The human search engine

I’m working my way through danah boyd’s recent book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens and really enjoy it.  It describes the Internet in a way that feels like it actually is, situated somewhere between our worst fears, and highest aspirations for technology.  Framing youth through their use of social media also serves to forefront broader dynamics affecting the lives of young people.

In challenging the idea of universally high levels of youth literacy and agency with technology, boyd makes the observation that both youth and adults often have skewed notions of trust around Internet information sources. A simplified version of the observation is this: information users demonize Wikipedia articles and deify Google search results.

Boyd says, one reason for the trust in Google’s results over information in Wikipedia is the idea that an algorithm lacks the bias of human authors or editors.  Young people often lack an educational background that lets them understand how bias also exists in software and that ultimately leads to skills for critical consumption of any Internet information, regardless of the source.

Living with two teenagers, I often see how research projects are not engaging or exciting and how choosing sources feels like a process guided by confusing, unfounded rules rather than critical thinking.

This made me wonder, what would an activity look like that helps participants think critically about information on the Internet and better understand the technology that delivers it? I sketched this idea out, which I call “The Human Search Engine”.

The human search engine

Shout out: this is largely inspired by FreeGeek Chicago’s The Human Internet activity.

The idea of an algorithm is explained, possibly by having one participant or group of participants control the motion of a volunteer, robot style.

Collectively, the group brainstorms categories of good information and bad information listing these where they can all be seen.

Participants  break into smaller groups.  Each group is given or asked to find 5-10 pieces of media that would match a given search query, ideally about a topic of their choosing.

Participants then order the pieces of information in order of highest to lowest quality.  They must then consolidate their reasoning into an “algorithm” that would generalize the ranking of results in their search engine.

Finally, participants reconvene and are given another group’s search query/ results to pass through their ranking algorithm.  They rank the results and then share how their algorithm works.


  • What practices could be used to game the search engine algorithm and elevate low-quality information the ranking?
  • How would you design an algorithm to censor certain kinds of information.

Crowdsourced usage help and observations for data visualizations

This is my pitch for the Media Ideation Fellowship.

Project Description

This project would provide a platform for user-contributed usage instructions (“move the slider to the right to see the data for different years” or observations (“wow, DC has so many charter schools”) for web and print-based data visualizations. The project would help make data visualizations and their insights more accessible and provide a body of feedback for developers and journalists to create more usable visualizations. Through a public API for web applications and QR codes and short URLs for print, journalists and developers can integrate the platform into their visualizations.

What problem or issue are you trying to address with this project?

We live in a culture which increasingly fetishizes policy decisions that are “data-driven”.  From the future of publicly-funded education in Chicago to the disconnection of residents from city infrastructure in Detroit, data fills a prominent role in the discourse around issues that profoundly impact our lives. Certainly, data has always driven decision-making by policy makers and evaluation of proposals by the public, and it’s an important part of civic process. The danger is for data to take on a magical quality instead of being framed as a tool that can be used, and abused, in the service of civic problem solving. If publics are to leverage data, we must be empowered consumers of this information.


While researching information about the Chicago teachers strike, I came upon this data visualization about the growth in charter schools, I came upon this visualization:

While a careful reading of the instructions could have told me that this was a map of the US and that moving the slider shows the change in the number of charter schools over time, I just wanted to dive in and was confused. Having more human instructions that say “Hey, this is a map of the US” or “move the slider” and observations like “look how charter schools grew in D.C.  That documentary Waiting for Superman talked a lot about that” seemed like something that should exist.

Free, Link Economies and Moving From Politics to Emotion

This was originally posted on the Local Fourth blog as part of my participation in a community media innovation project at the Medill School of Journalism.

One aspect of spending so much time working on this project in Evanston is eating at a lot of Evanston restaurants. Today, the project coders went to Bat 17, which has become one of my favorite places for lunch in Evanston. Just after lunch, we had some tough conversations about how a site built on the platform we’re developing might be sustainable and why, if we’re able to drive content to local publishers sites, we don’t charge them for that privilege. One example of how another local business (one big takeaway from the Block by Block conference was that online local news sites need to convey that they’re small local businesses too) leveraged free stuff to get more business was right there, digesting away in my stomach.

Bat 17 has free coffee, not just for people stopping to eat, but for anyone who wants to stop in. Their reasoning is that people may come for the free coffee and decide to stay for lunch, or appreciating the service, come by after work or class for a few drinks. I don’t have the numbers, but it seems like a smart move because the restaurant has been full the couple of times that I’ve been there. The restaurant also makes a big deal about sourcing ingredients from other local businesses like Bennison’s Bakery.  Rather than competing in the Evanston food space, the two businesses have  a relationship that is mutually beneficial. Sourcing from Bennison’s gives Bat 17 local credibility (according to the Bat 17 website, Bennison’s has been around since the 1930s) and also drives business to Bennison’s. If local news organizations want to compete with the emerging Paneras of local news, they need to find platforms for mutual benefit in the same way that Bennison’s and Bat 17 have used sandwiches. I want to think that we’re imagining such a platform.

Another good analogy for the link economy is this YouTube video. It illustrates that part of what builds a business’ reputation isn’t just what it sells – it’s also its knowledge of who can best provide the goods or services it can’t offer.

A few weeks ago, Terri Gross interviewed John Stewart, host of “The Daily Show” on her show “Fresh Air.” Though the title of the show was “Jon Stewart: The Most Trusted Name In Fake News,” Stewart had some insightful things to say about real news:

GROSS: Did doing the show make you more political than you ever expected to be – more politically aware, more politically engaged?

Mr. STEWART: I think it made me less political and more emotional. The closer you spend time with the political and the media process, the less political you become, and the more viscerally upset you become at corruption. So its – I dont consider it political because political – I always sort of denote as a partisan endeavor.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEWART: But we have – I have become increasingly unnerved by just the depth of corruption that exists at many different levels. I’m less upset about politicians than the media. I feel like politicians, there is a certain, inherent – you know, the way I always explain it is, when you go to the zoo and a monkey throws its feces, its a monkey.

Mr. STEWART: But, when the zookeeper is standing right there, and he doesn’t say bad monkey…

Mr. STEWART: Somebody’s got to be the zookeeper. And that’s – so I tend to feel much more strongly about the abdication of responsibility by the media than by political advocates.

I found Stewart’s juxtaposition of politics and emotion particularly intriguing and it made me think of some of the comments I had read while exploring the online news ecosystem in Evanston. Many comments expressed anger, frustration or fear about things that were happening in the city, but many also seemed designed to overwhelm opposing viewpoints. People were voicing their concerns or trying to raise their pressing questions, but these perspectives where often overshadowed by the conflict, sometimes with the commentors losing their own valuable insight amidst a rant. People respond emotionally to the things that happen in their life. I think part of the media’s job should be to validate that emotional experience, but it needs to take care to not exploit it.  In his book “What is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism,” Jack Fuller even suggests that emotionally honest reporting becomes more important in an age of media overload and responding to increasingly emotional media stimuli.

The point of our platform, which drives rich context for local news through questions, concerns, answers and responses all tied to discovery from local media, isn’t to de-emotionalize people’s responses to the news in their community. Instead, by forefronting brief questions and concerns that distill responses to their most direct form, I hope the platform can validate people’s perspectives while offering a path to discovery of new information.

Whose line is it?

Over the last few weeks I’ve spoken to a number of reporters about reporting outside of their neighborhoods or experience.  One common theme that I’ve heard is the importance of using people’s own language to describe places and institutions in their communities.  Patrick Barry, a senior scribe working with LISC/Chicago, said journalists documenting community development projects had to rethink their use of language when reporting on the low-to-middle-income communities that were the focus of the organization’s New Communities Program.  Even if a reporter’s impression of a neighborhood was that it was a “bombed out ghetto,” Barry said, they needed to be aware that neighborhood residents didn’t use that language to describe their neighborhood and didn’t necessarily think of their community with such an exclusively negative framing.  “We have learned a lot from neighborhood people about how to talk about places,” Barry said.

The New York Times Magazine recently ran a story about New Orleans rappers Big Freedia and Katey Red.  The print version of the story about Freedia ran under the clever headline like “Neither Straight Nor Out of Compton” (I can’t find my copy of the magazine to confirm the exact title).   However, the web version uses the (apparently) search-engine-optimized title “Sissy Bounce, New Orleans’ Gender-Bending Rap” in the title of the web page (the text that shows at the top of one’s browser window) and “New Orleans’ Gender-Bending Rap” on the page itself.  These different versions of the title reflect, perhaps, reflect the contentious use of the term “sissy bounce” to describe the music of Big Freedia and other gay, transgender, lesbian or bisexual rappers who perform New Orleans’ signature hip-hop style of “bounce.”

Jonathan Dee, the story’s author describes bounce like this:

Bounce itself has been around for about 20 years. Like most hip-hop varietals, it’s rap delivered over a sampled dance beat, but it has a few characteristics that give it a distinctively regional sound: it’s strictly party music, its beat is relentlessly fast and its rap quotient tends much less toward introspection or pure braggadocio than toward a call-and-response relationship with its audience, a dynamic borrowed in equal measure from Mardi Gras Indian chants and from the dawn of hip-hop itself. Many, if not most, bounce records announce their allegiance by sampling from one of just two sources: either Derek B.’s “Rock the Beat” or an infectious hook known as the “Triggaman,” from a 1986 Showboys record called “Drag Rap.” (That’s “drag” not as in cross-dressing but as in the theme to the old TV show “Dragnet.”)

Katey Red is quick to point out that LGBT artists in New Orleans are part of the larger bounce music culture, not a separate genre.  “Ain’t no such thing as ‘sissy bounce,’ ” she said. “It’s bounce music. It’s just sissies that are doing it.”  In this video interview from Fader Magazine, Freedia expresses a similar sentiment:

Bounce music generally is just bounce music in New Orleans and you may have a gay rapper that does bounce music and you have straight rappers as well.  So I just really want to clarify that bounce music is not sissy bounce it’s bounce generally and you have some sissies that represent bounce music, you know, like myself, Sissy Nobby, Katey Red .  You know, there’s a few more.  It’s not called sissy bounce at home, it’s called bounce music.

The story does explain that most artists object to the phrase.  “They have no desire to be typed within, or set apart from, bounce culture; and indeed, within New Orleans itself, they mostly are not,” Dee wrote.  And it also explains the origin of the label “sissy bounce,” New Orleans music writer Alison Fensterstock.  Still, the nuanced perspective of how the artists view gender and sexuality as part of their identities and the identity of their musical community falls under a web page title that acknowledges “their bookings elsewhere in the country are founded increasingly on the novelty of their sexual identities.”  Even if the artists eschew the term “sissy bounce,” the Times seems aware that people may search for information about this music using this term, and they want to make sure that people can find the article.

This forefronts a challenge for journalists when choosing words in their stories – should one use the language of those most involved in or affected by a story or terminology that may be more widely used?  Does using the popular language for something legitimize language that doesn’t accurately frame an idea?    The best approach is probably the one Dee took in the story about New Orleans rap, to explain disputed language, its origins and how it reflects the nuance of the subject.  This is possible, and even adds depth to a longer article, but can a writer do the same thing in a daily news article?

Being aware of and taking the time to explain complicated stories behind language are important obligations for journalists that will only become more difficult in the age of online news.  As more and more people seek news and information on the web and find it through search rather than visiting the news organization’s web site directly, there is greater pressure for journalists to include widely-used language in stories to make the stories discoverable.  One solution may be to link phrases in the story to pages that describe the origin of the phrases.  The New York Times website already allows users to access definitions of words in articles by clicking on the word.  Linking such functionality to user-contributed content, like urban dictionary, may give added insight into the origin of language used in stories, though it could make it more convoluted.

Photo by Incase via Flickr. It’s captioned as a photo of Big Freedia, but the performer more closely resembles Katey Red.

Media overload

Someone, presumably who knows who I am because of Defiance, Ohio asked me what I thought a good strategy to stay informed and conscious about what’s happening in the world without being inundated with biased or incorrect information. This question was strangely aligned with things I had been thinking about and speakers and readings in my How 21st Century Media Work class at Medill.

Here’s my answer:

I’ve been doing some reading lately that has made me think about issues
connected to your question. Jack Fuller, a long-time Chicago journalist
recently wrote a book called “What is Happening to News: The Information
th Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism.” He makes two assertions
that really helped me make sense of the current media moment. First, we
live in a world where we have a ton of information and technology to
push that information at us in a relentless stream. This, Fuller says,
creates a consistent response in the human brain – it puts us in a state
of emotional excitement that makes us respond more to emotional information.

As people who create information (news organizations, advertisers,
musicians) have to compete with more information, they try to leverage
the way our brains work by creating information that we will respond
emotionally to and thus pay attention over all the other noise. The
heated debates between pundits (or wingnuts) on cable news are a good
example of this.

Fuller’s second contention is that we live in a time where people are
less trusting of authority (whether it is information from the
mainstream media, the government, academics, experts, etc). This, he
says, is a huge shift from the generation that came of age during WWII
who saw a structured, hierarchical society as a feature that helped win
the war. This observation was really important to me because it made me
rethink the idea that progressives were necessarily exceptional in our
questioning of authority. We may just be guided within a larger dynamic
of skepticism. Certainly there is as much skepticism on the right as
there is among progressives. The main difference is who those groups
define as the authorities to be questioned.

So far, I haven’t really answered your question, but I think Fuller’s
two points are important for how I now think about news and information
in the world. Before I finally get down to an answer, I want to talk
about what motivates me to seek out information. A big part of that is
the idea of radicalism in the Ella Baker sense of the term:
understanding and addressing the social condition at its root. To get
to this understanding or action, it takes a lot of inquiry, questioning
and dialog, part of which can happen through media.

– From what you wrote, it sounds like knowing what’s happening in the
world and using that information to get a sense of injustice or paths to
justice is important to you. Obviously, consuming information and
talking to people about that information is a big part of that process.
However, many issues are complicated and nuanced and information
providers don’t always do a good job of capturing the things they report
with depth or nuance. Still, I think its important to interact with
information in a critical but not necessarily adversarial way (which is
hard given what I mentioned earlier about a lot of information being
presented in a way that has high emotional impact – in many cases that
means in an adversarial way).

As a journalism student I realized how easy it is to insert bias,
inaccuracy, narrowness, or prejudice into a story, not because the
reporter or news outlet is evil or wants to be manipulative but because
of other factors. Maybe the journalist’s experience (or lack of
experience) keeps her from asking all the questions about a story or
seeking a full range of sources? Maybe sources aren’t willing to talk
to the journalist because of their perceptions about the media or the
journalist (warranted or not). Perhaps there just isn’t time, space or
resources to fully explore the story. In any case, I think both media
producers and others interacting with media and information are best
served by trying to get a complete picture. Instead of asking “is this
right or wrong”, it might be more productive to ask, “what doesn’t make
sense?”, “what questions aren’t answered?” or “how might the
writer/publication’s experience mediate what I’m reading/seeing/hearing?”

Besides providing nformation, another thing that information providers
do is to frame issues. They define what the “sides” are to a debate (or
whether there’s a debate at all) and what the “left”, “right” and
“center” of an issue are. Given the perceived need to make information
have emotional weight, I think its really easy for information providers
to pick voices and framings that are loud and provocative but aren’t
necessarily the most productive or relevant. I think people interacting
with information shouldn’t just assume the framings we’re provided. One
of the best techniques I’ve been taught as a student reporter is to ask
sources, “what person/perspective who is on a different side of the
issue do you most respect?” rather than just picking the most outspoken
voices. If reporters aren’t doing this, then those interacting with the
media need to.

Finally, as much as I feel like a “fuck the news” mentality isn’t very
productive and is sort of the same as prescribing to the idea that
“ignorance is bliss”, I think it’s a mentality that’s completely
understandable. However, I think it’s important to separate concerns
about the accuracy, depth and nuance of information from feelings of
being overwhelmed by information. As I’ve mentioned a lot already, much
of the information that we interact with today is designed to illicit an
emotional response, in many cases, one that borders on stress. This can
be really, really overwhelming. There was a great episode of a Boston
Radio show called “The Theory of Everything” that I heard once that I
can no longer find but maybe you can where the producer talked about
being overwhelmed by trying to stay informed about the Iraq war. I
think it’s okay to take breaks from media and to accept that there are
limitations to how much information we can synthesize both rationally
and emotionally. Failing to do so can hurt our ability to use
information constructively as much as complete ignorance can.

The short answer, as best I can say for myself is this: consume
information in an emotionally sustainable way, ask critical but not
necessarily adversarial questions and seek out additional information
that helps answer your questions.

Photo by martinhoward via Flickr

Social media and neighborhood voice on the web

I had a pretty great (and very, very educational) time at Drupal Camp Chicago this past weekend.  I was particularly interested to attend Bec White’s BoF on using Drupal’s Geo data capabilities to implement the MoveSmart website.    MoveSmart provides a neighborhood finder that attempts to help people discover neighborhoods that would otherwise be part of “racial blind spots“.  It’s pretty remarkable that they were able to import, geocode, and weigh more than six different data sets about Chicago neighborhoods to help people discover neighborhoods in Chicago.

One future idea for the site that was mentioned is to include social information showing neighborhood assets as part of the finder results.  Bec noted that this is problematic because social content on the web is so segregated.  She said (I’m paraphrasing), “I live in Humbolt Park and on Everyblock there is a clear line where the restaurant reviews stop and the crime reports start”.

There is a huge disparity between how (or if) different neighborhood residents use their neighborhood voice on the web.  For those who live in well resourced neighborhoods, we take a positive representation of our neighborhood for granted.  Even if interacting on sites like Yelp or posting and geotagging photos of our ‘hood in Flickr seems like a waste of time, we can be sure that someone is creating this content.  For less resourced neighborhoods, creating social media about the neighborhood might also seem like a low priority, but it means that there are far fewer positive or first-person representations of the neighborhood.  Not only does this seem to increase the likelyhood of negative outside perception of the neighborhood, but it also makes discovery of the neighborhood and its assets harder.

Do neighborhood assets (schools, churches, community groups, family) have content that they could put on the web through social media sites?  I’m guessing that they do.  I’m going to assume that taking snapshots is a fairly universal practice.  If this assumption is correct, what barriers exist to these things being shared through social media?  Is it because of lack of time, technological familiarity, computer, broadband, or mobile access?  Or, is it that they are shared, but not through social network platforms that offers easy (or broadly implemented) programatic retrieval of geographically associated data (e.g. MySpace)?

View OurMap of Environmental Justice in a larger map

One possible model for creating more geographically associated neighborhood social media would be to work with community groups to build maps such as Little Village Environmental Justice Organization’s Our Map of Environmental Justice.  While this map, developed by youth in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood largely shows environmental and social hazards (coal burning power plants, gang territory divisions), it also shows some community assets (schools, parks).    Using a platform like Google MyMaps seems like an easy and fun way for people to represent their neighborhood on the web.  Linking to an image in a map seems like it is more conceptually intuitive than geotagging an image uploaded to Flickr.  It looks like you can get GeoRSS out of Google MyMaps and this could be parsed into a database and made available to others through an API.

I think that youth in a neighborhood are probably quicker to adopt using social media than older adults. However, I think that youth media efforts often try to get youth to participate under a centralized project. It’s possible that, posting media on accessible platforms, a free-form, decentralized approach could offer a greater benefit. The project could focus on aggregating the social media rather than trying to guide youth to post certain media, in a certain place, in a certain way.

While those looking to discover neighborhoods across racial blind spots would certainly benefit from a broader set of geographically discoverable neighborhood social media, it is ultimately up to individual neighborhoods to decide if they benefit from voicing neighborhood identity and experience on the web.

Open affiliate program framework

I don’t really like the idea of sites that I contribute content to having a ton of banner ads.  However, I’ll often mention a book or a record, something that, even if I’m not pushing it for a sale, I would feel pretty good about people buying.  It would be nice, if they buy it on my recommendation, if I could get a little kickback from the sale.  Certainly, many big retailers like Amazon (and independent ones like Powell’s and Insurance Revenue) have affiliate programs.  The problem occurs if I don’t want to send people to one of these larger retailers or if the retailer where I want to send them doesn’t have an affiliate program.  It seems like it would be awesome if there was an open affiliate program architecture that would let retailers easily track traffic from and pay people who send customers their way.  Furthermore, if there is a centralized architecture, it might even be possible for people to systematically direct people to brick-and-mortar stores (possibly with some kind of printable coupon).  I could see a food blogger using this to mention the new cheese at their local food co-op.  If the system was easy enough to use, and to pay mentioners, it seems like it would benefit small businesses because they could more easily track how people were sharing their products on the web.  While content providers can have their wares tweeted or shared via social media, local stores dealing in tangible goods might enjoy being able to have more metrics about which products have a lot of interest.  Perhaps a local retailer would get more value from affiliate based advertising rather than traditional broadcast or newspaper advertising.

Photo by Thomas Hawk via Flickr.

Re: Your Music

Someone e-mailed Defiance, Ohio with some questions for a school project that produced this brain dump on the Britney Spears, the band, digital distribution, and media-based economies.
They wrote:

I know that big artists (for example Britney Spears??) are angry because of course they want the money, but I was wondering, do you think it’s more grey for less famous artists? Although maybe a smaller artist might miss each dollar more, do you think they mind less? Do you think the love for the music overcomes the ‘need’ in today’s world for the money? I know that sharing music without paying for it is a really great way to be heard, so what’s your opinion on that?

It’s hard to answer these questions directly, for Defiance, Ohio, and maybe for most artists, because I’m not sure if we have ever seen our options as starkly as “participate in the mainstream music scene or be an independent artist” or “have a larger fan base or make more money?” Certainly, some of the decisions we have made have had elements of those questions involved and some of the things we have done that didn’t feel like decisions have ended up having results that reflect on those stark questions.  However, to provide what feels like a complete and honest answer, I feel like I need to reframe the questions.

The first part of your question that I want to address is the idea of big artists, and Britney Spears in particular, being against file sharing and technologies like torrents.  I’m not sure if if Ms. Spears has ever spoken out specifically against file sharing, or if she even understands the technology, its implications, and the implications of enforcing copyright.  If she has made statements about it, it’s likely that she is articulating the standard response of many in the mainstream music industry that file sharing is harmful to artists and the industry, which, to a degree, is true since the music industry has been really slow to adapt to the reality of how people listen to, use, and produce music.

I think it’s important that we don’t get stuck in villifying big-name artists, even though they certainly have made choices, and make choices in terms of their music’s content and business choices that I wouldn’t make.  Simplifying the position of artists in the mainstream music industries as only being concerned about money has the a number of negative impacts.  First, I think that many artists, despite making very commercial content, are genuinely talented performers who love performing and making music and would likely be performing in some capacity (religious services, county fairs, amusement park shows, cruise ships, etc.) even if they weren’t as successful in the record industry.  Second, I think that it overlooks the fact that many artists come from backgrounds of limited economic mobility (certainly this was the case for Ms. Spears) and that their choice to participate in the mainstream music industry is a pragmatic decision given limited options.  Ms. Spears’ career, even from the time she was a young child, has been mediated by the mainstream, big-media industry and model of making music.  So, the choices that she makes in terms of things like file sharing, are largely dictated on her dependence on this industry.  Had she been a performer who didn’t fit as easily into the archetype of successful child performers and eventually female superstars, she may have instead chosen to work outside of the mainstream music industry to continue to perform and may have made different choices that would effect everything from the content of her music to her use or (dis)approval of file sharing.  Finally, defining the ethics and intentions of artists based solely on their orientation around mainstream corporate media is dangerous because it artificially inflates the ethics and intentions of artists who choose to participate in an subcultural, less corporate, or do-it-yourself music economy rather than examining their musical content and practices for what they are.

None of this has really answered your question, but I feel like it was important to talk about in order to develop a framework for answering your questions.  We need to move beyond the dichotomy of the greedy but soulless superstar vs. the starving but artistically vibrant independent artist that I’ve also been guilty of relying on.  In the case of Defiance, Ohio, I think that each of us will always make, play, or perform music in some way, for the rest of our lives, because we do love it.  However, I think that we would all love to be able to have the making of music be something that supports us financially rather than something that makes our lives more difficult or more stressful in terms of money.  I think we also want to do this in a way that supports our beliefs, ideas, friends and communities.  One of the biggest drawbacks to participating in the mainstream music industry is that money made from one’s music might go to support the release of records with homophobic lyrics, or artists who pressure working-class youth into joining the military.

Similarly, making our music widely available and available to people regardless of whether they have a good local independent record store that stocks less-well-known records or whether people have lots of money to buy records has and will continue to be important to us.  I also think it’s important for our music to be available for posterity.  Making music available as free downloads has helped serve all these needs.  However, it would be great if people recognize that making the songs that we release for free takes time, energy, money for instruments, time off work to record and practice, and lots of other resources.  As a culture, I think we’re struggling to assign costs to lots of things that reflect their complete value and hazards (electricity produced from coal, for instance).  Music is no different, so I think that Defiance, Ohio continues to struggle to assign a monetary value to our music, shows, and other “products” that strikes a balance between reflecting the resources that go into making them, not being greedy, and being realistic about what people are willing to pay.

Ultimately, I think it’s hard to say how free, digital distribution of our music has affected Defiance, Ohio since it’s something that we’ve always done.  We don’t have any data about whether most people heard about us through downloads or touring, word of mouth and mix tapes or through our releases on independent labels.  Also, we did it without too much forethought about the potential implications of using this method of distribution.  I’ve always liked emerging technologies, so when we started recording, I wanted to experiment with making our songs available through new media.  I think that when we started playing, we were also interested in sharing what we made with friends or like-minded people across the nation, and freely downloadable files helped make this possible.  Finally, I don’t think we imagined that there would ever be the possibility of assigning any kind of monetary value to our songs outside of the few dollars we charged for our demo CDR and first CD on our initial tours.  That said, I can’t deny that making our music widely available has helped us to have people become interested in our music enough to tour around the U.S. and the world and to have people willing to help put out our records or go to benefit shows or otherwise support projects we believe in.

Getting your music heard is pretty important to many artists for personal gratification, ideology, and financial success and file sharing or other methods of digital distribution are one tool that can be used to achieve this.  I don’t think it’s any more or less legitimate than other old and emerging methods.  I think the parallel music economy of hip hop mix tapes is really interesting as is the migration of these “tapes” to CD and now digital downloads.  I think that there’s still something awesome about the intimacy of music getting distributed between friends on mix tapes or CDRs (and probably now through social networking sites and peer-to-peer file sharing systems).  I think that community, college, and pirate radio are still important means of sharing music and that podcasts are a new medium for similar content.

In the end, the question of whether digital downloads and file sharing are good or bad for artists or music industries is becoming (has already become?) a moot point.  Alternative distribution methods are already being used by artists with varying degrees of success.  They are also destabilizing a mainstream music industry that has traditionally treated artists unfairly, ignored or fetishized cultural diversity, and been otherwise slow to change.  The important question is what do we want our media environment to look like?  How do continue to create vibrant culture while compensating makers for their work?  How do we make space for minority voices in media?  How do we connect across our different experiences and situations through media?  As traditional manufacturing jobs are disappearing from the economy and many youth have fewer and fewer opportunities to do work that offers them an interesting, dignified life , can we create new, media-based economies the give new economic mobility to communities facing economic depression?

U.S. “legal” immigration explained in flowchart

It’s dangerous to oversimplify what are ultimately complicated policy issues, like immigration, not to mention the huge variety of experience that immigrants face, but most of the public debate on this, and many other issues, seems founded on information, that, even at a basic level is pretty misinformed.  This diagram about different pathways to legal residency and citizenship is an example of helping people understand the basics of policy in a really clear way.

I’ve  always loved things like this.  Recently, I saw a great breakdown of the different positions of McCain in Obama that really concisely summarized the candidates rhethoric, their voting record, and analysis from non-profit issue advocacy groups.  This was in Glamour magazine, but it’s the kind of coverage that I think has been sorely missing in other media I’ve seen.  I’d rather see lots more of this issue-based breakdown, rather than being overwhelmed with manipulative identity politics or Monday Night Football-style coverage of campaign strategy.

As a kid, I read Zillions Magazine, who, like many other print publications, has since gone out of print.  It had a lot of similar diagrams that broke down the dynamics of finance and marketing for youth, trying to help make them critical consumers.

Seeing this flowchart got me pretty stoked and made me start thinking about a How do people get and stay incarcerated in Monroe County flowchart.