The Cost of Inaccessibility at the Margins of Relevance

I use RSS feeds to keep up with academic journals. Because of an undocumented and unexpected feature (bug?) in my (otherwise wonderful) free software newsreader NewsBlur, many articles published over the last year were marked as having been read before I saw them.

Over the last week, I caught up. I spent hours going through abstracts and downloading papers that looked interesting or relevant to my research. Because I did this for hundreds of articles, it gave me an unusual opportunity to reflect on my journal reading practices in a systematic way.

On a number of occasions, there were potentially interesting articles in non-open access journals that neither MIT nor Harvard subscribes to and that were otherwise not accessible to me. In several cases where the research was obviously important to my work, I made an interlibrary request, emailed the papers’ authors for copies, or tracked down a colleague at an institution with access.

Of course, articles that look potentially interesting from the title and abstract often end up being less relevant or well executed on closer inspection. I tend to cast a wide net, skim many articles, and put them aside when it’s clear that the study is not for me. This week, I downloaded many of these possibly relevant papers to, at least, give a skim. But only if I could download them easily. On three or four occasions, I found inaccessible articles at this margin of relevance. In these cases, I did not bother trying to track down the articles.

Of course, what appear to be marginally relevant articles sometimes end up being a great match for my research and I will end up citing and building on the work. I found several suprisingly interesting papers last week. The articles that were locked up have no chance at this.

When people suggest that open access hinders the spread of scholarship, a common retort is that the people who need the work have or can finagle access. For the papers we know we need, this might be true. As someone with access to two of the most well endowed libraries in academia who routinely requests otherwise inaccessible articles through several channels, I would have told you, a week ago, that locked-down journals were unlikely to keep me from citing anybody.

So it was interesting watching myself do a personal cost calculation in a way that sidelined published scholarship — and that open access publishing would have prevented. At the margin of relevance to ones research, open access may make a big difference.

Sounds Like a Map

Colored visualization of the puzzle.

I love maps — something that became clear to me when I was looking at the tag cloud of my bookmarks a few years back. One of my favorite blogs (now a book) is Frank Jabobs’ Strange Maps.

So it’s no coincidence that a number of my favorite MIT Mystery Hunt puzzles are map based. Trying to connect the two worlds, I sent Jacobs a write-up of the hunt and of a particularly strange sound-based map puzzle called White Noise that I worked with Don Armstrong to solve in the 2006 hunt. While I wasn’t paying attention, Jacobs did a very nice writeup of my writeup of the puzzle for Strange Maps!

The Remixing Dilemma: The Trade-off Between Generativity and Originality

This post was written with Andrés Monroy-Hernández. It is a summary of a paper just published in American Behavioral Scientist. You can also read the full paper: The remixing dilemma: The trade-off between generativity and originality. It is part of a series of papers I have written with Monroy-Hernández using data from Scratch. You can find the others on my academic website.

Remixing — the reworking and recombination of existing creative artifacts — represents a widespread, important, and controversial form of social creativity online. Proponents of remix culture often speak of remixing in terms of rich ecosystems where creative works are novel and highly generative. However, examples like this can be difficult to find. Although there is a steady stream of media being shared freely on the web, only a tiny fraction of these projects are remixed even once. On top of this, many remixes are not very different from the works they are built upon. Why is some content more attractive to remixers? Why are some projects remixed in deeper and more transformative ways?
Remix Diagram
We try to shed light on both of these questions using data from Scratch — a large online remixing community. Although we find support for several popular theories, we also present evidence in support of a persistent trade-off that has broad practical and theoretical implications. In what we call the remixing dilemma, we suggest that characteristics of projects that are associated with higher rates of remixing are also associated with simpler and less transformative types of derivatives.

Our study is focused on two interrelated research questions. First, we ask why some projects shared in remixing communities are more or less generative than others. “Generativity” — a term we borrow from Jonathan Zittrain — describes creative works that are likely to inspire follow-on work. Several scholars have offered suggestions for why some creative works might be more generative than others. We focus on three central theories:

  1. Projects that are moderately complicated are more generative. The free and open source software motto “release early and release often” suggests that simple projects will offer more obvious opportunities for contribution than more polished projects. That said, projects that are extremely simple (e.g., completely blank slates) may also uninspiring to would-be contributors.
  2. Projects by prominent creators are more generative. The reasoning for this claim comes from the suggestion that remixing can act as a form of cultural conversation and that the work of popular creators can act like a common medium or language.
  3. Projects that are remixes themselves are more generative. The reasoning for this final claim comes from the idea that remixing thrives through the accumulation of contributions from groups of people building on each other’s work.

Our second question focuses on the originality of remixes and asks when more or less transformative remixing occurs. For example, highly generative projects may be less exciting if the projects produced based on them are all near-identical copies of antecedent projects. For a series of reasons — including the fact that increased generativity might come by attracting less interested, skilled, or motivated individuals — we suggest that each of the factors associated with generativity will also be associated with less original forms of remixing. We call this trade-off the remixing dilemma.

We answer both of our research questions using a detailed dataset from Scratch, where young people build, share, and collaborate on interactive animations and video games. The community was built to support users of the Scratch programming environment, a desktop application with functionality similar to Flash created by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. Scratch is designed to allow users to build projects by integrating images, music, sound, and other media with programming code. Scratch is used by more than a million users, most of them under 18 years old.

To test our three theories about generativity, we measure whether or not, as well as how many times, Scratch projects were remixed in a dataset that includes every shared project. Although Scratch is designed as a remixing community, only around one tenth of all Scratch projects are ever remixed. Because more popular projects are remixed more frequently simply because of exposure, we control for the number of times each project is viewed.

Our analysis shows at least some support for all three theories of generativity described above. (1) Projects with moderate amounts of code are remixed more often than either very simple or very complex projects. (2) Projects by more prominent creators are more generative. (3) Remixes are more likely to attract remixers than de novo projects.

To test our theory that there is a trade-off between generativity and originality, we build a dataset that includes every Scratch remix and its antecedent. For each pair, we construct a measure of originality by comparing the remix to its antecedent and computing an “edit distance” (a concept we borrow from software engineering) to determine how much the projects differ.

We find strong evidence of a trade-off: (1) Projects of moderate complexity are remixed more lightly than more complicated projects. (2) Projects by more prominent creators tend to be remixed in less transformative ways. (3) Cumulative remixing tends to be associated with shallower and less transformative derivatives. That said, our support for (1) is qualified in that we do not find evidence of the increased originality for the simplest projects as our theory predicted.

Two plots of estimated values for prototypical projects. Panel 1 (left) display predicted probabilities of being remixed. Panel 2 (right) display predicted edit distances. Both panels show predicted values for both remixes and de novo projects from 0 to 1,204 blocks (99th percentile).

Two plots of estimated values for prototypical projects. Panel 1 (left) displays predicted probabilities of being remixed. Panel 2 (right) displays predicted edit distances. Both panels show predicted values for both remixes and de novo projects from 0 to 1,204 blocks (99th percentile).

We feel that our results raise difficult but important challenges, especially for the designers of social media systems. For example, many social media sites track and display user prominence with leaderboards or lists of aggregate views. This technique may lead to increased generativity by emphasizing and highlighting creator prominence. That said, it may also lead to a decrease in originality of the remixes elicited. Our results regarding the relationship of complexity to generativity and originality of remixes suggest that supporting increased complexity, at least for most projects, may have fewer drawbacks.

As supporters and advocates of remixing, we feel that although highly generative works that lead to highly original derivatives may be rare and difficult for system designers to support, understanding remixing dynamics and encouraging these rare projects remain a worthwhile and important goal.

Benjamin Mako Hill, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Andrés Monroy-Hernández, Microsoft Research

For more, see our full paper, “The remixing dilemma: The trade-off between generativity and originality.” Published in American Behavioral Scientist. 57-5, Pp. 643—663. (Official Link, Pay-Walled ).

Students for Free Culture Conference FCX2013

FCX2013 Logo

On the weekend of April 20-21, Students for Free Culture is going to be holding its annual conference, FCX2013, at New York Law School in New York City. As a long-time SFC supporter and member, I am enormously proud to be giving the opening keynote address.

Although the program for Sunday is still shaping up, the published Saturday schedule looks great. If previous years are any indication, the conference can serve as an incredible introduction to free culture, free software, wikis, remixing, copyright, patent and trademark reform, and participatory culture. For folks that are already deeply involved, FCX is among the best places I know to connect with other passionate, creative, people working on free culture issues.

I’ve been closely following and involved with SFC for years and I am particularly excited about the group that is driving the organization forward this year. If you will be in or near New York that weekend — or if you can make the trip — you should definitely try to attend.

FCX2013 is pay what you can with a $15 suggested donation. You can register online now. Travel assistance — especially for members of active SFC chapters — may still be available. I hope to see you there!

Mystery Hunt 2013

A few months late, perhaps, but I wanted to mention that my team (Codex) competed, once again, in the MIT Mystery Hunt. The prize for winning is the responsibility of writing the hunt next year. After being on the 2012 writing team I have mixed feelings about the fact that we did not win again.

Although I did not walk away with another coin, I did manage to make an appearance in a multimedia story that the MIT Tech shot about the hunt which provides nice introductions to those who are not familiar with it.

It was fun to reflect a little bit on why I find the hunt so fun. I said:

In my day job, I work on a lot of problems that maybe don’t have answers. It’s really awesome to work in a space where if you put in 1-5 hours of mental energy, you will have a solution. Someone has test-solved for it, you know that it’s solvable; you know that there is an answer and that there was designed to be an answer. There’s something really satisfying about being able to do that.

If you’re looking for a team to hunt on next year, feel free get in contact — codex is generally quite open to new members.

The Institute for Cultural Diplomacy and Wikipedia

A month ago, Mark Donfried from the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD) — an organization dedicated to promoting open dialogue — sent me this letter threatening me with legal action because of contributions I’ve made to Wikipedia. Yesterday, he sent me this followup threat.

According to the letters, Donfried has threatened me with legal action because I participated in a discussion on Wikipedia that resulted in his organization’s article being deleted. It is not anything I wrote in any Wikipedia article that made Donfried so upset — although Donfried is also unhappy about at least one off-hand comment I made during the deletion discussion on a now-deleted Wikipedia process page. Donfried is unhappy that my actions, in small part, have resulted in his organization not having an article in Wikipedia. He is able to threaten me personally because — unlike many people — I edit Wikipedia using my real, full, name.

Donfried’s letter is the latest step in a saga that has been ongoing since last June. It has been a frustrating learning experience for me that has made me worried about Wikipedia, its processes, and its future.

In Wikipedia, debates can be won by stamina. If you care more and argue longer, you will tend to get your way. The result, very often, is that individuals and organizations with a very strong interest in having Wikipedia say a particular thing tend to win out over other editors who just want the encyclopedia to be solid, neutral, and reliable. These less-committed editors simply have less at stake and their attention is more distributed.

The ICD is a non-profit organization based in Berlin. According to its own website, a large part of the organization’s activities are based around arranging conferences. Its goals — peace, cultural interchange, human rights — are admirable and close to my heart. Its advisors and affiliates are impressive.

I had never heard of the ICD before their founder, Mark Donfried, emailed me in April 2012 asking me to give a keynote address at their conference on “The 2012 International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy & Human Rights.” I replied, interested, but puzzled because my own research seems very far afield of both “cultural diplomacy” (which I had never heard of) and human rights. I replied saying:

What would you like me to talk about — I ask because I don’t consider myself an expert in (or even particularly knowledgeable about) cultural diplomacy. Did someone else refer you to me?

Donfried replied with a long message — seemingly copy and pasted — thanking me for considering attending and asking me for details of my talk. I replied again repeating text from my previous email and asking why he was interested in me. Donfried suggested a phone call to talk about details. But by this point, I had looked around the web for information about the ICD and had decided to decline the invitation.

Among things I found was a blog post by my friend James Grimmelmann that suggests that, at least in his case, the ICD had a history of sending unsolicited email and an apparently inability to take folks off their email lists even after repeated requests.

I also read the Wikipedia article about the ICD. Although the Wikipedia article was long and detailed, it sent off some internal Wikipedian-alarm-bells for me. The page read, to me, like an advertisement or something written by the organization being described; it simply did not read — to me — like an encyclopedia article written by a neutral third-party.

I looked through the history of the article and found that the article had been created by a user called Icd_berlin who had made no other substantive edits to the encyclopedia. Upon further examination, I found that almost all other significant content contributions were from a series of anonymous editors with IP addresses associated with Berlin. I also found that a couple edits had removed criticism when it had been added to the article. The criticism was removed by an anonymous editor from Berlin.

Criticisms on the article included links to a website called “Inside the ICD” which was a website that mostly consisted of comments by anonymous people claiming to be former interns of the ICD complaining about the working conditions at the organization. There were also many very positive descriptions of work at the ICD. A wide array of pseudonymous users on the site accused the negative commenters of being liars and detractors and the positive commenters of being ICD insiders.

I also found that there had been evidence on Wikipedia — also removed without discussion by an anonymous IP from Berlin — of an effort launched by the youth wing of ver.di — one of the largest trade unions in Germany to “campaign for good internships at the ICD.” Although details of the original campaign have been removed from ver.di’s website, the campaigned ended after coming to an agreement with the ICD that made explicit a set of expectations and created an Intern Council.

Although the article about ICD on Wikipedia had many citations, many were to the ICD’s own website. Most of the rest were to articles that only tangentially mentioned the ICD. Many were about people with ICD connections but did not mention the ICD at all.

As Wikipedia editor, I was worried that Wikipedia’s policies on conflict of interest, advertising, neutrality, and notability were not being served by the article in its state. But as someone with no real experience or knowledge of the ICD, I wasn’t sure what to do. I posted a request for help on Wikipedia asking for others to get involved and offer their opinions.

It turns out, there were several editors who had tried to improve the article in the past and had been met by pro-ICD editors reverting their changes. Eventually, those editors lost patience or simply moved on to other topics.

By raising the issue again, I kicked off a round of discussion about the article. At the termination of that discussion, the article was proposed for deletion under Wikipedia’s Articles for Deletion policy. A new Wikipedia editor began working enthusiastically to keep the article by adding links and by arguing that the article should stay. The new user edited the Wikipedia article about me to accuse me of slander and defamation although they removed that claim after I tried to explain that I was only trying to help. I spent quite a bit of time trying to rewrite and improve the article during the deletion discussion and I went — link by link — through the many dozens of citations.

During the deletion discussion, Mark Donfried contacted me over email and explained that his representatives had told him that I was working against the ICD in Wikipedia. He suggested that we meet. We had a tentative plan to meet in Berlin on an afternoon last July but, in the end, I was too busy trying to submit my thesis proposal and neither of us followed up to confirm a particular time within the time window we had set. I have still never met him.

My feeling, toward the end of the deletion discussion on Wikipedia, was mostly exasperation. Somewhat reluctantly, I voted to delete the article saying:

Delete – This AFD is a complete mess for all the reasons that the article itself is. Basically: there are a small number of people who seem to have a very strong interest in the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy having an article in Wikipedia and, from what I can tell, very little else. Hessin fahem, like all the major contributors to the page, joined Wikipedia in order to participate in this issue.

This article has serious problems. I have posted a detailed list of my problems on the article talk page: primary sources, conflict of interest for nearly all substantive contributions and reading like an advert are the biggest issues. My efforts to list these problems were reverted without discussion by an anonymous editor from Berlin.

I have seen no evidence that the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy satisfies WP:ORG but I agree that it is possible that it does. I strongly agree with Arxiloxos that articles should always be fixed, and not deleted, if they are fixable. But I also know that Wikipedia does not deserve this article, that I don’t know to fix it, and that despite my efforts to address these issues (and I’ll keep trying), the old patterns of editing have continued and the article is only getting worse.

This ICD seems almost entirely based around a model that involves organizing conferences and then calling and emailing to recruit speakers and attendees. A large number of people will visit this Wikipedia article to find out more about the organization before deciding to pay for a conference or to join to do an internship. What Wikipedia shows to them reads like an advert, links almost exclusively to of pages on the organizations’ websites and seems very likely to have been written by the organization itself. We are doing an enormous disservice to our readers by keeping this page in its current form.

If somebody wants to make a serious effort to improve the article, I will help and will happily reconsider my !vote. But after quite a bit of time trying to raise interest and to get this fixed, I’m skeptical this can be addressed and my decision reflects this fact. —mako 05:18, 12 June 2012 (UTC)

I concluded that although the organization might be notable according to Wikipedia’s policies and although the Wikipedia article about it might be fixable, the pattern of editing gave me no faith that it could be fixed until something changed.

When the article was deleted, things became quiet. Several months later a new article was created — again, by an anonymous user with no other edit history. Although people tend to look closely at previously deleted new pages, this page was created under a different name: “The Institute of Cultural Diplomacy” and was not noticed.

Deleted Wikipedia articles are only supposed to be recreated after they go through a process called deletion review. Because the article was recreated out of this process, I nominated it for what is called speedy deletion under a policy specifically dealing with recreated articles. It was deleted again. Once again, things were quiet.

In January, it seems, the “Inside the ICD website” was threatened with a lawsuit by the ICD and the maintainers of the site took it down with the following message:

Apparently, the ICD is considering filing a lawsuit against this blog and it will now be taken down. We completely forgot about this blog. Let’s hope no one is being sued. Farewell.

On February 25, the Wikipedia article on ICD was recreated — once again out of process and by a user with almost no previous edit history. The next day, I received an email from Mark Donfried. In the message, Donfried said:

Please note that the ICD is completely in favor of fostering open dialogue and discussions, even critical ones, however some of your activities are raising serious questions about the motives behind your actions and some even seem to be motives of sabotage, since they resulted in ICD not having any Wikipedia page at all.

We are deeply concerned regarding these actions of yours, which are causing us considerable damages. As the person who initiated these actions with Wikipedia and member of the board of Wikipedia [1], we would therefore request your answer regarding our questions below within the next 10 days (by March 6th). If we do not receive your response we will unfortunately have to consider taking further legal actions with these regards against you and other anonymous editors.

I responded to Donfried to say that I did not think it was prudent to speak with him while he was threatening me. Meanwhile, other Wikipedia editors nominated the ICD article for deletion once again and unanimously decided to delete it. And although I did not participate in the discussion, Donfried emailed again with more threats of legal action hours after the ICD article was deleted:

[A]s the case of the ICD and its presentation on the Wikipedia has seriously worsened in recent days, we see no alternative but to forward this case (including all relevant visible and anonymous contributors) to our legal representatives in both USA and Europe/Germany as well as to the authorities and other corresponded organizations in order to find a remedy to this case.

Donfried has made it very clear that his organization really wants a Wikipedia article and that they believe they are being damaged without one. But the fact that he wants one doesn’t mean that Wikipedia’s policies mean he should have one. Anonymous editors in Berlin and in unknown locations have made it clear that they really want a Wikipedia article about the ICD that does not include criticism. Not only do Wikipedia’s policies and principles not guarantee them this, Wikipedia might be hurt as a project when this happens.

The ICD claims to want to foster open dialogue and criticism. I think they sound like a pretty nice group working toward issues I care about personally. I wish them success.

But there seems to be a disconnect between their goals and the actions of both their leader and proponents. Because I used my real name and was skeptical about the organization on discussion pages on Wikipedia, I was tracked down and threatened. Donfried insinuated that I was motivated to “sabotage” his organization and threatened legal action if I do not answer his questions. The timing of his first letter — the day after the ICD page was recreated — means that I was unwilling to act on my commitment to Wikipedia and its policies.

I have no problem with the ICD and I deeply regret being dragged into this whole mess simply because I wanted to improve Wikipedia. That said, Donfried’s threat has scared me off from attempts to improve the ICD articles. I suspect I will not edit ICD pages in Wikipedia in the future.

The saddest part for me is that I recognize that what is in effect bullying is working. There are currently Wikipedia articles about the ICD in many languages. For several years, ICD has had an article on English Wikipedia. For almost all of that period, that article has consisted entirely of universally positive text, without criticism, and has been written almost entirely by anonymous editors who have only contributed to articles related to the ICD.

In terms of the ICD and its article on Wikipedia, I still have hope. I encourage Donfried and his “representatives” to create accounts on Wikipedia with their full names — just like I have. I encourage them to engage in open dialogue in public on the wiki. I encourage them go through deletion review, make any conflicts of interest they have unambiguously clear, and to work with demonstrably non-conflicted editors on Wikipedia to establish notability under Wikipedia’s policies. The result still can be an awesome, neutral, article about their organization. I have offered both advice on how to do this and help in that process in the past. I have faith this can happen and I will be thrilled when it does.

But the general case still worries me deeply. If I can be scared off by threats like these, anybody can. After all, I have friends at the Wikimedia Foundation, a position at Harvard Law School, and am close friends with many of the world’s greatest lawyer-experts on both wikis and cyberlaw. And even I am intimidated into not improving the encyclopedia.

I am concerned by what I believe is the more common case — where those with skin in the game will fight harder and longer than a random Wikipedian. The fact that it’s usually not me on the end of the threat gives me lots of reasons to worry about Wikipedia at a time when its importance and readership continues to grow as its editor-base remains stagnant.

[1] It’s a minor mistake but worth pointing out that I am not on the “board of Wikipedia”; I am on its advisory board which carries no power or responsbility within the organization. Sometimes, the foundation asks for my advice and I happily give it.

MIT LaTeX Stationery

Color MIT LetterHead Example

The MIT graphic identity website provides downloadable stationery templates for letterhead and envelopes. They provide both Microsoft Word and LaTeX templates. But although they provide both black and white and color templates for Word, they only provide the monochrome templates for LaTeX. When writing cover letters for the job market this year, I was not particularly interested in compromising on color and was completely unwilling to compromise on TeX.

As a result, I ended up modifying each of the three templates to include color. In the process, I fixed a few bugs and documented one tricky issue. I’ve published a git repository with my changes. It includes branches for each version of three of the “old” black and white templates as well as my my three new color templates. I hope others at MIT find it useful. I’ve tried to keep the changes minimal.

I’ve emailed the folks at MIT Communication Production Services to see if they want to publish my modified versions. Until then, anyone interested can help themselves to the git repository. LaTeX user that you are, you probably prefer that anyway.

Conversation on Freedom and Openness in Learning

On Monday, I was a visitor and guest speaker in a session on “Open Learning” in a class on Learning Creative Learning which aims to offer “a course for designers, technologists, and educators.” The class is being offered publicly by the combination — surprising but very close to my heart — of Peer 2 Peer University and the MIT Media Lab.

The hour-long session was facilitated by Philipp Schmidt and was mostly structured around a conversation with Audrey Watters and myself. The rest of the course materials and other video lectures are on the course website.

You can watch the video on YouTube or below. I thought it was a thought-provoking conversation!

If you’re interested in alternative approaches to learning and free software philosophy, I would also urge you to check out an essay I wrote in 2002: The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth: My Story of Unlearning. Keep in mind that the essay is probably the most personal thing I have ever published and I wrote it more than a decade ago it as a twenty-one year old undergraduate at Hampshire College. Although I’ve grown and learned enormously in the last ten years, and although I would not write the same document today, I am still proud of it.

Aaron Swartz MIT Memorial

On Tuesday, there was a memorial for Aaron Swartz held at the MIT Media Lab. Unfortunately, I am traveling this week and was unable to attend. As I wrote recently, I was close to Aaron. I am also, more obviously, close to MIT and the lab. It was important to me to participate in the memorial and I found a way to give a short “talk” with a video.

I think the lab plans to post a recording of the whole event but I have put the video of my own remarks below (and online in WebM). If you prefer, you can also read the text of the remarks.

Aaron Swartz

I moved to Boston in 2005 at the same time that Aaron Swartz did and we were introduced by a mutual friend. Aaron was one of my first friends in Boston and we became close. When Aaron moved to San Francisco, I moved into his apartment in Somerville where he kept a room for a year or so. Mika and I still live there. His old posters remain on our walls and his old books remain on our shelves. Aaron’s brothers Ben and Noah both lived with us and remain close friends.

I have spent hours (days?) reading and thinking about Aaron over the last two weeks. It has been disorienting — but beautiful — to read the descriptions of, and commentaries on, Aaron’s life. Although I suspect I may never feel ready, there are several things I want to say about Aaron’s death, about Aaron’s work, and about what Aaron means to me.

1. Aaron’s Death

The reaction to Aaron’s death has been overwhelming and inspirational. At some point in the near future I plan to join some of the important campaigns already being waged in his name.

There are many attempts to understand why Aaron died and many attempts to prevent it from happening to others in the future. Unfortunately, I am familiar with the process of soul-searching and second-guessing that happens when a friend commits suicide. I’m sure that every one of his friends has asked themselves, as I have, “What could I have done differently?”

I don’t know the answer, but I do know this: Aaron was facing the real risk of losing half his life to prison. But even if one believed that he was “only” facing the likely loss of ten percent — or even one percent of his life — I wish that we all, and I wish that I in particular, had reacted with the passion, time, anger, activity, and volume proportional to how we have reacted in the last two weeks when he lost the whole thing.

2. Aaron’s Work

Of course, Aaron and I worked on related projects and I followed his work. And despite all the incredible things that have been said about Aaron, I feel that Aaron’s work was more focused, more ambitious, more transformative, more innovative, and more reckless (in a positive sense) than the outpour online suggests.

Although discussion of Aaron has focused his successes, achievements, and victories, the work that inspired me most was not the projects that were most popular or successful. Much of Aaron’s work was deeply, and as it turned out overly, ambitious. His best projects were self-conscious attempts to transform knowledge production, organization, and dissemination. Although he moved from project to project, his work was consistently focused on bringing semantic-web concepts and technologies to peer production, to the movement for free culture, and to progressive political activism — and on the meta-politics necessary to remove barriers to this work.

For example, Aaron created an online collaborative encyclopedia project called the TheInfoNetwork (TIN) several years before Wikipedia was started. I talked to Aaron at length about that project for a research project I am working on. Aaron’s work was years ahead of its time; in 2000, TIN embraced more of the Wikimedia Foundation’s current goals and principles than Wikipedia did when it was launched. While Wikipedia sought to create a free reference work online, Aaron’s effort sought to find out what a reference work online could look like. It turned out to be too ambitious, perhaps, but it taught many, including myself, an enormous amount in that process.

When I met Aaron, he was in the process starting a company, Infogami, that was trying to chase many of TIN’s goals. Infogami was conceived of as a wiki aware of the structure of data. The model was both simple and profound. Years later, Wikimedia Deutschland’s WikiData project is beginning to bring some of these ideas to the mainstream. Infogami merged with Reddit as equal halves of a company with a shared technological foundation based on some of Aaron’s other work. But when Reddit took off, Infogami was rarely mentioned, even by Aaron.

I think that is too bad. Reddit got traction because it made the most popular stuff more visible; Reddit is popular, fundamentally, because popular things are popular. But popular is not necessary positive. For that reason, Reddit never struck me as either surprising or transformative. But what started as Aaron’s half the company, on the other hand, aimed to create a powerful form of democratized information production and dissemination. And although Infogami didn’t take off, the ideas and code behind the project found life at the heart of Open Library and will continue to influence and inspire countless other projects. I believe that Infogami’s lessons and legacy will undergird a generation of transformative peer production technologies in a way that the Reddit website — important as it is — will not.

3. What Aaron Means to Me

A lot of what has been written about Aaron speaks to his intelligence, his curiosity, his generosity, his ethics and his drive. Although I recognize all these qualities in the Aaron I knew, I’ve felt alienated by how abstract some of the discussion of Aaron has been — my memories are of particularities.

I remember the time Aaron was hospitalized and I spent two hours on the phone going through my bookshelves arguing with him about the virtues of the books in my library as we tried to decide which books I would bring him.

I remember Aaron confronting Peter Singer — intellectual founder of the modern animal rights movement — at the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival to ask if humans had a moral obligation to stop animals from killing each other. I lurked behind, embarrassed about the question but curious to hear the answer. (Singer sighed and said “yes — sort of” and complemented Aaron on the enormous Marxist commentary he was carrying.)

I remember 1-800-INTERNET.com.

I remember talking with Aaron about whether being wealthy could be ethical. I argued it could not but Aaron argued — uncharacteristically I thought — that it could. Aaron told Mika she should slap him if he ever became wealthy. The very next day, it was announced that his company had been acquired and that Aaron was a millionaire.

I remember the standing bets I had with Aaron and how he would email me every time news reports favored his claims (but never when they did not). And I remember that I won’t hear from him again.

Aaron was a friend and inspiration. I miss him deeply and I am very sad.

1-800-INTERNET.COM

I just returned home from Aaron Swartz’s funeral in Chicago. Aaron was a good friend. The home I’ve returned to is an apartment that was Aaron’s before it was mine, that I have lived in with Aaron during several stints, and that I still share with many of his old books and posters. Although, I’ve spent what feels like most of the last five days reading things that people have written about Aaron, I’m still processing and digesting myself. Right now, I’m very sad and at a loss for words.

While I reflect, I wanted to share this video recently put online by Finne Boonen. The video was made in 2006 at a Web 1.0 Elevator Pitch Competition held at Wikimania 2006 — about a year after that both Aaron and I moved to Cambridge and met. The goal of the contest was to pitch Web 1.0 DotCom business ideas to a team of real Web 1.0 investors like it was still 1999.

Aaron and I formed a team along with SJ Klein (who I traveled to the funeral with this week), and Wikimania general counsel and interim executive director Brad Patrick. The video shows how — as Danny O’Brien has reminded us — Aaron was funny. He came up with many our teams’ best lines in addition to checking our Web 1.0 boxes for “tech guru” and “Stanford dropout.” Our pitch — for 1-800-INTERNET.COM — is in the video below. The transcript was done by Phoebe Ayers in Facebook and the video is also available in WebM.

SJ: You know, Mako and I had some pretty good ideas for improving connectivity to the internet, and we think we can reach 90% of the world’s population.

So think about this. You’re sitting in a Starbucks, and you need to connect to the internet. But you can’t, because there’s no internet. But what is there, near every Starbucks? There’s a payphone! You pick up the payphone, and you call…. 1-800-INTERNET. You can connect to our bank of researchers on our fast T1 connections and get any information you need!

So, we don’t actually have 1-800-INTERNET yet, we have 1-800-225-3224, so the first thing we need to do is buy the number.

So here’s Mako, who is our web designer from UC Santa Cruz and Bradford, our financial guru, and Aaron, who’s handling all of our technical implementation. But Mako, you should explain the earballs.

Mako: So, so, so yeah, so most people on the Internet are going for the eyeballs, but they’ve just left all of these … earballs. So I have some experience in web design, and it’s true that this isn’t really a website, but we still need good web design. So, so, I’ve actually got a really experienced team, we can go into later, and we have some really great earcons … not icons, but earcons..

And it’s going to be all together, not apart like some of the websites. It’s going to be together.

Brad: so how does this work technically?

Aaron: Well, I mean, so I only spent one year at Stanford but that’s Ok, because there are new developmental technologies, we’re going to throw away all that old stuff, we’re going to use really reliable and efficient well-designed code that everyone can clearly understand, and write the whole thing in Perl. I know this is a risk, but I am confident that Perl is going to destroy those old C websites. No one will write websites in C anymore once we do this, it’s going to be so much faster, and so dynamic, everythings going to be like, on top of everything. It’s going to be great.

Bradford: So here’s the business model. It’s really really simple, and it’s a really really great idea. It’s all about the licensing. Because what we’re going to have are these underlying audio ads, While you’re on the phone you’re going to hear this subliminal advertising message. And the way it works is really really cool, because it’s really really low volume, it’s high impact! And it’s even better, because we license it, and the way it works is when a caller calls 1-800-Internet, they’re hearing the ad, but so is the representative, so we get to bill ‘em twice!

So that’s it:

All: 1-800-INTERNET.COM

We did not win and I still believe that we were robbed.

Goodbye PyBlosxom, Hello WordPress

Since 2004, I’ve used the blogging software PyBlosxom. Over that time, the software has served me well and I have even written a series of patches and plugins.

PyBloxsom is blog software designed for hackers. It assumes you already have a text editor you love and relies on features of a POSIX filesystem instead of a relational database. It’s designed so you can keep your blog under revision control (since 2004 I’ve used GNU Arch, baz, bzr and now git). It is also hackers’ software in the sense that you should expect to write code to use it (e.g., the configuration is pure Python). I love it.

What PyBlosxom does not have is a large community. This summer, the most recent long-time maintainer of the project, Will Kahn-Greene, stepped down. Although the project eventually found a new maintainer, the reality is the project entered maintenance mode years ago and many features available in more popular blogging platforms are unlikely to make it PyBlosxom. The situation with comment spam is particularly dire. I’ve written several antispam plugins but time has shown that I don’t have the either the expertise or the time to make them as awesome as they need to be to really work in today’s web.

So, after many months of weighing, waffling, and planning I’ve switched to WordPress — a great piece of free software with an enormous and established community As you’ll know if you’ve read my interview on The Setup, I think a lot about the technology I surround myself with. I considered WordPress when I started my blog back in 2004 and rejected it soundly. Eight years ago, I would have laughed at you if you told me I’d be using it today; If PyBlosxom is for hackers, WordPress is designed for everyone else. But the way I evaluate software has changed over that period.

In the nineties, I used to download every new version of the Linux kernel to compile it — it took hours! — to try out the latest features. Configurabilty, hackability, and the ability to write my own features was — after a point — more important than the features the software came with. Today, I’m much more aware of the fact that for all the freedom that my software gives me, I simply do not have the time, energy, or inclination to take advantage of that freedom to hack very often.

Today, I give much more value to software that is not just free, but that is maintained by a community of people who can do all the work that I would do if I had unlimited time. Although I don’t have the time or experience to make WordPress do everything I would like, the collective of all WordPress users does. And they’ve done a lot of it already!

The flip side matters as well: Today, I give more value to other people using my software. When WordPress doesn’t do something and I write a plugin or patch, there are tons of people ready to pick it up and use it and perhaps even to collaborate on it with me. Want to guess how many patches my PyBlosxom plugins have received? None, if my memory serves me.

In the past, I’ve written about how free software is a victory even when it doesn’t build a community. I still believe that. But the large communities at the heart of the most successful free software communities (the promise of “open source”) are deeply important in a way that I increasingly value.

In that spirit: If you want to make the jump from PyBlosxom to WordPress, I’ve shared a Git repository with the scripts I used and wrote for the transition.

Freedom for Users, Not for Software

I finally published a short essay I wrote about a year ago: Freedom for Users, Not for Software.

Anybody who has hung around the free software community for a while will be familiar with the confusion created by the ambiguity between "free as in price" versus "free as freedom." In the essay I argue that there is a less appreciated semantic ambiguity that arises when we begin to think that what matters is that software is free. Software doesn’t need freedom, of course; Users of software need freedom. My essay looks at how the focus on free software, as opposed to on free users, has created challenges and divisions in the free software movement.

The essay was recently published in Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State, a book edited by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich and published by Levellers Press. The book includes essays by 73 authors that include some other folks from the free software and free culture communities along with a ton of people working on very different types of commons.

My essay is short and has two parts: The first is basically a short introduction to free software movement. The second lays out what I see as major challenges for free software. I will point out that these are some of the areas that I am working most closely with the FSF — who are having their annual fundraiser at the moment — to support and build advocacy programs around.