Tag Archives: twitter

China, Twitter and the 0.1%

Earlier this month I had the good fortune of visiting China – a place I’m deeply curious about and – aside from some second year university courses, the reporting from the Economist, and the occasional trip over to Tea Leaf Nation – remains too foreign to me for comfort given its enormous importance.

As always China – or to be specific – Beijing is overwhelming. The pollution, the people, the energy, the scale. It can be hard to grasp or describe. But I want to talk about my conversations which were overwhelming in other, equally fantastic ways.

As an indirect result of the trip I just posted a piece up on the WeGov section of TechPresident asking “Is Sina Weibo a Means of Free Speech or a Means of Social Control.” The post comes out of a dinner conversation I had in Beijing with Michael Anti, an exceedingly smart and engaging Chinese journalist, political blogger and former Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard who has a very interesting analysis about Weibo (Chinese twitter) as a means to enhance the power of the central government. The piece is worth reading largely because of the thoughts he has that are embedded in it.

There was another interesting thread that came out of our dinner conversation – one that was equally sobering. Michael described himself as part of the “Generation 70,” those who, if it isn’t obvious, were born in the 70s. For him, the defining trait or esprit, of that generation was a sense of possibility. As he noted “I’m from a humble family and fairly unimportant city in China, and I got to end up at Harvard.” For him and his peers as China grew, so did many of their opportunities. He argues that they were able to dream big in ways the almost no previous generation of Chinese could.

He contrasts that with the “Generation 90,” those now in mid teens to mid twenties and he sees a generation with small dreams and growing frustration. Forget about access to the top international universities in the world. Indeed, forget about access to top Chinese universities. Such opportunities are now reserved for the super rich and the super connected. What many have felt was a system that was relatively meritocratic is now flagrantly not. According to Anti, the result is that Generation 90 does not have big dreams. Forget about become a world class scientist, founding a leading company, leading an interesting organization. Many do not even dream of owning an apartment. This evolution (devolution?) in moods was summed up succinctly in a poster Anti saw at a demonstration a few months earlier which nihilistic read “We are Generation 90: Sacrifice Us.”

A few days later I had the good fortune of being in Soho (a very upscale neighborhood in Beijing) with a group of Generation 90ers. Eating at a very nice Chinese restaurant above a Nike and Apple store I discretely asked a few them if they agreed with Anti’s assessment about Generation 90.

Were they optimistic about their future? What were their dreams? Did they feel like opportunities for them were shrinking?

I was stunned.

They agreed with Anti. Here I was, in the nation’s capital, sitting in an upper middle class restaurant, with a vibrant, intelligent, bilingual group of young Chinese. This is a group that would easily fit in the top 5% in terms of education, opportunity and income, and most probably in the 1%. And they felt that opportunity for their generation were limited. Their dreams, were more limited than the generation before them.

Maybe this is a sort of Gen X syndrome Chinese style, but if I were the Chinese government, such sentiment would have me worried. There is an acceptance – from what I observed – in China that the system is rigged – but there was clearly a sense that before the benefits were more widely distributed, or at least available on a limited meritocratic basis.

I’ve never been as bullish on China as some of my peers. Between the demographic time bomb that is about to explode, the fact the state spends more on internal security than the military and the weak sense of the rule of law (essential for any effective market) I’ve felt that China’s problems are deeper and ultimately harder to address than say those in India or Brazil. But this conversation has given me new pause. If the 5% or worse, the 1% don’t feel like China can make room for them, where does that leave everyone else not in the .1%? These are, of course, problems many societies must face. But public discourse in China on a subject like this is almost certainly much harder to engage in than in say, Brazil, India or America.

China is a wonderfully complex and nuanced place. So maybe this all means nothing. Maybe it is a sort of Gen X funk. But it has given me a whole lot more to think about.

Links on Social Media & Politics: Notes from "We Want Your Thoughts #4"

Last night I had a great time taking the stage with Alexandra Samuel in Vancouver for “We Want Your Thoughts” at the Khafka coffee house on Main St. The night’s discussion was focused on Social Media – from chit chat to election winner – what next?” (with a little on the social media driven response to the riots thrown in for good measure).

Both Alex and I promised to post some links from our blogs for attendees so what follows is a list of some thoughts on the subject I hope everyone can find engaging.

On Social Media generally, probably the most popular post on this blog is this piece: Twitter is my Newspaper: explaining twitter to newbies. More broadly thinking about the internet and media, this essay I wrote with Taylor Owen is now a chapter in this university textbook on journalism. Along with this post as a sidebar note (different textbook), which has been one of my most read.

On the riots, I encourage you to read Alexandra Samuel’s post on the subject (After a Loss in Vancouver, Troubling Signals of Citizen Surveillance) and my counter thoughts (Social Media and Rioters) – a blogging debate! You can also hear me talk about the issue on an interview on CBC’s Cross Country Checkup on the issue (around hour 1).

On social media and politics, maybe some of the most notable pieces include a back forth between myself and Michael Valpy who felt that social media was ending our social cohesion and destroying democracy (obviously, this was pre-Middle East Riots and the proroguing Parliament debate). I responded with a post on why his arguments were flawed and that actually the reverse was true. He responded to that post in The Mark. And I posted response to that as well. It all makes for a good read.

Rob-Cottingham-graphic-summary

Rob Cottingham’s Visual Notes of the first 15 minutes

Then there were some pieces on Social Media and the Proroguing of Parliament. I had this piece in the Globe and then this post talking a little more about the media’s confused relationship with social media and politics.

Finally, one of the points I referred to several times yesterday was the problem of assuming social values won’t change when talking about technology adoption and its impact, probably the most explicit post I’ve written on the subject is this one: Why the Internet Will Shape Social Values (and not the other way around)

Finally, some books/articles I mentioned or on topic:

Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World by Evgeny Morozov

The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks an article in the Atlantic by Alexis Madrigal

I hope this is interesting.

Social Media and Rioters

My friend Alexandra Samuel penned a piece titled “After a Loss in Vancouver, Troubling Signals of Citizen Surveillance” over at the Harvard Business Review. The piece highlights her concern with the number of people willing to engage in citizen surveillance.

As she states:

It’s one thing to take pictures as part of the process of telling your story, or as part of your (paid or unpaid) work as a citizen journalist. It’s another thing entirely to take and post pictures and videos with the explicit intention of identifying illegal (or potentially illegal) activity. At that moment you are no longer engaging in citizen journalism; you’re engaging in citizen surveillance.

And I don’t think we want to live in a society that turns social media into a form of crowdsourced surveillance. When social media users embrace Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs as channels for curating, identifying and pursuing criminals, that is exactly what they are moving toward.

I encourage you to read the piece, and, I’m not sure I agree with much of it on two levels.

First, I want to steer away from good versus bad and right versus wrong. Social Media isn’t going to create only good outcomes, or only bad outcomes, it is going to create both (something I know Alex acknowledges). This technology will, like previous technologies, reset what normal means. In the new world we are becoming more powerful “sensors” in our society. We can enable others to know what, good and bad, is going on around us. To believe that we won’t share, and that others won’t use our shared information to inform their decisions, is simply not logical. As dBarefoot points out in the comments there are lots of social good that can come for surveillance. In the end you can’t post videos of human right injustices without also being able to post videos of people at abortion clinics, you can’t post videos of officials taking bribes without also being able to post videos of people smoking drugs at a party. The alternative, a society where people are not permitted to share, strikes me as even more dangerous than a society where we can share but where one element of that sharing ends up being used as surveillance. My suspicion is that we may end up regulating some use – there will be some things people cannot share online (visiting abortion clinics may end up being one of those) but I’m not confident of even this.

But I suspect that in a few decades my children will be stunned that I grew up in a world of no mutual surveillance. That we tolerated the risks of a world where mutual surveillance didn’t exist – they may wonder at a basic level, how we felt safe at night or in certain circumstances (I really recommend David Brin’s Science Fiction writing, especially Earth in which he explores this idea). I can also imagine they will find the idea of total anonymity and having an untraceable past to both eerie, frightening and intriguing. In their world, having grown up with social media will be different, some of the things we feel are bad, they will like, and vice versa.

Another issues missing from Alex’s piece is the role of the state. It is one thing for people to post pictures of each other, it is another about how, and if, the state does the same. As many tweeters stated – this isn’t 1994 (the last time there were riots in Vancouver). Social media is going to do is make the enforcement of law a much and the role of the state a much trickier subject. Ultimately, they cannot ignore photos of rioters engaged in illegal acts. So the question isn’t so much on what we are going to share, it is about what we should allow the state to do, and not to do, with the information we create. The state’s monopoly on violence gives it a unique role, one that will need to be managed carefully. This monopoly, combined with a world of perfect (or at least, a lot more) information will I imagine necessitate a state and justice system that that looks very, very different than the one we have right now if we are to protect of civil liberties as we presently understand them. (I suspect I’ll be writing some more about this)

But I think the place where I disagree the most with Alex is in the last paragraph:

What social media is for — or what it can be for, if we use it to its fullest potential — is to create community. And there is nothing that will erode community faster, both online and off, than creating a society of mutual surveillance.

Here, Alex confuses the society she’d like to live in with what social media enables. I see nothing to suggest that mutual surveillance will erode community, indeed, I think it already has demonstrated that it does the opposite. Mutual surveillance fosters lots of communities – from communities that track human rights abuses, to communities that track abortion providers to communities that track disabled parking violators. Surveillance builds communities, it may be that, in many cases, those communities pursue the marginalization of another community or termination of a specific behaviour, but that does not make them any less a part of our society’s fabric. It may not create communities everyone likes, but it can create community. What matters here is not if we can monitor one another, but what ends up happening with the information we generate, and why I think we’ll want to think hard about what we allow the state to do and to permit others to do, more and more carefully.

Egypt: Connected to revolution

This piece is cross-posted from the Opinion Page of the Toronto Star which was kind enough to publish it this morning.

Over the weekend something profound happened. The Egyptian government, confronted with growing public unrest, attempted to disconnect itself. It shut down its cellular and telephone networks and unplugged from the Internet.

It was a startling recognition of this single most powerful force driving change in our world: connectivity. Our world is increasingly divided between the connected and the disconnected, between open and closed. This could be the dominant struggle of the 21st century and it forces us to face important questions about our principles and the world we want to live in.

Why does connectivity matter? Because it allows for free association and self-expression, both of which can allow powerful narratives to emerge in a society beyond the control of any elite.

In Egypt, the protests do not appear driven by some organized cabal. The Muslim Brotherhood — so long held up as the dangerous alternative to the regime — was caught flat-footed by the protests. The National Coalition for Change, headed by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, seems to have emerged as the protesters’ leader, not their instigator.

Instead, Egypt may simply have reached a tipping point. Its citizens, having witnessed the events in Tunisia, came to realize they were no longer atomized and uncoordinated in the face of a police state. They could self-organize, connect with one another, share stories and videos, organize meetings and protests. In short, they could tell their own narratives to one another, outside the government’s control.

These stories can be powerful.

In Egypt, a video of an unknown protester being shot and carried away has generated a significant viewership. In Iran, the video of Neda Agha-Soltan dying from a gunshot wound transformed her into a symbol. In Tunisia, videos of protestors being shot also helped mobilize the public.

Indeed, as the family of Mohamed Bouazizi — the man who by setting himself on fire out of frustration with local authorities, triggering the Tunisian protests — noted to an Al Jazeera reporter, people are protesting with “a rock in one hand, a cellphone in the other.”

This is what makes movements like this so hard to fight. There is no opposition group to blame, no subversive leadership to decapitate, no central broadcast authority to shut down. The only way to stop the protests is to eliminate the participants’ capacity to self-organize. During the Green Revolution in Iran, that meant shutting down some key websites; in Egypt, it appears to mean shutting down all communication.

Of course, this state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely. Too much of the Egyptian economy depends on people being able to connect. The network that makes possible a modern economy also makes possible a popular uprising.

At some point Egypt will have to decide: disconnect forever like North Korea, or reconnect and confront the reality of the connected world.

For those of us who believe in freedom, individuality, self-expression and democracy, connectivity is among our most powerful tools because it makes possible alternative narratives.

From East Germany to the Philippines, Iran to Tunisia, connectivity has played a key role in helping people organize against governments that would deny them their rights. It’s a tool democracies have often used, from broadcasts like Radio Free Europe during the Cold War to the U.S. government’s request that Twitter not conduct a planned upgrade to its website that would have disrupted its service during the recent Iranian Green Revolution.

But if we believe in openness, we must accept its full consequences. Our own governments have a desire to disconnect us from one another when they deem the information to be too dangerous.

Today most U.S. government departments, and some Canadian ministries, still deny their employees access to WikiLeak documents, disconnecting them from information that is widely available to the general public.

More darkly, the government pressured companies such as Amazon and Paypal to not offer their services to WikiLeaks — much like the Iranian government tried to disrupt Twitter’s service and the Tunisian government attempted to hijack Facebook’s. Nor is connectivity a panacea. In Iran, the regime uses photos and videos from social networks and websites to track down protestors. Connectivity does not guarantee freedom; it is simply a necessary ingredient.

The events in Egypt are a testament to the opportunity of the times we live in. Connectivity is changing our world, making us more powerful individually and collectively. But ultimately, if we wish to champion freedom and openness abroad — to serve as the best possible example for countries like Egypt — we must be prepared to do so at home.

David Eaves is a Vancouver-based public policy entrepreneur and adviser on open government and open data. He blogs at eaves.ca

Twitter, Criminal Investigations & Fox News North

Today, in a headline that came as somewhat of a shock (that, of course, I first saw on twitter) Kory Teneycke, the Quebecor Media vice-president and main advocate for the proposed Sun TV News Channel, announced his resignation. As backgrounder for those not familiar with this story, the proposed Sun TV News Channel is seeking to bring a conservative, Fox styled cable news channel to Canada. There has been a little bit of a battle over what type of license they should get which is covered very well in this blog post. What’s important is that Avaaz launched a petition against the proposed channel which subsequently had a number of false names added to it (adding someone else’s name to a petition is, I’m told, illegal in Canada).

What makes Teneycke’s resignation so interesting is that it comes on the heels of Avaaz asking the police to investigate the additions. It appears that, thanks to technology, figuring out who was illegally adding the names may not be that hard:

On September 2, 2010, Avaaz became aware that an individual operating from an Ottawa IP address was adding both fictional and actual names and email addresses to a petition to stop Prime Minister Harper from pushing biased crony media onto Canadian airwaves. The next morning, Quebecor executive and Sun TV front man Kory Teneycke published several pieces in Quebecor owned newspapers attacking Avaaz and accusing them of running a fraudulent petition – even quoting actual names added by the fraudster. Teneycke later admitted to insider knowledge of both the perpetrator and crimes committed.

Days later, Quebecor threatened to sue Avaaz for the content of its petition site.

In short, it appears that either Teneycke or someone he knew was adding false names to the petition so that a) Teneycke could write a story to discredit the petition and b) prompt Quebeccor to launch a lawsuit to have it taken down. This is serious stuff. Especially from someone who intends to run a news channel. (although, to be fair, it is consistent with the type of thing one might expect from Fox News).

Perhaps Teneycke’s resignation has nothing to do with the false names on the petition? But it is also worth noting that Teneycke’s twitter account is no longer active. This also means that the original offending tweet where he admits that he knew the person adding the false names can no longer be seen. Fortunately, on a lark, I took a screen shot of it the day it went up since, after reading CBC reporter Kady O’malley’s excellent coverage of the back and forth, since given her coverage something seemed very odd about the whole affair.

So what are some key lesson here?

a) Things on twitter don’t disappear

b) Manipulating the press in a world of social media is not as easy as you think it is, even for a former Prime Minister spokes person

c) It appears that Sun TV executives are every bit as slimy as the counterparts feared they would be. If even 10% of this is true then this is shocking behaviour from a proposed News television executive.

d) This may yet lead to Canada’s first high-profile criminal investigation involving twitter

Interesting stuff indeed.

Minister Moore and the Myth of Market Forces

Last week was a bad week for the government on the copyright front. The government recently tabled legislation to reform copyright and the man in charge of the file, Heritage Minister James Moore, gave a speech at the International Chamber of Commerce in which he decried those who questioned the bill as “radical extremists.” The comment was a none-too-veiled attack at people like University of Ottawa Professor Michael Geist who have championed for reasonable copyright reform and who, like many Canadians, are concerned about some aspects of the proposed bill.

Unfortunately for the Minister, things got worse from there.

First, the Minister denied making the comment in messages to two different individuals who inquired about it:

Still worse, the Minister got into a online debate with Cory Doctorow, a bestselling writer (he won the Ontario White Pine Award for best book last year and his current novel For the Win is on the Canadian bestseller lists) and the type of person whose interests the Heritage Minister is supposed to engage and advocate on behalf of, not get into fights with.

In a confusing 140 character back and forth that lasted a few minutes, the minister oddly defended Apple and insulted Google (I’ve captured the whole debate here thanks to the excellent people at bettween). But unnoticed in the debate is an astonishing fact: the Minister seems unaware of both the task at hand and the implications of the legislation.

The following innocuous tweet summed up his position:

Indeed, in the Minister’s 22 tweets in the conversation he uses the term “market forces” six times and the theme of “letting the market or consumers decide” is in over half his tweets.

I too believe that consumers should choose what they want. But if the Minister were a true free market advocate he wouldn’t believe in copyright reform. Indeed, he wouldn’t believe in copyright at all. In a true free market, there’d be no copyright legislation because the market would decide how to deal with intellectual property.

Copyright law exists in order to regulate and shape a market because we don’t think market forces work. In short, the Minister’s legislation is creating the marketplace. Normally I would celebrate his claims of being in favour of “letting consumers decide” since this legislation will determine what these choices will and won’t be. However, the Twitter debate should leave Canadians concerned since this legislation limits consumer choices long before products reach the shelves.

Indeed, as Doctorow points out, the proposed legislation actually kills concepts created by the marketplace – like Creative Commons – that give creators control over how their works can be shared and re-used:

But advocates like Cory Doctorow and Michael Geist aren’t just concerned about the Minister’s internal contradictions in defending his own legislation. They have practical concerns that the bill narrows the choice for both consumers and creators.

Specifically, they are concerned with the legislation’s handling of what are called “digital locks.” Digital locks are software embedded into a DVD of your favourite movie or a music file you buy from iTunes that prevents you from making a copy. Previously it was legal for you to make a backup copy of your favourite tape or CD, but with a digital lock, this not only becomes practically more difficult, it becomes illegal.

Cory Doctorow outlines his concerns with digital locks in this excellent blog post:

They [digital locks] transfer power to technology firms at the expense of copyright holders. The proposed Canadian rules on digital locks mirror the US version in that they ban breaking a digital lock for virtually any reason. So even if you’re trying to do something legal (say, ripping a CD to put it on your MP3 player), you’re still on the wrong side of the law if you break a digital lock to do it.

But it gets worse. Digital locks don’t just harm content consumers (the very people people Minister Moore says he is trying to provide with “choice”); they harm content creators even more:

Here’s what that means for creators: if Apple, or Microsoft, or Google, or TiVo, or any other tech company happens to sell my works with a digital lock, only they can give you permission to take the digital lock off. The person who created the work and the company that published it have no say in the matter.

So that’s Minister Moore’s version of “author’s rights” — any tech company that happens to load my books on their device or in their software ends up usurping my copyrights. I may have written the book, sweated over it, poured my heart into it — but all my rights are as nothing alongside the rights that Apple, Microsoft, Sony and the other DRM tech-giants get merely by assembling some electronics in a Chinese sweatshop.

That’s the “creativity” that the new Canadian copyright law rewards: writing an ebook reader, designing a tablet, building a phone. Those “creators” get more say in the destiny of Canadian artists’ copyrights than the artists themselves.

In short, the digital lock provisions reward neither consumers nor creators. Instead, they give the greatest rights and rewards to the one group of people in the equation whose rights are least important: distributors.

That a Heritage Minister doesn’t understand this is troubling. That he would accuse those who seek to point out this fact and raise awareness to it as “radical extremists” is scandalous. Canadians have entrusted in this person the responsibility for creating a marketplace that rewards creativity, content creation and innovation while protecting the rights of consumers. At the moment, we have a minister who shuts out the very two groups he claims to protect while wrapping himself in a false cloak of the “free market.” It is an ominous start for the debate over copyright reform and the minister has only himself to blame.

The Irony of Wente, Opinions, Blogs and Gender

Once again a Globe Columnist talks about technology in a manner that is not just factually completely incorrect but richly Ironic!

Earlier today Margaret Wente published a piece titled “Why are bloggers male?” (I suspect it is in print, but who knows…). The rich irony is that Wente says she doesn’t blog because she doesn’t have instant opinions. Readers of her column likely have their doubts. Indeed, I hate to inform Ms. Wente that she does have a blog. It’s called her column.

Reading her piece, one wonders if Wente has ever followed a blog. Her claim that women don’t like to emit opinions every 20 minutes struck me – as an incredibly active blogger – as odd. I post 4 times a week. Of course, as anyone who actually uses the internet knows, there is a blogging like medium where people are more predisposed to comment frequently (although not every 20 minutes). It’s called twitter. But if, as Wente claims, women are hardwired to not share opinions, why then – according to Harvard Business School – do women outnumber men on twitter 55% to 45%? Indeed, what is disturbing about the Harvard survey is that rather than some innate desire to have opinions, women suffer from the disadvantage of having their opinions marginalized for some other (social) reason. Both women and men tend to follow men on twitter rather than women.

But forget about the complete lack of thought in Wente’s analysis. Let’s just take a look at the facts.

Her piece starts off with the claim that men are more likely to blog than women. Of course Wente doesn’t cite (or hyperlink? the internet is 40 years old…) a source so it is hard to know if this is a fact or merely an opinion. Sadly, a quick google search shows Wente’s opinions don’t match up with the facts. According to a 2005 Pew Research Centre study (look! A hyperlink to a source!):

“Women and men have statistical parity in the blogosphere, with women representing 46% of bloggers and men 54%”

Awkward.

But it get’s worse. In The Blogging Iceberg by the now defunct Perseus’ Development Corporation claims that its research shows that that males were more likely than females to abandon blogs, with 46.4% of abandoned blogs created by males (versus 40.7% of active blogs created by males). That might even tilt the balance in favour of women… And of course, in France, that is what Médiamétrie has found, with over 50% French bloggers being female.

I do agree the men are potentially more likely to share their opinion than women. But there may be strong social reasons for this and it is clearly not that cut and dry. Many women have decided they want to share their opinions via twitter – indeed more women than men have. And of course, when it comes to being “quick to have opinions on subjects they know little or nothing about” men hardly have a monopoly. One need only look at Wente’s daily blog. Or, I meant to say, column.

Okay, that’s two blogs in one day. I’m taking tomorrow off.

Added March 19th: Nick C sent me a link to a fantastic post by Spydergrrl in which she points out that this was probably all a gimmick to get people to show up to an event Wente is putting on. It is a dark, unnerving perspective but one that sounds plausible. So, I say, boycott Wente’s event.