I read a book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Until recently, Clay Shirky was best known as the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The book  was widely praised (seriously, Boing Boing calls it a “masterpiece”) and is still referenced  by social media strategist/expert/guru types as a must-read for anyone looking to explore the social dynamics that drive the use of technology, which at the time (and even now, to a certain extent) is not what drives most conversation about the internet and social media in particular.

Rather than focusing the catalyst of online social behavior on specific technologies  (i.e. what makes Facebook so popular?) Shirky argued that social tools facilitates common group behavior, conversation and social interaction. At the time, the beginning of Facebook’s online dominance and in the midst of growing fascination and panic about social media from the mainstream press. Shirky presented a reasoned, articulate and well-researched argument that the idea of “crowdsourcing” was not a new idea, but actually rooted in common, even traditional social interaction. The Internet just made that interaction happen more widely and more rapidly.

If you talk to any social media/internet  “expert” or “enthusiast” these days, this perspective is seen as common knowledge, but without Shirky’s well-presented theory and research to bolster this theory it wouldn’t have taken root.

In 2010, you’d think that this argument wouldn’t need repeating or clarification, but as traditional media continues to evolve and digital use continues to grow and become more ubiquitous, the panic of social theorists and mainstream media commentators continues unabated. The continuing debate of whether the Internet makes you smarter or more stupid seems to have a new chapter each day, but in Cognitive Surplus, Shirky’s latest book, he does add fuel to that fire, but also offers a modified version of his Here Comes Everybody thesis: The Internet has given us the tools to create, publish and share media  faster, cheaper and with more people than ever before

Shirky’s revised thesis is the reason that I think Cognitive Surplus is a must-read (there’s that term again) for media professionals in every field.

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Book Review: David Bollier’s Viral Spiral: how the commoners built a digital republic of their own

David Bollier’s Viral spiral : how the commoners built a digital republic of their own is a very good book with a horrible title. While there are many books about various elements of free/open-source software (like GNU/Linux), Creative Commons licenses, peer production (remix and mashups), and open models for success (Wikipedia, open science, open education, and open business), I think this is the first book to discuss these within the context of a social history.

So why is a social history so important? There are other books that discuss what the commons is or what it could be, but this is the first book to truly try to capture the process of creating the framework for the commons by theorists and practitioners. In reading several sections, especially on Creative Commons, I felt like I understood better how the process evolved. Where we are now doesn’t just happen, people create it, and there are missteps and corrections made. Viral Spiral helps to see the warts-n-all process, rather than just showing things as they are now.

So what are the issues with the book?

First, the term, viral spiral. Just no. Bollier does make a good argument for his term — but it just doesn’t have the right sound to it — or capture the holisticness of the idea. My suggestion would be participatory meme (but even that doesn’t quite get there). Maybe Henry Jenkins’ term, convergence culture?

Viral spiral is apt … because it suggests a process of change that is anything but clean, direct, and mechanical. …  Life on the Internet does not take place on a stable Cartesian grid—orderly, timeless, universal—but on a constantly pulsating, dynamic, and labyrinthine web of finely interconnected threads radiating through countless nodes. … Viral spiral calls attention to the holistic and historical dynamics of life on the Web, which has a very different metaphysical feel than the world of twentieth-century media.

Second, considering my interest in fans and fandom, it is interesting how few mentions of fandom there are in the book — excepting musical fandoms. There is the requisite Nine Inch Nails Ghosts mention and a discussion of the Grateful Dead bootleg policy (but no mention of the subsequent changes in policy).

Relatedly, there is nary a mention of pre-internetz created remix / fanworks forms such as vidding and fanfic — and therefore, this social history is incomplete, especially as related to (often-gendered-as) girl or women commoning activities. Additionally, since the book focuses on the names that made this possible (important for a social history), it ironically glosses over many of the small contributions of the commoners.

The gaps in the social history exist, but everything that is in this book is valuable, and likely would be lost but for this book. And this is the win quote from the book:

Individuals working with one another via social networks are a growing force in our economy and society. The phenomenon has many manifestations, and goes by many names—”peer production,” “social production,” “smart mobs,” the “wisdom of crowds,” “crowdsourcing,” and “the commons.” The basic point is that socially created value is increasingly competing with conventional markets, as GNU/Linux has famously shown. Through an open, accessible commons, one can efficiently tap into the “wisdom of the crowd,” nurture experimentation, accelerate innovation, and foster new forms of democratic practice.

This is why so many ordinary people—without necessarily having degrees, institutional affiliations or wealth—are embarking upon projects that, in big and small ways, are building a new order of culture and commerce.

The book has a Creative Commons license and is available as a free e-book; however, it is only available as a whole — rather than also as individual chapters. I understand this way makes statistical analysis of downloads easier — but sometimes one only wants to look at one chapter — or references!

Book Review: Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy

Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, is the highly recommended third book by Laurence Lessig, focusing on why and how copyright laws need to be changed to allow for greater innovation. If you’ve read the two previous books The future of ideas: the fate of the commons in a connected world and Free culture: the nature and future of creativity — or heard one of Lessig’s exciting lectures, much of Remix will seem familiar, remixed with new examples of copyright owners pushing their rights beyond culturally acceptable bounds and why the time frame for copyright should be shortened, allowing works to enter the public domain.

But this book demonstrates the value of remixing, adding a lengthy discussion of the economics of two types of culture — commercial and sharing.

A commercial economy [is centered on] money or “price” [as] a central term of the ordinary, or normal exchange.

Of all the possible terms for exchange within a sharing economy, the single term that isn’t appropriate is money.

But Lessig discusses a combination between the commercial economy and the sharing economy — the hybrid economy:

The hybrid is either a commercial entity that aims to leverage value from a sharing economy, or it is a sharing economy that builds a commercial entity to better support its sharing aims.

If those within the sharing economy begin to think of themselves as tools of a commercial economy, they will be less willing to play. If those within a commercial economy begin to think of it as a sharing economy, that may reduce their focus on economic reward.

Much of Lessig’s discussion about hybrid economies is applicable to fan culture and other examples of participatory culture and user-generated content. He does use the examples of Harry Potter fandom (relying heavily on Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture) and Second Life.

We’ll be using this section extensively in our future writings, so our readers will be seeing much more of the ideas in Remix.

Blogging May Not Be Dead But Live Journal Could Be

alivejournal2Uh-oh. According to Mashable, LiveJournal, of blogging’s old warhorses, is in some big financial trouble:

The company has reportedly laid off 20 of 28 employees, “leaving only a handful of finance and operations workers.”

As the Mashable article implies, MySpace and Facebook currently dominate when it comes to social media, and personal blogging is on the wane, for the most part. Most non-fandom oriented bloggers I know abandoned LJ for Blogger or TypePad years ago.

I joined LJ back in 1999-2000, mostly to follow specific fan communities that made a home there at the time, but even then I did my personal blogging on Blogger, and only kept up my LJ account to follow “Friends Only” accounts and communities like Oh No They Didn’t or Fandom Wank, when it was housed there. But blogging – and fandom activity – has certainly changed, much as it did when many e-mail discussion groups were abandoned for LJ in the early ’00’s.

LJ’s impending demise has been a long time in coming, I believe, considering the steady account erosion that started several years ago, and it certainly may have some correlation to the fans that abandoned LJ in the wake of “Strikethough/Boldthrough”, the primarily fan-community driven backlash was spurred by LiveJournal’s parent company, Six Apart, suspending user accounts deemed sexually explicit or “harmful to children.” Since a lot of fan-fiction writing communities (particularly the Harry Potter fanfic writers) were among the few that remained on LJ after the blogging masses moved on, Strikethrough was kind of the death knell for LJ, when those communities eventually moved on to open-source alternatives like GreatestJournal, insanejournal, JournalFen, etc., especially after Six Apart sold LJ to Russian software company SUP.

There’s a lot of contention about Six Apart/SUP and how the companies dealt with some of their most dedicated consumers – fangirls, for the most part. But regardless of that, with the fluid migration of social media audiences and fan communities being a constant, I think the eventual decline of LJ was inevitable.

Book Review: The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind

James Boyle’s The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind is an excellent overview of the complexity of the modern intellectual property system. This book builds upon the works of the popularizers of copyright scholarship, including Lawrence Lessig, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Yochai Benkler.

This would be an excellent book to teach a survey class (or for self-study) on IP issues, considering it touches on many cutting edge legal and public policy issues (and does not shirk on patent law).  There are more distinguished reviewers who will be able to critique the substance of the argument — therefore the remainder of this review will focus on this book as a knowledge provider.

The gift (of knowledge) that keeps giving

The Public Domain has a very unique copyright statement. It starts with the usual (c) statement of “All rights reserved” but does not end there, by acknowledging fair use and other rights under sections 107 and 108 (though it would be nice if they were delineated rather than lawyer-talk).

But by far the most unique aspect is the listing of the website of the online version, available under a Creative Commons license. While other authors, such as Lessig, have released online versions of their books, these releases have not been simultaneous with the print version. To my (present) knowledge, only Yale University Press (also publisher of Benkler’s Wealth of Networks) has allowed for readers of the print and online versions to read the same materials from publication date.

Yale University Press, the publisher, thinks it is financially feasible to both allow the author to retain the copyright — and to have the entire book available online. I hope this strategy works because it has led to at least two purchases (this review is based on my physical copy and my library is buying another) and you reading this should consider buying a copy too!

Fandom matters

I don’t really know if James Boyle is a music fan, but he writes like one. In my favorite section of the book, Chapter 6 describes the musical history of a single song back to 1904— George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People. Like Vaidhyanathan’s description of the H.R. Pufnstuf / McDonaldland case in Copyrights and Copywrongs, the detailed description is fantastic.

One of the most important aspects of this section is showing how blurry the line is between parody (has greater legal protection) and satire. When Kayne West in Golddigger uses a sample of a Ray Charles song about a profusely giving woman sung by Jamie Foxx (who starred as Ray Charles in his biopic) to describe “a predatory, sensual, and materialistic woman” is it parody, satire or homage? And when that song’s similar sample is used as “a lyrical and profane condemnation of the response to Katrina by both the government and the media,” especially George Bush what type of legal protection (or not) should the samplel have? Boyle does an excellect job of demonsrating how musical compositions build upon each other over time — disregarding legal consequences.

Where do we go from here?

Often when anyone starts research they do not know where to start and a very underutilized source of information is the bibliography / works cited (and the index!). Boyle’s Notes and Futher Readings Section is the best I’ve seen in a long time, with notations for both the novice and those doing in-depth research. For example, the notes for Chapter 6 are divided into further reading,musical history, musical borrowing, music and copyright law, the people and the music, and citations. I am so pleased that the phrase “single best starting point” is employed in the notes section! The Notes section will be useful to researchers for many years to come.

NIN on Google Earth

Bless his geeky heart, Uncle Trent is at it again. He’s released download statistics for The Slip on Google Earth. Since my job is about using “emerging media” to engage an audience , and I am also a slobbering NIN fan, the whole approach of using freeware and Open Source (google, flickr, YouTube, blogger, you name it) to communicate with fans is really a case study for me. It’s working, and it’s something for organizations, not just musicians to watch closely. Not to mention this goes back to understanding and trusting your audience. Knowing that NIN fans are notoriously geeky tech savvy and trusting them enough to release this information in a format they’d relate to.