On Change.org’s 50 Million Milestone and the Importance-Meter

This weekend, Change.org hit a big milestone: 50 million people worldwide have now taken action on their site*.

That’s huge.  By way of comparison, Avaaz.org has just over 31 million people.  It seems that Change.org’s controversial decision to stay politically neutral is paying off**.

For the past month, I’ve been visiting the homepages of Change.org and SignOn.org every day.  I record the top 10 petitions promoted by each site.  I’ll be doing this for another five months to create a dataset that I can use to draw some firm comparisons. Despite the milestone, I have to admit that the more time I spend studying Change.org, the more ambivalent I feel about the company.

The thing that bugs me about the top Change.org petitions is what we might call the lack of an “importance-meter.”

The #1 petition at Change.org today is titled “Justice for Andra Grace — Tougher Animal Abuse Laws Are Necessary!”  The petition tells the heart-rending story of a South Carolina man who tried to kill a dog by dragging it behind his pickup truck.  The maximum penalty for his crime in South Carolina is only $1,100 and/or 30 days in jail.  The author concludes by calling for tougher animal abuse laws.

Now, that can be a worthy cause.  People love their pets, and if pet-lovers get organized through Change.org and start taking on the government, I think that’s a Good Thing.  But this petition isn’t addressed to the South Carolina legislature.  It’s addressed to “animal lovers of the world.”  Signing this petition is an act of social solidarity, not an act of political pressure.

By comparison, SignOn/MoveOn’s #1 petition today is titled “Breaking News: House Republicans to Torpedo President Obama’s Iran Agreement.”  It tells the story of congressional maneuvering by Eric Cantor’s office that could undermine tense international diplomatic negotiations with Iran.  The author explains the interim deal with Iran, and the ways that Cantor’s bill could destroy our negotiating ability.  The petition is directed to members of the House of Representatives.

Let’s set aside for a moment whether one of these issues is innately more important than the other.  The real problem is in how each is constructed.

Three years ago, I wrote a long ShoutingLoudly post titled “In Praise of Petitions (Sort of).”  The TL;DR version is that the best high-volume tactics like petitions (online or off) have layers to them.  An online petition act as a springboard for offline tactics like solidarity rallies, marches, and citizen lobbying.  The easy first step of signing your name leads into a “ladder of engagement” the promotes more intense participation.

The Andra Grace petition is directionless.  The Iran petition is focused.  The Andra Grace petition calls on no one in particular to promote tougher animal abuse laws.  The Iran petition calls on members of Congress to oppose a specific bill, currently under debate.

But the Andra Grace petition has a clickable image and a heart-rending story.  The Iran petition has no image and six footnotes.

Let me be clear: we should not expect every petition on either site to be professionally produced.  One of the benefits of distributed petition platforms is that anyone can launch these campaigns.  I don’t mean to insult the author for being new to online campaigning.  But the top of the homepage is valuable digital real estate and algorithms can automate value-judgments.  The campaigns that you promote and highlight say something about your identity as an organization.

Promoting the Andra Grace petition (or, two weeks ago, the petition to Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane to bring back the cartoon dog he’d killed off) represents an algorithmic value-judgment.  It says that the most clickable campaigns — the ones that will bring in the widest audiences — are the best campaigns.  And I doubt that anyone at Change.org entirely believes that.

50 million people is a hell of a milestone.  No other social change organization comes close to that reach.  I wonder, though, whether they are optimizing for the right things.



*(via PD+ First Post, which ShoutingLoudly readers should really subscribe to.)

**Note: those are all self-hyperlinks.  I maybe write too much about Change.org.

Analytics versus Slacktivism

A recent study by researchers at the University of British Columbia Saunder School of Business has brought “slacktivism” back into the headlines.  As usual, this has more to do with gaming for media attention than it does with the substantive findings.

The authors have conducted an interesting series of experiments, aimed at comparing “public tokens of support” (such as ‘liking’ on facebook) with “private tokens of support” (such as signing a petition).  They demonstrate that public tokens of support satisfy the psychological need for “impression management,” and thus reduce the urge to donate under experimental settings.  Displaying a pin or some other low-effort public token of affiliation can grant individuals “moral license” to slack off and not take further actions.  The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, seems well-executed to me.  But it doesn’t quite show what they’d like it to show.

In a press release earlier this m0nth, the university press office announces “‘Slacktivism: Liking’ on Facebook May Mean Less Giving.”

Well, sure. …Maybe.

They go on to proclaim: “Would-be donors skip giving when offered the chance to show public support for charities in social media.”

Hmm… no. Not quite.  You’ve got an external validity problem.

Under their experimental design, the researchers make the exact same donation request, regardless of whether participants took a public action, a private action, or no action.  (It wouldn’t be much of an experiment if they didn’t.)

But in the real world, social change organizations routinely optimize their donation requests to account for different levels of participation.  Dan Kreiss offers an example in his book, Taking Our Country BackWhen you visited the 2008 Obama campaign website, they altered the splash page based on whether you had visited the site before, signed up, ordered a tshirt, and created a MyBO account (pages 150-151).  These various characteristics led to different donation requests and alternate donation language — all rigorously tested to maximize participation.

All that testing requires a LOT of traffic (h/t Kyle Rush).  And one of the benefits of “public tokens” like Facebook likes/shares is that it can generate increased traffic.  One of the secrets to Upworthy’s phenomenal growth has been optimizing their content for Facebook sharing (slide 21 in their slidedeck).  Companies like ShareProgress and CrowdTangle specialize in helping make these public tokens of support even more public.  Doing so brings in more potential supporters, which in turn leads to more engagement.


I’ve written about this before.  A lot.  The problem with calling this experimental design a study of “slacktivism” is that it completely ignores the feedback loop that occurs between individual acts of participation and a larger organizational context.  Advocacy groups are using sophisticated analytics tools to listen to their supporters in novel ways, and to reach new supporters that they otherwise wouldn’t encounter.  If you ignore all that real-world activity, then you can’t effectively measure whether the net impact of digital participation is positive or negative.

I’m not trying to trash the authors’ work.  They’ve produced a nice experimental study.  And they’ve packaged that study to attract media attention.  ”slacktivism” works in headlines a lot better than “public vs private tokens of engagement.”  But the end result is that a lot of advocacy professionals are going to see the headline and think, “ah hah.  Research has shown that Facebook is bad for giving.  I knew it!”  Something gets lost in translation when you start packaging research for media soundbites.

The solution to decreased digital participation isn’t to stop asking supporters to engage online; it’s to embrace a culture of testing that leads you to start asking them better.



On the Limits of “Big Data”: hidden structures and network backchannels

Fellow Internet researchers, we need to have a little talk.  It’s about “big data,” and what it isn’t.  

Consider the following case:

Over the summer, David Corn at Mother Jones published an investigative piece about a conservative insider group named Groundswell.  Groundswell included in-person meetings and a Google-Group that tea party activists, think tankers, conservative media journalist/activists, and government staffers used to discuss strategy and coordinate messaging.  In essence, it was yet another “journolist” for the right (and, as such, it received basically zero public outrage …as David Weigel puts it “conservative news outlets talking to conservatives on background?  Who didn’t figure this was happening anyway?”).

Weigel calls out the following passage from Corn’s reporting:

At the March 27 meeting, Groundswell participants discussed one multipurpose theme they had been deploying for weeks to bash the president on a variety of fronts, including immigration reform and the sequester: Obama places “politics over public safety.” In a display of Groundswell’s message-syncing, members of the group repeatedly flogged this phrase in public. Frank Gaffney penned a Washington Times op-ed titled “Putting Politics Over Public Safety.” Tom Fitton headlined a Judicial Watch weekly update ”Politics over Public Safety: More Illegal Alien Criminals Released by Obama Administration.” Peter List, editor of LaborUnionReport.com, authored a RedState.com post called “Obama’s Machiavellian Sequestration Pain Game: Putting Politics Over Public Safety.” Matthew Boyle used the phrase in an immigration-related article for Breitbart. And Dan Bongino promoted Boyle’s story on Twitter by tweeting, “Politics over public safety?” In a message to Groundswellers, Ginni Thomas awarded “brownie points” to Fitton, Gaffney, and other members for promoting the “politics over public safety” riff.

The reason this passage is noteworthy is that it reveals an underlying flaw in virtually every academic study of online information diffusion.

Imagine if you were conducting a study of how the “politics over public safety” meme diffused through the blogosphere.  You’d likely combine data from google trends, lexis-nexis, and the twitter firehose to identify instances of the phrase.  You’d rely on the digital traces from social network ties and hyperlinks to identify where the phrase started and how it spread.  You’d probably produce some fancy network graphs.  If it’s part of a larger study, you might combine this case with several others to assess Granger causality.  In the end, the data would tell a sophisticated story about what sorts of news outlets, pieces of content, or individuals in a network drive meme diffusion.

But you’d be wrong.  You’d be wrong because, according to public data, it looks like the phrase diffused online from Frank Gaffney to Tom Fitton, then to Peter List, Matt Boyle, and Dan Bongino.  But it actually diffused through an in-person meeting and a backchannel GoogleGroup.  The public data can’t account for the hidden structure provided by offline and online-but-private communication systems.

This is a simple point, but it’s also a point that I inevitably make at every academic panel on “big data.”  We, as a research community are repeatedly, comprehensively deriving incorrect conclusions. We’re able to draw upon more and more data, and we’re confusing that with comprehensive data.

Big data isn’t comprehensive data.  It is systematically incomplete.



The Latest Change at Change.org

Five months ago, Change.org received $15 million in venture capital from the Pierre Omidyar. This week, we’re getting an initial look at what they’ve invested the money in.  I’m a bit skeptical.

The big new feature is called Decision Makers (screenshot below).  It’s a portal for members of congress, corporate CEOs, and other common targets of Change.org petitions to engage in a dialogue with petition creators. Jake Brewer (formerly of PopVox) is the development lead on the project.  In an interview with Issie Lapowski at Inc magazine, Brewer said “With this product, we’re bringing the government out to where the people are, versus bringing the people into where the government is.” and “We totally expect that users won’t always like the responses, because they’ll be press release-y, inauthentic, or might not address the problem. But what I’m most excited about is the ability of users to respond to the response. That’s a conversation.”

change decisionmakers


I applaud Jake’s enthusiasm, but have my doubts about just how effective this new feature will be.  Here are four things to keep an eye on as the new product launches:

1. Total elite buy-in.  Elizabeth Warren and Paul Ryan headline the decision makers who have signed up so far.  I imagine plenty of members of Congress will follow suit (Popvox has been heavily adopted in congress. Jake Brewer is the right person to be launching this new features).  But what about statehouses and corporations?  The top 5 petitions featured at Change.org right now are targeted at Yahoo, Chuck E. Cheese, CraigsList, Oklahoma Child Welfare Services, and Mars Incorporated.  Unless change.org starts promoting Congressionally-targeted petitions, or immediately starts attracting Fortune 500 CEOs, there’s going to be a disconnect between the new tool and the core product.

2. Actual elite participation.  Getting decision makers to sign up is only the first hurdle.  When I click on Elizabeth Warren’s or Paul Ryan’s pages, it tells me how many open petitions with more than 10 signatures are addressed to each (74 for Warren, 96 for Ryan) and how many responses each has written (0 for Warren, 0 for Ryan).  This tool has only been around for two days so far, so its far too early to declare this a failure.  But CEOs and congresspeople lead pretty busy lives. Asking them to engage in deliberative conversations with digital publics (or even asking them to delegate staff time to this purpose) is a heavy lift. Decision Makers could easily become a ghost town.

3. Change.org petitioners’ behavior.  I’m presenting a conference paper this Tuesday that compares change.org and petitions.moveon.org as distributed petition platforms.*  It’s part of my new book project, on analytics and activism.  One of the major differences between the platforms is the character of their users.  Last week, about half of MoveOn’s top petitions were focused on the government shutdown or the ACA rollout.  That’s to be expected — those were the two issues dominating the national political agenda and media agenda.  Only one of Change.org’s top petitions concerned either of these issues: a petition framed around cancer treatment that called for an end to the government shutdown.  Change.org has cultivated a public that mostly focuses on non-traditional political issues.  Today’s top petition airs frustration over the new version of Yahoo! mail.  Last week the top petition asked a high school to revoke a student’s alcohol-related suspension.  These are social issues, not traditional political issues.  If Change.org petition-creators don’t target individual congresspeople, then a feature initially aimed at cultivating congressional response is going to face a steep climb.

4. Neutrality in a moment of overt partisanship.  Change.org prides itself on being a neutral platform.  They want to cater to Democrats and Republicans, teachers unions and school reformers.  That neutrality is one reason why they are well-situated to launch the Decision Makers feature.  Paul Ryan isn’t going to start a dialogue through MoveOn’s website anytime soon.  But that neutrality also is at odds with the reality of our political moment.  We just had a government shutdown because a small enclave within one half of one branch of government didn’t like the rest of our government.  That isn’t gridlock.  The Republican party network is moving towards an internal civil war, between the extreme ideologues and the much-more-extreme ideologues.  It’s unreasonable to feel “neutral” about these events.  What sort of “dialogue” are we supposed to foster with Paul Ryan or Elizabeth Warren, exactly?  Depending on which side you’re on, you think one of them is a hero and the other is a villain.  There isn’t a lot of room in between.


A few years ago, I wrote a long post and ShoutingLoudly called “In Praise of Petitions (Sort of).”  My point was that petitions are an excellent initial “low bar” action. They lay the groundwork for later, “higher bar” actions.  We have to view petitions through the lens of a broader campaign.  My lingering concern with Change.org is that they are treating the petition as the sole tactic in a campaign.  (Citizen starts petition –> citizens sign petition –> media takes note –> decision-maker gives in to the pressure.)  That’s like painting in only one color.  Even if its a bold color, its still monotonous.

Among Change.org’s proclaimed victories is last week’s petition to “Help me fight cancer and stop the shutdown.”  It is true that 150,000 people signed that petition.  It is true that the shut down stopped.  But I sure hope no one believes that the former caused the latter.

Decision Makers is an innovation at Change.org.  But I’m not convinced quite yet that it’s an innovation that really improves our democracy or empowers citizens.



*So, y’know, the rollout of this new feature and accompanying website overhaul was just EPIC timing.  Thanks a lot, folks! [/snark]


The Real Threat to the US Economy

In the majority of media coverage about the shutdown and debt ceiling, the press has bent over backward to imply that there is plenty of blame to go around. This is false equivalency of the highest order, and I’m here to correct the record.

The number one threat to the US and world economy is congressional Republicans and, by implication, the reactionary extremist voters who put them in power. They’re about to blow up the financial system in vengeance because they lost the presidential election — and this largely over a policy first implemented by their own presidential candidate.

Today, we learn that House Republicans are still clinging to proposals to scale back the ACA. For the umpteenth time: That was decided in November. Grow up and move on.

And don’t say, “What about the debt?” If they were serious about that, they’d try to keep interest rates low and GDP high. (They’d also take seriously the idea of more revenue…) If we default, though, interest rates will skyrocket and GDP will crater. (That’s not just my opinion, btw; follow the link to see the stark terms used by Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics.) Think “rates on my credit card” (instead of the near-zero rates we enjoy now) and “next Great Depression”. That’s a helluva debt trap (expenses way up, income way down) to try to claw our way back out of.

Even the credible threat to default has short term rates rising and people nervous to make long term investments. Would you buy US Treasury bonds right now? Would you open or expand a business right now (or even during the negotiations, assuming a bill passes)? (Zandi estimates the current standoff has already cut $20 billion off GDP.) If I had money to move, it’d be leaving the US economy post haste.

This isn’t “Let’s compromise because everyone has some valuable ideas” time. This is “Either you jerks come to your senses, or you’ll drive our government and economy off a cliff.” And I don’t have a lot of faith in the former.

I really hope Obama is willing to declare unilateral executive power to continue borrowing if it comes to that. The alternative starts to look like an even more extreme, self-inflicted version of the Greek collapse. But with way more guns. What could go wrong?

The Analytics Floor, part II

Brian Fung at the Washington Post has a sharp new piece about analytics and social media.  It’s the first reporting I’ve seen on Jim Pugh’s work at ShareProgress or Milan de Vreis’s work at MoveOn. The key quote in the piece comes from de Vries:

“We’ve gotten really good over the last few years at how to broadcast through e-mail with one big megaphone,” he said. “But here, if we can harness the dynamics of the networks our members are a part of, we can broadcast with hundreds of megaphones at once.”

This is a theme I’m trying to develop for my next book.  I got into it a bit this summer in a piece titled “a web of persuasion or a web of mobilization?”  MoveOn’s first innovation came through using the Internet to mobilize its engaged issue public.  Their second innovation is coming through using the Internet to persuade people who aren’t already engaged.

There’s one comment in the article that I disagree with, though.  It brings up a concept I’ve talked about previously, the “Analytics Floor.”  Here’s the quote:

“Testing is critical, especially for smaller clients,” said Serenety Hanley, a former Republican National Committee technology director who now runs a boutique social media consulting firm. “The smaller the client, the more vital it is to maximize their dollars.”

This seems… completely backwards to me.  The trick with A/B testing is that it becomes more valuable the larger your organization is.  If you have an e-mail list/Twitter follower count/Facebook fan list of 1000 people, then you will almost never be able to reach statistically significant conclusions based on A/B tests.  The effect size (the difference between options A and B) would have to be HUGE in order for you to be confident that it wasn’t just random variance.  But if you have an e-mail list of 10,000,000, then you can follow the Obama campaign and run twelve-way simultaneous A/B tests, netting extra millions in donations along the way.

That IS the analytics floor — the threshold below which organizations cannot reap the benefits of computational management.

Jim Pugh at ShareProgress has found one work-around for this problem.  As I understand it, by working with lots of clients — small and large — ShareProgress can test individual website components (thank-you pages, landing pages, etc) across an extended user-base, develop best practices, and then spread those best practices across several organizations.  It mimics the scale of a MoveOn or OFA.

The ShareProgress approach works well for the social components of web design, but it doesn’t allow for day-to-day passive democratic feedback through analytics.  For large-scale computational listening, you really need to start with a large member list.

This might be a small critique, but I think it’s an important one.  Fung’s article is noteworthy because it’s the first to really grapple with this stuff.  Social media analytics is a growing field, and we’re going to see some interesting innovations over the next few years.  But those innovations are probably going to come from the large orgs, or from third-party infrastructure providers.

Analytics benefits from scale.  The more we rely on analytics, the more we advantage already large-scale organizations.



(h/t Bob Boynton, who pointed the article out to me)


Hashtag Rage

Two students in my graduate seminar sent me this Jimmy Fallon clip yesterday.  It’s pretty funny.  But this isn’t a post about Fallon and Timberlake.  It’s a post about a brief rant a subjected my class to earlier this semester.  It’s about my brewing hashtag-rage.

About a month ago, I was reading Twitter at home and stumbled across a run-of-the-mill baseball post. It was something like “wow, what a #great #catch! Go team! #Nationals.”  The writer has turned a simple statement into cluttered word salad.  It’s obnoxious, and it leaves me annoyed.

Companies on Twitter do this constantly as well:

HashTag Rage

@NewDay is, apparently, a program on CNN.  If you click on the #NewDay hashtag, you’ll find a mix of reporters and staff involved with the show, along with a bunch of people tweeting about how their alarm clock didn’t go off this morning.  Click on the #Thursday hashtag, and you’ll find people talking about Thursday.  Click on the #Bono hashtag, and… well, you get the picture.

The extra # symbols pollute the message.  It helps convince people that Twitter is stupid.  But Twitter isn’t stupid, they’re just using it in a stupid manner.

I can think of exactly four good reasons to use a hashtag:

1. There are a few stable communities that organize an ongoing conversation through hashtags.  #TCOT (Top Conservative On Twitter) is the best example.  Want to reach the conservative political community?  Use #TCOT.  Plenty of them will see it.

2. Sometimes there will be a public event/media event that causes an online conversation to erupt.  After the Navy Yard shooting last week, people started monitoring social media to get updates.  #NavyYard is sensible and appropriate.

(Let me pause for a moment. The difference between these two cases and “#Great #Catch…” is that a community is, in fact, monitoring the hashtag.  No one monitors the conversation around “#Great” or “#Thursday!”  The function of a hashtag is to alert people who are having a conversation around the same topic.  Attending the American Political Science Association conference?  Go ahead and use #APSA2013 so other attendees can read you’re witticism. But don’t write “#political,” “#science” unless you desperately want everyone to judge you.)

3. Providing context.  During the Emmys on Sunday night, I doubt many people were monitoring the #Emmys conversation stream.  It would be too big and too full of repetitive comments from people who you don’t know or care about.  But if you’re watching the Emmys and want to make a Jon-Stewart-was-robbed comment, adding #Emmys to the end can provide context for readers who are engrossed in Sunday Night Football, forget that the Emmys is on that night, and otherwise will be left wondering what you’re talking about.

4. Humor. Hashtags can be great for jokes.  They can act like Stephen Colbert’s “the Word” segment, calling out the subtext or irony of the statement you just made.  They can also promote hashtag games.

Notice, these third and fourth cases apply hashtags to offer context within-message , rather than to bridge your message to a broader community.  That’s fine.  But #Thursday and #FiveThings are just needless jumble.  They’re bad writing.  And you see it everywhere.  And it deserves to be mocked.

Thus, #hashtagrage.  When people (companies especially) use social media obnoxiously, I think they should be insulted for it.



Blurred Lines: Offensive, but Probably Not Copyright Infringement

At least in my circles, it’s pretty much taken for granted that Robin Thicke’s megahit “Blurred Lines” is shamelessly offensive.

I can’t imagine telling a woman “You the hottest bitch in this place!” I definitely can’t get behind the song’s no-means-maybe-means-yes message. The video is practically a parody of itself. (Here’s an actual parody that reverses the genders; much better.)

I also think it’s safe to say that Marvin Gaye gets a good bit more love and respect, even if nobody’s calling him a great feminist thinker. Further, “Blurred Lines” is just the latest example in a loooooong tradition of white artists appropriating musical styles developed by minority artists.

So, as forward-thinking people looking at the ongoing copyright dispute between the artists, it should be a slam dunk all-around agreement that, considering the striking similarity between “Blurred Lines” and the classic Gaye song “Got to Give It Up”, we should all hope that Gaye’s team sues Thicke for all he’s worth — or, at least, much/most/all of the truckloads of cash “Blurred Lines” has hauled in. (And let’s throw in Pharrell Williams, too, for producing and co-writing this bit of musical larceny.) Right?

Not so fast.

Before beginning a (brief) legal analysis, let’s set aside the very valid critiques of the gender politics in Thicke’s song and video (to say nothing of the shameful gender politics and troubling racial messaging of the Thicke/Miley Cyrus VMA performance).

If there’s one thing Larry Flynt got right about free speech law, it’s that we are better off if free speech protections also extend even to scumbags like Larry Flynt.

Under current law, “Blurred Lines” is probably not infringing, assuming no samples were used — that is, assuming that all the sounds were independently re-recorded for the new song, and Thicke and Farrell claim not to have sampled Gaye’s song.

Without sampling, an infringement case here requires proof of “substantial similarity” between the original and the newer work. Here’s a Billboard article where you can listen to both “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up”, side by side.

The rhythmic similarities are substantial, but according to literally every expert on musical similarity in copyright that I’ve ever read/heard/spoken with, that counts for very little — again, assuming the sounds were independently re-recorded. Here’s a bit from the Music Copyright Infringement Resource, a joint project of the law schools at Columbia and USC, explaining how melody is the key to establishing substantial similarity between two musical compositions:

A work’s melody is what we consider the tune of a piece. Indeed it is most usually the melody of a piece that we hum when trying to recall it; a piece’s melody is typically its most distinctive and memorable feature. As such, melody is the musical element that most easily lends itself to claims of originality. …

Melody is overwhelmingly the single most important feature of a musical work in evaluating the merits of copyright infringement claims. The entire corpus of judicial opinions in the area of music copyright infringement dwells on melody as the single most idiosyncratic element of the works in question, and almost entirely the locus of the economic worth of a song. Accordingly, the more melodically similar two works are, the more likely a court will determine that the later created work infringes upon the earlier.

So, for evaluating the question of musical infringement, the drums and backup instrumentals all take a way-in-the-back backseat to the melody. (We’ll come back to whether this should be the case in a bit.) With all this in mind, go back and re-listen to each song. A brief bit of each will do.

I’m not a trained musician, but I mixed house and drum & bass records for years (at the tail end of when it meant mixing actual vinyl records), so I notice rhythmic similarities much more readily than melodic similarities. In terms of rhythmic elements, the speed and the drum patterns are so similar as to be “I could mix these two songs together in my sleep” close, which most non-DJs would describe as the two songs “feeling” very similar.

The rhythmic similarities are the bedrock of the two songs’ similar feel. They’re well within the same genre, and it’s not at all shocking to hear Thicke say that he was deliberately trying to recreate the groove of Gaye’s song. Yet even in terms of drum patterns — where the similarities are the strongest, even if the impact in a potential infringement suit is smallest — there are real differences.

I can hear (and can even visualize, as would be represented in a step sequencer) a host of differences. Most folks could probably hear the differences, though it may take some patience to listen to each song enough times; it took me a few listens each.

Melodically, the two songs are substantially more different. They are still well within the same genre here as well, but the melody should be transparently different even to the untrained ear. I should know, because I have just such an untrained ear (ask my karaoke victims, er, audiences) and I can hear the differences pretty easily.

In the case law, the closest analog I know of is Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music, 420 F. Supp. 177 (S.D.N.Y. 1976). The plaintiff, Bright Tunes, held the copyright in the composition of the doo-wop hit “He’s So Fine” — written by Ronnie Mack, who died of cancer as the Chiffons recording of his song was rocketing up the charts in 1963.

When George Harrison wrote and recorded “My Sweet Lord” in 1970, “He’s So Fine” was not at all on his mind, but he wound up creating a melody very similar to the older tune.

The similarities are striking, and importantly for the copyright question, it is the melodies of the two songs that are so similar. Here, somebody has helpfully created a mashup of “He’s So Fine” and “My Sweet Lord”, so you can listen to them simultaneously. They don’t line up perfectly, but it’s pretty clear that the melodies are pretty similar.

Harrison didn’t realize the similarities, but once they were pointed out to him, he says, “I thought, ‘Why didn’t I realize?’ It would have been very easy to change a note here or there and not affect the feeling of the record.” (Again, this isn’t part of the legal analysis, but I actually give Harrison much more credit here than I do Thicke on the “How badly is this white musician exploiting black musical culture” question. Intent matters for ethical and cultural criticism, but how much we like people and think they’re doing the “right” thing is not the same question as whether or not the law is on their side.)

Anyway, Harrison was essentially found to have subconsciously infringed on Mack’s song — to have infringed without having done so deliberately. This even though the two melodies are not identical — just very similar.

In light of all of this case law, for songwriters to have a deliberate intent to borrow is, if anything, helpful for them. Thicke and Pharrell surely know that it’s the melody that gets you in trouble — and they definitely acted accordingly. It doesn’t take much imagination to listen to the Gaye and Thicke songs and hear the latter’s notes as deliberately dissimilar to the former — thus, creating far more daylight between the two melodies than in the Bright Tunes case.

There’s actually an art to this that can pay handsomely if one composes music for TV commercials. If a songwriter wants too much to license a hit song that an advertiser covets, the advertisers can just hire a composer to bang out a not-quite-copy for a fraction of the price. This happens all the time; here are just a few examples.

Anyway, I hope it’s pretty clear by now why “Blurred Lines” really isn’t infringing. Don’t believe me? Three independent industry insiders also hold this view.

I’ll end with a few words about whether the similarity standard we have now really should be the case. (Can you smell the journal article burning? What follows is the “This is a blog post and I need to go to bed” version.)

I don’t want a copyright system where I can’t create a song (or book or movie) that has a similar overall feel to anything that’s been done in the last hundred years. Because, guess what: If that’s the rule and it’s enforced at even a moderate rate (say, 10% or more), then creativity either comes to a screeching halt or goes largely underground. Building on previous cultural milestones is how culture works.

I’m even disturbed by the Bright Tunes standard: If we put two otherwise dissimilar songs next to each other, at just the right points, are most of the notes of some parts of the melody the same? Consider how scary this standard is in light of the musical simplicity of pop melodies. If this is the standard, are there any songs that aren’t infringing left to be written? I’m scared there may not be.

If Bright Tunes-style plaintiffs get just a bit more of a toehold in the case law, what’s to stop copyright trolls from buying up old songs that are just-similar-enough to big hits and demanding exorbitant payments? The ownership of the copyrights in studio recordings is more consolidated (mostly, these copyrights are owned by labels), but the rights to compositions are everywhere and can often be bought for relatively low prices.

If a hobbyist composer hopes to make it big but looks at this landscape in my not-unlikely-enough dystopian near-future, shouldn’t s/he be scared and consider maybe not even to bother? After all, even the mighty George Harrison claims never to have made a single dollar on one of his most beloved songs — all because he accidentally made the melody too similar to a very different song. What hope is there for somebody just starting out, who’s not also an expert musicologist walking around with a century of musical knowledge?

The Bright Songs standard is already too easy for plaintiffs. If Gaye’s heirs were to win a decision that “Blurred Lines” is infringing, it would send a pretty discouraging message to today’s would-be musical composers.

I say all of this as somebody who has a bone to pick with the “melody is everything” theory of musical composition that guides our law today. Distinctive rhythms can make or break a song, and the drums can themselves be the most memorable, marketable part of a song. (See: Stubblefield, Clyde.)

There are also unfortunate racial connotations to this paradigm. It’s not too far down the chain in the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, where Apollo represents mind/discourse/melody/whiteness and Dionysus represents body/movement/rhythm/blackness.

Don’t think this still carries water today? Then why does popular discourse still treat blacks so prominently as athletes and dancers, generally discarding what they have to say? And why is it really important to hear what white people have to say, even when the very basis for their fame is a physical gift? (See: Tebow, Tim) Why is music from non-white parts of the world called World Beat and African music generally sold as AfroBeat?

The racial critique of this emphasis on melody is valid and important, but I still don’t want a copyright system where “Blurred Lines” is infringing, even though I just spent a whole paragraph arguing that the part where it’s most like “Got to Give It Up” shouldn’t be treated as so relatively unimportant by the law. While some have tried to reconcile this melody/rhythm inequity by pushing copyright in the direction of broader protection for rhythmic elements, I think the better solution is to put less emphasis on melody as separated from the whole composition and instead to put the whole composition in context.

Looked at as an entire composition, “My Sweet Lord” is pretty different from “He’s So Fine”. The lyrics are 100% different. The instrumentation is pretty different. The sound and feel are remarkably different. It’s only the focus on melody that led the court into what I think was a mistake.

On the other side, “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” are more similar on most counts except lyrics and melody. They sound and feel very similar, though even the drum pattern is clearly not identical. Looked at holistically they’re still pretty different songs, built in large part on the very different lyrics and melody.

I don’t think we should set up a copyright system where “very rhythmically similar” is, by itself, grounds for a finding of infringement. The change I’m advocating is that we should also apply that standard to melodic similarity.

Just as inventors really want to keep the lawyers out of the lab, I really want to keep them out of the music studio. If the price of being able to compose without an attorney on retainer is that, sometimes, crass capitalists push the line of exploiting the feel of successful works, it’s a price I think we as a society should pay.

If we swing the other way, to the point that something like “Blurred Lines” equals legal hot water, that means pretty much all popular music puts you in legal hot water. Which would mean that only those who can afford attorneys — in advance — will have any business making music. And that’s a far higher price for we as a society to pay.

P.S. Speaking of prices paid, I hope we forward-thinking folks can all agree not to pay for “Blurred Lines.” If you like that song’s groove, allow me to suggest a Marvin Gaye tune I know. It’s not exactly the same; it’s better.

My Twitter Spambot and Me

There are two @Davekarpf’s on Twitter.  The first one is me, @davekarpf.  The second is a spambot, named @davekarpf_.  The spambot seems pretty benign.  It has taken my name and my avatar photo, but otherwise neither impersonates me nor spreads noxious links through the web.

spambot bio

I learned about my spambot last month, while I was in London for the International Communication Association Annual Meeting.  I had just finished reading Finn Brunton’s excellent book, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, so I found the experience particularly intriguing.  Someone mentioned “hey Dave, did you know that you have a fake account?”  I tried contacting Twitter to have the account shut down, but couldn’t jump through all of the required hoops while I was out of the country.  I tried again two weeks ago, but no luck.

The interesting thing about this spam account is that it does so little actual spamming.  It has 34 tweets, 6 followers, and follows only 90 people.  Only one tweet includes a shortlink, and that one is a retweet.  The poster sounds like a high school or college kid, and isn’t going out of their way to either impersonate me or damage my reputation.  They’ve simply appropriated my likeness.

spambot profile

What’s more interesting about the spambot is that its 6 followers are ALSO probably spambots.  4 of those followers are @Bradleywi_, @Joshuadav_,  @BETV_Rockitweb_, and JustinJMarcus_.  Notice the underscores at the end of each name.  Each of these appropriate a real person’s avatar, name, and account details, then add an underscore at the end.  Each includes similar, benign tweets.

So what’s the big deal?  What’s going on here?

I’ve actually written about this phenomenon before, in my 2012 article, “Social Science Research Methods in Internet Time“:

When  financial value or public attention is determined by an online metric, an incentive is created for two industries of code-writers: spammers/distorters, who falsely inflate the measure, and analytics professions, who algorithmicaly spearate out the spam/noise to provide a proprietary value-added. …Any metric of digital influence that becomes financially valuable, or is used to determine newsworthiness, will become increasingly unreliable over time.

Twitter has a well-known spambot problem.  Analytics professionals have gotten good at identifying the obvious spambots.  Gibberish names, zero tweets, no picture, following-thousands-with-zero-followers… All of these serve as flags for spam-detecting code-writers.  So the spammers have to get more sophisticated.  They appropriate profiles, seed them with harmless tweets, and keep the follow counts manageable.  That can all be accomplished through a pretty simple script.  Then, voila, you’ve got yourself a botnet, which you can use to goose metrics like Klout rankings, follower counts, and trending topics.  Tweetspam is evolving.

My spambot doesn’t appear to mean me any harm, so I won’t try all that hard to get it deleted.  I’ll devote another half hour of effort next week.  But if Twitter Central makes it too difficult, then I’ll have little reason to bother.  The bot is aimed at the broader Twitter ecology, not at me personally.

…And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how tweetspam got a little bit trickier.



Crime, News Coverage, and Institutional Racism

If there’s anything that pretty much everyone should agree on in light of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin story, it’s that the story shows how deeply divided we remain as a country.

At least as reflected by posts on Facebook, 100% of my liberal intelligentsia friends are outraged that Martin is dead and Zimmerman is free, and the debates between us (to the extent that there have been any) have been about which people in the criminal justice system get which share of the blame.

Along with outrage, ethnic minorities and African Americans in particular also express a collective hurt and fear that I will never truly understand.

Yet others (here is where I’m grateful that not all of my friends and family are in the liberal intelligentsia) are miffed at the race-focused attention by the media and the political push to make the case into a symbol of broader issues. While I needn’t say it, let’s be explicit about the fact that nearly 100% of these folks are white. (I’m not Facebook friends with Clarence Thomas, and even if I were, I wonder if he posts more than once every seven years.)

While not all of these white, “Why the fuss?” crowd would admit it if probed, I think a good bit of this discomfort with the attention paid to the Zimmerman/Martin case comes from the implicit finger being pointed at them. If blacks are held down in schools, the job market, and the criminal justice system, surely somebody’s doing the holding. If minorities have unfair disadvantages, then the surplus unfair advantage is going to white people. If the system is racist, and you believe in the system, doesn’t that make you racist?

The good news is that the failure to be outraged over Trayvon’s death doesn’t make one a bigot, but the bad news is that this is because the answer is way more complicated than that. I hope to reassure my white, politically centrist or right-of-center friends that I’m not calling them racist or bigoted. Yet there are little things that we all do — you and me, blacks and whites, powerful and disempowered — that play into an incredibly intricate system of racial inequality.

I give you institutional racism.

The bigotry need not be in (y)our hearts; it can be in the mortgage you grant or don’t, the education policies you adopt, or the policing tactics you support. Mayor Bloomberg is obviously comfortable around racial minorities and would surely never dream of not hiring somebody due to their race, but he remains tone deaf to the incredibly not-race-neutral (and, frankly, not constitutional) nature of his policing strategies.

Which brings us back to Martin and Zimmerman. The justice system, as a whole, is heavily biased against minorities. Blacks are very over-represented in the criminal justice system; less than 1% of white men are imprisoned, while for black men, it’s 1 in 15, or almost 7%.

This happens at every step of the criminal justice system, from police investigation through trial. As the Times notes:

A 2005 study by the Justice Department found that while Hispanic, black and white drivers were stopped by the police about as often, Hispanic drivers or their vehicles were searched 11.4 percent of the time and blacks 10.2 percent of the time, compared with 3.5 percent for white drivers. Data collected from state courts by the Justice Department also shows that a higher percentage of black felons than white felons receive prison sentences for nearly all offenses, and also that blacks receive longer maximum sentences for most offenses.

Even in murder trials where defendants claim self defense, race is a major factor. See this graphic.

Versus the baseline of white-on-white violence, black defendants are far less likely to be found to have acted in self-defense, and it’s many times again less likely when the victim is white. In contrast, white defendants are many times more likely to be found to have acted in self-defense when the victim is black.

That’s institutional racism.

Yet it goes farther. Many of the white “Why the fuss?” crowd might even acknowledge the racial bias in the courts (though too few are familiar with the staggering specifics), but they object to all the political outrage over Trayvon and wonder where the sympathy and coverage are for white crime victims, especially when the accused perpetrators are black.

It turns out, though, that the news media are also afflicted with institutional racism. This goes well beyond the genuine hacks like Bill O’Reilly. Rather, it’s the whole system — the one largely staffed by left-of-center reporters and editors.

An analysis of scholarly studies of the representation of race in crime coverage is telling. As summarized here, “75 percent of the studies found that minorities were overrepresented as perpertrators, [and] over 80 percent of the studies found that more attention was paid to white victims than to minority victims.”

A somewhat newer study, which includes a representative national sample of television newscasts, finds similarly striking results, cutting in the same direction.

Even the portrayal of black female victims is far too rare — this even though female victims are more likely to be seen on the news than male victims overall.

In the aftermath of a major story about a black victim, killed by a white shooter, we’re hearing a good bit of “Why the fuss?” and “Where’s the attention to white victims and/or black perpetrators?” With no disrespect to any victim, whites have nothing to worry about when it comes to folks who look like them being shown on the news as victims of serious crimes. No news outlet can cover every story, but over time, white victims and black perpetrators have been and certainly will continue to be overrepresented.

On this count, Martin and Zimmerman are symbols for the broader problem of institutional racism in this country. Nobody needs to be energetically or even consciously racist for the major racial disparities we see to continue. Continuing racial inequity doesn’t need the next George Wallace; Michael Bloomberg will do just fine.

If you’re on the happy side of these inequalities, I think you should at least be honest with yourself and the world about the thousands of little ways in which your life is that much easier because of it. This isn’t to diminish the countless things you’ve undoubtedly done right, the hard work you’ve done, the substantial degree to which you’ve earned your place.

As white Americans, though, let’s at least all agree to be honest with ourselves and each other that we get at least a small leg up in pretty much every institution in society with which we deal.

That every right decision is likely to get us just a bit farther along than it would for an African American.

That we have at least a bit more room to make mistakes before being fired, evicted, jailed — or killed. 

That the few places where we don’t have every advantage clearly pointed in our direction (college admissions and scholarships come to mind) are the exception and, regardless of what one thinks of them as policies, will never outweigh the much larger forces that cut the other direction.

That, yes, there are a few rich blacks and many poor whites, and class inequality is also a major issue that needs to be addressed — but that this doesn’t disprove any of the above.

Then, please join me in a quest to fight those disparities, one institution at a time. Not by making life harder for whites, of course, but by extending the same understanding, opportunities, and benefit of the doubt to all.