We Built This City by Blocking Trolls

Calgary.ca earned some attention this week for being transformed into what a press release deigned to claim is the "first search-based website in Canada."

The venture is powered by Google Search Appliance, even though the home page looks more like rival engine Bing, with the search bar augmented with large photos of the resurgent city.

Indeed, the effort combined Microsoft Share Point software with other Google tools, and was highlighted on the promotional blog for the Search Appliance. Predictably, the new format was motivated by complaints that would be familiar to anyone who ever wrestled with a government website.

While the launch fit into the outreach narrative threaded by Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, his Toronto counterpart was exposed for being trigger-happy on Facebook — even if Rob Ford has delegated social media management to others in his office.

Questioning the fact that Ford showed up to dance in his dress pants at the Caribbean Carnival, while steering clear of anything to do with Pride week, was not welcome on the wall. Asking for answers about his behaviour is apparently enough to have your "like" undone.

Amidst the other communication-related shenanigans surrounding Toronto City Hall, though — including a Ford administration support group on Facebook where the administrator, city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, promised to block the input of any communist he could smell — the idea that the elected leader of the city would stifle discussion from citizens couldn't stir up any new outrage.

McLuhan 100 Recap: So You Think You Can Be a Gadget

The format of the Monday Night Seminar series at the Toronto Reference Library, moderated by Jesse Hirsh, has demanded nothing more of all attendees than to sit on chairs arranged in a large circle.

Nonetheless, the set-up is different from the conferences in which issues related to media and technology are typically mediated these days, with putative experts lined up at a table. The audiences are beholden to the ego aggregation in front of the room — whether or not they have anything to say.

By contrast, the second of three installments inspired by Marshall McLuhan's 100th birthday, "Our City as Classroom," was almost entirely steered by those with a viewpoint they wanted to express.

And the urge was often motivated by a paradoxical principle: the more time that we spend with our devices, the more we want to talk about their effects — and, ultimately, the degree to which we need to scale back, or tune out.

For many adults, being online lots of the time is still generally seen as the stuff of sloth — even more so by those who feel guilty for forsaking offline interaction. Meanwhile, when it comes to the younger digital natives, educators wonder if there will be any point in trying to pierce through distracted conditioning.

When it comes to finding a community of others suffering from a certain ailment or passionate about a particular topic, though, it's not like any better channels were ever built to bring people together. Going outside for fresh air doesn't satisfy that craving for information and understanding.

So, maybe it's just human nature to take tools that seemed like a miracle 20 years ago for granted.

McLuhan 100 Recap: Our City as Classroom — 'Annie Hall' to City Hall

"You know nothing of my work," Marshall McLuhan's second-most-legendary quote, was invoked on Monday night by a participant at the second of three Monday Night Seminars, hosted by Jesse Hirsh, at the Toronto Reference Library.

And it wasn't a reference to Annie Hall as much as a commentary on the tone of the event itself.

The series theme, "Our City as Classroom," became especially pertinent in the past few weeks. Public libraries became the most prominent subject of debate as Toronto City Hall is on the verge of being run over by Mayor Rob Ford's elusive gravy train.

Naturally, the role of the newest forms of electronic media in municipal protest was worth highlighting. But did that really correlate with the theories developed by McLuhan?

Well, the idea that local government could provide a steady stream of ludicrous entertainment has been realized through social media. Yet those acerbic observations provide a gateway for highlighting issues that genuinely impact everyday life.

The most intriguing counterculture event in Toronto this summer was the 22-hour marathon series of deputations regarding the role of government in providing services to the city. Participation in such an event — the stuff of bland bureaucracy in a past administration — was electrified through digital devices.

McLuhan had this kind of thing in mind, even if he was more likely to align himself with the tax-fighting types, based on how he wasn't too fond of protesters at the University of Toronto of the 1960s.

With the nostalgic overload of McLuhan's 100th birthday behind us, it was arguably more important to consider his laws of media in motion rather than the ever-distant past, even if a few seminar attendees urged for a more direct correlation.

Network Effects of the British Riots

The role of BlackBerry Messenger as a supersonic texting method amidst the recent English riots cancelled out the potential to blame social media for stoking the damage.

Rather, public online communication helped with the identification of perpetrators — and has provided ways for Brits to ponder positive steps in the aftermath of the week-long conflagration.

Critical commentary on the circumstances surrounding the riots nonetheless achieved a network effect. And, with these viral pieces of content, a few momentary web celebs were made over the past week based on what they had to say.

"Panic on the streets of London" by Laurie Penny — This 24-year-old writer for The Guardian used her Blogspot to express her sympathetic leanings toward the rioters, on the grounds that the U.K. media stopped paying attention to social conditions in a town like Tottenham, referencing similar clashes that erupted there even before she was born. The self-published piece from Penny, who has spun her online writing off into two books, was shared over 56,000 times on Facebook and over 9,000 times on Twitter in its original form, and another wave of attention via a reposting on the feminist blog Jezebel.

What Should a Library Be? [Teleseminar]

08/18/2011 13:00
Canada/Eastern

The recent suggestion that Toronto could save money by closing some public library branches, just one of several slashes advised by KPMG consultants seeking ways to save money on core services, struck a nerve that eclipsed any debate around parking lots or tourist attractions.

Margaret Atwood used Twitter to step up as the loudest voice of taxpayers who felt undermined by the idea of eliminating spaces where everyone can browse physical books, and borrow them for free. Whether the publishing industry will produce enough printed material to keep the stacks fresh is another matter.

Naturally, the debate over the future of the public library reaches beyond Toronto, although it remains the city with the world's most popular system. The notion of reducing the real estate dedicated to books is not only opposed by bibliophiles, though, but anyone who might seek a specific kind of inspiration within local branch walls — something which all the tables at Tim Hortons can't be counted on to provide.

The bankruptcy of Borders in the U.S. and reduction of book inventory at Chapters and Indigo across Canada also shows how fickle and fragile physical spaces once dedicated to selling words have become.

Yet, at the same time, only the biggest Luddites amongst library defenders remain dependent upon a system to the same degree as they would have been 15 or 20 years ago. There's not much of a case for keeping all locations intact on nostalgic grounds alone.

Regardless, even as we turn to the internet for nearly everything we want to know and more, expenses are still required for maintenance and distribution. After all, the knowledge-based economy is lucrative, too. Software libraries have been essential in getting rich off the web — monetarily and intellectually.

So, if a case is to be made for leaving public libraries intact — if not opening even more of them on a smaller scale — we will hash it out in the next Metaviews Teleseminar.

Can Hyperlocal News Patch Up AOL's Sinking Reputation?

The knives pointed at AOL are getting sharper, now that its share price has declined 50 per cent since getting in bed with Arianna Huffington, in the effort to shift its revenue stream from disappearing dial-up customers to web content.

Tim Armstrong, the CEO recruited from Google, is now going to have to expend even more energy to explain what he has in mind for the pricey hyperlocal journalism project, Patch.

Neighbourhood news has scaled into a sinkhole for anyone who has tried to get rich from it. The efforts to meld folksy tales from Smalltown, U.S.A. with the SEO-baiting fun house of the Huffington Post doesn't make a lot of sense to media pundits.

Does the AOL association, and the fact that Patch has paid its content providers, give its $50 million infrastructure investment any more weight than what social media platforms can offer? Armstrong has bet the house on the theory that a packaged article, alongside other packaged articles from the same community, is perceived as more authoritative than scattershot sources.

And even if there aren't enough hits for items about local soccer tournaments and restaurant openings, Patch has promised to capitalize on the U.S. elections next year, with its potential to leverage the Huffington Post to turn minor political anecdotes into major scandals. Lucrative eyeballs would presumably follow.

Patch is predicated on the idea that news consumers are easily starstruck, too. CNN may not send someone to cover your bake sale. AOL not only will, but the write-up is presented in a slick context — without the noise of newspaper or broadcast websites still approached as a secondary medium.

Armstrong has exploited the curiosity that comes with focusing exclusively on the digital. Canadian editorial startups The Mark and Open File have lured investors with similar promises, despite failing to generate buzz outside of attention from the corporate media, which they claimed to be providing a counterpoint to.

Patent Problems

In the last few weeks I have noticed a distinct uptick in the number of media outlets focusing on the problems associated with patent law in the United States and Canada. Specificaly these have focused on the new challenges associated with patents and software.

My first run-in with it was at the 2011 annual conference of the Canadian Communciations Association in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Jeremy Morris presented there on the ongoing acceptance of business method patents in the United States, and Amazon’s struggle to establish similar patents here in Canada. And oh, it just so happens that Search Engine did a great episode about this with Morris in June.

Then more recently This American Life dropped an hour long episode dedicated entirely with investigating the problems of patent law and software development. It’s a pretty solid enditemant of organizations like Intellectual Ventures and Loadsys which amass a stockpile of various patents, most of which patent the same idea thousands of times. These stockpiles are similar to the nuclear deterrent strategy of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Attack me with your patents and I will attack you with mine. No-one will survive except the lawyers. It’s an interesting strategy in today’s industrial environment, where more and more it immaterial labour which drives the major industries of the developed world. Nobody wants this result, but they play the game anyways.

Public Libraries and the Expectation of the 'Third Place'

Margaret Atwood has accepted an invitation to visit the newly renovated central library in Hamilton, whose mayor has capitalized on her vocal opposition to prospective branch closures at the Toronto Public Library — even if most Toronto city councillors aren't fond of the idea, either.

Still, the bookshelves that continue to dominate each library branch, at a time when the consumption of words has gone increasingly electronic, have provided a symbolic argument for systematic inefficiencies.

Whatever the preferred format for reading, though, the debate should really be drawing attention to the increasingly essential expectations we have for the "third place."

Starbucks has built its reputation around the concept of being a benevolent business whose locations could serve an entirely separate function from either home or work. And, last summer, totally free unlimited Wi-Fi was switched on in all its stores.

A year later, some locations started covering up power outlets, to discourage laptop hobos. Starbucks was forced to confirm the decision was deliberate, based on response from customers who couldn't find a place to sit for the sake of consuming the latte and pastry, which they paid for.

So, the desire of business to provide that "third place" can be fickle, no matter what it currently claims.

Indigo and Chapters locations have re-installed some of the seating that disappeared after the superstores merged a decade ago. Encouraging customers to look through books they don't pay for — even if the aisles now contain fewer of them — was presumably never bad business to begin with.

Besides, the retail chain was quick to capitalize on Atwood's fight by offering her books at a 30 per cent discount to anyone with a library card. Which is still 70 per cent more than they cost at the library.

Growing Up, Who Did You Most Admire?

Proust.com is a new social networking site based on the popular 19th-century parlor game Marcel Proust was fond of playing. Though it was a fixture in Parisian salon culture before his time, this list of twenty or so probing questions has come to be known as the “Proust Questionnaire” simply because his answers were so… Proustian.

The developers of Proust.com, which hovers in a nebulous space between a digital scrapbook and a dating site, state that they are not Proust scholars and that the impetus for this site is to provide its users (“you”) with a way to better “know the ones you love,” by telling your story in “the spirit of sharing that the Proust Questionnaire represents.” However, in the WordPress-like interface used for this site, the line “Growing up, who did you most admire?” reminds one vaguely of a hackneyed password-reset question.

Vanity Fair has used the Proust Questionnaire as a back-page feature since 1993, and in 2009 compiled their results into the book Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. They have even developed a “Turbo Proust” interactive version at http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/proust-questionnaire, where readers can compare their responses with the likes of Catherine Deneuve and Tom Waits and post the results to Facebook.

The developers of Proust.com do not note the popular existence of the Vanity Fair interactive Proust Questionnaire in their exposition of the site. Instead, they present it as a novel way to share and memorialize one’s personal history via photos, videos and text files. The site is ostensibly geared towards bored OK Cupid users and neophyte digital scrapbookers.

To this end, Proust.com offers its users features that Vanity Fair’s does not, such as:

    a multimedia platform, where content can be edited or deleted;

Meslin For Mayor

"I am concerned that we have lost a decade," writes Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett on the Huffington Post, at the end of a lengthy blog post in the aftermath of the annual summer conference held by the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs.

"We need leaders with the open minds of Calgary Mayor Nenshi and citizens like Dave Meslin who are prepared to show us the way."

Toronto now has a mayor who takes pride in not opening his mind. So, the implication is that Meslin is the natural choice to take his place.

Besides, since when do mere "citizens" get mentioned in the same breath as an elected official? Calgary's new face was also seen as a mere citizen leading up to his election nine months ago.

And the new social media politics played by Naheed Nenshi includes sharing regular evidence of the celebrity perks that come with leading a city.

A photo tweeted of Nenshi with Meslin, as the pair embarked on a canoe journey around Lake Couchiching at the YMCA Geneva Park, showed two friendly fellas eager to paddle into the future together. For them, the past decade hasn't been "lost" at all — they spent it building up their bases.

Without a full-time gig, Meslin has continued to play the perennial outsider, at the forefront of raising issues related to public space and the accessibility of civic leaders.

When he got a turn to speak, towards the end of the "citizen filibuster" at Toronto City Hall, his issue wasn't the budget cuts under consideration. Rather, he lectured Mayor Rob Ford about how the overnight meeting excluded participants whose responsibilities prevented them from hanging around past dawn.

The Future of Snooping Journalism Takes Flight

When Rupert Murdoch launched the first news publication designed for the iPad earlier this year, expectations were high, on the grounds that it would reboot the value of journalism.

The Daily didn't click with as many information addicts as anticipated, however. Soon enough, News Corp. was too distracted by revelations of phone hacking at News of the World in the U.K.

So, without much fanfare, the tablet newspaper has been engaging in a different kind of surveillance to generate material. And it's come under some new suspicious scrutiny.

Multimedia coverage of natural disasters by The Daily has incorporated footage shot with a drone. However, the videos appear to violate policies set by the Federal Aviation Administration, which allow hobbyists to fly unmanned aircraft under 400 feet, for non-commercial purposes. News Corp. could seek an exemption certificate — but has yet to receive one.

Concern has been raised by media pundits, because they're well aware of Murdoch's game, which has nothing to with public service. Celebrity stalking would seem like an ideal application for the drones.

While a company under so much fire might be unlikely to cross that line, fears of snooping from the sky have certainly grown, as delegates at a cybersecurity convention in Las Vegas learned this week.

A model plane built for $6,190, using components that anyone can buy, can get the personal information of everyone on a Wi-Fi network, intercept cellphone conversations and reroute calls to another number, or trace locations of people and follow them home.

The flying device plenty of potential dirt for any enterprising journalist to sift through — even if no one leaves voicemail messages anymore.

'Fan Night' Gets BlackBerry Users Drunk on Research In Motion

Apple got to the point of having more cash on hand than the U.S. government thanks to a fetish for the physical.

Android operating system devices have posed a formidable challenge thanks to Google's obsession with the purely virtual.

So, what's Research In Motion to do, now that its customers can't tune out reports that the company is now going nowhere?

BlackBerry Fan Night, held in Toronto on Wednesday, seemed to do its job of intoxicating a few loyal users. Tequila was poured, local World Series hero Joe Carter shook hands, and new models were shown off.

Supposedly, no one got too drunk that they couldn't tell the difference between a Bold 9930 and a Torch 9860, even if the majority of the marketplace seems confounded by the options.

Rather than seek new converts, though, the event played to the cult of CrackBerry. Based on their tweets from the party, attendees were craving a night on the town, as a reward for their years of dedication.

After all, there are no birthday dinners or anniversary bashes to commemorate intimacy with a digital device. Perhaps because these relationships never expected to last very long.

Such events could now be part of the price of keeping BlackBerry users from abandoning the product.

The efforts won't stop Research In Motion from being written off in the media. Particularly in the days after the Waterloo company announced it would be laying off 2,000 employees.

Still, the stunt gave a few people the feeling that BlackBerry would hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth, as if such things can be planned in advance.

Newt Gingrich and the Fake Twitter Followers

For the past couple years, Twitter statistics have been held up as evidence of authority, even though anyone who has actively used the service is well aware that not every follower is a genuine one.

Nonetheless, accounts whose devotion was purchased from a "follow agency" are usually taken more seriously than they should be, as if internet spam has feelings.

Who isn't seduced by the idea that one more stranger out there might actually be fascinated by their thoughts? And, when noticed, new fake follower gives the typically peevish tweeter something new to gripe about. No one cares what they think.

The lid has been blown, though, when it comes to 2012 U.S. Republican presidential candidates. And all it took was Newt Gingrich to gloat that he had six times as many Twitter followers as all his rivals combined.

Gingrich's count of 1.3 million was enhanced by the fact that his office hired a firm to create fake accounts — according to one of his several disgruntled ex-staffers. All it took was a random glance at a few of those on the follow list to verify that they weren't actual active users.

Subsequent to a story published on Gawker, the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at Indiana University ran numbers based on a sample of 5,000 followers from various campaign feeds, and estimated that as many as three-quarters of the Gingrich fans were fake, based on various criteria.

A follow-up from search company PeekYou, which analyzed 100,000 followers, pegged the fakes number at 92 per cent.

While the dubious nature of those Twitter accounts is grist for critics of GOP media tactics, it should further shed light on the current problems of social media metrics, and the assumption that messages delivered that way are more meaningful.

Who Wants To Live in The Filter Bubble?

08/04/2011 13:00
Canada/Eastern

Has the prospect of a World Wide Web that provided access to all information been eclipsed by the corporate interests of Google and Facebook?

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You, a recent book by internet activist Eli Pariser, asked that question — and, in the process, the title was quickly adopted as a buzzterm along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.

Manipulation of search results or news feeds, based on a personalized ecosystem created by algorithms, raised concern just as the most popular services ramped up efforts to exploit years of data collection. The vast majority of users are certain to appreciate their interests being reflected back at them. Naturally, advertisers reap the rewards of more precise targeting.

Exposure to viewpoints along the increasingly polarized U.S. political spectrum are a primary focus for Pariser, who helped develop MoveOn.org in 2003 to protest the policies of George W. Bush, even though such a site would now be less likely to be noticed by those who hold an opposite point of view.

The power of Google, and the power of those who have figured out how to manipulate Google, is regularly cited as a threat to freedom of expression. While anything can be published online, getting people to see it is an entirely different matter, and it's naive to think that social media will deliver those links without prejudice. Facebook’s default feed settings now deliberately filter out friends that are engaged with the least.

The more personal data that we plug into the internet, the easier it will be for a company collecting this information to manipulate what we see — although its primary incentive for doing so is to sell us something.

There might be ways to get out of The Filter Bubble, too. But does that mean everyone will want to escape it?

Future of Authority: Data Visualization

07/28/2011 13:00
Canada/Eastern

The more information we are able to connect, the greater the demand for methods to present it in a digestible fashion, beyond paragraphs or a list of numbers.

Charts, graphs and maps were a long-familiar approach to simplifying statistics, but some doubt could always be cast on how accurate they were, until technology allowed for greater precision. Data visualization has emerged as a medium through which details can be shared with authority.

Like many developments, the tools can be used for both serious and irreverent reasons, including the ability to create mashups that compare statistics in diverse fields. Moreover, the tools are increasingly accessible to everyone — as a new startup Visua.ly promises to give anyone a chance to create an infographic by plugging in data.

Militaries can benefit from data visualization as an alternative to poring over more traditional documents. Nexus 7, an intelligence program that ties together statistics gathered in Afghanistan over the past decade, was designed to allow the U.S. to see exactly where their operations made an impact. The prices of goods in a local market was seen as a more practical metric than a body count.

Naturally, the potential isn't limited to mining reality, as we plug details about our own passions and preferences into the internet every day. The mix of design, journalism and analysis can be equal parts amusing and academic.

Quality of life can also be influenced by the ability of medical researchers to see millions of patient files represented through a simplified code of colours. And the inspiration to dig deeper into a trend can be spawned by that initial spark.

We will contemplate these applications of data visualization, and more, as part of our ongoing look into the Future of Authority.