the culture and values of social media

Mainstream Media: SUP MySpace

Posted: February 21st, 2006 | Author: | Filed under: social networking | 2 Comments »

So this week we have the New York Times examining the phenomenon of teenage digicam self-portraits (uh, newsworthy?), parental hysteria over sexual predators on MySpace affecting advertising revenue, approximately 8 million “Is Your Child Safe on MySpace?” local news segments, and of course Siva’s Daily Show segment.

Needless to say, when a site gets 43 million users, you’re going to see some backlash, and here it is. I’m actually really surprised it’s flown under the radar for this long, especially after the Friendster press orgasm of 2003.

Hey journalists, if you need a hipster academic to interview about MySpace and danah boyd’s busy, give me a call.


links for 2006-02-19

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links for 2006-02-16

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And Never the Twain Shall Meet

Posted: February 15th, 2006 | Author: | Filed under: academia | 2 Comments »

In the humanities, in general, academics do not collaborate with businesses. There are absolutely exceptions to this (people who do ethnographic work within companies, people who work while pursuing a PhD, people whose subject of research, for whatever reason, brings them into contact with business), but in general, the feeling of liberal, lefty academics is (if I may be extremely general):

Capitalism is suspicious
Globalization is extremely suspicious
Anything that is profit-driven is extraordinarily suspicious
Working for a profit-driven company is TREASON.

Obviously, the field I’m in (take your pick: internet studies, cyberculture studies, computer-mediated communication, human-computer interaction, social computing) has more overlap. The best papers in CMC are coming out of both academic and corporate research labs (Microsoft Research and IBM Research both publish lots of good stuff. Google and Yahoo! would do well to do the same). Among the more computer-sciencey people, there is a definite understanding that working with tech companies is necessary, at absolute worst value-neutral, and at best a worthy career goal.

But then there are plenty of people in my hybrid, interdisciplinary field who are not sciencey or even social-sciency, people with cultural studies backgrounds, anthropologists, ethnographers, English majors, and whatnot. I myself have an undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies and my background is in feminist, queer, and postcolonial theory. (And I threw away a nebulous future in non-profits to work for dot.coms back in the day, which changed my life and enabled me to parlay my geeky girl interest in tech into an actual career.) But I really do enjoy working in the corporate world.

I have worked in tech companies since 1995. I move around a lot, and I do a lot of freelance, so I’ve worked (off and on) for something like 15 different companies in those 10 years. In the last three-four years, working has become infinitely more fun as I am now more on the consulting-about-user-practice end of the equation than the manage-a-bunch-of-minor-accounts-because-you’re-the-junior-PM end. I still consult for tech companies. It keeps me absolutely current on what’s going on in the industry, I love bouncing tech ideas off technical people, and it’s nice to be basically paid for interesting research that informs not only my work, but the possible actual design of a real life project.

Now I don’t have any sort of ambivalence about this. I don’t have some sort of misguided liberal guilt, and I don’t think I’m working for Big Evil or anything like that. But I do think that the humanities needs to take a long, hard look at their attitudes towards corporations.

I am definitely not saying that academics should all go get corporate jobs. I am much happier in the academy than I was at many of my jobs, and I think that many academics do not have the personality types that would make working in the corporate world fun for them. What I am saying is that academics who are studying ANYTHING even REMOTELY related to business, consumption, media, consumerism, globalization, and the like need to UNDERSTAND how business and marketing work, and the best way to do that is to actually get to know the people who work in these companies.

Obviously there are barriers to actually doing research on companies. Very few upstart tech companies are going to let some enthusiastic anthropology grad student sniff around their offices gathering data and interviewing people without an NDA (and hence making any data unpublishable). Media scholars usually end up working on niche media, independent media, underground/pirate media (or the reception end) at least partly because the military-industrial-entertainment complex does not smile kindly on infiltrators, seeing as they are paranoid about negative press.

I have been reading a lot of production ethnographies lately (about the production of public television and foreign news, respectively) and they are really helping me complicate my ideas of media. I would LOVE to see people take on similar projects with regards to other types of products – fashion companies, food companies, toy companies — and of course, software/internet companies.

I am not actually terribly well-versed in this literature so for all I know there is a lot of it, but the corporate/business histories I see tend to be of the Soul of a New Machine variety (AMAZING uber classic nerd book, Tracey Kidder, pick it up NOW off half.com if you haven’t read it), which are great, but don’t approach the business world with the same overarching rigour that I think a really excellent sociologist/anthropologist would do.

I guess it comes down to “what is the OVERALL leftist academic project”? If it is this fantasy of de-modernity which assumes we dismantle global capitalism, well, that’s very nice and certainly has some well-intentioned people behind it with big ideas, but it is NOT HAPPENING. My fantasy of leftist academia is “reform global capitalism to make it human-centric, ethical, and ecological.” Yeah, right, that’s going to happen. But at least it gives us something to work incrementally towards, rather than trapping us in the nihilistic modernity cycle once again.

(Boy, all this modernity stuff sure has me going, right? Tomorrow I swear I will blog about nothing but WHY NICK SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN KICKED OFF PROJECT RUNWAY, BECAUSE SANTINO IS A JERK, and why Time Warner cable internet service is the worst service EVER and should be fined a zillion dollars for making it really hard to download the episodes of Grey’s Anatomy I haven’t seen me miserable. )


On Modernity and Media

Posted: February 15th, 2006 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

I apologize for my quietitude. I have been out of town for two weekends, caught a cold, and have been battling my endless battle with Time Warner over our internet service.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a whole lot lately is the Blade Runner effect, where we see into the (speculated) future and it looks shockingly different than today. This is obviously because we don’t see the increments of change. For example, if, ten years ago, you made a film filled with trek-like Bluetooth earpieces, pho places on every street, MySpace microcelebrities, YouTube video memes, and people trolling used book sales with Treos & bar code readers (to check up-to-the-minute alibris prices), it would have seemed like science fiction. We get the gee-whiz factor with early technology, and by the time it trickles down the long tail, we are used to it and have moved on to the next point.

***

I’ve been reading a lot on modernism and media lately which I guess has me re-evaluating a lot of my presuppositions. We tend to see the world in a very black-and-white way, and we tend to place overarching narratives over events. The Story of Modernity goes like this: A bunch of authentic, local cultures (local = making things with your hands and being outside a lot and having strong family ties and a sense of identity) have been replaced by with the ravacious consumerism of late modernity (actor here is Western capitalism). Our identities are fragmented and no longer fixed, so we turn to stuff like TV, fundamentalism, dogma, religion, and patriotism to give our lives meaning.

That’s a compelling story. It has a narrative arc, it explains things, and it has Good Guys and Bad Guys. And I think most of us believe it in some way or another. Which leaves many people feeling vaguely guilty about being on the wrong side of globalization, that they consume too much, and that they don’t really have a sense of who they should be, and buying things doesn’t make up for that.

But it’s a little too simplistic to see the world like that. First, it assumes that “late capitalism” is a Western invention entirely, whereas “globalization” as it exists today has had contributions from many other countries, cultures, and entities (example A: China. Example B: Pho, manga, Nintendo. Cultural flow is not one way). Second, it assumes that our current culture is deficient in comparison to what came before it. Third, it assumes that media (insert your favorite globalization symbol here) automatically corrupts cultures that were somehow “pure”, and that people in those cultures don’t incorporate media consuming/making into their lives in different and interesting ways.

Obviously there are things that I do feel are very problematic in this world (and I am not trying to celebrate Western consumerism one bit). But feeling the guilt of modernity does nothing to change that and it just feeds into post-modern identity nihilism which basically says “Give up, it’s all been done, it’s all over”. But I don’t think that’s true at all. I think most people are very active consumers and producers, and I think that modernity guilt is leading to this mythologization of the “authentic”, leading to stuff like the wedding/baby hysteria of the last decade in an attempt to harken back to some mythical 50′s “family traditions” which, for most people, didn’t exist in the first place.

Back to my point: globalization is a two-way street. America is no longer the top of the heap. I think worrying about the Westernization of the world is a little passe. We definitely need to continue checking multinational corporations, particularly with regard to egregious human rights abuses and environmental degredation, but I want to see people complicating these models. I especially would like for people to actually study what social practices people are DOING when they consume media, rather than talking about TV zombies and force-fed commercials and blah blah.

***

Recommended essay: Daniel Miller, “Anthropology, modernity, and consumption.” Worlds Apart: Modernity Through the Prism of the Local, Routledge 1995, (1-22). (Can’t find PDF, sorry!)


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