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Crowd-sourcing responsibility: Google and the Italian bullies’ video

Today’s news, covering the Google content trial’s delay, made me connect my current notions on ethics to the wider issues of responsibility in the virtual world. The BBC (Technology) reported that the continuing court case against Google Italy could “have major ramifications for content providers around the globe”. Posted in 2006, shortly before Google acquired YouTube, a video was published, “which showed a teenager with Down’s Syndrome being bullied”. Accused of “defamation and violating privacy”, the prosecutors want to see the four Google executives being charged (up to three years in prison) for not engaging enough monitoring staff and lack of content-filtering devices in place.

Basically, I agree with the Italian prosecutors in that last point. However, arguing that Google, YouTube or Dailymotion should be obliged to seek consent of all those appearing in a video is a step in the wrong direction. Rather than stifling social media sites with bureaucratic measures and creating new problems resulting in problems such as:

  • defining what constitutes consent and who can give consent
  • verifying authenticity of consenting parties
  • ensuring successful follow up of consent when changes have been made to a video

it would be time to think about users who produce and consume (produsers, following Axel Bruns) as involved, responsible, and potentially proactive audiences. Their practices of consuming and distributing content by options such as ‘favourite’, ‘share’ etc. are not given and static, but are socially constructed and hence, they can be shaped and re-constructed. In fact, they should be developed with the users (supposed a learning user is the one imagined by corporations and regulatory bodies), rather than against them.

The kind of protectionist politics informing the debate around the Italian court case echo approaches based on censorship and responsibilities, placed in the hands of a limited number of profit-making organisations rather than the 21st century communities of users. Crowd-sourcing has many faces, one of those is to harness the power of the communities and engage them in the dynamic processes of reviewing, critiquing, and reporting/suggesting changes or removals. Yet, unless the facilities are provided, little will happen in this regard.

I wished corporations would come up with more innovative ideas and helped to expand the notion of citizenship. The least promising option is full broadcast rights applied to social media, resulting most likely in a new wave of passive consumers. Hence, rather than continuing to favour and expanding an ideology of a welfare state policing its territory and society, it would be a lot more beneficial and sustainable to develop a stronger sense of responsibility, citizenship and connectivity in online space that impacts upon offline settings. For instance:

  • obligatory pop-up tutorials (brief, relevant and in plain language – similar to plagiarism statement we use as students at The Open University when submitting papers online)
  • an extended and meaningful Q’n’A section: it is not sufficient to provide a REPORT button and suggest that’s all that can be done – complaint processes must be transparent and efficient
  • citizens who face a lack of resources when reporting crime in real life will have little trust in online processes aiming at regulation: duality rather than outsourcing is required
  • an ethical turn – driven by corporations who understand that profit and ethics belong together as ignoring these repercussions, social ills can be tackled in concerted efforts rather than technology-based workarounds
  • governments present role-models, they need to do their homework: bullying (as well as other crimes) start in real life, where they need to be taken seriously. Online practices can change and make a contribution towards changes of offline/real life social practices (including reduction of neglect, ignorance, and apathy).

Internet freedom comes in a package with responsibility, I believe, and we cannot assume there is a universal sense of inherent responsibility adopted by each user who uploads or watches videos. But we can work towards stronger ethics, responsibility and citizenship. And we can start understanding that less simplified regulation would be beneficial beyond the one individual instance when the upload was prevented – otherwise, the bullying, the filming, and distribution of such content will continue, by other means, in other ways – it would be a lot less visible and less traceable, though.

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California State Budget – Schwarzenegger’s crowdsourcing

Do you want to get your hands on some serious budget work? Shift a few millions here, half a billion of Dollars there? California’s State Budget is available online, i.e. the Interactive Budget Planner, with a $24 billion deficit is waiting to be tackled. The dilemmas start when you look into the proposed cuts – which social group deserves to keep their funds, who could live with less? So, are you going to slash grants for developmentally disabled people or raise the tax on alcohol?

Governor Schwarzenegger does the right thing by resorting to harness the power of millions of citizens (and non-citizens in- and outside the state’s boundaries) in this attempt source all crowds imaginable. It is a way not only to tap mass intellectual and creative power but also to educate at the same time. The pop-up windows linked to each key category such as law enforcement, health, human services etc deliver further information and figures that inform the decision-making, give a sense of the wider picture. It’s certainly a way to also make everyone feel a bit more responsible and in charge, a bit more part of the nation. When does Europe begin to learn from such participatory approach?

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you’ve got power: bloggers and microbloggers set the pace

On 18 December Vietnam approved new blogging restrictions that aim at regulating bloggers’ content which the government deems sensitive or inappropriate. National providers are requested to report and remove posts which

  • undermine national security,
  • incite violence or crime,
  • disclose state secrets,
  • or include inaccurate information that could damage the reputation of individuals and organizations.

The booming blogosphere which is growing fast into an alternative newsroom has provided a wakeup call to the government which is resorting to drastic measures of censorship. State-controlled media in a communist state is no longer the only source of information with bloggers seizing power and spreading what is perceived as harmful. The language itself is subject to regulations which encourage bloggers to write in ‘clean and healthy Vietnamese’.

Outside Vietnam, traditional media is getting increasingly under pressure. The Financial Times titled on 22 December: ‘Plane crash geek Twitters from burning Denver aircraft, Philippe Naughton’. Real-time citizen journalism also played a significant role in the recent Mumbai attacks when users posted the events in 140 character messages into the online sphere. Twitter had come under attack for providing terrorists at the scene with information about the situation.

Giving away some of the power traditional or state-owned media used to hold is still widely perceived as inviting anarchism and social chaos. Societies and governments are going through the very challenging processes of getting used to listening to their people’s views – who’ve got a lot to say, it turns out. How to control this? When and what exactly is to be controlled? By whom? Currently, there are still far too many in control who are non-users of the new social media, those who neither blog, wiki, facebook or twitter. In short: those who actually do not have any expertise in the very field they want to regulate so desparately.

Successful ‘control’, i.e. such that is neither patronising nor does it trigger instant resistance but is adapted by users as enabling and empowering, may rather come from peers than in the traditional top-down manner. After all, bloggers and microbloggers are technically already able to remove messages and exercise self-moderation if required. Instilling a sense of responsible information-sharing while learning to produce quality content is the actual challenge at stake. Yet, with all the shifts in external control and regulation a review of internal mechanisms is to me the more realistic and sustainable approach: self-reflection and self-evaluation of one’s own contribution strengthen the sense of ownership and third party assessment. It is not just citizens who need to learn how to engage and publish with responsibility – it is also governments who need to learn to take their citizens seriously and work in collaboration with them on information-sharing in a globalised world.

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more dichotomies: information vs knowledge and trust vs efficiency

This week two blogposts made me wonder whether we try to fix quickly by help of technology, more precisely social media, what is actually rooted in rather complex behavioural issues.
Harvard Digital Natives
‘ site discussed the celebration of shared knowledge, while ethical issues in the context of plagiarism did not remain untouched. Is it OK to make use of the teacher’s resources if found accidentally on the web? Where are the boundaries of intellectual property being copied unacknowledged into an essay and what defines a novel intellectual product? What constitutes new anyway – and who defines it? ‘Sharing is caring’ in a mark-based competition-driven world? Does the generation Digital Natives really buy into this? And if not to the extent we would hope to see, then what can we do to improve the attitude?

Neville Hobson on the other hand looked at the findings analysed by Forrester Research which state that “corporate blogs rank at the bottom of the trust scale with only 16% of online US consumers who read them saying that they trust them”. Trust building and efficiency are corporate key aims in today’s shaky markets – but is anyone still wondering why they have gone lost in the first place? And when exactly did it happen?

It is not just financial institutions and governments which need to rebuild trust and seem to have little idea as to how to manage this. Students and pupils around the world might soon be among those who need to prove that they are trustworthy – if they don’t refrain from the temptation to copy&paste their works like a patchwork blanket in ‘the old days’, then who can trust them once they are tomorrow’s employees and managers of those institutions which we have just bailed out?

The risk/reward balance needs to be restored, rethinking the tendency towards blamegaming and secrecy are key to the development of policies, educational and economic systems that are sustainable. New social media can play a major role in exactly all this. But placing all trust into these technologies without distinguishing carefully between coherent knowledge production and pouring information bits onto the public 24/7 will cause an increase in ignorance, if not even more harmful practices.

Transparency contributes to the wider social benefit. Efficiency and trust-building measures post-crises must be informed by a sense of responsibility. Ethics need to be given a much more central role in curricula, they seem to linger in a corner where they gain dust rather than attractiveness. Ethics and social responsibility must become more than nice yet halfhearted labels in corporate PR-strategies.

Isn’t it time to ask what means we have to get back on track and find knowledge production in a holistic manner more rewarding than piecemeal bits of information, no matter how efficient the latter may appear in our hectic and profit-driven days? Isn’t it time to think about trust in a more cohesive way and produce comprehensive strategies that prove sustainable in more than one field? That would include pupils as tomorrow’s voting citizens as well as corporations as collective citizens within the wider public.

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microblogging and stakeholdership in Barack Obama’s new political era

When Michelle Obama’s twitter account was hacked it seemed to be a nasty nuisance, to some perhaps almost to be expected as a public figure in the final stages of the election. Post 4 November 2008 and the landslide victory of her husband we may want to rethink our ideas of what it means to activate an electorate in the age of social media and microblogging in specific. I have been following Barack Obama (and Joseph Biden) for quite some time and one of the most remarkable features of his settings or befriending politics involve equality – if you follow him, he follows you – and yes, it is auto-follow but at some point this was an option chosen consciously.

Equality rather than just a marketing trick as sceptics thought seems to have informed his choice. He managed what politicians around the globe have been dreaming of for centuries: mobilise the masses, engaging them by listening carefully to their very basic need of being taken seriously and therefore gain their trust, support – and passion. The speed at which tweets were forwarded, retweeted and commented on when they had been set up as status updates in facebook was unprecedented. And even though I was travelling that day in Germany and had only limited access on my mobile I felt I was part of the events to an extent I had never been before in any other election. Obama may have had an excellent and hard working team of skilled aides who were trained in capturing their every move in max 140 characters – but why are so many other politicians obviously entirely unable to follow suit and at least set up an account and start engaging with the electorate? The underlying issues may be little surprising: the widespread model of leadership which is more concerned with maintinaing power than solving problems and developing the hierarchy-driven societies towards transparent global communities of stakeholders has come seriously under threat thanks to one man who has proved that being media-savvy is not sufficient – listening skills and the ability to involve them rather than exclude until the day of ticking that box dawns are key to understanding his momentous victory. Now, what next for the 44th US president who has been greeted with plenty of doubt when it comes to capabilities of resolving the issues inherited by the past government? I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him pursuing that path further and getting citizens debate and participate in solutions by help of microforums .

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IR9 – dichotomies, the politics of tagging and the subconscious – thoughts on the keynote lectures

This year’s AoIR conference, the IR9.0 in Copenhagen is still inspiring me – it’s been a great event with numerous encounters, plenty of food for thought thanks to the fantastic conference chair Lis Klastrup and the programme chair Brian Loader with the organising team and 430 international delegates. Here is the visual overview flickr

The keynote lecture presented by Mimi Ito focused on a large-scale project which had made use of a range of qualitative and quantitative research methods applied by 29 researchers. The descriptions of these aspects alone were fascinating and highlighted that managerial and soft skills may have played a quite significant role in the success of the venture. Mimi had resorted to currently dominant discourses around dichotomies such as the connoisseur/amateur, producer/consumer, autonomy/peer pressure in order to frame the findings of research undertaken in the area of anime/fansubbing where reciprocity of peer review is embedded in friendship-driven participation and closely intertwined with practices of status. Exploring this specific area must have been fascinating , some of her results suggest that the genres of participation – covering ID, culture, practice etc acc to her definition – might be rooted too much in traditional sociological terms, though. I thought that these categories did not seem to enable us to truly capture the complex phenomenon of capacity-building activities including the flows of social and transferrable skills which -presumably – start off in the online sphere and gain momentum and their own dynamics in the offline sphere. Mimi ‘s notions on moral panics and the scepticism as to the contrary celebrations of the no-barriers sphere remained marginal in this rather optimistic interpretation within her lecture.

The pessimistic comments were much more at the core of Stephen Graham’s keynote lecture which critically evaluated the tagging practices in the contemporary hype of securing, excluding and trajectory-tracking of mobile bodies, goods and ideas which all aim at listing of profilings including discourses of status, power, control and policing in order to make spaces governable which are perceived as prone to threats. Stephen presented a picture in stark contrast to Mimi’s: the dream of transparency in an ever more complex world chiselled into the gloomy rhetoric and practices of biometrics, militarisation and the fixing of ‘authentic’ IDs into static subjects. He raised the question how much time societies may have left at their hand before their citizens become all too accustomed to the notion of being the sum of tags. Tags defined and attached by others – also here an underlying polarity. Re-animating and re-mediating urban spaces in an attempt to un-blackbox these technocrat politics by moving away from interiorised gaming were among the ideas Stephen presented as to how to resist and appropriate at grass-root level. I felt, though that questioning the lack of questioning in these days might be the underlying issue at stake in a hybrid on/offline world where anxiety has gained true celebrity status as it actually dictates the culture of tagging in a very subtle manner – and in this sense is an even more powerful agent in a nation’s subconscious.

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censorship in the blogosphere

Censorship in the blogosphere may trigger instant associations to China, Syria etc and policing the internet. But censorship may not only occur on the national or the macro level but also on the micro level. The extent of control exercised when readers comment on postings may say more about the individual/s running the blog than any statements made by them in their profile or postings.
Under the umbrella of an individual’s anxieties, i.e. the need to feel in control in the virtual world where many perceive themselves not in command but rather controlled by the invisible audiences – and other unknown forces – , the only way to restore order and a sense of power is to censor comments to a degree that may disencourage readers to comment at all. This resulting lack of feedback and interaction in a rapidly growing universe of blogs, online social networks, and microblogging tools such as twitter may contribute to a sense that ‘those out there’ are indeed powerful invisible audiences who consume but remain emotionally unavailable. A desired outcome of the regulatory mechanisms at the micro level in the blogosphere?

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