Journalists are re-thinking journalism, will politicians re-think politics?

[DPI-659 #4]

Journalists have a lot to teach politicians. Both professions love status quo and have a really hard time trying to understand the tectonic shifts that are undermining their traditional way of doing things. But journalists are genuinely trying to re-think Journalism and adapt it to the current times (mostly because they cannot afford status quo), while politicians are extremely comfortable with how things have worked for the past two centuries and prefer not to think about any changes (because they still can afford status quo).

The following cartoon brilliantly introduces the topic, and, besides describing journalists, it could work as well for politicians if the desk tag said “president” or “senator”. Both professions are dominated by dinosaurs that just see the Internet as the need for a web site and nothing else.

journalism 2.0

To have a feeling about the debate journalists are having among them, I recommend starting by reading the New York Times Innovation Report (here you have a condensed summary), which was meant to be a confidential report for the NYT newsroom management but was leaked to the masses. The report is great for outsiders to understand their thinking because it is brutally honest about how they are lagging behind because of their lack of understanding of the digital age. Actually, some lines in its introduction depict extremely well the dinosaurs cartoon:

we have watched the dizzying growth of smartphones and tablets, even as we are still figuring out the web. We have watched the massive migration of readers to social media even as we were redesigning our home page.

Although the specific recommendations for a newspaper are very different than those for a government (given their different natures and purposes), the NYT report accurately describes five important requirements that are needed for both re-thinking processes to be meaningful. Those requirements could guide very well the re-thinking of governance, but unfortunately (most) politicians have done almost nothing about them so far. Namely:

  1. Take more time to assess the landscape and chart the road ahead:
    Politicians hardly understand the Internet and the changes it’s driving in the societies they govern.
  2. Rethink print-centric traditions:
    Representative-centric and bureaucracy-centric traditions (that were born in the late 18th century) are deeply embedded in the mindset of politicians, who cannot even think about alternatives in which citizens are empowered to participate and to control government affairs.
  3. Use experiments and data to inform decisions:
    Experiments? Data? What are you taking about?
  4. Hire and empower the right digital talent:
    This is a very hard challenge. Governments have such a reputation of being slow and bureaucratic that digital talent usually escape from it and flow into the private sector, with a preference for dynamic tech startups. Anyways, promising work has been done by the nonprofit Code for America and its international partners, who place developers in local governments with a very innovative model and fantastic results.
  5. Work hand in hand with reader-focused departments:
    Taking the effort to really understand citizens hasn’t been a priority for most politicians, who spend most of their time trying to understand donors, lobbyists and other politicians.

Journalists are slowly starting to embrace change because they had no choice, and politicians are far from embracing change because status quo is still working for them. But we as citizens have the power to force politicians to embrace change (hardest plan) and/or to become politicians ourselves committed to embrace change (hard-plan-but-not-as-much).

Diving into Wikipedia’s quality debate

[DPI-659 #3] [my wikipedia account]

Quality is the big contested topic when discussing the reputation and usefulness of Wikipedia, as illustrated by these 2 competing memes:

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 2.26.17 AM

At the same time, within the WikiMedia family there are several quality review systems, what proves that there is no clear consensus on how to measure quality. To have a feeling of the debate about this in the Wikipedia community, check this failed proposal of a rating system.

The purpose of this post is to evaluate a random Wikipedia article, as a sample that could be useful to assess Wikipedia’s usefulness. But it won’t be totally random, because to be meaningful it needs to be about a topic I’m familiar with, so I’ll do it about the article on the Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit. And for this post I’ll use the quality review system by the WikiProject United States Public Policy (explained here), which, despite being an inactive WikiProject, is useful because of its similarity and complementarity to the official Wikipedia quality criteria (the main difference is that it doesn’t take into account Edit Wars).

As an introduction, we must note that the article is the outcome of the collaborative work of 554 editors (see revisions stats), who implemented over 1000 revisions in the past 7 years since the Democracy Index was first published. And the article has decent traffic, averaging 24000 views per month.

To give you an idea about the content of the article (which has over 1000 words), I created this word cloud (using Wordle), which surfaces “Democracy”, “Countries” and “Index” as the most used words:

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 1.42.09 AM

To evaluate the article, I’ll use the 6 main criteria of the WikiProject USPP system:

  • Comprehensiveness: the article is extremely comprehensive in describing the index per se and provides all relevant details (i.e. is a pretty good summary of the official reports), but:
    • it is outdated, with all the facts listed being from the 2012 edition from the index, ignoring the latest edition from December 2013 (it’s been 10 months already and nobody substantially updated it, despite witnessing 34 edits throughout 2014).
    • it fails in providing context information, namely:
      • besides briefly mentioning an alternative indicator (that one of Freedom House), it doesn’t mention other “competitor” indicators to measure democracy (such as the ones by Polity IV, Vanhanen, IDEA, or Przeworski et al);
      • it doesn’t mention at all the field in which this index is nested: the long theoretical debate about how to measure democracy;
      • it doesn’t include criticisms of its methodology.
  • Sourcing: the quality of the cited sources isn’t impressive and is quite limited (it’s only 7 sources, of which 3 are links to old editions of the index -what further makes you question why only 3 out of 7 instead of all of them-).
  • Neutrality: the article definitely gets it well in terms of a neutral point of view.
  • Readability: the article is pretty readable and well written, but its structure could be improved; i.e. the “Changes from 2010 to 2011 and 2012″ section should be the last one (instead of being in the middle of the article).
  • Formatting: the article closely adheres to the Wikipedia Manual of Style, what indicates that the editors are well familiarized with it.
  • Illustrations: the article is very well illustrated.

As a conclusion, the article has some significant flaws, but still is the most comprehensive resource to find out about the topic (outside the official resources). And despite being well linked to many additional resources, leveraging on Wikipedia’s overwhelming information repository, it fails to provide context about and/or link to a comprehensive view of the field. And lastly, it surprisingly failed to fulfill one of its killing features: it was outdated, ignoring the 2013 edition.

So next time to dive into Wikipedia, remember that it’s not truth set in stone, although it’s a fantastic intro to most of the world’s knowledge.


Proclaiming Democracy, Practicing Autocracy

[not a DPI-659 post]

Inspiring fact: Democracy is a universal ideal, with an overwhelming majority of countries describing themselves as democratic in their constitutions. To be precise, it’s all of them except 20 (but it’s even better because 13 of those 20 are in fact democracies), as explained by Xavier Marquez using the Constitute Project data.

Sad reality: 53% of the world’s population live in authoritarian regimes, 36% in flawed democracies (like mine in Argentina), and only 11% in proper democracies (I’m including “hybrid regimes” in the authoritarian bucket, since that label simply means “pretty-authoritarian-but-not-thaaaat-bad”). Data comes from the latest Democracy Index report by the Economist Intelligence Unit:

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 7.58.35 PM

To make it worse, if the “Full democracies” category was broken down, we would have only 1.4% of the world’s population living in “Really-full-democracies” and the remaining 9.6% in “Not-that-flawed-democracies”; the lucky democratic folks are those in Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Canada and Finland. The way to break it down it is by simply separating those countries that got a score between 8 and 10 (it’s a 1-10 points index), into the buckets 8-8.99 and 9-10.

It’s important to make this distinction, because the “Full democracy” label is a very strong definition with a sort-of-congratulatory connotation. Those 9 countries (with that always predictable Nordic majority) are way more democratic than the US and Spain for example, and that should be reflected in the Economist’s Democracy Index.

So, sad conclusion: despite the almost universal acclamation of democracy, 53% of the world’s population live in authoritarian regimes and only 1.4% live in “Really-full-democracies” :(

Democracy, Social Media, and the #UmbrellaRevolution

[DPI-659 #2]

Chinese autocrats deeply dislike dissenters (and, sadly, they are pretty efficient in silencing them), and dislike them even more if they wave Democracy flags, given the potential of the condemned “D” word to trigger further dissent. That’s why Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution is driving the Chinese Communist Party crazy, and social media only makes things worse.


Let’s look closer at the Umbrella Revolution as an excuse to analyze the underlying forces behind it, reviewing the interaction of democracy and technology.

Fighting for Democracy with Social Media

When looking at the social media activity around the Umbrella Revolution, it becomes apparent that it’s a powerful tool for pro-democracy activists. In the past 4 days, more than 1.3 million tweets have been recorded about the protests:

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 1.04.27 AM

Social media, which is not banned in Hong Kong as in mainland China, has been the tool used by Occupy Central (the main organization behind the protests) to coordinate and communicate with its supporters, practicing the “Ridiculously easy group-forming” I analyzed recently. This brings to mind the case of the Arab Spring pro-democracy revolutions, which also relied heavily on social media, as powerfully illustrated by Wael Ghonim’s Revolution 2.0. As Rheingold explains in his book (ch 5), the Reed nature of the Internet radically disrupted the Sarnoff nature of previous media, with which autocrats felt more comfortable.

To make things even worse for the regime, the Umbrella Revolution can be watched live on YouTube (it has been streamed for the past 3 days already) and thousands of videos about the protests have been uploaded by Hong Kong ordinary citizens. YouTube has proven to be a great social media tool for human rights activists, given the power of video to mobilize people.

Practicing Democracy with Social Media

At the same time, social media has proven to be a powerful tool to practice democracy in societies that achieved what Hong Kongers are fighting for. For the first time there is a political arena where citizens from modern societies can engage other citizens without the offline constraints of the pre-Internet era. Citizens can now express themselves in the modern Agora, discuss political issues with others and put pressure on their elected representatives.

This of course has some limitations:

  1. The Filter Bubble: as explained by Eli Pariser’s TED Talk, algorithmic personalization has the severe risk of exposing citizens only to like-minded opinions at the expense of controversial voices, anesthetizing our critical thinking and ability to participate in democratic deliberations (the pioneer of this concept was Cass Sunstein in his 2001 book Republic.Com). This was powerfully illustrated by Orgnet in this map about siloed Amazon book purchases:
    0808polemics-600x284To remedy this problem, besides the hard-to-implement idea of strengthening “Bridge people” like the ones described by Rheingold, I strongly suggest reading Jonathan Stray’s proposals, specially the one on diversity control features in filtering algorithms.
  2. In One Ear And Out The Other: elected representatives have strong incentives not to respond to their constituencies (as described by HKS’ Fung et al). Giving citizens a voice doesn’t mean that the government will listen. That’s why Democracy needs to start experimenting with “empowered participation”, i.e. giving real decision making power to citizens to enable their participation (what we are doing in Argentina with the Net Party, as well as in Participatory Budgeting initiatives). This is something specially promising at the local level, where, as Christakis and Fowler describe in their book about “Netville”, the Internet positively enhances interactions among local communities.
  3. Elites: aligned with Rheingold’s description of the power law curve (vis-a-vis the normal curve) and the Pareto principle (which recalls Anderson’s Long Tail concept), it happens that the voice of the “long tail of average citizens” receives minuscule attention compared to the voice of mainstream media elites in today’s Internet (as Matthew Hindman proved).

The Battle for Free Speech

Lastly, the Umbrella Revolution also brings to light the battle for free speech, a fundamental condition for Democracy. While in Western democracies the debate is around Network Neutrality and the role of “the Deciders” regulating hate speech in the tech giants, in China its about the very basics. There the enemy is the world famous Chinese Great Firewall, an intimidating censorship innovation to crush dissenters that already is being applied to the coverage of Hong Kong events in mainland China. For example, Instagram was recently shut down and a large number of posts have been deleted from Weibo:


At the same time, ICT innovations continue to surprise: fearing that the Chinese regime might tighten censorship of Hong Kong’s internet, more than 100,000 people in Hong Kong downloaded Fire Chat in the past 24 hours, as reported by the app’s developer. This is a wireless P2P messaging app (works phone-to-phone thru Bluetooth and Wi-Fi), and at one point on Sunday more than 30,000 people were using the app simultaneously in Hong Kong.

Ridiculously easy group-forming

[DPI-659 #1]

A lot is said these days about the “2.0 nature” of the web, entailing some important implications for democracy (the topic of this brand new blog). In this first post I will reflect about the possibilities brought by the Internet that allow people to interact and collaborate in ways that were inconceivable some decades ago, to then link it to democracy. As starting points I’ll use Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody” and Tim O’Reilly’s What Is Web 2.0 article, which I strongly recommend.

Out of the two, Shirky’s is the most relevant (and engaging) one to understand the overall social and political implications of the Web 2.0. The main argument by Shirky is that the tectonic shift embodied by the Internet is about people using new tools to assemble and to do things together (given the drastic drop of transaction costs), bypassing traditional organizations and institutions. To summarize it, he quotes Seb Paquet’s statement about “ridiculously easy group-forming”. Shirky then continues to describe, in different chapters, the main kinds of group activity that emerge: sharing, cooperation, and collective action.

On the other hand, O’Reilly’s article has the merit of being one of the pioneering analysis of the Web 2.0 concept, being written in 2005 (with the unknown Facebook being only 1 year old and Twitter not even existing). At the same time, the article has the shortcoming of being written mostly to a business audience (hence disregarding the many non-business implications described by Shirky). But the shiny highlight of O’Reilly is that he is extremely accurate and relevant-to-2014 in describing the technicalities when explaining the 7 principles of the Web 2.0.

Collective Intelligence: scale of intent and complexity 

The main point of overlap of both authors is the Collective Intelligence concept, which is described pretty precisely by O’Reilly and which is implicit in Shirky’s analysis of the 3 group activities. O’Reilly does it by analyzing how some web applications are efficient by harnessing the unconscious contributions of millions of users (such as Cloudmark, Google and Amazon) or the voluntary contributions of users in platforms (such as Wikipedia, Flickr or eBay). While Shirky emphasizes the intended contributions of users with the purpose of engaging a group, paying special attention to the three kinds of group activity stated above.


And it’s the analysis of the different kinds of group activity that better describes the actual behaviour we observe over the Internet on a daily basis. He argues that the three kinds of activity can be categorized according to the difficulty to coordinate them. Sharing is the simplest one for a user, and it’s THE feature we know so well nowadays: we live in a society of “sharers”, we are constantly sharing all kind of stuff; be it through any social network, any chat app, or good ol’ email.

Then, cooperation is harder because of the need to synchronize behaviours of different people, but is remarkable for having achieved notorious impact throughout the web; the most notable and cited example is Wikipedia. And finally, collective action is the hardest given the binding nature to commit to a collective effort even if you don’t agree with the majoritarian decision (“rules for losing”), and is the one activity that is still rare in the Internet.

Implications for democracy

To connect these three kinds of group activity to the topic of this blog, we could say that the first two activities are already significantly influencing our democratic institutions. Regarding our ability to share, the Web 2.0 has revolutionized the media industry (a key player in democracy), with citizens participating in both the production of news (though they still are largely mainstream dominated, as Matthew Hindman proved) and its consumption (the mediate through sharing -or curating-).

Regarding our ability to cooperate, it is also already happening in our political systems through online political activism, be it in developed countries (such as the campaigns of Obama or Podemos), in developing countries (such as the Arab Spring activism or the Argentina’s Twitter political battles), or globally (such as the Avaaz or Greenpeace campaigns).

What we still haven’t seen is online collective action with “rules for losing”, within the political institutions. Back in Argentina we want to experiment with it in the Net Party, and many promising Participatory Budgeting initiatives are starting to implement it as well. And that’s what I’ll continue to explore in this blog throughout these two years at HKS.