Monthly Archives: January 2009

Digital Democracy: Introduction & Overview

My colleague Joshua Goldstein and I are teaching a new course on Digital Democracy and we just had our first brainstorming session. We see this class as being a series of brainstorming opportunities as opposed to traditional lecturing.

Josh and I we started the class by asking what the word democracy means to everyone. We sought to go beyond conventional text-book definitions to understand what democracy means to all of us on a day-to-day basis. Students shared the following thoughts; namely, democracy is:

  • About being heard;
  • Minority rights;
  • Accountability and transparency;
  • Advocacy for change;
  • Access.

We then asked what adding “digital” in front of “democracy” means for all of us:

  • Empowerment of the individual;
  • Fall of hierarchies;
  • Wider participation;
  • Democratization of information.

With these definitions in mind, we explored the digital technologies used to document today’s historical democratic event, the US inauguration. We spoke about uses of Facebook, Twitter, Second Life, etc., and the tools in place to promote transparency and accountability in the Obama Administration. A list of these are available on the course wiki. The point of this survey was to emphasize that these tools can also be used to improve other democratic processes.

(Incidentally, we chose to set up a wiki because the academic online platform Blackboard is just a gated community. The platform reminds me of Jonathan Zittrain’s recent book on “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” I’d like to suggest an idea for a new start-up: Blogboard).

We then delved into the readings by Benkler and Ronfeldt (also available on the wiki). This brought up some neat conversations ranging from issues on censorship and anonymity to digital activism, the digital divide and the information economy. A couple students recounted their experience with censorship when they lived/worked in China. Another student described the dynamic between repressive regimes and digital activists as an “information race,” which I found to be spot on. We also spoke about the role of the media in a digital democracy and discussed the rise of citizen journalists.

After the brainstorming session, we went through the syllabus and briefly introduced each session. As part of this week’s assignments, we’ve asked students to get a Twitter/Twhirl and Google Reader account. We’ve created a Twitter feed for the course: @digidemocracy. Weekly assignments will include writing blog posts on the readings and Tweeting current events/issues related to digital democracy.

As previously mentioned, Josh and I welcome feedback from anyone vis-a-vis the syllabus, the individual session outlines, tweets, blog posts etc. In the meantime, please feel free to send the class relevant links/articles to @digidemocracy.

Patrick Philippe Meier

New Course on Digital Democracy (Updated)

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, my colleague Joshua Goldstein and I are teaching a new full-semester undergraduate course on Digital Democracy. The course is being offered as part of Tufts University‘s interdisciplinary Media and Communication Studies Program.

The course will address the following topics:

  • Introduction to Digital Democracy
  • American Democracy
  • Global Democracy
  • Media and Democracy
  • Guest Speakers: Digital Democracy
  • Bloggers Rights
  • Digital Censorship and Democracy
  • Human Rights 2.0
  • Digital Activism
  • Digital Resistance
  • Digital Technology in Developing World
  • Class Presentations

The course wiki along with the syllabus is available here. We regularly update the syllabus so do check back. Feedback on the syllabus is also very much welcomed.

We are particularly keen for suggestions vis-a-vis recommended material (websites, online videos, links, books, papers etc.) and in-class activities.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Empirical Study: Twitter is not a Social Network

Given my long time interest in complexity science, I often browse through arXiv (pronounced “archive”, as if the “X” were the Greek letter Chi, χ) for a little distraction. This archive is the go-to site for electronic preprints of scientific papers in the fields of mathematics, physics, computer science and statistics. If only we could have a similar archive in the social sciences.

In any case, I was pleasantly surprised to find a paper on arXiv entitled “Social Networks that Matter: Twitter Under the Miscroscope.” The authors argue that the linked structures of social networks do not reveal actual interactions among people. “Scarcity of attention and the daily rythms of life and work makes people default to interacting with those few that matter and that reciprocate their attention.” Using Twitter to study social interactions, the authors find that the “driver of usage is a sparse and hidden network of connections underlying the ‘declared’ set of friends and followers.”

The authors compiled a large dataset of Twitter 309,740 users. They obtained the number of followers and followees for each user along with the content and datestamp of all her posts. They also identified the number of directed (@name) posts and definited a user’s friend as a person whom the user has directed at least two posts to. The researchers were thus able to compare the number of friends a user has with the number of followers and followees they declared.

The first figure below depicts the number of posts as a function of the number of followers. The number of posts initially increases as the number of followers increases but it eventually saturates.

arXiv Twitter1

The second figure depicts the number of posts as a function of the number of friends. The number of posts increases as the number of friends increases, reaching the maximum 3,200 without saturating. As the authors note, “this suggests that in order to predict how active a Twitter user is, the number of friends is a more accurate signal than the number of his followers.”

arXiv Twitter2

The histogram below depicts a Twitter user’s number of friends divided by the number of followers. Most users have a very small number of friends compared to the number of followers they declared. “Hence, while the social network created by the declared followers and followees appears to be very dense, in reality the more influential network of friends suggests that the social network is sparse.”

arXiv Twitter2

The next figure below represents the number of friends as a function of the number of followees. As can be noted, the total number of friends saturates while the number of followers keeps growing due to the minimal effort required to add a followee.

arXiv Twitter4

In turn, the figure below depicts the proportion of friends versus followees as a function of followers. The curve initially increases but rapidly approaches zero as the number of followees increases.
arXive Twitter5

The authors thus conclude that Twitter users have a very small number of friends compared to the number of followers and followees they declare.

“This implies the existence of two different networks: a very dense one made up of followers and followees, and a sparser and simpler network of actual friends. The latter proves to be a more influential network in driving Twitter usage since users with many actual friends tend to post more updates than users with few actual friends. On the other hand, users with many followers or followees post updates more infrequently than those with few followers or followees.”

arXive Twitter6

In social network (a) above, all followees are depicted as linked nodes. In network (b), only links to actual friends are depicted. The latter is the hidden network that is more representative of actual interactions between Twitter users.

Most avid Twitter users would most likely find the authors’ conclusions rather obvious. As  Twitter user @timoreilly recently Tweeted, “Facebook is about people you used to know; Twitter is about people you’d like to know better.” I for one view Twitter as more of an information subscription tool that complements my use of emails than an actual network for social interaction.

This is precisely what the Twitter study are getting at:

Many people, including scholars, advertisers and political activists, see online social networks as an opportunity to study the propagation of ideas, the formation of social bonds and viral marketing, among others.

This view should be tempered by our findings that a link between any two people does not necessarily imply an interaction between them. As we showed in the case of Twitter, most of the links declared within Twitter were meaningless from an interaction point of view. Thus the need to find the hidden social network; the one that matters when trying to rely on word of mouth to spread an idea, a belief, or a trend.

This is an important reminder, especially for colleagues of mine at the Berkman Center who are engaged in social network analyses of various political blogospheres. Just because the data is there and “easily” available doesn’t mean that they actually represent the offline social interactions that we are ultimatley interested in studying. Social network data no matter how novel are still proxy data at best.

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Prospects for Cyberocracy

David Ronfeldt at RAND just sent me his new (co-authored) piece on “The Prospects for Cyberacrocy” which I found particularly interesting given the contrast to his original paper of the same name in 1992. David’s timing is impeccable since I am co-teaching a course on Digital Democracy with my colleague Joshua Goldstein. The course is being offered this Spring semester as part of the interdisciplinary Media and Commincation Studies Program at Tufts University.

Since David’s paper is 70 pages long, what follows is a concise 5-page summary with  references to additional contemporary works (e.g., by Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Antony Loewenstein, etc.), and current examples written specifically for our Digital Democracy students.

In 1992, David Ronfeldt wrote that a “precise definition of cyberocracy was not possible at present.” In a general sense, then, he identified two ways in which cyberocracy may manifest itself:

  1. Narrowly, as a form of organization that supplants traditional forms of bureaucracy and technocracy;
  2. Broadly, as a form of government that may redefine relations between state and society, and between the public sector and the private sector.

Ronfeldt cautions that optimism about the information revolution should be tempered by an anticipation of it’s potential dark side. He contrasts term cyberocracy with aristocracy and theocracy—under which the high-born and high priests ruled respectively. The author argues that cyberocracy, a product of the information revolution, may slowly but radically affect who rules, how and why. That is, “information and its control will become a dominant source of power, as a natural next step in political evolution.”

Clay Shirky would certainly agree. “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.   The tools that a society uses to create and maintain itself are as central to human life as a hive is to bee life.” However, “the mere tools aren’t enough. The tools are simply a way of channeling existing motivation.”

Citing earlier research, David suggests that consequences of new technology can be usefully thought of as first-order and second-order effects. The first-order effect can be  framed as gains in efficiency. “The history of previous technologies demonstrates that early in the life of a new technology, people are likely to emphasize the efficiency effects and underestimate or overlook potential social system effects.”

The second-order effects bring about behavioral and organizational change which affect how people think and work together. New systems of thought are thus generated by second-order effects. “The major impact will probably be felt in terms of the organization and behavior of the modern bureaucratic state.” Take the printing press, for example, “it created conditions that favored, first, new combinations of old ideas and, then, the creation of entirely new systems of thought.”

In “Seeing Like a State,” James Scott explains why certain state-centered schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Scott writes that “no administrative system is capable of representing [or monitoring] every existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematized process of abstraction and simplification.” David Ronfeldt provides additional insight: “the hierarchical structuring of bureaucracies into offices, departments, and lines of authority may confound the flow of information that may be needed to deal with complex issues in today’s increasingly interconnected world.”

Would a cyberocracy provide a more effective political template to improve the human condition? Ronfeldt might be tempted to answer in the affirmative. Clay Shirky [2008] and Yochai Benkler [2006] would not hesitate to reply with a resounding yes.

Ronfeldt writes that “bureaucracy depends on going through channels and keeping information in bounds; in contrast, cyberocracy may place a premium on gaining information from any source, public or private. Technocracy emphasizes ‘hard’ quantitative and econometric skills, like programming and budgeting methodologies; in contrast, a cyberocracy may bring a new emphasis on ‘soft’ symbolic, cultural, and psychological dimensions of policymaking and public opinion.”

As Clay Shirky notes, “if you want to organize the work of even dozens of individuals, you have to manage them.  As organizations grow into the hundreds or thousands, you also have to manage the managers, and eventually to manage the managers’ managers.  Simply to exist at that size, an organization has to take on the costs of all that management.” This template is hardly likely to improve today’s interconnected challenges.

In “Wealth of Networks“, Benkler writes that the “actual practice of freedom that we see emerging from the networked environment allows people to reach across national or social boundaries, across space and political division. It allows people to solve problems together in new associations that are outside the boundaries of formal, legal-political association.”

Writing in the early 1990s, pioneer computer technologist Alan Kay anticipates the rise of blogs which are in effect new types of associations that stand outside of traditional boundaries (cited in Ronfeldt):  “The retrieval systems of the future are not going to retrieve facts but points of view.  The weakness of databases is that they let you retrieve facts, while the strength of our culture over the past several hundred years has been our ability to take on multiple points of view.”

However, authoritarian regimes (and some democratic ones according to Noam Chomsky), typically crack down on the ability of individuals to express multiple points of view. Writing in 1992, Ronfeldt states that “some of today’s trendier points—e.g., the information revolution empowers individuals, favors open societies, and portends a worldwide triumph for democracy—may not hold up as times change.”

Ronfeldt suggests that the information revolution will foster more open and closed systems; more decentralization and centralization; more inclusionary and exclusionary communities; more privacy and surveillance; more freedom and authority; more democracy and new forms of totalitarianism.

Ronfeldt provides a superb critque of those who maintain that decentralization and networks explain and ensure the success in the new business environment. However, “complex organizations depend on some kind of hierarchy.  Hierarchy does not end because work teams include people from different levels and branches.  The structure may be more open, the process more fluid, and the conventions redefined; but a hierarchy still exists.”

The consequence of the information revolution may thus mean “greater decentralization for highly centralized organizations, and greater centralization for decentralized ones.” On the other hand, if new technology does foster decentralization, “it may also provide greater ‘topsight‘—a central understanding of the big picture that enhances the management of complexity.” The pursuit of topsight is thus the pursuit to understand the big picture, “the most precious intellectual commodity known to man.”

A question of interest to me given my dissertation research is whether repressive regimes will/do have the ability to retain the upper hand in using new technology to maintain information supremacy within their borders. Ronfeldt touched on this question in 1992. “As cyberocracy develops, will governments become flatter, less hierarchical, more decentralized, with different kinds of middle-level officials and offices?  Some may, but many may not.  Governments [particularly repressive regimes] may not have the organizational flexibility and options that corporations have.”

Along these lines, former US Secretary of State George Shultz argued in 1985 that information and communication flows can be used as a powerful instrument for compelling closed societies to open up. At the time, Schulz wrote that communist states fear the information revolution perhaps more than they fear Western military strength. “The revolution in global communications thus forces all nations to reconsider traditional ways of thinking about national sovereignty.”

Ronfeldt summarizes Shulz’s take on the “dictator’s dilemma“: if the Soviet regime risked adopting new technologies, it’s leaders would have to liberalize the Soviet economic and political systems, which is arguably what happened. Ronfeldt thus writes that as “long as the aim in the West is the demise of communist and other traditional hard-line authoritarian systems, policymakers in the United States and Europe are well advised to expect that the diffusion of the new technologies will speed the collapse of closed societies and favor the spread of open ones.”

This is (still) the current US policy towards Cuba, for example. In his recent book, “The Blogging Revolution,” Antony Loewenstein notes that,

“Cuba’s official Communist organ Gramma International reported in June 2008 that a meeting in Washington in May discussed using USAID to ‘promote the clandestine dispatch of electronic materials to the island via European and Latin American intermediaries’.  The aim of the US$45 million was to distribute ‘propaganda pamphlets, cell phones and modern communications equipment’ and ‘train Cubans resident in third countries.’

George W Bush has publicly stated that he wanted to use the Internet to destabilize the Cuban Government. In May 2001, Bush gave a speech in which he advocated the Internet as just one tool to weaken Castro, and the 2006 Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba Report state that US$24 million was being spent on ‘efforts to break the Cuban government’s information blockade and expand access to independent information, including through the Internet’.”

As Ronfeldt noted in 1992, however, “the fact that the new technology can help sweep aside old types of closed regimes does not necessarily mean that it will also make democratic societies more democratic, or totalitarian ones impossible.” Indeed, “a longer view of history provides little assurance that the new technology favors democracy.”

As Ronfeldt wrote, “the printing press and later technologies, like the telephone and radio, did not prevent new and ever worse forms of autocracy from arising.” While these technologies undermined the power base of old monarchies, these same technologies were subsequently “turned into tools of propaganda, surveillance, and subjugation that enabled dictators to seize power and develop totalitarian regimes.”

Ronfeldt maintains that technology is not neutral or apolitical but it does “widen the range of possibilities within a particular context.” But as Clay Shirky notes, “arguments about whether new forms of sharing or collaboration are, on balance, good or bad reveal more about the speaker than the subject.”

In any case, the effect of technology depends on context. Ronfeldt cites Daniel Bell (1979) to explain that “the new revolution in communications makes possible both an intense degree of centralization of power, if the society decides to use it in that way, and large decentralization because of the multiplicity, diversity, and cheapness of the modes of communication.”

Ronfeldt adds that “the existence of democracy does not assure that the new technology will strengthen democratic tendencies and be used as a force for good rather than evil. The new technology may be a double-edged sword even in a democracy.” To this end, “far from favoring democracy or totalitarianism, cyberocracy may facilitate more advanced forms of both. It seems as likely to foster further divergence as convergence, and divergence has been as much the historical rule as convergence.”

Furthermore, Ronfeldt argues that while “in the past the divergence principle was most evident between countries,” a future possibility “is that the principle may increasingly apply within countries. The information revolution may enable hybrid systems to take form that do not fit standard distinctions between democracy and totalitarianism.  In these systems, part of the populace may be empowered to act more democratically than ever, but other parts may be subjected to new techniques of surveillance and control.”

A question that naturally follows is whether cyberocracy will spell the obsolescence and transformation of standard Marxist theses. While Marxism claimed that “capital accummulation” faciliated political exploitation, would Marx not focus instead on “information” if he were to reappear today? Ronfeldt suggests that information may very well come to “succeed capital as a central theoretical concept for political and social philosophy” in the post-industrial age.

According to Marxism, the capitalist accumulation of “surplus labor” and labor’s exploitation by “monopoly capital” account for a society’s structure and its ills and inclinations.  That structure is composed of socioeconomic “classes” that are defined by the “relation to the means of production of capital.”

But the post-industrial age may instead raise a new concern about “surplus information” or “monopoly information” that is concentrated, guarded, and exploited for privileged economic and political purposes.  Moreover, a society may become structured into new kinds of classes depending on one’s relation to the means of production of information.

The above summarizes Ronfeldt’s Cyberocracy paper from 1992. The following is a summary of his 2008 postscript co-authored with Danielle Varda.

Ronfeldt and Varda conclude that “influence in the information age is indeed proving to revolve around symbolic politics and media savvy — the ‘soft power’ aspects of influence.” Based on the evidence of the past 18 years, the authors also conclude that “the information revolution continues to enable both democratic and totalitarian tendencies. […] The information age is indeed leading to new hybrid amalgams of democratic and authoritarian tendencies, often in the same country.” The authors also conclude that “governments are still straining to adapt.  Bureaucracy remains the rule, cyberocracy a speculation.”

In terms of next steps for further research, Ronfeldt and Varda outline four speculations about future trends:

  1. The advanced societies are developing new sensory apparatuses that people have barely begun to understand and use;
  2. A network-based social sector is emerging, distinct from the traditional public and private sectors.  Consisting largely of NGOs and NPOs, its rise is leading to a re-balancing of state, market, and civil-society forces;
  3. New modes of multiorganizational collaboration are taking shape, and progress toward networked governance is occurring;
  4. This may lead to the emergence of the nexus-state as a successor to the nation-state.

The authors argue that people and organizations in “advanced societies” are “building vast new sensory apparatuses for watching what is happening in their own societies and around the world. Of all the uses to which the new technologies are being put, this may become one of the most important for the future of the state and its relationship to society.” The rise of citizen journalism is certainly a significant consequence of the information revolution.

Ronfeld and Varda point out that “many of the new apparatuses reflect the perception of perils.  Crime and terrorism are impelling new installations for watching cityscapes, monitoring communications, and mapping potential hotspots.  But sensor networks are also being deployed for early warning and rapid response regarding many other concerns — disease outbreaks, forest protection, [etc.].”

In addition, the authors argue that “environmental, human-rights, and other social activists continue to develop new media to keep watch and speed mobilization in case of a challenge or abuse somewhere […].” Examples include DigiActive, Digital Democracy 2.0, Witness, Ushahidi, and Global Voices. Indeed, Ronfeldt and Varda suggest that citizens’ concerns about top-down surveillance may be countered by bottom-up “sousveillance” (or inverse surveillance), particularly if individuals wear personal devices for detecting and recording what is occurring in their vicinity.”

Ronfeldt and Vera maintain that new sensory apparatuses will accelerate the “rise of civil-society actors, by providing networked [actors] with new tools not only for checking on the behavior of government and corporate actors, but also for participating in collaborative governance schemes with them.  New mechanisms for attracting and combining diverse viewpoints under the rubric of ‘collective intelligence’ could help foster this. So could the continued advance of principles favoring freedom of information, the right to communicate, and open access.”

While networks are as old as hierarchies and markets, the authors argue that they are “only now coming into their own as a major societal organizing principle.  To function well on a large scale, multiorganizational networks require complex information and communications systems—even more than do hierarchies and markets—and those systems are finally afforded by the Internet and other new digital technologies.”

Clay Shirky would certainly agree with this conclusion. He writes that “we now have communications tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordination action that take advantage of that change.”

Ronfeld and Varda argue that civil society stands to gain the most from the rise of networks since “policy problems have become so complex and intractable, crossing so many jurisdictions and involving so many actors, that governments should evolve beyond the traditional bureaucratic model of the state.”

To this end, “a less hierarchical, more decentralized, pro-partnership model is needed, one that relies more on outsourced market measures and collaborative network designs.  Metaphorically, this means a state that is less about (vertical) stovepipes and silos, and more about (horizontal) webs, bridges, and pools—a state where issues are deliberated less in channels and more on platforms.”

Ronfeldt and Varda forsee that “the evolution of network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies will attract government policymakers, business leaders, and civil-society actors to create myriad new mechanisms for communication, coordination, and collaboration spanning all levels of governance.  Aging contentions that ‘the government’ or ‘the market’ is the solution to particular public-policy issues will give way to inspired new ideas that, in some areas, ‘the network” [or, in my opinion, ‘the ecosystem’] is the solution.'”

Returning to the question of hierarchies versus networks, Ronfeldt and Varda maintain that “states, not to mention societies as a whole, cannot endure without hierarchies. Familial tribes and clans were the first major form of organization to arise centuries ago; hierarchical institutions were second—and the state remains the home realm of this form. Information-age government may well undergo ‘reinventing’ and be made flatter, more networked, decentralized, etc.—but it will still have hierarchy at its core.”

In conclusion, Ronfeldt and Varda argue that the rise of the “Nexus-State” does not imply the weakening of the “traditional state.” To be sure, “the rise of the market system had those effects on the state, beginning a few centuries ago.  As the state relinquished the control of commercial activities to private companies, both the nation and the state became stronger.  Likewise, as the social sector expands and activities are transferred to it, the state should again emerge with a new kind of strength, even though it loses some scope in some areas.”

Only time will tell. I look forward to David’s update in 2020!

Patrick Philippe Meier

Towards an Emergency News Service?

The 2005 World Disasters Report stated that “information is a vital form of aid in itself [since] disaster affected people need information as much as water, food, medicine or shelter. Information can save lives, livelihoods and resources.”

As we know only too well, information is often one of the first casualties in crises: crippled communications and shattered transportation links present significant obstacles. Communication with beneficiaries is rarely high on the priority lists of many relief responders.


The Thomson Reuters Foundation is therefore proposing to tackle this problem with the creation of an Emergency Information Service (EIS). The concept is simple:

Deploy highly mobile reporting teams to disaster zones to disseminate fast, reliable information to affected populations. The EIS will untangle the often chaotic information flows from governments, international agencies and domestic aid players, producing trustworthy material in local languages for distribution by domestic media, cell phone networks and other methods appropriate to circumstances.

Thompson Reuters wants to send out teams of specialist reporters to cover unfolding disaster zones and channel vital information directly to affected communities. The teams would also interface with governments, the military, the United Nations, international NGOs and local charities.

I can see how this would address some of the current shortcomings, but I’m not convinced about sending in teams of reporters. For one, how will EIS deal with governments that refuse entry into their disaster effected regions? We need a less “egocentric” approach, one that seeks “the proper balance between the need for external assistance and the capacity of local people to deal with the situation” (Cardona 2004).

EIS’s reporting strategy appears to replicate the top-down, external approach to humanitarian response instead of empowering local at-risk communities directly so they can conduct their own reporting and communicating. For example, why not include a strategy to improve and expand citizen journalism in crisis zones?

In any case, I think EIS’s disseminating strategy includes some good ideas. For example:

  • Remote information terminals: These are low-cost computer terminals to be distributed en masse to affected villages, local NGOs, media outlets etc. Terminals will be wind-up or solar-powered laptops capable of being connected to mobile or satellite phones. With minimal training, local people can set up the terminals and use them to gain critical information about relief efforts or trace relatives.
  • Mobile phone distributions: In many crisis situations, SMS messaging is possible even when other communications are destroyed or overloaded. The distribution of thousands of low-cost handsets to community leaders, NGO volunteers and members of the local media could create a “bush telegraph” effect and allow two-way interaction with beneficiaries.
  • Recorded information bulletins: Mobile phone users will be able to dial in to regularly updated, local-language bulletins giving the latest information on health, shelter, government response and so on.
  • Zero-tech solutions: Megaphones, posters, leaflet drops, bulletin boards, community newsletters.

In order for this to catch, ENS should be set up to provide services during times of non-disasters as well.

In terms of next steps:

“The Thomson Reuters Foundation will soon launch a new website – – to serve as a gateway for all its activities. The Emergency News Agency and AlertNet will be core components of the new site. will provide a single point of access for aid professionals, journalists, pro bono service providers, donors and members of the public. Telecommunications allowing, it could also serve as a powerful resource centre for communities affected by disasters.”

For more information on the Emergency News Service, please see this thinkpaper (PDF).

Patrick Philippe Meier

Virtual Worlds Explained

My interest in Virtual Worlds was recently sparked by Caja Thimm’s fascinating research on Second Life (SL) and Larry Pixa’s intriguing work on simulation platforms for disaster training. I was therefore eager to read David Wyld’s new report on “Government in 3D” which explains the in’s and out’s of virtual worlds.

What follows is a series of short excerpts that I found particularly interesting. These range from terrorism and money laundering to game-wide epidemics and the role of the media in virtual worlds.

The Past and Future of Virtual Worlds

  • The US military originally developed the term “serious games” as a more acceptable way to talk about war games with Congress and the public.
  • Simulations for military training can be traced as far back as the Roman Empire, with Roman commanders’ “sand tables” which were a small copy of the physical battlefield used by commanders to test their battle strategies.
  • Just as the radio gave way to the more immersive experience of television, today’s flat, single-user websites will morph into more interactive, immersive multiple-user experiences.
  • There is a growing belief that virtual worlds may well replace the web browser as the way we interface with the Internet. The web allows you to call up information but the virtual environment allows you to experience and visualize data.
  • The word avatar has a specific historic and religious significance, taken to mean in the Hindu tradition the physical embodiment of a divine being.
  • There will be a market need for helping people manage their digital identities.
  • One of the distinct challenges for organizations operating in virtual-world environments will be to make their interface and content available on mobile devices.
  • There will be a need for verifiable data on virtual worlds and activity within them. This will present a collosal market opportunity for firms seeking to become the “Nielsen Ratings” equivalent for virtual worlds and for companies that make it easier to capture quantifiable metrics from these sites.
  • Research will in time become one of the primary products of virtual worlds as we’re building petri dishes for social science with environments such as Second Life.
  • If in five years, Second Life experience is as good as watching the movie Shrek, there will be uses for it that we don’t understand yet.

Intelligence and Terrorism in Virtual Worlds

  • The new Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) office is setting up a virtual world code-named “Babel Bridge” in which members of the intelligence community could securely meet, interact, and exchange information such as audio files and images from spy satellites. This “digital war room” is expected to facilitate collaboration and decision-making.
  • Second Life has drawn attention from the FBI and other agencies on matters such as gambling and money laundering.
  • Terrorism in one form or another has been a part of Second Life for some time. Among the terrorist incidents in-world have been bombings at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s headquarters and the Reebok store, a shooting at an American Apparel store, and a helicopter being flown into the Nissan building.
  • Real-world terrorists’ use of virtual worlds is a growing concern. Intelligence experts have speculated that virtual worlds will be conducive for real-world terrorist groups to recruit, organize, and even simulate possible attacks.
  • The “Reynard Project“, a proposal by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, (ODNI) would seek to identify the emerging social, behavioral and cultural norms in virtual worlds and gaming environments. The project would then apply lessons learned to determine the feasibility of automatically detecting suspicious behavior and actions in the virtual world.
  • Some are concerned that virtual worlds provide terrorists with an anonymous arena in which to swap information—and even funds, as virtual-world currencies can be potentially used to move money around the globe in a relatively hard-to-detect manner.
  • The Maldives, Sweden, Estonia, Kazakhstan and Serbia each have embassies in Second Life.

Training and Simulations in Virtual Worlds

  • Crisis response training in virtual environments can provide unique learning strategies. For example, if first responders in a simulated environment fail to put on their reflective jacket when approaching the scene of an accident, their avatar may be hit by a car—a negative reinforcement that could not occur in a real-life training.
  • A disease called “Corrupted Blood” was unleashed into World of Warcraft in 2005 to be a hindrance to act as a hindrance to high-level players as they battled a powerful creature named Hakkar. However, the infection quickly spread by characters moving throughout the game (as in a real-life epidemic), causing an uncontrolled, game-wide pandemic. This episode was addressed as a case study in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, showing lessons that could be learned by real-world epidemiologists and health professionals.
  • In-world activities can pay positive health dividends for the real person behind the avatar. Indeed studies have shown that individuals having their avatars excercise in virtual worlds are more likely to engage in excercise in real life.

Finance and Economy in Virtual Worlds

  • Visitors in Second Life (SL) can exchange their real dollars for Linden Dollars and vice versa. The size of the SL economy has been estimated at $300 million or more, meaning its virtual economy is larger than the gross domestic product of some real nations.
  • There is more trade in Linden Dollars and exchanges between Linden and other currencies than many real-world currencies.
  • There have been well-publicized success stories of Second Life entrepreneurs, including most notably Anshe Chung, a German citizen, who is the first real-life millionaire based on being one of the largest owners of virtual real estate in Second Life.
  • An analysis published in the Harvard Business Review estimates that in-world sales of virtual goods dwarf the external trade of such items−by 20 times more.
  • Second Life had difficulty with “banks” operating in the virtual world, unfettered by real-world banking regulations, reserve requirements, and interest rates in the low single digits. In fact, it had been labeled a “Wild West” financial atmosphere, replete with banks appearing and disappearing, and with virtual bank runs.
  • One of the biggest parts of the Second Life economy in its formative stage was gambling.

Media and Film in Virtual Worlds

  • The news media today are not just reporting on Second Life; they are reporting directly from Second Life. The Reuters news agency has embedded a reporter in-world for over three years. CNN launched a bureau in Second Life, a virtual version of it’s I-Report, whereby Second Life residents routinely submit their news stories and photos of in-world news and events.
  • Machinima is a new type of computer animation (or videos) created entirely within the confines of a virtual world. The term is based on the phrase “machine cinema” and machinima videos can either capture unscripted, live action or can follow scripts and actual plots as determined by the machinima filmaker.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crowdsourcing Honesty?

I set an all-time personal record this past week: my MacBook was dormant for five consecutive days. I dedicate this triumph to the delightful friends with whom I spent New Year’s. Indeed, I had the pleasure of celebrating with friends from Digital Democracy, The Fletcher School and The Global Justice Center on a Caribbean island for some much needed time off.


We all brought some good reading along and I was finally able to enjoy a number of books on my list. One of these, Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational” was recommended to me by Erik Hersman, and I’m really glad he did. MIT Professor Ariely specializes in behavioral economics. His book gently discredits mainstream economics. Far from being rational agents, we are remarkably irrational in our decision-making, and predictably so.

Ariely draws on a number of social experiments to explicate his thesis.

For social scientists, experiments are like microscopes or strobe lights. They help us slow human behavior to a frame-by-frame narration of events, isolate individual forces, and examine those forces carefully and in more detail. They let us test directly and unambiguously what makes us tick.

In a series of fascinating experiments, Ariely seeks to understand what factors influence our decisions to be honest, especially when we can get away with dishonesty. In one experiment, participants complete a very simple math exercise. When done, the first set of participants (control group) are asked to hand in their answers for independent grading but the second set are subsequently given the answers and asked to report their own scores. At no point do the latter hand in their answers; hence the temptation to cheat.

In this experiment, some students are asked to list the names of 10 books they read in high school while others are asked to write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they can recall prior to the math exercise. Ariely’s wanted to know whether this would have any effect on the honesty of those participants reporting their scores? The statistically significant results surprised even him: “The students who had been asked to recall the Ten Commandments had not cheated at all.”

In fact, they averaged the same score as the (control) group that could not cheat. In contrast, participants who were asked to list their 10 high school books and self-report their scores cheated: they claimed grades that were 33% higher than those who could not cheat (control group).

What especially impressed me about the experiment […] was that the students who could remember only one or two commandments were as affected by them as the students who remembered nearly all ten. This indicated that it was not the Commandments themselves that encouraged honestly, but the mere contemplation of a moral benchmark of some kind.

Ariely carried out a follow up experiment in which he asked some of his MIT students to sign an honor code instead of listing the Commandments. The results were identical. What’s more, “the effect of signing a statement about an honor code is particularly amazing when we take into account that MIT doesn’t even have an honor code.”

In short, we are far more likely to be honest when reminded of morality, especially when temptation strikes. Ariely thus concludes that the act of taking an oath can make all the difference.

I’m intrigued by this finding and it’s potential application to crowdsourcing crisis information, e.g., Ushahidi‘s work in the DRC. Could some version of an honor code be introduced in the self-reporting process? Could the Ushahidi team create a control group to determine the impact on data quality? Even if impact were difficult to establish, would introducing an honor code still make sense given Ariely’s findings on basic behavioral psychology?

Patrick Philippe Meier