Wetware

Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell (Dennis Bray, not Rudy Rucker) is a short clearly guided tour on the analogies between biology and computing. Bray walks the reader through the protein-driven algorithms that generate complex behavior even in single-celled organisms without nervous systems, biological sensory mechanisms, cellular communications, and the basics of neurons.

The book raises thought-provoking questions – how much is computing merely a familiar analogy like clockwork in Descartes time, and how much is information processing a fair way to understand what happens in a biological system. How much of a difference does it make that biological life is carbon and liquid-based, and computing is silicate and dry? How much of a difference does it make that bio life is self-powering and self-replicating, unlike robots which depend on extrinsic mining, metallurgy, electric power generation. How much of a difference – seemingly large – between the elegant, simpler, and fragile creations of human engineers – and the convoluted, nuanced and fragile works of evolution?

Wetware is not particularly technical. An interested reader can follow up to find much more about any of the subjects it touches in more detail. One of the things that I liked about the book is how it avoids the occupational hubris that affects some works in the field. Bray calls out Wolfram, of course, but also Stuart Kauffman and Rodney Brooks for overconfidence about the relationship between their simulations and biological life. Bray falls prey to this a little bit in his chapter on neural networks, a field where he has done some professional work. Neural nets are useful algorithms loosely inspired by the biological model, but the intermediate steps in biological circuits which support multiple inputs and connections don’t seem that much like the hidden layers of neural nets to me.

Bray does a good job of writing his sentences with subjects, verbs, and connected referents which makes it easier to follow complicated multi-step processes. This may seem elementary but is not as common as it should be. By contrast Nick Lane’s book on Mitochondria, which is as far as I can tell brilliant, is harder than it needs to be. Not because it uses some technical terms and walks the reader through live debates and contrasting theories – it’s fair to ask the reader to think – but because his sentences don’t parse, and the reader needs to read them twice and then guess what “it” and “this” refer to. I need to reread Lane’s book to understand it better before I write about it.

The Secret Life of Lobsters

The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson is fitting follow-up to Mike Kurlansky’s Cod. The decline of the once-dominant predator fish opened an ecological niche for their crustacean prey, resulting in a boom in the population of lobsters. Kurlansky tells a tragic tale of the decline by overfishing of the Atlantic cultural and economic staple, which has not recovered even now. Corson tells a more optimistic story – how the Maine lobstering community banded together over the decades to uphold practices that preserve the breeding population and sustain the fishing community along with their catch.

The Secret Life of Lobsters combines detective stories of scientific research uncovering bizarre details of the lobster life cycle, and dramatic struggles among fisherman and scientists about the state of the lobster population. Over time, independent biologists built relationships with fishermen, learning from their day-to-day knowledge, engaging astute fishermen in data collection, countering assessments of government scientists further from the fish, and becoming a force in policy decisions about the fishery.

A depressing share of environmental histories tell stories of the human overexploitation of resources, and the decline and risk to human populations and cultures when the resources are depleted. The Secret Life of Lobsters tells a more optimistic story of responsible stewardship bolstered by science. I recommend the book, wish luck to the lobster fishery, and hope our civilization can do more like this.

The women of “Srugim”

Recently I watched the first two seasons of “Srugim” the surprise hit Israeli tv drama that follows the lives of five thirty-something single men and women in the modern orthodox community of Katamon in Jerusalem. Sometimes referred to as the Israeli “Friends”, it’s been popular among secular folk in Israel and has a following in the states (it’s available on DVD with subtitles).

Although the creators of the show are men, the most interesting and compelling characters are the 3 female central characters; a woman whose high-powered financial services job scares off some men, the daughter of a rabbi who struggles with her religious identity, and a warm-hearted graphic artist who is stuck on a commitment-phobic surgeon. Though the plot in the first season centers on heterosexual relationships, the show passes the Bechdel test.

In Season 1, the female characters in Srugim face more conflict and character development than the men, who are rather passive and unadventurous; the sexism of religious society pushes the women to evolve. In Season 2, the gay male character also faces social pressure; the show has not yet shown whether and how the character will change.

But I get the impression that the the creators of the show are torn in portraying the tensions generated by female power. On the one hand, they are sympathetic to the struggles of women making their own way. On the other hand, images of bossy or neurotic women are played somewhat unflatteringly; and yet back on the other hand, the show handles narcissism and neurosis as equal-gender-opportunity character flaws.

The finance professional dumps a fiance when he proposes only after getting a raise that makes his salary closer to hers, and with persistence negotiates her way into getting lessons in reading torah for a women’s minyan. Her character has some traits in common with the weaselly Pete Campbell of Mad Men; she can scheme and manipulate to get what she wants; she has a yiddish sharp tongue and can be a bully. Does she choose the sweet yeshiva student over the fellow professional because she experiences the unfamiliar with him; or because she can boss him around, or both; does she eventually dump him because she was never serious or realizes she doesn’t love him or both?

Toward the end of the first season the character makes some choices that seem to show increasing honesty and tact; a bit of growing up? In Season 2, she shows more ethical compass by standing up for her gay sweetie; but is her attraction to a gay man a sign in the show creators’ minds of the inability to relate to more macho “normal” heterosexual men? I dislike the scheming but like her assertiveness, negotiation skills, motorcycle, torah-reading, and the sharp tongue that gets her into trouble, but does the filmmaker?

An even more exaggerated and unattractive picture of the manipulative bossy woman is the wealthy girlfriend of the narcissistic surgery intern. She schemes to have him invited to a party thrown by her father who is a major donor of the hospital, and arranges to have her beau offered a prestigious residency at Mount Sinai hospital in NYC. She can even get her boyfriend’s absentee landlord to fix a broken sink. When her boyfriend gets upset with her assertive ways, she fakes terror of cockroaches to make him feel confident in his manhood, but smashes bugs with her high-heeled shoes when he isn’t looking. Her boyfriend doesn’t appreciate her controlling ways, but he also doesn’t appreciate the loving companionship of his long-suffering female best buddy who’s in love with him; or for that matter neither does he show consideration for anybody else in Season 1.

The bible grad student, the daughter of a rabbi, doubts her religious identity, but keeps her dilemmas a secret in Season 1. She doesn’t tell the witty and solicitous archaeology professor that she is religious though they are falling in love with each other; she doesn’t tell her friends she’s dating a secular guy. At one point she fails to stop her elderly grandmother who has wandered away from the senior center because she will be seen wearing pants; then repents and goes looking for her through the streets of Jerusalem (the grandmother is found safe).

The show makes clear why the character would be so cagey; her friends talk openly about how they dump friends who become secular; one of the male characters discovers that people on the street don’t say hello to him when he accidentally loses his kippah. The community polices boundaries, and making a choice is (or seems) definitive. Once upon a time I was like that character; I was similarly confused and in the closet about religious struggles; and caused some similar havoc. Interestingly, the show parallels the closet experiences of characters struggling with religious identity and characters struggling with sexual identity. In both cases, characters who are outside the community norms feel the need to keep secrets, struggle with disclosing their identity, and face the risk of social ostracism.

Interestingly, with the struggling religious characters in Srugim the issue is explicitly and primarily about g-d and faith. Is this different from American Judaism, where Jews talk about holidays and halachah and concepts of good and evil, and less about g-d? Personally, I’ve been pretty humanist about religion since bat mitzvah age; for me the choices about religious afflliation were more about human authority and sociology that about belief or unbelief; but the social boundaries and identity dilemmas were very similar.

The warm-hearted and emotional graphic designer is the least conflicted of the three major female characters in Season 1. She is competent at her craft without being ambitious, she is a great cook, she is sincerely religious. At the beginning of the season she is something of a doormat, and develops more of a spine as she learns from experience. Her religiosity is portrayed as somewhat of a flaw when she focuses on rules over people, but her good heart overcomes her initial impulse to rigidity.

Hers is a kind of character that I tend to loathe on the printed page, but the script and the actress redeem the character for me in Season 1; she is shown as intelligently and actively empathetic, and grows by making her own decisions. Is her fundamental meekness and domesticity seen by the filmmakers as superior womanhood? Or is she, like the good-hearted, somewhat passive and geeky fellow she eventually connects with, something of a shlemiel. In Season 2, she turns to developing her career when she is disappointed by the inability to quickly get pregnant, her emotionality turns into volatility, and overrides her sense of compassion. Where are the film-makers with this evolution? Is assertiveness and professional development being cast once again as the opposite of femininity? Or do the show’s creators also see the rift between the character and her husband as a lack of courage and honesty on both their parts, where neither can communicate about the pain of infertility and the tensions between personal and day to day tradeoffs between professional and family priorities?

I know what I think – I always liked the adventurous women characters better, in works where a male author favored the good women. I’m not sure where the show’s creators come down. I suspect they are empathetic with the character and struggles of the female characters; and not quite comfortable with female power; and able to depict flaws of selfishness, dishonesty, and cowardice in both genders.

One thing that’s interesting to me is the way the show depicts the characters moral struggles about how to interact with other people, including making mistakes, repenting and forgiving each other. Every once in a while there is a parable; the surgeon reports the hospital’s cafe kiosk for having a forged kashrut certificate and then is chagrined when the kindly kiosk employee loses his job when the contractor is replaced; and it is a bit surprising that the self-involved surgeon shows a glimmer of moral awareness and compassion. Most of the time the choices are more subtle than that parable. Religious observance, belief, and sex are red herrings, the important thing is how to treat others and oneself. The show is sociologically interesting in the way it portrays the various segments of Israeli Jewish society; but this moral psychology may be the most Jewish aspect of the show.

What do you think? I would love to bounce ideas and questions off others who watched the show.

A feminist argument for open access publishing

In the context of the geek feminism community, Liz Henry shared a link to an intriguing journal article that provides a feminist rationale for open access academic publishing: What is Feminist About Open Access?: A Relational Approach to Copyright in the Academy by Carys Craig, Joseph Turcotte, Rosemary Coombe

The strong part of the paper’s argument is the critique of the idea of self that is embedded in modern conceptions of copyright. Enlightenment and romantic thinkers conceived of the self as an autonomous individual and viewed the value of content as its originality. Postmodern theorists questioned the enlightenment and romantic ideas of authorial originality, putting authors in the context of the materials they rework and the discourses a work participates in. The article extends this questioning, using feminist theory to reframe the idea of the self as always in relation, and to reframe cultural production as created in relationship with others.

These ideas draws on the work of scholars including co-author Rosemary Coombe, Shelly Wright, Johanna Gibson, and Jennifer Nedelsky; There is a very interesting-sounding book by Nedelsky in the queue for publication that promises to develop these ideas in depth, entitled Law’s Relations: A Relational Theory of Self, Autonomy, and Law.

This feminist critique of the individualistic assumptions embedded in the concept of authorship is complementary and congenial to other aspects of the cultural critique of intellectual property. Critics including Larry Lessig, Siva Vaidhanathan, and Cory Doctorow write about “remix culture”, the idea that culture is and always has been created by reassembling and modifying existing materials. Proponents of ideas about peer production (Benkler, Bauwens, Shirky) talk about the cultural surplus that is generated from commons production. Free/Open Source software proponents (Linus Torvalds, Dan Wallach) critique the idea that quality is created by proprietary contributions, and argue that software has improved quality and security when the software creation process is transparent – with enough eyes all bugs are shallow. (The core of the Free Software argument is freedom itself, which I will get to in a bit).

However, there are a number of limitations in the feminist argument. The article attributes the idea of individual authority to a masculine conception of identity and cultural creation. But this is not inherently the case. The Rabbinic Jewish tradition conceives of cultural creation through canonical forms of re-interpretation. Rather than hailing individual creativity, this process subordinates new voices to the tradition, while using interpretive power to create new layers of tradition. The creative process was still patriarchal, though; the people with the power to create were almost all male until quite recently.

The article also advocates for the benefit of open access publishing in providing access to excluded and marginalized people. But the article is focusing on open access publishing of academic journal articles. A lay professional may be able to read the articles but almost surely isn’t going to have access to publish; let alone a working class person or nomadic woman who is a leader and arbiter for her group. The social structure and meritocracy of this particular form of publishing is the context of professional academia.

Richard Stallman and other free software proponents advocate free software with a completely open and meritocratic idea of freedom – the freedom to study a program, modify it, distribute it to help your neighbor, and give the community the benefits of your code changes. (This is meritocratic since not all changes will help a neighbor or the community at large; a developer is free to modify free software to make it unusable, buggy and insecure, also, and the community is free to review it and conclude it worse not better).

But even in contemporary peer cultures, there is still governance over who can contribute. Open source software projects have various processes for code review and determining who can commit. Licenses give coders the ability to fork, but forking is often less powerful than the ability to extend, and that is subject to governance. Wikipedia has editing standards and a tradition in a complex culture that is a challenge for outsiders to learn. Fan fiction communities define their own boundaries around canon and practice and style. The boundaries to collaborative cultural communities are created and enforced somehow, and these power and boundary structures need critique.

So, in advocating for open access academic publishing, the paper does not critique the boundary-creation process of collaborative cultural communities, accepts as a given the structure of academic authority and poses no radical alternatives. This is not a bad thing; the focus of the paper is good as it is, and this particular article has no obligation to be any more radical than it is. Advocating for open access academic publishing contributes to improving the world in an important way. But there is also room for other more radical critiques and alternative structures.

Also, by focusing on academic open access, the article refrains from grappling with other economic and legal issues relating to open access. In academia, open access reduces the economic power of traditional publishers that make large profits incommensurate with the value they add, since the peer review is contributed by fellow academics for free. But the scholars themselves are already paid a salary by the university system. In other areas of cultural production, such as nonacademic writing and free software, practitioners do not automatically have a salary paying for their cultural production. These types of collaborative production depend on different economic structures for support, and the article is silent on these challenges and changes.

As for legal analysis, the article suggests that this feminist concept of cultural production might help foster other changes in copyright law. There may well be opportunities to improve copyright law using these concepts, but this article does not explore what they might be.

That said, the article’s core argument – relating weaknesses in copyright law and practice to a critique of the notion of the individual, and reframing cultural creation in terms of relationship – is a strong and important contribution of the critique of copyright. When I saw the title and abstract, I wondered about the tactical politics of it. Having read through it, the article is primarily persuasive for fellow scholars who already understand and support feminist critique, but who may have other reasons to resist alternatives to proprietary academic publishing. And, in combination with other arguments, this argument strengthens the broader philosophical case for open access publishing and collaborative production.

There is no such thing as online organizing (rant)

This is a rant – all of y’all might reading know this, but

When we were planning the Friends of Caltrain summit last winter, one of my fellow planners suggested that I moderate a session on “online organizing.” I politely declined. We should have a session on organizing and outreach. “But it might be crowded,” someone said. “If it gets crowded, we should split into two sessions about organizing.” In the sessions, we should brainstorm about what communities people participate in, and how to reach them.

When we succeeded at turning out thousands of people to email regional decision makers, and helped turn out hundreds at in-person meetings, we got plenty of compliments at “using the internet” to change the dynamic of the situation. But it wasn’t “the internet” – it was people, in their neighborhood groups, bike clubs, business groups, environmental groups.

Working to help spread the word about Limmud Bay Area, a volunteer-driven conference and festival, I reviewed the list of volunteer categories. One category was marketing and outreach. Another category was “technology and social media.” I politely suggested that we change the categories so that social media was part of outreach and marketing.

Even communities that spend much of their time online, such as open source projects and online political discussion groups are fueled and refueled by meeting periodically in person.

Organizations reach constituents, and people reach out to each other online. There is a distinctive set of tools for this, true. But the tactics used to communicate online are part of an overall organizing strategy. People meet each other and get to know other human beings. The venue, a bar or a Google+ hangout or facebook group or a mailing list is a just a tool for meeting other people. And most of the time, reaching out online is one tactic to help people achieve something together in the 3d world.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg sits in the modernist tradition of turning villains and minor characters into antiheros; sympathy for the devil goes back to Milton. Our demon is Baba Yaga, the hag witch of Slavic folklore, who eats small children for lunch and gives gifts of wisdom to wandering young heroes after an ordeal or two.

The book’s first two sections are narratives focusing on old women. In the first section, the protagonist is a writer caring for her elderly mother who strives to maintain dignity with dementia. Where Baba Yaga is an infamous slob, the writer’s mother is obsessively neat; cleaning serves as or substitutes for affection. Where Baba Yaga is demonically clever, the writer’s mother is losing words to a slowly growing brain tumor, and even when she had her faculties was partial to aphorisms and cliches. While she shows the horrors of age in inverse fashion to Baba Yaga, she gives her daughter a gift; cranky and cold in her prime, she enables her daughter to show love, in a stilted and inarticulate fashion, in her decline.

In the second half of the first section, the writer travels to her hometown in Bulgaria accompanied by a younger woman, a scholar of folklore who is an obsequious fangirl bordering on stalker. The writer is taking the trip as a surrogate for her mom, hoping to recapture some feeling, but the post-iron curtain seaside town is grim and tawdry.

I’m not sure what to make of the anomie of this section; something about the anti-romance of the past in post-Soviet Central Europe. Maybe something about the disconnect of generations imposed by history and politics; the writer’s mom dealt with cataclysm by being relentlessly ordinary; the writer character is somewhat embittered by her dissidence and exile; the younger academic is left with a pale simulacrum of nationalism and alienation from biological and adopted families.

The anti-romance of the past takes a comic and ribald turn in the second section of the book, which migrates the Weird Sisters to a postwar resort in the Czech Republic. To the hotel clerk, the three elderly unmarried ladies look alike; as the story progresses, the characters reveal individual personality and individual history, each with her own tragedies, losses and secrets. Far from controlling fate, the three women’s lives have been shaped by history’s events and their own mistakes.

In the Baba Yaga legend, an old female character is isolated and alien; these three women take care of each other. Baba Yaga eats small children with her iron teeth; these old women take care of children after lifetimes of parenting failures and misadventures. The stereotype of old age is of stasis and decline, but the tale in this chapter shows older people continuing to change while they can.

Where the Baba Yaga legend mocks female old age, this chapter ridicules older men, portraying a series of pompous, egoistic schemers. Baba Yaga is old and hideous; but modern society is obsessed with trying to preserve female youth and beauty. Dubravka Ugresic sees the spa as an emblem of the vapidity of post-Soviet Central Europe. “In the absence of all ideologies, the only refuge that remains for the human imagination is the body.”

This chapter comes the closest to feminist antihero fan fictions about characters such as Lilith and Vashti, taking bit-character villains and turning them into main characters. But it doesn’t adopt the feminist cliche of turning the villain into a hero. Buba, the character whose consciousness the narrative follows, is ridiculous; she is not very bright or articulate, she has a good heart but is clumsy and insecure. Dubravka Ugresic inverts villains into characters that are ordinary and imperfect.

The third section of the book is in the voice of the fangirl academic who expatiates on Baba Yaga folklore at tedious length. This is postmodern conceptual art; it’s mocking the dry irrelevance of the academic cataloging species of premodern horrors and resisting the temptations of scholarly explication. At the same time, it is Ugresic’s sly chance to caption the photographs in case the reader missed the meanings; the hag as icon for female old age; as projection of mysogynist fears; as the degraded image of the Goddess defeated by Patriarchy (Here’s a writeup of a book group discussion focusing on these themes with Timmi Duchamp, editor of Aqueduct Press, a publishing house for feminist science fiction.

The thing is, while Ugresic pre-emptively incorporates and mocks her interpreter, she also invokes her own interpretation in the narrative sections, repeating and self-consciously questioning figures of eggs, birds, and flowers; beauty and tawdriness; eloquence and dumbness, magic and prose. She’s warning us off of interpretation but herself can’t stay away.

In the age of the internet, the traditional form of the book review is dead; but people still haven’t gotten the memo. In Goodreads, there are 28 “reviews” of the book, taking the form of a brief outline and summary, perhaps a quote, and then the author’s declaration of opinion. The form assumes that the reader hasn’t read the book, needs an introduction, but wants to avoid spoilers. The obsolete form is particularly annoying with this book which invites and resists its own explication.

Competing on moderation

In Google+, internet celebrities are again competing based on the size of their follower count. But I wonder whether there’s going to be a different criterion by which posters compete for attention on G+ as people get used to the service.

Recently, Anil Dash wrote an excellent post about the responsibility of site owners to moderate the comments on their sites – If your website’s full of assholes , it’s your fault. Anil takes to task publishers of online news sites who allow their comments sections to fill with hostility and abuse. A year ago, Robert Niles made a similar point – sites need to take responsibility for their comments, and those that don’t want to invest in their comments should turn them off. The Tummelvision crew have been evangelizing the need and value of “tummelling, a word adapted from a Yiddish word for someone hired to MC a party, applied to facilitating conversation and engagement online.

In Google+, like blogs and unlike Twitter, each post becomes the anchor for a comment stream. A poster’s followers can chime in and discuss. Currently, G+ posters have a few basic tools to moderate their stream – they can remove comments, and report users who are adding spam or abuse.

Some high-profile posters have the hang of facilitating a conversation. They participate, interact with others, respond to points in the discussion, and to the tone of contributions. The participants in some threads are good conversationalists – they respond to each other. When they disagree, they’re polite. In other posters’ discussions, participants race to state their own opinion, and don’t interact with each other. Comments aren’t a conversation but a serial monolog. In some posters’ discussions, hostile comments such as personal attacks and sexist remarks are met with disapproval and warning, in other discussions they go by unremarked and continue.

Many have observed that one of the distinctive aspects of Google+ compared to other social media is engagement – participants share, +1, and comment more actively than on other sites. Will the quality of moderation and community become one of the factors that distinguishes posters to Google+? Will posters with better discussions gather more and better engagement over time?

The quality of engagement certainly makes a difference to my online choices. I love Ta Nehisi Coates blog partly because of his fantastic writing and engagement with the topics he takes on, and in part because he’s attracted maybe the best comments section I’ve seen on the internet. As a moderator, he is not shy about using the ban hammer, and also holds high standards for posters on the site to respond to each other, not to straw man arguments, and to interact with respect. On Google+, I make choices about which threads to enter because of the style of the community I expect from the poster.

Will the quality of discussion become a more important factor for posters in Google+?

GAFFTA Summer of Smart – transportation and sustainability hacks

Bring together a bunch of hackers, open government data, some government pros and the desire to improve sustainability and transportation, and what do you get? Last weekend, the Summer of Smart program at GAFFTA (Gray Area Foundation for the Arts) in San Francisco yielded seven cool hack projects. At the end of the hackathon, each team presented about their projects:

Two of the hacks used building data to visualize the green-ness commercial and residential buildings.

*GoodBuildings.info:* Building tools that let prospective commercial tenants and brokers view the great features of the building to drive demand for eco-friendly buildings. Discover performance on energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste disposal, walk/bike/transit, and occupant rating. They use data from LEEDS certification, Energy Star, walkscore.com, publicopenspaces. Much of the data is not available, so they build an API to get data by address. They build a widget that could be used on 3rd party websites, such as LoopNet, a tool to discover commercial properties for rent. One of the challenges is getting enough rating data available. Currently the solar data is closed, so they will ask to make that available. They also give buildings a transparency score to encourage buildings to provide more information.

*PermitThis* takes data from building permits on data.gov to create a picture of green building retrofit history. Over 65% of San Francisco housing stock was build in 1959 or earlier, and areas of the city vary greatly in how close they are to current code. There are 15 years worth of data – they scraped the last month for the weekend project. A lot of data is released in messy excel spreadsheets.

Two of the hacks were about transportation:

*Improved trouble ticket handling for Muni* Operators don’t want to use the current system because they feel they will get reprimanded for dealing with the problem. Muni has a plan to upgrade the radio system in 3-5 years, which is 1.27 billion boardings. The app shows a troubled train on a map and makes the information available to decision-makers. The app has automatically generated trouble tickets (for example, a train has long dwell time) and user-generated trouble tickets. The app also shows a dashboard view of all trouble tickets. This would be integrated into the NextMuni line manager laptop.

*Transanka* Event ridesharing for EventBrite events – parties, conferences, concerts. Choose an event, indicate your location, and show if you’re riding, driving, or either. Then click to contact someone traveling to the event.

Just that weekend, I had been looking into ridesharing apps for a local environmental nonprofit that wanted to facilitate ridesharing for its events. I hope this app gets built out and gets traction – there’s a need for it.

Two of the hacks were games:

*TheNeighborhoodGame.com* is a game to promote resilient communities by encouraging neighbors to meet each other. People can win points by giving a neighbor a high five, meeting a farmer at a farmers market, spot a solar panel, make street art with chalk, give a gift, learn some local history, or get someone to dance with them. They got prizes from local merchants and played the game in the NOPA neighborhood. And everybody wins by making friends in their neighborhood. They played the game this weekend, and people did every activity, including impromptu dance parties. People wanted to take the cards with them – they want to meet neighborhoods but need an excuse to do it.

*Going Green* is a board game that educates people about financial benefits of going green including financial rebates. Each player character is a San Francisco neighborhood, each with its own strength. Players can choose to take actions like adding solar panels and ride sharing programs. The winner is the player that has the most environmental impact.

And there was one advocacy app.

*Speak.com* _The Call Wall_ is an app to call a representative and record an mp3 of the call that is placed on the site. They use Sunlight and VoteSmart databases for representative contact info. They are looking to use SoundCloud as the audio sharing backend.

The interest graph needs design love

In order to make content filtering and interest graph gardening usable and useful for most people, Google will need to give it the same design love it gave Circles. The playful gestures of encircling are intended to make it feel natural and fun to add people to circles, and to move people among circles as things change, thus describing and updating one’s social graph.

What many people are noticing as missing in Google+, though, is the ability to communicate and consume according to topics of interest, not just people. Individual human beings have different dimensions and different interests. I might like someone’s posting on science and their photographs, but be utterly bored by their postings about football. So, in parallel to keeping a social graph of people I want to follow, I’d need some way follow or hide topics. This capability is very important to preserve a good signal to noise ratio as G+ grows.

The circle-sorting affordance Google provides for managing one’s social graph reflects a controversial opinion. Facebook’s design argues that people are lazy will not manage their own social graph, so Facebook needs to do it for you. Facebook de-emphasized user-created lists providing the ability to post and follow sets of people. Instead, Facebook’s default stream UI uses an algorithm that chooses for you the people you have a chance to interact with.

The simplest possible tool for manually creating topic filters is the hashtag. Recently, Chris Messina wrote up a hashtag proposal for Google+, emended from the version he invented for Twitter, providing a convention for people to label their own posts. Derided as geeky, hashtags have been taken up by #justinbieber and other non-egghead interests.Today, hashtags in a G+ posts are helpful mostly for reader scanning. When g+ has search and filtering, this could be used for a reader-created filters.

There are other ways to indicate interests and curate them into an interest graph. Google’s Sparks starts with general (and rather useless) categories such as “cycling”, but you can create and save more meaningful searches (“tour de france”). Saved searches could be applied to G+ content for manual text phrase filtering.

Algorithms could also be used to cluster content and suggest topics. Many G+ users are asking for Google to augment manual circling with algorithmic suggestions – tell me who I might want in my Austin circle, for example. This is a fine idea, as long as people are suggested and not automatically added; automatic adding quickly gets you the “ex-girlfriend problem” where the system unwittingly imposes former relationships.

Similarly, Google would need to choose how much power to give to users to define what topics to follow, and how to augment (or replace) those choices with algorithmic selections. Like Tom Anderson, I don’t think that an algorithm-only solution is a good idea. I strongly dislike Facebook’s attempt to define what I want to know about what my friends say. I’d prefer human choice augmented by algorithmic suggestions.

Another question is whether to make the interest graph on top of the social graph or beside it. Atop the social graph, the interest graph would let me focus on science posts or pet pictures from my social graph. Alongside it, the interest graph would let me choose interests from everywhere (the ideal way to close the gap would be to allow people to jointly subscribe to interests and discover each other through those interests, as Prentiss RIddle suggested in the discussion that sparked this post.

Summary: in order to keep Google+ fun and useful as it grows, it needs to add an interest graph in addition to the social graph. To make it appealing to create and maintain an interest graph will take the same design attention and empathy that Andy Hertzfeld and others put into Circles for the social graph. And it imposes similar challenging decisions about how to combine algorithmic recommendation and human choice.

The promise of Google+ for organizing

A while ago, I wrote a blog post on the trouble with Facebook for organizing.

As the dominant online social network, Facebook is the place where activists and organizers have flocked to help their movements spread. Given the role that Facebook and Twitter played in actual revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, this can’t be understated! Social media are powerful tools for organizing, proved. (Although social media didn’t cause the revolution, and techies can overstate the influence of technology in the organizing work that people do).

Yet there is still a key limitation in Facebook’s model that keeps it from being as powerful as it could be. It’s hard to get to know people on Facebook. The Facebook model, where a friend needs to approve a friend request, is designed for people who already know each other. It’s awkward for people who don’t know each other to to talk to each other, and it’s not very socially acceptable to “friend” someone you don’t know in real life.

Facebook groups overcome this limitation to some extent. In a topically focused group, it’s accepted to talk to others in the group you haven’t met yet; the invitation bridges the gap. But there is still a big barrier to getting to know new people.

Another problem with Facebook for organizers is that as an organizer, you don’t know who people are unless you friend them personally, which is uncool and impossible for large movements. With Google+, you can see people’s profiles. And as a participant, you can also choose what facets of your identity to share with whom. Powerful and ethical, the best of both worlds.

In Twitter, it is easy and socially acceptable to follow someone without following them back. You can become familiar with someone’s tweets, and use gestures like retweet and reply to get their attention and make their acquaintance. But it Twitter back-and-forth conversation is painful and next-to-impossible. So Twitter is better for broadcast than conversation and meeting people.

Google+ design choices, by contrast, make it easy, appealing, and fun to make the acquaintance of new people. Unlike Twitter, conversation is easy to see.

A post is read by the people following the poster, so a conversation will typically have people you don’t know, and new people are quickly chatting amongst each other. It’s easy to take a quick peek at someone’s profile, and see something about them, and what else they contribute. G+ has an asymmetrical model like Twitter, so there’s no social obligation imposed by following. If you choose not to follow someone, their posts still appear in a special “incoming” stream unless you block them, so you can make the decision later.

So Google+ is not just for spreading the world within existing social networks (a la Facebook) and not just for broadcasting, it’s for creating new connections.

Why new connections are important

Malcolm Gladwell was roundly criticized for his ill-informed critique of online organizing as mere “slacktivism”, lightweight action among people with weak ties. In his view, real organizing only takes place among people who know each other well in the physical world. So, the civil rights movement, where organizing traversed the social networks in the African-American church, was an example of real, powerful organizing.

Of course, Tahrir Square showed that was wrong, but why? The principle to learn from the civil rights movement isn’t that movements travel through churches, but that they travel through existing social networks. Facebook traces real social networks and strengthens those networks according to a recent study by Pew Research. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s sociological analysis seemed to show that contemporary folk were more isolated and less organized than in the past. If so, Pew’s finding is showing that online connections these days are strengthening our actual social ties.

There are several flaws in Gladwell’s argument. First, as a strong critique in the Nation points out, connections in Facebook and Twitter include real world strong ties, not just weak ties.

Not only that, weak ties are what allow ideas (and protests) to spread among small groups of close contacts. In the civil rights movement, networks among church leaders and progressive leaders allowed ideas and plans to spread among churches and communities, and media coverage fuled the fire The weak tie connections in social media allow this spread to happen quickly.

The Nation article also critique’s Gladwell’s point that online groups can only “swarm”, they can’t do more complex organizing. It uses the example of the Obama campaign that was hyper-disciplined about managing volunteers and giving them specific actions to do.

Gladwell’s argument is wrong even in his core argument about how classic organizing worked. A key part of organizing is building the social network, not just traversing the existing network. Union organizers created songs, social halls, and workers schools to increase the social connections among workers, to help workers, of course, and to solidify those social connections that would help them organize. Google+, if it takes off, can help people to extend ties, not just to work within existing ties.

What’s missing, and what could be next

“If it takes off” is a crucial caveat. What makes Facebook so powerful is critical mass. In many parts of the developed world, everyone is there. In Egypt, a relatively small number of poeple were online, but people online were able to share tactics with each other and spread them to people who were not online. Google+ needs a large following among nongeeks in order to become effective. The rapid growth is promising, but it’s early.

Google+ is missing two critical features to make organizing really powerful. Google+ doesn’t yet have shared groups. Currently it only has “circles” which are set up by individuals to control what they read and what they share. The good thing about this is that I can have a “Circle” of people that are interested in local transit issues, and I don’t need to bore people who are out of town or uninterested.

But the bad thing is there isn’t a way for a set of people to mutually share about a topic or for others to easy discover and join. In Friendfeed you can search for public groups; in Yahoo groups, you can also browse a directory and find groups you’re interested in. It would be great if you could search or browse for public groups, and if you could choose to have public groups appear on your profile, if you want to let others know.

Another gap in the Google+ model for sharing is the lack of hashtags or topic filtering. With Google+, you can only control posting and listening by person, not by topic. Adding tag/topic filtering will make it much easier for people to choose what to pay attention to, and what to ignore. It will make it easier to have advocacy without spam.

Another major opportunity is for decentralized but coordinated action. The Nation article gives examples of the Obama campaign and MoveOn campaigns that centrally coordinate large amounts of local action. But Obama volunteers and MoveOn house parties don’t have very much autonomy, and there aren’t good ways today for groups to work separately but together. That’s hugely promising, and Google’s circles and upcoming APIs could make this easier. This is a rich topic for its own blog post, so I’ll stop here and pick that up in another post.

I’m excited by the potential Google+, as a social network, and as it matures, a potentially powerful platform for organizing.