OKCupid protests Mozilla’s CEO

2014-04-01 10-53-30_OkCupid _ Free Online Dating

Yesterday OKCupid changed their site to display a protest message over the appointment of Mozilla’s (of Firefox fame) new CEO. The message reads, in part:

Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich, is an opponent of equal rights for gay couples. We would therefore prefer that our users not use Mozilla software to access OkCupid.

It’s definitely an interesting, and unusual, way to bring to light something that wasn’t getting too much attention. A dating site is not where I’d expect to see something like. Reaching that audience is a good thing.

Do we lose impact by moving online?

India 1

Atul Loke – Intelligent Life

I was reading an old issue of Intelligent Life recently – seriously, that thing has been on my apartment floor untouched for months – when I came across this fantastic article about Video Volunteers’ India Unheard.

Video Volunteers tells otherwise unheard stories by putting cameras in the hand of people in poor and marginalized areas. It gives them training video journalism and puts them in a position to use video to inspire action.

It goes like this: find someone with something important to say. Put a camera in their hand and teach them to use it. Ensure that the resulting films are screened in relevant communities, be they urban slums or rural villages, and that the audience is suitably galvanised. And be sure to document any change with a second film, the “impact video”. These are some of the most compelling films made by Video Volunteers. Correspondents get hold of government officials and show them, on camera, some injustice that they have the power to undo—their discomfort growing as they become more accountable and realise that denial is no longer an option.

India Unheard

It really is an amazing story and the community correspondents seem to get some real tangible results in their communities. I don’t think there’s any arguing that it’s a fantastic program.

This is where I start vacillating.

As I was reading the article and all the quotes about the impacts of the videos I kept thinking about how that model could be applied to global problems. I’m a big picture guy, what can I say; local issues and politics just don’t hold my attention the same way that global catastrophes do.

The problem, at least as I see it, is that the impact of these videos is that they are local. To a large part these videos seem to work on shame. The targets are shamed and face the consequences of that shame in their day to day lives since the problems are local. It’s hard to not address a problem when you are forced to see the impacts of that inaction and answer for it. When you don’t get that immediate impact or when you can pawn off the responsibility I’m just not sure that it works as well. Shame just doesn’t translate outside of the community level. Things become faceless at that point.

This is a bigger problem too when you’re trying to organize on a grassroots style campaign on a large scale. The tactics that work small scale often don’t translate well. The aspects of small scale grassroots campaigning that is appealing can often be a detriment as you scale up. Think of some of the problems that Occupy encountered.

Does that mean that tactics used for grassroots campaigns lose their effectiveness as you move away from the local? What would happen if we adjusted this model to account for YouTube and a global audience?

Well, it wouldn’t work. Or at least not consistently. I just can’t imagine people in the West – not to single out one group – caring about local concerns halfway around the world. I could see it happening occasionally but not on any sort of consistent basis.

But I don’t think that means that this model would not work if we abstract it out enough. It’s a matter of tactics versus strategy. While the tactics of the India Unheard campaign might not work the overarching strategy would. It’s an issue of framing. I don’t think that it’s a surprise that you can’t scale up a project that much without making adjustments.

So shame won’t work but what about positive emotions?

Saying that shame is the big driver of the Unheard India videos doesn’t really do it justice. That may be the initial driver but the success of those campaigns and the screening of the videos creates a real sense of empowerment and makes the overall campaign viral. The videos, outside of their original purpose, do 3 important things:

  1. they empower the viewers;
  2. they act as a teaching device, showing people a model the emulate; and
  3. spreads the idea and principles behind India Unheard.

To me, that seems to create a very powerful feedback loop.

So how would you apply that globally or nationally? It would take two different approaches. First you would emulate India Unheard and follow their model for tackling local issues. On a national/global scale you could then shift the focus towards highlighting successes and demonstrating how small (relatively speaking) actions can have real impacts. You’d curate the videos and create a campaign based on showing the power of the “common man”. Step two would be doing some napkin level math to quantify the impacts that everyone collectively has had to demonstrate how small actions can add up.

At least that’s my take. I love to hear yours. Let me know in the comments below.

Getty goes free

Getty Images – one of the biggest photo banks out there - has given up the fight and are now offering all their images as free embeds rather than try and sue everyone who steals one of their pictures. Instead of charging you they’re letting you embed the image without a watermark but with a credit to them underneath. Fair enough really. At some point they may put ads in the embeds but there’s no plans for that in the near future.

Great news for blogs and smaller NGOs for sure. Finding free images is always a pain in the ass. Larger NGOs will probably still want to pay for the full rights to images though to have more control over them.

Word of warning though, the embeds are in iframes which means that Getty has control over them. At some point your picture could disappear without any notice. That’s really no different than how YouTube embeds work though.

That being said, free is still a hell of a lot cheaper than not free (that’s science). For example, a sweet picture of a dog playing poker would have cost me $565 dollars to license for a month. (Ed note: unfortunately Getty’s servers seem to be under duress from all the people embedding awesome pictures of dogs playing poker. It’s understandable. You’re stuck with this picture of a lady computing since I could rip the iframe code from that Business Week link).

You can search for embeddable images here.

What MTV’s 16 And Pregnant can teach us about campaigning

16andpregnantcardI’ve always been intrigued by the idea that MTV wins wars; that cultural colonization, for better or worse, is far more effective than any bomb. Well now it looks like MTV is also winning metaphorical wars too.

A new study on MTV’s show 16 And Pregnant attributes part of the decline in teen pregnancies in the US to the show. When looking at the data on teen pregnancies they found that the decline corresponded not only with how many people were watching the show but also with Google search data and the number of tweets about the show. Their estimates show that 16 And Pregnant is responsible for a 5.7% drop in teen pregnancy in the US.

I don’t think I’m alone in finding that really surprising. I mean, if I’m being honest, I probably would have guessed that the show would have inadvertently encouraged teenage pregnancy or thought that if it did have an impact it wouldn’t have been so strong. Mea culpa I guess. I obviously didn’t have enough faith in MTV or teenagers.

So that got me thinking, what exactly can we learn from this show? MTV, knowingly or not, is running one of the most successful awareness campaigns in the US.

(Before we get started though let me just say that I am by no means an avid fan. I watched 2 episodes after hearing about this study and that’s what my conclusions are based on. Take from that what you will.)

  1. It tells a (voyeuristic) story: first and foremost the show is meant to entertain and the message gets snuck in. It’s not that the message is secondary to the story, it’s that the story and the message are integrated. Presenting the message this way keeps the viewer interested enough to receive your message.
  2. It shows consequences: not only does it show the consequences of teen pregnancy (or at least some of them) but it presents them in a way that allows the audience to imagine themselves in that situation and empathize.
  3. The illustrates the actions needed to avoid those consequences: those actions are also small and actionable. Now, it’s easier to avoid getting knocked up than it is to stop climate change but the important point is to show people what they can do.
  4. The impact of the actions you can take are apparent: the final point, and again perhaps a bit easier to illustrate with teen pregnancy than other issues, is that you know the impact of the actions you can take. It’s easier to follow through with something if you know what effect it will have.

The Inside Story of Tor

It’s perhaps the most effective means of defeating the online surveillance efforts of intelligence agencies around the world, including the most sophisticated agency of them all, the NSA. That’s ironic, because Tor started as a project of the U.S. government. More than half of the Tor Project’s revenue in 2012, or $1.24 million, came from government grants, including an $876,099 award from the Department of Defense, according to financial statements available on the project’s website.

via Business Week

Princeton vs Facebook: the (passive aggressive) rumble in the jungle

A little over a week ago researchers from Princeton released a study arguing that Facebook would see a rapid decline within just a few years. The study used an model based on the spread of disease and Google search data for both MySpace and Facebook to come to their conclusions.

Facebook, or at least one of their data scientists, was not keen on this and rebutted the study with his own debunking their methodology and showing that Princeton would no longer exist in the near future.

The death of PrincetonSo, the methodology was flawed, but how was it flawed. As Mike Develin points out a Google search does not reflect actual engagement with a platform. It may be an indicator but it’s not enough by itself. If we exclude the fact that mobile is now viable and a huge percentage of users never interact with Facebook through a browser we’re still left with the fact that MySpace “died” more then a decade ago. Facebook replaced MySpace while people were still excited about social networks. Social networks aren’t new anymore. They’re a fact of life.

That isn’t to say that Facebook is the Highlander of social networks though. It will decline sooner or later and be replaced by the next big thing (sorry Google+). Already 3 million teens have disappeared from the network. Well that, or depending on how you read the data, or they grew up and haven’t been replaced. Neither of those is a good outcome.

In any case, I’m just waiting for the nostalgia to kick in and for Friendster to get retro-cool.


[Ramblings] Bitcoin as protest

Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want -Anna Lappe

opengraphSo Bitcoin has been in the news a lot over the past few months. I have a fascination with Bitcoin; I’d guess I’d liken it to someone slowing down to look at a car crash, though in all fairness we don’t know if it will be a car crash yet. In case it wasn’t obvious from that previous sentence I have a bit of a distaste for Bitcoin and I wanted to explore that a little.

But let’s rewind a little and go back to the beginning.

What is Bitcoin?

It’s like PayPal for drugs. Wait, hang on. No angry emails please. That may be accurate, but it’s not fair. For that I’m going to summarize an article from Darren Hobbs. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency – a type of digital money – designed to eliminate the need for third parties (like credit card companies or banks) and to deal with the problem of inflation. The major selling point is that it allows people to transfer Bitcoins between each other without the need for a third party like a bank.

What’s my problem with Bitcoin?

I’ll be honest, I’m not 100% sure. I’m a big believer in the idea that, to some degree, everything we do is political. What we buy, how we dress, who we talk to, all of that is an extension of our beliefs (or lack there of). I mean, some of that is going to be dictated by circumstances and the situation but the principle stands in general. I think that we can all agree that what we buy says something about our politics; the choice between a buying a Hummer and a Prius is probably to some degree a declaration of politics. If that’s the case then isn’t the way that purchase is made also important?

I’d say yes.

If you have problems with the execution of the current economic system – rather than say with the principle of the system – then Bitcoin lets you operate without using, and therefore giving power to, institutions that you disagree with. In the case of sites like Silkroad (see the stories above) it also allows you to purchase some things that you would otherwise have difficulty procuring. You can make an argument that that is also valid. It also can’t be taxed, at least until you try and convert it to another currency.

So what’s the problem then? Well I’d say there are two issues that I have. Let’s break them down.

The evangelists

If you spend any significant amount of time online in the nerdier underbelly of the internet then you’ve probably been inundated with propaganda from Bitcoin evangelists for years. I’d rank my experience with Bitcoin evangelists right behind Ron Paul supporters on the I Understand Your Point But You’re Annoying As Fuck scale. Part of this is because Bitcoin evangelists seem to be a heady mixture of free staters, investment bankers, people who are waaaaay too keen about LSD, Guy Fawkes mask purchasers, and people who insist that taxes are a form of violence inflicted upon them (but who ignore the benefits, like you know, roads and schools). All of whom insist that it will solve all the world’s ills.

I think that’s more of a problem with me though. A recent study from the University of Toronto looked into the way bias around certain issues effects the way people view others. One that stood out to me, because of personal involvement, was that there is resistance to tackling environmental issues because some people see environmentalists as “tree huggers” and “hippies”. I’ve worked a lot on environmental issues so this understandably rubs me the wrong way and I can’t imagine that the same phenomenon that annoys me here isn’t working it’s magic on me in regards to Bitcoin. My distaste for the evangelists (or at least my perception of them) is influencing my views on the issues to some degree and that’s not fair.

I don’t want to let the evangelists completely off the hook though. There’s a certain strain that are actually being detrimental to the overall perception. Take this article for example. Wired spends an entire article talking about homeless people who survive using Bitcoin. Except they aren’t. Bitcoin is only part of the picture. Wired says,

The bitcoin system could become an equalizer for the country’s homeless, a place where the stigma of living on the streets isn’t as pronounced.

which is utopian tech wankery for the sake of a novelty. I’m not saying there aren’t some real benefits to Bitcoin for homeless people (namely a way to remotely store money without needing a fixed address) but that quote ignores a whole host of issues and variables and does almost nothing to address the socia-economic realty that this specific set of people found themselves in. It’s Bitcoin boosterism disguised as activism. A cooptation of other issues as a way to promote a pet project. I frankly find that a bit offensive but that may just be because I feel that homelessness is a more important issue than, say, who controls the Federal Reserve.

The cooptation of politics for money

My second issue, which is kind of related, is the fact that for a lot of people Bitcoin isn’t a form of protest. It’s a stock that they buy and sell for financial gain. I guess the question is then whether it matters if a legitimate form of activism is getting used for something else. Again, this rubs me the wrong way but that’s my biases showing. To go back to environmentalism, I can’t say that I think that companies profiting off of renewable energies or selling organic foods delegitimize the cause. I mean sure, they might dilute the message or complicate the discussion of the issue but it doesn’t invalidate it.

With Bitcoin, and this might just be because of the enthusiasts I’ve encountered, it seems to me that the majority are more concerned about making money then about promoting the cause. The cause is ancillary to the profit. People treat it like stocks. A stock exchange fueled (at least in some small part) by ethics. Is that a bad thing though? Wouldn’t it be better if real stock brokers acted like that. But making money is a way of promoting the cause. I can’t fault someone for buying stocks in a solar panel company even if they don’t have a real interest in renewable energy. Either way it promotes the adoption of that technology.

The wrap up

Even after all that rambling and vacillating I still have to say that I’m still skeptical of Bitcoin. I get the premise behind it but I can’t say I’m keen. Maybe I’m wrong, I probably am. I’d be happy for anyone to try and convince me in the comments below.