Transparency, Big Data and Internet Activism

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Internet activism relies on the web of connections we can make, but is hindered by the lack of online public spaces designed for collaboration.
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“The Big Disconnect” by Micah L. Sifry is an exploration of internet activism in the age of data-driven politics.

Micah L. Sifry tackles the reasons progressive change has failed to manifest with the growth of the internet in The Big Disconnect (OR Books, 2014). Internet activism seemed like the wave of the future only two decades ago, but the Internet’s potential as a tool for progressive change has not quite given rise to sustained political mobilization and participation. The following excerpt from Part 4, “The Way We Look To Us All,” focuses on ways to create online public spaces that cater to internet democracy and internet transparency in ways current social media does not.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” –E.M. Forster, Howards End

The Internet does not have to become one more means for mass marketing and manipulation. It can also transform civic life into something far more participatory, transparent, and engaging. And rather than just work as a tool for petitioning and protest that a few people use on behalf of much larger atomized groups of individuals, it can link problem-spotters with problem-solvers, and make everyday life better in myriad ways.

As Ami Dar, the founder of, a hub for listing volunteer service opportunities, likes to say, “Our problems are connected, but we are not.” That is, most people don’t know who lives near them, or what they may be thinking about important issues. The way Big Data now works, only the managers of giant data-streams have a comprehensive understanding of who is interested in what. For example, Google knows who is searching for terms that relate to the flu, and can use that information to build a model that predicts where outbreaks are taking place. It can even (and does) serve up useful medical advice for such search results.

But if lots of people are getting the flu somewhere because their city has inadequate health services or high unemployment, they have no way of addressing the larger pattern behind these individual complaints, nor does Google make this common interest visible to the people it concerns. Likewise, MoveOn may know that a substantial chunk of its membership wants the group to take on a new issue, but those members have no way of knowing that unless MoveOn’s staff chooses to tell them. Important data flows upward, not sideways.

Internet Activism and the Networked Age

The rise of the Internet as a political platform is also a very mixed blessing for anyone who believes that public discourse thrives best in public places, given how few of the places where most people converse online are actually public. On the one hand, networked media make a different kind of public possible, something the digital media scholar Dave Parry calls “the Internet public.” Those of us who devote at least part of our time to being laterally connected with other people via new media are developing a different expectation about our role in society, one where we can be more active participants in creating and shaping news and culture. Channeling media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Parry argues that the medium through which we communicate changes social relations between people and thus changes the society we live in.

For example, Parry says, if the Komen Foundation had changed its policy on funding Planned Parenthood breast-cancer screening ten years ago, before the rise of the Internet public, little would have happened. Now, anger gets expressed visibly, socially, publicly, and instantly in ways that can have a political impact. And when the Egyptian government shut down the Internet at the height of the “January 25” protests during the Arab Spring, that action had the effect of pushing more people out into the streets, helping to accelerate Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. Parry writes, “While the Egyptian government could mostly shut off access to the public Internet, they couldn’t shut off the Internet public. That is, while the government could shut down the hardware of the Internet, it could not shut down the social effects of the digital network.”

However, generally speaking, the Internet public hangs out in the digital equivalent of privately controlled shopping malls, not public squares. And the problem isn’t just that most of the “places” we use aren’t local, the way that a genuine town hall meeting or neighborhood forum brings together people from the same district or community, it’s also that corporate portals mostly function as vertical siloes for the like-minded. When a politician holds an online town hall meeting on Facebook or Google Hangout, that choice not only privileges people who have high-speed broadband access, which is just half the U.S. population, it also leaves out anyone who doesn’t want to create a Facebook or Google Plus account. We are a generation into the Networked Age, and our public infrastructure of schools, libraries, parks, and government institutions, all places where “we the people” can congregate in the flesh, have not been replicated online.

“Though we are not lost, we are losing,” Sue Gardner declared at the 2013 MIT-Knight Civic Media conference in Cambridge. From 2006 to 2013 Gardner was the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, which publishes Wikipedia. Taking the long view on the evolution of civic media since the rise of the Internet, she said, “We certainly have no information-sharing participatory Garden of Eden, the promise of the Internet that we all originally believed in.” Other than Wikipedia, which is the only nonprofit website in the top twenty-five most visited worldwide, the web is dominated by the platforms and values of for-profit companies, where the average person spends most of their time.

Internet Transparency and Civic Engagement

On Wikipedia, participation is transparent. No one is required to register in order to make an edit on a page, but the site remembers what IP address an edit came from. That’s how we know when edits to the pages for Congress get made by people working inside Congress: there’s one IP address for everyone working in the Senate and just a few for the House. It’s easy to view the history of edits on a page, the traffic statistics to each page, even the number of people who are watching a particular page. And you can look up the history of any user’s edits: Sue Gardner’s Wikipedia edits on everything from Chelsea Manning’s page to the “country of origin effect” are easily spotted. In other words, user behavior on Wikipedia is as public as people congregating in a park.

By contrast, participation on platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn is hidden. And not just by Facebook users who choose to keep most of their posting private; Facebook keeps all kinds of user data to itself. You can’t find out who has looked at your Facebook page; at LinkedIn you can determine this if you are willing to pay a premium price. You may be a subject of interest, but the platform gets that data, not you. If you post something to these sites, the platform decides where it gets pushed, and again, it will charge you for the privilege of reaching all of your friends or followers. If you had your own website, you would know much more about who was visiting your page and you would have much more control on how your information gets shared.

Participation on Facebook is also shaped dramatically by the ubiquitous “like” button. There’s no way to “dislike” anything on Facebook, something that advertisers certainly appreciate. But imagine going to a real-life town hall meeting where the only way to comment on something was first to “like” it. Developers are literally banned by Facebook from making a “dislike” button for people to use, and they also aren’t allowed to make apps that might encourage people to “unfriend” each other.

In protest, Dean Terry, the director of the emerging-media program at the University of Texas at Dallas (and a former colleague of Dave Parry’s), and Bradley Griffith, a graduate student, created EnemyGraph. The tool, which Facebook users added as a plug-in to their accounts, allowed them to list people or things that are their “enemies.” It worked for a while, and then it broke when Facebook made changes to its software architecture.

The single most valuable piece of civic software anyone has made in the last ten years is also a piece of public property. I’m speaking of the lowly hashtag (the # symbol), which has enabled all kinds of movements to focus their communications, ranging from Iran’s 2010 election protest (#iranelection), Egypt’s #Jan25 revolution, Tunisia’s #sidibouzid revolution, #OccupyWallStreet, and even #TCOT (top conservatives on Twitter). Far beyond politics, all kinds of public community conversations are loosely knitted together by common hashtag. And it’s the property of no one, not Twitter the company, nor anyone else. It was just the inspired idea of an early Twitter user, Chris Messina, a web developer who borrowed the syntax from its use to identify Internet Relay Chat channels.

On August 27, 2007, Messina tweeted, “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” His purpose, he said then, was “in simply having a better eavesdropping experience on Twitter,” which was still in its infancy. More seriously, he also wrote that he wanted to improve “contextualization, content filtering and exploratory serendipity within Twitter.” He kept pushing the idea, and then a few months later was gratified to see usage of the protocol take off during a spate of wildfires in California, when people started tweeting with “#sandiegofire” about the news. Photos on the picture-sharing service Flickr were also being tagged the same way. “Hashtags are far from perfect,” he wrote then. “I have no illusions about this.” But he thought sharing emergency information around the San Diego fires was a great use case for the larger problem he was hoping to solve, which was to “coordinat[e] ad-hoc groupings and giv[e] people a way to organize their communication.” Little did he know how successful his idea would be.

When he was asked years later why he didn’t patent the idea, Messina answered, “claiming a government-granted monopoly on the use of hashtags would have likely inhibited their adoption, which was the antithesis of what I was hoping for, which was broad-based adoption and support—across networks and mediums.” He added: “I had no interest in making money (directly) off hashtags. They are born of the Internet, and should be owned by no one. The value and satisfaction I derive from seeing my funny little hack used as widely as it is today is valuable enough for me to be relieved that I had the foresight not to try to lock down this stupidly simple but effective idea.”

Internet Democracy Goes Hand-in-Hand with the “Indie Web”

“The web started indie,” says Tantek Celik, a longtime coder and “alpha geek” who now works for Mozilla, one of the only other major organizations like Wikipedia that are devoted to developing the public infrastructure of cyberspace. By that he means that the early sites on the web were mostly put up by independents (scientists, academics, and bloggers), and the first wave of tools like HTTP, email, and RSS were not owned by anyone but were simply useful sharing systems that benefited everyone.

But now in the age of Facebook, YouTube, and so on, Celik says, “If you post your content to these sites, you’re basically giving up your rights.” In his spare time, he is one of the driving forces behind IndieWebCamp, a community focused on reviving and growing the independent web, where people control their own sites and data. The IndieWebCamp site jokingly quotes the character Morpheus from the movie The Matrix: “You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world [wide web].”

Why do we need the “Indie Web”? Celik’s site offers a long list of reasons:

• You’re afraid of losing your photos and files (some users of Apple’s MobileMe service lost theirs when Apple moved to the iCloud service in 2012).

• You’re frustrated by downtime (services like Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr and even Facebook and Google have all suffered glitches).

• Your account was frozen (people get booted off Twitter for tweeting too much, or from Facebook for all kinds of obscure and often-unexplained reasons).

• Your account access was removed because you were using a pseudonym (as happened to Egyptian democracy activist Wael Ghonim, who lost access to his “We are All Khaled Said” page just as the anti-government demonstrations in Egypt were cresting in 2011).

• Your blog was deleted for obscure reasons (Google blocked adult content from Blogger, its blogging service, without explaining what defined “adult”).

• A post of yours was removed because of legal threats that you didn’t have a chance to know about or respond to (this often happens with complaints under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act).

• Your blog was disappeared because of dubious trademark claims (as happened to danah boyd’s Tumblr blog).

• Your identity is misrepresented with no avenue to correct false information (as happened to writer Amy Wilentz when Google decided she was dead).

• Your content was taken and its ownership transferred without permission to a big copyright holder (as happened to one YouTube user who uploaded a video of himself foraging in the forest and discovered his video was removed because the birds chirping in the background supposedly matched a music video licensed by Rumblefish, a music content provider).

• You don’t want a platform taking your content without your permission or payment (as Instagram attempted to do at the beginning of 2013).

• You don’t want your content used to advertise things that you never agreed to advertise (which Facebook recently gave itself the power to do).

The last reason is perhaps the biggest one: “You’re done with sharecropping your content, your identity, your self.” The original sharecroppers were people who were allowed to live on agricultural land in exchange for giving the landlord a share of the crops they produced. Often they barely eked out a subsistence living. Today, people who post their content on platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, YouTube, and the like are all being digitally sharecropped. As the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” The real customers are advertisers and other people who want to make money from our data.

The larger point is that architecture is politics, and coders are legislators. Every choice the designers of a website or platform make about the way their service interacts with users contains subtle, implicit decisions about power. The fact, for example, that the Uber taxi service doesn’t enable its drivers to laterally communicate with each other is critical; the owners of Uber don’t want to make it easy for drivers to organize with each other. “The insiders are winning,” Wikipedia’s Sue Gardner warned in her MIT speech. For the health of society, she argues, we need a flowering ecosystem made up of the digital equivalent of public parks, libraries, and schools where people can connect to each other on free terms, not just one Wikipedia as the exception to the rule. But the most obvious answer to this problem—that government, which was the seedbed for the development of the Internet—should look for ways to ensure that some part of cyberspace is open to all, is nowhere on the current agenda. And this is truly odd, given how democracies have treated public space for decades.

The Need for Public Spaces on the Internet

“If the government said that people can’t drive on the roads to go to a rally in a public park to protest something, because it would lead to bad press, everyone would protest,” comments Tom Steinberg, the founding and guiding force behind the United Kingdom’s MySociety, the first civic hacking collective. “Yet when government says that it can’t let people using government websites to connect to each other, in order to challenge the status quo, no one says anything.”

In Steinberg’s view, which I share, a .gov website should include features for citizens to create their own online presence. After all, if the local library can give you a library card, and the state can give you a driver’s license, why not give people the option of owning their own online presence through a public platform where the data they make is theirs to control? Such a system could make it easy for people with similar concerns to connect laterally, creating needed competition with today’s siloed advocacy organizations. And it could shield their interactions from the predations of commercial and political marketers. Among the many challenges we face in reclaiming democracy in the age of the Internet, one of the hardest is creating genuine public spaces for interchange.

Additionally, if people are to have any greater ability to participate in the decisions that affect our lives, then we need to be able to see what our data collectively says about us. We need to know “the way we look to us all,” as songwriter Paul Simon put it, in as fine and flexible a way as our would-be Big Data overlords seek to know us. (Recall how much the Dean for America blog enabled tens of thousands of Dean supporters to create a collective self-awareness, and how little the Obama 2012 campaign did.) We also need to be engaged with our own data in practical ways that enrich us, not just the technocrats using it for their own purposes.  To turn the so-called “Smart Cities” movement on its head, we need to make sure connection technology helps us become smarter citizens, and doesn’t just make our cities better at managing us.

Unfortunately, the digital tools we rely on most heavily were not built with these goals in mind. Most critically, none of the services we all commonly use for digital communication—email lists, blogs, chat, and wikis—were designed for group decision-making. In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky’s seminal book, he wrote that we were living in an age of “ridiculously easy group formation.” But what he left out is that starting a group is not the end of the story. Keeping a group organized and functioning in a way that makes its members want to stay involved is hard. It’s no wonder that most online political groups in America are built around having common beliefs rather than working on solving common problems. That’s because the communication tools we use are great for self-expression and terrible for reaching consensus, particularly when there is disagreement. Think of how most of us use the digital tool-box:

• Email list-servs may be great for letting everyone have the opportunity to speak, and they may be useful for sharing basic information among members of a group. But any attempt to make a decision using a list-serv is bound to consume hours of everyone’s time and risks creating confusion, and, almost inevitably, flame-wars.

• A top-down email list, by contrast, doesn’t really give its members the ability to make decisions together: at best, the list’s owners may do regular surveys of membership opinion; at worst, they do A/B testing to optimize the response rate on a choice that list members have little or no say in generating.

• A blog, either written by an individual or a group of contributors, may be a great way for a few people to project their vision and rally a community. But blogs aren’t designed to be democratic decision-making tools. Invariably, they are the vehicle of their authors.

• A chat room (like Internet Relay Chat) might work for a small group of intimates who are used to working with each other, but chat doesn’t scale well, either for groups of people who know each other or strangers. The same is true for Facebook chat threads or your run-of-the-mill Twitter conversation around a common hashtag.

• Wikis can be great places for groups to share ideas in common, and they even allow everyone to contribute on an equal playing field. They are the closest thing we have to group collaboration platforms. But many people find wikis hard to edit, except for the hard-working nerds who keep many wikis going. Consider the process Wikipedia went through when its American branch “decided” to go dark to protest the pending SOPA/PIPA bills. The “Jimbo Wales talk page” that acted as the village square for the community discussion on this proposed action gathered roughly 2000 individual comments and stretched across roughly 50 screen-scrolls. If you had tried to print it out the scroll would have been at least 25 feet long. When a group needs to make a decision, no one says, “Let’s use a wiki to hammer out how we feel.”

• Finally, there are the many specialized tools that groups may use to help with handling complex tasks, ranging from free ones like the meeting scheduler WhenIsGood, to cheap ones like Meetup, to sophisticated (and somewhat more expensive) collaboration platforms like Basecamp and Campfire, built by the company 37Signals. They’re nifty and helpful, but they’re basically project management tools, not group decision-making tools.

The good news is that it is possible to make the Internet and Big Data work for democracy. Online community hubs focused on solving real-life problems are not only already here, in some places they’re hitting critical mass and changing the culture of the places they serve. Group decision-making tools that can enable hundreds of people to deliberate together, even when separated by space and time, are spreading. And a new crop of digital innovators are developing a variety of promising ways to open up Big Data to all of us. The future impact of the Internet on politics may well be different than the one now being charted.

Reprinted with permission from The Big Disconnect: Why The Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet) by Micah L. Sifry and published by OR Books, 2014. The Big Disconnect: Why The Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet) by Micah L. Sifry is now available from OR Books.

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