A Ratings Scale for Documentaries


The Participant Index wants to discover which films inspire people to action.

Have you ever watched a documentary that’s moved you to tears? Or perhaps moved you enough to get involved with a particular issue? Or even change your entire lifestyle?  The unique role of documentaries is to inform, entertain and in many cases, urge people to take action.

But what exactly prompts people to do something? Participant Media wants to find out which is why they are developing the Participant Index. Using information gathered from viewership numbers, social media, and online surveys, the company has formulated a ratings system with a scale from one to 100. So far they’ve found that films revolving around the food system and animal rights had the most impact on individual actions while economic inequality was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Additionally viewers were most interested in issues of education, health care, human rights, and crime, but not so into female empowerment or digital intellectual property rights.

In terms of the ratings numbers generated so far, the online series Farmed and Dangerous ranks a 97. The film The Square about the Arab Spring in Egypt comes in at 92. These figures are averages which take into account emotional involvement and action taken, information gathered from the online survey. However one potential challenge will be figuring in how much action can actually be taken. Someone can adjust their eating and consumer habits immediately while helping bring freedom in Egypt is much trickier.

The index will also be applied to some feature films that have a message behind them such as Promised Land which takes on the fracking industry. Chief executive of Participant Media, James G. Berk says, “If this existed, we would not be doing it. We desperately need more and more information, to figure out if what we were doing is actually working.”

It will be interesting to see how the Index is utilized and if it will change what we end up seeing on screen. Hopefully it can assist filmmakers in finding ways to make movies on typically underreported issues more appealing while also inspiring viewers to connect on screen experiences into their own lives.

Photo by Tulane Publications, licensed under Creative Commons.

Wikipedia's Balancing Act


Wikipedia's standards have never been higher, but the site needs to attract a new generation of editors to survive. 


Wikipedia’s launch was kind of an accident. Initially founder Jimmy Wales envisioned an online encyclopedia vetted and edited exclusively by experts—basically a free, online Britannica he called Nupedia. But it was Nupedia’s crowdsourced sister site—designed to let users create entries that experts could later perfect—that took off. It didn’t take long for Wales to dump Nupedia and embrace his radical side-project, which blossomed faster than anyone expected. Today Wikipedia is the sixth most visited website on the internet (ahead of Amazon and Twitter) and its authority online is almost without parallel. Google the Krebs cycle or the French Revolution, and Wikipedia is the first page you see.


But behind Wikipedia’s success lays a tough balancing act, says Tom Simonite at Technology Review, and that balance may now threaten the site’s long term survival. From its beginning in 2001, Wikipedia has struggled to reconcile its conflicting missions, from building an authoritative source for all information on the planet to doing it all through open, anonymous, and decentralized volunteer labor. These contradictions came to a head in 2005 when a volunteer posted a defamatory “bio” accusing journalist John Seigenthaler of involvement in the Kennedy assassination. Big changes followed: editors introduced a system of bureaucratic hoops and automated edits to combat vandalism and raise standards. New edits were now easier to spot and dispute, articles were harder to change, and new computer “bots” roamed the encyclopedia to flag down formatting mistakes and vandalism.


The new policies were effective, says Simonite, and then they were too effective. The changes did much to improve Wikipedia’s quality and image, but they also led to a drop in participation that’s hounded the site ever since. Today, first-time users encounter byzantine editorial guidelines and swift reprimands for mistakes, leading many to simply leave: since 2007, Wikipedia has lost more than a third of its volunteer base. And with fewer newcomers comes less diversity. More than ever before the pool of volunteers is overwhelmingly Western, male, and nerdy, with predictable consequences for the site’s coverage (the ratio of Pokémon profiles to articles on female novelists is revealing, says Simonite).


A larger problem is that the internet’s social landscape has shifted over the past decade, from anonymous, collaborative communities to commercialized, egocentric hubs like Facebook. Wikipedia remains one of the last of the internet’s old-style gatherings and one of the largest. But with Twitter and Facebook dominating our online lives, “people steeped in that model will struggle to understand how and why they should contribute to Wikipedia or any project like it,” Simonite adds.


And while the folks at the Wikimedia Foundation are well aware of these issues, their authority to introduce changes is limited. Wikipedia has always been a community project, and it’s the community that takes the lead in determining and implementing policies (like it did to combat vandalism). If that community is going to survive, it needs to grow.


Image by Giulia Forsythe, licensed under Creative Commons.  


25 Years Ago in Utne: The Information Monopoly


Corporate media ownership is every bit as serious today as it was in 1988.

In 1988, media ownership and consolidation was a new concept for many Americans. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent had just appeared in print, and Extra!, by now perhaps the most important source of media criticism in the country, was barely a year old. Yet corporate ownership of local and national media was just ramping up—it just wasn’t front page news.

Maybe that’s why Lynette Lamb’s story about media ownership topped Project Censored’s list of the “Top 12 Censored Stories” that year (reprinted in Utne’s Sept./Oct. 1988 issue). “The rapidly increasing concentration of media ownership in the U.S. raises critical questions about whether the public has access to diverse opinion,” wrote Lamb. “And not surprisingly, the impact of this information monopoly continues to be ignored by the mass media.”

“Just 29 corporations control half or more of all media (including book publishers, TV, radio, newspapers, and movie production companies),” she wrote. “Six months later… the number was down to 26.” Exacerbating the problem, Lamb added, was the interlocking boards of directors between media giants and major corporations. Top executives at the New York Times, she said, also sat on boards for American Express, IBM, Merck, and several other large companies.

“A shrinking number of large media corporations now regard monopoly and historic levels of profit as not only normal, but as their earned right,” she added, quoting media expert Ben Bagdikian. “In the process the usual democratic expectations for the media—diversity of ownership and ideas—have disappeared.”

Bagdikian’s warning was nothing if not prophetic. Within a decade, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a sort of Citizens United for corporate media, had lifted the floodgates of cross-ownership and corporate mergers, especially in local radio markets. By 2001, more than 10,000 radio stations had been bought and sold, leaving just two companies, Clear Channel and Infinity, to dominate commercial airwaves in most U.S. cities.

Six years later, just eight companies held sway over America’s mass media universe, from TV to publishing to the World Wide Web. This nifty timeline from Mother Jones shows just how much the ownership landscape has changed over the past two or three decades (note the dramatic increase in mergers after 1996). What’s more, the problem of interlocking corporate leadership has not gone away, and has resulted in conflicts of interest. A 2009 FAIR study in 2009 found that seven major media corporations share directors with health insurers and pharmaceutical companies—a fact that helps explain those sources’ overwhelming hostility to single-payer proposals during the health care debate. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to interlocking ownership.

Then as now, what it all boils down to is less critical debate, more conflict of interest, and a narrower picture of the world. “Although this will undoubtedly prove profitable for the shrinking number of media moguls,” wrote Lamb, once again quoting Bagdikian, “it is highly dangerous to freedom of the press.”  

Other top censored stories in Utne that year included biowarfare research at American universities, government secrecy during the Reagan years, and corporate cover-ups on nuclear safety.

Lynette Lamb’s original story appeared in Utne’s Jan/Feb 1988 issue.

Image by Edkohler, licensed under Creative Commons.

Fox News, Reza Aslan, and the Historical Jesus

reza aslan

Reza Aslan is an internationally-respected religious scholar. He earned a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School as well as a Ph.D in the sociology of religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He's written extensively on a variety of religious topics from an academic perspective. Ask Lauren Green of Fox News, though, and she'll say those credentials hardly qualify Aslan to write about about the historical Jesus simply because of one reason—he's a Muslim. 

Green said as much when she recently interviewed Aslan on the online show "Spirited Debate" (video below). Aslan was there to talk about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, but spent most of the 10-minute interview trying to explain just how ridiculous it is to focus on the fact that he also happens to be a Muslim. As Aslan later said in a radio interview that Tom Kludt posted on Talking Points Memo, "It's weird to all of a sudden talk about it as though only practitioners of a faith can write about the prophets of that faith," he said. "If that were true, there would be a lot fewer Islam books out there."

The Fox News interview is followed by the author's note from Zealot, in which Aslan talks about his personal faith and fascination with Jesus.


Reza Aslan's author's note from Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth:

When I was fifteen years old, I found Jesus.

I spent the summer of my sophomore year at an evangelical youth camp in Northern California, a place of timbered fields and boundless blue skies, where, given enough time and stillness and soft-spoken encouragement, one could not help but hear the voice of God. Amidst the man-made lakes and majestic pines my friends and I sang songs, played games, and swapped secrets, rollicking in our freedom from the pressures of home and school. In the evenings, we gathered in a fire-lit assembly hall at the center of the camp. It was there that I heard a remarkable story that would change my life forever.

Two thousand years ago, I was told, in an ancient land called Galilee, the God of heaven and earth was born in the form of a helpless child. The child grew into a blameless man. The man became the Christ, the savior of humanity. Through his words and miraculous deeds, he challenged the Jews who thought they were the chosen of God, and in return the Jews had him nailed to a cross. Though he could have saved himself from that gruesome death, he freely chose to die. Indeed, his death was the point of it all, for his sacrifice freed us all from the burden of our sins. But the story did not end there, because three days later, he rose again, exalted and divine, so that now, all who believe in him and accept him into their hearts will also never die, but have eternal life.

For a kid raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists, this was truly the greatest story ever told. Never before had I felt so intimately the pull of God. In Iran, the place of my birth, I was Muslim in much the way I was Persian. My religion and my ethnicity were mutual and linked. Like most people born into a religious tradition, my faith was as familiar to me as my skin, and just as disregardable. After the Iranian revolution forced my family to flee our home, religion in general, and Islam in particular, became taboo in our household. Islam was shorthand for everything we had lost to the mullahs who now ruled Iran.

My mother still prayed when no one was looking, and you could still find a stray Quran or two hidden in a closet or a drawer somewhere. But, for the most part, our lives were scrubbed of all trace of God.

That was just fine with me. After all, in the America of the 1980s, being Muslim was like being a spaceman. My faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.

Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American. I do not mean to say that mine was a conversion of convenience. On the contrary, I burned with absolute devotion to my newfound faith. I was presented with a Jesus who was less “Lord and Savior” than he was a best friend, someone with whom I could have a deep and personal relationship. As a teenager trying to make sense of an indeterminate world I had only just become aware of, this was an invitation I could not refuse.

The moment I returned home from camp, I began eagerly to share the good news of Jesus Christ with my friends and family, my neighbors and classmates, with people I’d just met and with strangers on the street: those who heard it gladly, and those who threw it back in my face. Yet something unexpected happened in my quest to save the souls of the world. The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth. In college, where I began my formal study of the history of religions, that initial discomfort soon ballooned into full-blown doubts of my own.

The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant. The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions—just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of different hands across thousands of years—left me confused and spiritual unmoored. And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying. I began to rethink the faith and culture of my forefathers, finding in them as an adult a deeper, more intimate familiarity than I ever had as a child, the kind that comes from reconnecting with an old friend after many years apart.

Meanwhile, I continued my academic work in religious studies, delving back into the Bible not as an unquestioning believer but as an inquisitive scholar. No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history. Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him. Indeed, the Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known and lost became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church.

Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ. My hope with this book is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.

There are a few things to keep in mind before we begin our examination of the Jesus of history. For every well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about the historical Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it. Rather than burden the reader with the centuries-long debate about the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, I have constructed my narrative upon what I believe to be the most accurate and reasonable argument, based on my two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history. For those interested in the debate, I have exhaustively detailed my research and, whenever possible, provided the arguments of those who disagree with my interpretation in the lengthy notes section at the end of this book.

All Greek translations of the New Testament are my own (with a little help from my friends Liddell and Scott). In those few cases in which I do not directly translate a passage of the New Testament, I rely on the translation provided by the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. All Hebrew and Aramaic translations are provided by Dr. Ian C. Werrett, associate professor of religious studies at St. Martin’s University.

Throughout the text, all references to the Q source material will be marked thus:

(Matthew | Luke), with the order of the books indicating which gospel I am most directly quoting. The reader will notice that I rely primarily on the gospel of Mark and the Q material in forming my outline of the story of Jesus. That is because these are the earliest and thus most reliable sources available to us about the life of the Nazarean. In general I have chosen not to delve too deeply into the so-called “Gnostic Gospels.” While these texts are incredibly important in outlining the wide array of opinions among the early Christian community about who Jesus was and what his teachings meant, they do not shed much light on the historical Jesus himself.

Although it is almost unanimously agreed that, with the possible exception of Luke-Acts, the gospels were not written by the people for which they are named, for ease and the sake of clarity, I will continue to refer to the gospel writers by the names by which we now know and recognize them.

Finally, in keeping with scholarly designations, this text employs C.E., or Common Era, instead of A.D. in its dating, and B.C.E. instead of B.C. It also more properly refers to the Old Testament as the Hebrew Bible or the Hebrew Scriptures.

Excerpted from ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan Copyright © 2013 by Reza Aslan. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 



A New Spin on Sharing Music


This post originally appeared at Shareable.  

Vinyl records are back. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (what a mouthful!), 2012 saw the highest vinyl sales in 16 years. I've seen this trend with my own eyes. The vinyl bins in the Bay Area record store where I work, which used to be frequented by older collectors, crate diggers and hipsters, are now frequented by...everyone. It's not unusual to see a 13 year old flipping through the wax, a herd of UC students comparing album art, or a 30-something executive with several records under his arm.

Considered by purists to be a warmer, superior medium, records offer listeners a way to connect more directly with the music. And vinyl, with its sizable packaging, flip-it-over format and visible grooves, is a hands-on, tactile experience that lends itself particularly well to group listens.

Recently, a shop in north London was transformed into a vinyl-only lending library called, quite aptly, The Vinyl Lending Library. The brainchild of Elly Rendall and Sophie Austin, the library was created to give people access to a wide variety of musical styles, allow them to borrow and share records, and to help build community around music. Rendell and Austin also plan to use the space for DJ lessons, documentary screenings and more.

Stocked entirely with records donated by the public, the library is free to those who donate records. A small fee is charged for those who simply want to borrow music. Members can take up to five records at a time.

While some of the details, such as what to do if someone doesn't return the records they borrow, will be worked out as things progress, the library is now open and borrowing has begun. The plan is to develop trusting relationships between the library and its members and build a DIY, reputation-based community where benefits can be earned as members demonstrate their trustworthiness.

If all goes well, the lending library could serve as a model for people who want to share the love of vinyl without the expense and space issue of having a personal collection.

Image by Stoke Newington/Hackney Gazette  

2013 Utne Media Awards: The Winners

2013 media award winners

After much deliberation, some back-issue rereading, and more than one impassioned speech, we're very pleased to announce the winners of the 2013 Utne Media Awards. With a loaded field of top-notch nominees, choosing the winners wasn't easy, but the following publications stood out to us this year.

General Excellence — YES! Magazine
YES! Magazine earned our recognition for General Excellence this year simply because every quarterly issue we read was chock-full of articles we couldn’t wait to reprint and share with our readers.

One of our main criteria for selecting the winner was how often we found ourselves trying to reprint stories from the magazine in question. When we considered YES!, we realized that not only did we try to find room for one of its articles in nearly every issue of Utne Reader last year, but that those articles were consistently among our favorites when we did a post-issue assessment. Some of these included a profile of Boulder, Colorado’s effort to kick out the corporate-controlled power utility and start its own wind/solar-based utility, a soldier-run coffee shop that helps veterans cope with PTSD, and various articles related to debt forgiveness.

It’s also worth recognizing that despite the precarious state of independent publishing these days, YES! has remained committed to its non-profit, ad-free, and Creative Commons-friendly ideals, and is dependent on subscriptions and donations for its survival. Thankfully, optimism and hope for a better future are still important to enough people to keep a magazine like YES! in print. Which, when you think about it, is really good news for us all. 

Best Writing The New Inquiry
The New Inquiry is the sort of website that makes the loss of print seem a lot less frightening. Founded during the darkest years of liberal arts cutbacks and publishing house closures, TNI pulls together a lost generation of students and writers to form a truly unique online community. With an irreverent, accessible style, the site’s engaging critical lens—covering everything from the anti-social mores of social media to student debt—is refreshing, challenging, and always unexpected.

Best Political Coverage Tom Dispatch
Emerging in the early days of the War on Terror, Tom Dispatch’s fierce devotion to truth has proven essential to navigating our Orwellian post-9/11 planet. Combining some of the most insightful and courageous voices on the web, the site strikes at the very foundations of power and propaganda. As we face down a new decade of drone warfare, counterinsurgency, and climate chaos, Tom Dispatch’s forceful analysis and sharp investigative authority could scarcely be more vital. 

Best Arts Coverage Colossal
Visit Colossal and prepare to see the imaginative, the innovative, and the stunning. An abandoned nightclub turned art gallery by Parisian street artists, for instance. A tree-shadow chandelier, or composite photos of the moon during a solar eclipse. Colossal features a wide range of visual art, emphasizing the non-digital. While the site makes for enjoyable perusing, meticulous linking to original sources means it’s a great starting point for those wishing to delve deeper.

Best Social/Cultural Coverage — Guernica
For a web-only magazine with the simple tagline “a magazine of art & politics,” Guernica proved to be so much more to us last year. Covering a wide variety of topics with top-notch writing and unique insight, Guernica was another one of those sources that we kept trying to find an opportunity to share with our readers. Last year, it introduced us to ecopsychology and challenged us to rethink the virtues of a green economics and carbon offsets. Like The New Inquiry, Guernica makes us excited about the future of web journalism.

Best International Coverage New Internationalist
From feminist activism in Iraq to restorative justice pilgrimages in Chile, 2012 saw New Internationalist’s mission to “bring to life the people, the ideas and the action in the fight for global justice” in full force. Authoritative, cogent, and always hopeful, NI adds badly needed context and stirring vision to our understanding of a complex and changing world. 

Best Environmental Coverage — High Country News
If it weren’t for High Country News, we might never have heard about the effects of Twilight-inspired tourism on the Quileute tribe, about abandoned subdivision developments at the foot of the Grand Tetons, or the struggles of a California ski town facing warming temperatures and unpredictable snow falls. With riveting reports from people tapped in to the shouts of the wild, HCN sheds light on what’s happening in America beyond the edges of the daily, urban-focused news cycle. 

Best Body/Spirit Coverage — Tricycle
Since its founding in 1991, Tricycle has become a beacon for Western Buddhists, attracting a variety of other spiritual seekers along the way. In the past year, the pages of Tricycle have considered serious topics from addiction to aging, challenged widely accepted notions of the historical Buddha, and recounted spiritual quests that have not led to Buddhism. This openness to difficulty and uncertainty suggests a living-out of the words the magazine puts to print.

Best Science/Technology Coverage — Scientific American
The oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the United States, Scientific American needs little introduction. But considering the “small press” tradition of these awards, some readers may wonder why they’re here. Simply stated, we love Scientific American for how well they boil down complicated science into lucid, accessible coverage. It’s also where we found an article about a bipartisan solution to cutting corruption out of the federal budget, one of our favorite stories from last year.


Social Networking for a Better World


The rise of corporate-owned social media raises many flags about our online security and the future of the digital commons. The solution, says theorist Michael Albert, is a different kind of network altogether.   

In many ways, social media seem almost designed for activism. Efficient, user-friendly, and above all, inexpensive, sites like Facebook and Twitter are invaluable communication tools for any activist. Planning a rally outside a college president’s office? Create a Facebook group. Find a nifty guide to protesters’ rights online? Share it on Twitter. Worried about police brutality at an illegal march? Live-stream from your phone so more people can see what you see.

No shock that, “Twitter revolutions” aside, social media have undoubtedly played an important role in activism and social change over the past decade. In Egypt, the revolution in some ways began with Facebook groups like the 6 April Youth Movement and “We Are All Khaled Saaed.” Here in the U.S., it was a “We Are the 99 Percent” Tumblr page that gave many future participants their first glimpse of Occupy Wall Street—more than a full week before the first encampment in Zuccotti Park. Achievements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street were of course about so much more than Facebook or Tumblr, but without social media they would likely have been very different movements.

Which, when you think about it, is probably the exact opposite of what the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world thought social media would do. So much of what sites like Twitter or Facebook are designed for, how they’re organized and governed, and how they make money, could not be further from ideals like social justice or goals like ending student debt. Many sites, like Facebook, even have a history of giving private data over to government agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

But here’s the good news. It doesn’t have to be like this. There’s no law of nature that social media need to be run by giant corporations or that users need to put up with government spying and manipulative advertising. So, what’s the alternative?

Michael Albert, social theorist and co-editor of Z Magazine, has come up with one solution—and it’s worth taking a close look at. It’s called FaceLeft, and it embodies the very best of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, but emphatically without the spying, concision, and commercialization users have long put up with. Ad-free, substantive, and as open or private as users want to make it, FaceLeft is the first social network designed by and for activists—or anyone who feels uncomfortable with corporate-owned social media.

“Can social networking itself better reflect and address needs of people who are trying to improve the world?” Albert asked in an email exchange. “I think the answer is of course it can.” It’s just a matter of creating an alternative space, one that “allows brevity but emphasizes substance, that rejects ads but enhances mutual aid, that protects privacy and of course also seeks to subvert spying.”

For a first time user, the site may look and feel a lot like Facebook. Users can set up profiles, connect with others, join groups, and follow stories through a news feed. There are also spaces for events and easy ways to share photos, videos, and links from other sites.

But that’s where the similarities end. In countless ways, FaceLeft delivers more substance and more genuine interaction than a typical social network. News feeds include your contacts’ updates, but also RSS feeds from media outlets like Democracy Now! and Al Jazeera. Groups are built around actions and topics like Food Not Bombs and Indigenous Activism, and facilitate informed discussions that would be unthinkable on a more typical social media platform. Users are encouraged not only to interact and comment, but to stay informed and ask deep questions.

Even more importantly, with FaceLeft, there’s no hidden agenda. The site’s hosts won’t catalogue your private information and sell it to advertisers, or allow the government to spy on its users. To that end, users are asked to subscribe to the site for no more than $3 per month. The idea, says Albert, is to be upfront about how the site tackles operating expenses, as opposed to a “free” site where users pay with their private data.

At the same time, FaceLeft is by no means meant to compete with sites like Twitter or Facebook. Rather, it’s about creating more diversity in an increasingly homogenous internet. When the web started, Albert recalls, users relied on platforms like America Online to do pretty much everything. But within a few years more people figured out how to navigate for themselves and the internet began to blossom. With low costs and few barriers, users created a uniquely free landscape to interact and share information.

The problem with sites like Facebook and Twitter, Albert says, is that they’re “trying to get everyone back under one umbrella,” meaning Facebook and Twitter. And they’re succeeding. Countless organizations, from local restaurants to immigrant rights groups “now see their most important web presence as their activity on and within the confines of Facebook.” What this means is that more and more of the web is being mediated by private, commercial hands. It’s as if the web itself has been suburbanized: Where once friends and colleagues could meet in fairly public spaces—chatrooms, message boards, independent sites and blogs—now the most important online meeting place is the equivalent of a digital shopping mall.  

“The issue is, do we want our own ways of doing important things,” Albert asks, “or do we want to settle for what we can eek out of corporate offerings?” It’s an idea that’s starting to take off. Already Utne Reader, Z Magazine, and the widely popular Greek party Syriza have created their own sub-networks on the site (where users can create a profile and join the larger FaceLeft system)—and Albert hopes there will be many more. For now, it’s worth considering the potential of a social media alternative, of a more public online space.

For a quick how-to on getting started with FaceLeft, click here. To join FaceLeft as part of Utne Reader’s sub-network, called UtneSocial, click here. 

Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, licensed under Creative Commons.   

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