[Ars Electronica] Digital Communities Forum

On Monday I had the pleasure of introducing the three winners of this year’s Prix Ars Electronica in the digital communities category and moderating a forum in which they shared their experiences as communities that have formed around a particular purpose. Video and audio of all three presentations is available on the Ars Electronica Festival web page (at the bottom of the page).

HiperBarrio

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The winner of this year’s Prix Ars Electronica for Digital Communities is HiperBarrio, a project that readers of this blog are likely familiar with. HiperBarrio was represented at Ars Electronica by Álvaro Ramirez, Gabriel Jaime Vanegas, and Diego Gomez. Álvaro’s presentation introduced the history and evolution of HiperBarrio and how the group of young bloggers and citizen journalists in San Javier La Loma have managed to maintain a sense of community while still introducing new members to remain open and inclusive. He stressed that HiperBarrio re-thinks the roles of libraries as more than just places to consume culture produced at the institutional level; but rather that they should serve as collective laboratories to produce and publish culture from the grassroots. HiperBarrio served as a model for Chile’s national library network as it re-thought the role of its libraries for the digital era, and was also presented in the application by Fundación Empresas Públicas de Medellín which eventually led to a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation. (Ramirez points out that none of the $1 million is currently budgeted for HiperBarrio or similar grassroots new media training programs.)

Álvaro referenced the story of Suso as an example of how citizen journalism is forming a process by which the young people discover more information about their own community and become invested in its future. He also pointed out media production is providing an appealing alternative to gangs and drugs for the community’s young people. An article in Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper adds:

The project was presented to the public at Ars Electronica with a video which highlights the important role HiperBarrio plays to help young people find alternatives to crime, violence and drugs in a region that has been marked by the drug trafficking, guerrillas and paramilitaries.

“When people have no access to media, and are given the opportunity to tell their stories and show who there are, then they take that opportunity,” Ramirez said to the public.

Piratbyrån

Piratbyrån received one of two awards of distinction this year. Rasmus Fleischer, a Swedish historian, musician, and author of the Post Digital Manifesto, began his talk by pointing out that a 5,000 euro prize for a digital community can actually do more harm than good. Introducing money into a community built on passion and friendship can change the intentions of its participants and the ways in which they interact with one another. As Fleischer put it on his blog:

Without any intention to sound unthankful, I still must point out that receiving 5000 euro to a project like Piratbyrån is not only helping to boost the activity, but also potentially a problem for us. Because with money in a community, it has to formalize itself. In order to make democratic decisions about what to do with a budget, a clear line must be drawn separating insiders from outsiders. Not that we are against formalization, it’s just that Piratbyrån never had these clear borders. Sometimes we define our work as just an ongoing conversation, which sometimes unexpectedly spills over into specific interventions.

Our kind of community is maybe best defined by a concept that was once established by the Russian curator Victor Misiano: “the institutionalization of friendship“. Friends are not family, not lovers, not colleagues, but something else, he points out. Maintaining friendship as the driving force for a group – especially if the group receives 5000 euro – means walking a thin line between formality and informality.

His presentation had a lovely modesty to it; especially given all the ways in which the Pirate Bay and the various Pirate political parties have become so influential here in Europe and, increasingly, around the world.

Rasmus also brought up the controversial sale of the Pirate Bay domain name (http://thepiratebay.org/) for over $600,000. He emphasized that it isn’t Pirate Bay which is being acquired but merely the domain address. The founders of the site felt that the BitTorrent protocol was becoming too dependent on a single website when its purpose was always to create a decentralized network information sharing. He hopes that in Pirate Bay’s void smaller and more nimble torrent trackers will create a more decentralized and sustainable web of peer-to-peer file sharing. Like the founders of Pirate Bay, the second largest torrent tracker, Mininova, is now also battling lawsuits. But new players are coming on board every month, including one of my favorite torrent communities, Coda.fm.

After the forum I asked Rasmus what the Pirate Bay will do with the $600,000 after the domain name is sold. Surely some of it will go to pay the legal fees for Frederik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Carl Lundstrom and Peter Sunde who were found guilty in April for breaking copyright law and sentenced to one year in jail. But Rasmus said that they hope to create a foundation to promote advances in peer-to-peer technologies and the ways that they are employed. As far as the 5,000 euro Prix Ars Electronica prize goes, it will probably be spent by next week to fix up their red tour bus:

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From the pictures I’ve seen that bus needs a lot more than 5,000 euros of help. But if there is anything left over, Rasmus says that they will throw another gala party.

WikiLeaks

I have been aware of WikiLeaks for quite some time (they had a small gathering the day after our Global Voices Summit in Budapest), but it is always difficult to know just who makes up their community. When the site first launched it claimed to be “founded by Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and startup company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa.” A May 30 article in The Australian named Julian Assange as the founder of Wikileaks.

Assange came to Ars Electronica to accept the award and speak about the WikiLeaks project. Like Fleischer from Pirate Bureau, Assange also expressed his concerns about the role of money in a volunteer-driven community. “I sometimes wonder if community ends where funding begins,” he told the audience.

Julian feels that newspaper articles almost always show you what organizations want the public to see while leaked internal documents and memos shows an organization as it sees itself. (This, of course, is true of Wikileaks as well.)

He presented some of the most notable leaks on the website, including documents related to the attempted assassination of East Timor President Ramos-Horta, the funding of the Rafiq Hariri assassination tribunal, all 708 email messages found in the Yahoo! inbox of FARC spokesman Raul Reyes, illegal state spying on the German press, standard operating procedures the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison, Sarah Palin’s hacked email account, and the Daniel arap Moi corruption case in Kenya.

Assange emphasized that Wikileaks has never lost a source and has never had to take down a document despite many threats and legal pressures to do so. He concludes his talk by remembering Oscar Kamau Kingara and John Paul Oulo of the Kenyan-based Oscar legal aid foundation who were gunned down earlier this year in Nairobi on their way to a meeting at the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights. The men were brave and courageous, Assange said, but they shouldn’t be treated as examples. Whistleblowers don’t need to be martyrs. They can keep their jobs – and their lives – by uploading leaked documents safely and anonymously to Wikileaks.

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The presentations ended up going a little overtime so I wasn’t able to ask Julian about What the Internet knows about you, a new website which takes advantage of an old security exploit to detect which web pages you have recently visited. The website has decided to target Wikileaks to show that it is not as completely anonymous as human rights activists would like it to be.

In my introduction to the forum I echoed Paul Romer’s idea that new rules (laws, policy) come about because of new technologies. Before the invention of agriculture there was no reason for land ownership, and so property “rights” did not exist. Today technologies are advancing far faster than the rules which are meant to govern their uses. Communities like this year’s Prix Ars Electronica winners are collectively shaping their own rules and values related to how these technologies can be used to improve society. Though their beliefs and strategies will always be controversial, I for one find all three projects to be incredibly inspiring.

Update: I forgot to add: during the question and answer period of the forum someone asked why Ars Electronica limits the voting of a category as open as digital communities to just five or six jury members. It is an excellent question, and in fact last year at Ars Electronica I gave a presentation about participatory philanthropy that was meant to illustrate other options for choosing award winners at Ars. One option is to create a public voting system similar to what SXSW uses to select the panels at their conferences. (The public gets a 30% say, staff gets 30%, and advisory board gets 40%). Another option mentioned by Jan Zuppinger is used at the Future Everything festival: create a directory of trusted users who form part of the Ars Electronica community and let them decide. This is along the lines of how Changemakers works.

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