Here Comes Everybody Part 2 (Keep the Booze Hidden!)

Back to Clay Shirky! In chapter 3 of his book, Here Comes Everybody!, Shirky writes about the effects the internet has had on journalism as a profession. He makes the argument that when anyone can be a professional, then no one is. He also calls in to question the validity of online journalists. Are their contributions to our daily intake of news just as important as “real” journalists or are they actually hindering the process?

To be fair, journalists are held to a standard that just doesn’t apply to bloggers. When a blogger makes a mistake, misquotes someone, or just plain lies, he can either correct his writing or not. There is no real accountability. We have seen time and time again seen what happens to professional journalists when they make the same mistakes.

The major question to answer her is how valid is blogging as a journalistic endeavor? I would argue that it is very valid. The most prominent example that jumps to mind is The Drudge Report. Started as just another celebrity tabloid, Matt Drudge gained some attention when he broke the the story of Jack Kemp running with Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential election. It’s easy to write that off as a one-shot deal, but the next big story he broke was not so easy. In 1998, he reported that Newsweek had information on President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and that they were sitting on the story. Of course this forced Newsweek to publish the report since someone had already published it for them!

Now, this is where we get in to why I think it is just as valid if not more so to call news bloggers “real” journalist. Newsweek, for whatever reason, was sitting on a story that could show that a sitting president had perjured himself under oath and was having an adulterous affair right in the oval office. I can imagine a lot of powerful people wanting to keep a story like that under wraps. I can also imagine an editor or reporter shelving the story due to promises and/or threats from some those powerful people. Drudge on the other hand could only gain from reporting that same story.

So what’s my point? Well, first, journalists are professionals. They get a paycheck from an editor. They also need access to key political, business, and social people. That access unfortunately comes at a price. Suppose you want an exclusive interview with Senator Y, but he finds out that next week you are going to right an exposé on his dirty dealings. In most cases, what do you think it’s going to take to get that interview? Maybe the journalist in question is honest enough to disagree to the condition of shelving the story. What about his editor though? The editor is going to have even more at stake than the journalist. He can always hire new writers, but if he loses access to his information sources then he can no longer produce.

Now, let’s look at it from the perspective of the blogger. She knows someone who worked directly for Senator Y in his dirty dealings. As someone who is another voice in a sea of voices, she has no chance of ever getting access to the senator. What she can do though is break a major story about political corruption. Suddenly the news is out and the media has no choice but to cover the issue. Now it’s Senator Y who is begging to tell his side of the story. Meanwhile, the blogger has gained a following due to her ability to break news that the news industry was either unable or unwilling to break. Now she has access to sources, politicians, celebrities, etc. She is now making money off her writing and becoming more and more relevant. Isn’t she now a journalist? Even Shirky raised this same question in regards to Xeni Jardin. She was hired by NPR mainly due to her work on Boing Boing.

With reports over the last few years of newspapers filing for bankruptcy left and right, it is obvious that new media is having a major effect on old media. The ad revenue and subscriptions that newspapers depended on aren’t drying up. No, they are moving. The ad revenue has migrated to websites that can boast millions of unique viewers every day. Some produce numbers that most newspapers could only dream of. Blogger.com, Twitter, WordPress, and Tumblr are all sites dedicated to blogging in one form or another. All of them are in the top 50 most visited websites on the internet!

So what does it all mean? I believe it means that in the future, news will be more and more reliant on so-called amateur journalist. It all boils down to one key reason: access. A reporter can not be on scene anytime some major event happens, but some random guy with a phone and a Twitter account may very well be there. Information like that can spread at the speed of the internet! Sure, we may still rely on traditional news media to bring us the views of experts and those directly involved in major stories, but we are bound to see these stories originating in none traditional places. Is that good or bad? I don’t really know. I guess only time will tell (cliche, I know). What’s your take on the issue. Leave me a comment. Let’s discuss it.

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Futurists…Sometimes They Aren’t Crazy

In July of 1945, Dr. Vannevar Bush wrote an article for The Atlantic. At the time Dr. Bush was Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Basically, they were responsible for figuring out ways to kill people effectively and efficiently. So what I am saying is that the man was definitely a mad scientist of sorts.

Artist representation of the average OSRD scientist.

The reason I bring up the mad scientist aspect of Dr. Bush’s job is because the article he wrote, titled As We May Think, was far and away beyond anything possible at the time. In this paper, Dr. Bush is looking to direct scientists towards more noble efforts since the end of World War II was rapidly approaching. At the time, computational power was minimal at best. Most complicated calculations had to be done by hand. Storage medium was practically non-existent. Dr. Bush sought to direct the scientific community in the towards developing this technology. Many of his ideas and solutions in As We May Think are actually in use today. In some ways, even his vision was limited compared to the technology in existence today.

At the time the article was written the closes thing humanity had to a computer looked like this:

This thing definitely would not fit on my desk...

Within 50 years we had this:

This could do the job of thousands of the above "computer".

Today I have more computing power than 10 of the Compaq above in this:

Yeah, that's a phone. Or, is it a computer? There's no real distinction anymore.

As you can see, computers have developed rapidly since the 1940s. It was a slow start, but the minds of people like Dr. Bush is what made it all possible. He was not afraid to think outside of the box. Even better than that, he was not afraid to publish these thoughts and to encourage others to research and develop these wacky ideas.

Again, on many things Dr. Bush misses the mark, but even there he more or less gets things right. For example, he spends a good deal of the beginning of the article describing the technological advances of cameras. In fact, he stops very, very short of describing a modern day digital camera. What he was focusing on was the potential for film, microfilm specifically, to act as a storage and input method in computers. He saw vast potential in microfilm as being able to accumulate and expand upon human knowledge. He also envisioned a way for a user to be able to upload to a computer using some sort of photographic technique. Again, this idea was more prophetic than anything else. Today we do exactly that anytime we use a scanner. While it may not have occurred to most people, a scanner is simply a giant digital camera and all it really does is take a high resolution picture of whatever the user wants to scan in.

I can neither condone nor advise this.

My enjoyment of this article was not so much in the style, wording, or excitement of the writing itself. No, what I found fascinating is that even in 1945, that’s 66 years ago, there were already brilliant people thinking about ways to make real computing available. Not only did they think about ways to make it happen, but they were also able to imagine many ways in which computers of any significant power would benefit humanity. Don’t get me wrong, obviously all great creations have to start somewhere. I really do understand this. Considering how for computing has come in the last 10 years alone, it is amazing that some men had/have the vision to see what is possible.

The icing on the cake for Dr. Bush is that his article, written so many years ago, is available still to this day. Only it’s not just available in print like when it was originally published. Today anyone with a connection to the internet can view his prophecy. They can copy and paste it to so many different storage mediums that they would even make his head spin.

Really, I can not recommend enough that computer and history buffs should check this article out. I loved it and have forwarded it to many people. I would love to discuss it further so comments are most definitely encouraged.

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Rape is Serious When It’s Real!

Way back when the internet was first learning to walk, we didn’t have MMOs like we do today. Our characters were not graphically represented by millions of pixels in full color detail. No, we had to write them in to existence. We had to write their actions in to existence as well. We were doing it all on something called a MUD (Multi-User Dungeon). One particular MUD called LambdaMOO was shaken to its core by a deranged individual known by the not-at-all creepy name of Mr. Bungles.

That was the basis of Julian Dibbell’s A Rape in Cyberspace. What happened was Mr. Bungles used a sort of backdoor program called a “voodoo doll”. This program attributed actions to characters that the owners themselves did not consent to. Obviously by the title these actions were sexual in nature. The community was outraged. Conferences were had and emotions ran wild. People truly felt as if they had been somehow violated. In the end, all they could really do ban the devious Mr. Bungles.

I think this event raised some very genuine issues. Where is the line that separates our online characters from our real life counterparts? Is there even a distinction? For some people, I would argue that their online presence is just as, if not more, important to them. As I stated above, at that time you didn’t just click through a few preset customizations for your character. No, you created them. Often times they were created to represent not necessarily who you are, but who you wanted to be. They could be someones hopes and dreams. They could also be a mirror of how you view yourself.

If that’s the case then a violation of the character could easily be seen as a violation of the self. Perhaps even worse, it could be an attack and a molestation of another persons hopes and their dreams. Something like that could indeed have very serious emotional consequences.

While it would be easy to dismiss these people as investing too much time in to a “fake” character, it is important to put it in to perspective. People become emotionally attached to non-living or entirely made up entities all the time. How many times have you cried at the end of a sad movie or book, been mad at a devious character on a television show, or felt sorrow when a celebrity or popular politician died? I would argue that our attachment to those things is no where near as strong as the users of LambdaMOO had to their characters.

The most important thing I got out of all of this is that the more important our online presences become to us, the better care we need to take when dealing with one another. It’s not an easy issue to deal with. What are your thoughts on the issue?

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The War on Drugs or the War on Us?

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.


Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Read those words carefully. They mean something. I am about to write about something that I very rarely discuss in public. My stance on this subject is controversial especially in coming from a semi-conservative person in Texas.

I came across this article in the L.A. Times that has my blood boiling. Apparently going after users of medical marijuana and those who supply them is about to become a top priority for a government that can barely afford to run itself anymore. According to the federal government’s classification system, cannabis has no medical value and a high potential for abuse. This is contrary to the many, many, many studies showing otherwise.

The reason I posted the above two Amendments from the Bill of Rights is because they are what I believe should be the deciding factor on why states should have the right to legalize marijuana for medicinal and even non-medicinal purposes. Of course the Supreme Court of the United States disagrees with me.

In Gonzales v. Raich, the SCOTUS decided that since Congress could ban marijuana for recreational use, then they could also ban it for medicinal use so that people couldn’t use it as a recreational drug. Yeah, anyone with half a brain can see the flaw in this argument. By that same reasoning we should outlaw alcohol because minors might use it. In fact, the ruling gives way to outlawing anything legal simply because someone may use it for illegal purposes.

In United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, the SCOTUS ruled that since Congress did not include a medical exception in the Controlled Substances Act, then California had no right to legalize marijuana for medical use. They claimed that only Congress and not the courts could make the decision about whether or not there should be an exception. I will explain shortly why that reasoning is invalid in this case.

The Controlled Substances Act is a federal law passed in 1970 that created 5 extremely arbitrary (my opinion) classes for drugs. The reasoning behind it is that Congress can make this law based on the interstate commerce clause in the Constitution (Article 1, section 8). The SCOUTS rulings in both Gonzalez and Oakland points out that only Congress has the right to regulate commerce between states. Unfortunately, this argument falls flat when it comes to states who have legalized marijuana for medicinal usage.

They base this on the idea that having legal marijuana in California would affect prices in other states. Therefor it would have an effect on interstate commerce. The problem there is that marijuana trafficking is illegal. How can you justify banning the legality of something in one place because it will cause price fluctuations in places that it is still illegal? Wouldn’t that mean that Congress has a duty to outlaw gambling at the federal level? After all, odds in Las Vegas have a direct affect on bookies taking illegal bets in New York!

Now, why did I put the 9th and 10th Amendments at the beginning of this post? Well, I believe those are the two Constitutional clauses that really count in this matter. First, the people of California and of 15 other states as well as D.C. have decided that medical marijuana is a right retained by their voters. The 9th Amendment prevents the federal government for usurping their choice. The 10th Amendment explicitly allows those states and the people residing in them the right to make these laws. Drugs in general are never once mentioned in the Constitution and the federal government is damned sure never given any authority over their regulation especially when they are confined within the borders of one state or the other. So long as the marijuana does not cross state lines, they have no vested interest in the matter.

So, that’s my take on the issue. Obama has decided to follow in Bush’s footsteps on this matter. Both Presidents stated that they would not expend federal resources harassing cancer patients. Both back peddled and gave in to pressure from the multi-billion dollar industry that is appropriately called the war on drugs. This is a war that has been declared on the American people by their own government. A good deal of us just go along with it though because we have to protect our children. What a load of crap!

Anyways, I will get off my soapbox now. Any comments or concerns are always welcomed. You can be sure that your opinion will be valued and taken in to consideration. Thank you for reading.

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World-Wide Web Today

The World-Wide Web. I am willing to bet that it has been a long time since anyone reading this has heard the internet referred to in that way. Just recently, I read an article written by Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Ari Luotonen, Henrik Frystyk Nielsen, and Arthur Secret called The World-Wide Web published in Communications of the ACM, August 1994, No. 8. (unfortunately you can only read it if you buy it, sorry). Why did I list all of their names instead of using et. al? I did it because this paper was written at a time when it took five highly educated people to write a paper describing what we know today as the internet. To be perfectly clear, I am not putting these men down. In fact, we owe it all to Berners-Lee and Cailliau. Those guys literally invented the internet! Sorry Al Gore, we found the guys who really did it! All of the authors of this paper are very, very important men when it comes to constructing the internet as we know it today. Just read through their Wikipedia pages:

Tim Berners-Lee

Robert Cailliau

Ari Luotonen – He doesn’t have his own, but the CERN httpd article points it out pretty well.

Henrik Frystyk Nielsen

Arthur Secret unfortunately does not have a Wikipedia page either, but his W3 link still shows that he was heavily involved in the World Wide Web Consortium. Those are the guys who decide what protocols run the internet.

The main focus of the paper was to describe the various protocols needed to run the internet on your home computer. HTTP, FTP, HTML, URL, NNTP, Gopher, MIME, are all terms that just don’t really mean anything anymore. The paper went in to great detail about these terms. If you really want to know about those things, just follow the links.

To start off with, it is important to understand that technically the world wide web and the internet are two different entities. The good ‘ol WWW is a collection of documents, software, and content that runs over the internet. Realistically speaking, they have merged and are more or less one in the same now. Most people no longer distinguish the two from one another and most really don’t care that they are supposed to be two different things.

Now, what I want to focus on is not so much the content of the paper, but more on what has changed in the 17 years since it was published. The internet is probably one of the fastest developed technologies in all of human history. Once it was made widely available to the public, there was no closing Pandora’s Box.

Much of what we know and love about the internet did not exist when this paper was written. The first web browser, Mosaic, did not come in to existence until 1993. It was the first program with a GUI interface to the web. Instead of having to download the text using one program, the graphics using another, and the files yet another, it could all be done using one clean interface. The development of Mosaic greatly increased the popularity of the web and led to an arms race of sorts.

Netscape (1994), Internet Explorer (1995), Opera,(1996) Firefox (1999 Mozilla M3), Safari (2003), and Chrome (2008) all developed in rapid succession. There have been many others who have tried to breach the market, but those were the big dogs. As you can see, not all of them are still around and some of them have been cast in to obscurity.

What they all do is basically the same thing. They take advantage of, translate, and display content using all of the different protocols I mentioned above. They make the user interface so easy that knowledge of how the protocols work or the language used to make the run is simply not necessary. Anyone can get on and use a web browser without ever having to know more than how to type in http://www.google.com.

Since 1994, many new protocols have come in to existence. Instead of HTML, we now use Java, Javascript, CSS, XML, Flash, and HTML5. All of these combine to produce not just text or simple graphics on a page, but a multimedia experience on just about every page we visit today. Those using the web in 1994 or 2001 for that matter would never have dreamed of sites like YouTube even being possible. If we wanted to watch a video back then, we had to download it first. The closest thing we had to embedded video was the .gif format. Basically we went from this:

To this:

Yeah, that’s a whole episode not just a small snippet made to look like animation.

What’s also important to understand is that in 1994 there was probably less information, bit wise, on the entire web than exists just on YouTube today. Data that Berners-Lee et. al dealt with could easily be delivered over a 14.4kb connection. When the 56kb connection came out, those of us on the web at the time thought there was know way we could realistically take advantage of such outrageously fast speeds. Today we need at least a 1mb connection to be able to check our email!

The point I am trying to make is that I believe that not even the creators of the web themselves could have envisioned what we are doing with it today. Entire social movements are being coordinated on it, whole libraries are available to anyone at anytime, and the entirety of visual entertainment is available instantly. We have gone past simply sharing ideas. We now create and collaborate on ideas. Billion dollar businesses are built on the architecture that they created. We have taken this tool for educational purposes and turned it in to THE tool of the world.

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Great Moments in Internet History Part 1

Hello everyone! I have decided to start randomly chronicling great moments in internet history. These will not be important events, but rather they will be random and LOL worthy events in the history of the internet. So let’s go ahead and get this train rolling!

LiveJournal says “NO” to fanfic!

Way, way back (in technology and internet time) people used a service called LiveJournal. It was a veritable wasteland of crappy fan fiction, crappier “blogs” (if you count angsty teenager whining about how horrible life is as a blog), and the crappiest thing of all: furries. At one point someone over at LiveJournal, then owned by SixApart, wisely decided enough is enough!

In May of 2007, LiveJournal mods were given a mission. They were told to seek out and destroy all fan fiction, more specifically slash fiction, involving Harry Potter and underage characters in general. Now, it is important to understand that these journals were not devoted to people simply extending J.K. Rowlings stories or putting the characters in different scenarios. No, not at all. These people were writing these characters in to various sexual scenarios. Bad writing? Check! Copyright violations? Maybe, maybe not. Pedophilia? Oh yeah, you better believe it!

Anyways, the user base was sent in to an uproar. They believed they should have been given some sort of warning. I personally wonder what type of warning that would have been. Maybe something like this, “excuse me sir/miss, but we really need you to go ahead and back up your smut involving underage children. Yeah, we are going to delete your possibly illegal material.”

People furiously protested the move by…well, by posting on LiveJournal. Of course there were threats of deleting accounts that were never followed up on, threats of taking it to the media as if they would care, and the almighty threat to sue for violation of something or another. The really strange part came when LiveJournal backed down. If any entity was ever in the right for so-called censorship it was LiveJournal on this issue. Their own terms of service banned any material that would encourage or condone any illegal behavior. I would call pedophilia pretty damned illegal.

So in the end the people stayed. The content was mostly restored. The people of LiveJournal were able to continue writing fan fiction about the homosexual relationship Harry had with Dumbledore to their heart’s content.

Google Becomes Evil!

Ah Google! Everyone loves them, or do they? Since it’s beginning in 1998, Google has had an unofficial motto of “Don’t Be Evil”. Sounds simple, right? I mean it’s not like evil is a subjective term or anything. Well, in 2004 they went public. Today Google has the highest price for a single piece of stock. That’s right, not even Apple and Exxon stock, the two most valuable overall companies in the world, can touch Google’s per share price. That by itself is enough to send most hipsters and hippies running, but what they did in 2005 made a lot of people look twice.

Google China was founded in 2005 in an effort to expand Google’s already huge market share in to China. China has over a billion potential customers which makes it practically the largest market in the world. In order to get in to that market, Google immediately started censoring the internet in mainland China. Yes, evil, according to many people, had invaded Google. Google’s argument was a sound one though. They believed that by working with and being a part of the IT industry in China that they could help to open up and ease censorship. How wrong they were!

Eventually the honeymoon ended when Google found that government sponsored hacking had been going on. That’s when Google decided they had had enough of China’s crap and moved operations to Hong Kong. They were done censoring and were officially taking their ball and going home. There was much rejoicing by the hippie community.

Okay, that’s going to be it for this week. Check back later for more adventures with Great Moments in Internet History!

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Here Comes Everybody! (Quick, Hide the Booze!)

Clay Shirky, an obvious favorite in English 3372, wrote Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, in 2008. It’s primary focus is on group organization, mobilization, and effectiveness in a modern world that is dominated by social media. My focus was on Chapter 1: It Takes a Village To Find a Phone.

Shirky recounted a harrowing tale of a lost phone that led to espionage (sort of) and the coming together of powerful forces to tackle the issue of injustice. This eventually leads to the involvement of the police, town hall, and even the military.

In reality, the story is much more mundane. A lady carelessly left a phone in  a taxi. Some hapless teenager got their hands on said phone and refused to return it when confronted. Wrong? Yes, absolutely, but hardly worthy of global notice. With that said, global notice it got. What happened was an interesting look in to society and what it can do with a global network of like-minded individuals.

As Shirky pointed out, the story struck a nerve with people. I will not recount all of the events as you can read about it in much greater detail here, here, and of course in the above link. Basically, people heard about what was going on through the modern day equivalence of word of mouth advertising. What happened was Mr. Guttman put together a page detailing the ordeal. This page included pictures the suspect took on the lost/stolen phone (obviously not the brightest crayon in the box). He included rapid updates. That’s very important to the story since people seem to get bored very fast. This page was sent to his friends who sent it to their friends and so on. Eventually it ended up on the front page of Digg. That’s no easy task since typically only important news of the day and cute pictures of kittens wind up on the front page. Obviously something in this story caught a lot of people’s attention.

The attention the story garnered is not what is important here though. What is important is what one man was able to do with the power of a global community behind him. Had something like this happened a decade before, it would have gone nowhere. The ability of the common man to reach the masses was almost non-existent. A newspaper or nightly news program would have had no interest in something as trivial as a lost phone. I am sure those in charge would have had some degree of empathy or maybe even sympathy, but to run the story alongside presidential debates, murders, or missing persons would have been viewed as a waste of time and resources.

Even when the media did get involved with the missing phone story, they weren’t interested in the phone itself so much as they were interested in the attention something so commonly lost could gain. An entire network of people from lawyers to police officers and from hackers to military personnel were galvanized in to a frenzy of vigilantism. They all had one common goal and were going to achieve it no matter the cost. I believe this is one of the real and tangible dangers of social networking.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe the benefits of social networks and user generated content for outweigh the downsides. I will, however, concede that there is a dark side. The above story doesn’t exactly seem like a bad use of social networking on the surface, but if you look just beneath the surface you will see something rather disturbing. The person who had the phone was a 16 year old girl. Sure, she should have given it back, but should she have also been subject to having her picture plastered all over the internet? Should her personal details have been put up for the whole world to see? Basically, was a phone really worth the harassment of a child? Say what you will, but a 16 year old girl is indeed still a child.

Put in that context, doesn’t it seem like this was turned in to an endeavor to put a boot on a child’s neck for daring to act like a child? I personally believe so, but we as a society cheered because a wrong was supposedly righted. Yes, the phone was returned. The question you have to ask is this: did the ends justify the means? Personally I don’t think so.

This was not the last time communities on the internet sprang in to action to punish those who they felt deserving. It was probably one of the last time that we cheered them on though. Recently, a poor girl who went by Jessi Slaughter (caution: adult language and content) was put through a brutal campaign of harassment, abuse, and even death threats for simply being a teenager on the internet. She was obnoxious, boisterous, and vain. Like I said, a typical teenager.  Like the poor girl who took the phone, Jessi’s information was put up all over the internet. Her name, phone number, and even physical address were revealed all in the name of teaching her a lesson. Sound familiar? In this case though, the community was the bad guy. I have to wonder if there really is a difference?

As Shirky pointed out, it is important to understand that we are social animals. Our civilization is a thin disguise for an underlying instinct to follow the pack. We don’t willingly do it; it is a part of who we are. We evolved to form groups. Group think is something that comes natural to us. That is why riots, stampedes, and gang violence continues to persist. We want to go along with the group. Why would we assume anything different would happen on the internet? When some people see their group going after someone who is not one of them, they want to belong. They want to join.

So what does all of that mean? I believe it means we need to be careful. It really is that simple. By putting up the means and methods for harassment, we have a responsibility to use it wisely. We owe it to each other to put our abilities and our connections to good use. The thin veil over society depends on us largely playing our parts for the good of everyone else. Despite what some may believe, this veil extends to the social networking and the entire internet as a whole.

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