When Modes of Information Diffusion Collide

Anyone familiar with Twitter probably knows about “live tweeting” during television broadcasts.  In my own Twitter feed are several “followees” on whom I can depend for a play-by-play about the shows “Scandal,” “Girls,” and “America’s Got Talent.”  Sometimes one, sometimes another of these “friends” are live tweeting and every now and then several of them are at it at the same time.

What I experience at that moment reminds me of the lovers in the film “Letter to Brezhnev” who looked up at the moon, one in England, one at home in Russia, and observe that they were united by looking up at the same moon. They don’t actually communicate at that moment, but as viewer of the film, I experience their “virtual connection”  as the spatial separation between the lovers is romantically collapsed by mutual gazing at this distant, real object.  My Twitter friends do not necessarily follow one another so I may be the only witness to their synchronous experience, but the analogy is this: in one case the moon “broadcasts” its light, in the other a television network broadcasts a show and in both cases I experience the simultaneous common experience of others.

During the 2 March 2014 broadcast of the Academy Awards, host Ellen deGeneres took a photo of herself and a few attendees and tweeted the photo while exhorting the audience to make it the “most re-tweeted tweet of all time.”  It is unlikely this has never been done before but the phenomenon brings up something interesting.  2,909,385 retweets as I write this about 18 hours later.

Now, shows like Scandal and Girls and especially contest shows like The Voice or America’s Got Talent actually make an effort to get people to tweet about them and athletes have often tweeted before or even during a competition, but deGeneres’s gambit was slightly different.  She showed us the tweet (or at least informed us of it) and gave us a photo that we saw being composed and taken (indeed, we can find a picture of the picture being made as we see below).

Reportedly, 43 Million people watched the Oscars.

An Interesting Web Book "App"

What reminds you of what? When one reads — or hears about — a book, one almost unconsciously make connections — this book is a little bit like that book. When you tell someone you are interested in some topic s/he will often say, “well, then you should have a look at ….”

I just stumbled across a web resource, http://www.librarything.com/, that implements this as a combination of a personal library catalog and a social network.  It allows you, virtually, to surf your own library and connect from books you know to books that are related to it. Users “tag” books creating a interesting way to slice through the database. Try these, for example: sociology, history, philosophy, economics. And it keeps an eye on where a given book is available — libraries, bookstores, online digital sources, used book networks (like abebooks.com).

When I played around with it looking for books on the sociology of information I got a bookshelf that nearly mirrored my the books in front of me on my study’s shelves, but with a few titles I was unfamiliar with :

From Information Superhighway to Information Metrosystem

The new FTC report on consumer privacy has an interesting graphic in an appendix. It purports to be a model of the “Personal Data Ecosystem.” It’s interesting as an attempt to portray a four-mode network : individuals, data collectors, data brokers, and data users. The iconography here seems to be derived from classic designs of subway and underground maps.

From http://www.ftc.gov/os/2010/12/101201privacyreport.pdf.

The genre mixing in the diagram invites, on the one hand, a critical look at where the FTC is coming from in the report (which, in my limited experience of digesting FTC output looks relatively well done) and, on the other, points toward a need to better conceptualize the various components and categories.

Under “collectors,” for example, we have public, internet, medical, financial and insurance, telecommunications and mobile, and retail. The next level (brokers) includes affiliates, information brokers, websites, media archives, credit bureaus, healthcare analytics, ad networks and analytics, catalog coops, and list brokers. Finally, on the info users front we have employers, banks, marketers, media, government, lawyers and private investigators, individuals, law enforcement, and product and service delivery.

It’s a provocative diagram that helps to focus our attention on the conceptual complexity of “personal information” in an information economy/society. More on this to follow.

Leaking Irony

While I work on more extended analysis of the WikiLeaks situation (among other things the obvious connection to my work on how geometries of information sharing are co-constitutive of social relationships and statuses), a small irony must be noted.

Apparently, several news organizations have had the material recently made public since August.  Editors and reporters have been meeting in secret to develop protocols about what would be reported, when, and how.  Fortunately for their work, it appears that these journalists managed to do all of this while maintaining the kind of secrecy necessary for them to be able to process the information and to consider its meaning and its implications out of public view.  The public, media, and official reaction of the last few days make clear why this secrecy was necessary.

One thing that would be interesting to hear a story on would be what measures were taken to ensure the security of the process.  What sorts of technological tools were employed?  What sorts of social tools?  Did participants have to sign confidentiality agreements?   What prevented a rogue reporter from reporting on the reporters reporting?

Do Organizations that ‘Fess Up Do Better?

Geoffrey W. McCarthy, a retired chief medical officer for the V.A., wrote, in a letter to the NYT on 9 August in response to an article on radiation overdoses in medical tests about two approaches to how organizations manage information about organizational errors. He notes that the issue illustrates the contradictions between “risk management” and “patient (or passenger or client or consumer) safety.”

He notes that the risk manager will say “don’t disclose” and “don’t apologize” because these could put the organization at legal or financial risk. A culture of safety and organizational improvement, though, would say “fully disclose,” not because it will help the patient, but because it is a necessary component of organizational change. The organization has to admit the error if is going to avoid repeating it, he asserts.

This suggests a number of sociology of information connections, but we’ll deal with just one here. This example points to an alternative to the conventional economic analysis of the value of information. The usual approach is to “price” the information in terms of who controls it and who could do what with it (akin to the risk manager’s thinking above). But here we see a process value — the organization itself might change if it discloses the information (independent, perhaps, of the conventional value of disclosure or non-disclosure). One could even imagine an alternative pricing scheme that says “sure, Mr. X might sue us, but by disclosing the information we are more likely to improve our systems in a manner that lets us avoid this mistake in the future (along with the risk it poses to us and the costs it might impose on society). Why pour resources into hiding the truth rather than into using the information to effect change?

One rebuttal to this says that an organization can do both, and maybe so. Another would say that this is just mathematically equivalent to what would happen in litigation (perhaps through punitive damages).

But I think that Mr. McCarthy is onto something in terms of “information behaviors.” There are, I expect, a whole bunch of “internal externalities” associated with what we decide to do with information. In other places I’ve examined the relational implications of information behavior. This points to another family of effects: organizational. More to come on this.

Whose Information?

Robert Smith had a piece (“Sept. 11 Families Want Confidential Files Released“) on NPR’s Morning Edition today that dovetails nicely with a number of posts that have appeared here* on the relationship between courts and the information order. Our argument has been that courts play a role in enacting an important relational component of equality in a democracy: under certain circumstances, formal equals cannot arbitrarily withhold information from one another.

The three remaining plaintiffs are arguing that materials they’ve obtained during the discovery phase of their trial — materials about airline and airport security on 9/11 — should be made public. The defendants are claiming that the material is meant for “the lawyers’ eyes only.”

The case reminds us of the informational role played by courts and civil litigation. As generic members of the public who happened to have been singled out by having a relative killed on 9/11 these plaintiffs are exercising their formal informational equality before the court. They get to say “tell us what you know about that day” and the usually much more powerful organizations are not allowed, in this forum, to say, “we don’t have to tell you.”

Now the question is whether their right to ask (and be answered) is tied to their formal status as equals before the court as a place where information “comes to light,” or whether it’s interpreted in strictly transactional terms — since their lawsuit requires the information, they may see it, but the other party gets to maintain its right to say “we don’t have to tell you” to the public at large.

Even apart from how the judge rules on the contest between the public interest of disclosure and the private interest of confidentiality here, in light of the frenzied demand for “confidential corporate information” from the bailed out insurer AIG in recent weeks, we might remind ourselves that the airlines received a pretty hefty bailout from the taxpayers after 9/11. Perhaps they’ll want to be careful about how vigorously they argue that the public does not have the right to know.

*See these posts:

  1. Equality, Information and the Courts Redux: The Dan Rather Report,”
  2. Democracy and the Information Order,”
  3. Courts and the Information Order,”
  4. Suing for Information

See also:

  1. Hadfield, Gillian. 2009. “Framing the Choice Between Cash and the Courthouse: Experiences With the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.Law & Society Review, Volume 42, Issue 3 (p 645-682)
  2. Hadfield, Gillian and Dan Ryan. “Democracy and the Information Order” (unpublished draft)
  3. Weiser, Benjamin. “Value of Suing Over 9/11 Deaths Is Still Unsettled.New York Times, March 12, 2009.

Du-Jour-ism: The Cost of Short Term Culture

Listening to the news media parrot politicians’ posturing over the AIG bonuses made me see some disturbing parallels. It seems that the search for A story consistently gets in the way of the search for THE story. Way too many reporters and their editors seem more concerned with getting something on the front page today than on zeroing in on what, in the long run, really matters.

The parallels are with the economic system and politicians. We’ve nearly been done in by CEOs who’ve been more concerned with this quarter’s financial results than with long term stability, growth and profitability. And it seems almost impossible for anyone in congress to think beyond their rant of the moment.

I (though I’m probably not the first) call this tendency to be enthusiastically distracted by the short term du-jour-ism. It has caused collective blindness about the value of long term investments in education, infrastructure and institutions. Where’s the concern about the number of engineers we’ll be producing in 2020? Why aren’t we putting our best minds to work on redesigning financial institutions and regulation (and focusing our spotlights on the importance thereof)? Why does the media allow various players (on both right and left) get away with falling back on their old hobbyhorses (e.g., “It’ll be socialism!!!”) rather than asking hard questions (e.g., “Our education system is not up to the tasks of the 21st century — what are we going to do about it?”)? Where are the reporters saying “Well, yes, but economists have shown that X is irrelevant.”?

It’ll take some brave and strong voices (and intellects) to break out of the cycle of du-jour-ism. Some commentators over the last few days have made some arguments along these lines about AIG, but so far their voices have been largely drowned out by hysteria and posturing.

Why is this about information? Du-jour-ism represents a style of thinking and communicating — one that characterizes informal chit chat, gossip, and mobs of various kinds. It is a style of information behavior that is characterized by a focus on trees rather than forests, inconsequence rather than consequence, personality rather than substance, emotion rather than fact. It is information handling that is driven by delivering what recipients want and expect, what they already think, what is easy to receive and digest rather than what they may find surprising or disturbing or that may require re-evaluating assumptions.

An information order dominated by this sort of information behavior becomes top-heavy with convenient fictions and invites an eventual clobbering by inconvenient facts.