#Facets2016 Presentation

My lovely friend and colleague An Xiao Mina recently recommended me for the keynote panel at #Facets2016. Facets is organized by Caroline Sinders, who works at the intersection of design, art and technology.

Our panel theme was “When civic hacking goes awry”, and the panelists were some of the coolest, most interesting people I’ve ever shared a stage with. In addition to me (a journalist), Caroline invited WIRED fellow April Glaser (who has done fantastic organizing work in community radio), tech writer Casey Johnston, Sha Hwang (described by Bloomberg as a “data viz superstar”) and researcher Jade Davis (whose Twitter stream is basically a list of things I wish I’d said).

Here’s the video:

//livestream.com/accounts/686369/events/5329362/videos/122426923/player?autoPlay=false&height=360&mute=false&width=640

You can see my full presentation above. I also threw the slides online, here.

The presentation gave me a chance to try and clarify some of my thing around what it means to create impact and meaningful change as a mediamaker, particularly in short-term collaborative formats like hackathons. The title of the presentation was “when civic hacking goes awry” and I thought that was a great way of suggesting a critical lens for looking at well-intentioned projects that don’t necessarily endure. As someone who’s organized her fair share of such events, I’ve thought long and hard about how to measure and represent their value.

For Facets, I offered the case study of a previous project that I’d really enjoyed doing, which was the hack4change we’d organized in Delhi back when I was co-organizer of Hacks/Hackers New Delhi (now Hackers/Hackers India). As I said then, I don’t believe this event was perfect, but it provides a useful practical framework for considering some of these questions.

Problem: After the Delhi gang rape of 2012 (warning: graphic description at link), the world’s attention was on women’s rights in Delhi. But the global media narrative about Jyoti Singh’s horrific fate didn’t capture the many ways – legally, socially, economically – women face disenfranchisement in India. The goal of the hackathon was partly to bring together people with various skill sets (engineers, translators, researchers, activists, journalists) to try and find better ways to make these experiences visible.

Data: We took a new approach to data, in the sense that we interpreted “data” as widely as possible. So “data” became the raw material of the stories we wanted to tell, and included the crowd-sourced women’s harassment stories submitted to Whypoll/SafeCity, the audio stories by rural women collected by Gram Vaani, and the case studies meticulously compiled and researched by Breakthrough India (our partner organization in the hackathon). These were all important data, but how would we – as journalists, filmmakers, and storytellers – bring them to life?

Organization: Beforehand, we advertised the event as well as some of the “story streams” or “datasets” we’d have on hand. We appointed group leaders and encouraged potential attendees to reach out to them beforehand if they were interested in their projects. We hoped this format would reduce some of the team-formation confusion that often exists at the start of events like these.

Outcomes: One of the things I took away from this exercise is that organizers of events like these need to have very clear but also very realistic goals in mind for what these types of events can achieve. As I mention in the presentation, I think our hackathon was great at

  1. teaching people new skills
  2. creating an inter-disciplinary environment
  3. generating enthusiasm and awareness
  4. creating initial ideas and prototypes

I think one of the challenges for organizers is that both participants and outside observers expect events like these to *SOLVE* problems, when the types of problems that we set out to address are often quite complex. If anything, we spent a lot of time at the hackathon understanding that the problem may not be what we thought it was, that it required some energy just to pin down.

Some people also expect hackathons to result in long lasting companies, or life-changing new products. The reality is that companies and products are not static creations, and the best ones evolve significantly over time. There are people who want to change the hackathon format to focus more on pipeline issues, and want the results to feed into longer-term accelerators. This is a great idea, but it’s a fundamentally different one.

Going Awry: At the same time, Caroline’s provocation is a worthy one. There are many different ways for events like this to go awry, and I focus on a few of them below.

The first is a predictable and large adverse event, like a massive data leak that comes from inadequate privacy and safeguards. “Good intentions” is not an excuse, and when working with vulnerable populations, the risks of exposure of people’s data and stories needs to be taken very seriously. As the term “data” increasingly becomes a byword for “the constantly logged material of our lives”, we need better and possibly more standardized best practices for data ethics. At our hackathon, we did talk about anonymization and consent with our data partners and among ourselves, but this is an area that requires firmer guidelines and possibly also better tools. (We have so many great new tools for data visualization, but how many of these tools also talk about data privacy?)

The second, also in the realm of unintended results: a hackathon that aims to create or capture women’s experiences in the media can increase stereotyping and lack of representation. When it comes to people or communities who aren’t regularly represented in the media, it might make sense to reconsider some of our established modes of doing journalistic business (for example, what should the consent process for interviews look like? Can members of a community be offered more input into the story creation process?) If I were to host this event again, I would give more importance to this second set of questions. What does it mean to create better relationships with communities who aren’t regularly represented, and how can mainstream journalism (in particular) become more sensitive to the modern impact of its embedded/historical standards and practices? (One could argue that #beyondcomments, the event I helped host in Feb 2016 at the Media Lab, was an attempt to answer these types of questions in a similar format.)

That said, I think we look at events like hackathons as all-or-nothing scenarios: either you have a positive impact or you have a negative one. The reality that I’ve experienced, as an organizer of hackathons but also as a practitioner more broadly, is that outcomes are often mixed. Great things  can happen, but there are also things that you’d probably never do again, or would do very differently. This doesn’t mean that the event was a failure, but rather than learning is an incremental process and neat “solutions” are often illusory. I think these events are good at getting groups of people to spend time on problems that might not otherwise get a lot of attention, but that the people are well-equipped to address. Hackathons are great at fostering experimentation.

I do not share the perception that hackathons are a failure if they do not result in long-term projects, or rather, I do not share the sense that this failure is absolute and renders the format worthless. This question came up at the event, and I said “is longevity the only way to measure the success of an initiative like this?” As I argue, it can also be measured in things like “empathy.” After all, creating a better society is a function of people, not just technology.

Facets Panel: Because of the panelists’ wide-ranging interests, we spent a lot of time on questions that I hadn’t anticipated. I was especially interested when we had a mini-debate over what the term “hacking” really means. One of the participants felt the term had become too diluted, and should really be reserved for technical breaking and entering. Jade offered possibly the best response to this questioner, when she said that the dictionary definition of ‘hacking’ was originally to break something by means of targeted application of energy. I offered my take, which is that when we define ‘hacking’ narrowly by the skills required to do it, we exclude many people from the process who have a right to be there. (After all, if the only people we ever invite to hackathons are software engineers – already a privileged and well-represented group in society – then we miss out on a lot of perspectives that are important from a civic perspective).

Our moderator, the awesome Luke DuBois, asked me a great question about how you get the attendees at events like hackathons to be representative in a truly civic sense. I think inclusivity is a worthy and necessary goal to strive for, but at the same time, as a pragmatist, I believe that every group of people is selected and restricted in some way. Rather than pretend that these restrictions are evil or that they don’t exist, I think it makes more sense to be upfront about the restrictions and to continue to strive for a valuable array of voices.

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Thanksgiving Dinner, Or, How to Approach Difficult Online Conversations

Another post that arrived courtesy of Ethan Zuckerman and Matt Carroll’s “News and Participatory Media” class at the MIT Media Lab. Our assignment for this week was inspired by Chris Mooney‘s Mother Jones article, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science.” In the piece, Mooney writes about motivated reasoning, or the idea that people tend to rationalize in the face of scientific facts that contradict their own values. Mooney’s solution, for those who seek to persuade, is:  “You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.”

In order to exercise our persuasion muscles, teammate Christina Houle and I wanted to create an interactive program where players could interact with different methods of persuasion. What I took away from this exercise: to lead with “values”, to an extent, means to lead with “listening.” In order to appreciate someone else’s values, you have to understand how and why they construct the truth the way they do. 

The role playing game we created, below, is in its initial stages. The class offered many suggestions, including the idea that we should make the answer choices more plentiful and subtle, but they liked the interface. 

The game also addresses an idea I’ve been interested in ever since co-organizing the #beyondcomments conference at the Media Lab: how do we deal with difficult, controversial topics online? What are the crucial moments when conversations go awry, and how do we steer convos back on track?

Creating the Game

Christina Houle and I decided to team up for this assignment. We tossed around a few ideas for creating something interactive, and she mentioned that she’d previously used Muzzy Lane to create an online interactive game (Muzzy Lane builds software that in turn allows teachers and educators to create games for learning). Christina and I wanted to capture the ways that discussions unfold in real time, while at the same time offering people feedback on argumentation strategies. We thought it would be interesting to allow people to role play a difficult conversation online. By offering players multiple response options (as well as feedback on those responses), we thought the exercise could become more interesting and demonstrate practically how to lead arguments with values.

We decided that our role play scenario was going to be Thanksgiving dinner with a friend’s family. Why Thanksgiving dinner? When we started talking about our own experiences with controversial conversations, we found that these tough conversations often happened with family members. What makes disagreements in this context so difficult is that we care about the people involved, and can’t just walk away even when disagreements can be profound.

The topic we wanted to explore: paid family leave. This is exactly the kind of subject on which members of a family might have very different views. We wanted to bring out the family dynamic, as well as allow different family members to share their experiences.

Our scenario:

“You’re visiting your friend Rita’s family for Thanksgiving Dinner. You’ve never met any other member of the family, and don’t know what people’s political beliefs are. After a warm welcome, you all sit down to dinner. The topic turns to paid family leave – a discussion that has been much in the news. As you navigate the conversation, your goal is to learn what other people’s values are, and use what you’ve learned to guide your responses to what other people say. Hopefully, you’ll learn something new while still advocating for your own position – which is that paid family leave in the United States should be expanded.”

Scoring

Rather than grading responses as right or wrong, we allowed players to earn points for “judgment” or “values.” When players choose to lead with values – which means understanding another character’s point of view – they get a point for values. If, however, they opt to go straight for fact-based confrontation, they earn a point for judgment. At the end of the game, they get a total score and some general feedback on strategy.

Link to the beta version of our game:

https://insights.muzzylane.com/sample/web/bd2ce8b0-3230-432c-a214-d93377c61c50

Our process:

Muzzy Lane’s interface is fantastic! Here’s how we created our exercise, followed by a few screenshots from the actual gameplay.

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Learning FOLD.Cm, or “So You Want to Read: Zimbabwean Authors”

This is another post that came out of Ethan Zuckerman’s brilliant ‘Future of news and participatory media’ class. Our assignment was to interview a fellow classmate and write a story in which we used that classmate as an expert on a wider topic. I love literature, and was interested in finding a compelling use case/format for storytelling on Fold.cm, a contextual storytelling platform invented by my friend Alexis Hope.

This was a really challenging assignment, because it forced me to think hard about what qualified someone as an expert. I didn’t want to take the easy route and interview Fungai about his work. Although it’s a great and interesting topic, it’s also something that he talks about all the time. I did a little Facebook stalking and noticed that he posted a lot about literature. I thought it would be great to put together a contextual primer on literature by Zimbabwean authors, using Fungai’s commentary as the context. I liked the idea of a “contextual reading list.” One of the things I find frustrating about reviews on sites like Amazon’s is that book reviews are provided independent of wider context. For ex: who is the person doing the review? What expectations, history or loyalties do they bring to the underlying literature? I thought Fungai could serve as a great expert. In addition to being a media maker, he has deep emotional and personal connections to the material.

My second goal for this assignment was to try and find a good use for FOLD. I think material like reviews makes for great FOLD stories because the contextual embedding format makes great sense. So I thought I’d use FOLD to juxtapose narratives. On the one side, in the main story blocks, I’d have Fungai talking about his experiences with some of these key novels and texts by Zimbabwean writers. In the right-side blocks, I posted links, reviews and other material related to those texts so that readers could go off and explore more on their own (which was the whole goal). The goal of a review is to communicate the essence of a book. But by using FOLD’s capabilities in this way, I was able to focus the interview sections on Fungai’s experience, and to package the summaries/etc in the links I presented on the side. It was a great and interesting experience, and I’d be very interested if anyone has feedback on what it was like to read in this format.

Story here.

This particular assignment got tons of positive feedback in class. In class, someone compared the interview chunks to the wall text in a museum exhibit. Although I’d never drawn that comparison, I think that was – subconsciously – exactly the effect I was after. The assignment also spurred a broader discussion about the journalistic interview process.

In terms of using Fold…the reason I didn’t use Fold before now is because I wanted to figure out a type of story that would play really well on the platform. In terms of use, the interface is fun, goofy and easy – honestly, it’s a joy to use. The cards are more attractive for me, as a content creator, than the tedious process of highlighting and hyperlinking specific words.

An Apology to Fanfiction

A few days ago I went through the Internet in order to find a blog post that I’d written back when I was working as a media product manager in India. I found the post. I was reading it through and all seemed OK, until near the end, when I came across this bit:

One possibility is to approach user generated content the way Amazon is trying to approach “fan fiction.”  (Hear me out!) Amazon has found a way to possibly monetize fan fiction (which is a genius idea, only slightly unhinged by the fact that almost all fan fiction is absolute drivel.)

To be honest, I don’t remember writing this, and I’m utterly shocked that I did. (In my only possible defense: this was around the time that 50 Shades of Grey came out and tarred fanfiction with a pretty dense brush.) But, I’m sorry anyway. I’m sorry that I wrote those sentences, because I was so, so wrong.

The weird part is, I’ve always identified with fandom’s hardcore, and fanfiction (and fan creativity more broadly) has always been a presence in my life. At age 13, a friend and I convinced our parents to let us go to the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. I spent most of my adolescence with Mercedes Lackey and George RR Martin, and so did my friends. I fantasized about Hogwarts before there was Hogwarts. I played online RPGs (I was, at one point, a Celtic sorceress). At age 16, I wrote a fantasy novel and sent it to all my friends and a lot of the kids in my tenth grade class (oh, yes I did). So it’s kind of weird to me now that I would have written a post in which I denounced fanfiction as “drivel.” Pretty weird, coming from someone who knew what filking was back in eighth grade, and who liked Game of Thrones when everyone still thought of it as A Song of Ice and Fire. Although I never posted any fanfiction, I think that’s partly because, by the time the Internet came out, I was already so deeply used to writing my own creative fiction that I kept on with that.

Somewhere between age 16 and 26, I drifted away from fantasy and science fiction, and from fandom. Sometimes, now, I think it’s because I was tired of the way great fantasy epics kept breaking my heart by ending. Maybe it was because I genuinely wanted to try something else. Maybe it’s because, like a lot of people, I somehow internalized the assumption that fandom is for kids, not adults. The idea that we can or should grow out of fandom is both damaging and useless, because it’s just untrue to my experience. It’s also a remarkably widespread notion: as recently as this month, Wired ran an article on fandom that ended with:

At some point, we all have to grow up.

But actually: the experiences of fandom and love are not that different, despite the different relative ages at which society expects us to experience them. Consigning parasocial interaction to childhood is about as useful as the flowery but vague stories of romantic adult love that we keep telling ourselves. Real life isn’t like any of this stuff.

A huge part of my experience at MIT has been recovering the intense love I felt for those teenage passions. This return has occurred on both a personal and a professional level. In my particular graduate program, people revere fandom. Our founder, Henry Jenkins, has written about fan culture extensively. In fact, he’s considered one of the early founders of fan studies as an academic discipline. In my first year of classes, we read a monograph by our professor Ian Condry, who among other things talks about the intensive and loving world of fansubs. Recently, Henry met with a bunch of us (the current grad students), and talked about mixed-race and black readings of the character Hermione, from Harry Potter. (Mixed-race Hermione is a thing.) For a long time, mixed-race Hermione existed only in certain readers’ imaginations and dreams, as well as in fan art. Fan art became the place to explore a possibility that the canonical text neither allowed nor disallowed. But by allowing a space to contemplate this potential, and by demonstrating a desire for greater diversity in the character, fan art may have contributed to the casting of a black actor in a Harry Potter play, leading to this Tweet by JK Rowling:

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Our interpretation of texts forms its own texts that in turn form history. But even if the canonical text had specified that Hermione was white, fanfiction might have taken the opportunity to suggest otherwise, and it would still have been an important provocation. After all, fanfiction has at one point suggested that almost every male character in the Lord of the Rings was gay, and rather than get squeamishly insistent about how Frodo and Sam did or did not survive the lonely trek to Mount Doom, it might be more worth it to say: brava, readers, for being a bit more progressive than Tolkien himself. And who knows? One of my other teenage passions was musicals based on novels (yes, yes it was). Lyricist Nan Knighton, who wrote the book for The Scarlet Pimpernel, decided that in the musical, the characters of Chauvelin and Marguerite would be lovers. She defended the choice by saying that if the Baroness Orczy were alive today, she might have written it similarly.

Who decides what is canon, and why is canon sacrosanct? If this is true of the Bible and the Constitution, then it can certainly be true of the Lord of the Rings.

Some people like to say things like “Keep your identity politics out of my media. Not every character needs to be someone you can identify with.” Most of the people who say these kinds of things, I can only imagine, either do not care about any form of media or are clueless about the way that media inform and reflect society in significant ways. Media portrayals change the way we view the world, with very real implications.

On a personal note.

Like I said, part of being at MIT has been returning to some of the textual spaces I once loved, whether that’s watching Firefly or Doctor Who, or going back to the novels of Robin Hobb. In fact, I started watching Doctor Who a month ago, and have become wildly and unexpectedly obsessed (a great delight to my Dad, who was the lonely fan in our house for all the years I grew up). For the first time, I find myself contemplating cosplay: I want to dress up as the Doctor.

The Doctor, of course, has always been cast as male. While Googling, I came across a lovely io9 article about female fans who dress up as male characters, particularly the Doctor. The quote that spoke to me the most came from academic and fan Courtney Stoker, who has studied female Doctor cosplayers:

While there are plenty of awesome companions, there are no female heroes in Doctor Who. The companions are, definitionally, sidekicks. And femme Doctor cosplayers are very aware of this. They want to be heroes, not followers and sidekicks, however badass. And Doctor Who does not offer them a hero that matches their experience, who looks anything like them. So they invent her.

Rarely has a piece of journalism so perfectly expressed something I hadn’t expressed so clearly even to myself.  But wait, Stoker says more, and it gets even better:

Further, I don’t think femme Doctor cosplay is just a critique of the show. It’s also a critique of the fan community. Nightsky, a cosplayer I met at Gallifrey 2011, told me “I do want to get my fellow fans thinking about the roles that fiction has for women, and how that has and hasn’t changed since 1963. I want them to say, ‘A female Doctor???!? Whaaat?’ and then think about why that sounds so ridiculous, even inside their heads. […] I want them to say, ‘Impossible—she could never run to save the day dressed like that’ and then think about how fashion (and, more broadly, societal expectations) hobbles women and constrains their choices of roles.” …Femme Doctor cosplayers are often trying to critique the way the Doctor Who fan community treats gender and how that community ignores the ways that women are constrained by society, science fiction, and this show that we all love so much.

These are not unimportant concerns to raise, whether about society, science fiction, or this show that we all love so much. These kinds of questions, when raised, force people to reconsider their views, as Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat admitted to doing when it comes to questions of how race plays into the casting of the show. And the casting of shows matters because, well…#OscarsSoWhite? Of course, what the Oscars and people like Moffat (for a long time, anyway) failed to account for was the fact that the demand for greater diversity was less a matter of politics than one of commerce: the key consumers of their product were shifting. This is something that Moffat finally seems to have come to terms with, noting that the “all blokes” atmosphere of early Doctor Who gatherings has now given way to “loads of women.”

Finally, Stoker completes the loop by linking fan cosplay back to the wider world of performance:

While cosplayers are fans, they are also usually costumers, or even actors.

If I’m blurring the lines between sanctioned and unsanctioned forms of creative endeavor, it’s because creativity doesn’t recognize copyright. Moffat deserves some credit, at least, for admitting that he writes fan fiction for a living. Creative spaces have always been how we explore not just what is, but what is possible.

So to cosplayers, fan writers, fan arists, filkers, and everyone else: thanks for creating a world where a small Indian adult woman can dress up as the hero she’s always wanted to be, and still feel less alone and less ridiculous. Thanks for understanding that this act is not just about media, it is about the world. Thanks for realizing that doing creative shit is fun, even if people don’t always like what we do. I’m sorry for being an asshole, and for trying to diminish labor of love by referring to their end product as “drivel.” We’re in this together; we always were.

Civil Comments: What it Will and Won’t Do

This semester, I’m taking Ethan Zuckerman’s “Future of News and Participatory Media” class at the MIT Media Lab. This is a brilliant class that’s introduced me to a ton of great ideas, and revived my long-dormant love of blogging. This post is a repost of an assignment I originally did for the class, in which we were asked to profile a tool that we believe has the potential to significantly change the practice of journalism.

The tool I’m interested in is Civil Comments.

How it Works

Their video offers a great overview of the system.

Civil Comments – How It Works from Civil Co. on Vimeo.

Why It’s Interesting

The Civil Comments tool provides an interesting intervention in the comments space, because it offers a unique but also intuitive answer to some of the key problems facing online content publishers when it comes to their comments.

  1. The Expense of Moderating, Especially at Scale – many content publishers currently face a huge problem when it comes to moderating comments. Most moderation requires a human editor. Although many tools will automatically filter out abusive terms, it still takes a human moderator with judgment (and maturity!) to read user-flagged comments. For publishers who deal with heavy content volume, human moderation can be very expensive. By leveraging the power of the audience, Civil offers to make comment moderation free, and scalable. This is huge. The Civil interface is also pretty simple – it looks a lot like TripAdvisor’s or Amazon’s ratings, which are proven interfaces that people like to use.
  2. Limiting incentives to abuse – the most thought-provoking claim that Civil makes is that they’re able to single out abusive commenters through this crowd-sourced system. I’m not entirely sure if that’s the case, but their initial run with Willamette week appears to have garnered some positive reviews. Although untrained folks may NOT always be able to filter out abusive comments, this crowd-moderated system raises some interesting questions about the incentives to post uncivil commentary. If comments are social, as many people (including Joseph Reagle of Northeastern, in his book on the topic) have suggested, then that begs the question: if only 1 or 2 people at most are going to see an abusive comment before it gets buried, will trolls even want to post abuse in this kind of system? Is the incentive to abuse lessened when there’s no audience? When it comes to mass troll attacks, Civil claims they have a system that will detect them.
  3. Hierarchy? Values? By enabling a form of peer moderation, it’s possible that publishers who use the Civil system will send a positive message about the role that their community plays in setting the site’s values. It also marks the comment section as an independent space, one where both readers and journalists get to set priorities. At the same time, because readers get random comments to review, this peer moderation system might offer ways to avoid some of the bias (towards highly ranked commenters, towards familiar commenters, towards early comments) that other peer moderation systems are prone to (Lampe et al).

What it Won’t (Necessarily) Do

  1. Eliminate issues of site-wide bias: Many moderators of peer moderated sites whom I’ve spoken to have mentioned that their sites have a particular political bias. I don’t see that Civil will address site-wide bias very effectively, especially considering that people tend to moderate comments more favorably when those comments reflect their own views.
  2. Invite minority views/communities into conversations. One of the moderators whom I spoke with offered a compelling case study of how their site had drawn flak from trans members about transphobic language. The moderators made an executive decision to change community norms, and enforce those changes, even though the majority of site users weren’t as affected by the issue. Sometimes moderators might want to enforce values/etc that the community does not. How are these more subtle social norms introduced? How are they maintained and shown to new members who are visiting for the first time? It seems like the initial judgment made by the crowd might be a large-grained filter at best, and exclusionary at worst.
  3. Protect identities and data. Conspicuously absent from the Civil Comments’ webpage: any mention of what happens to users’ comment data. Civil says that they offer analytics, which means that they must collect data or offer a data collection option. But publishers run their own ‘instances’ of Civil. How are those data stored and anonymized? Who has access? Will Civil turn around and sell that information? Particularly relevant in conjunction with point #2, but problems of online harassment in general.

Editor’s Note: In class, Ethan linked Civil Comments to the idea of the re-captcha. It’s a great connection, and the re-captcha is a fascinating way to subtly mine the wisdom of the crowd, in very specific (and socially beneficial!) ways. Moderating 3 comments is significantly more labor-intensive than typing two words, which makes me wonder how much it inhibits online conversation to require moderation for EVERY act of commenting (including a reply).

Two Views on China, and what UGC has to do with it

Recently, I read two articles in which journalists travel to China. The first:

I Followed My Stolen iPhone Across The World, Became A Celebrity In China, And Found A Friend For Life

Matt Stopera’s epic BuzzFeed article is weird, wacky and fascinating. (As is the fact that when I click his name on BuzzFeed, I get directed to this list of articles. Judging by the fact that they are in multiple languages that Matt does not speak, I can only assume he is not the author of all of them. But it makes me wonder – how long has BuzzFeed been translating all their pieces? And who is doing the translating? And why did I not know about it?)

The second:

Rise of the Red Prince

Evan Osnos’s multi-layered, multi-sourced article is a masterpiece of deep and difficult reporting.

The point of contrasting these two articles isn’t just to provide two differing views on China: it’s to contrast two differing editorial views on what journalism means, and how it should be conducted. Osnos’ piece is traditional journalism: steeped in deep knowledge of Chinese history and politics. Osnos weaves a story around his inaccessible subject (Chinese President Xi Jinping) with the dexterity of a spider. Unfortunately, if you subscribe to the theory that traditional journalism is dead, then it’s with the dexterity of a spider about to be eaten by its mate, the Internet.

Meanwhile, Stopera’s piece seems ebullient in a uniquely BuzzFeed-y way, bursting at the seams with extreme self-exposure (“I accidentally endorsed this brand”) photos marked by his own MS Paint captions, no mention of China’s history or modern politics, and an editorial approach that seems, at best, rapaciously commercial. Reading it, I can’t help but feel that I’m buoyed along partly by Stopera’s enthusiasm and partly by the perspicacity of the BuzzFeed corporate brass, who have seized the bull of brief notoriety by the horns and are determined to ride it as long as possible. Partnership with Weibo? Why not! Reporters endorsing brands? Why not! It’s all in the service of 70 million (or is it 140 million?) Chinese eyeballs. Forget the American Internet, Weibo is where it’s at. Especially if a lot of people in China think a goofy-looking BuzzFeed writer is as big a deal as Kanye.

Both articles – deliberately or otherwise – offer an important glimpse into Chinese and American culture. Stopera doesn’t just join Weibo: he screenshots his Chinese users’ comments and presents them onscreen to his American readers. As the audience, we hear the Chinese readers’ real voices (albeit sometimes in translation). Regardless of the ethics of this kind of random journalistic sampling, there is an argument to be made that seeing these snapshots is more authentic than the quotes or write-arounds that traditional journalism is famous for.

Nothing is held back in this story – and yet, everything is put off. Stopera freely admits he’s a random candidate for fame – just a guy whose phone got stolen. There’s something profoundly and almost reassuringly millennial about Stopera’s story. It presents to us a glimpse into how technology, led by social media, can unite the world. It suggests that the things that ordinary citizens do on Twitter, and on WordPress, actually matter. There is no pause for critical contemplation, or for deeper and possibly uncomfortable questions about the nature of the Chinese-American relationship. Stopera’s article doesn’t encourage us to ask:

  • Are these in fact ordinary Chinese people whose Weibos and Tweets are being captioned and presented? What does Internet access in China really look like? Osnos’ article paints a far darker picture of the Chinese Internet, one where openness has declined over the past decade as a result of Xi’s policies.
  • How open is Stopera’s article, exactly? Its construction – down to its user-generated elements – seems designed (structurally) to suggest a radical democracy. Stopera is talking to real Chinese people, and they are talking back to him. But is this democratic journalism, or just the suggestion of it? Both BuzzFeed and Weibo are large corporations with agendas. What’s in this massive photo op for them?
  • In a country in the midst of a media crackdown, what is sayable online? What is not? How does Stopera’s visit fit into the larger context of China’s media environment? What factors might have combined to make Stopera such a hit? From his perspective, he’s a random guy. And that’s great, but shouldn’t news also make us consider alternative perspectives? He’s very clearly not just a random dude. He’s clearly been taken as a symbol for something, but Stopera doesn’t seem particularly interested in what that might be. He represents a troubling vision of Millennials’ global engagement: fascinated by the world’s so-called weirdness, defined by cycles of corporate consumption (the whole story rests upon a lost iPhone) and willing to take superficial Tweets at their word.
  • Who paid for his trip?? How the heck can BuzzFeed not disclose this information??

At the same time, Osnos’ magnum opus could benefit from some of Stopera’s enthusiasm. Osnos’ only foray into Stopera’s garrulity is the occasional use of the first person pronoun. If Stopera’s voice wears smiley-face T shirts and carries an iPhone, Osnos’ shows up in a suit with a briefcase and a legal document. Osnos certainly doesn’t resort to screen-shotting Tweets. His interviewees are presented in carefully pruned prose. Real names aren’t always available – at one point, Osnos refers to a source as “an editor” (although he doesn’t mention why the editor remains unnamed). At another point, Osnos and a source are followed by a government agent. This is a troubling enough development that Osnos comments on it, but in a remarkably dry and impartial way. If I were him, I’d be freaking out. If he were Matt Stopera, he’d be freaking out. But the greatest absence in Osnos’ story is that of the common citizen’s voice. At one point, desperate to figure out what the Chinese people really think of Xi, Osnos turns to the approximations offered by Hong Kong-based pollsters. Why not at least try logging onto Weibo?

The other thing Osnos doesn’t disclose is the nature of his relationships with his sources. Unlike Stopera, who tells us about every one of his hugs with “Brother Orange” (at one point, I began to feel like I was reading Stopera’s diary) in excruciating detail, Osnos doesn’t tell us much about how the heck he gets people like Joe Biden to talk to him for an offhand quote (??). Obviously, Biden is not a guy who picks up the phone for just anyone, but Osnos’ article requires that we suspend these kinds of questions. Nor does Osnos mention, in any explicit detail, who exactly funds him (another similarity with Stopera!)

The differences between these articles, stylistically, are so great that it might be easy to overlook the greatest difference of all. The way the BuzzFeed article is framed suggests that the piece has value precisely because it is a crazy story about an ordinary guy. This phone story, while insane, could have happened to anyone. It’s like chatting with your best friend about his crazy weekend, but magnified x10.

Meanwhile, the New Yorker piece has value (it is deemed publish-worthy by the editorial staff) precisely because it is a story that could happen to almost no one. It is an important story because it is written by an important person (he chats with Joe Biden!) who interviews other important people (editors, heads of think tanks) about an even more important person.

I leave aside questions of which article is better – that’s not the point. For me, reading these two articles side-by-side was an interesting glimpse into how two very different media organizations handle some of the essential questions facing journalism today. Taken together, they also present an interesting and nuanced view of China that might not come through in either piece alone.

What makes certain expats innovative?

I was at the Harvard Business School’s Digital Initiative summit earlier today, and decided to attend a talk about creating innovation within large organizations. I’ve always worked in large news organizations, but often on innovative or non-mainstream projects. My professional independence has come with drawbacks and advantages. I loved the freedom I had working for CNN IBN, but I struggled to find guidance within the organization. (My bosses believed in me, but no one in my New Delhi office had built a digital media product before.)

For a while in late 2012, I considered doing consulting work with media outlets in change management, and I toyed with the idea of doing thesis research in organizational culture. So I was very interested in what the HBS Summit panel would have to say.

The session was led by Michael Maness (whom, by the way, I was surprised I hadn’t already met somewhere in Cambridge). He’s worked for the Knight Foundation, which automatically perked my journalist ears up (and it turns out he’s a fellow Northwestern grad). Maness started out talking about organizational network analysis, and he described the difference between energizers and de-energizers. He pointed out that change agents (energizers) were the most likely to get promoted rapidly within an organization, but they were also the most likely to leave. This observation mimics something that a relative of mine (who has headed large MNC’s internationally) told me once: “high potential employees are often also high maintenance.” (For organizations, it’s worth it to try and keep these innovators. Innovators, Maness said, build innovative teams. The members of these innovative teams then spread creativity within the larger organization – but this network effect only occurs if the original energizer stays at the company.)

HBS prof @MichaelTushman told the story of several heliophysicists at NASA, who were trying to find a way to predict potentially dangerous solar events. After twelve years, unable to come up with a solution, they posed the question as a challenge on the crowd-sourced innovation platform Innocentive. (Turns out the challenge description is still up.) They got several responses, eleven of which solved the problem. The winning solution, which had a prediction rate upwards of 80 per cent, came from a retired mechanical engineer. Tushman spun this as a story of the power of the crowd, but he also suggested that the reason incumbents fear change agents is because change challenges people’s sense of identity. For the scientists, it would have been very natural to wonder: what am I all about, if a random retired engineer can solve a problem in a few months that I’ve been working on for a decade?

The last speaker was Sarah Wills of GE, who talked about ways leaders can build scale around change. She advised innovators to make friends, to build consensus and networks. (This resonates with my own experience: when I was working in an innovative role in a large company, I needed friends and colleagues who were invested in my success.) Wills also talked about how hard it is to find meaningful metrics by which to measure how successful organizations have been at incorporating innovative workflows. The three speakers also suggested that it’s crucial for organizations to get all this right because we live in a time when disruption is the new normal, and agile and innovative companies will survive.

At the end they took questions. I asked,

We talk about “change agent” and “organizational cement” as if they’re dichotomous terms, but in fact I’ve observed that people can move along a spectrum. Many people, when brought into an innovative team, can become more creative. Have you noticed that as well, and if so, are there practices you’d recommend for nurturing the inner change agent in yourself and others?

Wills mentioned that according to their research, seniority didn’t have anything to do with change resistance. (Ie, an employee’s stage in her professional life cycle couldn’t predict whether or not she would be innovative) But Maness said something interesting. In his research, he said that he’d looked at how long it took people to arrive at what he called “divergent” solutions. He noticed that the people who reached those solutions fastest all had one thing in common: they had lived abroad. There was something about having to “reset cultural assumptions” that made people come up with creative ideas.

I’ve long wondered about this phenomenon. I spent five years in New Delhi, and along the way, I met a ton of other expatriates. Because we were friends, I’ve kept up with what the American expats did after returning to the United States. Almost without exception, this self-selected cohort has gone on to do extraordinary things. In fact, the American expats I knew in Delhi have turned out to be incredible self-starters, even after returning to the US.

At the time, I thought that this success was a correlation, not a causation.  I figured ambitious people would be more likely to seek out the challenge of living abroad. More resilient people would be more likely to stick it out when the going got tough. And ambition and resilience are really the most essential factors in achieving any kind of “success,” particularly in a world marked by disruption.

But it occurs to me that maybe my initial explanation isn’t the entire story. What if there is a causation element? I lived abroad for five years, which is a really long time even by most expats’ measure. But why did I do it?  And more importantly, how? I arrived in India with no job offer, no friends, no real language experience, and no prior experience living in the country. I was buffeted by the daily and overwhelming challenge of finding myself in a world I didn’t understand. And so, as I learned to do things for myself, I felt a sense of achievement and satisfaction that few experiences in my life had yielded. I can explain that. But what if living internationally – and working internationally – taught me something that I can’t explain? What if it changed the way that I look at change and challenge? By the time I left India, I’d written for a national newspaper (scoring regular front-page stories), started a grassroots media group, and had whole teams reporting to me. By any measure, my time in India was a huge success. But it didn’t have to go that way. In fact, there were many moments (particularly when I was switching jobs, or on one memorable occasion when my house caught fire) when I earnestly thought about packing up and leaving. When I think about my time in India, I realize that one of the things I relish about the experience is that somewhere along the way (incrementally,, and with every moment that passed and I moved forward), I changed my definition of what was possible.

Now, I don’t think that all would-be leaders should up and move to a developing country (actually, I do, but for other reasons). Obviously, people learn from challenges in different ways. Different opportunities yield different adaptations. Interestingly, the remarkably innovative expats I know (and again, keep in mind that I have incredibly biased reasons for remembering this sample) are all people who didn’t just move to India. They absorbed the country while living there: they sought opportunities to engage more deeply, to immerse themselves in the things they didn’t understand. They were deeply, almost obsessively, attracted to the challenge of the unfamiliar. They were also willing to suspend their expectations of how systems should operate, if that’s what was needed to get ahead.

On the other hand, I met expats who didn’t crave this deep level of knowledge and immersion. I met people who tolerated India’s unfamiliarity, but who didn’t want to know it. They were happy to stay within familiar contexts, relationships and worldviews.

Of course, I’m sure there are tons of failed expats out there also, and I’m probably just forgetting about them. And retro-fitting anecdotal stories to a thesis offered at a single entrepreneurship conference is not a scientific method. But I would be intrigued to see more research on this hypothesis (I don’t see a lot of it now.) It would be interesting to look at how different people process the experience of transplantation, and what that can teach us about managing and sustaining change within organizations. When I moved to India, I became part of a wave of second-generation Indian-Americans migrating to the country in search of “opportunity.” It would be worthwhile, I think, to understand what inspired so many educated young Americans to seek opportunities overseas, and what unique skills and knowledge they might bring back with them when they return.

*Unrelated, but also interesting: Many of my friends were Indians who had spent large chunks of time living outside of India. It would also be interesting to interview this cohort to see what they learned internationally, and how the international experience differs for different groups.