Monthly Archives: May 2009

Doctorow on ethics and copyright

I’m posting this passage from Cory Doctorow’s generally awesome discussion of copyright to Microsoft because it’s too long to tweet:

Copyright isn’t an ethical proposition, it’s a utlititarian one. There’s nothing *moral* about paying a composer tuppence for the piano-roll rights, there’s nothing *immoral* about not paying Hollywood for the right to videotape a movie off your TV. They’re just the best way of balancing out so that people’s physical property rights in their VCRs and phonographs are respected and so that creators get enough of a dangling carrot to go on making shows and music and books and paintings.

Now, I think this is perhaps overly simplistic, since utilitarian considerations might ipso facto be ethical ones. More explicitly, if it’s true that violating copyright reduces the efficacy of Doctorow’s “carrot”, and if the ensuing decreased productivity of content producers has negative overall “utilitarian” impact, then that initial act of piracy might rightly have negative ethical import.

But the core of what Doctorow is saying strikes me as absolutely correct: to act like the copying of a CD is a violation of someone’s rights is to make a lot of very questionable assumptions about the concept of intellectual property.

The piece is worth reading in its entirety. Do it!

Tweeting the CUNY Gen Ed Conference

On Friday, May 8, I attended the 2009 CUNY General Education Conference at Lehman College. I got a chance to see some really interesting presentations: Marc Prensky’s broad keynote on how today’s students demand a different kind of education; a panel on using games in education; and a panel on ePortfolios and the Online BA. More importantly, I met a few people doing cool stuff in instructional tech around CUNY.

There was a bit of a Twitter backchannel, which I thought I would post here for posterity’s sake. For the time being, it can be viewed via Twitter Search. I’ve also used Cast Iron Coding’s awesome (and free) Tweetripper PHP script to archive the stream. Download that text file here: cunygened-tweets.txt.

Mashups, authorship, and audience

At the BLSCI Symposium last week (see the previous post for more info), I had the good fortune to work a bit with Gardner Campbell, including attending his afternoon workshop titled “Speaker, Listener, Network: The Concept of Audience in a Web 2.0 World”. The main thrust of the talk was that Web 2.0 technologies, and in particular the phenomenon of open APIs and the mashups they allow, call into question our notion of what constitutes the (or even an) audience for the content that we produce. It is through the lens of the author that one can really see this at work.


via quinnanya

Here’s how I would reconstruct the argument. Communication – I’m thinking primarily here of linguistic communication, but it could be the case with other kinds of conventionalized communication as well – works because of a set of assumptions that the author (a term I might for the moment apply broadly to anyone who “authors” an utterance with communicative intent) has about his audience. If I say “Gee, it’s cold in here” because I want you to close the door, I am assuming, among other things: that you are a sufficiently competent speaker of English, that your hearing is functioning properly, that you will grasp the “literal” meaning of my sentence (i.e. that the ambient temperature in the room is too low for my comfort), that you will assume that I must have uttered the sentence not just to inform you of my beliefs regarding the temperature of the room but to make you close the door, that you like me well enough to want to make me more comfortable, that you are physically able to close the door. And so on, ad nauseum. More generally, the communicative gesture that an author chooses to make (a gesture like an utterance) will depend on his beliefs about who or what his audience is. (None of this is very new or very original, of course.)

We might think of certain kinds of authorship, such as writing a book or painting a picture, as less direct than the kind of authorship described in the foregoing paragraph, because the author is separated further from his audience and, as a result, has less information about them. When I write a book entitled Gee, It’s Cold In Here, I make some of the assumptions discussed above, but some I do not. Using Twitter is probably something like this, as you might be justified in making some assumptions about your audience (you know the handles of your followers, for instance), but it’s impossible to judge the potential scope of this audience, or to know many details about most of them.

When an author’s work is mashed up after the fact, his connection to his audience is so indirect that you might call it altogether disconnection. I might send a tweet, something like “boonebgorges: Gee, it’s cold in here”, with the intent to get a rise out of my Twitter followers. Let’s say it gets pulled into Twistori (perhaps the tweet should have been “I hate how cold it is in here”…). Think about the people who now view this tweet in its new context. Not only do I not know who they are, but I had never really even considered the possibility of their existence when authoring the original tweet. In this sense, whatever assumptions I had originally made about my audience have been entirely subverted by the reuse of my work. There is a sense in which I am no longer the author of what I wrote: I didn’t code Twistori, I didn’t conceptualize the potential visitors to, etc. As with any remix – from DJing to quilting to objet trouvĂ© art – the idea of authorship being vested in a single individual has been overthrown (if it was ever that simple even in the case of more traditional authorship).

Once authorship becomes decentralized, so too does audienceship. Let’s say that you are one of my Twitter followers. You saw my initial tweet in its original context, in your Twitter timeline. Let’s imagine further that you are checking out Twistori at some later date and see my tweet repurposed in the Twistori timeline. Who, at that moment, is the audience for my tweet, and why? Are you the audience, because the tweet was originally written with you in mind? Are you the audience, because you’re now reading the tweet on Twistori? Is no one the audience since no one can be definitely picked out? There is a certain amount of self-selection that has to happen; the reader must construct an audienceship around himself. Reading a disembodied, mashed-up tweet written by a stranger, you could imagine yourself as a friend of the original tweeter, as a viewer of a piece of abstract art, or any number of other things. When you get enough people – enough intentional actions – between you and the original producer of the content, you have to make decisions for yourself about what kind of audience you are a part of, if any.

Anyway, this is all very interesting to me, and I have some thoughts about whether there are – or should be – any “right” answers to the questions of how to circumscribe authorship and audience. I need some more time to think about that, though.

The catalytic effect of a Twitter backchannel

Yesterday I attended the Annual Symposium on Communication and Communication-Intensive Instruction at Baruch College, put on by Mikhail and the fine folks at the Bernard L Schwartz Communication Institute. I’ve got a couple of blog posts in the hopper that are inspired by conversations that happened there, but for now here’s a quickie.


Inspired by @hillmill’s tweet, a discussion took place at our lunch table (I think it was me, Suzanne, Matt, and Luke) about how using Twitter as a conference backchannel can turn someone from a casual twitterer to a Serious Twit. Here’s a theory for why that is. The benefit that Twitter backchannels (TBs) can have for conferences has been pretty widely discussed (though, lazy guy that I am, I don’t have any good links right at hand). TBs allow attendees to keep tabs on what’s happening in sessions other than the ones they’re physically attending. They provide a space where people can share immediate feedback on keynotes without all that distracting whispering. TBs also give users a chance to connect to each other in ways that are in a sense more organic than more traditional conference events. I made some connections, for instance, during our morning roundtable discussions, but these were largely accidents of who happened to be at my table – I connected to users of the TB, on the other hand, because of the things they were tweeting about. Even if this isn’t a better way to connect, it’s at least another way, which is surely a good thing. Moreover, TBs allow the conference to benefit people who aren’t in attendance, an effect that is multiplied by retweeting. (If you want some evidence of these effects, check out the #blsci tweet timeline.)

All this is to say that TBs are good for conferences and conference-goers. What makes TBs a good induction into Twitter is the act of witnessing these benefits. When I attended the 2008 CUNY IT Conference last year, I expected it to be like most conferences I’d attended – good in parts, but largely isolating and kind of boring. Given these expectations, experiencing the benefits of that conference’s TB was exhilarating. I knew before going to this conference that Twitter could be a fun performance space, maybe a good place to share links – but seeing it in action as a TB was what really sold me on the technology.

Here’s hoping that #blsci had a similar effect on @hillmill and the other relative Twitter-newbies who experienced the event’s TB.

I’d be interested to hear whether this has happened to others. Have you attended an event where the TB changed the way you think about Twitter?