Public vs. Publicized: Future of the Web at WWW2010

It is somewhat hard to grok how much a Big Deal the WWW2010 conference is when it’s happening in one’s own backyard. After all, all I had to do was drop the kids at school a little earlier each morning and drive down to Raleigh, through the familiar downtown streets, park in a familiar parking lot, and enter a familiar convention center, just to immediately bump into familiar people – the ‘home team’ of people I have been seeing at blogger meetups, tweetups and other events for years, like Paul Jones, Ruby Sinreich, Fred Stutzman, Ryan Boyles, Wayne Sutton, Kim Ashley, Henrey Copeland and others. 

But it is a Big Deal. It is the ‘official’ conference of the World Wide Web. Yup, Tim Berners-Lee, the guy who invented the Web, was there. I saw him, though I did not talk to him. I mean, what excuse could I come up with to approach him? Ask him to autograph my web browser?

This year, WWW2010 (which everyone pronounced as ‘dub-dub-dub-twenty-ten’ reminding me of a cardiac arrhythmia), was really four conferences fused into one, or rather three other conferences piggybacking onto the main program: Web Science Conference 2010, 7th International Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility and the one I was most interested in (and could afford to attend) the FutureWeb conference.

Of course, whenever I go to a conference I do two things: one is what everyone does – try to learn as much as possible and meet interesting people; the other thing is a professional deformation of sorts – I observe the details of the organization and try to figure out how to use what I see for the next ScienceOnline.

This is the second conference I attended at the Raleigh Convention Center and this time I felt better about the space – it did not seem so overwhelmingly enormous this time. Perhaps there were more people this time. Or perhaps it’s because the place was filled with vendor booths, including by Google, Facebook, and RedHat. Or perhaps the organizers used the space better. Or perhaps the people were less formal in their dress, behavior and mindset which made the whole experience more pleasurable.

Number 1 requirement for a conference is coffee. And there was plentiful, at all times, both on the ground floor and upstairs, as well as pastries, cake and fruit. Grade: A

Number 2 requirement for a conference is good, free wifi with tons of bandwidth. And WWW2010 got it. It was just as stable and just as fast as at ScienceOnline2010, which says something ;-) Grade: A+

Number 3 are people. Apart from the ‘home team’ I mentioned above, it was great to finally meet some of the interesting locals that I only knew from online before, including the entire HASTAC crew led by Cathy Davidson, Annie Anton (watch this video where I first heard of her some time ago), Paolo Mangiafico, Greg Corrin and Nega Mottahedeh. And then the non-locals, e.g., Doc Searls and Kathy Gill. 

It was also great to see again, after quite a while, old friends – Danah Boyd, Dan Conover, Janet Edens, Hilary Spenser, Kate of Save Our Sounds who I first met at the AAAS meeting in San Diego back in February. I really wanted to catch up with Dan and Janet so we went out to dinner and drinks on Thursday afternoon and spent hours talking. Grade: A+

Number 4 requirement for a successful conference is an engaged audience. And there sure was – check out the #fw2010 (futureweb) and #www2010 tweets – there were lots! And people on several panels were really good at monitoring the twitter backchannel and even tweeting themselves during their sessions (Negar Mottahedeh was the champion of this!).

Unfortunately some of the panels were more corporate in tone, with PowerPoint presentations and barely any interaction with the audience besides a couple of Q&As at the very end. In the Public Health session all but the last panelist have even left the room before we could ask them any questions, for example. Oh well, can’t have everything.

Certainly Keynotes are, by design, one-to-many, and most panels I attended were quite nicely many-to-many in a very unconference-y style (especially the one on Social Media where the dialogue between the panelists and the audience started right at the beginning), so it’s a bummer that some of the more corporate as well as more academic types did not grok it or were not specifically trained for a modern conference format. Grade: B

Number 5 in my book is diversity. While the attendees as a whole seemed quite balanced and diverse, the talks and panels were quite white-male-dominated or white-male-exclusive, with just a couple of great exceptions, most notably Danah Boyd. The opposing goals of having the people with the greatest name recognition (which are marketing gold for a meeting) or having a diverse group in which everyone feels comfortable and “an insider” are hard to reconcile. It is not surprising that WWW2010, being so Big Deal, erred somewhat toward the former, while smaller, more obscure conferences (like #scio10) can push more for the latter. But don’t get me wrong – I’ve been to many conferences with a much higher testosterone concentration (and lower melanin) than this one, it just wasn’t quite as perfect as theoretically possible. Grade: B-

Number 5 is the program itself. And that was good. Of course, I had to choose what to attend at each time-slot, but there is excellent coverage and videos of everything here, so you can take your own picks. Part of the deal with FutureWeb conference was that we could also attend three of the main WWW2010 Keynote lectures, by Vint Cerf (Google vice president and chief Internet evangelist), Danah Boyd (Microsoft and Harvard University’s Berkman Center) and Carl Malamud (president and founder of ) so I did not waste that opportunity and attended all three. Cerf was impressive on search, cloud computing, and universal access. Malamud was funny, yet wise, with his advice on how to deal with bureaucracies with outdated ways of thinking and still get things done.

For me, Danah Boyd’s talk was the very best hour of the entire conference – I had to stop live-tweeting as I wanted to listen and focus. Danah packs her talks with information and insight and I did not want to miss anything. And I was not disappointed. Both in her keynote address and the interview immediately afterwards, Danah stressed several points but I want to highlight two:

First, many people are now harvesting information from social networks and running it through mathematical models. Then they get smug about it and assume more than data warrant. Just because you collected a huge number of tweets, for example, does not mean that your sample is representative – which racial, socioeconomic and age groups tend to keep their accounts private, or tend not to use hashtags, keywords or Twitter conventions the way others do? You missed them. And even if you didn’t, are the results of the analysis meaningful. Data, like Soylent Green, are People. Without looking at who they are, what they say and why they say it, the most impressive computing models are suspect.

Second, there is a difference between Public and Publicized. If you put something online with a hope it will go viral and be seen by as many strangers as possible, you have done broadcasting – what you did was Publicizing. But if you put something online with an unspoken understanding that it is targeted at a relatively limited number of people, usually personal friends (on Facebook) or regular readership (on blogs and Twitter), that is only Public, not Publicized. Taking that kind of stuff posted online by someone and spreading it to a much wider audience of strangers (or using that data for ‘scientific research’) is a violation of privacy. It is at best unthinking and tone-deaf, at worst unethical.

And this is the category error that Facebook just made with their new privacy rules. There is a lot of writing online about Facebook settings these days, and the mood of WWW2010 was decidedly anti-Facebook. Some people ‘unliked’ all their ‘likes’ there during sessions discussing privacy. Someone even deleted his Facebook account right on the spot, after Danah’s keynote.

Everyone knows that everything you post online is ‘fair game’, it is googleable, findable and potentially spreadable. This is the reason why some people need to be anonymous or pseudonymous online. But putting stuff online is not automatically a licence for everyone and anyone to take it and spread it around. Before you do this to someone, stop and think. Perhaps ask if that is OK. Much of the stuff posted online is posted online to make it easy for friends and grandma to see, not for all the world to see. Not every Facebook status update or every tweet is a news broadcast. Turn on your brain before you start treating Public (but meant to be limited) communication between friends into a Publicized flashing banner on every corner of the Internet. Remember that people who post stuff online are Soylent Green – they are People.

A great recent example of something Public becoming Publicized against the original intentions of the author was #boobquake. The original idea was an inside joke, meant to be read by perhaps a thousand regular blog readers, some Twitter followers and Facebook friends, not much more. But then someone came in and took it and ran with it. Suddenly this went viral. What could she do? How to deal with this sudden change in expectations? One solution would have been to delete everything and lock everything down – it was not yours to take in the first place, so now you won’t be able to see it and spread it any more. The other solution, the one Jen McCreight chose, was to play along and to switch from Public to Publicized and milk that moment of fame for all its worth and for a good cause. But for this to work, she needed to rethink and rewrite the original to make it fit for Publicized consumption, so she wrote an update with clarification and then a number of updates about the phenomenon. It was out of her hands, but she could still steer it to some extent and make sure it gets used for the intended purpose. Good for her – but she is an experienced blogger, and an activist with an agenda. What if it was some kid, or n00b, or grandma, completely unprepared for it all? Was it her fault she put stuff online? No, you were a schmuck to take her stuff and run with it. Perhaps unethical.

See the full text of Danah’s talk for more details, and a recent interview with her on the topic.

Later that day I attended (and vigorously participated from my seat in the front row) the Future of Social Networks and the Internet panel with Chris DiBona, Henry Copeland, Zeynep Tufekci, Dave Recordon and Wayne Sutton, moderated by Fred Stutzman. Henry reminded us that it took 150 years after Gutenberg printed a bible until the founding of the first daily newspaper and that the current situation on the Web is far too early (the oldest blogs are 13 years old) to be considered developed and mature. We need to be patient and watch, not proclaim the experiment a success or a failure so early in its history. Several mentions of the Dunbar Number, in some cases used correctly, in others not, reminded me I need to get back to my project of studying the application of the concept to the Web and writing a piece about it, as much of the discussion focused on the way the Web is affecting our relationships in the real world, for better or for worse.

The Future of the Media panel was the most contentious. Out of six people on it, there was a clear split down the middle: three people who ‘get it’ and three who don’t – on one side were Michael Clemente (lumbering dinosaur), Sam Matheny (a more limber dinosaur), Penny Muse Abernathy (a bird-like dinosaur), still walking yet fully unaware they are already extinct, and on the other side were highly evolved birds: Paul Jones, Dan Conover and Doc Searls. One has to give it to Michael Clemente – knowing that the camera’s rolling and everyone’s livetweeting, he stuck to his Fox News talking points, even asserting, with a straight face, that there is a wall between news and editorial content on Fox News (though that was devastatingly demonstrated to be wrong by John Steward  – the opinionators make the news which the news-heads report the next day).

I came in a little late (as our waiters at lunch were incredibly slow with food and checks) into The Future of Privacy and the Internet session, with a star-studded collection of panelists, including Annie Antón of NCSU who I wanted to meet for quite a while. Much was said about legal and policy aspects of privacy. Antón noted that privacy settings on many social networking sites, including Facebook, are complex and counter-intuitive and that many people (aside from techies) do not know what these are and how to set them. She also said that this is not a generational issue – some people know and some don’t regardless of age. But I think that this will change with time – both the people’s skills at controlling their privacy and the societal understanding of what privacy means and where to draw the line. In 20 years, when the employers are all people with decades experience online, they will find Facebook profiles (or equivalent) completely devoid of humanizing elements (including drinking party pictures) suspect – is this person really that boring or is that an intentionally clean profile of someone with Presidential (or at least Harvard) aspirations? People will, over the years, become increasingly better at managing their online personas, making sure that searches bring up to the top both their accomplishments and their human sides in perfect measures.

The Future of Public Health session was the biggest disappointment for me. It was not even a panel – four people got up, gave their PowerPoint presentations and left the room before any questions could be asked. And their presentations fell short of my expectations – I know how much stuff is going on out there, but each speaker focused only on what he/she is currently working on, their own projects, not the state of the field as a whole.

Finally, the conference ended with a Bang – an exciting panel on The Future of Learning: 

“Session organizer was Cathy Davidson co-founder of HASTAC – the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory ( Panelists included Laurent Dubois, a Duke University historian of French colonialism and the Caribbean; Mark Anthony Neal, accomplished author, one of the foremost scholars of Black popular culture in America and blogger at the New Black Man website; Negar Mottahedeh, she received national notice for staging the first-ever Twitter Film Festival as well as for serving as a communications node in the Iranian election protests.; Tony O’Driscoll, co-author of “Learning in 3D: Adding a New Dimension to Enterprise Learning and Collaboration.””

These people are all on the cutting edge of the educational revolution involving understanding the way technology (Web) is changing the world, the way students operate, and the way education should be done. Their students use the Web in the classroom, publicly grade each other (leading to a much greater motivation and effort and greater quality of work), use Twitter to communicate, and are savvy at using the Web to find information. One person in the audience said that ‘if I open my laptop, my focus on you, the teacher, drops down from 100% to 0%’, I got up and said ‘if I open my laptop and you have a problem with me not listening – you are doing it wrong: you are standing in front and talking. Instead, you should be here with me, next to me, working with me on my laptop.’ I also added that there is an existing model for a more engaging model of a teacher-student relationship and that is graduate school where the teacher/mentor does not lecture, but assigns a project and mentors the student through it.

Program – grade: A

I want to end this summary with a huge Kudos to the Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, an Elon/Pew Internet Project which has been ongoing for quite a few years now, guided by center director Janna Quitney Anderson. The Elon students from the project manned a booth, attended (anywhere between two and six of them per room) every session and manned the cameras (both the big professional camera and a bunch of little Flip cameras) in each session. They set up the website, covered every single session and talk with a nice blog post and associated articles and videos, live tweeted, used Facebook for organizing and archiving stuff, collected photographs on Flickr and videos on YouTube. They were not just very good, but also very fast – before a session is over the clips from its beginning were already up on YouTube! And at least one of them writes an insightful blog – Kassondra Cloos. Grade: A+

The video coverage was so awesome (and it was the weakest aspect of ScienceOnline2010 organization), that I am seriously considering hiring the Elon student crew to do the same job at ScienceOnline2011. I’ll be in touch with them soon.

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