Media Re:Public Final Report Released

Today, we at the Berkman Center have released a new report on the changes in the news media landscape.  For several years, we have been puzzling over the relationship between online and legacy media, dating back to the first BloggerCons; Dave Winer’s setting up a blog server on the Harvard campus; the first series of podcasts; our Thursday blog group; the Bloggers Journalism and Credibility conference, at which Jay Rosen proclaimed that “bloggers v. journalism is over”; the rise of Global Voices, the Citizens Media Law Project, and so forth.  We release this report today against a much changed backdrop: major news outlets are failing or consolidating; more people than ever are engaged in participatory journalism; and the need for more credible and diverse sources of information — and skills to assess them — continues to be substantial. 

The Media Re:Public report is an update on where things stand, and where they are headed, at a precarious moment in the news and information business.   It takes the form of a primary report, several commentaries by Berkman fellows and friends, and a series of short case studies.  We had lots of help from lots of people, through two conferences, writing and resesarch projects, and commentary on multiple drafts. 

We owe deep thanks, as we so often do, to John Bracken and our friends at the MacArthur Foundation for their support and involvement in this reflective process and work.

As for the findings?  Well, please read it!  At a minimum, there’s the main report (52 pages, with a handy executive summary, by project lead Persephone Miel and Berkman’s research director Rob Faris).  Or Ethan Zuckerman’s inspiring and challenging piece on International News.  Or at the very least watch the teaser video on YouTube.

Entrepreneurship, the Patent Law, and Scale of Firms

I’m at a wonderful summer program hosted by the Kauffman Foundation on Law, Innovation, and Growth. They’ve convened a truly interdisciplinary crowd interested in how law can affect rates of innovation and growth. Many, though by no means all, of the conversations are about innovation in technology-related fields. All the papers presented will be posted to the web site, which (great news) seems to be open for public view as of now.

The conversation about the proper role of intellectual property — patents, especially — in promoting growth, innovation, and entrepreneurship brought to mind a recent post by Jim Moore about the Allied Security Trust. Jim and I have been working together for several years on various entrepreneurial and scholarly projects. In the past few years, he’s been digging in on this question of how the patent law can work to promote start-ups and other entrepreneurs pursuing innovations in the information technology space. He points here to the extent to which large players in the IT sector are working together to develop strong patent pools to keep smaller entrants from competing effectively against them.

This theme resonates with many of the key themes here at the Kauffman Foundation’s event. One of those themes is scale. Many presentations have implicitly or explicitly dealt with whether and how scale effects innovation. From the perspective of entrepreneurs who start and build businesses, this question of the effect of the patent law and how it’s used is crucial. If we stipulate that small-scale entrepreneurs are a key driver of economic growth and innovation generally, and that large firms are (at least) not the only home of socially beneficial innovation, then this issue of patent pools and how they are used is crucial.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what we’re studying actively at the Berkman Center, which I’ve just left as executive director. We’ve not yet done enough serious work on this question of patents and the effect on innovation, growth, and other social concerns. A few scholars at the Center have got a forthcoming paper on patents, but it’s not been an area of focused research. Over time, I think we should get more serious exploring multiple points of view about how the patent system should work in the Internet space. And plainly, the intersection between patent and competition law (or antitrust in the United States) is an essential one to understand, as Mark Lemley and his co-authors, Phil Malone, Francois Leveque and others have been. The new executive director might profitably think about how we could contribute more to this discussion.

Born Digital

For the past few years, Urs Gasser and I have been working on a book project together about a phenomenon that we have become obsessed with: how some young people, including our kids, use technologies in ways that are different that what we’ve seen before. The book is called Born Digital (Amazon seems not yet to know of Urs’ involvement; we’ll have to tell them). It’ll be out sometime in 2008, published by the good people at Basic Books.

(We decided to go with Basic Books because it is wonderful and we love the editors, and because they published the most important book in our field, Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace and its sequel, Code 2.0. and other classics of the emerging digital literature, like The Cluetrain Manifesto.)

Our goals, among other things, in writing this book are to address and take seriously the concerns of parents and teachers and others perplexed by what’s going on; to highlight the wonderful things that some Digital Natives are up to; to make a series of policy arguments about what we ought to do about this phenomenon; and to set this issue in a global context — as part of the bigger story of globalization.

Two things prompt this blog-post: 1) to answer a persistent question we’ve been hearing from our friends and collaborators; and 2) to engage the assistance of anyone who wants to participate.

As with many overly-ambitious research projects, you start in one place and — you hope, I suppose — end up someplace a bit different that where you expected to get. That’s surely the case for us on this project.

So, first off, the issue. It’s a definitional issue, always an important starting point in a research project. We began this project interested in a distinction that others thought up and have pursued in various way: the difference between “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants.” (There’s an interesting short history, which we track, of the etymology of these terms, a subject for another day.)

We wanted to hone in on what it means to be a Digital Native and what the practices and lives of Digital Natives tell us about our society and about our future. One of the primary struggles we’ve faced is that these two terms alone — Digital Native and Digital Immigrant — are unsatisfactory on their own. They give rise to discomfort on several levels.

One, we’ve heard a few times that the term “Digital Native” carries with it connotations that are not all good, that it’s un-PC. That concern is worth acknowledging and talking through with anyone concerned about it, but given that we think it’s a wonderful thing in most ways to be a Digital Native (or, indeed, native to many other environments, like Boston, my hometown — “I am a Boston native” and am proud of it), I think that’s not a crisis.

The deeper discomfort comes from what is a little math problem:

– Not all people born during a certain period of history (say, after the advent of BBSes) are Digital Natives. Not everyone born today lives a life that is digital in every, or indeed any, way. For starters, only about 1 billion of the 6.7 billion people in the world have regular access to the supposedly “World Wide Web.” In other cases, young people we are meeting choose to have little to do with digital life.

– Not all of the people who have the character traits of Digital Natives are young. The term “Digital Immigrant” doesn’t describe those people either — people like Urs and me, like our colleagues at the Berkman Center who are over a certain age — who live digital lives in as many ways, if not more, than many Digital Natives. Many of us have been here as the whole digital age has come about, and many of our colleagues have participated in making it happen in lots and lots of crucial ways.

We’ve been struggling hard with this problem. One of the benefits of “still writing” this book (we have a full draft, but are far from ready to go to print) and being in the throes of interviews and focus groups is that we are still working on getting it right.

We started out asking whether there is a straight “generational gap” between those Born Digital and those who were not. The point of our research, in the first instance, is to take up these terms Digital Native and Digital Immigrant, and work them over. What I think we’ve found is that age is relevant, but not dispositive. What I think we are describing in our book is a set of traits — having to do with how people interact with information, with one another, and with institutions — that are more likely to be found in those Born Digital, but not certainly so. Many people Born Digital have some but not all of these traits. Many people who were not Born Digital — you (who read this blogpost) and me and Urs and perhaps most Berkmaniacs, to be sure — have these traits and more, more even than most Digital Natives. That’s essential to the puzzle of the book. There is a generational gap, but it’s not purely a generational gap. It’s more complicated.

So, here is a typology which we think emerges from what we’ve learned:

1) those who are Born Digital and also Live Digital = the *Digital Natives* we focus on in this book (to complicate things further: there is a spectrum of what it means to live digitally, with a series of factors to help define where a Digital Native falls on it);

2) those who are Born Digital (i.e., at a moment in history, today) and are *not* Living Digital (and are hence not Digital Natives);

3) those who are not Born Digital but Live Digital = us (for whom we do not have a satisfactory term; perhaps we need one — our colleague David Weinberger suggests “Digital Settlers”);

4) those who are not Born Digital, don’t Live Digital in any substantial way, but are finding their way in a digital world = Digital Immigrants; and,

5) those who weren’t Born Digital and don’t have anything to do with the digital world, whether by choice, reasons of access or cash, and so forth.

There may be more categories, but these are the essential ones. Our book focuses on the first — those Born Digital and who Live Digital lives.  Though it’s not the focus of this particular book, the third category is also deeply relevant to the narrative.

It may well be that there will prove to be a generational divide between those Born Digital and those not Born Digital. What we are focused on here, though, is the particular population — rather than the generation — of those who were both Born Digital and Live Digital, and what their lifestyles and habits and mores mean for the present and the future.

As it often the case, danah boyd says it better than I could in her talk at 4S earlier this fall:

“While I groan whenever the buzzword ‘digital native’ is jockeyed about, I also know that there is salience to this term. It is not a term that demarcates a generation, but a state of experience. The term is referencing those who understand that the world is networked, that cultures exist beyond geographical coordinates, and that mediating technologies allow cultures to flourish in new ways. Digital natives are not invested in ‘life on the screen’ or ‘going virtual’ but on using technology as an artifact that allows them to negotiate culture. In other words, a ‘digital native’ understands that there is no such thing as ‘going online’ but rather, what is important is the way in which people move between geographically-organized interactions and network-organized interactions. To them, it’s all about the networks, even if those networks have coherent geographical boundaries.”

What we seek to describe in this book is an emerging global culture of people relating to information, one another, and institutions in ways that, taken together, has great promise for the future of democracies. Digital Natives — people born digital — give us reason for hope that this global culture could emerge. Some of their behaviors also give reason to worry, at the same time, about things like privacy, safety, information overload, and IP worries. We need to take these problems seriously and get in front of them, without ruining the environment that makes all the wonderful things possible.

In this book, we argue in favor of greater connectivity. That connectivity might be between parents or teachers or lawmakers who don’t live any part of their lives online and our kids who do. That connectivity might be between those in industry who are threatened by what these kids and others (us) are up to online and the culture that we represent. That connectivity might be between technology companies and their users, whose identities they seek otherwise to control. That connectivity might be between those of us in the rich world and those in less rich parts of the world, as GV makes possible. And so forth.

That leads to the request for help, or at least invitation to participate. Our goal is to carry out much of this research and writing in a public way. To that end, we’ve got a wiki at DigitalNative.org where anyone can come and contribute. Much of what we’re reading and learning shows up on this wiki. We’d love to plug our work into the work of others, and learn from what others are learning.

We are lucky to have an amazing team of people at the Berkman Center and the Research Center on Information Law at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland working with us on this research, too, including the focus groups and interviews we’re conducting. Our work is coming along much better than it otherwise would with the able guidance and critiques of this team at our backs. We are lucky, too, to be able to read the work of many social scientists, cultural anthropologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, teachers, and others — people like Mimi Ito and our colleagues at the Berkman Center, danah boyd, Corinna di Gennaro, Shenja van der Graaf, and Miriam Simun — who understand aspects (or the whole) of the phenomenon we take up here far better than we do. We’d love to have your help, too, in working through these problems online.

OpenLibrary.org

There’s enormous promise in the Open Library project, which we’re hearing about today at Berkman’s lunch event from Aaron Swartz. The idea is wonderfully simple: to create a single web page per book. That web page can aggregate lots of data and metadata about each book. In turn, the database can be structured to indicate very interesting relationships between books, ideas, and people. The public presentation of the information is via a structured wiki.

I’m most interested in hearing what Open Library thinks it needs in the way of help. They have a cool demo here. It seems to me that one way to succeed in this project is to combine what start-ups call “business development” with what scholars do for a living with what non-profits think of as crowd-sourcing or encouraging user generated content or whatever. There’s a lot that could be done if the publishers and libraries contributed the core data (should be in everyone’s interest, long-term anyway); scholars need to opt in an do their part in an open way; Open Library needs to get the data structured and rendered right (curious as to whether OPML or other syndicated data structures are in play, or could be in play, here); and human beings need to contribute, contribute, contribute as they have to Wikipedia and other web 2.0 megasites.

A note from a participant: “libraries resist user-generated cataloguing.” This seems to me a cultural issue that is worth exploring. We do need to balance the authority of librarians in with what the crowds have to offer. But I’m pretty sure it’s not an either-or choice, as David Weinberger makes clear through his work.

One thing that makes a lot of sense is their plan for supporting the site over time. The combination of philanthropy (at least as start-up funds, if not for special projects over time) plus revenue generated through affiliate links over time makes a lot of sense as a sustainable business plan.

One could also see linkages between Open Library and 1) our H2O Playlists initiative (hat-tip to JZ) to allow people to share their reading lists as well as 2) what Gene Koo and John Mayer at CALI are doing with the eLangdell project.

It’s not a surprise that the truly wonderful David Weinberger — I can see him blogging this in front of me — brought Aaron here today to talk about this.

Where I’m left, at the end of lunch, is with a sense of wonder about what we (broadly, collectively) can accomplish with these technologies, a bit of leadership, a bit of capital, good communications strategies, and some good luck in the public interest over time. It’s awe-inspiring.

How Long Will Scrabulous Last in Facebook?

I am curious to see how long Facebook leaves this app up after this WSJ article. Scrabulous, a Facebook app made by third-party developers, is an obvious knock-off of Scrabble. One might reasonably raise copyright and trademark issues related to it (perhaps the Scrabulous developers could withstand these complaints; query as to Facebook’s willingness to put itself in harm’s way, though, as potentially secondarily liable). Coming our way in the near-future, a new form of Web 2.0-fired dispute: there are very interesting issues brewing related to Facebook’s role as a platform for other applications and its policing function. Interoperability is a great thing, and Facebook has done well to open up its API. But when a controversy strikes over an app that is framed in Facebook, on which developers and investors have invested time and capital, and into which people have mixed their personal information, who decides whether the app stays or goes? The judge and jury are likely to be Facebook employees, at least in the first instance. Jonathan Zittrain has been teaching about this issue of Private Sheriffs for a long time, with more on this topic coming in his forthcoming book, The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It.

Throwing Code Over the Wall to Non-Profits

Total blue sky, inspired in part by a wonderful gathering pulled together by Jake Shapiro at PRX and Vince Stehle at the Surdna Foundation, picking up on thoughts from various contexts:

If I could start (or otherwise will into existence) any non-profit right now, what it would do is to develop and apply code for non-profit organizations that are under-using new information technologies for core communications purposes. The organization would be comprised primarily of smart, committed, young coders and project managers, primarily, who know how to take open source and other web 2.0-type tools and apply them to connect to communities of interest. (Perhaps some coders would volunteer, too, on a moonlighting basis.)

There are a bunch of problems it would be designed to solve. There are lots of non-profit organizations, such as public media organizations or local initiative campaigns or NGOs in fields like human rights, for instance, that would like to leverage new technologies in the public interest — to reach new audiences for their work and to build communities around ideas — but have no clue as to how to go about doing it.

I think the stars are aligned for such a non-profit to make a big difference at this moment of wild technological innovation. There are lots of relevant pieces that are ready to be put together. Ning and many others have developed platforms that could be leveraged. SourceForge has endless tools for the taking and applying to solve problems. Blogs, wikis, social networks (think of the Facebook open API), and Second Life (or whatever you’d like to experiment with in the participatory media space) are also easy to put to work, if you know how. Most small organizations know that Digital Natives (and many others) are spending lots of their lives online. There are others who do things like this — consider the wonderful Tactical Tech in the global environment, as well as those who do development for political campaigns, like Blue State Digital — whose learning might be leveraged here. There is plenty of “pain in the marketplace,” as venture guys might say. There are smart coders coming out of schools who want to do well enough by doing good in a mission-driven organization (think of the geekiest members of the Free Culture movement). The goal would be to take these technologies and making them work for carefully targeted customers in the non-profit space.

The non-profit would require a reasonable pile of start-up capital to get set up and to have ballast for lean times, but it would have a revenue model. It would charge for its services, on an overall break-even basis. It would not develop things for free; it would develop things for cheap(er) and with real expertise for non-profits that need access to the technologies. (One could imagine a sliding scale based upon resources and revenue and so forth.) It would also have a training services arm. Clients would be required to pay for some training, too, so that the organization would have an internal capacity to keep up the tool that’s developed for them.

I could imagine it loosely based in a big, open, low-rent space in Central Square in Cambridge, right between MIT and Harvard, with collaborators around the world. I suspect there are others doing something like this, but I am constantly surprised by the number of times I am at meetings or conferences where prospective customers tell me they don’t have a provider for their needs.

Keith Sawyer's Group Genius

On the long flight from Boston to Shanghai, I read R. Keith Sawyer‘s recent book, Group Genius. It’s definitely a worthwhile read for anyone who cares about how innovation really works as a functional matter; anyone who runs any kind of an organization; and anyone who ever struggles with trying to do something creative, whether alone or with others. Sawyer takes on the romantic myth of the solo author/inventor/genius with a persuasive argument about “the unique power of collaboration to generate innovation.” I happen to be pre-disposed to thinking he’s right, but the many examples he gives (Morse, Darwin, Picasso, companies like Whole Foods, YouTube, and Google, and so forth) helped to clarify my own thinking about innovation and creativity and how they come to pass.

A few thoughts that the book sparked in me (Sawyer talks a lot about “sparks”), for which I am grateful:

– Urs Gasser, Colin Maclay and I have a long-running series of conversations about collaboration across institutions, interdisciplinarity, and international comparative work in our field. It’s our shared (I think!) view that it would be very, very hard, if not impossible, effectively to study what we study — the implications of changes in information technologies on society, with an emphasis on law and policy — without collaborating with others. The Berkman Center, our shared professional home, works best, in my view, when it makes possible collaboration between creative people, some of whom work at Berkman/HLS and others who are just friends. In a more formal sense, we work deliberately with other institutions, like Urs’s Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen; JZ’s Oxford Internet Institute; Lawrence Lessig’s Stanford Center for Internet & Society; Jack Balkin and Eddan Katz’s Information Society Project at Yale Law School; our partner institutions in the OpenNet Initiative (the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab; University of Cambridge; and OII); and so forth. I am not certain that we are accomplishing “group genius” through any of these collaborations, but I am quite sure that our work would be much less richly rewarding without them. As the Berkman Center morphs from an HLS-based institution to one that draws more formally on the work of others at Harvard in the next year, we hope that our work will continue in this direction of more interdisciplinary, more comparative, and more creative.

– It made me reflect, too, on Urs’s recent blog-post about his two week stay with us in Cambridge this summer. We spent a good bit of time (never enough, of course) talking about what we want to say in the book that we are co-authoring, Born Digital, and what we hope to accomplish in the related Digital Natives project. This is a field in which many, many good and smart people have been working very hard to understand how young people use new information technologies and what it means. We hope for our work on this book and this project to be complementary, not competitive, to this emerging body of work. As lawyers, but also scholars interested in interdisciplinary work, we’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about what our “comparative advantage” is — what is it that our training and mode of analysis can enable us to offer to an increasingly rich body of literature. Our goal has to do with both understanding what others have come to know through good empirical and qualitative study; to use a global, not local, lens in assessing this emerging population (rather than generation) of digital natives; and then to offer useful thoughts on how to move forward to head off the worst problems (encroachments on privacy, intellectual property concerns, information overload/credibility issues) and take advantage of the opportunities (innovation, new modes of teaching and learning, civic activism, semiotic democracy). After conversations with Urs, Ethan Zuckerman, danah boyd, and others, I’m freshly persuaded that meaningful, lightweight collaboration is essential to doing sound work in our field (not that we’re there yet, but working on it, and the Group Genius argument helps a lot in this regard).

– Fundamentally, I’m persuaded also that our highest calling at the Berkman Center may be to create an environment in which scholars and teachers can do better work than they’d do on their own.

A few modest critiques:

– Sawyer’s last chapter talks about policy approaches to “Creating the Collaborative Economy.” Several of his proposals relate to intellectual property. Curiously, this chapter was the least persuasive to me of the book’s 11 chapters, even though I expect that I roughly agree with what he argues in his seven proposals. I think I was left unconvinced in part because it’s hard to talk about copyright terms, patent reform, mandatory licensing, non-competes, the standards-making processes, and other complex legal puzzles in a paragraph each. There’s at least one counter-argument for each of the arguments he makes that’s worth exploring, in most instances from the point of view of an economist. Also, with some of the arguments, such as “3. Legalize Modding,” I agree with the gist of the argument, but I wonder about the specifics of what Sawyer writes. First, how much of a problem there is in reality — is the DMCA Section 1201, with its current exceptions, standing in the way of much modding (other than very specific circumvention of TPMs that surround copyrighted works) in practical terms? Maybe, but there’s a serious empirical question to be answered. Sawyer claims: “There are thousands of people like the extreme bike jumper who invented a way to keep his pedals from spinning. One reason they don’t share is that those modifications are often illegal. The U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act — designed to prevent users from making illegal copies of software, music, and movies — has the side effect of making it impossible to modify the products consumers purchase.” (p. 223) While I’m no big fan of DMCA Section 1201, to which Sawyer refers here, it’s not the case that most consumer modifications of things they buy in general are illegal. The DMCA 1201 makes illegal just the circumvention of effective technological measures designed to protect copyrighted works — a much more narrow statement than the one that Sawyer makes here. So, the ban he refers to is the ban on the act of circumventing a certain set of technologies, not the making of modifications to something you’ve bought (copyright, separately, might disallow certain modifications under the exclusive right to make derivative works, but that’s a different argument). I realize that the act of circumventing and making the modification are related, but they’re different, to be sure. In short: while the punchlines may be right in this final chapter, the analysis perhaps warrants its own book, rather than a short chapter.

– One thing in the book puzzled me; I am not sure if others who have read it had the same question. On p. 108, he’s talking about how the most creative scientists also happen to be the most productive. The argument, building upon the work of Dean Keith Simonton, reads in relevant part: “… the sheer productivity of a person — the raw output of creative products — is correlated with the creative success of that person … it turns out that for any given creator, the most creative product tends to appear during the time of most productivity. Paradoxically, slowing down and focusing on one work makes a person less creative.” (pp. 108 – 9). In the graph on that same page, titled the Distribution of Scientific Productivity, I think it shows those scientists with the fewest articles to the far left of the graph (with the greatest number of scientists on this end of the graph) and the most articles (and fewest scientists accomplishing this feat) on the far right. (Separately, I wonder if it is a Pareto distribution?) In any event, the text seems to place Darwin at the “left in the figure” (emphasis mine), whereas I would have expected Darwin to be at the right of the figure. (p. 108) I might be misreading this section or misunderstanding the graph, or perhaps it’s just a typo. It’s not that important; I think I get the point of the argument.

Separately, on recommendation engines: As an aside, I logged into Amazon.com to link to Sawyer’s book there. I noticed that my first recommended book in Amazon is William Gibson’s Spook Country. The Amazon recommendation engine is clearly getting good: that’s the most recent book I bought, at Logan Airport before I left (sorry, Amazon; nice try, though!).