Being Thankful

There are many things to be thankful for this week, as we celebrate the Obama victory.  It means so many good things about America and offers — truly — such hope for the future of our troubled world.   After a few days of reflection, there are three things, perhaps idiosynchratically, that I find myself particularly thankful for: 

One is that the Obama campaign won after doing such a terrific job of combining old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning with the best of the online tools and strategy.  There are of course many reasons for the landslide; this is but one of them.  Many people, like Joe Rospars and his crew, deserve credit for this approach.  Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder, joined the Obama campaign very early on as coordinator of online organizing.  The team from Blue State Digital, veterans of the Dean campaign, was there from the start of the primary, too.  But the digital teams for the campaign didn’t do their work in isolation; everything was brilliantly coordinated with real-space campaigning.  It’s the combination of classical-and-jazz campaigning that I have been waiting to see a campaign pull off at large scale.  This one sure did.  And how.  The Obama campaign did that, and much more.  It is surely a new blueprint for a successful political campaign.  (PRI/KCRW’s “To the Point” did a segment on this concept yesterday.  Chris Hughes made this point, too, on his MyBO blog the same day.  Micah Sifry was overhead on NPR yesterday talking about the future of this community.   CQ, among many others, wrote about some of the differences in the campaigns on these topics, early on.  And so forth.)

Second — and not unrelated — the uptick in new voters and young voters continued in 2008.  We’ve had great numbers in 2004 and 2006 in these categories compared to previous cycles.  The trend clearly continued this year, no doubt to the benefit of the Obama campaign and other Democrats newly elected to office.  The presumption that today’s youth represent an apathetic “generation” is, time and again, being disproven, as they find ways new and old to demonstrate their commitment to civic activism.  David Gergen is calling it a “new order” and pointed to the 18-to-29-year-old vote on CNN.  The New York Times referred to a “deep generational divide” that cut sharply in favor of Obama this time around.  (Urs Gasser and I took up this issue, and related matters, in the Activism chapter of Born Digital.  It will be fun to update that chapter now.)

Third, the campaign deployed so many good election lawyers that Obama voters were not disenfranchised in the way that Kerry and Gore voters plainly were in 2004 and 2000.  It was incredibly well-organized this year.  My brother, Quentin Palfrey, took a leave from his job as chief of the health care division at the Massachusetts AG’s office to run voter protection in Ohio.  His team — of literally thousands of lawyers — ensured that there was no repeat of the 2004 horror-show that cost John Kerry votes, if not much more than that.  (Like many other lawyers, I trekked up to NH to do voter protection in previous cycles; this time, there were more than enough lawyers to go around, such that many were sitting around at polling places, redundantly.)  The emphasis on voter protection in this cycle, at such a high level of sophistication, and in so many states, was a great thing to watch.  And locally, organizations to keep this trend growing (in Massachusetts, for instance, consider MassVOTE), only seem to be gaining strength.

Each of these trends took an extraordinary amount of work by an extraordinary number of people.  The successes of these collective actions offers much reason for hope. 

We all share the responsibility of turning this hope into tangible improvements in all of our lives.  One way we can do that is to encourage our elected officials, from President-elect Obama to our local representatives, to govern just as they campaigned — with the Internet as a means of providing transparency.  I think this next four years will be great for organizations like the Sunlight Foundation, Lessig’s Change Congress, the Omidyar Network (with its new investment area in transparency and governance), Personal Democracy Forum, and others, which will — as institutions and communities — help lead us in these ways.  No doubt the terrific Obama technology policy means that there will be administration support for such efforts at transparency. 

These changes need to continue to be driven from the bottom up, with widespread participation, just as the campaign was.  I’m confident that many youth, brought into civic life during this cycle, will stick around and make great things happen — and that many of us, no longer so youthful, will pull our weight, too.  Today, and tomorrow, it’s up to each of us to find ways to maintain the momentum that’s been built up in these and other areas so important to the future of democracy in America.  And in the meantime, I’m feeling awfully thankful to Chris, Quentin, and all those who tossed aside their day jobs for a while to make this happen full-time — yes, community organizing — to make sure that all that volunteer time and money went to great use.

How Does a Foundation Program Officer Decide How to Make Grants?

At the Berkman Center’s lunch speaker series, Gary Kebbel of the Knight Foundation is with us today. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen such a public, open discussion by a program officer of a foundation about how they do their work in funding great projects. The Knight Foundation has been running the News Challenge for a few years, and they seek to learn and improve their processes each time. This year, they doubled the number of applications and, even more impressive, they reached out successfully to a global set of applicants (good news, we think, coming from the Global Voices-style perspective, as we do here at the Berkman Center). Knight has also continued to innovate with ways for people to submit public or private applications to the consideration process.  One thing I learned: News Challenge applicants are free to read these comments, in the case of an open application, and then go back and revise and improve their application. They’ve also got a blog on PBS called Idea Lab, part of the PBS Media Shift blogging empire (hey! there’s David Ardia).

In the spirit of our interest in young people, Digital Natives, doing innovative things online: The most interesting experiment, from my perspective, is their work with MTV and MTV International on the Young Creators Award. They set aside $500,000 for this award, geared toward those 25-years-old and younger. Of the new young applicants, almost half are international.

Some of the upticks that they are seeing in the applications to this year’s News Challenge: Facebook applications, use of GPS-related tools, and place-tagging for wireless.

Grant-seekers and innovators and young creators around the world, watch Gary explain how the sausage is made when it comes to grant-making at the Knight Foundation. Watch also for commentary from uber-bloggers Ethan Zuckerman and David Weinberger and Lisa Williams, who are in the room here in real-time.

Eszter Hargittai on Digital Na(t)ives

We have the great pleasure today at the Berkman Center of hearing from Eszter Hargittai, a prof at Northwestern, on her large-scale research project on how 18 / 19-year-olds use digital technologies. She’s also worked on problems related to what she calls the “second-level digital divide” over the past decade or so. She surveyed over 1000 students at the UIC, one of the most diverse research universities.

A set of important take-aways: she’s found a correlation between gender and the likelihood of creating and sharing digital content (women were less likely to share content online that they’ve created than men). But it turns out that skill level is actually the relevant factor, not gender: if you correct for skill-level, the gender difference goes away. She is also trying to figure out what these gaps mean in terms of opportunities for life chances.

Her research hones in on the fact that what matters are skill differences, not just technology access differences, when it comes to digital inequality. We need to provide training and education for kids in addition to access to the network. These findings — good news for her — are consistent with Eszter’s extensive body of work to date. And she’s plainly right. (This is much of what Urs Gasser and I are arguing in our book, Born Digital; we have to figure out how to say it half as elegantly as Eszter does.)

Eszter has an article coming out very soon, in a volume co-edited by danah boyd and Nicole Ellison, which makes a related set of claims. Her data inform the question of who uses social-networking sites (SNS). Women, she finds, are more likely to use SNSes than men (other than in the context of Xanga, where the numbers are reversed). People of with parents with lower academic backgrounds (which apparently correlates to lower social-economic status, (SES), backgrounds) are more likely to be MySpace users, and those with parents with higher educational backgrounds are more likely to use Facebook. (These data lead to conclusions much like what danah boyd claimed recently, and which kicked up a bit of a storm. See the 297 comments on danah’s blog.)

If you missed Eszter’s talk, it’s worth catching it online at MediaBerkman.

(Separately: she’s also got thoughtful comments on her blog about our pending Cookie Crumbles video contest.)

How Long Will Scrabulous Last in Facebook?

I am curious to see how long Facebook leaves this app up after this WSJ article. Scrabulous, a Facebook app made by third-party developers, is an obvious knock-off of Scrabble. One might reasonably raise copyright and trademark issues related to it (perhaps the Scrabulous developers could withstand these complaints; query as to Facebook’s willingness to put itself in harm’s way, though, as potentially secondarily liable). Coming our way in the near-future, a new form of Web 2.0-fired dispute: there are very interesting issues brewing related to Facebook’s role as a platform for other applications and its policing function. Interoperability is a great thing, and Facebook has done well to open up its API. But when a controversy strikes over an app that is framed in Facebook, on which developers and investors have invested time and capital, and into which people have mixed their personal information, who decides whether the app stays or goes? The judge and jury are likely to be Facebook employees, at least in the first instance. Jonathan Zittrain has been teaching about this issue of Private Sheriffs for a long time, with more on this topic coming in his forthcoming book, The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It.

[email protected] on social networking sites

I’m not sure it’s all right, but a provocative piece about Facebook & co. at the excellent [email protected] site, with lots of quotes from Kevin Werbach, who usually is right. The implication is that they will become the victims of their own success, expand too far, and the digital natives will leave them for the Next Hot Thing.

The short study says: “Underneath Facebook’s expansion plans is a conundrum facing any social networking site: How do these companies expand into new markets without losing what originally made the site popular and alienating their existing customers? For instance, if a site starts out as a trendy online hangout for young people and then begins courting senior citizens, it is unlikely its initial customer base will stick around, say experts at Wharton.

“Couple that dilemma with the fact that social sites’ business models are already fragile, and a loss of focus could be fatal.”