My blog

Beppe Grillo and the power of the Web

Yesterday the New York Times published an article on Italy and its current political malaise and a very good video on the Beppe Grillo phenomenon – Beppe Grillo, comic, now blogger (after being banned from television for his political satire) has managed to rally together a new political movement of people who are disaffected with the current government and the social and political situation. Grillo himself states that his popularity is entirely due to the Web – his blog is the most popular blog in Italy, and it is certainly more popular than the blogs of those politicians who have an online presence (the NYT reports Grillo’s blog is the tenth most linked to blog in the entire world). The Beppe Grillo’s movement has spawned groups all over the world: Beppe Grillo Meetups now count 68,000 members in 27 countries with 7,000 events organised so far. While critics argue that Beppe Grillo’s political actions are more ‘destructive’ than ‘constructive’ and hence not conducive to political dialogue and reform, there is no doubt that the Beppe Grillo phenomenon is a clear testimony to the power of the Web for political mobilization. Whether this movement will lead to political change and other political outcomes is a different matter – certainly this critical mass of people would not have come together if it wasn’t for Grillo’s web presence – and this is even more significant when considering that Italy has one of the lowest rates of Internet adoption and use in Europe.

Computational Social Science: The Future of Social Science?

Last week I attended The Eric Mindich Conference on Computational Social Science at Harvard, organized by David Lazer (Harvard) and Sandy Pentland (MIT), and co-sponsored at Harvard by the Institute for Quantitative Social Science and the Program on Networked Governance, and at MIT by the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship and the MIT Living The Future project. The conference explored the current and future developments in conducting social science research made possible by the increasing availability of digital pervasive data collected through new technologies such as the Internet, mobile telephony, RFIDs, CCTV cameras, administrative records and GPS information.

A series of brilliant presentations (agenda available here) explored the opportunities and the challenges facing social scientists working in this emerging field, which are raised by the collection of this new type of data. As survey analysis is becoming increasingly fraught with problems, due to the high costs of recruiting simple random samples and generally low response rates, social scientists are beginning to explore how digital data can be used as a new exploratory tool. The main opportunity provided by this approach clearly lays in the unprecedented access to large amounts of detailed data about respondents, which can be linked with their physical/geographical location. This of course raises also several challenges:

– the privacy issues involved in collecting pervasive user data and the legal implications for storing such databases, in terms of intellectual property
– the informatic challenges for social scientists who are engaging in such research
– the challenge of developing new statistical tools and methods of inferential analysis for analyzing the data collected

While at present the research is very much at the descriptive level of analysis, employing social network analysis tools and visualization techniques of social and geographical data, the potential for developing theory and hypothesis testing from such data is enormous (for example, the data lends itself particularly well to investigating how social phenomena from information to disease spread amongst a population). The challenges highlighted above should not be seen as barriers but rather as fostering some very interesting future developments in social science research which will shape the discipline in years to come. This in turn will push towards more inter-disciplinary research which will bring together social scientists, computer scientists and legal scholars – thus providing exciting new insights both on the social phenomena being studied and on the social implications of carrying out such research.

Social relationships and the Internet: a new paper

Our new paper: “Reconfiguring Friendships: Social Relationships and the Internet”, co-authored with Professor Bill Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at the University of Oxford, is now available in the new special issue of Information, Communication and Society (Vol. 10, Issue 5) on e-Relationships.

In this paper we investigate whether and how social relationships are formed online and what are the socio-demographic and other determinants of social relationship formation. We also explore whether and under what circumstances friends that are met online become offline friends. The paper uses data from the 2005 Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS) and the World Internet Project. We found that while socio-demographic factors are in general poor predictors of both making friends online and of meeting online friends in offline settings, the channels of communication used online (for example chatting vs. blogging) and what Internet users do online (for example whether they use the Internet for entertainment vs. communication) have an effect on the development of online friendships.

Italy and the end of the Internet?

The Italian Government has recently proposed a draft law aimed at reorganising the legislation of the publishing sector, which requires every citizen engaging in publishing and editorial activities to register them with a central registry. This law covers different media, including the Internet, in practice requiring every Internet user who posts information online (thus carrying out “publishing and editorial activity”) to register their blogs and websites with such a registry. This law would in fact identify bloggers as professional publishers/journalists – thus, bloggers who fail to register would in theory be liable to incur into heavy penalties such as for example defamation.

As news of the draft law have started to circulate, thousands of angry reactions have been flooding into two of the most popular Italian blogs: Beppe Grillo’s blog and Minister Antonio Di Pietro’s blog (one of the first and most active politician bloggers) protesting that the passing of such a law, far from being a mere bureaucratic formality, would in fact mean the end of the free Internet in Italy. Government officials have clarified that such a law would not apply to personal blogs and amateur sites, but no clear guidelines have been stated so far to qualify what counts as a personal vs. professional blog.

The original text of the draft law can be found here [Italian only].

Update: Minister of Communications Paolo Gentiloni on his blog has just commented on the draft law stating that the law should not apply to blogs and personal websites, but only to online professional publishers, such as big online newspapers. This draft law will have to be discussed in Parliament and several parties, from the Greens to Di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori party, have promised to oppose such a law.

Towards civic media? Teaching digital natives how to use web 2.0 tools

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As discussions about the digital divide have been slowly fading into the background (in spite of the persistent inequalities in Internet adoption both between and within countries), the new focus has been shifting on the inequalities in the way the Internet is used by drawing attention to the media skills (or media literacy) which are necessary for citizens to become meaningfully involved online (and thus offline).

As web 2.0 technologies are developing and maturing it is not sufficient anymore to merely observe digital natives (those who are born with the new digital technology and have most successfully integrated it into their everyday lives) and how they are creating online content but it becomes necessary to engage them in meaningful ways so that the incredible potential of Web 2.0 does not remain confined to uploading funny pictures of your cat.

Initiatives such as the one by Prof. Alexandra Juhasz of Pitzer College, CA, “Learning from YouTube” show how teaching digital natives how to use tools such as YouTube will help the development of media skills which should contribute not only to better quality content online but also to more meaningful uses of these online tools so that new media can move from just being entertainment to being also truly civic media.

Oxford Internet Survey 2007

OxIS 2007 reportThe Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at the University of Oxford has just released its 2007 Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS) report – covering findings and trends comparing the 2003, 2005 and 2007 surveys.

You can download the report here and you can read the BBC press coverage the report has received here. The OxIS surveys are national representative surveys of Internet adoption and use in Britain – they are part of the World Internet Project (WIP), which compares Internet adoption and use across 25 countries.

e-democracy second life style

Itching for statistics, insights and data on the use of second life for political and educational purposes – who are the people who tune in? probably the usual suspects – but what do they think about the whole process? is the technology living up to their expectations? are these online forums a valuable form of consultation for both users and politicians? is this just a fad, or is this a trend which is here to stay? what is its real impact on the political process?
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(This is a video from Internet-savvy Italian politician Antonio di Pietro which provides the highlights of the first second life meeting of his party Italia dei Valori with journalists and the public – in his opening speech he equates the event to the “agorà of ancient Greece” – the video is in Italian only, but it is an interesting look behind the scenes – for a commentary in english check out his blog)

Bonding vs. Bridging Social Capital: new evidence from America

Robert Putnam‘s latest work on ethnic diversity and social capital, which shows a negative correlation between the two, has been published: Putnam, R.D. (2007) E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century. The 2006 Joahn Skytte Prize Lecture”, Scandinavian Political Studies, 30(2):137-174. The study presents results based on the data from the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. Another survey has been carried out in 2006. It will be interesting to look at the over time changes when the findings from the new survey are made available.

Notwithstanding the debate which will certainly ensue, due to the policy implications of Putnam’s findings, the study shows the importance of looking at the exogenous factors which influence the formation of social capital, measured as social networks of reciprocity and social trust. A review article can be found in the Guardian here.