Berkman Center "Votes, Bits, and Bytes" Conference Summary

I was a participant in the Berkman Center’s Internet + Society 2004 Conference, Votes, Bits, and Bytes, which was free, and only took two days. I thought I’d write a summary of my experiences, and post them here so others can find them. I have referenced here a number of essays/thoughts that I mentioned to people over the conference. Some of the ideas I will work into more substantial pieces.

Major Themes

These were some of the major themes I was looking to track personally through the conference:

  1. Analysis of Campaign Technology: I asked the campaign managers of the Bush and Kerry campaigns whether “the software they used could be seen as expressing their parties unique values.” I had given the question to Zack Exley over lunch, referencing my Network Models analysis, which had argued that it’s folly to make statements like “top-down architectures don’t reflect Democratic party values). I will write my summary of the responses of Zack and his Bush counterpart Chuck DeFeo, as well as what I learned from Cam Kerry at Wednesday’s Democratic Town Committee.
  2. Populist rhetoric: The Internet-activists’ suspicion about “top-down” approaches extends to the “old media” as well. Tell me something new. I have pointed out, in “Rage Against the Elite and Mainstream Media” that this often plays into the anti-elitist playbook.
  3. Community devotion: I told Meetup’s Founder Scott Heiferman of my analysis earlier this summer: the devotion which people felt towards Meetup was quite similar to how people felt about Abuzz, a Q&A site which had developed fierce loyalties, until it was sold to the Times. Where Meetup may eventually succeed is that they’ve enabled and encouraged members of a group to pay directly– which may be the easiest way to market to the group as a whole.
  4. Breaking the rules: I also mentioned the above to Jordan Pollack, who was the Chief Scientist of Abuzz. I gave him another one of my observations from that article– “Good technologies need rules, but people like to bend them.” I asked him whether he can think of one, and, as my Palm Pilot IIIe was in plain sight, he quickly said: “Grafitti”. The day after the conference, I came on a terrific metaphor to explain this– “Fields and Streams.” I will write more on this.
  5. Blog triumphalism: I was absolutely floored how blogging has blossomed in cultures that are still experimenting with free speech– Iraq, Iran, South Korea, China. But in the U.S. we have a much more diverse media, and blogs, in their current incarnation, aren’t going to triumph right away. I hammered away at this through the weekend. I feel that blogs need to be more structured before they can be useful in more domains. An example– introducing his workshop, Jay Rosen listed 5 categories of comments he’d like to hear from the participants… and then has the gall to say that this will be “like a blog!” But blogs have no structure, that is part of their folk appeal. How many blog posts are original writing, and how many are just clipping other news sources? We won’t know until we start introducing some basic categorization. I will write more about this.

New Terms, Phrases, and Useful Metaphors

The main necessity for going to conferences and reading academic papers is to start using the same terms that people in the know use. Here are some:

  1. Esther Dyson on reputation systems: “Not only does it remove the bad apples, but normal apples behave better.” I’ve always agreed with this.
  2. Scott Heiferman prefaced his keynote talk by explaining that he would be talking about “meetup with a lower-case ‘m’“. The distinction was significant. If it’s uppercase, somebody owns it; if it’s lower case, we’re talking about the platonic concept which is owned by the commons. Of course, Scott added to this comment that capital-M Meetup is still property of his company, which will be concerned as their name approaches the popularity of Band-Aids.
  3. The term “digital divide” should be shown the door. No one’s happy with it. Jonathan Zuck clarified this to the “agenda divide,” and Robert Putnam suggested the “leisure divide.” The problem that I (and perhaps others) always had with “digital divide” is that it simply masked other, more substantial divides. The fact that the digital divide has now been erased– as some three-quarters of Americans have Internet access at homes, and over 95% of libraries provide Internet access (both thanks in part to the Gates Foundation, upper- and lower-case ‘f’)– hasn’t changed the fact that there is a real leisure divide. Some Americans have leisure, and only some of those choose to be engaged in public affairs and/or Internet communities.
  4. Putnam illuminated us on the distinction of the two types of social capital: “bonding” and “bridging”. The former is between people in the same social circles, whereas the former is between people of different circles.
  5. Oh Yeon-ho had described his “citizen’s media” project Oh My News in comparison to the traditional elite media, as exemplified by the New York Times. Afterwards, I asked Christopher Lydon, Jay Rosen, Rebecca McKinnon, among others, whether that term is means the same thing to different people. Of courses it doesn’t; see my essay above.
  6. A number of people were disdainful about the notion of “journalistic ethics,” and therefore denied that bloggers or citizen journalists would need them. I tried to suggest “platonic scale of ethics” and of “storytelling or information sharing.” This being the Berkman Center of the Law School, the After the conference, I came up with this case-based definition: journalism Ethics a lower-case ‘j’ for journalism, that thing which comprises storytelling and information sharing, which is the modifier of the noun Ethics, which may well be a set of standards developed by one particular entity (such as mine)
  7. Craig (Craig’s List) Newmark, “311 for improving political processes,” referring to the telephone number New York City has for handling constituent service issues, like road repair. Boston has no such number. Neither does the 57,000-person town of Brookline. But I have thought, and haven’t yet articulated here, that all sorts of organizations need a more front-and-central metaphor for what is alternatively, and awkwardly called “customer relationship management” or “issue tracking systems”.

First Impressions

What were people’s first impressions of me? Well, I picked the right outfit: a blazer was the choice of academics and businessmen, and this conference was mostly men. The baseball cap was left where it should have been, with my buzz maker in New York. One other attendee, Bob Cox had a ballcap, which said “New Rochelle Soccer” (a suburb down the “Hutch” from White Plains). Bob said that he would’ve warn a MediaBloggers hat, but Dave Winer would have socked him for it. I also looked a bit different from my online picture: I have a beard now.

But, most of first impressions are about humor and embarassing situations. So here they are, to get all the facts straight.

Holding a set of questions in my hand, asking the question for the Campaign 2004 panel, “I’ve written my questions down… if it matters, it’s not because some journalist gave it to me.” This was in reference to the GI in Iraq who asked a question of the Sectary of Defense, and it was later revealed that a journalist had prepared the question for him. It was a non-story of the previous night– and the previous night many people skipped the squawkbox and watched Joe Trippi instead.

At the “Utopia” workshop, “In the campaign we learned that there were two Americas… we also learned that there were ‘two Internets’.” After I explained this, using Texas twang to recall Bush’s debate faux pas, I got a few chuckles.

At the CAIRNS workshop, I introduced myself as a software engineer who works on knowledgement software. “Software companies used to say, what will Microsoft do. Now, knowledge management companies say, what will Google do.”

After that second workshop, Tony Kahn came in to set up his impromptu “podcast” operation. “I never listen to you while I eat, Tony…” (He hosts “The World,” which is between 4pm and 5pm on its flagship station WGBH) I actually didn’t stay for it, I went over to the session on brainstorming what an Internet campaign will look like. Palfrey noted that it was fine if people went over to listen to it in the other room. I shot back: “We can listen to it later! It’s podcasted!” podcasting is a neologism whereby audio is recorded and made available over the Internet (which it has been for some time), but for the express purpose of downloading to a portable music player (such as Apple’s iPod).

Later in that session, Jim Moore said that perhaps we ought not to tell the kids what to do, but let them decide for themselves, and maybe they could decide that while blogging. The group started to chuckle as Jim got increasedly excited while describing it, and then I broke up the room by exclaiming “Well that’ll solve the problem right there!” Later that evening, I explained this to my pediatrician friend. She does not choose to exercise her leisure time on the Internet, but rather doing actual exercise, and she suggested that school kids do the same. But it’s too expensive, now that many communities have pay-for-play. Well that was the point of having a public awareness campaign– which was the original point of the discussion, though it unfortunately had dissolved into blog triumphalism.

While launching the first ever public demo of Viewpoints during Ethan’s “tools” workshop, I d on the baseball broadcaster’s cliche: “For those of you scoring at home… Well, viewpoints allow you to score at home.” Thud. Two-minute demo, no time to waste.

Other people may have said funny things. But I guess under the blogging ethos, if they have software, they can take credit for those themselves.

I made one mistake. I found out before I left for the conference that I’d been called a “punk-bitch journalist” on some seemingly random Internet site, the “spannerbackup” forum. I gave a callow response that morning, expressing a little indignation that a story I’d written had been copied without clear attribution. I mentioned this Saturday morning, and other attendees suggested some better responses:”Who you ya calling punk-bitch?” or “my friends call me PBJ.” I later brought this up in the “Utopia” forum, as part of the “Two Internets” question. I was curious– were we at an age of awareness that there was one Internet which had one set of standards of behavior (the type who go to academic conferences on this sort of stuff, and post using real identities), and the one which hadn’t really matured from the early days, with flame wars and the like?

And Ted Byfield shot back, “but why aren’t we visiting real slums?”

Seems like I would have been on the defensive. “Slums” of course is a culturally charged word. Though I mentioned tenement photographer Jacob Riis, but I really was thinking of Jane Jacobs, who in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. What the “elite” planners thought of as “slums,” the local residents (of Boston’s North End and West End) saw them as viable communities. The North End was saved, the West End was not. There are no more “slums” in the sense of overcrowded neighborhoods (the families in the North End are not as large as they once were), but there are still economically-depressed neighborhoods, like Roxbury and Dorchester, where I have volunteered.

My point about “slums” was more a question about the culture shock of applying academic lessons to the rest of the world. And that’s in fact the first thing I did, the next morning after the conference.


The next day, I got back to the Internet to figure out what this spannerbackup forum was. Backup storage devices? (truly archaic). No, actually, “spanners” are the community of C-SPAN fans who had to find a new forum after the public affairs network had taken down their WebCrossing forums. I had come across this group in June when this group corrected an error I had in one of my articles. In my evaluation, I applauded their community while frowning up on the technology. So in a roundabout way they had found me, and let me know of the new site, though I appreciated it much greater when some of the founding members wrote me a personal message later. I started up a new topic (based on my old proposal about Stopping Soapbox Myths) which I wanted answered. But along the way, I kept putting on my “enlightened moderator” hat, which, coupled with my reporting that I had gone to a Harvard conference, led one participant to speculate that they felt like a “lab rat.” And then I checked back and found out that this post was deleted, because, in the moderator’s zeal to see that the conversation had stayed on-topic (as I wished), he went ahead and just removed many off-topic posts. This will be it interesting. I still would like to find a group to adopt the civ modules (possibly through CivicSpace) and study how they use it.

What was perhaps more rewarding and enlightening from the talk was the example Robert Putnam gave of the Saddlebrook Church in Orange County– a large community which has organized small interest groups, all without the Internet or meetups. Something to think about at tomorrow’s synagogue board meeting.