Category Archives: OII

Is it finally time for P2P infrastructure? On Facebook and Freedom Box

Is the dream of alternative, peer to peer infrastructure getting closer to reality? This week Eben Moglen, the lawyer for the Free Software Foundation launched a new project called Freedom Box, which is based on the idea that small, low-power plug servers, running free software, could provide a latent, autonomous communication network that could also be used to securely store files and personal information.  In the context of Internet outages in Egypt and the increasing amount of personal information stored on social networking sites like Facebook, this suggestion seems radical and timely.   For those who have been following the peer to peer infrastructure movement over the past several years, this is nothing new. 

The hardware and software for creating meshed networks of individual computers is decades old.  The organizing principle that it’s associated with is, as I noted before, older still.  Regardless, we tend to associate the rise of peer to peer communication (and a related notion of “mass self-communication” developed by Castells) with the expansion of digital media that lower the cost (of time, or energy) required to transmit our message to the world. 

Now, as our mass self-communication is taking place on platforms owned and controlled by a small number of companies (Facebook, Google, and independent but up-for-sale Twitter), we are facing a new set of problems.  It’s not just that the Internet has a “kill switch” – it’s also that the platforms that make distributed social media powerful are collecting lots of private information and storing it centrally.  This makes it easy for the sites to profit from the data, but it creates a serious limit on the power of coordination and horizontal organization that peer to peer communication offers.  Social media is changing the balance of power because more people have the opportunity to communicate with each other.  This opportunity is constrained not only by the ability of a government or ISP to shut off the means of that communication, but also by the ability of an SNS provider to reveal, sell, trade, or profit from personal information.  This reminds us to consider the emphasis on the “mass” in the “mass-self communication”.

Here’s where the Freedom Box comes in, conceptually.  The idea is that in a small, inexpensive box that’s linked into an alternative NON-internet, you have everything that you hold dear.  It’s on your server, and/or its on the network that everyone’s freedom box makes.  Sounds great, in theory.

But as important as autonomous infrastructure can be for providing a decentralized alternative to the centralized social networks and communication systems upon which we rely, we also have to consider why and how social media has changed the balance of power in these past, eventful few weeks.  As I noted above, the distributed, peer to peer method of communication has been around for as long as computer-mediated communication.  What has made it important at the moment is the scale at which this form of communication can now operate.  This massive scale has been the result of the very centralized service that Moglen and others rightly identify as problematic.  But it’s also what makes the transformations so important.  Geeks and hackers have been trying to make peer to peer networks for a very long time.  They haven’t succeeded, but Facebook has.  Now, we need to confront the challenge of that success.  A new box with free software won’t automatically do this, no matter how fantastic the software or clever the networking protocols.  Dozens of projects have proven that something like the Freedom Box can work, technically.  What is required to transform our communication and extend the transformative potential that we are now experiencing, is a distributed network of communication that locates private information with the end-user.  We’re not there yet – but we have lots of examples of networks that have tried and failed to do this.  Maybe we should start looking more closely at them.

“It is a new story, there was never one quite like it before” Moments in Media History

This week, I have learned effective means of  encoding criticisms of repressive governments, as well as how to distribute these messages in a distributed, non-hierarchical way that avoids the original source being located.  I have also become enlightened about the potential of individual citizens to transform a new technology into an alternative channel of communication, in contravention of local laws.  Finally, I’ve been reminded of the gap between the visions of the high-tech industry produced during economic bubbles, and the realities that they present for consumers.

All in a week’s work for a scholar of contemporary social media?  No, this week I’m reading communications history, which is my favorite way to reflect on the significance of changes to mediations of society, past and present.  The first example above is useful for thinking about what’s new about WikiLeaks and participatory media:  as Robert Darnton describes, when the Parisians of the Ancien Regime were forbidden to publish newspapers or anything containing news of the king, they created novels and songs that buried the un-knowable knowledge in rhyme and anagrams.  Because the songs changed every time someone sang them, the police were never able to find the “original” songwriter.  Instead they found a web of relationships that they tracked through tiny scraps of paper. (Note to student readers – we’ll discuss this next week.  Hopefully no spoilers here)

And lest we become too excited about the “single person organizations” facilitated by participatory culture and open-source, Susan Douglas reminds us of the popular furore about the “radio boys” in the first decade of the 20th century, when young men (note, never women, and see some of Susan’s later work) built their own crystal radio sets and formed an international brotherhood that also helped them to gain jobs and legitimacy in the new industrial economy – but also resulted in them breaking, and then changing, wireless transmission laws.  She also describes how the radio industry itself was a product of boom and bust, much like the Wi-Fi networking boom of the early 2000s.  Throughout the history of radio in America is a familiar narrative about innovation, progress, and American values.  There’s also a strong sub-plot in which the same rugged individualist inventors seek monopoly control, and the people struggle for rights to the airwaves.

Now I’m not saying that there’s nothing new under the sun.  As I wrote last time, some of the key things that has changed since the Ancien Regime and even since America in the 1900s are the structures of power.  18th century Paris was slowly industrializing but still shaking off feudal relationships and the chains of absolute monarchy.  19th century America invented broadcasting – and with it, the “mass public” of undifferentiated consumers as well as the monopoly communications companies that served them, and made money from connecting content and carriage.

The point I’m trying to make here is that every story is simultaneously an old story and a new story.  We keep remaking the world. Industrial and post-industrial human societies have amazingly persistent narratives of technological progress as positive, and individual innovation as the motor of that progress.  But beyond, and under these narratives are our sometimes scurrilous means of making do, speaking truth to power, putting status in the system, whatever you like. These small actions make changes:  they become part of the bigger stories.  And in order to see them, we have to be able to see both forward, and back.

* the title quotation is from Harper’s Weekly, January 30, 1909, and quoted in the always-excellent Inventing American Broadcasting by Susan Douglas (1987, p. 200)

New Media Power, redux

So now that Anonymous, the hacker agglomerate that gathers on 4chan messageboards but that remains anonymous, online, and multiple has launched Operation Payback, and now that has gone down under a denial of service attack, now that the companies are losing money and business because individuals can’t access their websites, should we declare that new media power wins the day?

Or should we instead notice that new media power works the other way around as well:  the WikiLeaks group has been booted off Facebook, and the Visa situation was sparked by Ebay’s PayPal cutting WikiLeaks off.

David Weinberger argues we should be “standing with the net.” We should definitely be standing for freedom of expression.  What we need to understand is that the same thing that makes the internet a platform for freedom also makes it powerful in a way that we haven’t seen yet on a large scale.  Yes, we understand that state barriers are dissolving and individual networks are becoming ever more important.  But is this the first major case of new media power?

Mass Media Parasite. WikiLeaks and New Media Power

Everyone, including Umberto Eco, has now weighed in on the impact of Wikileaks.  Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens have advanced a set of hypotheses about WikiLeaks.  Aaron Bady has identified the cybernetic obsessions of Julian Assange.  Blogs, newspapers, and the beloved BBC are licking their chops talking about new media and the seemingly unstoppable drip of scandals and secrets over the internet, and the counterattacks depriving WikiLeaks of hosting, funding, and Julian Assange’s freedom.  But I think that the narrative thus far has focused too much on the dichotomy between new media openness and the enclosure of old media, state power, and secrecy.  There’s actually something else happening – a shift in power that depends on new media power’s parasitism on mass media.

Through the summer, internet scholars, security specialists and hacktivists gleefully discussed the tidbits of scandal and deluges of data that WikiLeaks released.  This ranged from Sarah Palin’s e-mail to thousands of pages on the US involvement in Afghanistan.  As others, including Julian Assange himself have identified, the goal of WikiLeaks was partly to open up the information structures of conspiracies, to defang ministries of secrets by revealing their secrets to all.  This goal, and its execution, is an exquisite representation of the distributed nature of power in a network society.  Power cannot be exerted only from above: someone can glean information, post it to a wiki, and *presto* the information is openly available, undermining state power and revealing its illegitimacy.  This is WikiLeaks reconfiguring media power – and redefining media democracy.

Beginning in July, there were attempts to undermine the effectiveness of this counterpower.  One of the features of distributed forms of power is that it is difficult to censor them using strategies designed for broadcast or more centralized forms of distributing information.  As Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out, when such conventional strategies fail, the strategy is often to take out the individuals – since even though communication networks can be self-healing, individuals who hold important positions in small organizations are not.

But this week’s events, which have escalated far enough that WikiLeaks is the top evening news story, reveal something interesting about why this exercise of new media power is so effective:  it is a parasite on the mass media, and through the mass media, it blows open many of the power structures established around both information (as Assange points out) but also communication.

Whereas in July the leaked information about Afghanistan was so voluminous that only a few media stories broke, this month’s leaked cables were sent out to selected media sources including the Guardian, Das Spiegel and Libération, creating dozens of headlines and well-written primary sources that trained investigative journalists have been investigating.

The mass media then, has been the host for the WikiLeaks parasite, which, like a virus, is transforming the building blocks of the media organism.  The journalists salivate at the leaks, and publicize them.  This keeps the new media power in the mass media sphere, while simultaneously discrediting them. As Aaron Bady writes,

The way most journalists “expose” secrets as a professional practice — to the extent that they do — is just as narrowly selfish: because they publicize privacy only when there is profit to be made in doing so, they keep their eyes on the valuable muck they are raking, and learn to pledge their future professional existence on a continuing and steady flow of it. In muck they trust.

WikiLeaks, as long as it slowly drips muck towards mass media journalists, is the parasite living on the host.  But it is also making the host change its shape.  It is making the mass media ask, even as it publishes the WikiLeaks cables, what journalists should do.

More importantly, the WikiLeaks story, with the help of the mass media press, is revealing that the relationship between new media and mass media (not to mention diplomacy) has entered a new phase.  Perhaps the release of the cables will indeed destroy the “invisible government” of corrupt secrecy, as Assange wanted.  But it cannot do this without the mass media.

I am not alone in thinking that this week, and this case, will likely define a key moment in the future history of media, information, and democracy.

Policy-based Evidence-making

Like many of my colleagues across the UK, I’ve been in a state of shock for the past few weeks, reeling from the proposals in the Browne report for the massive restructuring of academia, which includes shifting education from being funded as public good, with benefits accruing to society as a whole, to being funded as a market, where students act as rational consumers and “competition drives quality.”

Beyond the fact that this strategy is weak and technocentric, as John Naughton suggests, it is also problematic in another way.  We KNOW that public goods do not accrue using the logic of the market.  We KNOW that students don’t act as rational consumers.  Thus, this is a proposal made entirely on ideology, not on evidence.

This means that instead of making evidence-based policy, we are going to start seeing policy-based evidence.  In a mad rush to make reality conform to narrow assumptions, it’s quite likely that the actual benefits of public education will stop being measured.  Society won’t just be weaker and thinner, we won’t necessarily even know about it.

History provides numerous lessons about how tenacious policy-based evidence-making can be.  For example, Marilyn Waring has proven that economic success (even of developed nations) has depended on unpaid labour, often done by women.  She calls the systematic lack of measurement of this labour the “patriarchal economic paradigm.”

Canada’s census will stop measuring unpaid labour, under new rules made by its Conservative government.  In a Toronto Star article, Waring comments on this decision:

“I see this mirrored in so many conservative governments in the post-recession period,’’ says Waring. “They want to rule according to ideology not according to evidence. So one of the most important things they can do is to obliterate evidence so they can operate on the basis of propaganda.’’

From higher education to labour force statistics, the public is going to have to start paying attention.  All governments would like to make decisions based only on their ideologies.  But responsible ones use evidence to check that ideology and prevent it from having too much influence.  Beware of policy-based evidence-making.

The Royal Mail Internet? Ofcom and Postcomm merge

This morning the UK government published the Postal Services Bill, which details how the regulatory authority for the postal sector has been transferred to Ofcom.  The joint statement from the two agencies blandly notes that the two regulators are working together to ensure continuity in their regulatory activities.

But how, exactly?  As governments around the world have noticed by separating postes and telecoms (although some anachronisms remain)  communications systems have not been similar to postal systems for over a century (let’s say, since the telegraph).  Converged media in the Internet age is no Royal Mail.

Given that the government MUST know this, I can only conclude that saddling Ofcom with an unrelated set of regulatory duties is a preliminary action in advance of winding down the entire regulator.  And then what?  The government may want perfect deregulation, but radio spectrum allocation, network neutrality and citizen’s rights to communicate (not to mention broadcast content !) will not manage themselves.

UPDATE! It appears that one of the functions that will be changed is the review by Ofcom of Channel 3 TV licenses – so effectively removing the public service broadcast requirement and allowing the Minister of Culture much more direct control over new TV licenses.  Though I’m no broadcast TV expert, this deregulation agenda seems quite similar to that of the USA in the 1990s . . . which led to more media consolidation, rather than a diversity of voices.

Internet at Liberty

I’m in Budapest at the invitation of Central European University and Google, at a conference of activists called “Internet at Liberty.” The conference features discussions about the possibilities and limits of free speech on the internet. Given its main sponsors and its topic, I wanted to think carefully about how the conference was positioning both the internet and -because it’s such a weighty term – liberty.

First, liberty comes across as being about liberal democracy and economic liberalization. These are connected in the internet space: liberal democracy underpins the development of the internet as a medium and as a (commercial) platform, and the development (democratization) agenda of the United States in the world.  Sami Ben Gharbia has an interesting perspective on this.

So it makes sense for Google as a commercial entity that depends on a liberalized regulatory framework, that has a reputation at stake as a progressive company, to fund an event like this. Google’s market expands when internet content is not blocked, and the company has an interest in supporting free expression – as evidenced by their recent action in China.

But the focus on liberty and American-style freedom of expression are linked to economic liberalization as well. They should remind us that libertarian and liberal politics are not the only means by which media is democratized – or for that matter, potentially regulated.

Liberal views of power normally see power struggles as being about obvious struggles – people not getting what they say they want. But there are other views of power that see greater importance in t is NOT being disucssed. As media scholars know, what gets left off the agenda is as important as what issues are directly introduced. Here are a few things I thought were missing from the first day of Internet at Liberty:

    1. It took most of the day to start talking about privacy online – which is significant because privacy and anonymity is essential for gaining control of one’s expression.

    2.More importantly, not a lot of discussion about the infrastructure level of access. The discussion of freedom was not all that much about the design of the internet. This is signficant in two ways: one, a certain amount of autonomy and control over the structure and function of our media, and two: the convergence of media practices across internet and mobile services. Google, remember, published a policy paper this summer with mobile operator Verizon that stipulated that mobile operators could prioritize services and block others without being subject to any provisions that protect net neutrality in the “wired” internet.

However, there was a significant amount of discussion about media platforms – Facebook and Google. This is both encouraging and distressing. Encouraging because it created a real dialogue about technological choices and user autonomy when using these platforms, and distressing because it reiterated to me that these corporate-owned platforms are now the main way that people experience interactive media. They are, essentially, the infrastructure. And thus, real media democracy would involve appropriate governance of them. But unlike the public internet or other media, there is no opportunity for governance.

These lapses, and this shift of interactive media towards free services that make money by mining social connections raises bigger questions about power, and who gets to ask what kinds of questions. Working from the title of the conference, liberty itself becomes more complex. Indeed, it is possible to have both positive and negative liberty. Much of the discussion has been about negative liberty – the lack of barriers, especially to free speech. Activists and politicos talked about the right not to have blogs and speech blocked, and urged companies and governments to remove these impediments. But POSITIVE liberty, at least as far as Isaiah Berlin is concerned, is the right to have control over your life. This includes the right to communicate, the right to establish your platform for expression, and the right to live your life as you please (which includes the right to privacy)

We didn’t talk much about positive rights in the conference. Maybe because positive rights pose a real struggle for regulators and for the development of the internet. Regulation is often couched in ideas of negative liberty. Something more radical – governance? – might take a broader view of power. This would require a better understanding of how people negotiate the terms under which they communicate

This is where I think the philosophical questions have real pragmatic importance. If the only thing we can do to negotiate our stake and our right to communicate is to complain about Facebook terms of service, we have lost our positive rights. Real liberty is having a stake in how we communicate.

Farewell OII – I’m goin’ down the road

How time flies when you are having fun . . . researching . . . writing . . . meeting excellent people and working on issues of importance.  It’s been two years since I arrived as a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the OII.  I’ve had the chance to work with brilliant graduate students, stellar colleagues and a host of inspiring visitors. Some particular highlights have been working on Net Neutrality issues with Ian Brown and Alissa Cooper, and the policy forum on child protection and freedom of expression with Vicki Nash and Michael Hills.

Now it’s time to go on down the road:  starting Wednesday next week I’ll be LSE Fellow in Media and Communications at the London School of Economics.  I’m very happy to be close enough not only to cycle to work, but also to continue some of the great collaborations with OII folks, including the “Missing Data in Qualitative Research” project that I’ve been working on with Bill Dutton, and editorial work for the Policy & Internet journal.

So, yeah, farewell OII . . . but I suspect I’ll be seeing you soon.  Come on down the road and visit!

Phone Book 2.0

(It’s the media’s silly season.  So instead of telling you about the Net Neutrality paper I’m working on, or wondering about what we can learn from failed community networks, here’s a story from my visit home to Saskatchewan)

My dad doesn’t have broadband.  Perhaps this is shocking given what I spend my time researching.  But he’s an old-fashioned sort who doesn’t like to change things too fast.  His household information nexus is the phone book, which is stuffed into a drawer  underneath the phone.  The phone book has always been in the same place, since this was where the phone was hanging on the wall when I was a kid, before the telephone company bought back all the rotary phones.

Inside the front cover of the phone book are pasted Post-Its with all the important long-distance numbers and addresses my dad might need, and local numbers that he doesn’t want to take the time to look up.  There are also slips of paper that provide extra context for particularly important pieces of information.  It’s best not to open the phone book the wrong way otherwise all that context could tumble out.

I thought maybe my dad’s phone book was a very specific information source, and that other people used the Internet as much as I did.  But I’d forgotten about the other context – specifically, the context of my home town.

The roof was leaking.  I offered to find a contractor.  Googling “roofing contractor” and the name of my hometown returned a set of listings sites scraped from . . . the online version of the phone book.  No recommendations, no location tags, just phone numbers and addresses in industrial sites out of town.

I went across town to see a friend for morning coffee.  I’d used Facebook to schedule lunch with another friend, leaving my dad’s number for her to leave a message.  When I called home, she’d organized to meet me a half hour earlier, and hadn’t left a number.  I hung up, disappointed to have missed her.  The friend whose kitchen I was standing in looked at me like I was crazy.  “Why don’t you just look her up in the book?”  She walked over and opened the cabinet underneath the phone, and took out the phone book.

My other friend was, of course, listed.  And yes, we managed to meet for lunch.

The moral of the story?  Our own assumptions about how and why other people use certain kinds of media and information tools can make us blind to what’s really going on.

And no social network update can replace a good lunch with friends.

Filter, Feed and Funnel: Social media participation

Nearly six weeks ago I promised to post these speaking notes from FutureEverything, and now that I’m at another conference doing another talk, I finally have.

None of these ideas are really new – what I wanted to do with this piece was think through some of the complexities of participation in what I call “the politics OF the network.”  It was a fun talk to give with a great audience, and here is, more or less, what I said:


This conference is about the future, and I think, in an unspoken way, about technology’s impact on the future. I want to shift our attention, for a few minutes, to the past. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the present soon, and maybe even to the future. But I’m skeptical of presuming that the past has nothing to tell us, and that we should stride forward in the expectation of perpetual progress. There are many thing about our present social media landscape that are different than what we’ve experienced in the past. People get much more information much more easily, and this information is mediated in very different ways than it was in the past. They have faster access to other people as well. And an increasing number of people have access to technical tools that they can build and change in order to take advantage of these other factors (what social scientists call “affordances”). So as citizens, we in the privileged West are in a position to share information (which we do at an unprecedented rate) but also to collaborate to make change.

In any case, to start out I’m going to talk about our historical models for citizenship, and the media spaces that they are associated with. Then I’m going to talk about the media spaces of the present, and the way that filter, feed and funnel shape our opportunities for participation. I’ll talk about some of the problems of social media participation, and then suggest things we can think about – and DO – to use the opportunity that our networked communication provides.

Part 1: Our historical models for citizenship: Spaces and Media

It’s only been since the 19th century that westerners have had an understanding of people outside of the elite as citizens, who could discuss and debate opinions about how the world operates. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the concept of the “public sphere” which is the space of democratic discussions – deliberative democracy, if you will.

1. In the beginning, there was the cafe, and the newspaper. This was the Habermasian model for deliberative democracy. Guys get together and talk about the news of the day. Sometimes their voices amplified by the press, and then perhaps a response to the press from the elected representatives. The emergence of the press was huge! All of a sudden people were aware of the decisions elites were making, and able to read comments on them and discuss.

2. Then there was the street, and the zine, which are spaces and media more associated with Nancy Fraser’s view of the public sphere as also producing counterpublics. Obviously this conception of the “public sphere” was a very limited one: it didn’t include the resistance, all those counterpublics with different ideas. So there were other ways of occupying the street (public spaces) and alternative ways of producing media.

3. There are technological publics too, as Christopher Kelty (and others) describe. The development of free software licenses has meant that code can also act as a way of deliberating the issues of the day. GNU public license stipulated that the software could be freely copied, modified and distributed that every piece of software using the license had to also be subject to the license.

Part 2: Social media models for citizenship

Ok, so now we have a networked set of publics, supported by social media. The great thing about social media is that it’s a set of functions that can work in all kinds of different ways. It’s not the newspaper with the public opinion. It’s not the radical zine. It’s both, and it’s more. I’m going to talk about 3 things that social media does that are significant for participation, and some examples of how they contribute to citizenship

Filter – if we think about the movement from the cafe and the street to the network, what’s one of the most significant media transformations? Quite simply, the end of scarcity of information. Now we have the opposite problem of the early newspaper reporters. We have to make sense of this. That’s where the filter logic comes in. We choose what to attend to, determine what conversations to respond to. It’s no longer a mass media situation, instead its an algorithmically sorted feed of information that can also be used participatively.

Feed – remember the cafe? The feed (Twitter, Facebook) is the public sphere we choose, or, as Eli Pariser points out, is chosen for us based on algorithms that our participation determines. The level of deliberation on feeds and blogs rivals that of the public sphere, but it’s a public that’s chosen and refined

Funnel – This is where individual practices change the larger structures. The difference between previous public spheres and media was that the power coming from the top down was not met by the power of the resistance. Now we have the ability to amplify our views – although we’re not always perfectly in control of how they are amplified. Various projects like MySociety’s Fix my street aim to take advantage of this possibility for amplification.We also have opportunities to use the features of social media progressively to work together. What useful things could we do with the funnel? How about, monitoring air and water quality locally? Using motion sensors to map safe cycling routes from the perspectives of cyclists?

Part 3: Dark sides. The echo chamber

1. social media networks can be elitist publics

When we think about the publics that are made easier by social media, we have to keep in mind that filter, feed and funnel are ways of connecting data to participation. We also have to understand the complexities of the situation.  Young people are less likely to use Twitter than adults aged 25-40 (although teenage girls are an exception). They are also less likely to blog. This finding should remind us that participating in social media is not a unified experience. The relationships that committed Twitterers of a certain age construct (your author included) may be more representative of our age and demographic than indicative of social media itself.

In other words, a feed of people you’ve chosen is a public, and it can be full of exciting political discussion. But it might be just an elite a space as the cafe in the 19th century. Furthermore, Facebook feeds are full of people with whom you have reciprocity, while Twitter does not. At the moment we have a pretty narrow set of opportunities for engagement.

  1. Funnel processes means that we are generating data, and value for others.

The processes of participation offered by social media mean that we can amplify and aggregate our views and our data and provide them to those in power. They are powerful but the question is, who is in control? Centralized social networks like Facebook provide platforms for engagement, but their cost is that they collect an enormous amount of information.

Our relationships with social media infrastructures influence our participation in ways that aren’t easy to see. Filters are part of what makes the platforms and infrastructure opaque. We don’t see the algorithms that sort our relationships.

  1. We create relationships with infrastructures

One big difference between social media participation and participation in other types of politics ishow these applications are now becoming infrastructures for participation. To understand them, we need to know more about how they are built, how they work, and who controls them. Yes, we want to make things together, and we want to make relationships with people. It’s easier to do this using applications like Facebook Twitter, and YouTube. But this also means creating a relationship with the platform itself. The algorithms to which we’ve delegated the work of connecting and communicating also have agency. We don’t know much about them and their relationship to our participation is opaque. Sometimes, we get a small view into the algorithms of certain systems – but generally we have so little understanding of the ways that our participation is mediated through the experiences of filter, feed and funnel.

The question of social media use and agency is not just a question of knowing or being able to understand the design process. If different generations or social groups want to relate to each other in different ways, then there’s social interest in understanding how different infrastructures shape and are shaped by those relationships. But we are participating more – and this needs to be more progressive than simply turning icons green, or saving the Brazilian Galvao (see Ethan Zuckerman on this inside joke).

Part 4: So what do we do?


  1. build our own infrastructures. This is the most direct form of participation. There are lots of good examples of this, from community broadband infrastructures to local wireless networks like Ile Sans Fil in my hometown Montreal or the Friefunk network in Berlin. Hardware hacking and the developoment of open source hardware is also part of this participation. These are access networks but they are also participation networks – getting people together in real places to apply technology to a problem. And local infrastructures can turn around feed, filter and funnel. Local WiFi hotspots can provide information using the location as a filter, inviting engagement in local art or in local politics. But they are again limited by the insularity of their
  2. Open the code: local networks are made possible by both free software and by the network. Now there is recognition that centralized social networks are using funnel to generate too much value for too few people.  Crabgrass and possibly the Diaspora project (when it’s built) are platforms that use the beneficial affordances of social networks but are based on the principles of GNU Social, and on individual control of privacy.
  3. Figure out how feed, filter and funnel can work transformatively. It’s tempting to argue that “we” the technically-savvy should remake social media, but network effects mean that common platforms will be used by more people, so creating an alternative infrastructure may not be the most effective way of working for transformation. Participation means everyone – and the logic of social media makes it harder for everyone to be heard The challenge is to make things BESIDES the tools open – like organizations, innovation cycles, and structures of participation.