16 Mar 2011
My colleague Nosheen Ali and I drove down to the South Bay on February 24th for a roundtable convened by USIP, George Washtington University, and Stanford University. USIP has a track record of convening high quality networks around timely topics and ‘Blogs & Bullets: Social Media and the Struggle for Political Change’ hit both marks. The network quality in this case was matched by the network diversity- it was great to have Youtube, Facebook, Google, and Paypal in the room with the Clay Shirkys, Miriam Aouraghs, Zeynep Tufekcis, Patrick Meiers, Phil Howards, Jillian Yorks, Mary Joyces, Marc Lynchs, and Sanjana Hattotuwas of the world.
A few things worth mentioning. First, I was struck by how much I really liked Clay Shirky. Of course it is very easy to like his writing and his thinking, but the extent to which Clay rolled up his sleeves (well actually there were no sleeves after the lunch break, instead a working class white tee-shirt that provoked Marc Lynch to make a Lebowski comparison) and wrestle with ideas was impressive. But here is what stuck with me — bookmark under generous and sharing for conversational structures that leave an impression: Clay prefaced a point by first sharing credit for it with everyone in the room, saying something to the effect, 'Now, I know everyone here has written some variant on the following observation, but let me make it regardless: the internet is viewed as a public space, but is actually a collection of apparently public spaces in which our access, content, and rights are governed by private companies.' Truth telling spoken way more eloquently than I have captured it here.
Having the opportunity to talk frankly with the FBs, YTs, Googles, Paypals of the world about the emerging set of policies and rules that govern their policies for sensitive content in crisis, disaster, and conflict situations felt important and historic. We did discover that Youtube does have a different standard for hosting materials they think share important, substantive facts in an emerging conflict or crisis. In general my sense from all the corporate attendees was that they had a good-faith and very serious approach to emergent challenges and responsibilities.
We did raise the much discussed Meedan issue of new responsibilities in the context of global real-time media. Here I did make a point about our responses and policies being constantly in need of revisiting in the light of new technologies that will always lower the bar for how much data it takes to definitively identify a person from a tweet, a voice message, a photo, or a comment on a forum. The notion is that we are in a transitional period in which those people who expose their passionate beliefs via social media and do not subsequently topple their repressive government have provided public and accessible evidence of their opposition. Longer Meedan blog post on what do do when your dictator 'friends' you over here.
I had an interesting talk with FBs' Simon Axten on the prospect of bringing crowdsourced content translation (not just interface localization) into Facebook. Laila Shereen Sakr, and Egyptian VJ and poet was, you might guess, really interesting- plus I have a week spot for anyone who uses the phrase 'constructed epistimologies' with sincerity and conviction. Rohini Srihari is doing what sounds to be very interesting NLP work on Urdu with her company Janya- work that was recently covered in ReadWriteWeb. It was great to meet Miriam Aouragh. Zeynep Turfeki said a bunch of brilliant things- perhaps her best idea being a way of standardizing the data and analytics from the social media companies made available to researchers. Quite a bit of discussion on this idea.
On a final note, it was agreed by a few of us at the end of the meeting that the smart, reasonable, and eloquent professor from Washington University Phil Howard should be on Anderson Cooper's speed dial. You can help the cause by reading his most recent book. Full disclosure, Phil was on record saying some nice things about Meedan, and...I think this is really a first...he told me that I had the best job in the world. With his view being perhaps that I sat and browsed global media all day long while IMing with friends and colleagues around the world. Let's just let that illusion stand.
Thanks to Sheldon Himmelfarb, Larry Diamond, and Marc Lynch for bringing together an enjoyable and interesting roundtable.