Empowered citizens or Digital dairy cows: Notes on a lecture

The purpose of today’s lecture was to familiarize the audience with social media and what they may need to know about it. The lecture began with examples of what the media reports when social media is mentioned. The interesting thing is that media today has turned from the previously optimistic position to being more openly critical. To exemplify this I used three recent examples from Swedish media where the papers reported that research showed: smart phones make us selfish, Facebook spreads unhappiness & the need to be connected causes insomnia among young people.

Generally speaking the extremes of the debate either view social media as revolutionary (and fundamental for the Arab spring) or trivial. Defining the Arab spring as a Facebook revolution degrades the pain, suffering and efforts of the individuals doing the work. My example of the trivial is a response from an older professor when he heard I was working on an article on Twitter:

“Twitter? Isn’t that where everyone talks about what they had for breakfast?” Just as with the revolutionary view of social media this may have a grain of truth. Social media can be used for trivial conversation but it would be incorrect to see social media as only trivial. It may also be important to remember that most conversation is trivial. Trivial conversation is what creates and maintains social relations.

The approaches to social media belong to a longer tradition of techno-optimism and pessimism. My examples of optimism are a quote from Wikipedia:

Social media…At its most basic sense, social media is a shift in how people discover, read and share news, information and content. It’s a fusion of sociology and technology, transforming monologues (one to many) into dialogues (many to many) and is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers. (Wikipedia, May 2009)

What does “the democratization of information” even mean? My second optimism example is Time Magazine’s choice of YOU as person of the year in 2006.

My choice of pessimists were a quote from Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is killing our culture” (2007)

“Out of this anarchy… what was governing the infinite monkeys now inputting away on the Internet was the law of digital Darwinism, the survival of the loudest and most opinionated.”

Say what you like about Keen, but he is extremely clear about his position. The second pessimist quote is from Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield:

“My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.”

From here the lecture moved on to the developments to what led to social media decade and the changes our new toys have caused. Naturally there are profound changes occurring all around us but the small stuff is fun to note.

The Wordfeud app is an interesting example. A couple of years ago admitting of regularly playing Scrabble may have been a form of social suicide – today things have changed and we happily boast of a high score. Similarly, a few years ago looking at pictures of your friends, enemies and other loose ties would have been voyeurism and maybe borderline stalking – today it’s just Facebook. Our use of technology has normalized abnormal behavior.

Our connectivity and our toys have also diminished our need for boredom – a feeling that may have filled an important purpose. I have written about Boredom as source of creativity earlier.

At this point the lecture moved on to some important points about what technology can do. Beginning with my favorite example of the Tokyo park bench read it here.

When we look at the effects of social media the most important point to begin with is the seminal quote by blue_beetle

If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold

I like this quote but I have always felt that there was something missing. We are not really the product – we are the creators of the product, which is data. We are digital dairy cows and the product is digital milk.

A social change caused by social media is our relationship with our contacts. We are the stars in our own performance attempting to present our ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. We document our lives for the entertainment of others – or maybe for the creation of the image of a more exciting life. As an example I showed my coffee project (a mix of entertainment, amusement & sadism – to be explained in a later blogpost).

In order to understand more about what we are doing it is good to know what the controllers of the infrastructure think about. It is important to understand the digital dairy farmers.

One of the main players is Mark Zuckerberg and his position on “radical transparency”

“You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”

There are several things wrong with this position (not even focusing on the fact that his company profits from this position). According to Zuckerberg the days may be coming to an end (which I seriously doubt) but what to do now? The media is full of examples where individuals have been punished (socially or economically or more) for information that may not have been illegal or even immoral.

In addition to this Zuckerberg has claimed that privacy is no longer a social norm. Additionally, Zuckerberg’s goal seems to create a personalized view of the world (check out Pariser’s Filter Bubble or some stuff on personalization I wrote here). In Zuckerberg’s own chilling words:

A Squirrel Dying In Your Front Yard May Be More Relevant To Your Interests Right Now Than People Dying In Africa.

It is worrying that Zuckerberg is profiting from pushing these positions at the same time as he develops a technology that promotes excessive sharing and profits from the same.

So if social media is not going to show social responsibility, then who will fix this problem?

Usually we turn to the law. However the law is all focused on concerns with Orwell’s view of surveillance via Big Brother. But today we are the ones giving away our information for the sake of convenience and entertainment – we are in the controlled world of Huxley’s Brave New World (check out the Orwell/Huxley paradox here).

So we are left to our own devices – in more ways than one. What can we expect of the future? First we will see an increased efficiency in personalization (as I have written earlier):

The same is true of information. The sweet and fatty information in a long historical context was an understanding of who was allied with whom? Who is sleeping with whom? And whom can I get my genes over to the next generation (obviously just a nicer way of thinking about getting laid!). This is why we today have a fascination about gossip. Which minor celebs are attempting to sleep with each other takes up an extraordinary part of our lives. But this was all ok since the access to gossip was limited. Today, however, we are connected to the largest gossip engine ever conceived. Facebook may try to hide it in its spin, but part of our fascination is all about looking at each other. The problem is that there is only a limited amount of time in life and spending too much time on gossip limits our ability for more relevant information. We are becoming information obese and the solution is to decrease fatty information intake and go to the information gym regularly.

The development of walled gardens or information silos… Facebook (and other silos) is branding us like the cattle we are. By attempting to lock our behavior into their site and prevent us from leaving they are diminishing our freedom – a freedom which was originally created in the design of the Internet and is being subverted by the growth of social media (Read Long Live the Web by Tim Berners-Lee).

We are not going to be helped from our locked stalls by either law or corporations. We are left to practice thoughtful self-restraint and hope that the law will eventually catch up with our technology and needs.

The slides I used are here.

Post-Social Media

Yesterday I was in Borås at the Social Media Day which is an annual politics and social media conference (ppt slides and movies here). This year was opened by the US ambassador to Sweden Matthew Barzun, who gave an interesting talk (ppt) (much of it in Swedish, which was impressive). He spoke about the promise of technology and the difficulty of predicting the future and the importance of values in developing and using technology.

He also told the story of the Swedish engineer Laila Ohlgren, who, in the early days of mobile phones, solved an interesting issue of data roaming: by the time you finish dialing you have lost contact with the original phone mast. She proposed the simple – but breathtakingly fundamental – change of dialing the complete number first and then hitting the dial button. Fantastic, simple, basic… and totally revolutionary thinking.

Next up was Marie Grusell who spoke on the topic of party leaders use of twitter in their communication. She made interesting points on the differences between dialog and monologue and the relatively low usage of twitter among Swedish politicians. My focus on this was cultural and I wondered why the use was so low. An interesting comparison to the low numbers (the highest was Gudrun Schyman with 183 following and 9,447 followers) is the Norwegian Prime Minister @jensstoltenberg who follws 34,768 and is followed by 48,698.

This was followed by Per Schlingmann & Hampus Brynolf who held a low-tech (i.e. no ppt) discussion on social media now and in the future. There talk was experienced based and they seemed to be in relative agreement that social media would become a natural part of the political dialogue, that nobody wins elections through social media – but they may lose them through social media, that technology has led to the need for politics to be prepared with immediate answers for everything – which creates a need for an artificial, slowing down to think before you tweet. They also pointed to the unfortunate lack of focus on the everyday social media use in politics and the overemphasis on campaigning.

This was followed by Anders Kihl who demonstrated the ways in which Borås has been working to create multiple access points to municipal information and dialogues. As a practitioner Anders is very down to earth and the work done in Borås shows that everyday social media use in politics is important and engaging.

Jan Nolin introduced the concept of Wikipolitics into the discussion which had so far been very much focused on the concept of social media as a communications channel. He argued that social media channels does not take into consideration the importance of the possibility of using social media as political movements – not only in protests but provides a potential for the harnessing of the power of crowds in everyday socio-political life.

Next up was Grethe Lindhe from Malmö who presented the ways in which the region was using technology to enable citizens to propose and bring up questions into the political arena. By creating this possibility the Malmö region believed that politics would be made more accessible to a larger section of the citizenry.

Lars Höglund took his starting point in the large SOM-survey to attempt to deepen our understanding of the participatory elements of politics and the internet. My main beef was that I got stuck on the group they call “the internet generation” which was defined as those born between 1977-1997. What annoys me about this is that this groups’ aspect is that they have not experienced a pre-web age. Why this classification annoys me is that these digital natives (a term coined by Marc Prensky) are supposed to have special insights into technology. Let me give an analogy: While I was born during the age of the automobile this does not make me competent to talk in depth about the effects of cars on society, our dependence upon fossil fuels or the rise and fall of the car industry.

Last up – before the closing panel was me. I had been asked to talk about the links between social media and the law but I used my time to present some of the interesting points from my latest research into attempts by municipalities to regulate social media through policies. Its a work in progress and yesterday I addressed the concept of the municipality lawyer being negative to social media in a talk entitled Law is simple, people are not. Slides below

One of the things we were asked in the panel was whats up next? What will we be doing with social media today and in the future. What is post-social media? All in all it was a very good meeting. Lots of interesting people and discussions. I am looking forward to the next time.

ReTweet: the power of twitter

An interesting thing happened at a conference I was attending last week. The were three speakers giving talks to all the attendants (c:a 300 people). First up was the minister of communication (unexciting but well formulated explaining new broadband policy), the was James Boyle discussing Cultural Agoraphobia (an excellent presentation on the public domain). Finally was a CEO who was supposed to be talking about mobility but spent the entire time promoting his own company and explaining why they were great.

In most such situations the crowd fidgets but endures. But not with a crowd that has access to twitter. The first tweets were bored comments about ill concealed marketing but this was soon followed by harsher comments. The tweets were ReTeeted and commented upon. There was an amazing difference between the online/offline reaction to the speech. Like an iceberg, the real action was under the surface.

Obviously he should not have been invited as a speaker. Nor should he have accepted to speak. And at least he should have respected those sitting listening to him enough not to turn his time into a blatant advertisement.

One of the questions tweeted at the time was why there wasn’t a screen where the speakers could see the reactions of the crowd. But is this a good idea? What are the social conventions of twittering in lectures? In non-tech situations we may allow our minds to wonder, occupy ourselves, maybe talk to our neighbors. Or in a gesture of our dissatisfaction walk out of the lecture hall.

Angry tweets to the world seem acceptable – But would nasty comments flowing along on a computer screen in front of the speaker be considered ill mannered?

Twitter has already been the subject of discussion in academic circles. In October (2009) Laura Bonetta Should You Be Tweeting?

In May of this year, Daniel MacArthur, a researcher at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge…reported live from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) meeting Biology of Genomes.

A participant from the online news site Genomeweb protested that MacArthur was twittering and blogging about the meeting. The basis of there protest was that while media had to obtain permission to be able to report from the meeting but MacArthur was attending the meeting as a participant and therefore was not required to obtain permission. As a result of this complaint the CSHL notified a change of its rules:

“any participant intending to blog, twitter or otherwise communicate or disseminate results or discussion presented at the meeting to anonymous third parties must obtain permission from the relevant presenting author before communicating any results or discussion to third party groups, message boards, blogs or other online resources (other than your own lab or departments).”

But this seems to be an extreme way to go…

Researchers in Web2.0

In the recent issue of Research Information: October/November 2009 David Stuart writes an article entitled Web 2.0 fails to excite today’s researchers. The basic premise of the article is that researchers within academia are not interesting in adopting web2.0 technologies.

It is hard to imagine a group more suited to the opportunities of Web 2.0 technologies than academics, especially when it comes to conducting and publishing research…

…Scholarly publishing 2.0 offers much more to the research process than the simple content management system of blogs and wikis. It does not just give the opportunity to help find collaborators for a project, and possibility of easing the communication process within a research group. It also offers the opportunity to publish new forms of data and can blur the barriers of the research group.

While reading the article I found myself disagreeing more and more with Stuart. The level of academics participating actively by sharing their time and knowledge freely is very high.

There are two reasons why this high level of activity is surprising. One is based on the fact that only a small part of science is about communication and second the academic’s employers do not appreciate the value of web2.0 activities.

Science is more than communication: Most of science work is outwardly boring. Observing, reading, thinking, writing and deep discussions in seminars are not particularly for suitable for short messages and headline based communication. A wonderful example can be found in the words of Donald Knuth in a text entitled Knuth versus Email:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.

The same ideas can be applied to web2.0.

Few academic employers appreciate the value of web2.0 activities: In the final paragraph Stuart writes “Much of the blame for the slow adoption of the Web 2.0 technologies seemingly lies with an over-emphasis on the traditional research paper.” Well this is understandable since despite the whole focus and popularity of web-based communication the academic system does not put any real priority on these activities. True, they are not looked down upon as much as they once were but web2.0 communication is definitely not an activity which counts as a merit.

What Stuart seems to be missing is that web2.0 activity use is high in academia, but, for the reasons discussed above, it is not particularly visible to the general observer. Academic blogs, wikis, twitterers etc. abound but they are used as intended – for communication, sharing and discussion. The problem is that the discussions of academics are rarely interesting enough to be noticeable to the outside world.

Disclaimer: My web2.0 activity is very high (2 blogs (this one and techrisk), facebook, twitter, flickr, librarything etc And I follow tons of people via web2.0) and is very rewarding for me personally and professionally. But I also know that six years of blogging is worth less than one paper. This is mainly because it is easier for a university to count papers and citations.

Us Now documentary

Us Now is a documentary film that explores the ways in which web2.0 technologies are changing the way in which we interact and thus changing the fundamental roots of society. It’s “A film project about the power of mass collaboration, government and the internet”.

In a world in which information is like air, what happens to power?
New technologies and a closely related culture of collaboration present radical new models of social organisation.

From what I have seen so far this is an insightful and interesting film which presents the viewer with many questions about our society. It is filled with interesting people and examples revealing interesting new social organizational forms and asking questions about the way which will could and should be governed in the future. There is an underlying demand for true participation in the ways we are governed.

The film is also released under the Creative Commons BY-SA license.

Here is a blurb from Vodo.net

Can we all govern? Us Now looks at how ‘user’ participation could transform the way that countries are governed. It tells the stories of the online networks whose radical self-organising structures threaten to change the fabric of government forever. Us Now follows the fate of Ebbsfleet United, a football club owned and run by its fans; Zopa, a bank in which everyone is the manager; and Couch Surfing, a vast online network whose members share their homes with strangers.

Check out the trailer:

The end of free

Rupert Murdoch’s media empire News Corp reported a huge financial loss ($3.4bn). Naturally this cannot go un-commented so in today’s Guardian Murdoch is quoted as saying that quality journalism* is not cheap and the era of a free-for-all in online news was over.

So what to do? Well Murdoch’s response is to start charging for online news:

“The digital revolution has opened many new and inexpensive distribution channels but it has not made content free. We intend to charge for all our news websites.”

There may have been a time in history when newspapers could have gone the way of pay-per-view but today the free has spread. One of the reasons for the increasing losses in the print industry is not the traditional web but rather the growth of user-produced content (web2.0). Even if many of these user-producers leech of print media (as does this article since it is a reaction of what I read in the Guardian) it would be very difficult to lock down the news.

The news (whatever that term means) is spread in a number of different sources. Official, unofficial, personal, impersonal, gossip, fact, free, costly etc. But few news sources are so powerful that they can be enclosed and charge money for their content when they once have been provided for free. A pre-internet truth has always been: Any news source can be adequately filled by other news sources. The internet aggravates this by provided a seemingly infinite amount of news sources.

Even though the newspaper business is struggling with their adaption to new technology, charging readers to read their material online will fail. Any attempt by a newspaper to end free will only result in the end of that newspaper. For better or worse – free is here to stay.

* Cannot resist reminding people that “quality journalism” provided by News Corp includes trashy tabloids like The Sun and News of the World as well as quality like The Times and Wall Street Journal.

Short definition of Web2.0

Short definitions are the most difficult. Being put under duress I finally completed this one on web2.0. What do you think?

The standardized open communications platform allowed for the development of a diverse range of web-based applications that have been collectively defined as Web2.0 applications. The concept of Web2.0 focuses on the changing role of the user from a ‘passive’ consumer of information to a more active role as information contributor.

The main change between Web1.0 and 2.0 in relation to this is the growth of alternative information sources outside the control of traditional media. With an increasing simplification in web applications ordinary users increasingly have the ability to make, store and communicate their content online. This contributory culture may take many forms from the sharing of copyrightable material to writing and collecting of product and service reviews.

Many of the most popular Web2.0 sites have in a relatively short period of time become some of the most important online sites. Since its conception in 1999 the World Wide Web has been a platform for communication and collaboration. However the main period of Web2.0 development came after the new millennium.

In addition to the changing role of the user into information contributor the Web2.0 umbrella has come to include the increasingly popular social networking applications that allow users to easily connect and communicate with each other.

The use of the web as a platform for simplified personal communication can be said to originate with blogging (the term was first used around 1997). The next big steps in user production came with the launch of Wikipedia in 2001, the Flickr photo sharing site in 2004 and the video-sharing site YouTube in 2005. Social networking milestones include the launch of Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2006.

This form of social networking focuses on building online communities of people with commons interests, the advantage of these new sites lies in the simplicity of their web-based applications made available to the users at no cost. Concerns about privacy have been raised due to the practice of social networking sites to store and use information (Grimmelmann 2009).

Web2.0 has been criticized, by among others Tim Berners Lee, as being only a piece of jargon not really adding anything to the concept of the web (Laningham 2006). While others (e.g. Keen 2007) have criticized it for being amateurish productions, narcissistic in focus and leading in the long run to the demise of traditional professional media.

However despite the criticism of the terminology the practice of user generated content and social networking is here to stay.

An anthropological introduction to YouTube

Thanks to jill/txt I found a briliant presentation given by Michael Wesch where he presents “An anthropological introduction to YouTube” at the Library of Congress. In case you missed it Michael Wesch is the man behind the great film (among others) which explained Web 2.0 in under five minutes called “The Machine is Us/ing Us”

Wesch does not only have a deep understanding of the mediun he studies but he also is very good at using the medium to explain its importance.


And for those of you who missed the other film:
The Machine is Us/ing Us (Final Version)