Celebrate Aaron Swartz in Seattle (or Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, NYC, SF)

I’m organizing an event at the University of Washington in Seattle that involves a reading, the screening of a documentary film, and a Q&A about Aaron Swartz. The event coincides with the third anniversary of Aaron’s death and the release of a new book of Swartz’s writing that I contributed to.


The event is free and open the public and details are below:

WHEN: Wednesday, January 13 at 6:30-9:30 p.m.

WHERE: Communications Building (CMU) 120, University of Washington

We invite you to celebrate the life and activism efforts of Aaron Swartz, hosted by UW Communication professor Benjamin Mako Hill. The event is next week and will consist of a short book reading, a screening of a documentary about Aaron’s life, and a Q&A with Mako who knew Aaron well – details are below. No RSVP required; we hope you can join us.

Aaron Swartz was a programming prodigy, entrepreneur, and information activist who contributed to the core Internet protocol RSS and co-founded Reddit, among other groundbreaking work. However, it was his efforts in social justice and political organizing combined with his aggressive approach to promoting increased access to information that entangled him in a two-year legal nightmare that ended with the taking of his own life at the age of 26.

January 11, 2016 marks the third anniversary of his death. Join us two days later for a reading from a new posthumous collection of Swartz’s writing published by New Press, a showing of “The Internet’s Own Boy” (a documentary about his life), and a Q&A with UW Communication professor Benjamin Mako Hill – a former roommate and friend of Swartz and a contributor to and co-editor of the first section of the new book.

If you’re not in Seattle, there are events with similar programs being organized in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, New York, and San Francisco.  All of these other events will be on Monday January 11 and registration is required for all of them. I will be speaking at the event in San Francisco.

Access Without Empowerment (LibrePlanet 2015 Keynote)

At LibrePlanet 2015 (the FSF’s annual conference), I gave a talk called “Access Without Empowerment” as one of the conference keynote addresses. As I did for my 2013 LibrePlanet talk, I’ve edited together a version that includes the slides and I’ve posted it online in WebM and on YouTube.

Here’s the summary written up in the LibrePlanet program:

The free software movement has twin goals: promoting access to software through users’ freedom to share, and empowering users by giving them control over their technology. For all our movement’s success, we have been much more successful at the former. I will use data from free software and from several related movements to explain why promoting empowerment is systematically more difficult than promoting access and I will explore how our movement might address the second challenge in the future.

In related news, registration is open for LibrePlanet 2016 and that it’s free for FSF members. If you’re not an FSF member, the FSF annual fundraiser is currently going on so now would be a great time to join.

London and Michigan

I’ll be spending the week after next (June 17-23) in London for the annual meeting of the International Communication Association where I’ll be presenting a paper. This will be my first ICA and I’m looking forward to connecting with many new colleagues in the discipline. If you’re one of them, reading this, and would like to meet up in London, please let me know!

Starting June 24th, I’ll be in Ann Arbor, Michigan for four weeks of the ICPSR summer program in applied statistics at the Institute for Social Research. I have been wanting to sign up for some of their advanced methods classes for years and am planning to take the opportunity this summer before I start at UW. I’ll be living with my friends and fellow Berkman Cooperation Group members Aaron Shaw and Dennis Tennen.

I would love to make connections and meet people in both places so, if you would like to meet up, please get in contact.

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!



Although I don’t mean to brag… I have a really great scarf-hood-combination garment.

I was wearing said awesome scarf in a rather cold apartment during my remote participation in the Learning Creative Learning class.

I would like to think that I said some interesting and insightful things. But if I didn’t, I’m glad to hear my scarf — which now has its very own sub-reddit — was able to impress and entertain.

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.

Open Brands

In late July, the Awesome Foundations invited me to participate in an interesting conversation about open brands at their conference. Awesome is a young collection of organizations struggling with the idea of if, and how, they want to try to control who gets call themselves Awesome. I was asked to talk about how the free software community approaches the issue.

Guidance from free software is surprisingly unclear. I have watched and participated in struggles over issues of branding in every successful free software project I’ve worked in. Many years ago, Greg Pomerantz and I wrote a draft trademark policy for the Debian distribution over a couple beers. Over the last year, I’ve been working with Debian Project Leader Stefano Zacchiroli and lawyers at the Software Freedom Law Center to help draft a trademark policy for the Debian project.

Through that process, I’ve come up with three principles which I think lead to more clear discussion about whether a free culture or free software should register a trademark and, if they do, how they should think about licensing it. I’ve listed those principles below in order of importance.

1. We want people to use our brands. Conversation about trademarks seem to turn into an exercise in imagining all the horrible ways in which a brand might be misused. This is silly and wrong. It is worth being extremely clear on this point: Our problem is not that people will misuse our brands. Our problem is that not enough people will use them at all. The most important goal of a trademark policy should be to make legitimate use possible and easy.

We want people to make t-shirts with our logos. We want people to write books about our products. We want people to create user groups and hold conferences. We want people to use, talk about, and promote our projects both commercially and non-commercially.

Trademarks will limit the diffusion of our brand and, in that way, will hurt our projects. Sometimes, after carefully considering these drawbacks, we think the trade-off is worth making. And sometimes it is. However, projects are generally overly risk averse and, as a result, almost always err on the side of too much control. I am confident that free software and free culture projects’ desire to control their brands has done more damage than all brand misuse put together.

2. We want our projects to be able to evolve. The creation of a trademark puts legal power to control a brand in the hands of an individual, firm, or a non-profit. Although it might not seem like such a big deal, this power is, fundamentally, the ability to determine what a project is and is not. By doing this, it creates a single point of failure and a new position of authority and, in that process, limits projects’ ability to shift and grow organically over time.

I’ve heard that in US politics, there is no trademark for the terms Republican or Democrat and that you do not need permission to create an organization that claims to be part of either party. And that does not mean that everybody is confused. Through social and organizational structures, it is clear who is in, who is out, and who is on the fringes.

More importantly, this structure allows for new branches and groups outside of the orthodoxy to grow and develop on the margins. Both parties have been around since the nineteenth century, have swapped places on the political spectrum on a large number of issues, and have played host to major internal ideological disagreements. Almost any organization should aspire to such longevity, internal debate, and flexibility.

3. We should not confuse our communities. Although they are often abused, trademarks are fundamentally pro-consumer. The point of legally protected brands is to help consumers from being confused as the source of a product or service. Users might love software from the Debian project, or might hate it, but it’s nice for them to be able to know that they’re getting "Debian Quality" when they download a distribution.

Of course, legally protected trademarks aren’t the only way to ensure this. Domains names, internal policies, and laws against fraud and misrepresentation all serve this purpose as well. The Open Source Initiative applied for a trademark on the term open source and had their application rejected. The lack of a registered trademark has not kept folks from policing use of the term. Folks try to call their stuff "open source" when it is not and are kept in line by a community of folks who know better.

And since lawyers are rarely involved, it is hardly clear that a registered trademark would help in the vast majority of these these situations. It is also the case that most free software/culture organizations lack the money, lawyers, or time, to enforce trademarks in any case. Keeping your communities of users and developers clear on what is, and what isn’t, your product and your project is deeply important. But how we choose to do this is something we should never take for granted.

Wiki Conferencing

I am in Berlin for the Wikipedia Academy, a very cool hybrid free culture community plus refereed academic conference organized, in part, by Wikimedia Deutschland. On Friday, I was very excited to have been invited to give the conference’s opening keynote based on my own hybrid take on learning from failures in peer production and incorporating a bunch of my own research. Today, I was on a panel at the conference about free culture and sharing practices. I’ll post talks materials and videos when the conference puts them online.

I will be in Berlin for the next week or so before I head to directly to Washington, DC for Wikimania between the 11th and 15th. I’ll be giving three talks there:

Between then and now, I’m taking the next week in Berlin to catch up on work, and with friends. If you’re in either place and want to meet up, please get in touch and lets try to arrange something.

Software Freedom Day Boston 2011

This year, Software Freedom Day in Boston is being organized by Asheesh and Deb and OpenHatch which means a focus on increasing involvement in free software communities. If you are all interested in getting involved in the free software community in any way and at any level — or interested in hearing about how that might happen someday — this is a great event to attend.

For my part, I’ll be giving a short talk on getting involved in Debian.

The event will be held on Saturday, September 17 at Cambridge College — between Harvard and Central squares — with an after party at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard.

Another Summer European Tour

I’ve been in Europe for the last couple weeks but pretty occupied with things like attending my brother wedding and a series of outdoor excursions in Spain.

Today Mika and I arrived in Berlin where I am going to attending and giving a talk at the Open Knowledge Conference on When Free Software Isn’t Better. I’ll also participate in a session on Wikipedia research facilitated by Mayo Fuster Morrell.

On July 2nd, I’ll be taking an overnight train to Vienna where I’ll be attending the Open and User Innovation Workshop — an academic conference where I’ll presenting some of my research. From there I’ll be hitching a ride to Munich with Marcell Mars on July 6th and, after that, a flight back to Boston with a weekend long layover in Reykjavik.

Details on the trip are on page on my wiki and I encourage anyone to contact me if you’re in Berlin, Vienna, Munich, or Reykjavik and want to meet up for a drink or a chat.

Ask Me Anything in an Igloo


When Reddit sold to Condé Nast and the founders all moved to California, their old place in Davis Square was empty for a few months and they let Mika I move in and take it over. It’s an awesome place and we’re still there along with some Web 2.0 graffiti they left on the roof.

And so it is with pleasure that I’ve agreed to be interviewed by redditor Danny Piccirillo in a giant igloo he helped build — if the unseasonably warm weather streak of weather doesn’t manage to melt it before next week.

Questions are being gathered at Reddit so feel free to go there and ask me any question you’d like to see me answer in an igloo.

Antifeatures at the Free Technology Academy

In addition to lecturing for two courses at MIT this term, I recently had the pleasure of giving a lecture on antifeatures at the Free Technology Academy — a program which offers Masters courses over the Internet. Quite a few of the FTA courses are about free software, free knowledge, and related topics!

It was my first time giving a lecture to microphone and an empty room. Although I found it a little tricky to adapt to the lack of any audience, the FTA folks put together a great video. I’m psyched that the course material will be available as open education resources for anyone who might want to incorporate it into another course.

If you’ve seen my LCA keynote about antifeatures (which is also available online), there’s not going to be a whole new in the lecture. If didn’t see it, you might want to check out the lecture. I’ll be in the online discussion group around the Lecture for the next couple weeks but you need to sign up to participate.

My August

I’ve got a pretty packed August.

I just wrapped the Open and User Innovation Conference at MIT — the academic conference on user and open innovation connected to my research. I organized the program and was MC for the 120+(!) talks and research updates on the program so it’s a huge relief to see it come off successfully.

On Thursday, August 5th (at 14:30 UTC) I’ll be giving a talk on antifeatures at DebConf (the Annual Debian conference). It was accidentally listed as "Revealing Errors" until a few minutes ago — sorry about that! It will be streamed live (details on the DC site) for those outside of New York City who might want to follow it.

As soon as DebConf is done on August 8th, I’m going to head to Korčula in Croatia to relax, read, and hopefully get a bit of research done, before I head off to Outlaws and Inlaws in Split on the 19th, a sort of piracy and (vs?) free software summit put on by mi2 connected to the recurring Nothing Will Happen where, from what I hear, quite a lot does.

I’m going to have to leave Nothing Will Happen a little early to head to FrOSCon on the 21st where I’ll be doing an antifeatures keynote again on the 22nd. I tend not to like to do the same talk too many times, or for more than a year, so this might be one of the last times I present on antifeatures in this form.

After that, I’m going to head to Italy where I’ll be between the 23rd and the 3rd of September. I’ll fly and in and out of Rome and plan to spend some time in Rome, Tuscany, and Florence, but don’t have a lot of set plans and might travel to Bologna or elsewhere.

My schedule is pretty open. As always, I’m interested in meeting up for coffee or a drink with like-minded hackers, Wikipedians, researchers, activists, etc. If folks are interested in organizing talks or presentations, that sounds fun too. I’m keeping a brief description of my schedule updated alongside a bunch of ways to get in touch with me on my contact page. Don’t hesitate to drop me a line!

Wikimedia Scholarship 2009-2010

Folks at last year’s Wikimania may remember the presentation I gave there. It was essentially a literature review of Wikipedia and Wikimedia scholarship from the previous year. The idea was to give a bird’s-eye-view as well a series of highlights — all aimed at Wikimedians.

Apparently somebody found it useful because I’ve been asked to do it again! I’m going to be paired up in a longer session with Felipe Ortega — whose excellent dissertation I summarized as part of my talk last year — and Mayo Fuster Morell has also agreed to help out. Felipe is program chair for WikiSym this year and will be focusing on providing folks with a summary of the papers published at that conference. It will be held immediately before Wikimania in Gdansk. For my part, I’m going to be focusing more broadly and talking about papers published, well, anywhere else.

And this is where you come in!

With search engines and all, I’ve got a pretty good idea of breadth of the work that’s out there. I also "just know" stuff from my own areas of interest and study. That said, I don’t have as strong of an idea of what’s good and what’s relevant beyond what I can grok from citation counts. And after one year (or less!), that’s clearly not very much information.

As a result, I’m looking for suggestions or recommendations from anybody on interesting, useful, important, or otherwise noteworthy scholarly papers on or about Wikipedia or other Wikimedia projects published in the last year. Feel free to leave a comment, email mako@atdot.cc, or edit this page.