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A Website and Weblog about Topics and Issues discussed in the book
Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution by Howard Rheingold

“Human Flesh Searches” – What They Are and How They Change China
October 6th, 2012

A recent article published on Tea Leaf Nation, and tweeted by Tricia Wang, explains what the flesh searches are and how they change China. Despite their ghoulish resonance, they refer to grassroots, collaborative efforts to share and probe personal information online with the goals of romance, kinship, justice, or vindication. They are netizen initiatives to solve cases of injustice and cruelty left unbalanced by a society that is not democratic and has no rule of law, where the government officials show innefficiency, detachment, or even smugness in the face of public tragedies or social injustices.

Which was the case of Yang Dacai, a government official, who’s grinning face while watching the burning bus that killed 36 people in August was tweeted via Sina Weibo, the China’s Tweeter. His dispassionate smile, contrasting the tragedy he was witnessing, and his expensive tastes in watches, belts, and eyeglasses that didn’t match the his meager wage as a government employee triggered the “cyber vigilatism” of the netizens (as Rebecca MacKinnon called it in her article) and prompted a flesh search. Yang was eventually dismissed from his position as chief of Shaanxi Safety Supervision Bureau.

Two other illustrative cases of flesh searches were the kitten killer from 2006, involving Wang Jiao from Heilongjiang province, and the incident from 2009 with pedicurist Deng Youjiao. Cruel Wang stomped a cat with the sharp point of her heel, an act that enraged netizens. Having no recourse for moral complaint, they took the matter in their own hand and started an investigation by means of flesh searches. Wang lost her government job. Pedicurist Deng Youjiao stabbed to death one of three Party official and was charged with murder. Wu Gan, a citizen reporter, launched an investigation that proved Deng acted on self-defense, after the three officials tried to rape her. Initially confined to a mental hospital, she was ultimately released without penalty.

Bottom line is flesh searches are essential to understanding China in the present. In an undemocratic country, where people have limited access to information about the activities of the public power that operates in a black box, flesh searches are Internet investigations, an asymmetrical form of protest, revealing misconduct and corruption of government officials.

Geo-tagging the Twitter Activity of Madrid Protesters
October 1st, 2012

Twitter is once again a pivotal mobile and online media tool for supporting social change. Spanish protesters in Madrid are making heavy use of it. Geo-location or geo-tagging technologies are now mapping the intensity of protests by measuring their so-called temperature by the number of tweets per hour in different locations. This way, the pulse of the protests is continuously and conscientiously monitored. You can take a look at the protests dynamics on Web 3.0 Lab.

Crowdsourcing the Response to the 2010 Haitian Earthquake Disaster
September 8th, 2012

Besides the earthquake in January, 2010, Haiti went through other major earthquakes in the recent recorded history, namely in 1770 and 1846. Although the previous earthquakes were estimated as being even more powerful, the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 was more damaging because the area was a lot more populated than in the past. Still, the response to the disaster was the fastest due to crowdsourcing and instant messaging technology.

The blog about Mission 4636, which is owned by a lot of people and kept updated by Robert Munro from when he was coordinating the Mission 4636 efforts, describes how a free phone number (4636), a lot of volunteer effort (international, from Haitians in Diaspora, but mostly local Haitians) and also paid workers played a central role in the recovery period that followed after the disaster. The affected people sent around 80.000 messages through 4636, asking for help. Those messages were translated from Haitian Creole (or Kreyol), geolocated, categorized by level of emergency and importance, and distributed to various emergency responders and aid organizations by volunteers and paid crowdsourced workers gathered together into what is now known as “Mission 4636”. By help of this coordinated initiative, hundreds of Haitians were rescued and tens of thousands received first aid, food, water, medicine and other kinds of help and services.

A synthesis of the “Mission 4636” report that will soon appear in the Journal of Information Retrieval straightens up a few misrepresented or unmentioned before realities (like the true percent of involvement from local Haitians when compared to international help, the significant role played by paid crowdsourced workers and the choosing of volunteers based on strong social ties), highlights the main findings, makes a few recommendations for future similar initiatives, and provides a few heartwarming testimonials coming from Haitians who volunteered for “Mission 4636” from Diaspora.

The Chilean Penguin Revolution Continues Under Volunteer Watch
August 31st, 2012

The Chilean Penguin Revolution started in 2006, as a voice of the young democracy. Students wanted educational reforms, more generous budgets for education, a diminishing of educational disparities between rich and poor neighborhoods. Since they were officially living in a participatory democracy, they made use of their right to get involved in the democratic process, to protest against the educational status quo, and to spark a national debate. They proved they are not a selfish generation of pure consumers, but a generation concerned about the future of their younger brothers and sisters. In the beginning, they had a crushing majority of the population of their side (75% at a survey), a percent that declined a bit afterwards, but the support still remained strong. Everybody waited to see what the revolution of the students in black and white uniforms will bring.

Forward six years in time, and we are in 2012. The Penguin Revolution is far from over. Student still occupy school and university buildings in Santiago and other parts of the country, go on hunger strikes, organize marches that gather 10.000 strong, and use forms of protest that vary from soft and peaceful to radical and violent, like building barricades, throwing rocks and damaging public and private property. All that inevitably gives rise to street confrontations with the police. Police actions have become themselves more radical since last year: students get arrested, beaten (head injuries, broken noses, convulsions and breathing problems), dispersed with water cannons, submitted to tear gas and even to sexual humiliations.

But the students are not alone anymore. Their demonstration dynamics are watched from the side by volunteers called “helmets” because of the white or blue helmets they wear. An article from the New York Times covering the story describes that the volunteers are “ordinary citizens of all ages and walks of life, professionals and blue-collar workers, university students and retirees” and they are “armed with notebooks, cameras, voice recorders and gas masks”. One group is the Human Rights Observers and wears white helmets that are also wore by the members of Sutra, a labor union. The Observers and Defenders of Human Rights are the ones wearing blue helmets. The volunteers don’t interfere with the demonstrations, adopting a purely observatory and documentary stance, taking notes, jotting down names and car plates, taking pictures and recording audio and video material. Much of the information is posted immediately of Twitter. Their combined reports from the field are submitted to human rights commissions and organizations, and can serve in the future as proof at related trials.

Challenging government efficiency with digital activism and crowd-sourced disaster response
August 26th, 2012

Patrick Meier speaks in his latest blog post of a positive feedback loop between civil resistance protests and crowdsourced disaster responses. He gives various eloquent examples (the “Coup de text” against Estrada in Philippines from 2001 and the crowd-sourced response efforts to the disaster in 2012; the fires of 2010 and the recent Krymsk floods in Russia; the Egyptian revolution; the Iranian Green Revolution from 2009; even the Cyclone Bhola and the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan through a war of independence in the pre-SMS era of the 1970s).

He talks about social media and online networking platforms as tools to mobilize and coordinate masses of people into action. FB can be a scheduling tool for meetings, Twitter can be used for coordination, and YouTube as a channel for broadcasting events, like in the case of the Egyptian Revolution. From an urge to speed relief responses to natural disasters, digitally savvy activists and volunteers have come to go around and ahead of governments, and that also serves as a potential form of non-violent protest and civil resistance. Their actions have the effect of increasing their social capital as online and offline activists and of challenging the readiness and efficiency of governments. Such events become windows of opportunity for catalyzing regime change.

One striking analogy that goes through my mind is that of the Internet and social media spreading into the society like nerves growing into a body, linking all of its different parts, moving information up and down with light speed, making possible the coordinated contraction of social muscles. Like cells inside a body, people demonstrate without any doubt that, given a social nervous system, so to speak, they can communicate and act together very efficiently towards common goals and the benefit of the whole social corpus. They learn to route around corrupt or inefficient governments like new blood vessels forming around clogged and diseased vessels, so that the social tissues are still nourished and oxygenated, and can organize political activist movements in order to dissolve and eliminate such deficient governments like tumors. Along with the information revolution, the social body evolved new abilities to protect and heal itself.

The perils of juxtaposition: Aurora
July 21st, 2012

Our hearts go out to all the bereaved.

This post is not about the tragic Aurora shooting, but about internet advertising mechanics.


If you know me & my Hipbone project, you know I’m always on about juxtaposition as a means of generating a sort of stereoscopic depth of understanding from two similar — or opposite — ideas, images etc.

And yes indeed, the juxtaposition of ideas and the creative leaps that juxtaposition generates are at the heart of the Sembl game approach that Cath Styles and I are prototyping.

Board for an iPad Sembl game + detail of a single move

-- image: board for an iPad Sembl game + detail of single move

But look, you need to have some sense of context.

And neither current algorithms nor remote humans seem to be terribly good at this.



The Celeb Boutique tweet above was posted when the word Aurora started trending after the recent awful cinema shooting, and was up for an hour before someone realized how inappropriate it was and took it down. In subsequent tweets, the boutique apologized and noted “our PR is NOT US based and had not checked the reason for the trend…”

I think that’s extremely unfortunate, but somewhat understandable: human error, outsourced.

The humans in question should have been as savvy as Paul Coelho, who counseled (just a day earlier, if I’m getting my dates right) as follows:



Then there was the Christian Science Monitor‘s article, Colorado shooting: A rare glimpse into Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, which showed up on my friend Critt Jarvis‘ monitor with this ad:

Again, that’s unfortunate — but the CSM’s ads are presumably chosen by algorithm, and I wouldn’t know where to send an algorithm to repent if I met one and it was sincerely apologetic…

The CSM website does offer us humans an opportunity to object to ads we find tasteless and inappropriate, however:

The Monitor is committed to showing only those ads that meet our standards for appropriate content. These particular ads are sold by internet advertising partners who share the revenue with The Christian Science Monitor. We have implemented filters with them that are designed to prevent unacceptable advertising from showing on the site. If you feel an inappropriate ad is being displayed, please contact us immediately using the form below. Ads that violate our acceptance standards will be removed from the site and our filters will be adjusted to help prevent a recurrence.

So humans can backtop the algorithms when they play foul… that’s good.


But all this just reinforces my appreciation for Cath Stylestweet last week, after she met with Mel from Serena (neat video, btw!):


There’s still no machine substitute for human wit and wisdom.

Protecting YouTube’s Revolutionaries
July 19th, 2012

YouTube is launching a new face-blurring tool that will instantly blur out the faces of everyone in a video. Basically, all a savvy protester has to do is enter YouTube’s video enhancement tool and click “Blur Faces.” They then get a preview of the new blurred-out video, which they can save as a new copy. The original video can then be deleted, and the updated video can be shared without fearing for the safety of the protesters featured in it. YouTube says there are still a few kinks in the system, mainly that “it sometimes has difficulty detecting faces depending on the angle, lighting, obstructions and video quality.” Still, the fact that YouTube, by far the world’s biggest video-sharing site, is implementing this technology before anyone else is good news for democracy activists.

via The Dish by Andrew Sullivan (The Daily Beast)

Footwear for the blind. Bluetooth shoes
July 16th, 2012

The tools to assist the blind in walking have changed little since the 1920s. This may change if Anirudh Sharma, a 24-year-old computer engineer from Hyderabad, a city in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, has his way.

His innovation, dubbed “Le Chal” (“take me along” in Hindi) pairs a smartphone app with a small actuator sewn inside the sole of one shoe via Bluetooth. The user tells the phone his desired destination, which is translated into electronic commands using voice-recognition software. The app, which can be programmed to run in the background, fetches the local map of the area. The phone’s Global Positioning System (GPS) tracks the person’s location in real-time, telling the actuator to vibrate when it is time to turn. The side of the shoe where the vibration is felt indicates which way to go. Mr Sharma opted for a vibrating signal because for the blind, who rely on their sense of hearing to make sense of the environment, audio feedback is a distraction.

The system does not require constant internet access. Once downloaded, maps can be stored locally and combined with GPS data. The app uses Open Street Maps (OSM), an open-source rival to Google Maps. OSM allows editing, a helpful feature in updating rapidly changing urban landscapes. A speed-dial function can rapidly retrieve the most frequently visited routes.

Read the full report on this story by A.A.K. MUMBAI on his Economist blog post

The State Of Mobile App Privacy Policies
July 16th, 2012

The Washington, D.C.-based think tank Future of Privacy Forum (“FPF”) released a study detailing the current state of mobile app privacy policies as of this past month, June 2012.

Read Sarah Perez Techcrunch article The State Of Mobile App Privacy Policies

The report found that many app developers are now responding to the increased pressure from U.S. regulators on this issue, and have now introduced privacy policies for their applications as well as new policies surrounding the use of customers’ private data.

As cell surveillance has ballooned is it the end of privacy?
July 16th, 2012

Cellphones, e-mail, and online social networking have come to rule daily life, but Congress has done nothing to update federal privacy laws to better protect digital communication. That inattention carries a heavy price.

Read the whole editorial in the New York Times of July 14 with the headline: The End of Privacy?.

Wireless carriers reported responding to a whopping 1.3 million demands from law enforcement agencies for subscriber information, including location data, calling records and text messages. The number of people whose information was turned over is almost certainly much higher because a single request for a cell tower “dump” could sweep in the names of thousands of people connected to a given tower at a certain time.

Previous features

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