May 30, 2009

Twitter: Cons and… pros?

Posted in Business & technology, Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , at 1:20 pm by Maggie Clark

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Twitter. I have no account, and despite the number of friends who “tweet” with vigour, no desire to acquire one. If I can conveniently ride out this latest bandwagon to the next, Google Wave, I’ll consider myself very lucky.

From this vantage point, it’s very easy to seize upon any awful news about Twitter and twist it to further my stance. Which is what I was quick to do, when I learned Ashton Kutcher and wife Demi Moore (with 3 million Twitter followers between them) tweeted last week that they would have to leave the site in protest if Twitter pursued plans to make a reality TV show out of the website.

Yes, you read that right: Twitter has in many ways usurped the role of paparazzi, allowing celebrities more direct control over their interaction with fans (so we can all follow the tedious minutiae of their day-to-day lives) — and even leading celebrities to do the unthinkable: post pictures of themselves in less than flattering lights. They’ve become, in other words, almost human.

But, hey, there’s no money in that sort of social convergence, right? So why not turn that nigh-on-egalitarian collective into citizen paparazzi, pitting twitterers against one another in an epic competition to stalk celebrities through the website? Wouldn’t that be fun?!

Do I have a deep and abiding concern for Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore? No. Do I find it typical of the application to progress actively in directions that yield financial gain at the expense of the community itself (and the welfare of members therein)? Yes.

Heaven knows, Twitter wouldn’t be the first website to invade people’s privacy. One need look no further than the origins of Facebook — the initial website a vicious Harvard version of Hot-or-Not? entitled “Facemash,” drawing from the official photos of students at the university and tasking site visitors to decide which student in a pair was hotter than the other — to realize that, even in our purported age of enlightenment, technological advancements don’t always emerge from altruistic roots.

So yes, many a time the social benefit needs to be generated by those participating therein. But there’s fighting tendencies towards elitism and exclusion in supposedly egalitarian circles, and then there’s fighting a company seeking to change much of its original premises.

Users of LiveJournal, for instance — a blogging site that has remained conspicuously off the grid despite the readiness of most sites to link up through Facebook, YouTube, Digg, de.licio.us, VodPod, and other aggregation modules — know the latter fight all too well. Though founded on a pro-user model wherein developers promised to listen to the needs of actual users, and protect them from the pressures of outside interests, LiveJournal eventually found itself compromising these promises time and again — and not just for financial gain.

Many of these changes arose from a simple transition of ownership: for instance, when Six Apart first bought Danga Interactive, Livejournal’s operator, it introduced a sponsored ad system — despite the site’s earlier promise of remaining advertisement free — and eliminated basic accounts for half a year so only paid users could be assured of ad-free space, before eventually reversing the decision. (The above link has a far more nuanced list of compromises therein.)

But Six Apart’s real mistake was mass suspending a slew fan fiction accounts, among other accounts deemed in conflict with the obscenity category in its Terms of Service. Had the company issued warnings, so said communities could properly label and restrict access to controversial content, there might not have been such an uproar; as it was, however, this scandal most assuredly played some role in Six Apart’s decision to sell LiveJournal to SUP, a Russian company interested in the product because of LiveJournal’s huge Russian contingent — and which has since carried on in the tradition of trying to get users to pay for products they’re used to receiving for free.

And yet, oddly enough, the case of LiveJournal allowed me some measure of perspective in response to Twitter’s misfiring play at a reality TV show — because when LiveJournal was sold to SUP, it wasn’t added costs users feared: it was the possibility of censoring and curtailing the expansive voices of Russian dissent that had gathered on the website. As the SUP owner is closely tied to the Russian government, many feared that the sale would serve to break down the walls of freedom of speech and, well, a kind of assembly that had emerged in LiveJournal’s walls.

Similarly, Twitter has done incontestable good in providing a public forum for countries that otherwise lack the same extensive rights to freedom of speech and assembly. In countries like Moldova, for instance, Twitter provided a means for outsmarting government censors, allowing protesters to co-ordinate a rally against “disputed legislative elections.”

And you needn’t ask Jean Ramses Anleu Fernandez if he thinks governments are starting to realize Twitter’s democratic power: For a single tweet urging citizens to withdraw all their money from the state-run bank in response to charges of government involvement in a series of related murders, the Guatemalan faces a ten year sentence for “inciting financial panic.”

Even Starbucks has reason to dread Twitter, the make-up of which allowed a promotional topic (#starbucks) to be “hijacked” by critics of the company’s union-busting tactics.

Of course, no new technology is completely safe from censorship — especially from pros. So, yes, China censors Twitter content — big surprise there! Nonetheless, Twitter’s use and reach in many other regions is quite striking, and deserves to be taken into account.

At the end of the day, though, I still chafe at the direction in which Twitter leads journalistic narrative. It especially dismays me that while we as a society claim awareness of the complexity of contemporary socio-political and cultural issues, members of the media have nonetheless latched on to a medium that allows no more than 140 characters to summarize the gist of any one story.

As a big proponent of the philosophy that writers teach readers what to expect of the media (i.e. with an excess of short pieces acclimatizing readers to shorter attention spans), this seems an agonizing exercise in the death of sustained interest. Studies like this one, amply represented in graph form, serve only to confirm the frenzy with which Twitter allows people to latch on to, and then drop off from, topics of note.

So, no, you won’t find me on Twitter. Like I said at the start, I’m hoping to ride out this service to the next big thing. But in the meantime, is Twitter really all that bad?

Like so much of Web 2.0 technology, it depends what its users make of it.

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May 20, 2009

Participatory Government Online: Not a Pipe Dream

Posted in Business & technology, Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , at 8:13 am by Maggie Clark

In an undergad political science course a few years back, I recall being challenged to present explanations for public apathy in Canadian politics. Out of a class of some thirty students, I was the only one to argue that there wasn’t apathy — that low voter turnout among youth was readily offset, for instance, by far higher youth turnout in rallies, discussion forums, and the like. Youth were absolutely talking politics: they just weren’t applying this talk in the strictest of official senses.

My professor always did love such counterarguments, but my classmates never seemed to buy them. Rather, many argued that the “fact” of disengagement was not only accurate, but also healthier, because it meant that only those who “actually cared” about policy would set it. (We were working, at the time, with figures like only 2 percent of the Canadian population being card-carrying party members.) Many of these same students likewise believed that economics was not only the ultimate driving force in our culture, but also the only driving force that could lead; and also that true democracy was unwise because only a select few (I could only assume they counted themselves among this number) were able to govern wisely.

At the time, Facebook was two years old. YouTube was one. And the online landscape, though unfurling at a mile a minute, was still light years from its present levels of group interaction. My sources for the presentation in 2006 were therefore an uncertain medley of old and new media: news articles and statistics; online party forums and Green Party doctrine.

I didn’t have at my disposal, for instance, incredible videos like Us Now, a documentary encapsulating the many ways in which average citizens — seeing truly accessible means of interacting on a collective level with their environment — are achieving great success breaking down the representative government model to something much more one-on-one.

Nor did I have The Point, which provides anyone with an account and an idea the means to start a campaign, co-ordinate fundraising, organize group activities, and otherwise influence public change. (Really, check it out — it’s fantastic.)

And most regrettably of all, I didn’t have the Globe and Mail‘s Policy Wiki.
This last, I just discovered yesterday on BoingBoing.net, when they noticed the Globe and Mail’s newest project on the website: The creation of a collectively developed copyright law proposal, to be sent to Ottawa for their consideration on July 1, 2009.

As a huge policy geek, and a member of the new media generation to boot, I saw this as a goldmine of opportunity — and yet there is plenty else on the website for other policy development, too: discussion forums and wiki projects alike. So of course, in my excitement, I sent the link to a few members of the old generation — only to receive a curious collection of responses, dismissing the above as an exercise in anarchy, while simultaneously criticizing old-school committees as never accomplishing anything properly.

Well, old guard, which is it? Is our present model of representative government failing us in certain regards, and should we thus try to engage different policy-building models? Or is the same model which, despite early challenges to legitimacy, created an online encyclopedia as powerful as the Encyclopedia Britannica, by its very nature as an open-source community project unfit for political consideration?

Us Now makes the point that the internet’s promise of a more dynamic and accessible global community has had many false starts (spam, scams, and the proliferation of child pornography rings come personally to mind). But long before we became cynical of the internet’s capacity to improve our social impact, we as a society were already well used to doubting the potential of our fellow citizens to act intelligently and in the pursuit of the communal good. You can thank Machiavelli’s The Prince, Italo Calvino’s Crowds and Power, and bastardized readings of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in part for this.

A little while ago, however, I got around to reading John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization, a CBC Massey Lecture Series essay collection about the rise of the management class and the utter reversion of the democracy/free market equation to the extent that the notion of democracy itself has suffered massive political distortion. Written just before the first real explosion of online communal projects — be they open source software, open-access socio-political groups, or information-dissemination tools — what Saul wasn’t able to account for in his work was the balancing force of technology itself. Rather, when he wrote these essays, technology was still very much a cornerstone of continued economic distortions in lieu of real democracy. Now, though, it’s clear that technology created through the corporate model has itself emerged as a platform for participatory government — and thus also as the undoing of those same, hierarchical economic forces. Coming full circle is fun!

So, to get back to this matter of “trusting in the intelligence of individuals, and their capacity to act in the common good,” yes, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to the contrary on the internet. Heaven knows, for instance, that the low-brow interactions which inspired CollegeHumor.com’s We Didn’t Start The Flame War are in fact a daily, persistent reality online, and make up a substantial percentage of commentary therein.

Yet any parent will tell you that the way to raise a responsible child is to give her responsibilities to live up to; a child entrusted with none will invariably continue to act like one. So rather than using, as a test of our group potential online, those sites that in no way engender a sense of responsibility for our actions, why not look at those sites that do — like ThePoint.com, and the Globe and Mail Policy Wiki?

Furthermore, if our current model of representative government no longer yields the level of public engagement we crave (read: in the ways the government wants to see), maybe it’s because citizens at large haven’t been given the opportunity to feel like real participants at all levels of the democratic process. And maybe, just maybe, the internet not only can change that perception, but already is.

After all, those same students who, in the comfort of a political science classroom just three years back, so boldly proclaimed that collective decision making was a waste of time? You’ll find every last one on Facebook and LinkedIn today.

May 18, 2009

To Pay or Not To Pay: The Internet’s Most Intricate Crisis

Posted in Business & technology tagged , , , , , , , at 10:24 am by Maggie Clark

Within two months after Last.fm, a music streaming service, signed into partnership with four major record labels, Amazon.com saw a 119 percent increase in online music sales. Through an ad-based revenue model Last.fm was able to offer free access to a database of songs numbering in the millions, and to group them into “stations” wherein your tastes would yield similar artists or songs in that vein. The catch was that after three iterations of one song, Last.fm would display an advertisement directing listeners to affiliate partners selling the tune. All in all, it was a sweet deal: We got free music, the big labels got paid, the small labels got exposure, and contrary to popular wisdom about downloaders detracting from music profits, online sales were through the roof.

So, of course, Last.fm switched to a subscription model on April 22, 2009: Now International Users have to pay “three” every month — three euros, three dollars: whatever is regionally appropriate. And honestly? This makes tremendous business sense: Last.fm has to pay for every track you listen to from a major label, and when it can’t negotiate adequate terms for payment with a label, sometimes that label just cuts out.

Nonetheless, as part of the Napster generation I can’t help but note how, the more things change online, the more they’ve ultimately stayed the same. From Napster to Pandora to Muxtape to Seeqpod and, of course, a slew of others, the introduction of free big-label music under any number of guises has always, invariably ended in a curtailing of services (at best), or else a complete redirection of the site’s aims and/or bankruptcy.

Notice anything funny there? Take a look at how this cycle begins: With the desire to give something away for free. Not to make a profit on it; just to scrape by — and only when profit margins drop deep into the red, to impose fees on the consumers. Yeah, you might say, it’s easy not to try to make money on something you didn’t create (the music). But… if history serves us well, it’s not. People just don’t pass up the opportunity to exploit the work of others for their own profit. So how is it that models like the ones listed above ever existed in the first place?

The answer perhaps lies in our generation’s unique conditioning: if as individuals we still demanded that our own creative output be viewable solely through a pay system (as Amazon is proposing in blog subscriptions for Kindle), we’d be hypocrites to demand free content from others. But growth on the internet has proven instead too nuanced for such hypocrisy: while some services have always tried to charge for content, the blogosphere, YouTube, GoogleVideo, MySpace, DeviantArt, Flickr, news aggregates, and other such websites have always run on a free viewing model. In short, by now we’re more than used to posting a piece of writing, a photo, a video, or a song online and expecting nothing monetary from it. Art and entertainment have entered into a free-for-all creation domain, and while this doesn’t mean we don’t still hold in high regard those artists and entertainers who dedicate the whole of their lives to such work, it certainly means we have different expectations for our engagement with them.

As such, the story of those aforementioned music services means just what seems to mean: That our first push out into the world of the internet is just as likely to be in the pursuit of free access as it is to be about exploitation — and thus, that we as consumers can forever expect to find ourselves latching on to free content, taking it for granted, and having subsequent power plays or business models then wrest that freedom away. A cry of foul will emerge, we’ll flood a comments page with angry protests… and then most of us will clear off, find a new free music service, and repeat.

Rest assured, this isn’t as hard to stomach as it sounds: we’re already quite used to learning to pay for goods we’d always taken for granted — how else can you explain bottled tap water? But the story of free music is a fast-paced tale that also speaks volumes about deeper, more complex payment issues at work on the internet.

Because while the struggle for survival of music streaming services cater to our more immediate fears about The Man, there is a longer, more drawn-out battle being waged in turn for the whole of the internet. Yes, I’m talking about the attempts of Internet Service Providers to make heavy internet users pay more, or divest the whole medium of its equal playing field by allowing some companies to pay for prioritized access, effectively shutting small companies and websites out of the mass market. Or what about Bell Canada, which last year found an ally in the CRTC when the Canadian Association of Internet Providers complained that Bell was “throttling” access for peer-to-peer applications — a direct challenge to net neutrality? When the CRTC sided with Bell in the case, they likewise permitted, and set precedent for, the legality of an ISP interfering with an individual’s use of the service he’s paid for, through “traffic-shaping.”

And then, of course, there is the anti-piracy bill passed by the French National Assembly on May 12, 2009: anyone caught downloading or sharing copyrighted files three times can now be suspended from the internet for two months to a year on that third notice. Chillingly, the law would not require a trial or court order: All the ISPs need do is send you your warnings, making this a huge win for corporate control of the medium.

This, then, is the real conflict of the internet — an on-going negotiation being fought in a much more protracted, expansive way than any music streaming service need fear: but a negotiation, nonetheless, that will shape the future of the internet for us and those to come.

For now we take our freedoms and equality online for granted — just as we do our free music moment by moment. The question is, if the lesson of music streaming services has taught us anything, what can we really say about how free or equal the internet as a whole will be just ten years down the line?

And what, right now, can we do about it?