Monthly Archives: January 2012

Less TV, more Internet: First White House Google Plus Hangout features real questions from citizens

Today, more than a quarter of a million people* watched the first Presidential Google Hangout with President +Barack Obama from +The White House.  The archived video, below, comes courtesy of  Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa, whose shared his review of President Obama’s first Hangout at Reuters.com. For the best reporting I’ve seen on the participants and questions, read Sarah Lai Stirland on President Obama’s Hangout.

My immediate takeaway? The forum featured real questions on significant issues, with genuine citizen-president interactions, with back and forth conversation. That was precisely the promise of the platform that I considered ahead of time, when I asked whether a Google+ Hangout could bring the president closer to the citizens he serves.

Earlier in the afternoon, I joined Google’s Daniel Sieberg on our own Google+ Hangout to talk about the potential impact that online video, hangouts, and live broadcasts between citizens and their elected officials could have on the political landscape.

The moderator, Google’s Steve Grove, gave the participants (2 men, 2 women and one classroom of young people) the opportunity to follow up on their questions to the president. There will be much more analysis of the questions asked and the president’s answers tonight, as there should be.

Here’s a quick recap, distilled from my notes: The forum began with a video question to the president about promoting a living wage for students working their way through college. The second question came from the Hangout, on why the White House doesn’t expand expanded H1B visas for foreign workers at the expense of skilled labor with the U.S. President Obama told the wife of a semiconductor engineer (who asked the latter question and, critically, got to follow up in the Hangout) if she sent him her husband’s resume, he’d be happy to find what’s happening.

One could dismiss it as pandering — or celebrate it as a citizen cutting through the morass of bureaucracy to tell the nation’s chief executive that the system wasn’t working as he said it should. Such followups in the Hangout are what made this different than the past YouTube and White House interviewed. Politico talked to Jennifer Wedel, of Forth Worth, Texas, who asked the question during the presidential Hangout:

“I’ll have to take you up on that,” Wedel said of the president’s offer to help her husband, Darin, who lost his job at Texas Instruments three years ago.

Later, Wedel told POLITICO that she and the president had a “pretty crazy interaction” that she hadn’t expected when she asked about the federal government granting H-1B visas to skilled foreign workers while U.S. citizens such as her husband are out of work.

“I don’t think he was trying to be condescending or anything,” said Wedel, who never completed college and was a stay-at-home mom before her husband was laid off, but now has a full-time job at State Farm to help make ends meet. “I just think I stumped him a little and he wanted me to hush about it.”

“I think he knows pretty well that the H-1B is an issue because — it’s kind of like the Occupy movement — big corporations are putting up the money to get the visas” and choosing lower-paid foreign workers over domestic ones, Wedel said. “I don’t think what he was telling me was true, and I think he knew it, and that’s why he offered to take my husband’s resume,” she said, adding that her husband has kept it updated.

Another question from YouTube featured a video taken from an #Occupy protester in Portland. A question taken from within the White House Hangout asked about the president’s plans to help small business and to restructure government, which the Washington Post covered this month.

Another question posed within the Hangout about a lack of dialogue with children about the financial crisis offered the president a human moment, where he said that he tries to explain what’s happened with economy to his daughters over the dinner table.

There were incontrovertibly tough questions asked tonight, including one from a homeless veteran who asked why the U.S. is sending money to Pakistan and places that are known to give money to terrorism. In answer, the president said that the U.S. only spends 1% of its budget on foreign aid, and that it pays off in a lot of ways as part of the country’s national security strategy. What we don’t want is countries to collapse, have to send in our guys at huge potential risk and cost to taxpayers, he said.

The President was asked a video question from YouTube that cited a New York Times story on the use of drones in Iraq, which the president called “overwritten. The drones have not caused an unusual number of civilian casualties, he said, stating that it was a targeted focused effort aimed at Al Queda, not for other purposes.

I was personally glad to see that Grove asked a question on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), noting that both were hot within the YouTube community. Needless to say, that part of the transcript will be carefully analyzed by the people whose collective online action changed Washington.

We need to use tools we have, he said, noting recent takedown action by the Justice Department. At the same time, when SOPA came up on the hill, said the President, “we expressed some concerns about the way the legislation had been written.”  Now, he said, the content and server sides need to come together for strong IP protections that preserve basic architecture of the Internet.

While the top-rated question was asked, concerning the extradition of a British national, there were no questions posted about legalizing marijuana, which once again rose to the top of CitizenTube (perhaps Grove and his colleagues at YouTube felt it had been asked enough?) nor any question was asked about the National Defense Reauthorization Act, which many other users on YouTube wanted to see addressed.

UPDATE: When I followed up with Grove on Google+ about the process behind the questions, he made the following comment:

We chose the questions from among the top-voted questions on YouTube… it’s always a fun challenge to ensure you get a broad range of issues and perspectives into these discussions from amongst the top-voted questions, but I hope people feel that we did a good job of listening to community votes. We asked several of the top-voted questions, including the #1 voted question on YouTube. Some people asked why we didn’t ask about marijuana legalization… as an FYI, we asked the President about it last year (see here: Drug Policy – President Obama’s YouTube Interview 2011).

As far as the hangout participants, we also selected them based off of the questions they had submitted to YouTube — again looking for a range of Americans… that part had to happen a little earlier during the submission process, so we could prepare for the Hangout today.

President Barack Obama participates in an interview with YouTube and Google+ to discuss his State of the Union Address, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 30, 2012. The interview was held through a Google+ Hangout, making it the first completely virtual interview from the White House. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama participates in an interview with YouTube and Google+ to discuss his State of the Union Address, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 30, 2012. The interview was held through a Google+ Hangout, making it the first completely virtual interview from the White House. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Overall, I can honestly say that we saw something new in the intersection of government, technology and society. From where I sat, plugged in within the Sunlight Foundation, it felt like a good thing, not just for the White House or the president’s campaign or Google (although all certainly benefitted) but for the promise of the Internet to more directly connect public officials to those that they serve, with all of their real problems, concerns, doubts and fears.

At the end of the event, there was a moment of unexpected human connection, when one of the women on the hangout invited her three children to come meet the president.

They stared and smiled, left a bit wide eyed by the President of the United States smiling out of the computer screen and bidding them to obey their mother and do their homework. We could do with more wonder in the world, where such unexpected encounters occur online.

Viewership estimate via Google’s Steve Grove, who said at the end of the netcast that a quarter of a million people were watching on YouTube. Given the White House’s own livestream, the number could be higher.

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Classrooms and community: my moderation standards for Google+, Facebook and blog comments

Over the past few months, I’ve seen a lot of spam and pornography links on Google Plus, on Facebook and on the blogs I maintain. Fortunately, blogs, Google and Facebook both give us the ability to moderate comments and, if we wish, to block other people who do not respect the opinions or character of others.

Last night, I’m seeing a lack of clarity about my approach to online community, so here’s how I think about it, with a nod to the example set by Arizona State University journalism professor Dan Gillmor.

I can and do block spammers and people posting links to pornography.

I will leave comments on on my blogs, precisely because I value conversations, despite the issues that persist online. I have been moderating discussion in online forums and blogs for many years, including those of my publishers. My full thoughts on the value of blog comments — and the social norms that I expect people comments to live within — are on this blog. To date, there are 196 comments on the post.

Vilely insulting me won’t help your case. Insulting others will ruin it. I was a teacher in my twenties. I would not tolerate disrespectful behavior in my classroom, either to me or to other students. If you can’t be civil and continue to insult others, much less the person hosting the forum, you were asked to leave and see the principal.

If the behavior persists, you will lose the privilege of participating in “class.” Eventually, you get expelled. On Google+ or blogs, that takes the form of being defriended, banned or blocked from my public updates. I prefer not to block users but I will do it. I respect your right to speak freely on your own blog, Twitter, Facebook or Google+ account, whether that involves cursing or ignorance.

I strongly believe in the First Amendment. Governments should not censor citizens. That said, I do not, however, feel obligated to host such speech on my own blog, particularly if it is directed towards other commenters. I believe that building and maintaining healthy communities, online of offline, requires that the people hosting them enforce standards for participation that encourage civil dialogue.

I hope that makes sense to friends, readers and colleagues. If not, you are welcome to let me know in the comments.

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Visualizing conversations on Twitter about #SOPA

Kickstarter data dude Fred Berenson visualized conversations around SOPA on Twitter: View visualization

@digiphile snapshot

His data crunching strongly implies that I’ve been a “supernode” on this story. I’m not surprised, given how closely I’ve been following how the Web is changing Washington — or vice versa.

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Senator Reid postpones vote on PROTECT IP Act, Romney and Gingrich come out against SOPA

This morning, Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said in a statement today that he will postpone next week’s vote on the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). Update: Rep. Lamar Smith followed with a statement that he would also halt consideration of SOPA. This is a historic victory for the Internet community. Collectively, millions of people rose up and told Washington that these bills shall not pass.

An unprecedented day of online protests over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives and the PIPA in the U.S. Senate and the resulting coverage on cable and broadcast news networks had an effect.

“Senator Reid made the right decision in postponing next week’s vote on PIPA,” said Center for Democracy and Technology president Leslie Harris. “It’s time for a hard reset on this issue. We need a thoughtful and substantive process that includes all Internet stakeholders. We need to take a hard look at the facts and find solutions that honor the Internet’s openness and its unique capacity for innovation and free expression. We are thankful for the efforts of Senator Ron Wyden who from the beginning stood against this bill; his early opposition and leadership gave voice to the important concerns of the Internet community.”

Wikipedia, Google, BoingBoing, Reddit, O’Reilly Media and thousands of other blogs asked their communities to take a stand and contact Washington.

“The amazing thing is that the power of these networks delivered,” wrote David Binetti in TechCrunch. “By the end of the day, 25 Senators — including at least 5 former co-sponsors of the bill — had announced their opposition to SOPA. Think about that for just a second: A well-organized, well-funded, well-connected, well-experienced lobbying effort on Capitol Hill was outflanked by an ad-hoc group of rank amateurs, most of whom were operating independent of one another and on their spare time. Regardless where you stand on the issue — and effective copyright protection is an important issue — this is very good news for the future of civic engagement.”

I concur with that last point. Last night, we finally saw one of the most important questions about the future of the Internet and society asked in a presidential debate: all four GOP candidates for the presidential nomination came out against SOPA at the CNN debate.

As shown by ProPublica’s excellent SOPA Tracker, SOPA and PIPA now have 122 opponents in the House and Senate, four times as many as on Monday.

These bills are not “dead,” no matter what headlines you read today, although I can now say with some confidence that they will not pass in their current form. There are ongoing negotiations to redraft them, cutting DNS filtering provisions or search engine blocks in an effort to make them acceptable to technology companies like Google.

While the Internet mattered this week, it’s important to recognize that but for the efforts of Senator Ron Wyden, Rep. Darrell Issa, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Rep. Jared Polis and Rep. Zoe Logren, I believe SOPA and PIPA would likely have passed. Senator Wyden put a critical hold on the PROTECT IP Act after it sailed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Those representatives proposed dozens of amendments to SOPA in a marathon, days-long markup session that effectively filibustered the bill, delayed it until the House came back into session in January. That delay enabled hundreds of organizations and individuals, including newspaper editors, human rights advocates, academics, engineers and public interest groups, to rally to save the Internet as we know it.

“Supporters of the Internet deserve credit for pressing advocates of SOPA and PIPA to back away from an effort to ram through controversial legislation,” Issa said in an emailed statement. “Over the last two months, the intense popular effort to stop SOPA and PIPA has defeated an effort that once looked unstoppable but lacked a fundamental understanding of how Internet technologies work.

“Postponing the Senate vote on PIPA removes the imminent threat to the Internet, but it’s not over yet. Copyright infringement remains a serious problem and any solution must be targeted, effective, and consistent with how the Internet works. After inviting all stakeholders to help improve American intellectual property protections, I have introduced the bipartisan OPEN Act with Senator Rob Wyden which can be read and commented on at KeepTheWebOPEN.com. It is clear that Congress needs to have more discussion and education about the workings of the Internet before it moves forward on sweeping legislation to address intellectual property theft on the Internet. I look forward to working with my colleagues and stakeholders to achieve a needed consensus about the way forward.”

In the meantime, everyone who participated in this week’s unprecedented day of online action should know that what they did this week mattered. If you’d asked me about the prospects for the passage of these bills back in December — and many people did, after I wrote a feature at Radar in November that highlighted the threat these anti-piracy bills presented to the Internet, security and freedom of expression online — I estimated that it was quite likely. So did Chris Dodd, the head of the MPAA, who told the New York Times that these passage of these bills was “considered by many to be a ‘slam dunk.’”

We’re now in unexplored territory. I’ve been writing about how the Internet affects government and government affects the Internet for years now. This week was clearly a tipping point in that space. The voices of the people, expressed in calls, letters, tweets, petitions and protests, were heard in Washington. There are incredibly difficult challenges that face us as a country and as a global community, from jobs to healthcare to the environment to civil liberties to smoldering wars around the world. What happened this week, however, will reinvigorate the notion that participating in the civic process matters. Here’s to working on stuff that matters, together.

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On the value of blog comments

paper blogs

"Paper Blogs" by bookwyrmish

Over at GigaOm, Matthew Ingram weighs in on whether blogs should allow comments or not, spurred by a debate between venture capitalist Fred Wilson and Tech Crunch blogger-turned-venture capitalist M.G. Siegler:

MG Siegler, who doesn’t have comments on his blog and has written several posts defending his decision, saying they are 99-percent bile and a waste of his time. On the other side of the debate is fellow VC Fred Wilson, who says Siegler is missing a lot by not allowing comments.

I think Wilson is right — while comments can be a royal pain at times, they are a crucial part of what makes a blog more than just a bully pulpit.

For my part, I respect MG Siegler‘s choice to have a place on the Internet where only he can share his thoughts, whether we call it a blog or not, just as I do that of Seth Godin or John Gruber. If someone wants to comment on a given post, he or she can do so and respond via email, social networks, YouTube or their own blog(s). Or all of the above. There is no shortage of options on the Web of 2012 to share and opinion of something online and link to it. Just the opposite, really. If I want to publicly comment on one of Siegler’s posts, I can do so right here on my blog. Or Facebook. Or Google+. Or  @reply to @parislemon on Twitter, albeit in fewer characters.

From where I sit tonight, whether you choose to have comments or not speaks to whether you want to create an online community, which requires a human’s touch to manage and moderate, or to simply publish your thoughts publicly online, without making the necessary commitment of time and patience.

As is often the case, I agree with Mathew Ingram: blog comments are worth the effort.

He cites two important examples of high functioning people who maintain blogs with excellent comment sections, Anil Dash and Fred Wilson.

Dash and Wilson both spend time reading and responding to comments. For those who have been online for a few years, you know that’s not the case with many other blog authors. In a frank post last year, Dash observed that if your website is full of bad behavior, it’s your fault. He clearly thinks it’s worth it:

“When you engage with a community online in a constructive way, it can be one of the most meaningful experiences of your life. It doesn’t have to be polite, or neat and tidy, or full of everyone agreeing with each other. It just has to not be hateful and destructive.”

It’s worth noting that both men have also put into place architectures for participation that enable them to create better norms for discourse alongside social norms created by community. Dash uses Facebook comments, Wilson Disqus.

Some of the worst comments online still show up on YouTube or unmoderated newspaper comment sections. That’s one reason newspapers have been rethinking anonymous commenters. (Another, of course, is that knowing more about your readers’ demographics matters for online advertising and lead generation.)

It’s on that count that Ingram has extra credibility with me, since he used to be the social media editor at the Globe and Mail in Canada. While Canadians generally have a reputation for being polite, online that can change. Despite years of exposure to the best and worst of humanity on his screen, however, Mathew still supports having them:

“…I still defend comments as a crucial element of what blogging is, and more than that I defend anonymity as well. A blog without comments is a soap-box, plain and simple. Not having comments says you are only interested in passing on your wisdom, without testing it against any external source (at least not where others can watch you do so) or leaving open the opportunity to actually learn something from those who don’t have their own blogs, or aren’t on Twitter or Google+. That may make for a nicer experience for you the blogger, and it may make your blog load faster, but it is still a loss — for you, and for your readers.”

Moderating and responding to comments is a full-time job at high traffic blogs. If you’re a one man outfit, small business or don’t have a full time community manager, that’s going to take time away from research, writing and interviews — and that’s a legitimate problem for a writer, much less an entire news outfit. MG made this point today, commenting on the decision by Macstories to remove all comments:

It’s one thing for a single person site (like this one) to make a call to remove comments. It’s another for a larger team blog to do so. In fact, I can’t think of any without comments.

Right or wrong, the mentality is that to build a next generation media publication on the web, you need comments. That’s why we never got rid of them on TechCrunch (believe me, plenty of us wanted to — Facebook comments were a compromise).

Even more interesting is the psychology behind “needing” comments on big sites. Let’s be honest: most of these sites defend comments because if they don’t, it will seem like they’re taking a shit on their readers. It’s along the lines of “the reader is always right” — even when only half a percent are commenting and the vast majority of those are trolls.

For me, keeping up with email, Google+ and Facebook, @replies on Twitter, txts and IMs frankly can feel a bit exhausting. One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2012, in fact, is remove communications cruft from my digital life wherever possible, cutting way down on bacn and spam. (Note Bene: I’m not giving up bacon in meatspace.)

That said, I think keeping up that level of engagement is worth it. It’s important to me. I hear from readers that it’s important to them. I plan to continue to publish posts this year that have comments enabled because I believe, as Mathew Ingram does, that they’re worth it, both for me and for other readers. If I ever think that they aren’t, I’ll either turn them off or advocate that we do so — but I’m not expecting a change of heart any time soon.

I’m looking forward to an upgrade at the O’Reilly Radar that should make it much easier for our community to ring in. Given that O’Reilly Media has legions of smart readers, I expect to learn a great deal from them, although I suspect I’ll take my lumps as well if I make mistakes or errors of reasoning. For me, that remains a worthwhile trade.

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