Bowling Off-Topic: rethinking the echo-chamber

Image by drrt licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Interactions in online forums don’t fit so easily into Cass Sunstein’s arguments about the internet as echo-chamber. This argument is basically the oft-quoted claim about the internet fostering cyberbalkanization. Others have built on this claim by citing the lack of hyperlinks connecting left and right wing blogospheres as evidence for a decline in the ability to communicate with civility across ideological barriers (Adamic and Glance, 2005).

But when we expand scope of inquiry to include models of online interaction outside of the typical political blog platform, the notion of internet as echo-chamber becomes less clear. A variety of counter-examples from online fandom and other modes of interest-driven participatory culture suggest that Sunstein’s argument about the limitations of online communication may need to be re-evaluated.

One interesting area that emerged in our research over the past year is the role of off-topic subforums within larger interest-driven forums. These off-topic subforums provide a space for diverse conversation on the sidelines of an otherwise fairly homogeneous forum. In this sense, they seem to parallel the function of what Ray Oldenburg calls ‘third spaces’ — spaces where a heterogeneous group of people come together (in cafes, bars, and other establishments) to have casual interactions outside of work and domestic experience. For our purposes, the contrast to professional and domestic space is perhaps less salient, but the idea of “thirdness” is still relevant insofar as these subforums are neither the primary focus of the group nor are they explicitly coded as sites of civic action. Instead, they are something in between.
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News and Notes

Matea Gold from the LA Times covers the controversy among feminists surrounding The Daily Show’s newest hire, Olivia Munn, the first female correspondent in seven years.

“Pictures, videos and slogans on T-shirts are tools of modern expression, and with a phenomenon as omnipresent as Twilight, fans should be free to engage, manipulate, remix and remake,” writes Christina Mulligan in the Washington Post.

Laura McCann from Neiman Journalism Lab writes about a new Pew Internet and American Life Project on Americans’ mobile device and wireless habits, which finds that young people are using texts to make donations. McCann wonders what about the potential impact of Apple’s donation app ban.

TED Talk on the value for innovation of copying in fashion by USC’s Lear Center’s Johanna Blakley.

Tracing the traces in online spaces

Soldering Time Fun!

Each of this week’s recommended links is about getting down and dirty with the technological details of internet communication.

In a new paper, Geiger and Ribes offer a compelling picture of Wikipedia’s “vandal fighting” editors that largely departs from the existing literature. By engaging with the day-to-day practices of the vandal fighters, the researchers learned to make meaning of an overwhelming heap of Wikipedia data in order to reconstruct the scene of a malicious user being banned.

Joel Spolsky usually writes for an audience of computer programmers and this essay about character encoding is no exception. In and among the technical details, however, Spolsky’s history of the digitized alphabet is a parable about the growing pains of a global computing network. Two hexadecimal bytes represent 255 unique values: plenty of space for American engineers to store 26 lowercase letters, 26 uppercase letters, 10 Arabic numerals, and a handful of punctuation — but what happens when we start to trade files with colleagues overseas? How do today’s software designers account for the thousands upon thousands of characters used around the world?

Finally, Asheesh Laroia runs a fascinating workshop about web scraping at PyCon, the annual gathering of Python programmers. In this play-along-at-home presentation, he walks the audience through a variety of tools and techniques to automate data collection from nearly any resource on the web. Novice programmers should feel comfortable to jump right in. Laroia provides plenty of example code to play with.

  • Laroia, A. (2009) Scrape the Web: Strategies for programming websites that don’t expect it. [Video] PyCon, Chicago, May 8. Retrieved from:

(If you’re not yet a programmer but want to learn, Python is a great language for beginners. If you’re looking for an introductory book, try Think Python.)

On Boycotts and Buycotts: in our PDF readers

Here is a selection from what some of us are reading this week. Thoughts?

Michele Micheletti (2002). Consumer Choice as Political Participation. Statsvetenskaplig Tidskrift. 105 (3).

Dietlind Stolle and Michele Micheletti (2005). Politics in the Supermarket: Political Consumerism as a Form of Political Participation. International Political Science Review, 26 (3).

Richard A. Hawkins (2010). Boycotts, buycotts and consumer activism in a global context: An overview. Management & Organizational History, 5 (2).

Michele Micheletti and Dietlind Stolle (2008). Fashioning Social Justice through Political Consumerism, Capitalism, and the Internet. 22 (5).

“Mobile Publics” & “Flash Activism”: Comparing explanations for the socio-civic movements in the wake of Indian Idol 3 and Rang De Basanti

In this blog post, I take preliminary steps towards outlining the similarities and differences between the concept of “mobile publics” proffered by Aswin Punathambekar (forthcoming) to characterize the fan activism generated in the Indian state of Meghalaya in support of its resident Amit Paul during his participation in the third season of Indian Idol in 2007; and the twin concepts of “flash activism” and “flash fandom” that I informally put forth ( while describing the case of the 2006 Bollywood film Rang De Basanti’s role in inspiring civic participation to demand justice in the high profile trial following the murder of model Jessica Lall. I will briefly discuss the two concepts in context of the cases they illuminate, before delineating the similarities and differences between them.

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@BPGlobalPR Speaks Out

Note: On this blog, sometimes we’ll post more in-depth thinking, and sometimes we’ll just take note of relevant news, events, readings and such. This is the first of that second kind of post.

Leroy Stick, a pseudonym for the twitterer behind @BPGlobalPR, recently released a statement and gave an interview. With more than 140,000 followers, the biting and hilarious @BPGlobalPR has ten times the followers of official BP twitter feed, @BP_America. More after the jump. [Read more…]

Walking Away and Staying Put: Considering Burn Out and ‘Stoppage’ in the Participatory-Civic Trajectory

This is the first post in our newly created Civics, Popular Culture, and Participatory Culture Blog. Each week over the summer and beyond, the members of the research group here at the University of Southern California will write their thoughts and observations over the course of this pilot study being conducted. The issues discussed are not limited to data recorded or analysis, but also methodological, theoretical and personal notes and observations. As a group we have agreed that these notes are at best, off the cuff and an attempt at capturing some semblance of self-reflexivity as researchers (a participatory culture in and of itself!) and not meant to be considered fully formed, cited, or ready for primetime.

With that, I’d like to touch on two topics I’ve been mulling over for quite some time. The first is, on an individual level, the burn out that can be experienced by members of participatory groups and how our considerations should think about this phenomenon. The second, on a wider scope, I’d like to think about the trajectory we are attempting to construct or model and think about groups who may not neatly fit into that trajectory, specifically by not “progressing” along the track. My main concern going into this research is to keep a broad view of what it is we are looking for in the case studies we’re focusing on as a group as well as our individual work as well. As much as we like seeing successful groups or participatory culture used in a civic manner, it’s also important to remember that both creating and maintaining the structures to engender such action is difficult and some groups will face setbacks implementing these kinds of activities or may decide not to engage with them to a level everyone would agree is “civic” or more than philanthropy.

One of the topics we have talked about informally has been the issue of burnout among members of the groups we are looking at. Especially since one of the groups we would like to look at are long time members as well as former members of these participatory groups, it behooves us to contemplate issues of burnout. If and when we interview former members of groups, it is important to make sure we really can reach at some of the question in the discussion guide with regards to motivation, organization, and persistence. I think Ito’s section in persistence and transition is a good reminder that members of these various participatory groups may not stay long term with once group or another or that, because of the group’s organization, or their personal role or stake in the work being done, have decided to pull back from civic engagement type work temporarily or permanently/

Similar to these concerns, I’ve been thinking about the observation with HPA, specifically regarding the ‘fan research’ group they’ve put together. Their reference to the Browncoats and perhaps pushing them into work beyond philanthropy, while admirable, makes me a bit wary. On our end, I’d like to think about the model we are trying to construct. This isn’t to say that we have been trying to push the participatory groups to fit a model, but that over the course of this early research and, further down the line, we need to keep an eye out for groups who, while perhaps interested in some types of civic-minded activity, would perhaps not be as far reaching as some of our initial case studies. As I mentioned earlier, much of my thoughts in these two areas (beyond a somewhat cynical disposition) is my wariness in falling for the easy trap of trying to model a distinct progression “to move along the trajectories between participatory culture and civic engagement.” In a similar vein, I’m interested in how the HPA’s “fan research group” will fare in terms of outreach and their own attempts, both internally and externally, to expand its political activities outside the scope of the Harry Potter content world and encouraging other groups, such as the Browncoats to move “past” philanthropy into political action. Again, these are goals to be lauded, but it will be interesting to see if members or other groups react indifferently to the shift.

A second form of reticence may not necessarily be an unwillingness to “move up the ladder”, but a sense of built-in cynicism within the community itself. My own personal research on Anonymous has provided example of successful and unsuccessful activist work as defined by the group itself, due to various low-attendance physically-based protests (most recently regarding the once proposed, not dropped plans for an Australian internet content filter), many members of the community feel that offline forms of protest are not worth the effort. I should not of course this example differs from our case studies in terms of overall organization, in group communication, and leadership, but as a model, I think it’s worth taking into account in group narratives about successful and unsuccessful action by the groups and how that may play a role in morale, sustainability, etc. And, I should note that, in the case of Anonymous, as much as in-group critics bemoan physical protests, they are at least given one attempt for each major cause, though if proven unsuccessful, they tend not to be tried again.