Platforms and Affordances: From Pamphleteers to Peer to Peer

This week in the Introduction to Civic Media class, we focused in exploring the ‘continuity and change within and between media and communication technologies as tools for civic engagement and social change.’ The premise proposed by the set of readings was to move beyond digital media in order to be critical around the ‘relationship of ‘old’ media technologies to social change.’
How development in media impact or acompanies social shifts.

This week, the facilitators and scribes for the discussion was Rogelio, Callahn and myself. Rogelio started the discussion by reviewing James Carey’s “Technology and Ideology: the Case of the Telegraph.”

He explains the three major shifts, that came about with the telegraph. As told by Carey, the telegraph is the first example of communication and transportation being disaggregated. In a broad overview, we discussed how the telegraph impacted the industrial world, changing management techniques, organizational structure, etc. 

Another major shift was the separation of communication and transportation. The ‘electrical’ component to the telegraph added a mythic element, reconfiguring the temporal and spatial understanding. It was even instrumental in the creation of time zones, as mechanisms of control.

To further discuss mechanisms of control, Anne mentions how history provides a method for analyzing commnunication technologies and their relation to society. She mentions how history points to the conditions that exist at a certain moment in time in order to make technology possible, and therefore the conditions technology makes possible. In other words, conditions needed for the development of technology versus technology needed for certain conditions.

To further the conversation, Rogelio points to a section in the Carey text where the agnostic quality of tools and how they can level the playing field. How tools can be infused with the context that they come from which is sometimes ideological. This would mean the tools are not neutral so we should question the meaning of the rhetoric that surrounds them.

Sasha reiterates a certain number of key points addressed by Carey. First of all, the telegraph was large industry, so it is important to understand the implications of mobilizing such a substantial labor force in its creation.

At the same time, Sasha points out the ideological weight embedded in this technological development. This romantic component is created by both industry actors and from the popular discourse. He also reiterates the crucial moment when the meaning of the word communication changes as transmission of information is separated from transmission of goods. Finally, the creation of futures markets is discussed, as a new kind of activity in the market sector, that in turn, diminishes arbitrage.

To move the discussion forward, on “How TXTMob influenced Twitter” onTxtmob and its relationship with the birth of Twitter are addressed. Rogelio questions the implications of this link. Being Txtmob an explicitly activist tool, and having Twitter based on Txtmob, does Twitter, a broad market tool, retain any of the ideological character of Txtmob?

To that note, Loki mentions the big difference between tools existing independently of government even if they’re possibly used by government, as opposed to a tool introduced by government. A tool may be created for a specific purpose, yet it may eventually be used for other purposes.

We then discussed Usenet, with an account by Molly on the history of how Usenet was started, if it was governed or not, and the policies that ended up reflecting a view of Usenet as democracy or a platonic anarchic community.

For example, she mentions how every september, a new university would have to be initiated into Usenet, as part of the start of the semester people were “misbehaving” during that cycle. However, in 1993, internet communication changed dramatically introducing a common ‘etiquette’. Today, there are still constantly new users who don’t understand such common netiquette, creating a sort of “eternal september”.

Catherine mentions her study of Txtmob for her MFA thesis, in which she interviewed its creator,Tad Hirsch. Tad Hirsch, was a researcher at precusor to Civic Media group in Media Lab, but was also part of an artist collective called the Institute for Applied Autonomy. They developed tools in preparation for 2004 RNC in New York, thinking about ways in which to enable people to communicate with each other in real time situation. At that moment, almost everyone had a cell phone and ability to text, so to use those tools was a logical next step. The way it worked was: when one person subscribed to a list, where once a text message was sent, everyone would get it on their phone.
A basic one-to-many communications format in order to broadcast real time updates about locations of barricades, etc.
At the same time it was possible to leave police out of access to this information

Sasha then mentioned Evan Henshaw-Plath who worked on development of both Txtmob and Twitter. He explains further the reasoning behind trying to find ways to get around police blockades for the RNC 2004 — since police are using headsets and radioing, that ends up trumping Txtmob
However, Sasha points out how text messages don’t necessarily work for real-time decision-making in high intensity situation considering their brief lagtime.
On regards to the Twitter development depending on the successful use of the case study of Txtmob. He mentioned how Evan H-P was working for Odeo on audio podcasts, but was not really taking off. They had still less than a million users and were clear that it was not going anywhere. Evan was at the RNC with Tad on Txtmob, so when he goes back to the Bay Area, he does a Demo in Odeo. While they are trying to come up with something else since Odeo is sinking, Evan gives them a presentation and some code to the Odeo team and demo shows everyone Txtmob. The folks at Odeo think it might be a good idea to take this specific idea and generalize it. They chose to remove the threshold of having to develop groups beforehand. Groups come after “generated dynamically”, which is the small but fundamentally important modification that happens in twttr (the initial name for the project).
They hack on it for a few weeks and the rest is history…
This is a clear case where building affordances around a particular use case inspires people to want to replicate it, and leave certain features in place whether or not they are necessary

I then ask what happened with Txtmob? In 2008 the NYPD subpoenaed the Txtmb server for the RNC situation in 2004. We all know Twitters story, however is TXTMob still effective after the subpoena raised questions about anonymity? 
Sasha explains how the RNC and DNC usually have funds to cover court costs for the police. The police systematically clear the streets with “spurious arrests”, then for the next several years the arrests go through the court system, usually get dropped. In other words, event organizers fund court costs for those illegal arrests.
The goal is to get control of urban space, regardless of the rights violation that may cause. In the RNC case they stored people overnight in a chemical site instead of taking them to jail, less than 10 ended up sticking, and a class action suit resulted of this, and ended up winning.
However, Txtmob did guarantee the anonymity of its users. Once you erase an account all its data is erased. They fought the subpoena on the grounds that they didnt have the records and on the fact of free speech.


In Occupy a lot of discussions were had around this issue and the fear of lack of anonimity. Becky explained that in some cases, Occupy used Vibe, founded by an anonymous twitter user. He held a lot of information about who was using it so it raised a lot of questions about who owns the information.

Sasha pointed out how cell phones are the least secure communications devices that we have. The real question is who is the actor trying to get the information, what level are they going to have to go to get that information?

In the case of the RNC for example, finding out about specific people involved in it, would imply an NSA request to all the text messages in all the carriers at a particular area and time frame, and you would have to sort through all that, which is not that feasable.

Mobile carrers are currently building systems to make it easier for requests for filtered data to be fulfilled (ie requests from the NSA. etc.) However, in 2004 accessing information was more difficult because the user interfaces were not as useful.

Regarding the discussion on Usenet, I ask how the model of creating a local network that connects at one point to outside network to circumvent control is still a meaningful model? Sasha mentions how there are many cases when this is still a practice that operates best. In the case of the Soviet Union, the reason they overlooked Usenet in 1991 (when every other broadcasting medium was shut down) is that is was forgotten about, nothing else. He explained a case recently presented at a conference about Cuba and the circulation of videos via USB to circumvent control from the state. An example shown was a Human Rights Activist abused, then taped and circulated through USB from Havana to Santiago. It is slower but still possible to communicate through different types of networks. Rather than taking three minutes, its three days, but has the same effect.

Hope this review can be useful. Links to the readings are provided so feel free to add onto the discussion.

Callahn, Rogelio, Guillermo