Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Politics, popularity, and personalization

June 22, 2008

I already said that i love DC. Another reason to love it, are the many opportunities offered by this city.

A week ago or so, i participated in a debate/discussion about “new” media and political campaigns hosted by Google and National Journal and titled “The First 21-st Century Campaign“. Being hosted by Google, the event attracted some very interesting people and was held in a format of discussion rather than a traditional (academic) presentation-style lectures. Unfortunately, i wasn’t smart enough to bring a camera even though the event was absolutely open and the organizers even encouraged people capturing it in any possible way. Another unfortunate thing was that i couldn’t stay for the entire event and in fact stayed only for the first panel (out of three).

Ad of the Google\'s June Symposium

Fortunately, though, the first panel was very thought provoking.  Nothing super controversial or innovative has been said, but it was great to hear thet the industry people are concerned with the same issues that academics are.  Actually, i think the panel would benefit from a visionary academic person who could bring the entire discussion under a comprehensive (dare I say, macro) umbrella.

The first panel, moderated by Judy Woodruff of PBS, hosted Mark Halperin (“Time” – as a representative of the old media), Katherine Ham (, even though she announced she has a new job now), James Kotecki (Politico – he and Katherine were the representatives of “new” media), Phil Singer (Clinton campaign), and Kevin Madden (Mitt Romney campaign _ he and Singer were the political practitioners on the panel).

Most of the discussion focused on the tensions between the “old” and the “new” media.  In my view it started pretty awkward with Kotecki’s remark that he doesn’t see himself as a journalist and was (i got a sense that he was implying that he still is) making his video just to feel popular.  It was particularly stonning because one of the main points of the discussion was credibility of the “new” media as a journalistic practice.  Kotecki himself was making claims for being credible, which (together with some of the other comments, such as those made by Singer) got me thinking whether or not the 2.0 culture equates credibility to popularity.  If so, i find that idea pretty disturbing.  One the one hand, i can buy into the idea of wisdom of crowds (that’s the term i think), but, on the other hand, i cannot buy into dismissal of expertise that seems to be attached to it (at least in the current discussion).

Another interesting point came from the campaign people and it was primarily about the use they make of information.  For Madden, the “new” media were all about speed and precision of the media message.  Even though they never got talking explicitly about how they use microtargeting (even though i raised that questions), it was constantly implied in the examples they provided.  Building of the idea of popularity, it was now also the ability of precise targeting of the message.  I would describe that as an ability of talking about “popularities” rather than a single popularity.  To a a degree that appeared as a distinction between the “old” and the “new” media as well.  I found the latter rather interesting – the basic concepts mass (popularity) did not change, but progressed and evolved (into popularities), but the substance became implicitly even less important.  In other words, there is no substantive change in the policy or in the ideas, but the package is more personalized.

As the discussion evolved, it became more interesting and sophisticated.  To one degree or another, the panelists touched upon many relevant points.  This highlight was, I think, when Singer or Halperin, noticed that the mere division between the “old” and the “new” was artificial.  Ham also was very sharp when talking about the relations between the “old” and the “new” media (even though she was clearly advocating for the legitimacy of the latter).  I found this particularly interesting, because usually you hear a very deterministically-dichotomous discourse where the “new” is presented as separate and mostly superior to the “old”.  Even though Judy Woodruff finished the panel with some techno-utopian remarks (mostly as a tribute to the host), it did spoil the overall flavor of complexity.

On the practical level i came out of this symposium with two titles for potential books.  Not that i plan on writing those this summer, but… If i were to write a book with critical analysis of the modern Western society, particularly focusing on the youth, i would title it “The popularity generation.”  Maybe there is such a book already and maybe it will become the label of generation Y with all the reality shows and a myriad of televised competitions (for popularity of course :).  The other book would be about this campaign, or about contemporary politics in a broader sense.  That one i would title “The politics of personalization.”

Finally, kind of getting back to one of my first points, i think the symposium would really benefit from an academic input.  Maybe even more broadly, i think this industry could learn as much from the academia as the academia is learning from it.  At the end of the day, all the points raised by the panelists are being discussed and studied, and bringing those inputs would enrich the discussion and probably take it into the next level.

You can read a short post following the event on Google’s blog or you can actually watch the entire thing on C-Span (and enjoy me asking some questions :).


Old concerns 2.0

May 13, 2008

I blogged earlier about thoughts prompted by reading students’ papers in Tarleton’s COMM 320 course. In my previous posts I wrote about perception of social networks as a platform for unifying “digital culture”. Another common idea in numerous papers was that the “new” media offer an open platform where users can create any content they want, particularly in the political context. The “new” media are often discussed in comparison to the “old” media (newspapers, TV, etc.), which suffer from institutionalized bias and are constantly under political and economic pressures. The “new” media are different – they are open platforms and the “new” media companies do not intervene in discourse as long as it is within the limits of the law.

The questions however, is it so? Is it so black and white and are the differences between the “old” and the “new” so great?

I thought about this now because I ran into an interesting example on YouTube. A few days ago, i heard about Mike Gravel’s attempts to recruit Obama Girl for his campaign. For those of you who do not follow, Mike Gravel is still in the race for Democratic nomination to run for the presidency (yes, there are more candidates than just Clinton and Obama). In fact, Gravel’s campaign is a good example to support the “new” argument about the “new” media. He has been continuously marginalized in the mainstream media and as a result he is trying to rely more and more on the alternative channels such as YouTube.

Watching the video of Gravel dancing with Obama Girl, lead me to his YouTube channel, where i found the following video, where Gravel is complaining about YouTube now marginalizing him as well:

Indeed, i went and checked. If you look at the “You Choose” page on YouTube there is no doubt that there are only two candidates in the democratic camp. While i can understand that Gravel has no chances to win and thus it seems like a logical decision to keep the page cleaner for maybe aesthetic purposes, i cannot stop wonder about the questions this act rises about the neutrality of the platforms.

In this case we have YouTube priming certain political preferences on expanse of the others. They may not do it for political/ideological reasons, but the result is the same – the marginalized are pushed back to the margins. Of course there are differences and you can still find all Gravel’s videos on YouTube, but would you know that he is still running if you’d look at the main political page on YouTube these days?

I think this is an interesting case that is bringing back a series of concerns we had previously about the mainstream media. Moreover, it raises questions about the interaction between the mainstream media, “new” media, and perceived public opinion. I find it really interesting.

What do you think?

WikiCandidate reloaded

April 14, 2008

Thanks to the dedication of our developers, we finally launched an updated version of WikiCandidate website. That’s exciting!

WikiCandidateI wrote about this project earlier, so i will not repeat much here. With the update, the basic priniciples remain the same, practically everything on the website is editable. What different now is a slicker look and that your participation is now more visible (for example, now all the stories have by-lines).

If you haven’t done it yet, please register and take part in editing the website. The content you currently see on the website was generated by users and it is easy to create new one or to edit the existing. Please feel free to send feedback with your thoughts (especially if you had an experience with the old design too). Thanks!

The plan for further development of the site includes adding further features that would highlight the users’ contributions. We also have the survey (aka “donate”) module ready and as soon as we have the question pool ready and approved by the IRB, you will be able to “contribute” to WikiCandidate’s campaign. Also, you will be able to link your blogs to WikiCandidate’s blogroll and create WikiCandidate Gear.

While all this is being developed, our primary goal now is publicizing the platform. So, if you don’t mind, please give a hand and spread the word around. Thanks!

In the meantime, in a kingdom far, far away…

March 22, 2008

While the Israeli legislators are passing laws for big-brother-like censorship of the Internet, the “developed” world is taking more complex, yet more thoughtful steps towards the same goal – online safety for children. For example, the EU is going to spend 55m Euros on educational efforts in the next four years to promote online safety. In the US there is a similar initiative fighting its way through the Senate, even though with some difficulties. Even Google is partaking in the educational effort, even though they are perfectly fine with promoting safety through better algorithms. It seems like everybody, but the Israeli lawmakers (together with their colleagues in other Middle Eastern countries and in Asia) realize that in order to keep the balance between openness and safety we need education.  We can definitely create a very limited version of the internet, hoping it will be safe, but it is that openness of this platform that drives the internet as we know it today.  Education may be a more expansive and a more demanding solution, but it appears as the most substantial one

It seems like there is a great distance between the rhetoric employed by proponents of the law and their action. If you read the linked articles you will see that even the definition of threat to the children is different. While the Israeli MK see their role as protectors in preventing the children from viewing naked bodies online, everybody else are actually concerned with more tangible issues such as utilization of online resources for child abuse. Maybe I am missing some highly philosophical part of an argument that suggests that child abuse originates in corrupted minds of those who consume porn (or any other sex related content for that matter), however I doubt that.  There is actually a real threat for children actively participating online and it has to be addressed.

When put side by side, both types of efforts apply the same rhetoric for defining the goal. However when one is aimed at addressing a real problem rooted in contemporary issues, the other is taking advantage of people’s prejudges and fears in an attempt to promote one way of life at expanse of another.  This later part is really warring and it results in different types of action with different types of broad repercussions.  While following the censorship route brings with it limitations on creativity, openness, etc. thus hurting the long-term technology driven innovation, I cannot foresee similar difficulties with the education route.  On the contrary, i believe that following the education route would bring additional benefits in terms of capacity building for the society and its economies.  I hope that MKs will do some research before they register their votes in the second and the third rounds of hearings for the internet censorship law.

E-mail wars

March 4, 2008

It is really interesting how the “new” media are penetrating the politics. In a recent NY Times article about Obama’s efforts to secure the Jewish vote in the primaries, e-mail was mentioned a number of times as a prominent tool in both Clinton’s and Obama’s campaigns. What was particularly interesting is that e-mail was mentioned as a tool with real, almost tangible influence, which has been originally underestimated:

… Campaign officials said they were surprised, however, by the penetration of the viral e-mail messages, which were background static in the campaign until they began flooding the inboxes of Jewish voters right before nominating contests.

The e-mail messages have not gone unchallenged. Jewish supporters of Mr. Obama have sent thousands of their own e-mail messages, and some have started an online petition for other Jews who support his candidacy.

Interesting, isn’t it?

A very dark day for Israel

February 27, 2008

Last night I had a conversation with a friend about some issues I have with organized religion. And here, today it is striking again and the victim of the day is the State of Israel.About half a year ago I blogged about the pending law for internet censorship in Israel and about emails I sent to members of the Knesset advocating against it. What happened today is extremely sad – the law was actually passed in the first round of hearings (HE1; HE2; HE3; HE4). Well, it looks like it was passed primarily as a result of political opportunism of Shas, the largest religious party in the Israeli Knesset, but more about it later.

The essence of the law (assuming it will pass the committees and another two rounds of hearings as it is) is that by default the internet in Israel will be screened for “inappropriate content”. The screening will be done by a committee in the ministry of communication that will set the standards for what “inappropriate” means. People will be given an option to opt out from the screening program, but the default will be a limited version of access to the Web with screening done at the level of the ISP. The articulated logic of the law is that of guarding the children from online predators, from explicit sexual conten, and violence. In order to opt-out from the screening program, one will have to prove their age.

The problem with the law is quite obvious for it in fact introduces government censorship to the internet. The idea that a committee of government officials will decide for the citizen what is appropriate and what is not for them to consume sounds as if taken from a really bad science fiction movie. In this day and age, there is no democratic society that in the world that practices such a rude and intervention in the private information-life of their citizens. Any decision on the appropriation of content will bear ideological flavor and more so, as the act of passing this law indicates, to political pressures. But beyond the expected “flexibility” of definition of “appropriateness” the mere act of intervention of the government into my personal information seeking practices is mind boiling! The places where it happens, it refers to explicitly unlawful content, such as child porn or Nazi propaganda, with solid definitions and free of political pressures.

What is particularly disturbing in this case is that the law is hypocritical on so many levels. The hypocrisy is at the very core of justification behind the law – the desire of guarding the young and gentle minds from all the horrors of the internet and especially from online predators. Here are a few points on that topic:

  • Following the debates surrounding this law proposal, the Israeli ISPs agreed to subsidize screening software for their clients, offering it practically for free. This way any concerned parent could simply ask for this service and gain piece of mind (HE).
  • Not only that, but apparently there was an alternative law proposal suggesting to make the previous point a legal responsibility. It asked to make it obligatory for the ISPs (1) warn their clients about the “dangers” of the internet and (2) offer them opt-in solutions to screen their internet access. This law proposal was rejected (HE).
  • On a related note, the “save the kids” logic still does not justify the “opt-out” nature of the program. Does the state has so little face in parents’ ability to make decisions about their kids information diet? Shouldn’t parents be responsible for making those decisions, particularly when options such as those in the previous bullet are offered? Because right now there is a strong sense that be apparently taking the responsibility from the parents, the state is encouraging sort of an intellectual laziness on behalf of the parents most of whom will not know about or bother to engage with issues of information consumption of their kids. Moreover, many of those who don’t have kids, will most probably not know or not bother to take care of this issue when they are those who have to initiate (you can take a look at some numbers of online behavior patterns in US, which shed light on the level/lack of engagement of people with the medium, and at Eszter’s thoughts on why people do not switch from Google).
  • On a slightly more sophisticated note, if the proponents of the law would actually study the issue before making a political/ideological decision that is going to affect lives of an entire country, they would see that content (porn) is not the primary threat. For example, they could read a recent study on the subject and see that in order to guard the children fro m online predators, they should be educated for appropriate online behavior. Moreover they would see that in fact the only way to block “inappropriate” content is shut down the entire internet because a lot of “inappropriate” content is generated in online interactions and not in static web pages. Maybe they would understand that there is no simple blocking solution in this case, but instead embracing the medium and learning/educating how to deal with it (also see HE).

Lastly, I think the way this law was passed adds to its own inappropriateness (here is a complete list in HE of who voted and how on this proposal). Apparently this proposal was not even part of the agenda for this particular session of Knesset. However, the shaky position of KadimaAvoda government, gives Shas a lot of power to manipulate what is being discussed these days by the lawmakers and how. Just today another Shas-driven law proposal was discussed, aimed at strengthening the limitations on abortion (HE) and at the same time 475 million shekels were granted to Shas religious institutions (for example, they maintain an independent education system, which is cheaper than the governmental one – oh the absurd) , which is apparently higher than government subsidies to the entire cultural sector in Israel (HE). The political discipline of the religious voter is paying off, while the secular and progressive voters spend their time expressing they outrage in talkbacks on major news websites (until those will get censored too – HE), but when it comes to voting or holding their elected representatives accountable, they find more important things to do (HE). Even the Israeli bloggers who used to advocate strongly against the law (for example HE1; He2) are silent and as up to this point there has been little or no reaction (last posts are dated back in summer last year).

As i said, today is a very, very dark day for Israel…

Go identify yourself!

More on Digital Divide in US election

February 26, 2008

Following on my previous post about Obama’s talk at Google, here is a very interesting post from Andy Carvin shedding more light on the candidates’ rhetoric about social role of information technology, digital divide, and the related education. Having read a lot about the discourse surrounding these issues, it is striking me again and again how little change there was in this domain. They are still talking about technology in rather technocratic and deterministic terms, framing it mainly as an economic factor.

It is also interesting how the political discourse reacting to academic research and market forces. Only about a decade ago, the discourse focused primarily on issues of physical access. This view gained a lot of criticism from the academic community and research (like this) showed that skills play a very significant role in what we label as the digital divide. Simultaneously, it seems like the markets for infrastructure neared certain levels of saturation (i don’t have exact data on that, but my own observations). The combination of the two created another domain to public discourse about digital divide – skills. We can see both components in Andy’s post or in fact in any other political speech/document on the subject.

Of course i am simplifying a very complex story, but i hope that I manage to clarify the basic idea. Now it will be interesting to see what happens next. The academic community moved further with conceptualizing the digital divide in terms of inequalities and viewing it as a more complex social construct. What is going to be an associated market change and how will it impact the public discourse?

Just some thoughts triggered by reading blogs…

Information seeking and voting behaviors

February 18, 2008

I think the current presidential election in the US is really interesting. Whatever the outcome of democratic primaries will be, it will be a historical nomination. This is why i think our WikiCandidate project is particularly timely, but that is not the central theme of this post (you can still however go and register at the website :)

Recently Hitwise published an interesting analysis comparing demographic profiles* of visitors to campaign websites of Clinton, Obama, and McCain (the three leading candidates). Their analysis shows really nicely how stereotypically liberal voters tend to visit Clinton’s and Obama’s websites, and stereotypically conservative voters tend to visit that of McCain.

The interesting part is however the information seeking behavior of those who are labeled as independents, as they are the ones who perceived as deciding voice in this election. When they account for group size, Hitwise conclude:

So the data indicates that Clinton and McCain’s websites are appealing to a broader sprectrum of voters than Obama and that McCain is appealing most to those more likely to include Independents.

which i think is interesting.

The question for me now is what is the link between information seeking behavior and voting patterns. Is the fact that I often visit Obama’s website associated with higher probability of me voting for Obama? There must be quite a lot of research on this topic. I wonder also how these behaviors are correlated with mainstream media consumption and prominence of particular candidates in given periods of time? Another thing that I think would be interesting to compare is Obama vs. Clinton, as this is the most discussed political battle at the moment. Somehow this comparison is missing from Hitwise analysis.

Frankly, I envy Hitwise and the data they have about online behaviors. There are so many interesting questions one could investigate…


* More about the profiles here (look for “update”).

The wonders of Russia

February 16, 2008

I am currently assisting Phil Howard with his World Information Access Project. Particularly, i am looking for raw data on internet access in Russia (if you have any, please let me know).

Browsing the RUnet, i came across this post telling the story of the campaign website of Dmitry Medvedev, the leading presidential candidate in Russia. Apparently, his campaign website is hosted by the Russian Academy of Science…

Although the blog telling this story is explicitly anti-Medvedev, the information they use to determine this fact is publicly available. So, what do you say my internet gurus, is it really so?

WikiCandidate 08

February 4, 2008

Finally, after quite a long period of development, we are launching today the WikiCandidate website. It is part of Josh’s and my experiment that we are conducting together with Tarleton.

WikiCandidate08The website tries simulating campaign website of the presidential candidates racing in the current US election (so I hope that the timing, a day before “Super Tuesday”, is good.). The cool part is that practically all the parts of the website are editable. Any registered user can change any biographical detail of the candidate including, but not limited to, their gender, race, religion, political affiliation, martial status, sexual orientation, education, working experience – anything! It is free text, so the sky is the limit.

But not only the bio is editable. The users/participants can decide on the political agenda of WikiCandidate. They can decide what are the issues that the candidate is carrying about and what are their stand on those issues. The users have the ability to create news items about how WikiCandidate reacts to the daily developments and to the activities of the opponents (aka the real candidates).

There are even more features to play with and to take to various extremes if desired. The only limitation is that any change you, as a user do, can be immediately reverted by other users. Yes, the website is based on a wiki engine, so the content is created collectively. At the end of the day the WikiCandidate can be created probably either through consensus or through tyranny. In any case, i think that the process can be fascinating for people who are interested in technology, politics, and the combination of the two. The candidate may be fictitious, but the issues it is going to address will be most likely real and created/discussed/shaped by real people.

OK, check the website out and let me know what you think. Better yet, use the website to express your thoughts. I will continue updating about the project and whatever is comming out of it. If you are willing to help, the best thing to do now is spread the word about WikiCandidate, so more people would try to participate.