April 10, 2008

Joe Reagle’s Dissertation

Category: Academic,Politics,Tech,Web 2.0,Wikipedia — Biella @ 8:58 am

Wikipedia, though increasingly becoming an everyday fixture for many in the Wired World, means a lot of different things to different people. If you want to take a fascinating look into what one person, Joe Reagle has written about this unwieldy project, community and encyclopedia, take a look here. He recently defended his dissertation and I have read it through and through a couple of times. It has some great insights about the significance and culture of Wikipedia by laying bare its cultural dynamics as well as putting it in historical context with similar encyclopedic endeavors.

December 12, 2007

Less is More, Comments

Category: Tech,Web 2.0 — Biella @ 5:34 am

Since most of the readers of this blog come from Debian Planet where you can’t really see if there are comments, I thought I would link to the comments from my recebt blog post on blogging as many make some nice points. Additionally, here is a link to Joe Reagle’s post aptly entitled blog anxieties where he places a tripartite religious framework to understand the life cycle of a blog. I also agree with Alisa who notes that blogging is as much about the writer as is the reader (and I tend to post stuff for the sake of remembering, archiving etc) but I still think that the issue of overabundance is huge for I am as much a a consumer as I am a producer of blogs. I love reading people’s blogs but I just can’t keep up if they do it too often.

Tenured Radical also paid a visit and well, if you have not checked out her blog, she is a fantastic, fantastic writer/thinker and what I like about her blog most is that she weaves together just the right ratio of personal and public (for lack of better words). What I mean is that she tells her stories from the vantage point of her experiences, of her position etc. I can imagine a real person behind the posts, which is always part of the fun of blog reading, a form of imagination that frankly is not there with mainstream news and journalism.

December 5, 2007

Rethinking Blogs: The importance of fewer posts and preaching to the choir

Category: Academic,Politics,Tech,Web 2.0 — Biella @ 6:45 am

It is hard to believe that I have been blogging for over five years. And what is clear is that being an assistant professor is not all that conducive for blogging and this is materially evident in my sparse posting pattern over the last few months. It has been particularly bad in the last month thanks to a week long international trip, back-to-back sickness over Thanksgiving week, and finally going to Washington D.C. for the AAAs.

But this retreat from blogging as well as teaching on so-called Web 2.0 software, like blogs, has made me rethink the value and limits of the craft of blogging and so I am going to take some time (that I feel like I don’t really have, but oh-well..) to write them down as I am preparing a short piece for on the politics of Web 2.0 and I hope I can transfer some of these ideas there.

So as I have already mentioned, I am an now infrequent blogger. Prior to the era of RSS, this could have meant the death of my blog because if people went to visit my page and there was no new post and then this happened a few more times, they would just stop visiting.

The magic of RSS is that it brings the blog post to you and this alters the landscape of possibilities within the context of what has been nothing short of a seismic explosion of blogs. What I am finding—and this will be no surprise to anyone—is that it is just too difficult to keep up too many of a certain class of blogger—the prolific poster who posts medium to long posts and worse, nearly everyday! To make a point about the effects of this, allow me to tell a story: Two blogs I really like are Joe Reagle’s blog on Open Communities as well as Tenured Radical. Both provide captivating posts but I recently unsubscribed to Radical Tenure and not Joe Reagle’s. Why? My decision was purely pragmatic. Because she posts way too much, I just can’t keep up. If I stop reading her blog for 2 weeks, and then pay a visit via bloglines, I am faced with a blogolanche and I am trying to avoid, at all costs, overwhelming situations. On the other hand, if I stop reading Joe’s blog for 2 weeks, there may be one or two posts so I feel like I can spare the time to continue reading. Ironically, I will now visit Tenured Radical every month, much as I did prior to the RSS era, just to take a quick scan and see if there is anything I must read.

There is another class of blogs, such as Sivacracy, that update their site frequently but the posts are tidy and short and so I can usually keep up and they provide important news for my projects. But the type of blog that provides longer ruminations has proliferated (and I really like reading those) but I suspect that as the blogosphere has expanded, less people can commit to those types of blogs. In other words, today, you may hang on to more readers, if you only blog 1 to 2 times a week instead of 3-5 weekly posts that are medium to long in length.

Now I may be completely OFF the mark with this by generalizing my own experience so I would be interested in hearing people’s experiences or better, if anyone could point me to someone who studies these types of pattern, I would really appreciate it.

On a related note, last week I taught a now famous piece by Cass Sunstein on political balkanization on the Internet that is in part secured by blogging. His core argument, which I think stands to some degree, is that the blogosphere is less an arena where people with different inclinations and views meet to debate, and thus change their views, but is an arena where your pre-existing ideas are reinforced because you are simply reading and debating with people who hold your worldview.

As I mentioned, I think this is true in so far as you don’t see people on the left and right engaging in some debate that substantially transforms their ideas. But the argument is faulty or missing something crucial about the nature of politics, in so far as that the so called left or right or so called liberal and conservative positions are truly not unitary so that if different types of liberals/lefties are engaging with each other to change positions and ideas within that group, well then, the critical function of blogging is in fact well and alive. To state using an example, there are plenty of liberals who, in my opinion, could use a little radicalization and perhaps this is happening in the blogosphere because people come across a spectrum of ideas and positions from within their political pole.

Finally and this point really is not mine but I am poaching it from Jeff Juris who made it last weekend at the AAA meeting during his presentation on activist videos. One of his findings was that activists were the only ones watching video’s documenting protests when hosted on radical political sites like Indymedia. When they were placed on Youtube, the audience expanded considerably: conservatives were also watching them, but they effect was not to make their more sympathetic toward the left and their political points, but simply to reinforce their position, which is evident in the archived comments expressing their great distaste of the left. This is a perfect example of the Balkanization that Sunstein talks about but with an important reversal: it comes from confronting difference not avoiding it!

But Jeff made the excellent point that there is a critical function in preaching to the choir: it ensures that the choir will not stop singing! That is, your political passions are not simply ensured, they must be renewed and given the massive amounts of apathy peppering our population, renewal by confronting what you believe in, is vital.

So my advice is keep producing posts, keep reading even if it tends to be stuff you already believe in BUT please, post less. Less, I think, is really becoming the new more….

October 13, 2007

Decoding Liberation: The Promise of FOSS (and Web 2.0)

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Kaltura,Politics,Tech,Web 2.0 — Biella @ 2:53 am

Last week I helped Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter kick off their book release party in New York City. The book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software is the first academic book length piece on free software proper that among other things examines the repercussions of such elements as language use (free software vs open source) and licensing (such as non-copyleft licensing). Here are my opening remarks, which don’t give justice to the book but give a small taste of what is in there.

Samir and Scott are computer scientists, philosophers, and political thinkers and bring these positions and perspectives to bear in their work. While I tend to avoid the discussion on the differences and divergences between free and open source software and licensing (just because I ask a set of questions that tend not to go into that territory), they spend a hefty about of time on this sort of engagement And what is so useful about their approach is that it is technically detailed and carefully analyzed, clarifying the stakes involved in choosing a certain set of licensing over others, or the political implications of language use. Along with this focus, there are many other threads they unpack and one of my favorites is on the aesthetics of code, which I discuss with some detail in my opening remarks with the help of one of my favorite literary writers, Susan Sontag.

The conversation that followed was lively, in part because there were a number of people in the audience who are also very familiar with FOSS (Somewhat unbelievably, there were 3 anthropologists there who study free software, myself, Jelena Karanovic, and Anita Chan). And I think one of the most interesting questions was launched by Anita who asked the authors what they meant more precisely by “the promise of FOSS” as well as liberation.

The conversation that followed was too rich to recount here, but something that I raised and I do think is important is the relationship between the buzz word of the last few years, Web 2.0 and FOSS. Web 2.0 is related to FOSS in so far as Web 2.0 refers to a suite of technologies that allow for the creation of user-generated content and collaboration. FOSS refers to a development methodology that is based on promiscuous sharing of code and collaboration.

The similarities, however, end there because much of the Web 2.0 infrastructure is proprietary. FOSS by definition is non-proprietary. But I think that soon we are going to see more Web 2.0-like companies open up their infrastructure entirely or at least important components.

One example of a new technology that is Web 2.0-like and is entirely free software is a activist networking tool crabgrass that is pretty impressive (I have used it to coordinate my move and am using it now to coordinate a collaborative grant). It is still under development but once released, it will be a great boon to any group that needs to collaborate and organize and coordinate:

Crabgrass also provides a public advocacy centric view of content so that people can learn more about issues and organizations through social relationships. Blog tools, voter guides, petitions, event organizing tools, and action alerts are being added to the functionality of the platform. Crabgrass integrates wikis, asset repositories, task lists, calendars, polls, and meeting schedulers into one tool which allows groups to manage their internal organizing.

The other technology that I am excited about and that I have already written about is Kaltura. As I mentioned, Kaltura is important because it lowers the bar for collaboration, providing tools to facilitate video editing. But what I find as interesting and as significant is that they are perhaps the first large-scale Web 2.0 company that is actively seeking to enter the territory of FOSS and in this respect, once they do so, they will lead the field, not simply for technical reasons, but because they choose to make and engage with open source technologies.

Bringing Web 2.0 within the orbit of FOSS and brining FOSS within the orbit of Web 2.0 can only work to bolster each other, and this is where I think, at least part of the promise of FOSS lies.