Some links I thought worth reading the past few days

  • Peter Rukavina pointed me to this excellent posting on voting, in the context of violence as a state monopoly and how that vote contributes to violence. It’s this type of long form blogging that I often find so valuable as it shows you the detailed reasoning of the author. Where on FB or Twitter would you find such argumentation, and how would it ever surface in a algorithmic timeline? Added Edward Hasbrouck to my feedreader : The Practical Nomad blog: To vote, or not to vote?
  • This quote is very interesting. Earlier in the conversation Stephen Downes mentions “networks are grown, not constructed”. (true for communities too). Tanya Dorey adds how from a perspective of indigenous or other marginalised groups ‘facts’ my be different, and that arriving a truth therefore is a process: “For me, “truth growing” needs to involve systems, opportunities, communities, networks, etc. that cause critical engagement with ideas, beliefs and ways of thinking that are foreign, perhaps even contrary to our own. And not just on the content level, but embedded within the fabric of the system et al itself.“: A conversation during on truth, data, networks and graphs.
  • This article has a ‘but’ title, but actually is a ‘yes, and’. Saying ethics isn’t enough because we also need “A society-wide debate on values and on how we want to live in the digital age” is saying the same thing. The real money quote though is “political parties should be able to review technology through the lens of their specific world-views and formulate political positions accordingly. A party that has no position on how their values relate to digital technology or the environment cannot be expected to develop any useful agenda for the challenges we are facing in the 21st century.” : Gartner calls Digital Ethics a strategic trend for 2019 – but ethics are not enough
  • A Dutch essay on post-truth. Says it’s not the end of truth that’s at issue but rather that everyone claims it for themselves. Pits Foucault’s parrhesia, speaking truth to power against the populists : Waarheidsspreken in tijden van ‘post-truth’: Foucault, ‘parrèsia’ en populisme
  • When talking about networked agency and specifically resilience, increasingly addressing infrastructure dependencies gets important. When you run decentralised tools so that your instance is still useful when others are down, then all of a sudden your ISP and energy supplier are a potential risk too: | a disaster-resilient communications network powered by the sun
  • On the amplification of hate speech. It’s not about the speech to me, but about the amplification and the societal acceptability that signals, and illusion of being mainstream it creates: Opinion | I Thought the Web Would Stop Hate, Not Spread It
  • One of the essential elements of the EU GDPR is that it applies to anyone having data about EU citizens. As such it can set a de facto standard globally. As with environmental standards market players will tend to use one standard, not multiple for their products, and so the most stringent one is top of the list. It’s an element in how data is of geopolitical importance these days. This link is an example how GDPR is being adopted in South-Africa : Four essential pillars of GDPR compliance
  • A great story how open source tools played a key role in dealing with the Sierra Leone Ebola crisis a few years ago: How Open Source Software Helped End Ebola – iDT Labs – Medium
  • This seems like a platform of groups working towards their own networked agency, solving issues for their own context and then pushing them into the network: GIG – we are what we create together
  • An article on the limits on current AI, and the elusiveness of meaning: Opinion | Artificial Intelligence Hits the Barrier of Meaning

From the recent posting on Mastodon and it currently lacking a long tail, I want to highlight a specific notion, and that’s why I am posting it here separately. This is the notion that tool usage having a long tail is a measure of distribution, and as such a proxy for networked agency. [A long tail is defined as the bottom 80% of certain things making up over 50% of a ‘market’. The 80% least sold books in the world make up more than 50% of total book sales. The 80% smallest Mastodon instances on the other hand account for less than 15% of all Mastodon users, so it’s not a long tail].

To me being able to deploy and control your own tools (both technology and methods), as a small group of connected individuals, is a source of agency, of empowerment. I call this Networked Agency, as opposed to individual agency. Networked also means that running your own tool is useful in itself, and even more useful when connected to other instances of the same tool. It is useful for me to have this blog even if I am its only reader, but my blog is even more useful to me because it creates conversations with other bloggers, it creates relationships. That ‘more useful when connected’ is why distributed technology is important. It allows you to do your own thing while being connected to the wider world, but you’re not dependent on that wider world to be able to do your own thing.

Whether a technology or method supports a distributed mode, in other words is an important feature to look for when deciding to use it or not. Another aspect is the threshold to adoption of such a tool. If it is too high, it is unlikely that people will use it, and the actual distribution will be very low, even if in theory the tools support it. Looking at the distribution of usage of a tool is then a good measure of success of a tool. Are more people using it individually or in small groups, or are more people using it in a centralised way? That is what a long tail describes: at least 50% of usage takes place in the 80% of smallest occurrences.

In June I spoke at State of the Net in Trieste, where I talked about Networked Agency. One of the issues raised there in response was about scale, as in “what you propose will never scale”. I interpreted that as a ‘centralist’ remark, and not a ‘distributed’ view, as it implied somebody specific would do the scaling. In response I wrote about the ‘invisible hand of networks‘:

“Every node in a network is a scaler, by doing something because it is of value to themselves in the moment, changes them, and by extension adding themselves to the growing number of nodes doing it. Some nodes may take a stronger interest in spreading something, convincing others to adopt something, but that’s about it. You might say the source of scaling is the invisible hand of networks.”

In part it is a pun on the ‘invisible hand of markets’, but it is also a bit of hand waving, as I don’t actually had precise notions of how that would need to work at the time of writing. Thinking about the long tail that is missing in Mastodon, and thus Mastodon not yet building the distributed social networking experience that Mastodon is intended for, allows me to make the ‘invisible hand of networks’ a bit more visible I think.

If we want to see distributed tools get more traction, that really should not come from a central entity doing the scaling. It will create counter-productive effects. Most of the Mastodon promotion comes from the first few moderators that as a consequence now run large de-facto centralised services, where 77% of all participants are housed on 0,7% (25 of over 3400) of servers. In networks smartness needs to be at the edges goes the adagium, and that means that promoting adoption needs to come from those edges, not the core, to extend the edges, to expand the frontier. In the case of Mastodon that means the outreach needs to come from the smallest instances towards their immediate environment.

Long tail forming as an adoption pattern is a good way then to see if broad distribution is being achieved.
Likely elements in promoting from the edge, that form the ‘invisible hand of networks’ doing the scaling are I suspect:

  • Show and tell, how one instance of tool has value to you, how connected instances have more value
  • Being able to explain core concepts (distribution, federation, agency) in contextually meaningful ways
  • Being able to explain how you can discover others using the same tool, that you might want to connect to
  • Lower thresholds of adoption (technically, financially, socially, intellectually)
  • Reach out to groups and people close to you (geographically, socially, intellectually), that you think would derive value from adoption. Your contextual knowledge is key to adoption.
  • Help those you reach out to set up their own tools, or if that is still too hard, ‘take them in’ and allow them the use of your own tools (so they at least can experience if it has value to them, building motivation to do it themselves)
  • Document and share all you do. In Bruce Sterling’s words: it’s not experimenting if you’re not publishing about it.

An adoption-inducing setting: Frank Meeuwsen explaining his steps in leaving online silos like Facebook, Twitter, and doing more on the open web. In our living room, during my wife’s birthday party.

Slate saw their traffic from Facebook drop by 87% in a year after changes in how FB prioritises news and personal messages in your timeline. Talking Points Memo reflects on it and doing so formulates a few things I find of interest.

TPM writes:
Facebook is a highly unreliable company. We’ve seen this pattern repeat itself a number of times over the course of company’s history: its scale allows it to create whole industries around it depending on its latest plan or product or gambit. But again and again, with little warning it abandons and destroys those businesses.” …”Google operates very, very differently.”..”Yet TPM gets a mid-low 5-figure check from Google every month for the ads we run on TPM through their advertising services. We get nothing from Facebook.”..”Despite being one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world Facebook still has a lot of the personality of a college student run operation, with short attention spans, erratic course corrections and an almost total indifference to the externalities of its behavior.

This first point I think is very much about networks and ecosystems, do you see others as part of your ecosystem or merely as a temporary leg-up until you can ditch them or dump externalities on.

The second point TPM makes is about visitors versus ‘true audience’.
“we are also seeing a shift from a digital media age of scale to one based on audience. As with most things in life, bigger is, all things being equal, better. But the size of a publication has no necessary connection to its profitability or viability.” It’s a path to get to a monopoly that works for tech (like FB) but not for media, the author Josh Marshall says. “…the audience era is vastly better for us than the scale era”

Audience, or ‘true audience’ as TPM has it, are the people who have a long time connection to you, who return regularly to read articles. The ones you’re building a connection with, for which TPM, or any newsy site, is an important node in their network. Scaling there isn’t about the numbers, although numbers still help, but the quality of those numbers and the quality of what flows through the connections between you and readers. The invisible hand of networks more than trying to get ever more eye-balls.

Scale thinking would make blogging like I do useless, network thinking makes it valuable, even if there are just 3 readers, myself included. It’s ‘small b’ blogging as Tom Critchlow wrote a few months ago. “Small b blogging is learning to write and think with the network“. Or as I usually describe it: thinking out loud, and having distributed conversations around it. Big B blogging, Tom writes, in contrast “is written for large audiences. Too much content on the web is designed for scale” and pageviews, where individual bloggers seem to mimick mass media companies. Because that is the only example they encounter.