How to think like a social media artist

If you want to sharpen or deepen your use of social media, try going to art school.

That’s the big takeaway from my first months here at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. I can’t say I’m “going to” art school — my role heading up the new Social + Interactive Media Centre has so far kept me out of the classroom, though I’m dying to audit everything from the course on art since 1945 to the Continuing Studies class in Arduino.

But I’m nonetheless enjoying an eye-opening immersion in the work and world of the practicing artists who make up Emily Carr’s faculty and student body. Through their exhibits, presentations and conversations I’m discovering a new way of thinking about my own creative expression through social media.

Of course, it feels presumptuous to even draw the analogy. But in many ways the experience of an individual participant in a social media site is analogous to the role of an artist, particularly if your definition of art isn’t contingent on its aesthetic value or tangible social impact. Blogging is much like memoir or criticism; photo sharing online is not unlike exhibiting in a real-world gallery; YouTube contributors are amateur (or not-so-amateur) filmmakers, and podcasts are often more like spoken word performance than like journalism.

It is journalists, however, to whom social media creators are most frequently compared. “Citizen journalism” is a very real and powerful phenomenon, and has shifted some of the power to narrate our contemporary experience out of the hands of established institutions and into the hands of individuals and small groups. But to hold social media creators to the paradigm of conventional journalism is to obscure much the impact of their creation, which is significant not just in how it speaks to the world but in how it transforms the creator herself.

The transformative power of social media is better understood by looking at creators not as journalists, but as artists. And it’s not such a tremendous leap to do so. After all, much of contemporary art transcends the traditional idea of art as painting or sculpture: conceptual art and installation art are now included in the exhibits of museums all over the world. There’s also a long and strong tradition of art that comments on political or social issues, so the content of social media should be no obstacle to considering it as a form of art. Finally, we should look at social media in the context of the thriving digital art movement, in which everything from video games to virtual sit-ins has been presented in exhibition. By all of these standards, the contributions of social media participants look a lot like art.

Artists Social media creatives

Express themselves in text, performance, photos or film

Express themselves in blogs, photo sharing and video sharing

Collaborate on ambitious projects and performance pieces

Coordinate online by combining related works

Engage with political and social issues through their art works and activism

Undertake online activism through creative expression in blogs, photos and video

Embrace new technologies to create new forms of art

Create and use technologies as a form of creative expression

Incorporate traditional crafts into works of art

Foster and market crafts online

You don’t have to identify as an artist to use social media to explore and celebrate your creativity, and turn that creativity into an engine for personal growth. In fact, getting away from the artist label – from what we think about as Art – can help make creative expression less daunting, more approachable, and more rewarding. What matters is to find the path, platform and tools that will help you connect creativity to the world and to yourself.

9 ways social media can support your creativity

computer with brushes and paintsSome new mothers worry about when they’ll get to sleep through the night; I worried about when I’d get to write a novel. I’d always figured that I’d write a book some day, but now that I had a kid, would some day ever come?

For me, the answer lay online. Not in an online writing group: I felt far too protective of my writing to consider sharing it with people I’d never met. But I was brave enough to reach out to other local writers by using the web to connect.  I found a couple of other writer friends who liked the idea of starting a creative writing group for people like us: people who earned a living as professional writers or communicators, but wanted an outlet for personal writing. I created a simple web site that explained the purpose of the group, with an application form for would-be members. Once we had found our fellow writers, we used a Yahoo Group to run an e-mail list that let us schedule meetings, circulate drafts and store files.

Whether your creativity takes the form of a solitary activity like writing or painting, or is intrinsically collaborative (like theater or filmmaking) the web can help you connect to the people, resources and ideas that foster your creativity. Creativity often demands social connection: for peer support, for feedback, for knowledge, for collaborators.

The social web offers a lot of ways to capture, hone and feed your creativity:

  1. Find your medium. YouTube not withstanding, the web is still a text dominant medium. Blogging makes it easy for writers to find a creative outlet online; photographers have Flickr, and filmmakers have YouTube. But there are lots of creative projects that don’t fit inside these boxes, so you’ll need to get even more creative in finding your online voice. Take pictures of your canvases; shoot a video of someone interacting with your installation piece; film your play, tape your song, make your own music video.
  2. Engage another hemisphere. I rely on my netbook for writing – but I rely on my iPhone to spark my creativity. Not by serving up poetry or inspirational stories: by turning off the very parts of my brain that are key to my writing. When I hit a wall, I pull out my iPhone and plug into a game of Flight Control: an utterly uncreative, dangerously addictive game that involves landing planes on a tiny landing strip. A few minutes of Flight Control is so absolutely absorbing that it lets my creative neurons recharge until they’re ready to fire up again.
  3. Collaborate. My first adult forays into fiction writing happened spontaneously online. An online chat with a pal turned into an extended riff on a “what if” scenario, and within an hour we’d written our way into a story. Over the following weeks it grew into a manuscript, albeit one that we never published or even edited. But even in raw form, that collaborative writing process reconnected me with my writer self. I was far braver as part of a team than I was able to be solo; by collaborating online, I rediscovered the joy of writing and recommitted to writing on my own.
  4. Keep an inspiration file.“Things that aren’t even cats”. It’s a line from a Malcolm In the Middle episode that has become our internal label for “none of the above”. I’m not sure why we find it so compelling, but somewhere in that phrase lies the kernel of a story about organizing ideas online. And when the inspiration for that story hits, I’ll be ready, because I am religious about maintaining a list of story ideas in Evernote, an application that keeps my notes synced between my mac, my netbook and my iphone. Wherever I am, I’m always ready to jot down an idea or retrieve one.
  5. Talk it out. Sometimes the mere act of writing something down strips it of its passion – or feels like too big an obstacle. Text recognition services and software can help you brainstorm out loud, whether by writing full documents by voice, or just using a mobile service like Jott to make calls that will get transcribed and set back to you as notes.
  6. Relocate. When I want to do an intensive bit of writing, I have to get out of the house and out of the office. But I don’t need a quiet garret: I do best in a cafe with lots of light, and interesting people who aren’t too creeped out when I stare blankly into the middle distance that they happen to be sitting in. I’ve made it easy to dive into a day of cafe writing by buying a tiny, lightweight computer just for writing days; it’s always packed into a tiny backpack that’s ready to go with the essentials for a day of writing. (The essentials: computer, mouse, headset, advil, hand cream, nicorettes). And I use a couple of programs that ensure my writing machine can access any relevant notes on my primary computer: Evernote, which is my master notebook, and Dropbox, which lets me keep a folder full of files synchronized across computers.
  7. Find material. Artists are the world’s most incorrigible thieves. As anyone with a writer friend can tell you, everything is subject to appropriation: that quip you made at a party, the video of your first birthday party, the story of your most painful breakup. The social web liberates you from stealing from your friends’ lives, and opens the door on a world full of images, characters and experiences that are yours to borrow and embroider. Stay within the bounds of intellectual property law (i.e. no stealing someone else’s words, images or stories) and you can find all the real life material you need online.
  8. Remove distractions. The same computer I use for my creative projects also contains an endless series of distraction. My hard drive is never more organized than the day before a major writing process: I can procrastinate for hours by consolidating folders, renaming files and optimizing my software setup. To limit my techie procrastinations, I use a separate computer on writing days, and keep it as light as possible: I’ve deliberately minimized the number of software tools installed on my writing machine, and I use a low-powered computer that makes it hard for me to run distracting programs or do much geeking out. I also keep a separate, distraction-free account on my primary computer: if I want to write, I switch to my alternate login, which denies me access to the chat programs, email and files that would pull me out of writing brain and into work or geek brain.
  9. Expand your horizons. I’ve always been comfortable with words, and assumed that in some previous life I accepted the deal that my ability to write would come with an inability to draw a straight line with a ruler. My family is full of visual artists, but drawing stick figures appears to be the outside limit of my artistic capacity. Happily, I’ve discovered that online design doesn’t require the kind of eye-hand coordination that has always defied me: I’ve created photo collages, illustrative graphics and entire web page designs, and had a heck of a good time doing it. You may have a preferred medium, but trying out other forms of creative expression online – whether it’s making a movie, recording a song, or writing a poem – can help you discover other kinds of creativity in ways that fuel your primary creative commitments.

Are you an artist/geek — or a geek/artist? Or maybe even a techno-skeptic who has nonetheless found ways of harnessing technology to your creative self-expression? I’d love to hear about the  practices, tools and work habits that have helped you turn the social web into a tool for supporting your creativity.

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Tony nominee [title of show] is a case study in social media creativity

We can either follow our instinct
Or take advice from every joker
We can either be distinct, or wind up merely mediocre
I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing
Than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.

For the past year, those words have been a mantra at Social Signal. When we tackle a new social media project, we’re always balancing the size of the audience we’d like to reach (you know, a few hundred million or so) with the desire to engage meaningful participation. And meaningful engagement is most likely when you focus on becoming nine people’s favorite thing.

The line comes from [title of show], up for Best Book at tonight’s Tony Awards. We were lucky to catch [title of show] a couple of weeks after it opened on Broadway last August. The show had us in stitches, but as we listened to the cast album repeatedly over subsequent months, it was the show’s deeper insights into the nature and experience of creativity that stuck with us.

[title of show] has reached me in a way that only a handful of shows, novels or movies ever have: it’s wormed its way into my mind and heart and become part of who I am and how I see the world. If the show succeeded in making itself my favorite thing, it’s no coincidence that its creative voice comes from a team with a deep appreciation and talent for my own creative medium: social media.

TOS co-creator Jeff Bowen had a successful Internet marketing business long before TOS hit Broadway, and the TOS site, YouTube presence and MySpace and Facebook pages show what social media can do for both a brand and a creative voice. Drawing on both the show’s lyrics and its skilled use of social media, I’ll show how you can tap the power of social media for both expressive and marketing power.

You are not your blog

I’m standing here, just left of center and something ain’t clear:
When did I sign on the line of this decree?
Stuck in a show where I am playing me.

[title of show] is a musical about two guys writing a musical; composer-lyricist Jeff is played by real-life TOS composer-lyricist Jeff Bowen, librettist Hunter is played by librettist Hunter Bell, and actress-buddies Heidi and Susan are played by actress-buddies Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell. The TOS cast share more than names with their characters; the line between person and persona is blurred. And yet there is a distinction, just as there is a distinction between the persona of a blogger and the person who blogs. As reported in the New York Times last year,

Berresse…keeps the lines between his actors and the characters from blurring by using a simple device. Hunter Bell the actor is simply Hunter. Hunter Bell the character is Bunny Hunter — the profile of a bunny being what you get when you take two fingers from each hand, representing quotation marks, and put them on top of your head. It has been helpful. “Sometimes I’d say, ‘I would not necessarily make that choice, but I understand that for the 90-minute structure, Bunny Heidi is going to make that choice,’ ” Ms. Blickenstaff said.

Remembering that people who attack — or praise — your blog posts are attacking your blogging persona, and not you personally, will go a long way to preserving your sanity online.

You are your audience

Nothing guarantees it will stand out, and its future is unknown…
But we can’t do it all alone.
Untitled Opening Number

If you want your brand, product or campaign to stand out, don’t try to do it alone: invite your customers or audience to be part of what you’re creating. [title of show] baked audience participation into its marketing with a blog inviting audience comments and highlighting fan videos; fans responded in droves. It created badges and buttons for fans to put on their own sites, extending the TOS marketing reach. The day the Tony nominations came out, I was far from the first commenter on the New York Times’ site to decry the single nomination TOS received — build loyal and engaged fans, and they’ll let the world know how many awards you really deserve. And TOS created a dynamite widget for the likes of me to spread across the web.

You can’t take attention for granted

HUNTER: I don’t want this to be just sketches and novelty songs linked together. I want there to be substance, not just fluff, not that there’s anything wrong with fluff. But I wanna strive for something that makes people really pay attention, you know what I mean?
SUSAN: Huh… I totally stopped listening.

No matter how much you pour into your blogging, twittering, flickring or other social media efforts, and no matter how great its value, you’re doing a dance with an audience that — like Susan — may or may not be paying attention. The art of social media lies in finding ways to get and keep attention, and the TOS use of social media is a great case study in how valuable that attention can be. When the show lay dormant after a couple of years of working the off-Broadway circuit, the creators launched a “[title of show] show” on YouTube, with episodes imagining the show’s longed-for move to Broadway. The episodes caught producers’ attention, and the show did indeed get its Broadway run.

Your heart is at least as important as your brain

I aimed for the sky, a nine-year-old can see so far
I’ll conquer the world and be a star, I’ll do it all by the time I’m ten.
I would know that confidence, if I knew a way back to then.

Social media is at its most compelling when it’s playful and authentic: when you’re speaking from your nine-year heart, with the benefit of your thirtysomething (or twentysomething, or fiftysomething) brain. There’s a lot of online chatter about social media smarts, but at least as many social media successes have emerged from passionate expression; from people who’ve found their way back to then. The TOS site is a great example of what happens when brains and heart meet: the site has a polished design with an easy-to-navigate interface, and both the site and blog overflow with the playfulness, irreverence, profanity and humor of the show itself:

Do you guys know that when we were dreaming of the dreamiest place for [title of show], we all had the Vineyard at the top of all our dream lists? We never thought we would actually get to do our play there… And then we squeezed our little golden pony, and it pooped out our dreamiest wish. That golden pony is awesome. You have to get one.
Heidi, on the TOS blog

Your voice is worth sharing

You have a story to tell, a novel you keep in a drawer.
You have a painting to paint, but you’re lazy like an old French whore
You have a movie to make, Shrinky Dinks you can bake, but you best grab a stake, because
In sweep the vampires, in creep the vampires, knee deep in vampires,
Filling you with doubt, insecurity, ‘bout what your art should be
In sweep the vampires
Die vampire die!

At its best, social media provides a channel for self-expression in all its forms: text, image, audio, video, image. But the advent of the Internet doesn’t make the challenges of artistic expression go away; online authors can be as scared, as blocked, and as neurotic as any offline artist. Killing the vampires that keep you from expressing online — the vampires that say, as the show puts it, “you cannot sing good enough to be in a musical. Or they might say: Ooh, your song’s derivative, to keep that song from you.

Don’t let fears about the quality or originality of your work keep you from finding your voice online, whether its expressed through a Flickr photo collection, a real-time blogging memoir, or a group of Sims singing someone else’s song:

social-media-tonyWe’ll be rooting for Hunter and the rest of the TOS team during tonight’s Tony webcast (sadly, the Best Book award has been cut from the CBS broadcast). Whether or not [title of show] wins, the mere fact of its nomination speaks volumes not only about the brilliance of the show, but the power of its web-enabled audience engagement. Meanwhile, we’re unilaterally awarding TOS one more well-deserved Tony: for social media that reminds us what creativity is all about.

Rob’s Northern Voice keynote

If you’ve ever wondered whether social media is funny, check out the reaction to Rob’s Teh Funny Northern Voice keynote. The Twitter backchannel is reprinted in text below.

These tweets are in chronological order, so you can follow the thread of the conversation. In related news, we’d love to hear of a Twitter search tool that lets you sort results in chronological order; flipping the order from the reverse chronological results given by Twitter’s own search was quite a chore.

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And check out Nancy White’s incredible graphics!

Update: The video is now available!

Photo by Tyler Ingram.

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netchick: I heart Rob Cottingham :) YAY #northernvoice09
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GusF: next keynote speaker Rob Cottingham at #northernvoice09 – really funny guy!
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mastermaq: @RobCottingham is having a moment of silence for all the services that died since the last conference haha #northernvoice09
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traceyheppner: seriously…rob cottingham is a HILARIOUS man.. :)#northernvoice09
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brooksduncan: @robcottingham is killing it already and its only 4 minutes in.#northernvoice09
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lmighton: Rob Cottingham at NorthernVoice09 – ‘Welcome to Vancouver, host city for the 2010 Olympic riots’
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Currie: Nancy White doing graphical representation on whiteboard of Rob Cottingham talk at #northernvoice09
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mastermaq: Uh oh, @RobCottingham is trying to be the first standup comic in history to heckle himself. lol #northernvoice09
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sparklytosingle: hoo boy Rob Cottingham might just be a good substitute for caffeine #northernvoice09
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cecilialu: cottingham is totally rocking it! everyone woke up! #northernvoice09
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Roxyyo: Using hootsuite to heckle his own comedy @robcottingham
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Hermida: Rob Cottingham: Welcomes attendees from out of town to Vancouver, the city of the 2010 Olympics riots, he jokes#northernvoice09
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michaelallison: @RobCottingham is going to heckle himself via @hootsuite during his own lecture. #northernvoice09
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lesliemb: Rob Cottingham is asking us to heckle him on Twitter during his talk.He’s also set up auto-tweets to heckle himself.
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Miss604: New blog entry ‘Northern Voice 2009 Keynote Rob Cottingham’ – http://tinyurl.com/anjc7l (expand)
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jennmae: Love how @robcottingham is using twitter to live heckle himself on stage #norhernvoice09
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bookminder: Nancy White doing visual interpretation ofRob Cottingham’s keynote #northernvoice09 on a big poster at the front.
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duckbeaver: @RobCottingham is heckling himself at #northernvoice09 – teh funny!
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Miss604: Rob Cottingham’s keynote is being live blogged on my site, hard to catch up with all teh funny quotes!! #nothernvoice09 http://is.gd/kmjb (expand)
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lmighton: The Twitter self-heckling @RobCottingham, very witty, sure hope this video will be posted YouTube… funny beyond local boundaries
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davetoole: Rob Cottingham socialsignal.com/n2s speaking
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supersusie: @robcottingham is super funny! currently mocking podcasts #northernvoice09
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GusF: RT @sparklytosingle: hoo boy Rob Cottingham might just be a good substitute for caffeine #northernvoice09
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trishussey: @RobCottingham @NancyWhite doing teh funny. Making a great FB TOS joke. #northernvoice09
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jaychiu: Like live CBC Spark podcast with Nora Young at #northernvoice09. Keynote #2: Rob Cottingham “the funny”
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netchick: OMG @robcottingham is my hero :)LOL!!! #northernvoice09
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duncanmm: #northervoice09 Nora Young gave a (IMHO) great, inspiring talk. Rob Cottingham up next. Promises to be very funny. Nancy White on graphics!
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jamesglave: Wild. @RobCottingham is heckling his own jokes in his keynote at #northernvoice09 via a series of pre-scheduled tweets.
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michaelallison: I want “Nasal Drainage” by Gonorrhea Massacre as my podcast theme song as per @robcottingham‘s recommendation. #northernvoice09
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Miss604: Rob Cottingham’s keynote is being live blogged on my site, hard to catch up with all teh funny quotes!! #northernvoice09 http://is.gd/kmjb (expand)
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rsodhi: Rob Cottingham from Social Signal, next keynote is up… KK introduces him as fkin’ insane! Guy is hysterical. #northernvoice09
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nickamado: Rob Cottingham second keynote. This guy is great! #northernvoice09
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mastermaq: @RobCottingham on EULAs: There’s a reason the button says submit. #northernvoice09
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sophiasian: submitting to Rob Cottingham #northernvoice09
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duncanmm: #northervoice09 Rob Cottingham has the crowd in stitches. He has said he’ll be self-heckling on Twitter.
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trishussey: “There’s a reason the button says submit” @RobCottingham #northernvoice09
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Hermida: Rob Cottingham lays into end-user agreements: We are surrendering every right. There’s a reason the button says “submit” #northernvoice09
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mirandal: @robcottingham is so freaking awesome. What a great way to spend a morning!
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drfyzziks: @awsamuel if Nat goes into labour, I’m going to blame @robcottingham ! Hilarious keynote at #northernvoice
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RobCottingham: Show us your tweets, Cottingham!! #northernvoice09
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GusF: there is a reason why there is a submit button on Rights of Service agreements @robcottingham #northernvoice09
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brooksduncan: @quikness Looks like @robcottingham has given you a new use case for hootsuite #northernvoice09
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corruptinc: Saturday, listening to Rob Cottingham keynote. Very hilarious! #northernvoice09
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netchick: Heckling @robcottingham…collaboralot is the next hot project LOL!!! #northernvoice09
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rahelab: #northernvoice09 Rob Cottingham: Age 45 is equivalent of 217 in social media years.
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LizHargreaves: Rob Cottingham on agreeing to terms of service – “Take my kidney just give me my free Scrabble application” #northernvoice09
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kimappleton: @RobCottingham – wicked funny.
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julieoc: #northernvoice09 @hootsuite proves its worth again: funny guy @robcottingham is heckling HIMSELF with pre-timed tweets
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mdwright: #northernvoice09 Who knew @robcottingham is so incredibly funny. Delivered a stand up routine for the digital age
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lmighton: Rob Cottingham links social media terms of service agreements to the dom/domme submissive world…’There’s a reason the button says submit’
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sillygwailo: @RobCottingham is making history as the first comedian to heckle himself from the backchannel. #northernvoice09
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sonson: Rob Cottingham on end user agreement “There’s a reason that the button says ‘submit'” #northernvoice09
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LoriLynn: @robcottingham great keynote, especially for early Sat morning :)
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netchick: My favourite part of @robcottingham‘s talk so far — 3 people you’ve cheated on your spouse with MEME hahahahahahah #northernvoice09
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hummingbird604: NEW BLOG POST Northern Voice 2009 – Rob Cottingham on Teh Funny http://tinyurl.com/d28g6f (expand)
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leelefever: G’morning#northernvoice09 peeps.I’m missing you. Have a great time!I see @RobCottingham does need any help. :)
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hummingbird604: @RobCottingham is showcasing – ahh the Fail Whale :) #northernvoice09
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chrisheuer: @robcottingham is one of the funniest men in the social business #northernvoice09
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netchick: @robcottingham inspires me to be more humourous — Thanks Rob!#northernvoice09
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trishussey: RT @RobCottingham: Oh, give me a break. Is he really going to talk about frakkin’ LOLcats? #northernvoice09
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UptownSound: Listening to rob cottingham drop some serious jokes on the crowd.This guy totally owns a whoopie cushion.
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netchick: RT @RobCottingham: Oh, give me a break. Is he really going to talk about frakkin’ LOLcats? #northernvoice09
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northernvoice: Rob Cottingham: Reframe business screw ups as product enhancements: lost all comment data? No more spam!
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scales: #northernvoice09 great work folks / organizers! @robcottingham is what this crowd needed today! A good laught!http://snipurl.com/cddid (expand)
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julieoc: #northernvoice09 @robcottingham: creative self-expression & need to connect. Ripples of social media expanding to include more people.
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duncanmm: Corrected RT #northernvoice09 Rob Cottingham has the crowd in stitches. He has said he’ll be self-heckling on Twitter.
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Hermida: @RobCottingham:At the heart of social media is creative self-expression and the need to connect #northernvoice09
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mastermaq: At the heart of social media is creative self-expression and the need toconnect. – @RobCottingham #northernvoice09
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julieoc: #northernvoice09 @robcottingham cites Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur–audience: “he’s a troll”. Is he? Or is he right?
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seray: RT @julieoc: #northernvoice09 @robcottingham cites Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur–audience: “he’s a troll”. Is he? Or is he right?
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darrenthetiger: My vote for @robcottingham‘s talk: LOLCats = funny
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Wendy: RT @mastermaq: At the heart of social media is creative self-expression and the need toconnect. – @RobCottingham #northernvoice09
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Kimli: @robcottingham Talk more about Transformers please! 😀 #nothernvoice09 I <3 Optimus Prime
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rickvug: Splitting my gut at #northernvoice09 is going to put the video of @RobCottingham? This needs to be shared!
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julieoc: #northernvoice “teh funny is a big part of how we connect” @robcottingham how we rebuild our atrophied muscles of connection
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netchick: @robcottingham shared laughter is something primal-laughing about same thing is social media this is how rebuild connection #northernvoice09
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carolbrowne: “the pros bomb, too.” @robcottingham
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sparklytosingle: @RobCottingham‘s Teh Funny was teh funny. #northernvoice09
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ThunderJon: Just got permission to go to ThunderTown from @RobCottingham
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mastermaq: Easily one of my favorite keynotes of all time! @RobCottingham rocks. #northernvoice09
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fncll: At NV09: Rob Cottingham giving funniest keynote ever. At ASTE where I am: Learn about NETS T Standards – Now with Clickers!
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monicahamburg: @sillygwailo Had same urge to give @RobCottingham standing ovation, but didn’t trust my skirt to be elegant when I stood up #northernvoice09
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lloydbudd: bend it like @RobCottingham ! Brilliant teh funny session!
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nbloom: Synergizing leverage & social media business are funny. Memes & LOLcats, up to you. -Cottingham #northernvoice09 http://twitpic.com/1m1vo
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julieoc: #northernvoice09 @robcottingham THANKS for that. Definitely worth the price of admission!
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formulaphoto: So glad I made it in time for @RobCottingham keynote at #northernvoice09. There is humour in truth :)
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tim_weber: RT @Hermida: R Cottingham lays into end-user agreements: We are surrendering every right. There’s a reason the button says “submit”
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retrocactus: @robcottingham‘s keynote should have been called the ‘teh awesome’ #northernvoice09
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mastermaq: RT @retrocactus: @robcottingham‘s keynote should have been called the ‘teh awesome’ #northernvoice09
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jeremylatham: @robcottingham‘s keynote should have been called the ‘teh awesome’ #northernvoice09 (via @retrocactus)
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brlamb: @robcottingham – I’ll be yet another person to say that you gave the most enjoyable keynote I’ve seen in ages… hilarious and insightful.
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chrisheuer: @robcottingham re: experts who created seinfeld/bill gates catastrophe were victims of institutionalized compromises IMHO #northernvoice09
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hummingbird604: @RobCottingham Rob your tweets are also being incorporated into the Coping Digitally liveblog #northernvoice09 – thanks for enriching it too
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trishussey: @@RobCottingham no kidding. Intense stuff #northernvoice09 #copingdigitally
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mastermaq: Some notes from @RobCottingham‘s keynote ‘teh funny': http://bit.ly/zFBhd (expand) #northernvoice09
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kgrandia: @RobCottingham thanks Rob – BTW your talk was very well done. You obviously put a lot of work into it. #northernvoice09
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Scobleizer: @RobCottingham gave one of the funniest speeches I’ve ever heard on stage at blogger conferences #northernvoice09
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OtotheLtotheM: RT @Scobleizer: @RobCottingham gave 1 of the funniest speeches I’ve ever heard on stage at blogr conferences #northernvoice09 = high praise!
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TwitLinksRSS: Northern Voice 2009: Teh Funny at MasterMaq’s Blog: No, that’s not a typo! Rob Cottingham ( @RobCottingham.. http://tinyurl.com/cmptco (expand)
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drfyzziks: Had a good time at #northernvoice09 today. Props to the organizers & speakers. Special mention to @RobCottingham for the teh funny keynote.
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skeskali: @RobCottingham was the highlight of #northernvoice09 for me today. I’m only sad I was too shy to introduce myself.

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skeskali: @RobCottingham I was standing right across from you at the burrito table. 😀 #northernvoice09

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DixonTam: @RobCottingham Thanks for an entertaining session this morning at Northern Voice. Great way to start the day.

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ruthseeley: @RobCottingham Was glad to see warmth of response to your talk – VERY funny indeed. Also glad to see you keynoting rather than infilling.
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skeskali: Most of my photos of @RobCottingham came out blurry ‘cos I was laughing too hard. #northernvoice09 http://is.gd/kpyG (expand)
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Roxyyo: RT @Scobleizer: @RobCottingham gave 1 of the funniest speeches I’ve ever heard on stage at blogr conferences #northernvoice09 I AGREE!
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Mary Robinson on media freedom

The Elders' Every Human Has Rights campaign has just relaunched its site (on Drupal!) We've been privileged to work with the EHHR team in telling the story of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights online. For a great snapshot of why the UDHR matters, check out the great PSA featuring Mary Robinson on media freedom.

Every Human Has Rights makes human rights personal

For the past two months, I've been part of the digital strategy team for The Elders, an extraordinary NGO that was launched last year by Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel. The vision is to convene a council of elders for the global village; the founding elders include Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mary Robinson and Kofi Annan.

As part of this work, I've been supporting the web team for Every Human Has Rights, a campaign to spread awareness and support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year is the sixtieth anniversary of UDHR, and being part of its celebration is a wonderful echo of one of the first pieces of work I did as a grad student at Harvard, thirteen years ago. (Ouch!) At that time I was a research assistant for Andrew Moravcsik, helping him research an article on international human rights regimes (PDF) that he published in time to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the UDHR.

Moravcsik's article focused particularly on the creation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR), which, unlike the UNDHR, was designed to be an enforceable document that would give individuals the legal standing to pursue human rights issues in an international court of law. What the ECHR advanced was the idea of personal, individual-level responsibility for human rights advocacy; what it lost was the boldness and breadth of vision of the UDHR.

The EHHR project recognizes that online networks provide a way to have your human rights cake, and eat it too. EHHR is focusing on each of the core themes of the UN Declaration, a sweeping document that addresses basic rights in areas from religion to employement, and from freedom of expression to healthcare. But by asking people around the world to sign on personally — over the web — as supporters of that Declaration, it's reawakening the idea that each and every one of us has a role to play in supporting human rights.

And that role doesn't need to be limited to a courtroom. One of the key partners on the EHHR project is Witness, an online NGO that uses video and web technology to tackle human rights abuses around the world. Through EHHR and Witness's user-driven site, The Hub, anyone in the world can be an active advocate for human rights — a personal witness — by contributing a video or online story.

EHHR and Witness are just two pieces of a large and growing online ecosystem for supporting human rights worldwide. Global Voices Online gathers bloggers from around the world, including many who are writing under adverse — even life-threatening — conditions in their home countries. Ushahidi and the Tunisian Prison Map are putting human rights abuses in Kenya and Tunisia on the map (literally). The Martus project provides digital security tools to protect the effectiveness and safety of people working on the front lines of human rights protection.

The growing online human rights ecosystem of which EHHR is a part didn't exist when Moravcsik wrote his article. At the time, the courts were the best option — really, the only meaningful option — for individuals to engage in the public sphere of human rights. What made that interesting to Moravcsik was the way that human rights agreements allowed governments to dig themselves into structural commitments to human rights, with citizens serving as the hypothetical watchdogs.

Today there's a whole new set of tools to give those hypothetical watchdogs real teeth. But now, citizens don't have to wait to be invited into that role, nor do they have to find their way into a courtroom. They just have to pick up a cell phone, a camera, or a keyboard, and they can hold human rights violations accountable in the court of global public opinion.

The technologies are all there….all that's missing is the recognition of meaningful personal accountability for human rights. That's what EHHR puts back in the picture, by asking and every one of us to sign a personal commitment to the bold vision the UN set forth sixty years ago.

Of course, when the Declaration was written, most UN members would not have envisioned a world in which access to global communications could be virtually universal. Now that we have it, it's time to make human rights universal, too.

Raising community-minded kids: Not just for people in Morningside Heights?

How can we instill social values in our kids? That’s a question Rob and I struggle with constantly. In its least subtle form, the inculcation can begin as early as eighteenth months, as we’ve learned this election season (“No, sweetie, we don’t clap forthat man.”) At three or four we can toss in a little more complexity (“We don’t say Indian, we say First Nations”) though no greater nuance (“That kind of car makes the trees cry.”)

Before you judge us too harshly for our brainwashing, let me say a few things in our self-defense. First, the “we” in all the above examples was actually me, so you can let Rob off the hook. Second, my long-held personal and intellectual justification for bringing kids into this already overcrowded world is that if the people who worry about the world’s problems are the ones who stop having children, we’re going to lose one of the most promising sources of would-be world-changers; the decision to have kids is for me inextricable from my commitment to building a better world with and for them.

A far more convincing defense is that my clumsy and heavy-handed efforts at passing on the leftie gospel amount to little when compared with the daily, granular and accumulating impact of the milieu in which children are raised. A community of cultured, socially minded, personally decent people is the best way to grow kids into a constructive social role — or so I was persuaded while reading Morningside Heights, Cheryl Mendelson’s picture of Upper West Side Manhattanites.

The novel centers on Anne, a former pianist and mother of three, and her husband, Charles, a second-string soloist at the Metropolitan Opera. As their neighborhood of Morningside Heights gentrifies, they soon find themselves pushed towards suburban exile from their beloved Manhattan, and struggle to reconcile their urban lifestyle with their financial means. We also follow Charles’ best friend, Morris, in his quest for recognition by his fellow scientists, and Anne’s best friend, Merrit, as she grieves over her rapidly diminishing prospects for marriage and family.

The juxtaposition of Morris and Merrit’s single lives with Anne and Charles’ family existence argues for the superiority of family bliss, but the kind of family bliss Mendelson portrays is located firmly and passionately within specific community ideals:

[Charles] abominated cars and grassy yards, could not comprehend why anyone would want a country home when the world provided perfectly good hotels. Buses and subways were how civilized people went about their business, and trains and planes were always preferable to cars. But most of all, what template of life would be visible to his children in some leafy town on the Hudson Line? Beneficent institutions and the kind of human beings who peopled them would be odd, absent ideals, not powerful living realities as they were here in Morningside Heights. What would life feel like in a world that did not set the pursuit of music or art or science or knowledge or justice and goodness at its core? What would the children become in a world in which their parents were eccentrics, startling individuals, rather than members of a modestly coherent society in which their tastes and temperaments were readable to others, even if uncongenial?

Even those who doubt that upper West Side Manhattan represents the apotheosis of family or community life may be gratified to find the relationship between family and community treated with serious attention. I myself have been starved for engaging, insightful novels about the experience of mothering young children; I’ve concluded that they’re scarce because mothers don’t have much time for novel-writing until the demands of mothering young kids, and its attendant puzzles, have passed from immediate view. But Michael Wells at Bailey/Coy came through for me once again when he predicted that Mendelson might be just what I’ve been craving.

Mendelson’s implicit solution to the dilemma of inculcating social values in kids — raise them in the rapturous world of Upper West Side Manhattan, but make sure you get a hell of a deal on real estate — does bear some relevance to those of us raising our kids in the provinces. In Vancouver, no less than Manhattan, real estate is destiny: it becomes ever-harder to pay for a family home in the city while earning a socially- or culturally-minded living. But urban living isn’t just about convenient shopping, short commutes or (in Vancouver anyhow) beach access: it’s about the density of cultural opportunities, the density of pedestrian (as opposed to vehicular) experience, and most crucially, the density of human relationships that’s possible when people with shared values also share a neighborhood.

The opportunity to raise our kids in a community of people who both speak and live the values of political engagement, creative expression, knowledge creation and spiritual presence is surely a better influence on them than my efforts at a crafted, controlled political message. Hmmm….supporting social engagement by holding space for community rather than delivering a pre-fab message…why does that sound familiar?

5 ways to shape the soul of the Internet

Does YouTube make people into exhibitionists? Does Facebook stunt teenagers’ social skills? Does 43Things help people realize their dreams?

Journalists, academics and web surfers have been arguing over whether the Internet is Ultimate Good or Ultimate Evil long before the social web (a.k.a. “web 2.0″) came along. But blogs, social networks and other kinds of online communities have raised the stakes and intensified the debate. Social web sites are more intensively interactive, and more socially connected, so they offer users an experience that is potentially more compelling (or in the view of Internet skeptics, distracting/disengaging) and (in the view of Internet boosters) more elevating, because they realize the Internet’s potential for forging and deepening interpersonal and community connectedness.

As online community strategists we spend a lot of time thinking about the Internet’s impact at this level: the meta level of community design and planning. We try to create sites, tools and communities that deepen community members’ connection to one another, that offer meaningful outlets for expression and conversation, and that build social capital. We think about communities as whole systems, and try to create conditions to make those systems socially constructive.

But I recently read a book that inspired me to think about how individuals can shape the social impact of the Internet. The Soul of Money, by Lynne Twist, looks at money as a social system, and suggests how each of us can transform our relationship to that system, and our relationship to money itself, by acting with integrity in all aspects of our relationship to money — whether it’s in how we earn it, spend it, or give it. It’s a book with a profound and powerful vision for social change, and an equally profound vision for personal change, both of which can be accessed and catalyzed through our individual mindset and actions in relation to money.

The moment I finished reading Twist’s book, I saw that her perspective on money — that each of us must “be the change we wish to see in the world “, in Gandhi’s words — applies equally to the Internet. Twist writes that “money is like water. It can be a conduit for commitment, a currency of love.” I would say say that the Internet, too, is like water: we can direct its flow towards our most craven instincts (spam, porn, gambling) or towards our vision of what the world can be like (online volunteering, e-giving, digital art).

The Internet may not yet be quite as pervasive or all-encompassing as money. But as it structures or touches more and more of lives — our personal and professional communications, our ways of meeting or staying in touch with people, our financial, information and sexual transactions, our creative outlets and our entertainment consumption — our relationship to the Internet becomes a powerful expression of our personal and social values, and a crucial opportunity for both personal and social change.

Just as the soul of money, or the role of money in the world, is the product of individual decisions as well as systemic forces, the soul of the Internet can be shaped by how we individually engage with the online sphere. Whether the Internet alienates and isolates us, or connects and enriches us, is not just determined by web developers and social media strategists.

The social value of the Internet is determined by how each and every one of us uses the Internet as a communications medium, social space and support tool. How we experience the Internet in our daily lives — whether we experience it as a dehumanizing void in which e-mail replaces face-to-face interaction, or as a meaningful community in which we discover new commonalities and connections — is a choice we make every day, with every message we send or browser page we load. Those choices can add up to personal and social alienation, or personal and social transformation.

What kinds of choices can create a relationship to the Internet that supports positive personal and social change? Let me propose a starter list of principles:

  • Give your attention to sites, people and organizations that reflect your true values. When I talked about the Soul of Money with my husband, he summed up his own approach to values-based spending with the following: “every dollar you spend on something is a vote to have more of that thing in the world”. On the Internet, every page you load is a vote to have more of that kind of content, or more of that kind of interaction. That doesn’t mean a diet of digital granola: you can have your virtual froot loops, too. But try redirecting your video surfing to indie films instead of gossip clips, or sending a personal hello instead of a generic Facebook poke.
  • Find love online. Love online can’t be relegated to match.com. We need to bring the very highest qualities of empathy, respect and affection to our online interactions…in as many contexts as possible. The Buddhist practice of metta — meditation to foster loving kindness in ourselves and the world — counsels us to begin by meditating with love towards ourselves, our family, and our dearest friends, and gradually expand that attitude of love to encompass a larger and larger circle, and eventually the world.We can use the Internet to entrench and amplify our confrontational and hostile social dynamics. Or we can make our online interactions a practice in loving kindness by approaching each online interaction, even writing each e-mail message, as if it were an affectionate encounter with a dear friend. Yes, we need to be sensibly discreet and protective in an environment that is currently rampant with abuse, fraud and predation — but caution can co-exist with connection, and even hostility can be met with empathy and kindness. Indeed, with the amount of time we now spend online, we can’t afford to spend it in a mindset of suspicion; we must find ways of experiencing our online hours as a practice in forging and deepening relationships.
  • Let down your guard. We live in a fairly guarded society. From locked doors and car alarms to invitation-only parties and call screening, our physical spaces and social practices often serve to keep people out rather than bring them in. The anonymity of the Internet, and many of the emergent pathologies that anonymity makes possible, have led many Internet users to be even more guarded online than they are in their offline lives. Guarded equals disconnected; every wall we put up makes it harder to discover new people, ideas or experiences.But anonymity affords a certain kind of safety, too: a safety in which new levels of candor and connectedness can thrive. Indeed, if you talk to people who enjoy spending a lot of time online, they will often tell you how much they treasure anonymity (or degrees thereof) because it frees them to have honest conversations or forge deep friendships in the absence of superficial social judgements. Experiment to find out whether your truest self emerges from anonymity, or from disclosure. Embrace the Internet as a place where you can be more honest (but with kindness) or more transparent (but with some discretion) and thus experience a new kind of social intimacy. Put more of yourself out there, and let in more of other people by absorbing other people’s blog posts, videos, photos and ideas without the social filters that often shape our in-person perceptions of others. Personal transparency builds interpersonal trust, and interpersonal trust builds social capital.
  • Give as good as you get. There’s a reason a lot of people describe social media or Web 2.0 as “user-contributed media”. A lot of the sites you now enjoy — whether it’s Flickr, YouTube or Boing Boing — are driven by regular folks (or at least, one-time regular folks). That spirit of contribution is the cultural shift that we need social media to nurture; to transform us from a disconnected culture of passive TV consumers to an awake and alive community of creative expression. So don’t engage with the Internet as a passive consumer: embrace and nurture the spirit of expressive and contribution by participating actively yourself.
  • Fuse the power of money and technology. The soul of the Internet is not just analogous to the soul of money; they’re interconnected. The Internet is our bank, our shopping mall, our charity box. Taking our financial transactions, shopping and giving online is an opportunity to transform our dysfunctional experiences on those fronts into more meaningful and effective interventions. You can shop at Etsy instead of Overstock, or supplement habitual workplace charitable giving with personal investments on Kiva.

I expect that these principles will feel most alien, and most challenging, to people who currently experience the Internet through a filter of mistrust, hostility or simple frustration. Many of the people who talk to me about their concerns about the Internet are people who are passionate about our very fragile and very beautiful offline world, and see the Internet as a distraction from the real-world relationships and challenges that need our attention.

But these — you! — are the people who most need to shift their approach to online interaction towards a paradigm that is both personally and socially productive. The Internet is too powerful and too pervasive to be left as the province of people who don’t need or value interpersonal conection. Every online encounter that dispenses with personal affection in favour of brusque efficiency or places self-protection ahead of empathy for others, pushes the Internet towards an online culture that is as pathological as our worst offline moments.

The answer, both personally and socially, is to consciously embrace the Internet as a new frontier for community and connection. The Internet can be abandoned to those who see only its commercial opportunities. Or the soul of the Internet can be forged, and found, by those of us who care about the quality of human connection and community.

If you believed the soul of the Internet was crucial to the future of our planet, how would that affect the way you spend your time online?

What principles guide your use of the Internet — and what principles would you suggest for others?

Now downloadable: Hacktivism & The Future of Political Participation

As announced today on Civic Minded:

I’m making my complete dissertation available for download, beginning today. Depending on your interests, you might want to download the whole enchilada, or to look at selected chapters:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction provides an overview of the dissertation & methodology; it’s useful for folks who want a quick overview
  • Chapter 2: A taxonomy of hacktivism is a beast (65 pages) but provides a very comprehensive picture of the three main types of hacktivism: political cracking (like site defacements), performative hacktivism (like the Yes Men’s work), and political coding (like folks trying to circumvent Chinese firewalls)
  • Chapter 3: Collective action among virtual selves looks at hacktivism in the context of political science research on political participation; this is the research that most directly shaped my thinking about how to encourage citizen participation in online communities
  • Chapter 4: Hacktivism and state autonomy looks at how hacktivists get around policy and legal decisions with the real effects of code; it’s useful for organizations trying to understand how the Internet changes the bounds of their effective authority
  • Chapter 5: Hacktivism and the future of democratic discourse looks at how hacktivism illuminates hopes for an online “public sphere”; it’s useful for folks thinking about issues like free speech and anonymity online
  • Chapter 6: Conclusion pulls it all back together and reflects on how hacktivism has been wrongly conflated with cyberterrorism as part of of the post 9/11 age of anxiety; it may interest folks who want to understand the impact of security anxieties on the space for online expression

I hope these files will be useful to a wide range of people who are trying to understand the more colorful and innovative elements of online participation — including its latest incarnation at Halliburton Contracts.

Now available: Hacktivism & The Future of Political Participation

As announced today on Civic Minded:

I’m making my complete dissertation available for download, beginning today. Depending on your interests, you might want to download the whole enchilada, or to look at selected chapters:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction provides an overview of the dissertation & methodology; it’s useful for folks who want a quick overview
  • Chapter 2: A taxonomy of hacktivism is a beast (65 pages) but provides a very comprehensive picture of the three main types of hacktivism: political cracking (like site defacements), performative hacktivism (like the Yes Men’s work), and political coding (like folks trying to circumvent Chinese firewalls)
  • Chapter 3: Collective action among virtual selves looks at hacktivism in the context of political science research on political participation; this is the research that most directly shaped my thinking about how to encourage citizen participation in online communities
  • Chapter 4: Hacktivism and state autonomy looks at how hacktivists get around policy and legal decisions with the real effects of code; it’s useful for organizations trying to understand how the Internet changes the bounds of their effective authority
  • Chapter 5: Hacktivism and the future of democratic discourse looks at how hacktivism illuminates hopes for an online “public sphere”; it’s useful for folks thinking about issues like free speech and anonymity online
  • Chapter 6: Conclusion pulls it all back together and reflects on how hacktivism has been wrongly conflated with cyberterrorism as part of of the post 9/11 age of anxiety; it may interest folks who want to understand the impact of security anxieties on the space for online expression

I hope these files will be useful to a wide range of people who are trying to understand the more colorful and innovative elements of online participation — including its latest incarnation at Halliburton Contracts.