Saturday, June 27, 2009


(Wheatpaste remix rendering of Michael Jackson, above, photographed by Ivan Corsa in Manhattan's Soho district and uploaded to on November 6, 2008. The image is being shared widely today across the blogosphere via Flickr, Twitter, and other forms of social media)

Excerpt from a Friday post by Fast Company blogger Clay Dillow:
"Upon rumors of Michael Jackson's death in Los Angeles, fans flocked to the Web for confirmation, resulting in an avalanche of searches, Tweets, and page views that crashed Google and brought Twitter to a standstill as the number of Tweets per second doubled in an instant. The online fiasco was a fitting testament to Jackson's legacy: He was beyond famous. Michael Jackson: He played the Berlin Wall. He invented Pop. He beat the rap. He crashed Google."

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Media

Michael Jackson died today. ["He had a YouTube account, featuring his innovative music videos, but the embedding on those videos has been disabled," says's Liz Shannon Miller.] Jackson's videos were among the first to "go viral" on the Web. Here is a reminder of why they did, with thanks to Miller for her post and shared selection, below:

A live performance from 1988 of Man in the Mirror:

A clip from the Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary Celebration, an improbable duet with Britney Spears on The Way You Make Me Feel:

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fishbowl 2.0

At last week's 140 Character Conference in Manhattan, Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey told attendees that when he was 15, he tinkered with real-time visualizations of the world; one of his first computer models was of New York City. He plotted the real-time movements of couriers, transit buses, emergency service vehicles, and taxis.

"I followed where they were right at that moment, and what they were doing. As a visualization, it allowed the city of New York to feel very, very small because suddenly, I could see the individual humans that made that city work and function. I never felt closer to a large organization than I did when I saw this on the screen. The next time I felt that was not too long ago, during a speech Barack Obama gave after his first 100 days in office. He was giving a speech and people were updating [their tweets] while he was talking. I never felt closer to my government, never felt it was more approachable, smaller, or more human than in that moment— and it was because I was seeing the inner-most thoughts of people typically placed on top of a pedestal. Those same people suddenly now were on the same level as I was. The transparency that brought to this conversation and to the process of democracy was amazing to me—eye-opening—and it was all unfolding in real-time right in front of me. The transformative power of seeing up close not just how a city works but how government works and how we can participate in the thoughts and actions of the people who comprise our government is huge."

[An hour after Dorsey took the #140conf stage, political blogger Maegan Carberry suggested —much like Andrew Rasiej did a month earlier, at a panel I moderated in Los Angeles about the power of social media—that social media and the self-organized groups they are spawning have begun to destabilize politics-as-usual.]

Can social media help to make a better world—in Iran or anywhere else? Dorsey, for his part, won't speculate. But he urges citizen vigilance as Twitter evolves. “We have this brand new tool and it’s an iteration of many tools we’ve used in the past but now it’s a tool to help us in this experiment in democracy," Dorsey says. "But where are we taking this? What are we doing with this technology? What are we building?"

(Illustration by Tony Soh for

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Now Media

Amid Iran's continuing protests, much is being said about the “state of now”—what happens to the speed of change when it’s possible to share real-time information and cellphone videos with anyone around the world about major events as they occur. "Now media"—cellphones, the Web, Facebook and Twitter—are redefining what it means to be civically engaged.

“That a new information technology—[so-called “now media” such as Twitter, cellphones, mobile vlogs]—could be improvised for this purpose so swiftly is a sign of the times,” blogger Andrew Sullivan gushed in his recent post, The Revolution Will be Twittered, about the public demonstrations in Iran challenging the outcome of Iran's June 12 presidential election. “ …You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before.” Political blogger Maegan Carberry, meanwhile, told last week’s 140 Character Conference in Manhattan, the nation’s first all-things-Twitter thoughtfest, that “social media are pushing us into an era of post-partisanship,” where political parties become far less important because group-to-group communication helps people to self-identify common goals. Says NYU new media professor Clay Shirky, "We are living through the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.” The surge of Twitterized news reporting out of Iran, he says, has made the Iranian uprising historically unprecedented. “This is it. The big one,” he told TED interviewers. "This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.” [And Twitter, of all social media, is having impact at the moment because authorities have not yet found a way to shut it down completely.]

Iran, of course, isn’t the first world hotspot where social media have been used to focus global attention in a heartbeat. Cell phone videos and text-messaging by on-the-ground activists were instrumental in exposing the government corruption that was blocking foreign aid to victims of Burma's Cyclone Nargis. Social media also helped to leak word out to the world about the 2007 pro-democracy uprising by Burmese monks; the hardline censorship by Chinese authorities during last summer’s Beijing Olympics, and the extent of China's deadly 2008 earthquake —details of which, says Shirky, would have otherwise taken years to go public.

But whoa, Nellie. While Iran is showing us, again, that social media can—in rocket speed—expose the undercurrents of dissent and the underbelly of corruption in sometimes shocking detail, these tools have not yet been able to originate mass dissent, nor drive widespread reforms, at least not yet. For every successful Net-aided protest, such as the Facebook campaign last year against FARC in Colombia, there are at least a dozen more uprisings that end when authorities shut down the Net or—as with the as-yet unmutable Twitter in Iran—track down agitators and "disappear” them, creating a chilling climate of self-censorship that all but cedes power to those abusing it.

More significant, perhaps, is the power of Twitter and other forms of social media to accelerate the rate at which events play out, regardless of outcome, and how that speed can be destabilizing, in and of itself. Jason Calacanis, the social media entrepreneur and CEO of, calls the Internet "the greatest accelerator since the advent of the written word." Speaking on a panel on social media and politics that I convened and moderated at this year's Milken Global Conference in LA, Calacanis said: "Truth gets wrestled away from the rumors more rapidly now; if you’re on the wrong side of society, you get outed in hyperspeed." Further, he said, "When you're on the wrong side of an issue, it’s very hard to be involved in an online discourse because if you are, the quicker you'll get to the inevitability of being wrong.”

Indeed, the challenge now for Web-powered activists is figuring out how to use these new tools to do more. As Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey told the 140 Character Conference's standing-room-only crowd last week: “We have this brand new tool [Twitter] to help us in this experiment in democracy, but where are we taking this? What are we doing with this technology and how are we sustaining these concepts of immediacy, approachability and transparency to open up the process of every social community from families to the largest governments in the world?”

Great question, Jack. For more debate on the power and future of social media, follow next week’s Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan, which likely will include a late-addition workshop on Iran. And for more on how social media may be already shaping the course of political history, see Clay Shirky’s recent TED talk, below:

(This post by Marcia Stepanek)
(YouTube cellphone video of Iran protesters June 20, 2009, above, courtesy BBC)

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Trucks Tweet, Too

Yup, birds do it. Trucks do it. In fact, says Kevin Slavin, founder of area/code, a geo-location firm, we’re just beginning to get interactive with all sorts of objects—Kogi taco trucks that move around LA and tweet you their locations; Nike Air Max sneakers that warn you when they’re so worn, they're hazardous to your ankles; plant sensors that tweet you when their hosts are thirsty, the wash machines in the campus Laundromat at Olin College. (“You can find out, for example, if two or four washers are available, or zero,” Slavin explains. “Saves you a trip. Tells you when your laundry is done.”) Even the River Thames is tweeting now—its water levels, to city inspection engineers.

"This matters. This isn't trivial," Slavin insisted at this week’s 140 Characters Conference in Manhattan, the first-ever, all-things-Twitter conference. He may be right. According to Gartner Research, the amount of data being tweeted by sensor-equipped objects in the world will soon become so huge that by 2012, physical sensor data will account for some 20 percent of all non-video Net traffic.

Still skeptical? Check out Project 28, the 28-mile fence of sensors being built along the Mexican border. “They will soon be tweeting law enforcement authorities about immigration leaks,” Slavin says—and not just in words. Pictures, too. Video.

What next? More Things That Tweet—from automobiles to groceries. Also, look for more trucks to get into the chatter. And don't forget about games: Shark Runner, a game created by Slavin’s firm for the Discovery Channel, staples GPS sensors into the dorsal fins of great white sharks off the coast of California and asks players to guess their next moves.

So, fellow travelers, consider this: If a tree falls in a forest in the near future, odds are it will make a sound—in the form of a tweet to a forest ranger. No kidding. The possibilities, says Slavin, are "deafening."

—Marcia Stepanek

(This post first appeared on PopTech and is being reposted here with permission)

(Photograph courtesy of Joits on Flickr)

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Remix Architecture

In architectural circles, Adam Kalkin is regarded as something of an oddball. At last fall’s CUSP design conference in Chicago, the New Jersey architect and provocateur delivered an entire lecture wearing a rubber face mask; at the installation of one of his pre-fab homes last summer at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, Kalkin included a 5:26-minute video of himself playing tennis with his mother (the video, itself, a kind of pre-fabrication of a yard). Then, this past spring, in London, Kalkin “performed” John Cage’s controversial 4’33” while holding a violin, interrupting his own, mock-version of the piece after 17 minutes with some words about his work. “Adam continues to be subversive, and subvert what architecture is supposed to be,” Alastair Gordon, a design historian, told a small group that gathered at the Municipal Art Society of New York in March to hear Kalkin speak. The topic was Kalkin’s new book, Quik Build: Adam Kalkin’s ABC of Container Architecture, a survey of 32 Kalkin projects, including Bunny Lane, the home he built for himself and his family that fits a 19th century clapboard cottage inside an industrial hanger. The book also includes Kalkin’s famous Push Button House, a furnished room that unfolds from a shipping container with hydraulic walls. [Check out the video, here.]

But to call Kalkin subversive misses the point. Consider this artist one of the most daring remix artists now pushing at the edges of today’s data-rich culture. Where online satire now has remixer Andrew Fillipone [Charlie Rose by Samuel Beckett] and new-wave graphic art has Shepard Fairey [poster remix artist and creator of the iconic Obama Hope poster], architecture has Kalkin. “Some of the remix stuff is amazing,” says Kalkin, who buys surplus shipping containers from the ports of New Jersey for $1,500 to $2,000 each, then remixes and upcycles them into high-end glamour projects like the 12-container, $500,000 Adriance House in northern Maine and Kalkin House at Vermont’s Shelbourne Museum to a new, 12-story, midrise condo project in downtown Salt Lake City.

Sure, Kalkin isn’t the only person using shipping containers to create inexpensive, recyclable housing: Lot-Ek, for one, began offering recycled containers a decade ago as an alternative to chrome-and-glass modernism. But Kalkin is, by far, the most imaginative of the container architects—if not the most philosophical. “I have a fascination with ambiguity…with bending the rules,” says Kalkin, who studied philosophy and linguistics as an undergraduate, specializing in the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein. “In my work, what I like about the use of shipping containers in that it affords a chance to successfully play with people’s expectations and violate their sense of expectation to create surprises. That’s neurologically how we derive pleasure from music; I think it’s the same operation here, with these Quik House projects. The result is so convincing and so exclamatory and so surprising and, like, Whoa! It is all kind of wonderful because of that.”

Kalkin’s love of re-contextualization also is obvious in his lectures: at CUSP in Chicago last fall, he shared one of his favorite examples of remix from the world of entertainment—60s crooner Paul Anka’s rendering of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Anka doesn’t simply “cover” the Nirvana hit, Kalkin says. “It’s a perfectly unexpected corollary to the grunge thing. Cobain would have never been caught in the same universe as Paul Anka but here’s this orbital leap that works so well when joined that it’s beautiful”—kind of like what Kalkin attempts with his work: new visual and structural dialogues between the old and the new; the organic and synthetic, between one set of ideas and another.

While the downturned economy has all but put a stop to Kalkin’s high-end creations [a recent project to build a Unitarian Church out of containers was dropped, along with some pricey renovations involving some brownstones in Manhattan] the low-rise economy has begun celebrating his work: he was recently asked to build 50 units of affordable container housing in Newark, not far from the docks that supply his stash of materials. And Kalkin is especially excited that his drawing-board designs for refugee dwellings in New Orleans and Afghanistan, featured in his new book, are also getting renewed attention. “In rich countries, containers are constantly going out filled with stuff to places that don’t have stuff or that don’t have anything to ship back, so these containers end up stuck there, as a kind of scrap,” Kalkin says. “There’s an economic asymmetry that makes sure you always have these dead-ends and backlogs of these containers, and they’re usually in economically disadvantaged areas where housing is scarce to begin with. So it actually works, by some mistaken formula, that these things end up in poor areas. The possibilities are terribly exciting."

—Marcia Stepanek

(This post first appeared on PopTech and is being reposted here with permission)

(Photograph of Adam Kalkin's shipping container house: Peter Aaron/Esto)

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Reality Mining

A few years ago, MIT media arts professor Alex Pentland distributed one hundred Nokia cell phones to students and faculty. Each was equipped with software that let Pentland’s team map the social interactions of the people carrying the phones. They tracked some 130,000 interactions, including calls, text messages and the proximity of the devices to each other, as measured by Bluetooth.

The goal: to learn about the behaviors of social networks and the types of people who influence their dynamics the most. “We weren’t able to measure this stuff at such a large scale before smart phones,” says Pentland, the author of the recent book, Honest Signals, and the chief of the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT. “By using data from mobile phones, electronic ID badges, or digital media—what I call ‘honest signals’—we can create a God’s-eye view of how people in organizations interact,” Pentland says. "We can even see the rhythms of interaction for everyone in a city.” Mining mobile data this way would be useful, he says, for tracking such things as flu outbreaks and traffic patterns. (See video here)

Pentland calls this new field of dynamic data “reality mining.” Along with Columbia University Chief Scientist Tony Jebara and a half-dozen other location-awareness technologists and researchers, Pentland co-founded Manhattan-based startup Sense Networks a couple of years ago to make commercial use of the data: the company’s Citysense application for iPhones and BlackBerries is one of the company’s first commercial applications of the research. For now, it’s a free download that shows which areas of San Francisco are the No. 1 hotspots for nightlife—where most people are going or gathering at any given time.

“Half of the people in the world have cell phones and are creating data, tons of it now,” says Sense CEO and Co-founder Greg Skibiski. “This data, in a few years, will be the lingua franca of the entire planet about how people move around globally. We believe location data is the best descriptor of who is a human being.” Adds Pentland: “The motion detectors in your iPhone, for example, know if you’re sitting or walking. Web 2.0 stuff is nice but reality-mining is different.”

To be sure, reality mining raises red flags among privacy advocates. Writer Howard Rheingold says: "The same technology that could let you know if a good Chinese restaurant or old friend is in the vicinity could also betray your location to a totalitarian government, neighborhood spammers, and your vindictive ex-spouse.”

But that's why Pentland and Sense Networks are now pushing what they call a New Deal on Data —an informal privacy pact for the mobile Net set that Pentland unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year. “People always say, what about my privacy? But what if privacy can go beyond that? Pentland queries. "Like what about data ownership?” The New Deal on Data, Skibiski says, is based on old English common law tenets that give indivdiuals the right of poessession, use, and disposal. "If you’re a company and you're keeping people's location data, your customers should own their own data and have a say over whether they should be destroyed. It's something we all [in the geo-location industry] should be working towards.”

But are they? So far, says Skibiski, MySpace adheres to it and Facebook is considering it. Nokia, which is working with movie theaters in geo-location experiments to measure theater attendance patterns, also supports the proposal. “There’s a need for some guidance here, absolutely, so as to protect against abuse—but most companies get it, I think," says McDowell, who is leading a Nokia experiment for Remax, the real estate company, to enable people to point their iPhones at a house that’s for sale and get information about its dimensions. “I don’t want to know if you’re visiting your girlfriend," she says. "I just want to know if you are driving down the highway at a certain speed so I can predict traffic flows in a region.”

For more on the new world of geo-location services, check out Mathew Honan’s recent take for Wired on the promise and the perils of context-aware devices.

—Marcia Stepanek

(This post first appeared on PopTech and is being reposted here with permission)

(Illustration by AskinTulayOver for

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Open Source Politics

Ever since Barack Obama’s strategic use of social media in the last election, people have begun to realize the Internet is reshaping politics—but it’s not just about bringing more young people out to the polls. A panel of thought leaders on social networking in the political world that I convened and moderated at the recent Milken Institute Global Conference 2009 in Los Angeles agreed that social media and the self-organized groups they are spawning have already begun to destabilize the political system, itself.

“Every medium has a signature and for television, it is image. For the Internet, it’s the ability to converse,” said Jason Calacanis, a Net entrepreneur and cofounder and CEO of “…Clearly, Obama is better suited for this medium; Democrats and more libertarian people are more suited for it, too. The Net represents a very bad trend for conservatives because they tend to have more extreme, intolerant, non-conversational positions on things. They tend not to do so well online because they can’t converse. The whole point of the Internet is to discuss it, fight it, to have a whole threaded message. The winners of elections now will be the ones able to keep the conversation going and to engage the largest number of people. You have this massive paradigm shift occurring right now, between people who can converse and those not willing to do so. It sort of transcends politics and gets into something even more Socratic in nature.”

Mindy Finn, whose Washington, D.C.-based political strategy firm, Engage, advises Republican candidates, says her firm won’t work with candidates who aren’t philosophically or naturally skewed toward online collaboration and the wisdom of the crowd. “There are certain candidates, frankly, who have come to us and we don’t tell them straight out why we are not going to work with them—but we won’t because we know they’re not going to be successful online,” she said. “They ask me, did we lose because of the Internet? I respond with a big fat no. People didn’t lose because of the Internet. They lost because they were seen as being out of touch…and not understanding the way that people are communicating now via the Internet and via mobile and in groups.”

But the GOP didn’t have a monopoly on social media illiteracy this past election. Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and PopTech Advisory board member, said Hillary Clinton stumbled with a video called Hillary and the Band, an unsuccessful response to the famous video made by Obama’s supporters and this one, Dear Mr. President, made by the supporters of John McCain. “In the beginning of the Hillary video, there was this one throw-away line, a young man who says, ‘The blogs went crazy.’ No 25-year-old would ever say the blogs went crazy. Only a 55-year-old writing a script —writing what he or she thinks a 25-year-old would say—would write a line like that.” The result: the video became a “punching bag example” of inauthenticity and online illiteracy, “an effort by a political candidate to try to mold the message to an erroneous perception of what the audience is and how it communicates.” Added Scott Goodstein, a mobile Internet expert who worked on the Obama campaign’s new media team: “When Hillary’s campaign consultants said it looked like the Obama campaign resembled the face of Facebook, the thing they didn’t understand is that the fastest growing segment of Facebook right now is over-50 women. And the Barack Obama Facebook group has doubled since the campaign. People want information.”

But the social media lessons about blogs and mobile engagement that surfaced out of the past election, panelists agreed, will seem small compared to the changes that lie ahead. Far more significantly, panelists agreed, the Web is accelerating civic discourse to speeds that traditional politicians will find hard to match. The Web, they said, is already threatening to render some of the ways in which we currently govern obsolete.

Example: The citizen group called One Million Voices Against FARC, a Facebook group which organized a grassroots campaign in February 2008 to repudiate FARC guerrillas, empowering more than 12 million people to take to the streets in some 190 cities around the world. “We are living in a post-partisan era in which social media tools are allowing people to find the interests they care about the most,” Rasiej said. “People will be able to find each other faster than they will be led by political parties and political movements, and this has already begun to change the political dynamics of the entire planet. Applying technology to politics and expecting it to stay the same is like applying technology to the record industry and expecting it to stay the same. It doesn’t happen that way.

“…I predict that in 40 or 50 years, we won’t have Congress as we know it today,” Rasiej added, saying the ecosystem of how we identify people to lead us is changing dramatically. “Wikipedia is a great example of our new kinds of representatives, people who have built reputations because they know a great deal about one subject or another and have been identified by the crowd as knowing more than others about a subject. If you think about how our Constitution works and how our Congress works, it’s oriented around the fact that we elected these people because they are supposed to get into details and understand the issues that matter to us more than we do. But the reality is that they spend 95% of their time raising money just to keep themselves in office and actually don’t know more about the issues than we do. These new social media tools are going to create a new set of dynamics where we’re going to be able to identify the people who know the most about the issues that matter to us faster than our elections are going to be able to elect them.”

For more on politics and technology, check out the schedule for this year's Personal Democracy Forum, called, to be held June 29 and 30 in Manhattan.

—Marcia Stepanek

(This post first appeared on PopTech and is being reposted here with permission):

(Photomosaic image by tsevis via Flickr)

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