grasping at meaning in an endless chain of signifiers

Month: March, 2013

Meaning of Life


Freedo(tco)m Fighters: The Electronic Frontier Foundation Is the Internet’s Vigilante Justice League

Can't Hear You Over All This Freedom

I’m discovering that it’s really hard to talk about freedom without wrapping yourself in sententious cliches or mocking the people who do. And in the era of “free speech zones,” I can’t help but roll my eyes at anyone who uses the term “free speech” non-ironically. Free speech, especially free speech in the digital age, requires serious interrogation: what does it mean for the Internet to be “open”? Open to whom? For what purposes? Who gets access to what and why? Who regulates that access? Who regulates the regulators? Who is “press”? Who is “public”? What protections ought the government provide—and what protections do we have against the government?

Most governments have struggled to answer these questions. Today, for example, the UK debated press regulation—the Leveson Inquiry is a direct result of “Hackgate,” a scandal in which a bunch of UK tabloids were accused of phone hacking and police bribery. Nasty stuff, of course, and absolutely deserving of government inquiry. Yet some bloggers fear that the inquiry is being used to justify ramped-up government surveillance and control of the Internet. One proposed report begins by trying to define “press” and “publisher” and “news-related material,” but that turns out to be a rather sticky wicket. The vagueness of the law ends up labeling any Twitter user posting celebrity gossip part of the press, and thus subject to regulation. BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow summarizes:

In a nutshell, then: if you press a button labelled “publish” or “submit” or “tweet” while in the UK, these rules as written will treat you as a newspaper proprietor, and make you vulnerable to an arbitration procedure where the complainer pays nothing, but you have to pay to defend yourself, and that will potentially have the power to fine you, force you to censor your posts, and force you to print “corrections” and “apologies” in a manner that the regulator will get to specify.

What happens when everyone’s a news producer, and news regulation affects everyone? The answer, some imagine, is a terrifying Orwellian future of surveillance and thought control. Double-plus ungood.

But of course, thoughtcrime is not yet crime, and many people are very serious about keeping the Internet free and open. (I am having to fight the urge so hard to put scare quotes around “free” every time I use it in this post. Like, seriously.) The best-known—and perhaps the most-effective—free Internet organization is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a group of attorneys, web developers, writers, and activists whose tagline is “Defending Your Rights in the Digital World.”  They’re the vigilante justice cowboys and -girls of the digital plains, defending the public against government and corporate regulation.

EFF was founded by a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, in response to a similar kind of hacking-panic government crackdown. In 1990, Steve Jackson Games (the folks behind the ridiculous dungeon-plundering card game Munchkin) was suspected of being behind the distribution of an electronic document describing how the 911 system worked. The Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games, seized all the computers in the facility, read and deleted all their email and bulletin board postings, determined that the document didn’t have anything to do with Steve Jackson after all, and returned the computers. In the meantime, Jackson missed a deadline and had to lay off half his employees. A few of Jackson’s friends at the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link were outraged and decided to defend him in court. The court case was pivotal in the history of Internet privacy: it ultimately established that email communications ought to have the same legal protections as phone communications.

EFF has remained engaged in conversations about Internet freedom and continues to defend people whose rights are infringed upon. They support people such as Creative Commons founder Aaron Swartz, who, as you’ve likely heard, recently committed suicide perhaps in part as a result of a “hacking” trial (he downloaded and distributed a couple of million supposedly public record legal documents from JSTOR). In a recent case, EFF successfully argued that so-called National Security Letters (government letters sent to “telecommunications companies demanding information about their customers”) are unconstitutional.

And in the UK, free-internet activists today achieved a (questionable, slight, uncertain) victory: eight hours ago, the proposed laws defining any Twitter user as “press” were rejected, in favor of a new press-governing body. David Cameron was quoted saying:

I believe it would be wrong to run even the slightest risk of infringing free speech or a free press in this way.

Some worry that the new governing body will be just as problematic. But no doubt, the EFF will be working to keep it in check.

Freedom isn’t free. ‘Murrica.

Becoming Wikipedian: If They Build it, They Will Come

Number of citations of Wikipedia in Project Muse and JSTOR articles. Image from Digital Humanities scholar Lisa Spiro’s post, “Is Wikipedia Becoming a Respectable Academic Source?” Click the image for a link.

The most interesting thing I’ve read lately on collaborative participation and social meaning-making online actually comes out of the Georgia Tech College of Computing, from Susan Bryant, Andrea Forte, and Amy Bruckman: “Becoming Wikipedian: Transformation of Participation in a Collaborative Online Encyclopedia” was originally delivered as a talk at an Association for Computing Machinery conference on group work, but it draws on the same psychological tradition as writing studies theorists such as Gunther Kress and Paul Prior.

In “Becoming Wikipedian,” Bryant et al. examine Wikipedia participation from an activity theory perspective. They ask: why and how has Wikipedia become so huge, diverse, and generally accurate? In part, they suggest, it’s because the system is designed to promote surveillance. Watch lists of new edits help experienced and dedicated editors find and fix vandalism, “talk” pages offer space to ask questions and suggest changes without affecting the content of the page, and the site’s purportedly neutral point-of-view gives users a shared tonal goal (2).

I’m skeptical of the idea that any writing can be neutral tonally; Wikipedia absolutely betrays the biases of the primarily Western, young, techy, computery, nerdy, geeky, male crowd that originally made the site. But it does seem like the bigger the site gets, the more challenges there will be to that bias. And there are certainly more challenges to editorial biases on Wikipedia than there are in even a very well-reviewed encyclopedia. Because Wikipedia gets linked so often and has such an enormous amount of unique content, it ranks extremely well in search engines—that is, it is a heavy-hitter in the link economy. This gives it fantastic exposure, which helps recruit experts. We tend to Google our areas of expertise, and Wikipedia articles often come up in those searches. I have some expertise in the area of extended producer responsibility and laws regarding electronics manufacturers taking back products at the end of life, for example. When I Googled the issue last June, I was appalled by the misinformation, poor writing, and broken links on the Wikipedia page. So I added what I knew, and the page today retains most of my edits. It was satisfying to read the page, think, “Ugh, that’s not right at all!” and an hour later have made the Internet a little bit better.

That’s how Wikipedia turns readers into Wikipedians, according to Bryant et al. The site, they say, offers users a low-stakes way to be “peripheral” participants, making small edits and changes as they get to know the site—this is equivalent, the authors say, to Lave and Wenger’s theory of legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice (3). It also keeps users in a kind of Vygotskian zone of proximal development (6): the easiest things to do on the site are also the least consequential. As users get more familiar with the tools, they naturally gain access to creating articles and so on.

In 2005, Bryant et al. interviewed nine Wikipedians, all of whom were active, frequent writers and editors. Most started out making small edits to pages about topics that particularly interested them, then began to take on the goals of the community as they got more involved—the impetus goes from “I’m interested in this thing, let me make this article better” to “let me make Wikipedia better, because I think Wikipedia is important to society.” To novices, they say, Wikipedia looks like a collection of unrelated articles; to experts, it’s a community. Active Wikipedians often fill out their user pages with biographical information, participate on each other’s talk pages, and encourage each other’s work. The tools and site don’t change in the transition from novice to expert, just the user’s familiarity and comfort with those tools. Though the creators imagined Wikipedia as coming out of a traditional encyclopedic publishing model, its success is due largely to the community that has grown up around the site—and a very different model of the expert/novice relationship.

Hence, vast groups of anonymous writers can be corralled into making serious, well-researched, and tonally consistent content, without having to be forced through tiered participation hierarchies. The key, it seems, is giving them small ways to participate meaningfully early on. Seems to me this might be a better model of learning in general. Why do students work so hard for so long on stuff that doesn’t matter to anyone but the one teacher reading?