Lessons from Tea Party Tweets

13 06 2011

What I learned from spending 5 minutes looking at a Tea Party twitter feed.

cross-posted from Beyond the Choir

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the activist filter bubble, the reverberating echo-chamber of insular social media and political networks that keeps progressives marginal and talking to ourselves. Recently, I’ve had several different Tea Party twitter accounts follow me (at least four this week alone) and began talking to friends about whether or not this means they are 1) building lists of progressive activists for potential future smear-campaigns; 2) following their opposition so they can Retweet things out of context to scare/outrage their base; or 3) genuinely interested in hearing perspectives outside their own echo-chamber. Whatever their purposes, it reminded me that we can learn a lot from the way our opposition presents itself through social media forums (of course there is a lot of deception and other missteps that we don't  want to emulate, but there are some transferrable best practices mixed  in too – here’s some of both).

A few minutes ago I got an email notice that @TheTeaParty_net is following me.

1) Their twitter profile (which I see in the notification email) succinctly states the values they profess to hold: “Limited federal government • Individual freedoms • Personal responsibility • Free markets • Returning political power to the states and the people”

I already know what they stand for and I haven’t even looked at their twitter feed yet. In fact, their statement of values is likely the thing that will make me choose to look or not look.

And here’s what I notice from literally 5 minutes of browsing their twitter feed:

2) Constant creation of an “us vs. them” narrative, inviting people to identify as part of their group (“us”) and asking people to take a small action (retweeting) to signal their insiderness. A kinestetic action simple as pressing a button helps solidify the choice that was made by the tweeter. It asks them to take a stand, pick a side, and then reinforces that choice with a physical action that their peers can see. They ask their tweeps to do this on a regular basis.

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Activists Caught in the Filter Bubble

2 06 2011

How personalization helps activists find each other while losing society
By Jonathan Smucker. Cross Posted from Beyond the Choir.

Eli Pariser’s new book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You is a must-read for pretty much anyone who uses the Internet. Eli breaks down troubling trends emerging in the World Wide Web that threaten not only individual privacy but also the very idea of civic space.

Of key concern to Eli is “web personalization”: code that maps the algorithms of your individual web use and helps you more easily find the things that the code “thinks” will pique your interest. There’s a daunting amount of information out there, and sometimes it can feel overwhelming to even begin sorting through it. Personalization can help. For instance, I can find music that fits my tastes by using Pandora, or movies I like through Netflix. The services provided by companies like Pandora, Netflix, Amazon, et al are designed to study us—to get to know us rather intimately—to the point where Netflix can now predict the average customer’s rating of a given movie within half a star. Eli paints a picture of your computer monitor as “a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click.”

Whatever the benefits, the intent of these services isn’t just to benevolently help us find the things we’re looking for. They’re also designed to help companies find unwitting customers. When you open your web browser to shop for a product—or really for any other reason—you yourself are a product whose personal information is literally being sold. Companies that you know, like Google and Facebook, and companies you’ve probably never heard of (e.g. Acxiom) are using increasingly sophisticated programs to map your personality.

And it’s not just creepiness and individual privacy that’s at issue here. Personalization is also adding to a civic crisis. It’s one thing for code to help us find music, movies and other consumer products we like. But what about when code also feeds us our preferred news and political opinions, shielding us from alternative viewpoints? Personalization now means that you and your Republican uncle will see dramatically different results when you run the same exact Google news search. You’re both likely to see results that come from news sources that you prefer — sources that tend to reinforce your existing opinions. Maybe your search will pull articles from NPR and Huffington Post, while his will spotlight stories from FOX News. Both of you will have your biases and worldviews fed back to you — typically without even being aware that your news feed has been personalized.

Web personalization is invisibly creating individual-tailored information universes. Each of us is increasingly surrounded by information that affirms—rather than challenges—our existing opinions, biases, worldviews, and identities.

This filter bubble impacts everyone. And it poses big challenges for grassroots activists and organizers in particular.

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