On community blogs and dealing with the crazies in their own midst

In attempting to build a vibrant community-of-interest, every political blog faces a policy choice of sorts: what kind of commentary will we allow.  Some of the basics are easy to sketch out and universally applicable.  Disagreement is good, but flame wars are bad.  Don’t engage in ad hominem attacks. The site owner/moderators reserve the right to take away posting privileges if you are obviously just there to antagonize the community.  The low transaction costs of the internet make it very easy for a hostile liberal or conservative to jump onto the comment boards of their ideological opponents and start acting obnoxious.  Whether this ideological diversity is supported when polite is an open question.  There aren’t a lot of Republicans on DailyKos or Democrats on RedState, but that could either be because they get banned or because they eventually get bored and give up.

A trickier policy choice can perhaps be summarized as “how do we deal with our own crazies.”  On either end of the political spectrum, there exist a tiny minority of tinfoil hat-wearers.  The most radical offline leftists set fire to auto dealerships and ski resorts.  The most radical offline conservatives start militias and shoot up churches.  Online, how are we to distinguish them, and what are we to do about them?

Conveniently, online crazies tend to grab hold of a popular conspiracy theory and not let go.  On the left, these are the “9/11 Truthers” and, post-2004, the “Ohio Fixed Election” folks.  On the right, we have the “Obama birth certificate” fanatics.

I raise this because I’ve started to think recently that Markos Moulitsas made a particularly important policy decision in the early days of DailyKos.  Wanna see how fast you can banned from DailyKos?  Post a 9/11 conspiracy diary.  Same with the 2004 election conspiracy theory.  Kos took a hard line on this talk and said that it would have no place on his site.  You want to help build a progressive majority?  Welcome to dKos.  You want to talk about statistically variations between exit polls and final results, or the spookiness of Diebold?  Banned.

The conservative blogosphere is currently experiencing a surge in traffic, as online conservatives have something more to complain about than all the liberals on tv (this supports a deeper theoretical argument about “political opportunity structures” and innovative campaign technologies, but I don’t want to give away the ENTIRE dissertation on this blog…).  From what I can tell, they haven’t drawn the same policy stance (I haven’t conducted a large-scale content analysis yet, so feel free to correct me in the comments).  Want to claim that Obama is a foreign-born Manchurian candidate?  Welcome!  Gateway Pundit, in particular, has soared up the conservative rankings in the past few months, all while exhibiting a type of borderline hysteria that cannot be too attractive to mainstream conservatives (you may not like Obama’s tax proposal, but that doesn’t make him Mao or Stalin).

My hunch is that this policy choice serves as sort of a path dependent critical juncture in the development of online political communities.  When a new visitor drops by the site, what is the tenor of the conversation like?  DailyKos has made a series of policy choices in support of their goal of being a “reality-based community.”  Whether you like them or not, the tenor of the conversation bears little resemblance to the caricature presented by Bill O’Reilley, and a reasonable argument for why dKos has gotten so large is because Kos chose to lop off the most extreme-left commenters, making the tenor of the conversation better reflect the preferences and opinions of the much larger population of less-extreme, but less outspoken, progressives.  Which conservative community blogs will take a similar policy stance, and how will it play out in the development of online conservativism?  Anybody have a good guess or two?

Stimulus Bill: Content Filtering Out, Open Networks Requirement In

Thanks to Alex Curtis at Public Knowledge for the stimulus bill content filtering update. The good news is in the headline: No on content filtering, yes on open network requirements.

He also posted a PDF of the relevant section. See the highlighted portion on page 9 for the nondiscrimination requirements.

HBO Demands YouTube Take Down Inauguration Concert Footage, Then Seems to Recant

It was already shameful enough that HBO got the exclusive TV rights to broadcast the video of the inaugural concert. Compounding this shame, HBO was sending DMCA takedown notices to YouTube for clips that concertgoers made themselves.

Over at Public Knowledge, Daniel McCartney’s take is that HBO is trying to own history. I’d have to agree.

As McCartney points out, HBO’s copyright claim is dubious at best–and that’s without even considering fair use–but the DMCA takedown notice system rewards over-enforcement. Generally, a (real or alleged) copyright holder says “Take this down,” the site complies, and that’s the end of the story.

In a more recent development, HBO was apparently shamed into changing their mind. Some clips are still down (like this one), but others remain.

For instance, here’s an amateur recording of Bishop Gene Robinson’s invocation:

Also, there’s even a professional recording of the coveted Pete Seeger/Bruce Springsteen performance of “This Land is Your Land”. Judging by the titling, this was made for or repurposed by a station broadcasting in another country.

For those whose clips get taken down, note that you might get Google (who owns YouTube) to re-upload the clip by filing a counter-claim.

IMPORTANT: If you file a counter-claim, you’re basically daring HBO to actually sue you, though considering their change of heart, the odds of a real suit seem slim. Depending on the clip, it’s a risk I might take, but I don’t expect everyone to agree.

This is why the DMCA takedown system rewards over-enforcement. The people on the “Take that down!” end of the transaction already have a team of lawyers, while those on the “Where the heck is my clip?” end generally don’t know their legal rights and don’t have the money to hire a lawyer.

On an unrelated note–the “This Land” performance–listen carefully to the lyrics. Note that two of the verses from Woody Guthrie’s original version are pretty socialist. These are generally omitted from the version taught in primary schools. Seeger and Springstein appeared to take particular pleasure in singing the full song.

FCC Approves Unregulated Use of ‘White Spaces’ between TV Channels

In a(nother) huge election day win, yesterday the FCC deregulated the “white spaces” between TV stations, allowing technology firms and enthusiasts the right to play around in these unused channels of high-quality spectrum.

In a 5-0 decision, the Commission issued a ruling allowing anybody to transmit messages in white spaces, within fairly limits on the generation of interference. By declaring the spectrum open to unlicensed experimentation, they’ve green-lighted the development of new technologies that some describe as “wifi on steroids.”

Unsurprisingly, Google is happy, and unless you’re invested in one of the incumbent industries on Wired’s list of losers (see first link), you should be, too.

Visit today’s FCC Daily Digest, where you can see the FCC press release and the five Commissioners’ statements.

Reputation 2.0?

In a blog post over at The Publius Project, Judith Donath asks “Is Reputation Obsolete.”  It’s a provocative piece and well worth a read.  Honestly, I’ve spent the past week trying to dip into the literature on reputation systems and to call it the shallow end of the pool would be an insult to pools.  It’s shocking how little attention has been done on the topic, and Donath raises a lot of interesting points about the ill-fit between present day reputation systems and the total availability of online information.

It seems to me that her post could be best rephrased as “Is Reputation Tracking Obsolete?”  In that case, the answer would be a clear and definitive yes.

Reputation in its purest form is deep, contextualized, complex, and local.  I have a very different reputation with my colleagues in the Sierra Club than I do with other academics, and still another one with my drinking buddies.  All of those reputations are linked to different dimensions of my identity, and each is accurate in its own way.  They accrue over time, and they are exceedingly difficult to scale up from local context to general form.

Online, reputational data is put at a premium, because the purer the anonymity, the worse people are bound to act.  I haven’t seen any studies on this yet (I’ll get around to doing one someday, I suppose), but it’s pretty clear that when you require people to login before posting comments to a blog, they self-moderate a bit more, and when you add a Mojo system like they have at SlashDot and DailyKos, and “superuser” status contingent on high Mojo ratings, people behave better still.  That’s standard “Shadow of the Future” stuff, a basic finding from game theory, and replicated in a host of experimental settings.  So reputation systems incentivize good behavior while distributing the costs of punishing bad behavior.  As a basic example, consider how costly eBay would be if they had to provide top-down monitoring of all transactions.  Actually, you don’t need to bother considering it: without reputation tracking, there would be no eBay.  Period.

So is reputation obsolete?  Yes and no.  The thing we need to recognize is that when you divorce reputation assessments from their local, complex, and contextualized settings, you have to rely on rough proxies to fill in the gap.  Those proxies are not, themselves, reputation.  When an eBay buyer ranks the seller, that tells us relatively little about the seller.  When a DailyKos user contributes to a diarist’s “tip jar,” that functions as a “thumbs up.”  But real reputation isn’t the aggregate of online clapping and booing.  And as more diverse information becomes available online, the simplicity of aggregating clapping and booing seems like a coarse and outdated tool for measuring reputation.

I would suggest that the quality of reputation tracking is always going to hinge on three elements:

(1)relevance of the proxy data.  How good of an approximation does the online rating mechanism provide?

(2)Traffic levels.  I’m always entertained by low-traffic blogs that include recommended diary structures and such.  Online reputation tracking assumes huge inputs, but given the power law distributions of web traffic, we know that there are only going to be a select few webspaces that obtain that level of traffic.

(3)Gaming of the system or lack thereof.  This last one is long-term problematic.  Any high-traffic webspace is going to represent valuable online real estate.  The perverse incentives are there for actors to try to figure out the rules of the game and then innovate ways to get around them.  We haven’t seen a lot of innovations in reputations systems for years, and most of the literature seems to be focused solely on eBay.  So reputation tracking systems are probably obsolete at this point, simply because every system is going to have weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and there haven’t been many new developments (at least that I’m aware of — which is a decent indicator that if something great is out there, it sure hasn’t diffused very widely yet).

What we really need is reputation systems that take advantage of Metcalfe’s Law.  As processing speed and memory continue to double — as Information Abundance becomes still more abundant — we need to develop reputation tracking systems that use better proxies.  Donath asks whether “in a world where all action is recorded, is there still need for reputational information?”  I would respond, “Yes, all the moreso!”  If we broadly understand reputation data as a form of filtering and content management, we have little choice but to rely on reputation assessments, but we also need them to evolve along with the rest of the web.  In a world where all action is recorded, reputational information is all the more necessary so we can sort through the mess.  But likewise, as more types of data become available, we need to diversify the types of proxies we use for assessing reputation.  This will be particularly true as the mobile web comes into wider use, rendering whole new classes of data available.

The real challenge lies in figuring out how to sort and use that data, particularly keeping in mind the competing needs for reputational assessment/filtering and privacy.  The weaker the privacy norms, the stronger the reputation tracking can be.  I don’t think I particularly want my academic or Sierra Club colleagues to know my reputation among my drinking buddies, though (or vice versa, for that matter!).  The  tradeoff has steeply decreasing returns at some point, and there’s an important role for public scholars like Donath in helping to identify what that point might be.

media, power, and responsibility

Why are media and power always a bad combination? Whether it is the elite who is abusing the media for its own purposes (in the words of Chomsky and Herman, to ‘manufacture consent‘) or whether it is the media themselves who are powerful, often heard as in ‘the media are biased‘, the message seems clear cut: the media and power do not go together – but is it?

The notion that media often are (ab)used by the powerful goes all the way back to the origins of communication research back in the fifties when it was primarily obsessed with the effects of propaganda. The concern here is that only a particular group of people, e.g. the elite, the powerful, have access to the media and are able to set the agenda for society – if not what the public should think, then what the public should think about. This line of research carries on in the media ownership concentration literature – who owns the media has the power to allocate resources, to control editors and set the agenda. Famous (notorious) examples include Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi. 

Then there is also concern that the media themselves are too powerful. While the media is supposed to act in the public’s interest, they often underserve certain segments of the public, such as minorities, or they slant news in favor of particular segments of the public – these are the issues of underrepresentation and misrepresentation. Not to mention the many issues the media effects research is trying to address – television violence is bad for our kids, video games make them dumb and lazy, the internet destroys their attention span, etc.

Most research seems to indicate that power and media don’t go together – bad things happen if they do. What I am wondering is – can the powerful use media for good, rather than bad? Power and media leading to bad things is a relationship of correlation, not causation. What responsibilities, obligations do the powerful have to use media for the greater good? This is a question that has been asked in democratic theory – the media should be a watchdog, should serve as a platform for the public to discuss important issues, etc. More specifically, and something I am interested in, is what kind of obligations are imposed on the media as a result of a particular power disparity – that is to say, what obligations should be imposed precisely because the media are powerful/are controlled by the powerful? 

In broadcast television, the imposition of rules that made sure political issues would be covered in a way that was honest, equitable and balanced was called the ‘fairness doctrine‘. The primary justification for imposing this (controversial) rule was that broadcast television only could carry so many channels because of spectrum scarcity. In other words, only a few limited number of channels could be broadcasted – because of the power this would give to those who control these few channels, the FCC made sure that important issues were covered in a ‘fair’ way. The fairness doctrine had many problems (partially because it wasn’t quite clear what was meant with ‘honest, equitable and balanced’ coverage) and was subsequently abolished. However, one could consider if the fairness doctrine or some kind of equivalent would still have relevance in modern days – in other words, if we’d had to ressurect this, how would it look like? Some have linked the fairness doctrine to the debates we have on network neutrality, arguing that it is in essence a fairness doctrine for the internet. 

One could thus compare the internet protocols – the rules that describe how connections on the internet are established – to rules we have for media access (besides the fairness doctrine, there have also been regulations such as the equal-time rules, specifying that broadcast stations must provide opportunity to opposing political candidates to speak).

But are the internet protocols by themselves enough? The internet protocols are famous for ‘not caring what kind of content they carry’ – as long as the protocols are followed. Should protocols care? The telecom providers argue the internet should care – they say it makes a difference (and a big burden on their network) whether content is video, peer to peer traffic or just text. They want to be able to prioritize some content over others. They want to be able to regulate traffic in such a way that a small number of users don’t end up hogging most of the bandwidth, or at least charge them more for it. Skeptics, and network neutrality proponents, fear that the telecom providers will abuse this power to prioritize content (“let’s make getting to the Microsoft Live search website really fast, and let’s slow down access to Google”). 

But the ability to be able to distinguish, to prioritize some content over others might not be a bad thing. We can disagree about who should be able to prioritize, on what basis – for example, many people might not want the telecom providers to be able to prioritize on the basis of profit maximization – but what about the following: Clay Shirky has helped us understand that the blogosphere follows a powerlaw – that is to say, a small number of so-called A-list blogs gets a disproportionate amount of attention.

If you are such an A-list blog, and you wield a certain power in the form of mass attention, what kind of moral obligations follow out of that kind of power?

The Inbox Lockout Problem

The New York Times has an interesting article about the problem of people getting locked out of their inboxes.

In particular, the article singles out Google, who don’t do much to help people get back in if they get locked out. Which is too bad; a few hundred call center reps would be a very small cost for such a mammoth ad revenue generator. Since their business model is built on throwing countless value-added applications at people and figuring out later how to monetize it, this is somewhat out of character.

The article does point out, though, a couple tips for the Gmail user. First, be sure to set up an alternate email address and a security question. Second, if you’re using Gmail for mission-critical communication, consider becoming a paying customer. For $50/year, you can become a Google Apps Premier Edition customer, which includes voice support for critical issues. Obviously, the former solution is much more practical for most people.

OK Go Singer’s Brilliant on Net Neutrality

I’m stoked by Damian Kulash’s New York Times opinion calling for mandated network neutrality. It’s a far more accessible, engaging piece than almost anything written on the subject, and he makes a compelling case. Kudos to him.

P.S. On a personal note, it’s been a metric year since I blogged, and for good reason. Life is crazy now, not least because my wife Tina Collins just got a 2 year fellowship at (ahem) HARVARD! So as I finish up my dissertation (still expecting to wrap it up this summer), we’re gearing up to move (her and probably me) to Cambridge. While I’m still actively applying for tenure-track jobs across the country, I’m also looking at postdocs and other work around Boston.

Expect more rage-against-the-machine blogitude once I’m resettled.