Social Silence: Lurking as a form of society

While listening to The Digital Human episode Whispers the presenter Alex Krotoski (aleksk) pointed to a very central way of understanding social media:

In many ways the online world is like a video game. Everything you put out comes with its own scoring system. Tweets are counted by re-tweets and favorites, stories are scored by page views and Facebook likes. Writers reach and influence is visible in its number of followers and the number of influencers who subscribe to his or her feed.

it becomes a competition to see who can get this positive feedback from the community. and people do this by trawling the web for evidence and being the first to publish. To be silent is to lose points, to be re-tweeted is to regain them. The system encourages you to keep feeding the machine…

Naturally, this is a way to understand the online world. In particular it has become a trope of social media that we are talking in order to be constantly re-affirmed by others who are constantly talking. Noise begets noise.

The problem with this view of social media is that it is the view from the top. In reality it does not take into consideration the ways in which most users actually use social media.

Most users on twitter do not have thousands of followers, many do not even tweet. Like most of us, at most parties, they tend to listen to others more than speaking themselves. But in the collective babble of noise it is taken for granted that all we want to do is to make ourselves heard and to make others admire the noise we make.

The same is true on Facebook. There are users with friends numbering in the thousands, who cannot pass by a meal without documenting it. But most are silent users who like often and post occasionally.

The social part of social media does not have to mean that those who are silent are losing. We are social even when we are silent.

For more on this topic I recommend Susan Cain’s book on introverts. An elegant puff for the book is her TED talk: Susan Cain: The power of introverts

In a culture where being social and outgoing are prized above all else, it can be difficult, even shameful, to be an introvert. But, as Susan Cain argues in this passionate talk, introverts bring extraordinary talents and abilities to the world, and should be encouraged and celebrated.

Is snitching a social good?

In 1984 one of the basic premises of state control was to be found in the dictum “He who controls the past, controls the future”. This can be seen as a version of the popular quote from the Spanish philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it“.

One of the themes in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four the way in which the repressive society encourages friends, neighbors and family to spy on one another. The informer was seen as a hero by the state. In particular Orwell writes that parents lived in fear of their children.

The family could not actually be abolished, and, indeed, people were encouraged to be fond of their children, in almost the old-fashioned way. The children, on the other hand, were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police. It was a device by means of which everyone could be surrounded night and day by informers who knew him intimately.

This is based on the story of Pavlik Morozov, a child who denounced his father to the soviet state and became part of soviet mythology and naturally part of the the fear of the soviet state.

Now we could dismiss the whole thing as a fiction set in a far away place, in a far away time but this is not what Orwell wants. The same year Nineteen Eighty-Four was published he wrote in a letter*

My recent novel [Nineteen Eighty-Four] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter), but as a show-up of the perversions . . . which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism. . . . The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else, and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.

Today we are again and again being actively encouraged to destroy not family but society. We are supposed to discover and report “suspicious behavior” for the good of us all – in the name of terrorism. The most reason slick version of the state asking us to denounce anything different comes (via BoingBoing: What to do if you smell a terrorist). It’s about a video released by the LA police department in a campaign called IwatchLA.

The video is slick, sleek and personal. It encourages people to denounce anything unusual – even an unusual smell – and let the authorities decide if its terrorism. This is what Orwell feared. The goal of terrorism prevention is a praiseworthy goal but the destruction of social trust by creating universal suspicion is not the way to go.

* The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 4 – In Front of Your Nose 1945–1950 p.546 (Penguin)

50 dying things

The Telegraph has a wonderful list of “50 things that are being killed by the internet”. The name is a little misleading since it is not only the internet’s fault but it is an interesting and amusing look at the way in which our world is changing. Not that I will miss all the items on the list, but it’s still good to notice what is changing.

1) The art of polite disagreement
While the inane spats of YouTube commencers may not be representative, the internet has certainly sharpened the tone of debate. The most raucous sections of the blogworld seem incapable of accepting sincerely held differences of opinion; all opponents must have “agendas”.

2) Fear that you are the only person unmoved by a celebrity’s death
Twitter has become a clearing-house for jokes about dead famous people. Tasteless, but an antidote to the “fans in mourning” mawkishness that otherwise predominates.

3) Listening to an album all the way through
The single is one of the unlikely beneficiaries of the internet – a development which can be looked at in two ways. There’s no longer any need to endure eight tracks of filler for a couple of decent tunes, but will “album albums” like Radiohead’s Amnesiac get the widespread hearing they deserve?

4) Sarah Palin
Her train wreck interviews with NBC’s Katie Couric were watched and re-watched millions of times on the internet, cementing the Republican vice-presidential candidate’s reputation as a politician out of her depth. Palin’s uncomfortable relationship with the web continues; she has threatened to sue bloggers who republish rumours about the state of her marriage.

5) Punctuality
Before mobile phones, people actually had to keep their appointments and turn up to the pub on time. Texting friends to warn them of your tardiness five minutes before you are due to meet has become one of throwaway rudenesses of the connected age.

6) Ceefax/Teletext
All sports fans of a certain age can tell you their favourite Ceefax pages (p341 for Test match scores, p312 for football transfer gossip), but the service’s clunking graphics and four-paragraph articles have dated badly. ITV announced earlier this year that it was planning to pull Teletext, its version.

7) Adolescent nerves at first porn purchase
The ubiquity of free, hard-core pornography on the web has put an end to one of the most dreaded rights rites of passage for teenage boys – buying dirty magazines. Why tremble in the WHSmiths queue when you can download mountains of filth for free in your bedroom? The trend also threatens the future of “porn in the woods” – the grotty pages of Razzle and Penthouse that scatter the fringes of provincial towns and villages.

8) Telephone directories
You can find Fly Fishing by J R Hartley on Amazon.

9) The myth of cat intelligence
The proudest household pets are now the illiterate butts of caption-based jokes. Icanhasreputashunback?

10) Watches
Scrabbling around in your pocket to dig out a phone may not be as elegant as glancing at a watch, but it saves splashing out on two gadgets.

11) Music stores
In a world where people don’t want to pay anything for music, charging them £16.99 for 12 songs in a flimsy plastic case is no business model.

12) Letter writing/pen pals
Email is quicker, cheaper and more convenient; receiving a handwritten letter from a friend has become a rare, even nostalgic, pleasure. As a result, formal valedictions like “Yours faithfully” are being replaced by “Best” and “Thanks”.

13) Memory
When almost any fact, no matter how obscure, can be dug up within seconds through Google and Wikipedia, there is less value attached to the “mere” storage and retrieval of knowledge. What becomes important is how you use it – the internet age rewards creativity.

14) Dead time
When was the last time you spent an hour mulling the world out a window, or rereading a favourite book? The internet’s draw on our attention is relentless and increasingly difficult to resist.

15) Photo albums and slide shows
Facebook, Flickr and printing sites like Snapfish are how we share our photos. Earlier this year Kodak announced that it was discontinuing its Kodachrome slide film because of lack of demand.

16) Hoaxes and conspiracy theories
The internet is often dismissed as awash with cranks, but it has proved far more potent at debunking conspiracy theories than perpetuating them. The excellent continues to deliver the final, sober, word on urban legends.

17) Watching television together
On-demand television, from the iPlayer in Britain to Hulu in the US, allows relatives and colleagues to watch the same programmes at different times, undermining what had been one of the medium’s most attractive cultural appeals – the shared experience. Appointment-to-view television, if it exists at all, seems confined to sport and live reality shows.

18) Authoritative reference works
We still crave reliable information, but generally aren’t willing to pay for it.

19) The Innovations catalogue
Preposterous as its household gadgets may have been, the Innovations catalogue was always a diverting read. The magazine ceased printing in 2003, and its web presence is depressingly bland.

20) Order forms in the back pages of books
Amazon’s “Customers who bought this item also bought…” service seems the closest web equivalent.

21) Delayed knowledge of sporting results
When was the last time you bought a newspaper to find out who won the match, rather than for comment and analysis? There’s no need to fall silent for James Alexander Gordon on the way home from the game when everyone in the car has an iPhone.

22) Enforceable copyright
The record companies, film studios and news agencies are fighting back, but can the floodgates ever be closed?

23) Reading telegrams at weddings
Quoting from a wad of email printouts doesn’t have the same magic.

24) Dogging
Websites may have helped spread the word about dogging, but the internet offers a myriad of more convenient ways to organise no-strings sex with strangers. None of these involve spending the evening in lay-by near Aylesbury.

25) Aren’t they dead? Aren’t they gay?
Wikipedia allows us to confirm or disprove almost any celebrity rumour instantly. Only at festivals with no Wi-Fi signals can the gullible be tricked into believing that David Hasselhoff has passed away.

26) Holiday news ignorance
Glancing at the front pages after landing back at Heathrow used to be a thrilling experience – had anyone died? Was the government still standing? Now it takes a stern soul to resist the temptation to check the headlines at least once while you’re away.

27) Knowing telephone numbers off by heart
After typing the digits into your contacts book, you need never look at them again.

28) Respect for doctors and other professionals
The proliferation of health websites has undermined the status of GPs, whose diagnoses are now challenged by patients armed with printouts.

29) The mystery of foreign languages
Sites like Babelfish offer instant, good-enough translations of dozens of languages – but kill their beauty and rhythm.

30) Geographical knowledge
With GPS systems spreading from cars to smartphones, knowing the way from A to B is a less prized skill. Just ask the London taxi drivers who spent years learning The Knowledge but are now undercut by minicabs.

31) Privacy
We may attack governments for the spread of surveillance culture, but users of social media websites make more information about themselves available than Big Brother could ever hoped to obtain by covert means.

32) Chuck Norris’s reputation
The absurdly heroic boasts on Chuck Norris Facts may be affectionate, but will anyone take him seriously again?

33) Pencil cricket
An old-fashioned schoolboy diversion swept away by the Stick Cricket behemoth

34) Mainstream media
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News in the US have already folded, and the UK’s Observer may follow. Free news and the migration of advertising to the web threaten the basic business models of almost all media organisations.

35) Concentration
What with tabbing between Gmail, Twitter, Facebook and Google News, it’s a wonder anyone gets their work done. A disturbing trend captured by the wonderful XKCD webcomic.

36) Mr Alifi’s dignity
Twenty years ago, if you were a Sudanese man who was forced to marry a goat after having sex with it, you’d take solace that news of your shame would be unlikely to spread beyond the neighbouring villages. Unfortunately for Mr Alifi, his indiscretion came in the digital age – and became one of the first viral news stories.

37) Personal reinvention
How can you forge a new identity at university when your Facebook is plastered with photos of the “old” you?

38) Viktor Yanukovych
The Orange Revolution in Ukraine was organised by a cabal of students and young activists who exploited the power of the web to mobilise resistance against the old regime, and sweep Viktor Yushchenko to power.

39) The insurance ring-round
Their adverts may grate, but insurance comparison websites have killed one of the most tedious annual chores

40) Undiscovered artists
Posting paintings to deviantART and Flickr – or poems to writebuzz – could not be easier. So now the garret-dwellers have no excuses.

41) The usefulness of reference pages at the front of diaries
If anyone still digs out their diaries to check what time zone Lisbon is in, or how many litres there are to a gallon, we don’t know them.

42) The nervous thrill of the reunion
You’ve spent the past five years tracking their weight-gain on Facebook, so meeting up with your first love doesn’t pack the emotional punch it once did.

43) Solitaire
The original computer timewaster has been superseded by the more alluring temptations of the web. Ditto Minesweeper.

44) Trust in Nigerian businessmen and princes
Some gift horses should have their mouths very closely inspected.

45) Prostitute calling cards/ kerb crawling
Sex can be marketed more cheaply, safely and efficiently on the web than the street corner.

46) Staggered product/film releases
Companies are becoming increasingly draconian in their anti-piracy measure, but are finally beginning to appreciate that forcing British consumers to wait six months to hand over their money is not a smart business plan.

47) Footnotes
Made superfluous by the link, although Wikipedia is fighting a brave rearguard action.

48) Grand National trips to the bookmaker
Having a little flutter is much more fun when you don’t have to wade though a shop of drunks and ne’er-do-wells

49) Fanzines
Blogs and fansites offer greater freedom and community interaction than paper fanzines, and can be read by many more people.

50) Your lunchbreak
Did you leave your desk today? Or snaffle a sandwich while sending a few personal emails and checking the price of a week in Istanbul?

Street art and social commentary

Being a big fan of street art I often spend time in new cities looking for interesting examples and in Turin I found some really cool stuff. The two best projects I found were the portrayals of Muslim women and an excellent media criticism project. While I realize that many are critical to what they see as a defacement of public space it is important to remember that art can act as a conduit for social commentary, giving voice to those who might not otherwise have one. This is particularly true in the case of street art since the public street is more easily accessible to the artist than the gallery.

In addition to this these public spaces are available to all people without requiring them to enter into the unfamiliar  structured work of “established” art. Many may feel unsure of how “established” art may be interpreted, this coupled with a fear of making a fool of oneself makes it easier to ignore art rather than attempt to participate in the discussion. Street art places no such demands. It is immediate and easily accessible: either you like it, or you don’t. Either it talks to you, or it doesn’t. They are our streets and everyone has a right to an opinion. No hierarchical canon rules our opinions.

The media criticism project was a humorous portrayal of the way in which media controls our minds and makes us into robots.

larger image

The Muslim women project was a colorful and thoughtful portrayal of women in everyday situations. My favorite pictures were the ones were the women are interacting with technology and showing that we are all the same.

larger image

The artist has presented the motivations for his project in the Wooster Collective:

“My project deals with the representation of Muslim women and their social condition. I was been studying and dealing with this theme for years. As you can imagine, here in Turin, my posters are seen as an ambiguous subject. Some people mislead and rip them, while others love them. I would like to make people know that there is nothing strange with this particular subject: Muslim women are equal if compared to Western women. My Muslim women are represented in daily life situations: they are mothers, grandmothers and daughters, smoking, taking pictures and smiling. My message is: pointing out that Muslim women have the same needs and necessities of the majority of Western women. Certainly, the only exception is the veil. The veil changes in different countries, and here comes the sociological aspect of my work: I am very careful in rendering the different types of veil, the Maghrebi veil, the Afghani burga and the Iranian chador.

In my opinion, nowadays it’s crucial to conceive street art as a tool to spread social messages. Moreover, I made a deep research and I discovered that I am the only artist, in the street art movement, that deals entirely with this topic. Isn’t it strange? In general, the woman is the best source of inspiration for artists, why Muslim women wouldn’t be the same? I would like to create a network of artists of all nations, about this subject, eventually to compare the different viewpoints.

My posters are drawn and coloured freehand, each of them is unique. The subjects are not invented but real, I use images taken from newspapers, magazines and websites. Often they are portraits of important personalities of Muslim society (novelists, poets, entrepreneurs, feminists etc…), in order to make Western societies know who they are and what they do.”… BR1 on Flickr

The blogger as social debater

On Friday I will be attending a meeting for green bloggers in Stockholm arranged by the Swedish green party (wanted to write Swedish greens but there was too much temptation for bad vegetable puns). During the meeting I will be giving a lecture on the role of the blogger as a social debater and I am looking forward to presenting some ideas on this topic.

Beyond the obvious short intro (minuscule) on what is a blog? and why is it different anyway? the question that must be addressed is whether or not the blogger has a role as a social debater? Naturally there are blogs that impact highly on the  broader social debate but many of these belong to individuals or groups who are naturally part of the social debate and in these cases the blog is simply a different technical platform. The easiest example of this is a politician with a blog where the technology does not really create the social debater but only provides an alternate platform.

In the latter category I also want to add corporate blogs which are basically (but not exclusively) marketing tools.

But then there are plenty of blogs which seem to have created new social debaters, individuals who previously had no voice now have been empowered (ugly word, but valuable concept) and enabled into presenting their views. The question here is – what is their social impact? The blog gives them voice but does this shape social change?

Then there are the blogs which have masses of hits but low social impact. Fashion blogs, sex blogs, voyeur blogs, athletes blogs etc etc these generate masses of hits but can a million hits be the same as a social debate?

Finally there are the mass of unread blogs highbrow, lowbrow, academic, quirky, personal, public, exhibitionist and therapeutic. It would be easy to attempt to claim unread = no social impact but these may be the potentially important social movers. From the unread backwaters of the internet ideas have spread before and therefore it is difficult to simply sweep aside the masses of unread bloggers as socially unimportant.

As I said I am really looking forward to Friday… and if you are in Stockholm why dont you drop in? Here is the invite on Facebook

Environmentalism and Class

On the one hand environmentalism is science – irrefutable and extremely difficult to interpret socially, but it’s solutions are not. Well so I thought but my eyes were opened a bit wider after reading Monbiot’s article Flying Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on the connection between class struggle and environmentalism

If you understand and accept what climate science is saying, you need no further explanation for protests against airport expansion. But if… you refuse to accept that manmade climate change is real, you must show that the campaign to curb it is the result of an irrational impulse. The impulse they choose, because it’s an easy stereotype and it suits their prolier-than-thou posturing, is the urge to preserve the wonders of the world for the upper classes. “Cheap flights”, O’Neill claims, “has become code for lowlife scum, an issue through which you can attack the “underclass”, the working class and the nouveau riche with impunity.”(24)

The connection seems obvious, doesn’t it? More cheap flights must be of greatest benefit to the poor. A campaign against airport expansion must therefore be an attack on working-class aspirations. It might be obvious, but it’s wrong.

Working with empirical evidence Monbiot shows that the working class are not the primary users or even the intended users of cheap flights. The working class, it seems, does not fill the airlines of the world even when the tickets are priced at close to zero.

This is very interesting since confusing the science of climate change with issues of social and class justice are a wonderful way of creating counter arguments against “hard” science. If cheap air fares are not about class then the question is not about the “right to fly” but should be focused on making the travelers pay their own environmental costs.

Social and Technological Determinism

It’s been a long time since I had a real good discussion on determinism but recent discussions online and off have brought determinism back in focus. In particular the differences between technological and social determinism.

As a brief recap technological determinist believes “the uses made of technology are largely determined by the structure of the technology itself, that is, that its functions follow from its form” (Neil Postman). On the opposite side of the spectrum is social determinism which, as Langdon Winner states, “What matters is not the technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded”. Basically that society is not controlled by technology but innovation and the consequences of technology are shaped through the influences of things like culture, politics, economic arrangements and regulation.

What really annoys me with both these positions is their lack of flexibility. In order to make their positions work both the social and technological determinist attempts to be blind to facts which do not support their pet theory.

Look at file sharing – yes I know that this is a big target.

The regulation of file sharing through social, economic, political and moral attempts have been a failure in attempting to change the way in which certain social groups behave. Given fixed price, high bandwidth Internet connections and high storage – low cost mp3 players there is a high incentive to file share. Technology alone is not enough. The low chance of getting caught is also an incentive to copy.

But being either/or in attempting to explain the reason for file sharing is too narrow minded since it can only provide a limited view of the problem. So when the legislator attempts to regulate the problem it is indispensible to see both the social and technical forces which drive social changes related to technology.

WoW is the new golf

Not surprisingly online games are becoming mainstream. I always imagine that when I get into an old age home there will be a great network and lots of time to play advanced online games. Maybe it is unsurprising that one of Obama’s transition co-chairs is a level 70 Shaman in the Terror Nova pack (that World of Warcraft to the rest of us).

The networking element of gaming is similar to other traditional social interaction as with the country club, bridge group, saloon or golf club.

This will only get more and more common and is a real relief for us who have never managed to figure out the point or the method of getting the little white ball into the cup far, far away.

Regulating Images

There is a very interesting article by Chris Colin over at SFgate called Nasty as they wanna be? Policing it’s about the group that attempts to maintain order and rules among Fickrs thirty million members who have posted 2.8 billion images.

At first glance this parallel society has been made, quite literally, in the image of our own. But in truth it’s more like a Photoshopped image — the nice parts accentuated, the inappropriate bits cropped away. So it goes with any online community, of course. Behavior must be moderated and a communal ethos must be preserved; Wild West cliches aside, total freedom at any entity like this would sink it in a storm of lawsuits, flame wars and gridlocked cacophony. So directors of community exist. And while the job of nurturing and policing any online realm would make for a fascinating study, I was particularly curious about how it worked at Flickr.

The interesting part of the article on regulation of social content is the fact that no matter how far along we have come, no matter how many articles are written and read, the state of regulation of social matter will not be resolved in a final manner.

Guidelines such as Flickr’s community guidlines, as vague and inadequate as they may seem, are probably the best way to go. My favorite rule among the guidelines is: “Don’t be creepy. You know the guy. Don’t be that guy.” It’s not the way in which laws can be written but as the rule itself says we know what they mean. These types of rules and a certain level of benevolent dictatorship by an adequate superuser, owner or group.

Champ, for her part, has no qualms defending “the Flickrness of Flickr.” A while back a group calling itself “Islam is Hell on Earth” was removed. Champ is unapologetic: “We don’t need to be the photo-sharing site for all people. We don’t need to take all comers. It’s important to me that Flickr was built on certain principles.”

Not everyone is going to be happy but it is important to remember what we often forget and that is that Flickr is not there for a community. They are there because their customers pay them. If any small group of customers threaten Flickr’s income then they will be removed. This is not democracy – it is business. Unfortunately some users forget this point.