The US, Canada and “long hope”

With love and respect to my friends in the US who are celebrating today, I’m not there. Yes, it’s wonderful that Donald Trump will no longer be in the White House, though I suspect the process of extricating him from the Oval Office may require more legal wrangling than many of us expect. Yes, a political world without Bill Barr and Stephen Miller in it is a much improved world.

But the 2020 election has laid bare the ugly situation the US is currently facing. I don’t just mean from the perspective of left-wing politics. Zeynep Tufekci is right that the Republicans won everything but the presidency and are setting themselves up for a more dangerous candidate in 2024. What worries me more is the ways in which American institutions are failing and leading us to an increasing state of mistrust and doubt.

Mistrust was already a key theme in Trump’s presidency – he ran against a Washington “swamp”, an allegedly corrupt system he promised his followers that he alone could fix. In taking the office, he corrupted large swaths of the executive to the point where it’s hard to have confidence in its continued functioning – reassembling the State Department, for instance, is likely to be a significant task under Biden. His packing of the federal and supreme court mean those of us on the left will be suspicious of those institutions for decades to come. In other words, Trump was elected because many on the right mistrust government, and his governance led many on the left to mistrust government.

This election drives that wedge in even deeper. Some fraction of the 69 million voters who chose Donald Trump over Joe Biden are likely to see Biden’s presidency as illegitimate and stolen. While Murdoch-controlled media may be abandoning Trump and Republican politicians may be seeking the chance to leave a sinking ship, Trump’s airing of grievances in White House press conferences combined with far-right campaigns to build the “Stop the Steal” narrative will give some percentage of Trump’s supporters the excuse to distrust any actions Biden takes on behalf of the nation.

The increased mistrust shouldn’t just be on the right. On the left, we have recently learned that political polling doesn’t work nearly as well as we thought it did, and that many of our media outlets remain surprisingly out of touch with the concerns and enthusiasms of Republican voters. The belief that America’s ongoing demographic shift to a “majority minority” nation would lead to eternal Democratic dominance has been shaken by substantial numbers of voters of color supporting Trump. Amongst any happiness we feel at retaking the White House should be a deep sense of uncertainty: what do we actually know about this nation we’re living in? What do we know about what our neighbors think, feel and believe?

And there’s a deeper worry. The US has been polarized for as long as I’ve participated in our political system. But the gaps today seem almost impossible to bridge. Beginning with Fox News, but profoundly amplified by the internet, there’s now a rightwing media ecosystem that often feels like a parallel universe in which not only interpretations, but fundamental facts are incompatible. As Roxanne Gay points out in a powerful essay, we are living in two countries, one wrestling with racism and bigotry, one unwilling to lose the privileges of a history of white supremacy and patriarchy.

How can this pair of nations be governed? How can they even come to understand one another?

The most hopeful I have been during this election week was during a discussion last night over Zoom with members of my new academic home, the School of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Our department chair, Alasdair Roberts, is a former Canadian politician as well as a public policy scholar, and a brief history lesson from him on Canadian politics gave me more hope than anything I’ve heard from a chorus of voices in American media.

Canadian politics is boring, Roberts acknowledged, but it took a lot of work to make it as boring and functional as it is right now. When he was growing up, Canada was functionally two countries, Anglophone and Francophone, divided by language into two isolated media ecosystems. Tension between the two Canadas spilled over into violence, with the paramilitary Front de libération du Québec committing bombings and kidnappings to advance their cause. What’s allowed Canada to become boring was a long process of government through tradeoff and compromise, and the hard work of constructing a national identity that went beyond either colonial roots in Britain and France, or the cheap “we’re not the USA shortcut to national self-conception.

This long, slow hope is what Roberts offered to those of us in the US terrified about this election and what it signifies. In a recent article, Roberts describes the US as being twenty years into a “descent from hubris”, the realization that the “Washington consensus” of free markets, reduced government services and deregulation hasn’t been working for most Americans on the right or the left. Realizing that the model isn’t working is part of what’s leading to our current frustration. We agree that America isn’t working, but we blame each other for the country’s apparent ungovernability.

But Canada’s past is a lesson in overcoming that ungovernability. Having a government as often functional and boring as Canada’s seems a distant dream. But that dream is better understood as a long hope, the idea that two divided camps, united by the fact that a broken system is failing them, can in the long run find a new way to coexist.

That’s a faint hope at a moment as fraught and dark as the current one. But it’s something to work with, something to learn from and I’ll take it.

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Stop Doomscrolling. Hang out with smart folks trying to build better futures online.

My US readers – Let’s be honest: you’re doomscrolling. It’s not helping. Unless you’re an attorney who can intervene legally in a voter intimidation scenario, there’s very little useful you can do right now. You have permission to doomscroll after 8pm when there’s some actual news coming in. My non-US readers: you’re probably sick to death of the US election, because I know we all are.

So let’s do something different: let’s do some work around hope. I’m working now on an interlocking set of projects intended to imagine and recreate social media. In the long run, this will be a research center at UMass Amherst called the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure where we build tools like that let you control how you use your existing social networks and connect with new, decentralized and democratic ones. But until that launches this spring, I’m working on two other projects that might be worth your attention.

Reimagining the Internet is a weekly podcast where I interview some of the smartest people thinking about how we might change the internet for the better. In episode 2, Talia Stroud at the University of Texas Austin talks about the Civic Signals initiative – how could existing and new social media platforms measure healthy and toxic conversations and help platforms optimize for civic health? In episode 3, which we released today, Evan Henshaw-Plath, who has a long path as an activist technologist and a hand in the creation of Twitter, talks about, a distributed social network that seeks to end the client/server model and turn every user into an independent node. We talk about the conceptual and technical challenges of rewiring social media on a very basic and fundamental level.

These podcasts are produced by the remarkable Mike Sugarman, who wrote our intro music and does amazing work turning these conversations into something resembling a coherent narrative. This series is being released weekly, and we’ve already released some excellent episodes that I’m excited to share. Thanks to the Knight First Amendment Institute who are helping us get these episodes out into the world. Please subscribe to “Reimagining the Internet” on your favorite podcasting app, and check out past episodes here.

Speaking of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia – a highlight of my time there has been working with Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, an excellent researcher who’s co-authoring a series of posts with me on the “logics” of various social media platforms. The overall project is called “Mapping Social Media” and our latest update is titled “What If Social Media Worked More like Email?” It follows last week’s piece on cryptocurrency/blockchain based social networks and their associated dramas, which was a great piece to research and write together. These pieces aren’t comprehensive overviews of the space – we neglect the Fediverse in this week’s piece, for instance – but they are an introduction to the concepts and thinking behind different ways social networks can operate. I’m working this week on a piece on what a civic social network might look like, and what aspects of that logic can already be found online.

The collapse of American democracy, or the long, slow work of reconstructing normalcy can wait a few hours – come visit with us and take a brief tour of the hopeful world in which people are working hard to fix broken systems and make them better. The doomscrolling can wait, I promise.

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Beyond Facebook Logic: Help us Identify and Map Alternative Social Media!

(By Ethan and Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University)

As we head towards a pivotal US presidential election in early November, social media platforms are coming under scrutiny. Will they be flooded with disinformation seeking to sway public opinion? Will President Trump use Twitter to claim victory prematurely? Will militias, QAnon or any number of other movements grown on social media lead to political violence? In short, is social media harming us as a public, undermining our democracy?

These are worthwhile questions, but they reflect a key blind spot. Because Facebook and Twitter are so prominent and are so widely amplified by mainstream media, we tend to assume that all social media operate in the same way and suffer from the same problems. Our work on Digital Public Infrastructure is based on the idea that it’s possible to build very different social media which might strengthen us as a public, helping us be better friends, neighbors and civic actors. Towards that goal, we’re working to map the social media space, understanding the possibilities of “alternative” social media—and we need your help.

What we’re looking for is social media that works on a different “logic” than Facebook, Twitter or Instagram do. This can have to do with functionality—Reddit, where users vote posts up and down, works differently than Facebook, which algorithmically sorts posts in your newsfeed. But we’re at least as interested in social media that depart from core tenets of the Facebook equation: a platform run by a single company, for the use of anyone for virtually any purpose, supported by advertising, tracking user behavior in a system of surveillance capitalism (as described by Shoshana Zuboff). And while Reddit functions differently from Facebook, it looks very similar on the axes of business model, userbase, and basic architecture. (It’s a fascinating outlier in terms of moderation, however.)

Our goal for this post is to flesh out how we are thinking about these issues and to solicit your help in identifying platforms that depart from the status quo. There is a diverse space of social media outside of the shadow of the major platforms and we believe it’s there where the key to a different future lies. As Ruha Benjamin says, “imagination is a battleground.” Currently, we are living in the imagination of venture capitalists, corporations, and Mark Zuckerberg. To break out of it, we will have to imagine something different. We hope this project will be a valuable contribution to that process.

(An excellent social media map, though not the one we hope to build. Randall Munroe, 2010,

As we look to map the social media space, the first question that arises is: What is social media? We work off of Kietzmann et al.’s definition which lays out seven “building blocks” of social media: identity, conversations, sharing, presence, relationships, reputation, and groups. Most social media focus on three or four of these blocks. They are defined as:
Identity – “The extent to which users reveal themselves.”
Conversations – “The extent to which users communicate with each other.”
Sharing – “The extent to which users exchange, distribute and receive content.”
Presence – “The extent to which users know if others are available.”
Relationships – “The extent to which users relate to each other.”
Reputation – “The extent to which users know the social standing of others and content.”
Groups – “The extent to which users are ordered or form communities.”

Kietzmann et al.’s definition is somewhat overspecific for our purposes. Therefore we propose our own definition: social media is a digital space that combines communicating or sharing media with aspects of social networking sites. The classic definition of social networking sites comes from danah boyd and Nicole Ellison who define them as “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.” We believe our definition captures the essence of Kietzmann et al.’s framework. In particular, it reflects the phenomenon, taking place in the years since boyd and Ellison’s definition, of social networking sites moving away from their definition, incorporating media and communication into social networks, while media and communication tools have incorporated social features.

In mapping social media – and looking for platforms that operate on novel logics – we are considering five facets of a social network:

Revenue model

What do each of these five axes mean? Technology refers to the underlying technical architecture. We focus on the databases that store user information and content because user data is at the heart of the debate around social media. Who has access to user data? How can they use it? The answers to these questions largely depend on how a platform’s database is implemented. We believe there are at least three approaches to databases that are relevant: blockchain, decentralized, and centralized. Revenue model is easier to define. It refers to how the platform pays the bills (subscriptions, crypto, donations, taxpayers, ads). Ideology refers to the platform’s purpose. Is it to connect everyone and maximize shareholder value like Facebook? Is it to provide a platform for right-wing extremists kicked off of Twitter like Gab? Is it to give citizens a platform to debate and propose legislation like vTaiwan? Governance asks how platforms decide what speech and behavior is acceptable, and how those rules are enforced. While platforms like Facebook set rules centrally and enforce them with a staff of paid moderators, Reddit allows the moderators of each subreddit to craft their own guidelines (within bounds) and to enforce them. Other platforms, like 8kun, promise few if any restrictions. Affordances are the functionality a platform offers users. For example, Reddit allows users to upvote content. On Clubhouse, you talk instead of write. Twitter allows you to comment on an existing post, displaying it for context i.e. “quote tweet”.

We believe these axes are one possible way to characterize a social network, though certainly not the only one. A change along any one of them would result in a significantly different platform, with altered dynamics and experiences for users and other stakeholders. For example:

Technology. Twitter and Mastodon are similar in terms of ideology (for everyone) and affordances (micro-blogging with followers and reposting), but Mastodon runs on decentralized technology in the form of federated nodes. Because Mastodon isn’t centrally hosted, each node can make decisions about how their server is run and users can switch servers without losing access to the wider network. This has made Mastodon a much different place from Twitter. In particular, it’s home to a more diverse array of content and communities including servers with strict harassment policies, servers for exiled Tumblr creators, and a server that hosts Gab.

Revenue model. MeWe is similar to Facebook in many ways. Its technology is centralized; its purpose is to be a social network for everyone; its governance consists of rules set and enforced internally; and its affordances include the ability to post text and photos, share and react to posts on a newsfeed, and browse pages. However, MeWe is funded through subscriptions and paid add-ons, not advertising. This enables MeWe to provide its users with features like no ads, no newsfeed algorithms, and limited collection of personal information, making it a significantly different platform from Facebook.

Ideology. Parler has been described as a “barebones Twitter.” It is similar to Twitter along every axis (centralized, ad-based, rules set and enforced internally, micro-blogging with followers and reposting), except for ideology. Parler bills itself as an unbiased alternative to Twitter with an emphasis on free speech. It aims to serve a user base which consists largely of Trump supporters, conservatives, and people banned from Twitter or opposed to its moderation policies, such as Saudi nationalists. This is what distinguishes Parler from Twitter, making it a platform with different content and dynamics that reflect its right-wing user base and purported free-speech values.

Governance. Facebook Groups is a subset of Facebook with different operating rules. The technological affordances of Facebook and Groups are identical, except in Facebook Groups users can set and enforce rules. This governance difference has made Facebook Groups a distinct experience from Facebook, with an emphasis on specific topics, deeper connections, and particular etiquettes.

Affordances. Twitter and Facebook are similar along every axis (centralized, ad-based, for everyone, rules set and enforced internally), except for affordances. Their respective functionality is what differentiates the experience on each platform. For example, Twitter’s follow functionality encourages users to organize around interests and celebrities while Facebook’s friends feature encourages users to organize around their social network.

The axes we laid out above are our attempt at identifying the factors that determine the dynamics and experiences on social media platforms. Again, our goal is to identify platforms that have a unique location (or “logic”) along these five axes, challenging assumptions and the status quo.
Based on your feedback and submissions, we hope to release a map of social media logics and a set of case studies that help expand our imagination of social media beyond the default model.

Please use this Google form to suggest a social media platform we should know about and, optionally, how you believe it differs from the “standard model” of social media. Thanks for your help.

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A personal update

It’s September 1, and because I’ve spent 35 of my 47 years in educational institutions of one sort or another, the start of the school year seems like the start of the year. So, time for a personal update.

Yesterday was my last day at MIT, directing the Center for Civic Media. It’s been a wonderful ride over the last nine years, and I will be forever grateful to MIT for giving me the chance to advise Masters and PhD students for the first time in my career, to work on my own research (including Media Cloud) and to help students and colleagues with their research, from the wonderful Make the Breast Pump Not Suck hackathon to the important and inspiring work of the Algorithmic Justice League.

Oh, and I grew a pandemic beard. You probably did too.

We held a wake for the Center last week and agreed that we had to think of the end of Civic as a diaspora rather than a death, as so many of our graduates have gone on to lead Civic projects elsewhere in the world. I am especially proud of the many people who came through the lab and have gone on to academic careers – Nathan Mathias at Cornell, Erhardt Graeff at Olin College, Catherine D’Ignazio at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Mols Sauter at UMD, Rahul Bhargava, Matt Carroll and Laura Perovich at Northeastern. For a guy who dropped out of grad school almost three decades ago, I’ve helped lure an awful lot of people into academia. (The r0 for Civic Media is a frightening number, and in terms of my lab, the replacement rate calculation leads to a division by zero error…)

Some friends on Twitter have asked why Center for Civic Media won’t continue beyond this year. The decision is consistent with how the Media Lab handles the departure of professors. Research labs are tied to a specific professor or researcher’s work and ends when she or he leaves the Lab. The unusual exception to the rule was what allowed me to be hired into MIT in the first place – when I came on board, two of the three founders of Center for Future Civic Media had left MIT, but funding for the Center from the Knight Foundation continued, necessitating the hire of someone to lead the research. And while Civic won’t have a dedicated group in the Media Lab, Sasha-Costanza Chock will be visiting the Lab this coming year, and Eric Gordon, a pioneer in the Boston Civic Media community is visiting at CMS/W. Add in Catherine’s new lab at DUSP and Civic is still a very strong presence at MIT.

Media Cloud is alive and well, too – we have been operating as a partnership between MIT and Harvard for the past several years, and that partnership is going to expand to include Northeastern, UMass and perhaps others. I’m finding the tools we’ve been building especially useful for understanding the twin effects of the pandemic and the late Trump administration on the news agenda, which have managed to almost silence the 2020 election cycle.

So what’s next for me? This fall, I am a visiting scholar at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. This was my brilliant plan to spend time with all the friends in New York, at Columbia and elsewhere, who I don’t see enough when my center of gravity is in Boston. Of course, now I’m not seeing anyone outside of my narrow corner of the Berkshires, and my new colleagues are yet more Zoom boxes. But they’re awesome Zoom boxes, and I’m excited to get the chance to work through some of the ideas about Digital Public Infrastructure I’ve been exploring with people who are deeply thoughtful about the policy environment around social media platforms and the open internet.

The idea I’ll be working on with my Knight friends is the one I will be bringing with me to UMass Amherst this January, when I start as Associate Professor of Public Policy, Communication and Information. Over the next year, I plan to launch the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure, a research group focused on imagining and building alternatives to an internet built around the logic of surveillance capitalism. Instead, we’re working on a vision of digital public spaces that are optimized for civic ends, not for profits. I started writing about this idea prompted by friends at Columbia, and have been working to translate a pretty complex set of concepts into something that fits in a brief article. More to come on that front in the next couple of weeks.

I’m excited to be teaching at UMass, an excellent university that’s been on a tear lately, hiring smart people and building new programs. My “tenure home” is in the School of Public Policy, which has a great faculty of folks affiliated with other departments – I am part of the first cohort of professors who are based within SPP. My first course this spring will be Fixing Social Media, which I taught at MIT this fall – excited to bring it to a mix of policy, communication and CS students.

When I announced that I was moving to UMass, any number of folks commented that my commute would be better. That’s certainly true – UMass is about an hour and fifteen minutes away from my home, while MIT was three hours on a good day. But of course, no one actually goes anywhere anymore. Beyond that, it was important to me to teach at a state university, and especially one in the west of the state, where I’ve spent my entire adulthood. It’s very strange to be joining a new school and a new community at a moment where we’re mostly interacting with each other virtually, but I am excited for the moment I can meet colleagues and students in person.

If that wasn’t enough change, I’ve got a new book coming out in January. It’s called Mistrust, and it’s my attempt to draw a line from the Nixon administration to QAnon, though Reagan and Trump… but it’s also an optimistic book about the ways we can still make social and civic change even when we may have lost faith in political institutions. I’ve been working on it through much of my time at MIT, and it’s been hard to finish because current events (the pandemic, QAnon, the late Trump administration) have demanded inclusion at the last moment. I don’t know what a book tour looks like in the age of COVID, but I’m looking forward to one.

So that’s what’s ahead. 2019-2020 has been one of the more challenging years of my life – yours too, I bet. 2020-2021 is likely to be another memorable year, and not for the happiest of reasons. We’re all in it together, though, and I am at least as excited as I am scared, which is saying something at this particular junction.

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To the future occupants of my office at the MIT Media Lab

To the occupant(s) of E15-351
Re: About the window.

Hi. My name is Ethan Zuckerman. From 2011-2020, I enjoyed working in this office. I led a research group at the Media Lab called the Center for Civic Media, and I taught here and in Comparative Media Studies and Writing. I resigned in the summer of 2019, but stayed at the lab to help my students graduate and find jobs and to wind down our grants. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, I left campus and came back on August 14 to clean out my office and to leave you this note.

photo by Lorrie LeJeune

I’m leaving the note because the previous occupant left me a note of sorts. I was working here late one night. I looked up above my desk and saw a visegrip pliers attached to part of the HVAC system. I climbed up to investigate and found a brief note telling the MIT facilities department that the air conditioning had been disabled (using the vice grips, I presume) as part of a research project and that one should contact him with any questions.

That helped explain one of the peculiarities of the office. When I moved in, attached to the window was a contraption that swallowed the window handle and could be operated with red or green buttons attached to a small circuitboard. Press the green button and the window would open very, very slowly. Red would close it equally slowly. I wondered whether the mysterious researcher might be able to remove it and reattach the window handle. So I emailed him.

He was very happy to hear from the current resident of our office, and explained that it should be no problem to get the window up and running. I’d need to set up a dedicated Linux box and download some Python to control the climate logic, but it shouldn’t be that hard to debug. He was willing to help.

I wrote back and explained that I was looking for something much simpler. Since he was in Cambridge, I wanted him to come to our office, remove the apparatus and the vice grips and return the window to normal functioning. He wrote back, somewhat annoyed, and explained that the aircon in that office had never worked, and that his rersearch at the Media Lab had focused on regulating the temperature in our office. In his vision, building A/C systems would adjust to the personal preferences of the individual, adjusting windows and cooling systems to optimal settings to maximize everyone’s comfort. He seemed quite put out that I’d want to toss his work out the proverbial window and return to a simple hand crank.

So I read a few of his papers and contacted his advisor in the hopes that he’d have some advice on how to proceed. His advisor emailed me back and noted that the former student in question was “very passionate”. Thus advised, I emailed the researcher again and asked if he wouldn’t mind coming by my office and removing his system.

Ultimately he agreed to do so, but only between the hours of 2 and 5 in the morning, and he requested I leave him a key. I did so. The next day, I came to the office and found no visible changes: the vice grips were still attached to the plumbing, the pushbuttons still attached to the window. He left a note explaining that the system was disabled, but since he didn’t know where the window crank was, he left the very slow pushbutton system in place so I’d have a way to open and close the window.

After that, I tried going through official channels. When the very nice and very competent new facilities manager came on board a few years ago, she set up a meeting with me to discuss my office needs. I asked for a window crank. She tried to find me one, tried to order me one, and gave up after a few months. This is an Architecturally Significant I. M. Pei building, after all. It couldn’t be any old window crank to open our window.

I realized at this point that there was an appropriate Media Lab solution to this problem. I should borrow my next-door neighbor’s window knob, scan it, built it in a 3D modeling program and cut out a replica using one of our fine water jet metal cutters. I even scheduled time to work on the problem: the summer of 2020, where I would use my last few months at the Media Lab to do all the projects with the cool tools in the shop that I’d meant to do over the past nine years.

And then, Covid. No shop for me.

So here is your window knob. I cut it from a block of Vermont maple – some call it “rock maple” because of its hardness – that I had lying around my shop out here in western MA. It’s stained, but not varnished – it would probably benefit from a coat of polyurethane, if you had a moment. It’s somewhat misshapen because I made it in a hurry the night before moving out of the office. I like it. It looks a little like a homemade biscuit.

I’m installing the knob on my last day at the Media Lab, which means I’ll never get the chance to use it. But it was important for me to make it for you because I wanted to leave the Media Lab better than when I found it, if only in this one small way. And now, with some distance from the Lab, I understand that the researcher who previously worked here wanted the same thing: to make something broken work slightly better, in an unorthodox and creative way.

Sitting in this office, I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things. I watched two brilliant students organize two massive hackathons to improve the breast pump, challenging assumptions about who gets to invent the future and what problems are worth solving. Another student launched a remarkably successful movement against facial recognition technologies by demonstrating that they often embed significant racial biases. Five students and one staff member left this lab and became professors at terrific universities. (One teaches at MIT.)

And late one night, I saw a young woman walk past my door wearing a massive pair of delicate, filigreed copper angel wings. When I stopped her to inquire, she explained that the wings were attached to a Peltier junction, which rested between her shoulders. As she radiated heat, the Peltier junction cooled her off and generated electric power in the process. The copper wings served as a heat sink. It was one of the most beautiful projects I’ve ever seen. Only tonight, writing this note to you, did I realize that she’d solved the same problem our roommate was obsessed with, albeit more poetically.

The young woman left the Media Lab after two years here to pursue a startup. But she also left because a man in her lab began working on the same problem she was fascinated by. He ran his own lab here for a while, gained a lot of attention, then got thrown out for research fraud. I’ve lost track of her. There’s so many beautiful and brilliant people who pass through here – and so many frustrated and broken people too – that it gets hard to keep tabs on everyone.

So, this is just to say: sorry about the window. If you don’t like my solution, build your own. But please try to leave the Media Lab a little better than you found it, if only in a small way. And let me know if there’s anything I can do to help:

PS: About the geiger counter on the wall: that’s part of a project run by Safecast, an NGO Joi Ito helped found in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. We installed it here because I was the faculty member least likely to object to it. The pancake sensor is attached to the wall outside our window. The box under the whiteboard needs to be plugged into wifi and power. If it start beeping, either it’s malfunctioning and needs to be rebooted, or there’s a significant radiation leak on campus. When sleeping in this office, I found it helpful to cover the blue light on the box with a post-it note.

PPS: There’s amazing stuff stored in the subflooring. I recommend gently peeling off some carpet squares, removing some floating floor tiles and exploring. I left you a circuit board that Andy Lippman claims to have wired by hand. Watch out for mice.

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#iftheygunnedmedown Six Years Later, and Just as Vital – an interview with activist C.J. Lawrence

My new book, Mistrust: Why Losing Faith In Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them, comes out from W.W. Norton this November. In it, I share the stories of dozens of activists who are finding new ways to make social change even when many of the institutions appear to be failing us. Just as I was turning my final draft over to my copy editor, I heard from C.J. Lawrence, an activist I deeply admire for his Twitter campaign, #iftheygunnedmedown.

In the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, C.J. asked his Twitter followers, “Which photo does the media use if the police shot me down? #IfTheyGunnedMeDown” It was accompanied with two photos. In one photo he’s wearing a graduation gown, speaking at a podium to an audience that includes a laughing Bill Clinton, and another in which he’s wearing sunglasses and holding a bottle of Hennessy cognac. The message was simple: how the media chooses to represent Black men – in this case, a young man who had been killed by the police – matters, and affects the safety of Black people everywhere.

#iftheygunnedmedown went viral, and thousands of people posted their own pairings of photos, taken from their social media feeds, much as media outlets were publishing photos of Michael Brown taken from his Facebook feed. What impressed me the most was its efficacy. A photo of Michael Brown standing on his front stoop, scowling and flashing a peace sign (which many misread as a gang sign) was the dominant photo of the victim online when C.J. started his campaign; after the campaign was reported on in outlets like the New York Times, journalists began using different photos of Brown, primarily one in his graduation gown.

The images we use to portray victims of crimes may seem like a minor detail. It’s not. Racism in America is reinforced every day in how Black and Brown people are portrayed in words and images. In this interview, C.J. explains why it was so important to fight images with images, and why the success of #iftheygunnedmedown changed his approach as an activist and led him to found Black With No Chaser, an activist news outlet focused on racial justice.

We spoke on May 30, 2020, days after George Floyd had been asphyxiated by a Minneapolis police officer, and as people around the country were coming out of COVID-19 quarantine and out in the streets in an uprising against police misconduct and abuse of Black and Brown communities. As I was editing our conversation to post today, C.J. reminded me over Twitter that all too often photos of a Black victim are the moments when Black people appear in the newspapers. We need to work not only to end systemic racism and overpolicing that lead to deaths like George Floyd’s, but to transform our culture so we see our Black and Brown brothers and sisters every day, not just at moments of tragedy.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Ethan Zuckerman:
I have been teaching your work, actually, for years now. I’ve probably given 40 or 50 lectures where I’ve used #iftheygunnedmedown as a central example. And I have to say, I’m just heartbroken that we’re back here again, talking about some of the same issues.
The reason I teach that example is that I felt like you took on a way that the media often frames the death of black men, which is that a black man must be a thug in waiting. That every black male is somehow a dangerous individual and that somehow violence is always understandable. And as a result, we end up with an epidemic of the death of black men.
And I thought that your gesture was the beginning of a way of changing social attitudes that I actually use as an example of how people are using media to build movements. So, first of all, thank you. It is a pleasure to get to talk to you. What was going through your head those days immediately after Mike Brown?

C.J. Lawrence:
I guess for just a little backstory first. And I’ll say thank you to you for continuing to teach and spread the message of #iftheygunnedmedown. I think that it’s important. I also appreciate your acknowledgement, because that’s not something that has happened a lot of times. I know that #iftheygunnedmedown is being taught a lot around the country, but it’s rare that many of the teachers of the campaign have reached out to the creator to have a frame of reference with regard to that.

So I do appreciate you reaching out to me, Ethan. With regard to my sentiments, I would have to take it back a little further than Mike Brown to Trayvon Martin, the impetus for where this really started with me. And simply looking at the assassination of his character during the George Zimmerman trial. The fact that it was highlighted that he once smoked marijuana in eighth grade.

That somehow a situation where a strange man with a gun could follow a child with that gun at night, in the dark, and somehow a jury could be more fixated with the fear of the strange man with the gun than they could be of the child. So it was really a psychoanalysis beginning there of, how could a jury of Trayvon’s “peers” somehow find themselves more aligned and empathetic with the position of the man following with a gun than of the other fears of the boy who literally said to his friend that this person is creepy to me.

And the only thing that I could reconcile is that people who are not in proximity to you, who are only exposed to you through media consumption and things of that nature would have to begin to form those opinions based on that perception that began to be developed. It was then furthered during the situation. And so full disclosure, I marched for the Trayvon rallies. I was in Sanford, Florida. We were down there on the City Hall steps demanding that simply for George Zimmerman to be arrested.

So this is something that has been brewing inside of me for quite some time. The Michael Brown incident happens and I literally see a tweet of Michael Brown’s dead body on the ground. A photo of it floating around is jarring, but that the tweet that is attached to this photo states, “Looking at him, laying on the ground with his pants sagging. I don’t feel sorry for him at all.” That coupled with the image that I began to see going around with the Nike jersey and a peace sign for me began to really just have me to make sense of again, how people’s minds were working around this issue.

At that point in time, I was trying to figure out a way. Because of what I was noticing in my own work as an attorney was a pattern of assassination of the body, a subsequent assassination of the character to justify the deaths or actions of armed men against unarmed boys, girls, and men and women.

Ethan Zuckerman:
So two things I just want to draw out of that, C.J.: The first is this idea that when George Zimmerman is finally charged in Trayvon Martin’s death, that somehow it’s easier for people to identify with his fear of an unarmed black man with a bag of Skittles and iced tea than it is for us to identify with Trayvon, who is wondering what this creepy dude with the gun is doing. That’s some serious societal construction of racism. And then you’re drawing that out further and saying, look, as an attorney in court, I’m watching physical actions taken against black men. When someone’s held accountable for it, it comes down to this sort of justification. That somehow if we can demonstrate that this person is a thug, is somehow living up to this dangerous stereotype, whether they were smoking marijuana, whether they were wearing their jeans bagging one way or another. And so it’s that sense of assassination of character leading to black men actually being a target of assassination.

What made you think about challenging this through imagery? Because I felt like imagery was the aspect of #iftheygunnedmedown where you were so effective in building a campaign. What made you think about images as the place for intervention around this?

C.J. Lawrence:
Well, again, I think that the image of Mike Brown on the ground, the statement of, “Look at him with his pants sagging,” Literally that they were more focused on his pants than the fact that this boy’s brains were on the ground in a photograph.

The questions began to resonate in my mind that, how are people being convinced that the prey is the predator? How is it that people are seeing the gazelle as the lion and the lion as the gazelle? How is it that they’re able to be convinced of that? And then I decided that it has to be directly attached to appearance

Because for me, as you can see how I’m dressed right now, [C.J. was wearing a black hoodie] I’m dressed how Trayvon was dressed. And this is how I dress. You know what I mean? This is me on a normal basis. When I’m not in a courtroom, I’m usually in a hoodie or athletic wear or something like that.

So I began to think about, what type of social commentary can be jarring to the extent that we can begin to challenge the narrative, that whether I look one way or the other, you cannot capture or embody who I am as a human being on a snapshot, one way or the other. For me, the picture that I wound up choosing as the “bad picture” was actually one that it was the worst picture of me I could find it.

It was Halloween and I was making fun of Kanye West during the MTV Awards when he snatched the microphone from Taylor Swift. The Hennessy bottle actually had tea in it. So I wasn’t even drinking alcohol. It was that juxtaposed against this black boy smiling with the former President of the United States in the background, speaking at his graduation.

The point was to disrupt people mentally. And I used the two most dramatic photos that I could find of me in order to challenge people to think about one way or the other when I can no longer tell my story to myself. But the media begins to take this red meat of racial violence against extra judicial killings and racial violence against young black men and women that results in this. How is the audience that is just beginning to hear my story going to be introduced to me?

Ethan Zuckerman:
I think that notion of that moment of introduction is so powerful. I mean, that’s what happens in these horrific moments. Law enforcement, or in the case of Trayvon Martin, a vigilante, is making decisions through some combination of what they see, with this really thick lens of bias and social construction. We’ve been taught for generations that black men are dangerous and that somehow, as you said, the gazelle is the lion. I don’t know a lot of people who feel particularly comfortable when they’re stopped by the police, and certainly it’s a much more serious issue for people of color. But there is always an immediate power dynamic and it’s hard to understand how someone who is armed, who is in that position of power suddenly feels like they are threatened. I’m thinking Tamir Rice, I’m thinking of a 12-year-old boy, and what is it that’s gone so wrong in individual minds and in societal minds that turns that immediate first impression into something so different.

One of the things that you did so incredibly with #ifthey gunnedmedown is you built a participatory meme. Anybody could jump in and do it. There were some ill-advised white teenagers who did it, but there were many, many more very thoughtful people of color who picked it up and ran with it, including this extraordinary photo of a U.S. Marine in full dress gear and paired with an image of him flipping off the camera. Did you know that participation was going to be a piece of it? Was this your statement? Did you think about the remix?

C.J. Lawrence:
When I say, “Yes, let’s do that,” my intention was that people would participate. I had no idea that people would participate to the extent that they ultimately wound up participating, because you just never know with these things. But the fact that it took off the way that it did was truly powerful. Some of the images and juxtapositions that we got the chance to see were truly amazing to see.

Ethan Zuckerman:
Do you have a favorite?

C.J. Lawrence:
I have a few that I really like. I do like the one with the Marine flipping off the camera. I like the one of another military brother that was in the military reading to children. I believe it was reading to children in one and in the other I forget what they were doing. But that was an image that I found pretty incredible. There are so many, and it’s been a while now that I don’t recall them all. But those two definitely immediately come to mind as some of the first ones that really took it to another level. It was interesting to start seeing even celebrity types either participate in it or retweet it and things like that. So that was interesting as well.

Ethan Zuckerman:
How do you think it spread?

C.J. Lawrence:
Black Twitter. Our Black Twitter is strong. And as you probably see from following me, I am part of that. You know what I mean? I distinctively remember Reagan Gomez being one of the people who retweeted it and her having a pretty significant following. And Jeffrey Wright from Westworld was one that retweeted it; he may even have participated.

When those two retweeted it, it began to catch a fire. And I think that that’s one of the true powers of Twitter, is really about sparking conversations and about average everyday people being able to connect with these larger networks and something truly becoming an avalanche of social commentary against a multitude of things.

I think that it was just right on time, because all of us were feeling rowdiness from seeing Michael Brown’s body on the ground. Ferguson had not even really become Ferguson yet, at the time that we tweeted this out. They were saying Michael Brown’s name, but it was not “hashtag Ferguson”.

It was literally just us still trying to make sense of what had occurred. This was within the first one or two days after Michael Brown had been shot. But I followed quite a few people from the St. Louis area and they were talking about him. So the natural thing was to go and try to see what it was that was going on. And when I saw it, it was a lot. And so that was my way of responding.

Ethan Zuckerman:
Have you built other meme campaigns before? I mean, this was a very personal expression that turned into a meme through amplification. You’re now complementing your legal work with activist and media work through your firm “Black With No Chaser.” Have you sort of moved into the meme engineering space? How are you thinking about that as far as the media you’re making as a form of activism?

C.J. Lawrence:
So just full disclosure, I’ve been involved in activism for a long time, even before Twitter. Jena Six, the Scott sisters here in Jackson, Mississippi; Edward Johnson, who was a young boy was lynched in 2000 in Columbia, Mississippi. So for me, my upbringing is deeply rooted in activism. I would speak about civil rights issues and speak out on these issues and write about these issues all the time before #iftheygunnedmedown.

But I had never attempted to do anything like this campaign before #iftheygunnedmedown. As a result of the meme and the subsequent chain of events that occurred, an indictment by the media subsequently challenged the media to hold itself accountable in these narratives. That was amazing.

When I saw that result, I certainly saw a need for narratives to be controlled by the people that are most impacted by those narratives. I saw a responsibility to not let the power of something like #iftheygunnedmedown die. And I saw that other people were embracing the power of #. And so I kind of became okay with it, even if it was my baby, being something that as long as other people were being responsible with and challenging others with, not feeling the need to hold on to it in that way.

Instead, I was feeling the need to continue the fight towards controlling our narratives, to fighting for Black people, Brown people, underserved people and marginalized people. And Black With No Chaser ( is really the child of #iftheygunnedmedown and the social commentary that began to come out of that space.

Ethan Zuckerman:
So it’s been really transformative for you. Are you still practicing law?

C.J. Lawrence:
I do practice. I still am an attorney, and I do practice law. But what I found is that my desire with Black With No Chaser is to do social advocacy in addition to media. I found that I could do more and impact more by being someone who took on issues in a broad sense and began to become more focused with it like a top down approach, rather than being an individual case work. Individual case where it can be frustrating. It was something that I was good at, both litigation and trial court, but it was something that was highly stressful to me. Black With No Chaser is something that I find enjoying even in the hard days.

Ethan Zuckerman:
Were you doing criminal law?

C.J. Lawrence:

I was doing criminal and civil rights. As you know, those are both two really difficult places to be in, both as an attorney in the South in Mississippi, but also as a Black man, experiencing and seeing your people herded in the court daily like cattle and literally seeing that disproportionate number of people in community in the criminal justice system.

We make up 13% of the population, but 80% of the courtroom, and that’s a very frustrating thing. I wasn’t representing everybody in court that day. And I was beginning to say, how can I do more for the 80% of the people that are in here? Because they would see me fighting for my client in the courtroom. Sometimes I would win, sometimes I wouldn’t, but I would always fight as hard as I possibly could for the people. And by the time I leave, the 75% of the people that weren’t represented by me in that courtroom will be trying to see if I could help them. And just emotionally I couldn’t, physically I couldn’t, for so many reasons I couldn’t. I was trying to figure out, what more could I do?

Ethan Zuckerman:
How does Black With No Chaser help you do that?

C.J. Lawrence:
Black With No Chaser is an unapologetic black platform that is designed at amplifying like voices, literally creating safe spaces for us to begin to tell our stories, control our narratives. We’re not a traditional media in the sense that we stick strictly to journalistic principles like objectivity. We’re willing to go places that some media outlets aren’t willing to go, but we’re also willing to become involved in ways that traditional media outlets aren’t always involved. I believe that investigative journalism can be activism, but we literally get out in the streets with the people who are protesting.
We broke the story of what was occurring in Parchman Prison ( It went national. We saw the type of power that we could have with this type of coverage. And so we ran with that. But in addition to that, we were out there on the front lines and helping to advance the policy side of things as it relates to prison reform and decarceration.

The goal of Black With No Chaser is to be an all-encompassing media outlet, social advocacy space, and consulting space to help others to learn how to utilize social media and other mediums to advance advocacy. But we help a lot of black businesses use these techniques as well.

Ethan Zuckerman:
Is the focus primarily Mississippi? Is it primarily Jackson? Is it nationwide?

C.J. Lawrence:
Black With No Chaser has a global reach. We reach about 15 million people a month across platforms. So between Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, our website, and YouTube, we can reach normally around 15 million people a month. We have about 500,000 followers across those platforms.

As for the geographic scope: To be honest, what I thought about Mississippi is sometimes Mississippi doesn’t always know the power of what it has in state sometimes until it’s recognized out of state. Almost the same way with #ifyougunnedmedown, if you will. I mean, it was the national media reached out to me before the local media with #ifyougunnedmedown.

Ethan Zuckerman:
It makes a lot of sense. So we’re having this conversation on a very tough day. We’re a couple of days beyond the killing of George Floyd, by police officer Derek Chauvin, who has just been indicted for a third degree murder, a second degree manslaughter.
We’ve seen activism on the streets. We’ve seen President Trump threatening to shoot people for looting. We’ve seen Minnesota call out its National Guard. And of course, we’ve got this all on the backdrop of a global pandemic where police reactions to armed white protestors demanding to go get a haircut is a very different reaction to what we’re seeing to Black, Brown people and their allies, going out in the streets to demand their rights. What do we do?

C.J. Lawrence:
Ethan, that’s a great question. What I would say is that what we’re seeing with regard to the responses, that Trump’s statements evoked Governor George Wallace’s type statements to me or Bull Connor statements when I hear them, or even here in Mississippi with Ross Barnett during the desegregation of Ole Miss. The thing that’s frustrating to witness is that we see that much of what has been happening historically is continuing to happen as far as the powers that be are concerned.

But we also understand that in many ways, the response of an Amy Cooper to a Christian Cooper in Central Park is one that goes directly towards what we are speaking of, you and I, as it relates to #iftheygunnedmedown, the way that police are responding to Black people in the streets who are breaking windows, but not taking lives.

Some are outraged at the notion that someone could break or take something from Target, but not outraged as it relates to someone taking the life of George Floyd. It was Dr. King that said a riot is the language of the unheard. I call it an uprising or a revolt.
What we’re seeing right now are the raw emotions of the combination of being caged inside for three months, some even longer, from quarantine and the psychological impact that that can have on us as human beings, coupled with, in that time, witnessing the death of Ahmed Aubrey, Briana Taylor’s life being taken during a 1:00 AM no-knock raid and her boyfriend subsequently being arrested for attempting to defend her life when he didn’t know who these intruders in their home were. To Christian Cooper, to George Floyd, seeing all of these things back to back to back, in addition to being basically in our own types of solitary confinement, with no disrespect to those who are actually incarcerated currently and are suffering in those conditions. I think that what we’re saying is a natural powder keg that was always going to explode. Or as Malcom X said, “This is the chickens coming home to roost.”

Ethan Zuckerman:

And of course, with COVID-19, this is a disease that we’ve seen disproportionately affect Black and Brown people. When we see people not taking precautions, not wearing a mask, they may not be the ones who are most affected by the disease. In many cases, the people who may be affected are people who are doing low wage work, who are essential workers, and particularly incarcerated people, where we’ve seen in some prisons up to three quarters of people infected with this disease. It feels in some way like this lifting of the lockdown has some of the disrespect for human life writ large that I think we’re also seeing as far as disrespect for individual lives.

C.J. Lawrence:
Right. In a lot of ways, we’re being told we don’t value your life, and that we value green more than we value Black and Brown. The moment that it was discovered that this mostly impacts Black and Brown people, native people, indigenous people, this is when the narrative began to change and it was like, “Oh, well, it’s time to open back up.”
You imagine being Black or Brown, Muslim in this country right now and Donald Trump is your president. 41 million people are unemployed. You are being killed. You are being stopped and profiled. You are struggling economically. You don’t have access to healthcare in the event that you do get sick.

You’ve seen people throw caution to the wind in a lot of ways, because when you literally are fighting for your life, then perhaps it doesn’t really matter how you die, whether it’s COVID-19 or police. I am literally fighting to not drown at this point. And so I’m thrashing.
When you asked the question, where do we go from here? I believe that there has to be accountability. I saw that Target came out and made a statement. It wasn’t a lecture to the people who were a part of the uprising. I think it’s important for corporations that are couched in communities like Minneapolis to take a position on issues like this, because ultimately they’re going to suffer if the community suffers.

Yesterday the autopsy comes out and suggests Floyd’s death was accidental. Anybody who had the stomach to be able to witness the seven minutes or eight minutes that Derek Chauvin had his knee on the neck of George Floyd as people pleaded with him, as Floyd pleased himself to be released, to be told that this was an accidental death when we saw the life leave his body, is to basically be pissed on and told it is raining.

I think people are tired of that. I think that America has to become real with itself about what it is, just like any of us do. Anytime we are attempting to improve ourselves, we have to do some soul searching. And that soul searching begins with us being honest with ourselves about who we are and who we are trying to be.

We continue to convince ourselves that we are who we say we are. Tupac said America eats its babies, and that’s a true statement. America eats its babies, and right now it doesn’t treat us as its babies. But America created this environment, this climate. It imposed these conditions through redlining, gerrymandering and so many other policies that are still being perpetuated today.

Ethan Zuckerman:
Hundreds of years of bureaucratic violence as well as physical violence. C.J., one thing I noticed was you mentioned that Target made a statement about the uprising. Nowhere in here have we talked about any hope of changing Trump’s mind. I’ve noticed that as an activist, you’re focusing on the media, you’re thinking about corporations and other institutions. It doesn’t sound like you’re as focused on government. And this is something that I’m finding with a lot of the activists that I’m talking to, is that my impression is that people are moving whatever lever they feel like that can move. And that if it’s the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas school pressuring Dick’s Sporting Goods not to carry assault rifles anymore because they can’t get the Florida legislature to listen to them. We move what levers we can move. Does that sound accurate to you? And as someone who is part of the civil rights movement of our time, what are the other differences that you see in sort of our movement now versus the one Martin and Malcolm led in the 1960s?

C.J. Lawrence:
A fight for your life is a fight by any means necessary. Martin, Malcolm, Medgar, Rosa, Harriet, we can go on and on. I see all of them as revolutionary leaders. I’m not one that pits one’s philosophies or ideologies against the other.

Chokwe Lumumba is our mayor here in Jackson. He’s my former law partner. So I know that I have an ally there. Jackson is a very unique city: we’re the second blackest city in the country. It’s very different experience here than what a lot of people are experiencing outside this city. But we’ve got [Governor] Tate Reeves in power, who is one of the most staunch Trump acolytes. Those feelings that you experience with Trump are being compounded. And you have a state legislature and a state Senate that… well, just imagine a bunch of Mitch McConnells being your state legislature. When you understand that that’s the case, then you understand that you have to fight by whichever means you can and however you can.

To be totally honest with you, one of the purposes of building up platforms like Black With No Chaser and amplifying voices and becoming more powerful in our own right. Being more visible and more present and having a louder voice is for the purpose of being able to command the respect that’s necessary. I want politicians to know if they’re in a room with me or anyone, if they had a moment with me and I’m the CEO of Black With No Chaser, then I have the ability to snap my fingers like this, and what you see in Minnesota, what you see in Louisville, what you see in Columbus, what you see in Atlanta can happen.

And it’s not for the purpose of intimidation, but it’s important when we talk about our Malcolms, our Medgars, our Martins, our Hueys, to understand that the one thing that they all had was something behind them. When they were in the room with white men and women who would not otherwise respect anything that they had to say, they respected it because of who and how many were behind them and what they were willing to do when those men and women said it’s time to do that.

During the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s, you had the Black Power movement. You had the Civil Rights movement. You had the Malcolm X and the nation of Islam movement. You had the Freedom Riders. You had so many different things taking place at once that you could find a way to begin fighting towards the same struggle, even if you were fighting different ways.

I think it was necessary to have a Martin speaking in the way that he was about economic justice, about inclusion, and necessary to have a Malcolm who was speaking on self-defense and self-determination. Because to me, they were both fighting for the same things, and that was for black people to have both the autonomy to exist in this world and in this country, and for us to have the ability to truly rise in this place.

Ethan Zuckerman:
You had the Black Panthers building an alternative system and essentially saying, if we’re not going to have social services in Oakland, if no one’s going to supervise the police, if no one’s going to provide healthcare…

C.J. Lawrence:

Yeah, we’re going to provide our own services. And I think that’s where a lot of us are coming back to. I think that social media and technology has helped to transform the way in which we fight. The iPhone has changed the game with our abilities. Again, Twitter and Facebook. Not so much Facebook anymore.

Some of these spaces like YouTube have given us the opportunity to be able to have these conversations differently. A lot of times in the past we’ve utilized social media passively. I think we’re beginning to utilize it actively, and not just with hashtags, but with actual action. My dream one day is to literally have a community of black and Brown folk allies from everywhere convening and conversing about moving policy right there on Twitter. I believe that’s possible. Whether it’s policy that is implemented outside of the federal government, policy that is adopted by local or state Government, what’s key is that it’s policy that allows us to begin to build systems. System building is the next stage in the state of things for black people, not just organizations. We need new systems in place to advance as a people and to have transferable power from one generation to the next.

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Next steps

Thrilled to be announcing a big next step: I will be joining the faculty of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst this coming year, and launching a new research center. My friends at UMass have created a unique position for me. I will be an associate professor of public policy, communication and information, with my tenure home in public policy, but teaching in all three departments. My first class at UMass will be in the spring of 2021, the Fixing Social Media class I’ve been teaching this semester at MIT.

In addition to teaching and advising students, I am launching a new research center at UMass Amherst, the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure. DPI will be exploring the idea that the digital services we rely on – social networks, search, media hosting – might serve us better as citizens if they were public services and not for-profit corporations. Think of it as a project designed to see whether the platforms we rely on could be made more like Wikipedia and like public broadcasting, and less rooted in the surveillance economy. I’ve written about this idea here and here, and will be writing lots more in the next few months.

I am grateful to my friends at UMass Amherst who’ve been wonderfully creative in recruiting and welcoming me to their home during a difficult time for all of us. I just met many of my colleagues via a Zoom faculty meeting today, and I completed my interview process virtually – it helps that I have lived in western Massachusetts since 1989 and know the Pioneer Valley well. I am hugely looking forward to seeing my new colleagues in person, whenever such thing becomes feasible.

I am also grateful to MIT, the Media Lab and the program in Comparative Media Studies and Writing for giving me a great environment in which to work, teach and learn over the past nine years. The years at MIT have helped me discover who I want to be as a teacher and as a researcher, and I am grateful to everyone who’s been a student at Center for Civic Media, taken or taught a class with me, or supported our work. Civic alumni are now teaching at remarkable universities around the world, and leading great research focused on civic media and the relationship between technology and social change – I am glad to join their ranks as a Civic alum.

Lots more to tell as the new work begins. I’m grateful for the opportunity and excited for new challenges.

Posted in Media Lab, Personal, UMass | 2 Comments

Digital Public Infrastructure… and a few words in defense of optimism

My friends at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia have just published a new paper from me on the topic of digital public infrastructures. This is an idea I started talking about in an article for the Columbia Journalism Review late last year, and presented at a terrific conference called “The Tech Giants, Monopoly Power, and Public Discourse”.

Panel at Columbia where I presented the abstract of the paper, November 2019

The paper is not a quick read – it’s about 11,000 words – so I’ll offer a quick TL:DR; here:

– Social media is often not very good for us as citizens in a democracy. That shouldn’t surprise us, as it wasn’t designed to be a space for civic discourse – it was designed to capture our attention and our personal data for use in targeting ads.

– If we wanted media that was good for democratic societies, we’d need to build tools expressly designed for those goals.

– Those tools probably won’t make money, and won’t challenge Facebook’s dominance. That’s okay. The current state of the online world is the result of market failure: there’s tools and services we need for a democratic society to function that markets won’t pay for, which means we need to decide to pay for those services via taxpayer dollars or voluntary contributions.

– There’s a lot to be learned from the history of public media – specifically the formation of the BBC in the 1920s and NPR in the 1970s – that should inform our thinking about digital public infrastructure. Specifically, they invite us to think about what we want new technologies to do for us as a society.

– While there are great models for digital public infrastructure in projects like Mozilla and Wikipedia – and arguably, open source software as a whole – there’s lots of key infrastructures we need, including social media platforms designed to encourage discussion between people who disagree with one another; ad networks that focus on context, not surveillance of users; search engines designed for transparency and auditability. We also need a set of tools that help us study the civic, social and psychological effects of these new platforms as well as existing platforms.

– One way we could get there is by taxing surveillant advertising, both as a way of discouraging the business model and raising money. The funds raised could go towards national projects focused on innovation around digital public infrastructures.

That’s the jist of it, though the whole paper includes some great historical tidbits from the 1910s (a phenomenally cool moment in time) and Taylor Swift makes an appearance in the footnotes. So read the whole thing if that sounds like your idea of an enjoyable long read.

Much as I’ve spent the last several years thinking about civic media and the ways making and disseminating media can be a way of making social change – my new book, tentatively titled “Mistrust” comes out this fall and provides an overview of that work – I’m hoping digital public infrastructure will be a major focus of my work for the next five to ten years. I’m teaching a new course this spring at MIT called “Fixing Social Media”, which is an attempt to get some of the smart folks in and around Cambridge thinking about what better models for social media might be. And I’m in the early stages of planning a conference to convene some of the remarkable people out there trying new models for building digital platforms.

Some early reactions to the paper have commented on its optimism. I feel oddly defensive about that word. In the community of folks who study the internet and society, optimism is often seen as a naïve and insufficiently critical stance. Indeed, some of the best work in our field is profoundly critical of existing systems It’s my hope that this criticism informs and improves new work in the world of technology. I hope that anyone designing technologies for government services reads Virginia Eubanks, that anyone designing algorithmic decisionmaking systems reads Cathy O’Neil, that anyone working on moderation reads Mary Gray and Siddarth Suri. But I also hope that people keep designing new systems, rather than accepting the bad, broken ones we’re stuck with today.

One of the great benefits of teaching at an engineering school for the past eight years has been the inexhaustable energy of young people convinced that their energy and expertise can change the world. As someone who teaches about the negative social and environmental consequences of technologies, I often feel like my work in complicating people’s hopes for technology is the process of crushing people’s dreams. And honestly, that sort of imagination – tempered by the critical lessons we’ve learned thus far about digital media – is what we need to work towards futures better than the dystopian, Black Mirror ones we too often seem to be living through these days.

So, inasmuch as imagining futures beyond our crappy present is optimism, I’m guilty as charged. But there’s nothing wrong with working to imagine and build better systems so long as we understand that what we build won’t necessarily be better because it’s new, and almost certainly won’t work in all the ways we expect. Core to the argument of this paper is that we need to recognize that the ways the world works today are not inevitable, that the realities we face are the product of political and economic systems, and that those systems won’t change without a conscious effort to put something better in that place.

Looking forward to your thoughts, reactions, criticisms and imaginings, optimistic or otherwise.

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Whose deaths matter? New research on Black Lives Matter and media attention

What influences do social movements like Black Lives Matter, MeToo or Occupy have on society as a whole?

One hope movement leaders express is that a successful movement can change how we think and talk about key social issues. Champions of Occupy argue that one of the movement’s achievements was getting Americans to talk about economic issues in terms of inequality and the power of the 1%. But it’s difficult to quantify claims like this: how do we know when language, news coverage and public dialog about an issue shifts?

There’s excellent work already done in this field with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). Deen Freelon and colleagues have examined the relationship between BLM’s use of twitter and media coverage of police brutality. To further investigate these approaches, my colleagues and I have just published a paper – Whose Death Matters? A Quantitative Analysis of Media Attention to Deaths of Black Americans in Police Confrontations, 2013–2016 – in the International Journal of Communications. Our paper examines coverage of individual police-involved deaths and the following media coverage. We used the Media Cloud toolkit to examine US media coverage of 343 deaths between 2013 and 2016: deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the police. By analyzing the attention US media outlets paid to these deaths, we were able to describe a “media wave” of attention to the phenomenon of police violence affecting Black Americans. Critical to this wave of attention was the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the police and community’s reaction to his death.

The period of time we studied includes the deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice and others who’ve sadly become household names. Implicit in our study is the question, “Why did these deaths gain attention when so many other deaths of black people are ignored?” Data compiled by Fatal Encounters, which tracks police-involved deaths, saw a slight decrease in these deaths during the years we studied, and Frank Edwards used data from the National Vital Statistics System to demonstrate that black men and boys are almost three times as likely as white men and boys to die in an encounter with police. The danger and injustice of death from a police encounter isn’t new, though the attention paid to these deaths after Michael Brown’s death was.

Before Michael Brown’s death in August 2014, a 33-year-old Black man killed by police in a city with the median population had, on average, a 39.34% chance of having at least one article published about him. In our data, after Brown’s death, a similar person had a 64.25% chance of his death being covered by the media. Not only were deaths more likely to be covered at all, they were more likely to be covered in detail, as the chart above – which measures total sentences in the media about a specific death – demonstrates. Because Media Cloud lets us analyze the content of a story, we were also able to demonstrate that before Michael Brown’s death, only 2% of stories about a victim of police violence included mention of another victim. After Brown’s death, 21% of stories mention another victim, suggesting that stories were no longer treating the death of unarmed Black people in police encounters as tragic, isolated instances but as part of an ongoing pattern.

Unfortunately, our data shows that this news wave crested roughly a year after Brown’s death, and that by the end of our study, media (in)attention to Black deaths was at the same level in late 2016 as it was in early 2013. We examined the sharing of these articles on Facebook and found a less pronounced drop-off in attention – we see the wave crest and ebb, but levels in 2016 have not dropped to the 2013 levels, which suggests that there is still a social media audience willing to amplify these stories, even when the stories are less numerous. However, we found that the framing effects we found persisted: stories at the end of our study period were much more likely to mention multiple victims than at the beginning of the period, suggesting that these deaths continue to be understood as part of a pattern.

Our paper does not demonstrate that Black Lives Matter was primarily responsible for this shift in media coverage. In examining media coverage of the BLM movement, we found that BLM received the most media attention in the context of Micah Xavier Johnson, a Black man who killed five Dallas police officers. Johnson was incorrectly linked to Black Lives Matter – he was briefly a member of the New Black Panther Party’s Houston chapter, but the organization threw him out because of his extreme views. Still, Johnson’s concerns for police violence against Black people led many media organizations to frame the Dallas police officer’s death as a possible consequence of the BLM movement.

However, because the movement helped lift up a narrative that connected individual events into a broader story of racism and its dangerous effects, it’s reasonable to connect this news wave with the movement’s efforts. At the same time, the wave of news likely helped Black Lives Matter gain attention and prominence – the relationship between the news wave and the movement was likely reciprocal. One implication of our research is that these news waves represent an opportunity for social movement leaders to introduce new narratives into media coverage. When journalists compete to cover the same story, there’s a competition to cover the same facts in a new and interesting way. Understanding Walter Scott’s murder by officer Michael Slager not just as a horrific instance of police brutality but as part of a larger, nationwide narrative of a crisis in policing gave journalists a chance to distinguish their stories and movement leaders a chance to reframe the story.

My hope is that our research offers both an opportunity to understand how media attention can move in waves, and how social movements might harness and benefit from those waves. My suspicion is that we are seeing similar dynamics around MeToo, where stories about sexual harassment are being understood as part of a broader social trend to condemn unacceptable behavior… but where attention to sexual harassment is also encouraging more women (and men) to tell their stories. Media attention feeds movements, and movements drive media attention. It’s hard to replicate this specific study with MeToo – thanks to efforts from The Guardian, The Washington Post, Mapping Polive Violence, and others, we have a fairly comprehensive database of people killed by police, and no similar database of sexual harassment exists. But the methods we outline here, of examining media coverage before, during and after a social movement, should be applicable elsewhere.

This research would not have been possible without the incredible efforts of my colleagues. Rahul Bhargava helped us refactor Media Cloud to make it possible to count and compare coverage of hundreds of different people, a usage we never considered when the tool was initially built. Allan Ko worked tireless on the challenging task of crafting searches for each of the victims and cleaning our data. Nathan Matias did the statistical analysis to give us confidence in our findings, and Fernando Bermejo offered the communication scholarship that helped us contextualize our findings within broader thinking about news agendas. I’m immensely grateful to be able to work with such thoughtful, passionate and compassionate people.

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On me, and the Media Lab

(Please be sure to read the addendum at the end of this post.)

A week ago last Friday, I spoke to Joi Ito about the release of documents that accuse Media Lab co-founder Marvin Minsky of involvement in Jeffrey Epstein’s horrific crimes.* Joi told me that evening that the Media Lab’s ties to Epstein went much deeper, and included a business relationship between Joi and Epstein, investments in companies Joi’s VC fund was supporting, gifts and visits by Epstein to the Media Lab and by Joi to Epstein’s properties. As the scale of Joi’s involvement with Epstein became clear to me, I began to understand that I had to end my relationship with the MIT Media Lab. The following day, Saturday the 10th, I told Joi that I planned to move my work out of the MIT Media Lab by the end of this academic year, May 2020.

My logic was simple: the work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view. It’s hard to do that work with a straight face in a place that violated its own values so clearly in working with Epstein and in disguising that relationship.

I waited until Thursday the 15th for Joi’s apology to share the information with my students, staff, and a few trusted friends. My hope was to work with my team, who now have great uncertainty about their academic and professional futures, before sharing that news widely. I also wrote notes of apology to the recipients of the Media Lab Disobedience Prize, three women who were recognized for their work on the #MeToo in STEM movement. It struck me as a terrible irony that their work on combatting sexual harassment and assault in science and tech might be damaged by their association with the Media Lab. The note I sent to those recipients made its way to the Boston Globe, which ran a story about it this evening. And so, my decision to leave the Media Lab has become public well before I had intended it to.

That’s okay. I feel good about my decision, and I’m hoping my decision can open a conversation about what it’s appropriate for people to do when they discover the institution they’ve been part of has made terrible errors. My guess is that the decision is different for everyone involved. I know that some friends are committed to staying within the lab and working to make it a better, fairer and more transparent place, and I will do my best to support them over the months I remain at the Lab. For me, the deep involvement of Epstein in the life of the Media Lab is something that makes my work impossible to carry forward there.**

To clarify a couple of things, since I haven’t actually been able to control the release of information here:

– I am not resigning because I had any involvement with Epstein. Joi asked me in 2014 if I wanted to meet Epstein, and I refused and urged him not to meet with him. We didn’t speak about Epstein again until last Friday.

– I don’t have another university that I’m moving to or another job offer. I just knew that I couldn’t continue the work under the Media Lab banner. I’ll be spending much of this year – and perhaps years to come – seeing if there’s another place to continue this work. Before I would commit to moving the work elsewhere at MIT, I would need to understand better whether the Institute knew about the relationship with Epstein and whether they approved of his gifts.

– I’m not leaving tomorrow. That wouldn’t be responsible – I have classes I am committed to teaching and students who are finishing their degrees. I plan to leave at the end of this academic year.

– My first priority is taking care of my students and staff, who shouldn’t have to suffer because Joi made a bad decision and I decided I couldn’t live with it. My second priority is to help anyone at the Media Lab who wants to turn this terrible situation into a chance to make the Lab a better place. That includes Joi, if he’s able to do the work necessary to transform the Media Lab into a place that’s more consistent with its stated values.

I’m aware of the privilege*** that it’s been to work at a place filled with as much creativity and brilliance as the Media Lab. But I’m also aware that privilege can be blinding, and can cause people to ignore situations that should be simple matters of right and wrong. Everyone at the Media Lab is going through a process of figuring out how they should react to the news of Epstein and his engagement with the Lab. I hope that everyone else gets to do it first with their students and teams before doing it in the press.

Addendum, August 21, 2019:

* A friend of Marvin Minsky’s objected to this sentence opening this post, noting that Marvin, who died in 2016, cannot respond to these accusations. While that is true, the accusations made by Virginia Giuffre are a matter of public record and have been widely reported. I mention these accusations both because they were what motivated me to speak with Joi about Epstein and, more importantly, because unanswered questions about Minsky are part of the horror of this situation for some of my colleagues at the Media Lab. To be clear, I have no knowledge of whether any of these charges are true – they happened long before my time at the Media Lab.

I changed the word “implicate” to “accuse” as a result and added “of involvement” before the phrase about Epstein’s crimes.

** My original version of this post had two additional sentences here, describing my dismay about the implications of the Epstein revelations for one of my students and her research. She is not ready to talk about that subject, and I’ve withdrawn those sentences at her request.

*** A friend pointed out that I was able to choose to step away from the Media Lab because of my privilege: I’ve got money in the bank, I’ve got a supportive partner, I am at a stage of my career where I can reasonably believe I’ll find another high prestige job, I’m a cis-gendered straight white dude. She wanted me to be clearer about the fact that not everyone is going to be able to make the same decision I did.

She’s right. There are people who are going to remain working at the Media Lab because they sincerely believe that we finally have the opportunity to fix some of the deep structural problems of the place – I respect them and I will work hard to support them. But there’s also people who are going to continue at the lab because it’s the best opportunity they have to develop their own careers and reach a point where they’ve got more flexibility to make decisions like the one I made. I respect them too – they are the people doing the work that makes institutions work, but they rarely have the power to make decisions that steer an institution towards its values.

So thank you for all the kind words about bravery. Truth is I’m privileged enough to afford to be brave. For those of you who love the Media Lab and want to see it sail through these rough waters, please take time to reach out to people who may not be able to be as visible in their next steps. Make sure they’re doing okay. Support them whether their decision is to leave or to stay. So many of my colleagues at the Media Lab right now are hurting, and they need your support and love too. Hope we can redirect some of that love folks are sharing with me to them too.

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