The Race to Create a Web of Reputation

One of the big issues with the ongoing explosion of social media, whether it’s blogging or Twitter or Facebook, is a lack of effective ways to filter the signal from the noise — in other words, to figure out who we should pay attention to. Facebook relies on your existing social graph, while Twitter uses its own internal algorithms to suggest people you should follow, and LinkedIn uses your professional status and co-workers or contacts as the benchmark. But the race continues to try and measure online reputation in an effective way. Should it be based on activity? Number of followers? A ranking system in which people can vote on you? All of the above?

One of the latest to jump into this pool is Mixtent, which launched today with a voting-based system that uses data from your LinkedIn profile once you log in with your credentials (and will also pull in your Facebook info if you connect that as well). The company says it is “building a professional reputation graph on top of the main social and professional networks” in order to help people hire others and get hired themselves. If Mixtent looks a little familiar, that’s because it appears to be almost identical to a LinkedIn-based game known as Cube Duel that got some attention a couple of weeks ago, in which users vote for co-workers and can “unlock” various badges, and so on.

In trying to measure who has the highest reputation among your co-workers, and therefore who is best qualified to either recommend you or be recommended themselves, Mixtent is going after the same kind of market that other startups such as Honestly (formerly known as Unvarnished), Namesake and BranchOut are aiming at — namely, the professional end of the social web, in which people are looking to network for jobs. In the same way that Mixtent is based on the LinkedIn network, BranchOut uses Facebook as a platform, and leverages all of the people you are connected to via your social graph who might work (or used to work) at other companies.

One issue for BranchOut that I wrote about when the service first launched is that Facebook is primarily personal, and so the overlap between that part of your life and the professional side is haphazard at best, and useless at worst. In a similar way, the game-like aspect of Mixtent might not jibe well with the more professional aspects of LinkedIn for some users. Honestly, meanwhile, is trying to create a reputation-based network that achieves the same thing as LinkedIn or BranchOut — a way of measuring a person’s skills within a certain professional context — but allows for anonymous (and therefore theoretically more honest) input about the people who are being ranked.

Namesake wants to create a personalized network for professional recommendations that is like a more personal or social version of LinkedIn. You can follow people within the network, and recommend them based on what you see as their areas of expertise, and then you can forward or “route” opportunities to them that come from your contacts. The kind of crowdsourced reputation that Namesake is built on also emerges from social networks like Quora and StackExchange, where people answering questions in their area of expertise builds up their reputation (something VC Fred Wilson discussed with me in an interview last year). And a company like Klout comes at it from the algorithmic end, by looking at your activity on Twitter and Facebook to try and give you an overall social-media “score.”

One big problem for these services, however, is that each of us has different reputation ranks within our social, and even our professional networks: I might trust my friend Chris when it comes to advice on barbecuing, and I know he is an excellent videographer, but I would never listen to him when he recommends music. And while I know that my friend Rob is a lawyer and understands technology, I have no idea whether to recommend him based on his knowledge of carpentry, or of wills and estates. This is why Namesake is trying to create a professional network that functions more like a social web — because the ways in which we interact with each other often don’t fall cleanly into one category or another. Will a simple voting system like Mixtent is offering work? I’m not convinced.

It’s Not Twitter or Facebook, It’s the Power of the Network

Just as it was during the recent uprisings in Tunisia, the role of social media in the recent upheaval in Egypt has been the subject of much debate since the unrest began on Thursday. Daily Show host Jon Stewart on Friday poked fun at the idea that Twitter might have played a key part in the demonstrations, and there are many observers who share his skepticism. The real trigger for the uprisings, they argue, is simply the grinding poverty and frustration of the Egyptian people — which is undoubtedly true. But it also seems clear that social media has played a key role in getting the message out, as well as in helping organizers plan and co-ordinate their protests. And in the end, it’s not about whether to give credit to Twitter or Facebook: the real point is the power of real-time networked communication.

Foreign Policy magazine columnist Evgeny Morozov has argued that Twitter and Facebook should not be credited with playing any kind of critical role in Tunisia, and suggested that doing so is a sign of the “net utopianism” that many social-media advocates suffer from — the belief that the Internet is unambiguously good, or that the use of Twitter or Facebook can magically free a repressed society from its shackles. Morozov, who has written an entire book about this idea called Net Delusion, made the point in a blog post after the Tunisian uprising that while social media might have been used in some way during the events, tools like Twitter and Facebook did not play a crucial role — in other words, the revolution would have happened with or without them.

Zeynep Tufekci, a professor of sociology who has also looked at this issue, described in a post following the revolution in Tunisia how professional observers distinguish between what she called “proximate” causes and “**” causes — that is, things that are required in order to produce a certain outcome, and things that are nice to have but are not a requirement. Tufekci and Jillian York of Global Voices Online both seem to believe that social media tools fall into the latter category: useful, but not necessary. Ethan Zuckerman, one of the founders of Global Voices Online, has also written about how the uprisings in both Tunisia and in Egypt have more to do with decades of poverty and repressive dictatorships than they do with social media.

But is anyone really arguing that Twitter and Facebook *caused* the revolutions in Tunisia or Egypt, or even the earlier public uprisings in Moldova or Iran for that matter? Maybe cyber-utopians somewhere are doing this, but I haven’t seen or heard of any. The argument I have tried to make is simply that they and other social media tools can be incredibly powerful, both for spreading the word — which can give moral or emotional support to others in a country, as well as generating external support — as well as for organizational purposes. As Jason Cohen of Google Ideas put it, social media may not be a cause, but it can be a powerful “accelerant.”

Did Twitter or Facebook cause the Tunisian revolt? No. But they did spread the news, and many Tunisian revolutionaries gave them a lot of credit for helping with the process. Did Twitter cause the revolts in Egypt? No. But they did help activists such as WikiLeaks supporter Jacob Appelbaum (known on Twitter as @ioerror) and others as they organized the dialup and satellite phone connections that created an ad-hoc Internet after Egypt turned the real one off — which, of course, it did in large part to try and prevent demonstrators from using Internet-based tools like blogs and social media to foment unrest. As Cory Doctorow noted in his review of Evgeny Morozov’s book, even if Twitter and Facebook are just used to replace the process of stapling pieces of paper to telephone poles and sending out hundreds of emails, they are still a huge benefit to social activism of all kinds.

But programmer and RSS developer Dave Winer made the key point: it’s the Internet that is the really powerful tool here, not any of the specific apps or services such as Twitter and Facebook that run on top of it, which Winer compares to brands like NBC or Fox. They have power because lots of people use them, and — in the case of Twitter — because they have open protocols so that apps can still access the network even when the company’s website is taken down by repressive governments (athough he didn’t mention Egypt or Tunisia by name, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone wrote a post on the Twitter blog about the company’s desire to “keep the Tweets flowing).

But the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook. Obviously none of these things cause revolutions, but to ignore or downplay their importance is also a mistake.

NYT, Al-Jazeera Doing An End-Run Around WikiLeaks

The New York Times is considering creating an electronic tip line so that leakers of classified documents can go direct instead of having to use a middleman like WikiLeaks, according to comments made by executive editor Bill Keller in an interview with the Cutline blog. Keller said that the plan is still in its formative stages, but the idea is to create a “kind of EZ Pass lane for leakers,” to make it easier for them to contact the paper and deliver information. And the Times isn’t the only one doing this: Al-Jazeera has already launched its own drop-box for leaks, and recently released thousands of documents related to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

When WikiLeaks first burst into public view last year with a treasure trove of secret documents about the Iraq war, including a classified video of an American military attack on civilians, one of the first things some media-industry observers wondered was: why didn’t the sources of this material — widely believed to be Bradley Manning, a U.S. intelligence officer now in a military prison in Guantanamo Bay — just go directly to a newspaper like the New York Times instead of leaking it to some shadowy organization like WikiLeaks? The New York Times probably wondered that too, which is why it’s not surprising to hear that the paper is working on its own digital tip line.

In some ways, it’s surprising that it has taken the NYT and other newspapers this long to come up with this idea. Newspapers and other media outlets have always relied on those with access to secret or confidential information — either about companies or about governments — to deliver material in brown envelopes that are dropped off at the front desk or handed over to people in parking garages, as the famous Watergate documents were in **. Doug Saunders, the European bureau chief for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail compared WikiLeaks to a brown envelope when it first came to prominence, and said it was nothing more than a middleman, which to a large extent is true.

The key difference with an entity like WikiLeaks, however, is that it is also a publisher — it can instantly release whatever documents it wishes its own web site or dozens of other sites that it has relationships with, although so far it has only released the same documents that the New York Times and The Guardian and other media outlets have (with names of some individuals redacted to prevent them from being targeted). The main thing that WikiLeaks gains by working with the NYT and other traditional media entities is a broader reach — in effect, publicity for the leaks, as Icelandic MP and early WikiLeaks supporter Birgitta Jonsdottir explained in a recent speech in Toronto.

So will more leakers go direct to either the New York Times or Al-Jazeera? Possibly. But the one thing that sources gain by going through WikiLeaks instead of a specific media outlet is the knowledge that they aren’t relying on one newspaper’s view of the documents — in other words, that the New York Times doesn’t control what gets released and what doesn’t, or what gets written about and what doesn’t, since WikiLeaks typically works with several competing organizations at once. For anyone who remembers how the Times behaved when it was reporting about the issues leading up to the Iraq War, that could be a very powerful incentive to use WikiLeaks rather than going direct.

But WikiLeaks is about to get some more competition on that front as well: a new organization called OpenLeaks, set up by former WikiLeaks staffer **, is expected to launch soon with a much more distributed model that was developed in part as a response to criticism about WikiLeaks and the behavior of front-man Julian Assange. For better or worse, the organization appears to have opened a Pandora’s box when it comes to political transparency that may never be closed.

Twitter Is A Great Tool, But What Happens When It’s Wrong?

By now, thanks to incidents like the revolution in Tunisia and the recent shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, most people have come to grips with the fact that Twitter is effectively a real-time news network — like a version of CNN that is powered by hundreds of thousands or even millions of users around the world. But what happens when that real-time news network is spreading mis-information? That happened during the Giffords shooting, when the congresswoman was initially reported to be dead, and there are other more recent cases as well: on Wednesday, for example, reports of a shooting in Oxford Circus in London, England swept through the Twitter-sphere but turned out to be a mistake.

The British incident appears to have been caused by two coincidental events: according to several reports, one was an email about a police training exercise involving a shooting in Oxford Circus, which somehow got into the wrong hands and was posted as though it was the real thing. Meanwhile, another Twitter user posted an unrelated message about a TV commercial “shooting” in the area, and the combination of those two things helped to fan the flames of hysteria for a number of hours about buildings being locked down and police sharpshooters being brought in, etc. — which can be seen in the chronicle of tweets collected by one Twitter observer at the site Exquisite Tweets.

In the case of Rep. Giffords, in the minutes following the initial reports of the shooting, a number of outlets reported that the congresswoman had been killed, and these reports made their way onto Twitter — in some cases because the reporters for those news outlets posted them, and in other cases because users heard or saw the reports and then tweeted about them. For hours after the shooting these erroneous reports continued to circulate, even after the reporters and media outlets themselves had posted corrections. Andy Carvin of National Public Radio, for example, spent a considerable amount of time correcting people about the report that he posted, but it continued to be re-tweeted.

This led to a discussion by a number of journalists (including me) in the days that followed, about how to handle an incorrect tweet. Should it be deleted, to prevent the error from being circulated any further? A number of reporters and bloggers said that it should — but others, such as Salon founder Scott Rosenberg and Carvin (who described his thoughts in this comment at Lost Remote), argued that the error should be allowed to remain, but that whoever posted it should do their best to update Twitter with the correct information, and respond to those re-tweeting it by telling them of the mistake. Craig Silverman of Regret The Error, who wrote a post cataloguing the erroneous reports, has also described a way in which Twitter could implement a correction function, by tying any correction to the original tweet so that everyone who saw the original would then see the update.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that Twitter is by definition a stream of content. Parts of it can be posted on blogs by using a number of tools — including the company’s own Blackbird Pie feature, as well as Storify and — but the stream never stops flowing, and during breaking news events it flows so quickly it’s almost impossible to filter it all. And because it is an asynchronous experience, meaning people step away from it and then come back repeatedly, and therefore don’t see every tweet even from the people they follow, there is no way to guarantee that everyone is going to see an update or a correction, or to stop them from re-tweeting incorrect information (although someone suggested Twitter could allow users to block tweets from being re-tweeted).

It’s possible that Twitter might be able to either embed corrections or tie errors and updates together using its so-called Annotations feature, which the company was working on last year and had originally hoped to launch in the fall. But work on that project was apparently put on hold while the company launched a revamped website version of the service, and while it sorted out the management changes that saw Dick Costolo take over as CEO from founder Evan Williams. It’s not clear whether Annotations will be revived, but the idea behind it was that information about a tweet — or “meta data” such as location or a number of other variables — could be attached to it as it travelled through the network, something that might work for corrections as well.

Twitter isn’t the only medium that has had to worry about corrections, obviously. Traditional media have struggled with the issue as well, with newspapers often running corrections days or weeks after a mistake was made, with no real indication of what the actual error was. In a sense, Twitter is like a real-time, distributed version of a news-wire service such as Reuters or Associated Press; when those services post something that is wrong, they simply send out an update to their customers, and hope that no one has published it in the paper or online yet. Twitter’s great strength is that it allows anyone to publish — and re-publish — information instantly, and distribute that information to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people within minutes. But when a mistake gets distributed, there’s no single source that can send out a correction.

That’s the double-edged sword that a truly distributed and real-time news network like Twitter represents: it can spread the news faster than just about anything else available, including CNN, but it can also spread mis-information just as quickly.

Was What Happened in Tunisia a Twitter Revolution?

As it did during the recent shootings in Arizona, the Twitter network provided a ringside seat for another major news event on Friday — the overthrow of a corrupt government in Tunisia, after weeks of protests over repression and economic upheaval. And even as the country’s ruler was being hustled onto a plane, the debate began over whether Twitter had played even more of a role in the revolution than just reporting on it as it happened: was this the first real Twitter revolution? The most correct answer is probably yes and no. Did it help protesters, and thus the end goal of overthrowing the government? Undoubtedly. Was it solely responsible for that happening? Hardly.

Among those arguing the question — on Twitter, of course — were foreign affairs commentator Evgeny Morozov, who writes for Foreign Policy magazine, along with Jillian York of Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, Ethan Zuckerman — who founded Global Voices Online while he was a fellow at the Berkman Center — as well as media theorist Clay Shirky and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci from the University of Maryland. Shirky, responding to Morozov, said that “no one claims social media makes people angry enough to act [but] it helps angry people coordinate their actions.” The Foreign Policy writer, meanwhile, argued in a blog post that Twitter did not play a strong role, asking rhetorically:

Would this revolution have happened if there were no Facebook and Twitter? I think this is a key question to ask. If the answer is “yes,” then the contribution that the Internet has made was minor; there is no way around it.

Jillian York also cautioned against attributing too much of what happened to social media, saying: “Don’t get all techno-utopian. Twitter’s great for spreading news, but this revolution happened offline.” She later amended her comment, however, saying that she definitely believed social media played a role in the day’s events. Tufekci, meanwhile, wondered why there had to be such a dividing line between offline vs. online activity, asking: “I don’t get this was it online or offline dichotomy. The online world is part of the world. It has a role.” She added that trying to answer the question of whether it was a Twitter revolution was “like asking was the French Revolution a printing press revolution?”

There’s no question that Twitter definitely helped to spread the information about what was happening in Tunisia, as demonstrated by the tweets and videos and other media collected by Andy Carvin at National Public Radio while the events unfolded. And at least one Tunisian revolutionary, who runs a website called Free Tunisia, directly contradicted Morozov and told a Huffington Post blogger that Twitter — along with cellphones, text messaging and various websites — was crucial to the flow of information and helped protesters gather and plan their demonstrations. Said Bechir Blagui:

They called it the jasmine revolt, Sidi Bouzid revolt, Tunisian revolt… but there is only one name that does justice to what is happening in the homeland: Social media revolution.

The role of social media in activism is something that has been debated a lot over the past year or so, in part because of a piece Malcolm Gladwell wrote poo-poohing the idea — which Shirky responded to somewhat in a piece he wrote on the topic for Foreign Affairs magazine recently, arguing that social media and other modern communication networks may not directly lead to revolution, but they sure help.

The reality is that Twitter is an information-distribution network — not that different from the telephone or email or text messaging, except that it is real-time (in a way that email is not) and it is massively distributed, in the sense that a message posted by a Tunisian blogger can be re-published thousands of times a second and transmitted halfway around the world to be quoted on television in the blink of an eye. That is a very powerful thing — far more powerful than the telephone or email or even blogging, arguably, because the more rapidly the news is distributed, the more it can create a sense of momentum, helping a revolution to “go viral,” as marketing types like to say. Tufekci also noted that Twitter can “strengthen communities prior to unrest by allowing a parallel public(ish) sphere that is harder to censor.”

So was what happened in Tunisia a Twitter revolution? Not any more than what happened in Poland in 1989 was a telephone revolution. But the reality of modern media is that Twitter and Facebook and other social-media tools can be incredibly useful for spreading the news about revolutions, and that can help them expand and ultimately achieve some kind of effect. Whether that means the world will see more revolutions, or simply revolutions that happen more quickly or are better reported, remains to be seen.

For All Its Flaws, Wikipedia is the Way Information Works Now

Wikipedia, which turns 10 years old this weekend, has taken a lot of heat over the years. There has been criticism of the site’s accuracy, of the so-called “cabal” of editors who decide which changes are accepted and which are not, and of founder Jimmy Wales and various aspects of his personal life and how he manages the non-profit service. But as a Pew Research report released today confirms, Wikipedia has become a crucial aspect of our online lives, and in many ways it has shown us — for better or worse — what all information online is becoming: social, distributed, interactive and (at times) chaotic.

According to Pew’s research, 53 percent of American Internet users said they regularly look for information on Wikipedia during a survey last year, up from 36 percent of the same group the first time the research center asked the question in February of 2007. Usage by those under the age of 30 is even higher — more than 60 percent of that age group uses the site regularly, compared with just 33 percent of users 65 and older. Based on Pew’s other research, using Wikipedia is more popular than sending instant messages (which less than half of Internet users do) and rating a product or service (which only 32 percent do), and is only a little less popular than using social networking services, which 61 percent of users do regularly.

The term “wiki” — just like the word “blog,” or the name “Google” for that matter — is one of those words that sounds so ridiculous it was hard to imagine anyone using it with a straight face when Wikipedia first emerged in the early 2000s. But despite a weird name and a confusing interface (which the site has been trying to improve recently to make it easier to edit things), Wikipedia took off and has become a powerhouse of “crowdsourcing,” before most people had even heard that word. In fact, the idea of a wiki has become so powerful that document-leaking organization WikiLeaks adopted the term even though (as many critics like to point out) it doesn’t really function as a wiki at all.

Most people will never edit a Wikipedia page — like most social media or interactive services, it follows the 90-9-1 rule, which states that 90 percent of users will simply consume the content, 9 percent or so will contribute regularly, and only about 1 percent will ever become dedicated contributors. But even with those kinds of numbers, the site has still seen more than 4 billion individual edits in its lifetime, and has more than 127,000 active users. Those include people like Simon Pulsifer, once known as “the king of Wikipedia” because he edited over 100,000 articles on a wide variety of subjects. Why? Because that was his idea of fun, he explained to me once at a web conference (he’s a Wikipedia administrator now).

Yes, there will always be people who decide to edit the Natalie Portman page so that it says she is going to marry them, or create fictional pages about people they dislike. But the surprising thing isn’t that this happens — it’s how rarely it happens, and how quickly those errors are found and corrected.

With Twitter, we are starting to see how a Wikipedia-like approach to information scales even further. As events like the Giffords shooting take hold of the national consciousness, Twitter becomes a real-time news service that anyone can contribute to, and it gradually builds a picture of what has happened and what it means. Along the way, there are errors and all kinds of other noise — but over time, it produces a very real and human view of the news. Is it going to replace newspapers and television and other media? No, just as Wikipedia hasn’t replaced encyclopedias (although it has made them less relevant with each passing year). But it is the way information works now, and for all its flaws, Wikipedia and Jimmy Wales were among the first to recognize that.

How Social Media and Mobile Tech Helped in Haiti

Today is the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, which killed an estimated 230,000 people and has left millions of others homeless. As in some other recent catastrophes, social media such as Twitter, text messaging, interactive online maps and other tools were used by both victims and rescue workers to co-ordinate relief efforts. The Knight Foundation has released a comprehensive study of the use of technology during the aftermath of the quake, and found that while there is still a lot of work to be done, such tools can make rescue efforts easier and faster.

Haiti quickly became what the report describes as “a living laboratory for new applications such as SMS, interactive online maps and radio-cell phone hybrids.” But while many of the tools were extremely useful in transmitting crucial information, this information often wasn’t used as well as it could have been, for a variety of reasons. The report notes:

As new media activists have pointed out, “Technology is easy, community is hard.” Many of the
obstacles to the relief efforts concerned difficulties in dialogue between communities: between international
organizations and local Haitian groups, between volunteers and professional humanitarian organizations and between civilians and military.


While the democratic approach to information management fuels crowdsourcing, this characteristic can also serve as a limitation in crisis settings. Information may be gathered and assembled in an open, democratic fashion. But often the practical response effort is driven by large organizations that deal with information in a radically different way. Military and international humanitarian organizations manage information within more closed systems.

One of the most powerful new-media and online tools used in the relief efforts, the Knight report says, was Ushahidi — a service that was developed in Kenya in 2007, and can be used to aggregate and process information that comes in from a variety of sources such as SMS, Twitter and radio, and then plot the information on a map. The service “developed an RSS feed for the U.S. Coast Guard to help them retrieve emergency information [and] a team of four to eight Coast Guard responders retrieved the information and disseminated it to forces on the ground.” A group of students at Georgia Tech’s School of Computer Science converted the Ushahidi data to Google Earth file formats.

Crowdsourcing also played a large role in the aftermath of the disaster, the report says: two weeks after the earthquake, the labor-on-demand company CrowdFlower took over management of the workflow of volunteers to “translate, classify and geocode the messages” coming in via the short-code 4636. Later, an outsourcing company called Samasource took over the bulk of the translation and coding work in co-operation with a local Haiti-based group. And accurate maps of the country and the location of survivors and victims were also crowdsourced using the OpenStreetMap standard, the Knight Foundation report says.

One of the biggest problems of crisis response in developing countries lies in finding locations that do not appear on any maps. In some cases, the maps have never been made; in others, rural populations have crowded into urban areas so quickly that maps soon become outdated. These problems were addressed in Haiti by another notable development in information technology: the OpenStreetMap (OSM) Haiti mapping initiative.

Although social media and other tools were important, the report makes a point of cautioning that the Haiti relief effort shouldn’t be seen as a “new-media success story,” because some of the new approaches used did not work very well, due to a lack of co-ordination — and in many cases a lack of understanding of how to use the tools. For example, U.S. Air Force Col. Lee Harvis, the chief medical officer who landed in Port-au-Prince 36 hours after the earthquake, said that he had no knowledge of Ushahidi, and neither did any of the other military doctors operating in the country.

The Knight Foundation report (which was co-produced with Internews) also noted that despite all the new media tools, the single most important tool in Haiti was one that has also been crucial in almost every other major disaster in the past 50 years: namely, traditional radio broadcasting. However, the report’s authors noted that social media and other tools helped spread the information farther than radio would otherwise have been able, and that this was an important aspect of the relief efforts.

Icelandic MP Says It’s Our Duty to Fight For WikiLeaks

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of the Icelandic parliament and an early support of WikiLeaks, said that despite having had a falling out with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over his role in the organization, she is willing to “stand up and stick my neck out for him” and defend the document-leaking entity against attacks by the U.S. government and others, because doing so is her duty. “We must all stand behind WikiLeaks and defend freedom of information and freedom of speech,” Jónsdóttir said in a presentation at the University of Toronto on Tuesday night, in which she also called on media outlets to support the organization. Jónsdóttir also said “even if they chop the head off WikiLeaks, a thousand more heads will come out.”

The Icelandic MP didn’t talk a lot about the WikiLeaks leader, except to say that “WikiLeaks is bigger than Julian Assange.” But she did talk about how she met him at a conference in Germany in 2009, while she and her party were developing proposed legislation in Iceland called the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, and Assange was looking for a “transparency haven” that could help the organization. The IMMI legislation is aimed at helping to protect freedom of information and whistleblowers like WikiLeaks who leak documents — something Iceland as a whole is also interested in, because many believe that more whistleblowing could have helped the country avoid its financial meltdown in 2008.

Jónsdóttir and Assange started working together, and in the spring of last year he showed her a copy of the infamous U.S. military video of American bombers firing on a civilian vehicle during an attack in Iraq. The Icelandic MP described how she watched the video in a crowded cafe and began to cry — and at that point decided to help WikiLeaks get publicity for the video, which she said she was afraid would get lost amid all the other leaked documents on the organization’s website. Jónsdóttir spent her Easter holiday editing the video, including pulling out still photographs to send to various media outlets. WikiLeaks even sent people to Iraq to the village where the attack took place, to confirm whether there were children in the van.

That video was the beginning of an explosion of interest in WikiLeaks, which culminated with the leaking of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables late last year, and the current attempt by the U.S. government to mount a case against Assange under the Espionage Act. As part of that effort, the Department of Justice has gotten a court order that compels Twitter to release certain information — including messages, IP addresses, payment information and other details — about the personal accounts of Jónsdóttir, Assange, Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp and American programmer Jacob Appelbaum. Jónsdóttir has said that she will resist this order, and has hired the Electronic Frontier Foundation to help with her defense.

In her talk, Jónsdóttir also freely admitted that she was completely unprepared for entering government. A member of a loosely-affiliated group of human rights protesters known simply as The Movement, she only volunteered to run for office because there weren’t enough female candidates, she said — and “to my great shock, I actually won, and I was in parliament two weeks later.” But the MP, who is an author and a poet, said that she believed her ignorance of the ways of government was a benefit rather than a disadvantage, because it meant that she could look at everything with fresh eyes and try things that others might not, including pushing forward the idea of the IMMI legislation.

Jónsdóttir said the idea behind the initiative — which was unanimously supported by the Icelandic parliament in a vote last summer — is to create the most advanced freedom-of-information and whistleblower-protection legislation in the world. The group looked at laws protecting freedom of speech and freedom of information in dozens of major countries and cherry-picked what they thought were the best ones. “The Internet is becoming industrialized and corporatized,” she said. “We need to make sure we don’t lose our freedom of speech and freedom of information.” Here’s a video interview that Jónsdóttir did with the public television station TVO while she was in Toronto

MySpace Vs. Facebook — There Can Be Only One

As I read about the layoffs at MySpace — the company today confirmed that it is shedding close to half of the company, or about 500 employees, including virtually the entire international operation — I couldn’t help thinking of the legendary 1986 science-fiction film Highlander, which starred Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert as warriors fighting to become the world’s sole remaining immortal. The tag-line for the movie was “There can be only one,” and that certainly seems to be the case when it comes to social networks.

News Corp. (s nws) has tried hard to make something of the company it acquired for close to $600 million in 2005: it has changed chief executives repeatedly, to the point where it has almost become comical, and it has refocused several times, with the latest incarnation targeting the entertainment market. The latest redesign pitched the network as the place where people can follow their favorite musicians and other celebrities, and then not long afterwards the network added the ability to integrate user accounts with Facebook — a final sign of how completely it has surrendered to its former foe.

The layoffs also appear to be a sign that no one is rushing forward to take the company off the hands of its corporate parent. News Corp. has made it clear that it is looking to unload the operation, but so far there have been no reports of interest. While some content portals such as Yahoo might be more attracted to the social network once it cuts its staffing levels by 50 percent and takes a huge writedown, the best News Corp. can probably hope for is a Bebo-style deal, like the one that saw AOL shed its own failed social network for a fraction of what it paid.

MySpace’s latest CEO, Mike Jones, did his best to put a positive spin on the downsizing, saying the company has seen ** new signups since ** and that traffic — particularly mobile traffic — has increased. But the reality is that the social network has been in decline for years now, and there are no signs that it can recover any of that lost ground. And in the (admittedly brief) history of modern technology companies, there are very few that can claim they laid off half of their staff and yet still went on to become successful. The best-case scenario for News Corp. is that it either manages to sell the company to someone, or run it on a shoestring for awhile and then quietly shut it down.

DoJ Subpoena Proves Twitter’s Value, and Its Weakness

Not that long ago, there was much debate about whether Twitter was just an ephemeral plaything for nerds or a powerful, real-time information network. Now the US Department of Justice has answered the question for us by serving the company with a court order related to WikiLeaks, and the case the government is trying to make against founder Julian Assange. But the subpoena also points out how easy it is for the DoJ to get the information it seeks, because Twitter acts as a central gatekeeper.

To Twitter’s credit, the company has effectively made this process public, unlike some others, including Facebook and Google, that have reportedly received similar orders. The subpoena first came to light on Friday, when Birgitta Jónsdóttir — a member of the Icelandic parliament and an early supporter of WikiLeaks — said on Twitter that she had been informed by the company of a DoJ order. As Glenn Greenwald has reported, the order (a copy of which is embedded below) compels Twitter to turn over not just tweets, but also IP addresses, payment information from their Twitter accounts and various other personal information the government claims is related to its case (Jónsdóttir has said she is going to fight the order).

In addition to Manning and Jónsdóttir, letters about the court order have been sent to Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp, also an early supporter of WikiLeaks. According to the official WikiLeaks account on Twitter, similar orders have been sent to Google and Facebook, although neither of these companies has made the federal requests public, if they in fact have received them (a spokesman for Facebook said the company “has no comment to make at this time,” and Google has not responded to an emailed request for comment). The most likely explanation for the orders is that the DoJ is trying to make a case against Assange under the Espionage Act by proving that he conspired with the leaker of the diplomatic cables.

According to Greenwald, the court order sent to Twitter would not have become public at all if the company had not initially refused to comply with the DoJ request and effectively forced it out into the open. Twitter should be congratulated for this (and has been by many users on Twitter since the news broke Friday night). The company didn’t have to fight for this court order to be made public; it could easily have complied with the DoJ subpoena in private, and simply never admitted that it had done so.

The fact that Twitter is being targeted by the government is another sign of how important the network has become as a real-time publishing platform, and also of how centralized the service is — something that could spark interest in distributed and open-source alternatives such as, just as the downtime suffered by the network early last year did. It is another sign of how much we rely on networks that are controlled by a single corporate entity, as Global Voices founder Ethan Zuckerman pointed out when WikiLeaks was ejected from Amazon’s servers and had its DNS service shut down.

All of this makes it even more important that Twitter has forced the government’s attempts out into the light. One would hope that Facebook and Google — the latter of whom has talked a lot in the past about its commitment to freedom of speech, and has also taken action in China to protest that government’s digital surveillance of its citizens — would also come clean about any court orders they have received, especially when the DoJ appears determined to make a case that could easily entrap virtually anyone, up to and including reporters for the New York Times.

The US government’s move to “tap” Twitter as a way of engaging in digital surveillance confirms the network’s status as a real-time information network, but also makes it obvious how much we have come to rely on it, and the implications of that dependence. As founder Evan Williams has noted, Twitter effectively makes everyone a publisher — and that means we are all potentially targets for similar court orders.