Group Delusions

New Civic Tech Orgs CATLAB and Athena Launch; The Web We Want; and much more.

This is civic tech: A big welcome to the Citizens and Technology Lab, which launched last night with a mini-summit at the Ford Foundation. Co-founder Nathan Matias opened the event with an image of a dumpster fire, invoking a common feeling about what the Internet has become, but he noted that the picture also showed a group of first responders, who were putting the fire out. The idea of positive responders recurred through the evening, as various speakers described how they were building and tapping the participatory behaviors and knowledge that can be drawn from informed crowds.
Among the speakers, Julia Angwin of the (soon-to-be-launched) Markup, who argued that “data is the new narrative.” Why, because narratives are now abundant (think of all the gripping stories you may be following online), but we don’t know how representative those narratives are. Journalists can do more to collect and analyze their own data, she argued. Katie McInnis of Consumer Reports and Julia Kamin of Citizens and Technology Lab talked about how tapping the knowledge of CR’s 6 million-member informs the nonprofit’s research, and gave a preview of a new research project looking at how well browsers protect users from 3rd-party trackers. And Desmond Patton of Columbia University’s School of Social Work talked about his work on the role of social media in gun violence, focusing on a study he is doing involving former gang members in helping interpret unstructured data and build computational tools for community organizations.
Say hello to Athena, a new coalition of three dozen grass-roots groups involved in issues like digital surveillance, antitrust and working conditions in warehouses who are all banding together, with some help from the Open Society Foundations, to take on Amazon across the country, as David Streitfeld reports for The New York Times.
Here’s an eloquent call for support from four women of color running nonprofits focusing on changing the future of tech: Aniyia Williams of Black & Brown Founders, Ellen Pao of Project Include, Karla Monterroso of Code2040, and Kimberly Bryant of Black Girls CODE.
Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, has launched the Contract for the Web, a new effort to generate support for “the web we want.”
Related: The sale of the .org domain registry to a private equity firm is provoking a lot of push-backs; go to to join in. People are rightly upset that after years of keeping the fees on .org domains low, the sale would allow price hikes without the approval of ICANN or the .org community.
Lea Andres, CEO of NationBuilder, reflects on the one-year anniversary of founder Jim Gilliam’s passing. RIP Jim.
Scaling Issues: Newly minted presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg is spending $34 million on his initial ad buy (which means he is going to be at the top of every Google search and YouTube preroll, among other things). That’s like the median American family spending $39 on a cheap night out. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos just donated $98 million to homeless organizations in 23 states, which many are noting is like a person making $50,000 a year giving $45.
Life in Facebookistan: Here’s the text of comedian Sasha Baron Cohen’s speech last week at the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never is Now Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate.” I happened to be in the room for the speech, which Cohen gave upon accepting the ADL’s International Leadership Award. The audience was as surprised as I was to hear such a substantive and searing indictment of Big Tech’s business model and its continuing failure to enforce protocols that would reduce or eliminate the amplification of hate speech on the big platforms.
That said, before you join Cohen in throwing the book at places like Facebook (Cohen memorably declared that Mark Zuckerberg “would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’”), consider Mike Masnick’s critique of his speech as well.
Zuckerberg has completed his 2019 “personal challenge,” where he promised to educate himself by hosting a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society. Kurt Wagner of Bloomberg Technology points out that he spoke to 8 men and one woman, all white. Diversity!
Early adopter turned early rejector: Former Facebook intimate Roger McNamee is now one of the company’s biggest critics, as this comprehensive profile by Brian Barth in the New Yorker details. It’s a great piece, but I’m with Anil Dash of Glitch, who comments, “I’m glad Roger is getting credit for speaking up, but notice the media basically only wants to seriously cover tech industry critics if they’ve made a lot of money from the thing they criticize. Imagine if they listened to those who chose not to profit, or who were blacklisted.”
Media matters: The relationship between publishers and the platforms is getting worse, according to a new in-depth report from Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which has been tracking the field for years. If last year publishers talked about their realization that they weren’t going to be saved by earning advertising revenue from the massive audiences being captured by the platforms, now they talked about the bottom falling out and the drying up of traffic being referred to them from places like Facebook. Or as one interviewee from a digital native news site put it: “Before, we were still seeking a partnership . . . but now it’s like we’re wounded animals and wondering if they’re going to shoot us or try to give us just enough medical help to keep us alive so we can continue to serve them.”
Google just fired four employees who had been active in labor organizing at the company, Kate Conger and Daisuke Wakabayashi report for The New York Times.

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