Monday, August 31, 2009

Return of SonicJihad

Yesterday I traveled to Utrecht to interview the Dutch gamer at the center of what I have called the "SonicJihad debacle," which opens the first chapter of the Virtualpolitik book. In addition to giving the creator of the Battlefield 2 fan film with the Team America soundtrack that was mistaken for a jihadist videogame by the House Intelligence Committee a copy of my book, I also gathered new material for a forthcoming essay in Error: Information, Control, and the Cultures of Noise, which will be out in 2010 from Continuum. Although SonicJihad no longer spends much time playing videogames, he has provided some more commentary on cultural misperceptions involving the MidEast/West divide and computational culture in the remix above. He has also included the following disclaimer to clarify its audience and purpose.

This video is NOT intended as a propaganda tool or a Jihadi recruiting video. This video is being exclusively published by me on the PlanetBattlfield site (I'll try to upload it on Youtube for the ones that can't download the big file). Anybody posting this video on other sites will take his or her own responsibility!

I repeat this is a Battlefield video for the community only.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

After Blackberrying

For the last week I have been a Blackberry user, since my trip abroad in Holland, Belgium, and France made access to ubiquitous computing desirable enough for me to chose to rent a wireless device from the Vodafone company and my local service provider Verizon. I've been conscious of how being able to check e-mail on the fly and to see both SMS and e-mail on the same screen sharing inbox real estate has shaped my communication experiences.

Despite its small dimensions, I actually found the keyboard easier to use than the toylike One Laptop Per Child keyboard. I also appreciated the tangible feedback of mechanical raised keys; as Ian Bogost notes in his review of the iPhone as a "geek's chihuahua" consistant input experiences matter.

I am almost always online in any case, so I am not sure that it made me less attentive to interactions in the "real" world, even if a countryside punctuated with windmills was going by in a high speed train or a transgendered junkie was sliding off the seat across from me in the Paris metro.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Voting with Their Feet

UC employees have been encouraged to use the Internet to register a vote of no confidence in University of California President Mark Yudof. There are several things that are striking about this online voting experience.

The first is that there are -- not surprisingly -- two choices. And yet that paucity of available forms of expressing preferences of political opinion for deliberative purposes need not be the case. As Chris Kelty has argued, computational media make possible many kinds of civic participation in which choices could be ranked or apportioned in much more complicated and nuanced ways. Dissatisfaction with Yudof's performance seems to be organized along a continuum in which it would be helpful to separate those with strong feelings from those who are only mildly irritated.

The second is that the ballot is written in three languages: English, Spanish, and Chinese. Members of the UC community tend to reflect some of the rich diversity of the state, and these are likely the top home languages among the current student population, even if the business of the university tends to be conducted almost entirely in English.

The third is that there is no authentication mechanism for verifying votes. Although UC students and employees have distinct network IDs, each campus uses a different system, so it would be difficult to provide a login for all ten campuses. Yet this potentially allows people to cast votes in the name of colleagues, students, and university employees who aren't actually participating in the system.

Meanwhile Yudof is encouraging UC grads, affiliates, and community members to Share Your Story by generating online form letters that express their gratitude for the tremendous social and economic mobility that the UC system provides and that makes it such a rich asset for the state.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

A Chip Card on His Shoulder

I watched yesterday in Amsterdam as the city's transportation network switched only to accepting chipcards on public transportation. By the end of the day the new cards weren't working on many of the city buses, despite the enthusiasm for the new devices expressed by young workers in costume promoting the change-over.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Class Act

This game trailer for Spectrobes has special significance for me, because one of the prominently placed extras is my younger son,who is cast as one of the uncool non-videogame savvy students whose science projects are blown away by the CGI super-fun competition of videogame classroom display.

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Ring My Bell

Yesterday I went to the Museum of Communication, which faces certain interesting curatorial challenges, given its subject matter. When "communication" is presented in a museum setting, it often comes down to displaying a series of inventions. This furthers a perspective on communication that understands it instrumentally, as enabled by a series of increasingly sophisticated tools that are invented by scientific geniuses like Alexander Graham Bell or Thomas Edison. To give it credit, from its opening displays, the museum tries to draw attention to social practices, rhetorical conventions, and the ways that communication functions through mediation rather than transparently.

The museum is currently exhibiting images of people with their online avatars, an archive of images that was first highlighted in the New York Times, which are now collected in the book Alter Ego: Avatars and their Creators.

It is also running a singularly bizarre show called STAR-RING, which deals with the way that telephones have been featured in movies. The exhibition runs from the appearance of split-screen as a cinematic convention with which to present telephone conversations to the emergence of cell phone spectacles such as happy slapping videos.

As one exits the museum, one is reminded of the mixed Internet/postal phenemonon PostSecret, as the museum presents samples from its own collection of about 5000 cards created by visitors.

Despite some thoughtful meditation about the nature of communication, the museum still represents corporate rhetoric about interpersonal exchanges and has its own creepy treehouse feel.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Eight Bitting Off More Than They Can Chew

This amazing video of 1500 hours of Lego arrangement provides a stop-motion homage to classic 8-bit arcade, computer, and Nintendo NES magic. It was apparently created by the Swedish group Rymdreglage. It's got everything that the Internet loves: Scandinavians, stop motion, 8-bit music and video, and elaborate arrangements of Legos.

This happiness is shared thanks to the encyclopedic Dennis Jerz.


Literacy not Litter

New media journalist Clive Thompson interviewed fellow rhetorician and friend of Virtualpolitik Andrea Lunsford in "Clive Thompson on the New Literacy." In the article in Wired Lunsford describes her longitudinal research project on college student writing that incorporates the writing that students are doing outside of class. I tend to have trouble with the literacy paradigm, because I think that it directs attention away from the issues of digital rights, even though advocates for digital literacy like Lunsford and Henry Jenkins are some of the most visible and vocal proponents of copyright reform, net neutrality, and anti-censorship awareness. But the Lunsford/Thompson argument about the importance of audience in the digital literacy landscape is presented concisely and well. Given the number of people seeking funding for audience-less "creepy treehouses" or "walled gardens" in the name of literacy, this article makes an important point.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

I will be in the Netherlands for the next week, and, as the announcement below indicates, I'll be giving a talk in Amsterdam on the 31st of the month. I hope friends of Virtualpolitik will come hear the ways that I am thinking about authentication and the social contract in contemporary Internet politics.

DIY Authentication: Digital Rhetoric and the Subversive Potential of Information Culture

Public Lecture and Book Launch by Elizabeth Losh
Writing Director, Humanities Core Course, University of California
Irvine, USA

Author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-
Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes
(MIT Press, 2009)

Introduction by Geert Lovink
Room F.2 11B

University of Amsterdam

Bushuis Kloveniersburgwal 48

1-5 PM

Your lecture starts at 3 PM

August 31 2009, 3-5 PM

As the American government becomes an increasingly active content-creator, officials in the United States have become obsessed with banning certain applications that allow critics and the general public to generate authentic looking documents, reports, and online forms. In October of 2006, these anxieties became particularly prominent when a graduate student in computer science, who was critical of airline security procedures instituted by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, created a humorous web generator that could print what appeared to be authentic boarding passes from Northwest Airlines. The genre of the online generator, which is used for everything from creating doctored photographs of church signs to online aliases with superhero names, has become a particularly popular vehicle for political satire in the current Internet reputation economy, as PHP programs are circulated amongst those who use their basic programming skills to create Internet ephemera capable of creating more Internet ephemera, an activity that is sometimes seen as extremely threatening to the virtual state.

Today government agencies not only have official Web sites but also sponsor moderated chats, blogs, digital video clips, online tutorials, videogames, and virtual tours of national landmarks. Sophisticated online marketing campaigns target citizens with messages from the government—even as officials make news with digital gaffes involving embarrassing e-mails, instant messages, and videos. In Virtualpolitik, Elizabeth Losh closely examines the government's digital rhetoric in such cases and its dual role as media-maker and regulator.

In describing how the Bush administration often struggled with understanding computational media, Losh reports on a video game that panicked the House Intelligence Committee, government Web sites produced in the weeks and months following 9/11, PowerPoint presentations by government officials and gadflies, e-mail as a channel for whistleblowing, videogames for the military and first responders, national digital libraries, and computer-based training for public health professionals.

Losh concludes that the government's Virtualpolitik—its digital Realpolitik aimed at preserving its own power—is focused on regulation, casting as criminal such common online activities as file sharing, videogame play, and social networking. This policy approach, she warns, indefinitely postpones building effective institutions for electronic governance, ignores constituents' need to shape electronic identities to suit their personal politics, and misses an opportunity to learn how citizens can have meaningful interaction with the virtual manifestations of the state.

Please note the new location.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Let's Put on a Conference!

A reminder that registration for DAC 2009 at UC Irvine will soon be open. From December 12 to December 15, this international conference, which is organized this year by Simon Penny, will offer a presentations on the following themes: Embodiment and performativity, After mobile media, Software/ platform studies, Environment/ sustainability/ climate change, Interdisciplinary pedagogy, Cognition and creativity, Sex and sexuality, A Space-Time of Ubiquity and Embeddedness, and The Present and Future of Humanist Inquiry in the Digital Field. When I attended DAC in 2005 in Copenhagen, I met many of those who now are associated with emerging discipline of software studies. This year I will be part of the Interdisciplinary Pedagogy track. Stay tuned for my ten pedagogical trends in digital instruction and my argument about how Southern California serves as a site of regional advantace in hybridizing of learning and resisting the distance learning courseware-driven paradigm of atomization, efficiency, and modularity that stifles real learning.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bar None

You can try out Personas for yourself. As an admitted self-Googler, I might argue that the software seems to pick up less of the activism and blogging than other aggregators do, and that it shows institutional investment and coherent narratives about social roles much more. (Click to enlarge.)

Part of the artist's statement reads as follows:

In a world where fortunes are sought through data-mining vast information repositories, the computer is our indispensable but far from infallible assistant. Personas demonstrates the computer's uncanny insights and its inadvertent errors, such as the mischaracterizations caused by the inability to separate data from multiple owners of the same name. It is meant for the viewer to reflect on our current and future world, where digital histories are as important if not more important than oral histories, and computational methods of condensing our digital traces are opaque and socially ignorant.

More about this piece by Aaron Zinman can be found here. Thanks to Jenny Cool for the link.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Nod and a Wink

Social scientists and even some researchers in cognitive science have argued that facial expressions are far from universal, but now it appears that it might be true of emoticons as well, given different styles of abbreviation in Asia and elsewhere that vary considerably from the U.S. lexicon of signs created with punctuation markers.


Trailer Trash

Although the New York Times is taking the "blockbuster trailer" of James Cameron's Avatar very seriously, YouTube doesn't necessarily treat the impending debut of the film with the same gravitas. A number of Avatar trailers on the site only lead to Rick Rolls, and despite a number of DMCA takedown notices, a number of variants of this humorous jibe at computer-generated animation continue to appear.

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Behind Bars

Visitors to the current version of the federal website for the Department of Homeland Security who notice trends in web design layout might take notice of the way that the "threat level" of the security advisory system has been relegated to the bottom of the page, although it once was featured more prominently.

Given the recent coverage of former DHS secretary Tom Ridge's revelation that there were political pressures to elevate the threat level in the Bush White House, it is interesting to see how this visual icon has been deemphasized in the current incarnation of the virtual state. Although it became more modest in size eventually during the Bush administration, it continued to top web pages for the federal government, even those only tangentially related to national security.

However, it's hard to see the evolution of the DHS website over the course of its full history, since before 2007 the site owner prohibited the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine from archiving the contents of the site by using robots.txt.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Most Taunted

Desperate to collect child support payments to keep as many women as possible off the welfare rolls, the County of Los Angeles has resorted to creating a "Most Wanted List" for men who are refusing to honor judgments that require them to pay to support their offspring. Websites about criminal offenders that feature photographs generally serve three purposes: apprehension, surveillance, and shame. The FBI's Most Wanted posters, which have now largely migrated to the web, is a classic example of the first genre. The websites that feature sexual offenders who have been released into the community nominally serve the second purpose but often serve the third as well. How this site will function in making these men community reprobates has yet to be firmly established, although radio and print outlets are triumphing its success.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Toolkits and Tinkerers

Creative Tools for Critical Times (or CT4CT) describes itself as "a repository of artistic projects that exist at the intersection of contemporary culture, critical theory, and civic engagement." As can be seen by some of the witty projects in its gallery of examples of "critical design," these serious topics don't necessarily preclude humorous expression. As Graham Meikle's essay in last year's volume on Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times indicates, activism doesn't only have to be "instrumental," since "expressive" activism also serves a purpose in the ecologies of political life and social and environmental justice. For Meikle the question isn't always "Does It Work?" The questions can be "Does it Play" as well.

The various toolkits at CT4CT guides visitors to the site to artists' collectives, and it also has a section on Strategies & Tactics, following the terms of Michel de Certeau, that includes overviews on Culture Jamming, Data Visualization, DIY, Historical Research, Pranks, Remix, and Scientific Research as well. In its earlier incarnation, the site was much more obviously wiki-fied. (See below.)

Thanks to Trebor Scholz for the link.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Flare for the Dramatic

I really hate the look of digital lens flare that is manufactured in postproduction software packages, particularly when its used on images that were created without a camera, as in the case of the CGI in films like the 2005 The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. This send-up of the over-use of the effect in the new Star Trek film illustrates how strange the combination of an aesthetic from an obsolete technology with celestial imagery of coronas and other otherworldly lighting could be.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Universities without Pictures

Websites established for institutional rhetoric often struggle with finding the appropriate address for an advocacy role. From their website you wouldn't know that the UCLA Arts Library is facing closure in the face of pending budget cuts. Nor would you know that librarians, art scholars, and their supporters have started a Facebook group or that there is a petition at the website for the American Studies Association that was created in a bid to get campus administrators to reconsider closing the library's doors for good. Like many collections associated with slides and art prints, visual resource archives are often seen as expendable in the age of the Internet, given faculty habits of now Googling for images to use in lecture and the investment that universities have already made in services like ARTstor. The problem is that image collections don't actually function as a zero-sum situation in which online use necessarily decreases on-site use and that many slides and prints have not been digitized, given the labor-intensive character of this work.

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In Europe, the use of urban screens has become an increasingly common architectural practice in art and advertising. This twenty-first-century example of trompe l'œil plays with the relationship between the digital and the bricks and mortar constructions of public space.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Taking Things to Heart

This might be the worst iPhone app ever. I hope that readers of Virtualpolitik will send other contenders my way.

Also, the word "nano" should never be used in a serious game of any kind. Super small is just not super exciting.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

General Wiki

Given the importance of field manuals as an arbiter of army doctrine, there has been a remarkable development in how this official discourse may be generated. During the Bush administration the "capstone doctrine" represented by more than 500 different guides included controversial new provisions about interrogation or counterterrorism. "Care to Write Army Doctrine? With ID, Log On" in the New York Times describes a new plan to use wiki technology to

In July, in a sharp break from tradition, the Army began encouraging its personnel — from the privates to the generals — to go online and collaboratively rewrite seven of the field manuals that give instructions on all aspects of Army life.

Unlike the institutional authorship that a traditional field manual presents, the system will allow no anonymous edits, so the individuals who contribute content will have public identities.

Close reading of the article shows that it is only a test program and that very little editing has taken place in the six week's since the program's launch. In light of army personnel's anxieties about potentially displeasing superiors, it is not surprising that soldiers have been reluctant to try to rewrite the rules.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Creepy Treehouses

Lately there has been considerable discussion of the metaphor of the "creepy treehouse" to describe online learning initiatives that are doomed to failure because their rhetorical appeal to young people is so profoundly wrong in its address.

Of course, there have been many other metaphors from vernacular architecture to describe the location of Internet practices in relationship to the conventional spheres of home and work. For example, technology researcher Genevieve Bell has argued that ubiquitous computing plans tend to enshrine certain ideas about domesticity that ignore the functions of liminal places more tangentially associated with the home environment, such as the shed, which functions as a site for tinkering and repair. I suppose that in the United States, the garage often serves that function.

The treehouse is creepy and off-putting to children partly because it is so obviously constructed by an adult to attract non-adults to a given site, much as a gingerbread house built by a witch should attract suspicion.

A blog posting on "Defining 'Creepy Treehouse'" suggests some other ways beyond the straightforward definition of a "place, physical or virtual (e.g. online), built by adults with the intention of luring in kids" that the term could be meaningful to experience designers.

Any institutionally-created, operated, or controlled environment in which participants are lured in either by mimicking pre-existing open or naturally formed environments, or by force, through a system of punishments or rewards.

Any system or environment that repulses a target user due to it’s closeness to or representation of an oppressive or overbearing institution.

A situation in which an authority figure or an institutional power forces those below him/her into social or quasi-social situations.

Many of these definitions have to do with the institutional power behind much educational technology and the uncomfortable relationships that many institutions and the Internet maintain.

You can see the reactions on TechRhet to the question "Are You Building a Creepy Treehouse?" to see how it also generates discomfort among e-learning advocates.

(Thanks to David Schwalm for the link.)

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Street Scene

On Thursday night there was a remarkably large turnout downtown for the Digital Art LA International Expo, which was centered at the Digital Art L.A. gallery. One of the largest pieces was The Last Riot from AES + F, which cites the military recruiting game America's Army as an influence in their artists' statement. Artist Tiffany Trenda also put on a live performance.

Some of the work could only be seen on the Internet, however, such as much of the online video work of the Inter.sect Collective and a featured group of Net Artists associated with the festival.

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Couples Counseling

This mock public service announcement from Throw'd TV ridicules the competition and mistrust that can enter into a couple's relationship when Facebook becomes the dominant social relationship at issue. There are a number of humorous online break-up videos already, but this one playfully mixes online pages with physical bodies, Internet events with the temporalities of work and home, and virtual gifts with material assets involved in recognized forms of reciprocality.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

But Seriously Folks

The winners of the Knight News Challenge were announced a few months ago, but it's worth recognizing the winners again here. Those honored included a number of games in a journalistic mode, which included projects from the Newseum and the game from the University of Minnesota, Playing the News. Critics of these choices might argue that the interactive experiences offered only attempt to preserve the status quo of pre-Internet news gathering rather than seriously interrogate the reporter-hero model of conventional one-to-many journalism that has been reified in films like All the President's Men. However, there is a wide range of offerings among the winners, from a nostalgic look at Oakland jazz in Remembering 7th Street to the now classice procedural rhetoric of September 12th to database-driven games about waste management and budgeting from Gotham Gazette, to the event can be read as more than an attempt to prop up a moribund enterprise.

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The Lady or the Tiger

This talk by Lawrence Lessig at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society covers some of the questions raised about the Google books settlement. Although he argues that he is just replaying "what Siva said," Lessig's concerns are less with the "Googlization of Everything" and the issues that Siva Vaidhyanathan raises than with what it means for long hoped for orphaned works legislation and the precedent that it sets for digital archives and practices around fair use. Lessig argues that the Google settlement follows the model of video rights rather than those governing print media, and that this perpetuation of what he calls "permission culture" will undermine access to this potentially very large part of the cultural commons. Of course, by implicitly comparing Google's ilk to a baby tiger, Lessig is making a respectful argument against one of Lessig's protégés who negotiated the Google books settlement, even if he claims that the registry concept isn't necessarily bad.

It is worth noting that the Guggenheim documentary about Robert Kennedy at the center of one of Lessig's anecdotes is now available on DVD, because the rights have finally been cleared forty years later.

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Reality Checkered Past

I would argue that the White House is making a fundamental rhetorical mistake by devoting some of its website to a section called "Reality Check." Those who remember how the White House of George W. Bush had a regular feature called "Setting the Record Straight" that took issue with the coverage of the administration in the New York Times or the Washington Post might advise the Executive Branch to stick to the high ground of the debate and not engage with the discourses of distortion. Of course, the Bush administration produced several of these combative subsites at different federal agencies, which included "Mythbusters" at the TSA.

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Peep Holes

The premise of this film to be shot entirely with surveillance cameras promises to play with ideas of cinematic voyeurism and urban storytelling in new ways. However, it remains to be seen if the film can get beyond the gimmick. After all, Cloverfield used the perspective of a hand-held camera traded off among a group of friends for considerably more banal disaster flick purposes. Although the film never explored the way vernacular practices could tie into storytelling either.

Thanks to Peggy Weil for the link.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Down Town Hall

As anti-healthcare protestors disrupt "town hall" meetings, I'm viewing the spectacle through my own research lenses this summer, since I've been thinking a lot about the rhetorics of town halls and how the town hall functions as both a public space and a site of architectures of control.

The modern town hall dates from the founding of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena in 1297. Inside the Palazzo Pubblico are fourteenth-century paintings of Ambrogio Lorensetti’s allegories of Good Government and Bad Government. The German critic Bazon Brock has argued that these paintings show how “it is precisely the many diverging opinions and interests of the citizens that fill a commune with life, provided the conflicting parties are all committed to law and justice.”

As civic organization has developed, the town hall has served as more than a site of potential political participation for the citizens who lived in its shadow. In the Early Modern period in England, the town hall represented the instantiation of political authority as well. According to historian Robert Titttler, the “requirements of political legitimacy and effective rule” were tied to “the structure, furnishings, use, and mystique” of the architecture of the town hall.

What is remarkable about the rhetorical function of the “town hall meeting” in the United States is that it often attempts to include urban dwellers and to represent the complexities of governance in cities, where direct democracy would seem to be impossible. Although the term suggests nostalgia for small town life, as early as 1951 LIFE photographer Thomas Mcavoy captured the drama of the packed theatre tiers of a Detroit town hall meeting where women with hats and furs joined male voters in the public airing of concerns.

A 1962 article in the New York Times describes a “valiant attempt to revive the ‘town hall meeting’ as a viable political force” when the Bronx’s Republican Borough President assembled 800 residents. The reporter described how some came “to air complaints, others to make suggestions, and a few to vent wrath.” This spectacle of democratic participation placed eighteen public servants from various city departments in a semi-circle on stage on “the receiving end” of the audience’s questions. All questions were to be answered, although those that were mailed in advance may have been given first priority.

One version of the “electronic town hall” was proposed by Amitai Etzioni in 1972. In an article in Policy Sciences, he argued that his Minerva system could be ready by 1985 to “allow masses of citizens to have discussions with each other, and which will enable them to reach group decisions without leaving their homes.” Etzioni claimed that his work would seek “to correct a loss brought about by modern mass society and heretofore considered beyond retrieve.” With the Minerva system he promised to restore “the kind of participatory democracy available to the members of small communities such as the Greek polis, New England towns, and Israeli Kibbutzim.”

In the 1992 election Ross Perot promoted the idea of an “electronic town hall.” Perot had been interested in staging one-hour public conversations to be followed by computerized voting since 1969. In response, TIME magazine dismissed the plan as “an illusion” similar to “the other trappings of direct techno-democracy.” "Mass electronic communication is really one-way communication, top-down." they insisted. According to the editors, "direct democracy is such a manipulatable sham that every two-bit Mussolini adopts it as his own. Pomp and plebiscites." They praised the "American experiment" as an "experiment in democratic indirectness" and asserted the value of "filtering institutions."

In 1935 America's Town Meeting of the Air opened its first radio broadcast with a town crier ringing a bell and calling out "Which way America -- Fascism, Socialism, Communism, or Democracy?" The show based its program on the work of the League for Political Education, which had been promoting citizen participation by sponsoring debates and other public events since the 1890s. George V. Denny introduced many of the elements of the town hall meeting of today: the use of questions from ordinary citizens, call-in participation from remote cities, and an emphasis on balance between the dominant political parties.

The "Town Hall" has now become a set of rhetorical conventions associated with contemporary campaigning, ever since Bill Clinton triumphed in a format that mimicked several elements of a popular TV genre in 1992: the afternoon women's talkshow. In a key moment during a town-hall-style debate, Clinton trounced opponent George H. W. Bush in responding to a question about how the recession might affect the candidates personally.

The classic Obama Town Hall emphasizes a kind of augmented reality, where screens call up remote citizens in front of their webcams or the character strings of text dropped into input windows usually used for personal updates. The multi-tasking president shows his ability to juggle multiple channels in a virtuouso performance of communication in which he simultaneously engages with those both here and elsewhere, occupying what Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg have called the "networking of public space."

But these town halls have been harder to control, especially with right-wing organizations disseminating scripts on the Internet from groups like A frequent refrain at these meetings that shuts down discussion is chants of "One Nation Under God," which is not affiliated with this conservative website. As sites like indicate, the metaphor of the town hall has become associated politically with small government and traditional values. It's interesting to see the White House describing this activity as "chatter," a term that the previous administration associated with terrorist networks and far more purposive forms of communication.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Near Life Experiences

The Flash website Golpe de Gracia, which can be translated from Spanish as "coup de grâce," depicts a near-death experience with a cast of characters created by Colombian hypertext author Jaime Alejandro Rodríguez. Hosted on the servers of the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Rodriguez's text also plays with the idea of the "exquisite corpse" and "digital death," as it includes both deathbed drama and everyday digital desktops in its storytelling milieu.

(Thanks to Mark Marino for the link.)

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Now THAT's Facebook Journalism

I've written a lot about what I call "Facebook Journalism" here at Virtualpolitik. (See here, here, here, and here for examples.)

Now "The Journalist's Guide to Facebook" goes beyond shortcuts and web surfing to argue for more methodological and rhetorical attention by journalists to the use of Facebook as a acknowledged source and as a channel for dissemination of news content. It argues that researching stories is also a reciprocal process that involves disclosure by the journalist as well as by the informant for a story.

Jane Kirtley and J.D. Lasica contribute tips and advice to those who may not see how the use of social media can create ethical dilemmas for journalists and how these sites serve not only as forms of publication but also sites of community.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

Hide and Seek

In today's New York Times there is an item about presidential signing statements, "Obama's Embrace of a Bush Tactic Riles Congress," which discusses a topic that has been of great interest to this blog from an information design perspective. I must say that seven months into the Obama administration I am discouraged by the navigation offered on the White House website to materials with signing statements, despite their promises to offer transparency upon the workings of the federal government and use the affordances of Internet technology to do so.

First of all, there is no category for "signing statements" in "Presidential Actions," even though such statements effectively nullify provisions in congressional legislation. Second, a curious citizen could not find substantive information about the five signing statements Obama has issued by using the White House search engine. By the principle of redundancy, one would hope that both searching and browsing could offer fruitful results to those looking for information on a website, but to be able to offer Internet users neither is truly shameful.

The terrible quality of the White House search engine is particularly shameful. Typing in "signing statement" or "signing statements" fails to even bring up "Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies - SUBJECT: Presidential Signing Statements" in which the keywords are in the title of the electronic document.

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

Tweet Elite

Tweeting Too Hard is a site that provides "recognition" for "self-important tweets," where users can recommend asinine Twitter postings that can be voted up or down the rankings by giving "back pats" to the tweet. Obviously many of the "All-Time Top" listings are parodies, but "Random" and "Newly Added" seem to show the postings of genuine people.

Rhetorically, there are a number of interesting aspects of their "About" page. For example, they accept the possibility that they would merit to criticism themselves for their own online practices.

We acknowledge the twivial nature of ourselves and of the Twitterverse. We pay our dues to the twansience of our thoughts and our existence. And we do not twolerate egotism or pretense. Think before you tweet. Welcome to TTH.

They also frame their discourse as "good-natured" fun in which their mockery is supposedly aimed at promoting social inclusion rather than exclusion.

There’s always that person at a party that is trying way too hard. Well, Twitter is a party and those people are here, too. Actually, it could be you.

Tweeting Too Hard is the place to submit, vote on, and chuckle self-righteously at tweets that are just too much. Self-importance, pretense, braggadocio—it’s all here and it’s laid bare for the scoffing.

We all know someone who is due for a good-natured tweet-roast. So get to it. Click the big green submit button and make the world a better place.

(Thanks to Bitch Ph.D. for the link, via Twitter, of course.)

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Friday, August 07, 2009


Traditionally when children are sent off to summer camp, the channel of communication narrows to sporadic postcards and letters of the kind parodied by Alan Sherman in 1963 in the "Camp Granada" song. Now, however, ubiquitous communication devices and computer networks make it possible for parents to garner far more information about their children's camp experiences, which isn't always good news for camp counselors and troop leaders.

Recently, when a flu outbreak took half of my younger son's boy scout troop out of commission, we were informed via e-mail about unexpected sickness that would cause a quarter of the troop to come home early, since the scouts wouldn't be up for the rigorous backpacking trip that was supposed to conclude their outdoor experience. Although parents were assured by the two medical doctors in attendance that none of the children required hospitalization or intravenous fluids, electronic networks were soon abuzz with panicked parents. The e-mail message also includes a harsh scolding of the scouts and their families who violated the camp policy against bringing digital devices.

The leaders of the troop are quite bothered by the spreading of rumors around the troop internet using information transmitted (inappropriately) by scouts with cell phones calling their parents. These rumors are far from fact and to spread that inaccurate information only scares parents who want to know what's happening to their sons.

Digital cameras, however, were sanctioned for use in the annual photography contest.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Crowd-Sourced Accountant

Vivek Kundra may not be a household name, but here at Virtualpolitik we're try to follow the work of the country's new "Chief Information Officer," as he tries to manage the information headaches of the federal government. Last month at "Vivek Kundra Takes Your Questions," where he debuted the IT Dashboard.

Like the Executive Branch Management Scorecard created during the Bush administration, the site uses a familiar red, yellow, and green schema to indicate to Internet users where particular federal programs may be in trouble. But this system gets away from report card metaphors to embrace the dashboard metaphors of the Internet age (and the metaphors of car culture that they borrow from). I chose the beleaguered Department of Transportation that has stumbled in recent weeks with its web services, particularly at, where server overloads and confusing click-through user agreements have plagued the "cash for clunkers" program.

Like many other federal websites, much of the information visualization takes the form of standard pie charts and bar graphs, which are staples of office imagery in the PowerPoint era. What makes the site distinctive, however, is how its widget-based architecture allows users to actually embed content into their own web pages, potentially to raise consciousness about underperforming federal agencies on the IT front.

In the video below, you can hear Kundra using the language of collective intelligence and crowd-sourcing as he argues that constituents can become "watchdogs, auditors, and innovators" as they mine these data sets.

What's also remarkable about this video is that unlike many other YouTube videos from federal agencies, it allows comments, including those that attack Kundra's reputation or recommend alternative sites like the UFO-hunting site with the transparency-oriented name But one form of transparency is obviously missing in conjunction with the posted videos: where are the transcripts that would allow users to quickly find the information that they are most interested in and the text that would be indexed by Internet searches.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Few, The Proud

"US marines barred from social networking sites" points out that a recent military order bars this branch of the arms services from engaging in common online social computing practices, which already have both the military acronym "SNS" and elaborate waiver process. For previous prohibitions on use of these sites, see Virtualpolitik coverage here and here.

Thanks to Alex Tarr for the link

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Back to Africa

Virtualpolitik friend Christopher Soghoian passes along the Kenyan Birth Certificate Generator.

As someone who has written extensively about web generators as a form of political satire, both in my book and in this article, this provides a great comment about the ease of altering documents in the digital age.

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Vacation from Reality

Hilarious libertarian PSA that comes to Virtualpolitik thanks to Ian Bogost.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Double Speak

Two separate readers have pointed out how the language of some of the new websites of the Obama administration has been repurposed by those examining governance from the outside. Michael Thomas notes the difference between and, and Rachel Lee notes that encourages more citizen participation than As Lee points out, "Under 'Tasks,' users can do things like collect data about earmarked projects from the request letters of House members. They also have a point system in place for task completion."


Monday, August 03, 2009

Outside the Frame

Where is the computer in the Oval Office? In this photo the President is identified as sitting at "his secretary's desk outside the Oval Office" to view the new IT Dashboard that offers information graphics to represents data visually and to promote the transparency that promises to offer. It's an interesting shot of the president, who is sitting at a work station that doesn't ergonomically suit him, as he sits in a chair that has not been adjusted for his height.

Another interesting example of visual rhetoric that goes outside the frame of convention is how the White House YouTube channel uses images to identify clips that aren't actually frames of the video. In particular, the close-up YouTube direct-address style of Obama's online videos isn't conveyed in the still picture. In this shot, Obama appears with the evidence of professional production values, as we see the faceless operator of a boom microphone in the periphery.

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Sunday, August 02, 2009

When Will the Cookie Crumble?

Internet cookies on White House websites have been controversial in the past, since they violate previous precedents, but you wouldn't know it from an innocuously titled blog posting called "Cookies Anyone? The http kind, that is."

Nine years ago -- a lifetime in Internet time -- the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a policy commonly referred to as "the cookies policy. " This policy prohibited federal agencies from using certain web-tracking technologies, primarily persistent cookies, unless the agency head provided a waiver. This may sound like arcane, boring policy – but it is really important in the online world.
As Executive Sponsor of the Federal Web Managers Council and Director of, I know the importance of this policy issue in serving the public. The "cookie policy" has been the topic of frequent discussion among federal web managers over the years as we strive to provide the best customer service online while protecting individual privacy. We want to use cookies for good, not evil. As part of the Obama Administration’s efforts to create a more open and innovative government, OMB wants public input to determine how to best update the cookie policy to meet these goals.
The debate in the comments on the Office of Science & Technology Policy Blog is interesting, because a number of those holding forth identify themselves as federal web developers who express frustration with the conventions that govern public domains that seem to interfere with collecting meaningful data sets about their web traffic patterns.

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Going Live

The White House was once merely the subject of live chat tools on Facebook, such as the CNN/Facebook feed that attracted many users of the site during the Inauguration, because friends could make comments on the ceremony as they watched the webcast live.

Now in "Joining the discussion at," the administration is announcing the progress of its own Facebook application, where citizens can provide input as they watch streaming video from official Executive Branch sources. The site promises that it will broadcast "all kinds of White House events, from press conferences with the President to concerts in the East Room" in addition to hosting "Open for Questions" sessions, which "are hosted about once a week," when "administration officials answer questions from the public in a live, online video chat."

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LinkedIn Makes the Cut

As the image above shows, there has been one obvious omission on the list of popular social networks that the White House cites when it comes to government content-creation: LinkedIn. This career-building site, which is oriented around job hunting and making professional connections, may have been seen as too formal in the past in its rhetorical conventions to further the feelings of participatory culture that have been so important for staffers in the Obama administration to maintain. After all, the site was founded on the principle explained in Mark Granovetter's "The Strength of Weak Ties," which argues that people generally find jobs through acquaintances rather than through friends, so it isn't structurally well-designed to foster deep political loyalties.

Now in "CEA Chair Romer’s Chat on Health Insurance Reform and Small Business," it appears that the Obama administration is interested in LinkedIn after all. The Council of Economic Advisors circulated a report about the possible impact of health insurance reform on small business and then over 1,500 users of LinkedIn submitted questions about the various medical coverage plans in play. There are two things that are particularly noteworthy about the blog posting: 1) the administration has still not learned to link primary sources to its content, since the report itself isn't hyperlinked, and 2) the CEA is using tag clouds to show the concerns expressed by the user-generated content on LinkedIn.

For another interesting example of how the White House is using information graphics, check out their analysis of their web traffic statistics here.

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The government website for the "Cash for Clunkers" program,, has had a number of problems with its back-end functionality and front-end public rhetoric since its launch mere weeks ago. First it suffered from periodic system crashes, and now it has become a focus in right-wing conspiracy theories about government surveillance.

What's interesting about the anxieties about malware and cookies expressed on Glenn Beck's show on Fox is that the host credits his crowd sourcing techniques among his viewership as the source of this story about the fine print in user agreements. In this case the verbiage in the legalese was particularly baroque.

"This application provides access to the DOT CARS system. When logged on to the CARS system, your computer is considered a federal computer system and is property of the United States government... users have no explicit or implicit expectation of privacy."

"Any or all uses of this system and all files on this system may be intercepted, monitored, recorded, copied, audited, inspected and disclosed to authorized CARS, DOT and law enforcement personnel, as well as authorized officials of other agencies, both domestic and foreign."

"By using this system, the user consents to such interception, monitoring, recording, copying, auditing, inspection, and disclosure at the discretion CARS or the DOT personnel."

Yet again the Obama administration shows that it responds to criticism of its websites in the blogosphere, whether it comes from the left or right. Just as they responded to criticism from Chris Soghoian's Surveillance State within hours, Beck has announced that the language is being revised by the Department of Transportation.

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

House Party

Today I celebrated the launch of the Virtualpolitik book. The video invitation offered a satiric spin on the old media/new media dichotomy.

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Laugh Lines

The copy on "Photoshopped images: the good, the bad and the ugly" from the Los Angeles Times isn't particularly insightful when it comes to the ethics and aesthetics of image manipulation, but it does quote my Popular Culture Association colleague and Facebook friend Montana Miller:

"I think the perfect bodies we're seeing in magazines that are Photoshopped have a terrible effect on how women feel about their own bodies," says Montana Miller, assistant professor in the department of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.


Anchors Aweigh

David Weinberger and I have both argued that official government blogs should express the voices of particular public servants as individuals and highlight the rhetorical diversity of individual government spokespersons. Unfortunately, encouraging an escape from standard PR monotony can sometimes have unpredictable results. Take the title of a recent posting on the White House blog, "Ahoy Matey," as an example of what not to do, since it may represent too folksy a tack for public rhetoric.

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