Dual transparency of the Internet

When we think of the Internet through WikiLeaks and Arab Spring or NSA, its “transparency” starts to appear with a dual meaning, which leads to more nuanced discussions about the role of the Internet in this world.

It is certainly true that WikiLeaks showed how much transparent the world in the digital age could be, in other words, how hackers can decrypt confidential information that would have been kept secret without the Internet, or how it is becoming more and more true that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. Then, we also realized that this “no secret” rule applied to the privacy of Internet users. In the latter case, it is private corporations and governments, who get information about “us”. We were shocked by what NSA was doing through Internet, but it was shocking just because NSA was an American governmental institution.

We all know that similar kinds of information control have been existed in some countries and served as modern “panopticism”, using the mechanism that, as Rebecca Mackinnon put it in her book, “when people have unspecific knowledge that surveillance is happening at least some of the time, without clear information about exactly how and when the surveillance is taking place, against whom, and according to what specific criteria, people will choose to avoid trouble and modify their behavior in ways that are often subtle and even subconscious.” In this case, Internet is a tool for authoritarian regime for their “surveillance”.

“Web as platform”, the catch copy of Web 2.0, was at the same time an opening to the totally transparent world, as more and more information is stored “online”. On the other hand, people networked through Facebook and Twitter made massive social mobilization possible in Arab Spring in a short period of time. So, Evgeny Morozov says that questions such as “Is the Internet good or bad?” or “Does Internet promote democracy” are ridiculous because “it forces us to think of the Internet and social change in terms that are free of humans, governments, ideology, power, impurity, and, above all, politics.” His argument is that too much generalization is often made when we discuss the Internet and democracy.

In a same context, Rebecca Mackinnon explains, what is now missing is the “accountability” and “the reality is that the corporations and governments that build, operate, and govern cyberspace are not being held sufficiently accountable for their exercise of power over the lives and identities of people who use digital networks. They are sovereigns operating without the consent of the networked”. In other words, there is no clear “bargain” here, referring to the three basic factors of successful network pointed out by Clay Shirky: Promise, Tool and Bargain.

This is a big issue, because here, what we are questioning is not the “Promise, Tool and Bargain” offered from an individual network or website to you, but from the Internet itself. However, we know that the Internet is not an entity who need or can offer those things. Normally, it is the corporations running websites, who should be held accountable, however, things get complicated as the issue of sovereignty comes in. When the accountability of private corporations and that of a sovereign country mixed up, we still don’t know how to deal with it. Some countries like Germany start thinking about setting up German Internet, to seal its data off from the rest of the country, to keep their sovereignty, although no one knows if this is something meaningful or not.

Internet and Political Campaign

 

“Propelled by the Internet, Barack Obama Wins Presidency”, by Sarah Lai Stirland, (Wired November 4, 2008)

 

“Obama’s grassroots donors tended to send relatively small amounts repeatedly, which in turn shows why a small-donor list is such a valuable resource — it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Unlike traditional big donors who often reach their quota for a given candidate with a single check, small donors can contribute again and again, providing a financial consistency that’s useful in a short campaign and priceless in a long one.”, by e.politics, How Campaigns Can Use the Internet to Win in 2012

 

The importance of Internet in Obama’s presidency campaign is widely known, as we can see from the title of the articled appeared on Wired on November 4, 2008. However, what was the precise role the internet has played in the campaign doesn’t seem to be well understood. The study titled “How Campaigns Can Use the Internet to Win in 2012” explains that it was the internet which made grassroots donations possible and this resonates with the concept of Long Tail, one of the business models that Internet brought in by reducing transaction cost. In this case, there are few big donors and huge number of small donors, which makes those small donations very meaningful, especially because these small donors could made donation repeatedly as the campaign goes.

 

At the same time, the study titled “Online Tactics & Success: An Examination of the Obama for America New Media Campaign” by Online Tactics and Success points out that David Plouffe, campaign manager for the Obama for America New Media Campaign said, “There’s nothing more valuable than a human being talking to a human being. Nothing”. If there’s nothing more valuable than a talk between human beings, then, what is the role of Internet in political campaign? According to him, “while the new media program was tremendously valuable to the field program in identifying and recruiting volunteers, there was no true integration between the programs after a new volunteer was recruited and then handed off to the field team.”

 

The study summarizes the role of Internet as “Build an email list. Send high-quality, engaging emails to those constituents. Use authentic organizational content – video, text and images – to tell a compelling story. Use email and phone calls to ask online volunteers to participate in offline programs” The importance of the quality of contents is relevant for donation. When there is more compelling story from the standpoint of a supporter, you will have more chance to get their donation, as is shown with the example of soaring amount of donation after Sarah Palin’s speech about “community organizers”.

 

In the case of Japan, basically candidates could not use Internet for their political campaign until April 2013. In April 2013, the Public Offices Election Law was revised to allow political parties and candidates to electioneer online by updating their home pages or blogs and to use email, Facebook, and Twitter. However, there still is a significant limitation regarding email: voters cannot forward emails received from political parties or candidates, in order to avoid spam emails. Kan Suzuki, one of the Democratic Party’s politician and promoter of Internet political campaign stated that “National elections in Japan are all about how much you can sell your name. But this revision will benefit candidates who can truly engage in more vigorous policy debates”.

 

In July 2013, the election for the Upper House became the first election after the revision of the law took place and ironically, Kan Suzuki lost his seat in the election. According to Kyodo News exit polls, 10.2% of the voters said that they used information from the Internet in making their voting decisions. Of voters in their 20s, 23.9% said that they used the Internet which was the biggest percentage, followed by 17.9% of the voters in their 30s. The use of Internet in political campaign in Japan is fundamentally different in Japan in a very essential way. The focus is to diffuse information from political parties and candidates to the public, in other words, to persuade people to vote for them through information, at which Internet is not so good. This is mainly because in Japan, political campaign is something special and most citizens don’t see it as a part of their life, which results in a very low mobilization and almost no grassroots fundraising, for which Internet is a highly useful tool.

Future of Journalism

With the rise of Internet, there are debates going on about who will be journalists and how the journalism works in the future. There is a group of people sharing ideas named by Dean Starkman, “future-of-news (FON)” consensus. This group is made up of prominent figures of the digital age, such as Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, John Paton and so on. Their FON consensus is characterized by peer production made possible by wisdom of crowd, networked individual as opposed to big institutions like mass media.

In the initial rise of digital media, as Shirky put it in his article, “the problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming”, rather they came up with various ideas to deal with the changing environment, such as new payment models or building walls to protect contents from being shared. However, they shared the belief behind all those alternative ideas that “the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift” which, for Shirky, means that “their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away”. He argues instead that new world cannot be built up right after the old one collapsed and the change takes time as the internet has the potential to revolutionize human social life, as was the case of Gutenberg’s invention. From his point of view, “now is the time for experiments”.

On the other hand, Dean Starkman has some critical views toward this kind of FON consensus. He takes more pragmatic standpoint, saying that “if this argument is really about public-interest journalism, the only question is, what helps it, and what doesn’t—now”. Although Starkman thinks that current institutions cannot sustain as they are right now, he also believes that current bloggers are not sufficient to assume a role of real journalists, who produce news as “public goods” not as “commodity”. In this sense, he insists that “Neo-Institutional school” is necessary for journalism and that “it doesn’t care about the institution for its own sake, only for the kind of reporting it produces”.

In a political context, Peter Daou recognized importance of the triangle, made of the netroots, the political institution, and the media. From his experience of the election for John Kerry, he concludes that bloggers alone cannot make conventional wisdom change. Daou explains that in order to bring change in a big scale, the netroots needs big institutions to leverage their power.

With the rapid expansion of blog and twitter, I think that there are two important issues regarding this on-going debate: accessibility and credibility.

Concerning the accessibility, which was the biggest advantage of “old” media, it would be problematic in two ways. One is that although online population is growing, it’s risky to assume that our citizen’s digital literacy has reached to the level that we can believe they know how to get information they need out of massive information flow online. Second, “filter bubble” will be a growing problem. More we rely on the information from online sources, more we are vulnerable to the risk of “filter bubble”. As opposed to the visible differences of ideology among big media institutions in a real world, this tendency to get surrounded by ideas of similar ideology could be critical if we believe journalism is “public-service”, having its core value in setting agendas, challenging powerful institutions, and generating reform.

I’m also concerned about credibility issue regarding online information news or journalism. If we believe in wisdom of crowd as shown in Wikipedia, then we need time and critical mass to ensure the quality of information, which is difficult in news reporting world. I agree that twitter is very powerful in a sense that it generates millions of reporters online, but the quality of their reporting cannot be taken for granted. Though there is an attempt to control the quality of tweets, it is not realistic to expand this kind of check to the whole system. Then, the remaining option would be to perceive tweets not as guaranteed information but as a piece of information which could be wrong. In other words, public should be prepared for better consumption of information/news unlike in the old age where people could rely on “the filter” ensured by big institutions. This seems to be realized through “learning by individuals”, not through “public education” by institutions.

An evaluation of Wikipedia article

This post is an attempt to evaluate a Wikipedia article on Japan International Cooperation Agency (known as JICA). I wanted to work on this article because as JICA staff, I was curious how people were getting information on JICA when they searched it online, but also I was hoping to enhance public relations of JICA by improving the article on Wikipedia, which would be the most referred source of information online today.

According to my evaluation of the current article, there are mainly three aspects that need to be reviewed and largely modified.

First one is its comprehensiveness as an article, second one is its way of sourcing, and finally, its illustration. On the other hand, I didn’t find urgent needs for modification with regard to the other three significant aspects, namely, neutrality, readability, and formatting.

Let me explain my evaluation one by one along with some suggestions for modification. First aspect is what I find most important in Wikipedia as an online encyclopedia, the comprehensiveness on the topic. In current article, there is a considerable lack of information on the activities of JICA. The contents of the article mainly consist of “History”, “Activities”, and “Timeline”. Among these three contents, “History” is short but fairly comprehensive, although the last paragraph would better fit under “Activities” in my opinion.

The most problematic content in this article from the perspective of comprehensiveness is “Activities”. Here, the indicated activities are limited to former JICA’s activities, before the merger with Japan Bank for International Cooperation (known as JBIC) in October 2008, which is clearly mentioned in the previous part on history. Furthermore, even if we look only at technical cooperation carried out by JICA before and after the merger, the scope of the detailed description is limited to the “Technical training program” and the “Volunteer dispatch”. There is no doubt that they are important, but at the same time those are just two modalities among other technical cooperation operations.

Therefore, my suggestion regarding this “Activities” category is the overall update, including other technical cooperation modalities, concessional loan operation, and newly started non-sovereign loan and investment operation, for the article to be comprehensive. Additional update is necessary regarding JICA’s mission statement as it was also renewed when new JICA was born in 2008.

My second remark is about “Sourcing”. This article contains a very few references, mainly inside Wikipedia. There is no cited resource from outside except for external links to the official page of JICA, Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s site on the ODA, and Japan Overseas Migration Museum website. The last one is not even mentioned in the article.

I think it would become more useful and comprehensive if we add citations from JICA’s English webpage showing organization, mission statements, and so on. Another reliable external source will be OECD, the international organization in charge of ODA statistics among others. Another possible modification on “Sourcing” is about technical terms such as “Human Security”. When mentioning those terminologies, I think readers of the article will need some references to deepen their understanding.

The third observation is about illustration used in the article. The only photo used in the article is that of JICA Osaka building. In a real world, this facility was closed as of March 2012. Clearly, this is not an image representing the topic. This need to be switched to the image of other JICA facilities, possibly the headquarter in Tokyo. Another modification would be adding some images describing JICA’s history or organization in a simple manner.

Having evaluated the article on JICA, I am now aware of the collective power of individuals, but also challenges that topics such as JICA are facing. That challenge comes from the Long Tail of digital age. Although there is someone interested enough to start a Wikipedia article on a topic, maintaining and updating the article is hardly done by an individual. A sufficient number of “active” individuals on that specific topic, who would keep updating the article or keep the article in their watch list, are necessary in order to keep a Wikipedia article relevant as time goes by.

My Wikipedia user page

Social Networks On/Off-line

Social network has always been there since our ancestral age. What is new in this digital age is how those social networks are formed and connected, as characterized by four ways in “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives”, written by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler. Those four ways are namely, Enormity, Communality, Specificity, and Virtuality.

At the same time, as we are enabled to form social networks in a huge scale with so many people, the quality of connection in those networks has been differenciated. As Howard Rheingold puts in his book “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online”, you’re not likely to rely on your facebook friend whom you have not met for years when you lost your home. Through facebook, we are knitting “weak-ties” which have different quality from traditional “strong-ties” we formed within family, relatives or close friends. Although I think these ties are sometimes mixed up in my facebook page, I also feel that cost of maintaining “strong-ties” with friends are increasingly high when they are not using facebook and this hurdle is becoming bigger and bigger as most of your “strong-tie” friends are in facebook. Now it has reached to the extent that I really need to consciously make efforts to maintain those ties mainly through emails. Sending emails didn’t bother me when I had fewer nodes in a few groups, however, with a growing number of nodes and networks made of them, its cost in terms of time seems to me relatively high compared to communication through facebook.

In this age where online networking is inevitable, more value is generated from networked individual who can be a bridge. As the experiments described in the book by Christakis and Fowler, managers who have networks beyond their work groups consistently made better suggestions for improvement of their supply chain. Stacked in a group with people who resemble to you, it is hard to create new ideas. Similarly, networks with diversity bring you more value as you have more sources to rely on and are more likely to be able to tell “who knows who knows what”, using that diverse networks.

Using these networks, on the other hand, corporations are seeking to get useful and valuable information about their customers to better focus their advertising and products/services. Privacy is something you need to give up in some sense in this networked online world. Without noticing it, so much information about you is collected that your google screen is different from what the others see. What is inconvenient in this is we often don’t even realize that this is happening. Seemingly, all you can say to your digital native kids is to “be aware of your behavior online“, knowing that online world is much familiar to them than to you and thus their attitude toward online networks tend to involve more exposure of privacy.

The privacy issue could be really problematic when the information is used for a bad intention. While we succeeded in creating and maintaining Wikipedia through the contributions by so many “cooperator” and “punisher”, online networks are fragile to malicious intentions and become easily unhealthy, too. A subtle balance is required to maintain a healthy online platform. One of the interesting example would be “2 channel” in Japan. It was a simple bulletin board system established by a Hiroyuki Nishimura in 1999, which eventually grew and got 500 million pageviews a month. What is surprising in this system is its openness; you are never requested to register nor log in in order to make a thread or a comment. Also, there were no censors, no filters, no age verifications, and no voting systems that boost one thread over another. It was a complete anonymous openness guaranteed by Nishimura, which in turn generated “the snarkiness, the sophomoric humor, the questionable taste” as a result.

Personally, I’ve never participated in “2 channel”, mainly because it has some special “community” rules or culture with a sense of negative humor shared among participants. Established as anonymous platform, it ended up having original “2 channel” culture and active participants were called “2 channelers (people doing 2 channel)”. From my perception, “2 channel” has unhealthy features, but it is just reflecting a part of the real world. By participating anonymously in the board, people are free to talk, criticize, or insult others, something difficult to do in Japanese culture where the harmony is prioritized.

Principles of Digital Age

As self-recognized non-digital native person, ‘Here Comes Everybody’ by Clay Shirky and the blog post ‘What is Web 2.0’ by Tim O’reilly were just eye-opening for me. Thanks to them, I finally feel like I see somewhat general principles in all those fragmented impressions that I have been accumulating in these years through my modest digital experiences.

They are essentially talking about changes brought by new technologies, however, according to Shirky, “It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen”, so the real change is yet to come.

Meanwhile, we are already witnessing a bunch of new technologies appearing in our society, giving birth to Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, and Google etc. What is fundamentally different in those media is that information is first published, and then filtered not by professionals, but by mass amateurs. Since those technologies removed obstacles to publish or to form a group, the Power Law Distribution is observed here and therefore business model needs to be adapted to Long Tail.

Asked if Twitter is a diary or an expression, a famous Japanese brain scientist Kenichiro Mogi answered today by tweeting that it is an expression for him, because his tweets are published. However, as described by Shirky, there are a huge number of people who just tweet to their off-line (real) friends instead of talking in a mall. In this case, their tweets are just another diary using a different tool. Mogi’s perception comes from his being famous and therefore his tweets are inevitably to be read by his more than 500 thousand followers.

As I mentioned before, these new technologies have brought significant changes in business models. Assumed by O’reilly’s blog post, customers are no longer just people who get benefit by paying money for a service or good, but rather defined as users who are at the same time trusted to be co-developers thereby such service can be developed by harnessing collective intelligence.

Most prominent example of this type of service would be Wikipedia and it was possible only because they believed that “people are basically good, when they are in circumstances that reward goodness while restraining impulses to defect” (‘Here Comes Everybody’). O’reilly also underlines the importance of lightweight user interface, development models, and business models, exactly in purpose of enhancing the mechanism of collective intelligence.

When I think of recent evolution of social media in Japan, there is one event which stands out: Earthquake in March 11, 2011. Right after the earthquake has happened, there was a surge in use of Twitter on various issues related to the earthquake. This blog post ‘Japan Earthquake: How was social media used?’ is examining that surge by using data in UCLA’s database covering over a 30 day period, from March 10- April 11. The data shows some surprising aspects of the use of twitter during that time but what was most striking to me was the location of the users. Out of the top 10 locations, only 3 were located outside of Tokyo, moreover, there is only 1 location, Miyagi as number 9, situated in the most devastated area by Tsunami.

As you may easily imagine, when you are hit by huge earthquake accompanied by massive Tsunami, your lifeline is cut, including all the phone lines (fix and mobile) and of course, internet connections and you just cannot charge your digital device. This is why tweets were made by the users mainly living in Tokyo, also hit by a big earthquake but without devastating damage. In fact, people in the most devastated area were all evacuated after the disaster without phone or internet. In that situation, the communication was carried out via paper. Fathers and mothers looking for their children went from one shelter to another to read wall papers in those shelters with a list indicating the names of people evacuating in that building. Paper was the only possible tool at that time to communicate the information.

It is true that twitter was largely used after the earthquake but was it really meaningful for the sake of provision of support to the people? Partly yes, but maybe not to the extent of its full potential. Although being aware that the “purpose, tool, bargain” (‘Here Comes Everybody’) of Twitter was not meant to serve in this kind of situation, I believe we will be able to create another type of social media for which we can expect resilience in case of disaster.