Tools for basic net activism

The project has three main pieces:
* a public blog ( – for reporting news, posting action alerts, posting municipal network profiles, and linking to reports. The blog becomes the source of news and background research.
* an action mailing list – for busy people to get action updates
* a coordinator mailing list — a high traffic list for people coordinating nuts and bolts like photocopies of information packets
* a private wiki, for planners coordinating fact sheets, gathering information about projects around the state, building materials for the press.
I also use the Technorati blog search engine to find out who’s linking to us and discover the extended conversation.
This basic set of tools is used again and again in different projects. Today, there are three separate pieces. We’re using Movable Type for the blog, Mailman for the mailing list, and Socialtext for the wiki.
It would be great to have a packaged toolset, so people who were less tech-savvy than Chip and me could set things up.
And would be great to have closer integration between the tools
* publish content from the wiki to the blog
* single signin among the private tools
* single search among the public tools

SXSW: distributed social networks

The SXSW panel was called “decentralized social networks”. The title was a bit of a misnomer — I wish there had been a panel on distributed social networks.
The presentations by danah boyd and Jonas Luster covered the well-known flaws of centralized social networks such as Friendster and Orkut — their awkwardness, explicitness, and lack of privacy.
These networks were the rage last year, but time has already proven what we guessed — without a business purpose like LinkedIn, or creative purpose like Flickr, social networks are a fad.
Tantek Celik discussed XFN, a relationship notation that really is decentralized, but bears the drawbacks of explicitness and lack of tool support.
Joyce Park had a hypothesis that the explicit definition of relationships is more appealing to men than women. Joyce speculates that women are more reliant on “little white lies”, and more hesitant to explicitly categorize their friendships. (this hypothesis doesn’t fit set of men and women I know, including men who tell white lies and women who manage social networks like collectibles).
Rather than beating up on Orkut, Friendster, and males for for being overly explicit, I’d rather see a discussion of really distributed social networks, where relationships are assembled incrementally and often implicitly.
* the patterns of conversation and interaction that are revealed by the social network analysis of collaboration through blog links, blog comments, wiki authorship, and other public trails
* comparing these patterns to the patterns in other discussion media such as mailing lists and usenet
* patterns of affiliation in creative networks such as Flickr and LastFM, where connections are draw with a combination of explicit invitation and implicite taste-sharing
Since mandatory explicitness is clearly a mismatch to realworld relationships, it would also be fascinating to:
* discuss of the social uses and time-series changes of subtler intimacy gradients in social networks like LiveJournal
* fast-forward a few years, and see whether and how the correlation of identity provided by IDCommons or a cousin has had any impact on cross-network social integration.
I must admit that I didn’t stay all the way through the panel. I was impatient for the next-generation panel — maybe next year.

Trust in online communities: people and machines

Two presentations at SXSW on trust and online communities could not have been more different.
At the panel Mary Hodder facilitated, on Social Software and Shades of Trust,, Ka-Ping Yee at Berkeley and Alex Russel of Informatica and described the perpetual alphabet soup of digital trust standards and projects, from the late lamented p3p, through Liberty, IDCommons, and others.
Trust was seen as a feature and a subsystem — an engineering problem that could be overcome, someday, with the right combination of usability design, standards, and architectural decomposition. There wasn’t a strong explanation for why the same technical conversation had been going on for a decade, with few signs of successful implementation in the real world.
The canonical examples of trust involved formal programs and features — Ebay’s reputation system, the formal privacy statements on web sites, the desire for single signon between community websites.
At the panel facilitated by Molly Steenson on How to Grow Online Community, Craig Newmark of Craig’s list and Matt Haughey of Metafilter both talked about trust as a social issue. Craig talked about the Craig’s list assumption that people are generally good, and about the processes they use when people stop being good, from unintentional misbehavior to criminal fraud and spam.
Matt talked about the social difficulties of introducing moderation for some discussions, and the challenge of determining the right lightness of touch. Both Craig and Matt noted that when a poster misbehaves, the first step is to speak with that person directly; reasoning solves the problem about half of the time.
Where the previous panel looked to Ebay’s formal reputation system as the trust model, Craig used the metaphor of a flea market, which is a combination of transaction marketplace and place to socialize.
Both Craig and Matt apologized about the lightweight, uncomplicated, “first-generation” nature of their systems, lacking the sophisticated design and features of later-developed social software. Yet Craig’s list is one of the most successful online ventures in the world, and MetaFilter has been a longstanding and highly successful online community, fostering 3d communities in different cities, friendships and marriages.
I can’t help thinking that the social-first approach to online community is the right primary approach.

Dinosaurs and mammals at SXSW

Back to back conversations at an SXSW party last night:
* a multi-billion dollar content company can’t figure out how to cost-justify digitizing its content and making it available to fans
* a small web hosting firm with lots of artist customers publishes a blog and RSS feeds full of content from artists who want to get out the word about their creations, like, say this ipod holder.

Mammals are scurrying around the dinosaurs’ feet.

Who buys Skype and when

The Skype crew are innovating and popularizing digital voice applications.
This is an area where innovation has been waiting to happen for a long time. I hope they have a good runway before they get bought, so they have some time to keep innovating, before somebody pulls them into 18 month product cycles and the good developers leave.
Whoever buys Skype will have a large influence on the pace of innovation in the area. I hope that it’s a company that has a vision for open, diverse voice communication apps, rather than a walled garden with incremental, closed services.

A forum is not a conversation

This morning I stopped by this online forum about terrorism and democracy, organized by conference that David Weinberger and Joi Ito are attending.
In the forum, a set of people with diverse nationalities (US, Europe, Middle East, Asia), talk to each other at an abstract level about big topics like “terrorism” and “democracy”.
Individuals express their own philosophical background and favorite arguments in their own rhetorical language (socialist, anti-american, liberal, non-violent, pro-violent resistence, etc). There is some interesting comparision between tactics of violence and tacticts of non-violence. Yet, there is no moderation that I can see, and little social pressure to bring people talk to each other rather than past each other.
The people are not part of any organizational structure, and are not trying to create any action. There is no shared objective, so people can talk forever without reaching understanding, agreement or resolution.
It is exciting that the forum attracted such a geographically and philosophically diverse group. But without facilitation and the creation of shared purpose, this exercise in sustained mutual incomprehensive is quite frustrating.
Just like a room and a table don’t create a meeting, a discussion forum does not create deliberative democracy. There may be methods that work to make this type of conversation productive. They weren’t used in that forum.

Austin Lounge Lizards star in funny activist animation

Prescription for Change is a very funny take on a serious topic — drug companies are regulated before they release a drug, but they aren’t obligated to disclose nasty side effects after the drug is on the market.
The video features the Austin Lounge Lizards and Animation Farm of Austin. It was produced by my friend Kathy Mitchell of Consumer’s Union, the parent organization of Consumer Reports magazine.

Horse race coverage

This LA times article describes a three-way tie for LA mayor. The article describes the polls, the levels of ethnic support, the ads, the ad strategies (should they go negative?), and some scandal in the incumbent’s office.
Yet, the article says, “more than four in 10 likely voters say they do not know enough about Hertzberg [one of the challengers] to have a positive or negative impression of him.” The article doesn’t help in the slightest. It says little about the candidates’ backgrounds, positions, and beliefs. It says little about the incumbent’s achievements or lack thereof.
So, this article is about a poll, maybe that explains it. But a search on the name of one of the candidates reveals a similar lack of substance in other campaign stories. In one story, the candidates compete with rain. In another, they compete in the news with mudslides. The paper goes out of its way say that the candidates are less interesting than the weather.
Maybe elections in LA are purely tribal, maybe people are bored with the election, but the newspaper is part of the problem.

Department of Creepy

In which David Frum objects to gay marriage because it somehow abolishes

the idea that husbands and wives each have special duties to one another, and that a husband’s duties to his wife – while equally binding and equally supreme – are not the same as a wife’s duties to her husband.”

Frum’s statement is illogical because the “duties” that he is talking about — whatever they are — aren’t anywhere near the law. I am curious, and at the same me, very leery to know what he means by these things that he doesn’t mention out loud. Is it:
* a husband’s obligation under Jewish law to satisfy a wife sexually (true)
* a wife’s duty to have dinner ready and the table set by 7pm?
* a wife’s duty to submit humbly to corporal punishment?
I am not looking to the day when these duties are spelled out and somebody tries to put them into civil law.