Although I don’t mean to brag… I have a really great scarf-hood-combination garment.
I would like to think that I said some interesting and insightful things. But if I didn’t, I’m glad to hear my scarf — which now has its very own sub-reddit — was able to impress and entertain.
Conversation on Freedom and Openness in Learning
On Monday, I was a visitor and guest speaker in a session on “Open Learning” in a class on Learning Creative Learning which aims to offer “a course for designers, technologists, and educators.” The class is being offered publicly by the combination — surprising but very close to my heart — of Peer 2 Peer University and the MIT Media Lab.
The hour-long session was facilitated by Philipp Schmidt and was mostly structured around a conversation with Audrey Watters and myself. The rest of the course materials and other video lectures are on the course website.
You can watch the video on YouTube or below. I thought it was a thought-provoking conversation!
If you’re interested in alternative approaches to learning and free software philosophy, I would also urge you to check out an essay I wrote in 2002: The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth: My Story of Unlearning. Keep in mind that the essay is probably the most personal thing I have ever published and I wrote it more than a decade ago it as a twenty-one year old undergraduate at Hampshire College. Although I’ve grown and learned enormously in the last ten years, and although I would not write the same document today, I am still proud of it.
Aaron Swartz MIT Memorial
On Tuesday, there was a memorial for Aaron Swartz held at the MIT Media Lab. Unfortunately, I am traveling this week and was unable to attend. As I wrote recently, I was close to Aaron. I am also, more obviously, close to MIT and the lab. It was important to me to participate in the memorial and I found a way to give a short “talk” with a video.
I moved to Boston in 2005 at the same time that Aaron Swartz did and we were introduced by a mutual friend. Aaron was one of my first friends in Boston and we became close. When Aaron moved to San Francisco, I moved into his apartment in Somerville where he kept a room for a year or so. Mika and I still live there. His old posters remain on our walls and his old books remain on our shelves. Aaron’s brothers Ben and Noah both lived with us and remain close friends.
I have spent hours (days?) reading and thinking about Aaron over the last two weeks. It has been disorienting — but beautiful — to read the descriptions of, and commentaries on, Aaron’s life. Although I suspect I may never feel ready, there are several things I want to say about Aaron’s death, about Aaron’s work, and about what Aaron means to me.
1. Aaron’s Death
The reaction to Aaron’s death has been overwhelming and inspirational. At some point in the near future I plan to join some of the important campaigns already being waged in his name.
There are many attempts to understand why Aaron died and many attempts to prevent it from happening to others in the future. Unfortunately, I am familiar with the process of soul-searching and second-guessing that happens when a friend commits suicide. I’m sure that every one of his friends has asked themselves, as I have, “What could I have done differently?”
I don’t know the answer, but I do know this: Aaron was facing the real risk of losing half his life to prison. But even if one believed that he was “only” facing the likely loss of ten percent — or even one percent of his life — I wish that we all, and I wish that I in particular, had reacted with the passion, time, anger, activity, and volume proportional to how we have reacted in the last two weeks when he lost the whole thing.
2. Aaron’s Work
Of course, Aaron and I worked on related projects and I followed his work. And despite all the incredible things that have been said about Aaron, I feel that Aaron’s work was more focused, more ambitious, more transformative, more innovative, and more reckless (in a positive sense) than the outpour online suggests.
Although discussion of Aaron has focused his successes, achievements, and victories, the work that inspired me most was not the projects that were most popular or successful. Much of Aaron’s work was deeply, and as it turned out overly, ambitious. His best projects were self-conscious attempts to transform knowledge production, organization, and dissemination. Although he moved from project to project, his work was consistently focused on bringing semantic-web concepts and technologies to peer production, to the movement for free culture, and to progressive political activism — and on the meta-politics necessary to remove barriers to this work.
For example, Aaron created an online collaborative encyclopedia project called the TheInfoNetwork (TIN) several years before Wikipedia was started. I talked to Aaron at length about that project for a research project I am working on. Aaron’s work was years ahead of its time; in 2000, TIN embraced more of the Wikimedia Foundation’s current goals and principles than Wikipedia did when it was launched. While Wikipedia sought to create a free reference work online, Aaron’s effort sought to find out what a reference work online could look like. It turned out to be too ambitious, perhaps, but it taught many, including myself, an enormous amount in that process.
When I met Aaron, he was in the process starting a company, Infogami, that was trying to chase many of TIN’s goals. Infogami was conceived of as a wiki aware of the structure of data. The model was both simple and profound. Years later, Wikimedia Deutschland’s WikiData project is beginning to bring some of these ideas to the mainstream. Infogami merged with Reddit as equal halves of a company with a shared technological foundation based on some of Aaron’s other work. But when Reddit took off, Infogami was rarely mentioned, even by Aaron.
I think that is too bad. Reddit got traction because it made the most popular stuff more visible; Reddit is popular, fundamentally, because popular things are popular. But popular is not necessary positive. For that reason, Reddit never struck me as either surprising or transformative. But what started as Aaron’s half the company, on the other hand, aimed to create a powerful form of democratized information production and dissemination. And although Infogami didn’t take off, the ideas and code behind the project found life at the heart of Open Library and will continue to influence and inspire countless other projects. I believe that Infogami’s lessons and legacy will undergird a generation of transformative peer production technologies in a way that the Reddit website — important as it is — will not.
3. What Aaron Means to Me
A lot of what has been written about Aaron speaks to his intelligence, his curiosity, his generosity, his ethics and his drive. Although I recognize all these qualities in the Aaron I knew, I’ve felt alienated by how abstract some of the discussion of Aaron has been — my memories are of particularities.
I remember the time Aaron was hospitalized and I spent two hours on the phone going through my bookshelves arguing with him about the virtues of the books in my library as we tried to decide which books I would bring him.
I remember Aaron confronting Peter Singer — intellectual founder of the modern animal rights movement — at the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival to ask if humans had a moral obligation to stop animals from killing each other. I lurked behind, embarrassed about the question but curious to hear the answer. (Singer sighed and said “yes — sort of” and complemented Aaron on the enormous Marxist commentary he was carrying.)
I remember 1-800-INTERNET.com.
I remember talking with Aaron about whether being wealthy could be ethical. I argued it could not but Aaron argued — uncharacteristically I thought — that it could. Aaron told Mika she should slap him if he ever became wealthy. The very next day, it was announced that his company had been acquired and that Aaron was a millionaire.
I remember the standing bets I had with Aaron and how he would email me every time news reports favored his claims (but never when they did not). And I remember that I won’t hear from him again.
Aaron was a friend and inspiration. I miss him deeply and I am very sad.
I just returned home from Aaron Swartz’s funeral in Chicago. Aaron was a good friend. The home I’ve returned to is an apartment that was Aaron’s before it was mine, that I have lived in with Aaron during several stints, and that I still share with many of his old books and posters. Although, I’ve spent what feels like most of the last five days reading things that people have written about Aaron, I’m still processing and digesting myself. Right now, I’m very sad and at a loss for words.
While I reflect, I wanted to share this video recently put online by Finne Boonen. The video was made in 2006 at a Web 1.0 Elevator Pitch Competition held at Wikimania 2006 — about a year after that both Aaron and I moved to Cambridge and met. The goal of the contest was to pitch Web 1.0 DotCom business ideas to a team of real Web 1.0 investors like it was still 1999.
Aaron and I formed a team along with SJ Klein (who I traveled to the funeral with this week), and Wikimania general counsel and interim executive director Brad Patrick. The video shows how — as Danny O’Brien has reminded us — Aaron was funny. He came up with many our teams’ best lines in addition to checking our Web 1.0 boxes for “tech guru” and “Stanford dropout.” Our pitch — for 1-800-INTERNET.COM — is in the video below. The transcript was done by Phoebe Ayers in Facebook and the video is also available in WebM.
SJ: You know, Mako and I had some pretty good ideas for improving connectivity to the internet, and we think we can reach 90% of the world’s population.
So think about this. You’re sitting in a Starbucks, and you need to connect to the internet. But you can’t, because there’s no internet. But what is there, near every Starbucks? There’s a payphone! You pick up the payphone, and you call…. 1-800-INTERNET. You can connect to our bank of researchers on our fast T1 connections and get any information you need!
So, we don’t actually have 1-800-INTERNET yet, we have 1-800-225-3224, so the first thing we need to do is buy the number.
So here’s Mako, who is our web designer from UC Santa Cruz and Bradford, our financial guru, and Aaron, who’s handling all of our technical implementation. But Mako, you should explain the earballs.
Mako: So, so, so yeah, so most people on the Internet are going for the eyeballs, but they’ve just left all of these … earballs. So I have some experience in web design, and it’s true that this isn’t really a website, but we still need good web design. So, so, I’ve actually got a really experienced team, we can go into later, and we have some really great earcons … not icons, but earcons..
And it’s going to be all together, not apart like some of the websites. It’s going to be together.
Brad: so how does this work technically?
Aaron: Well, I mean, so I only spent one year at Stanford but that’s Ok, because there are new developmental technologies, we’re going to throw away all that old stuff, we’re going to use really reliable and efficient well-designed code that everyone can clearly understand, and write the whole thing in Perl. I know this is a risk, but I am confident that Perl is going to destroy those old C websites. No one will write websites in C anymore once we do this, it’s going to be so much faster, and so dynamic, everythings going to be like, on top of everything. It’s going to be great.
Bradford: So here’s the business model. It’s really really simple, and it’s a really really great idea. It’s all about the licensing. Because what we’re going to have are these underlying audio ads, While you’re on the phone you’re going to hear this subliminal advertising message. And the way it works is really really cool, because it’s really really low volume, it’s high impact! And it’s even better, because we license it, and the way it works is when a caller calls 1-800-Internet, they’re hearing the ad, but so is the representative, so we get to bill ‘em twice!
So that’s it:
We did not win and I still believe that we were robbed.
Goodbye PyBlosxom, Hello WordPress
PyBloxsom is blog software designed for hackers. It assumes you already have a text editor you love and relies on features of a POSIX filesystem instead of a relational database. It’s designed so you can keep your blog under revision control (since 2004 I’ve used GNU Arch, baz, bzr and now git). It is also hackers’ software in the sense that you should expect to write code to use it (e.g., the configuration is pure Python). I love it.
What PyBlosxom does not have is a large community. This summer, the most recent long-time maintainer of the project, Will Kahn-Greene, stepped down. Although the project eventually found a new maintainer, the reality is the project entered maintenance mode years ago and many features available in more popular blogging platforms are unlikely to make it PyBlosxom. The situation with comment spam is particularly dire. I’ve written several antispam plugins but time has shown that I don’t have the either the expertise or the time to make them as awesome as they need to be to really work in today’s web.
So, after many months of weighing, waffling, and planning I’ve switched to WordPress — a great piece of free software with an enormous and established community As you’ll know if you’ve read my interview on The Setup, I think a lot about the technology I surround myself with. I considered WordPress when I started my blog back in 2004 and rejected it soundly. Eight years ago, I would have laughed at you if you told me I’d be using it today; If PyBlosxom is for hackers, WordPress is designed for everyone else. But the way I evaluate software has changed over that period.
In the nineties, I used to download every new version of the Linux kernel to compile it — it took hours! — to try out the latest features. Configurabilty, hackability, and the ability to write my own features was — after a point — more important than the features the software came with. Today, I’m much more aware of the fact that for all the freedom that my software gives me, I simply do not have the time, energy, or inclination to take advantage of that freedom to hack very often.
Today, I give much more value to software that is not just free, but that is maintained by a community of people who can do all the work that I would do if I had unlimited time. Although I don’t have the time or experience to make WordPress do everything I would like, the collective of all WordPress users does. And they’ve done a lot of it already!
The flip side matters as well: Today, I give more value to other people using my software. When WordPress doesn’t do something and I write a plugin or patch, there are tons of people ready to pick it up and use it and perhaps even to collaborate on it with me. Want to guess how many patches my PyBlosxom plugins have received? None, if my memory serves me.
In the past, I’ve written about how free software is a victory even when it doesn’t build a community. I still believe that. But the large communities at the heart of the most successful free software communities (the promise of “open source”) are deeply important in a way that I increasingly value.
In that spirit: If you want to make the jump from PyBlosxom to WordPress, I’ve shared a Git repository with the scripts I used and wrote for the transition.
Freedom for Users, Not for Software
I finally published a short essay I wrote about a year ago: Freedom for Users, Not for Software.
Anybody who has hung around the free software community for a while will be familiar with the confusion created by the ambiguity between "free as in price" versus "free as freedom." In the essay I argue that there is a less appreciated semantic ambiguity that arises when we begin to think that what matters is that software is free. Software doesn't need freedom, of course; Users of software need freedom. My essay looks at how the focus on free software, as opposed to on free users, has created challenges and divisions in the free software movement.
The essay was recently published in Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State, a book edited by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich and published by Levellers Press. The book includes essays by 73 authors that include some other folks from the free software and free culture communities along with a ton of people working on very different types of commons.
My essay is short and has two parts: The first is basically a short introduction to free software movement. The second lays out what I see as major challenges for free software. I will point out that these are some of the areas that I am working most closely with the FSF — who are having their annual fundraiser at the moment — to support and build advocacy programs around.
The Cost of Collaboration for Code and Art
This post was written with Andrés Monroy-Hernández for the Follow the Crowd Research Blog. The post is a summary of a paper forthcoming in Computer-Supported Cooperative Work 2013. You read also read the full paper: The Cost of Collaboration for Code and Art: Evidence from Remixing. It is part of a series of papers I have written with Monroy-Hernández using data from Scratch. You can find the others on my academic website.
Does collaboration result in higher quality creative works than individuals working alone? Is working in groups better for functional works like code than for creative works like art? Although these questions lie at the heart of conversations about collaborative production on the Internet and peer production, it can be hard to find research settings where you can compare across both individual and group work and across both code and art. We set out to tackle these questions in the context of a very large remixing community.
Example of a remix in the Scratch online community, and the project it is based off. The orange arrows indicate pieces which were present in the original and reused in the remix.
Remixing platforms provide an ideal setting to answer these questions. Most support the sharing, and collaborative rating, of both individually and collaboratively authored creative works. They also frequently combine code with artistic media like sound and graphics.
We know that that increased collaboration often leads to higher quality products. For example, studies of Wikipedia have suggested that vandalism is detected and removed within minutes, and that high quality articles in Wikipedia, by several measures, tend to be produced by more collaboration. That said, we also know that collaborative work is not always better — for example, that brainstorming results in less good ideas when done in groups. We attempt to answer this broad question, asked many times before, in the context of remixing: Which is the better description, “the wisdom of crowds” or “too many cooks spoil the broth”? That, fundamentally, forms our paper’s first research question: Are remixes, on average, higher quality than single-authored works?
A number of critics of peer production, and some fans, have suggested that mass collaboration on the Internet might work much better for certain kinds of works. The argument is that free software and Wikipedia can be built by a crowd because they are functional. But more creative works — like music, a novel, or a drawing — might benefit less, or even be hurt by, participation by a crowd. Our second research question tries to get at this possibility: Are code-intensive remixes, higher quality than media-intensive remixes?
We try to answers to these questions using a detailed dataset from Scratch – a large online remixing community where young people build, share, and collaborate on interactive animations and video games. The community was built to support users of the Scratch programming environment: a desktop application with functionality similar to Flash created by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. Scratch is designed to allow users to build projects by integrating images, music, sound and other media with programming code. Scratch is used by more than a million, mostly young, users.
Measuring quality is tricky and we acknowledge that there are many ways to do it. In the paper, we rely most heavily a measure of peer ratings in Scratch called loveits — very similar to “likes” on Facebook. We find similar results with several other metrics and we control for the number of views a project receives.
In answering our first research question, we find that remixes are, on average, rated as being of lower quality than works of single authorship. This finding was surprising to us but holds up across a number of alternative tests and robustness checks.
In answering our second question, we find rough support for the common wisdom that remixing tends to be more effective for functional works than for artistic media. The more code-intensive a project is, on average, the closer the gap is between a remix and a work of single authorship. But the more media-intensive a project is, the bigger the gap. You can see the relationships that our model predicts in the graph below.
Two plots of estimated values for prototypical projects showing the predicted number of loveits using our estimates. In the left panel, the x-axis varies number of blocks while holding media intensity at the sample median. The right panel varies the number of media elements while holding the number of blocks at the sample median. Ranges for each are from 0 to the 90th percentile.
Both of us are supporters and advocates of remixing. As a result, we were initially a little troubled by our result in this paper. We think the finding suggests an important limit to the broadest claims of the benefit of collaboration in remixing and peer production.
That said, we also reject the blind repetition of the mantra that collaboration is always better — for every definition of “better,” and for every type of work. We think it’s crucial to learn and understand the limitations and challenges associated with remixing and we’re optimistic that this work can influence the design of social media and collaboration systems to help remixing and peer production thrive.
For more, see our full paper, The Cost of Collaboration for Code and Art: Evidence from Remixing.
This week, I accepted a job on the faculty of at the University of Washington Department of Communication. I've arranged for a post-doc during the 2013-2014 academic year which I will spend at UW as an Acting Assistant Professor. I'll start the tenure-track Assistant Professor position in September 2014. The hire is part of a "big data" push across UW. I will be setting up a lab and research projects, as well as easing into a teaching program, over the next couple years.
I'm not going to try to list all the great people in the department, but UW Communication has an incredible faculty with a strong background in studying the effect of communication technology on society, looking at political communication, enagement, and collective action, and tracing out the implications of new communication technologies — in addition to very strong work in other areas. Years ago, I nearly joined the department as a graduate student. I am unbelievably happy that their faculty has invited me to join as a colleague.
Outside of my new department, the University of Washington has a superb group of folks working across the school on issues of quantitative and computational social science, human-computer interaction, and computer-supported cooperative work. They are hiring a whole bunch of folks, across the university, who specialize in data-driven social science. I already have a bunch of relationships with UW faculty and students and am looking forward to expanding and deepening those.
On a personal level, Mika and I are also very excited to return to Seattle. I grew up in the city and I've missed it, deeply, since I left — now nearly half my lifetime ago! It will be wonderful to be much closer to many of my family members.
But I know that I will miss the community of friends and colleagues that I've built in Boston over the last 7+ years just as deeply. I'm going to miss the intellectual resources, and the intellectual community, that folks in Cambridge get to take for granted. That said, I plan to maintain affiliations and collaborations with folks at Harvard and MIT and will have resources that let me spend time in Boston doing that.
If you are curious what I'm going to be up to — and what the future is likely to hold in terms of my research — you should check the material I've put online as part of the job market this year. I've posted just about everything on my academic website. This includes a little four page research statement which describes the work I've done and the directions I've been thinking about taking it.
The academic job market is challenging and confusing. But it's given me a lot of opportunity to reflect, at length, on both the substance of my research and the academy and its structures and processes. I've got a list of blog topics queued up based on that thinking. I'll be posting them here on my blog over the next few months.
New HTML Parser: The long-awaited libxml2 based HTML parser code is live. It needs further work but already handles most markup better than the original parser.
Keep up with the latest Advogato features by reading the Advogato status blog.
If you're a C programmer with some spare time, take a look at the mod_virgule project page and help us with one of the tasks on the ToDo list!