Saturday, June 27, 2009

Following Dear Leader

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out that one can follow the Twitter feed of the North Korean government. So far the tweets aren't always interesting reading, but modifiers like "hysteric" and "puppet" rarely appear in other state-sanctioned Twitter feeds, and it is interesting to see how the North Korean news service uses a Japanese server to host their web presence.

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The Spirit of Industry

Apparently Countrywide's Angelo Mozilo isn't the only corporate executive to have difficulty with the "reply all" feature of e-mail. "Ben Baldanza from Spirit Encourages Awful Customer Service..." describes a regrettable exchange involving a disgruntled customer dealing with the super-low cost airline, which is best known for markets aggressively through direct e-mail blasts that offer unbelievable double-digit prices on airfares. It's no wonder that Spirit leads the industry with complaints per capita, according to USA Today, given a CEO who sends the following message back to the customer:

Please respond, Pasquale, but we owe him nothing as far as I'm concerned. Let him tell the world how bad we are. He's never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny.

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Cyberspace War

In a New York Times article about how the "U.S. and Russia Differ on a Treaty for Cyberspace," the reporter notes that two superpowers are adopting fundamentally different paradigms through which to understand how new cybersecurity goals could be achieved through the traditional mechanism of the international treaty. More than virtual territory comes into play, as the two sides advance very different game plans.

“We really believe it’s defense, defense, defense,” said the State Department official, who asked not to be identified because authorization had not been given to speak on the record. “They want to constrain offense. We needed to be able to criminalize these horrible 50,000 attacks we were getting a day.”

Rather than focus on criminal attacks by non-state actors, the Russians worry about military-style incursions led by government agencies and want a chemical weapons-style treaty to set limits and define the rules that constitute just warfare in new domains.

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How Things Stack Up

My teenage son, who was recently studying for his Japanese final, introduced me to StudyStack, a website that combines a traditional source for flashcards and tutorials with the social network Facebook and cell phone technology. Built with freely available tools from the Apache Group and MySQL, web developer John Weidner has tried to make skill-and-drill distance learning more socially engaged.

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Fly Away Home

This video imagines a fantastic new set of features on Mac laptops, thanks to the representational power of computer animation. In real life, changes to laptop and desktop design are actually much more mundane, as this article on "Who moved my 'Delete' key?" shows, because users of keyboard technologies are actually quite conservative about their user interfaces. Meanwhile, social network sites are attempting to appropriate popular features of other services, such as the new Twitter-like SMS functionality of Facebook.

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Do You Want the Bad News First or the Really Bad News?

The YouTube video in which UC President Mark Yudof tells employees that they will face significant pay cuts or furloughs as a result of the state's budget crisis on the UC Budget news page has had both comments and embedding disabled, unlike Yudof's earlier, more positive video about the budget, which seemed to encourage bloggers and users of social network sites to post his message and disseminate it widely.

It is also interesting to see how Yudof has refined his YouTube armchair rhetorical style, at a time when the mixed messages in the text-based PDF files of letters from individual chancellors on the ten campuses have been generating confusion and panic. Despite this multimedia campaign, employees are encouraged to give their feedback in the video to these draconian proposals only via the e-mail channel, so the simulated office intimacy does still feel to the recipient like a one-way communication.

How ironic, given how movies used to seem so futuristic that would have a video message from a senior official to a government agent about the mission ahead, to see the use of this technology become so banal.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

The Mice Will Play

In recent days, USA Today has been conducting and publishing a number of polls about employers' interest in their workers' online identities and activities. Another recent study points out that "Most managers want to see employees’ Facebook profiles." Legislators are finally getting involved in thinking about this dimension of workers' rights, particularly if the communications are seen as private. For now, most of lawmakers' attention is focusing on the monitoring of e-mail done by government agencies themselves rather than corporate entitites, as "E-Mail Surveillance Renews Concerns in Congress" indicates.

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Dis-Cerning Audiences

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, has used the web to publicize its scientific research, particularly work involving its LHC or Large Hadron Collider, which is testing the theories of Stephen Hawking, Peter Higgs, and other eminent physicists and cosmologists. In a quest for more user-generated Internet content about such high energy physics projects the group has launched a contest for a multimedia intern that is designed to foster more public support in a time of constrained university budgets in the United States.

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Detective Mechandise

Mandatory installation of the screening software Green Dam on all computers sold in China after July 1 has now prompted a copyright claim from Solid Oak, the maker of the CyberSitter filtering program.

Many U.S. companies have been cooperating with the Beijing government to ensure continued lucrative contracts with the huge Chinese market, but the Obama administration has apparently sent a letter protesting the initiative on human rights grounds. The letter has not been publicly released, but a statement, "Secretary Gary Locke and USTR Ron Kirk Call on China To Revoke Mandatory Internet Filtering Software," seems to make the tone of protest clear.

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Facebook for Mugshots

Developers of Facebook applications have now launched a Sex Offender Search, which has already attracted over 40,000 users on the popular social networking site. Mapping services for sex offenders have long been available on a number of government websites and have already been linked to vigilante violence.

Comments on the application's page that are currently posted are generally positive, although developers note that some have registered complaints with their service, which provides mugshots of potential perpetrators on a user's news feed who has provided their zip code of residence.

We've gotten a few anonymous complaints about this being "too much". I disagree; A social site is a great way to allow more people to be aware that such tools exist out there to help protect your families. We've also done some upgrades to the system and hope things are running a bit smoother recently. If you have any problems please send us a message and we'll look into it as soon as possible. :) Thanks ♥

Of course, the offender locator search that it links to could easily encourage harassment of family, friends, neighbors, and bystanders who had nothing to do with any crime, and the category of offender itself can include many who are not pedophiles, as well as those who commit victimless crimes, such as gay men caught in sting operations at public cruising sites.

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A Rape in Cyberspace

Local news stations have recently covered a number of stories about how Internet-based social relations seem to lead to rape. News items such as "Police: Man Raped Woman Live on the Internet" and "Cops: Husband Hired Man on Craigslist to Rape Wife" make an implicit connection between distributed digital networks and sexual violence that may not be justified; they also draw on a range of news-ready experts from the self-aggrandizing Perry Aftab to a spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Ironically, although they represent diametrically interest groups, both Aftab and the EFF argued that the mobility and multiplicity of Internet services makes it hard to find third parties culpable.

Parry Aftab, founder and executive director of, a New York-based cyber-neighborhood watch group, said that although the broadcast of the alleged sexual assault is no longer on, it will always be available online somewhere.

"Once somebody grabs it, it moves," she said. "It's like trying to catch a river in your hand."

The very next day, the EFF made a somewhat similar argument about the lack of singularity of Internet domains.

"Craigslist is suffering a little bit from a pile-on effect here because of all the criticism that they've gotten before this," said Matt Zimmerman, a staff attorney for Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital rights advocacy group.

"If this was someone who met someone through a Yahoo personal or any other place that allows people to communicate directly without a background check, I don't know if they would be getting the same level of criticism.

However, as Julian Dibbell has argued in his famous essay "A Rape in Cyberspace," issues about consent and agency can be far more complicated and can involve the deliberations of many kinds of virtual bystanders as well in ways that don't fit into a local news sound bite.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

More Chain Letter

Kudos to Virtualpolitik pal Chris Soghoian for raising awareness about security flaws in Google's Gmail service by sending "An open letter to Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt." As the New York Times explains, Soghoian's rhetorical strategy was aimed at Google because they already had developed https encryption, although this level of security was not the default option for Gmail users. By publicizing an easy fix rather than one of the more intractable problems in cloud computing services, the group of "38 researchers and academics" present themselves as corporate-friendly cyber-moderates.

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The Mail Instinct

Of course, the big digital rhetoric story of the past twenty-four-hour news cycle has been the tearful admission of Republican Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina's teary confession to being in Argentina with a woman other than the state's first lady. One of the region's remaining newspapers managed to get an exclusive scoop on the story and also published an item about how "E-mails detail intimate affair," which included some of the actual e-mails to be read by the curious public. (They trumpet the print version of their front page in which electronic epistolarity plays a major role.)

Many will be drawing attention to more salacious passages, such as the following example:

I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificently gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night’s light — but hey, that would be going into the sexual details we spoke of at the steakhouse at dinner — and unlike you I would never do that!

What I find interesting is evidence of the governor's everyday rhetorical style, which is often manifested in his e-mail. For example, at one point he seems to organize his message to his paramour "Maria" into the form of a memo:

Three thoughts in one note now that I have a moment. One the travel schedule is about to get real busy (and this distresses me for the way it may well make it more difficult to get your notes over the next few weeks), two unfortunately all the feelings you describe are mutual, and three where do we go from here?

Each of these points is given a paragraph in the prose that follows. He even lapses into office speak about "further discussion" of his "last point" at the end of this purple passage:

Got back an hour ago to civilization and am now in Columbia after what was for me a glorious break from reality down at the farm. No phones ringing and tangible evidence of a day’s labors. Though I have started every day by 6 this morning woke at 4:30, I guess since my body knew it was the last day, and I went out and ran the excavator with lights until the sun came up. To me, and I suspect no one else on earth, there is something wonderful about listening to country music playing in the cab, air conditioner running, the hum of a huge diesel engine in the background, the tranquility that comes with being in a virtual wilderness of trees and marsh, the day breaking and vibrant pink coming alive in the morning clouds — and getting to build something with each scoop of dirt. It is admittedly weird but one of my more favorite ways of escaping the norms, constant phone calls and formalities that go with the office — and it probably fits with my weakness in doing rather than being — though you opened up a new chapter last week wherein I was happy and content just being. Last point worth further discussion.

Traffic to Sanford's official web page is jammed, so it is difficult to see how he is handling his formal online mea culpa. His Twitter feed, which his staffers dutifully updated while he was AWOL doesn't seem to have any posts since the scandal.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Lounge Singer

Tonight I will be at Red Emma's bookstore and coffeehouse in Baltimore, where I will be reading from the book and answering questions about the government as a digital content-creator. Details are here.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pieta in Reverse

This graphic scene of Iranian protester Neda Soltani dying on the streets of Tehran as her father weeps, which was shot by a cell phone camera and uploaded onto the Internet, is been shown on network news despite its graphic content, and users are warning YouTube against takedown, although several versions of this clip now require over-18 authentication.

The Twitter hashtag #Neda is already recognizing reaction to the rhetoric of martyrdom that the iconic image of her death seems to represent.

Update: More on the visual rhetoric of the image from Bag News Notes here. The New York Times provides biographical background here. The video is already being remixed by admirers on YouTube.

Second Update: Check out this excellent essay by Lisa Nakamura about the Neda phenomenon.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Seat for Elijah

With my cross-country schedule for the week, I will not be able to attend the panel with my colleagues at UC Irvine on assessment at Computers and Writing. So I will be a virtual presenter via the online video above. (I will be there for the final Town Hall, however.)

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Road Warrior

I will be attending three conferences in the next six days: State of Play, Computers and Writing, and Digital Humanities 2009.

I will also be giving a reading in Baltimore on the 22nd.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Artist's Guild

Aram Bartholl
has created a number of video works in which regular people walk around European cities with World of Warcraft style avatar names floating above them. He has also done installations with Google Maps markers to remind passers-by of the ways that digital worlds can interpenetrate material ones. Bartholl will be staging another one of these performance pieces in connection with the WoW: Emergent Media Phenomenon exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum, which I attended yesterday.

Visitors are given a conference-style neck badge and a glossy catalog in which half of the artwork comes from the game or from fans. Blizzard, the company that owns the World of Warcraft franchise, is one of the sponsors of the show.

Yet the installation also featured some who have used game spaces as sites for resistance, although Ian Bogost might question if such ventures really constitute art of the kind that he argues videogames are capable of producing.

Others in the show included Velvet-Strike creator Anne-Marie Schleiner, and continued the pacifist theme with an entire room devoted to their "/hugs" project, which purports to be a humanitarian NGO in Azeroth.

Jacqueline Goss intercut CGI video of American cities from the Department of Homeland Security with machinima gameplay and a soundtrack with reflections by Muslim Americans synched to the action in "Stranger Comes to Town."

Other offerings ranged from Chinese cosplay photographer Zeng Han, Tale of Tale's The Endless Forest, Cyril Kuhn's paintings of inventories and screenshots as visualizations of desire, Jorg Dubin's highly representational works, and Robert Nideffer's Bosch-like triptych.

Heavily represented was Eddo Stern whose work ran the gamut from the charmingly Arcimboldo-esque Best Flame War Ever that provides visuals to a verbal feud between players about the conventions of chat in Everquest to the misogynistic MELF that shows a sword penetrating a mechanized transparent female elf who served as a kind of shadow puppet.

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Surf No Evil

I thought there was some irony to the fact that National Public Radio aired a story about "Parental Controls for Computer-Savvy Kids" and then shortly afterward aired a story about how "China's Gay Pride Week Mixes Celebration, Caution," which noted with disapproval that computers shipped after July 1st would be equipped with an Internet filter that screens out content from keywords related to terms like "homosexual" and that such events would be therefore difficult to publicize in the future. NPR's producers obviously didn't see any cognitive dissonance that would come from this juxtaposition, but let me suggest a few ways that this should have given listeners a pause.

First of all, Henry Jenkins is running an interesting series on Risks, Rights, and Responsibilities in the Digital Age: An Interview with Sonia Livingstone (Part One) that cautions against moral panics and forms of rhetoric that make children's rights very different from human rights by stripping kids of certain forms of agency.

Second, as David Coursey points out in "China's Citizens Oppose Green Dam, So Must U.S. Computer Makers," many technology firms are complicit with the requirement that Green Dam be installed on new PCs.

For a fascinating write-up on resistance to Green Dam, including screen shots from what turned out to be an Internet voting fiasco for the Chinese government, see Rebecca MacKinnon's post "Green Damned."

Update: More about the "Green Dam Phenomenon" from MacKinnon at the Wall Street Journal.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Amateur Hour

There is an interesting possible confirmation of Henry Jankins' argument that the Internet fosters participatory cultures in which avid amateurs are active cultural creators. A new report from the National Endowment in the Arts, the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, depicts a depressing picture of graying audiences and dwindling attendance at galleries and concert halls. Yet, as NPR points out in "NEA: Art Creation Up, Attendance Down," a high tech folk culture of DIY community production means that people continue to take an active role. When the organizations that they monetize don't have revenue, government subsidies for professional artists are at risk and virtuoso content-creation could be compromised.

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A Thousand Cuts

This student-created art piece, "I'm Cutting My Hair," which suggests an aesthetic borrowed from the 1960s and performance pieces like Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece," is grouped by YouTube's keyword matching video with dozens of other hair-cutting videos on the online video sharing site, from DIY how-to videos to grooming moments that establish the viewer's intimacy with the vlogger.

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The Bigger Picture

There is an interesting article in the British Journal of Photography about how large digital archives of stock photographs are moving the entire market away from the signature shots of the famous auteurs that used to dominate the visual landscape from magazine covers to dorm room walls.

The commoditisation of stock photography through microstock images is threatening photography, says Corbis' chief executive officer Gary Shenk, as the number two picture library unveils a new initiative to profit from 50 million images in the prestigious Sygma archives.

In the past five years, microstock has grown exponentially, and the financial crisis has pushed even more photo buyers towards this budget end of the market. Last year, Getty Images, the leader in microstock through its iStockphoto operation, announced that the division's revenues would more than double to $262 million in 2012. This would account for close to 25% of the image giant's revenues.

At the same time, highly idiosyncratic images from only marginally professional photographers are having a heyday in the blogosphere, as bad family portraits get circulated in a culture of "lame hunting" rather than "cool hunting."

Thanks to Frank Evers for the link!

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Save Our Schools

With the California state budget continuing to be buffeted by a series of cascading crises, public schools in many districts are being forced to cancel summer school programs that are critical to prepare low-income and historically disadvantaged populations of students for college, retain them in the school system and get them back on track for graduation, or just provide a constructive way to spend time socially off of potentially mean streets. Given the prospects for canceled classes, Virtualpolitik friend Mark Marino has put out a call for participation in the Save Our Summer (SOS) Project 2009 as a stopgap measure to encourage teachers and students to share videos, websites, and archival sources of information that meet the objectives of state curricula that run the gamut from enrichment to remediation. Although Marino remains an advocate for live pedagogical experiences, he also notes the usefulness of Teacher Tube and scientific demonstrations for subjects like chemisty on the YouTube site itself. He's hoping that people will tag content for grade-appropriateness and subject matter on content standards or at least engage with the social dimension of online tools. I know that when my own son was in 6th grade, he found the Math Train site helpful.

Update: The project now has a website.

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Write-Only Media

"Studies Explore Whether the Internet Makes Students Better Writers" in the Chronicle of Higher Education examines a central conflict experienced by many student writers between practicing traditional academic composition designed for the print paradigm and forms of online writing that have proliferated rapidly to suit a variety of social computing situations.

The rise of online media has helped raise a new generation of college students who write far more, and in more-diverse forms, than their predecessors did. But the implications of the shift are hotly debated, both for the future of students' writing and for the college curriculum.

Some scholars say that this new writing is more engaged and more connected to an audience, and that colleges should encourage students to bring lessons from that writing into the classroom. Others argue that tweets and blog posts enforce bad writing habits and have little relevance to the kind of sustained, focused argument that academic work demands.

The article cites a number of friends to Virtualpolitik, such as Andrea Lunsford and Kathleen Yancey, who have been advocates for taking digital writing seriously for many years. On the other side, Mark Bauerlein is held up as the spokesperson for the cultural traditions of the past, although as I point out here in a post that the MacArthur Foundation has linked to, Bauerlein's assessments aren't always as objective as one might hope, given the high profile of The Dumbest Generation.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Das Rheingold

This video on "Vernacular Video In Culture and Education" from Howard Rheingold provides a good overview of the subject, although it doesn't address some of the pedagogical problems created by use of the genre, which Alexandra Juhasz describes in her work for Video Vortex. But it is an interesting model for the video essay format that will also be of use to students grappling with these kinds of multimedia online assignments.

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The Twitter Police

danah boyd points out an important way that the crowd sourcing potential of Twitter can be used to legitimate certain forms of sexual politics, particularly in conference settings in which sentiments about approval or disapproval of speakers may rapidly aggregate, even while the speaker is talking. In my own case, these backchannel postings to my talks have been more about disciplinary hostility than masculine hegemony, but I know of female colleagues who feel frustrated about having their looks evaluated by voyeuristic spectators in the audience armed with mobile devices and online laptops who are answering the question "hot or not" rather than engaging with the argument.

The source boyd cites, "Prude or Professional," looks at a somewhat different Twitter dynamic, in which a misogynistic presentation by Hoss Gifford at the Flashbelt conference was received with sexist approval and seconded by those who also criticized offended women with possible objections as overly sensitive to the speaker's boys-will-be-boys humor. Sample Tweets that "Geek Girl" Courtney Remes quotes include the following examples.

* Fonx is reading the #flashbelt rants on Hoss offending the ladies w/ a few swear words & a penis drawing - r u really that prudish & sexist?
* nthitz lol @hoss69 "If you are easily offended, fuck you" #flashbelt
* livenootrac Ladies of #flashbelt , I am sorry for the Hoss preso, but in the flash community he gets a pass, kinda like Don Rickles - that's just Hoss.
* CujoJpn @livenootrac And there were many ladies at #flashbelt who were offended by Hoss' Preso some were thick skinned and took it as is.

Remes encouraged sympathetic readers to follow up with three courses of action: 1) "Comment on this post and let it serve as a petition," 2) "Tweet about this and use the hashtag #prosnotprudes," and 3) "Digg this and let's make a statement." Obviously the campaign was successful based on the sympathetic comments of readers who asserted that web development should not be a boys club and the apologetic letter from the conference organizer that followed.

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If Only We Could Vote for President 25 Times

Dodgers fans can vote multiple times for their favorite baseball All Star candidates; I wrote in the amazing Juan Pierre twice and then grew weary of seeing the tag line "Every vote matters, so vote up to 25 times!"

It made me think about what voting means in the age of "voting early and often." As the New York Times points out in a piece on American Idol,
"as the show’s audience has declined in recent years, the number of votes being cast has risen sharply."

Pundits often bemoan the electoral naïveté and/or cynicism that these voting schemes seem to inspire, but I worry that the model of mass voting provides such a common -- and obviously flawed -- counter-example to traditional one-person/one-vote/one-candidate schemes, that no one will feel moved to use new computational technologies to try out alternative forms of deliberation, such as Condorcet voting, for example.

(Note also that fans buying tickets are told that their online authentication of themselves as human by typing in two words also helps the Internet Archive digitize their collections and thereby improve on fallible OCR technologies that attempt to read characters in now defunct typefaces.)

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Twitter Litter

Yesterday's New York Times ran a piece called "Hey, Just a Minute (or Why Google Isn’t Twitter)." The article is oriented around answering the following question about how search and microblogging may be related if both depend on ranking and recognizing trends and patterns in user behavior:

Google moves faster than some of its critics think. But even if didn’t, the more important question is this: Do we really want Google’s search engine to swallow Twitter’s output as fast as it comes, without filtering, analyzing and ranking by authority?

Unfortunately, as Virtualpolitik pal Ian Bogost has discovered, Twitter and Google are already intimately connected. In a posting called "Cascading Failure" he describes the ways that Google has become a de facto authenticator of content, in ways that often render legitimate content-creators unable to access or post their own content when they are mistakenly labeled spammers or malware distributors or in Jim Zwick's case, which I write about in the Virtualpolitik book, page hijackers and copycats. Bogost describes his problem here:

Early in the morning of June 10, my web host was compromised, and a script was run across the entire server on which my site is hosted. The exploit installed hidden links, via iframes and javascript document.write commands, which redirected invisibly to malware sites. This is a relatively common way for malware attacks to begin. When users mistakenly or unknowingly navigate to a web page with exploits, new processes might be started on the host computer, which could later be used as trojan horses to distribute additional malware or viruses, or which could steal sensitive information like passwords via keystroke logging.

Google attempts to protect people from malware by using their indexing system to detect malware on sites, and to mark them as potentially dangerous. You can see this in Google search results marked "This site may harm your computer."

All the popular web browsers, including Firefox, Safari, and Chrome, rely on Google's reports of unsafe sites in its internal browsing system. When a user tries to visit such a site, these browsers display a warning message . . .

Because my site is popular enough to be frequently indexed by Google, their system had already flagged the site as a malware distributor before I was even aware that the server had been compromised. This was inconvenient to say the least, because removing the warning requires one to notify Google that the site has been cleaned, in order that Google can initiate a new check of its contents.

Take close note of this process: one must sign up for a Google account in order to be able to rescue one's site from having been marked as unsafe by Google.

Unknown to me, Twitter also uses the Google unsafe warning as a way to flag accounts as spammers or malware distributors. Before I'd even completed restoring the hacked files on my site, Twitter had suspended my account, because my profile links to this site.

With Bogost's Twitter feed suspended, he is hamstrung at a succession of upcoming Twitter-centric conferences and hampered in staging his annual June performance of "Twittering Rocks" in honor of Bloomsday and the work of James Joyce. Twitter's customer service queue entails a daunting thirty-day wait time.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Street Action

Many who are following #IranElection on Twitter complain that news of student unrest in Tehran isn't being broadcast on major news channels. As some argue, "The revolution will not be televised, It will, be Twitterized." A Facebook group is already devoted to urging supporters to "wear green," and the Twitterati in several American cities are planning to protest results. Many are also trying to verify postings that tell of dramatic takeovers and reprisals from those like @IranRiggedElect and @Gita.

Pictures from Flickr, Photobucket, and other sites are being posted to places like Iran News (or "Iran 101").

NowPublic is trying to keep up with the rapid proliferation of what Sam Gregory has called "witness journalism." These events aren't yet reflected on Gregory's the Hub, and may not be unless the main story becomes police brutality rather than street violence. But social media coverage of demonstrations in Tehran is being curated at Global Voices Online.

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The Rhetoric of Overload

The authors of The Social Life of Information caution against the cynical use of a diagnosis of "information overload" as a way to justify presenting fewer user choices or a narrowed channel that transmits less information of the kind dictated by corporate interests. It is interesting to see how the rhetoric of information overload functions in this advertisement for and how different this ad is from the rhetoric of Apple's 1984 ad, which seems to caution against overly homogenized sources of data.

I'll admit to trying out Bing for problem solving with a few sample searches and seeing that it did actually do a better job of getting answers for complex questions like "How do you get to the Bronx from JFK?" than its Mountain-View based rival. But -- much like a younger child -- it didn't know basic facts about relatedness that Google already knows, for example that "Liz Losh" and "Elizabeth Losh" are the same person. (This split personality was actually something that I used to exploit, before Google exposed my secret life as a digital rights activist and blogger to my academic colleagues.)

David Weinberger in a posting on "Bing, Google . . . and Kayak" points out that looking up "Bing" on Google and "Google" on Bing is a somewhat disingenous rhetorical exercise.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Miscellaneously Yours

I met the Berkman Center's David Weinberger last month when I gave a talk there and was very grateful that he provided a lengthy live blogging post that translated the group's discussion into text, so that the lively exchanges about what constituted the public record in the age of experiments with e-government could be disseminated with more keywords and metadata than a simple videorecording alone would have provided. I tend to be leery of live blogging, for reasons that I explain here, but I know from experience that even blogging with a slight rigor mortis has been appreciated by workshops and conferences [1], [2], [3], [4].

That's why I was especially pleased to realize afterwards that he was the same David Weinberger whose book I had been carrying around before my trip to Boston, Everything is Miscellaneous, an extended meditation upon what he calls "the power of the new digital disorder" that cites Plato, Aristotle, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, as well as theorists of the digital age such as Vannevar Bush and John Seely Brown.

Not that I'd necessarily agree with everything in the book. When Weinberger enthuses about tagging I remember hearing research from Hugh C. Davis on folksonomy in 2007, which showed that many tags were actually not useful for categorization purposes by others, since only about 5% of tags were usefully descriptive. For example, he said 34% of them could be categorized as personal references (“toHugh,” “myBlog,” “toRead,” etc.), and many used the redundant “SaveThis.” Others used evaluative terms like “cool” and “kickass" that were interesting in aggregate but difficult to work with. Weinberger's examples, like "SF" and "London," often suggested a much more limited range of meaning. Of course, with enough people tagging digital files, that 5% could aggregate a large number of useful tags, and it could be argued that users will eventually be trained in good digital behavior over time, much as people had to learn to say "hello" when they first picked up the telephone in the analog age.

As someone who specializes in "scandal, disaster, miscommunication, and mistakes," I would have liked to have seen more analysis of cases in which digital disorder seems to be . . . well . . . disorderly. For example, on page 100, Weinberger mentions the Wikipedia article on "elephant" without discussing Stephen Colbert's famous prank with that page.

Given his work as a corporate consultant, I also felt possible conflicts of interest could come into play, since his analysis was sometimes remarkably uncritical about how privacy could be compromised by commercial data mining that exploits unwitting or unwilling user behavior with new search and cloud-computing technologies.

Finally, by asserting that "[w]hen our kids become teachers, they're not going to be administering tests to students sitting in a neat grid of separated desks with the shades drawn" (144-145), Weinberger sounds inclined to accept the idea of a "digital generation" a little too uncritically without considering the issues raised by Siva Vaidhyanathan in "Generational Myth" or the research of Diane Harley that shows that younger scholars aren't necessarily innovators with instructional technology.

But this is a useful book that contains real epistemological and rhetorical insights. For example, Weinberger recognizes that a profile on a social network site actually constitutes "a complex social artifact that results from my goals, self-image, and anticipations of how other people will interpret my list" (155) and that "length is a symbol of importance" in the Britannica, while it is "a manifestation of interest and importance" in Wikipedia (208). His definitional work on "knowledge" and "understanding" is particularly good and shows off both his Ph.D. philosophical training and his pramatic experience as a bestselling author.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Lifting the Base Gate

The big digital rhetoric story for the week has already been reported in Wired: "Army Orders Bases to Stop Blocking Twitter, Facebook, Flickr."

It is “the intent of senior Army leaders to leverage social media as a medium to allow soldiers to ‘tell the Army story’ and to facilitate the dissemination of strategic, unclassified information,” says the order, obtained by Danger Room. Therefore, “the social media sites available from the Army homepage will be made accessible from all campus area networks. Additionally, all web-based email will be made accessible.”

It's interesting to note, however, that MySpace is still on the prohibited list, presumably because of conventions that encourage more public posting, although the class divisions described by danah boyd may still play a role in this distinction. After some of the embarrassing video incidents that I describe in this article, it may not be surprising that YouTube will also still be blocked.

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Performing Maternity

In "Lights, Camera, Contraction!," the New York Times discusses the ramifications of a new genre on YouTube, the birth video, typified by "Bastian's Birth," which runs over an hour from start to climax. The graphic nature of the footage and the unscripted qualities of the interactions have posed challenges to the site, which often leaves them up for educational purposes, but nominally restricts viewership to those over 18.

Like other DIY videos about how-to projects on the site that are done without professional services, birth videos serve as inspiration to others and are even credited with helping an unassisted home birth take place safely after the husband "typed 'how to deliver a baby' into the Google search engine on his computer."

Despite the improvisational character of these videos, they could also be described as serving a particular rhetorical purpose in promoting the natural childbirth movement, since many of them are shot in home or water birth environments. Of course, as the book Performing Maternity in Early Modern England argues, there is a long tradition of understanding motherhood through staged events and acted roles.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Baby Makes Three

When I heard about the marriage of Lou Reed to Laurie Anderson from Siva Vaidhyanathan, my first reaction was to wonder about what their child would have been like, had this union occurred when they were both of reproductive age.

Thanks to Tycho Horan for the link that makes this thought experiment possible. The accompanying message read as follows:

Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed are proud to introduce you to hahahahahhaha, the virtual Baby they created with the new RoutanBabymaker3000. Volkswagen and I created the RoutanBabymaker3000 to remind couples that babies are about love, not a German-tuned suspension and European styling. With the RoutanBabymaker3000 now you can succumb to the urge to procreate, without adding to the epidemic. Just remember. Please. Have a baby for love, not for German engineering.

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The Biggest Faker of All

Fellow Harvard Lampoon alumnus Andy Borowitz was surprised to discover his joke story in The Huffington Post, "Gingrich Accuses Sotomayor of Faking Broken Ankle," was circulated as a true description of the actions of the former Speaker of the House by credulous pundits in the blogosphere and was eventually picked up in news feeds. Now commentators from places like the Augusta Daily Gazette are issuing non-apologies like "Sometimes it's good to be wrong." Critics might say that the problem was that the gag about the Supreme Court nominee wasn't funny enough to be taken as humor, but for now Borowitz seems to ba having the last laugh.

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Turn Left at Tehran

The cyber-cartographers at the Berkman Center have been busy creating a map of Iran's online publics at the Interactive Persian blogosphere map, where computer users also don't slice up the same social network pie as the one served up in the U.S. See "Publishing and Mapping Iran’s Weblogistan" for details about the project. Constellations include "secular/expatriate," "Persian poetry," "reformist politics," and "religious youth."

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Tarp Patterns

Subsidyscope offers a range of colorful data visualizations to make it faster and easier to see patterns in how federal funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program are being disbursed to corporations and how these companies can be held accountable for specific results that can be traced to government largesse.

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The Moving Ledger

The Los Angeles Times is offering an interactive feature about the California State Budget to its readers in which they can play policy maker and move specific budget items into the "cut" column.

Try your hand at closing California’s budget shortfall, estimated at $24 billion. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Cut spending, raise taxes and/or borrow to get the state out of the red. For each choice -- drawn from proposals from across the political spectrum -- we’ve tried to give some sense of the effects. As you craft your proposal, the Deficit Meter will show your progress.

This online feature joins the gallery of other budget-related games, such as Budget Hero from American Public Media, the New York City Budget Game, the Massachusetts Budget Game sponsored by the Boston Globe, "How Would You Cut $591 Million From the D.C. Budget?" from the Washington Post, the Kentucky State Budget Game for classrooms, and the Cyber-Budget Game from the French government.

Thanks to Brian Oglesby for the link!

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Book Ends

This video from Dennis Cass depicts an author trying to keep up with promotional techniques for multiple social media channels, including Facebook, MySpace, Second Life, Twitter, and YouTube. You can check out Cass's "Awesome Writing Prompts" as well.

Meanwhile the Australian government has issued The writer's guide to making a digital living, which they promote with an online video parody of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe.

Both videos are about the humor and anxiety involved in the encounter of traditional authorship with digital media.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

You Ought to Be in Pictures

Bag News Notes has been doing some interesting analysis of the White House Flickr stream. The ones of First Lady Michelle Obama are particularly remarkable.

Yet, unlike the State Department Flickr photostream, in which the images sport Creative Commons licenses, after its diplomats were scolded by Rebecca MacKinnon for initially claiming "all rights reserved," the White House images come with the following cumbersome statement in legalese asserting considerable restrictions on use.

This official White House photograph is being made available for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way or used in materials, advertisements, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement of the President, First Family, or the White House.

Given the number of school children who might want to use these images in reports and manipulate them in Photoshop to best serve the requirements of their projects, these limitations seem patently unreasonable.

At least the White House Flickr site isn't as ridiculous as the one belonging to NASA HQ, which actually bears the copyright symbol, even though such photographs of taxpayer-funded operations are obviously part of the public record.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

A Dish Served Cold

In "Shell to Pay $15.5 Million to Settle Nigerian Case," the New York Times reports that the heirs of writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa will be receiving compensation from the Dutch petroleum giant that recognizes the environmental losses of the Ogoni people caused by drilling and the execution of Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian government at the time.

The news story has a personal resonance for me as well. Over a decade ago, I wrote "'Dis Nigeria Sef': Ken Saro-Wiwa as the Poet who Wasn't" for an issue of Sulfur edited by Marjorie Perloff. According to my c.v., it is the first scholarly article that I ever published. It chronicled Saro-Wiwa's role as a defender of composition in Standard Written English and the debates of Anglophone authors with those who championed writing in regional native languages, such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o. It also detailed aspects of the Internet campaigns aimed to free Saro-Wiwa, which were ultimately unsuccessful.

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When Being In the Game is Not a Game

The phrase "Are you in the game?" takes on new meaning now that the Bay Area Video Coalition is sponsoring development for a new serious game about sex trafficking that is based on the documentary Sands of Silence.

I'd be interested to hear more about the game mechanic of this project about human trafficking, tentatively called SOS Slaves. Will they pursue a procedural rhetoric that looks at how geopolitics dictates patterns of global migration and exploitation? Or will the point of view of the game be dictated by what Ian Bogost has called a "rhetoric of failure" in which the algorithm draws attention to the impossibility of winning.

Rik Panganiban of Rikomatic explains more about the project in "'SOS Slaves' digital game challenges youth to help end sex trafficking."

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Wake Up Humans

The ethics of the "Wake Up Humans" at Amnesty International Belgium are complicated. The campaign uses elements of alternate reality games that incorporate SMS messages, seemingly hijacked websites, and street theatre to generate interest in their human rights campaigns and lead traffic to their website. And yet the use of what is essentially a hoax to make a rhetorical point might seem to strengthen the claims of those who often dismiss concerns about the improper exercise of state authority as conspiratorial delusion.

Thanks to Osocio for the link!

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If I am Ever Elected to Public Office, I Promise Not to Put "Ph.D." after My Name on My Website

I'll begin with two disclaimers.

1) I am a media scholar. Media scholars do not like Leland Yee. Yee has a long history of pushing for more regulation of the videogame industry by touting his credentials as a child psychologist, despite the fact that an important Harvard study refutes Yee's assumptions and such regulation has been used to stifle political dissent in places like Italy. (Of course, I do love the fact that Yee boasts of being named "Person of the Year" by Game Politics in his official bio when the "honor" represents a similar rhetorical move to TIME naming Hitler "Man of the Year" in 1939.)

2) I teach at the University of California. University of California faculty have even less reason to like Leland Yee, especially now that he is backing legislation that has been described as the "bad idea of the week" to strip the UC system of its traditional autonomy. An unattributed official statement posted online titled "Putting UC under Legislature's control is a non-starter" makes the case bluntly:

It is absurd that Senator Yee and his co-sponsors want to rewrite the California Constitution to strip the university of its historic autonomy and place it under direct control of the state Legislature.

Given the current $25 billion hole in the state budget and the political paralysis that chronically plagues Sacramento, tossing a 10-campus public research university that is the pride of California and the envy of the world into the Sacramento mix should be a non-starter.

Let's be clear: UC is working. At a time when it has become popular to mock California, the university survives as one of the state's great success stories. It has thrived under the system of autonomous governance, led by the Regents, that was so wisely written into the Constitution by our pioneers.

California might have trouble marketing its bonds in the current fiscal crisis, but UC has a AA1/AA rating. The state budget may have fallen over a cliff, but UC has managed its resources prudently in a tough environment. It has been able to preserve its world class status -- a thrumming engine of educational opportunity, scientific advance and economic stimulus -- even as it has absorbed a steady onslaught of cuts dictated from Sacramento.

Even with pinched budgets, UC still can attract top leaders to its 10 campuses and five medical centers, and can do so despite the easily verified fact that we compensate them well below the national average for comparable institutions.

Rather than rely on an untenable defense of state governance in comparison to UC governance, Yee has issued a list of bullet points outlining his gripes with the UC system. Many of them have already been addressed without amending the state constitution by other legislation, as he himself admits. But there are some assertions that probably use selective data to capitalize on loaded issues, such as "the University conducts research on teen smoking cessation funded by the tobacco industry," which misrepresents what seems to be an exceptional case in the full context of millions of dollars done to promote anti-smoking research at UC.

Given the fact that UC salaries are part of a searchable public database maintained by the Sacramento Bee, his hyperbolic claims about the UC system's less-than-perfect transparency seem overstated. I couldn't help but notice that Yee seems to draw a much higher salary than any of the media scholars that I typed into the system.

Faced with threatened cuts and the prospect of a legislative takeover, UC President Mark Yudof has chosen a more tactful approach than the one in the "non-starter" press release. At UC for California, constitutuents can use an online form to write to legislators. UC for California is also using Facebook and Twitter to spread the word.

Naturally, Yee is no stranger to social media, since he has a Facebook page of his own and a Twitter feed. There is also a Reform the UC Facebook page at which there is lively debate about the legislation.

If anything, his office has been too busy maintaining his social reputation on the web. According to Leland Yee's Wikipedia entry, "On September 4, 2007 it was revealed using WikiScanner that IP addresses registered to computers in the California Senate office had made changes to its Wikipedia entry favoring Leland Yee.[14] It was reported that they removed the 1992 shoplifting allegations and the video game controversies sections."

There's some amazing discussion about the Yee Wikipedia incident on this talk page, where a staffer insists that the editing could have been done by "lowly student interns" without the consent of the office, but others describe it as suspiciously "word for word" copy from his official website complete with grammatically illogical statements about parents' rights.

Kudos to Virtualpolitik pal Virgil Griffith for inventing the WikiScanner, which has generated so much online amusement for Yee's critics.

Update: To give his office credit, it's good to see that Yee doesn't delete critical comments from his Facebook wall and does have a staffer doing non-robotic rebuttals on both Twitter and Facebook.

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Czar Power

Since the election, there has been speculation about the kind of person that President Obama would choose to fill the role of "CyberCzar" to advise the Chief Executive about appropriate policies on network security and head up initiatives to police the Web. In stories like "Seeking Obama's Cyber Czar" and "Security experts sound off on Obama's cyber czar," it seemed that everyone had an opinion. Some believed that the president has already made a decision about who would fill the post as early as December, and many expected the pick to be announced at the end of May.

In "Remarks by the President on Securing our Nation's Cyber Infrastructure," however, many were surprised to have no announcement of an appointment to address the fact that there is no "single official" who "oversees cybersecurity policy across the federal government, and no single agency has the responsibility or authority to match the scope and scale of the challenge. "

Obama also describes his own feeling of "violation" when faced with stealthy attacks by hackers on websites associated with his candidacy in the 2008 election.

I know how it feels to have privacy violated because it has happened to me and the people around me. It's no secret that my presidential campaign harnessed the Internet and technology to transform our politics. What isn't widely known is that during the general election hackers managed to penetrate our computer systems. To all of you who donated to our campaign, I want you to all rest assured, our fundraising website was untouched. (Laughter.) So your confidential personal and financial information was protected.

But between August and October, hackers gained access to emails and a range of campaign files, from policy position papers to travel plans. And we worked closely with the CIA -- with the FBI and the Secret Service and hired security consultants to restore the security of our systems. It was a powerful reminder: In this Information Age, one of your greatest strengths -- in our case, our ability to communicate to a wide range of supporters through the Internet -- could also be one of your greatest vulnerabilities.

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Country Narrow

Now that the Securities and Exchange Commission is publishing
Excerpts of E-Mails From Angelo Mozilo it appears that the top executive at Countrywide, one of the companies at the center of the subprime mortgage meltdown, has problems with his e-mail rhetoric. Although he was publicly professing confidence in this company's business model, privately he was excoriating these loans as "toxic" and "poison." An e-mail from April 17, 2006 reads as follows:

In all my years in the business I have never seen a more toxic prduct [sic]. It's not only subordinated to the first, but the first is subprime. In addition, the FICOs are below 600, below 500 and some below 400[.] With real estate values coming down…the product will become increasingly worse. There has [sic] to be major changes in this program, including substantial increases in the minimum FICO. … Whether you consider the business milk or not, I am prepared to go without milk irrespective of the consequences to our production.

The "milk" metaphor was apparently a central figure in the company's discourse, as this e-mail from April 13 indicates:

"[i]n my conversations with Sambol he calls the 100% sub prime seconds as the 'milk' of the business. Frankly, I consider that product line to be the poison of ours."

In "Mozilo Was a Master at Ass-Covering," Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon makes the obvious comparison to Enron and the legal trail of its e-mails, but he points out that there is a fundamentally different rhetorical strategy at work.

What makes this case unusual is the clarity and comprehensiveness of Mozilo's objections to the shenanigans at the company he himself was running. The man that emerges from the SEC's complaint isn't the willfully disengaged chief executive we've seen in so many other corporate corruption cases. On the contrary, Mozilo systematically sets down a record of everything that is going wrong and how it's likely to end. Over and over again, he casts himself as the worrier-in-chief, always just on the verge of changing things. To read over the SEC charges against Mozilo is to see in action a grandmaster of the most cynical of corporate arts: the cover-your-ass memo.

However, Mozilo's troubles with e-mail go beyond his role in producing the specific genre of the "cover-your-ass memo." He's known for making embarrassing mistakes about a given e-mail's addressee. As the Los Angeles Times reported in "Mozilo on distressed borrower's appeal for help: 'disgusting'," Mozilo made a critical error in hitting "reply" instead of "forward" when a borrower asked to renegotiate his loan.

In an e-mail inadvertently sent to a distressed homeowner trying to avoid foreclosure, embattled Countrywide Financial Chairman Angelo Mozilo lashed out at an online counseling service for distressed borrowers, calling the website's efforts "unbelievable" and "disgusting."

. . .

At least two other housing blogs wrote about the exchange Tuesday. On Tuesday evening, Countrywide issued the following statement: "Countrywide and Mr. Mozilo regret any misunderstanding caused by his inadvertent response to an e-mail by Mr. Bailey. Countrywide is actively working to help borrowers, like Mr. Bailey, keep their homes."

After receiving the "disgusting" e-mail comment from Mozilo, Bailey wrote a second e-mail to Countrywide, acknowledging he had consulted an online forum for advice in drafting a hardship letter to Countrywide: "In attempting to come to some way to save my home, I took the advice on forming my hardship letter from a forum. Why? Not all of us have been to a university to study business and we need some help in dealing with these matters. (perhaps, if we had, we would not have fallen for what we did, to start with).

"To have recieved the e-mail that I did, stating by one of your employees, that what I did was 'disgusting' and 'unbelievable' has been just about the final straw. I am trying to do the right thing, I am trying with every ounce of what I have left in me not to blow my brains out over losing the home I have been in for 16 years. The only hope I had left was that perhaps the countrywide company did want to help the people it is servicing ... then I receive that responce to my letter. Just great. Now I know, that it is all a nice fat laughing matter to those who are supposed to help."

Of course, there are two kinds of failures of e-mail etiquette at work in the story, since the borrower admits to cutting and pasting verbiage from another source into what is supposed to be a personally authored missive. Nonetheless, Mozilo definitely comes out looking worse in the exchange and a villain as beleaguered borrowers go online to "tell us your Countrywide story."

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Going Out of Business Salesmanship

After filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the YouTube channel of General Motors features this commercial with tag lines like "the only chapter we're focused on is chapter one" and "this is not about going out of business; this is about getting down to business." It's also worth noting that adding comments has been disabled for this video.

In trying to promote their brand, GM is also using Flickr and Twitter, like other struggling American car companies. GM Reinvention carries the corporate downsizing message much more clearly than the main website for GM, which buries the bad news in the Flash rollovers at "Our Mission."

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The Doctor is In

In the wake of the murder of abortion provider George Tiller, I have been looking at the websites of the other late-term abortion providers and considering how these sites balance providing comfort to anxious patients and political advocacy. With their stock photos and patient testimonials, these sites present the public face of facilities that are often by necessity fortified bunkers to protect the security and privacy of patients and health care workers. For example, the website for the bluntly named Boulder Abortion Clinic addresses the issue of desired pregnancies that are terminated because of medical complications at "Medical Procedures" and "A Special Note about Fetal Anomaly"

Although many continue to publish in medical journals, other forms of print publication may be complicated by threats to those who create the physical artifact. As an article in the Los Angeles Times explains, Warren Hern, who runs the Boulder Clinic, now self-publishes his textbook Abortion Practice after his previous publisher halted production of this controversial book.

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Best Practices Make Best Perfect

The question of what constitutes "best practices" is addressed in terms of respecting copyright law in the video above from the Center for Social Media, but there are many other areas in Internet culture that the conventions about proper digital conduct may be similarly perceived to be unclear.

For example, recently I joined the group about Faculty Ethics on Facebook, which is trying to develop guidelines about appropriate behavior for faculty members on Facebook. As someone who teaches a course on digital rhetoric, I'm not sure that course tools from my university are always the best option for exploring subject matter related to social media. Jenna McWilliams has also suggested some tweaks to address the fact that it can be difficult to provide effective instruction without using the actual channels for communication in conjunction with the classroom experience.

The impulse driving guideline #1 is a valid one. It is, as Lynn Sykes, a teacher and friend, pointed out to me, a great big social networking world out there, and the minute we introduce social media into the classroom we also introduce the risk that learners will stumble upon material that is inappropriate for the classroom setting.

But ignoring this risk doesn't make it go away; indeed, it leaves many students ill-equipped to make intelligent decisions about what to do when they encounter this kind of material in real life, as they are certain to do. Learners who have access to social media and adult support for reflecting on their engagement with it in their homes will be prepared, of course. It's the learners with less access and less extracurricular support--in other words, the poor, the disadvantaged, the learners who have historically been left behind in school, in work, in life--who can most benefit from the experience of engaging with social media in the classroom.

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Friday, June 05, 2009

Who Gets to Speak?

News stories such as "White House uses Web during speech to Muslims" and "White House launches online offensive for Obama speech" emphasize how the Obama administration is using third-party commercial sites with social network functionalities like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to disseminate the messages from Obama's speech in Cairo out to world-wide audiences. As the Associated Press points out, "White House's Twitter feed and Facebook page posted highlights while Obama was still speaking and the State Department sent free text messages about the speech."

To countries with predominantly Muslim populations, the government offered free text messages about the speech in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and English. Participants could send text messages back to the State Department with reaction.

The text-messaging service was not available in the United States. Law forbids taxpayer dollars to be used domestically for propaganda

The reporter also draws readers' attention to the blogs on, which include Obama Today, and the fact that they allow moderated comments, some of which are mildly critical. In contrast, the Facebook page for the White House with information about the speech had already received more than 2,400 comments at press time. As those in the audience at my talk at Harvard's Berkman Center observed, the commercial cloud sites that I often caution against as repositories of the public record frequently allow for more free-for-all commentary than .gov mouthpieces.

One of the other stated reasons to use the informal channels of social network sites is that they may be less likely to be blocked by anti-democratic government authorities, although countries like Syria have pulled the plug on Facebook in the past, and it can be difficult to tell how much surveillance is taking place in countries like China.

Furthermore, as Nextgov describes in State Department promotes Internet diplomacy, public diplomacy in the Obama administration brings challenges as well as opportunities. State Department advisor on innovation Alec Ross notes the existence of "constraints" that "include ensuring that a federal employee's responses to individual questions posed online represent the administration's position." Peter Swire, who has authored a memo called "It's Not the Campaign Any More" that argues that web campaigning is different from e-government, describes a number of unintended scenarios that could be caused by the improvisation of Web 2.0 spokespeople in rapid-response mode.

"Suppose a White House blogger -- or someone else answering comments on -- can't get ahold of the North Korea expert," when asked about the problems in North Korea "and simply goes with his or her best judgment about what to say.

"During the campaign, that could backfire if the other candidate gets a good talking point. But in government, the consequences can be much more serious: What if North Korea didn't like the White House comment and decided to launch a missile attack on a neighboring country?" the report noted.

Ross acknowledged that no legal framework exists to handle 21st century statecraft. "What happens the first time a big mistake is made, and it either a) really falls flat, or b) something bad happens?"

The result likely would be "something well short of your missile, but social media is a messy space and government doesn't always lend itself to messy spaces," added Ross, who worked for Obama's presidential campaign and is co-founder of One Economy, a nonprofit that provides low-income people worldwide with technology to improve their lives.

There has already been a retraction from a State Department reply on Twitter to Rebecca MacKinnon, who complained about the detention of Chinese bloggers, when the staffer clearly had tweeted out of turn.

There have also been many complaints about deletions on the citizen comment end of the process, particularly on the Open Government Dialogue website, which is also not kept on a .gov domain, although it bears the official seal of the President. In "Conversation turns ugly at the Open Government Dialogue," Federal Computer Week describes how the "birthers" are flooding public spaces for online comment with queries about Obama's birth certificate and how the Digg style structure of the site brings conspiratorial commentary to the top. The administration has announced that it has refocused the Open Government initiative on a few selected issues and the position papers of established organizations at From the Inbox, where Microsoft formatted documents are posted alongside calls for greater use of open source software in governance.

(Thanks to John Brown's Public Diplomacy for many of these links.)

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