Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tough Love

Dear Robert Wood, Deputy Spokesman, U.S. Department of State,

I mean well. Really. Even when I made fun of the launch of the State Department blog Dipnote with a parody blog of my own called Dopenote, I was honestly trying to help. Even when I gave your agency top awards for general terribleness in the rhetoric of e-government in 2007, it was because I cared enough to say something. Even when I suggested at the end of last year that you should just give up and chuck the whole blog into the cybervoid, the opinion was offered in the spirit of charity. After all, you know I am practically the only one reading. Foreign governments are probably not bothering at this point, since there is no real intelligence to be had here. Your own employees aren't likely reading the postings by their peers, despite the most polite not to mention diplomatic expressions of interest from their co-workers.

Yes. You are trying. I can see that. You post entries like "First Week Launches New 'Smart Power'" to indicate that you know that this is about public diplomacy and a new take on "soft power." You post your "share block" to demonstrate that you have heard of social media, and we can see your Twitter postings in a column to the right. And I appreciate that you allow comments on your postings.

But when is the writing for the web going to get any better? When will there be any actual information in the posts that citizens might choose to forward to each other? When, at the very least, will you start hyperlinking more regularly, perhaps to other diplomatic blogs from other countries?

(For example, there isn't a single link in this entry about how the "Hometown Diplomat Program Strengthens Community Ties," despite subject matter that would seem to invite exemplification!)

When will the tagging get better? When will there be links to research resources? When will there be links to maps and other kinds of geographical information representation? And when will you have quotable prose worth bookmarking?



A Private Citizen

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High School Not Confidential

The Internet often doesn't present a very flattering portrait of young people. Some show their callousness by choosing to sell their Facebook friends for a pittance in the Whopper Sacrifice. Some show their idiocy when their work is posted by instructors and test administrators on websites such as They Didn't Study. But it is possible for the teen crowd to engage in critical thinking, even about social computing, which they have supposedly naturalized.

So kudos to Santa Monica High School students Salonee Bhaman and Lindsay Reno for writing a cover story in the campus newspaper that is actually better than some of the Facebook coverage that I have seen in the Los Angeles Times. The article encourages young people to read social software user agreements carefully and presents a lengthy local investigation that features quotations from a number of school administrators about their use of the popular social network site.

As cyber-bullying and inappropriate online behavior become greater problems for teenagers, some Sam administrators turn to Facebook bages a resources for keeping the campus safe. In doing so, they chart controversial legal territory and raise questions about online privacy and student privacy in general.

"Legally, administrators may discipline students for actions that interfere with a school's learning process even if they take place outside of school," said Dr. Jose Inguez, O House Principal.
. . .
According to I House principal Eva Mayoral, teenagers mistakenly believe kids won't report online behavior that makes them uncomfortable.

"There are a lot of kids who have access to Facebook. When kids feel wronged, they come to administrators to make it right, and bring proof of what's disrupting the learning environment at Samo," Mayoral said.

Nevertheless, those involved don't always come prepared with printouts, and the situation might require additional investigation by an administrator. Some administrators feel this includes an obligation to personally search Facebook.

Doing so is not illegal; when online information is open to the public, it is also open to administrators. If privacy settings are not activated on a teenager's Facebook, it is easy and certainly legal for school officials to review the profile.

However, some wonder if other methods are employed. Certain students suspect administrators of creating fake Facebook profiles, allowing them to "befriend" Samo students and look at their private pages. Presumably for safety reasons, those administrators who do use Facebook as a resource kept this detail confidential.

Furthermore, administrators provided a variety of responses when asked if they have the ability to contact Facebook and receive access to private information. Some said they had no knowledge of the issue, and others claimed it would be harmful to Facebook's credibility if the site offered anyone a backdoor to information. Contrarily, Iniguez said that failure to assist an investigation related to school safety would also be harmful to the site's credibility and possibly illegal.

Some insight can be found within Facebook's own Terms and Conditions, which claim to share users' information "with third parties only in limited circumstances where we believe such sharing is 1) reasonably necessary to offer the service, 2) legally required, or 3) permitted by you.

Key loopholes are imbedded in this ambiguous language. Not limited to the courts, Facebook may share information with "other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies." High school administrators and college admissions offers could be included under the legal blanket of "government agencies."

While the degree of access administrators receive is largely unknown, it is apparent that Facebook has been important in solving certain campus problems. During the class conflicts surrounding the October pep rally, juniors and seniors perceived as influential were called into their house offices for a discussion about getting '09 and '10 back on track. A few House principals referred to annotated stacks of Facebooks throughout these meetings.

The article may insinuate too much and even verge on conspiracy theory at some points, but it encourages high school students to reflect about how the site permits certain forms of surveillance and how they may have signed up without reading what they were agreeing to.

(Thanks to Ogan Gurel for the "They Didn't Study" link. French speakers may have also seen regrettable answers to questions on the baccalauréat exam circulating on the Internet.)

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Trails from the Trails

TRAXXS is a data visualization project by Virtualpolitik pal Matt Elson that combines "digital imaging, GPS positioning recording, 3-D terrain mapping, and artistic computer software." Inspired by his experiences as a painter, skier, and digital artist, Elson's work for the 2010 Winter Olympics in conjunction with Alpine events in Whistler, Canada uses tracking information gathered from mountain bikers in a project that repurposes the data as brushstrokes.

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Blogging from People and Practices

Faculty and graduate students at UC Irvine have been teaming up across disciplinary lines as part of the "People and Practices Research Initiative" funded by the Intel corporation. PAPR has not launched the PAPR@UCI Blog to publicize the range of projects that have been undertaken by UCI researchers who are looking at topics that include social practices around online console-based shooter games, the use of Facebook among Generation 1.5 Chinese immigrants, musical collaboration with teleconference tools, the information and technology ecologies of the homeless in Los Angeles, and the "craftivist" movement's use of Web 2.0. This posting explains my own assessment project funded by PAPR, which looks at how direct instruction in online composition in college coursework may impact Internet behavior longterm.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

The Train Wreck in Outer Space

Reader Michael Thomas sent a link to this YouTube video, "Barriers to Innovation and Inclusion," which skewers NASA's bureaucracy in a Law and Order send-up that also makes a serious point about proceduralism and the ways that "optimal solutions" can lose out to the "technical feasible." Those interested in information design will appreciate the fact that at one point in the video real labyrinthine NASA project plan flowchart serves as the backdrop to a scene.

Thomas pointed out that the video was actually cited in this entry on one of NASA's official blogs. The rhetoric of the introduction by Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale is particularly interesting, in the way that he situates himself as a speaker as an agent of reform:

I've got a video that you need to watch, but first I need to explain why you need to watch it and what lesson I hope you will take away.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board said that NASA - and specifically the Space Shuttle Program - stifled dissenting opinions which might have prevented the accident. Particularly the action was pointed toward the Mission Management Team. As the new Deputy Program Manager, I was assigned the task of restructuring the MMT and providing means for listening to dissent. Somewhere along the way I acquired the informal title of 'culture change leader'. I took this to heart and changing the culture to be more welcoming to alternate or dissenting opinions was a task that took a lot of my time and attention.

The build-up continues for several paragraphs until the writer gets to the following viewing instructions: "So now, watch the video, then come back and lets talk about what I think we really need to do about it." A link appears and then there is more second-person direct address to the reader and instructions for viewing.

Are you done with it? Maybe you should go back and watch it a couple of times. I did.

I feel like the early civil right pioneers must feel; the overt bad behavior is gone underground. People say the right things in public discussion of how they should act, then behave in the bad old ways in small or private settings.

In the Virtualpolitik book I've written about how nonfiction online videos on YouTube perform whistle-blowing functions, but it is interesting to observe how this fictional scenario is designed to be persuasive and to dramatize private power plays for public viewing.

On NASA Watch, a blogger suggested that the video should run on NASA TV, where the delivery of lines isn't much better than the wooden acting on "Barriers. In the satiric video, the young female engineer meets with the characters of "Supervisor," "Bureau Chief," "Project Office, and "Director" who respond with stilted dialogue that emphasizes the scripted quality of collegial interactions. On Transterrestrial Musings the reaction of NASA officials to the video is compared to Claude Rains saying he was "shocked shocked" to discover gambling in Casablanca.

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A Great Time to be a Graduate Student

It's difficult for me to look back too fondly on graduate school. Certainly I don't miss eating meals composed largely of the following ingredients: potatoes, lentils, beans, and rice (pick two). Or wax nostalgic about being a patient at the university health center where I often had to make small talk with my own students while holding containers with my own bodily fluids when waiting for lab work to be done. Or wish that I could travel back in time to spend months writing something that only one other person on the planet would ever read . . . unwillingly, of course.

But now, thanks to the Internet, graduate students have access to many more tools for teaching, research, publishing, collaboration, and networking than I or anyone of my generation did as PhD candidates.

Today I took part in The Future of (Mediated) Scholarship for USC graduate students interested in taking advantage of multimedia technologies in an afternoon organized by Holly Willis, who pointed out readings by Cathy Davidson, John Seely Brown, and Henry Jenkins in their informational packets and USC's role in developing and promoting Sophie as a platform for online rich media publishing, which is currently being rewritten in Java. (Sophie creator Bob Stein was also in the audience.) Willis also pointed out that too often university programs functioned as separate silos, a problem that the Institute for Multimedia Literacy was trying to address.

In the first presentation Susan Metros, USC’s Associate Vice Provost for Technology Enhanced Learning and Deputy Chief Information Officer, presented findings from the 2009 Horizon Report from the New Media Consortium, which also evolved as developed parts of the document through a collectively written wiki. (One of the committee members is Clifford Lynch, who will be on a panel about open access that I am moderating next week, and open access proved to be one of the themes of the day.)

The Horizon report lists technologies most likely to transform education in the coming five years. Metros began by reviewing software for cloud computing applications and information representation. She noted that her father's collection of World War II photos could be shared with others through tagging on Google's mapping functions. She also championed the evolution of the "personal web" that was still a few years away, despite the fact that such programs have raised privacy concerns for some educators. To demonstrate the potential of the semantic web and smart objects for curricular design and instructional applications, she did live demos with programs like Retrievr and Semapedia (the latter with BeeTagg, her iPhone, and a data sticker on her podium to show how the physical space of the campus could offer more possibilities for learning with the help of ubiquitous computing devices. She also admitted that these technologies could be imperfect: not everything she showed worked, and she pointed out that educational applications currently available for the iPhone generally offered little more than digital flash cards for the user.

Next up, Kathleen Fitzpatrick represented both the Department of English and Media Studies at Pomona College and the consortium for reforming publishing and information dissemination in the digital age, MediaCommons. Fitzpatrick offered an overview of the current state of scholarly publishing and presented research for her new book project titled Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy. Fitzpatrick discussed work being done at the Institute for the Future of the Book and enthused about how sections of Noah Wardrip-Fruin's dissertation on Expressive Processing were vetted by readers of the blog Grand Text Auto using Comment Press software. How Diigo and Comment press did in a "head to head" match-up as social annotation tools for scholars was discussed during the course of the day. Given the audience, Fitzpatrick didn't include the rather dispiriting assessment of Internet scholarly remixing by Chris Kelty of his own book Two Bits or problems with computer servers that have taken important texts, such as McKenzie Wark's GAM3R 7H30RY and two projects by Siva Vaidhyanathan offline as a result of technical problems. It was probably rhetorically appropriate, since Fitzgerald was already giving a lot of bad news about traditional print publishing from academic presses and the threats to those organizations' survival to those assembled.

In Graduate Research 2.0, Mark Marino showed a dizzying array of social bookmarking technologies that could be deployed for scholarly research. Marino argued that sometimes it seemed that "Web 2.0" had become a term like "postmodernism," which had been emptied of its meaning during a period of overuse in the academy. He directed the graduate students in attendance to tips for How to See the Field at a Glance from Digital History Hacks and Dave Parry's advice at academhack for how to turn just about anything into an RSS feed, so that your research can actually come to you rather than you search for it. (Also check out Parry's top ten list of overlooked tools for academics.)

Unfortunately, Marino didn't have time to make it to covering Zotero, the free and open source godsend for those doing otherwise tedious bibliographic citations in academic writing, which I have been not so quietly promoting with librarians and instructional technologists on our own campus, or CiteULike, a tool for managing scholarly references. But he took time that is all to rarely given in these kinds of presentations to pay attention to the back end and explain how content-management systems worked, define terms like "RSS" correctly, and walk students through setting up files for readers and aggregators step-by-step.

As the day came to an end, I showed a number of examples for how to use web design, blogging, wiki creation, online video production, teleconferencing, and space in virtual worlds for teaching and learning that can have a synergistic rather than substitutive relationship to the live face-to-face classroom experience. Here’s the link to the materials from my talk. Like many who teach with technology, I am keenly aware that pedagogy doesn't always mix well with Web 2.0 particularly when it comes to questions of privacy, the public sphere, and the ownership of the creative commons. In that spirit I opened my talk with three essential questions:

1) Is the aim of using computational media and distributed networks intended to establish authority or encourage participation?

2) Does one go indie or institutional? Should scholars depend on university domains? How much does one use existing course management tools?

3) Does one use proprietary commercial software or free and open-source products?

In trying to suggest the many ways one could answer these questions, I argued that there are certainly legitimate pedagogical debates to be had, since convenience, ease of access, and the professional ethos of the instructor are not trivial concerns for teachers, even for pedagogues committed to the principle of openness in the academy.

Update: For more writer-friendly software gizmos, read "DIY: How to write a book" for how cut and paste beats writer's block any time.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Unkindest Cut

Campus spokespeople and student activists are turning to online video to present their cases to the public, as states struggle with budget shortfalls and conservative legislators unwilling to see higher education as part of a comprehensive economic stimulus policy call for deeper cuts, despite the importance of universities to business sectors that have remained profitable during the current downturn, such as information technologies and medical innovations. Many see self-perpetuating cycles ahead driven by undergraduates from families in reduced circumstances, graduate schools with an upsurge of applicants fleeing the job market, and administration shrinking as class sizes grow.

For example, the college network at produced the following video about the Utah State University system, where programs are being slashed, student fees are being hiked, and an academic press known nationally for its publishing record in composition studies and folklore is threated with the chopping block.

In a statement about pending budget cuts, Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow supplements his online message with the following Internet video that explains the plight of higher education in his state.

(See this link for information graphics that depict the higher education crisis on a state-by-state basis.)

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Subliminal Sublime

Peter Woodbridge posted this attention-getting video essay about Google that uses the metaphor of phase changes between liquid, solid, and gas to emphasize the corporation's morphing products and ubiquitous reach.

It's also worth checking out Woodbridge's blog on "Vir-eD," which features videos from YouTube critic Alex Juhasz, several online applications for information visualization, and embedded materials about new forms of scholarship in the Humanities.

Thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan for the link!

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Tone Deaf

These YouTube videos lampoon the end results of the Microsoft SongSmith program, the inferior competitor to Apple's GarageBand, in which users provide the vocal track and the software tries to provide appropriate accompaniment.

The Telegraph points out the comical results in "Microsoft SongSmith: Flawed music software produces comedy gold." This official video shows the Microsoft magic in action.

Thanks to Garnet Hertz for the link.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tweet on Congress

Trebor Scholz points out the launch of Tweet Congress, which represents a possible improvement on the online petition process that now has become so ubiquitous that legislators rarely respond with meaningful initiatives. Furthermore, the one-way character of such petitions from constituents to lawmakers discourages any meaningful dialogue between legislators and citizens and promulgates a culture of political reaction that growing legions of online affinity groups have only intensified.

The group's "about us" page explains their rationale acting as discrete citizens as follows:

We built this site to scratch our own itch. While searching for our local congressmen on Twitter we were amazed at how many folks on the Hill aren't tweeting.

This site is a grass-roots effort to get our men and women in Congress to open up and have a real conversation with us.

A search engine on the site allows voters to find their representative on Twitter, so they can follow their tweets and perhaps pressure non-tweeters to be more vocal in their microblogging.

If your elected representative isn't on Twitter, as in the case of Henry Waxman, my own congressman, you can petition your lawmaker to join Twitter and post updates.

However, even after using the microblogging service for a month, I'm still not quite sure how it could effect political change, although friends in both activist and bureaucratic cadres have assured me that it could play a role in high-stakes diplomatic negotiations and other kinds of political horse-trading.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Glass Ceilings and Firewalls

I'll say it right off the bat: I'm biased. I've never liked Symantec's computer security products personally and have found top-selling Norton AntiVirus to offer a user experience much like pouring molasses into my laptop. Many software reviewers seem to agree with me and rate the program well below their more consumer-friendly top-ten picks.

So it with some trepidation that I hear from the Wall Street Journal that outgoing Symantec head John W. Thompson is on the short list for Secretary of Commerce, since I fear that he will be less responsive to consumer concerns about hidden verbiage in end-license user agreements and unlikely to be proactive about the bundling of software products, which was at least treated as a serious anti-trust issue during the Clinton era.

Although I look forward to a diverse cabinet in this administration, I would hope that an African-American could be found for the post who has a better digital rights record than Thompson.

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Hoping for Open

The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science has issued new Recommendations Concerning the Free Use of Visual Media for Scholarly Purposes that argue that academics should be pushing back against the extension of intellectual property claims over images of physical objects being made by for-profit image consortiums that license reproductions and control representations of material culture both high and low. Christine von Oertzen, whose research examines histories both of gender and of science, authored the statement explaining the plight of academics asked to pay exorbitant sums for academic

The “visual turn” in the humanities has encouraged researchers to make increased use of paintings, photographs, and digital media. In the history of science, these sources have moved to the center of scholarly practice. Compelling examples of the integral role assumed by visual sources in ongoing projects at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science include the history of scientific observation, the study of drawing and recording as scientific techniques, as well as the epistemic history of architecture.

Among scholars in the humanities, interest in visual sources will continue to grow. For this reason, we must ensure that researchers and curators work together to secure scholarly access well into the future. At museums, libraries, and other image repositories, financial considerations limit scholars’ access to digital media. Budget pressures have led many libraries, museums, and archives to charge substantial fees for the right to use digitized media – and this despite the fact that the original objects in question are often no longer covered by copyright. Other institutions have ceded the processes of digitization and marketing to commercial image providers. This for-profit approach to digital cultural heritage circumscribes scholars’ use of historical image collections. Precisely at the moment that new e-publishing practices are beginning to change the nature of scholarship itself, researchers face soaring costs for the rights to use digital cultural resources.

In considering what this means at the theoretical level for those who think about Walter Benjamin's claims in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" that the original "aura" of the work of art can be diluted by infinite copying, it raises the issue of how cultural resources can also be infinitely monetized when a single commercial vendor controls the rights to the replication process.

At the practical level, scholars can take heart as the Images for Academic Publishing project develops, in which high quality images can be reproduced in academic publications free of charge through the image database ARTstor, a program that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has already signed on to.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

A Newspaper without Writers

I suppose I should be pleased to see the Los Angeles Times trying to improve its abysmal Internet coverage, but the fact that the newspaper so rarely breaks a real technology story can be disheartening to longtime subscribers like myself.

Often what runs in the paper are stories that are weeks or months old, which generally represent summaries of reports or accounts of cybercrime trials. Almost never do they spot a trend in online culture first, much less encourage any serious reflection about the cultural impact of the hardware and software that we use every day. Instead, far too frequently, the newspaper highlights hackneyed stories about cyberpredators, cyberbullying, identity theft, piracy, and mass susceptibility to moronic Internet memes. Sadly, this trend that has only gotten worse since recent rounds of mass firings cut the newspaper's professional writing staff.

Yes, "Greatest Internet threat to teens may be teens themselves" avoids the sensationalism of much of their coverage, but it is still sort of embarrassing to read. Let's just take a sample paragraph, which presents the main "news" in the article, almost two weeks after the New York Times covered the issuing of the same report:

In an authoritative report almost a year in the making, a Harvard University-led task force on Internet safety, ordered by the nation's attorneys general and meant to expose the full extent of the danger, found instead that kids trading gossip, photos and plans on social networking sites such as MySpace are relatively safe from adults cruising online for sex with minors.

I won't even get in to what's wrong with prose like "authoritative report," but to think that the reporter thought that the Berkman Center at Harvard "meant to expose the full extent of the danger" shows a kind of comical naïveté about what that institution represents and how one might, as an academic, grant a proposition legitimacy for purposes of argument before setting out to demolish it methodically by means of empirical proof. Although the story doesn't stoop to the level of "Facebook journalism," it presents no additional commentary from the researchers in question about their reflections about the study, which is only cursorily summarized, and follows this summary with summaries of other studies from the predator-panic era with little attempt at coherence in characterizing the report's significance.

The article also links to tips for "Tightening Internet security for kids" promoting the same predator panic that the Harvard report explicitly debunks. I could not believe that the advice came from the same reporter and was dated on the same day as the accompanying news story, unless a) the reporter has multiple personality disorder or b) the reporter suffers from short-term memory loss involving the paragraphs that she herself has recently written, as well as reports that she herself has read and cited. It even links to advocacy pages for a local parent paranoia group.

At the same time, Newport Beach Internet safety coach Suzanne Stanford has launched a lobbying effort for federal legislation requiring sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses with Congress. Stanford calls her proposed bill the Parents Against Predators Act ( "It's obvious that it needs to be a federal law," Stanford says.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Talk Like an Egyptian

"In Revolution, Facebook-Style," the New York Times reports on the lively political debates taking place within Egyptian social network sites. This is often the case because such sites seem to offer less risk of surveillance from authorities than more obviously public places in the blogosphere. However, the structure of the site around networks of online friendship also offers certain possibilities for collective action, particularly as the Israeli occupation of Gaza continues.

In most countries in the Arab world, Facebook is now one of the 10 most-visited Web sites, and in Egypt it ranks third, after Google and Yahoo. About one in nine Egyptians has Internet access, and around 9 percent of that group are on Facebook — a total of almost 800,000 members. This month, hundreds of Egyptian Facebook members, in private homes and at Internet cafes, have set up Gaza-related “groups.” Most expressed hatred for Israel and the United States, but each one had its own focus. Some sought to coordinate humanitarian aid to Gaza, some criticized the Egyptian government, some criticized other Arab countries for blaming Egypt for the conflict and still others railed against Hamas.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

You Oughta Be in Pictures

For those willing to certify that they will only use the images for private non-profit use the LIFE Photo Archive Hosted by Google provides a rich database of images from which to draw photographs of the famous, infamous, and quotidian.

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The Dog for Outside

A fierce debate has gripped the nation, ever since Barack Obama made the following public promise to his daughters on election night: "Sasha and Malia, I love you both more than you can imagine. You have earned the puppy that is coming with us."

Clearly, the Obama White House is aware that this will be a high profile pooch. A slide show of past presidential pets on establishes the importance of historical precedent long before this particular pup is paper trained. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, "The competition is fierce – among animal rescue advocates who see a public relations bonanza for the broad animal adoption movement which struggles to save 4 million stray and unwanted dogs nationwide each year, not to mention a windfall for their own shelters and agencies if their dog is The One."

Some have suggested that the Obamas could solve this potential public relations problem and still have the less politically correct choice of hypo-allergenic and cuddly canine, which the kids might favor, by choosing two dogs: one for inside and one for outside.

The idea of trying to do the two-dog approach makes me think about the sometimes too close relationship that Obama has with software corporate executives and the ways that this coziness with proprietary and potentially monopolistic companies irks digital rights activists and consumer and privacy advocates. In many ways I'm sympathetic to Obama's difficulty breaking up with Google. I try to use free and open source software whenever I can in my teaching, but I still use Microsoft products for office business, Google for searching, and Adobe for digital design.

But today's story in the Los Angeles Times, "Google ready to pursue its agenda in Washington," might make many wonder: "Which is the dog for outside, intended to satisfy calls for political correctness and doing the right thing? And which is the dog for inside, intended to be part of the family and a source of comfort and familiarity?"

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I Thought These Were the People Who "Got" It

In "White House blog site gets off to a bad start" one of the bloggers for the Los Angeles Times gives low marks to Obama's team for timely updating of relevant postings. For example, some mainstream newspapers had the story in print before Obama's executive order to close the Guantanamo detention facility was posted to Privacy advocates like Chris Soghoian and critics of the "Googlization of everything" like Siva Vaidhyanathan have expressed concerns about a number of features of the site. Now law professor Howard M. Friedman is ringing warning bells that there may be "No transparency on the Obama White House website," as "pool reports" go neglected and webmasters delete materials with legal and historical significance from the previous administration.

A final irritation is that the Obama White House has taken down all the primary source documents (Executive Orders and Proclamations) that were on the Bush White House site. Many of these still have the force of law, and continued access to them in some way would be most helpful.

Perhaps the new White House webmaster's office has not yet quite gotten its act together. However I would expect more since the first White House Blog posting that appeared emphasized that the new website (put up within minutes of Obama's swearing-in) "will feature timely and in-depth content to keep everyone up-to-date and educated."

During the election my husband would facetiously say to me, "You should hope McCain wins. Then there will continue to be screw-ups to write about on a daily basis. You'll be blogging for another four years, to be sure." Unfortunately, it looks like there will still be posts on a daily basis, with a number from, even as an era of change begins.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Blackberry Like Me

In "The BlackBerry accord of 2009," the Los Angeles Times explains how President Obama has been allowed to keep his Blackberry to stay in contact with distant friends, keep current on online culture, and do Internet research independent of his advisors. Many who study digital culture see this as a very good sign for the new administration, given how the Bush White House far too frequently used national security as an excuse for excessive secrecy and justified bizarre e-mail practices and a hermetically sealed deliberative sphere on those grounds.

Former President George W. Bush gave up personal e-mail upon entering office, fearing he would create a public record with every touch of the "send" button. Bill Clinton has been reported to avoid e-mail even today.

However, security officials did voice some legitimate concerns about the vulnerabilities of this third-party commercial device to malicious external activities by hackers, including "malicious software" that "can transform the device into a miniature radio transmitter, allowing eavesdroppers to hear conversations near it" and a program that "can detect the phone's location by way of signals it sends to nearby cellular towers, turning it into a homing device." As the LA Times explains, "According to a database maintained by the Department of Homeland Security, at least 16 potential chinks in the BlackBerry's security armor have come to light since 2004."

Nonetheless, like many of his age and education, Obama apparently told reporters that he would be unwilling to part with a device to which he was so intimately connected on a minute-by-minute basis: "I'm still clinging to my BlackBerry. They're going to pry it out of my hands."

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I Told You, I Am Doing Digital Inclusion

François Bar gave a talk today at UC Irvine about a recently launched five-year study funded by the Gates Foundation on Investigating the Impact of Public Access to Information & Communication Technology. It's a team that also includes a number of faculty members at the University of Washington, including Beth Kolko, who establishes her globalization credentials with a faculty page that opens with a Google map of her talks and projects around the world.

A Bar explained, many of the deliberative processes involved in designing the methodology of the study have encouraged stakeholders to question the basic definitions of terms like "public," "access," and "information technologies." Members of these transnational multilingual teams have apparently been successful at getting funders to put aside their pre-existing first-world biases that privilege personal computing and assume that public access in places like cybercafés and telecentres is necessarily 1) inferior and 2) temporary. (For more about grassroots telecentre communities, Bar recommends checking out

Although the initial aims of the IPAI assessment were to look at how computer centers in libraries might foster economic and educational development, the group has noted that there are many ways that the "impact" of computational technologies with distributed networks can be measured in areas that encompass civic engagement, the preservation of language and culture, the development of democracy and transparent government, and even child care and that qualitative as well as quantitative research methods need to be applied.

They also are examining many sites of heterogeneous use that include -- in the case of Bangladesh -- mobile technologies that are maintained by female repair people and local solutions such as floating libraries that go from village to village. In that country many computer centers segregate women and men in the temporal and physical space with special hours for women or machines of a designated color signifying gender on a particular side of the room. In this case, claimed Bar, restricting access actually fosters it, since many women in Bangladesh would not use such technologies at all without prohibitions on socially forbidden contacts with men in place.

After hearing about the national mania for Mister and Miss Facebook contests in Chile from Pablo Manriquez, it was interesting to hear about the success of what might be called a more promiscuous attitude about social computing in the Zeitgeist of the country. While the puritannical United States expends money and human resources policing the computers at libraries and schools with minders and screening software that often forbids access to YouTube, games, social network sites, and anything perceived as excessively "adult" or subversive, it seems that Chilean public libraries have realized the counterproductive effects of gateway technologies and laws and restrictions on youth access to the Internet and entertainment applications.

The research group's ipai wiki documents their experiences thus far in three countries: Bangladesh, Chile, and Lithuania. Images like the photograph above were taken at sessions for "information ecology mapping" in which local people explained how they might get information about important subjects like family health or agriculture. Interviewers are also studying the role of "infomediaries" who may input data into the machines for those without direct access or sufficient technical or alphabetical literacy. According to Bar, the project may also take researchers to Brazil, Botswana, Egypt, and the Philippines, as the scope expands.

As Bar notes, "rules matter." In the case of the Brazilian government, for a long time official federal telecenters barred access to the popular social network site Orkut, because these online activities were seen as mere leisure, at odds with their politically approved ideologies of labor and production. However, according to Bar, Brazil also offers many kinds of public access with many types of rules that include community centers funded by Italian labor unions and free and open source sites promoted by Gilberto Gil. During the question-and-answer session, Bar reminded those present that specific forms of sponsorship can also produce more guarded responses from informants who are fearful of seeming to work against the aims of philanthropic funders by telling researchers that they are taking part in online practices that aren't being promoted by a given public access site. For example, Bar said one young person playing an online game was particularly reluctant to explain what he was doing to a member of the study team. Finally, he used what he thought would be a verbal formulation that would legitimate his game play: "I'm doing digital inclusion."

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James Kotecki, Private Citizen

Although he doesn't have his own Wikipedia entry any more, James Kotecki did have a noteworthy career as an Internet celebrity, which began with critiques of candidates' use of YouTube from his Georgetown dorm room and concluded with his last daily webisode for During his two years of Internet fame, he promoted participation in the CNN-YouTube debates and was profiled in several major newspapers.

Last Fall Kotecki came to my digital rhetoric class via our campus's teleconference facilities. You can see his answers to questions from students in this series of videos in which they asked him about how he sees the evolving relationship between YouTube, fake news programs on television, social networks, and politics.

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Do the Friends Justify the Means?

Academics who study digital rhetoric often don't make it into the news, particularly if they present more nuanced views of social network sites. However, this video from University of Minnesota Professor Laura Gurak, a Facebook friend, may disprove the rule, even if part of the purpose in running the story on Gurak seemed to be to promote the web presence of a broadcast brand. Of course, I wasn't sure that I would necessarily allow a TV station to show a screen shot of the news feed on my own home page, as Gurak does, given the private status updates that it might contain, but Gurak's advice that people might consider multiple profiles recognizes the reality of the multiply online identity positions that most are already negotiating. It's also interesting to note that after the segment, one of the local news anchors said that she maintained some privacy by using her married name on one of her social network sites. Then the male colleague with whom she shared the desk showed his idiocy by adding the following bit of patter to her comment: "Yeah, I think we all do."

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In Praise of Vernacular Dancing

As YouTube expands as a record of the human condition in the twenty-first century, I have to say that one of my favorite aspects of the site is the way it documents vernacular dance practices in homes, neighborhoods, and public places.

Other Internet scholars might choose to focus on particular patterns among viral dance crazes, such as self-confessed bridezillas or neighborhood kids dancing to OK Go's "A Million Ways." Some critics have even participated by trying to take on dance routines like Soulja Boy's "Crank That" for themselves.

But I have a strong fondness for less choreographed dance performances on places such as military bases and schoolyards. One of my favorite searches on YouTube with tens of thousands of hits with spontaneous performances is "dancing mom." Certainly, it brings up moms dancing to Soulja Boy, but it also calls up female parents in living rooms and kitchens.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

In a story that is perhaps receiving far too little attention from the mainstream media, Virtualpolitik interview subject Chris Soghoian reports that the "White House exempts YouTube from privacy rules." I've written before about my concerns that the new administration, much like the general public, is becoming far too dependent on third-party commercial proprietary software applications that depend on cloud computing technologies and propagate a myth of enduring dot-com corporate benevolence despite a business model based on targeted advertising and stealth marketing that requires privacy to be compromised by its very nature. Although Soghoian points out the problems with using a web service that relies on consumer surveillance on a portal to public documents, YouTube videos receive a considerable amount of free advertising on and continue to harvest data from unwary visitors to the site who pick up a cookie when they click on an Obama video that facilitates tracking browsing histories.

Update: It may not be receiving attention from the media, but concerns raised by privacy advocates like Soghoian are certainly getting the attention of the White House's IT people. A mere twelve hours later, according to "White House acts to limit YouTube cookie tracking," the design team created lookalike play screens to make cookie tracking at least contingent on the click that plays the video.

The news isn't that great, however, since it doesn't change the basic facts of the case, as Soghoian explains in "White House yanks 'YouTube' from privacy policy. Furthermore, the anonymous authors of the White House site added more obfuscating verbiage about which company is doing possibly objectionable data collection when they scrubbed mentions of the YouTube brand by changing "YouTube" to "some third-party providers."

It should be noted that this change is, for the most part, cosmetic. YouTube continues to be the only company whose video content is embedded within the White House Web site. Furthermore, the Google-owned video-sharing site is the only one that has received both official legal clearance from the White House Counsel and direct assistance by the White House tech staff (who embed the YouTube content) in planting tracking cookies within the Web browsers of millions of Americans.

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The Wider View

Yes, like many who study digital rhetoric, I have seen the eye-popping TED talk by Blaise Aguera y Arcas about "collective memories," in which he shows a demo of Photosynth to the marveling crowd. Perhaps the most dramatic image from the presentation of what is now a Microsoft product was the moment in which he zoomed and panned around a 3-D rendering of the front façade of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris composed of photographs from tourists who had posted their images on Flickr.

For "The Moment" CNN urged those who were in attendance at the Obama inauguration to upload their photographs of the event so that the software could do its magic. Unfortunately, many of the views have far too few photographs contributed to the database to make for a compelling virtual reality experience, although it is striking to get a sense of how many heads back one could be from the swearing in if you were on the Washington Mall.

(Check out Chuck Tryon's essay on "Documentary, Collective Memory, and the Inauguration"'for a number of links about how the event was to be memorialized.)

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Closing the COPA

After over a decade of legal battles, the Clinton-era Child Online Protection Act is finally dead. The COPA Commission charged by Congress with identifying "technological or other methods that will help reduce access by minors to material that is harmful to minors on the Internet" has been dormant since the start of the millennium, when it issued its report urging voluntary best practices for Internet-based industries rather than mandating access to adult content only by credit card as the legislation's original architects had intended. Many considered this a victory for free speech and privacy advocates. The Electronic Privacy Information Center summarizes how the Supreme Court's refusal to revisit the Internet censorship case of ACLU v. Mukasey led to the COPA law being struck down for good.

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Playing Catch-Up

Days after the inauguration the official Flickr page remained frozen in the era of the 43rd president, with shots of planning press conferences and fencing being erected near the Capitol.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Can It Spot an Essay on Hubris?

With the start of the quarter, as I log in to use, the proprietary plagiarism-detection algorithm that my university is licensed to use, I am struck by the many ironies in John M. Barrie's triumphal biographical narrative called "How Original" on the company's site, which explains how he came to dominate the market for identifying the cheating students who cut-and-paste together essays from the Internet. According to Barrie, the solution for the disengaged and impersonal instruction being offered to undergraduates is automating authentification by looking for word strings in undergraduate prose with no sense of meaning or the context of authorship.

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The United States of Remixing

As someone who has been a regular visitor to for the past decade, I feel that the jury is still out about how effectively the digital rhetoric of the site functions. Nicholas Kristof expresses enthusiasm for the site's blog, but I find the writing uninspiring, the tone stilted, and don't like the fact that so few of the entries have hyperlinks to relevant sources to provide context or lead the reader on pathways for future research. As glad as I am to see "Faith-Based Initiatives" disappear from the front page of the site, I'm also not sure that I like the navigation, which hides menus, ditches the familiar "F-pattern" in web design, and emphasizes iconic images rather than informative text. Most important, I find the links to commercial third-party sites that use proprietary software and depend on an advertising and marketing business model troubling, even if they have yet to place content on their Flickr account.

In the good news department, it does look like you can download a high-quality mp4 file of the inaugural address, so let the remixes begin!

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Big Trouble in Little Cyberspace

I have a colleague currently suffering with a case of "PPP," otherwise known as the "penis posting problem," which occasionally afflicts those who use wikis as a course management tool, when students abuse their login privileges to display phallic images that show that the teacher's authority is being tested. It has even happened to critical luminaries in digital scholarship, such as Alan Liu, who once had an outbreak of PPP related to an animated gif of a looping male crotch that zoomed through its infinite pelvic regress from a link on a class wiki page.

Since most students regard the prospect of their futures carefully, sometimes excessively so, this kind of juvenile territory marking by students who challenge an institution's authority is probably the least of the potential problems raised by calls for electronic portfolios, where students have the ability to archive work from their college experience and create a public profile for potential employers and admissions officers at graduate and professional schools.

Although organizations like the Conference on College Composition and Communication have attempted to articulate common principles and practices for using portfolios in the context of writing instruction and philanthropic organizations promoting "integrative learning," such as the Carnegie Foundation, would like to see cumulative approaches in education given more stature, students, faculty, administrators, corporate employers, educational policy experts, privacy advocates, and politicians concerned with institutional accountability may all have different ideas about what an ideal electronic portfolio for a college student should be.

E-portfolio expert Kathleen Yancey participated in a colloquy called "A Rose is (not) a Rose is (not) a Rose: Diversity in Electronic Portfolio Aims, Models, and Outcomes" and a series of meetings at U.C. Irvine today. She argued that stakeholders often have very differing agendas for why they would want to see work digitally archived, and far too often they leave out opportunities for the author to provide critical reflection and the social component of peer feedback on the process.

At U.C. Irvine, faculty and staff are considering the K-20 Minnesota model, after the state signed an agreement with developers there. I plan to take part in one of the pilot programs this year with the participation of students who have won Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program prizes in the freshman year. (See here and here for past winners.)

To demonstrate the range of possible genres, she provided four models to stimulate discussion among the working group: 1) Career Portfolio: Math, 2) English Education Program Portfolio, 3) Self-Designed Major: Bio, Psych, Health and Illness, and 4) LSU Communication Certificate Portfolio: Architecture. She noted that a range of purposes could be served depending on the central definition emphasized among collection, selection, reflection, projection, development, diversity, communication, and evaluation.

She also argued that it was important to understand the Realpolitik of university culture and accept that some merely want a data collection system. She encouraged realism about the importance of branding in these kinds of efforts as well. And she tried to break stereotypes that students were necessarily visual learners, even though she considered concept mapping important, particularly if students were to represent how their different learning experiences fit together and design a web navigation system that reproduces those linkages.

Perhaps some of her most interesting observations about the topic had to do with how such portfolios function in medical education in conjunction with what is called "critical incident theory," a term that originated in aviation when stakeholders reinvented the genre of the traditional accident report. The field of risk communication often gets little attention from those who think about how discourse functions in the academy, but in real world settings collective deliberation about preventability and what is constituted as normal can be extremely important in everything from finance to foreign policy.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Virtual Ball

At first I felt a bit like a Second Life Cinderella, when I thought I had probably arrived too late to see any of the guests at the inaugural ball to be held in the Linden virtual world that was described here and here. When I located the dancers in all their finery, I felt too shy to cut in or make the best of being a wallflower. So rather than being Cinderella, I fled the scene like Goldilocks who didn't belong in the home of the three bears.

Given claims that Second Life tends to be more interesting, perhaps it would have been more interesting to replicate the experience of those who attended the swearing-in ceremony on the Washington Mall, where participants were tightly packed into the physical space. Would that kind of jostling co-presence among the hoi polloi be a better digital representation of the event?

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Everywhere and Nowhere

Today digital projectors from live feeds into university computers provided large-screen viewing of the inauguration at my workplace. The patriotically themed Humanities Core Office, complete with glass case of campaign buttons, pictured above, provided coverage from MS-NBC, while the Humanities Dean sponsored the reception I actually attended with live footage from ABC.

Of course, being a multitasker, I also supplemented my viewing experience with my trusty laptop during the event, reading Twitter feeds from DC and elsewhere and taking part in the lively rapid-fire simultaneous commentary staged through status updates on the CNN/Facebook event, where tens of thousands participated. It was interesting to read posts from friends abroad also watching the ceremony live on the Internet in London, Amsterdam, Montreal, and Perth. It brought to mind a recent article by Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg called "Place: The Networking of Public Space" in Networked Publics that examines "simultaneous place" and "telecocoons" that are enabled by ubiquitous computing and other new technologies, which better represents how the inauguration was experienced in social media channels with much more depth than a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post asking the merely rhetorical question: "Can You Capture This Moment?"

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Gaffe In

Notice how this online video bears the digital watermarks of a number of entertainment companies and news outlets: C-SPAN, Worldwide Pants, and You Tube are all given credit in the frame for this blooper real of outgoing president George W. Bush.

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The Bush Stops Here

As George W. Bush leaves office, designers for advertising agencies in countries across the world will lose their unintentional high-profile spokesperson for a number of products and causes, as galleries of print ads and collections of billboards make clear. Marc Van Gurp of Osocio has compiled an ironic "thank you" for all the street art, tactical media, and social advertising campaigns that exploit imagery of the forty-third president of the United States.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Locking the Barn Door

"At First, Funny Videos. Now, a Reference Tool" notes how research for school reports has moved beyond Wikipedia into YouTube. Ironically this takes place at a time in which many schools that serve K-12 block the popular video-sharing site on their computer networks. Thus, ironically, a teacher could not show this video about transnational hip hop done for my teenager's Japanese class, even though it was done as a class assignment.

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The Moral (Panic) of the Story

An article in the New York Times entitled "Report Calls Online Threats to Children Overblown" draws attention to the work of Harvard's Internet Safety Technical Task Force, which has addressed several current moral panics based on fears of online sexual predators and other anxieties about the vulnerabilities of the young to anti-social practices that seem to be facilitated by the very existence of social media.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

The 2008 Foleys: The Worst that .gov Has to Offer

Before the Bush administration is history, it's time to look back to 2008, as we did in 2007 and 2006, to award our annual prizes here at Virtualpolitik for the very worst in government digital media making, from embarrassing online videos to truly terrible taxpayer-funded computer games.

In 2009, it's true we'll miss out on having a McCain White House that had the potential to make federal content-creation even worse, since the Republican campaign brought us sublimely awful Internet experiences like McCain Space and Pork Invaders to insult our intelligence. But at least we can savor one last time how a bumbling Bush presidency managed to trip up on the information superhighway time and time again in 2008.

Worst Internet Event

Henry Jenkins
has written about how the Internet supposedly fosters transmedia experiences in which print, broadcast media, and content on distributed computer networks nourish a rich media ecology of participation and specialized knowledge and spur conflict, dialogue, and debate.

The painful Briefing 2.0 with U.S. Department of State Spokesman Sean McCormack was apparently intended to emulate aspects of the popular YouTube/CNN debates by having Internet users submit questions to powerful stakeholders and government experts, but this twenty-nine minute spectacle of cluelessness received fewer viewers -- by a factor of seven -- than this spontaneous video of my kids playing the Atlantic City Pipe Organ. Forget skateboarding dogs, this video was trounced even by bad Sponge Bob impressions, high school poetry readings, and "How to Plot a Point on a Graph." It would have been bad enough if McCormack was performing solo for a webcam in his bedroom, but there was an entire room full of dumbfounded reporters present at the event, who were apparently forbidden from asking questions themselves, even though this was ostensibly a press conference. It's really cringe-inducing to see McCormick struggle with his statements about "fun" and "foreign policy" and take credit for "something I started three years ago," as though that made him an savvy old hand.

Worst Government YouTube Channel

Most government YouTube channels attract relatively few viewers, especially since comments are often disabled and video responses are frequently forbidden. The channel for the Transportation Security Administration is a rare exception, since the curious flock to watch videos that represent the most currently hated of federal agencies. During a time in which the public wants to be reassured that vigilant oversight is taking place in "highways, railroads, buses, mass transit systems, ports and the 450 U.S. airports," it is appalling to see that almost all of the content on the TSA's channel focuses on justifying the "security theater" that takes place in the airport x-ray and metal detector lines. Even there, rather than rapidly update travelers with good instructional videos about new and current regulations, like those produced by many state DMVs, attention is paid to the "Simplifly" program and other ridiculous passenger self-sorting procedures rather than what to pack and how to pack it. For example, I've learned more from Ian Bogost about laptop transport than any of the supposed how-to videos on this site. Also, check out the bad green screen in their TSA "Why?" infomercials and the fact that comments have been disabled on their "lost and found testimonial" clips.

Worst Government Blog

Web logs could be such a great tool for personalizing complex policy issues and demonstrating how different government officials perform their duties throughout the country and throughout the world, so that public servants could be humanized in ways that might attract the best and the brightest to the profession. Alas, that is very rarely the case, even in blogs from diplomats in far-flung places, a genre that has been perfected by the British foreign service but seems poorly understood by our own U.S. State Deparment. Perhaps not the worst but certainly typical is The Mongolian Monitor, which actually contains the following example of its subliterate prose:

In the morning and early afternoon of October 28th the GoM-World Bank sponsored "Economic Growth Conference" was successfully conducted with an impressive list of internationally recognized speakers analyzing different national mineral sector policy frameworks.

This is from a guy who is in fricking Mongolia not the Rotary Club in Dayton, Ohio! He's in the exotic land of yurts, throat singing, nomadic horsemen, National Geographic spreads, and uneasy negotiations with nearby superpowers China and Russia. He's in a place where he might have said something substantive after a 2008 throwaway item that began "On July 1st, a riot broke out in the capital of Ulaanbaatar in response to opposition concerns about election fraud during the June 29th Parliamentary election vote." And yet the USAID author of this blog often goes months without posting.

Worst Government Computer Game

One could make an entire career out of critiquing misguided attempts to combine the fun of computer game play with the public information efforts of the organs of state authority. (And certainly I've tried.) But what's the fun of seeing the worst of game mechanics foisted on citizens young and old with an Internet connection at taxpayer expense. Because it is so far from being a game that anyone would want to play FEMA's Disaster Discovery, which combines dreary multiple choice testing with tedious board game action, deserves special attention.

Worst Government PowerPoint Presentation

You can make a really interesting electronic slideshow about global warming. Ask Al Gore. See a movie called An Inconvenient Truth. It's definitely doable with the right understanding of digital rhetoric. And yet on the USGS site you can find a series of almost unwatchable pre-fabricated PowerPoint presentations developed by the United Nations on the subject: One Planet, Many People that include every cheesy animation from the Microsoft corporation that reduces the scientific and humanistic argument to bullet points and crowded slides. Check out the terrible verse on the slide above. (Click to enlarge.)

Worst Government Website for Children

The site for adults isn't half-bad, so its discouraging to see that the Federal Reserve Kids Page is so lousy. Young people need to understand economics, although it is a subject often skipped in teach-to-the-test No Child Left Behind curricula. So it's terrible to see what is essentially a bad FAQ rewritten for an audience of morons representing fiscal policy to the young.

Worst Government Website Overall

I've awarded the prize to the Department of Homeland Security two years in a row now, so it is time to recognize the irony that the Federal Communication Commission is apparently incapable of communicating on the World Wide Web. Have fun looking for videos of the hearings or even transcripts. I challenge you to find anything but the bare-bones agendas of those meetings in clunky Word and only slightly less clunky PDF formats. With some ingenuity you may be able to find your way to this page with pay-per-view content from the public agency and proprietary technologies that seem to require this long "help" page. Compared to government websites with RSS feeds and open APIs, one would think that this site intentionally refused to recognize the advent of Web 2.0 years ago.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

From the Crowd to the Cloud: Watching the Inauguration on the Internet

I won’t be cramming onto a plane this weekend, spending a month’s salary on a plush hotel suite, haggling for tickets, or planning my assault on the Washington mall with other jostling out-of towners. It’s not that I’m not excited about seeing Barack Obama be sworn in as 44th President of the United States, but for me there are a thousand practical reasons for staying in California on January 20th. So I will watch the event on television, like most Americans.

I will also be watching it on my computer screen, thanks to the mobile devices of friends, acquaintances, and even strangers who will post their impressions of the Obama inauguration on Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, and Twitter. With unprecedented access to tools for creating and disseminating digital media, the record of this inaugural ceremony could show the richness of American pluralism, populism, and democratic inclusiveness with many individual perspectives.

However, before this electronic testimony is collected, we have an opportunity for critical reflection about how it will be archived for future generations. I talked to three Obama supporters and Facebook “friends” planning to join the inaugural festivities: a black woman, a white mid-career father, and a young Chilean immigrant. Despite different viewpoints, what they said resonated with my own concerns about commercial sites that are ill-equipped to be public archives.

My friend Alison, a television writer going to at least one A-list reception, may post an album of photos from the inauguration to Facebook, but she’s wary of “planning to subject everyone I know to the equivalent of a slideshow.” As an African-American, she feels the event’s significance personally, but she wants to opt out of “an international status check” that reduces the start of a new political and cultural era to “standing next to so-and-so.”

“I want to experience the experience,” she asserts. “To constantly document the moment is to take yourself out of it. A ‘community’ that incessantly asks for feedback is isolating. You lose the ability to process your own emotions and categorize your own feelings.”

In contrast, Michael Powers produces one of the Twitter feeds I will follow inauguration day. When listing reasons he is willing to cope with logistics that at one time included a 4 A.M. Metro ride and figuring out “how you change a two-year-old standing up in 30-degree weather,” he begins with the easiest explanation: “We’re insane.” He also describes his entire family working on the campaign in a “definite minority” of liberals in Indiana, Pennsylvania. “We have a strong sense of community around the campaign, and going down together is a way of keeping that sense of community going.” He wanted his kids “to bear witness to how local actions can have national results,” but has decided to go solo, because of the crowd, and will also be sharing the event with them through mobile devices for ubiquitous computing.

Powers is well aware that unlike scrapbooks or photo albums, which exist as physical objects, the digital record transmitted from his phone to Facebook and Twitter will be stored on remote servers in what information technology specialists like himself call “the cloud.” That’s why he’s on the Twitter public timeline, despite bandwidth issues, since text is “theoretically easiest to archive.” As he observes, "ASCI is forever." He’d upload his inauguration photos to Flickr, but recently he’s been mysteriously locked out of his account.

I’ve never met twenty-five-year-old blogger Pablo Manriquez, but I’ll be following his Twitter feed as well. Although he hadn’t worked out exact plans for getting from St. Louis to Washington D.C. at the time of our conversation and was grappling with the complexities described in Documenting the 2009 Presidential Inauguration, this aspiring photojournalist and contributor to Now Public is expecting to document the event with pictures on Facebook, Flickr, and Google’s Picasa. Like Powers, he has had problems with having accounts suspended, twice on Facebook alone.

As a former history student, Manriquez worries how inauguration material will be archived for posterity, even though technologies can stamp images with exact times and locations pinpointed to within a foot. “The cloud’s a great thing, but unlabeled data isn’t.” He compares information haphazardly uploaded to the Internet without explanation to materials in London’s Foundling Museum, which warehouses the 18th-century artifacts mothers left with abandoned children, such as spoons or lockets. “In the digital sense,” says Manriquez, “there will be a lot of lockets” from the inauguration.

According to Kris Carpenter, volunteers from the Internet Archive intend to be dispersed among the crowd on Tuesday, armed with laptops and “every adaptor they can think of” to collect data from cell phones and digital cameras from attendees and provide cataloging information or “metadata” to identify sources on the spot. The problem for archivists like Carpenter is that commercial sites like Facebook aren’t designed to commemorate national oratory or ritual observance; they are designed to generate advertising revenue and marketing data by capitalizing on the digital collections of others, which they take little responsibility for maintaining.

Pundits in the mainstream media have a tendency to chastise Internet users for making their private lives public and for putting the most intimate or mundane details of their personal experiences into digital files for all to gawk at online. As a scholar of rhetoric, my fear is that these practices won’t be public enough now that so many people rely on corporate cloud computing to store and share photos, videos, and journal entries.

Historians will want to mine this treasure trove of historical data, but the privacy architectures of “friends-only” websites, the rules in user agreements, and technologies that prevent copying may thwart collecting this material, and – as Powers and Manriquez have discovered – accounts can be suspended or deleted with little cause by dot-com corporations that may not last into the next century.

Dan Cohen
, head of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University agrees there are many problems with “online memory-making with decentralized user contributions” dependent on organizations “not in the forever business.” Rather than post to Facebook, Cohen encourages attendees to upload content to An American Moment: Your Story at Yet Cohen also praises the resources of commercial sites with public viewing privileges and fewer copyright restrictions. “After the 2005 London bombings, there were more photographs on Flickr than Scotland Yard could ever have gathered.”

Rather than try to keep up with all the digital ephemera on the web, the Library of Congress is concentrating on official websites like the Obama-Biden transition team’s However, as the Library's Abbie Grotke explains, even government agencies are putting large amounts of historically significant web content onto commercial third-party sites like Flickr, YouTube, and Twitter.

Jennifer Gavin at the LOC points out that citizens can also contribute to the Inaguration 2009 Sermons and Orations project. Rather than posting to private walls and putting more data into the cloud, inauguration attendees could upload material to government sites like and nonprofit sites like the Internet Archive, so we can all feel like part of the crowd in the future.

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