Social media, democracy and dictatorship

Many questions raised by this Evgeny Morozov’s article who goes beyond the usual “the web is making democracy inevitable” tune. Social networks can be used by protesters around the world, but once governments pass the door they become a source of information on dissidents, with potentially dramatic consequences:

But that isn’t what happened in Belarus. After the first flash mob, the authorities began monitoring By_mob, the LiveJournal community where the activities were announced. The police started to show up at the events, often before the flashmobbers did. Not only did they detain participants, but they too took photos. These—along with the protesters’ own online images—were used to identify troublemakers, many of whom were then interrogated by the KGB, threatened with suspension from university, or worse. […] Social media created a digital panopticon that thwarted the revolution: its networks, transmitting public fear, were infiltrated and hopelessly outgunned by the power of the state.

Controlling your privacy on social networks is quite complicated – mostly because it goes against the fundamental needs of advertising, and is therefore not encouraged. Bad privacy management can have consequences:

Social networking, then, has inadvertently made it easier to gather intelligence about activist networks. Even a tiny security flaw in the settings of one Facebook profile can compromise the security of many others. A study by two MIT students, reported in September, showed it is possible to predict a person’s sexual orientation by analysing their Facebook friends; bad news for those in regions where homosexuality carries the threat of beatings and prison.

But everthing’s not lost:

[…] the internet can if used properly give dissidents secure and cheap tools of communication. Russian activists can use hard-to-tap Skype in place of insecure phone lines, for example. Dissidents can encrypt emails, distribute anti-government materials without leaving a paper trail, and use clever tools to bypass internet filters. […] Second, new technology makes bloody crackdowns riskier, as police are surrounded by digital cameras and pictures can quickly be sent to western news agencies. Some governments, like Burma and North Korea, don’t care about looking brutal, but many others do. Third, technology reduces the marginal cost of protest, helping to turn “fence-sitters” into protesters at critical moments. An apolitical Iranian student, for instance, might find that all her Facebook friends are protesting and decide to take part.

Conclusion: social medias are, like all innovations, a double edged sword:

Yet while the internet may take the power away from an authoritarian (or any other) state or institution, that power is not necessarily transferred to pro-democracy groups. Instead it often flows to groups who, if anything, are nastier than the regime. Social media’s greatest assets—anonymity, “virality,” interconnectedness—are also its main weaknesses.

Link (via Bruce again)

Courts and connected jurors

Bruce Sterling points to the issues created by Google, Facebook and the other online tools allowing jurors to get external – and disallowed – information on the case they must examine:

Last week, a Maryland appeals court upended a first-degree murder conviction because a juror consulted Wikipedia for trial information. Earlier this year, the appeals judges erased a conviction for three counts of assault because a juror did cyberspace research and shared the findings with the rest of the jury. In a third recent trial, a juror’s admission to using his laptop for off-limits information jeopardized an attempted-murder trial.

On Friday, lawyers for Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon asked for a new trial in part because five of the jurors who convicted her of embezzlement Dec. 1 were communicating among themselves on Facebook during the deliberations period – and at least one of them received an outsider’s online opinion of what the verdict should be. The “Facebook Friends,” as Dixon’s lawyers call them in court documents, became a clique that the lawyers argue altered jury dynamics.

Link

More weak signals on media

Amazon sold more e-books than paper books:

Amazon noted that on Christmas Day, for the first time ever, Amazon customers bought more Kindle books than physical books. The company didn’t offer specific numbers for either category.

Link

This should be taken with a pinch of salt, as the Kindle was the most gifted item of the year, and all the owners fired up their device to promptly order books. So this is clearly an abherration, but still an interesting milestone. Coming after the recent news that online advertising surpassed TV in the UK:

Link

The e-somethings are finally coming into their own, fulfilling the promises made back in the 90s. Took some 20 years but we are getting there.

Do conference videos still work?

It’s one of the questions I am asking myself, after seeing a huge drop in view counts all around the web. Most conferences are impacted, and it seems we are entering a new era where audiences are getting saturated of good content. Yes, because that is change number one: online videos do not mean crap anymore. Check the best talks of Lift, TED, Leweb, Picnic, all offer fantastic performances by some of the world best speakers.

Back in 2006, when Lift was one of the first conference to publish its content online free (people thought I was crazy back then, “killing the need to attend”), we would get ten of thousands of views on the talks of Scoble, Cory Doctorow or Bruce Sterling. Years later, a great talk gets 5000 views, like Queen Rania’s recent speech at Leweb, Gunter Pauli at Lift France 09 or Kevin Kelly at TEDxAmsterdam. A notable exception is TED, getting between 10 and 20’000 views on their videos thanks to the talent and hard work of the team led by Jason Wishnow, who edits all the talks (one to two per week) to make them as impactful as possible.

vint.jpg
Vint Cerf at Lift09, one of my favorite Lift talk.

Still, you can see a change there. Look at TED’s most popular talks: most date from two to three years ago. Yes they had more time to be seen, and that might explain the difference in view count. But we are comparing millions to thousands. There is a clear drop here too, even if the numbers remain above the pack.

So what happened? Maybe:

  • Audiences are offered a huge choice, and almost all conferences are now sharing their talks online.  It is harder to stand out, and great content gets buried under the constant flow of information.
  • The way views are counted has improved. I learned ten days ago from Julien Hory that Dailymotion counts a view only after a couple of minutes, a time determined as the average viewing time on the site. Before you reach that mark, your view does not count. Cruel, we are not used to this, but it probably gives a much better view of reality.
  • Conferences are now spreading their videos on many platforms (Lift is on DailyMotion, Vimeo, Blip, Metacafe, Revver and Viddler to name a few), and the consolidated numbers are simply not available.
  • Are 20 minutes talks too long? The average video length on Youtube is 2 minutes 46.17 seconds, we are used to shorter, more impactful content while online.

Overall, I raise this question because shooting videos at conferences is a huge investment (around 100’000$ for Lift), and I wonder if videos are still the smartest way to use that money. We could do so much (dinners, parties, gifts) with that money the question at least needs to be raised.

Another question is the one of live streaming the conference. Loic and Géraldine Lemeur got 200’000 people watching the live stream, much more than on the archived videos of this year’s edition. With time, the difference might become smaller – with the archive catching up on the live – but the gap is pretty impressive. Audiences seem to want to content now, not later. And they are the ones calling the shots. Time to evolve again?

Hum, that will be one interesting chapter for the book on conferences I am starting with the help of 30 (and counting) of the most innovative conference organizers around.

Unintended consequences of LEDs

Progress is always a double edged sword, here comes another example:

Traffic lights using state-of-the-art LED illumination use 90 percent less electricity, offer a much longer service life and are more durable than their incandescent counterparts […] Unfortunately, the low-watt LED units burn much cooler than its white-hot counterpart making it unable to melt snow off weather exposed traffic fixtures.

Link

With the work needed to clear the lights (“compressed air”, “city workers to brush the snow off by hand”) what is the true benefit of these in terms of carbon emission?

About youth

Two quick links before going offline for the week-end:

A Belgium study reveals a divide among the 16-25. Most of them are good at chatting, watching videos and downloading, but some remain unable to accomplish the online tasks that “society expects from them”, like filling out an online form.

The conclusions of your study undermine some ideas about the generation of “digital natives”, which is generally believed to master the new information and communication technologies.

This is not quite the case. We wanted to examine the case of so-called “off-line” youth, which have virtually no use of Internet and computer tools. In reality, only a minority of 16-25 years are cut off from these tools. But for some of them, it is very difficult to cross the bridge between “their” Internet world – chat, downloading or listening to music and videos online – and the usage that society expects of them, starting with their employers.

It would thus be a second “digital divide”?

Yes, but it does not separate those who have Web access and those who do not have access. It is a gap between a world of entertainment and a larger universe. The skills deployed in the two worlds are not the same: to chat and lay out a document do not use the same skills, for example. During the study, facilitators of employment centers have explained that some young people took fright at an electronic registration form, while they spend maybe ten hours a day on the Web to listen music or talking with their friends.

Link (in Google english here)

I also did a quick interview (in French) for the radio of a local college here in Brittany. A fun and interesting discussion touching on innovation and education. It is one of these “expat” moment, for the Swiss I’m French, for the French I’m Swiss 😉

Entrepreneur suisse et co-créateur de la conférence internationale Lift. Il nous donne son point vue sur l’évolution des comportements sociaux liés à l’utilisation et au développement des nouvelles technologies.

Link

Want to help write a book on conferences?

I am getting more and more involved in the meeting industry, helping others take their events to the level, giving talks at EIBTM or ICCA. I start to realize that the knowledge acquired through the organization of Lift is extremely valuable, coming from a fresh perspective, built on a community consistently challenging us to come up with innovative propositions.

As time passes, I am starting to think that a book would be a great way to avoid repeating the same things over and over again – read the book! – and take that conversation about events organization (a real passion for me) to the next level.

Inspired by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel’s Naked conversations, stealing a page from Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur’s playbook, relying on the principles I have always applied to my work (collaboration and transparency), I am writing today to gauge interest from my readers and friends in such a project. Would you be interested in helping, contributing ideas and pointers to a dynamic text to be printed as a book? Would you be interested in reviewing chapters as they are written, discussing formats, pricing (see my post @ Lift today), community involvement, partners and speakers management, and more? I would love to turn this into a collaborative effort!

Contact me using the comments or on laurent@liftlab.com.