This previous friday, March 20th, there was supposedly a demonstration taking place in 4 major Danish cities, against the court orders which demand ISP’s to block access for their customers to the Swedish website The Pirate Bay. For the technically savvy, a block which is easy to circumvent, and for the less savvy, easy to find a guide to circumvent using Google or with friends’ help. Still, it is clearly bad if private companies begin to police what websites we can visit and what sites we can’t. It’s not their job. Most ISP’s don’t seem to be too happy about it either, but most also lack the balls to stand up to the ridiculousness of this situation.
What happens next? Once established, that it is okay for ISP’s to block sites at the IFPI’s request, will they ask for stronger blocks? Will they ask for more sites to be blocked? Will they go country by country, using this strategy, until we are blocked out from half the internet, which allows us to find unauthorized copies of copyrighted material?
So, when invited to this demonstration via Facebook I said sure, I’ll come too. I will stand up to what I say and show up, to support an event which was no doubt difficult to get people involved in. On friday, I arrived at the city hall square here in Odense just before the appointed time. And I looked for the young activists, who would soon listen to passionate speeches, storm the barricades and revolt in justified anger. But there were no riots, no armoured policemen behind plastic shields – and no angry young men throwing stones at them. There were no heated speeches or masses of the politically discontent.
As it turns out, the political battles of the 21st century are not fought on barricades or with strong political slogans, yelt from city squares where the masses demonstrate their power against villains in office. Instead they are fought on ice cream.
Clay Shirky, writing about Belarus protesters, who used flash mobs in 2006 to show their discontent with the regime :
In May someone posting under the name by_mob used LiveJournal, a piece of blogging software, to propose a flash mob for the fifteenth of that month. (…) the idea was simply that people would show up in Oktyabrskaya Square and eat ice cream. The results were one part ridiculous and three parts depressing; police were waiting in the square and hauled away several of the ice cream eaters, all while being documented in the now-standard pattern as other participants took digital pictures and uploaded them to Flickr, LiveJorunal, and other online outlets. These pictures in turn recirculated by bloggers like Andy Carvin and Ethan Zuckerman, political bloggers who cover the use of technology as a tool for social change. Images of a repressive Belarus thus spread far beyond the borders of Minsk. Nothing says “police state” like detaining kids for eating ice cream. (Here Comes Everybody, p. 166-167)
There were other flash mobs held, one where participants were encouraged to read aloud pieces of banned writers, and another where people were incited to nothing more than “walk around Oktyabrskaya smiling at one another”.
This action produced the same reaction from the state; attendees reported that the police were using the presence of a pocketknife to try one of the smilers with weapons possession.
The police weren’t reacting to the ice cream eating, reading or smiling itself. The chosen behaviour was intentionally innocuous, because the real message lay not in the behaviour but in the collective action.
What is dangerous to the Belarus regime, is the way protesters make it possible for others to know about what is going on. Protesting is an information sharing business. It is about getting your message out, so that more people will know. And if more people know, more will take action to change things. When photos and videos of what’s going on circulate globally, it makes it much more difficult for the people in power to control the message. It creates a shared awareness. Clay Shirky again :
The military often talks about “shared awareness”, which is the ability of many different people and groups to understand a situation, and to understand who else has the same understanding. If I see a fire break out, and I see that you see it as well, we may more easily coordinate our actions – you call 911, I grab a fire extinguisher – than if I have to call your attention to the fire, or if I am in some confusion about how you will react to the a fire. Shared awareness allows otherwise uncoordinated groups to begin to work together more quickly and effectively.
This kind of social awareness has three levels: when everybody knows something, when everybody knows that everybody knows, and when everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows. (p. 163)
The battles of the digital frontiers have always been about controlling what message gets out, controlling what story is told. From the “Piracy is theft!” slogans of the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) in the 1980′es to the law suits of the 1990′es against teenagers for sharing files using the internet. The story told now is one about child pornography, and since we should all condemn and be afraid of that, it’s suddenly okay to call the quits on everything called free speech and make ISP’s block particular web sites. All we need to do is shout “piracy”. No?
A bunch of clever scandinavians claimed back the concept of “piracy” and began to describe themselves as “pirates”. Their torrent index site began to attract the attention of a global pool of users, and with them the attention of global media. And the story began to sound a little different. What had been demonized and called foul names and made people bow their heads in fear for decades now took another meaning. What was previously unthinkable to be uttered aloud in good company, could suddenly mean something else. In fact the meaning attributed by the copyright industries to the concept of piracy is undermined, when ordinary (primarily young) people start using it as something that describe themselves and of which they are proud. It makes it much harder to control the message.
But that doesn’t mean this stops here. I think protest organizers and participants of this struggle need to educate themselves and think deeply about how to organize in new ways, reach each other and create that “shared awareness”, which is necessary for us to act in any coordinated way. It means embracing new services, free software tools, share information effectively with wikis, use social messaging in the Twitter sense, plan and execute flash mobs of the Belarus sort, which create awareness not because there are a lot of people there, but because the images from the happenings reach a lot of people, or reach the right people. It means connecting with others in insightful ways.
So what do I mean by that curious title? It means that digital goods can be copied. Events can be captured and communicated. Among other things, it means we can use digital information more than once, on more different platforms, to reach more different people. It means there are no real limits as to what we can do to create a deeper shared awareness, which makes it easier for say, protesters to recognize each other as protesters on a city square in a town like Odense.
Someone may claim that a video of someone eating ice cream is not real ice cream, it is simply, like Magritte would say, an image of an ice cream. Or in the terms of our times, a copy of an ice cream. Which is true enough. But it can have a great effect, nonetheless.
The web is awash with shocking images – terrible, shocking images of dead children. Of what is happening in Gaza, right now. I don’t care about the political mumbo-jumbo, it doesn’t interest me. But I do care about what other people are doing to each other. What crimes can be committed when people sign off their responsibilities towards their fellow men and replace it with loyalty and servitude to false concepts, institutions and leaders, which cowardly hide behind the rhetorics of concepts and words.
A friend sent me these pictures on Facebook – similar pictures can be found all over the web. Here, here or here. Here. Or simply here.
There were a few which spoke to me deeply. A father (I assume) carrying his dead child away. A kid with his head just above the ground. Corpses of burned children. I am a father myself. It doesn’t take much empathy to understand what kind of unspeakable atrocity is committed here. I have little to say in words except it makes me sad – and furious at the same time. I blip’ed about it here, and that’s just one insufficient way to express how I feel. Words are insufficient.
I try to avoid watching the news. I don’t really like to be spun into the web of politics and juggling of concepts which is what’s going on in television-made reality. I like the internet, where I can obtain the information I need when and where I like. A friend can always share news with me, in many different ways, if he or she deems it important for me to know. Or I can stumble upon things, I wouldn’t otherwise know about. I can be reached.
Today, these images made me think about how images like these can now reach us in a way they couldn’t a mere 10-15 years ago. They’d never make it past the editorial room of the television news, never make it into prime time tv (for good reasons). But they tell the unmasked truth of whats going on. Killed children, dead babies, smashed families… what goes on in every war, no matter how pretty or political it looks on tv. And what needs to reach us and anyone else with influence and just the slightest sense of responsibility. This can’t go on in the 21st century.
I can’t help the feeling that all my work and interests are shallow, when faced with these atrocities. This goes for my work in Kaplak, as well as my hobbies, such as playing strategy games and developing computer game scenarios.
That’s until I remind myself, that the reason I do what I do, is to facilitate this kind of exchange of information. I am reminded of Clay Shirky’s ideas, of what creates a group, and what makes group action possible : shared information, and a platform for interaction. That we develop technological architectures, which enable the decentralized access to and distribution of information, which may operate fast, can easily be used and adapted, and which enable mutual connections between otherwise disconnected entities. Now we have wikis, the blogosphere and we have Twitter. But we need even better tools to facilitate these exchanges of information, and in order to coordinate advanced and complex operations between peers. This is what we do. This is what we’re taking our first few digs into.
I recently blip’ed about the German patriotic song Die Wacht am Rhein, a song which has roots in the Prussian expansion wars of Bismarck 1864-1871, which was also immensely popular in Germany during the two world wars. I want to create a Civilization II scenario on Bismarck’s wars and this forging of the German national state. As a way to explore this our in many ways most recent history, on the birth of the modern European national state – on the iron, technology and blood spilt in this process. The kind of history taking place right now in Gaza is not new. These kinds of atrocities are not new. But gone are the days of romanticizing war and dressing it up as patriotism. Gone are the days when images such as these could be kept away from the public eye. And come are the days, when atrocities in one distant corner of the globe can reach the rest of the globe with the speed of fiery lightning. And hopefully, it will make an act such as this much harder to enact without the world acting against it. If we don’t, it could be our children, there, dead in the ruins. In a way it is.
Kaplak Stream is a network of websites, in fact, it is a network of Planet-like websites, each dedicated to a particular niche. Using automatically and semi-automatically fed RSS feeds as our vehicle, Kaplak Stream consiste of an ever-growing pile of niche websites, which all are part of our new WordPress MU install. These sites can be homegrown and consist of from just one to several articles, or they can be houses of RSS feeds, fed from our customers’ own sites and preferred services and related web sites of interest, which offer publicly accessible feeds.
The feeds from each subsite are then fed back into the main channel (the great “planet” site), as well as all the external sites, which tap whatever is interesting to them. We’ll also tap into the greater Kaplak Stream from the Kaplak Wiki, where pages will be fed relevant items based on categories and tags used.
Here’s an illustration of the feed traffic and link love created by Kaplak Stream :
What’s important is this network of niche sites help build context for the niche products offered by our customers. We aim to create very low-maintenance sites, which will help sell some of the “slim end of the long tail” products, we mean to help our customers sell.
These marginal products only sell the occasional copy, so each site cannot cost too much to maintain. This is where syndication comes into the picture. With syndicated sites, we can maintain rich contexts easily and we don’t need lots and lots of traffic for each site individually to pay the bills.
How does this help me sell my product?
So how do you sell with Kaplak Stream? You opt in for a site in the stream, free of charge, with a subject and RSS content of your own choosing. For now, your product must use an external affiliate program and a shopping cart provided by third party services. Products/widgets must also support a revenue sharing model, which shares revenue with publishers.
Each site is focused on one product or few related products only. The widgets for these can be placed at site-level in the sidebar. In this case, Kaplak will be an affiliate publisher of your product.
Alternatively, products may be sold at post-level, i.e. from widgets included in posts in a feed. For these sales, you (or anyone else responsible for the feed) will be the publisher. If unused, the sidebar will be utilized to sell another related product in the Kaplak household, if applicable, or house our usual ads and other stuff circulated among the sites. It’s also in this space we’ll begin to introduce our URLsale widgets when we get that far.
Once the site has been created, you can nurse it and cultivate it – or simply leave it alone and forget about it. Until it makes the occasional sale. A site can be a silent sleeper for years, until someone re-discovers it’s existance and makes a purchase. In Kaplak Stream, this is not a problem.
Only when your product makes a sale, do you earn a dime, which in turn is shared with the publisher. Making the sale is not the only benefit of using Kaplak Stream however. The greatest benefit may be the improved targeted visibility created by the linking activity in the stream. Feeds from Kaplak’s niche sites may easily be pulled back into niche sites everywhere, which adds context and value to these sites, to the advantage of their owners and communities. The links across the network and pingbacks in WordPress MU makes it easier to connect the dots between “separated” islands of niche contexts. Kaplak Stream could be the first step in our ‘making the world’s ends meet’.
As with everything we do, this project may be subject to change – any time. Much in the setup depends on further testing and development, particularly of the plugins we use.
One of Shirky’s great points is, that in order to coordinate group efforts on a large scale, one needs to fail informatively, i.e. deliver the metadata to enable the user to identify which projects and tasks are worth pursuing and which are not. Answering a question by Chris Heuer on “how to connect the dots” i.e. groups working independently of each other but often on similar projects : (my emphasis)
The two modes of management we have are the micro manager [and the] grand strategic visionary. Neither of these really work with community. You need something in the middle, which is a kind of facilitation skill. Noone to guide the community, noone to let them go. And it is really, for the individual projects, that’s what you need.
For the, you know, web scale how-do-we-connect-the-dots, the only answer I’ve seen, that really works at large scale, is to work informatively, and to fail informatively.
So if you go on to Sourceforge, which is the biggest collection of open source projects in existance, three quarters of those projects are completely inert, 1 developer, no downloads ever, it’s just nothing ever happened. But on Sourceforge you can always tell what’s working and what’s not, every day. So it doesn’t matter that you’re letting people try things all over, because they can discover each other and move off “this project isn’t working but that one is”. And so you gotta give people the kind of metadata it takes to say : “This is what my organization does, what’s your organization doing, I can find it on Google, I can pull it out of an RSS feed, I can work with it”. If you give people that kind of information, then they’ll find their way to each other, and you don’t have to do anything top-down, you don’t have to do anything to restrict the grand experimentation. But you also don’t end up with lots of little pockets. The open source movement, as so often, they do that better than anyone else, but I think the rest of the world is catching up.
Shirky also had an opportunity to expand on the previously prophesized “50 years of chaos” and what happens with the introduction into society of technologies such as the printing press and the internet :
The biggest surprise and the biggest pleasure researching the book was actually the early history of the printing press. Because it became clear, reading the various accounts of what happened between 1450 and 1650, that we didn’t move from situation A to situation B. We used to have this pre-literate world, where scribes were copying bibles by hand. All of a sudden we had science and this enormous up-welling of all kinds of publications and the catholic church was undone as a pan-European force. We didn’t go from A to B. We went from A to a long period of chaos. And only out of that chaos did B arrive. And that’s my thesis for what we’re seing now with the internet. We’re not seing an orderly transition to a new kind of society. We’re actually seeing all kinds of experiments, short term and long term. We can’t tell which ones are gonna last and which ones are gonna be blips. And in the meantime, a lot of stuff in contemporay society is just going to break. And so, things are going to get weirder, before they get saner, I think is the conclusion.
Time to write a new “real” blogpost again. I’ve got more than 50 drafts for posts in our blog WordPress backend, but it’s time to write a completely new post from scratch, one of those which sets itself apart from the rest.
This has to do with two things.
First, I read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody this month. It’s a marvellous book, and one that should shake the foundations and organizational ideas of every organization, including companies and startups. It’s certainly a disturbing read, especially if you are busy building or defending an organization built on traditional principles such as hierarchy or filtering-before-publishing. More on this in a minute.
Second, I’ve been playing around with RSS feeds, in particular stuff such as the amazingly powerful and promising WP-o-matic plugin for WordPress. In short, what WP-o-matic (and similar plugins such as FeedWordPress) does is feed a WordPress install with posts from chosen RSS feeds. Feeds can be grouped in campaigns and customized with HTML and additional text – and if not now, the potential is there for feeds to be automatically or semi-automatically filtered too, for particular keywords or particular categories. It depends on what’s in the received RSS feeds.
There are technical quirks. Most of these plugins I believe are still in their infancy. But the effects of what this entails, are revolutionary, as far as the web is concerned, and perhaps beyond the web.
Shirky’s thesis in short, is that the way low-cost technologies accessible via the internet facilitates group coordination, makes possible new types of groups, which can very effectively organize collective action. Groups may be thick in substance, with few very connected people, or they can be large, more loosely connected groups. What matters is, that the cost of organizing whatever action the group undertakes, has dropped to be the equivalent of the accumulative spare time of the group’s participants. Wikipedia is an obvious examples of this, effectively organizing the production of a large scale effort by utilizing this ressource only. But there are countless other examples. In effect, ‘every URL is a latent community’, as it is quoted somewhere in the book. People otherwise disconnected by geography and the difficulty of knowing who’s out there and where they are, suddenly find themselves capable of creating groups which were not possible before the internet. Because there were previously no ways of undertaking the costs which this would entail. See the below video for a taste of what all this means :
Shirky’s book is uplifting in so many ways, because it shows (among many other things) how difficult these new capabilities make life for people in power everywhere, and especially those in power of dictatorships and any regime, which seeks to limit access to information and limit the organizational capabilities of groups and group action. And we’re only getting started. People everywhere in the world are discovering new things, learning and experimenting with the new opportunities. It’s happening with a speed and scope which takes away your breath. And this is f**king great.
Now, what RSS does is provide a simple way to get information from one platform into another. Typically used to feed a lot of information into a particular piece of software, a RSS Reader, such as Google’s online platform for doing so, Google Reader. It means news and stories can reach greater audiences, because everywhere everyone can direct attention towards what’s interesting in their field of interest. Feeds can also be shared, and in effect re-published, just as easily as they can be read. In Google Reader this happens simply by selecting a story one likes, and choosing “share”. The story is then re-published to a webpage of it’s own, with it’s own corresponding feed, which can then be shared with friends and others one wants to read the shared items. Not just news stories and blogposts can be shared like this – but videos, bookmarks, tweets, torrents, podcasts, etc. Everything which can be systematically presented in a simple RSS format.
There’s a lot of grey zone activity in this field of course, since re-publishing something from a feed may violate IP rights of authors, when republished to the web, for instance. Website owners who indiscriminately create traffic to their sites from other bloggers’ RSS feeds and generate income from advertising without adding any material of their own, run the risk of being called “scrapers” and generate general bad feeling from original authors.
What’s happening now is that tools such as WP-o-matic makes it beyond easy to set up a blog to automatically or semi-automatically fetch feeds, which means that the “automatic” website is moving into a domain traditionally dominated by “rich content” bloggers writing their own articles. Writing a blog or maintaining a website, for instance, is of course, a lot of hard work. If one can import information to build a rich website in minutes, or support one’s own stuff with valuable information in a very short time, it makes it a lot cheaper and easier to do this. WP-o-matic and other such plugins in other words makes it very very easy for web publishers to earn a dime on even the slightest of niche subjects.
Why is this important? Because, it gives the power back to everyone to aggregate the web’s information easily and conveniently, a power otherwise vested in the large search engine companies. I’ve previously discussed the merits of tools such as Lijit and Google Custom Search. Automated RSS posting is even more promising, as it can support almost any segment of interest. Even the slightest interest in a subject may spawn a rich site, which may draw in other interested readers, which in turn strengthens the effects Shirky is on about. A URL with an interested group of readers, large or small, is all that it takes to create a group. All that is needed to change this group from a latent group to an active one capable of coordinating the group’s actions, is communication tools such as blog comments, email, twittering or other widely accessible tools we have available. We only need the connecting points. Everyone is or has the opportunity to be an aggregator, an expert access point to connecting people, selling stuff or organizing groups for larger scale efforts.