Juan Cole: The protests in Iran wouldn’t be allowed here either.

From the always insightful Informed Comment:

Moreover, very unfortunately, US politicians are no longer in a position to lecture other countries about their human rights. The kind of unlicensed, city-wide demonstrations being held in Tehran last week would not be allowed to be held in the United States. Senator John McCain led the charge against Obama for not having sufficiently intervened in Iran. At the Republican National Committee convention in St. Paul, 250 protesters were arrested shortly before John McCain took the podium. Most were innocent activists and even journalists. Amy Goodman and her staff were assaulted. In New York in 2004, ‘protest zones’ were assigned, and 1800 protesters were arrested, who have now been awarded civil damages by the courts. Spontaneous, city-wide demonstrations outside designated ‘protest zones’ would be illegal in New York City, apparently. In fact, the Republican National Committee has undertaken to pay for the cost of any lawsuits by wronged protesters, which many observers fear will make the police more aggressive, since they will know that their municipal authorities will not have to pay for civil damages.

The number of demonstrators arrested in Tehran on Saturday is estimated at 550 or so, which is less than those arrested by the NYPD for protesting Bush policies in 2004.

I applaud the Iranian public’s protests against a clearly fraudulent election, and deplore the jackboot tactics that the regime is using to quell them. But it is important to remember that the US itself was moved by Bush and McCain toward a ‘Homeland Security’ national security state that is intolerant of public protest and throws the word ‘terrorist’ around about dissidents. Obama and the Democrats have not addressed this creeping desecration of the Bill of Rights, and until they do, the pronouncements of self-righteous US senators and congressmen on the travesty in Tehran will be nothing more that imperialist hypocrisy of the most abject sort.

Cutters and Preps (w/ apologies to Breaking Away)

I know, this is too easy. But here’s the Chronicle six months ago:

The way Brainify tries to set itself apart, however, is in its exclusivity, Mr. Goldberg said. Unlike general-interest sites like Delicious, Diigo.com, and Ma.gnolia.com, Brainify restricts membership to those with college e-mail addresses. And rather than link to fried-chicken recipes or the latest YouTube hit, users are likelier to bookmark animated illustrations of particle physics or explications of John Donne’s poetry.

You know, I’m going to blockquote that again, because the world-view behind this is just incredible:

And rather than link to fried-chicken recipes or the latest YouTube hit, users are likelier to bookmark animated illustrations of particle physics or explications of John Donne’s poetry.

That’s what they think of all you “cutters” by the way. You’re eating fried chicken and watching Fred on YouTube while they read the collected works of John Donne.

So six months has passed, how’s their club working out?

Well, here’s the front page:


Yep. Twenty-seven links on the fine arts.

Oh and that Donne poetry we were into finding?


That reads “Displaying 1-0 of 0”. That’s with a Chronicle-fueled launch.

Here’s what the fried-chicken cookers came up with:


That’s 369 results on Donne on delicious, for those of you that might not be able to read that.

Once again, this is too easy — but as they say on another blog, it’s important to document the atrocities. Especially when every month brings a new attempt to prove that what we all need is an “academic version” of all this Web 2.0 stuff.

Cult of the Amateur

I just became aware of this extraordinary story last week:

Caroline Moore is 14 years old and just discovered her first supernova. Moore, who lives in Warwick, NY, is the youngest person ever to discover the exploding remains of a dying star in a distant galaxy. She’s a member of the the Puckett Observatory Supernova World Search Team headed up by principal investigator, Tim Puckett. Every clear night at various locations around the globe, members photograph thousands of galaxies remotely using computer-controlled robotic telescopes (no humans involved). The images are then analyzed by 28 team members for the telltale brightening of an exploding star. These suspect stars are confirmed and then reported to the professional astronomers for study.

Which brings to mind John Seely Brown’s analysis of such endeavors (here summarized in the new MacArthur report):

John Seely Brown has noted that it took professional astronomers many years to realize that the benefits to their field of having tens of thousands of amateur stargazers reporting on celestial activity far outweighed the disadvantages of unreliability…The result has been a far greater knowledge, amassed in this participatory method, than anyone had ever dreamed possible, balanced by collective and professional procedures for sorting through the data for obviously wrong or misguided reportings.

This is not digital utopianism. This de-centering is not vaporware, or Silicon Valley hype. It is happening right now, around the world, in thousands of endeavors. From the use of twitter in Iran, to the Guardian crowdsourcing investigative journalism, to astronomers using distributed methods, this is not the latest whim of the digital elite — this is the way the world is now. I mean, crikey, that was just the news from last week.

As I watch my own daughters grow up, what I find most difficult is not that education is not supporting the sort of experience afforded amateur astronomers, but that in many cases our system actively works to quash such approaches. Everything in it is aligned to tell people like Caroline to be quiet and listen, to do fake problems out of special books made for students. To think about what they want to be when they “grow up”. To wait patiently until they graduate college, and then, maybe, after a couple years of doing crud jobs, if they are lucky enough to get the right job they’ll get assigned an interesting project, and then, and only then, at 26 years old will they come to realize what a gift their education was, and how all that proving themselves to the gatekeepers was worth it after all.

To which I say:


This is Caroline. She is 14 years old, and she just discovered a supernova.

Are we telling our students they can do that?

Or are we telling them they can’t?

Two short points on Iran and Twitter

1. My enthusiasm that new technology is allowing Iranians an additional tool for dissent is tempered by the fact that so many people reading the tweets from there seem to have fallen in into an uncritical mode in their reading of them. Suddenly everyone is an expert and it has been decided the election was stolen. And of course, Something Must Be Done.

New media production meets old media psychology. That’s a mixed bag.

2. An AP article yesterday ends with this:

Gaurav Mishra, the 2008-09 Yahoo Fellow at Georgetown University, said he hasn’t seen any evidence in past events such as the Moldova elections that Twitter was the dominant way people are organizing.

“It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate the hype from the media,” he said. “Just because people are tweeting about something doesn’t mean that there’s actually coordination involved.”

I think that’s a bit of an odd distinction. I don’t think the point is to say that Twitter is how they are getting so many people to their protests, or that there is some sci-fi “Wait, Third Street is unsafe, go to Tenth!” thing happening.

The point of the protests and the twittering are parallel, not hierarchal. Both the protests and the electronic activity aim to set the public narrative, in and out of the country. That’s why most of the accounts were created recently, that’s why so many are posting in English — these are accounts created specifically to try and fight any frame that activity in Iran is settling down, that the rallies are dwindling, that the government violence is minimal. They aren’t necessarily people using their normal accounts, they are very conscious activists.

It’s part of an ecosystem — to the extent that the public narrative is one of momentum, the protests will keep happening, even in the face of violence, and the government will feel the pressure. To the extent Iran feels the world is the audience as well as the current regime, the protests will keep happening, etc., etc. These things feed each other, but not necessarily in the pattern digital utopians would prefer.

Will there be Twitter fraud? People twittering eyewitness accounts from 5,000 miles away? Well, absolutely. I’m sure there are some fakes in there. If there is an election at stake and you think there will be qualms about faking an eyewitness report, you’re less cynical than I. A lot less cynical.

So it is synergistic, but not in the futurist way some would want. I’m not quite sure why we assume our digital utopia is free of political motivation and deception and spin. The point is not that those things are eliminated, but that they are de-institutionalized. And people should read accordingly.

Earthquakes, Iranian Protests, Twitter, and the Media

A little over a year ago there was a bunch of hub-bub about how Twitter “reported” the SoCal earthquake about 9 minutes before the AP story went out.

That was a lousy frame for understanding what Twitter is and what it does.

When people years from now look back for the a-ha moment where they got citizen microreporting, they will likely remember the Iranian election protests. With bandwidth throttled, and the state tightly controlling traditional media access, those involved with the protests are reporting what they see through Twitter. I’ve followed a bunch of the protestors and here is what has come out in the last four minutes:

StopAhmadi Mousavi: “they were not brought for potatoes” = Ahmadinejad bribed ppl in pre-election w/ potatoes in villages
1 minute ago from Seesmic Desktop

Bahram81 UN secretory general asked IR gov. to respect people’s will #iranelection
1 minute ago from web

madyar Dispersed fights in Tehran; sound of shooting heard #IranElection
1 minute ago from web

StopAhmadi Mousavi: “these masses were not brought by bus or by threat. they were not brought for potatoes.they came themselves”
1 minute ago from Seesmic Desktop

Bahram81 people chanting “don’t fear, we are all together” #iranelection
2 minutes ago from web

Bahram81 BBC Persian doubling its daily broadcast time #iranelection
3 minutes ago from web

parhamdoustdar People being surrounded in Shiraz and Rasht. Fights have broken out in Shiraz. #IranElection
3 minutes ago from mobile web

Bahram81 A hypothesis,in case regime wants to backtrack this farce, Ahmadinejad could b sentenced similarly if he’s “trown under d bus” #iranelection
4 minutes ago from web

iranbaan ??????? ??? ??????? ????? ?????? ???? ???? ???? ???
4 minutes ago from web

I don’t know the veracity of these claims (and make no claim to knowing the truth of the Iranian election). But I do know that this is the frame that is useful for understanding Twitter microreporting: that it subverts traditional authority, routes around censorship, and allows people to organize and to inform each other in a non-hierarchical emergent way.

It’s not that traditional media can’t do that as fast, but that traditional media isn’t about doing that at all.

Someone needs a Quantitative Literacy course

I think Mark Bauerlein might need a Quantitative Literacy course. He might possibly also need a dictionary to look up the meaning of “paradox”. From today’s Chronicle article “Studies Explore Whether the Internet Makes Students Better Writers”:

Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, cites the reading and writing scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which have remained fairly flat for decades. It is a paradox, he says: “Why is it that with young people reading and writing more words than ever before in human history, we find no gains in reading and writing scores?”

If I was trying to make an argument that the explosion of social media has adversely affected student writing (as Bauerlein does later in that article) I am not sure I would choose a test that shows writing gains since social media began to take hold around the turn of the millennium:

12th Grade NAEP Results, Writing

12th Grade NAEP Results, Writing

I mean, honestly, I probably wouldn’t use NAEP in this context at all. As some of the people down-page in that Chronicle article note, standard measures of formal academic writing might not be the best tool to measure how students are communicating outside the classroom. And I am suspicious of NAEP in general.

But I think if I were trying to create a “paradox” where students were writing more than ever but are not getting any better I would make a particular effort to not cite that test as proof.