Saturday, April 9, 2011

A move to WordPress

I am no longer blogging here.  I have moved the Civic Engagement blog to

I'll keep this blog active as an archive, but I hope that you'll continue to follow the Civic Engagement blog. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

What does Wikipedia have to do with civic engagement?

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Reagle, Joseph Michael, Jr.  Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia.  Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London:  The MIT Press, 2010.  173 pages text; 244 pages with endnotes, index.

Joseph Reagle's ethnographic study of Wikipedia examines the inner workings of Wikipedia, and in particular, Reagle focuses on Wikipedians, the people who create the articles, and the rules and policies that have evolved over time (not much time, since Wikipedia celebrated its tenth anniversary only in 2011).  Since Wikipedia claims to be "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," then I suppose we are all Wikipedians in waiting if we aren't already editing articles.

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I suspect that Good Faith Collaboration is Reagle's dissertation revised for public consumption.   His research approach - ethnomethodology - provides him with an insider's view of Wikipedia.  I suppose for some readers, it is a bit like watching sausage being made: unappetizing but informative.The title in part comes from one of Wikipedia's policies, which is to "assume good faith."  To assume good faith cajoles Wikipedians to encounter one another favorably or at least benignly.  It speaks volumes to the early vision of Wikipedia established and reshaped by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia's co-creators.  They wanted to co-create with others a body of knowledge that was open to revision.  It's hard to believe that an Ayn Rand objectivist - Wales - would create a tool that embraces a social construction of knowledge, but there it is.

To answer the question posed in the title of the post, Wikipedia is a "place" where individuals interested in a topic can "gather" to build something: in this case, an encyclopedia article.  While doing this, they learn the rules of the discourse community, rules that help them "play nice" with others, even if they adamantly disagree with one another.  When it works, Wikipedia is this great social experiment where people with a vested interest in an article (actually, their interest is not the article itself, but what the article (re)presents) can exchange ideas, debate, deliberate, and create.  How many civic institutions exist today that can promise the same?  In an era where the left goes to left-wing media and the right goes to right-wing media, it is becoming harder and harder to find or create environments where individuals can wrestle with one another in meaningful ways to build something of value to both sides (and other sides) of an issue.

If you like to read ethnography - described by many as "thick-description" - then you might enjoy Good Faith Collaboration.  I realize that is a very small audience.  Or if you are interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of Wikipedia (which, by the way, are available for viewing by everyone who visits a Wikipedia article: all one needs to do is click an article's edit history or talk/discussion tab to see what is lurking beneath the surface of any given article), then you might be interested in the book.  If you want to consider Wikipedia within a historical context of other encyclopedias, then this is a great source.  If you want a quick overview of criticism targeting Wikipedia, the chapter titled "Encyclopedic Anxiety" will meet your needs.  I read the book because I teach a course that focuses on Wikipedia, and I am particularly interested in how Wikipedia challenges our usual notions of audience.

There are many interesting quotes in Good Faith Collaboration, but my favorite is something called "Zeroeth Law":
The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice.  In theory, it can never work. (169)
I'll write more about this practice in future posting.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus

Shirky, Clay.   Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  New York: Penguin Press, 2010.  213+ pages.

I finished Shirky's second book (for the longest time, his first book - Here Comes Everybody - was my constant recommendation to anyone who would listen).  This book is not as eye-opening as the first book, but Here Comes Everybody is a tough act for anyone to follow.  That said, Cognitive Surplus is now at the top of my recommendation list.

One of Shirky's most effective rhetorical strategies is his use of stories to tell a larger story.  This is true in Cognitive Surplus, which begins with a wonderful story about the Gin Craze of London in the 1720s and ends with a delightful tale of a friend's child watching a DVD movie and then suddenly leaping from the couch because she was "looking for the mouse" (212).  In between are many anecdotes that Shirky brings to life so that the reader might understand how the read/write web (Web 2.0) has provided us a space for our cognitive surplus.

Shirky does not look kindly on television, even as he admits to his own voracious viewing habits as a young person.  He asserts that for much of the second half of the twentieth century, we spent our cognitive surplus watching television.  He writes amusingly of his own television viewing habits, describing them variously as a "job" and an "obligation."  In a section titled "More is Different" from the first chapter, Shirky muses:
Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan's Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and they don't?  I saw that one a lot when I was growing up.  And every half hour I watched it was a half hour in which I wasn't sharing photos or uploading video or conversing on a mailing list.  (21)
He commits the bulk of the book to analyzing and critiquing the elements of cognitive surplus - means, motive, opportunity, and culture -  and he devotes entire chapters to each.  Throughout, he weaves the primary motives for participating: autonomy and creativity, sharing and generosity.

The final two chapters explore the potential of collaborative uses of our individual cognitive surplus, and I am particularly interested in his chapter devoted to "Personal, Communal, Public, Civic" uses. 

Read the book.  If this posting doesn't convince you, take fourteen minutes to watch this video on youtube:

Clay Shirky, "How cognitive surplus will change the world."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

St. Paul Bicycle Tour

This morning, I rode 39 miles through the streets of St. Paul.  Cars waited for me to clear intersections.  Smiling police officers waved me through red lights.  Every eight miles or so, there was water, coffee, lemonade, and bagels waiting for me.  I shared the roads with an estimated 5000 other cyclists.  We were participating in the St. Paul Bicycle Tour

What I love about these events is that you see all sizes, styles, and attitudes.  There were wee ones, probably no older than a year, being towed around the city in their parents' bicycle trailers (and at least one woman used her trailer to tow her French poodle, who rode sitting on its haunches, head on a swivel).  A woman in her sixties passed me on one uphill (no comments, please).  People rode touring bicycles, road bicycles, BMX cycles, mountain bikes, and creative inventions of their own (including one four-wheeler that was propelled by a person doing something akin to a Stairmaster workout with his legs and Nordic classic skiing motion with his arms: it looked like a sloppy mess, folks, but he made it all 39 miles).  There was lycra (lots o' lyrca), cotton, and at least one case, blue jeans.  There were skinny people and large people.  There were happy, singing, and joyful people, and there were some grumpy ones who just wanted to go as fast as possible - they saw anyone else's participation as just an impediment to their goals.  So it goes.

I registered this morning and paid $46.  What did I get in return?  Clear roads, friendly volunteers, and St. Paul's finest monitoring the busier intersections, plus regular and well-staffed water/food stops and music at the end of the ride.  Any money beyond what it takes to cover the costs of the event ends up with the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, whose mission is "to provide leadership and a unified voice for bicycle education, advocacy and efforts to make Minnesota more bicycle friendly so that more people will ride bicycles more often."  I can support that.

It's a fine line between participating in a community event and civic engagement, but I chose to see what I did today as civic engagement.  With my money and time, I supported a community event that not only was great fun but it also builds community.  We see each other cycle; the people along the rode see us cycle.  Maybe this will inspire someone whose Schwinn is hanging in the garage or whose Trek is dusty from disuse to hop on a bicycle.  Maybe they'll take their kids around the neighborhood.  Maybe they'll ride to work one day, and if they like it, maybe they'll do it again.  Maybe they'll drive more attentively around someone on a bicycle.  Who knows?  I do know, though, that there is power in numbers, and the numbers today were impressive. 

And now, some shameless familial promotion: my daughter and her husband recently completed an E2E ride during which they rode from Land's End in Cornwall, England, to Dunscanby Head in Scotland (or end-to-end on the British Isle, thus the catchy acronym).  She's been blogging about her experience at A Carpetbagger's Tale, and her final posting from Dunscanby Head - That'll Do - is a pleasure to read (if I do say so myself).

It's Been A Long Time

I started teaching summer session classes on the first of June, and I haven't written a posting for this blog in over three months.  It was an unintentional but perhaps inevitable hiatus. 

So now I am back, and I have been thinking about the blog for awhile: how best to use it, what I want to include here.  I have two themes that I'd like to explore in the months to come.

One is exploring the day-to-day civic engagement that my colleagues, students, and I experience.  Too often, civic engagement is described in high-falutin and formal ways: voting, participating in a political meeting, running for office, writing one's congressman or -woman.  All of these are important expressions of one's civic engagement, but I think this view unnecessarily limits our understanding.  So I am going to try and do something about that.  If you find yourself interested, I'll be tagging those posts with "day-to-day civic engagement."

Another theme I want to explore has to do with a new post that I have at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.  I am the Social Responsibility Assessment Coordinator for the 2010-11 academic year.  The college is in the 2nd year of a three-year assessment effort of one of its core competencies: Social Responsibility (the others are Communication, Critical Thinking, and Personal Responsibility/Life Skills).  There is some really amazing work happening on the campus with inspired faculty members designing and implementing Social Responsibility components in their courses and assessing the results.  I am going to share some of them with you in the coming months.  If you find yourself interested in these posting, I'll be tagging those posts with "MCTC Social Responsibility."

And away we go!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Public v. Private: Pew Research and new Facebook settings

I have written about public v. private issues as they play out in social media in the past, and I have used exchanges with my seventeen-year-old daughter as an example.  She and I had another interesting exchange last night.

She is looking for a bathing suit for the upcoming summer, and she and her mother had a disappointing first try at finding something that a) fit and b) was inexpensive.  So my daughter went on Facebook with a request, asking people for advice about where she could find a bathing suit.  She even listed her price range.

At supper, we started discussing Facebook again (the family is pretty tolerant about these forays).  My daughter and I are not Facebook "friends" - she thinks it would be creepy.  That said, I told her that I saw the posting, and then I corrected her about her price range.  She blew up - "How did you see that?  That is so wrong!"

Of course, I took an inordinate amount of glee in this (what's the use in parenting if you can't tweak your teen-ager every once in a while?), but I couldn't explain to her why I could see this posting without being her "friend."  Is it because I might be a "friend of a friend?"  Then again, isn't everybody?

I think that Facebook's new privacy settings will make it easier to manage the level of privacy, but I doubt that our individual digital footprints will shrink.  Part of what makes Facebook so successful is the massive network (400 million worldwide), maintained on the back of people's personal information and data.  They won't slay the dragon that breathed fire (and $15 BILLION+) into the network.

(Even writing this post makes me a little uncomfortable, writing as I am about my daughter, my spouse.  I know that I can leave them unnamed here, but that that information is probably a search engine, a couple of search terms, and three clicks away for anyone who wants to track it down.  That is unnerving.)

I still maintain that young adults have a different notion of public and private, but that certainly doesn't mean that young adults somehow care less about these boundaries.  In fact, the Pew Internet and American Life Project's new report "Reputation Management and Social Media" (26 May 2010) provides evidence that young adults care deeply about these distinctions, and at least when it comes to social media like Facebook, they are more cautious about their digital footprint than older generations.

I like what  danah boyd wrote in her post "Pew Research Confirms that Youth Care about Their Reputation" (26 May 2010):
Of course, reputation and privacy always come back to audience. And audience is where we continuously misunderstand teenagers. They want to make sure that people they respect or admire think highly of them. But this doesn’t always mean that they care about how YOU think about them. So a teenager may be willing to sully their reputation as their parents see it if it gives them street cred that makes them cool amongst their peers. This is why reputation is so messy. There’s no universal reputation, no universal self-presentation. It’s always about audience.
As a writing instructor, I applaud boyd's observation, since it is true of ALL writing and speaking: audience is everything.  Often, when our communications fail to accomplish what we set out to do, it's because we have misjudged the audience's needs and expectations.

My daughter is "out there" with her friends, and when I see what my younger extended family members are making public on Facebook, some of them are even further "out there."  That said, none of them are especially pleased that an old fuddy-duddy like me can see their "stuff."  They think it is "sick" and "perverted."  My retort is that if I can see it, who else can see it?  "Inside conversations" on social media are rarely "inside":  it is more like having a conversation in a fish bowl or a cage at the zoo - people who wander by can stop and listen, stop and read, at their leisure.

Take a moment to look at the graphics below, courtesy of the "Reputation Management and Social Media" Pew report.   There's more where that came from.  If you are interested in how the different generations approach social media, this is a great report to read. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

I just finished Dave Eggers' Zeitoun (San Francisco: McSweeney's Books, 2009.  335 pages) today, and it's still swirling around in my mind.  Eggers chronicles the lives of the Zeitoun family in the days just prior to and immediately following Hurricane Katrina.  The Zeitoun children - Zachary, Nademah, Aisha, Safiya, and Ahmad - play important cameo roles, but the narrative focuses on the parents Kathy and Abdulrahman.

The Zeitouns own a painting and contracting business in New Orleans.  Abdulrahman immigrated to the US from his native Syria.  Kathy, born and raised in Baton Rouge, converted to Islam before they met and married.

As Katrina bore down on the city, Kathy and the children left New Orleans, first to stay with her family in Baton Rouge but later to stay with friends in Phoenix.  Zeitoun elected to stay.  He wanted to guard his house, his business, his rental properties, and his client's properties.  When the storm hit on Sunday, 28 August 2005, it devastated the city.  What would happen in the days, weeks, and months to come would wreak more havoc on the Zeitoun family than anything that Katrina could muster.

I won't give away any more than this because I want you to read this book for so many different reasons.  Eggers has a mission, and it is to bring to light the wrongs of the world so that readers might act (you might recognize him as the author of What is the What.  Zeitoun makes one appreciate all that one has in life; it should make you angry (or else you probably aren't reading closely enough); it makes one wonder how things could have gone so terribly, inexcusably wrong in New Orleans.  The narrative is told from the perspective of Kathy and Abdulrahman, and their strength in the face of the chaos and madness is inspirational.

I spent some time in New Orleans last fall visiting my daughter and son-in-law, who live in the Marigny district.  Despite a tough time of it as a teacher in the Recovery School District, it's clear that my daughter loves New Orleans (see this posting for her departing-New-Orleans elegy).  While there, we spent time on Bourbon Street and  Jackson Square, and we spent some time visiting my son-in-law's sister in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the lower Ninth Ward.  It is a remarkable city, unlike any other I have seen in the US (or anywhere else, for that matter).  Architecture-wise, cuisine-wise, culture-wise, it's a  national treasure. 

That said, it's seems a messed-up city.  Institutional racism seems impenetrable.  Corruption seems endemic.

Yeah, yeah, I'm a Northerner with all of the naivete and distance that comes with that label.  Still, it's hard to argue with Eggers' description.

What happened in New Orleans?  What broke?  Why?

More importantly, how do we make sure that what happened never happens again?

Read Zeitoun.

Zeitoun jacket cover                                                                                   
McSweeney's Books

All other New Orleans photographs courtesy of the posting's author