How much sharing goes on in the “sharing economy”?

How much of the sharing economy really involves sharing?

It’s a question that came up first thing today at the Collaborative Economy Conference, and it’s a question that came up in a number of responses to my recent post on picking the winners and losers of the sharing economy.

What we call these new forms of economic activity really matters, because we risk diluting the social impetus towards real sharing — a norm that helps build social capital — when we use the term “sharing” to describe everything from Airbnb to Car2Go. Sharing, properly understood, is a very specific and consequential form of economic activity:  “the act and process of distributing what is ours to others for their use as well as the act and process of receiving something from others for our use“.

For much of human history, this form of economic activity was actually the norm, as much agricultural production depended on the “commons”, grazing land that could be used by any member of the community. It was only with the 18-century advent of Enclosures Acts that we moved away from the commons and towards a model in which private ownership of assets and production became the new norm. As has been widely documented, this shift has had enormous consequences for wealth distribution and social capital — consequences that we obscure when we use the term “sharing” to describe businesses that lack any component of common ownership or resource sharing.

That said, there is an underlying intuition driving this usage: the intuition that there is something important, new and different about the wide range of apps and web services that make it possible for consumers to buy and sell to one another, access rather than buy what they need, and get both goods and services on an on-demand basis. That’s why I like the term “collaborative economy”, which acknowledges the existence of a larger phenomenon without (inaccurately) describing it all as sharing.

But there’s a reason the terminology is still in play: different terms feel more accurate, depending on which kinds of activity you’re discussing, and which characteristics of the collaborative economy you’re trying to highlight.

For the past year, I’ve been playing with various ways of plotting the collaborative economy as a 2×2 (of course!), which is an approach that can help us think systematically about the commonalities and differences among different collaborative economy business models. Mapping the collaborative economy as a 2×2 also helps us use the right terminology for this phenomenon, so we don’t categorize all of it as sharing.

Jeremiah Owyang, my collaborator on the Crowd Companies/Vision Critical report Sharing is the Buying, usefully relies on the terms “provider” and “partaker” to distinguish between roles that we’d previously have conceived as “seller” and “buyer” — terms that are often inaccurate when we’re talking about the collaborative economy. Mapping the collaborative economy according to these two dimensions helps us differentiate among different types of collaborative economy enterprises, and lets us more accurately use terms like “sharing economy” or “on-demand economy” to refer to particular kinds of transactions.

On the provider axis I distinguish between enterprises in which goods or services are centrally produced or owned (typically by a single company), and those in which goods or services are produced or owned by individuals. Note that this axis does not speak distribution: often, the value of a collaborative economy service is in centralizing the distribution of services and goods that are produced or owned by many different people. Note also that even goods that had an original, centralized producer (like a Patagonia jacket) may then be owned and sold in a decentralized way (like Patagonia Worn Wear).

On the partaker axis I distinguish between enterprises that allow people to buy goods and services, and those that allow people to access (borrow or rent) goods and services.

Provider mode

 Partaker mode



The conventional economy

Whole Foods
The Pirate Store
Taxi companies

The peer economy

Kitchen Surfing
Blue Apron
Patagonia Worn Wear



The on-demand economy

Hotel Tonight
Rent the Runway

The sharing economy

The Vancouver Tool Library
New York Public Library
Bay Area Bike Share

There are a few notable wrinkles in this model.

First, it’s a lot harder to categorize businesses that provide services than businesses that provide products, and a lot of businesses actually include both a product and service component: when you’re taking a ride with Uber, you’re buying a service (a ride) but you’re also borrowing a product (a car). When you rent a room on Airbnb, you’re borrowing a product (a home) but you’re also typically buying a service (the work of cleaning up that home). For the purposes of categorizing different businesses, it’s helpful to think about whether the offering is primarily a product, or primarily a service. If the value of what you’re getting is mostly constituted by labour, rather than mostly constituted by capital (physical goods), I consider it a service…so you are buying a service, rather than borrowing a product.

Second, it’s a little tricky to categorize community-owned operations like traditional public libraries, or emergent services like tool libraries or bike shares. While these could be considered centrally-owned resources that would therefore land in the “on-demand economy” quadrant, treating these as on-demand services would deny the very important distinction between public and private ownership.

For those of us who care about preserving the cultural norm of sharing, the precision of this model allows us to retain the idea of sharing as a form of economic activity that involves either communally owned resources and/or providing community access to privately owned goods. Even if you don’t have a strong political or social commitment to community ownership or access, using the term “sharing economy” in this precise way can be helpful: indeed, if your political values lean more towards an emphasis on entrepreneurship and business growth, separating out community-owned assets gives you a way of quantifying and promoting those collaborative economy activities that grow private wealth.

But this 2×2 isn’t meant to imply a value judgement. The sharing economy isn’t the “best” part of the collaborative economy, or even the part with the greatest social or environmental impact. On-demand businesses can play a valuable role in reducing overall resource consumption, encouraging the production of goods that are more durable, and broadening access to resources people and businesses need. Peer-to-peer businesses create new forms of employment and economic opportunity, and can reduce the environmental footprint of consumption by supporting local economies and artisanal production. Even the conventional economy should not be considered the enemy: old-school bricks and mortar stores may not seem super sexy, but I’ll bet each and every one of us regularly buys food, clothing or other goods from small stores that are valuable members of our local economies and communities.

In fact, the great value of this kind of 2×2 isn’t (just) in allowing us to share a common language or preserve the social and political value of sharing. Mapping the different business models that flourish in the collaborative economy allows us to identify the wide range of ways that both startups and established companies can organize their collaborative economy offerings, and to spot market gaps where a new enterprise could flourish.

Is the on-demand market for high-end fashion fairly saturated? Think about opportunities to offer high-end fashion on a peer-to-peer or sharing model. Are there already plenty of players in sharing space? Then look for ways to sell space on a peer-to-peer basis, or to rent it an on-demand by building up a stock of centrally owned offices or apartments.

Whatever your interest in the collaborative economy — as participant, as observer, as would-be entrepreneur — it’s in your interest to talk about different entreprises and business models in the most accurate way possible. Best of all, if we’re all speaking the same language, we can have the kind of crucial conversations that will help us build this new area of the economy together.

Picking the winners and losers of the sharing economy

Who will be the winners and losers in the sharing economy? That’s the question that’s raised — albeit indirectly — by Jeremiah Owyang’s latest blog post for the Wall Street Journal. Jeremiah and I co-authored the Vision Critical/Crowd Companies study, Sharing Is The New Buying, so I pay close attention to his work as one of the pre-eminent thinkers on the sharing economy. Part of what’s made our collaboration so fruitful is that we approach the collaborative or sharing economy through slightly different lenses, particularly when it comes to the distributive impact of sharing.

As Jeremiah writes in his post (co-authored with Alan Webber):

When it comes to the emerging sharing economy, the only thing that is clear is that there is no definitive ideological line.  Both liberals and conservatives see aspects of emerging companies and business models that they like and dislike. After all, in our view, liberals love job opportunities for the unemployed and disadvantaged, like online freelancer roles that enable many to work anywhere, anytime. However, they loathe how these workers must provide their own tools, health coverage, insurance and retirement benefits. Conservatives, meanwhile, love the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation surrounding the sharing economy, but loathe how startups are replacing traditional small businesses…From the liberal left to the conservative right, there’s no clear ideological perspective, as there’s something for everyone in this growing sharing economy.

Jeremiah’s right to point out that both liberals and conservatives have found elements to love and to loathe in the sharing economy. I’m less confident in his conclusion: while there may be something for everyone in the sharing economy, there’s no reason to be confident that there will be…at least not for long.

That’s because the sharing economy is such a new phenomenon that it’s yet to acquire the social and institutional framework that will determine who wins and who loses from these new forms of consumption and work. To the extent that sharing businesses already have radically different implications for different kinds of participants, it’s due to pre-existing economic, social and regulatory conditions: people who are already well-resourced can charge substantial rates for their luxury condos on Airbnb, or use freelancing sites to roll their own businesses at lucrative rates. Those same individuals stand to benefit as buyers, too: on-demand luxury services like Rent the Runway mean that you can live like a millionaire on a six-figure income, as Jeremiah himself has documented.

But at the other end of the income ladder, it’s not so clear that the sharing economy is a good-news story. On-demand housing sites like Airbnb may contribute to the spiralling cost of real estate, pushing home ownership out of the realm of possibility for even more people. The “microgig” economy may reduce wages and displace full-time jobs with lots of little pieces of work…work that comes without extended benefits. And virtually all sharing companies are set up so that the people who profit the most are not the actual suppliers and creators, but the entrepreneurs and investors behind the sharing network itself.

How can we shape this emergent space so that the benefits of a new economic model go some way towards addressing the ever-growing problem of income inequality? At last year’s Share Conference, SEIU VP David Rolf rocked my world by tackling this question head-on, in a way that I’d never have expected from organized labour. Pointing out the crucial role unions played in ensuring some measure of distributive justice in the last century, he observed that we need an analogous force or system to ensure distributive justice in the sharing economy — which may or may not be labour unions as we know them.

If we want the sharing economy to find some kind of path to distributive justice — as well as a way of delivering on the environmental vision of reduced consumption and better use of existing resources — we have only a limited window in which to set the right course. Governments are racing to establish the regulatory and tax frameworks that allow them to capture revenues from sharing startups, which means that now is the moment to set expectations for the environmental and distributive benefits those startups can offer. That could mean regulating and taxing so that we encourage rentals by residential home owners and renters, rather than investment buyers and real estate speculators; taxing sharing economy earnings differently when they offer profit-sharing to vendor/suppliers; and providing tax incentives to sharing startups that reduce resource consumption (e.g. Car2Go) rather than fuelling it.

There’s both a qualitative and quantitative difference between a recent university graduate launching her own craft business on Etsy, and a middle-aged taxi driver driving for Uber because he can’t get enough cab fares anymore. Which scenario proves more characteristic of the sharing economy is still to be determined…and you can bet that once the answer becomes clear, only conservatives or liberals will still see the sharing economy as their own particular darling.

What’s wrong with the Ello backlash

My latest blog post for the Harvard Business Review argues that Ello — the “it” social network of the week — is a wake-up call for businesses to re-assess their social media strategy in light of growing public concerns about privacy and ad targeting.

But what about the users themselves? How are they responding to Ello?

Well, they may be signing up in droves, but so far I’m seeing a lot of complaints. These complaints boil down to a few key points:

ello screenshot

  1. Ello is ugly and its mother dresses it funny. Because Ello bills itself as a designer-led project, it is being held to a high design standard…and a lot of users seem disappointed in what they see. I personally enjoy the irony of a social network dragging us all back to the era of Courier, but I won’t aim to defend Ello’s design choices, beyond observing that there are few websites that enjoy universal or even widespread praise for their visual design.
  2. Ello doesn’t work right. There are lots of bugs in Ello right now, and lots of seemingly essential features that are on the roadmap rather than in the platform. Most notably, user search is just totally broken, and since there is no way to import or sync your friend list from another platform, it’s really tough to find the people you want to follow or connect to. This produces an interesting effect, however: people are using other platforms to announce their Ello usernames so that their friends can find them, which means that this “bug” turns out to be a pretty genius marketing strategy.
  3. Ello is boring. A lot of initial Ello posts boil down to “so what?” This reflects the fact that there isn’t really anything new about the Ello experience itself, other than the idea that what you do on Ello won’t be used against you or turned into ad sales. The difficulty people have in finding their friends exacerbates this problem, because it is even more boring if you can’t find anyone to read/follow.
  4. Ello’s manifesto is more style than substance. This, to me, is the most important critique of Ello, and it comes in a couple of forms. First, some observers have pointed out that Ello has obscured its use of VC funding, which will likely produce pressure to monetize the platform sooner rather than later. In the absence of a credible plan for “virtuous” monetization (i.e. earning revenue without selling data or ads), it’s hard to trust Ello’s promise to do right by its users…or at least, to do right by its users and survive in the long-run. Second, Ello’s manifesto only addresses some of the limitations of established network models: Dave Winer notes that it’s still a locked-down system, with no way to get your content in or out, and Steve Simitzis notes that a really radical network would take a federated approach in which people (rather than Ello) own and perhaps host their own content.

While I mostly agree with these criticisms, and I’m particularly concerned about the ways in which Ello fails to address many of the fundamental problems with today’s social networks, I am sorry to see the rush to criticize rather than cheer. From the moment when Facebook first appeared on the scene, and especially in the wake of its many privacy missteps, I have heard colleagues and friends sound the alarm over our growing Facebook dependence. I’ve lost count of how many posts I’ve read, speeches I’ve heard and conversations I’ve had about how a values-driven, privacy-friendly social network could work, and how it could provide the benefits of Facebook without the drawbacks.

But guess what? While I’ve been shooting the shit with my buddies, blue skying the ways we’d like to build a better Facebook, the folks over at Ello rolled up their sleeves and actually made something. It’s a very imperfect something, and I worry that it may pre-empt the possibilities for something that does the job better. I also know that the web-makers of the world will only get so many of these imperfect tries before people hear about a new privacy-friendly social network, and simply yawn instead of racing to sign up.

Yet those imperfect tries are not only inevitable, but essential, if we are going to move beyond Facebook as it is today, and towards an online world in which Facebook, or Ello, or something we haven’t found yet, does right by its users.  We have to be prepared to try, and to fail, if we are going to create the social networks we claim to want. If every critic of Ello backs that criticism with even one step towards something better — by supporting a kickstarter project, by hacking something together with friends, by offering Ello a first draft of the privacy agreement it should have — we may just get the social networks we deserve.

Choosing research methods for data-driven storytelling

This blog post does not represent Vision Critical. In fact, I think some of my colleagues are going to argue with me vigorously over this one.

Rigorous data gathering and analysis can get in the way of effective storytelling by non-profits.

That proved to be the most controversial part of my talk today on Telling Stories with Data at the Nonprofit Technology Network’s Leading Change Summit. It’s a gathering of nonprofit leaders who are working together and learning from one another about impact leadership, digital strategy and the future of technology.

In other words, a group of people with the potential to significantly advance the visibility and effectiveness of nonprofits by using data to raise public awareness, build public support and make smarter organizational decisions. And judging from the enthusiastic conversation in the room and on Twitter, it’s a group of people who are eager to do that kind of data-driven work.

Yet many non-profit leaders (not to mention government and business leaders) hang back from embracing the power of data because they worry that their organizations lack the expertise, resources or data access to work effectively with data. Data-driven storytelling is a great place for these organizations to start working more intensively with data because it can offer a tangible payoff (hello, social media shares and inbound traffic!) with a relatively limited investment.

But telling stories while making only a modest investment of time, money and effort is easier if you’re willing to cut some corners on your data gathering and analysis. That’s certainly not the approach I was trained in — and in my fortunate position at a company with software and expertise that makes it possible to do high-quality data storytelling, I don’t have to cut a lot of corners myself.

Not every organization has access to a large community of people providing ongoing feedback, however, nor the in-house expertise to do significant data analysis on an ongoing basis. And unlike academic researchers or customer intelligence teams who are trying to get the most accurate picture of a particular topic or a given group of people, nonprofit storytellers often have an investment in what they want their data to show: they’re looking for data stories that support a particular position or approach.

That’s why I encourage organizations to differentiate between the situations in which they need to meet academic standards of rigour and objectivity, and those in which they just need to tell an interesting or compelling story. As ever, a 2×2 is a helpful way of thinking about these different scenarios, so I’m sharing the one I showed in today’s talk — and this version is a little more detailed to clarify some questions that came up today.

Note that this 2×2 is geared towards determining your quantitative research approach; while there is much to be said for qualitative research, this is for organizations thinking about how to do quantitative, data-driven storytelling. It is intended to help you think about how rigorous you need to be in your research design, and also to clarify whether you’re really open to whatever the data shows you: if you’re only prepared to release certain kinds of results, you need to be prepared to walk away from your storytelling project (or better yet, rethink your strategy) if the data doesn’t show you what you’re hoping to see.




e.g. large, random sample


e.g. smaller dataset, imperfect sampling

AgnosticAny finding is useful/usable. Scholarly & actionable research

  • Academic research
  • Major internal decision-making
  • Budgeting
Shareable content

  • Quick blog posts
  • Attention-getting infographics
InvestedData is only useful/usable if it supports a specific position or approach. Influencer projects

  • Government submissions
  • Grant applications and reports
Campaigns and outreach

  • Issue campaigns
  • Reports for a general audience

While researchers and policy makers might prefer to see data that can rise to the standard of rigorous objectivity, organizations often have an agenda in their data projects, and may cut corners in the process of gathering and analyzing that data. In an ideal world, we’d all have access to fantastic data, powerful software and professional expertise to support our data projects…and we’d be comfortable admitting that sometimes, that data raises serious questions about our organization’s tactics, strategy or even mandate.

But successful nonprofits are smart about allocating resources where they’re needed most — and doing the best data work possible isn’t always the top priority. Sometimes you can get the results you need (like inbound traffic generated by an eye-catching infographic) by sharing data that is useful and interesting, if imperfect. That’s why I think it’s time for organizations to get comfortable doing at least some of their data work in the “relaxed” zone, because that is better than missing out on doing any data storytelling at all.

Similarly, it’s time for organizations to admit that they spend an awful lot of time in the bottom half of this 2×2: the zone in which they’re only going to release data that shows a story aligned with a particular mission or approach. Take the example of grant reports: very few organizations are prepared to submit data that shows a funder that they wasted their money. That doesn’t mean organizations can or should fudge the data; it just means admitting that grantees typically choose the metrics that cast the best light on their accomplishments…but should still aim to collect and analyze those flattering metrics as rigorously as possible.

I look forward to hearing from nonprofits who are venturing into the world of data, and using it to tell stories about their issues, their mission and their work. Aspire to produce the best data stories you can! Just don’t let aspirations to data perfection keep you from using data to advance your work.

Yelpless: What kinds of reviews get squelched by Yelp?

Gorgeous Georgia's Yelp listingI’m an ardent (some might say pathological) Yelp user, and since I am incapable of putting anything in my mouth without first validating its viability on Yelp, I try to contribute back to the community by sharing my own perspectives and information, particularly on the all-important subject of artisanal ice cream.

But today I got censored on Yelp for the first time. Last summer, during our family vacation in the Okanagan, I posted this review of Gorgeous Georgia’s Homemade Ice Cream Truck:

Attention: this is not actually ice cream. I somehow missed that when reading the online descriptions. It’s ALL nondairy, coconut-based frozen ice creamesque product. Couldn’t persuade the kids to try it, so I haven’t actually had a real try myself.

Here’s what Yelp says about why they removed it:

We wanted to let you know that we’ve removed your review of Gorgeous Georgia’s Homemade Ice-Cream. Our Support team has determined that it falls outside our Content Guidelines ( because it lacks a firsthand customer experience.

The content guidelines describe “personal experience” as follows:

Personal experience: We want to hear about your firsthand consumer experience, not what you heard from your co-worker or significant other. Try to tell your own story without resorting to broad generalizations and conclusory allegations.

I understand the importance of focusing on reviews that offer personal experience, and I imagine that most of the time, that constitutes direct experience from someone who purchased the product. But I was sharing a personal experience — the personal experience of discovering that, despite the name of the food truck and its place in the “ice cream and yogurt” category, this isn’t actually ice cream. That seems like useful and relevant information for anyone thinking of visiting the food truck, and is certainly information I would have wanted to know beforehand as a Yelp user.

This strikes me as an interesting example of the dilemma social networks face when they depend on advertising rather than subscription revenue (or better yet, a mix of the two). I’d gladly pay as much as $50/year for Yelp, in addition to the effort I put into creating Yelp content, in order to have a site that offers comprehensive information about the businesses and restaurants I may want to patronize. But of course, as an advertiser-supported business, Yelp is in a bind: it depends on retailers not just as content but as sponsors. My assumption, in a case like this, is that the deletion was precipitated by a complaint from Gorgeous Georgia — but of course, I’d love to hear from Yelp or Gorgeous to find out if that hunch is correct.

UPDATE: Gorgeous Georgia tells me via Twitter that the deletion request didn’t come from them, so I’m following up with Yelp. My favorite working theory comes from this comment on my Facebook thread, suggesting I angered a vegan…which we all know is very, very dangerous.

What’s your take? Is this kind of review a useful contribution of “personal experience”, or do you prefer to hear from people who’ve actually made purchases?

Is the Canadian media responsible for Western Canadian alienation?

What is the root cause of Western Canadian alienation?

Contrary to common arguments, it’s not because the rest of Canada fails to understand the West’s “distinct history, economy and society“, it’s not due to the National Energy Program or even (as my friend and colleague Angus Reid once noted) to the under-representation in our electoral system and public service outposts. David Kilgour may have been onto something when he laid some of the blame on the CBC, but not because it has failed to “reflect local needs and regional aspirations”.

No, my friends: after 16 years in Vancouver, I am now Western-alienated enough to reveal the truth: Western Canada is structurally disadvantaged by the challenges of conducting trans-continental, cross-time-zone media appearances.

Photo of CBC camera showing how I tried to visualize it as a robot husband.

These challenges were on my mind last week, when I participated in a panel on the CBC’s The National. It was a great conversation about digital marketing, and I was delighted to be invited to comment alongside the Globe & Mail’s Susan Krashinsky and Polar’s Kunal Gupta. But Kunal and Susan got to sit in the studio with host David Common, while I stared into a faceless camera in Vancouver with only audio feedback. Thanks to David’s excellent moderation and a camera operator who made damn sure I looked in the right direction, I was able to produce a reasonable facsimile of a person-to-person conversation. But I had to trick myself into imagining the camera was a human face — first, by imagining that my husband was surviving an untimely death by turning himself into an artificial intelligence with telepresence equipment, and then, when that made me too sad to smile, by imagining that he was on a 2-week space mission and had asked me to keep his telepresence device online so that he could interact with me and the kids.

I ask you: how is a crazy woman talking to her imaginary space-traveling husband supposed to compete for air time with live, in-studio panelists? This is the kind of challenge we Westerners have to contend with all the time. (And yes, we all handle it by picturing our spouses in space. Every single one of us.)

Radio is no better. I have lost track of the number of times I’ve participated in radio panels at times when my fellow panelists were well into their work day, or at least their waking hours, whereas for me it was the middle of the night. I haven’t lost track because I’ve done it so many times; I’ve lost track because I don’t remember much of anything that happens at 4 in the morning, unless it’s a steamy dream about Paul Rudd. But I can tell you from hearing the audio replays that while I can be reasonably articulate while still in my pajamas, I can’t kick Eastern Canadian intellectual butt the way I would after a couple of cups of coffee.

Even print appearances aren’t immune to the Western disadvantage. In an effort to accommodate reporters on EST deadlines, I’ve done media interviews while eating breakfast, while driving my kids to school, and worst of all, while getting dressed. (Now you know why people in Toronto dress better: they aren’t talking to reporters while picking out their outfits.)

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate media opportunities that come my way, even if the timing means I’m 30% worse-dressed and 50% stupider than I would be in an in-person interview at a normal time. What I just want central Canadians to understand — speaking as someone who grew up in Toronto, and didn’t understand what Westerners were whining about — is that Westerners are not as whiny or stupid as we seem. If we’re whiny, it may be because you’re catching us before we’ve woken up, and if we seem stupid or disoriented, maybe it’s because we’re not sure where to look when someone is talking in our right ear but appearing on a screen to our left.

So that’s it, folks. It’s only taken 16 years for me to become an Officially Alienated Western Canadian. I’m available to discuss this topic anytime via TV, radio or print…but if you want to hear the best take, please call after 9 am Pacific.

Bumper sticker conversation guide: 2×2 edition

Jeep with Ron Paul and Apple Bumper stickersThis weekend my mind got blown a tiny bit by this unexpected combination of bumper stickers. Naturally, I facebooked the photo, and my friend Steve challenged me to fit this phenomenon into a 2×2.

But as with any 2×2, the structure of the table should be determined by what it’s helping you understand…so in this case, I had to think carefully about the circumstances in which it might be useful to quickly size someone up by their bumper stickers. The obvious scenario is one in which you’ve just rear-ended them, probably because you were trying to read (or Facebook) said stickers.

In that scenario, here’s what I would recommend as your opening line, based on the particular combination of stickers on the vehicle you have just dented:

Religious affiliation
Political affiliation

“Would you find this conversation easier if I offered you my vaporizer first?” “Sorry, it’s the first time I’ve driven since I got back from the Peace Corps.”
“I get so angry when I hear another story about how they’re persecuting Ed Snowden, I wasn’t thinking straight.” “Thank the Lord we live in a free country where we don’t have to involve the government in this sort of situation.”

May I suggest printing out this table and taping it to your dashboard so you’ll have it handy the next time you’re in a collision. And hey, if anybody knows the (likely Seattle-based) yellow jeep that was sporting the Apple/Ron Paul combo: if you can provide proof that you’ve identified the person behind my inspiration, I will affix the bumper sticker of your choice to my car’s bumper for no less than 30 days.

NSF Political Science cuts fail to predict the unpredictability of research

On March 20 the Senate de-funded political science grants from the National Science Foundation “except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” Since political science research, like most scientific research, is seldom undertaken to promote national security or the economic interests of the U.S., it seems doubtful there will be many such exceptions….

The amount of money saved is somewhere south of $11 million, out of a total NSF budget of about $7 billion. Cutting $11 million as part of a long-term effort to eliminate a budget deficit currently estimated at $1.1 trillion is like trying to fill an empty swimming pool by spitting into it. The real reason the NSF’s political science program is being eliminated is that Republicans are ideologically hostile to its content, not its cost.           — Political Science in the Crosshairs, The New Republic

As it happens, an NSF grant is what funded the lion’s share of my Ph.D. In my first year of graduate school, I successfully applied for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which funded most of my subsequent graduate studies with tuition support and a generous stipend. (Generous by grad student standards, not by living the high life standards.)

At the time of my application, I proposed to undertake just the kind of research that (as the New Republic speculates) Republicans might find distasteful: an investigation of the decline and resurrection of social democratic parties. But pretty early in my actual course of research, I pivoted towards research on the impact of the Internet on social democracy. Eventually, the social democracy side of the equation dropped out, and I wrote a dissertation about hacktivism: the phenomenon of politically-motivated computer hacking.

In other words, my dissertation ended up landing in exactly the area this Senate resolution proposes to exempt: a topic related to the natural security interests of the United States. While I was more interested in the implications for political participation than in the implications for cybersecurity, the breadth of interviews I undertook, the case studies I developed and the conclusions I reached all meant that my research was of interest to the security community. Interesting enough, anyhow, that my perspective has been sought out over the years by folks ranging from the Rand Institute to the US Department of Defense.

Yet none of that would have been apparent back in 1996, when I thought I was writing a dissertation about social democracy. Sure, my pivot may have been more dramatic than most, and unusual in landing so directly in a security-related field. But it is not at all unusual for research agendas to evolve, and to take a researcher in a direction quite different from what was anticipated. Indeed, I would argue that good research is defined by the openness to a change in direction, and by the researcher’s willingness to recognize when the outcomes or implications of research are substantially different from ex ante hypotheses.

By proposing to limit research funding to political science projects with direct and anticipated implications for national security or economic interests, the Senate vision precludes the kind of serendipity that may in fact be the source of some of the most surprising and useful research. Even if you buy the argument that research should only get funded when it has that kind of tangible benefit — which, by the way, I don’t — this kind of policy is far from guaranteed to produce the desired results.

Quite the opposite: in encouraging academic researchers to think narrowly about the relationship between their research and the national interest, it discourages the kind of broad exploration from which innovation emerges. And that isn’t in anybody’s interest.

Which Facebook updates could you live without?

The beauty of being married to a man with absolutely no interest in sports is that I would remain blissfully unaware of the start of hockey season, at least until I get to the office Monday, were it not for Facebook and Twitter, which are suddenly overflowing with Canucks-related blah blah blah. That’s a problem that can be easily rectified in Twitter, simply by using a client that lets you filter out tweets containing certain keywords. But how to make Facebook a hockey-free zone?

The solution could be as close as the show/hide stories dropdown…if Facebook would just customize its news feed categories a little:
facebook hide news dropdown if it allowed you to hide hockey news

Which categories of news would you like to be able to hide with one click?

How to talk about tragedy online

Time out, people.

In the past 24 hours we have been have been inspired, informed, comforted and mobilized by the unfolding conversation on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. But it’s clear that we have also had moments of feeling attached, horrified, angered and shamed.

So let’s take a moment to stop and think about how we want to use these still-new social networking tools in a moment of collective grief and trauma. Sadly, we are all too practiced in the experience of witnessing horrific, preventable tragedy. But we are newcomers to the experience of processing our grief and horror online, so we are in very real danger of exacerbating the trauma and sorrow many of us are feeling, and intensifying the conflicts and enmities that keep us from effecting the policy and cultural changes that could reduce the risk of future tragedy.

Here’s what I would encourage anyone currently using social media to consider at this moment:

Personal capacity

Know yourself. If you’re someone who is profoundly affected by disturbing news, you will want to think about the trade-off between being informed and motivated and the personal cost of learning disturbing details. You should also think about degree of sensitivity to conflicts or personal attacks: there are a lot of passionate reactions unfolding out there, so before you share your own comments or read others, think about whether and how well you are prepared to be attacked or read harsh comments about your friends’ posts. And if you are the kind of person who uses screen time to numb out, think about whether you’d be better off unplugging for a little bit so that you can actually experience and process your emotions.


Think about why you are turning to social media before you reach for the phone or open your laptop. Let your personal needs and motives guide your choice of platforms and your form of engagement. To name a few possibilities:

Support:  If you’re like me, you may need to feel more connected than usual — to talk and emote and think this through together, so that you don’t feel alone in your grief. When you’re looking for support, stick with one-to-one communications like e-mail, private messaging or DMs,or keep your engagement to a very small circle of trusted friends.

Information: Many of us instinctively turn to the web as a source of additional details on a news story, or for context and analysis that can help us make sense of it. Don’t confuse information with answers, however: knowing more is unlikely to help you comprehend the incomprehensible. Again, small-scale conversation (on or offline) with people who have thoughtful perspectives you respect is likely to be the best way for you to process and think through your response.

Policy change: The conversation has very quickly turned to the question of whether there are policy changes that could mitigate the risk of future shootings. If your goal in engaging online is to effect policy change — by donating to a cause, contacting your political representatives or participating in some other form of online activism — then you may want to look into what kinds of online participation are most likely to be effective. (Amy Sample Ward’s excellent case study on #TakeBackThePink is a great place to start.) If you’re also hoping to influence your fellow citizens, then it’s worth thinking about what kinds of posts may actually enable constructive conversation with people who think differently from you, and what kinds will entrench existing political fault lines.

Venting: In a moment of grief and fear, many of us simply feel a need to howl out in pain or rage. That’s ok. Just don’t confuse it with a way of getting support or constructive conversation, and consider doing your venting in the equivalent of a soundproof chamber — say, an anonymous corner of the Internet where your venting won’t hurt anyone, and is unlikely to come back to bite you.


In a moment of extreme pain and sensitivity, it may be useful to narrow the scope of your online engagement so that your social networks feel like safer spaces for you and the people you care about. If you haven’t done so before, consider setting up a Google+ circle or Facebook list of very close friends — the people you’d actually want to sit down and talk this through with — and limit your online conversation to that list. (You can adapt these instructions for using Facebook lists.)

Remember that unless you limit your reading and sharing to a small and specific circle, you may hear from people who have very different responses, experiences and views of this situation. As you think about what to share, imagine that what you are sharing could be read or addressed by…

  • parents, family or friends of yesterday’s victims
  • parents or teachers who may be feeling sincerely terrified by what yesterday’s events imply for their own or their family’s safety
  • children, include those who are under the age of consent on Facebook
  • journalists or bloggers who may quote you (even anonymously) in stories
  • lobbyists, activists and policymakers who may be influenced by your comments or reaction
  • strangers who have significantly different political views from your own

Many of these folks are likely to be experiencing some level of trauma, so tread carefully. Be as gentle as if you were speaking to a parent who had just lost a child, and as ferocious as if you had 10 minutes of your congressional representative’s undivided attention. Stick to that standard even if you feel like you’re under attack yourself: it’s quite possible that the person who seems to be flaming you is a hurting unit who has lost sight of their usual good judgement.

And if you have kids in the house, please be careful about what you leave on your screen, even if you are just getting up for a moment.


One of the classic problems of online communication is that the words we write with one tone in mind may be read and perceived as if the tone were entirely different. That’s why we need to be especially careful in our choice of words during a moment of sensitivity and trauma. Some guidelines to keep in mind, based what I have observed so far, as well as on basic principles of nonviolent communication:

Constructive and comforting conversation flows from language like:

  • “I” language:  “I’m scared…” or “I feel…”
  • Genuine questions: “Does anyone know…?” or “I wonder whether…?” or “Who else is feeling…?”
  • Listening language: “It sounds like…” or words like “interested”, “curious”, “wondering”
  • Appreciation: “Thank you for sharing…” or  “It meant a lot to me to read that….” or “You helped me think about…”

And here are the 6 words or phrases I’d implore folks to be extremely careful in using right now, because the conversations where they are cropping up are the ones that are getting scary, fast:

  • Disgusted
  • Puke
  • Fuck
  • Narcissistic
  • Stupid
  • Idiotic

It comes down to this: be gentle out there, friends. I’m hurting. Many of you are hurting. Let’s not make it worse.