Erhardt Graeff is a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab and MIT Center for Civic Media, studying information flows across mainstream and social media, and exploring technologies that help entrepreneurs from marginalized groups, especially youth, to be greater agents of change. Erhardt is also a founding trustee of The Awesome Foundation, which gives small grants to awesome projects, and a founding member of the Web Ecology Project, a network of social media and internet culture researchers. He holds an MPhil in Modern Society and Global Transformations from the University of Cambridge and B.S. degrees in Information Technology and International Studies from Rochester Institute of Technology.
On May 14, 2014, the Spring 2014 crop of the Future of News and Participatory Media class delivered their final project presentations. We (Ethan, Erhardt, and Catherine) liveblogged their talks. Here they are in presentation order:
Late Monday night, the Louisville Cardinals beat the Michigan Wolverines to win the NCAA Championship. My Twitter feed was filled with commiserating Michigan fans, except for my friend Charlie Ticotsky. Ticotsky, who is the Government Affairs Specialist for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, was following a different double-digit score on April 8, the vote count in the Massachusetts State House in favor of the Transportation Bill.
Part of an ongoing project by the author to describe Occupy Boston’s mailing lists using network analysis.
Interactive Network Graph of Occupy Boston's Mailing Lists linked by their Shared Users
Can we learn something about a social movement by looking at the digital tools it uses to organize? The Occupy Movement was defined as much by its highly visible occupation tactic as by its use of new digital media to organize and mobilize. The success of the movement was really to inject new language into our society about inequality. Think the 1% and the 99%. This was achieved through a sustained campaign of media activism. Language was developed to describe the inequalities between the common man and the rich, embodied by Wall Street — the perpetrators of the recent global financial crisis, and various forms of media were created to get the message out. The occupations then served to keep that message in mainstream media as they attracted sustained coverage themselves for both good and bad reasons.
We see this play out in the network of mailing lists. Occupy Boston’s general Media list had the most messages posted it in during the period September 2011 – October 2012, consistent with what we would expect from a movement focused on media activism. In terms of expansiveness of user participation, the Ideas mailing list takes the crown, which is where much of the early intellectual labor on defining Occupy Boston’s mission and direction was hashed out. In the data, we also see a lot of overlap amongst the mailing lists. All but one list (OB Updates, which was a unidirectional announcement list), shares many active users with other lists. The median degree is near 20, which is almost a perfect mesh network. This suggests that this public mailing lists, although sometimes dedicated to very specific themes or “committees,” enjoyed a lot of interconnection. Between the major mailing lists (seen as an outer ring on the network), which are more general interest, we see 100+ shared users on their mutual edges. This number drops off for some of the more niche mailing lists and could represent a few key organizers or overzealous mailing list participants. A more qualitative study is needed to tell the rest of this story.
Mailing Lists: 22
Total Messages: 36,303
Total Users: 922 (unique email addresses)
Distribution of Total Users and Messages across Mailing Lists (left y-axis is Messages scale; right y-axis is Users scale
How I Made the Network Graph
I downloaded the mailman archives from September 2011 to October 2012 from Occupy Boston’s public mailing lists, i.e. those that do not require moderator access to join. I wrote a Python script to parse the archives, which are in a standard mbox format, into an SQLite database. I devised a schema with a standard set of ids for mailing lists and individual users, and used these ids to extract a network of users shared among different mailing lists with a simple SQL query, storing resultant nodes (mailing lists) and edges (shared user relationships) in CSV files.
I imported the nodes and edges files into Gephi after hand editing their column names to conform to Gephi’s standard. Gephi automatically aggregated the edges between nodes to create weighted edges representing the total number of shared users. I adjusted the layout in Gephi to represent the weighted edges using different thicknesses. The nodes were scaled by total users active in each mailing list, an attribute extracted from my database, and their color was scaled on a pale to dark red spectrum according to the total number of messages during the period of analysis, also extracted from the database. I used the Forced Atlas 2 layout algorithm, which forces the most central nodes out of the center for easier comprehension, and then hit the graph a few times with the Expansion layout algorithm to give extra space between nodes.
I was at SXSW this week surrounded by noisy advertisements for every tech doodad or service imaginable. One of the more ostentatious displays was from the hosting company Rackspace, which had completely taken over a gastropub near the Austin Convention Center, frosting the windows with their logos and stationing hawkers on the street to beckon passersby in to learn about “the open cloud.”
A colleague of mine remarked as we walked by, “That’s a bit misleading. It’s not an ‘open cloud,’ it’s just an ‘open stack’ they are running.” Well well! Do we smell bullshit here? Continue reading →
What We Know about Julia from the Internet
Julia Lindau was born in 1987 . She grew up in Chappaqua, NY in a turn-of-the-century Victorian home with high ceilings and wide planked floors, a former country inn . She is the oldest of three children, with a brother Ned and sister Annabel . Her father, Dan, now a broadcast advertising consultant for Advertising Production Resources (APR), co-owned his own film and video production company, Crossroads Films, for many years [3*]. Her mother was in the finance industry for many years before dedicating herself to working on affordable housing, for which she was recognized by the state of NY’s legislature . Both her parents grew up in the NYC metropolitan area, her father in Edgemont in Greenburgh and her mother on Long Island’s south shore .
Her childhood summers were spent in the family’s cottage on Block Island Sound in Charlestown, Rhode Island . Her family participated in the Fresh Air Fund program that arranges free summer vacations for disadvantaged youth from New York City . Louis Ramirez, three years younger than Julia, used to come up from the Bronx for three weeks every summer to swim, play sports, and just hang out with the family .
Her academic life has centered around Tufts University [6*], her parents’ alma mater [7*] (Her father sits on the Board of Advisors for the School of Arts and Sciences ). She attended undergrad there from 2005–2009, studying International Relations and Spanish [6*]. She is currently a student there at the Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy, and is on track to graduate this May with her Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy, concentrating in Human Security and International Communication [6*].
She’s been an activist and advocate for certain causes, including participating in a protest against China’s support for the Sudanese government in 2007 in NYC called Chain 2 China in 2007 , linking the Asian power to the Darfur Genocide .
Academically and professionally she’s been interested in the issue of Forced Migration . Between undergrad and grad school she lived and worked in South Africa as the Regional Director of Ubuntu Africa Child Healthcare [6*], and then in Lebanon as the Assistant to the Education Project Manager in the Beirut field office of UNRWA [6*]. Last summer she interned for Mercy Corps in Northern Iraq [6*], and wrote a piece for BBC World on Cafe 11, a space offering a slice of freedom for the youth growing up in that conservative part of Kurdistan .
Online, she occasionally goes by “seahorseunicorn.” You can peek into her travels on Flickr  and her music tastes on Last.fm under that handle .
* You may need to look at the Google Search cache of the LinkedIn pages to see relevant content: 
Julia’s Reaction to Her Internet Summary
Our Interview: Herself and Her Own Work
In reflecting on what drives her, Julia says she was initially interested in humanitarian work like crisis response, but the more she learned about the causes of the conflicts she was looking at the more it led her toward an interest in the underlying problems. “I’ve ended up focusing on governance-building as what I think is the best answer to addressing a lot of the issues that are arising right now. When I was in Iraq last summer I was working on civil society development, kind of the base level of governance-building, and what really stuck out to me is the importance of access to information, free expression, and civil and political rights, and how that influences civic participations and citizen interaction with the government.”
When Julia was a kid, she traveled a lot. Her mom worked on emerging markets in Russia and Eastern Europe. And when she was in high school, she participated in summer service trips to Central America. “[They] probably served the kids participating [like her] more than the communities they worked in.” But they also made her more curious about other parts of the world, and she said, “experiencing inequality and feeling that there’s something innately wrong with that and not knowing what that was or being able to do anything about it. Since high school, I had a drive to work vaguely in that area and didn’t really know what that meant.”
She admits her parents played a big role in her life and in going to Tufts, but contends she “applied there because it had a good IR program,” and “coming here [Tufts] exposed me to more specific avenues through which I could pursue this work.”
In college, she took a semester off and interned with UNHCR in Geneva, and spent some time in Zambia working in a refugee settlement. “That was my exposure to more of the humanitarian field.”
After graduation, she went to South Africa for about year, “basically managing a care center for HIV positive youth in the townships outside of Cape Town…. I did everything from dealing with the basic communications… they didn’t have internet or telephone or anything when I got there…. to liaising with bigger organizations working in the area like Doctors Without Borders and the health department of the South African government to coordinate programs for the children.”
I asked her how her experience there changed her. “It was kind of disheartening because it [South Africa] is revered as this model of successful reconciliation, and if you go to South Africa, it’s still one of the most racist places you could probably go and in a lot of ways I think it’s getting worse…. I think it’s just one of the things that happens when you’re working in development or humanitarian fields, where the more work you do the more disillusioned you get…. In South Africa, there’s this thing called the AIDS Orphan Generation, because the president after Nelson Mandela wouldn’t allow ARVs into the country for a long time because he denied the connection between HIV and AIDS and thought that ARVs was a Western conspiracy to kill Africans…. So then all these people that had HIV died off and had children right before they died. Then these drugs were allowed into the country, so there are all these little kids that are surviving with AIDS while their parents are dead. Hearing about these kids and seeing how resilient they are—as cheesy as it sounds—that’s I think what continues to drive anyone whose in this work and sees the higher level issues with corruption and nepotism and everything. And despite the fact these kids are getting completely shafted, they still wanted to be doctors and lawyers and love life. I think it was a good introductory experience into the field.”
She left Cape Town for Beirut, when her best friend moved to Lebanon to work for The Daily Star. “I traveled around the region for a few months, didn’t really know anything about it. I was really intrigued; I never really thought I would be a Middle East person or interested in going there. But I kind of fell in love with it.”
“I still had a house and a ticket back to South Africa and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. It wasn’t on my radar at all to stay there when I started traveling. The thing that really assured me that I would be okay there, was the fact that the culture is so inclusive and neighborly in a way that I had never experienced. I think that was the main thing the really drew me to the Middle East; I just felt much more secure than were I to stay in Europe or anywhere else without any type of employment…. There are quite a few Tufts alums or people I knew through other networks that are based in Beirut. So I felt a certain degree of security or like a safety net, even though I had absolutely no plans. And in my life I’ll probably never again have no obligations to anyone but myself, and where I didn’t have a lot of money but I wasn’t in debt, so I could just do something like this. It was super exciting; I have no regrets about doing it, and I learned a lot.”
She eventually got a job with UNRWA, the UN organization that works with Palestinians, working on an EU funded project to overhaul the Lebanese education system for Palestinians. “Since the Palestinians are refugees there they don’t have access to any of the services that Lebanese nationals do. So UNRWA provides schooling, healthcare, relief and social services. Basically functions as kind of a government for these people without a government.”
Julia’s experiences in Zambia and through UNRWA gave her an introduction to the issue of forced migration. “Having those experiences makes you really think about the unsustainability of a set up like that.” Her first year at the Fletcher School made her more curious about governance. For her summer internship, she knew she “wanted to go back to the Middle East and have a kind of harder core experience.” “I wanted something a little bit realer, or more ‘field,’ in the Middle East on my CV and I wanted to look at governance.” Through Fletcher’s relationship with Mercy Corps she found an internship in Iraq.”
In retrospect, she says, “I’m really glad I did it, and I wasn’t really happy with it. That was an important experience for me to realize: what I did and didn’t want in a job. And just in terms of being in a post-conflict situation as an aid worker… it’s kind of suffocating; you can’t go anywhere alone…. There’s really a limit to the amount you can experience—the culture or the stuff you’re studying…. So that was really frustrating and it was an important thing for me… to learn about myself that I didn’t want to be within an international NGO in a post-conflict space, even though that’s what I’m interested in on a higher level.”
“It was definitely interesting learning a lot more about the relationship between the Kurds and the rest of the Iraqis, and the obstacles to engaging in the government and to engaging with each other. The system that was set up there just inhibits cooperation or reconciliation, or any type of communal investment in Iraq as one state. The fact that the government is divided along ethno-sectarian lines and, like Lebanon in some ways, it’s becoming this regional battleground for political and ideological influence, like Iran is creeping in through Baghdad and Turkey is weirdly allying with the Kurds. So it was a fascinating experience for seeing the geopolitics play out there. It was also again disheartening to see just how many blockages there were to cooperation and just what a prominent role the US has played in setting up that system that inhibits a national identity.”
“On a day-to-day level, I didn’t really like the work; there wasn’t much to do…. I became really good friends with a couple of journalists who started the only two independent news outlets in Kurdistan: Hawlati and Awena. And hearing their stories about being kidnapped and threatened by the government, getting to know that intellectual community in Kurdistan and seeing the degree of persecution, that’s what really sparked my interest in the communication/media/information access side of governance. So that I think was more valuable than the actual internship.”
Julia is now working on her master’s thesis using research she did while in Northern Iraq. It’s currently titled “The obstacles to greater civic participation in Post-Baathist Iraq.” And it’s a critique of US development policy, particularly civil society development, in Iraq “as a more covert and innocuous foreign policy strategy.” She is arguing that “the way in which USAID and the State Department are facilitating these development efforts is actually inhibiting the development of Iraq in a peaceful and cooperative way,” which “will ultimately undermine the United States’ foreign policy objectives in the long-term.”
In a few months, Julia will graduate from the Fletcher School. And while she’s really interested in the media sector and could see herself one day working at Al Jazeera, she worries she doesn’t have enough exposure and experience yet. Right now she’s aiming to work on governance issues in the Middle East as a consultant to governments.
Julia’s Reflection on Why She Is Taking This Class
Update on Louis: “He went into the military…. He was in Iraq and now he’s back and he’s working in the South and he has a girlfriend and baby…. We still talk to him often and he’s still a big part of our lives.
What you wouldn’t know about Julia from the internet (until now): “I’m clearly not always defined by the work I do and what I study. I do a lot of yoga. I work in a yoga studio between Harvard and Central Square. I love music. I go to concerts all the time. That’s also something that’s been influenced by my dad and my brother, who are both passionate about music.”
Where the handle “seahorseunicorn” came from: “That was from high school. It was just a name that my friend and I came up with when I did the Last.fm profile…. And I made it my Flickr—even though I don’t think I’ve ever posted any pictures to Flickr—so that I could save that name, because one of my friends told me I should make it now otherwise someone else would use it, even though I’m sure noone else would take that username. It has no significance. I just thought it was goofy when I was an 18-year-old girl.”
In working on my response to Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism, I read a piece by Ann Marie Lipinski for Nieman Reports drawing parallels between Aaron Swartz and Eugene Patterson, who both happened to pass away around the same time last month. She discussed the comparison with Nicco Mele and recounted his observation concerning the state of the institution of newspapers: “One of the questions raised by the comparison is about the role of editors and journalists in our communities…. Eugene Patterson’s life makes it clear that newspapers were a crucial perch for true leadership—a disappearing perch. And I’m not sure we’ve got any institutions poised to fill that void…. Aaron was, in a sense, the spiritual heir to the crusading editor. How do we encourage more nerds to be like Aaron?”
Mele had earlier cited Swartz’s “moral suasion” as the characteristic which seems to align him with the high principle and high calibre journalist Patterson. This resonated with my current thinking on journalism, which has been to try and reduce journalism down to its basic elements, not unlike Kovach and Rosenstiel attempt to do. What I find is a set of principles and processes, traditionally embodied and practiced by the institutions of the newspaper and the profession, whose members we call journalists. However, I believe these institutions can be separated from the elements of journalism and reconstituted as a civic skill set, exemplified by Swartz at his best, which is to say the pursuit of knowledge, openness, and democracy through principled practice. Continue reading →
RescueTime RescueTime offers three views of increasing granularity. For me, Email is king, followed by my vices of Reference and News, which can be somewhat interchangeable, then my social networking vices which are later broken out into Facebook and Reddit and Twitter. After accounting for videos (YouTube mostly) and games (I’m a sucker for a good puzzle plat former like Continuity), you get actual work: Writing and Evernote, random Business tasks. Shopping shows up here only because I was buying books for classes and research on Amazon and I badly need a new pair of sneakers.
Erhardt's General Categories Graph (RescueTime)
Erhardt's Detailed Categories Graph (RescueTime)
Erhardt's Specific Activities Graph (RescueTime)
Snapshot of Browser Activity
Using a Firefox add-on Voyage which allows you to explore your browser history as a wall of media, I was able to dig a little into my behavior in 30 minutes blocks and uncover some of the true freneticism of web browsing and the wormhole like time-suck that comes from portals like Google News, Wikipedia, and Reddit. So here is a snapshot from yesterday morning: 9:00am-9:30am (read it from right to left). I started off by reading a New York Magazine piece on Aaron Swartz. Then I checked Facebook and Google News, the latter led me to read about the proposal to drop wrestling from the Olympics. Modern pentathlon was on the list to be axed as well so I did a Google search for that in order to quickly get to the Wikipedia page where I read about its history. Then came Reddit: most of the bubbles without favicons were images submitted to a thread about whether or not eye color makes people significantly more attractive. Then I was back to Facebook, in which I apparently visit 46 pages while I looking into the relationship of a friend of mine with his fiancee, whom he had just proposed to according to the site.
Erhardt's Browsing History Snapshot from Feb. 12, 2013 (Voyage)
Offline Media Summary
Books: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, read an average of 8 pages before sleep during 3 of the past 6 nights; Readings for this class, 2 hours; Readings for my Intro to Networks class, 1 hour
Newspapers/Magazines: Weekly print Economist subscription, read an average of 5 articles a day, mostly on the T to and from the Media Lab; The Tech picked up from stand in the Media Lab, read cover to cover last week’s issue between classes
Television: Downton Abbey, Sunday ritual with my fiancee, watched 2 hours; Jeopardy, watched 3 episodes in past week after making dinner; The Taste, cooking competition show, watched between Jeopardy and The State of the Union last night, 1 hour; The State of the Union and Republican Response, watched approximately 2 hours
Podcasts: Listen to an average of 1 hour per day when I exercise at home in the morning, 7 episodes of The Moth, 2 episodes of This American Life, 1 episode of On the Media
Music: 95 songs from 10 albums played while working or browsing the web, captured using last.fm scrobbler (see below)
Erhardt's Music by Album Graph (last.fm)
Reflections on Media Diarying
1) Measurement bias is a bitch
2) It’s not what it looks like, but it kind of is, maybe
3) Holy crap, email
When I embarked on this assignment my first step was to search for any kind of tool similar to RescueTime that would automate the collection of my media consumption behavior. This was important to me not only because I thought it would help me quantify my behavior but also because I wanted something so lightweight that it wouldn’t disrupt my actual consumption. Putting on my sociologist hat, I’m familiar with the range of biases that are introduced by various quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. Two common ones are the observer effect and the social desirability effect. The observer effect results in subjects changing their behavior due to the fact that they are being watched. The social desirability effect is a specific example of the observer effect when a subject adjusts their behavior to come across how they think they should come across in terms of societal norms and values. In terms of keeping a media diary, this means that I might change my media consumption because I want to appear like I’m a very productive person who has perfect self-control and does not indulge in frivolous media. OR, this means that I might simply avoid consuming media at times where its inconvenient to me to record that media since I’m also the observer and I’m feeling a bit lazy (happened a few times with non-digital media). So in this week, I strove to do exactly when I would normally do and hope that I could record as much of that as possible automatically and just not think about it too much. This is imperfect and certainly an underestimate of my media consumption in a number of ways. One example is that I used a Firefox add-on called Reddit Enhancement Suite which allows me to visit the media linked to by Reddit right on the page as I scroll through: this means the number of cute cat pictures and AdviceAnimal memes that I actually consumed is completely lost in the measly 28 pages I scrolled through on Reddit which were actually recorded.
Many of the tools for automatically quantifying media consumption also reduce the media to sources: i.e. YouTube (84 videos), Facebook (132 pages), GoogleDocs (31 pages), etc. So when I’m watching a YouTube video that’s relevant to my research, which involves studying media, it gets counted the same as that Harlem Shake video that was linked from Reddit. Furthermore, while that Harlem Shake parody was very distracting at the time in the context of the work I was or should have been doing when I watched it, the sum total of Harlem Shake videos I have consumed inform my understanding of a cultural phenomenon which is relevant to my research as a media scholar AND my cultural capital in the Bourdieuian sense: something that I personally value and can be exchanged for social and economic capital when others value my knowledge of it. This cuts against the prevailing notion of “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” That said, I have a certain occupation and social milieu that values the consumption of YouTube videos, which may not be true of others. And certainly the primary education movement in the 1990s of any reading is good reading has been shown to have been flawed. My more formal literacy may help me digest and appreciate a broader swath of media in ways that are particularly productive. OR I’m part of a doomed generation that justifies its frivolous media consumption through complicated rationalities. Relativism + cultural capital is my saving grace here; I should also plug deep qualitative research like ethnography and content analysis as a better way to open a window into the INTENTION behind the consumption of a piece of media, like what I did with the snapshot from Voyage. (Intention is very interesting and relevant to the research we are trying to do at the Center for Civic Media because we want to get past the concept of slacktivism when it comes to purposeful consuming and sharing of media.)
Erhardt's Productivity Graph (RescueTime) -- Blue is good, Red is bad
Finally, there is the realm of pseudo-productivity in the opposite direction: email. RescueTime tells me that I spend the majority of my screen-staring time on my email client, 7.5 hours in the past week! Email is simultaneously how everything and nothing gets done in the knowledge society and workplace. Studies have shown that email produces shots of chemicals in the brain that either excite you or terrify you depending on your disposition; either way they keep you coming back for more. Plus, sending off emails are quick wins in terms of check offs on to-do lists: hit send and you’ve done something! In the past week, I have sent out at least 50 email messages. I have received many more than that. There are numerous recommendations floating out there about managing email deluge: scheduled email checks with specific time limits once or twice a day, converting inboxes to priority order rather than chronological, and simply unsubscribing from anything that seems to hurt more than it helps. I’ve tried all of these at various times to no avail. There is also the oft-cited law that states–the more email you send, the more email you receive–which seems inescapable.
Something that I’m really curious about the future is how media consumption will change in terms of behavioral patterns and its meaning socially, culturally, and in terms of productivity when wearable technology is our main digital media source and is ubiquitous. Think of Google Glass as the closest approximation: I’m interested in what our media landscape will look like when we consume it through the lens of augmented reality. Will it break down the silos of media: away from YouTube, email, news websites, etc.? Can I have exchanges that perform the function of email but not in this way that takes us out of our productive spaces? And then will we develop cognitive mode-switching techniques will fill in to help us distinguish one mode (email) from another mode (video watching). How will this change the patterns and diversity of media we consume: will it look like push or pull or some new yet-to-be-experienced form?