erhardt's blog | MIT Center for Civic Media

The Activism of Anna Deavere Smith's Notes from the Field

Anna Deavere Smith in "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education." Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

By Ethan Zuckerman and Erhardt Graeff

One of the best tricks educators can use is the technique of pulling students out of the classroom to encounter the issues we're studying in the "real world." So it's a gift when an artist of the calibre of Anna Deavere Smith opens a new work in Cambridge just as the semester is starting. And given that our lab, the Center for Civic Media, studies how making and disseminating media can lead to civic and social change through movements like Black Lives Matter, a three-hour performance about the school-to-prison pipeline is an unprecedented pedagogical gift. A dozen of us made our way to the American Repertory Theatre at the end of August for a performance we'll likely discuss for the rest of the academic year.

Deavere Smith's work is often referred to as "documentary theatre," and Notes From The Field: Doing Time In Education follows a model she's rightly been celebrated for. Portraying individuals she's interviewed while researching a controversial topic, she recreates their physical tics and speech patterns on stage, telling their stories—and the work's larger narrative—through their original words.

Part of what makes this work is Deavere Smith's ungodly skill at mimicry. As it happened, the first character she portrayed during Notes From The Field is a friend of Ethan's—Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund—and when he closed his eyes, the rhythm of her speech was so similar to Sherrilyn's voice, he thought it must be a recording. In the next scene, as Deavere Smith donned orange waders to become a 6'4" 300-pound Native American fisherman, we were all willing to suspend any disbelief.

No Permission, No Apology Opening Keynote by Megan Smith

Megan Smith

This is a liveblog of a talk by Megan Smith, US CTO and MIT Corporation Member. The No Permission, No Apology conference will provide opportunities to develop the professional and personal skills that can help women navigate spaces not necessarily created with them in mind. This will also be a chance for men to better understand how to foster inclusiveness, bridge divides, and serve as effective allies. (Liveblog by Erhardt Graeff and Rahul Bhargava)


How do we make sure everyone on the planet is fully included in solving the hardest challenges in the world?

We never see black technical women in movies like we do in the upcoming Hidden Figures—the new film featuring black women engineers on the moon mission. It's untrue and it's debilitating.  We never see people like Margaret Hamilton, who coined the term software engineering and led the source code development for the lunar lander. We wouldn't have landed on the moon if she had not architected the software in a way that we address memory issues.

We had female astronauts who went through the training with the male astronauts, but were never allowed to fly. We never made spacesuits for them. But they passed all the tests and in some cases better than the men. "Stereotype Threat" is a danger that leads us to question whether women are able to do the task. People never think that about men. 

Forbidden Research liveblog: Hacking Culture at MIT

liveblog by Willow Brugh, Natalie Gyenes, and me

Speaker: Liz George, MIT Alum Class of 2008 and MIT Hacker

Liz starts by defining hacking as any good scientific endeavor begins.

Hacking, (noun)

  1. A project without a constructive end
  2. An unusual and original solution to a problem
  3. An activity that tests the limits of skill, imagination, and wits.

If you can build a model of the system, you can push it to its limit or test a system in a way you'd never otherwise be able to do.

Hacking, (verb)

Political Bots, Subverting Twitter, and the Online Political Practices of Estonian Youth at AoIR16

Political Work Panel

This is a liveblog from the “Political Work" panel at AoIR16 on October 24, 2015 in Phoenix, AZ. This is not a transcript but recreation of people’s comments. Any errors are my own.

Architecture for Understanding the Automated Imaginary: A Working Qualitative Methodology for Research on Political Bots
Norah Abokhodair, Samuel Woolly, Philip Howard & David McDonald

This paper is led by Norah Abokhodair, is developing a working method for qualitative analyzing political bots. Summarized here: Their research question: How are bots being used for political purposes?

They started with a set of definitions:

  • Bot = a software program that automates ‘human’ tasks on the web
  • Political bot = social bots, engage with human users. They mainly function on social media and are used to further specific political causes (for good, ill, or in-between)

The project has a three part research process: 1) comparative event data set, 2) international fieldwork with bot coders, and 3) computational theory building. The international field work involves interviews with people who build bots and track bots as well. We’ve looked into government contractors that track bots to combat activism online.

This paper focuses on stage one of the research: building the comparative event data set. They are documenting cases of political bot usage. They gather all media coverage of bot use around the world, and then use multi-coder content analysis of the media reports. They started in Hungary with students at Central European University, and triple coded all the media. They developed a Google Form that the coders would follow when coding each course.

The output of this is the contextual understandings of 100+ unique cases of political bot usage across 40+ countries. They noticed that anytime there was a political crisis or election there was use of political bots to manipulate public opinion. 

Private Platforms under Public Pressure at AoIR16

This is a liveblog from the “Private Platforms under Public Pressure" roundtable at AoIR16 on October 23, 2015 in Phoenix, AZ. This is not a transcript but recreation of people’s comments. Any errors are my own.

This roundtable featured scholars J. Nathan Matias, Tarleton Gillespie, Christian Sandvig, Mike Ananny, and Karine Nahon working on both critical and constructive appropriates to defining the roles and responsibilities of platforms, the governance of those systems by users, corporations, algorithms, and states, and the question of where we are at our public consciousness of what it means to have a new definition for or new socio-technical system called a platform.

Each panelist reflected on what brought them to the research topic and also on the panel theme: What happens to private platforms when they are put under public pressure? They found much left to explore in the topic: many questions were raised and the need for more research and new approaches was clear. 

Black Lives Matter Activism through Blogging, Gaming, Hashtags, and Citizen Journalism

Black Lives Matter activism

This is a liveblog from the "#BlackLivesMatter: At the Intersection of Racial Politics and Digital Activism" panel at AoIR16 on October 22, 2015 in Phoenix, AZ. Any errors here are my own.

This panel features four anti-racist, feminist scholars, showcasing how we as researchers take on the role of documenting and amplifying the work that activists are doing already online. Catherine Knight Steele talks about the creation of digital black feminisim in blogging communities. Kishonna L. Gray talks about activist gaming in service to Blacks Lives Matter. Jenny Ungbha Korn talks about themes of racialized imagery in #iftheygunnedmedown on Tumblr. And Sarah Florini talks about This Week in Blackness's brand of citizen journalism around Ferguson.

When the Black Lives that Matter are Not Our Own: Social Justice and a Digital Black Feminism
Catherine Knight Steele

How are our women of color reimagining black feminism online? Black Lives Matter was started by three queer women of color. And its important to remember that even in studying marginalized communities, there are those that are even more marginalized.

Steele carefully frames this as “Digital Black Feminism,” building on literatures of black oral culture, alternative publics, black feminism in response to exclusion, and voice and democratic participation. Preserving black oral culture online is a key part of the cultural practice. Moreover, transferring offline black oral culture online represents efficiency of communication rather than perceived deficiencies.

Unfortunately, digital black feminism has also been excluded from traditional norms of black feminism. Steele studied the blogging community For Harriet, which functions as a kind of "digital barbershop," an enclave that represents a particular context of culture necessary to gain entry. 

Building Civic Tech with Mexico City's Experts (Its Citizens)

written by Erhardt Graeff and Emilie Reiser


CC-BY-SA: Mexico City by Kasper Christensen


Mexico City is huge. Over 21 million people live in the metro area—the most populous in the Western hemisphere. Nearly 9 million people live in the federal district alone. There are pockets of immigrants from all over the world and of course the full spectrum of Mexican ethnicities. This means there are myriad interesting issues to tackle and a wide mix of voices with opinions on how best to go about it.


August 31–September 4, 2015, the MIT Center for Civic Media traveled to Mexico City for a workshop organized by the Laboratorio para la Ciudad and MIT Media Lab. Gabriella Gómez-Mont, the Laboratorio's founder and director, is a Director's Fellow at the Media Lab this year, which opened the door to collaboration.


In a few intense days, we worked with Laboratorio staff and local experts, as well as select students from nearby universities, to prototype projects worthy of Mexico City's scale and complexity. Our team focused on how to integrate new forms of citizen input into the planning and transformation of public spaces around the city using both digital and non-digital strategies. Our solution: EncuestaCDMX (

How Interfaces Demand Obedience

This is a liveblog of a talk by Mushon Zer-Aviv on April 23, 2015 at the MIT Center for Civic Media. This is not a perfect transcript but are notes collaboratively taken by Yu Wang, Dalia Othman, Erhardt Graeff, and Catherine D'Ignazio.

Mushon presenting at Civic

Mushon Zer-Aviv introduces himself as interested in disinformation and ambiguity. He is teaching at Shenkar College and is working with Public Knowledge Workshop on civic engagement and government transparency. As a designer he's been working on these issues for many years and will discuss political design interface through:

  1. Communication cycle
  2. Protocol
  3. Interface for resistance

When we talk about life online, it is distributed, open, social, emancipatory. Online life is repressive, destructive, shallow. All these hopes and concerns when it comes to online life, we meet them through interface. It is at the heart of the debate.

What is interface? Mushon defines interface as "a common boundary or interconnection between systems, equipment, concepts, or human beings." Specifically, the concept of common boundary and interconnection. The idea that the interface is common implies some kind of relationship between all the components without implying a level of control or that one is more important than the other. 

Yo! Your Honor! Carl Malamud's Fight to make Public Law Public

Live notes from a lunch talk by Carl Malamud, co-hosted by the MIT Center for Civic Media and the Laboratory for Social Machines. Notes by Rahul Bhargava, Erhardt Graeff, Yu Wang, Chelsea Barabas, and Ed Platt

Ethan introduces Carl as a ferocious public domain advocate with a long history with the internet. He led an election campaign for non-elected office (public printer of the United States). He is working on making existing government docs online and machine readable form. Today he will speak about Yo, Your Honor, which focuses on PACER—a system that provides access to critical government documents for a price.

He started by doing a lot of workshops around the idea of, coming up with a set of principles about how the laws should be available in the United States. But nothing concrete really came from this effort.Carl mentions his history with the Media Lab; he was here years ago writing a book. His non-profit's goal is to make all public governmental documents, aka the “raw materials of democracy,” free to access. Carl wants to make the laws available to the people, because in the US the people own the law (unlike other countries). The law has no copyright here.

In 2007–2008, Carl started publishing all the building codes in the country, because these are law in all the states. No one sent him takedown notices, even though they are copyrighted documents published by standards organizations (501c3s). They keep copyright for these documents even though they want to make them into the law. When Carl started posting the safety regulations, and he got sued.

The National Fire Protection Association argues they should be the only ones allowed to publish the code because it is their only revenue stream and if they can't sustain then… babies will die. But he argues that they are the law, thus they should be public. This case is currently in litigation (he is being defended by the EFF).

At this same time, he started looking at the PACER system. This includes all arguments the lawyers make and all relevant briefs and other documents involved in public cases. If you want access to these documents, you pay 10 cents a page for every single page. That makes research expensive. There are close to 1 billion documents in the system.

He had the idea to have lots of people download documents from PACER and share them for free, which he thought of as “recycling the public domain.”

America's Interested Bystander: New Research from Google on Civic Duty

This is a liveblog of the talk "Understanding America's Interested Bystander: A Complicated Relationship with Civic Duty," by Kate Krontiris, John Webb, Charlotte Krontiris, and Chris Chapman. Blogged by @natematias and @erhardt, with illustrations by @willowbl00.

What motivates everyday people in America to do things that are civic, and how do we engage the unengaged? Kate Krontiris and John Webb shared the results of a major study carried out by Google's Civic Innovation team today at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

[note: we were asked not to include any photos of the event, which was not recorded, but we were allowed to publish these notes]

Kate Krontiris is a researcher, strategist, and facilitator working to transform civic life in America. In pursuit of a society where more people assert greater ownership over the decisions that govern their lives, she uses ethnographic tools to design products, policies, and services that enable a more equitable democratic future. Charlotte Krontiris is a principal at KN research, and who has conducted research at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Harvard Business School, and Google. John Webb is a senior user experience researcher at Google who conducts tactical and investigative research to inform design and product direction for Google's Social Impact team with a particular focus on developing Civic Engagement experiences.

Kate begins by outlining the social impact and civic innovation group at Google. They include the civic innovation team, which organizes election data and making it universally accessible and to broaden collective decision-making.

  • leverage Google's technology for the common good
  • Organize election data and make it universally accessible and useful
  • Broaden engagement in collective decision-making

What motivates ordinary Americans to do things that are civic? Kate and her colleagues concede they are not the only ones researching this subject. A lot of this falls under the question of "How do we engage the unengaged?" and then to support details of platform design at Google including their Google Now cards, as well as support a broader civic technology ecosystem. They hoped that by conducting and sharing this research they could contribute to informing the broader set of tools being developed. We conducted quantitative and qualitative research to try answer these questions.