Older blog entries for mako (starting at number 328)

Freedom for Users, Not for Software

I finally published a short essay I wrote about a year ago: Freedom for Users, Not for Software.

Anybody who has hung around the free software community for a while will be familiar with the confusion created by the ambiguity between "free as in price" versus "free as freedom." In the essay I argue that there is a less appreciated semantic ambiguity that arises when we begin to think that what matters is that software is free. Software doesn't need freedom, of course; Users of software need freedom. My essay looks at how the focus on free software, as opposed to on free users, has created challenges and divisions in the free software movement.

The essay was recently published in Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State, a book edited by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich and published by Levellers Press. The book includes essays by 73 authors that include some other folks from the free software and free culture communities along with a ton of people working on very different types of commons.

My essay is short and has two parts: The first is basically a short introduction to free software movement. The second lays out what I see as major challenges for free software. I will point out that these are some of the areas that I am working most closely with the FSF — who are having their annual fundraiser at the moment — to support and build advocacy programs around.

Syndicated 2012-12-31 17:53:57 from Benjamin Mako Hill

The Cost of Collaboration for Code and Art

This post was written with Andrés Monroy-Hernández for the Follow the Crowd Research Blog. The post is a summary of a paper forthcoming in Computer-Supported Cooperative Work 2013. You read also read the full paper: The Cost of Collaboration for Code and Art: Evidence from Remixing. It is part of a series of papers I have written with Monroy-Hernández using data from Scratch. You can find the others on my academic website.

Does collaboration result in higher quality creative works than individuals working alone? Is working in groups better for functional works like code than for creative works like art? Although these questions lie at the heart of conversations about collaborative production on the Internet and peer production, it can be hard to find research settings where you can compare across both individual and group work and across both code and art. We set out to tackle these questions in the context of a very large remixing community.

Example of a remix in the Scratch online community, and the project it is based off. The orange arrows indicate pieces which were present in the original and reused in the remix.

Remixing platforms provide an ideal setting to answer these questions. Most support the sharing, and collaborative rating, of both individually and collaboratively authored creative works. They also frequently combine code with artistic media like sound and graphics.

We know that that increased collaboration often leads to higher quality products. For example, studies of Wikipedia have suggested that vandalism is detected and removed within minutes, and that high quality articles in Wikipedia, by several measures, tend to be produced by more collaboration. That said, we also know that collaborative work is not always better — for example, that brainstorming results in less good ideas when done in groups. We attempt to answer this broad question, asked many times before, in the context of remixing: Which is the better description, “the wisdom of crowds” or “too many cooks spoil the broth”? That, fundamentally, forms our paper’s first research question: Are remixes, on average, higher quality than single-authored works?

A number of critics of peer production, and some fans, have suggested that mass collaboration on the Internet might work much better for certain kinds of works. The argument is that free software and Wikipedia can be built by a crowd because they are functional. But more creative works — like music, a novel, or a drawing — might benefit less, or even be hurt by, participation by a crowd. Our second research question tries to get at this possibility: Are code-intensive remixes, higher quality than media-intensive remixes?

We try to answers to these questions using a detailed dataset from Scratch – a large online remixing community where young people build, share, and collaborate on interactive animations and video games. The community was built to support users of the Scratch programming environment: a desktop application with functionality similar to Flash created by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. Scratch is designed to allow users to build projects by integrating images, music, sound and other media with programming code. Scratch is used by more than a million, mostly young, users.

Measuring quality is tricky and we acknowledge that there are many ways to do it. In the paper, we rely most heavily a measure of peer ratings in Scratch called loveits — very similar to “likes” on Facebook. We find similar results with several other metrics and we control for the number of views a project receives.

In answering our first research question, we find that remixes are, on average, rated as being of lower quality than works of single authorship. This finding was surprising to us but holds up across a number of alternative tests and robustness checks.

In answering our second question, we find rough support for the common wisdom that remixing tends to be more effective for functional works than for artistic media. The more code-intensive a project is, on average, the closer the gap is between a remix and a work of single authorship. But the more media-intensive a project is, the bigger the gap. You can see the relationships that our model predicts in the graph below.

Two plots of estimated values for prototypical projects showing the predicted number of loveits using our estimates. In the left panel, the x-axis varies number of blocks while holding media intensity at the sample median. The right panel varies the number of media elements while holding the number of blocks at the sample median. Ranges for each are from 0 to the 90th percentile.

Both of us are supporters and advocates of remixing. As a result, we were initially a little troubled by our result in this paper. We think the finding suggests an important limit to the broadest claims of the benefit of collaboration in remixing and peer production.

That said, we also reject the blind repetition of the mantra that collaboration is always better — for every definition of “better,” and for every type of work. We think it’s crucial to learn and understand the limitations and challenges associated with remixing and we’re optimistic that this work can influence the design of social media and collaboration systems to help remixing and peer production thrive.

For more, see our full paper, The Cost of Collaboration for Code and Art: Evidence from Remixing.

Syndicated 2012-12-22 14:58:03 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Heading West

University of Washington Quad in Cherry Blossom Season

This week, I accepted a job on the faculty of at the University of Washington Department of Communication. I've arranged for a post-doc during the 2013-2014 academic year which I will spend at UW as an Acting Assistant Professor. I'll start the tenure-track Assistant Professor position in September 2014. The hire is part of a "big data" push across UW. I will be setting up a lab and research projects, as well as easing into a teaching program, over the next couple years.

I'm not going to try to list all the great people in the department, but UW Communication has an incredible faculty with a strong background in studying the effect of communication technology on society, looking at political communication, enagement, and collective action, and tracing out the implications of new communication technologies — in addition to very strong work in other areas. Years ago, I nearly joined the department as a graduate student. I am unbelievably happy that their faculty has invited me to join as a colleague.

Outside of my new department, the University of Washington has a superb group of folks working across the school on issues of quantitative and computational social science, human-computer interaction, and computer-supported cooperative work. They are hiring a whole bunch of folks, across the university, who specialize in data-driven social science. I already have a bunch of relationships with UW faculty and students and am looking forward to expanding and deepening those.

On a personal level, Mika and I are also very excited to return to Seattle. I grew up in the city and I've missed it, deeply, since I left — now nearly half my lifetime ago! It will be wonderful to be much closer to many of my family members.

But I know that I will miss the community of friends and colleagues that I've built in Boston over the last 7+ years just as deeply. I'm going to miss the intellectual resources, and the intellectual community, that folks in Cambridge get to take for granted. That said, I plan to maintain affiliations and collaborations with folks at Harvard and MIT and will have resources that let me spend time in Boston doing that.

If you are curious what I'm going to be up to — and what the future is likely to hold in terms of my research — you should check the material I've put online as part of the job market this year. I've posted just about everything on my academic website. This includes a little four page research statement which describes the work I've done and the directions I've been thinking about taking it.

The academic job market is challenging and confusing. But it's given me a lot of opportunity to reflect, at length, on both the substance of my research and the academy and its structures and processes. I've got a list of blog topics queued up based on that thinking. I'll be posting them here on my blog over the next few months.

Syndicated 2012-12-14 20:01:05 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Cultivated Disinterest in Professional Sports

Like many of my friends, I have treated professional sports with cultivated indifference. But a year and a half ago, I decided to become a football fan.

Several years ago, I was at a talk by Michael Albert at MIT where he chastised American intellectuals for what he claimed was cultivated disdain of professional sports. Albert suggested that sports reflect the go-to topic for small talk and building rapport across class and context. But he suggested that almost everybody who used the term "working class struggle" was incapable of making small talk with members of the working class because — unlike most working class people (and most people in general) — educated people systematically cultivate ignorance in sports.

Professional sports are deeply popular. In the US, Sunday Night Football is now the most popular television show among women in its time slot and the third most popular television in America among 18-49 year old women. That it is also the most popular television show in general is old news. There are very few things that anywhere near half of Americans have in common. Interest in football is one of them. An enormous proportion of the US population watches the Superbowl each year.

I recognized myself in Albert's critique. So I decided to follow a local team. I picked football because it is the most popular sport in America and because their strong revenue sharing system means that either team has a chance to win any given match. My local team is the New England Patriots and I've watched many of the team's games or highlights over the last season and a half. I've also followed a couple football blogs.

A year and half in, I can call myself a football fan. And I've learned a few things in the process:

  1. With a little effort, getting into sports is easy. Although learning the rules of a sport can be complicated, sports are popular because people, in general, find them fun to watch. If you watch a few games with someone who can explain the rules, and if you begin to cheer for a team, you will find yourself getting emotionally invested and excited.
  2. Sports really do, as Albert implied, allow one to build rapport and small talk across society. I used to dread the local cab driver who would try to make small talk by mentioning Tom Brady or the Red Sox. No more! Some of these conversations turn into broader conversations about life and politics.
  3. Interest in sports can expand or shrink to fill the time you're willing to give it. It can mean just glancing through the sports sections of the paper and watching some highlights here or there. Or it can turn into a lifestyle.
  4. It's not all great. Football, like most professional sports, is deeply permeated with advertisements, commercialism, and money. Like other sports, it is also violent. I don't think I could ever get behind a fight sport where the goal is to hurt someone else. The machoness and absence of women in the highest levels of most professional sports bothers me deeply.

I've also tried to think a lot about why I, like most of my friends, avoided sports in the past. Disinterest in sports among academics and the highly educated is, in my experience, far from passive. I've heard people almost compete to explain the depth of their ignorance in sports — one doesn't even know the rules, one doesn't own a television, one doesn't know the first thing about the game. I did the same thing myself.

Bethany Bryson, a sociologist at JMU has shown that increased education is associated with increased inclusiveness in musical taste (i.e., highly educated people like more types of music) but that these people are most likely to reject music that is highly favored by the least educated people. Her paper's title sums up the attitude: "Anything But Heavy Metal". For highly educated folks, it's a sign of cultivation to be eclectic in one's tastes. But to signal to others that you belong in the intellectual elite, it can pay in cultural capital to dislike things, like sports, that are enormously popular among the least educated parts of society.

This ignorance among highly educated people limits our ability to communicate, bond, and build relationships across different segments of society. It limits our ability to engage in conversations and build a common culture that crosses our highly stratified and segmented societies. Sports are not politically or culturally unproblematic. But they provide an easy — and enjoyable — way to build common ground with our neighbors and fellow citizens that transcend social boundaries.

Syndicated 2012-11-23 17:51:31 from Benjamin Mako Hill


The seal of the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center declares "Protection is Our Trademark." But, is the same seal violating Nintendo's trademark for the Pokémon Zapdos? I'll let you decide.


Thanks to Tomas Reimers for catching this one. Previous lookalikes here and here.

Syndicated 2012-10-31 16:49:28 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Time to Boot

Last weekend, my friend Andrés Monroy-Hernández pointed out something that I've been noticing as well. Although the last decade has seen a huge decrease in the time of it takes to boot, the same can not be said for the increasing powerful computer in my pocket that is my phone.

Graph showing increasing boot-times for phones and decreasing boot-times for laptops.

As the graph indicates, I think my cross-over was around 2010 when I acquired an SSD for my laptop.

Syndicated 2012-10-31 16:49:28 from Benjamin Mako Hill


The seal of the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center declares "Protection is Our Trademark." But, is the same seal violating Nintendo's trademark for the Pokémon Zapdos? I'll let you decide.


Thanks to Tomas Reimers for catching this one. Previous lookalikes here and here.

Syndicated 2012-10-22 09:16:52 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Pregnant with Suspense

A couple days ago, I woke up to this exciting series of text messages from a unfamiliar phone number.

Text messages describing the birth of a child, a picture of a newborn, and a response at the end asking who it is and if it was a wrong number.

Because I've not received a reply in the last couple days, because it was a Seattle phone number but I haven't lived in Seattle for years, and because I don't know of anyone in Seattle who was about to give birth, I'm pretty confident that this was indeed a case of misdirected text messages!

But whoever you are: Congratulations! I know it was a mistake, but that really made my day!

Syndicated 2012-09-27 14:08:59 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Open Brands

In late July, the Awesome Foundations invited me to participate in an interesting conversation about open brands at their conference. Awesome is a young collection of organizations struggling with the idea of if, and how, they want to try to control who gets call themselves Awesome. I was asked to talk about how the free software community approaches the issue.

Guidance from free software is surprisingly unclear. I have watched and participated in struggles over issues of branding in every successful free software project I've worked in. Many years ago, Greg Pomerantz and I wrote a draft trademark policy for the Debian distribution over a couple beers. Over the last year, I've been working with Debian Project Leader Stefano Zacchiroli and lawyers at the Software Freedom Law Center to help draft a trademark policy for the Debian project.

Through that process, I've come up with three principles which I think lead to more clear discussion about whether a free culture or free software should register a trademark and, if they do, how they should think about licensing it. I've listed those principles below in order of importance.

1. We want people to use our brands. Conversation about trademarks seem to turn into an exercise in imagining all the horrible ways in which a brand might be misused. This is silly and wrong. It is worth being extremely clear on this point: Our problem is not that people will misuse our brands. Our problem is that not enough people will use them at all. The most important goal of a trademark policy should be to make legitimate use possible and easy.

We want people to make t-shirts with our logos. We want people to write books about our products. We want people to create user groups and hold conferences. We want people to use, talk about, and promote our projects both commercially and non-commercially.

Trademarks will limit the diffusion of our brand and, in that way, will hurt our projects. Sometimes, after carefully considering these drawbacks, we think the trade-off is worth making. And sometimes it is. However, projects are generally overly risk averse and, as a result, almost always err on the side of too much control. I am confident that free software and free culture projects' desire to control their brands has done more damage than all brand misuse put together.

2. We want our projects to be able to evolve. The creation of a trademark puts legal power to control a brand in the hands of an individual, firm, or a non-profit. Although it might not seem like such a big deal, this power is, fundamentally, the ability to determine what a project is and is not. By doing this, it creates a single point of failure and a new position of authority and, in that process, limits projects' ability to shift and grow organically over time.

I've heard that in US politics, there is no trademark for the terms Republican or Democrat and that you do not need permission to create an organization that claims to be part of either party. And that does not mean that everybody is confused. Through social and organizational structures, it is clear who is in, who is out, and who is on the fringes.

More importantly, this structure allows for new branches and groups outside of the orthodoxy to grow and develop on the margins. Both parties have been around since the nineteenth century, have swapped places on the political spectrum on a large number of issues, and have played host to major internal ideological disagreements. Almost any organization should aspire to such longevity, internal debate, and flexibility.

3. We should not confuse our communities. Although they are often abused, trademarks are fundamentally pro-consumer. The point of legally protected brands is to help consumers from being confused as the source of a product or service. Users might love software from the Debian project, or might hate it, but it's nice for them to be able to know that they're getting "Debian Quality" when they download a distribution.

Of course, legally protected trademarks aren't the only way to ensure this. Domains names, internal policies, and laws against fraud and misrepresentation all serve this purpose as well. The Open Source Initiative applied for a trademark on the term open source and had their application rejected. The lack of a registered trademark has not kept folks from policing use of the term. Folks try to call their stuff "open source" when it is not and are kept in line by a community of folks who know better.

And since lawyers are rarely involved, it is hardly clear that a registered trademark would help in the vast majority of these these situations. It is also the case that most free software/culture organizations lack the money, lawyers, or time, to enforce trademarks in any case. Keeping your communities of users and developers clear on what is, and what isn't, your product and your project is deeply important. But how we choose to do this is something we should never take for granted.

Syndicated 2012-09-03 00:31:44 from Benjamin Mako Hill

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