The puppet-masters.

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This week, news broke about the Cuban Twitter program, something that brings together the worlds of government, resistance, dissidents and memories of the Cold War. For those of you who haven’t seen this story, it’s incredibly interesting. In a nutshell, the US government has been funding, through the organization USAid, “a program intended to encourage ‘flash mobs’ in Cuba, emulating social media-based protests that had been occurring organically in countries such as Iran, the Philippines and Moldova.”

That’s right. The US government was funding something in the hopes that a movement would happen from the Twitter-ing. Of course, there are denials that it was ever covert and that they would have gladly told you about it if you had just asked. From White House press secretary Jay Carney,  he “denied suggestions the programme was ‘under the table’ or had ‘roped in’ unsuspecting Cubans.” You pick your side on that one. That’s not what made me the most interested about this story.

What is interesting is the issue that this causes for actual dissidents in Cuba. Yoani Sanchez is a prominent Cuban dissident in her own right, and now is battling the perception from her followers in her network that she is funded by the US government. Not exactly the street cred that you want for your resistance campaign, right?

It made me think about the notion of networked resistance in a new way – one where the resistance isn’t organic but created by another government. How often do hoaxes about celebrity deaths make their way through the blogosphere without question, until they are debunked the next day? Often, people are willing to believe what they read on Twitter without much of a fact-check. From Jodi Dean:

Our attention isn’t boundless. Our time is finite—even as we try to extract value out of every second (we don’t have time to waste). We cannot respond to every utterance, click on every link, read every post. We have to choose even as the possibility of something else, something wonderful, lures us to search and linger.

We read the juiciest headline, the most clicked story on our Google Reader, the story that has the biggest catch to it. And why not? We don’t have the time, as Dean says, to read everything. So, if there is a group with lots of resources (human and financial), can’t they produce content that they know we will click on? And couldn’t this be the information that they want us to read?

It made me question how many stories I have read about revolutions and movements and protests – and wonder how many might have been funded by someone that I didn’t expect. With the rise of Web 2.0, this opportunity exists even more, since the revolution is taking place behind a screen. They don’t even need to get bodies necessarily, just algorithms and pre-written content that pushes the message they want to be absorbed. It’s not like heads of state have been above this – history shows up time and again that governments can be involved in the overthrow and installation of new leaders.

Cynical, to be sure. But since it’s the last week, I thought I would ask: can you be sure that your revolution is legitimate? How?

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Revolutions.

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This week’s exploration of the rise of ‘hacktivism’ and ‘clicktivism’ gave me a lot to think about. While I agree that the Arab Spring was helped by the online social media tools, like Twitter and Facebook, I find myself on the side of Gladwell and Morozov – not to be a traitor to my generation or anything. But, activism, protests and unrest are not new and for our history, have come together in a largely grassroots way, aided by the technological tools at the time. Those have ranged from face-to-face meetings, telegraph, pigeons, letters, emails, and now, Twitter and Facebook. I know – social media tools today have the opportunity to reach more people faster, galvanizing the ‘troops’ in lightning speeds. Take Kony 2012 (remember that?) – ‘slacktivism’ in my mind – which was the fastest growing viral video of all time. 100 million views in 6 days. Messenger pigeons never did that. And that campaign did have results: Invisible Children reports that in the year following the video, they had 67% fewer civilian killings by the LRA. That is something to be acknowledged. 

My issue is not with the idea that activism today is bigger – but rather, that is not necessarily better (which is often the tone that is struck by media reporting and conversations). Further, activists and protesters in the past did their work often with their faces showing, where their courage in stepping out in public with their beliefs could have led to their injury or death, or isolation by their peers. To be sure, hacktivists are at risk of the law as well, but Anonymous seems to be doing pretty well at avoiding getting caught (might be easier when you are online behind firewalls and computer screens). 

It got me to thinking about our own early activists, like Laura Secord, who walked 20 miles out of American-occupied territory to warn the British that an attack was coming in the War of 1812. Just because it’s one person alone doesn’t make it less important or impactful. Or the Famous Five, who quietly worked to ensure that women were considered persons under the eyes of the law in Canada (only 85 years ago), where five women asked the question whether a woman could be a senator. Or the Underground Railroad, which consisted of secret meetings, independent groups moving north with the help of ‘conductors’ (free blacks) to tell them the next step in their path. 

Our world has long had this history of activism ad been novel in how we have achieved our goals. Whether through secrets, or board daylight, movements and protests and speeches and letters mailed to the government, the humans behind the issue are the real reason a change happens. Even in our current uses of Twitter and Facebook, we need the person behind the phone to be willing to step forward and brave the possibility of death or isolation. 

Do you think it’s easier to be an activist now, with the anonymity possible online? It’s something to chew on. 

Fitting in. Or not.

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The end in nigh. Well, maybe not that dramatic, but we are nearing the end of our course and it causes one to look back and consider on a deeper level some of the topics that we have looked at over four (!!!) months.

I wanted to dig a bit deeper into one of my favourite topics from this course, the concept of homophily. Indeed, it`s what this blog is named after – the birds of a feather, flocking together phrase is not just about birds. Specifically, I got to thinking about the assimilation that can come with this type of grouping – the exclusionary tactics and the…well, boring-ness, of having the same people as you around all the time. From my old friend Kadushin:

People with the same values and attitudes tend to associate with one another. Interaction, in turn, leads to a greater likelihood of common values…One must remember that homophily is not necessarily a good thing.

So then, I got to thinking about being weird. You know, weird, as in… not the same as your flock. Weird as is, Dungeons and Dragons. Or, comic books. Or running weirdos. Or dog people (like me). And well, weird is awesome. Weird is cool. But importantly, weird is different. And different today is power.

Jessica Hagy at Forbes, wrote an article in 2011 on the reasons that being weird is good. She says, “being weird means being noticeably different. It means being or doing something that makes other people stare, or laugh, applaud, or boo. And it’s something we all need to cultivate.” In the article, she raises a great point, that being different is not always better, but better is always different. If you are deviant, you can bust out of the box.

The interesting thing though is that, in being open and sharing the thing that you think makes you weird, you will likely find a network of people who share your weird hobby or interest and end up with a flock. It might not be so isolating after all. And I cannot escape Kadushin, apparently. 

It`s important to keep in mind that being weird can mean being the je ne sais quoi that is needed. So be weird. Fitting in can come with a cost, of self and of a great idea. You will find your real flock to go home to once you stop contorting your round self into the square hole.

People are the worst.

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Finally – an excuse to post and laugh at celebrities reading mean tweets! I can laugh at them because they are celebrities reading them and they have lots of money, so I don’t feel as bad about the sexism and hatred spewing out of these random Twitter users. Right?

It’s amazing that this supposed free and open space, The World Wide Web, is often filled with some of the most hateful vitriol that you can find. But, it helps to remember that these words came from a human being that likely existed before the web did (or soon after). These thoughts were not created by the web; they were created by a person at the keyboard. Hence, people are the worst.

It’s important to explore the idea that the web, and also networks, reinforces behaviours that have existed in our society for centuries. Sexism and racism are not new. The medium and speed at which we can share sexism and racism is the change, not the content necessarily. Kadushin notes that, “social network are exclusionary and unfair. Since people tend to associate with others like themselves…the networks that they form tend to be with people who have the same characteristics” (172).

My own Facebook friends help to illustrate this–I am friends (mainly) with other liberal, educated people who are early-to-mid-level in their careers. For the most part, we have similar tastes, opinions and leanings. To be sure, there are people on my feed that I disagree with or find annoying. If they bug me enough though, I unfollow them and reinforce Kadushin’s point I mentioned above.

Kadushin notes Robert Putnam’s definition of social capital as “…participation in political, civic, religious, workplace activities, volunteering and informal networks leads to a culture of social trust and to networks with generalized reciprocity that bridge different groups. This is social capital” (177).

I think a mistake that we make is to think that only “good” people have social capital. Workplace activities, volunteering and informal networks exist among all types of networks. Good, bad and ugly. Like the celebrity tweets above, there is a certain amount of respect that comes from getting their tweet on Kimmel. Like the troll commenter who gains the respect of her troll peers, it exists for all.

So, how do you change it? I don’t know if you can. Like Kadushin says – social networks are the way they are. They were exclusionary before the web (remember the cafeteria, again?) and will be exclusionary after it. I say, stop reading the comments and educate your children about being a respectful human. After all, it’s the humans typing those words.

The right to privacy.

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I went down a weird road this week. I was a party last night, not a place where I thought that I would get my post for this week. After a couple of red wines, two other girls and I got to talking about our old mix tapes and how we used to record from the radio (play, record, pause!) and make these little radio shows. Nerdy, for sure.

The conversation turned to privacy, in a funny way. One friend was saying that her mom would always interrupt them to see what they were doing and end up talking on the tape in the background. We started talking about how privacy is something that we didn’t necessarily feel that we had growing up. Now more than ever, we are told that we do not have it anymore.

I had not considered privacy a human right before, in the way that my mind had sorted rights. For me, rights are these codes that we strive toward (and often, don’t achieve for others), so that we all have freedom and dignity, but also food, water and shelter. Do I need privacy to live, the same way I need food? I don’t think so. Do I expect privacy to live, the same way I expect respect and dignity? Probably.

I wanted to explore the idea of privacy as a fundamental right that we are born with (and which many parents don’t give their kids, when they read the diaries of their teenagers) and are deserving of; I want to critically consider it. So, humour me for a bit and let’s get a good old-fashioned debate on.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

This is Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Let’s break this down so we are all on the same page.

Arbitrary: based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system.

Interference: involvement in the activities and concerns of other people when your involvement is not wanted.

I don’t know about you but I don’t consider, say, Google‘s collection of my data as random. In general, I also don’t notice this collection, so it’s not exactly interference proper, but it’s closer to that than the other. I also don’t think that a program like PRISM is random, but again, it’s likely that most people don’t want that involvement.

If a Google salesman came to my door and asked me questions about my browsing history, I might be less inclined to cooperate and more inclined to think that it’s interfering with my privacy. However, when I simply type and a little web-bot collects bits of my history that I don’t notice, it’s easy to forget about the interference that is happening. If a tree falls in the woods–or rather, if a web spider crawls around–and no one sees it, does it make a sound? Because people don’t notice these little bits of privacy being chipped away, it doesn’t hurt as much. At the end though, you are missing a piece of you. Small pieces amount to a lot over time.

If privacy is a right, like equality and freedom, those rights have been hard fought (and often not won). To vote, you are supposed to be educated and informed on the candidates and the government policies. How many people have read the privacy policy of the phone company, workplace, or email provider? This right won’t be, and cannot be, handed to us–it must be won. We cannot act shocked and appalled without action after. There needs to be ownership of a right in order for it to become yours.

I open the floor to you.

Network theory and situation in Ukraine

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Great post on networking theory and the situation in Ukraine.

Tanya's blog about everything

First of all, I think that what is happening at the moment in Ukraine is horrible; in fact, it’s a tragedy not only for Ukrainian and Russian people, but also for the whole world. I still hope that the conflict can and will be solved without violence, in a peaceful manner.
Nevertheless, when I was following the story in the news, I understood that we could actually use the network theory principles to understand the conflict dynamics in southeastern regions of Ukraine.

So, in this post I would like to avoid politics, discussions about who’s right and who’s wrong, as well as calling names, and look at the situation from the positions of social networks scholars instead.  My small research is based on the information available on different Ukrainian and Russian web sites, discussions with friends in Ukraine, as well as on some reports in Western press.

As we know…

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