Emoji Dick

I just launched a project on Kickstarter (an awesome NYC based startup that helps people fund their ideas) to translate Moby Dick into Emoji using Amazon Mechanical Turk. I’m calling it Emoji Dick:

This project will fund the production, via crowd sourcing, of a never-before-released translation of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick in Japanese emoji icons.

Here’s an example of an Emoji sentence from Moby Dick:

Each of Moby Dick’s 6,438 sentences will be translated 3 times by different Amazon Mechanical Turk workers. Those results will then be voted on by another set of workers, and the most popular version of each sentence will be selected for inclusion in the book.

I’m trying to reach $3,500, and you can give at the $5, $10, $20, $40, and $200 levels and get different awesome rewards, like their name included in the book, a CC BY-SA licensed PDF, the raw data, and either a softcover black and white copy or a limited edition color version.

If you want to support the project, just visit the page here. Thanks!

Fighting iPhone App Store Stockholm Syndrome with Easter Eggs

Some iPhone app store developers are beginning to suffer from Stockholm syndrome and are now sympathizing and fighting on behalf of their captor, known as the iPhone approval process.

From Wikipedia’s article on Stockholm Syndrome:

Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response sometimes seen in abducted hostages, in which the hostage shows signs of loyalty to the hostage-taker, regardless of the danger or risk in which they have been placed.

And just as Patty Hearst picked up a machine gun to rob a bank while being held captive by the Symbionese Liberation Army, these developers are attacking the sane programmers trying to save them.

Here’s a guest post on TechCrunch where Matt Galligan, a CEO of an iPhone app development shop where he calls out Yelp for not abiding by Apple’s rules:

Call it sneaky, call it clever, but I call it deceit. Apple has put forth specific guidelines, and “rules” around their app development, and while I don’t always agree, it’s the reality of how we must work with them for now. Yelp hid their easter egg behind shaking the device, which isn’t always the most intuitive action to take on an app that contains some maps and lists. As a result, the unsanctioned Augmented Reality view was gone from Apple’s radar.

Why is Galligan chastising Yelp? Sure, he acknowledges, the app store may act badly sometimes, but hey, rules are rules, right?

Wrong. He should be commending Yelp for putting their app’s approval on the line by risking Apple’s wrath. Yelp must have one of the most popular free apps in the iPhone app store, so it is quite a risk to release it with functionality purposely hidden from Apple.

But its the right kind of risk; it’s gutsy, offers a new whiz-bang feature, and asserts Yelp’s right to develop whatever features they want outside the scrutiny of their captor.  These are values that all developers need more of when creating iPhone applications.

And, if as Galligan predicts, Yelp’s risk forces the App Store approval process to spend more time digging through source to discover undocumented functionality using forbidden (Gasp!) API calls, then maybe it will demonstrate to Apple that it’s just not worth treating your developers like hostages, and they’ll dismantle the approval process entirely.

Apple now has such strict control over the development process that some developers have clearly lost the ability to think for themselves. That means we have to find every opportunity to encourage them to fight against their captor’s tyranny.

That means encouraging risks like Yelp’s and developing more Easter eggs for iPhone apps.

So if you’re reading this and are also currently developing an iPhone app, think about including an Easter Egg that might rankle Apple. You won’t be ruining it for the rest of us, you’ll be chipping away at the wall of Apple’s tyranny over developers.

Copyright Commerce and Culture Blog Roll

Here’s a list of blogs that I’ll be requiring (suggesting?) my students to read:

A Copyfighter’s Musings
Copyrights & Campaigns
Creative Commons
EFF: Breaking News
EFF: Deep Links
Free Culture @ NYU
Free Culture @ NYU List Serv (requires membership)
Freedom to Tinker
John Palfrey
Lessig Blog
Public Knowledge – Blogging, Events, and Action Alerts
Recording Industry vs The People
The Public Domain
Wendy Seltzer’s Blog

Please let me know if you have any suggestions. You can read the whole feed here live via Google Reader, or download the OPML file here, which you can then import as a folder into any RSS reader.

DeCSS and (My) Radicalization

Philosophy Club Poster

I made this poster for a meeting of the Philosophy Club at Wilton High School. Admittedly, my definition of “philosophy” was pretty loose and this poster’s point was pretty incoherent (apologies to MLK), but I had found myself talking about the 2600 DeCSS case Universal v. Reimerdes so much with my friends, that I figured it might be good to found a club where we could keep similar conversations going. Since our school didn’t have a debate club at the time (there were rumors about an ill-fated trip involving a school bus sinking in the Norwalk River), we didn’t really have any other venues to do this besides study hall.

Luckily, my father happened to be a working philosophy of science professor and had enough spare time to help us get the club off the ground. I think I organized the first session and ranted about the DeCSS case, but we later moved onto more academic subjects and discussions. The club was a high point in what was mostly a difficult period in my life and school. I think I still have some photos that we intended to submit to the yearbook and if those turn up I’ll try and post them. Unfortunately the club never survived after our class’s graduation as we were unable to find a faculty adviser or enough student interest. I would later use the skills I developed to launch Free Culture @ NYU, so I suppose I was on the right track.

The polemical writings of Emannuel Goldstein, editor in chief of 2600 and the main defendant in the case, about the magazine’s choice to publish DeCSS had galvanized me. Goldstein articulated that the issues at hand in the suit were really ones of freedom, source code, and speech, not piracy and profits. As an early adopter of Linux (Slackware 3.3 anyone?) as well as a kid who loved movies and was incredibly excited about the potential of DVDs, the practicalities of the case were quite clear to me: why shouldn’t I be able to run whatever software I wanted to play my own DVDs? Who says I can’t read *that* source code? Jon Johansen, the teenager hacker who cracked the DVD encryption scheme, CSS (not to be confused with the other CSS), played the role of sympathetic hacker who I, not incidentally, looked up to.

Free speech on the internet, heck, freedom itself, appeared to be at stake, threatened by a very bad part of a very new law that sounded like it was bought and paid for by the exact interests suing our magazine.

During the case’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals trial in May of 2001, I wore a t-shirt featuring the censored source code while sitting in the audience. The Wall Street Journal interviewed me that day and it wasn’t until last year that I discovered my quote actually made it into the article in the paper:

Looking back, I now realize my interest and involvement in this case marks my early foray into the world of radical online free speech activism and copyright reform. I knew the 2600 case was important (clearly, I spent a disproportionate amount of time thinking about it, debating it, and following it closely), but I did not estimate how much these issues would continue to shape and influence my life and career. I’ve now been involved in this community for almost a decade, and it’s only beginning to get really interesting.

Obviously, I was not alone. This case and these issues not only radicalized a generation of free software developers and enthusiasts, but also trained them with a set of skills necessary to successfully navigate these issues in the future.

My friend and now colleague at NYU, Gabriella Coleman has written an article about our story called “Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers”  published in the academic journal Cultural Anthropology. Biella’s paper is one of the best overviews of the conditions that precipitated the birth of a generation of internet and free speech activists. Biella concludes by arguing this type of political activism and legal autodidacticism represents a new kind of engagement with democracy, which of course, I completely agree with and am proud to be part of.

Download the PDF of her paper here, or look for it in your copy of Cultural Anthropology.

New Responsibilities @ CC & Teaching @ NYU

I’m now working as Creative Common’s product manager developing features and plans for the Creative Commons Network. Here’s my original post on the Creative Commons blog from a month ago:

CC Network LogoOver the last year I’ve been fortunate enough to work with individuals, organizations, and movements as Creative Commons’ Outreach Manager. Starting this week, I will be applying this experience to a new role at CC as our Product Manager for the Creative Commons Network. I’ll still be working in NYC and free to meet about CC, but will be primarily focused on developing new features and tools for our community.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, check out our press release and post announcing the network in October, and for those of you who have already joined, we should have some exciting announcements for you by the end of the year.

You can also join the CC Network now by donating.

For now, if you have any thoughts, suggestions, or questions about the Creative Commons Network, please don’t hesitate to get in contact: fred [at] creativecommons.org.

I’m also excited to announce that I’ll be teaching “Copyright, Commerce & Culture” at NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communications, previously taught by my friend and colleague Aram Sinnreich.

I’m honored to be taking over such a great class, and happy to once again find myself looking forward to starting another Fall semester at NYU. Here’s the course description:

E59.1405 Copyright, Commerce and Culture

Course explores the basic tenets and operative principles of the global copyright system. It considers the ways in which media industries, artists, and consumers interact with the copyright system and judges how well it serves its stated purposes: to encourage art and creativity. Examinies various social, cultural, legal, and political issues that have arisen in recent years as a result of new communicative technologies. The two main technological changes that concern us are the digitization of information and culture and the rise of networks within society and politics.

The class will almost certainly have a blog and syllabus online with links to articles we’ll be reading in class, so I’ll make sure to post that here.

Currently the class is scheduled to meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30-4:45pm, and appears, unfortunately, to be already full. This may change, so if you’re interested in attending, just keep an eye out on ALBERT, and/or let me know.

Regarding Public Disclosure of Private Fact on Social Networks

A quick update about the Facebook governance post I wrote a while ago where I wondered whether disclosing private facts about yourself on your Facebook page would constitute “public disclosure of private facts” and thereby prevent you from claiming invasion of privacy should a friend disclose something they discovered on your semi-private profile:

… American law prevents me from disclosing private facts about Alice that are not news worthy. However, if Alice had disclosed such private facts in a public space (perhaps in front of a large audience), I can pass on the facts to others and even publish them.

But what if Alice discloses her private fact on her Facebook profile? It remains private in the sense that only I and her friends can see it by logging into Facebook’s private service, but it also arguably public in the sense that I and her friends are also an audience. Does it matter how many friends she has? What privacy settings did she have in place?

Through a Slashdot post, I just stumbled across a case that hinged on a very similar fact pattern, Moreno vs. Hanford Setinel. The judge decided that since a teenager wrote a post on her MySpace blog revealing facts she believed (and now regretfully wishes) were private, she could not claim a breach of privacy under the doctrine.

The judge astutely points out that since the teenager’s MySpace page and blog were publicly available to “anyone with a computer and Internet connection.”, they couldn’t be considered private even if she believed her actual audience to be tiny. But this leaves open the question of whether using Facebook’s privacy settings would create a particular level of security that would classify the profile and facts as “private.”

Obviously details about actions and relationships matter a great deal in determining whether privacy has been breached and whether certain disclosures are public “enough” to negate a plaintiff’s privacy claim. But what is still interesting to me, is whether certain technical choices a user can make on Facebook are substantial enough to shift a profile from being public to being private in the eyes of the law.

As Lessig argues, code is law, but in this case, we might be able to see it the other way around: Facebook’s code could amount to sufficient law.

RT @mecredis RANT RANT

First, if you don’t like Twitter (I know, this blog is becoming a Twitter fan page, but hey, its my blog, right?) don’t read this post. It’ll just annoy you, so consider this your fair warning.

Last night I finally figured out how to change Tweetie on the iPhone’s setting to allow me to post RT‘s instead of via‘s. The setting was buried in “Advanced -> Experimental ->  RT-gurgitationability” an obviously spiteful placement and label.

This means that my retweets look like this:

RT @creativecommons: June’s CC Salon NYC / @OpenVideo Conf Pre-Party: http://bit.ly/jAk1b Facebook RSVP: http://bit.ly/qJU3b

instead of this:

June’s CC Salon NYC / @OpenVideo Conf Pre-Party: http://bit.ly/jAk1b Facebook RSVP: http://bit.ly/qJU3b (via @creativecommons)

Why would Tweetie make it so difficult to use the RT convention over their suggested via convention?

This answer seems seems to be rooted in a minority view held by the creator of Tweetie. He doesn’t think the RT form is “cool” and thinks that it discourages people from “thinking for themselves”.

Or something.

The points raised against RT followed by my thoughts:

I don’t know how to reply to this. Is the @ symbol in e-mail cool? Its a convention, get over it.

So what? A massive amount of human creation is “me too”; there’s no reason to discourage this on a software level. Let people filter out the “me-too’ers” using their own agency and following habits. You’re not going to suddenly encourage people to be more original by breaking your own software and bucking a convention.

There are plenty of people that I stopped following on Twitter because their output consisted only of RT’s, and I agree, they were spammy. But again, hiding a useful feature because you think its going to decrease spam is naive at best, and fascist at worst.

More importantly, however, there’s value in verbatim copying: you preserve the tone and the meaning of the source. How should I retweet something that Shaq says, if I want my followers to see it, supposing they don’t already follow him? Am I supposed to rewrite Shaq’s words? The curious way in which Shaq interprets the English language on Twitter is one of the best reasons to follow him. Rewriting Shaq’s tweets would kill the meaning, and so would linking to them.

I also fail to see the difference in the claim that all retweets should be rewritten or linked from the claim  that all journalists must rewrite and link quotes from their sources. The point is making the actual quote available in their words, right now, not through a link, and not through your lens.

I actually have sympathy for this, to a certain extent. Many friends were confused by RT when joining twitter, but they asked questions and discovered the meaning. Same with e-mail.

You’re making my point for me!

One final point against Tweetie’s suggested convention: when you use (via @ … ) you’re adding 3 unnecessary characters compared to RT, which are precious when faced with Twitter’s 140 limit.

Anyway, at the end of the day, the developer of Tweetie’s behavior represents a strong argument for software freedom. If you can view the source, modify it, and distribute a new version, why not just fork the project and “fix” the bug instead?

I suppose this is what I get for using closed source software. Too bad Tweetie works better than the open source clients.

Google is a sucker’s game that only serves the needs of a tiny elite

The following is a modified version of Seth Finkelstein’s Guardian column “Twitter is a sucker’s game that only serves the needs of a tiny elite”:

Let me start by confessing I do have a Google account. But I won’t be fooled again. That is, I refuse to once more play the attention-seeking game, where everyone enriches the contest runner and surrounding marketers for the privilege of aspiring to be one of the very few big winners.

Google is a “search engine”. Users can search quickly for web pages from a host, though the web pages are of dubious quality. Think USENET posts, but faster and less organized.

If someone finds your web page to you, they’re called a “visitor”, while subscribing to a website feed is called “reader”. The language is already revealing of the structure.

When I first heard of Google, I made the mistake of thinking it was like USENET, an old system that allows a group to exchange content among themselves. So I wondered why there was such a fuss over a variant of that ancient idea.

After I saw Google in use, I realised the difference was that, while USENET had all participants equal, Google implements a distilled version of many problematic aspects of posting to newsgroups. Namely, a one-to-many broadcasting system that serves the needs of high-attention individuals, combined with an appeal to low-attention individuals that the details of one’s life matter to an audience.

The “A-list” phenomenon, where a few sources with a large readership dominate the information flow on a topic, was particularly stark. Since the numbers of “visitors” and “readers” are visible, the usual steep ranking curve was immediately evident. A highly ranked site is free to attack anyone lower down the ranks, as there’s no way for the wronged party to effectively reply to the same readers.

Getting a significant readership and thus being socially prominent is also important. Hence, there are major incentives to churn out quick punditry that is pleasing to partisans.

And Google evangelism has gone down a path similar to USENET evangelism. There is the same two-step of arguing: roughly, it can be both diary/chat and journalism, thus a promoter can switch back and forth between those two concepts whenever convenient. The word “conversation” is contorted in a now familiar way, to mean mutual pontification among a tiny elite. The dream of potential stardom of a quasi-intellectual sort is dangled in front of the masses, though the only beneficiaries would be the data-mining companies profiting off the result.

When the entrepreneur Jason Calacanis offered $250,000 to have his product’s account be a “suggested link” for two years, saying, “Google has the ability to unleash a direct marketing business the likes of which the world has never seen”, that was a blunt illustration of the real dynamics at work. Though Google didn’t accept his offer, monetisation must eventually happen somehow. People aren’t being connected, they’re being bundled up and sold.

Recently, venture capitalists invested $35m (£23m) in Google (adding to an earlier $20m in funding). Such a sizable investment can buy a corresponding amount of hype. I suspect money is partially responsible for some (though by no means all) of the breathless media coverage Google has garnered.

Note the potential survivor’s bias effect. You may far more often hear from the rare person who has benefited from the service, than one who reports trying it and finding it a total waste of time. Some sceptical analysis by Nielsen Wire has pointed out that user retention is relatively low: “But despite the hockey-stick growth chart, Google faces an uphill battle in making sure these flocks of new users are enticed to return to the nest.”

Google is low-level celebrity for the chattering class. And the pathologies of celebrity are all on display, including the exploitative industries that prey on the human desire to be heard and noticed. My answer to Google’s slogan of “Are you feeling lucky?” is: “I’m not playing a sucker’s game.”

Aside from searching and replacing “Twitter” with “Google” I also replaced “IRC” with “USENET” and replaced “follower” with “visitor” and “reader”, etc.

The effect is certainly entertaining if not surprising: most of Seth’s criticism’s could be levied against Google and the web a decade ago. Admittedly, other parts don’t make any sense, but many of the overall criticisms still hold. Google’s ranking of sites is based on webmasters linking to those sites. The more links to a particular site, the more Google deems it valuable and the more exposed it becomes in Google search results and the more likely that site will retain larger number of readers.

The reason Seth’s criticisms apply to both Twitter and Google is because they are not criticisms of a certain platform or service, but criticisms of how humans filter for value in social environments. We rationally aggregate things that we consider valuable regardless of whether they’re web sites or people’s status updates. When we have tools to help us organize and discover those things, those tools are going to beat out other less efficient ones.

Twitter is filled with heaps of suckers, as Seth would put it. But the web is also filled with heaps of suckers. Sturgeon’s law applies in all mediums. Google found a way to aggregate this organize the most valuable information in an efficient matter, and it became the standard tool for discovering better information. Twitter is now helping us discover it in another medium and context: the real time short text message.

Seth seems to be worried that individual dissenting voices are being drowned out in the litany of “elite” or “celebrity” voices which are rewarded by massive numbers of followers and those voices will just be reinforced by Twitter. So what? Celebrity names and issues dominate Google’s search terms every year. This doesn’t diminish the general value of the platform.

Seth’s worry is premised on a false dichotomy. Even if there is plenty of junk on Twitter, that doesn’t mean we must ignore the platform all together. The same criticism could have been levied against Google, and even the web itself. But Seth wouldn’t know — he doesn’t actually use Twitter, he follows exactly 0 people. As Mike Masnick said, debating the value of Twitter with a non-user is like debating the value of music with someone’s who’s deaf.

For those of you who don’t use Twitter, for the record, it’s not difficult at all to calibrate one’s Twitter feed into something useful. Just choose to find the people whom you might be interested in hearing from occasionally, and ignore the rest. Just like Google.