goodtosee #4: “take action” digital grassroots initiatives/ Germany

I came across a couple of really interesting grassroots initiatives in the context of net politics recently, which I’d like to share today. In the course of the annual re:publica conference (Berlin, 13-15 April) quite some net initiatives have been launched in Germany. First of all, the Blogger Markus Beckedahl from and others have created the non-profit association “Digital Society”. Its main goal is to launch critical campaigns concerning issues such as data privacy or the widely debated law on Vorratsdatenspeicherung (data retention). If you’re interested in this newly constituted association you might want to watch the interview with Markus Beckedahl on the re:publica channel here (in German):

– Amongst other interviews such as the one with Maxwell Salzberg, the founder of the social networking platform Diaspora (see also blogpost goodtosee #1). Concerning Vorratsdatenspeicherung I also recommend to check out Florian Klenk’s blog post “Bringt dieses Gesetz in Brüssel zu Fall” or the Facebook group “Stop Vorratsdatenspeicherung“.

Moreover, Wolfgang Sander-Beuermann from the “SuMa-eV, Verein für freien Wissenszugang” (see also this blog post) has formulated a proposal against the increasing “dominance of the Internet by global online companies”, as may be read on the SuMa-Ev Website (in German again):

Google im Bereich der Suchmaschinen, Facebook bei den sozialen Netzwerken und Apple im Musikgeschäft sind die Symbole einer zunehmenden Monopolisierung des Internets. Die Idee einer offenen Plattform, einer Agora, auf der sich die Bürgerinnen und Bürger des globalen Dorfes treffen und austauschen können, ist durch die zunehmende Monopolisierung und Segmentierung bedroht. Gerade in Bereich der Suchmaschinen droht hier die Balance zwischen Öffentlichkeit und privaten Unternehmensinteressen außer Tritt zu geraten.

He put forward his suggestion to the newly installed Enquete Commission “Internet and Digital Society” of the German Bundestag. If you would like to support this initiative you can vote for it here:

Finally, the book “Datenfresser. Wie Internetfirmen und Staat sich unsere persönlichen Daten einverleiben und wie wir die Kontrolle darüber zurückerlangen” by Constanze Kurz (Chaos Computer Club) and Frank Rieger may be interesting to read. It treats an increasingly important issue, the collection and commodification of our data by Internet companies, but it also seems to go beyond that by showing us ways to protect ourselves. That’s the impression I got from their website at least.. I guess I’ll order it soon. If you come across similar, or also different initiatives, – please do post them in the comments! I’m sure there is more out there, also beyond the German border hopefully! (What about Austria or Sweden?)

goodtosee #3: african (media) art & online projects

I just came back from a truly amazing travel through South Africa and Mozambique (see also fotos below). Even though my talk at the Witwatersrand University did not work out in the end (be aware: an African YES should not necessarily be taken at face value..) I stumbled across a range of interesting people and projects. Travelling with Machfeld – Sabine Maier and Michael Mastrototaro – and their experiences and friends helped in this respect:

Marcus Neustetter and Stephen Hobbs showed us the newly emerging district “Arts on Main” in Johannesburg. It’s a lively area with a gallery, the Goethe institute, restaurants and a hotel, where each room has been designed by a different artist reflecting different time periods.

Further, we visited the “Bag Factory” where Machfeld used to work as part of their artist in residence program (check out the Bag Factory’s website if you’re an artist interested in staying at Joburg for a while!). That’s how they present themselves:

“One of Joburg’s leading visual arts organizations, the Bag Factory has been alive and kicking since 1991, when the space was set up to provide studios for artists – mainly black artists, who at that stage, had very little access to networks and resources in order to build their careers.”

One of these black artists is the photographer Raymond Marlowe, who just recently had his solo exhibition “Narciso Road, Eldorado Park” telling stories from life in Soweto, one of the biggest Townships of Johannesburg. I’m still very happy that Raymond took us to his house and showed us around in his home town!!

Machfeld in Raymond’s garden & Township shopping:

Travelling to the amazing beaches in Mozambique we stopped by in Maputo to visit the Austrian musician and photographer Werner Puntigam. While Maputo itself seems to be pretty fucked up we had a great time and met some cool young artists. Especially Joao Paulo Queha made a huge impression on me: As part of the artists’ collective Nucleo de Arte he makes beautiful sculptures out of weapons.

Since the end of Mozambique’s sixteen-year civil war, more than 72,000 weapons and explosives have been collected from the country’s landscape. During the past few years, the artists’ collective Nucleo de Arte turned machine guns, landmines and hand weapons into beautiful sculptures, sometimes fragile and elegant, sometimes big and robust such as the “tree of life” on the right side (photo credits: Nucleo de Arte & Inspiring Cities).

Finally, I would like to refer to a really nice ICT project in Zimbabwe: Tonga.Online. On their website you could read that “the project derives its domain name, Mulonga (meaning River), from the local Tonga language.

The name reflects the history and needs of the Tonga people. On one level, the Zambezi River, also known as Mulonga, has become a symbol that tells a modern story of the development of massive but unshared technology – the construction of Kariba Dam on Tonga homeland. Mulonga constantly revokes memories of how the Tonga people were displaced, nearly 50 years ago, to make way for the building of this dam. On another level, the constant flow of the Zambezi is a symbol of continuity which, today, represents the needs of the Tonga people both to communicate amongst themselves and with others, and to preserve and develop their rich cultural heritage. The Tonga.Online Project seeks to establish and expand communication infrastructure with and amongst the Tonga by joining them with modern information and communication technology (ICT).”

Travelling through the countryside in Mozambique made me understand why projects such as Tonga.Online are really important. While some parts of Africa – especially big cities such as Joburg and Maputo are well connected – other parts of Africa are still widely offline (having trouble to keep up the electricity in supermarkets and to fulfill the basic needs of its poor population).

goodtosee #2: Scroogle & more

In the last couple of months I have done extensive interviews with 17 people more or less directly involved in the social construction of search engines. The interviewees ranged from search engine engineers, people working in information retrieval, search engine optimizers, content providers and marketers, but also proponents from the broader societal context including policy makers, jurists, activists, journalists, and critical internet scholars – from the German and US-American context. All these people shared and discussed their different viewpoints on search engines with me. The material I’ve only recently started to analyze looks extremely interesting – thanks to all of them! First insights will be presented next week at the Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand/ Johannesburg! :)

For now, I’d like to share some kind of by-product of these interviews with you: the landscape of search engines my interview partners depicted. Independently from their heterogeneous standpoints and backgrounds they all drew a pretty similar picture. It may best be described with the term “Googlepoly”, which was coined by Pasquinelli in the book “Deep Search” (which I highly recommend by the way!).

All of my interview partners described Google as THE actor on the market, the “monopolist” or “oligopolist”. Some of them further referred to Microsoft’s Bing – who bought Yahoo just recently – as a possible future competitor, while others doubt that. Further, ASK was mentioned from time to time. But what search engines exist apart from these big, highly commercial players? Are there alternatives out there?

Having been asked about the broader landscape of search engines my interviewees drew a more complex picture, I’d like to share (and strengthen) here:

Besides the commercial search tools there is a great variety of search engines differing in size, use, and purpose. First of all there are meta-search engines, which basically use search results from both commercial tools and alternative technologies. SEARCH3, for example, enables users to compare search results from Google, Bing, and Twitter (?) to get a broader picture of search results. The German search engine METAGER uses results from BING/ YAHOO and small search engines specializing in certain thematic fields. These search technologies have the primary purpose to broaden the users’ perspective and to display search results without advertising.

Similarly, other search tools draw on/ use/ exploit big commercial players and their algorithms. Especially the so-called “green” search engines have become popular in this respect. ECOSIA, for example, describes itself as a “social business dedicated to environmental sustainability via the donation of revenue to the world’s most effective rainforest protection programs”. Within broader debates on climate change ECOSIA & co. claim to donate parts of its advertising revenue to WWF’s work in the rain forest. The fact that ECOSIA is powered by the BING/ YAHOO complex and employs its search algorithm, however, limits its “green” purpose drastically since ECOSIA – and all the other green search engines – use the same computer power and create the same CO2 emission as BING, GOOGLE or any other search engine.

Further, SCROOGLE is an interesting and humorous initiative. SCROOGLE basically exploits GOOGLE through using its algorithm, while protecting users’ privacy through encrypting users’ data. It makes their search query anonymous so to say (and makes fun of Google through displaying all kinds of comics, pictures etc.). Similarly, the meta-search engine IXQUICK, known as STARTPAGE in the US, is dedicated to protect the users’ privacy. Contrary to SCROOGLE it has its own algorithm and follows a quite elaborated business philosophy and policy.

In addition to these universal search engines there is a range of special interest search tools such as the Blog search engine TECHNORATI, the language search tool LINGUEE (German-English), BASE dedicated to search scientific documents, or WOLFRAM ALPHA, which aims at making “systematic” and “expert-level” knowledge accessible to the broader public. While it has its media hype at the beginning, there is not much said about WOLFRAM ALPHA anymore – most probably because it works best with mathemetic formulas, which are not amongst the top  search queries according to trend graphs. Further, the peer-to-peer search engine YACI may be seen as a real alternative to commercial, top-down search companies. YACI is a de-centralized search engine that wants to “achieve freedom of information through a free, distributed web search which is powered by the world’s users”.

Finally, there are European initiatives to challenge US-based companies such as the French search engine QUAERO and the German search technology THESEUS. Both of them received funding from the public sector and the EU and both of them did not take off yet, quite on the contrary. Recently, another European initiative, EUROPEANA, aiming at ordering “Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage”, has been introduced. Maybe this one will succeed in introducing a competitive European search engine, you never know.

Most of my interview partners further referred to social media such as FACEBOOK or TWITTER as potential competitors on the search market. Whether GOOGLE & co. manage to integrate more social data into their searches or whether they’ll be outpaced by social networks and their recommendation system remains to be seen in the future. One interview partner described it as a “battle between man and machine”.

This rich repertoire of search technologies – plus the ones I haven’t talked about here – shows that there are indeed alternatives to the “Googlepoly” out there. Whether your goal is to save your private data, to get more diverse search results, to create a more “green IT”, to take part in developing a de-centralized search, or to just escape Google for once: It might be worth trying one of the search technologies depicted above, just to see what it’s like outside the Googleverse.

goodtosee #1: diaspora & mubi

After a great time in Vienna, Linz and Tirol I’ve returned to Umeå, where the snow is still piling up. Although I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions I thought to clean up my life a little bit over the turn of the year. The probably most liberating decision was to drop the idea of turning my PhD into a book. Instead of reworking the same piece of text over and over again or paying a lot of money to get it out there as a book, I’ve decided to put it online and upload it on textfeld, an Austrian platform for sharing and discussing academic work. Further, I’m working on journal articles, that are much more fun to write anyway. Blog-wise I’ve decided to introduce a new rubrique aiming at discussing one website, initiative, institution, or online platform I find worth to spread per month. I call it goodtosee.

To start with – and against my own idea of discussing one site per month – I start out with discussing two social networking sites: Diaspora and MUBI. Invited by my colleague Jana Herwig I joined Diaspora just to see what it’s like. Created as an alternative to Facebook, which spams you with news, apps and ads, Diaspora looks minimal and friendly.

Instead of “friends” you add “family” or “work”-related people or whatever category you invent yourself. This seems sympathetic since the one-size-fits-all friends category has become empty anyway. Further, the lack of advertising and news spam is extremely pleasant. Despite the sympathy I have for the platform I haven’t really figured out what to do with it yet. Browsing the profiles of my – so far – two contacts makes it hard to see what their social relations are, also because the news channel is lacking. So the social surveillance we’ve learnt on Facebook doesn’t quite work here. Further, the function of importing images, links to websites, or youtube movies seems to be complicated, if possible at all, which makes it hard for me to get started. The reason for that might be just my own incapability to let go of all the annoying, but at the same time handy features I got used to on Facebook. Or the lack of friends or rather lack of “family” and “work” I have on Diaspora. In any case I’m curious about the platform’s further development – it’s an alpha version and feed-back is appreciated – and whether I’ll be part of it. Let me know if you wanna try it out yourself; I’ve still some invitations and would be interested what you think of it!

The second platform worth mentioning is MUBI. MUBI is an African city, but it’s also a social network dedicated to watching, sharing and discussing movies. The platform is more intuitive than Diaspora since it has all the basic features we got used to in the past: It has a news channel, it links to Facebook and Twitter, and it provides you with a profile you can design with the help of familiar features.

Its main purpose, however, is to offer a movie database and stream all types of movies, from classics to recent films, for a small amount of money (1-3 Euros). The movies that are top-rated and thus presented to users on the homepage are no blockbusters, but films usually shown at small film festivals around the world. This makes the platform immediately interesting to me, not to speak of the films by Christoph Schlingensief that are featured as well. When digging into the films, however, one big problem occurs: due to different copyright regulations in different countries not all films may be watched in all countries.. so it’s a bit of a lottery whether you can actually watch the movie you wanna see. Hence, if you’d like to watch old classics the Internet Archive might actually be the better option for you. Apart from that I highly recommend all film lovers to check it out!

I think these two websites are goodtosee because both of them are innovative and refreshing alternatives to big, commercial companies. Despite some initial difficulties I would love to see them grow and become serious competitors to money-driven platforms using our personal data to raise their revenues.