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.

Geography, Safety, and White Flight

It’s after bedtime and things I’ve been thinking about all day seem to be converging.  One of the biggest changes in moving to Chicago is hearing about shootings on a daily basis.  I found this map today and I don’t know how to interpret it, but it’s staggering, horrible, and also engrossing. I can’t help but overlay the map with my hasty impressions about the different racial and class makeups of neighborhoods across the city.

View Chicago homicides map in a larger map

The transit ride is about an hour to and from work but it doesn’t feel oppressive. It helps me block off time for reading and I can finally get down to finishing the book Sundown Towns. The added dimension of reading it now is that I get to also see the flip side of white flight: the concentration of Black residents in cities rather than their absence in certain suburbs or rural areas. Thinking about race and technology, I came across this quote from interviews with youth conducted by Danah Boyd:

Tara (16, Michigan): [Facebook] kind of seemed safer, but I don’t know like what would make it safer, like what main thing. But like, I don’t know, it just seems like everything that people say, it seems safer.

This sentiment refers to a digital geography, but it is so familiar to the way that people talk about safety in towns and cities. It is easy to ridicule those with these attitudes as paranoid or even prejudiced. The problem is not that concern for safety is unwarranted, but that segregation has ensured that everyone loses the ability to realistically assess safety and move towards a safer world/

Core technologies/concepts for community organizing

Last summer at the AMC, I presented a session about Web 2.0 and social movements.  Because I inherited the session from someone else, I kept the session proposer’s rubric of introducing technologies/services by name  (Twitter, Jott, so that people would be able to link the name/buzz with an idea of what it could do.  If I had it to do all over again, I would start with core concepts and technologies that I see as being really helpful with my own use of tech. in organizing.   These would be things that underly a lot of Web 2.0 services and also make technology more fluid for users of all levels of technological familiarity. I’m starting a list here.  What core concepts/technologies do you all use?

RSS Feeds/Aggregation

One of the biggest frustrations that I (and other users I would suspect) have with the multitude of useful sites is having to have a bunch logins and remember which information lives where.  One has to choose between using the right tool for the job and making it easy to locate and access information.  E-mail is one convergence point, but that doesn’t neccessarily mesh with every service that people might use.  Services from to Twitter to Google Calendar to most blogging platforms all allow you to publish RSS feeds.  I would explain what a feed does, show what a feed looks like in various services, and then show how to aggregate and organize feeds with a web-based aggregator and a desktop app.

Feeds are so important because understanding them is crucial for mashing up services or making them easier for collaborations.  Examples:

  • Blog to twitter using Twitterfeed
  • Twitter “mailing” list using #hashtags and RSS Feed for

Email Filters

People are often overwhelmed by mailing lists, but few know that you can pretty easily filter out all the different kinds of e-mails that you get to do the inbox triage that everyone is familiar with for you.  I think having imapfilter or Thunderbird sort my mail into folders is super-useful, if only to evaluate the actual importance of data.  If I never click on a partcular folder where some of my mail is auto-sorted, do I really need to be on that mailing list anyway?

Human URLs (TinyURL or similar services)

Things like Google Docs often generate long, difficult to remember addresses for important information.  If people have to first dig through an e-mail with a link to a shared resource (and do this every time they want to access it), they’re going to be less likely to use it.  If they can just remember it (or enough of it that it is found in their browser’s location history) I think these online resources will get more use.

Mailing Lists

I think we all take these for granted, but there are ways to use these that make them more or less effective.  What strategies do you use to handle list management and message moderation.  How do you not flood people’s mailboxes?  How do you make it easy for people to (un) subscribe to lists?  This is more a discussion of usage than particular technologies.


Electronically mediated communication can often be ambiguous.  I find that I often spend extra time trying to disambiguate something in e-mail when it would have been way, way faster to call and let someone as questions.  Still, a lot of collaboration that I do involves looking at text or files together.  Chat is really crucial for these kinds of tasks.  I use it every day at work.


I don’t have a texting plan and I share my mobile phone, so I’m not the hugest txter but I like that it’s more purvasive than e-mail but less intrusive than a phone call because it lets people get the information first before deciding their timeline or content for response.  It’s also better than a call or voicemail for infromation that you might have to lookup again (a phone number or address for instance).


For the times when you want to be more personal than chat, voice/video conferencing is perfect.  We have a fancy system at work for having meetings that span Indy and Bton but I think folks can achieve much of the same functionality with Skype, cheap webcams, and projectors.


Cash rules everything around me … There are probably better alternatives, especially if the organization seeking cash is a 501(c)3, but Paypal is definitely the easiest to use.  The awesome Pledgie service helps you use Paypal to organize campaigns.

Digital Barn Raising

I was recently asked to advise on the 2009 Allied Media Conference’s How-To Track (you can check the 2008 track out here) and I’m trying to think how to approach it.  Watching teachers recently and thinking about the community organizing that’s happening here in Bloomington, a lot of the skills I want to know how-to do aren’t neccessarily technical.  Still, my goal for this year’s AMC is to help create a track that not only builds and strengthens community and coalitions around consuming and discussing media but in it’s actual production – from editing videos, to making beats, to loading Linux on a server, to hacking together a Drupal module.  These technical tasks are often done in solitude by a few individuals who have been delegated the task or who hold onto the skills and projects too tightly for more folks to be involved.  I’ve always felt excited and empowered by technology, not just in what it can do, but in using and manipulating it.

Comment here if you have anything you’d like to see in a session at the conference or if you know of folks doing awesome stuff with technology and media to further social justice goals.

Take Back The Tech

Take Back the Tech: take action – online and off – to end violence against women

Whether its through community radio, posters, sms, emails, audiocasts or websites, creative and informed use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) helps get the word out on violence against women (VAW). We have to know about technology to best use it for our activism, we have to understand it to protect ourselves and others, and to keep shaping an internet for all. From 25 November to 10 December it’s time once again to “Take Back the Tech!” and use ICTs to end violence against women.

Women around the world are increasingly using ICTs to strategise, protest and mobilise: an SMS message brought together hundreds of women to protest their right to choose in the UK in a “flashmob”; an online petition in a social networking community attracted signatures against the stoning of women in Kurdistan from corners of the world previously unimaginable; mobile phones allow for quick snapshots to document abuse; blogs in dozens of languages decry VAW. At the same time, perpetrators of VAW also take advantage of technology: a husband switches his wife’s SIM card to spy on her mobile phone callers in Free State, South Africa; the Iranian government repeatedly blocks access within Iran to a website calling for an end to discriminatory laws against Iranian women.

For 16 days of activism against VAW, the APC Women’s Programme (APC WNSP) calls on all ICT users to stretch and hone internet skills and strategies for activism to ensure women’s safety online and off.

What is the campaign about?

Take Back the Tech is a collaborative campaign by internet users, advocates,collectives and organisations that take issue with the prevalence of VAW in our diverse realities. Initiated by APC WNSP in 2006, the campaign is part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence initiative.

It is our right to shape, define, participate, use and share knowledge,information and technology, and to create digital spaces that protect everyone’s right to interact freely without harassment or threat to safety. Take Back the Tech calls on all users of ICTs – especially grrls and women – to take control of technology and consciously use it to disrupt unequal power relations.

How can you Take Back the Tech?

Throughout the 16 days, daily actions using the internet to fight against VAW aim to stretch skills and knowledge around ICTs and VAW. It’s an opportunity to take time to play with technology for a purpose – exploring mapping, editing audio, transforming photos, sending mass SMS through the internet – to take action with new tools or apply the tools you use every day in a different way. Simply visit the campaign website at to check out the latest daily action.

Local campaigners have embraced Take Back the Tech in different ways: training women’s organisations in web 2.0 tools to help get the word out in Mexico and Uruguay; putting resources in local languages such as Khmer in Cambodia; building computers – and learning how to sew – in Brazil. Campaigners are organising online protest petitions and audiocasting public forums. Every other day a new campaign will be featured on the Take Back the Tech website. Check out a campaign spotlight, learn about the local reality of violence women face and challenge, and help their cause from afar.

Start your own Take Back The Tech campaign. Every year, independent and creative initiatives to Take Back The Tech have taken off in different parts of the world, translating content and action to address local needs and priorities. Use the campaign website to highlight your action, find useful tools and tips, and adapt images and graphics to your needs. You can even create your own page on the site, just email us to let us know how we can support your action.

Deepen the debate around violence against women by joining the 16 day blogathon. New to blogging? This is the perfect reason to start your own, or at least, click that ‘comment’ button to have your say. Daily topics will be posted on the campaign site to stir conversation, as well as instructions on how to set up a blog.

Learn by listening to the experience and stories of women and men affected by VAW. The campaign website will feature digital stories, audiocasts, video clips and postcards. If you have something you would like to share, just log on to the campaign site and submit your story.

Help shape the campaign by sharing your experience and ideas. Submit your thoughts at the campaign website, and make it part of the campaign.

Check the daily from 25 November to 10 December, and take action. Reclaim technology to end violence against women.

For more information, consult the FAQ at or send an email to

technology and activism

Here are two new instances of technology (both via boingboing) that seem to really aid social justice movements.

Cause Caller is a VOIP tool that lets you define a cause and contacts related to that cause (for instance, congressional representatives on a panel investigating a particular issue).  Users can then enter their phone number and the application will call them back and connect them with the different contacts.

ICED (I Can End Deportation) is a video game made by the human rights group Breakthrough that, according to Breakthrough’s website:

puts you in the shoes of an immigrant to illustrate how unfair immigration laws deny due process and violate human rights. These laws affect all immigrants: legal residents, those fleeing persecution, students and undocumented people.

“I feel the problem is that we’re not represented in our culture. We don’t create it and it’s not born of anything of us”

The title to this post is from a young person quoted in Susan Herrig‘s article Questioning the generational divide: Technological exoticism and adult construction of online youth identity. (In: D. Buckingham (Ed.), Youth, Identity, and Digital Media (pp. 71-94). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.) which deals with the differing perspectives of digital media from adults and youth.

I found the discussion of how youth use media pretty interesting:

Young people use new technologies for social ends that are much the same as for earlier
generations using old technologies. Young people instant message, text message, or email their friends much as my Baby Boomer generation talked on landline telephones. They abbreviate and use language creatively to signal their in-group identity, much as my friends and I wrote backwards (manipulating the affordances of the hand-written
medium) and created special writing conventions to pass notes in class. They flirt online, while we flirted on the phone or in the hallways at school. They express their daily angst in blogs, whereas my generation kept hand-written diaries. They painstakingly craft their profiles in social networking sites to win the approval of their peers, while we dressed up to be “seen” hanging out at school dances and community youth events. Moreover, “search engines [function] as a library, … product-based sites as a mall, and downloadable movies and games as a theater or video arcade.” As was also true when I was young, the ends are more interesting and important to the participants than the technological means, especially if the means have been available all one’s life.

as well as the discussion of some possible motivating factors of youth technology use:

Moreover, contrary to the stereotype that the digital generation is enamored of technology, for many youth, technology use may not be the most fun activity, but rather what is most available, a substitute for something they would rather do. In a recent survey of media use by 6-17 year olds in the U.K, a majority of teens said that they would rather go out to a movie or do something with friends than stay home and consume media, and they complained that their neighborhoods did not provide enough activities for youth. Increasingly, parents are afraid to let their children go out for fear that they will not be safe, especially in urban areas. According to new media researcher Henry Jenkins, more elaborate indoor media environments have evolved to compensate for unsafe or otherwise inhospitable outdoor environments. danah boyd, in her chapter in this volume, argues that social networking spaces such as substitute for traditional offline hangouts, whose numbers have dwindled dramatically in recent decades in the U.S.

Link to PDF of article.

gender and software

I was browsing the web looking for information about social justice movements and technology and I found a blog post talking about the involvement of women in free/libre/opensource software projects.  The conversation centers around the question of whether the disparity between male and female participation in FLOSS projects is because of fundamental differences in preferences based on gender; like women preferring more social interactions which some perceive as rare within the FLOSS-development world or women preferring not to allocate their leisure time towards software development; or  larger cultural factors (which seem to parallel some things I’ve read elsewhere about gender, power, and sexism).   The discussion is nuanced and civil and pretty interesting:

The reliance on long hours of intensive computing in writing successful code means that men, who in general assume that time outside of waged labour is ‘theirs’, are freer to participate than women, who normally still assume a disproportionate amount of domestic responsibilities. Female F/LOSS participants, however, seem to be able to allocate a disproportionate larger share of their leisure time for their F/LOSS activities. This gives an indication that women who are not able to spend as much time on voluntary activities have difficulties to integrate into the community.

Interestingly, this point seems to suggest that it is the domestic responsibilities, whether perceived or real, that make women feel they don’t have enough free time to contribute effectively to open source projects. I figured that women simply wanted to take on activities outside of technology moreso than men, and maybe this gives a possible reason why. If women have been responsible for certain aspects of home life for many centuries, then it is not hard to believe that they would feel even today that they did not ‘own’ their free time in the same way as men, even if in modern times these responsibilities don’t always exist.

Through the blog post, I found out about Free/Libre/Open Source Software: Policy Support project whose report on gender and FLOSS provided a lot of the context for the blog’s discussion.  I also found out about the GNOME project’s Women’s Summer Outreach Program.  Which got funding from Google to provide 3 additional allocations for Summer of Code GNOME projects for developers who were women.  I liked this from the program’s web page:

Isn’t this unfair to men? What about people who were rejected from Google’s Summer of Code?

The recent FLOSSPOLS report describes many opportunities that women miss out on when getting involved with computing and free software, ranging from being introduced to computers at a later age, being less encouraged to specialise in computing, having few female role models, having less free time to spend programming than men do, and being on the receiving end of sexism when they do try to get involved. We think it’s this imbalance that’s unfair, and we’re trying to help fix it.

As for whether this is unfair to Summer of Code applicants, we don’t think so – this is GNOME’s money to use how it sees fit, and we want to use it to correct a disturbing lack of participation from women in the GNOME development community. We’re doing this for outreach reasons as well as for technical ones, and so just adding another three projects to the twenty Summer of Code projects being sponsored wouldn’t achieve our stated goals. If you’d like to talk about this with us, feel free to get in touch.

Link to Women in Open Source II blog post from The Female Perspectiveon Computer Science blog.

e-learning and a changing collegiate culture

Online classes were just emerging as I left college.  There was a piece on Morning Edition this morning about the technology and trends in general and an instance of them at on University of Illinois branch.  I think this technology is inevitable and it does have some egalitarian advantages, as the president of the University of Illinois system state:

“But let’s be honest, there are hundreds of thousands of people in the world who don’t have the privilege of earning their education by leaving home, giving up their job, leaving the family and living on one of these campuses,” White said.

Still, there are also implications for a trend that is apparent even with living in a college town and meeting a lot of students on tour.  The idea of a university as a forum and a place where you might get exposed to unexpected ideas or ideas across disciplines is quickly eroding.  Technology plays a role in furthering this cultural shift.  As one professor says:

“But I can assure you that the next generation of students are ’24/7 students’ that want stuff right now. They don’t want to come to your class and listen to a professor lecture and tell funny stories,” Mims said. “They want just what they need to succeed in that class and get a job and be successful in life.”

I did a fundraising event for Pages to Prisoners in partnership with a local multi-cultural sorority.  The sorority members made a presentation about prison and education issues, and one woman read an article about the Bard Prison Initiative, a program that allows incarcerated people in New York get a liberal arts college degree.  When one of the inmates who was participating in the program was asked why it was important for inmates to receive a liberal arts education as opposed to vocational training, the man said that while job training could teach you how to do a specific job, the Bard education that he was getting through the program was teaching him how to think.

I fear that the “I want what I think I want when I want it” collegian is going to further erode the value of knowledge and discourse in culture.


Chris Soghoian Interview

My started a blog which comments on a recent local radio interview with computer researcher Chris Soghoian.

WFHB describes the interview this way:

Does the government’s “no-fly” list make air travel any safer? Do other supposed “security measures” really protect us from terrorists? Host Chad Carrothers spends an hour with Chris Soghoian, the Bloomington grad student who drew national attention when he set up a website that allowed visitors to print fake Northwest Airlines boarding passes in an effort to expose flaws in national security policy. The federal Transportation Security Administration forced him to take down the page and the FBI raided his Bloomington home and “borrowed” his computers and passport. Find out why Chris did what he did, his views on the role that researchers, academics, and common citizens take in studying, criticizing and pointing out the flaws in our security systems, and why he thinks the federal government hasn’t learned the intended lesson in this WFHB local radio exclusive.

I thought the WFHB interview was a disappointing though, becuase even if the way the U.S. views security is fundamentally flawed, and we aren’t made more safe, Chris still invests himself, both in terms of the time and energy of his research, and in terms of belief in the narrative of security. Fundamentally, this narrative of security suggests that there is an amorphous human threat set on harming and amorphous sense of “us”, and that we can do something to protect “ourselves” from it.  The thing that is troubling about this narrative of security is that it never fully aknowledges that the threats we perceive are from other humans, nor does it seek to understand those who we perceive as threatening in a way that is more complex (or even compassionate) than stereotypes or prejudices.  Stepping outside of that narrative, I find that the prospect of violence is still troubling, but that the motivations for violence can be quite rational and mirror motivations or violence that follows from my life, or its cultural context.  So, trying to protect myself from harm seems pretty futile, either personally, in belief in the idea of security, or through the proxy of goverment in waging wars or making policy decisions about airline regulations.  It seems far more likely that some kind of harm, either physical or psychological, will follow from these actions than some kind of harm will befall me as a result of a terrorist attack.  I hope that we can live our lives in a way that seeks to understand others, and seeks to change the relationship between people, or nation-states, or cultures that make violence and retaliation seem almost rational.

Tor, which is discussed at the end of the interview, is pretty awesome, however, at least from a technological standpoint.  It’s software that is fairly easy to use that allows you to anonymize your web (and other Internet) traffic. Still, I don’t want to get caught up in thinking of this cat and mouse game between government and individuals, repression and privacy.  I’d like to think that I’m accountable for the communication that I make and consume and that if I’m targetted for that, I can address it headlong and get support from my friends and community rather than having to hide things that are totally reasonable.