Alas, the plenary panel on "The Critical Potential of Social Networking" at the International Communications Association (ICA) in San Francisco on Friday, May 25, 2007 was not recorded. The following is an attempt to re-create faithfully (of the course the talk was vastly funnier, smarter, punchier and more erudite, of course, of course). But here's the gist of it.
Henry Jenkins did the same on his blog and posted his Nine Propositions Towards a Cultural Theory of YouTube.
It is a pleasure to be invited to address the ICA Plenary and to do so in such distinguished company as that of Henry Jenkins, Howard Rheingold and Tiziana Terranova. What Fred Turner forgot to mention in his introduction, however, is that one of my profoundest honors is the opportunity to be his colleague here at the Stanford Communication Department this semester. Fred’s conversation and fellowship are reason enough to be at Stanford and I want to thank him for organizing today’s panel.
As a lawyer in a communication department, it is also a special pleasure to participate in this inter-disciplinary conversation. (And, yes, I am a lawyer, I don’t even play one on TV).
George Bernard Shaw once said: “all professions are conspiracies against the laity.” Nowhere is this more the case than in a democracy.
Political legitimacy demands accountability to an electoral process. Those living in a democracy readily submit to what sociologist Michael Schudson calls the “permanent embarrassment” of expertise, namely that a professional, institutionalized elite must perform administrative governance in the public interest.
Theorists from Lippmann to Foucault have argued that whereas citizens can express personal opinions, they are not capable of making fact-based decisions on matters of policy. Our administrative culture grows out of this distrust. Max Weber in his magisterial study of bureaucracy wrote that the complexities of modern governance call for “the personally detached and strictly objective expert in lieu of the lord who was moved by personal sympathy and favor.”
Whereas our contemporary conceptions of rational choice theory enlighten our understanding about how individuals make decisions, there has been little success at applying these classical conceptions to the reform of institutions. Our aspirations for more deliberative decision-making remain just that. In fact, Philip Tetlock in his award-winning book, Expert Political Judgment – and I am about to bastardize his sophisticated analysis – concludes that the professional political pundit is not much more effective than the monkey making decisions by guesswork.
Nowhere is this reliance on centralized, professional expertise more the case than in the patent system. The patent examiner must make complex scientifically-based decisions that require the comparison of – as the law requires – an invention to the writings, discoveries and inventions that have come before to determine if the invention deserves the 20 year grant of rights to exclude all others from making, using or practicing that invention. It is a closed process and has been for two hundred years. Until recently, the patent system was surrounded by a culture of secrecy. There continues to be no communication between the examiner and the public. In this era of exploding scientific resources, the examiner has limited access to information in internal, office databases. In many cases, he is not allowed to use the Internet or search Google in order to protect applicant privacy and security.
The examiner must also stand in for the “person having ordinary skill in the art” – the engineer, the scientist, the inventor – to rule on patentability of the invention. However, due to the backlog of 700,000 applications and 400,000 new ones arriving each year (double the load of ten years ago), she or he has fewer than 20 hours to do the work of deciding about the 20 year grant of monopoly rights relating to your Blackberry.
Now along comes the new generation of social software technology – from Wikipedia to Slashdot – to enable us to collaborate and organize information at scale.
Or peer production projects that leverage network technology to create even large-scale and complex knowledge-sharing such as Apache or Linux.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) accumulates close to 1 million movie titles and over 2 million entertainment professionals on-line. Even though it’s owned by Amazon, this started and continues to thrive as a collection of movie trivia submitted by members of two online newsgroups of armchair paparazzi. OhMyNews and other participatory journalism projects convenes 30,000 "citizen journalists" to report on stories often missed by the mainstream media
Put simply, what we are seeing the deconstruction of the notion of expertise – or at least the sociological organization of expertise – and we need to understand how this changes our institutions and might impact their legitimacy.
Whereas once expertise meant strictly a body of knowledge accumulated by a single person in a professional capacity, increasingly it also means the aggregation of discrete bits of knowledge into collective databases impelled by the new social networking tools, such as friend-of-a-friend (FOAF) social networking sites like Doppr or LinkedIn, or driven by rating and reputation techniques, such as those used by eBay, Amazon and Slashdot, and visual tools like Second Life and There.com that make social practices transparent as well as other other Web 3.0 (I think 2.0 was last year) to organize that information.
These suggest that: ordinary people, regardless of institutional affiliation or professional status, possess information that could enhance decision-making and improve governance. Participating in a social network not only aggregates the wisdom of the crowd – summing up individual parts a la Surowiecki’s jelly bean jar – but it can also structure information into manageable knowledge and help build expertise through participation over time.
We are setting out to test these hypotheses and have proposed that the United States Patent and Trademark Office open up its examination process to a social network.
On June 15, for the first time in its 200+ year history, that process will be open to public participation. This will also be the first such social software experiment to connect directly to our legal and political institutions.
Not according to a traditional agency paradigm of indirect comments made by legal professionals nor by selecting professional scientists as peer reviewers but by setting in motion a social network that will connect directly to the legal decision-making process and allow self-selected experts – with or without any professional qualification – to submit information into the decision-making process.
So what we are able to do, for the first time, is to open up the patent examination process in an experiment – what are calling Peer to Patent – to allow an open community of self-selected experts to research, submit and rate information to be sent to the patent office.
Peer to Patent is premised on the idea that wisdom is not at the center, but in the crowd. While the people contributing to IMDB or Wikipedia might or might not be PhDs or CEOs, they are members of a community – empowered by the new tools for collaboratively managing and editing content online – to engage in the common pursuit of pooling knowledge into expertise. The structure to produce that expertise can be embedded in software and made real and useful to the “crowd.”
Why are over a dozen companies, including IBM, Microsoft, GE, HP, Yahoo and others submitting patent applications into this open process?
Why is the MacArthur Foundation and the Omidyar Network contributing the funding to make this happen?
In part, this has to do with the particular crises of a patent system beleaguered by unproductive lawsuits challenging the validity of applications of questionable quality.
But the compelling reason – the one that got me, and I am not a patent lawyer – to endure the arcana of patent rules and regulations in designing this experiment, is that we have an opportunity to understand and develop the democratic potential of social networks.
What will be the impact of this technology on our institutions?
What is the potential for these social networks – instead of promoting dating or music sharing or other forms of socialization – to become “power networks” that enable the diffusion of power to ordinary people to participate in governance more directly? Dewey said that we are smart when we think to together. Online communities have the opportunity to become smart and to change offline institutions. They have the potential to become legitimate centers of authority to which the law – as with corporations – ought to defer. Ordinary people might participate in the practices of governance and wield power in new ways.
Dave Kappos, VP of IBM was quoted on the front page of the Washington Post as saying: "For the first time in history, it allows the patent-office examiners to open up their cubicles and get access to a whole world of technical experts.” Peer to Patent could create accountability by the government agency to the scientific community for the first time.
We have typically looked at social networks from the perspective of the individual. Why does someone participate in a crowdsourcing project? For example, Jay Rosen’s Assignment Zero is trying to figure this out? What instills a sense of belonging at a Meetup? Why do I break up with my boyfriend on MySpace (instead of in the more conventional way: on a post-it note)? What can I do in a virtual world that I can’t do face-to-face? The answers to these questions of motivation have something to do with fun (as Henry Jenkins has so ably demonstrated in his work), enthusiasm, engagement and effectiveness and scale. The ability to DO something!
But the increasing granularity of embeddedness in social groups – in other words I can belong to a multiplicity of groups with different values and different goals by much more varied means than before – is shifting the focus from why the individual participates to how the group uses the individual.
Now we can join by putting a push-pin on a google map. Stanford students did just that when they engaged in the highly useful social networking project of collaborative developing a google map mashup of San Francisco bars (and you should thank them for that). I can join by tagging not just by giving. I can participate by clicking not only by signing up. I can find prior art for the patent office in addition to my other social affiliations. We can increasingly participate in and share knowledge through social networks that aggregate and channel expertise. This variability of embededness is spilling over into “real world” where only 1 in 4 people hold the same job for 5 years.
We can create new kinds of knowledge networks for the diffusion of information. And these, in turn, can be used to both democratize governance and render it more expert, more informed and more effective.
We want to address this emerging social phenomenon of social networks from the perspective of institutions, not only individuals. How do we construct the social practices of governance in response to the way in which social networks engender expertise. How do we re-build our patent system in light of the technology that enables the crowd-sourcing of scientific information?
In the case of the Peer to Patent pilot which will run over the course of the coming year, we have built an online environment that structures public collaboration in the process of patent examination by allowing the public to research, submit, annotate and rank “prior art” for the patent examiner. It is not a wiki and not a blog. It is not an open-ended place to discuss “why I hate software patents.” It is a highly structured environment with clear and specific tasks the crowd must do. Not just “this patent sucks” but how does this specific item of research relate to the specific claims of the patent application. The patent examiner provides objective feedback as to what information and what avenues of research were useful and played a role in the final determination. This process can then be evolved over time.
This will enable us (and the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce have already expressed an intention to participate in the evaluation of the data) to study:
• What are the processes for structuring informational inputs and
communications and how did those practices – embedded in code – work?
• What is the level of expertise of public reviewers participating via an open network and how does this online participation process shape that expertise over time?
• What is the impact of public participation on examiner decision-making and work? How does it change the role of the professional in the institution? What is the relationship between experts and professionals?
• What is the impact on the resulting quality of the issued patent and its claims?
As you can hear, there is a positive and a normative research agenda.
The positive agenda is to study social networking, not from the individual perspective but from that of the group. If the group – the social network itself – is a form of digital institution, how do we design it? How should it be constructed? How does expertise function in that context? How do social network diffuse knowledge? What are the appropriate roles for its members? Not why do I belong – why do I tag -- but what is expected of me – how does tagging enable the institution to set and achieve its goals? What are the social practices and workflow that enable its successful functioning? What role does the screen play (and Howard mentioned Licklider in this regard) in mirroring and representing the work of the group back to itself and in what ways does this enhance the work of the group?
But there is something different about the social networks of today that is different from the groups that so heavily studied in the middle of the last century. This is what drives the normative agenda.
The normative agenda is about deepening democracy and rendering decision-making both more expert and more open. This is an attempt to engender greater transparency and facilitate greater participation at scale. It is a way to reform institutions. But, also, this is an opportunity to be explicitly experimental and evolutionary. It is precisely because of this ability to experiment with the evolution of institutions that we witness such a fascination with the potential of Second Life as a playground for trying out new forms of social interaction. The normative agenda also encompasses an opportunity to improve the education of my students by drawing them into this kind of institutional reform project that leverages their background and ability with technology and project management and makes them better problem solvers.
It is not surprising that we have not yet tended to view these questions from an institutional perspective. It’s early yet in the development of this research and to date, we have seen few examples of social networks and political institutions.
Why is this?
There is as yet no parallel between Wikipedia and Wikilaw.
Whereas – hard as it may be – we have an intuitive grasp of what is expected of us when writing an encyclopedia entry, we lack the structures, know-how, etiquette, practices and tools to adapt institutions of governance to collaborative and open structures.
An applied research agenda in communication and law about social networks and institutions would give us the understanding of how to:
• Create a patent system that is accountable to the scientific community
• Run a presidential campaign where citizens participate in making policy not just donations
• Make decisions more collaboratively and with greater complexity to match the complexity of the problems we face
• Devolve power downward from centralized institutions to networks of people
Let me close by suggesting that social networks touch directly and deeply on the core questions of the nature of our democracy.
Social networks demonstrate the effectiveness of pluralistic groups and networks, operating not simply to deliberate and talk, but to take action and achieve the goals set forth by the group.
We are being forced to confront this diversity of values and to address how the state will respond to heterogeneous quality of social networks. We can now design our digital spaces to enhance their democratic potential in the true sense of democratic: namely to embrace pluralism and diversity without sacrificing effectiveness.
This is not without its tensions as social networks potentially undermine our very conception of republic democracy.
Institutions centralize control and power. They have a hard time devolving power and changing the way they work because of a longstanding culture of professionalism where bureaucrats – not citizens – are the only experts with the information, resources, discipline to make decisions. Social networks change the ability of citizens to contribute valuable expertise if we can understand how to construct the social practices decision-making to respond to the opportunity and create a democracy that is, at once, more open and more expert.