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Public spaces for the public: Taking a break from the ads

When I first conceptualized Citizen Supported Propaganda, it was after years of thinking about the concept in less over-arching, more project-oriented terms. I have often envisioned a project whereby members of the public (made easier today by croudfunding infrastructure) collectively buy out the advertising in public and quasi-public spaces and, for some length of time, replace it with content that makes simply existing in these spaces more enjoyable while simultaneously calling attention to the lack of advertising present.

As a pie-in-the-sky project, I have imagined taking over an entire concourse at a busy airport. Through the years, the project has variously included displaying classic art with no textual mention of the lack of ads, to the idea of having every single ad surface plastered with “This is not an ad” and similar messages. While I think that the most effective message is neither of those extremes, this thought of removing advertisement from a space where many people spend substantial time is something I can’t shake.

Other venues provide a much more accessible laboratory for this kind of intercession. In Boston, for instance, I know that public transit advertising packages start at about $8,000. This is a number that is reasonable to raise from a small group. I question often, however, whether the distributed campaign that eight grand brings could be made as effective as, say, a single subway car take-over. Is it better to reach more people with a simple message among many (distributed campaign) or to provide fewer passengers (a take-over) a much more intense experience? My gut feeling says the latter is true, but I have not yet researched this enough to know for sure where the biggest bang-for-the-buck is likely to lie.

I hope to get the chance to research this more fully, by both looking at what others have found in the past as well as conducting experiments myself. In particular, I want to know what the lasting effects of these different modes of presenting public messages might be. A year later, say, are people more likely to be influenced by one or another? Are more people influenced in one scenario over the other? Can any of this lead to lasting mind change?


Why is it so Wrong to be Wrong?

The text "Evolution of Beliefs" behind the universal symbol for "Prohibited"

We aren’t allowed to evolve our beliefs.

As I continue to think about how we may be able to really change minds over the long term, I have been regularly struck by just how horrible our society sees being wrong. Apart from a tiny (and privileged) community in the startup world espousing “fail early and often,” being wrong is seen as anathema today. It seems impossible for anyone to change their minds without being ridiculed and embarrassed. And I don’t think this is only for the Big Things nor is it reserved for well-known people.

Until we can de-stigmatize changing one’s mind, we are likely to make very little progress towards ways to actually do so.

 


Political Jewelry

A small round lapel pin made of antiqued brass displaying a Falsum character (upside-down T) surrounding by the text

Liberty and Justice for All Falsum Pin by William Aaron Waychoff

One of the first thoughts I had for a cohesive line of jewelry was political. Not so much on it’s face – on the surface, it was cute even – but it was commenting on something in society very pointedly.* The most recent jewelry I have developed is political not just in its soul, but on its surface as well. See my Resist post for more on those specifics. I have had many other pieces come to mind that incorporate strong social-commentary.

It seems that I may have a specific interest developing.

I have been thinking about some of the ways that political jewelry works and how it plays in society at both the individual and interpersonal levels. While I approached this a bit dubious of the potential for strong impacts (mainly because I was so interested I was sure there was nothing to find) I now believe that there are very real benefits to what jewelry with a political message can do. Below, I’ll speak briefly about some of these. I’m still exploring this line of thought, and will likely be doing so for years to come, so I’m sure there will be future pieces that focus on refinements and deeper thoughts on all of this.

Primarily Personal Benefits:

Expression and Defiance

Right now, every day before I leave my house, I put on one of my Resist lapel pins, buttons, or necklaces. No matter which I choose to wear on a given day, the act of donning that little sliver of speech makes me feel a jolt of energy, of optimism, of strength. I literally feel a little more like I can face each day and do what is required of me when I put on a falsum. Part of it is because I’m declaring to the world that I have feelings on these matters our country is facing. Part is because standing up to authority, even in such a small way, still feels novel or taboo to me and the thrill of doing so is exhilarating. And certainly part of it is reaffirming, every day, that there are actions I can take that will make this world better. There is some piece of fear buried in there as well, because even such a small thing can definitely make one a target.

It may all be anecdotal at this point, but I’m over the idea that my feelings are unique to myself. They may be far from universal, but I’m not a special snowflake.

Supporting a Cause

By buying a piece of jewelry that advocates for a cause, a purchaser explicitly and implicitly supports that cause. This can be the primary reason for many kinds of purchases. When a product becomes, intentionally or otherwise, associated with a cause, it can be the cause that people are supporting with their cash more than even the desire to own the product. With something like jewelry and other durable goods, the remembrance of that initial support is rekindled every time the purchaser experiences that object. I don’t think this feeling of self-affirmation should be underemphasized. While it would be simplistic to call this selfish behavior, it is important to understand that there is a significant personal gain associated with the purchase and wearing of political jewelry. With jewelry in particular, this personal reward seems important.

Finding a Voice and Acceptance

Certainly every artist I know wants to create in a way that resonates, attracts, and speaks to at least some others. While this can, and often is, a purely aesthetic attraction, it is not limited to that. Political jewelry has the opportunity to appeal to wearers both on an aesthetic and activist level. Many items that classify as non-essential likely fall into this category. (Branded apparel, art objects, stickers, etc.) The idea that something resonates with a large crowd brings value to both the creator and the consumer. In cases, it can be the driving force behind the artist’s energy. Without the possibility of such a payoff, some artists surely would pursue different directions in life. But without art that resonates with them, many consumers would not pursue the world of artistic or designed products at all.

Primarily Interpersonal Benefits:

Discovery

To use the language of online advertisers, wearing political jewelry can help surface content relevant to viewer’s interests. When someone sees another wearing an intriguing piece of jewelry that is either enigmatic or obviously aligned with particular views, the likelihood of a personal interaction between the viewer and the wearer likely increases. This can lead to viewers being introduced to new causes, new voices, and new perspectives. The wearer can similarly be exposed. In the most excellent circumstances, the two can both find new connections and friends.
Certainly I have had this experience multiple times of late due to my daily wear of the falsum jewelry.

Commerce

Like it or not, we currently live in a capitalistic society. My personal beliefs on capitalism are complex, but we have a very deeply entrenched set of rules for how things are to be rewarded in our society. Part of that includes the exchange of money for just about everything. I think it’s easy to criticize creators for “capitalizing” on hard or tragic events, and surely it happens in inappropriate ways all the time. But apart from independant wealth, a creator has got to eat and, ideally, money for that food comes from selling the creator’s works. It always seems harder when there is a cause involved, especially one as big as the direction of the worlds most powerful country in the years and decades to come. But profiting off one’s creative work is an integral part of how our society currently works. I work really hard to be fair-to-generous when selling my political work, as do many others. People do tacky things sometimes, though.

Solidarity & Conformity 

I’ve thought about this deeply and I think it’s best summarized simply. People are more likely to act when they know that they are not alone in their thoughts and feelings. Symbols, as potentially expressed in political jewelry, broadcast the wearer’s beliefs on certain subjects. The idea that others around you share similar thoughts and feelings can be very powerful. It gives us permission to believe the things we believe. It gives us strength to act. This, I think, is possibly the most important part of political jewelry. Wearing it and sharing it gives us strength. Strength makes it possible to act. Only action leads to change.
Additionally, when someone who is out of the loop sees the appearance of a new symbol or motif, whether they know what it means or not, it can put pressure on them to find out what it means and there is a certain social pressure toward believing the same concepts that is exerted.

These aspects and the way they interact are the most interesting concepts of the bunch to me and the one I’ve thought most about. Expect more on this soon.
Surely there are other ways that political jewelry plays with our psyches and societies, but I think this list is enough to convince me to embrace it further. I think that there is a lot of jewelry, a lot of messages, and a lot of study packed into this concept.

* I’m being cagey here only because, after years, I’m in active development on this and talking about current projects in specifics somehow lets the magic out for me. I’ll try to remember to link this post to the project announcement when it eventually comes.


Community Supported Propaganda

I’ve been thinking about things that we as small groups and individuals can do to temper and eventually turn the frightening political front that the US (and, indeed, others) are seeing at this moment. We know that media plays an outsized role, even compared to the recent past, in the general thoughts and feelings of much of the country and the world. Media companies are corporations, first and foremost (some exceptions exist) and are interested primarily in a continued, profitable existence. With the extreme changes in the media landscape over the last two decades, this is not a certainty for most media corporations and, therefore, they have become much more risk-averse than in the past. This can translate into business strategies much more focused on attracting and maintaining audiences than in reporting fair and accurate news. You can’t be the only outlet not reporting on the scandal of the day lest you loose eyeballs and, therefore, revenue.

However, media – primarily video content – is not about to lose its influence in our daily lives. What I think that we as concerned individuals must do is device new ways to have media work for us, and to spread the messages we feel are important rather than leaving that choice up to profit-motivated newsrooms.

You have likely heard of a “CSA” before – usually meaning “Community Supported Agriculture” but expanded to include “Aquaculture,” and, particularly relevant to this concept, “Art.” In my community, I can participate in a Community Supported Art group which allows about 150-200 people each quarter to pay into a pool which is then distributed among a juried group of local artists, each of whom must create an art object for each of the supporters. I think we can look to this model for inspiration in getting small, targeted bits of media in front of the people who most need to hear our messages.

This is, on the surface, a simple concept:

  • Social media ads are pretty cheap (or at least have a low barrier to entry)
  • Targeting tools on those platforms are creepily specific
  • We have so many creative people who want to do something to help
  • We can crowdfund the running of ad spots targeting those who most need to hear our messages

I envision a group who evaluates submissions from the community on a variety of criteria and then manages the running of the submissions in appropriate targeted groups on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and more. Supporters pay into the pool on a regular basis (similar to Patreon) and receive updates about which ads were run and potentially engagement reports from interactions with those ads. I would hope that such situations were able to provide some compensation and/or production assistance to those creating the media content as necessary and possible.

In short, we as regular individuals could come together to put small-creator-made ads in front of hundreds of thousands of people who need to hear from anyone outside their echo chamber. We would, in effect, open up those chambers and inject our own little bit of reverb into the echoes.

There are some potential pitfalls. Any tool can be used for good and evil, and there is great potential for harmful mis-use of this concept. In fact, I would be surprised if this isn’t already happening. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, a group running ads targeting LGBT+ youth with messages encouraging self-harm, or one offering assistance to undocumented immigrants which actually handed over their information to authorities. But, while tempting, it doesn’t help to try to keep tactics secret. When used openly, everyone can better understand how they work and can use them, and devise antidotes to them, more effectively.

For my case, I would want to see ads that humanize those who are under the heaviest persecution at the moment and make it difficult for far-right conservatives to other them. I would support messages of unity and warmth, but also a lot of messages of facts –  the kinds of facts that make strong conservatives question the stories we are getting from our current administration. (Honest, creative presentation of those facts are key to encourage the necessary engagement.)

I would not personally support groups running aggressive messaging that is more likely to cause a backlash effect than a critical evaluation of beliefs. But that is a choice, not a requirement for such a thing. It makes me wonder whether contributors should have a say in which ads are run and whether voting on a juried selection may be feasible.

The media is a weapon at this point, and I see no way to stuff it back in the bottle, so let’s at least make things as even as we can.

 


Gamification of Ideological Exposure


Much is being written about ideological echo chambers. In particular, I’m enjoying Ethan Zukerman’s REWIRE, published in 2013, in advance of this seemingly sudden revelation after the 2016 US presidential election. Zukerman perfectly predicts (maybe it’s more accurate to say he observed) the phenomenon years ago. The idea that the great wondrous world of the internet has actually shrunk the points of view and differing ideals many of us are exposed to is counterintuitive, frustrating, and initially seems shocking. But it also makes perfect sense. We know that, left to our own devices, most of us seek out comfort, not challenge. We choose familiar ideas instead of ones that run contrary to our own. In short, we choose the easy path, not the hard one.

This is not unique to the media we consume, the people we follow on social media, or the neighborhoods we choose to live in. It also occurs when we look at the efforts put into political engagement (low), actions to mitigate climate change (low), and, perhaps most personally, the work most of us put into our own health and fitness. That latter category has had a great amount R&D devoted to it by researchers – mostly employed by, corporations who felt there was a way to make money by addressing this need. Weight-loss and fitness have been perennial money makers for generations, after all. When companies realized there was a way to add expensive tech to an established business model, the marketing campaigns practically wrote themselves.
Fitness trackers have boomed over the last few years. At their core, they serve as an easier way to quantify and visualize our physical activity over a given amount of time. Certainly they have helped me to better realize some of my bad habits, and to keep me more honest about the patterns in my exercise routine. This quantification is, most often, presented as a goal to reach each day/week/month and the awarding of virtual prizes and praise is nearly ubiquitous in these models. This is, clearly, the gamification of fitness. While the long-term effects are unclear, it is undeniable that some have benefited from this model.

I wonder what will happen if we apply this concept of gamifying a behavior that we generally dislike to encourage exposure to media that presents ideologies that we may not subscribe to ourselves?
The general idea behind a lot of gamification is to make an unpleasant activity fun, or at least to provide motivation for performing the activity. There are a great number of ways that rewards and motivations can present, but they are obviously effective for some. Getting in our step goal for the day, for instance, can result in a flashy animation and message of congratulations from our fitness apps, and even virtual medals for specific achievements. Even if the activity never becomes fun, if we can be motivated by these progress trackers, we can make progress towards our goals.
When it comes to exposure to dissimilar ideologies, goals are not nearly so clear or easy to quantify as for fitness. While I think that echo chambers are bad for everyone, I think it’s unlikely for most people to move too far beyond, say, a “reverb room” of ideological exposure very quickly. However, even that much of a move on the part of even a moderate portion of the population could have profound effects on our civic society. So, if our goals cannot be specific, how do we gamify exposure to ideologies? I think that measuring activity against a set of anti-goals may be useful. While it’s hard to say that “50% of your weekly reading should be outside your reverb room” it’s easier to say “less than 100% of your reading should come from within it.” It’s the extreme of the echo chamber that we need to avoid, not necessarily a perfect balance in all exposure.
But how do we even measure such things? That’s tough, to be sure. We have a general idea that some news sources lean one way or another (if you want to use the simplistic liberal/conservative spectrum for a measure) and we could, simply, categorize all stories from a specific outlet to be some percentage left or right of center. (see here and here) We could also use crowdsourcing to evaluate articles, provided enough people participating rate a specific story to avoid mischief. We could even use machine learning systems, trained on pre-scored corpora of material to evaluate individual news stories. (Seethe work of Marek Rei. I’m frustrated trying to find another researcher who trained a machine learning system to evaluate conservative vs liberal sources. I’ll update when I eventually find her again!)
If we have a reasonable way to score arbitrary content between the (again, much simplified but still useful) conservative and liberal extremes, then, much like counting steps and calories burned, we can tabulate an average for any set of stories. This could certainly be implemented in the form of a browser plugin, and could likely take other forms as well. For a responsible citizen of the US, making sure their browser bar contains, say, a purple dot, rather than a blue or red one, could become a personal goal.
We know that, for most of us, it is human nature to avoid hard things, especially when it seems we are the only ones to suffer from that avoidance. But accountability is an extremely important motivator, as are rewards. An automated system that tracks what we read, and gives us a reasonable estimate of its diversity, could assist a great many people in opening up their echo chambers, even if it is just a simple first step.


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