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More notes from Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium

Some notes from day 2 of the Microsoft Research Social Media Symposium:

My attempts to transcribe Wael Abbas’s talk about media and protest in Egypt prior to the Arab Spring.

Becky Hurwitz has been active in the Occupy movement in New York City, and offered reflections on how Occupy is developing and testing technology for protest. She invites us to use the people’s mic, a technology created to ensure that participants in Occupy General Assemblies can hear speakers, despite police bans on amplification. We dutifully echo her in a mic check and in repeating a few words of her talk, one three word phrase at a time.

The people’s mic is effective and accessible – anybody can use it, regardless of whether you have technical expertise or money. It’s a rhetorical leveler – when you need to speak in three word phrases, you can’t dazzle people with complex arguments. It’s an empathic technology, she argues: you are asked to repeat things even when you disagree with them. And it allows processes to be collectively enforced – people who speak out of turn will cause the mic to fizzle out, as people refuse to amplify their statements.

Attempts to use different forms of amplification to share General Assemblies were often less successful than this simple, low-tech solution. A system allowed GAs to be simulcast in Spanish, and Becky tells us that it was useful, but was rented, expensive and ended up being discontinued once funding ran out. Attempts to broadcast proceedings on low-power FM were technically successful, but required a three person team to manage mics and transmitters. Attempts to stream via smartphone failed when it became many people didn’t have smart phones, didn’t want to listen to streamed audio for hours, and disliked the latency of streaming systems.

Other technologies have experienced stumbling blocks as well. The Tech Ops group at Wall Street has tracked media streams coming out of a thousand other Occupy movements. There are at least seven aggregators of these feeds, but they’re not very popular. It’s hard to follow the conversations taking place in other movements, and other than the effect of showing how widespread a movement is, it’s unclear that an aggregator is the best way to share this data.

She closes by examining technology developed to help people when they get arrested. Several smartphone applications have been designed to provide a “panic button” which sends a pre-programmed SMS when someone triggers the alert. The idea is that a person is supposed to press the button just before they are arrested, so allies can provide legal services. These systems have been obsoleted, Becky argues, by lawyers and sharpies. Lawyers shared the phone number of the National Legal Guild, and people wrote the numbers on their hands so they could call the service when they were put under arrest. And it turns out that yelling your name and birthdate to a lawyer standing by as you are arrested is really helpful, as those lawyers can act as witnesses to your arrest and testify in hopes of getting you released.

Development of technologies in a need-based space instead of a commercial space can follow an interesting trajectory – an idea that fails to get traction dies rapidly. In a commercial setting, you’d likely iterate and try to improve on a failed project. In non-commercial space, you rarely do. Becky wonders, “how do you commit to ideas without commercial reasons to explore and refine them?” Occupy raises other interesting questions as well: “How do you create end products that users can control, like the people’s mic, where people can turn off their amplifier when people defy process? How does occupy become a loud voice on existing platforms like Facebook, Twitter and people’s email inboxes?”

Zeynep Tufekci believes we’re seeing electronic communications usher in a moment where old power and new power are coming together. This syncretic power is complex and hard to understand, but we can think of it in terms of understanding who controls the power of attention.

In the Arab Spring, which she’s been studying closely, understanding the power of attention means looking at traditional media like Al Jazeera and the New York Times, at the algorithmic power of Twitter trending topics, at networked activists and their sympathizers, at new media curators and bridge figures, and at the network power of governments and political powers.

If we want to understand attention, we need to understand focusers, people capable of transferring lots of attention. We should look at the most linked users of Weibo, the thousands of followers of Wael Abbas’s Twitter account. These are some of the building blocks of a new filtering system. We’ve needed filters to cope with the massive amount of information created from well before the Internet. While Clay Shirky’s observation that we don’t have information overload, just filter failure, is legitimate, events like the Arab Spring give us a chance to better understand what’s powering these filters and how they work.

Zeynep tells us the story of Rami Jarrar, a Syrian dissident who tweeted under the pseudonym “AlexanderPageSY”. He’s a Syrian businessman who lived in Damascus and was educated in Britain. He writes about Syria in beautiful English, and under his pseudonym, became something of a spokesman for the anti-Assad movement in Syria. Zeynep identifies him as a bridge figure, but notes that he chose to tweet only in English, translating a great deal of Arabic content into English for non-Syrian audiences.

Somehow, his real identity was discovered. He got a phone call from someone sympathetic within the Assad government who warned him to flee immediately. He left within an hour with his wife and six-month old daughter, heading first to Lebanon and then to Cairo. He was likely one step ahead of arrest or death, Zeynep tells us, given the experience of other activists arrested by the regime.

The next chapter of Rami’s story came when he tried to travel to Doha, Qatar to attend a conference. On entering the country, the border guard decided that Rami’s passport was out of order and decided to deport him. Deportation doesn’t send you back to where you’d flown in from – Cairo – but to your home country. Rami tweeted about his predicament – he was about to be deported “home” to a country where he would likely be arrested, disappeared or killed due to an inflexible bureaucracy.

A 21st century network of concerned Twitter followers emerged to address the Kafkaesque 20th century problem of bureaucracy. But the solution was ultimately a 17th century one – A Syrian living in Lebanon, who tweets as @LeShaque, knew a sheik and was able to get him up in the middle of the night to intervene in the solution. “We needed a 17th century solution – a sheik – so we used a 21st century solution to get one.” This seems ironic. “We had mobilized Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Arabic, media people around the world, but the only guy who could actually get him out was a sheik.” Fortunately, the network found someone with the connections and the guts to call a Qatari sheik in the middle of the night and got him to intervene.

“The 21st century network worked until the last mile, but then we needed to reach old powers.” Media activism, Zeynep speculates, is most powerful when it hacks the system and contacts the old powers. She offers the similar example of Mona El Tahawy, arrested in Egypt. She tweeted about her arrest and activated a network, but ultimately, she was released from custody (where she’d been beaten and injured) because the Twitter network reached Anne Marie Slaughter, who contacted friends in the US State Department who intervened on her behalf.

We’re seeing the emergence of micro-celebrity citizen journalist activists, like “Angry Arabiya”, know to her parents as Zainab Al-Khawaja. She’s been a brave and outspoken critic of the government in Bahrain, facing arrest and abuse. Recently, she helped stop the movement of riot police into a Manama neighborhood by appearing in an abaya (which Zeynep identifies as giving female activists an interesting new form of power, exercising the image of being conservative and observant) and blocking the procession of police vehicles. She resisted arrest, and the police weren’t initially able to arrest her, as they lacked enough female officers to detain her. Bahraini officials, Zeynep tells us, debated arresting her and concluded that they didn’t want the pictures of her being dragged off to appear in the New York Times.

Microcelebrities are learning how to exert their power, to stop the movement of troops and to help counter torture when they’re in custody. It’s far from the power to end police states, but it’s an interesting new capability and a sign of things to come.

Danny O’Brien of Committee to Protect Journalists titles his talk “Public Private Secret Alone”. He suggests that, contrary to many people’s view of lessening privacy, we may be entering a golden age of privacy. We’re starting to codify what should be public and what should be private, what’s shareable and what’s sacrosanct. This is at least as much a social process as a technical one, and Danny thinks that we’re all now learning to use the right “register” in speaking in online spaces.

Putting his tongue firmly in cheek, Danny declares that he’s likely the first person to have thought of the distinctions between personal and public speech, blogging on the topic in 2004. “As a blogger, I looked at the literature on Technorati, and it seemed to be an open space. I assume I was probably the first person to write about this.” As many have observed, we speak differently in public and private spaces, employing different registers. In a private register, you might say, “I think that guy’s a dick”. In public, “I respectfully disagree that guy” and people map it backwards to say “I guess Danny thinks that guy’s a dick.”

The privacy embarrassments we’ve all been seing come from having private online speech lifted out of context and brought to the public. When sources ask journalists to go off the record, they’re not saying “You can’t report any of this” – they’re saying “I’m going to speak in a private register, and you must translate into public register before repeating this.”

As television becomes more all-pervasive, Danny speculates, people are learning how to drop into public register very fluently. Turn on a camera, and they speak like spokespeople. Of course, what makes reality TV work is broadcasting the private register, which is still transgressive and exciting.

Eight years ago, Danny tells us he predicted that the private register would gain a new foothold. Of course, a few months later, thefacebook.com came into being.

Systems like Facebook have the potential to bring private conversations into public, but there are technical and social protections. Friends understand that there should be rules for sharing. Oddly, though, we trust these very personal conversations to a corporate entity we have no personal relationship with.

What’s common to many of these tools is that they’re terrible at search. It’s very difficult to cut through the waves of data on Twitter and Facebook and search for something specific. Ask the people who engineer technology for these companies and they’ll feign embarrassment about the quality of search, but it’s a conscious decision: they want to preserve the context of conversations and make it harder to yank statements out of context. (He offers a strange aside on David Bowie’s teeth. If you see David Bowie perform, and you’re used to slick nightclub singers, all you can focus on are his teeth and how awful they are… or were, as he finally jad them fixed. Search is David Bowie’s terrible teeth when you look at Twitter or Facebook…)

Danny declares Twitter as the most successful at letting people speak in private voice in public space. It’s become quite common for celebrities to swear on Twitter. It creates the idea of intimacy with celebrities in the conversation, and people appear not to be shocked by the tone of the speech.

The rise of commentariat, the people who comment on published documents, forces another clash of registers. The quality of newspaper comments is often discussed in terms of the values of real names versus anonymity versus pseudonymity – Danny suggests that it’s a clash of registers. When people talk about the nastiness of online comments, part of what they’re commenting on is on hearing private register in public spaces. Fortunately, some newspapers are learning where to draw firm lines – fortunately, the New York Times doesn’t allow commentaries on obituaries, for example.

Moving into the realm of the secret: Danny observes that high school teachers realize they’re sufficiently public figures that they take most conversations offline, rather than risk recontextualization and register clash. Yes, there’s the danger of the private becoming very public, as in hacker attacks where Lulzboat took Stratfor’s corporate communication public. But in some ways, what’s even more uncomfortable is the information we thought was purely ours alone, like our online purchasing behavior, becoming public, as in situations like Facebook Beacon.

He closes with his predictions for 2012:

– more swearing
– panicked actions to defend the secret and unrevealed
– growing fluency in negotiating the public register
– more suicides

On this last point, he notes that South Korea – which often precedes the US in online behavior – closed down internet freedom in the wake of pop stars committing suicide over online disclosures of speech. If Rebecca Black committed suicide over what people say about her online, he speculates, we’d see a chill on online speech in the US.