the culture and values of social media

links for 2007-07-27

Posted: July 27th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: internet culture | 1 Comment »

continous partial social awareness

Posted: July 26th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: communication, delicious, internet culture, media theory | 3 Comments »

Drifting through my infoverse this week has been the phrase “what if the signal is the noise?” I can’t figure out where it was first coined, unfortunately, as I couldn’t find it in Google, del.icio.us (where I believe I first encountered it) or Technorati. (Plz help.)

Anyway, I’m ignoring “real work” this morning in favor of catching up with my del.icio.us bookmarks and Google Reader items while monitoring Twitter, Pounce and Gmail. There is usually a pretty decent signal-to-noise ratio with these mechanisms, because my friends and I tend to have somewhat similar interests. My del.icio.us network is heavily tipped towards other people investigating or studying social media, for example, and my Twitter friends tend to post memes that I enjoy. But this still assumes that the importance is the “noise” in the “signal”, finding the “importance” in the big cloud of links, comments, reviews, memes, essays, YouTube videos, etc. that we’re all confronted with daily.

For example, in the last hour I:
- Checked my LJ friends list
–Watched the new Kanye West Video based on a friend’s LJ post
— and posted a comment on the interplay of black and white culture on the LJ of my friend who posted the Kanye West video, based on a book (“The History of Hip”) that I’m reading
–Checked out the “Way of the Awesome” blog
–Read danah’s new essay responding to comments on her Facebook/MySpace issue, and thought very briefly about the class implications of my status project and how to best integrate class analysis into the proposal; then thought about how tired I am of the privileging of quantitative data and how many shoddy quantitative studies there are; then contemplated blogging about that, then decided it would not be in my best interests
-Checked Twitter
–Read through Metroblogging LA’s “famous fictional Los Angelenos” (and was happy to see Weetzie Bat AND Hiro Protagonist on there. Love!)
-Checked Pownce
–Found out that there’s a third leaked episode of Weeds pre-air on the torrents
–Made mental note to download it later while I’m making lunch
-Checked del.icio.us
–Noted that Fred had tagged my blog post on Echo Chambers from yesterday

.. and so forth and so on. I bet each of you reading this could put a similar chart together, maybe even in Visio if you’re real geeks. The web is hypertextual. It’s about linking and exploration. It’s not about linearity. It’s more like a game than a causal journey. It’s about leaving pages, learning about things, returning to places where you started, discovering new things, getting distracted. This is the antithesis of what we think of as “work”.

The “what if the signal is the noise” post/essay/blog seemed to be about how all the ephemeral social data we collect from blogs, LiveJournal, Twitter, dodgeball, Pownce, Facebook’s feed, etc. IS the point of all these applications. We don’t check del.icio.us so that we can get a neatly organized list of what’s important. We want to see what kinds of ideas are gaining currency and what people are talking about, to connect to a larger community. I was trying to explain to someone the other day that LiveJournal, for me, is about knowing that my friends are there, that we are co-present, even if we’re not talking. It is the location of self in a larger context that is the antithesis of the alienating internet.

But I also think that consuming all of these small, little pieces of data (music videos, microblogs) is part of gathering data to inform our views of the world. The Kanye West video gave me another example to think through a book that I’m reading. Skimming my del.icio.us network links list enables me to see what my peers are thinking about in terms of social software. So it’s not just connection and location but using hundreds or thousands of sources to build up pictures of things or ideas about things or philosophies or paradigms. My boyfriend reads tons of economics blogs every day. I mostly read blogs about social software, fashion, and consumerism. All the data we consume over the period of a day influences our overall outlook. It keeps us sharp and constantly changing.

Is this an overly optimistic view of meme-land? Of Wired’s snack-size info-bits? Perhaps. And I am probably in the minority of infojunkies in that I also read lots of lengthy essays and books as well, which sometimes means I have no idea what the latest, coolest idea is. But there’s something about this idea of the “infocloud” which creates an almost osmotic understanding of certain concepts. This doesn’t substitute for traditional knowledge or learning, but it is another form of it, perhaps “continuous partial social awareness”? With apologies to Linda Stone, and thanks to Tantek Çelik who I had a great conversation with about this stuff a few days ago.

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links for 2007-07-25

Posted: July 25th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: internet culture | No Comments »

Gibson Interview: Futurism

Posted: July 24th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: pop culture | 8 Comments »

From BoingBoing, meaning you’ve all seen it already. I cannot WAIT to read Spook Country; Pattern Recognition is one of my very favorite books. I read it in 2003 while obsessing over memetics, copyright, and wifi, right before I went back to school, and it had some sort of weird long-term effect on me. This new one sounds ultra-rad. Here’s a lengthy interview with the man himself, who is getting better as he gets older.

Amazon.com: One thing that struck me about Spook Country is that in a way it’s like the future is living alongside the recent past. It seems like some of the characters in the book live in the future and some of them don’t. There’s this moment when Milgrim is flying on the Gulfstream, this private jet, and he feels like, “Oh, this is how it works, some of the people–”

Gibson: Yeah, absolutely.

Amazon.com: Some of the people live in the future and some of them slip back and forth in the space of a day.

Gibson: One of the things that I’ve found poignant, particularly poignant about that, and it’s kind of a spooky thing, is that most people alive today are never going to see the inside of a Gulfstream. They’re never going to be inside one of those and go for a ride on it. And somehow, I don’t know, that seems heartbreaking to me. Not that it’s that big a deal, but it’s one of those things where you go, okay, this is a divide. We have all of these details about all these lives: which of these people get to go on the private jet? You have this really small subset of people, most of whom do it all the time, which is even stranger.

This reminds me of another Coupland quote (boy, I’m in a 90s mood today) in Shampoo Planet, where a character says that he’d be fine if the entire world slipped back into the Dark Ages, but would absolutely flip out if he saw a jet flying overhead while he was mucking out his pigsty. The idea of a cadre of the ultra-rich surviving at the expense of everyone else is a trope of all types of dystopic fiction and it’s something that produces a thrill of absolute horror in me. So there’s private jets and there’s, like, email; what’s the divide on the latter? What “counts” as living in the future? Aren’t the megacity slums of Rio or Lagos also the future? Do we only want to see the future as positive? And why are nerds all so obsessed with the future anyway?

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SF Datacenter Outage = Echo Chamber Proof

Posted: July 24th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: anthropology, internet culture | 2 Comments »

So there was a big power outage in downtown San Francisco today and as a result the South Park neighborhood is out of power. Eh, you say? Well, South Park is well known for being the heart of Web 2.0 startups: Technorati, SixApart, Craigslist, Yelp, Satisfaction, Wallop, etc. are all headquartered within a five block radius of each other. A big datacenter/colo has failed as a result of the power outage and so many of these sites are down.

I’m doing fieldwork for my status project here in SF, and it’s amazing how closely connected all the startups are. This may seem immensely obvious to any geek who works at one of them, but as someone who (as closely connected as I may be) lives in NY, where startup culture just isn’t the same, it’s very clear that the Web 2.0 world is in many ways a provincial one. People who work on Web 2.0 hang out together, go to the same parties, date each other, know the same people, collaborate on projects, start companies together, and talk about technology together (this includes many bloggers, academics studying social media, etc.). This has several effects:

1. It normalizes what is really edge case/early adopter behavior, like Twitter or del.icio.us
2. It creates assumptions about users based on a primarily white, upper-middle-class San Francisco userbase
3. It encourages people to seek approval from their peer group (e.g. following what’s cool)

People = technologists. Developers = people. The human element of social media creators should never be underestimated. Many (most?) 2.0 startups are created by teams of ~10 people, and many people design for themselves and their friends. Even usability testing, which has become a core part of application development (thank goodness), is often conducted on tech-savvy people. The same with beta testers, who tend to be technology-nerds to whom beta-ing is a status symbol.

When several core 2.0 startups are so closely interconnected that they are all in the same freakin’ neighborhood, it begs the question of what effects this has on the larger social media landscape. Furthermore, many of the movers-and-shakers of 2.0 who aren’t based in SF, the people Dopplr was invented for, people who frequently travel around the country, may be home-based on Florida, New York, or LA, but they still orbit a tiny world of technologists who all know each other. SXSW, foocamp, etc. then become summer/spring camp for this crowd.

I’m not saying this is a terrible thing, etc. etc. There are plenty of studies of tech-heavy not-as-urban neighborhoods like Silicon Valley or Boston’s Route 128 that show that lots of nerds in one place = lots of advantages (good school systems, lots of money going into the neighboring community, etc.- think Redmond, Palo Alto). (Tangent:) As Douglas Coupland wrote in Microserfs in 1994:

The Safeway was completely empty save for us and a few other Microsoft people just like us – hair-trigger geeks in pursuit of just the right snack. Because of all the rich nerds living around here, Redmond and Bellevue are very “on-demand” neighborhoods. Nerds get what they want when they want it, and they go psycho if it’s not immediately available.

And the reason I came to SF in the first place was because this city inspires me and it makes me think deeply about technology in a way that New York does not. BUT: It also overestimates the importance of technology because it is working with a skewed sample of people. It is wonderful here to be a nerd, but it is not at all normal.

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Oh, gossip

Posted: July 23rd, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: pop culture | 10 Comments »

I wrote a really long post about celebrity gossip and its destructive effects, and my blog editor erased it, damnit! I can’t possibly recall the entire thing, but my main points are as follows.

Point 1: Celebrity gossip encourages public scrutiny of women’s bodies

One of the major pastimes of gossip magazines, websites, and TV shows is critiquing celebrity women’s bodies in great detail (excellent example from the Superficial, see also any tabloid cover where there’s a “Diet Secret” or “Diet Winners or Losers” or “Best Bikini Beach Body” or whatever). Many people claim that this is empowering and a way for average women to see that celebrities are imperfect, thereby subverting the mainstream discourse that says celebrities are beautiful, perfect role models.

I maintain that this is a total fallacy. First, the dissection of celebrity women’s bodies is just part of an overall social practice of policing the bodies of regular women (e.g. catcalling in public spaces, fatphobic comments voiced inappropriately, young women’s bodies always being the spaces where public anxiety over sexuality is read, etc.). Second, if you read the comments sections on gossip blogs, you’ll see that for the most part people use celebrity bodies as a way to denigrate women’s bodies in general and uphold the mainstream, unrealistic standard of beauty. Viz. to wit:

“hey fat bitches no those are not curves those are fat rolls, and u dont have to starve yourself to be thin but you have to get your lazy but up and do something called exercise..but you fat Americans are too lazy to exercise that’s why your average 20 year old looks like a 40 year old who’s had 3 kids…” and “there are so many fat stay at home moms who come on here to satisfy their low self esteem fat asses by praising fatties like J-Love…newsflash her weight is not healthy, fat is not healthy, muscle is..but you wouldn’t know what a muscle is since your exercise routine consists of walking from a couch to a fridge to stuff your fat mouths with junk food..”

Yeah, that’s really empowering! And so different from the dominant discourse that a woman’s worth is her weight.

Point 2: Celebrity gossip encourages behavior that is vapid and shallow

This really doesn’t need to be emphasized any more, does it? Not only do most mainstream celebs seem to inhabit some sort of clubbing/shopping otherworld where reality barely exists, this is presented as something aspirational. Ergo, demonstrating intelligence at anything other than matching your cute clutch to your cute shoes is a no-no. The best example of this is MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen, which I’ve seen three seasons of so feel qualified to comment on. The girls and boys on that show are emulating celebrity behavior to the absolute best of their ability, which involves being dim-witted, obsessing over outfits, demonstrating enormous ego, throwing money around, showing a sense of intense entitlement and positioning oneself as an object, complete with catch phrase / nickname, etc.

In media studies, there is what’s known as the “Magic Bullet Theory”, the long-since-discounted theory from the 1950s that media acts as a “magic bullet” on people, turning them into sheepish dolts or “cultural dupes.” I’m not saying teens are so stupid that they’ll turn on the television, see a picture of Paris Hilton on MTV and start emulating her every move.

But celebrities are given 100% more air time than computer nerds, artists, people with interesting hobbies, young people devoted to charity work, intellectuals, etc., making those types of behaviors far less prevalent and therefore seen as far less worthy. I think young athletes can be good role models, at least the ones who aren’t abusing drugs and engaging in spousal battery, but Paris Hilton and her ilk are, simply, not. And doing stuff like publicly snorting cocaine and dropping trou for the paparazzi isn’t something that should be celebrated. And face it, fame is so emphasized that being on a cover of a magazine, even if it’s for being a skanky, bad role model, is still seen as something to emulate. Paris has taught us that and MySpace proves it.

Furthermore, I think that Sweet Sixteen was originally intended to be a sort of cautionary morality tale, like, immerse our kids in narcissistic fame culture and see what happens, but now it is positioned as fully something to aim for. See the MTV-created Sweet Sixteen social networking site.

Point 3: Celebrity gossip has a very conservative system of morality

It reminds me of soap operas, where True Love is always with someone you’ve known since your teens and if you sleep with someone, you’re engaged to them. Heterosexuality is totally normative (and closets are kept firmly closed as to not alienate publicists, except on the smaller blogs) and there’s a crazy obsession with marriage and babies even at super young ages. Furthermore, the marriage/babies scenarios are completely romanticized in a very 50′s, teen dream type of way, contributing to both the out-of-control average-30K wedding industry and the acquisitive yuppie parent lifestyle/Yoga supermom trope.

There is almost zero discussion of any kind of lifestyle except the most idealized.

Point 4: Celebrity gossip normalizes extreme wealth

…which in turn makes middle-class lifestyles seem poverty stricken, and truly low-income people are just written out of existence. All of popular culture does this, but the emphasis on price tags in celeb gossip (like “The Fabulous Life Of..” series on VH1) makes it a solid contributor to the problem.

This also contributes to the idea that poverty is a personal failure and that people who are poor are so because they’re lazy or don’t work hard, rather than addressing systemic or endemic causes.

(And very little of this wealth is redistributed, Brangelina notwithstanding.)

Point 5: It’s very, very seductive

It’s a distraction from the suckiness of current events, from one’s own problems and one’s own life. It’s everywhere. It requires absolutely zero brain power. I did a project last year where I was asked to find four issues of People magazine, one from 1976, one from 1986, one from 1996 and one from 2006. I was absolutely stunned to find that the People of 1976 had full-on lengthy political essays and social commentary and that the People of 1986 featured a really wide array of people, focusing more on people in the news than celebrities. By 2006 it was almost content-free, just a lot of pictures of people wearing dresses and a few human-interest stories here and there.

I detoxified from the tabloids two years ago, and now when I find myself reading more than one gossip blog a day, I know it’s procrastination and I have to settle down to work. But the underlying sexism and mean-spiritedness of gossip and its extreme popularity really bothers me. I know that the hate and vitriol heaped on celebrities is a backlash from the 1990s-early 00′s glossy celebrity profile/total PR lies masquerading as fact /Pat-Kingsley-power-PR period– blogs and message boards let people read between the lines, trying to find out “the truth”. That’s the appeal of blind items as well. I remember reading the long-deceased Fametracker when Mariah Carey had her mental breakdown and learning about the realities of her mental illness and subsequent treatment rather than the “exhaustion” that was being parroted on television. But gossip ends up, more often than not, being used as a way to hammer the most extreme, sexist conservative value system into everyone’s heads, 24/7. It’s exhausting and I’m tired of it.


Link roundup for July 23, 2007

Posted: July 23rd, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: delicious | No Comments »
Overly focused on anime but otherwise cool and entertaining list of TV cliches, tropes and traditional storyline/character arcs.

Large collection of social theory/cultural theory essays from a British perspective.


links for 2007-07-21

Posted: July 21st, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: internet culture | No Comments »

Link roundup for July 20, 2007

Posted: July 20th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: delicious | No Comments »
Excellent list of dissertation/thesis research fellowships.

Requires dissertation proposal to be approved.


Status panel for SXSW

Posted: July 19th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: academia, internet culture, social media | 3 Comments »

I’m proposing a status in social media panel for SXSW Interactive 2008 (I spoke at 2007 and had a ball). Here’s my 50-word summary:

“I’m Internet Famous”: Status in Social Media

Do technologists focus on what’s cool, rather than what’s useful? Does geek chic create an echo chamber? Is Web 2.0 an insider’s game? This session explores status symbols in social media worlds (online reputation, net.celebrity, elite conferences, beta invites), inviting critical thinking about status, class, and elitism.

Right now I’m thinking I’d ideally have the following panelists:

  • Someone from a super-trendy startup like Pownce, Twitter, I’mInLikeWithYou
  • Someone who works for a very successful “outsider” company – something that’s not considered cool, but makes money from social media
  • Someone who organizes/attended/attends foocamp, TED, eTech, etc.
  • Academics working on internet memes, reputation mechanisms, eBay, “friending” strategies
  • An actual “internet celebrity”
  • Members of particular communities that have specific types of status mechanisms, such as warez, crafting, fandom, etc. who can talk about those in depth

If you fall into any of these categories, or have a suggestion for someone who does, please post in the comments!

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