Facebook Patents Big Brother – by “Charlie C”

FB Like Button

Ahhh, a symbol of progress: The Facebook Like Button. Residing on almost every legitimate page on the internet these days, it enables socially hyperactive users to let the world know that they “Like” the page they are currently visiting. The button above, for instance, could enable you to like YaleBluebook, a new course information system my suitemate and I designed for students at Yale. But that’s not all this nifty little button can do, it also let’s Facebook know that you are currently viewing a blog post on the Yale Law & Technology class blog.

On a large scale, the question we have to ask ourselves is: Do we have the right to privacy on the internet? The current cultural movement seems to answer with a resounding “yes.” All major browsers have recently implemented a private browsing mode which allows people to view sites without having any of their activity stored locally. This is the “Incognito” or private browsing window you probably use while perusing porn. However, this only protects your local computer. The servers hosting these websites still store information about your visit, with potentially personally identifiable information (IP Address). A recent movement by the Mozilla foundation has tried to standardize the use of the “Do-Not-Track” signal, which is a message that could be sent by your browser to websites, asking the websites not to record any information about your visit. However, there’s no way to enforce such an option, and no incentive for the website to do so.

The issues of privacy and anonymity seem to have become more intertwined recently. The only way of ensuring that my personal information isn’t being mis-used is to make sure that they don’t have any of personal information. Yet there are many positive reasons for websites to track IP addresses, so it seems the only logical course is to focus on privacy and when recording personal information on our net activity goes too far.

So why would Facebook care about this little blog though? Good question! Turns out behind the scenes Facebook has been working to create Google AdSense a nifty social advertising program. Unfortunately, the Pacific Ocean sized amount of data they have on you right now isn’t enough to compete with Google. So they figured, why not collect data on you about every site you visit? This recent patent is the key to unraveling Facebooks creepily invasive monetization scheme. In this post I plan to look at a few key points of the new patent.

I'll just stop paying for my Facebook subscription then...oh...wait...

 

What it Does

In case you still haven’t opened up the actual patent, here is the abstract:

In one embodiment, a method is described for tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain…The method additionally includes receiving one or more communications from a third-party website having a different domain than the social network system, each message communicating an action taken by a user of the social networking system on the third-party website. The method additionally includes logging the actions taken on the third-party website in the social networking system, each logged action including information about the action. The method further includes correlating the logged actions with one or more advertisements presented to the one or more users on the third-party website as well as correlating the logged actions with a user of the social networking system.

There’s three main components this patent describes, they are, in order of ascending bothersome-ness:

  1. The ability to transmit information back to Facebook from a website that is not facebook
  2. The ability to log actions you take on that non-facebook site and send those actions back to facebook
  3. The ability to use that data to display ads to you and your friends, on facebook and on third party sites.

Putting those three components together, we come up with some exciting scenarios:

Vibrator Storefront with friends who have bought this
The not so distant future...

 

Now you might think to yourself, “I’ve seen things like that already” (the friend recommendations I mean), but this ain’t your standard friend recommendation system, there are a few key passages in the patent I want to highlight.

In particular embodiments, the social network system receives messages from these third-party websites that communicate the actions taken by users while in the third-party websites.

Ever wonder why your Facebook ads always tend towards singles dating sites, ben and jerry’s, and Notebook Blu-Ray ads? (Or is that just me…?) Turns out that Facebook plans on mixing various data sources to decide which ads to show you. Right now, this is restricted to data facebook has access to such as your relationship status, favorite movies, political interests, etc. But in the near future, partner websites will be able to send data back to facebook with information about which ads were shown to you and which you clicked on, in addition they might send information about which products you bought from the partner site. This serves the two-fold purpose of telling Facebook how effective their advertising was (did you buy the yoga pants after you were shown the yoga ad yesterday?) and also telling facebook your interests (I see you could use a Yoga ball to go with those pants).

And for the majority of the patent, Facebook talks about wanting to know what ads you’ve seen, clicked on, and actually purchased the product from. However, if you wade through the million times they say “In particular embodiments”, you come across:

Another example illustrating real-world actions that may be tracked involves what program material the user is accessing on a television system. A television and/or set-top receiver may…transmit a message indicating that a user is viewing (or recording) a particular program on a particular channel at a particular time.

Wait, I’ve totally seen this somewhere before…

Big Brother is Watching
Oh, I guess that was more of content generation...

That’s right. There is apparently no limit to the amount of data facebook is willing to know about you. They want to know what events you attend, what credit card purchases you make, what stores you enter, classes you take…everything. Facebook wants to know every detail of your digital life.

So the real question is, what do they plan to do with all this data? Well currently it looks like they plan to use it to inform advertising not only on their site, but on other sites. I’ve already shown an example of how it might be used on other sites (OhMiBod). In addition, they might show more traditional Google AdSense ads (profit sharing with publishers). The secret sauce is in how the ads are selected and displayed. It seems they will use some combination of your profile, friends profiles, your browsing history and your friends browsing histories. Ads will be inherently social, letting you know that n of your friends recently purchased a product, or are attending a promoted event, or simply liked an emerging brand. The transition to this new system will actually be transparent to users:

McDonalds Social Advertising

Coincidence? I think not. For instance, Facebook can correlate the fact that you were recently on the McDonald’s homepage with the fact that 6 of your friends like McDonalds, AND the fact that Johnny Rocket likes him some BigMacs (ironic isn’t it?), throw it all into a magic algorithm and come up with the brillant idea to show you some McDonalds ads. While this might normally appear on your newsfeed, it just so happens that McDonalds has paid to have this “news article” appear more readily (the barrier number of friends before it’s shown might be lower). From the patent:

One benefit of mixing the newsfeed stories and the social ads in a single list presented to a user is that there may be little or no differentiation between advertising and general information that a user would want to know. Users visit social network systems to keep up to date on what their friends are doing, and the social ad can be as useful to the user as any other newsfeed story. Because the social ads and newsfeed stories may all be taken from the action log  it may be impossible for a user to determine whether an entry in the user’s newsfeed is a newsfeed story or a social ad. In fact, the content of a social ad could actually show up as an organic, unpaid newsfeed story in other contexts.

And therein lies the beauty of this whole thing. You’ll never even know. They will take your browsing history, your friends information, and your relationship status and a whole lot of advertisers money, but to you it’ll just look like another average news feed story.

 

 

What it doesn’t do (or rather doesn’t claim to):

There was recently an uproar that this patent would allow Facebook to track all users, not just logged in Facebook users. This came to a climax when it was discovered that the Facebook user id was being stored on users’ computers even after logout. Last week though Facebook patched this “bug” and defended its position that the patent is not designed to track logged out users.

I have two fundamental points to make on this issue.

1. As an experiment, go to this page. Did it ask you to login? Chances are that if you’re reading a blog post such as this one, you were already logged into facebook. So it doesn’t really matter that it only tracks logged in users, since who actually logs out?

Facebook Splash Page
Unless your page looks like this, they got you. Well they probably did anyways...

2. Although this patent doesn’t specifically mention tracking logged out users, it never explicitly denies that possibility. In fact, in the very paragraph Facebook refers to when defending its position, the text states:

By using this technique, the third party website and the social network system can communicate about the user without sharing any of the user’s personal information and without requiring the user to log into the social network system.

To me, this text reads quite the opposite way. It seems that although Facebook isn’t sending data about a specific user…it could still send data about the users events. From a technological standpoint, this information could be saved in a cookie on the users computer which could then be transmitted when a user logged into Facebook. Put differently, even though you’re logged out of Facebook, if they can make a reasonable inference about which Facebook user was using the computer when it was logged out, they might just queue that data and associate it with you when you log back in.

 

The Good News

I realize this post sounds somewhat alarmist, but the fact of the matter is if they patented it, they probably intend to use it. This is actually a brilliant idea which will undoubtedly immediately bring them into contention with Google AdSense. Right now, they claim to not be using this technology and they have stated that if it does become used it will of course be subject to their industry difficult opt-out program. I can’t help but wonder where it will end. Once this infrastructure is in place, it’s just a small side-step for them to track everyone.

We should be aware of our rights as internet users. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to change the internet culture to the point where Facebook doesn’t track our actions on its site, but I certainly think we should have the expectation of privacy (from Facebook and really anyone else) on third-party sites. When we view websites, that should be a privileged relationship between the viewer and the site. That site should be able to track our movements for it’s own reporting purposes, and maybe even to provide aggregated data to other parties, but it should not be able to sell tracking data alongside personal data (I.E. cannot say IP Address 123.45.67.89 visited A, B, and C). It should be made much clearer what companies are doing with the data they collect on us, and we need to ability to opt out. I don’t think the way the internet works currently supports this, but hopefully through cultural, technological, or regulatory changes we can work towards a more data-safe internet in the future.

The FCC needs to step up it’s game and require more clear communication when user data is being collected and sold to third-parties. Facebook is starting to move into shady territory. It seems that neither the person publishing the like button, nor the consumer clicking on it understand exactly what is going on behind the scenes. No more legalese, implicit privacy agreements. I want a big fat popup, with clear instructions on how to keep myself hidden.

It's more of an opt-in box when you think about it

For now, hope for the best and be aware of your facebook privacy panel. Make sure you opt out of as much as possible! And please be sure to start an uproar if this Apple patent ever becomes used. Remember, just because it’s patented doesn’t mean it’s legal.

Cyberbullies: Bullying Then and Now – by “Will P”

Kids are mean

Really?

Children are cruel creatures.  This is not new nor should we be surprised.  What’s different now is that there is a record of it.  Before what happened on the playground stayed on the playground.  But when insults can be exchanged online, there is a persistent record of the taunts.  This persistence can be more stressful for the “cyber-victim”, because unlike a simple verbal jab, it isn’t ephemeral, and presents the opportunity for many to jump on the dog pile.

The other – in my opinion, probably unfortunate – difference between “traditional” and “cyber” bullying is that now adults can read the insults against their children or students word for word.  Imagine if someone provided your parents with every insult you said as a child along with every insult you received.  Yes, there would be a clusterstorm.

Let’s stop kids from being mean

Let’s convert the Pope to Judaism too!

I’ve found the “adult” reaction to cyberbullying to be like an episode of South Park: the children are really mean to each other and the adults overreact in a comically irrational way.  This past summer, ABC Family released a film Cyberbully to inform folks about the dangers of cyberbullying (and probably also to capitalize on the brouhaha).  You can probably guess the plot, but I’ll summarize it pictorially (please pardon the misuse of memes):

Plot of Cyberbullies

I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t think cyberbullying isn’t an important issue, but I’m always cautious when someone’s reaction to a situation is to try to pass a law without examining any alternative options first.

What about the laws in those states?

Can we send the evil bully to prison?

Actually, in the Great State of Missouri, cyber-harassment is a Class D felony – punishable by up to four years imprisonment – along with a third DUI conviction and fraud.

Personally I fail to see what is reasonable about dealing with problems between children through legal means.  If the anti-cyberbullying activists claim cyberbullying is so dangerous because digital harassment is persistent, how does sending another kid to court lessen the time the original harassment is an issue?

Legal action should be a last resort (this is a normative claim!).  There are much better options for everyone’s sake available.  In ABC Family’s movie Cyberbully, the bullying stopped when the protagonist simply stood up for herself and when her mother confronted the parents of the offending children.  We don’t always need to make new laws, when a new technology emerges; we just need to figure out how to solve the same problems that we’ve dealt with for generations… but online.   In Cyberbully, despite its portrayal, the internet is not to blame for bullying, people are.

I think part of the reason for the severity of these cyberbullying statutes is that we actually dehumanize the bullies.  Just as the cyberbullies are willing to make more obscene statements because they aren’t in front of their victims in real life, we are willing to deal with these cyberbullies because our image of these cyberbullies is some internet Beelzebub rather than another child.

Law vs. Code

Could this discussion be applied to this topic?

That ABC Family movie told the story of how harassment on a site, which is a thinly-veiled stand in for Facebook, could get out of hand.  The movie emphasized that profiles could be fake, information could exist forever, and that there is no “delete button.”  The family resorts to lobbying for a law, but if we look at these particular grievances, Facebook is actually quite good about having code mechanisms for dealing with this set of issues.

  1. There actually is a delete button
  2. Facebook in my cases requires email verification to join a particular network, so the risk of someone faking a profile that would be reasonably believably is slight
  3. You can report fake profiles:

//It would have been really easy for friends, who were too afraid to say anything, to anonymously report and end the entire situation

Solving a problem

What Constitution?

I quick Google search for cyberbullying turns up www.stopcyberbullying.org the website of an organization dedicated to stopping the scourge of cyberbullying.  The site has information for children, parents, politicians, and law enforcement.  It didn’t take much browsing to come across this gem:

One of their categories of cyberbullies is the called “Revenge of Nerds.”  Its description includes this quote: “Because of this and their tech skills, they can be the most dangerous of all cyberbullies.”  Ah yes, nerds are indeed the laser-armed sharks of the internet.

This “charming” website has advice to offer schools: you too can enact “regulations” to stop cyberbullying no matter how much this would infringe on the Constitutional rights of students.  The site says:

“If schools are creative, they can sometimes avoid the claim that their actions exceeded their legal authority for off-campus cyberbullying actions. We recommend that a provision is added to the school’s acceptable use policy reserving the right to discipline the student for actions taken off-campus if they are intended to have an effect on a student or they adversely affect the safety and well-being of student while in school. This makes it a contractual, not a constitutional, issue.”

I’m always impressed by a website when they provide persons of authority ways of circumventing Constitutional protections against overzealous school administrators.

Some problems don’t have solutions

X2 = -1, yes, a solution exists but it’s imaginary

Bullying has been around since at and before the dawn of man.  Unfortunately there’s no way to end it.  It isn’t as simple as passing a law – people break laws, and they do so frequently.  When faced with the inevitability of bullying, rather than trying to eradicate it, we should focus more on teaching children (and adults) how to cope with it.  Alas, that would be too reasonable.

The Internet as a Militia – by “Joshua E”

The Bill of Rights was not a guarantee of individual liberties. Rather, before the Fourteenth Amendment came along and everything went to hell, it was better viewed as a limit on the despotic potential of a centralized government; a potential that terrified the founders of our Constitution. Thus the First Amendment was a guarantee that the national government would not suppress assembly, speech, and the political discourse necessary to oppose tyranny. Thus the Second Amendment was a guarantee that states could hold militias in order to resist with force an oppressive government. Of course I am oversimplifying a very complex and contentious debate, but allow me for a moment to make a logical fallacy. This guy agrees with my view of the Bill of Rights:

So obviously I’m right. Let’s just leave it at that. I apologize for the many Yale words in my opening paragraph.

I, like Jack Balkin, am interested in how the development of the Internet changes the role that the Constitution has in our current society. Balkin focuses on the oppression of free speech by private companies, and how unable the Courts are to provide meaningful protection in this area. He believes that fighting technological infrastructures, business models, and social practices with well-crafted laws is the way to protect our liberties. He believes that the Internet has fundamentally changed the Bill of Rights’ ability to protect us from government (it’s original purpose, as outlined above), and therefore we must look extra-judicially to protect our rights.

The pacifist in me wonders whether the Internet landscape has also fundamentally lessened the necessity for militias, and other Constitutional protections against an abusive government that attempts to limit our free speech. Due to its interconnectedness the Internet is extremely difficult to regulate (though not impossible). In the past if a government wanted to quell speech, they had pretty effective means of doing it. Books can be banned or burned. Radio communications can be jammed. Protests can be broken up. The Internet is a whole other animal. Because it is generative, it allows people to circumvent many of the ways in which a government might try and limit access to certain material (for example by the use of proxies). In this way, I believe it acts as a check on the government. When the government gets out of control, the citizenry does not need to revolt using militias, they can simply tweet about it. Despite the fact that the following governments do not share the same Constitutions as we do, nor necessarily the same values, some examples from around the world will I think be illustrative.

Russian Coup

In 1991 leaders of the Communist Party in Russia led a coup against president Gorbachev. The leaders struck while Gorbachev was on vacation, and they hoped to expand support for their cause by limiting the flow of information to the west and most importantly to their people. They censored both news and phone links to the west. Television played nothing but operas and old movies. Their strategy would have been effective, except for one main flaw: Relcom.

Relcom, an acronym for reliable communications, was a basic computer network that Russia launched in 1990. Though Relcom was a purely e-mail network at the time, it still had the power to undermine the government’s efforts to suppress the free flow of information. Those who opposed the revolution were attempting to distribute a decree by Boris Yelzin which attempted to inform the public of the coup and what was happening. Without Relcom, they would have had to scour the city for available photocopiers and distribute copies by hand. Instead supporters simply sent a copy to one of the Relcom founders who was able to copy and distribute the decree.

Furthermore, Relcom aided in the information flow from the West into Russia. One California professor would listen to the radio in America and take notes on what American newscasters were saying. Then, he would type a summary into an email and send it through Relcom to supporters in Russia who would distribute the information. A similar practice occurred between Denmark and Russia, providing the Danish perspective on what was happening as well. These reports, in addition to eyewitness testimony circulated through Relcom gave citizens on the ground a relatively accurate picture of what was going on, and allowed them to resist.

With such an omnipresence of information, the rebellion didn’t stand a chance. The Coup lasted a mere two days.

Kuwait Invasion

Also in 1991, Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. After a decisive victory by Iraq, Saddam Hussein installed Alaa Hussein Ali as the Prime Minister of the “Provisional Government of Free Kuwait”. Kuwait was hardly free, however. Most forms of traditional media were cut off, severely limiting Kuwait’s ability to communicate with the outside world. But like in Russia, the Iraqi strategy had one main flaw: IRC.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a way of real-time chatting through the Internet. Traffic to IRC skyrocketed during the invasion, because it allowed people who could not escape Kuwait to communicate to the outside world for a good week after traditional media was cut off. These communications in conjunction with the efforts of those that had fled Kuwait, rallied international support to condemn the actions of Iraq, eventually leading to the Gulf War.

So, yes, violence was necessary to expel Iraq from Kuwait. But what I find interesting about this situation is that it was not necessarily internal military force from Kuwait that allowed them to succeed. Rather, the Internet, and IRC, allowed the free flow of information throughout Kuwait and throughout the rest of world, allowing Kuwait to get the support that it needed.

These IRC communications are stored to this very day, and can be seen here.

To the future

The two examples given notably come from twenty years ago. Our world, our Internet, and our governments have certainly changed. Now, as alluded to earlier, oppressive governments have developed tools to prevent the free flow of information on the internet. I’m not going to pretend that I understand the technical means that a government could use to limit connection through the Internet, because being a humanities geek I don’t. But if I had to bet on who would win in a fight, government computer science experts or lulzsec hackers, I would probably choose the lulzsec hackers.

We live today in an intellectual world. This is why militias are nonexistent in America (yes, Sarah Palin and the like still carry around firearms, but in the case of actual government tyranny I question how effective ragtag gunman that can see Russia from their houses will be in fighting our national army). Our weapons against governmental oppression of free speech are not guns, but rather speech itself by means of the internet. I am a firm believer than the pen is mightier than the sword. When our government was created, the Founders allowed for militias and similar protections because a tyrannical government had the power to suppress the pen. With the advent of the internet the government no longer has that power. The Internet has become our militia in the fight against governmental despotism.

The Freedom to be Fantastic (or F***d Up). – by “Colby B”

Ah, the First Amendment. Our high regard of the right to free speech borderlines worship- to suggest that one should ‘watch their words’ could bring forth either livid accusations(Stop Infringin’ mah rights!) or proud exclamations (“It’s a free country!”). We treasure our capacity to say what we want when we want to, no matter how thoughtless, careless, or offensive it may be.  Now, before we get all high and mighty with our ‘Merican rights we may want to remember that there are a few slight, small, teeny-weeny exceptions to First Amendment. Here goes: The Court has decided that the First Amendment does not fully protect commercial speech, defamation, speech that may be harmful to children, speech publicly broadcast, and public employees’ speech. The Court provides NO protection to obscenity, child pornography, or speech that constitutes “advocacy of the use of force or of law violation.” Lastly, speech may be restricted to serve a “compelling interest” of the government.” Whew…got that? No, you didn’t. Why? Because this is Yale; we wouldn’t be learning about it if it were straightforward.

"You, too, will understand one day, when you graduate..."

Ok, well most of those restrictions make sense if pursued for the right purposes. The problem comes when prohibited uses of free speech such as ‘defamation’, ‘speech harmful to children’, and ‘advocacy of law violation’ are introduced to a massive public forum, where recklessness enabled by anonymity runs wild. Changes in technology and society yield parallel changes or adjustments to our laws as well. And this is, of course, a good thing. Who knows what television, radio, or phone service would look like if we didn’t have the government involved?

"We could have had it all, you and I."

But now that we have the Internet, it’s a completely different ballgame. The instantaneity and pervasiveness of the Internet explodes the potential for individual free expression. But, as it turns out, it also becomes infinitely easier to piss off lots of people too. Whether it be accusing your employer of being a Nazi Heiress, uploading smut, luring an unsuspecting victim to the sweet dulcet tones of Rick Astley, or just generally being offensive and/or a dick, the Internet allows you to do all of these things and from behind the safety of a computer screen. While this may raise some concerns regarding the limits of individual expression on the net, the eyes of the law view such expression as mostly acceptable or necessary evil. The Court has time and time again chosen to favor the larger picture, embracing wide expression and thought even if offensive. If the court were to attempt to curtail anything that might be deemed  ‘offensive’, it would also undermine the extent and breadth of the First Amendment in the long run. As of now it is only possible to make generic and broad restrictions against content; content would be eliminated in clumps rather than carefully selected and valuable forms of expression would be lost in the process.

Content relating to the Hilary Clinton campaign was blocked on some web filters.

The CDA (Communications Decency Act), for example, attempted to regulate both indecency and obscenity on the Internet. (The difference? I’m still not sure.) However, the Supreme Court determined that the vagueness of the terminology of the bill, specifically the scope of indecency(nobody really knows what indecency actually is or means) ultimately would lead to excessive self-censorship and thus consequently would place a bottleneck on free and productive expression. (Reno vs. ACLU) I can admit that if it weren’t for the free form of the internet I probably wouldn’t post half the things I do on the Internet. The amount of things I search would be cut down to about 10%…my love for absurdity leads me to strange places.

I admit, there’s a lot of porn on the Internet. A completely unscientific study conducted by me and c-c-c-combobreaker.com, a random google image generator, indicates that upwards of 60% of all online images are pornographic. (The actual percentage of pornographic websites is contested; I’ve found numbers ranging from 1% to 12%, which is pretty small compared to the wild claims you here on T.V.) While the general ease of access to pornographic material to kids these days is troubling, it is not worth restructuring the essential form of the internet itself. Neither filters nor regulation to ‘protect our youth’ were ever viable, much less effective, solutions. If you find out your 7 year old has been watching porn, and you can’t either a) talk to your kids about it or b) prevent it from happening in the future, you have problems much bigger than the breasts your child might have seen. I feel that the issue at its core is very simple, yet the American cultural attitude toward sexuality is deeply flawed. Our tendency to repress prevent exposure to sexuality contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. An Internet filter that prevents your kids from seeing naked people isn’t going to change that anytime soon.

“Code is Law”

Network Neutrality has been a rallying cause for Internet users for close to 10 years. Net neutrality is, simply stated, the prevention of the centralization of the Internet by ISPs and maintenance of free and open access to online content for everyone. I never saw the deep two-fold connection between net neutrality and free speech until I read Balkin’s article on Web access.

Balkin states that section 230 of the Telecommunication act is the cornerstone of our ability to freely communicate on the net. Section 230 states that providers of services (e.g. phone service or internet service) are not liable for the actions of their users, thus giving service providers little or no incentive to limit access to their subscribers. I think its pretty apparent that without this essential clause we would not have what we love and hate about the Internet today: Lol-cats, hate websites, Facebook, chat forums, or any user-generated content for that matter. The brilliance or crud you see on the net can all be attributed to the freedom of its users. Just imagine receiving letters from your ISP because of a comment you posted instead of that copy of  “Along Came Polly” you downloaded. However, unlike that movie download, which you’ll probably do again but in a smarter way (you just can’t get enough of Ben Stiller’s bipolar hilarity), you’ll be much less likely to add to online discussion in a frank and honest way ever again.  Its because of the structure of the Internet that users can, to an extent, pioneer their own environments.

 

Techno-Scholars, like Wendy Chun , have written extensively on the distinctions between cyberspace and the Internet. In this school of thought, cyberspace, the space we inhabit online, is really more an illusion of agency and freedom than control as such. Web’sites’,  electronic ‘mail addresses’…all of this is essentially a cover for a physical infrastructure that is subject to the control of programmers, technological limitations,  corporations, and the law that governs how these all will operate and co-exist. The freedom and innovation we enjoy today is precarious and unstable. Cyberspace is ephemeral, transient, dynamic and constantly changing. Should one ISP decide to set a precedent of throttling or setting up barriers to access and happen to make a ton of money doing it, they’ve set a new precedent for the rest of the industry and the innovation we see in startups and major companies alike would come to a screeching halt.  Here, I’m preaching to the choir (virtually everyone enrolled in this class is well aware of how the Internet works and the issues surrounding its use,) but the same cannot be said for the most of America.

"I've been looking for these files for hours..."

The issue of free speech that  interweaves through every topic we’ve discussed thus far (copyright, fair-use, cyber-bullying, re-mix…I could just go through the syllabus) comes full circle. Free speech is simultaneously contingent upon itself, because it encourages innovation (companies are free to create services that prosper precisely because they can take advantage of the unfiltered-ness of the net) and new products that in turn enable creativity and open expression by the every-man; both of which are contingent upon the business models of those who create the Internet. Unfortunately, a business model is something that can change radically with time, and is often detrimental to consumers. Is a vocal minority of active web users enough to prevent the re-creation or restructuring of the Internet? I hope so. In any event, plenty has been said about network neutrality, so I won’t keep blabbering on about something most of you have probably already read tons of literature about. I am of course obliged to include a ‘call to action’!

Rise up, Webizens!

 

Take it easy there, tiger.

But seriously…

Learn about Net Neutrality

Do Something about it –

 

Final Words

I’d like to share some super cool content or application on the topic with you that’ll make you think I’m also a super cool, hip, and happenin’ fella , but I’m going to be honest; while I consider myself  to be above average on the scale of computer know-how, truthfully I’m of the “Top 40” variety when it comes to computers. Whenever I talk to a friend about an awesome new application or web-service I’ve found, or I think that I’ve stumbled upon the next huge trend in computing before anyone else, my excitement is met with a condescending smirk. “Dude, that’s been around for years.” or  “I can’t believe you haven’t seen that before.” are not all too uncommon for me to hear. Maybe my friends are uncommonly tech-savvy, or maybe I’m just the  Dancing Baby of Memes. Anyway, to get to the point, I wouldn’t find any of the things I enjoy online or the utilities that allow my life to run smoothly (on an occasional basis) if the Internet’s architecture wasn’t crafted the way it is. Because of Facebook, Google +, Twitter, 4chan and virtually any method of open communication, we are able to share, discover, and dig deeper into our own unique or newfound interests. Not only that, but they are integrated real-time into our everyday lives! Truly awesome.

The Internet is not shrink wrapped, nor is it sterile. It is raw, refreshing, revealing, revolting, and revolutionary.  Sure, I’ll occasionally get a pornographic banner ad on an otherwise innocuous website during the middle of class every now and again, but to me thats all part of the Internet’s charm. The Court has fought attempts to clean up the Internet in favor of free speech on the net, and I wish that was enough to keep free speech alive. But I’m a little bit afraid that commercialization is going to change things, and not for the better. A quick 3 stumbles on the application ‘StumbleUpon’ brought me returns of “Newark State of Mind” (Parody of Jay-Z’s New York Anthem), “This is Why You Don’t Brag About Sexual Encounters on Facebook”, and 6 Reasons We’re In Another ‘Book-Burning’ Period in History (From Cracked, a favorite of mine). Each page is but a spark of the collective flame of creativity of the Internet. But without open channels to fan the flame, this creativity is almost certain to die or  be buried beneath massively promoted, publicized, and better funded material.

From the Outside Looking In- A Complex Relationship with Meme Culture – by “Nick L”

But I'll try anyway!

The Inside Joke

  In high school I was never the first to discover a new online fad. I refused to touch MySpace, I was reluctant to join facebook, and I rarely used the internet as a source of culture. For me, the internet was a tool for tracking my favorite sports teams and playing the occasional online game. This was not an issue for me socially, and I generally felt like I was a culturally informed conversationalist.

Then, all of a sudden, I was lost. One night, casually relaxing and watching a football game, it was like my friends began speaking another language. Every other sentence I heard made absolutely no sense, and I found myself irritated and exclaiming, “What the hell is a mudkip?!?!” Of course, my confusion merely encouraged my friends to delve deeper into their newly-discovered language. They were laughing hysterically, uttering nonsense, and I was sitting there wondering what drug they had taken that made their ramblings at all amusing. I was experiencing absolute awkwardness: being the only one in the room on the outside of a massive inside joke.

Finally, someone threw me a bone. “Memes, Nick! Haven’t you ever been to 4Chan??” I remained clueless, so I spent the rest of the night smiling and nodding, pretending to be totally into the senseless humor. But I didn’t dare try and use one of these ‘memes’ they were so fond of. I simply followed along. They say a dope will laugh 3 times at a joke: First when the joke is made, next when the joke is explained, and finally several minutes later when he actually catches on. I was stuck repeating the first two steps over and over again.

I heard you liek taxidermy?

 

Meme Culture

Kenyatta Cheese of Know Your Meme would probably have labeled me a civilian. At the time, I would have labeled myself a victim of a silly fad. The role I was playing, though, was an integral one. In order for an inside joke to be successful, there must be an outside, a group whose ignorance makes the humor all the more entertaining. Whatever one might call my role, the situation forced me to reconsider the relevance of internet-based culture. I needed to decide whether or not to buy in, do my research, and become an insider in the growing fad.

In his book, “The Selfish Gene,” Dr. Richard Dawkins, British ethologist and evolutionary biologist, defines memes generally as “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” He goes on to explain how memes propagate themselves culturally and how a so-called “meme pool” behaves in quite a similar fashion to the “gene pool” with which we are more familiar. From Dawkins’ description, memes are brought to the forefront as an important tool in social progress. As much as our genetic code determines our physical being, our memetic code, comprised of outside factors, should define the culture in which we live.

The issue in Dawkins’ logic, however, is revealed by the dissonance between theory and reality. In theory, memetics is a serious study, with such topics as the “God Meme” which pose real academic questions and spur debate. In practice, though, the idea of the meme has been embraced by a population that has a different intention in mind. Memetics has become – as the popular meme goes – simply “4 the Lulz.”

well that and for the cupcakez...

Internet memes are just one more way of keeping the internet user-created. Instead of simply accepting the mainstream humor provided by the ‘professionals,’ the creative and clever use memes as a new kind of comedy. (Francesca Coppa would certainly approve!) And memes aren’t always just passive time-wasters. Some memes, like planking and cone-ing, require time and effort. However pointless these activities may seem, they provide entertainment for those who are in on the joke, and the efficiency of the internet as a sharing tool allows the fads to grow to massive proportions. Just watch a couple videos and you’re guaranteed to at least get a chuckle out of them.

Downside?

  While Lolcats and planking are mostly harmless, memes can certainly have a more negative side as well. Take trolling for instance. Trolling is behavior which is meant to anger or frustrate the object of criticism. When so-called “trolls” decide to gang up on a certain online figure, the mocking and degrading attacks often become excessive and cruel. In the case of Jessi Slaughter, we see an example of trolling having a real impact outside just the cyber-world. Enjoyment by the trolls came at the expense of a little girl who quite clearly had enough developmental issues of her own before harassing phone calls and comments came into play. Whether or not Jessi Slaughter deserved criticism is up for debate, but I think most would agree that the outcome of her situation was regrettably worsened by the online community.

Copyright

One more interesting wrinkle to mention is copyright law. It is clear that US regulations allow fair use of certain media for the purpose of parody, but this right does NOT extend to satire. The “Downfall- Hitler Reacts” meme is often in direct violation of this code. The example here is fair use because the editor is making a statement about the film and its production company. However, the endless re-edits of this clip to mock everything from Xbox Live to Justin Bieber are actually in the realm of satire. They critique society as a whole, not the piece itself, and for this reason they are in violation of a copyright.

Final Thoughts

-Memes are funny, it only takes a few minutes on any of the various meme databases to realize that silly (but clever!) viral humor is entertaining

-Meme culture is not necessarily an effective use of time, but hey, neither are most of our extra-curricular activities.

-Sometimes the online community goes too far, and the anonymity which we hold dear to us is often the enabling factor.

-It is MUCH more fun to be in the know in an inside joke than to be left in the dark, so I put in my hours of tedious studying and I believe I can now claim to be a participant in a really fun and witty new realm of humor.

Memes and Online Communities – BFF! – by “Nikola C”

Memes do not create themselves. They do not “evolve.” Communities create and mutate memes, and communities provide the natural selection that perpetuates or puts them to an end.

Meme History 101 – Memes and Online Communities go back a long way

In the beginning (1985), there was the Internet: The Internet. The Meme-Rex. The word was first used to describe “The linked computer network of the U.S. Defense Department.” It is the shorthand for Inter-network.

And on the 1982’nd year AD, William Gibson created Cyberspace…

According to popular consensus, the most successful internet-meme of all times (other than the Internet itself) is the word “Cyberspace.” The word was first used by the person who has perhaps the most significant cultural impact on, well, cyberspace – the sci-fi author William Gibson. He coined the phrase in his famous short story “Burning Chrome” in 1982. The Cyberspace meme was later immortalized by Gibson’s 1984 novel “Neuromancer”. This novel is the first one to ever win the science-fiction “triple crown” – the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Award and the Nebula Award, which is greater than or equal to infinite epicness.

A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

~Neuromancer

I think it is fair to say that the “Neuromancer” novel is itself another early, immortal meme, but it is not as popular in the Internet mainstream as LOLcats for example. Anyhow, the whole universe created by Gibson inspired many of the members of early online communities. Somehow, he successfully turned a monochrome terminal with a blinking cursor into a portal to a romantic world full of adventure.

The Internet Coke Machine:

The “cultural soup” of the early Internet apparently had a peculiar flavor, because another popular meme of the early times was the Internet Coke Machine in CMU. Basically, a bunch of caffeine-hungry computer programmers hacked the Computer Science Department’s Coke Machine, so that they could see if there is any cold “happiness in a bottle” in it without having to go out of their offices. It could also tell them which bottles of coke were best cooled. And all this could be done through this early meme-line-of-code:

> finger coke@cmu_

Cheers.

Bytes’ got temper (-:

                According to Internet Lore, the first emoticon was used in a message sent by Scott Fahlman on 19th September 1982. There was a large discussion of whether emoticons are really necessary – after all neither Shakespeare nor Milton needed to use them. It is 2011 now, however, and we still use smiley faces everywhere. So, as the poet has said, when Natural Selection speaks, debate champions should remain silent. Here is the message (the smiley faces are composed entirely of ASCII, but WordPress converts them to images 😦 ):

19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman             :-)
From: Scott E  Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:
:-)
Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more economical to mark
things that are NOT jokes, given current trends.  For this, use
:-(

Now, our only source of this information is Scott Fahlman himself, but nobody has felt the urge to refute his claim so far, so… let it be. Ideas happen when their time has come anyway, right?

Usenet:  Usenet is one of the first remarkably strong online communities, and it gave birth to many memes still in use today. Did you know that the first recorded use of the term LOL, as in “Laugh out Loud,” was in a Usenet message from the early 1980’s? Yeah, LOL was cool way before we, current students, were born.  Some other abbreviations the Usenet community is to be held accountable for are AFK, BRB and ROTF.

According to Wikipedia, the act of trolling can also be traced back to Usenet, but back in the day it was considered to be a good thing:

“… a veteran of the group might make a post on the common misconception that glass flows over time. Long-time readers would both recognize the poster’s name and know that the topic had been discussed a lot, but new subscribers to the group would not realize, and would thus respond. These types of trolls served as a practice to identify group insiders.”

Yeah. Right. As the community evolved, trolling became tightly associated with the initiation of flame wars, and all those other things that would make people on the internet hate you.

Other popular Usenet memes were BIFF (also B1FF) – a nickname given to Usenet newbies, and it had a meaning similar to the modern “noob” – it was rather unwelcoming.

Godwin’s law – Mike Godwin observed that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Godwin’s Law’s achieved its meme status when people started citing “Godwin’s Law” in the beginning of almost every Usenet thread they started as a “Reducto ad Hitlerum” measure – they did not want the Nazi comparisons in their discussion.

The “Something Awful” forums: “SA” was started in 1999 as the personal website of Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka, but the community that formed around its forum gradually turned into the primary foundry of internet culture. If you have heard of the legendary phrase “All your base are belong to us” it is probably because of this website.

You have no chance to survive make your time.

One of the signature weekly activities of the SA community was “Photoshop Phriday”, during which forum members, or “goons”, as they call themselves, would mash together several images for the sake of parody. Follow the link below to see last Phriday’s phinest:

Faceswap

The SA forums are also has another famous hobby – “The Blue Ball Machine,” which involved the creation of small, looping animations of random devices that maneuvered blue balls. The only requirement was that in every animation, the ball had to enter at one place and exit from another. When tiled next to each other, these animations create the illusion of a gigantic mechanism, and they feel as if they are synchronized to the “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” theme.  Check it out:

The Blue Balls Machine

Max Goldberg, the creator of the “You’re the Man Now, Dog” website – a portal responsible for the popularization of many of the memes of the early 2000’s said in an interview for Wired that “[The Blue Ball Machine] is our most viewed title ever.”,

The SA community created many of the most epic memes of the early 2000’s. In late 2003, one of the goons – moot, would take the online community scene to a whole new level.

4chan.org – 4chan was launched in October 2003 by Christopher ‘moot’ Poole. The website was designed to be an anonymous image exchange forum, with Anime and Manga as its main topics. It gradually turned into one of the most successful meme-factories and online-activism hubs on the internet

So, how did the 4chan community change the world, besides voiding thousands of people of respectable amounts of their mental innocence through /b (also known as the “Random” thread – the community’s most active and controversial board)? Well, some of the most famous memes today originated on 4chan. “Rickrolling”, “LOLcats”, “Caturday”, Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain”, “Pedobear”,” IMMA CHARGIN MAH LAZER” are a few of the popular ones.

I iz in ur class. Eatin ur cupcakez.

There are some other memes that are specific to the 4chan community, but I will not mention them here, for /b reasons.

Many factors that contribute to 4chan’s title as the world’s leading meme factory. While it is not exactly clear what these factors are, I think it would not be too wrong to point out the large number of people in the community and the specific mechanics of the board.

4chan is an image exchange forum, and each thread contains images on a certain topic – Anime, Cars, Weapons and so on. However, not all images that are posted are retained. Once you visit a thread, you can move up to 15 pages back in its history. This, combined with the large number of users posting to threads like /b (Random), makes it rather hard for a certain image to stay within the 15 page range for too long. Online communities create their memes, but they also play the role of Natural Selection for their ideas. Natural Selection in 4chan is pretty ruthless – it is easy for an idea to be sent to the junkyard. Memes survive only if they grab the attention of a large enough part of the community, and the ones that do, like the “LOLcats” one, are often destined to be successful even in different environments than the ones that created them.

YouTube: The third most visited website on the Internet is the home of the majority of the video-memes out there.  “Charlie bit my finger”, “Nyan Cat”, “This is Sparta!”, “Numa Numa”, and ”Obama Girl” are just a few examples.

Nyan Cat

What is interesting about YouTube is that often, unlike other online communities who develop their memes, many memes on YouTube were not developed specifically for the YouTube community. Rather, they become memes only after they are posted to the site – like the “Star Wars Kid” and “Badger Badger Badger.”

Honorable Mentions:

Gaming communities: MMORGP’s, StarCraft2, FPS-communities and so on also produce and perpetuate their own memes. Some examples:

StarCraft2: “Idra: GG”

World Of Warcraft: dancing characters

Counter-Strike: “Headshot!”

Unreal Tournament: “Double Kill… Multi Kill… Mega Kill… Ultra Kill…”

Also, warez servers – Where do you think video-memes were stored before YouTube? The local warez was the only place to find the 3D Dancing Baby video. Also, the terms “leecher” and “seeder” started there.

The end:

This list is not exhaustive at all. I wrote it just to illustrate how different communities and memes evolved over time.

All the examples cited show that Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes as “survival machines” seems to be able to hold its ground. The three factors needed by a survival machine – reproductive potential, ability to mutate, and longevity have all been demonstrated to a certain degree by the memes above. For example: Smiley Face – Viral: Very; Mutable: Very; Longevity: High – still a meme? – Yes. Internet Coke-Machine: Viral: Very; Mutable: Not too much; Longevity: The coke machine was probably scrapped already; still a meme?

I think the answer to the last question is a little tricky. Is the Internet Coke Machine meme dead forever now? And what exactly should we mean by longevity, when applied to memes? Dawkins suggests that “is probably relatively unimportant,” but I think it could have some practical applications if interpreted correctly. While I was writing this blog post, I told several engineering-inclined people about it, and they were very amused and liked the idea a lot. Maybe we can employ longevity to be the distinction between and the factors that cause memes to be active or inactive. After all, many interesting ideas of the past are still interesting today – we do not need to look for Polaris to find where north is, and the knowledge of how to wield a sword is not quite essential for our survival nowadays, but in the right communities, these memes are still active.

When, and do memes actually die? Perhaps it is fair to say that memes materialize within and disappear with their communities. Until they find a new home.

There are many questions that need to be answered about memes, but at least we get more and more examples on which to test our theories.

Hitler vs. Dunham 220 – by “Jerome L”

The Downfall meme began in 2006, just a couple years after the movie was first released. In the most commonly parodied scene, Hitler is informed by his generals that Felix Steiner’s counterassault on the Soviets never occurred; he then orders all but four generals out of the room and proceeds to rage about the situation.

YouTube user DReaperF4 created the first spoof of the video, with subtitles about Hitler’s resentment toward the lack of new features in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X Demo. Since then, over a thousand similar subtitle spoofs have been created, focusing on such banal tragedies as not being accepted to Hogwarts, finding out the iPod touch does not have a camera, getting banned from Xbox Live, or one of my personal favorites, finding out that Santa isn’t real.

In 2009 and 2010, Constantin Film, the producers of the movie, began using YouTube’s Content ID filter to remove the Hitler finds out… videos from teh interwebs (including the original by DReaperF4). This did not sit well with many Fair Use advocates, leading to the creation of several meta parodies about Hitler reacting to the takedowns.

As Alex Leavitt points out, the bunker scene follows a fairly straightforward narrative:

– actor sets up situation, which superior seems to understand
– superior confirms that he understands
– actor(s) introduce problem that contradicts superior’s understanding
– superior suggests his frustration in extended silence
– superior explodes in confused anger
– superior realizes he cannot overcome problem
– superior accepts problem (Source)

And so the stage is set for my own Downfall parody, “Hitler finds out he is in Dunham 220”.

Basically all the background information you need to know is as follows: Brad Rosen brings cupcakes to class. Brad Rosen does not like Dunham 220 because it is hot, the administration won’t give him fans to cool it down, and there are very few outlets so he has to bring his own power strips to class. Brad Rosen finds church bells ringing during class awfully annoying. Brad Rosen has an odd penchant for whoopie pies.

Think Different. – by “Marty B”

From the first time I saw an iMac in my elementary school’s library, I’ve had a tortured relationship with Apple.  Although I’m not a coder or a computer science expert, I’ve always felt a connection to the culture of remixing, open-source, free-software, etc. (I think a lot of my attitudes towards the internet were shaped by my introduction to Napster in the late 90s and torrents in the mid-2000s.  I love that shit).  But in my mind, Apple products always seemed to be one step behind the technology of the times.  And even worse, I’d always felt that Apple products inhibited innovation in the field of computing.  Computers and the internet developed so quickly in the 20th century partly because the tools of computing were concentrated in universities and among people whose inherent curiosity allowed them to continually push the boundaries of computing.  People began using computers for millions of different purposes simply because programmers had the ability and the freedom to tinker around.  Over the last 15 years, it always appeared to me that Apple products restricted the freedom of their users, thus restricting the ability of people to innovate and expand the bounds of what is possible in computing.  In fact, that constricting nature of Apple products, and the slow release of new technologies, almost seemed to be its defining characteristic.

 

The iTunes Store

One of Apple’s first major developments in the 21st century was their opening of the iTunes Store.  After years of legal battles regarding music downloads and the internet, Apple finally created a location where people could easily buy music for their computers and iPods.  But along with this wonderful new store came something called FairPlay, a digital rights management (DRM) technology that restricted how songs from the iTunes store could be played.  Among the limitations, the tracks could only be played on three different computers, any iPod could not have music from more than five iTunes accounts, and a playlist containing DRM songs could only be burned to CD seven times.  Most notably, songs purchased from the iTunes store could not be played any portable digital music player besides ones made by Apple.  Essentially, if you buy music from the iTunes store, you have to buy an iPod.  After huge social backlash against DRM music over the years, Apple finally released their music DRM-free starting in 2009.

 

The MacBook Revolution

Around this same time, MacBook laptops produced by Apple began sweeping the nation.  Although dozens of companies were producing laptops in the market at that time, Apple’s laptops had one curious characteristic: proprietary ports.  At a time when power cords had the possibility for standardization (as has been occurring lately with micro-USB devices), Apple used a proprietary connection on its power adapters.  Additionally, they used a proprietary video out connection so that, if anyone wanted to connect their laptops to a TV or projector, they would have to buy a $30 adapter.  These restrictions necessarily made Apple computers much less versatile.  The same attitude towards hardware was applied to iPods and iPhones, which charge and sync using a proprietary Apple port.

 

There’s an app for that…

Apple instantly became one of the most dominant competitors in mobile computing when they released the iPhone.  But in doing so, they also charted the path of their mobile operating systems: closed, proprietary, and full of various forms of DRM.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Johnathan Zittrain, and the Free Software Foundation have all publicly commented on the restricting nature of Apple’s mobile operating system.  But what exactly was the problem?

First, the iOS operating system itself is completely closed.  This means that no ordinary computer enthusiasts would be able to easily tinker around with the way the operating system works or looks.  In fact, when jailbreaking became common, Apple immediately went to the courts to attempt to make jailbreaking illegal (a battle they eventually lost).  In addition to closed software, the customization ability of iPhones and iPads were surprisingly limited.  There are no custom ringtones for receiving text messages.  There aren’t any widgets to customize your home screen.  Every iPhone looks and feels exactly the same.  The code prevents customization.

After the iPhone, Apple eventually released the App Store – the one and only location where iPhone users could go to obtain applications for their device.  But Apple decided to retain control over every application that was submitted to the App Store.  Eventually, they decided to start rejecting any applications that would conflict with their ability to make money.  Want to turn your phone into a wifi router for free?  Sorry, you’ll have to pay AT&T or Verizon at least $20 a month for that.  Want to access all of your music for free using Google Music?  Sorry, you need to buy all your music from the iTunes store and pay for “iCloud” to listen to it wirelessly.

In addition, Apple habitually delays the release of new technologies to make sure they can maximize their profits at every step.  One of the most egregious examples of this occurred when they released the “iPod Photo” for $500 and then released the first video iPod just four months later at a much lower price.  They released the iPad 2 two months after Christmas 2010 to maximize the number of people who bought the older technology.  Even the new iPhone 4GS that came out a few days ago still does not have 4G data (the network of the future) or an NFC chip (a technology of the future).  This slow, deliberate release of new technologies impedes development within and beyond the existing frameworks.

 

Apple’s Legacy

So what does this all mean?  Does this mean that Apple products have slowed down technological progress over the last 10 years?  Would the (technological) world be a better place without Apple?

Absolutely not.

If Apple devices were the only devices that you could buy, then, I would probably argue that computing and innovation would probably be hindered.  But because we have other platforms onto which coders and programmers can develop their ideas, Apple hasn’t slowed down technological progress, they’ve advanced it.

How?  Apple’s incredibly simple interface, eye-catching designs, and ridiculously effective marketing have had an unbelievable effect in bringing outsiders into the world of computers.  There was a time when the internet was pretty much just for dorks, researchers, gamers, and porn enthusiasts.  Although computing for business is one of the main reasons for its growth, Apple has brought computing into homes of everyday Americans that ordinarily would never have become involved with computers.

Apple doesn’t sell products, it sells emotion.  Ever since those original dancing silhouette iPod commercials, Apple has been making people believe their identities are tied to the devices they buy.  You can’t appreciate literature without an iPad.  You can’t preserve family memories without iMovie on a Macbook.  And I think that is the greatest legacy of Steve Jobs.  He may not have been an innovator from a technical perspective, but he was a visionary from a cultural perspective.  For people who ordinarily may never have been able to use computers, Jobs designed products they could easily use.  This has brought so many people into the field of computing that it has necessarily advanced the field, albeit in a nontraditional sense.  Sure, Apple app developers are much more restricted than Android app developers, but the sheer number of people who have begun developing apps due to the popularity of Apple has absolutely increased people’s interest in mobile computing.  They may have been on the wrong side of many legal battles involving DRM, but Steve Jobs will forever be remembered as a cultural icon: someone who created a seemingly magical brand of devices that have come to define how our society interacts with the world around it.

Where is Yale’s Zuckerberg? – by “Keila Fong”

Facebook is worth tens of billions of dollars. If its active users formed a country, it would be the third most populous in the world. The dramatized story of its founding (The Social Network, 2010), in which Harvard plays a significant role, was a critical and box-office hit.

According to a Kauffman Foundation study, “if the active companies founded by MIT graduates formed an independent nation, conservative estimates indicate that their revenues would make that nation at least the seventeenth-largest economy in the world.”

Certainly, these types of statistics are mostly just attention-grabbing ledes — they can’t and don’t really capture the state of an institution’s entrepreneurial culture. That being said, it’s unlikely you would hear similar stats about Yale being thrown around…

Make no mistake, Yale has had a number of entrepreneurial successes. FedEx (Fred Smith, ‘66), Meebo (Seth Sternberg, ‘01), Higher One (Sean Glass, ‘03), Justin.tv (Justin Kan, ‘05), and Aardvark (Max Ventilla ’06 et al.) are just a few of the companies that have been founded by Yale alumni. There are Yalies in important places in industry (e.g., the founders of General Assembly. Bing Gordon, of Kleiner Perkins). There are even more fledgling ventures on campus, in programs like the YEI Summer Fellowship. Four of the twenty four Thiel “20 Under 20” Fellows were from Yale.

However, despite these individual successes, Yale just doesn’t have the cultural clout of the entrepreneurial powerhouses — places like MIT, Stanford, perhaps even Harvard. Why not? What does it take to build an entrepreneurial culture?

 

Where do entrepreneurs come from?

In an opinion piece on the technology and startup blog TechCrunch, Vivek Wadhwa discusses whether entrepreneurs are born or made. He cites Fred Wilson, a prominent VC, who believes that “you can’t teach people to be entrepreneurs”. Wadhwa claims the opposite — that entrepreneurs aren’t born, but are made.

On an anecdotal level, many words have been blogged about what makes a successful entrepreneur. The characteristics seem to converge onto several recurring traits — things like determination, resourcefulness, and creativity, things that all sound pretty useful to have if you’re starting a company. Even if possessing these traits somehow didn’t predispose one to entrepreneurial success, these are the traits that the gatekeepers themselves profess to care about. By selecting founders with these traits, VCs and their ilk create a system in which possessing these traits is rewarded. Perhaps some people are born with a temperament that makes them more likely to be successful in entrepreneurial pursuits.

However, there are clearly more people who exhibit these types of characteristics than the number that pursue entrepreneurship, let alone pursue it successfully. People can be exposed to entrepreneurship, and through education, be given the tools to increase their chances of success — in this sense, potential entrepreneurs can be made into successful entrepreneurs. Not everyone given these resources will magically become a successful entrepreneurs; not everyone can or wants to be made into an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs are neither exclusively born nor made — perhaps more accurately, they are activated.

 

Entrepreneurial culture and communities

Brad Feld reminisces on his blog about his bright college years at MIT — specifically, about his experiences as a frat bro.

Clearly, it was a frat… But as he points out, it also spawned an incredible amount of innovation — the founders of iRobot, ATG, Bluefin Robotics, Harmonix, and VCs at Menlo and Accel, to name a few. As Feld describes it, “there was something in the water” (or perhaps, in the foam).

This culture isn’t unique to an MIT frathouse. The hope is that aspects of this community and its culture can be replicated, thus activating more entrepreneurs.

So, what are some significant characteristics of environments that effectively activate entrepreneurs?

  • Network (geographic and knowledge networks). Geographically, startups congregate in places like Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston. Sociological researchsupports this strategy — “network support increases the probability of survival and growth of newly founded businesses”. A study on the geographic localization of innovation found that “small firms are tied into regional knowledge networks to a greater extent than large firms”. For a small firm, then, it makes sense to tap into the densest and most extensive knowledge network possible — which, practically speaking, tends to mean moving to an entrepreneurial hub.Unlike schools like Stanford (Silicon Valley), MIT and Harvard (Boston), Yale doesn’t have the advantage of a strong local culture of innovation and industry, and the accompanying network. Among the Yale success stories, few have chosen to stay in New Haven, choosing instead to relocate to one of the startup hubs. This dearth also makes it more difficult to pursue entrepreneurship while a student at Yale — it’s inconvenient to be located where many of the resources aren’t.
  • Education. Help predisposed individuals recognize an interest in entrepreneurship. The few in-classroom opportunities (at least within Yale College) to learn and practice entrepreneurship on campus have been incredibly oversubscribed — Sean Glass’ Technology Entrepreneurship seminar had 130+ applicants for fewer than twenty spots. The Hack Yale initiative had hundreds of people register for the course, and even more indicate interest. Rather than balk at the more preprofessional nature of these courses, Yale should recognize that entrepreneurship is not out to destroy the liberal arts education. Rather, offer these types of initiatives the institutional support they deserve.
  • Domain knowledge. It’s no coincidence that many of the entrepreneurial powerhouses are also technology powerhouses. Technological innovation drives entrepreneurial innovation. Let’s be honest, Yale isn’t exactly known as a tech powerhouse, either. Until the on-campus culture of technologists reaches a critical mass, Yale’s wantrepreneurs will all still be looking for technical co-founders, not shipping product.

 

So where is Yale’s Zuck?

If I knew the answer to that question, I would be on my way to a nice sum of money and a cameo in a David Fincher movie. What I can postulate, though, is that the likelihood of producing a Zuckerberg — by which I really mean the likelihood of producing ventures, specifically successful ones — is positively correlated with the strength of an institution’s entrepreneurial culture. A strong culture will attract entrepreneurially-minded innovators. It will also activate potential entrepreneurs who are already there.

It’s not that Yale inherently lacks the ability to produce the next Zuckerberg. There are plenty of smart people here. There are institutional resources. But when it comes to the key factors in creating an environment that activates entrepreneurs, we’re still playing catch-up. The current spike in activity on campus is encouraging. The next step, though, is to convert the interest into something shippable.