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On February 5, 2010, Tunisian Blogger Ghodwa Nahrek wrote:

Ammar (the nickname given to the Tunisian censorship apparatus) said that he doesn’t like Nocturnal Thoughts anymore. He prefers afternoon thoughts. Nocturnal Thoughts, the blog of our friend and brother Tarek Kahlaoui, had been censored after more than three years of continuous blogging about interesting and sensitive subjects. In Tunisia, the scissors of censorship acquired new significance. It is no longer a form of oppression and a limit to freedom of expression as it is a medal for the blogger and a certificate from the censor showing the value of a blog and the importance of the subjects it deals with. Congratulations to our friend Tarek and welcome again in the club of censored blogs.

Tunisian censorship of the internet is the rule rather than the exception. Websites that criticize Tunisia’s human rights, such as Amnesty International , Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, the International Freedom of Expression eXchange, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, are blocked. The Tunisian government is also notorious for blocking websites critical of the Ben Ali regime. Even YouTube and Daily Motion have been banned for hosting of videos documenting prison abuse in Tunisia, and pages that are critical of the regime are blocked on international media sources like the New York Times or the BBC.  According to aggregate scores established by Freedom on the Net (the higher the score, the worst the censorship on a scale of 0 to 100), Tunisia and China are tied for second worst censorship in the world (only behind Cuba.)  

The Tunisian blogosphere did not start until 2006, but by August 2008, at least 22 of about 600 active blogs had already been blocked. Blogging was originally used as a form of free speech, but the government quickly began punishing bloggers who addressed topics beyond the “red lines” observed by traditional media in Tunisia. But some bloggers are resilient and choosing to wear their badges of honor for speaking up (and being censored.) It is unclear whether this anti-censorship blog campaign has been squashed, but in 2008, about fifty bloggers would repost deleted or blocked blog posts on new sites- sometimes starting as many as nine blogs to get their message out there in the face of censorship. Others bloggers have come up with more creative ways to write about politics and human rights without being caught.  The blog NormalLand used to be able to discuss Tunisian politics by using a virtual country with a virtual leader, with various government positions being assigned to other Tunisian bloggers, but it is now shut down.  

To learn more about trends in the Tunisian blogosphere (or any other country, for that matter), definitely follow the conversation on Global Voices Online, which rounds out the bloggers around the world and gives you a bird’s eye view of what conversations are going on in blogospheres around the globe. In November 2009, Tunisian bloggers were posting most often about the trial of Fatma Arabicca, the question of French reparations to Tunisia for its past colonization, and the Egypt-Algeria World Cup Match. Over the past two months, the fight against censorship has continued in the blogosphere, and bloggers have begun speaking in English (as opposed to the more common Arabic and French.)  Cyber-activism for student protesters is another trending topic that continues amongst Tunisian bloggers and social media users.

If you want more of an insight into the blogosphere in the Arab world, check out this episode. You’ll get great insights from an Egyptian blogger and a Lebanese blogger (both of whom have been arrested and detained.) It’s interesting to learn how censorship of traditional media impacts the role blogging plays in these states, and how cenorship of digital media varies from state to state!

Throughout the semester, my classmates and I have been bookmarking a lot of Foursquare– related content on our delicious links page.  Introduced at South by Southwest Interactive Conference 2009, Foursquare and other location-based services were widely used by 2010 conference goers looking to find fellow social media nerds at unofficial parties and add transparency to the quality of events via check-ins and short message reviews. Unfortunately, as one of the only social media nerds out there WITHOUT a Smartphone (potential 23rd birthday present Mom & Dad?), I’m not yet a Foursquare user. Nonetheless, it’s still fun to check out Foursquare’s homepage to search your favorite area venues, read their reviews, and see if you recognize their mayors!  

But Foursquare is definitely more than just a competitive night life game. The site will distribute a free analytics tool and dashboard to give business owners access to a range of statistics and information on customers who check-in at their venues.  Additionally, a new staff page feature will allow venues to communicate with regular customers who check-in via Foursquare. For example, if a staffer hasn’t seen a “regular” visit in awhile, that staffer can tweet them about a new product to entice him or her back. Tristan Walker, director of business development at Foursquare, expects this feature to help local merchants especially. Here is an interview with Tristan in which he discusses cool ways that brands and businesses have used Foursquare. But even businesses that don’t offer face-to-face social experiences, such as bars and restaurants, can use location-based services to drive traffic and reinforce messaging. Even political campaigns and social causes can benefit from Foursquare- check out Marc Ross’s predictions on how volunteers will now gain recognition for their work.

Now that more venues are offering special deals and rewards to users who check-in, Foursquare is cracking down on cheating. Now, like its competitor Gowalla, Foursquare will use GPS data to verify a user’s actual location. While users will still be able to check-in anywhere (and prior to or after their actual arrival), they will only be rewarded for the check-in if they are at the actual location. And some users take their check-ins VERY seriously- check out this story and find out who was first to check in at the North Pole.  

Foursquare has already partnered with Bravo to turn its reality show celebrities into city curators who recommend venues that users can then check-in at to earn Bravo-themed badges. MTV and VH1 recently announced a similar partnership. They will also be the first media brands to launch Foursquare’s new Celebrity Mode tool, which allows users to friend celebrities and celebrity users to send check-ins to either friends and followers or just their inner-circle friends. It seems that Foursquare is following Twitter’s lead in getting celebrities involved, which could help boost the popularity of the site and help pack the house for future official celebrity appearances. Over the past few days, the Financial Times has finalized a deal with Foursquare to offer mayors of select cafes near London School of Economics, Cass School of Business, Harvard, and Columbia codes for a premium FT.com subscription.  And of course, web apps big and small continue to integrate with Foursquare’s rich local data.

It will certainly be interesting to watch Foursquare’s growth past 500,000 users in the upcoming months. Will location-based services spread beyond early-adopting social media nerds based in prominent cities (similar to how Facebook has spread beyond college students?) Will enough of your inner-ring ever use Foursquare, or will growth beyond your inner-ring make this social media tool too overwhelming (as some say has happened with Twitter)? Perhaps if Foursquare fails to adopt filtering and status-toggles that allow us to limit the notifications we receive, we will turn to Rally Up to meet up and follow our true friends. Only time will tell, and in the meantime, I hope I get a phone that allows me to join in the fun!

Wikipedia has become the “first draft of history.” Just take a look at how the Wikipedia community handled the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. By the end of the first day of the Wikipedia article’s life, it had been edited more than 360 times, by 70 different editors referring to 28 separate sources from news outlets around the web. Wikipedia’s crowdsourcing mentality combined with its easy-to-use, accessible platform to generate an aggregation of event details from multiple sources (such as NY Times, Reuters, and Times of India) in a number of different languages and locations. Wikipedia is especially effective as a breaking news source because articles can be instantaneously created and rapidly updated by anyone (you don’t have to be a reporter in the newsroom!) In fact, the contributors to breaking news articles often interact online as if they are in a virtual newsroom. Also, the list of links at the bottom of the page points readers to more resources regarding specific aspects of the event or different viewpoints taken.  

Let’s face it. When an event is unfolding, people would rather have information that isn’t 100% reliable rather than no information at all. And if an event is important enough, you can be sure that incorrect information will be fixed by the time you refresh your screen. That’s because a crowd of contributors (some of which might band together as a community) quickly assemble during crisis events. As we talked about in class last week, humans are motivated to DO something during a crisis rather than sit around passively absorbing information from other sources. In case you really don’t trust early contributors, Wikipedia released an optional feature last fall (WikiTrust) that color codes every word of the encyclopedia based on the reliability of its author and the length of time it has lasted in the article.

But are the community’s new policies and aggressive management of the site turning off existing members and making it more and more difficult for new members to join? A recent study found that during the first three months of 2009, the English-language version of Wikipedia lost 49,000 editors, compared with a loss of about 4,900 during the same period in 2008. Jimmy Wales says this is not so. Perhaps this is a case of crowd fatigue- thoughts? I’m a little bit surprised that there is not very much information on the West Virginia mining explosion that happened yesterday. While the accident is now mentioned in here and here, it has not been extensively covered by Wikipedia editors as the events unfold. Could it be that the majority of the Wikipedia community lives in large cities and feel more connected to local breaking news?

Last June, Google News began monitoring Wikipedia articles and using them on their site. This was a pivotal change. Finally, the most powerful media company in the world was recognizing Wikipedia’s increasing popularity as a reliable breaking news source. The Huffington Post also recognizes Wikipedia’s importance- it dedicates an entire page to breaking news about Wikipedia. And did you know that there is now a WikiReader? For $99, this gadget allows users to browse all of Wikipedia offline and on-the-go. Why not carry around breaking news in your pocket? Read a review here!

Finally, below is a video that can help you use Wikipedia as a news source by making use of Wikipedia’s watchlist function. This isn’t the most exciting video, but stick with it. It’s a good tutorial if you don’t already have a lot of experience on the editing side of Wikipedia!

Last month, CNNMoney.com’s article asserted that Twitter has become more of a newsfeed than an actual social network because “most of its 50 million accounts merely follow other users rather than post their own messages.” This article was in response to a study by RJMetrics Inc showing that most Twitter accounts inactive. The CNNMoney.com article caught my attention because I am one of those “inactive” users of which it speaks (although trying to change- follow me @torichristmas!) In activating my account, my goal was to master Twitter as a social media tool (and improve my knowledge of politics, current events and social media happenings along the way.) I intended to “tweet” regularly about current events and social media news and to prove the relevance of my tweets by gaining followers. I had no real interest in keeping in touch with friends through Twitter; most of my friends are on Facebook, and for me, that’s a more effective platform for such relationships.

Upon setting up my account, I began following news sources, Barack, agencies, social media gurus, and organizations of interest, as well as a few friends and acquaintances. Perhaps I created too large a Twitter network to begin with- this can happen on any social networking site, like Foursquare. In my defense, I used Twitter’s list function to try to create some order on my home stream (examples of my lists are breaking news, personal interests, PR/Ad/Social Media, and High School Friends.) But each time I logged on to Twitter, I felt overwhelmed by all of the recent tweets (why did I seem to be continually behind on the news?) and annoyed by certain accounts’ rapid tweets that were taking over my home and list streams. It didn’t look like I was following 75 accounts; instead, 10-12 dominant accounts crowded my streams and commanded my attention by pushing less regular tweeters to the bottom of the reverse-chronological stream. I thought that the more people I followed, the more I would get out of Twitter. But instead, my stream is cluttered by things that I care about only marginally and updates on people who I hardly know anymore. Maybe Metcalf’s Law doesn’t ring true for Twitter. Is it wrong to not embrace the weak ties I have to most of the tweets on my stream?

In his study, Robert J. Moore, CEO and Founder of RJMetrics, says that if new Twitter users stick with Twitter for an entire week, then they will have a much higher rate of engagement with Twitter over time. Perhaps this insight prompted Twitter to change how it engages with its users and potential users. Last week, the site began testing a new homepage that “bubbles up more of the information flowing through Twitter,” according to the Twitter blog. “Twitter is a network where information is exchanged and consumed at a rapid clip every second of the day. With so much being shared, we know that there’s something of value for everyone,” continued the Twitter blog. To summarize, Twitter has made changes to its homepage to show users who have not thoroughly explored and experimented with its site that Twitter can be useful in ways that are not generally apparent. These changes should help users more easily figure out who and what they can find on Twitter, and how they can personalize and filter their rapidly flowing streams. The site is trying to communicate to non-users and inactive users that Twitter is not just for status updates anymore. Be sure to read this recent blog post on the changes. Something interesting that I got from it is that since July 2009, Twitter has been trying to emphasize its “potential as a real-time search tool and a source of information, rather than a simple social networking tool.” So in reality, contrary to the CNNMoney.com article’s viewpoint, Twitter wants to be viewed as more of a newsfeed than a social network. Hopefully its responsiveness to user confusion (like my own) through interface changes can generate more user engagement in 2010. I think that it’s clarification of its desired image has certainly been a good place to start!

In 1962, Charles Van Doren, who later became a senior editor for Encyclopedia Britannica, said “The ideal encyclopedia should be radical. It should stop being safe.”

Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikimedia Foundation (the nonprofit that operates Wikipedia), explains that Wikipedia indeed began with the following radical idea: “imagine a world in which every person on the planet is giving free access to the sum of human knowledge.”  The goal of the Wikimedia Foundation is to get a free encyclopedia to every person on the planet. Wales wants to empower people everywhere to make good decisions that can fight evils like poverty. So far, Wikipedia is doing a pretty good job reaching out to people across the globe- only 1/3 of the site’s traffic is to its English language version.  Can you believe that a global site used millions of times per day only costs the Wikimedia Foundation a few thousand dollars per month? Can you believe that all of Wikipedia’s system administrators and editors are volunteers? And ultimately, can you believe what you read on Wikipedia?

First of all, let’s consider who is using Wikipedia and why they like it. Since Wikipedia is especially popular amongst the college-aged, well-educated population looking for a convenient place to get information (example: ME), I’m going to draw from my own daily experiences. I mostly use Wikipedia as a quick reference (I glance at the first paragraph and then skim a few sections of the article) or a jumping off point/roadmap for further, more in-depth online research on a topic. Isn’t this the same way that you would use a published encyclopedia? You don’t expect to be an expert after simply reading an encyclopedia article, but you do feel more prepared to continue your research and connect the dots between sources that zero in on particular aspects of your topic. Today, this aerial view is free and at our fingertips (both literally and figuratively.) Sure, Wikipedia is not perfect (with every plausible promise and effective tool comes that acceptable bargain), but in trusting what you read in its articles, you are surely gain more than you lose.

The popularity of Wikipedia proves the power of peer production as an industrial model. Wikipedia champions the idea that amateurs can have as much to contribute as professionals. Who cares if an editor doesn’t have his or her Master’s degree in a relevant field? If someone is passionate enough to contribute to the knowledge surrounding a certain topic, then it is highly likely that that person will strive to be a reliable source. And even when this logic doesn’t hold true, there are enough passionate, reliable experts who can edit misinformation out.

And when all else fails, we have Wales, who realizes that we rely on Wikipedia is as a trusted, convenient source of information. It’s comforting to know that he is willing to curb Wikipedia’s open-door policy to meet our high standards of content quality. “We have really become part of the infrastructure of how people get information. There is a serious responsibility we have,” says Wales. Clearly, Wikipedia’s new flagging system reflects the recognition of that responsibility that comes with Wikipedia’s exceptional influence on information-seekers. From the beginning, Wales has avoided specifying principles for Wikipedia. Instead, he prefers that it’s rules evolve in response to real users’ needs. Overly broad principles, like “blogs are not valid sources,” would take away from knowledge summation and information sharing, since many blogs can provide editors with information worthy of being aggregated into Wikipedia articles. How can Wales separate the articles that are actually encyclopedic from the ones which aren’t (example: obscure celebrities.) The Long Tail tells us that in fact every niche (and article) has its followers.  Unlike published encyclopedias, Wikipedia is not paper. Its editors are not constrained by special limits. It’s okay for them to write about every topic imaginable. Wikipedia is one of those distributive forces that make the Long Tail possible!

Maybe Wikipedia is even becoming wary of untrustworthy sources on its own.  Ed Chi found that the changes made by experienced editors were more likely to stay up on the site, whereas one-time editors had a much higher chance of having their edits reversed. He concluded that there is “growing resistance from the Wikipedia community to new content, especially when edits come from occasional editors.” I don’t think this is a bad trend. If you are one of those passionate people (mentioned above) who want to contribute to the public’s knowledge, then you will be willing to prove yourself before being accepted. Sure, you don’t need a Master’s degree, but you do need to build some sort of credibility before becoming an influencer.

As further proof of the validity of Wikipedia, check out Nature’s expert-led investigation, which used peer reviews to compare Wikipedia and Britannica’s coverage of science. The study’s results suggest that high-profile, vandalism scandals (like the Seigenthaler situation) are the “exception rather than the rule.” Other users have put Wikipedia’s trustworthiness to their own tests and come up with less positive results. This is not all that surprising. Of course Wikipedia is more susceptible to inaccuracies and bias then traditional published encyclopedias. But just as someone researching the war in Iraq would not want to rely solely on published encyclopedia articles, he or she would not want to assume the validity and the accuracy of every fact in Wikipedia’s 33-page “War in Iraq” article. Look for flags, check the source of your Wikipedia information, and verify facts with other sources! In a day and age when it is possible to surround ourselves with the news that we want, we should never believe everything that we see.

Check out this great article on why Wikipedia should be trusted as a breaking news source as well as an encyclopedia. I totally agree that Wikipedia is too often held to higher standards than traditional media. Like this article says, Wikipedia is an aggregator of all the social media news sources that we check (and believe) on a daily basis.  If we believe one article posted on a friend’s Twitter feed, why wouldn’t we trust an aggregation of articles that take multiple perspectives on a news event?

And finally, an afterthought: Why is it that only 13% of Wikipedia contributors are women? Why are men dominating this landscape so much? In class, we discussed that blogging is also a male-dominated landscape (aside from Mommy Blogs.) Blogging seems more opinion-oriented, while contributing to Wikipedia involves having confidence in your knowledge and its value. Could it be that women don’t think their own opinions and knowledge are worth sharing? The psychology side of me can’t help but ponder the underlying gender issues in these statistics.

I am not much of a “gamer” myself, and I had actually never thought of “gaming” as part of social media until I saw our class syllabus. I tried to activate a Second Life account, but the site would not accept any of my three working email addresses as valid. I quickly became frustrated with this problem and decided to browse the Second Life Destination Guide instead. I was shocked by how beautiful the Second Life world is. Parts of it reminded me of Universal Studios- especially when I saw that there are “Alice and Wonderland” destinations. After checking out several of these visually enchanting lands and builds, I actually see how people might become caught up in this world. I don’t see Second World continuing to grow. It looks like many companies are already pulling the plug on their marketing efforts in this second world. Second Life reminds me of Twitter in the sense that millions of people have activated accounts, but only a much smaller, core group of users exist.

While I was previously aware of Second Life and World of Warcraft, I had no idea that political and policy-related videogames existed until I browsed Persuasive Game’s portfolio. Games produced by this agency have addressed food safety and agribusiness, consumerism, personal debt, the global petroleum market, pandemic flu, wind energy, and even the politics of nutrition, which was big in the news last week. So, I downloaded and started to play FatWorld. Quickly, I realized how time consuming these games can be. I have a hard enough time staying current with the happenings in my own life and the physical world- who has time to play another person in a fictitious alternate universe? Not only do you have to learn the rules of the game- you also have to continuously play the game to develop your values and explore models demonstrated by the games. The graphics are also far simpler in these games than in Second World, although the issues addressed are much more complex.

Ian Bogost, author of Persuasive Games and founder of the agency by the same name, recently wrote an article highlighting the “unique power and potential of videogames to complexify rather than simplify the world.” He goes onto explain that “Games, like all media, can’t ever really change behavior; a game about nutrition won’t magically turn a player healthy, just as a game about criminality won’t magically turn a player delinquent…Instead, games can help us shape and explore our values. And today, our values better damned well be complex.” And complex values take constant care to develop and nurture. It seems like these games are actually for policy makers, whose lives revolve around exploring and understanding the complex values associated with their respective issues.

John Battelle’s The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed our Culture really opened my eyes to Google as a business enterprise. I feel a little silly and a lot naïve, but I had really always thought of Google as the world’s information providing service to the world rather than a business with a bottom line. I have grown up making sense of the web throuh “Googling.” I am reliant on this search engine to the degree that I automatically type www.google.com into my internet browser’s address upon opening the internet, even if I am just using it to navigate to a familiar webpage.  Sure, I was aware that the Google model relied on making money through AdWords and AdSense, but I had never thought of Google solely as a money-making endeavor. I couldn’t have been more wrong about the company.

Google’s “promise” is plausible: to organize the world’s information and make it universally acceptable and useful.” But did you know that the “effective tool” keeps changing? I’m not convinced that Google algorithms change overnight to benefit the public, but I am certain that changes like the Florida update help Google’s bottom line. In Chapter 7, Battelle tells the story of online small business entrepreneurs who were profiting from Google search results in an honest way. Without warning or prior explanation, Google introduced a new algorithm that turned search results upside-down and forced these small businesses to buy AdWords to move back up the search ladder.

Did you know that the “acceptable bargain,” or the rules of Google, might not be so transparent? Google initially agreed to an extremely low level of censorship in China so that it could enter the valuable market. This decision blatantly broke Google’s original promise. Google rationalized this compromise by saying that it would ultimately be more of a disservice to the Chinese people to live without Google altogether. Four years later, Google has suddenly decided that censorship is not in line with its company’s values, and it plans on pulling out of China after a series of security breaches. Google doesn’t explain how the security breaches have changed their opinions on censorship, but apparently they have. Or is this just a way for Google to rebuild integrity while abandoning an investment gone-bad?  While I do not personally have anything to hide, I’m not as comfortable with Google’s influence on my life and possession of my personal information now that I recognize what appear to be Google’s ulterior (or at least conflicting) motives.

On a final note, my internet is working fine, but my Google has suddenly stopped working as I write this post. Is Big Brother watching? No, I don’t think so. I’m not afraid of Google, but I’m glad that I’m now aware (thanks to Battelle) of the company’s questionable integrity.