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<nettime> just digest it [ miller / lebkowsky / miller ]
air_nettime on Sat, 24 Apr 2004 07:46:26 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> just digest it [ miller / lebkowsky / miller ]


Re: <nettime> Just Do It
     "E. Miller" <subscriptionbox {AT} squishymedia.com>
     "Jon Lebkowsky" <jonl {AT} weblogsky.com>
     "E. Miller" <subscriptionbox {AT} squishymedia.com>

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Date: Fri, 23 Apr 2004 08:04:45 -0700
Subject: Re: <nettime> Just Do It
From: "E. Miller" <subscriptionbox {AT} squishymedia.com>

I've spent a good bit of time over the past year or two looking at these
emerging social network technologies, wondering if they offer a path
forward.  I'd have to say I'm a bit more pessimistic about the possibility
of these technologies mediating or facilitating a more civic-oriented
networked body politic.

Monocultures of Thought Through Self-Selection
Social software facilitates creation of like-minded communities based on
interest, topic, or other criteria.  In terms of the public interest this is
a weakness; the process of self-selection that creates these communities is
invariably colored by the fact that most individuals seek communities that
reinforce their worldview, not challenge it.

Power Law, Diversity, and Accountability
In their current incarnation most social networking software is subject to
the power law; i.e., a small group of people wield most of the power and
influence.  Given the non-hierarchical nature of these networks and the
tendency towards monoculture as noted earlier and you often get echo-chamber
communities valuing the ideological over the factual, without
accountability.

Monolithic Linear Media vs. Multiple Nonlinear Medias
The nice thing about a newspaper or a network news broadcast was that it was
a linear experience where all the participants shared a frame of reference.
Could it be that our contemporary glut of nonlinear media has a corrosive
effect on larger public discourse when you can (a) select the perspective
you want, and (b) only take in the content interests you?

Consumer vs. Citizen
Technology won't solve the key problem: that the individual-as-citizen in
media and discourse is continuing to wither and that the
individual-as-consumer is ascendant.  Can a society remain healthy by
redefining civic involvement as an expression of self-interest rather than
self-sacrifice?

Ultimately, it's not a technological question but a societal question
predicated on human nature and individual will.  Are we willing to be
challenged by other perspectives in order to develop our own?  Are we
willing to see civic participation as a responsibility and not as an
opportunity for more infotainment-style self-gratification?  And ultimately,
are we willing to trust one another?

Eric


On 4/22/04 6:10 PM, "Jon Lebkowsky" <jonl {AT} weblogsky.com> wrote:

> I'd like to offer an alternative, a post-broadcast politics wherein
> citizens take back the process using the Internet as a tool for civic
> engagement. With tools we have available now we can build activist
> networks and sustain our engagement with politics and governance as an
> everyday year-round part of our lives. We can blog, post to forums,
 <...>

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From: "Jon Lebkowsky" <jonl {AT} weblogsky.com>
Subject: RE: <nettime> Just Do It
Date: Fri, 23 Apr 2004 10:28:03 -0500

> Monocultures of Thought Through Self-Selection Social software 
> facilitates creation of like-minded communities based on interest, 
> topic, or other criteria.  In terms of the public interest this is
> a weakness; the process of self-selection that creates these 
> communities is invariably colored by the fact that most individuals 
> seek communities that reinforce their worldview, not challenge it.

>From the perspective of an advocacy campaign, this is exactly what you
want, though. But that's only one part of the puzzle: there are
advocates who support a specific position or goal, but there's also a
need for democratic activism that supports debate or conversation
where many positions are represented. We have, and can build, tools
that meet both kinds of requirements.
 
> Power Law, Diversity, and Accountability
> In their current incarnation most social networking software 
> is subject to the power law; i.e., a small group of people 
> wield most of the power and influence.  

Other than speculation from Clay Shirky et al, can you provide
evidence of this?

> Given the non-hierarchical nature of these networks and the
> tendency towards monoculture as noted earlier and you often 
> get echo-chamber communities valuing the ideological over the 
> factual, without accountability.

Examples?

> Monolithic Linear Media vs. Multiple Nonlinear Medias
> The nice thing about a newspaper or a network news broadcast 
> was that it was a linear experience where all the participants 
> shared a frame of reference. Could it be that our contemporary 
> glut of nonlinear media has a corrosive effect on larger public 
> discourse when you can (a) select the perspective > you want, 
> and (b) only take in the content interests you?

Are you arguing that a network news broadcast provides a broader frame
of reference than a "nonlinear" environment that provides many
perspectives (e.g. via blogs and RSS aggregators)?

> Consumer vs. Citizen
> Technology won't solve the key problem: that the individual-as-
> citizen in media and discourse is continuing to wither and that the
> individual-as-consumer is ascendant.  Can a society remain healthy
> by redefining civic involvement as an expression of self-interest 
> rather than self-sacrifice?

The individual-as-citizen is withering precisely because of the
"linear" experience of broacast news interspersed with advertising to
cultivate the "individual-as-consumer." The solution for this is not
purely technological, but many-to-many interactive technologies
provide an environment where, I argue, the individual is more engaged
and more empowered. Ultimately it's for people to solve the problem,
but the actions of people are always mediated by our
tools/technologies to some extent, and technologies have a political
aspect.

> Ultimately, it's not a technological question but a societal question
> predicated on human nature and individual will.  Are we willing to be
> challenged by other perspectives in order to develop our own?  Are we
> willing to see civic participation as a responsibility and not as an
> opportunity for more infotainment-style self-gratification?  
> And ultimately, are we willing to trust one another?

I don't disagree with this paragraph, but I don't quite see how it's
relevant to my earlier message. I don't know that anyone is advocating
civic participation "as an opportuinity for more infotainment-style
self-grafification."

thanks,
Jon L.

Jon Lebkowsky
http://www.weblogsky.com

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Date: Fri, 23 Apr 2004 10:14:22 -0700
Subject: Re: <nettime> Just Do It
From: "E. Miller" <subscriptionbox {AT} squishymedia.com>

Hi all, responses interspersed below.  Sorry for the length.

On 4/23/04 8:28 AM, "Jon Lebkowsky" <jonl {AT} weblogsky.com> wrote:

>> Monocultures of Thought Through Self-Selection
>> Social software facilitates creation of like-minded communities based on
>> interest, topic, or other criteria.  In terms of the public interest this 
>> is a weakness; the process of self-selection that creates these communities 
>> is invariably colored by the fact that most individuals seek communities 
>> that reinforce their worldview, not challenge it.
> 
>> From the perspective of an advocacy campaign, this is exactly what you
> want, though. But that's only one part of the puzzle: there are
> advocates who support a specific position or goal, but there's also a
> need for democratic activism that supports debate or conversation
> where many positions are represented. We have, and can build, tools
> that meet both kinds of requirements.

I've seen plenty of the first kind; the advocacy groups within social
networks.  Sometimes these patterns emerge from the architecture of the
systems, others emerge from usage.  What I haven't seen much of is design or
usage oriented towards reconciliation or compromise rather than
polarization.  Jon, could you give us an example of a site or technology or
network structure that in practice has the effect of bringing competing
diverse perspectives to the user?  In particular, any that focus on bridging
differences between communities more than reinforcing the belief systems of
individual communities?

I've got an example to start:
http://www.watchblog.org
Very interesting use of aggregation and editorial to pull together differing
perspectives.  But contrast the sophistication of the interaction within the
three channels with the sophistication of the interaction between the
channels...aside from layout, there isn't any technological cross-channel
interaction.  Lots of complex syndication technologies at work within the
channels: links, comments, probably can subscribe through another
aggregation service...but where's the facilitation of interaction between
viewpoints, aside from what the content authors generate themselves?  The
technology enhances the ability of like-minded communities to form and
circulate information, but aside from layout does nothing to make those
communities interact.  And what makes WatchBlog unique is that it actually
gives equal presentation weight to the different perspectives...Contrast
that to, say, TPM or InstaPundit.


>> Power Law, Diversity, and Accountability
>> In their current incarnation most social networking software is subject to
>> the power law; i.e., a small group of people wield most of the power and
>> influence.  
> 
> Other than speculation from Clay Shirky et al, can you provide
> evidence of this?

Check out Barabasi's 'Linked: The New Science of Networks' for a detailed
and analytical look at the effect of the power law in social networks.
Charts and cites galore.
 
>> Given the non-hierarchical nature of these networks and the
>> tendency towards monoculture as noted earlier and you often
>> get echo-chamber communities valuing the ideological over the 
>> factual, without accountability.
> 
> Examples?

Cass Sunstein's 'Republic.com' does a good job of examining this phenomenon.

>> Monolithic Linear Media vs. Multiple Nonlinear Medias
>> The nice thing about a newspaper or a network news broadcast was that it 
>> was a linear experience where all the participants shared a frame of 
>> reference. Could it be that our contemporary glut of nonlinear media has
>> a corrosive effect on larger public discourse when you can (a) select the
>> perspective you want, and (b) only take in the content interests you?
> 
> Are you arguing that a network news broadcast provides a broader frame
> of reference than a "nonlinear" environment that provides many
> perspectives (e.g. via blogs and RSS aggregators)?

No, of course not; newspapers can't hold as much information or communicate
it as fast as the sum total of aggregators.  BUT that wasn't the point.

The dynamic is different with self-selected information from non-linear
environments.  There are hundreds of thousands of feeds listed on Feedster
or Syndic8; how many people are going to monitor more than, say, 20?  And
how do they select those 20?  And will those 20 represent a broader range of
opinion (like those collected in most newspapers) or will they be
ideologically monolithic?  And over time, what happens to public debate when
everyone has a completely different frame of reference on the issues because
their 20 self-selected feeds represent the sum of their knowledge?  Those
are my questions.

The point is that when you read the paper (or watch a broadcast or attend a
town meeting) you share the experience with others in your community.
There's a common frame of reference (whether you agree with it or not) that
facilitates interaction.  By contrast, these millions of self-selected media
environment options may be contributing to a Balkanization of perspectives;
frames of reference that not only oppose others, but discount their inherent
validity.

Anyone read Schwartz's 'Paradox of Choice' yet?  I'm interested to see how
his stuff applies to information consumption patterns within social
networks.

>> Consumer vs. Citizen
>> Technology won't solve the key problem: that the individual-as-citizen in
>> media and discourse is continuing to wither and that the
>> individual-as-consumer is ascendant.  Can a society remain healthy by
>> redefining civic involvement as an expression of self-interest rather than
>> self-sacrifice?
> 
> The individual-as-citizen is withering precisely because of the
> "linear" experience of broacast news interspersed with advertising to
> cultivate the "individual-as-consumer." The solution for this is not
> purely technological, but many-to-many interactive technologies
> provide an environment where, I argue, the individual is more engaged
> and more empowered. Ultimately it's for people to solve the problem,
> but the actions of people are always mediated by our
> tools/technologies to some extent, and technologies have a political
> aspect.

And I respectfully disagree, not with your analysis of the potential of
these technologies, but with the assumption that complete empowerment of the
individual is an unqualified, absolute positive for society as well as the
individual.  

In a way, it's like economic theory; do we subscribe to an 'invisible
hand'-like philosophy in social networks where actors make individually
rational information processing decisions that contribute to the well-being
of the whole?  It's very libertarian, very Adam Smith.  Personally, I think
the truth is closer to Joseph Stiglitz's work on asymmetries of information,
and on a pragmatic evaluation of human nature.  People don't always make
rational decisions, they don't always have all the information they need to
make rational decisions, they are imperfect actors, and the interactive
mediums we choose to use in society may mitigate or amplify our human
faults. 

>> Ultimately, it's not a technological question but a societal question
>> predicated on human nature and individual will.  Are we willing to be
>> challenged by other perspectives in order to develop our own?  Are we
>> willing to see civic participation as a responsibility and not as an
>> opportunity for more infotainment-style self-gratification?
>> And ultimately, are we willing to trust one another?
> 
> I don't disagree with this paragraph, but I don't quite see how it's
> relevant to my earlier message. I don't know that anyone is advocating
> civic participation "as an opportuinity for more infotainment-style
> self-grafification."

I don't believe that's what I said, and my apologies if I was unclear.  My
point is that a consumer-oriented approach starts with 'what will be best
for my needs?' while a citizen-oriented approach starts with 'what will be
best for our society?'

And that's the crux of the problem.  If we assume that consumer-driven
consumption of information is all that's needed to foster civic debate,
we're mistaken.  It takes a different mindset to seek out what you need to
know for informed participation rather than just select what interests you.

I'd make a nutritional analogy here.  If we only choose to consume what we
want to consume, and not just what tastes good at the moment, there's a
long-term consequence for individuals; and by extension, society as a
collection of these individuals.  And if our technological tools facilitate
a growing alienation from a healthy mix of diverse consumables; well, we can
reasonably expect that there will be negative societal consequences later
on.

Eric

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