We’ve Made It Ridiculously Easy to Contribute to the Digital Polarization Initiative

The idea of the fact-checking activity in the Digital Polarization Initiative is simple: civic education as public work.

The education piece is simple: students learn how to tell truth from fiction on the web through checking our claims and investigating questions. We have a short textbook on that that they can read in a week. They can then apply those skills to political questions or questions within their discipline.

The public work piece is important though as well. It’s not enough for students to tell truth from fiction on the web (a personal skill). They should also use that skill to make the world a better place for others. So we encourage students to contribute the results of their investigations to a public wiki. Some of the answers our students have provided on various issues already rank near the top of Google queries for related questions.

This is digital public work, not just in the sense it is publicly available, but in the sense that it contributes to a public commons to advance a public good. In this case, that public good is to collectively improve the information environment of the web.

How much tech do you need to know or master to participate? Here’s the thing: outside what you’ll need to learn about fact-checking (Google features, checking sources, following links) you need to know almost nothing.

If you want your class to make the world a better place, the current “Digipo” process is to talk to me. I’ll set your class up a directory in Google Docs that is pre-connected to the wiki generation code. Students edit the documents in that directory and they automatically get changed to wiki pages. The video below shows it in action.

That’s it. I can’t begin to tell you what a pain in the butt it was to set this up. But the pain is behind us now, and there really is no excuse for not participating. The learning curve for contribution is a flat line, which will let you concentrate on the fact-checking parts. Contact me at michael.caulfield@wsu.edu if you want to participate.

How to Find Out If a “Local” Newspaper Site Is Fake (Using a New-ish Google Feature)

As you may know, one of the great innovations of the 2016 election season was the use of fake “local” papers like the Denver Guardian to spread fake news:


The Denver Guardian, as we all now know, was a completely fake site that only published this single page. The page was shared on Facebook over a half a million times and became one of the most shared stories of the final weeks of the election.

This technique was relatively new to the political realm in 2016, but had been a staple of a bunch of “stranger than fiction” fake stories before 2016.

So how do you know if the local paper you’re looking at is really a real paper from that area? The recommendation of the Snopes folks at a recent misinformation conference was to approach it from the other direction — grab a list of papers for that state or city and see if it is on it.

They used Wikipedia, but it looks like Google has made it even easier than that. Because if you type in [denver newspapers] into Google, this is what you get:


It’s a bit small, but if you can see the image above there are 13 papers associated with Denver, and none of them is named the “Guardian”. For local papers, this search move now provides a 30 second check you can execute to check the veracity of a story.

It works for many non-American cities as well:


Though some revert to the Wikipedia list:


Incidentally, I hope we see more of this sort of thing from Google. I want better search results and credibility indicators, but I also want simple tools for the 30-second researcher. And this is exactly what those tools should look like. Whether this was intentional or not I don’t know, but this tool takes the current practice of fact-checkers, and makes it easily accessible to a general public.

More please. Perhaps a siteinfo: term next? Please?

Minimum Viable Public Project

There’s a too-long-Twitter-canoe that is getting into questions of whether use of commercial services are of the faith or not. It’s a worthwhile discussion, but I thought I’d bolt from it and put something on the blog instead.

A while ago I decided I wanted to work with one of our most technology-phobic faculty here. We had two goals:

  • We wanted the students to do public writing
  • We wanted them to learn a useful technology for their scholarly practice

We had two constraints:

  • It had to be simple. This requirement was described to me as “something John McCain could use” in a reference to the revelation in the 2008 campaign that McCain didn’t know how to use email.
  • It had to be, in my thinking, non-invasive and cheap. I didn’t want to sell the students upstream to a tools provider.

So what did we do? We bought one big Pinboard account for the class. We emailed the creator of Pinboard, the incomparable Maciej Cegłowski and asked him if it was OK to let everyone use the account (he said yes). We paid about $9 for a lifetime account (it was 2014). And then we asked the students each week to find a substantial article about public policy (either a journal article or a multipage press treatment) and write a summary of it, and post that summary as a social bookmark.

What does that look like? Well, not too exciting:


But they loved it, actually, and thinking back, I wish I’d rolled out more social bookmarking classes. I got deep into wiki for a while, and just didn’t push it because my mind was elsewhere. The next time that class came round we used Hypothes.is which went wonderfully the first time and hit some glitches the second time around. The fourth iteration comes up this Spring, and we’ll do a post-mortem soon.

Here’s their writing. It’s impressive actually.

But back to Pinboard. The reason that this comes to mind today is I’m getting back into Pinboard as a kind of Twitter replacement for finding articles. And last night, when reading something on polarization, it mentioned that Obama’s NCLB waivers were a massive overstep that — while not travel ban-level despicable — asserted the same rights of the executive branch to route around Congress. And I searched for something in Pinboard on this, and suddenly there was this students summary and analysis, tying it to broader thinking on public policy. From a student in that class years ago.

The project had the students learn through the important practice of summary, and the teacher said the students had really grasped the material much better because of this activity. It showed them social bookmarking, an important practice in doing their own web research and in sharing it with others. And it engaged them in public writing — they knew these notes would be visible to the world, and prepared them with care and purpose.

I’m not sure what my larger point is here. I suppose I think of this as open pedagogy, even though David Wiley might disagree — in practical terms they have offered up this work for anyone to copy into their bookmarks. They now understand one way to participate and share their work using the web. And I think of this as providing that digital sanctuary that Amy talks about, because Maciej supports the site with a subscription fee and eschews any tracking or advertising.

Anyway, it was a simple project, a great success in a course with little tolerance for tech issues, and though it looks very boring, it ended helping me out in the end — three years later the student is teaching me in a serendiptious collision. I put it up here on the blog now now, because it strikes me we cover the massive things, whether Digipo or blogging clusters or federated wiki, and don’t share the simple solutions quite as much.

The Persistence Argument for Running Your Own Server Is Wrong

Went to IndieWebCamp this weekend, just for a little bit, mainly to listen to the keynotes and hang out with Ward Cunningham and Pete Forsyth. I love the work these people are doing, but I wanted to kick back against one myth there I see repeated over and over.

There are a whole bunch of reasons for running your own server in the age of platform capitalism, but the one I hear used the most often is “Well, you know what happens — you put all your stuff on a new service, and then they delete it on you as they go out of business!” This is followed by a list of things from Google Buzz to Bebo to Friendster that have gone away, taking your history with them.

The thing is this is primarily a first adopter problem. If you were a person in the mid-00s that joined every new social media site to see what the next big thing was going to be, the experience of losing your stuff when some San Jose company didn’t make their B round is probably achingly familiar. But it’s honestly not an experience most people have.

Most people join social networks when they are relatively established, and in general while these more established sites may still become zombified, they do not die. As an example, here is a post of mine from 2004, still available on LiveJournal.


Now the truth is I don’t think I have a single thing in my house that I’ve made that dates back to 2004, apart from my kids. Multiple moves and predictable breakage have grown us a whole new set of objects in the house. Likewise, I have been running personal servers since 1996 on which I’ve put blogs, political sites, wikis, photos, and the like, and none of that content has survived for 13 years. It’s all gone, rotted away, lost, hacked, or just left out by the curb.

Yet here on LiveJournal, immortalized for all time, is the fact that I not only listened to but liked Phantom Planet as an adult. It’s embarrasing, but isn’t that always the way? (At least it shows I was listening to Death in Vegas. And honestly, that Swift Boat prediction turned out to be correct in ways I had not expected. My Dad was brown water navy in Vietnam, here I was thinking that people would finally learn that these positions in Vietnam were the most deadly positions there were in that war).

Meanwhile, in that LiveJournal post I link out to my wife’s art site, and what do you get when you click that? Link rot — that site came down years ago. It’s gone, with all the artwork that was on it. It’s not even retrievable on Wayback, because the new site owner has a robots.txt block in place.

Why does this happen? Why are self-run sites so fragile? I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it was usually switched credit cards, missed payments, open source bitrot, forgotten subdomains, damage from hackers. The link above to caulfieldfamily was just a thing where we forgot to renew the domain registration after an email change, I think. As another example, this blog, which I’ve run under different names for a decade now, is still missing a bunch of posts that were wiped out by a hacker in 2011 or so, via an injection exploit that I didn’t hop on patching fast enough. After that experience I moved to WordPress.com, and I’ve taken a lot of crap for that, but you know what? I haven’t lost any posts, and I never get DMs at 9 p.m. saying, “Hey Mike, there’s something weird up with your site…”

There’s more. I wrote a statistics textbook in 2010 on WordPress — lord knows where that is. I ran a federated wiki site back in 2014. I don’t want to delete the posts that people have put up, but over the past couple years I’ve spent almost $500 keeping those 50 or so sites up on Digital Ocean. Eventually I’ll take that server down. The same with Wikity. Monthly and yearly charges add up.

The same is true for the students we graduate. Students that do something in Google or Microsoft platforms are likely to have that material long after they graduate. As an example, I worked with a faculty member in 2010 to have her students document fair trade projects they did in an introductory class on a Google Sites wiki. That’s still up seven years later.


But what if the students had put it on their own server? What is the chance that work would still be available to them and to the world? There’s five different sites up there — I think optimistically we’d be lucky if even one survived. A student just starting to pay off their student debt is quite likely to let that server lapse in the years after college.


This isn’t to say that students shouldn’t own their own space on the web. They should. But I am more sympathetic to Jon Udell’s vision of “hosted lifebits” on a big dumb server than I am to students running server software. And I think the selling points of not relying on things like Google Sites and Docs tend to be more around issues of tracking data, and hackability, not persistence. Around issues of what Amy Collier calls digital sanctuary — how do we minimize the surveillance to which our students are subjected to in the course of getting an education? And around issues of personalization — how can we make sure students and faculty can expand and customize these tools in ways that make sense for their communities?

Let me state again: these are good reasons to pursue non-corporate solutions! And on the whole, pursuing solutions outside the normal corporate offerings continues to be a noble goal. But we should be honest about the why of it, and for everyone but the early adopters, persistence isn’t it.




What you can do in three minutes on DigiPo to make the world better.

The DigiPo mission — to teach students web literacy while they help fix our information environment — is vast. But your involvement with it can literally be as little as 240 seconds.

Here’s an example. I logged into a document today to find that some kind soul had made precisely one edit to one of the documents (which now exist in Google Docs for easy editing). Here it is:


The original article called Vox a “leftist” news source. Someone came in a couple weeks ago and changed “leftist” to “center-left” which more accurately reflects the place of Vox in the online news world.

That’s it. That’s all this person did. But it made the article better.

You, as an instructor or an instructional designer, could go into that article as well, and look at some real student writing. You’d find sentences like this:

More specifically, most Trump voters were lower-class, uneducated, and, white.

And looking at that sentence you’d remember (or perhaps learn) something about students: they really struggle with tone, partially because they have a hard time stepping out of their point of view and partially because they just don’t have access to a semi-academic idiom the way we do.

So you could, in an effort to make that article better, rewrite that sentence as:

More specifically, many Trump voters were white, with lower levels of income and education.

Or something better than that. You’re the person that gets to decide.

Then, over time, with hundreds of people like you writing single sentences like this we would have real examples of profitable revision to share with students as models.

In a minute I’ll post links to some student articles that need work. Edit them by clicking the edit this page link at the top. Log in, for now, with admin as the user and this. Then fix a sentence. You’re done!

If you want credit for fixing the sentence, make sure you are logged in when you access the link, and for best results, add a short comment about what you did. If you don’t want credit, don’t log in (or log out). But fix a sentence. It’s easy!

The change will show up on the website within about 10 minutes.

Here are some articles that need help with style and language:

Can Standardized Testing Damage Kids’ Brains?

Does citrus reduce risk of stroke?

Does Shaq believe the Earth is flat?

Did 9,200 dead people vote in Nevada in 2016?

Will Betsy DeVos, Trump’s new education secretary, end Common Core?

Do smart people need more time alone?

Was Mozart’s Sister was just as talented as Mozart?

Do parents need to “nag their daughters to success”?

Do selfie takers tend to overestimate attractiveness?

Are women considered better coders – but only if they hide their gender?

Did the EPA stay silent on Flint’s tainted water?

Do smart people need more time alone?

Does a new Alzheimer’s treatment fully restore memory function?

Did Southern Illinois College at Carbondale Close Due to Social Justice Warriors?


Is a positive outlook good for your health?

Are e-cigarettes as harmful as smoking tobacco?

Did the EPA admit the world’s most popular pesticide is killing bees?


You can edit just one sentence, right? To improve our information environment? Three minutes of work?


Make Servers Dumb Again

After talking with Jon Udell and re-reading an old post of mine on storage-neutral web-infrastructure I realize I can make an old point much easier. So here goes:

Make Servers Dumb Again.

You’ve heard of the Dumb Terminal, right? The idea that a terminal wouldn’t do anything but display stuff composed on centralized servers?

Well, this is the opposite. I want dumb servers. I want smart front-ends hosted anywhere to make basic data queries to servers. I want those two things — data and display engines — to be run by separate folks, like in the original vision of the web. I store the HTML on my server under my rules. You display it in your browser under yours.

Why do this? Because the marriage of front-ends and data creates lock-in, lousy portability, surveillance models, and crappy incentives for a good user experience.

You can get around that by running your own server, sure. Now you’re still locked into something, but the thing you’re locked into is running your own server forever, which is frankly almost as horrifying as being tracked.

I am 100% sure this post will be misunderstood. So I’ll just end with Klint Finley’s list of the freedoms people actually want.

  • Freedom to run software that I’ve paid for on any device I want without hardware dongles or persistent online verification schemes.
  • Freedom from the prying eyes of government and corporations.
  • Freedom to move my data from one application to another.
  • Freedom to move an application from one hosting provider to another.
  • Freedom from contracts that lock me in to expensive monthly or annual plans.
  • Freedom from terms and conditions that offer a binary “my way or the highway” decision.

You’ll notice that the minute the data provider becomes unhitched from the display and interaction provider all this happens automatically. That makes for a more difficult time programming, but it ultimately gets the people what they want.

Make Servers Dumb Again. There, I said it.

We Have a Real Shot to Fix Our Information Environment

I spent some time over the past few weeks looking into Search Engine Optimization. Why? Because we’re trying to motivate students to do their best work for our fact-checking project, and one of the big motivations is knowing that you have a page that people are actually using to get answers to questions. So if we want to make our student’s work meaningful, we should also try to make it findable.

As always, the biggest piece of SEO is getting people to link to you. We don’t have that yet on Digipo. But a lot of SEO these days is making the page load really fast, be legible on mobile, and having a descriptive page names and URLs. And so we made a couple changes to the site — went to quick, static page generation, phrased titles as questions (which is how more an more people are using Google), generated URLs that were descriptive, and used Dave Winer’s excellent and mobile friendly Medium-like template.

And so we did that, and guess what? We just cracked the top 5 Google results on one of our titles:


Apply all the caveats — we own this space of this phrasing of this specific question. Ask it slightly differently, and you will get another resource. And our rank may float down over time. But this still feels amazing, that a person could ask a question like this and get an answer (in this case) from a WSU student. And the fact that can happen will motivate other students to do their best work.

We can still do more — the pages pull through Google hosted images that are often too big and uncompressed: maybe we can programmatically resize them. Our headers for images need to have less aggressive anti-cache settings. Etc. But to me, this initial success shows it’s really possible for this student project to make a real difference, and shows the value of thinking about optimizing for search.