying.

A good platform is reliable. Oh, that.

What else?

#twitterfail ethics & economics

Update 415p EST: Twitter reinstated Guy Adams account and sent him essentially a form letter and then Twitter’s general counsel, Alex Macgillivray (@amac) wrote a post that did apologize and did discuss the need for trust but still leads to the impression that Adams violated Twitter’s terms of service, which I do not believe happened (he revealed a *public* address; he was not given the opportunity to act on the complaint). It also makes a rather quisling argument that business emails could have personal use; if that’s the case, then Twitter’s policy would forbid the sharing of all email addresses, which would be silly.

In this paragraph, Macgillevray points to precisely where the church/state line I refer to in the post below should be drawn:

That said, we want to apologize for the part of this story that we did mess up. The team working closely with NBC around our Olympics partnership did proactively identify a Tweet that was in violation of the Twitter Rules and encouraged them to file a support ticket with our Trust and Safety team to report the violation, as has now been reported publicly. Our Trust and Safety team did not know that part of the story and acted on the report as they would any other.

So the commercial team working with a business partner acted on behalf of that partner’s interests rather than in the interests of the users and in the interests of Twitter as an open, reliable, and trustworthy platform.

#twitterfail.

I am glad that Twitter recanted and reinstated Adams. But the discussion has not gone far enough. What Macgillevray apologizes for is Twitter employees actively monitoring a user’s content rather than waiting for a complaint. That’s too limited a scope. We still need to discuss the principles under which a platform operates and the trust it requires.

My earlier post:

* * *

Twitter is going to have to learn the lesson that newspapers had to learn when they started accepting advertising: that when trust is your asset, you must run your service and your business according to principles of trust. Newspapers built church/state walls to demonstrate that they could not be bought by sponsors’ influence. Twitter needs that wall. Every tech company fancying itself a platform does. Or it can’t be trusted and won’t be used and will lose value. Those are the economics of trust.

Twitter’s killing of a journalist’s account threatens to be a defining moment for the company, as Dan Gillmor warned. The details are nearly meaningless. Independent writer Guy Adams was very critical of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics (as I have been and many have been, using #nbcfail as our gathering place and megaphone). Adams published the corporate email address of NBC Olympics chief Gary Zenkel and then Twitter killed his account. But the email address was hardly private — it had been published online and follows NBC format: first.last@nbcuni.com. Adams was not informed of the complaint and given the opportunity to delete the tweet, as Twitter’s rules require. Indeed, Adams found out that Twitter initiated the complaint, not NBC. And what’s the harm, really, to NBC: that its viewers can talk to them? NBC should welcome that. And the furor certainly spread Zenkel’s email far wider than any tweet.

No, the real issue here is that Twitter entered a business deal with NBC and its parent, Comcast, for the Olympics. That, in Adams’ word, puts NBC and Twitter in cahoots with each other. So now do other users have to worry about biting the hand that feeds Twitter?

I asked Twitter repeatedly for what it has to say about this and held off writing this post until I gave up on getting a response. I still hold hope that Twitter will come to its senses, recant, restore Adams’ account, apologize, and learn a lesson.

For this incident itself is trivial, the fight frivolous. What difference does it make to the world if we complain about NBC’s tape delays and commentators’ ignorance?

But Twitter is more than that. It is a platform. It is a platform that has been used by revolutionaries to communicate and coordinate and conspire and change the world. It is a platform that is used by journalists to learn and spread the news. If it is a platform it should be used by anyone for any purpose, none prescribed or prohibited by Twitter. That is the definition of a platform.

In political matters, Twitter has behaved honorably. It famously delayed a maintenance shutdown so as not to cut off communication at a crucial moment in the Arab Spring. It has fought government subpoenas to get information on tweeters in protests and regarding Wikileaks.

But now in business matters, it acts in a suspect manner and that is worrying for Twitter and moreso for its users.

Twitter needs to decide on, declare, and live by principles. I believe it needs to prove to us that it is not beholden to sponsors any more than it is to governments. It must fight for our trust or it will lose its value to us (and its shareholders). This is why Google was wise to decree that it should not be evil. It is a good business decision.

Now I fully understand the irony of my beginning this post using newspapers and journalism as a model. We in my industry have squandered our trust, not so much through direct advertiser influence but through short-sighted economic thinking: pandering to the perceived mass — with celebrity, sensationalism, and the view from nowhere — to build sales and traffic over substance; devaluing our product by cutting the wrong things when faced with competitive pressures; lacking the strategic vision that would carry journalism into the digital economy. This is a case of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do, I’m afraid.

In a Twitter discussion this morning, Dave Winer and I parried on whether the tech industry needs to become the journalism industry or whether the journalism industry needs to become the tech industry. I’m not sure where that lands. I do see tech companies — Twitter, Tumblr, Google, Facebook, and more — hiring journalists. I see journalists using and relying on — perhaps too much — these companies. I see an opportunity for them to work together to set a line where we can build a new wall between church and state, between business and trust, by establishing principles that platforms — indeed, the internet itself — must live by.

I have nothing whatsoever against making business and journalism businesses. I believe they must be businesses to be sustainable. But they must be responsible businesses. They must learn where their value truly lies. That is in trust. Squander that trust and you lose it all.

Twitter has another moment to learn and then teach that lesson. Please.

#nbcfail economics

Reading the #nbcfail hashtag has been at least as entertaining as much of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics. It’s also enlightening — economically enlightening.

There’s the obvious:
* The people formerly known as the audience have a voice and boy are they using it to complain about NBC’s tape delays of races and the opening ceremonies, about its tasteless decision to block the UK tribute to its 7/7 victims, and about its commentators’ idiocies (led by Meredith Vieira’s ignorance of the inventor of the web; they could have used their extra three hours to enlighten her).
* Twitter is a gigantic spoiler machine. It would be nearly impossible to isolate oneself from news of results because even if you don’t read Twitter or Facebook or go to the net, someone you know, someone you run into will. Information can’t be controlled. Amen.
* We in the U.S. are being robbed of the opportunity to share a common experience with the world in a way that was never before possible.
Those arguments have all been made well and wittily on #nbcfail.

The counterargument has been an economic one: NBC has to maximize commercial revenue, which means maximizing prime time viewership, to recoup the billions paid for the rights to broadcast, billions that pay for the stadiums and security and ceremony. The argument is also made that NBC’s strategy is working because it is getting record ratings.

But there’s no way to know whether airing the Phelps race or the opening ceremonies live on TV would have decreased or increased prime-time viewing. Indeed, with spoilers everywhere, viewing is up. I can easily imagine people watching the Phelps defeat live tweeting their heads off telling friends to watch it in prime time. I can imagine people thanking NBC for curating the best of the day at night and giving folks a chance to watch the highlights. I tweeted: “I’m waiting for NBC to take credit for idea Twitter helps build buzz & ratings for tape-delayed events.” (Which led Piers Morgan’s producer, Jonathan Wald, to take joking credit and then the executive producer of the NBC Olympics, Jim Bell, to offer it. To his credit, Bell has engaged with at least one tweeted suggestion.)

If NBC superserved its viewers, the fans, wouldn’t that be strategy for maximum audience? The BBC is superserving its viewers. I went to TunnelBear so I could sample what the BBC is offering on the air and in its iPlayer — which, of course, we can’t use in the U.S. — and it’s awesome. But, of course, the BBC is supported by its viewers’ fees. So the argument is that the BBC serves viewers because they’re the boss while NBC serves advertisers because they pay the bills.

I still don’t buy it. I don’t want to buy it, for that pushes media companies to put all they do behind walls, to make us pay for what we want. I still see a future for advertising support and free content. I still believe that if NBC gave the fans what they wanted rather than trying to make them do what NBC thinks it wants, NBC could win by growing audience and engagement and thus better serving sponsors. I ask you to imagine what Olympics coverage would look like if Google had acquired the rights. It would give us what we want and make billions, I’ll bet.

The problem for NBC as for other media is that it is trying to preserve old business models in a new reality. To experiment with alternatives when billions are at stake is risky. But so is not experimenting and not learning when millions of your viewers can complain about you on Twitter.

The bottom-line lesson for all media is that business models built on imprisonment, on making us do what you want us to do because you give us no choice, is no strategy for the future. And there’s only so long you can hold off the future.

The bottom line for Olympics fans is that, as Bill Gross pointed out, much of the blame for what we’re seeing — and not seeing — falls to the IOC and the overblown economics of the games. There is the root of greed that leads to brand police who violate free speech rights in the UK by chilling use of the innocent words “2012″ and “games”, and tape delays, and branded athletes. This is the spirit of the Olympics Games? It is now.

#fuckyouwashington

So I was angry. Watching TV news over dinner — turning my attention from scandals in the UK to those here and frankly welcoming the distraction from the tragedies in Norway — I listened to the latest from Washington about negotiations over the debt ceiling. It pissed me off. I’d had enough. After dinner, I tweeted: “Hey, Washington assholes, it’s our country, our economy, our money. Stop fucking with it.” It was the pinot talking (sounding more like a zinfandel).

That’s all I was going to say. I had no grand design on a revolution. I just wanted to get that off my chest. That’s what Twitter is for: offloading chests. Some people responded and retweeted, which pushed me to keep going, suggesting a chant: “FUCK YOU WASHINGTON.” Then the mellifluously monikered tweeter @boogerpussy suggested: “.@jeffjarvis Hashtag it: #FUCKYOUWASHINGTON.” Damn, I was ashamed I hadn’t done that. So I did.

And then it exploded as I never could have predicted. I egged it on for awhile, suggesting that our goal should be to make #fuckyouwashington a trending topic, though as some tweeters quickly pointed out, Twitter censors moderates topics. Soon enough, though, Trendistic showed us gaining in Twitter share and Trendsmap showed us trending in cities and then in the nation.

Screen shot 2011-07-24 at 7.33.24 AM

Jeff Howe tweeted: “Holy shit, @JeffJarvis has gone all Howard Beale on us. I love it. And I feel it. Give us our future back, fuckers. #FUCKYOUWASHINGTON.” He likes crowded things. He’s @crowdsourcing. He became my wingman, analyzing the phenom as it grew: “Why this is smart. Web=nuance. Terrible in politics. Twitter=loud and simple. Like a bumper sticker. #FuckYouWashington.” He vowed: “If this trends all weekend, you think it won’t make news? It will. And a statement. #FuckYouWashington.”

And then I got bumped off Twitter for tweeting too much. Who do the think they are, my phone company? Now I could only watch from afar. But that was appropriate, for I no longer owned this trend. As Howe tweeted in the night: “Still gaining velocity. Almost no tweets containing @crowdsourcing or @jeffjarvis anymore. It’s past the tipping point. #FuckYouWashington.”

Right. Some folks are coming into Twitter today trying to tell me how to manage this, how I should change the hashtag so there’s no cussin’ or to target their favorite bad man, or how I should organize marches instead. Whatever. #fuckyouwashington not mine anymore. That is the magic moment for a platform, when its users take it over and make it theirs, doing with it what the creator never imagined.

Now as I read the tweets — numbering in the tens of thousands by the next morning — I am astonished how people are using this Bealesque moment to open their windows and tell the world their reason for shouting #fuckyouwashington. It’s amazing reading. As @ericverlo declared, “The #fuckyouwashington party platform is literally writing itself.” True, they didn’t all agree with each other, but in their shouts, behind their anger, they betrayed their hopes and wishes for America.

@partygnome said: “#fuckyouwashington for valuing corporations more than people.”

@spsenski, on a major role, cried: “#fuckyouwashington for never challenging us to become more noble, but prodding us to become selfish and hateful…. #fuckyouwashington for not allowing me to marry the one I love…. #fuckyouwashington for driving me to tweet blue.”

@jellencollins: “#fuckyouwashington for making ‘debt’ a four letter word and ‘fuck’ an appropriate response.”

@tamadou: “#fuckyouwashington for giving yourselves special benefits and telling the American people they have to suck it up or they’re selfish.”

@psychnurseinwi: “#fuckyouwashington for having the compromising skills of a 3 year old.”

I was amazed and inspired. I was also trepidatious. I didn’t know what I’d started and didn’t want it to turn ugly. After all, we had just witnessed the ungodly horror of anger — and psychosis — unleashed in Norway. I’ve come to believe that our enemy today isn’t terrorism but fascism of any flavor, hiding behind anger as supposed cause.

But at moments such as this, I always need to remind myself of my essential faith in my fellow man — that is why I believe in democracy, free markets, education, journalism. It’s the extremists who fuck up the world and it is our mistake to manage our society and our lives to their worst, to the extreme. That, tragically, is how our political system and government are being managed today: to please the extremes. Or rather, that is why they are not managed today. And that is why I’m shouting, to remind Washington that its *job* is to *manage* the *business* of government.

The tweets that keep streaming in — hundreds an hour still — restore my faith not in government but in society, in us. Oh, yes, there are idiots, extremists, and angry conspiracy theorists and just plain jerks among them. But here, that noise was being drowned out by the voices of disappointed Americans — disappointed because they do indeed give a shit.

Their messages, their reasons for shouting #fuckyouwashington and holding our alleged leaders to higher expectations, sparks a glimmer of hope that perhaps we can recapture our public sphere. No, no, Twitter won’t do that here any more than it did it in Egypt and Libya. Shouting #fuckyouwashington is hardly a revolution. Believe me, I’m not overblowing the significance of this weekend’s entertainment. All I’m saying is that when I get to hear the true voice of the people — not the voice of government, not the voice of media, not a voice distilled to a number following a stupid question in a poll — I see cause for hope.

I didn’t intend this to be anything more than spouting off in 140 profane characters. It turns out that the people of Twitter taught me a lesson that I thought I was teaching myself in Public Parts, about the potential of a public armed with a Gutenberg press in every pocket, with its tools of publicness.

* * *

For an excellent summary of the saga as it unfolded on Twitter, see Maryann Batlle’s excellent compilation in Storify, as well as Gavin Sheridan’s Storyful. CBS News Online’s What’s Trending was the first in media to listen to what was happening here. David Weigel used this as a jumping off point for his own critique of Washington and the debt “crisis” at Slate. Says Michael Duff on his blog:

Everybody knows you guys are running the clock out, waiting for the next election. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t go on TV to scare the shit out of us every day and then expect us to wait patiently for 2012.

You can’t use words like “urgent” and “crisis” and then waste our time with Kabuki theater.

Either the situation is urgent and needs to be solved now, or it’s all just an act that can wait for 2012. This isn’t 1954, gentlemen. The voters are on to you now. We know you’re playing a game and we know you’re using us as chess pieces.

That’s why #fuckyouwashington is trending on Twitter. We’re tired of being pawns.

Every politician in Washington needs to pay attention to this outrage, and remember who they’re working for.

And then there’s this reaction from no less than Anonymous: “@jeffJarvis you’ve started a shit storm. Nice going.”

: MORE: Handelsblatt writes about the Twitter movement.

And a Washington Post blog chimes in.

Here’s TechPresident’s chimes in. “>report.

Discussions occurring with this post at CommentIsFree on the Guardian and HuffingtonPost.

Süddeutsche Zeitung on #fuckdichwashington.

: The next day: ABCNews.com covers the tag — and finds a safe way to illustrate the story.

Here’s The Wrap wrapping it up.

And the story has been covered in France, where #fuckyouwashington sounds, well, elegant and sexy:

Here’s the CBS Early Show report on the tag:

More CBS: It’s online show What’s Trending also reported on the event. Stupidly, they disable embedding of videos. That won’t help them trend, will it? But here’s an old-fashioned link.

Here’s NBC’s wimp-out presentation of #fuckyouwashington.

KABC local TV report here.

: A week later: The hashtag passes 100k tweets and Howie Kurtz and I talk about it on Reliable Sources:

Hard economic lessons for news

I’m working on a talk that I hope will become the canonical link to my essential message about the business rules and realities of news. I continue to be astonished at the economic naiveté I hear in discussions of the business of news. (Look at this comment thread and and this one.) Here is my answer, the basis of a talk — to be delivered in tweets, in the model of John Paton — and a lesson for my classes. Work in progress. Thoughts so far; please join in….

RULES FOR BUSINESS MODELS

* Tradition is not a business model. The past is no longer a reliable guide to future success.

* “Should” is not a business model. You can say that people “should” pay for your product but they will only if they find value in it.

* “I want to” is not a business model. My entrepreneurial students often start with what they want to do. I tell them, no one — except possibly their mothers — gives a damn what they *want* to do.

* Virtue is not a business model. Just because you do good does not mean you deserve to be paid for it.

* Business models are not made of entitlements and emotions. They are made of hard economics. Money has no heart.

* Begging is not a business model. It’s lazy to think that foundations and contributions can solve news’ problems. There isn’t enough money there. (Foundation friend to provide figures here.)

* There is no free lunch. Government money comes with strings.

* No one cares what you spent. Arguing that news costs a lot is irrelevant to the market.

* The only thing that matters to the market is value. What is your service worth to the public?

* Value is determined by need. What problem do you solve?

* Disruption is the law of the jungle and the internet. If someone can do what you do cheaper, better, faster, they will.

* Disrupt thyself. So find your weak underbelly before someone else discovers it. Or find someone else’s.

* The bottom line matters more than the top line. Plan for profitability over revenue, sustainability over size.

REALITY CHECKS FOR NEWSPAPERS

* Circulation will continue to decline. There can be no doubt.

* Cutting costs will reduce product quality and value, which will further reduce circulation, which will further reduce ad revenue. A vicious, unstoppable cycle.

* Low-cost competitors and abundance will continue to reduce the price of advertising.

* Local retail will continue to consolidate, further reducing ad revenue. Blame Amazon.

* Classified categories—real estate, auto, jobs, merchandise—will continue to become more self-sufficient. They will need market mediators less and less.

* There’s a cliff coming: the end of a critical-mass of circulation needed to maintain inserts. That will have a big impact on newspapers’ P&Ls and will take away a primary justification for still printing and distributing paper.

* Some readers are not worth saving. One newspaper killed its stock tables, saved $1 million, and lost 12 subs. That means it had been paying $83k/year to maintain those readers. In creating business plans, the net future value of readers should be calculated and maximized.

* Once fixed costs are sliced to the bone, they will rise again. Cutting alone does not a business strategy make.

* “The newspaper model is broken and can’t be fixed.” Says John Paton.

DIGITAL RULES

* Scaling local sales is the key challenge. Google will pick low-hanging fruit from the 6 million businesses that have claimed their Places pages. Facebook’s fruit will be businesses that use its free Deals. Each will use distant sales. Groupon and Patch will attack the challenge with the brute force of local sales staff.

* There will always be new competitors. For content, attention, advertising, and advertising sales.

* You no longer control the market. You are a member of an ecosystem. Play well with others.

* Abundance will drive down prices in digital even more than in print. That’s the lesson Google tries to teach media (and government).

* The question about pay walls is whether they are the *best* way to make the *most* money. It’s not a religious matter. It’s a practical question of whether circulation revenue will net more than equivalent advertising, whether one can afford to give up audience and growth, what the costs are to support pay.

OPPORTUNITIES

* Scaling local sales is the key opportunity. I think the answer will lie in productizing services for local merchants (across all these platforms — not just selling them space in a media site but also helping them with Google Place pages and Foursquare and Facebook deals and Twitter specials) and establishing new, independent, entrepreneurial sales forces. The key challenge then will be holding down the cost of sale and production.

* There is huge growth potential in increasing engagement. Facebook gets roughly 30 times the engagement of newspaper sites, Huffington Post’s engagement is also a multiple of newspapers’. If we are truly community services, then we must rethink our relationship with the public, becoming more a platform for our communities, and that will multiply engagement and, with it, audience, traffic, and data. We have not begun to extend and exploit the full potential of the value news organizations can have in relationships with their communities: more people, more value, more engagement equals more value to extract.

* There are still efficiences to be found in infrastructure. If the presses and the distribution and sales arms of papers are not in and of themselves profit centers, they should be jettisoned and their tasks outsourced. If other tasks — including editorial tasks — can be consolidated, they should be.

* Journalists should do only that which adds maximum value. That’s not telling the public what it already knows. It’s not exercising ego. It’s not production. It is reporting, vetting, curating, explaining, organizing, teaching…. Do what you do best and link to the rest.

* There is growth to be found in networks. The more members there are in the ecosystem, the more content there is to link to (without having to go to the cost of creating it), the more opportunities there are for free promotion (links in), the more opportunities there are in aggregated and joint sales. See our work on new business models for news in the local ecosystem at CUNY.

* There are efficiencies to be found in collaboration. Working with the community and with other members of the ecosystem enables a news organization to specialize and increase value and to do more with less.

* There are other revenue streams worth exploring. Local bloggers are making considerable shares of their revenue in events. Newspapers are going into the real estate business and are also selling merchandise.

* We have not begun to explore new definitions of news.

: Note: I rearranged a few of the rules and combined two into one for better organization.

: Was mit Medien translates these rules into German. And translated again.

Tweeters: I want a witness tag

A proposal:

It would be terribly useful if there were a separate convention for tweets from witnesses to major events so their reports can be separated from the discussion that follows. How about !jpquake for witnesses vs. #jpquake for discussion?

Moments after the tragic earthquake hit Japan, folks are reporting on TV, people turned immediately to Twitter to tell friends and family and perhaps the world what was happening to them and to use it to get information and services.

But, of course, in only moments, people around the world talking about the event and the hashtag gets overrun with folks who are talking *about* the event than *from* it. That’s all good and wonderful as well. But I want a way to separate the two.

If witnesses used the !tag, it would also be possible to identify and compile a Twitter list of them. This would be helpful in stories where personal security is an issue. Witnesses in Bahrain would be unwise to use geocoding. But the !tag would merely reveal what they are already revealing in their tweets: that they are there. Somewhere.

Note importantly that the !tag would help people in the middle of a major event — people who need information and services — to also filter out the noise of our discussion from outside.

As for reading !tag tweets, I’d want to filter out retweets and just get the originals.

I also would like to run !tag tweets through translation engines. I suggested that to Ubermedia’s Bill Gross and he and his crew had great ideas on that in return.

The challenge in all of this, of course, is inducing millions of people to add this behavior. Thoughts?

: See also: Doc Searls on how the net turns TV news into newspapers (read: stale).

: Somewhat related: I wish TV news would carbon-date its B-roll. In a disaster such as this, I get loop fatigue: The same video shown again and again and again. It’s understandable why they need to do that and fine that they do. But we don’t know the current state of the story if we keep seeing images of the state of things hours ago. So TV — which ought to be in the fresh news business — should show us how fresh its images are. I know they’re likely loathe to do that. But this is news.

: UPDATE: On yesterday’s TWiT at SXSW, Leo Laporte made an excellent suggestion: appending the ! onto a hashtag. So a witness would use #jpquake! while the observer would use #jpquake and one could search for one or both. Brilliant, Leo. Others had suggested #!jpquake but that messes up the search. This appends a claim to be a witness.

Many people have asked in the comments (over and over) why geotagged tweets aren’t enough. Two reasons: First, many (most?) people don’t enable geotagging; I see very, very few geo tweets in my feed. Second, in rebellions against repressive regimes, pinpointing one’s location exactly is perilous. The ! convention claims location as much as writing about an event as a witness or participant does, without giving the authorities one’s exact location.

Public Parts: atomize & reform

I’ve been rewriting the introduction to Public Parts — both because it needs it and because of events in Egypt and elsewhere. This segment, from the end of the introduction, is related to the post below. I thought I’d share it with you as it adds some more thinking on the same topics:

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Technology is forcing us to question centuries-old assumptions about the roles of the individual and society: our rights, privileges, powers, responsibilities, concerns, and prospects. That describes nothing so much as the process of modernization. In ancient times, Richard Sennett says in The Fall of Public Man, “public experience was connected to the formation of social order”—that is, the end of anarchy. In recent centuries, being public “came to be connected with the formation of personality”—that is, with our individuality and freedom. Ancient and authoritarian regimes told people what they must think and do; modern societies enable and ennoble citizens to do what they want to do, alone and together. Publicness is a progression to greater freedom but that freedom is often used to collect into new societies.

Society splinters and splits and then reshapes in new forms. Think of us as atoms in molecules. Centuries ago, our molecules were villages and tribes; location defined us and often religion guided us. In Europe, Gutenberg empowered Luther to smash society apart into atoms again, until those elements reformed into new societies, defined by new religions and now nations. Come the industrial revolution—for which Gutenberg himself was the first faint but volatile spark—the atoms flew to bits again and reformed once more, now as cities, trades, and economies. We atomize. We reform into new molecules. We don’t evolve so much as we blow up in wrenching bursts of violence, breaking strong, old bonds and forcing us to feel disconnected until we can connect again. This is not a debate about whether we are meant to be alone or together, whether our natural state is independent or social, private or public. We are meant to be both; we just change the formula, given chance and necessity. We like to think that we finally find the right balance and discover our natural state. And then technologies come along and ruin our dear, old assumptions and order. That is what is happening today.

The net is everyone’s printing press. I don’t mean it’s a medium; I just said it’s not. I mean it’s our tool of disruption, the catalyst that breaks old bonds once again and sets us loose to explore our natures anew. This transformation takes trivial form: we no longer all watch the same, shared news with the same, one-size-fits-all viewpoint. R.I.P. Uncle Walter. Clearly, this transformation also takes earth-shattering form: revolutions, dead industries, economic upheaval. We atomize. We reform. We want to be apart—too far apart, some fear. See the book Bowling Alone, in which Robert Putnam worries that we are becoming disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and society. But then we want to be together. That book inspired entrepreneur Scott Heiferman to found Meetup.com, a platform that lets groups organize meetings in person around whatever interests they have, from dogs to dance, sci-fi to society. Atomize. Reform. We can now find the publics we wish to join based not on the gross labels, generalizations, and borders drawn about us by others—red v. blue, black v. white, nation v. nation—but instead on our ideas, interests, and needs: cancer survivors, libertarians, Deadheads, vegetarians, single moms, geeks, hunters, birders, even privacy advocates.

Publicness is an emblem of epochal change. It is profoundly disruptive. Publicness threatens institutions whose power was invested in the control of information and audiences. That’s why we hear the incumbents protest this change and warn of its dangers. Publicness is a sign of our empowerment at their expense. Dictators and politicians, media moguls and marketers try to tell us what to think and say. But now, in a truly public society, they must listen to what we say. So if they are to survive and prosper, companies, governments, and institutions must learn to deal with us at eye-level, with respect for us as individuals and respect for the power we can now wield as groups—as publics. Many will not survive and will be replaced by entrepreneurs and insurgents, both good and bad.

The progression toward a more public society is apparent and inevitable; resistance is futile. But the form our new society will take is by no means predestined. We are at a critical moment with many choices. We who hold the tools of publicness hold keys to the future. We must decide how to use them. Rather than baying at the moon and cursing the tide, we would be wise to find opportunity and advantage, to decide the kind of future we want to build. . . . Now is the moment and we are the people to give shape to our next society. In each of our roles as individuals, parents, employees, employers, citizens, officials, and neighbors, each of us is deciding how private to be (safe, protective, closed, sometimes solitary, often anonymous) and how public (open, collaborative, collective, and vulnerable).

I remember watching the drama of Egypt’s revolution play out on Twitter. Silly little Twitter. It was supposed to be made for nothing more than sharing the narcissistic trivia of our lives as we each answered the simple question: What are you doing now? As if the world should care, right? During the Egyptian revolt, I tweeted how jarring the contrast could be between the very everyday updates of people I knew—meals, dates, travels, shows, complaints, cats—flowing next to the messages of courage, fear, exhilaration, and determination I saw from the brave people of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, strangers I was coming to know and respect by the minute.

@ghonim—Google executive Wael Ghonim, who was credited with helping spark this revolution using a Facebook page—had been held prisoner by Hosni Mubarak’s police; his followers and fans would believe he was free only when they saw him say so in a tweet. He used the tool to deliver news, inspiration, and support: “Pray for #Egypt. Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die.” On the night 17 days into the 18-day revolution when the people of the square believed the dictator Mubarak would leave—but he did not—@ghonim had tweeted, “Heading to Tahrir” and “Revolution 2.0: Mission Accomplished.” The next morning, Mubarak was not gone. The work of the revolution not yet over, Ghonim told his followers and the media that he would not be speaking through the press but through his Facebook page, his tool of publicness. And then Mubarak did leave. “Welcome back, Egypt,” he tweeted. “They lied at us. Told us Egypt died 30 years ago, but millions of Egyptians decided to search and they found their country in 18 days.”

At every minute in this momentous story, it was evident how precarious the next minute would be, the one after that only more so. Mubarak might or might not leave sooner or later. The army could shift this way or that. Thugs with rocks could return to the square. Authorities could use the internet themselves to spread misinformation and find and arrest the protestors. Out of habit, I watched the news progress on TV, but most of the time, even Al Jazeera English had only a telephoto shot of the square from a safe distance with commentary that could do little more than repeat itself. TV could hear few voices from the square.

On Twitter, a virtuoso of the form, @acarvin—National Public Radio social-media strategist Andy Carvin—spent hours and days constantly curating the best he could find from the people who were on the ground. He passed on news and debunked rumors and asked the people who were there what was really happening. He quoted—retweeted, that is—people like @sandmonkey, a brave blogger who six years before began to use these tools to share his ideas and experiences in Egypt with the world. Early in my blogging days, I had learned much from him. After the protestors’ victory he blogged, “Tonight will be the first night where I go to bed and don’t have to worry about state security hunting me down, or about government goons sent to kidnap me; or about government sponsored hackers attacking my website. Tonight, for the first time ever, I feel free … and it is awesome!” Sandmonkey replaced his cartoon avatar on Twitter with a picture of the real him and published his name, Mahmoud Salem.

Even as you read this [the book is coming out in the fall of 2011], months after the revolution began, it is, of course, far too soon to know how this story will turn out. There is no script and not even a dramatis personae of leading actors. @ghonim, who brought many people to Facebook, Twitter, and the square, demurred as a leader, vowing on Twitter that he would return to his normal life at Google when this work was done. What kind of society Egypt can build and maintain post-Mubarak teeters on so many risks, needs, and warring interests, but also on so many new opportunities. Just as Egypt’s society of the future could go many ways, so could ours and other societies yet to emerge.

The new age has its doubters. Young curmudgeon Malcolm Gladwell says, “surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protestors may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.” Well, I have no doubt that the tools of publicness played a role in helping a true Egypt of the people rise from silence to be heard at last. These tools enabled them to share their information, their frustration, and their dreams. That is why Mubarak shut down the internet and mobile phones completely, because they were a threat—and the fact that any one man could do that must worry us all. But even Mubarak had to turn it back on, because the internet is that vital to life now. Yet in the end, Gladwell is at least right about this: the tools are only tools. The revolution is the people’s. As a blogger reminded us on Al Jazeera English, Twitter did not fight Mubarak’s police. Egyptians did. Facebook will not create the new society. But here’s where Gladwell’s wrong: This new society used Facebook to help shape itself.

“What kind of world would make the values of both publicness and privacy equally accessible to all?” asks Michael Warner. That is our challenge: to find a new balance between us as free individuals and as members of a public who freely join together to build better, more open, more generous, and more accountable companies, markets, communities, governments, schools, relationships, and lives. There is a need for privacy, its cautions, and its advocates, to be sure. But publicness also needs its advocate. That is this book.

Gutenberg of Arabia

At the critical climax of the Egyptian revolution, one of its sparks, Google’s Wael Ghonim, told his followers on Twitter that he would not speak to them through media but instead through the Facebook page he created, the page he’d used to gather momentum for the protest, the page that had gotten him arrested, the page that was one of the reasons that Hosni Mubarak hit the kill switch on the entire internet in Egypt (here’s another reason). After Mubarak left, Ghonim said on CNN that he wanted to meet Mark Zuckerberg to thank him for Facebook and the ability to make that page.

After the Reformation in Europe, Martin Luther thanked Johannes Gutenberg. Printing, he said, was “God’s highest and extremest act of grace.” Good revolutionaries thank their tools and toolmakers.

There’s a silly debate, well-documented by Jay Rosen, over the credit social tools should receive in the revolutions, successful. abortive, and emerging, in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Jay compiles fine examples of the genre, which specializes in shooting down an argument no one we know has made: that Twitter carries out revolutions. (I would add the Evgeny Morozov variation, which incessantly wants to remind us—not that anyone I know has forgotten—that these tools can also be used by bad actors, badly.) No one I know—no one—says that these revolutions weren’t fought by people. As a blogger said on Al Jazeera English, Twitter didn’t fight Egypt’s police, Egyptians did. Who doesn’t agree with that?

This same alleged debate—curmudgeons shooting at phantom technological determinists and triumphalists—goes on to this day over Gutenberg, too. Adrian Johns, author of The Nature of the Book, accuses premier Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein, author of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, of giving too much credit to the printing press. He does not buy her contention that print itself was revolutionary and “created a fundamental division in human history.”

Like Jay, I’m a befuddled over the roots of the curmudgeons’ one-sided debate. Why do they so object to tools being given credit? Are they really objecting, instead, to technology as an agent of change, shifting power from incumbents to insurgents? Why should I care about their complaints? I am confident that these tools have been used by the revolutionaries and have a role. What’s more interesting is to ask what that role is, what that impact is.

I was honored to have been able to call Eisenstein to interview her for my book, Public Parts. Her perspective on the change wrought through Gutenberg was incredibly helpful to my effort to analyze the change that our modern tools of publicness are enabling. When I asked her about the internet, she demurred, arguing that she’s not even on Facebook. (Though I do love that when she’s researching, her first stop is Wikipedia.)

At the end of our conversation, Eisenberg raised the Middle East, observing that “they sort of missed Gutenberg. They jumped from the oral phase to this phase.” She was quick to add that it’s facile and wrong to say that the Middle East is still in the Middle Ages; she’s not saying that, merely observing that “they skipped Gutenberg, for better or worse.” She said this before the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and I was not sure what she meant.

Today, it occurs to me that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may be the Gutenberg press of the Middle East, tools like his that enable people to speak, share, and gather. Without those tools, could revolutions occur? Of course, curmudgeons, they could. Without people and their passion, could revolutions occur? Of course not, curmudgeons. But why are these revolutions occurring now? No, curmudgeons, we’ll never be able to answer that question.

But it does matter that the revolutionaries of the Middle East use—indeed, depend upon—these social tools and the net. That is the reason why we must protect them, for by doing so we protect the public and its freedoms. If you follow Gladwell, et al, and believe that the social tools are merely toys and trifles, then what does it matter if they are shut down? That is why the curmudgeons’ debate with themselves matters: because it could do harm; it could result in dismissing the tools of publicness just when we most need to safeguard them.

In the privileged West, we have been talking about net neutrality as a question of whether we can watch movies well. In the Middle East, net neutrality has a much more profund meaning: as a human right to connect. When Mubarak shut down the internet, when China shuts down Facebook, when Turkey shuts down YouTube, when America concocts its own kill switch, they violate the human rights of their citizens as much as if they burned the products of Gutenberg’s press.

In the midst of the Egyptian revolution, I realized that many of us in the West—and I include myself squarely in this—act under the assumption that progress in digital democracy would come here first, because our technology and our democracies are more advanced. Then it became clear to me that such advances would come instead where they are most needed: in the Middle East.

This is why I keep calling for a discussion about an independent set of principles for cyberspace so we can hold them over the heads of governments and corporations that would restrict and control our tools of publicness. I keep revising my list of principles, from this, to this, to this, to this:

I. We have a right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak.
III. We have the right to assemble & act
IV. Privacy is a responsibility of knowing.
V. Publicness is a responsibility of sharing.
VI. Information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
VII. What is public is a public good.
VIII. All bits are created equal.
IX. The internet shall be operated openly.
X. The internet shall be distributed.

This, to me, is a far more fruitful discussion than whether Facebook and Twitter deserves credit for Egypt and Tunisia. The revolutionaries deserve credit. They also deserve the freedom to use the tools of their revolutions.