Oct 20 2014

Job: Help us learn how teaching works by visualizing millions of syllabi

Overview is an open-source document analysis and visualization system originally developed at the Associated Press for investigative journalists. It’s been used to report some of the biggest investigative stories of the last few years. We’re looking for a developer to extend the software to analyze millions of scraped syllabi for the Open Syllabus Project.

You will help us put 2 million scraped syllabi online, do natural language processing to extract citations from each syllabus, and build visualizations to do citation analysis. We want to see what people are actually teaching for each subject, and how this changes over time, and make this type of analysis widely available to researchers. We’re looking for someone to build out Overview to support this, growing our team from three to four people. This is an ideal job for a programmer with visualization, natural language processing, digital humanities or data journalism experience.

The project is Scala on the back and Coffeescript on the front, but you’ll more often be writing plugins in Javascript and doing data pre-processing in whatever works for you. We’re looking for a full stack engineer who can extend the back end infrastructure to process the syllabi, then build the UI to make all this data accessible to users. You’ll be working within a small team of professionals who will quickly get you up to speed on the core codebase and the plugin API you will use to create visualizations. Everything you write will be released under the AGPL open source license.

This is a six-month contract position to begin with. We hope to extend that, and we’d be especially excited to find someone who wants to grow into a larger role within our small team. We’re a distributed team based out of NYC, remote friendly, flexible hours.

Contact me here if interested.

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Jun 21 2014

How can I help?

What’s the best simple action you can take to address a particular social problem?

I wish there was somewhere that reviewed attempts to solve social problems, everything from activist campaigns to government programs. You’d go to this site, look up “homelessness” or “education” or “Asian tsunami” or “criminal justice reform” and get a recommendation for the most effective thing you could do right now, and if possible a button to do it or at least sign up to do itThe actions would be intentionally lightweight, like donating $10 or ten minutes of your time or pledging to vote a certain way. Think of a sort of Consumer Reports for social campaigns.

I’ve been calling this hypothetical civic information/action organization “How Can I Help?” because that’s the question it seeks to answer.

This is an ambitious idea, but there are working models to draw from. GiveWell is an organization whose sole purpose is to rate charities. They answer the question, “where should I give my small donation to do the maximum amount of good?” Of course this depends on what “good” means, but GiveWell has been careful in choosing and communicating their values. In fact the organization is a model of thoughtful and transparent research, with one of my very favorite blogs and a top-level “mistakes” section.

I want to expand on this idea. GiveWell makes only two or three recommendations, typically in the area of global health. But there’s also a good argument for taking care of the people and places where we live. What we should care about is a complicated question, and has no objective answer. But if you’re willing to say that something specific should change, then you can start to ask seriously how to get there.

How Can I Help wouldn’t need to dream up new solutions. Lots of organizations are already working on all sorts of problems, bringing forth a flood of reports and campaigns and proposals. But you and I don’t necessarily know about all of the proposals and attempts and actors around any particular issue. The difficult problem from the user’s point of view is not finding information about possible solutions, but selecting between them in an intelligent way. This follows a now-standard online media pattern: the aggregator. It’s the same logic that drives Yelp, Google News, and Rotten Tomatoes.

So: Imagine a site that continually reviewed the huge range of proposals from the huge range of actors who might seek to address any particular social ill, and maintained a few top recommendations for each cause.

 

Lightweight civic action

I think it’s important that the recommended actions be very lightweight.  I’m inspired in this by two recent posts on civic engagement. Anthea Watson Strong focuses on the personal costs and benefits of any kind of political action. She argues that if we want a lot of people to be involved, we either have to make it very cheap and easy for them to engage or else give them some expectation of a big payoff. Ethan Zuckerman divides civic action along two axes: thin to thick, and symbolic to impactful. In that language, what I’m proposing is in the thin and impactful quadrant.

I’m focussing on “thin” or low cost actions because I feel the opportunities for “thick” engagement are well covered. The whole Internet is just dying to give you information on whatever concerns you, and significant causes often have dozens of organizations who would love you to get involved. And I’ve focussed on “impactful” because, again, the Internet is already really good at symbolic or expressive campaigns like turning your avatar green or sharing a video. Expressing oneself is important, and has consequences — it’s how we learn that we are not alone, and it can focus public attention or create new language (Occupy Wall Street “did” nothing, but now we all know what “the 1%” means.) But if you’re after more concrete results, it’s not enough that your time and money go to a good cause; we need resources flowing to efficient and effective causes. This is especially important if you believe that most efforts to help are ineffective, as I do.

Figuring out where an individual could actually do some good with a small donation of time or money is not easy. It requires asking questions about the effectiveness of many different possible solutions, of course, but you also have to ask who is already working in that space, what they’re doing, and what the bottlenecks are. Raising money won’t help if lack of money isn’t the thing holding back progress.

So the question that this hypothetical organization must answer is “What can anyone do right now that is both easy and plausibly effective?” This is not an easy thing to answer, nor is there a guaranteed solution: for any particular issue there may be no clear way for an individual to contribute without getting deeply involved, and that’s a valuable answer too. And merely knowing the answer isn’t enough: the organization must communicate it, show all of the analysis that led to it, and continually update that analysis as learning happens and as new opportunities arise. Producing good recommendations for civic action is a major ongoing research and communication task.

 

Don’t be authoritarian

Offering easy, vetted ways to contribute to social change is an ambitious goal. Maybe even an audacious goal.  For a start, it’s not at all obvious what a “social problem” is. And why should anyone believe a self-appointed authority? These issues make me think that How Can I Help needs to be more plural and participatory than the typical media organization.

First of all, social problems don’t define themselves. There isn’t some obvious master list of what’s wrong with a community or a country, and not everyone will agree on whether any particular thing is a problem. In many cases, deciding on the problem is the problem.

Consider someone who comes to How Can I Help and searches for “taxes are too high.” Should they learn the name of the advocacy organization that most effectively lobbies for lower taxes? Or is the problem really something else? Perhaps this person is having money problems, so better wages or cheaper health insurance would be just as good to them. Maybe this person feels that the government is wasting public money, so what they really want is accountability and efficiency. Or maybe they have specific ideas about the scope of government, and the things that should and should not be collectivized. Similarly, do we understand the huge increase in America’s prison population to be about poverty, racist policing practices, or farcical drug laws?

It may not be possible to frame a problem definitively, but it should be possible to figure out what assumptions the answer depends on. In trying to solve any complex problem you’ll need answers to prior questions, many of which cannot be definitely decided. Some prior questions will be empirical questions where the necessary information is just not available, while others will be questions of values where there is no general agreement. Instead of arbitrarily picking one scenario, it should be possible to document how different answers to these unknowns lead to different courses of action.

But who should define these alternate framings, and who gets to influence the final recommendations? You could do How Can I Help as a traditional media organization,  by hiring a small number of smart people to research and write. But involving users in the process has multiple benefits.

First, you might get better answers. Diversity is helpful for finding good solutions and even more important for defining problems. There is emerging evidence that crowds beat experts for political prediction problems — and recommending an effective course of action is most definitely a prediction problem. You’re predicting that the recommended action will have a better effect than all available alternatives.

Participation is also important for scaling. If this model of reviewing and recommending actions works, people might want not want to wait for paid staff to get around to their issue. Maybe the process that generates this type of knowledge could be made self-serve, something that a group could apply. I’ve written before on the need to leverage participation in journalism if we want a lot of journalism to be done, which means it’s not only an egalitarian concern but a business model issue. Unfortunately, participatory journalism has proved difficult to systematize.

But the best reason for participation is that it’s not enough to produce good answers. People have to trust that they are good. How Can I Help must generate not only knowledge but legitimacy, and there is no better legitimacy than the sense of ownership. There are places on the internet where the user community feels like it’s theirs, where the administrators tread lightly and take fairness seriously. We all know when someone is playing dictator; it’s important to get the platform’s embedded constitutional principles right.

There is a balance to be found here. GiveWell is a mostly closed institution and doesn’t have to suffer trolls, but it is vulnerable to the charge that it’s just a bunch of technocrats telling us what’s best. Reddit is a mostly open model with millions of users who love and defend the space they have created, but it doesn’t generally produce sophisticated research. There is a huge unexplored space of design variations between open and closed.

 

Connecting information to action

Like many people, I got into journalism because I wanted to make a difference in the world. It’s clearly important to have accurate, timely reports of what’s happening, but modern hopes for journalism go well beyond mere information. When we talk about trying to measure the effects of journalism or concepts like solution journalism, we’re talking about making change in society. But journalism isn’t really set up to do this. There is a huge taboo against becoming too specific or effective, lest a news organization be seen as “activist” or “taking sides.” (I’m not necessarily saying this is wrong, just that it structurally precludes certain things.)

Other endeavors are unabashedly all about change: activist and advocacy organizations, charities and philanthropies, the NGO and development worlds — not to mention government social programs. Many of these organizations also produce information. But they go beyond mere information because they try to get people to do some specific thing, whether that’s “sign a petition” or “donate money” or “show up and help us dig trenches.” Action is powerful. But these these sorts of organizations might not be the most trustworthy sources of information, because they’ve already committed to a solution. There’s a basic conflict of interest here. You know they’re trying to sell you something.

So journalists are charged with producing accurate information yet they are reluctant to recommend specific actions. Meanwhile, activists and advocates are all about action but the information they produce may not be trustworthy. There is a huge disconnect here! How do we connect trustworthy information to informed action?

The core concept of How Can I Help —  an independent review of everyone who claims to be working on a problem and the effectiveness of their proposed solutions — is one possible response to this dilemma. I don’t know if it counts as journalism or advocacy or what, but I don’t particularly care (see also Adrian Holovaty’s classic answer to “is data journalism?”)

Now that I’ve started thinking of the interplay between information and action, many other problems with journalism seem clearer. I’ve always been frustrated at the way investigative journalists choose which stories to cover. News organizations tend to put resources into issues that are both little known and highly offensive. A journalist who goes deeply into climate change is not producing “news” because everybody already knows about the problem, while a great story that moves no one gets no attention, has no effect, and silently disappears. This model is broken. The dual frame of “our job is to bring new information to light” plus “it is someone else’s responsibility to decide what to do” prevents journalism from directly addressing the most obvious, pressing, ongoing issues.

Without information we cannot know what to do. Without action we do nothing. I am interested in connecting the two, and I think it may take new kinds of organizations to do that.

 

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Apr 30 2014

What I learned at Build Peace, the first conference for technology and conflict resolution

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The organizers of Build Peace tell me it was the first conference specifically on peace and technology, and they should know. I don’t know the peace building field very well, but I could see that some of its leading lights were in attendance. I learned quite a bit, and I am very glad I went.

I have to start by saying I don’t think “technology for peace” is a sure win. My understanding is that peace building is incredibly difficult work, and rarely truly successful, and I don’t see why technology necessarily changes that. Yet I am also a technologist and I presented some of my own data-driven peace work at the conference. Clearly I believe it might be good for something.

There is a great need for conversations between capable conflict resolution workers and thoughtful technologists — hence this conference. Here are some of the things I think I learned.

 

Try existing social networking platforms first 

In the 5-minute long ignite talks I watched speaker after speaker present their work on “online discussion platforms,” “spaces for dialog,” and “peaceful online interaction.” Increasingly, I was bothered by a simple question: what do existing social media platforms lack for peace-building uses?

On the assumption that cross-cultural dialogue is key to peace (more on that below) the Internet seems to hold infinite potential, if we can just get people talking to each other the right way. This simple logic drives the explosion of online experiments. Which is great. But I rarely heard anyone talking about what makes one platform better than another — and if we don’t know what a peaceful platform should look like, why not just use Facebook?

This is what The Peace Factory does. The concept began with a Facebook page called Israel Loves Iran and quickly spawned other “X loves Y” pages which have reached millions of people. It progressed to the Friend Me 4 PEACE program which encourages people to friend someone from “the other side.”

Founder Ronie Edry described the logic:

People ask me, “Why would I ‘friend’ someone from Ramallah? What would I say?” Nothing. But you’ll see their stupid selfies in your feed.

Will selfies bring peace? I don’t know. They do seem humanizing, which is probably important. Also there is a natural escalation channel on Facebook, towards greater interaction and engagement. But what I really like about this work is that the experiment is cheap and easy to replicate.

It has become a staple of the crisis mapping community that crowdsourced crisis response must rely on already-deployed technology, not on crisis-specific apps. No one is going to install your app when the network is down and they can’t find their family. Similarly, do you really want to be in the position of convincing people involved in a civil war that they should switch social networks? My sense is, let’s find out where Facebook etc. fall short as a peace platform, before we go attempting to build an alternative – and get masses of people to use it, which is even harder than building it!

 

Do No Harm

One of the most significant things I learned about is the existence of a Do No Harm movement within peace and conflict work. This seems like a basic principle when working in a dangerous area, but its articulation is surprisingly young. I was referred by multiple people to the 1999 book by Mary B. Anderson. The book has spawned a sub-field both academic and practical.

I haven’t read the book, so I can’t claim to understand the details. But the powerful idea that well-intentioned peace builders might make matters worse will stay with me.

 

Online interaction done right

Waidehi Gilbert-Gokhale of Soliya gave one of the most impressive presentations at the conference. Like a lot of other projects, Soliya aims to build peace through online discussion. Unlike a lot of other projects, Soliya can articulate why conversation alone is not enough. In Gilbert-Gokhale’s words: “unmoderated chat polarizes.” Here she is referencing a wide body of work that shows that bringing people with conflicting opinions together to talk can actually reinforce pre-existing divisive beliefs, not moderate them.

 

Soliya sees their online cross-cultural interactions as a new form of “exchange” program and even calls their new platform Exchange 2.0. Online interactions typically take place in a school setting, which gives teachers the chance to moderate and guide the discussion.

Most interestingly, Soliya seems serious about knowing whether any of this works — aka evaluation. Gilbert-Gokhale said,

The biggest thing we have to do is run control groups. Without that we have no validity to our findings.

And I love her for saying that. To me, this emphasis on evaluation seems way ahead of everyone else doing dialog programs — even though Soliya’s evaluations to date don’t seem to include a control group. Soliya also has produced is a lengthy 2009 report “covering the past 60 years of research into the impact of media on attitudes and behavior.” Certainly worth checking out!

That report also includes some very interesting neuro-imaging studies of conflict by Emile Bruneua of MIT, who also spoke at the conference. Brunuea has shown that our brains react differently when considering the suffering of members of an in-group versus an out-group. This is remarkable; however I have not included the pretty brain scan images because I know that brain scan images are very persuasive, whereas this work is very young. It’s a promising line of research, but it has not been reproduced by other researchers and it’s not clear how you might use it in the field. Evaluation of peace work is never simple.

 

Measurement and evaluation are key

I suspect that most peace building efforts don’t end up helping very much, and all the experienced peace workers I’ve spoken to agree. If this seems harsh, consider that there are good reasons to believe that much international aid is ineffective, and quite plausibly that a wide range of non-profit work in general is ineffective. Preventing or resolving violent conflict is probably even harder than those things.

There seems to be very little solid evidence that conflict resolution work does any good at all — certainly not anything up to the standards of a controlled study, because you can’t really do a controlled study in conflict areas. You go in and try to stop the violence because not attempting to stop it would be unethical (assuming, of course, you Do No Harm.) Then the violence diminishes or it does not. But there is no counterfactual to compare against. That is, we don’t know what would have happened had we done nothing.

It was my favorite session, and well-attended too, though much of the younger, hipper set seemed to be elsewhere. That saddens me. If we can’t figure out what works and what doesn’t we have nothing at all. If we can figure out how to do good evaluation then we can learn.

I came away with several big ideas from the evaluation working group.

First, control groups might be nice but qualitative explanations count! Say you held a bunch of mediation sessions between community leaders in different communities. Then the conflict seemed to settle down. You theorize that it was your work organizing these meetings that caused things to get better. Are you right?

Sometimes people who practice ethnography and other qualitative research methods get into arguments with data people about what can be learned from only one specific case, only one historical experience. I experienced this at the conference in the conversations around metrics and data. Personally I believe that the well developed theory of causation says you can’t know the magnitude of a causal effect unless you have lots of cases, divided between control and non-control groups. But obviously being in the time and place of a conflict and trying to shape it can teach you something deep about what happened. The question is, what?

I learned during this session that there’s a whole body of knowledge about this kind of single-case causation analysis under the name of process tracing. For example, you need to test your proposed explanations against historical facts, and certain types of tests provide more evidence than others, and in fact there’s a whole theory of case study selection and inference. See also analysis of competing hypotheses, developed in intelligence work, which I now see as closely related. Process tracing won’t get you results equivalent to a large number of controlled cases, but you can get immensely valuable knowledge anyway, and it will be even better than statistical analysis in certain ways.

But suppose you really need the kind of evidence that only a controlled study can provide, such as estimates of the magnitude of your effect (also estimates of the uncertainty in your estimates, which can be just as important.) I learned that there are several different controlled designs that might work in peace building. Instead of comparing against doing nothing, you could compare against doing something else. You can do the same thing in different places (say, different villages) at different times, and look for a time correlation, which is called a stepped wedge design. Or you do the program only in places where some metric of need is above a certain threshold, which is called a regression discontinuity design.

Effectiveness is important for many reasons, one of which is that there are many more things that could be done than there is funding to do them. So someone has to make hard choices, and effectiveness has to be a key factor.

But the biggest idea I took from the measurement workshop is that even this seemingly airtight logic is suspect, because peace programs so very often end up doing something completely different from what they set out to do! The reality of conflict assures that. It does no good to charge in with an evaluation strategy that measures the wrong thing… and maybe you can only know if you’re measuring the right thing after you’ve started the project.

In other words, learning on the ground might (and probably should) convince you that your goal should change. I was delighted to discover that this idea of questioning your goals as you move toward them has a name: double-loop learning.

 

Open and closed, the crowd and the authorities

There was a fundamental tension at the conference between open and closed approaches to peace. If you like, there were two narratives about how projects were constructed. Some speakers presented about explicitly open projects (“Peace is everyone’s business: Mass SMS to prevent violence.”) Other projects involved a small group of outsiders working with existing authorities (“Elections data for the people in transitioning MENA countries.”) And more than a few projects have chosen to keep their data completely private, to prevent their human sources from coming to harm.

Is the future of technology-enabled peace building open or closed? I think both. There is great potential for open, flattened, peer-to-peer projects because ultimately it is people who must be at peace, not their governments. But not all processes can include all people, for some very good reasons. Even a “consensus” processes almost always has to exclude someone, either for logistical reasons or to deal with spoilers. Quinn Norton’s scathing dissection of Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly is a beautiful example of the failure of an open system.

Because the [General Assembly] had no way to reject force, over time it fell to force. Proposals won by intimidation; bullies carried the day. What began as a way to let people reform and remake themselves had no mechanism for dealing with them when they didn’t. It had no way to deal with parasites and predators.

Of course I’m not arguing that we are currently at ideal levels of openness, either for peace building projects or anything else. Just that the ideal is some careful hybrid.

 

Visualizing Polarization

I have done a little bit of work on data-driven ways to understand conflict, which stems from my interest in visualizing communities. It’s possible to see the political divisions of the U.S. population in many different types of data: political book sales, who talks to who on Twitter, geographical voting patterns, and more. My own contribution to this is an interactive visualization of the gun control debate on Twitter from one week in February 2013, published in The Atlantic. In that visualization, which shows “people who Tweeted this link also tweeted that link,” you can clearly see that there are two poles of thought on the matter, led by (for this particular week of Twitter conversation) the White House on one side and The Blaze on the other.

Here are the slides I showed at the beginning of the session, which became a very lively group discussion (yay!)

Polarization Build Peace 2014

Click to see my slides for this session

It’s striking to me that conflict dynamics show up so clearly in big data visualization… but I’m really not sure how helpful that is, if your concern is peace. Yes, plots like these could help in conflict analysis, but anyone who’s actually paying attention to a conflict already knows who the sides are. A more interesting possibility is a time-based analysis where you animate these association patterns through time, to see if anything is changing. This type of network analysis could also be used just as marketers use it, to identify influential people and groups for the purposes of media planning.

Various people including myself suggested that maybe peace builders should look at these networks to find people who bridge between the sides. But Ethan Zuckerman made a very interesting counter-suggestion: maybe we need to look outside of the conflict divisions entirely, to find completely unrelated identities that many people can agree on. He pointed to the Harry Potter Alliance, which was founded to address the conflict in Sudan.

Location data might help us to find bridging spaces, literally spaces in the physical world. Mobile phone companies have location history for each subscriber, so it should be possible to figure out a) which “side” each person is on by where they travel and who they associate with and b) where people from the two sides come together. What if we discover that otherwise mortal enemies drink in the same bar every Friday night? Is that useful? Does it violate privacy in that creepy location-data way if we just know the name of the bar, not the names of the people who go there? I have no answers.

I am awed by the potential for data in peace work, but I am also very cautious. Technologists tend to get lost in technological fantasies, while peace workers may not have the technical imagination to see what is possible. If my experience bringing computer science to journalism is at all typical, then we have lot of work to do to bridge this gap.

 

A young field with a lot to learn

I’ve been hanging around  journalism innovation and crisis mapping and ICT4D and related things for six years now, which is (surprisingly?) long enough to see several generations of projects come and go. I feel like peace technology is currently making some of the classic mistakes: people are making without considering what already exists, technologists with no knowledge of peace building are going to suck at understanding user needs, and there’s not really any talk of tech project sustainability.

But I am also elated. This conference was a unique confluence of enthusiasm, expertise, and experiments. It has made me optimistic that if there there is a role for technology and technologists in peace building, we will find it. It will probably take a few more years for all of it to settle down into useful practices. I certainly came away with some things to try — and I’d go on that data scientist conflict zone exchange program in a heartbeat. Or at least back to Build Peace next year.

 

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Apr 22 2014

Questions about the NYPD I cannot answer

Recently, the NYPD started a Twitter hashtag campaign, and it backfired.

Several of my friends — actual, real life good friends — shared this story on Facebook in a, let’s say, somewhat triumphant mood. And I wasn’t sure what to think. This is what I wrote.

I’m having trouble understanding what all this signifies. Here’s what I come up with that I am sure about:

I’m having trouble understanding what all this signifies. Here’s what I come up with that I am sure about:

  • my friends do not like cops
  • clearly there are other people who do not like cops
  • people who do not like cops are either more common on Twitter or more vocal than those who like them
  • the NYPD sure have beaten up a lot of people

But, these are the questions I remain unable to answer:

  • I think we probably want a police force that engages with people on social media. How should they have engaged?
  • Were any of these beatings “proportionate?” This is horrible language, I know, but give it a pass for a moment.
  • Is any beating ever proportionate? How could we even know the answer to this in principle, let alone in specific cases?
  • What is the overall record of the NYPD? Is this a question that even has meaning given the multidimensional nature of the problem? Can the answer be anything other than “terrible” if there are incidents like these?
  • What would I do if I was king of the NYPD?
  • Will my friends perceive this post as “defending the cops”? Will there be social sanctions of some sort for expressing these ideas? Is my echo chamber just as pernicious as the echo chambers of those that belong to my perceived “other”?

- Yours in sadness and inquiry.

The post has not received any “likes.”

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Jul 03 2013

Peace, Conflict, and Data

A talk I gave at the IPSI Bologna Symposium on conflict resolution. Slides here.

We might be able to do better at conflict resolution — making peace in violent conflicts — with the help of good data analysis. There have long been data sets about war and violent conflict at the state level, but we now have much more.

There are now extraordinarily detailed, open-source event data streams that can be used for violence prediction. Conflict “microdata” from social media and communications records can be used to visualize the divisions in society. I also suggest a long term program of conflict data collection to learn, over many cases, what works in conflict resolution and what doesn’t.

We’re really just at the beginning of all of this. There are huge issues around data collection, interpretation, privacy, security, and politics. But the potential is too great to ignore.

Update: two excellent resources have come to my attention in the days since I gave this talk (which is, of course, part of why I give talks.)

First, see the International Peace Institute’s paper on Big Data for Conflict Prevention. This paper was co-authored by Patrick Meier, who has been deeply involved in the crisis mapping work I mentioned in my talk.

But even more awesome, Erica Chenoweth has done exactly the sort of data-driven case-control study I was contemplating in my talk, and shown that non-violent political resistance succeeds twice as often as armed resistance. Her data set, the Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) Data Project, also shows that non-violence is much more likely to lead to good democracies five years later, and that a movement that can recruit 10% of the population is almost guaranteed to succeed.

I highly recommend her talk.

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Jul 02 2013

Recent work

I realize I haven’t been posting here for some time. That’s because I’ve been posting elsewhere! Here’s some of what I’ve been up to, mostly in the last six months or so:

Good old-fashioned journalism:

Writing about journalism, for the Nieman Journalism Lab:
Work at the intersection of data and journalism:

So, yeah, I’ve been busy.

 

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Jun 13 2012

Journalism is more than one thing

There’s a craving in the air for a definitive statement on what journalism is, something to rally around as everything changes. But I want to do the opposite. I want to explode journalism, to break it apart into its atomic acts. I’m beginning to suspect that taking it apart is the only way we can put it all back together again.

In the endless debate about what the “future of journalism” holds, “journalism” doesn’t have a very clear meaning. We’re in the midst of hot arguments over who is a journalistwhether social media is journalismwhether data is journalism, whether cherished tenets like objectivity are necessary for journalism. As the print advertising model that funded the bulk of working journalists collapses and forces transformation, it’s pressing to know what is worth preserving, or building anew.

After decades where “journalism is what journalists do” was good enough, there is a sudden a bloom of definitions. Some claim that “original reporting” is the core, deliberately excluding curation, aggregation, and analysis. Others say “investigative reporting” is the thing that counts, while a recent FCC report uses the term “accountability journalism” liberally. These are all efforts to define some key journalistic act, some central thing we can rally around.

I don’t think I could tell you what the true core of journalism is. But I think I have a pretty good idea of what journalists actually do. It’s a lot of things, all of them valuable, none of them the exclusive province of the professional. Journalists go to the scene and write or narrate or shoot what is happening. They do months-long investigations and publish stories that hold power accountable. They ask pointed questions of authorities. They read public records and bring obscure but relevant facts to light. All of this is very traditional, very comfortable newswork.

But journalists do all sorts of other things too. They use their powerful communication channels to bring attention to issues that they didn’t, themselves, first report. They curate and filter the noise of the Internet. They assemble all of the relevant articles in one place. They explain complicated subjects. They liveblog. They retweet the revolution. And even in the age of the Internet, there is value to being nothing more than a reliable conduit for bits; just pointing a camera at the news — and keeping it live no matter what — is an important journalistic act.

There’s more. Journalists verify facts and set the record straight when politicians spin. (You’d think this would be uncontroversial among journalists, but it’s not.) They provide a place for public discussion, or moderate such a place. And even though magazine journalism can be of a very different kind, like Hunter S. Thompson writing for The Atlantic, we still call it journalism. Meanwhile, newspaper journalists write an enormous number of interpretive pieces, a much larger fraction than is normally appreciated. The stereotypical “what just happened” report has become less and less common throughout the last 100 years, and fully 40 percent of front page stories are now analytical or interpretive, according to an excellent piece of forthcoming research. And, of course, there are the data journalists to cope with the huge rise in the availability and value of data.

Can we really say which of these is the “true” journalism?

I think it depends hugely on the context. If some important aspect of the present has never been represented anywhere else, then yes, original reporting is the key. But maybe what the public needs is already in a document somewhere, and just posting a link to it on a widely viewed channel is all that is needed. At the other end of the spectrum, verifying the most basic, on-the-ground facts be can challenge enough. I saw the process that the AP went through to confirm Gadhafi’s death, and it was a tricky undertaking in the middle of a conflict zone. In other cases, the missing piece might not require any new reporting at all, just a brilliant summary that pulls together all the loose threads.

There are a lot of different roles to play in the digital public sphere. A journalist might step into any or all of these roles. So might anyone else, as we are gradually figuring out.

But this, this broad view of all of the various important things that a journalist might do, this is not how the profession sees itself. And it’s not how newsrooms are built. “I’ll do a story” is a marvelous hammer, but it often leads to enormous duplication of effort and doesn’t necessarily best serve the user. Meanwhile, all the boundaries are in flux. Sources can reach the audience directly, and what we used to call “technology” companies now do many of the things above. Couple this with the massive, beautiful surge of participatory media creation, and it’s no longer clear where to draw the lines.

But that’s okay. Even now, news organizations do a huge number of different things, a sort of package service. Tomorrow, that might be a different package. Each of the acts that make up journalism might best be done inside or outside the newsroom, by professionals or amateurs or partners or specialists. It all depends upon the economics of the ecosystem and, ultimately, the needs of the users. Journalism is many good things, but it’s going to be a different set of good things in each time, place, and circumstance.

(originally published at Nieman Journalism Lab)

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May 15 2012

The hard part of solution journalism is agreeing on the problems

The only editorial mantra that ever made any sense to me comes from the Voice of San Diego new reporter guidelines: “Our bent: Reform. Things can always be better.” It’s been said that the role of journalism is to inform, but informing seems like a means, not an end, and I believe that a better world is  the ultimate goal for journalism. The ambitious idea of solution journalism is to concentrate reporting on what could be improved and how, not just what is wrong. There are a small number of people practicing this today, such as David Bornstein who writes the New York Times’ “fixes” column, and Dowser.org.

But “things can always be better” is a supremely difficult phrase. It appeals to our hopes, while it hides our disagreements and our ignorance. Before we can come up with solutions, we have to agree on what the problems are. This is harder than it sounds; you can’t just sit down and make a list like “unemployment, education, crime, homelessness, global warming…” and get to reporting. People are going to disagree not only about priorities, but about how to best to understand a problem, and even about whether or not certain things are problems. Dealing in solutions also tends to move the journalist from informer to advocate, which is tricky territory.

I think there’s a way to do solution journalism that deals with these difficulties, but first we have to understand why this is so hard.

What’s a social problem?
In my time as a journalist I’ve seen a lot of bitter complaining that some particular issue is under-covered. Often, there is merit to the complaints. But let’s take the larger view and ask how we should decide which problems are deserving of attention, and how much. How do we weigh homelessness versus crime, or compare it to failing schools, onerous taxes, corrupt financiers, AIDS, unemployment, and global warming? How do we rate the local against the global? How do we weigh one endangered species against another? (In practice, very inconsistently.)

Sociologists have understood for some time that social problems are “products of a process of collective definition,” as Stephen Hilgartner and Charles Bosk put it in 1988. “After all,” they wrote,

there are many situations in society that could be perceived as social problems but are not so defined. A theory that views social problems as mere reflections of objective conditions cannot explain why some conditions are defined as problems, demanding a great deal of societal attention, whereas others, equally harmful or dangerous, are not. … The extent of the harm in these cases cannot, in itself, explain these differences, and it is not enough to say that some of these situations become problems because they are more “important.” All of these issues are important — or at least capable of being seen as such.

“Social problems” are real, but they are not like trees and planets and atoms, things “out there” in the universe that will be discovered the same way by anyone who looks. Although there are surely things wrong in the world, the process that transforms real-world conditions into the “issues” of any particular time and place, the issues that journalists “should” be writing about, is social and subjective. This was one of the lessons of the social constructionists in the 1970s. Meanwhile, it was the architect, engineer, and urban planner Horst Rittel who gave us a way to think and talk about problems that are real, but extraordinarily hard to pin down.

Wicked problems
A “wicked problem” is one where defining the problem is part of the problem. Suppose we’re concerned about homelessness. All right, the problem is that there are people on the streets. Why is that? Maybe they lack any employable skills, and the true difficulty lies with the education system. Or maybe they’re mentally ill, in which case health care could be the root problem. Or, maybe we need to look broader. Perhaps something is wrong with the way that we are managing our economy, so that too many people are plunged into poverty. And if we notice that many homeless people are women, or black, perhaps this is an issue with systemic discrimination of one kind of another. The whole thing is a massive tangle of cause and effect.

In a brilliant 1973 essay, Rittel saw that top-down, institutional solutions to social problems based on “objective” criteria simply wouldn’t work, because there is no one clear “right” way to define a problem, let alone solve it.

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of those problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity. … Goal-finding is turning out to be an extraordinarily obstinate task.

Rittel goes on eloquently about the features that wicked problems share. Jay Rosen has a good summary:

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. The way it’s framed will change what the solution appears to be. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible.

Trained in cybernetics, an early mathematical form of systems theory, Rittel thought in networks of cause and effect and saw how all of society operates as an irreducible whole. But he was also deeply involved in the practical realities of social undertakings as an architect, designer, and civic planner, and he appreciated the reality of our pluralistic cultures. The result is a very nuanced argument that social problems cannot be grasped in “objective” terms. In most cases there is no obviously right conception of a problem, and no single “correct” solution. Instead, Rittel became interested the process of “design.”

Designing society
Rittel researched, practiced, and wrote on the subject of design, which he said was about planning a path from what “is” to what “ought” to be. Rather than a linear method, he saw design as an iterative process of imagining future worlds and investigating the tools available to reach them from the actual present. In “The Reasoning of Designers” he wrote,

A design problem keeps changing while it is treated, because the understanding of what ought to be accomplished, and how it might be accomplished is continually shifting. Learning what the problem is IS the problem.

Such a design process is flexible and amorphous enough to attack the wicked problems of society. But it is necessarily a subjective process, dependent on the background assumptions and values of the designer, and also necessarily a political process because design, especially social planning, affects many lives.

No plan has ever been beneficial to everybody. Therefore, many persons with varying, often contradictory interests and ideas are or want to be involved in plan-making. The resulting plans are usually compromises resulting from negotiation and the application of power. The designer is party in these processes; he takes sides. Designing entails political commitment — although many experts would rather see themselves as neutral, impartial, benevolent experts who serve the abstraction of “the common good.”

Rittel saw many parallels between design and discussion. In fact he saw design as “a process of argumentation” and asked how people could engage in productive discussions to come up with good plans. There are strong parallels here to the concept of deliberative democracy, and the idea that journalism “must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise” (according to the Elements of Journalism.)

The role of the solution journalist
A journalist is not an urban planner, a teacher, an economist, a police captain, or an epidemiologist. We already have those people in society, so I don’t know why we would imagine that journalists are supposed to invent good plans. Even the idea of journalists merely promoting particular solutions flies in the face of the orthodoxy that says journalism exists to inform, not to advise or act. Personally, I find the idea of total journalistic detachment to be nonsensical; if journalism has no effect, then it simply does not work. But neither do I think that journalists have any particular legitimacy to decide for everyone else. Chris Anderson nails this point when he asks,

by what right, and on what grounds, do journalists claim the authority to offer solutions to any particularly difficult problem? Journalists are neither elected, nor particularly accountable, nor all that expert in anything in particular.

I answer this by saying that I don’t want the journalist to offer solutions. The solution journalist ought to be well informed, certainly, and perhaps they ought to report and write on possible solutions to social problems, but I dont think that’s their primary responsibility. Rather, I see the solution journalist as responsible for the process of public discussion by which problems are defined and turned into plans for the future.

This is the moderator’s role. There is wide scope here, beyond the daily nuts and bolts of moderating a networked discussion (for which there are already a great variety of models.) It would be very valuable if the journalist continually curated links that describe both potential issues and potential solutions within the community. It would be crucial to include a variety of voices in this discussion, or the conclusions may not be representative; I like John Dewey’s definition of a public as a group of people affected by some issue. And the journalist could step in at key moments to clarify basic points of fact, either by citing authoritative references or by doing some reporting. The point is to have a healthy discussion about just what are the most pressing public problems — and the possible solutions. “Healthy” might mean many things, such as reality-based, respectful, and productive. Deciding what kind of discussion we want to have and how best to go about having it is itself a wonderful design problem!

There is a great deal of room here for experimentation with software and process. As early as 1970 Rittel designed what we would now call “social software” to facilitate discussions, building his “issue-based information system” for government planning departments. But we know very little about how to make discussion systems work at web scale. We have a few tantalizing examples — the Slashdots, Wikipedias, and Reddits of the world — but no general principles. Meanwhile, we are just beginning to ask about the very human process of tending to an online community. What is the most effective and the fairest way to deal with trolls, crazies, and other spoilers? How do we make the hard decisions about excluding people? How can the users best contribute to the process? What is the right combination of norms, rules, and code? Unfortunately, we are going to have to learn how to do this differently for different sizes of groups. A neighborhood, a city, a country and a planet will all require different approaches, because social interactions do not scale cleanly (see, e.g., Dunbar’s number.)

So there is software, and there is process, and there are people bound up together who will see different aspects of their shared condition. Sometimes they will disagree violently about the truest representation and the worthiest goal. Perhaps the work of solution journalism is not to propose solutions, but to help a community come to a shared understanding of what its major problems are, which is the first and possibly hardest step in solving them.

 

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May 06 2012

Darfur and the limits of public outcry

I just finished reading Rebecca Hamilton’s new book Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide, and I must say I’m more confused than ever about the role that ordinary people can play in resolving international problems. But I think I’m confused in a good way, that kind of “this is a lot trickier than I thought” way that leads to learning. Hamilton was deeply involved in student activism for Darfur, but in 2006 she switched tracks to study whether this sort of advocacy had any real effect. Over the next few years she interviewed everyone involved: activists, people within the governments of the U.S., Sudan, and other countries, staff from the UN and the International Criminal Court, and of course lots of Darfuris on numerous visits to the region.

This is a story about the limitations of public outcry, which Hamilton also talks about in this excerpt (full video and transcript)

All of this seems especially interesting right now in light of the debate around the Kony 2012 video and Mike Daisey’s falsehoods about the working conditions of Apple employees in China. At what point does simplification or sensationalization of a message make broad public “awareness” ineffective or even harmful? A number of smart people have wrestled with this question recently, including Ethan Zuckerman, who co-founded the Global Voices international citizen media project, in a very thoughtful essay.

Hamilton explains that the U.S. Darfur advocacy movement began on the back of the lessons of Samantha Power’s hugely influential book A Problem from Hell:

“It is in the realm of [U.S.] domestic politics that the battle to stop genocide is lost,” was the key message from the mammoth research Samantha Power had undertaken into the genocides of the twentieth century. It was a mantra that could be seen scribbled on post-it notes on Darfur advocates’ desks and added at the sign off of to their emails. The citizens who started to join the growing movement for Darfur believed that the power to make “never again” meaningful was in their hands, that if they created a loud enough outcry, they could generate the political will needed to get their political leaders to save Darfuri lives.

But this is only true if the problem is, in fact, a lack of political will — and if the political pressure that activists create pushes in the direction of solutions that actually work.

What happened next — during the six or seven years since the start of the attacks in Darfur and the writing of the book — is complicated. Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly called what was happening in Darfur a “genocide” in September 2004, marking the first time in history that an international leader had used “the g-word” while the violence was still ongoing, but the Darfur advocacy moment was really just in its infancy at that point, and Hamilton traces the internal politics of the decision to other factors. Then there was a UN resolution referring the matter to the newly-established International Criminal Court but, writes Hamilton, “contrary to conventional wisdom, the growing Darfur movement was not a significant part of this decision. Although some Darfur advocates voiced their support, the most influential advocates were those based in Africa.”

In 2006, advocates focussed their attention on getting a UN security council resolution authorizing a peacekeeping mission to Darfur. Getting the UN to deploy troops seemed like a way forward, but China, with its close connections to Sudan, would not support the necessary UN resolution. Here, perhaps, is a place where the citizen’s advocacy moment was clearly effective.

U.S. Darfur advocates realized that domestic pressure would not work to influence Chinese leaders. But the 2008 Olympics in Beijing were coming up. Activists executed a prolonged, international “genocide olympics” campaign to publicly link China  with the events in Darfur. This included marches, a torch relay, and press campaigns such as a Wall Street Journal op-ed. This had real consequences for China, including the high-profile withdrawal of Steven Speilberg as an artistic advisor to the opening ceremonies. Eventually, China backed down, signing on to a UN Security Council “presidential statement” calling for Sudan to “cooperate fully” with the International Criminal Court.

As one U.S. government official put it, “Activists finally ‘cracked the code’ on moving China.” This didn’t mean that China moved into line with the activist position, but it did move from obstructing all outside involvement with Darfur back to a position of neutrality. In an admittedly rare instance, the Olympics, when activists in the West could threaten an image China actually cared about, public shaming had worked.

The only problem was that a UN peacekeeping mission was doomed to fail, because Sudan didn’t want peacekeepers there at all:

Any mission to protect civilians using outside forces without the consent of the Sudanese government would not only be tantamount to invasion in rhetorical and legal terms, it would bring with it logistical and military complications rising near the level of practical impossibility. No country, not even the United States, was willing to fight a real war with real costs in terms of lives lost in order to protect Darfuris. And until any country was willing to do that, the theoretical debates could continue ad infinitum. The reality was that Sudanese consent was a necessity.

This is just the barest outlines of the story, which was (and is) an intricate international situation. But if this 1,000 word post can only barely outline the situation, how is an advocacy movement supposed to explain the details to large numbers of people? And how are regular people supposed to influence the decision makers in a different country? U.S. politicians have to listen to U.S. voters, but foreign politicians don’t.

International situations seem to require international advocacy — a much harder proposition.  As Hamilton asks in this video, “more generally, beyond a state model at all, how are we building connections between different communities?”

Perhaps the most fundamental question here is, why do we believe that bringing something to the attention of a large number of people will have any real effect at all? Of course it’s impossible to know what would have happened in Darfur had there not been this sort of mass advocacy, but the fact remains that in many of the ways that count, the effort was a failure. Hamilton ends the introduction of her book on this point:

Until Darfur, the persistent failure of the U.S. government to protect civilians from genocidal violence could be all-too-easily attributed to and justified by the absence of a politically relevant outcry from citizens. The insufficiency of that alibi has now been revealed. By telling the story of what happened when citizens did create an outcry, Fighting for Darfur enables us to take the next step and begin to understand the other missing pieces of the puzzle.

 

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Jan 26 2012

What does Google gain by not letting me use any name I want?

tl;dr: all you handle kids are scaring the straights away, and it’s a problem for us.

When Google+ launched this summer, it required users to register under their “real name”  – not necessarily their legal name, but the vaguely defined “name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you.” A lot of people thought this was a bad idea, including me. Real names harm a variety of people in different situations, while psuedonyms are an important tool of privacy in a medium where every public utterance is recorded and forever searchable. Although the issue of online identity is far broader than Google+, the launch of this new service was seen by many as a chance to reexamine this point, and the policy triggered a public backlash which came to be known as the nymwars.

Last week, Google+ rolled out a partial reversal of this policy, allowing arbitrary names, but only for new users, and only if they are an already “established identity.” Again, this seems an impossibly vague standard. Also, why? Why can’t I just call myself whatever I want?

Certain answers come out in  Google+ chief architect Yonatan Zunger’s recent thread on the topic. It seems that, rightly or wrongly, Google has certain strong ideas about what “kind of community” Google+ is supposed to be. Moreover, they claim that only a minority of people have strong feelings about the use of pseudonyms online, and that they have data showing that the use of “handles” drives other people away.

In this sense the use of real names is at heart a business issue, just as many folks suspected. But not the business issues that have been most talked about. One standard argument is that Google wants your real name for the benefit of advertisers, or for the benefit of state authorities. Of course Zunger and others could be deceiving us (or themselves), and I certainly believe that Google is engaged in a competitive deathmatch to be the dominant online identity provider. But the “advertisers” and “authorities” arguments for real names seem to me weaker than they first appear. After all, it’s not your name that drives personalized advertising algorithms, it’s the content you produce and where you are in the social network. On the commerce side, no one needs my real name to take my money, because payment systems are ultimately tied to credit cards, bank accounts, or phones. These sorts of social and financial links also make real names much less interesting/useful from a law enforcement point of view, especially given that Google will already turn over all your information to government authorities when asked. In either case, names are really only useful as a (very unreliable) key to match between multiple databases. Your behavior is much more telling. For an illustrative example, consider that it’s possible to accurately guess your age, gender, and political orientation from public Twitter data.

So let’s look closely at what Zunger said about the recent names policy change, in response to detailed questions. This is his stated reason for the original real names policy:

First of all, you might ask why we have a names policy at all. (i.e., why we don’t simply go with the JWZ proposal) One thing which we have discovered, while putting some miles on the system, is that it is indeed important to have a name-based service rather than a handle-based service. This isn’t a matter of functionality so much as of community: You get a different kind of community when people are known as Mary Smith than when they are known as captaincrunch42, and for a social product in particular we decided that the first kind of community is the one we want to build. In order to do that, we want to establish a general norm that the names you put in to the system should be names, not handles.

Zunger is talking here both about what “kind of community” Google+ is intended to be, and how he thinks that sort of community can be established — by making rules in an attempt to encourage certain norms. He distinguishes between “names” and “handles.” I’m not really sure I immediately know how to tell these apart. Further adding to the confusion, Zunger is also clear that Google+ is (now) not concerned with whether you are psuedonymous or not:

Our name check is therefore looking, not for things that don’t look like “your” name, but for things which don’t look like names, period. In fact, we do not give a damn whether the name posted is “your” name or not: we will not challenge you on this basis, nor is there any mechanism for other users to cause you to be challenged for this.

In regards to a question about “anonymity,” he says

it depends on what you mean by “anonymity.” If you mean that the name on your account isn’t associated with you in meatspace, I think that we support that right now.

Ok, so why bother restricting names at all? “You claim evidence that a no-handles policy is better for discourse,” wrote Sai. “I’ve seen zero proof of this, and indeed proof to the contrary.” Zunger responded that the policy is

not a no-handles policy, but a rare-handles policy. I don’t have data which I’m at liberty to share, but we got very strong feedback about this one, especially from less technical users, and also very disproportionately across genders: women liked handles a lot less than men. (This is somewhat reflected in the populations which have the highest density of handles: e.g., people who are old-time Internet users and whose handles date back to usernames)

Yet Zunger also admits that real names don’t constrain bad behavior the way he was hoping they would:

We thought this was going to be a huge deal: that people would behave very differently when they were and weren’t going by their real names. After watching the system for a while, we realized that this was not, in fact, the case. (And in particular, bastards are still bastards under their own names.) We’re focusing right now on identifying bad behaviors themselves, rather than on using names as a proxy for behavior.

What’s going on here? Zunger says he both “got very strong feedback” in favor of real names and “bastards are still bastards under their own names.” How can both these things be true? He explains a little farther down the thread:

Actually, it’s not that people think that nyms are abusive at all. It’s that people react differently to seeing that they’ve been circled by John Smith, versus seeing that they’ve been circled by CaptainCrunch49. Various categories of user tend to react very negatively to the latter, say something to the effect of “who are these strange people?!,” and log off and never come back.

The initial policy was different, and it was based on a number of reasons, such as the theory that permanent names encouraged good behavior (turned out not to be true) and the theory that name-based services have a different ambiance, and lead to different collective behavior, than handle-based services. (Seems to be true)

It’s definitely an issue of perception, not security. But handles are only used in a fairly limited subculture, and a lot of the past intersections of that subculture with the broader culture have been negative: people associate handles with trolls on forums. … Obviously, not everyone with a handle is a bad actor, but handle namespaces have acquired this rep in spades.

When pressed on whether real names are “more engaging and encourage interaction”, he says

This does, in fact, seem to be the case — people seem to interact really differently when they see names and when they see handles. This is one of the main reasons why we continue to think that this distinction is worth preserving.

So Zunger is claiming that the goal of excluding “handles” is based on user behavior differences that can be seen in the data — not “bad behavior” but other things, the only one of which he’s specified is leaving and never coming back. This is a core business issue. But it’s also a user experience question. Zunger refers twice to negative experiences of women on G+, and this is consistent with what I’ve heard from my female friends who complain of “creepy” people adding them to circles. Even when not creepy, “who are all these people adding me?” has been a common refrain with G+. This is a problem which is made worse if people choose psuedonyms which they don’t aren’t already commonly use elsewhere — how do I know who you are when you add me to your circles? Of course, there are psuedonym-preserving potential answers to this question, such as seeing that a known friend vouched for them.

Part of the reason there is such heated argument about the use of psuedonyms is because there’s so little data. The best large scale evidence I know of is Disqus’s figures, which lead the company to conclude that “pseudonyms are the most valuable contributors to communities” in terms of comment threads. Zunger isn’t releasing any data, but he drops many hints about the content of Google’s data set, which contains much richer information than comments. It appears that Google has done some social network analysis on psuedonym use:

There’s a lot of clustering asymmetry in this, however. Generally, if you know at least one person who has an unusual name, you’re likely to know a lot of such people; i.e., people with unusual names travel in tightly-connected clusters. That’s largely because these names tend to be tied to particular subcultures. The problem we’re really encountering here is of culture clashes: people from one culture absolutely freak out when they encounter people from a very alien culture. That’s actually a very deep problem which affects a lot more than names, and it’s one that I’m spending a lot of skull sweat on lately. (I can tell you more off-line) If we can find a good way to deal with that, then the handles problem goes away too, and we can just revert to the simple jwz solution.

And so we get to the current confused state of affairs: you don’t have to sign up under your “real” name (whatever that is), but you have to meet some vaguely defined standard for “established” names. The new criteria are spelled out in the post by VP Bradley Horowitz:

If we flag the name you intend to use, you can provide us with information to help confirm your established identity. This might include:

- References to an established identity offline in print media, news articles, etc
- Scanned official documentation, such as a driver’s license
- Proof of an established identity online with a meaningful following

As a matter of practice, Zunger explains that G+ uses machine classification to decide whether a name is allowed, augmented by humans in the uncertain cases:

The classifier is training to get the (huge number of) easy cases right, not the hard ones; those are always going to be passed off to actual humans. … The goal is that most things which are marked as “not a name” are genuinely cases of something being meant as either a nickname or an organization; whenever the appeals process is triggered, and even more so whenever something passes an appeal, that’s a sign that the first-stage check failed and we need to improve our rules. So then we can look at the pattern of appeals, see if there are classes of names which we are systematically getting wrong, and learn from this to improve the process and reduce the chance of someone being sent through it incorrectly.

But Zunger hasn’t yet really answered the question of what qualifies as a legitimate name at signup — what will pass the human review process that is used to train the machine classifiers? And while there is a new “nickname” feature available to people who have already created an account, you can’t only be known by your nickname, which shows up in addition to your “real” name.

So where does this leave us? On G+ you have to use some name you commonly use elsewhere. The policies are ambiguous but strongly favor the sorts of names most people use to introduce themselves in person, rather than “handles.” You can use a handle on G+, but only if you can convince a human that you have been widely calling yourself that elsewhere. In other words, we still can’t call ourselves whatever we want, because some number of people are going to fail the (unspecified) name check. You can’t create a brand new identity in order to explore, say, an openly gay existence online, or to see how people would treat you if they didn’t know you were a kid (which is something about the internet that was really important to me when I was 14.)  The weird thing here is, overall the policy doesn’t sound like it’s really about whether your name is “real,” but whether it sounds like “not a handle” in a way that doesn’t frighten other people away.

So what’s so bad about this? Identity is complicated in real life. We are all different people in different contexts, and expressing yourself online has the risk of smushing all those contexts together in a way that loses something, such as the ability to reveal yourself fully without fear. Google understands that such problems exist, or they wouldn’t have done the sociology research that clearly influenced the “circles” feature. But as Moot has argued, maybe it’s only under anonymous conditions that we are authentic. The current name policy is not going to work for many people in many cases. Zunger knows this:

I completely agree that “well, shut them out then” is not the right thing to do. But I’m currently stuck between shutting out a small number of people, or creating an environment in which a large number of people (especially women, and especially people who are already feeling uncertain in the online environment) feel a hostile environment and get shut out, too. I do not like being in this situation and am actively trying to work on real solutions which will allow us to bridge the gap, and make this a good environment for everyone.

Which is a lovely sentiment, but how is this to happen?  Zunger freely admits that the recent changes are supposed to work for most people, most of the time. In this sense the problem is more that G+ is aimed at the mainstream than that it specifically excludes you. It sucks to be different, and G+ is not trying to solve this.

And there’s one of the crucial questions in the whole nymwars debate: are we arguing about rights, or are we arguing about what serves “most” people? I think you could make a good argument that the ability to choose one’s name online is a right, just as it is a right offline. Where the waters get muddy is that Google+ and other huge networks are private property, and can set more or less any rules they want. Yet we all use them; we depend on them for public interaction. Rebecca MacKinnon explores this problem at book length in Consent of the Networked.

Meanwhile, Zunger seems intent on preserving the names/handles distinction:

I’m making a tradeoff in this service by restricting the space of names to things which are, by some criterion, “name-shaped.” On the one hand, the exclusion of handles has a nontrivial cultural effect, because handle-based cultures such as Internet fora, YouTube, some parts of fandom, etc., have established cultural norms which are (on the very large-scale average) ultimately somewhat similar to one another and very different from those in many name-based cultures, such as G+, FB, or meatspace. Since we have made an explicit decision to make G+ a name-based culture, and since the large bulk of our users come exclusively from such cultures (i.e., have little or no familiarity with handle-based cultures), there are significant culture clash risks associated with culture mixing and we’ve chosen to resolve those by basically excluding handles. (With rare exceptions for very established handles, which is an exception people are used to because they see those cases as intrinsically exceptional; as an extreme example, Lady Gaga) On the other hand, this excludes identities which come from handle-based cultures.

When the excluded identity is in the second category, then this is frankly working as intended: I’m trading off one virtue of social health (building up a unified culture on G+) against another virtue of social health (allowing as many identities as possible to be represented on the service).

The resolution that we’re aiming for amounts to attempting to structure the name restrictions as narrowly as possible in order to attain the social health virtue of building up a name-based culture.

Zunger hasn’t yet explained why a “name-based” culture is a “social health virtue.” He already said that “name-based” cultures don’t control “bad behavior” and “bastards.” But we do have one really important clue: he claims that only a small number of “subcultures” use handles, and that handles drive away people who aren’t used to such cultures. If Zunger is telling the whole story, G+’s critics are right in that this is a business issue, but it isn’t so much that advertisers want real names. Instead, this names policy seems solidly about being acceptable to as many potential users as possible. Which is not such a terrible goal, but it’s by definition anti-subcultural, and that does kill some of the genuine and important ways that people enjoy interacting with each other .

 

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