July 31, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Wikia's Revolt Of The Digital Sharecroppers


What happens when digital sharecroppers are not happy on the electronic plantations?

Jimmy Wales is not going to like this one! I examine the tensions between so-called "community" and commerce, actually breaking (nominally) a story about how some of Wikia's digital sharecroppers are very unhappy with how that company has been treating them. Wikipedia is part of a non-profit foundation, but Wikia is a corporate start-up with $14 million dollars invested in it. And venture capitalists want a return on their investment.

As others have noted, it's no secret that their overall strategy is to "commercialize the hell out" of free labor, via aggressive advertising. And groups like the fans of Transformers are pushing back.

And it's not at all clear how it'll all turn out.

[For all columns, see the page Seth Finkelstein | guardian.co.uk.]

[Update: My article seems to have inspired Wikinews to do a story: "Potential Wikia mass exodus" (they said it, not me!)]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in press , wikipedia | on July 31, 2008 03:13 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
July 29, 2008

The Hyperlinked Society :: Google, Links, and Popularity versus Authority

"The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age", just published, contains a chapter by me on "Google, Links, and Popularity versus Authority"

The entire book is on-line, and linkable, so you can read and link to it.

It's a good chapter, if I do say so myself, exploring the way search algorithms can embody various social values. And it's written in a style that liberal arts type should be able to handle, yet geeks should find tolerable (that is, the amount of information is high, the humanities jargon non-existent, and I endeavour to be clear and logical rather than obscure and verbose). I'm particularly proud of the part where I managed to weave in a several decades old news judgement description as an algorithmic determination.

The chapter is probably the best example of what I was considering writing a few years ago, when I had thoughts about what I described as doing Lawrence Lessig's "Code And Other Laws Of Cyberspace" from a technical perspective. But this is probably going to be my last "academic" writing. It's been evident for a while now that I have no future in that area. And creating this sort of material is not a very fulfilling hobby.

Anyway, read the chapter, read the book.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on July 29, 2008 06:05 PM | (Infothought permalink)
July 28, 2008

Google Knol Ranking - Google NOT favoring Knol (the way you think ...)

I've not bothered to write an obligatory "Google Knol" post, but I'm going to try to weigh in on the Great Google Knol Ranking Controversy, which is whether Google is artificially boosting the ranking of Knol articles. My contention:

1. Short answer: No

2. Slightly longer answer: Yes, but not in the way you think.

To begin with, simply as a historical evidence sanity-check, we've got many examples to consider as to whether Google gives its own properties any special favorable treatment. Google owns Blogger, but doesn't seem to give blogger posts any favored ranking over similar posts (favoring blog posts in general is another issue). Google owns YouTube, and yes, there have been rumors there, but YouTube is also essentially winner-take-all category dominator (self-reinforcing, true). Social network Orkut is an also-ran now. So there's no history of strong ranking promotion.

And critically: FAVORING KNOL WOULD BE STUPID. It's an unproven, profitless project at this point. Moreover, if Google was going to be evil here, the smart thing to do would be to turn up the crank slowly over months, like the boiling-a-frog cliche. Not hang a big sign out with an invitation of roughly "Sue us for anti-trust violations and abuse of monopoly power".

Matt Cutts, Google's most well-known blogger, has said

Hi Dare, as Ben Yates mentions, several of these knols were featured on the front page of Knol and therefore a lot of people writing about Knol were linking to these knols and passing PageRank and anchortext. I saw multiple people talking about and linking to Aaron's knol as well. It can sometimes take some time for our crawl/indexing system to determine how much trust or weight to assign to new web pages. As part of the process of Knol launching, I'm guessing our crawl/indexing system will continue to adjust appropriately over the next few days.

Which brings me to the "Yes" answer. Sure, anything featured by a megacorporation with lots of buzz around it will rank equally well. Anyone with the same amount of enormous power (in terms of attention and popularity) can expect the same result. That's "web 2.0" democracy for you!

The real thing to worry about is not some crude code like
"if ($site eq 'knol.google.com') { $ranking = $SUPERHIGH; }"

The real thing to worry about is if someone inside the search ranking group has told the Knol group the deep dark secret formula which has driven Wikipedia's metastasis throughout all of Google's results.
[note that's "secret" as in "trade secret", not conspiracy]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on July 28, 2008 02:32 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
July 24, 2008

COPA - "Children's Internet Protection Act" Censorware Politics Goes On

As has been widely reported, e.g. ACLU press release "a federal court once again upheld a ban on a law that would criminalize constitutionally protected speech on the Internet. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the unconstitutional Child Online Protection Act (COPA)". I've previously written several COPA blog posts, mostly about the censorware-related politics of the case.

To say something both meaningful and different from the herd, I'll point out that Susan Crawford has a post on COPA which extensively discusses the legal strategy STILL driving the promotion of censorware now. As in, right now, in 2008 and beyond. And she said it, not me.

"Justice Kennedy said then - that it is the Court's job to consider what alternatives are out there in the world to help parents, and to decide whether they're more effective/less restrictive than COPA ... Justice Breyer was very sympathetic to [an opposing] view the last time around. His point is that filtering doesn't count as an alternative to COPA."

Concluding in part:

This case is a big deal because it turns on the question whether private, edge-based solutions to speech issues should be taken seriously.

Note the language there: private (good good good) edge-based (buzzword) solutions (business jargon). Words like unaccountable or secret blacklist are not to be found.

These were the issues which led to a smear campaign waged against me due to my blacklist decryptions and extensive opposing censorware. (and people don't like to hear this, but objective evidence is that the mudslinging worked!). When I explain all the political reasons for what has happened over the years, I'm sometimes told (too often in a sneering, belittling tone) that the matter is ancient history. It's not. It'll continue to be significant into the foreseeable future.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware , copa | on July 24, 2008 11:56 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
July 17, 2008

"Life Trumps Blogging"

"Life Trumps Blogging" - on blog-vacation this week and into next week.

An apropos cartoon:

Pearls Before Swine: and yet somehow the world goes on

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in misc | on July 17, 2008 07:00 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
July 12, 2008

Boing Boing Silently Ununpublishes A Few Violet Blue Posts

[Original research! Not an echo! News!]

In a long MetaFilter discussion about the incident, user "xchmp" noticed that a few of the Violet Blue related posts which were deleted, ahem, "unpublished" from Boing Boing were now back on the website (let us call this "ununpublished").

After investigating, I've found it's true, they were indeed silently ununpublished. Check this out (do it now, since the cache will change over time).

In the following page, compare the Google cached version ("Jul 6, 2008 19:11:10 GMT") with the current version. Look at the lower left-hand "Older" link on the two pages. The current version links to the "ununpublished" post mentioning Violet Blue, the version of July 6 cache links to the previous post. The cached version links to a different, previous post, since the Violet Blue related post was not present at the time the cached file was generated (note that could be sometime earlier than the cache date).

Another example:

Compare the Google cached version ("Jul 9, 2008 15:10:58 GMT") with the current version, again at the lower left-hand "Older" link. Same effect.

You can even see Google picking up the posts now. For example right now for a Google search on [site:boingboing.net "MondoGlobo podcasts"] I get just two hits. Neither is the post, both are other items on boingboing.net (this will change in a few days, so look now - that's how you can tell the posts are new).

Moreover the *cached* copy ( Jul 3, 2008 18:25:01 GMT) of http://www.boingboing.net/2006/10/15-week/ doesn't have the post, even though the string is showing up in the snippet (it's known that the snippets and index update faster than the cached files)

These posts, all by David Pescovitz, seem to have been rewonderfuled:

http://www.boingboing.net/2005/05/17/bdsm-dolls.html http://www.boingboing.net/2005/05/27/transparent-tape-scu.html http://www.boingboing.net/2005/12/21/violet-blues-top-ten.html http://www.boingboing.net/2006/10/19/mondoglobo-podcasts-.html

[ Source lists: http://files.bangshang.com/unpublished.php ("cillit bang") http://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=pzVyO44trg7ys2C31Bt3pCw&hl=en (Violet Blue) ]

[Note: This post may change to elaborate or add additional material]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in bogosphere | on July 12, 2008 10:09 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
July 09, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Internet Group Polarization Argument

"Don't just blame the internet for polarised viewpoints"

Networked communications are too easily indicted as potential causes of factionalisation

Also titled "The net is not always to blame" on the front page. I didn't pick these titles, but they're reasonable.

Interestingly, the editing cut out some of what I thought were my best phrases, e.g. describing a certain chattering-class viewpoint as "Since words are their living, they tend to assume others live by words."

Note part of writing professionally is that sometimes you can't write about what everyone else is writing about. Which is why the column is not about GoogleViacomYoutube. Anyway, here I show my technology-positive side, and argue strongly against the idea of the Internet tearing society asunder. Which means in terms of policy factions, that I'm again refusing to put myself on the side of the reactionaries, even though I abhor the hypesters.

[For all columns, see the page Seth Finkelstein | guardian.co.uk.]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in press | on July 09, 2008 07:51 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (8)
July 07, 2008

More BB/VB notes: A personal disclosure, Google-effects?, NYT

Full disclosure: I had a length conversation with Xeni Jardin (the Boing-Boinger part of the controversy). I don't know anything more about the mystery reason than I did before (I didn't ask, and she didn't tell). The discussion was more an exchange of perspectives about (my paraphrase) A-lister power and responsibility. I mention this, with permission, as the personal core of my blog is/was chronicling the difficulties of net-activism (that endeavour didn't work out so well, but that's another topic).

There's an interesting post from a sexuality films site which lost some links as collateral damage, about possible Google implications (NSFW - don't follow this link if you're at work) of the events:

Back in late 06/early 07, when we realized just how vague, eratic, and fallable Google's ranking methods could be, we moved to uncouple our fortunes from the whims of Googlebot. This Boing Boing "unpublishing" things suggests that it's time for a re-evaluation of our PR tactics.

I'm not sure how much of an effect there really is, as the pagerank/keywords don't seem all that substantive. But there may be a "trust"/anti-spam Google effect which could be especially significant for sites which deal in sex-related material.

Memesterbation (linking so that this post shows up on trackers) - NYT article on the topic

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in bogosphere | on July 07, 2008 09:04 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (7)
July 02, 2008

Boing Boing / Violet Blue notes

Regarding speculations about what Violet Blue did to be, well, dewonderfuled, note she was still considered properly Boingy as late as 2007-07-27, in a now "unpublished" post about "Short link amuse bouches for Friday". Her offense must have been after that date.

The only thing that seems to fit the timeline is the trademark case she brought against a porn star using the name "Violet Blue", which was filed in October 2007. But there still seems to be something missing, given the very intense personal feelings on display. I don't put much stock in the lovers-spat theory _per se_, that's just attention-seeking by tabloid blogs.

Again, I am so disappointed. For all the argument-Olympics of hairsplitting over rights, it all comes down to power, to might-makes-right. Boing Boing is not notable for extending charity and understanding to those they accuse of having committed ethical transgressions against openness and transparency. Being A-list means being able to set the terms of discussion (to a good approximation). Nothing more for me to say here, it wouldn't do any good.

And it makes me very, very, wary of Boing Boing as any sort of attention-source supporting anything I do. Yet another sad argument (if any were needed) for the ultimate wisdom of giving up.

My previous blog post was in the top ten Google results for searches on [Violet Blue Boing Boing]. It got around 210 hits from Google on 7/1 and 40 hits on 7/2. Whoopee.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in bogosphere | on July 02, 2008 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (4)