Email is about group-forming

John Udell’s instant classic:

Every interpersonal e-mail message creates, or sustains, or alters the membership of a group. It happens so naturally that we don’t even think about it. When you’re writing a message to Sally, you cc: Joe and Beth. Joe adds Mark to the cc: list on his reply. You and Sally work for one department of your company, Joe for another, Beth is a customer, and Mark is an outside contractor. These subtle and spontaneous acts of group formation and adjustments of group membership are the source of e-mail’s special power. Without any help from an administrator, we transcend the boundaries not only of time and space but also of organizational trust.
An ad-hoc group convened by e-mail dissolves unless membership is reaffirmed by each message. This is a feature, not a bug. Many of the groups that perform work in a modern organization are transient. A hallway conversation is over in minutes; a spontaneous collaboration can last a day; a project may take a week. Software that requires people to explicitly declare the formation of these groups, and to acknowledge their dissolution, is too blunt an instrument for such ephemeral social interaction. Like an operating-system thread, an e-mail thread is a lightweight construct, cheap to set up and tear down.

Rank and file musicians question the RIAA line

The LA times interviews session musicians, managers at indy labels and indy record stores, and finds that folks in the rank and file of the music industry aren’t all buying the RIAA line that file-sharing is all bad.
One rap label exec says, “At first, I got mad. Now, I roll with it and use the tapes as a promotional avenue. I go down to the studio once or twice a month, and knock out three to four songs that will just be for these mix tapes. One of these mix tapes might get the word of mouth going, and that’s good for me.”

What is peer media

Scott Jensen has an interesting paper on the impact of peer-to-peer networks on the entertainment business. Key conclusion: movies will be funded by merchandising and product placement, not ticket sales.
Key gap: the essay focuses on the distribution of corporate-created content, and doesn’t address the “peer content” — the blogs and indy bands who’ll use the medium to bypass the corporate intermediaries.

Texas resident sues DirecTV under RICO

DirecTV has been conducting a scheme of intimidation against its customers, sending letters demanding a $3500 fine to over 100,000 customers who had purchased smartcards, which can be used to secure computer systems and offices, or to steal satellite TV service. This DirecTV tactic was the model for the exhorbitant civil penalties in the Texas SDMCA.
DirecTV is now facing a legal challenge that calls this tactic by its real name. Texas physician Rod Sosa, pursued by DirecTV for the smart cards he bought to secure his medical office computer, is one of three plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit accusing DirecTV of extortion under the RICO statute.

Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language

Robin Dunbar has a chattier take on the evolution of language than Terence Deacon. Dunbar, a primatologist, makes the case that human language evolved because it helped humans survive in larger groups than other primates. You can chat with several people at a time, but you can only pull the bugs out of one other critter’s fur. Group size helped humans avoid predators, as they moved down from the trees into the savannah.
Dunbar’s explanation seems more compelling than Terrence Deacon’s (that symbolic communication evolved to signify the sexual ownership of females in mixed-gender groups). Co-operation kept early humans fed and kept them from being eaten every single day; survival is a pre-requisite to passing on one’s genes. Pair-bond status disputes happen a lot less frequently than eating.
Neither theory is easily provable; both theories lie somewhere on the continuum between science and origin myth.
Meanwhile, both books explain fascinating science, while telling their origin myth for language. Dunbar explains human communication in the context of communication patterns among other primates. Deacon explains language in the context of the science of language processing in the human brain.

Wanted: web-enabled database to fight political corruption

I’m on the board of Campaigns for People, an organization dedicated to reducing the influence of money in Texas politics.
A major ethics reform package passed this last legislative session, thanks in part to pressure from thousands of citizens on the CFP activist list, and tireless lobbying by CFP and a coalition of over 60 groups representing 3 million Texans. The ethics bill, HB1606, tightens loopholes that candidates used to avoid disclosing contributions electronically, and strengthens processes to investigate ethics complaints against office-holders.
CFP is seeking a coder for a pro-bono project that is helping to nab corrupt lawmakers.
CFP has compiled a database of campaign contributors in the Houston and San Antonio area. The data can be used by citizen groups to research the influence of money on legislation. The Sierra Club — to give one example — is using the data to identify politicians who took large campaign contributions from road contractors, and then allocated plum construction contracts to their campaign donor buddies.
CFP would like to make this database viewable and searchable on the web, to make it easier for citizen groups to research campaign contributions. The organization is running on a very slim budget, so the work would need to be done pro-bono.
If you are interested, please contact Fred Lewis, CFP President, at


Mitch Ratcliffe wants to work on “a ‘Sociobot’ that ties into MySQL to allow people to be introduced and to track relationships by looking at who links to whom on Technorati and, if I can figure out how, on LinkedIn and other systems.”
Sounds cool. Some questions the bot might answer:
* ?Who knows “Dave Weinberger” — given a third party, who in the group knows that person
* ?Who’s blogged about “QuickTime6” — given a topic, who in the group has blogged on the topic
What other cool questions would you want to ask the sociobot?