jumping ship

I’ve left Facebook for good. In recent weeks I shed applications, then later removed most of my data (photos, posts, etc.), with each surreptitious nudge that they’ve given us in their relentless quest to end privacy. Previously I was irritated with the constant change in Privacy Policies on FB, but now I’m finding the tradeoff (giving up intricate data about myself – to whosoever – in exchange for the convenient social connectivity the site affords) is no longer worth what it once was.

For those of you (and I know there are many of you) who are also considering this move, you might want to consider some of the following (I did):

  • Not totally convinced that you should quit the FB habit? Consult Gizmodo’s Top Ten Reasons You Should Quit Facebook. You’ll be glad you did. The kicker, for the cynic in me: “the Facebook application itself sucks”.
  • If you’ve installed any Applications on your profile (or had FB do it for you without you realizing it), it might make sense to revoke any permissions you’ve granted (known or not) to them to access/reuse your data. I think this should be done in addition to and in advance of FB account deletion. Why do I think so? Well, recently a developer discovered a data hole in a recent API released by FB to its developer community. All of those “companies” who build FB apps have access to your Events schedule (and god knows what else), and this apparently, whether or not you’ve added the application to your profile. It may yet be that you cannot revoke the permission you’ve granted to (or had stolen from you by) these entities. At any rate, it can’t hurt to try and revoke as much as possible. Seeing that privacy is such a dirty word over at Facebook, I wouldn’t put it past them to just be lax about pretty much any user data they come across…
  • If you have a profile on Friendfeed (or any other property that Facebook owns), it’s probably a good idea to delete your presence there, too.
  • Have an exit strategy. You don’t want to lose contact with all of your friends or those high school dropouts to whom you have no other connection except FB. Take down email addresses, phone numbers, IMs, and any and all other contact deets for your FB friends (the ones you really want to keep, of course). Remember that Facebook doesn’t own your sociality, nor your social capital.
  • Finally, do the right thing. Don’t follow those misleading links within the Facebook privacy settings pages to remove your account. Go directly to this link to delete your FB account. It will vanish instantly, and will (supposedly) be permanently deleted in 14 days’ time.

Take a deep breath. There’s a whole world wide web out here that we forgot to attend to while we were tokin’ from the Facebook bong. And it’s just getting started.

Besides, Facebook jumped the shark over a year ago. I predict a whimper.

A Tale of Two Articles: On Socialism, Libertarianism and Open Source

open_source_communismAn interesting pair of complementary articles have today sprung to my attention from my unfiltered and rapidly growing twitstorms.

First, Readwriteweb carries a story about the research of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger. Mayer-Schönberger has synthesized research into open source communities, arguing that radical ideas suffer in networks where there is a greater abundance of interconnections. Well-connected networks suffer, he claims, from groupthink and are characterized by incremental (rather than radical) change. In contrast, networks with “structural holes” tend to have other dynamics at play (notably, modular competition, as in some corporate or institutional innovation scenarios, which encourage participants to take greater risks).

To my mind, the analogy holds in consideration of projects like Linux or the Firefox communities, and perhaps Wikipedia – I’m not one to criticize a data set I don’t have the time nor skepticism to vet. But (as I commented on the post) the nature of the Web has enabled likeminded radical (or queer, or kinky, or just bizarre) people to locate each other, form communities and make themselves (and their ideas) much more visible in the wider society (see Jenkins and Benkler for accounts of how this works). Surely these demonstrated network effects preclude the application of this hypothesis to different realms of human activity? Aren’t we becoming more radical and less risk-averse on the web?

The second article was written by Lawrence Lessig, in response to Kevin Kelley’s “The New Socialism“. Herein Lessig reduces socialism to “coercion by the state”, which struck me greatly about the face and neck. Surely a scholar of this stature wouldn’t fall victim to such a terrible misconception? He writes “At the core of socialism is coercion (justified or not is a separate question)” and “socialism is using the power of the state to force a result that otherwise would not have been chosen voluntarily by the people.” Ouch. Surely you’ve read some critical political theory, Larry? It’s clear that you are sympathetic toward those who have been branded as commies, but why should we deny the branding, anyway? Is the “socialism” label really so inflammatory? I suppose if you mis-read “socialism” as “coercion by the state”, it might be. At any rate, Lessig’s commenters have done much more with less effort than I can do to counterargue here.

I think both of these articles are indicative of how American intellectual culture bears the hallmarks of a system of political indoctrination (nothing new to readers of Chomsky, McChesney, and other Americans – not to mention nonAmerican critics). In both of these instances we can see where evidence is ignored to justify a critique of forms of collective action (the Mayer-Schönberger article), and where an idea is reduced and distorted to disavow it any attributive value to various impugned folks (Lessig).

Just saying, Open Source and Free Software gurus: We peace-loving socialists have noticed your Libertarian (e.g., small government, gun-in-every-nursery) streaks. Why are you afraid to bunk with us?

Last.fm and misinformation

I need to retract a decision I made based on seemingly false news.

Just over a month ago I posted an announcement that Simulacre Media would be removing its entire catalog from the Last.fm service due to the imposition of user fees in countries other than the US, UK, and Germany. I read a misleading Canwest story (and others) that missed the memo about how the new user fees would apply to Last.fm Radio only. Seemingly, I missed this memo too. More correctly, the memo was never explicit about what the changes would actually mean.

Before I posted my original decision, I consulted the original source (Last.fm’s Blog) to clarify what the changes actually meant, and for whom. The responses, as well as the original announcement on March 24 (to be fair to the many naïve journalists who rode the wave of hype) were actually never explicit about how this affected the availability of free music on the site. The Last.fm announcement reads that “scrobbling, recommendations, charts, biographies, events, videos etc. will remain free in all countries”. There is no explicit mention of free music, downloads, or streaming (as distinct from “radio”, if it were to be a distinct thing) in this announcement. So I made and posted my decision anyway, decoding this as surreptitious PR jostling – after all, it is still CBS at the end of the day, right?

Even after a wave of international user feedback expressing much confusion (not to mention feelings of betrayal) over the impending changes, the Last.fm team followed up with another announcement on March 30 about the change that still did not clarify what would happen to free music hosted on the site. There was no clear indication at the time, either, about (1)  how a “subscription” would be distinct from a “user account” on Last.fm, nor about (2) whether individuals providing music for the service would be exempt from the fees, which only compounded everyone’s confusion (not to mention feelings of betrayal). It felt like we were losing control over the right to manage our relationships with fans in the ways that are consistent with our business model/ethos/philosophy (as the case may be). User fees would end our ability to share music for free, wouldn’t they?

I decided to wait and see what would happen before removing the music. April 1 came and went, and the Simulacre catalogue was still all available, all free, for download or streaming. I checked a few weeks later – the streaming links were gone, but the “free download” links were still functional.

I checked again today, and now I see some links to a subscription page on some sort of radio widget that I’ve never seen there before. Still, our catalogue is available for free downloading. Streaming is gone, which hurts Last.fm’s extensibility in the social media world immensely, but it’s not really a deal-breaker from an artist’s or label’s point of view, to my mind (it is still a free service for us). Overall, the changes are not as drastic as at first they seemed, according to the vague Last.fm announcements, and the wave of media hype that followed them.

I cannot presume that this story is over (we’ve seen mammoths in this space rise and fall spectacularly before, haven’t we?… transforming eventually into things that barely resemble their original selves). However, for the time being, it seems we’re still able to give our music away on Last.fm. So long as a platform permits users to download our music for free and interact with our artists in meaningful ways, then we will continue to share our catalogue and support said platform.

It’s simply weird to charge user fees in a music economy that is increasingly devaluing its former prime currency (the recorded artifact) in favour of new sources of revenue, and doing so likely marks the beginning of the end for Last.fm (no more sharing and capturing friends’ streams or playlists, kids!), not to mention how Last.fm radio (with its widgets, extensibility into desktop apps, other social media sites, etc.) will likely become a crippled version of what it could be if free.

I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

The end of free music?

lastfm_redLast.fm (aka CBS) has finally thrown in the towel on free music. Well, I’m not going with them. It’s not that Last.fm sucks; they still offer a great service, one that *might* be worth the subscription fee, even. But for those of us who are trying to give music away for free, there’s simply no place for us on their platform.

It seems that ever since the CBS acquisition in twenty-ought-seven (and likely before that event), Last.fm has been stepping back from its potential to act as a listener and creator driven platform for sharing music. Call me old fashioned, but the listeners and musicians ought to be able to set the terms for their exchanges.

For those who forget, over the past few years, Last.fm (like many successful B2C web enterprises) tested out various revenue strategies on their audiences, in small increments – by introducing a (scandalous) royalty sharing agreement, by increasing the amount of advertising on artists’ pages, and even introducing ad revenue sharing for artists. I suppose none of these efforts eventually generated sufficient revenue to sustain it as a viable division within CBS.

Whatever. Not my problem anymore. Everything in the Simulacre catalogue (A Spectre Is Haunting Europe, Dupobs, and a few new as-yet-unannounced projects) will still be available on other free music-capable platforms (including the mighty Reverbnation, but I’ll go scoping out more of them). And of course, up until March 30 (when Last.fm formally implements its subscription fees in most countries), you’re still free to download any of our music for free there, chat about it, and suchlike. After that, those conversations contained on last.fm (really the glue that binds its circulation structure together) will necessarily have to migrate with us.

Indeed, it seems it does matter who owns what in Music 2.0.

At least CBS doesn’t own me (a government and a few banks do, but that’s another story).

The PhD – the comprehensive exams

So I’m diving straight into my comprehensives now. I’m building lists and checking them twice (and more). While building these reading lists is in many ways a very personal journey, I’ve decided to blog about the process so that I might get feedback from unexpected locales, harnessing the “wisdom of crowds” (while simultaneously, in both comp areas, critiquing how such “wisdom” is in fact problematic). I also hope that documenting the process can help others through it. I won’t be posting my full notes (who’d read them?), but I will share my definitional essays, my questions and answers, and an account of process along the way. I’ve written up preliminary préces of my two exam areas below.

Area 1. Science and Technology Studies. This will involve SCOT, ANT and other critical theories, but it will also dovetail through Philosophy of Technology (I’m thinking Heidegger through Marcuse and Feenberg, and also including Ellul and others, perhaps a few off the beaten track – we’ll see). I want to ask questions through this literature about the relationship of technology, power and social organization/social change. There are also some intriguing connections with Area 2 (below) via Hennion/Latour (their work on culture industries), and, according to one of my advisors, Habermas’ Public Sphere as well as Lazarsfeld.

Area 2. Culture Industries/Sociology of (The) Art(s). Starting with Hesmondhalgh’s (2002) synthesis of political economy of media studies with cultural studies and other approaches to the sociology of art, I plan to broaden this area out to include American and Continental approaches to the study of cultural/creative industries. This will likely include a range of approaches, including Bourdieu (various), Becker (various), and DeNora’s more recent work, but this area is still under development. There are important connections to literature on occupations (Balfe, Latouche) organizational studies (Throsby, Sacco, Menger), and of course The Frankfurts. Essentially, as I told one of my advisors this morning, I want to survey the body of work that theorizes culture industries, without limiting myself to a particular tradition (as approaches vary broadly). Keep in mind that I wish to keep this area current, as well, and as such I will need to make room for Eglash’s (and others’) work on appropriation, as well as Jenkins’ (and others’) work on fan culture. Sprawling enough? It makes sense to me.

My advisors, colleagues and friends (as well as the “social web” hoi polloi) can feel free to jump in any time. Like you have any time.

Single Sign-On and Content Aggregation: a Preliminary Analysis of their Potential in Facilitating Progressive Social Change

What is the relation between the technology of single sign-on and community mobilization?

There are two approaches to – or models for – the twin issues of convenience and security in our current era of mass content browsing: (1) single sign-on (OpenID, MicroID) and (2) content aggregation (Jaiku, Pageflakes, Readr). Both solve certain problems in terms of managing content communities and users. There is no reason why either model cannot be employed to accomplish the same goal of mobilizing and invigorating communities – politically, culturally, environmentally, socially, and so on. Essentially, both approaches enable the construction of activity streams that users can publish, share, syndicate, and read.

There are crucial differences between these two approaches, though, which bear implications for their social deployment. Single sign-on puts users in a position to conveniently sign up for numerous applications and web services with the same ID (reducible to an email address, URL, or phone number), while content aggregation streams users’ many different accounts into a single location, giving them the freedom to import and export feeds from other sites (ranging from the lightweight Jaiku to the sprawling, all-encompassing Facebook).

The two models differ by degree. The amount of “in-house” functionality offered in content aggregating services makes a crucial difference in the ways in which these technologies are adopted – their bias, of sorts. Whereas OpenID simply authenticates “who you are”, Facebook more intensively mediates self representation by deploying its own services (messaging, mobile updates, profile pages, and so on), and by inviting developers to build little gates into its fenced (though not quite walled) content garden.

Facebook is also letting developers decorate the place with garden gnomes and suchlike. It is worth considering the potential negative implications of development solely for one corporately-owned platform, either presumptively (Facebook) or retroactively via buyouts (Google’s approach, e.g., their recent purchase of Jaiku). As a sidebar, these represent more systemic problems on the horizon of social networking and social change – the traditionally uneven political economy of the information economy, which keeps growing its corporate heads back like a hydra, no matter what utopian promises are being made at any given time by any particular indie widget pusher. But I’ll save that discussion for a later time. Here I am concerned strictly with considering which of two technical models might be more specifically appropriate for the function of enabling social change via open content and communications.

Ultimately the Facebook model (fenced in web within a web) will fail in competition with services that leverage the myriad multiple devices and software platforms that currently populate the growing mobile technical ecosystem. With no clear standard for operating systems on mobile phones, there is much work to be done to enable everyone to talk to everyone else. On the other hand, application developers have an immense opportunity to build tools that facilitate syndication and sharing over thousands of different mobile devices and networks – and crucially, in effective community mobilization crossing boundaries of culture, geography, and social class, this involves devices that range from iPhones and Nokia N-series computers down to the lowest tier SMS-capable phone. Given this variability, the argument for an authentication protocol that is as much as possible only that – an authentication protocol – and not an “environment” like Facebook (a web within a web), is more palpably constructive, in terms of bridging divides.

Where the goals are social, cultural, and political, primarily – mobilizing communities to create and share mobile generated content with the underlying aim of improving people’s lives in tangible, measurable ways – this can take many forms. The definition of “community”, or the definition of the user group is crucial here. For instance, a mobile web services platform can accelerate citizen activism (sousveillance of arrests and/or protests, which has proven highly effective in providing a limited “fourth estate” that keeps police, government officials and other powerful entities in check, a count on which traditional mass media has failed miserably). Mobile web services can also help invigorate communities of independent musicians and music audiences, providing platforms for content and fan-artist-remix interactions on-the-go. And, mobile web services can enhance and amplify existing community cultural infrastructure, something Mobile Muse 3 specifically aims to accomplish with its development of projects in partnership with cultural organizations around Vancouver and the Province of B.C. For all these instances, single sign-on and content aggregation provide good models for coordinating clouds of user data generated into a navigable, mappable semantic space.

There are other models of community media, however, that call into question the viability of single sign-on, and that point to content aggregation as the better model. In particular, there are two: contexts where identities are divisible, and contexts where identities are combinant.

Combinant identities
In many rural communities in the Third World, mobile devices are shared – by couples, by families, and in some cases by entire villages. In cases where the intent is to distribute and share not only the software – along with the text, images, audio and video carried over the mobile media service – but also the hardware (the phones), single sign-on poses complex problems. How do multiple users properly authenticate on a shared wireless account/phone number? How could a single phone be configured to accept multiple accounts? Obviously, swapping SIM cards doesn’t get around the problem, as this necessitates the purchasing of multiple wireless accounts. In Vancouver’s downtown east side, for instance, how would a shared mobile infrastructure (including shared handsets) work? Wi-fi phones – such as Nokia N-series phones – are only a partial answer, as wireless internet is not (yet) ubiquitous in Vancouver, and effective use of mobile browsers is not enabled by the current applications available for N-series phones or their competitors. In short, a combination of protocols (SMS, MMS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi) are the best bet – enabling as many connections – both free and paid, both easy and challenging – as possible.

Divisible Identities
The second scenario in which single sign-on fails is where users deliberately maintain multiple identities within the same or different sites or environments. Youth and marginal and/or vulnerable populations may require these multiple identities in order to manage the diverse range of social contexts they must occupy in order to survive (for example, keeping family, friends, work, and school distinct even if overlapping).

There is also a third possible area of identity management (a mashup of divisible and combinant, if you will) that comes into view in the present analysis – the recombinant identity – particularly important in a (post- or non-modern) world of dynamically shifting alliances and antipathies – where identity may be continually shifted to accommodate a diverse range of individual and (recombinant) group needs and goals. Here, too, the notion of single sign-on cannot compete with the contextual flexibility afforded by the model of content aggregation.

As a structuring model for the development of community mobile services, single sign-on is problematic in terms of how it reduces individuals to indivisible and noncombinant entities. Content aggregation seems to be a far more viable model for community building and mobilization, as it is adaptable to a wider range of social and cultural contexts – in which identity may be conceived in different ways, or in which it may simply manifest in technical networks in different ways due to the exigencies of human survival.

Technical Micropolitics and Musical Amateurs

I presented at AOIR today as part of a panel on Music and Sound. Here’s the PDF of my talk, complete with notes.

I did this with an extreme headache, and a growing sense that I need to, as my friend and colleague Flo articulated it the other day, “coccoon” myself in books again for a while. Assez des conférences maintenant!

4S, Montreal

Production-consumption continuumI’m blogging this from the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) conference in Montréal. We (Roy Bendor, Jack Post, Peter-Paul Verbeek and I) just completed our panel on Bruno Latour (“Translating Latour”) and I’m now in a very interesting panel about “Problematizing Technological Appropriation”. My first impression is that it’s a great complement to my presentation on digital music and Latour/Hennion, which I’ve attached as a PDF here (PDF, 364 K, with notes!).

The theoretical work around appropriation has really flowered since I first stepped into this space in 2004. It’s interesting – and reassuring – to witness so many theorists constructing diagrams of production/consumption that echo, build upon, and totally dwarf in profundity the one I first proposed then (at right). I’m referring to the work of Ron Eglash – who has constructed a continuum of production and consumption that accounts for appropriation, power and marginality. Cool stuff – I should be reading this.

Other than that, I’m running on a third wave of sleep denial therapy induced by (1) a sleepless redeye flight on the same day I taught for a ten hour day, (2) compressed conference schedule (2 within 2 weeks), and (3) baby’s sleeping schedule. I’ll sleep after my head is over-full with musings on the ethics of cloning, toppling streetcars in the 19th century, the programmable web, Yahoo Pipes and postphenomenology. What dreams may come?

U.S. Justice Department values ISPs over people

Ah, I see the baldfaced ignorance of an administration that invades Afghanistan and Iraq has trickled into the sphere of Internet regulation as well (Thanks to Flo for pointing me here).. To wit:

“Regulators should be careful not to impose regulations that could limit consumer choice and investment in broadband facilities” (Thomas Barnett, US Justice Department).

I’m imagining the frightful amount of cognitive dissonance it requires to make such a statement without laughing. The real problem is, of course, with ISPs imposing regulations that limit choice and investment in the information economy. This is not to say that investment and choice are the terms on which I would defend Net Neutrality per se, but you get the idea; anyone who wishes to defend it on these terms could do so very easily. This is classic U.S. conservatism – contradicting both intelligence and public opinion in the interest of affirming an industry’s right to remain concentrated in as few hands as possible.

I fear we might be next for the chop.

Ex-Perry Mental Geekery

Nice to be back in the swim of things. I just put a final report out the door on a research project that I’d been working on for 14 months. It was a difficult project – one that didn’t always go as planned, that got intermittently sidelined by other events in my life (buying an apartment, having a first baby), and included a whole feeling of responsibility and guilt unlike any other research project I’d ever worked on. More than anything, it was in a research area worlds away from poopular (yes, I mean poopular, it’s not just the baby talking) music, which is my number one research passion.

I’m not going to divulge any more details about that project here (details of it will soon be published elsewhere), but your takeaway from the above blurb should be that now that the project’s done, much more of my time can be devoted to my work in music and my work in mobile – both of which are central themes of this blog.

To wit, I’m TAing a 3rd year course in popular music studies this semester, and the gearing up is invigorating. We’re doing something of an experimental “taste laboratory” of sorts on Last.fm. I’ve invited the 76 students in the class to join so we can have some healthy backchannel in a music-rich environment. We’ll be sticking to the books and lectures in tutorial, but I figured having this optional addon for students who are so inclined can be instructive, and perhaps give some students some concrete experience with which to grapple whilst reading Hebdige, Attali, Adorno, McRobbie, and others (PS – I didn’t design the reading list, so if you have a problem with it, take it up with the Sessional).

The other thing I’m diving into now is a short ethnographic study (yes, the third in a series) of mobile phone use, using the Nokia 95. I’ve been playing with one of them for a couple of days now, and I am quite impressed with its ergonomic design. Something about this phone feels just alright, as Lou Reed would say. However, the phone keeps crashing when using the built in photo gallery app. Looking for a workaround.

Oh, and of course, there’s the upcoming AOIR, which I’m helping out with (and presenting at).

I’ll be keeping you posted.