#creativecitizens keynote: slides and speaking notes

I’ve had a wonderful time in an unseasonably sunny London this week, which has included a keynote presentation at the Creative Citizens conference at the Royal College of Art. As promised, below are the slides and speaker notes from my presentation, which covers the relationship between everyday creativity, citizenship, and digital media platforms over the past ten years or so.

Overview

From the beginning of my academic career up to now I have been investigating the way digital media is changing the face of cultural participation and public communication.

A decade ago when I started, in that early heyday of the ‘web 2.0’ and ‘participatory culture’, we looked to blogs, to image-sharing, to community-based digital storytelling workshops as ways that everyday creativity might find its audiences, and that ordinary people might find each other in ways that had not been possible on such a widespread and visible scale before.

I theorised that everyday, personal uses of digital media might be the key to participation in interest, issue and identity based publics.

My theoretical and ethical orientation was grounded in cultural studies, especially its approach to everyday and popular culture; and therefore my cultural citizenship definitions emphasised everyday, personal, even mundane practices of creativity like storytelling, photosharing, scrapbooking, graffiti, skateboarding, cooking or gardening – practices I collectively called ‘vernacular creativity’ – and the way these may serve to connect individuals and communities in the service of broader civic goals.

Coming from this distinctive disciplinary background, I can draw out some complementary and competing meanings of creative citizenship with respect to digital and social media specifically.

  1. Creative and collaborative approaches to solving civic challenges, using digital and social media; that is, creative ways of being citizenly – using digital media to organise and promote the community garden; the development of crowdsourced crisis maps on the fly
  2. Creativity that, through its enactment, visibility and connectedness in digital media contexts, enables certain modes of civic engagement as an often unintended consequence; that is, the civic benefits of creative participation – getting involved in an international community gardening association formed as a result of gardening and locavore food bloggers finding each other online
  3. Citizenship understood as the rights and responsibilities toward creative communities of which one is a member (e.g. a good citizen of the music scene; a good ‘netizen’ – or, being a citizen of digital media – what would that look like?)

Bearing in mind that creative citizenship, like all modes of group identification, can work to exclude as well as include; and that trolls and bullies can be fairly creative in their uses of digital media too.

The Web 2.0 Moment

The Web 2.0 ‘moment’ of the early to mid 2000s was a key period of optimism for creative citizenship and digital media understood in these ways. The Web 2.0 moment saw the rise of automated blogging software like Blogger and Movable Type, the widespread take-up of these tools, and the broader idea of Web 2.0 services focused on providing platforms for user-created content and connectivity – the barriers to participation in digital culture were now much lower, but participation was still very far from population-wide. This was a moment of artisinal, DIY creative citizenship, but still really the domain of the digerati not the masses.

But there was still a strong sense that the rules and roles of culture were changing. The academic field of research around participatory culture was marked by debates for and against the cultural and social value of user-created content. There were some early concerns raised about free labour in the context of proprietary platforms, but the market in user data, the algorithmic turn were largely yet to come, or at least they hardly registered for most of these critics.

The Social Media Moment
Fast forward to the end of that first decade of the 20th century, and I think we arrive at a different kind of moment, structured by a different set of relationships between the tech industry, the user, and culture – one that I have been calling the platform paradigm.

Indeed, returning to my third model, that of being a citizen of digital media, we might even think of platforms as in some ways analogous to city states – Mark Zuckerberg was infamously called the Sultan of Facebookistan in the media at one stage – but perhaps that’s stretching civic metaphors too far.

A crucial element of this work I have been doing is trying to understand the ‘digital’ elements of social media platforms as material elements, and understanding platforms as co-created. Unevenly and undemocratically co-created, but co-created nonetheless. it is through the interactions between all this ‘stuff’ that platforms are constituted, and that they do things; all these elements are co-influential in what each platform is and can be used for.

I do not think it hyberbolic to say that a very great deal of social life at the micro and macro level has become entangled with digital media – cf Mark Deuze’s book Media Life.

This moment is one characterized by the new ubiquity, legitimisation and normalisation of social media. Even in contexts where the penetration of digital devices is still growing, these dominant platforms will be inextricably part of the digital media ecology for new users – through the Facebook phone, the embedding of Google services into Android phones, and so on.

And the global shift to mobile media greatly extends the meaning of ‘ubiquity’ into our workplaces, our homes, schools, our pockets, and with the rise of wearables, the datafication of even our bodies.

And with the new ubiquity comes the new legitimacy – social media is part of the communicative infrastructure of global society now. And at key points social media has quite visibly been legitimated by government and community uses for practical purposes in undeniably serious situations like the 2011 Queensland Floods. Research has aided this legitimation process by doing large-scale data driven research only made possible by access to the Twitter API, which is really intended for commercial third-party development; and access to such data is a highly controversial and politicised issue right now.

The mainstreaming of social media platforms like Twitter has made possible communities of interest like agchat oz. Weekly Twitter Q&A sessions use the #agchatoz hashtag to capture discussions of interest to the self-identifying agricultural community, ranging from personal issues such as succession planning and rural mental health, to work matters including sustainable farming methods and how to manage natural disasters, as well as more public concerns such as animal welfare and live export. Most discussions solicit a range of perspectives from producers, consumers, scientists, journalists and other professionals; sometimes discussions connect to other issues and their hashtags (like #banliveexport for the issue of animal welfare in the meat industry), thereby causing a collision of constituencies. …not to mention #felfies (short for farm selfies) – which are perhaps an instance of what Lance Bennett calls personalised inclusive collectivity – where the #felfie meme is doing network-building work as well as self-representation for global rural citizens.

And social media has its own popular cultures that support practices of what John Hartley has called silly citizenship – memes, viral culture of the web (Shifman), which are a vital part of political discourse today – where by political I mean both Big P and small p politics (e.g. gender and sexuality issues). The David Cameron on the phone to Barack Obama meme-fest is a great example of this – it is silly and funny but also enacts a strong critique of the contemporary mediatization of politics and the dominance of superficial PR over political communication.

Competing Futures

But despite or even simultaneously with all this flourishing of activity, the affordances of the dominant platforms we associate with social media have changed in complex ways that at least according to some critics, do support mass take-up in the service of business interests, but may not support user creativity and innovation as they once did. (Always bearing in mind the counter-example of the Kodak camera, which created a mass market via the enclosure and automation of key aspects of the photographic process, but at the same time opened up access to photographic production to the masses).

I do think there have been some significant shifts in the way that users and their agency are being repositioned as these platforms grow and mature and seek profit ever more urgently as the venture capital runs out – and here I use the shorthand ‘the self and the world’ to think about the axes along which this repositioning occurs.

and as these platforms evolve and the technical means to advertise and market to us become ever more sophisticated, our experiences of them are ever more heavily mediated by the corporate interests of these platforms – even when the corporate interest is to serve us content we perceive as ‘relevant’, keeping us coming back for more.

How then do the politics of platforms, data ownership and access, the algorithmic turn, filter bubble, advertising-driven etc affect the creative citizen?
e.g. FB newsfeed algorithm might mean that organisations increasingly need to pay to get messages through such channels; and there are pretty serious consequence for global citizenship of the tendency of these platforms to encourage us to associate with and consume the content of people who we like and who are like us, as this visualization by Gilad Lotan of hashtag co-occurrence in Instagram images associated with the Gaza conflict shows.

Provocations: the Digital Creative Citizen

I conclude with some suggestions about how digitally native strategies and tactics for engaging in social media platforms might become part of the apparatus of community-based creative citizenship initiatives as well:

1. Exploit social media logics with playful and ‘silly’ citizenship
2. Adopt adaptive, multi-platform strategies & avoid delegating everything to one or two platforms
3. Develop critical engagement with platforms and their cultures as part of digital creative citizenship

Read More

#asmc14 paper: Hashtag as hybrid forum: the case of #agchatoz

I’m posting this from the University of Amsterdam, where we are now well into the final day of a fantastic three-day conference called Social Media and the Transformation of Public Space. We have quite a gang of participants here from the QUT Social Media Research Group, and we’ll collect all our papers up and post them over at that website soon, but in the meantime here are the slides and notes from my paper (co-authored with Theresa Sauter). It’s the first public outing of new work I’ve been doing in collaboration with Theresa and also Anne Galloway, which will come out in due course as part of a book project that Nathan Rambukkana is putting together for Peter Lang (the book has the working title ‘Hashtag Publics’).

Speaker Notes

Introduction
This paper proceeds on the basis that contemporary publics are emergent – that is, they are constituted through their involvement with mediated issues and events, rather than pre-existing as a ‘public sphere’ (Marres, 2012; Warner, 2005). Digital media platforms and practices are influencing both the nature of such publics and the means through which they engage in issues (Papacharissi, 2010; Bruns & Burgess, 2011); at the same time, digital methods present significant new opportunities, not only to understand but also to improve this situation (Rogers, 2013).

Hashtag studies
Hashtags are often used to focus empirical research on the dynamics of public communication in Twitter, on a range of traditional topics extending from elections to natural disasters and television audiences (Bruns & Burgess, 2011; Bruns & Stieglitz, 2012; Deller, 2011). Indeed, the current proliferation of data-driven research on Twitter within media & communication studies has led to a saturation of what we might call ‘hashtag studies’.

… While the choice to focus on hashtag-based discussions has largely been driven by a combination of methodological convenience and the constraints on access to Twitter data,

there is still room to consider the performative role of the hashtag in materially shaping and coordinating public communication on specific issues, within and across social media platforms. However, most of the scholarship on hashtags has considered them as mere communicative markers.

SO: Hashtags enable, shape and coordinate the emergence, connectivity and mutual awareness of ad hoc publics (see also Bruns and Burgess 2011) outside of their participants’ individual networks of followers.

Bruns and Stieglitz (2011) differentiate between three different types of hashtags: ad hoc ones, which emerge “in response to breaking news or other unforeseen events”; recurring ones, which users employ to contribute repeatedly to a certain topic (such as the #agchatoz which we investigate in this chapter); and praeter hoc ones, which relevant organisations predetermine and encourage users to adopt when tweeting about a particular event, such as a conference or TV show.

Bruns and Moe (2013) further distinguish between topical and non-topical hashtags. They suggest that topical hashtags are used to contribute to a discussion on a particular topic. These can be long-standing themes (e.g. #auspol), backchannels to TV events (e.g. #masterchef) or reactions to particular issues or events (#royalwedding). Non-topical hashtags are emotive markers, such as #facepalm or #fail and can be applied to any type of tweet. Hashtags are highly generative, malleable and replicable in cultural terms.

Hashtags as hybrid forums
This paper focuses specifically on how some (but not all) hashtags can be understood as what Michel Callon, in the context of technology and society, has called ‘hybrid forums’:

Forums because they are open spaces where groups can come together to discuss technical options involving the collective, hybrid because the groups involved and the spokespersons claiming to represent them are heterogeneous, including experts, politicians, technicians, and laypersons who consider themselves involved. They are also hybrid because the questions and problems taken up are addressed at different levels in a variety of domains. (Callon, Lascoumes & Barthe, 2001:18)

Here, in exploring the possible forms and forums of ‘technical democracy’ e.g. in relation to nuclear power or genetically modified food, Callon is discussing rather more formalised and more recognisably institutional spaces – indeed the traditional institutions and fora of democracy – than social media, but this is precisely where digital methods applied to social media platforms have much to offer.
To this definition, we would add that they are also markedly hybrid today because they take place within a complex media environment centred around social media platforms, whose volatile dynamics, material features and competing business models also need to be taken into account.

#agchatoz
The case study for this paper is #agchatoz, a persistent and recurring Twitter hashtag with at least some of the characteristics of a ‘hybrid forum’ understood in this way. A local variant on the original US-based #agchat farmer advocacy or “agvocacy” Twitter community, #agchatoz originally had a mission to “raise the profile of Australian agriculture by shining a light on the leading issues that affect the industry and the wider community.” Weekly Twitter Q&A sessions use the #agchatoz hashtag to capture discussions of interest to the self-identifying agricultural community, ranging from personal issues such as succession planning and rural mental health, to work matters including sustainable farming methods and how to manage natural disasters, as well as more public concerns such as animal welfare and live export. Most discussions solicit a range of perspectives from producers, consumers, scientists, journalists and other professionals; sometimes discussions connect to other issues and their hashtags (like #banliveexport for the issue of animal welfare in the meat industry), thereby causing a collision of constituencies.

A survey of the most-shared URLs over six months on the hashtag gives an indication of the kinds of topical coverage. From agvocacy…

…including organised lobbying…

…to deliberative democratic engagement with high stakes environmental issues affecting farming and rural communities, like coal seam gas exploration…

…creating at times some counter-intuitive alliances between the urban left and the rural right….

…and even the Greens….

….while much of the tenor of the conversation frames the hashtag as an opportunity to bypass media stereotypes and have a voice in national debate, there is also a fair bit of antagonism towards a perceived uninformed city-dwelling culture who insufficiently value the role of agribusiness in Australia’s society and economy.

…and there are some dramatic collisions of opposing viewpoints and organised political groups on issues like animal welfare/animal rights.

…not to mention #felfies!

So #agchatoz, we argue, is a hybrid forum in the ways we described above, borrowing from and extending on Callon.
a generative site of speculative examples
a topical area not so familiar in media and communication studies, which tends to be more interested in politics, culture, and media in themselves
how can digital methods be used to discover issues and their publics, rather than researching already-known ones?

[refer here to the data slides, which for now have to more or less speak for themselves]

Conclusion
As we move forward with this project, digital methods combined with close regular observation allow us to go well beyond noting the loudest voices and dominant themes and attempt to trace the full diversity of stakeholder and non-stakeholder perspectives, substantive issues and topical diversions that come together within the #agchatoz forum. We argue that such an approach can help to tease out the complexity and diversity of issues of concern to and generative of publics. It is therefore important also to develop modes of performing such research in public, such that we reflexively and explicitly engage the publics forming around these issues.

References
Bruns, A. & Burgess, J. (2011). The use of Twitter hashtags in the formation of ad hoc publics. In 6th European Consortium for Political Research General Conference, 25 – 27 August 2011, University of Iceland, Reykjavik.

Bruns, A. and Moe, H. 2013. “Structural Layers of Communication on Twitter.” In Twitter and Society edited by K. Weller, A. Bruns, J. Burgess, M. Mahrt & C. Puschmann, 15-28. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Bruns, A., & Stieglitz, S. (2012). Quantitative approaches to comparing communication patterns on Twitter. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 30(3-4), 160-185.

Callon, M., Lascoumes, P., Barth, Y. (2001). Acting in an Uncertain World. An Essay on Technical Democracy. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England. (Translated by Graham Burchell).

Deller, R. (2011). Twittering On: Audience Research and Participation Using Twitter. Participations 8(1). http://www.participations.org/Volume%208/Issue%201/deller.htm

Halavais, A. 2013. “Structure of Twitter: Social and Technical. ” In Twitter and Society edited by K. Weller, A. Bruns, J. Burgess, M. Mahrt & C. Puschmann, 29-42. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Marres, N. (2012). Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics. London: Palgrave.

Papacharissi, Z. (2010). A private sphere: Democracy in a digital age. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Rogers, R. (2013). Digital methods. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ruppert, Evelyn, John Law and Mike Savage. 2013. “Reassembling Social Science Methods: The Challenge of Digital Devices.“ Theory, Culture & Society 30(4): 22-46.

Warner, M. (2005). Publics and Counterpublics. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

Read More

locked-twitter

Twitter set to release all tweets to scientists? Not exactly.

This Scientific American article with the headline Twitter to Release All Tweets to Scientists has been circulating around our favourite microblogging platform recently, creating a mixture of “could it be true?”-style excitement and alarm. The article picks up on a discussion of the ethics of using ‘big data’ from Twitter for research prompted by this ethical framework for Twitter research [pdf] published by a couple of epidemiologists, hinting that these issues (which are already very much alive in the internet research community, by the way) are about to explode as Twitter opens up access to its full archive of tweets to scientists everywhere. If this news were true, it certainly would be a game-changer.

Unfortunately, not only isn’t it true, but it isn’t news either. Twitter has made no such announcement recently. And as you can clearly see at the bottom of the piece, it was originally published under the title “Twitter opens its cage”; in added weirdness it was forward dated to 1 June although re-published in May. I don’t know what’s going on at Scientific American, but my interpretation (along with others) is that the original article was published in February as a secondary response to the announcement of the Twitter Data Grants program. The original announcement and call was in February, resulting in thousands of submissions, with the 6 winners announced in April. The data grants scheme – small-scale at least for now – may represent a trial for future scientific access, but it is also nice PR for Twitter’s recent acquisition of data retail company Gnip, which, like competitor DataSift profits from the commercially legitimated trade in access to ‘big social data’ from a range of social media platforms, but especially Twitter.

So while Twitter data is incredibly useful to a wide range of academic disciplines, it has become really hard to get access to it at scale without a lot of money or specialist infrastructure. As Twitter data has become monetizable, open API access to it has been choked, not only for marketers but for scientists and not-for-profits (e.g crisis mapping organisations) as well. I’ve previously written about this with my German colleague Cornelius Puschmann in our paper The Politics of Twitter Data.

So a more accurate title for the Scientific American piece would be: “In news that was new half a year ago, Twitter has selected a tiny number of scientific research teams to gain access on a limited basis to historical tweets via the recently acquired data reseller Gnip”. Not so exciting after all.

Read More

My whereabouts, some recent media coverage

I’m writing this from Cambridge (MA, USA; not UK), where I’m a few days into my stint as a Visiting Researcher at Microsoft Research New England. I’m thrilled to be able to spend some quality time with the Social Media group here, including long-time colleagues like Kate Crawford (who has worked with us on our Crisis Communication projects), Nancy Baym, Mary Gray and danah boyd, without a doubt some of the smartest and most collegial social media researchers anywhere. It’s also a very interdisciplinary setting populated by some of the world’s leading computer scientists, mathematicians, and economists. I’m here until mid June, when I’ll return to QUT to continue on as Deputy Director of the CCI as well as taking on a new role as Director of Research Training Programs in the Creative Industries Faculty – so a big, bumper year ahead.

In the meantime, here are a couple of recent media interviews I did and that are still available online (for now).

The first was a live interview on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters program. The story was called Your ‘Posts for Profit’, and this is the ABC’s summary:

There are millions upon millions of Twitter posts every day, a vast source of information for businesses and marketers. Access to this massive stream of data is sold by Twitter to those that can afford to buy it. But should it also be available to non-profit organisations for research purposes, and what will be the ultimate cost if these types of organisations are shut off from the data stream?

Full recorded audio and transcript available at the Radio National website.

The second is a segment on this week’s Queensland edition of the ABC 7.30 report, taking a look at the 2013 Queensland Floods, and how both community and government uses of social media in such situations have changed over the past few years. The video is available here (as I say, for now).

screen grab from 7.30 report interview

Cross-posted to the Mapping Online Publics blog.

Read More

Who’s @theqldpremier?

So, I’m sure Australian readers will have noticed that some things changed in Queensland over the weekend.

Sometime yesterday I noticed that now ex-Premier Anna Bligh’s Twitter account, @theqldpremier (which had been going great guns, by the way, and props to her for that among many other things), looked all wrong:

There had already been plenty of half-joking speculation as to what was going to happen to the Twitter account. At first, like several other people, I thought that somehow amid the adrenaline rush, sleep deprivation and media frenzy of the election, that Anna Bligh’s team had ceremonially handed over her Twitter account along with the custodianship of the State. Perhaps there was a Social Media Account Handover Policy sitting somewhere in a filing drawer in Parliament House?

Then I dug around a bit and realised that Anna Bligh still had her account (and therefore her history and followers, etc), but had simply changed her username – which is something anyone can do at any time, of course:

But then I thought, hang on. Campbell Newman seems to have taken over the @theqldpremier handle instantly. Automagically, even. Did someone really organise this? Surely his team has better things to do the day after the election? Maybe social media really has arrived.

A wee spot of forensics ensued – it looks like someone (@samueljacksonmp) unconnected with the Newman team noticed the username was free, had the foresight to grab it for himself, and passed it on to the new Premier’s team (who have yet to really do anything with it). I also note that it isn’t a ‘verified’ official account, and never has been I don’t think.

Anyway, here’s some screenshots from my little expedition:

I’ve no way of verifying that this is how it happened, but it makes a lot more sense than the Official Social Media Account Handover Policy theory.

Read More

a (very) short history of social media taglines

Lawson Fletcher has written a very insightful post about a funny little Twitter exchange I had with various people last night, prompted by some observations I made about the way social media taglines have changed over the past 5 years or so. Go over there to see how it all started.

While it was mostly a lot of fun (largely thanks to Kate’s lightning-fast wit and #soylentgreen references) it seems it was also interesting to people, so here’s some thoughts on what is behind my interest in the evolution of social media, via the taglines.

As I said at the time, I think taglines (think YouTube’s ‘broadcast yourself’) are interesting and important: they’re the ‘slogans’ that tell us what the platform owners want us to think platforms are ‘for’; and decisions to change them prompt us to notice what else has changed – the layout of homepages, the weight and usability given to various affordances, and indeed the business models themselves. I’ve been paying attention to these things for a while, beginning with Flickr (in my own PhD), more recently Twitter, and of course YouTube (even more so now that Josh and I are working on a second edition of our book).

My summing-up tweet was:

social media taglines over the past 5 years: from infantile self expression, to narcissistic cosmopolitanism, to networked consumption.

I’ve written about these shifts in the representation of the ‘ideal’ user in relation to the self, to the social network and to ‘the world’ in an as-yet incomplete and unpublished paper, and I’ve pasted an excerpt at the bottom of this post so you can get a sense of my most pointy-headed angle on it.

This afternoon I’ve dug up a few more snapshots of the Twitter homepage using the wayback machine, and here they are. (And by the way, the Wayback Machine is a godsend and an essential resource for tracking the history of the web platforms we use daily and that tend to change incrementally but unnoticed right in front of us.)

September 2006
The tagline (in the page header) was “A Whole World in Your Hands”; and then

“Twitter is for staying in touch and keeping up with friends no matter where you are or what you’re doing.”

September 2007
Tagline: “What are you Doing”; and then

“A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing? Answer on your phone, IM, or right here on the web!”

I haven’t been 100% thorough, but it seems that “What are you doing?” persisted until sometime in 2009, when the landing page looked like this [click to enlarge]:

And now, suddenly:

For those interested, here’s the promised chunk from the unpublished paper that will now have to be completely revised because I think the latest shifts make what I’ve said pretty anachronistic:

In early 2006, co-founder and then-CEO of the Flickr photosharing service Stewart Butterfield outlined the new corporate vision of the website in an official blog entry. He introduces the post with some self-deprecating asides about what it’s like to work in “big companies”, referring to Yahoo! as Flickr’s “ever-loving parent”, gently mocking the burdens corporate culture places on creatives. He evokes the “powerpoint ‘decks’, spreadsheets, long meetings” and other “crazy processes” – like being asked to come up with mission statements – that infest it. Butterfield writes that the process of coming up with a mission statement was something he initially saw as an imposition on time that could be better spent “fixing stuff” or adding “needed features”, but then quickly shifts into manifesto mode, declaring that “after thinking about it for a while, the vision was obvious”: “The Eyes of the World.” The elaboration that Butterfield goes on to provide is as neat an encapsulation as any of the ways in which ordinary or everyday life, creativity and the cosmopolitan come together in the discourses around social media:

That can manifest itself as art, or using photos as a means of keeping in touch with friends and family, “personal publishing” or intimate, small group sharing. It includes “memory preservation” (the de facto understanding of what drives the photo industry), but it also includes the ephemera that keeps people related to each other: do you like my new haircut? should I buy these shoes? holy smokes – look what I saw on the way to work! It let’s you know who’s gone where with whom, what the vacation was like, how much the baby grew today, all as it’s happening.

And most dramatically, Flickr gives you a window into things that you might otherwise never see, from the perspective of people that you might otherwise never encounter.

In what has since become a recognisable pattern of curatorship on the official Flickr weblog, Butterfield goes on to provide a number of carefully selected examples of Flickr images that bear out this vision: images of the 2006 Paris riots snapped and uploaded in real time (as an example of ‘citizen journalism’); photographs of vernacular architecture, mundane details of the urban environment; and of course some visually appealing photographs featuring the dominant subjects of contemporary vernacular photography: babies, kittens, flowers and sunsets.

The metaphor ‘the eyes of the world’ works in two distinct ways. First, the publication of personal photographs on the Flickr website preserves and publicly remediates those aspects of ordinary life that a large number of citizens see and choose to capture (the eyes of the self, as it were). Second, and as a consequence of this, the Flickr website also functions as a window on the worlds of others. There is a complicated notion of the ‘global’ underlying this idea of the ‘eyes of the world’; one which connects with various points along what Ong (2009) has called the ‘cosmopolitan continuum’: the ideal user of Flickr is invited to connect with both intimates and strangers on the basis of the mundane; and is further invited to engage with the world of the global ‘other’ on the basis of spectacular events, visual aesthetics, and the cultural distinctiveness of everyday life.

This moment in the development and growth of Flickr also marks a distinct moment in the evolution of digital culture and the discourse around it more broadly, precisely because it brought together within one media platform both of these modes of making and experiencing media. On the one hand, participation in Flickr is constructed as involving self-expression and the documentation of one’s own experience (the eyes of the self) and, on the other, participants are invited to experience social connection and global awareness (a window on the world).

This moment foreshadowed a much more extensive trend, now also represented by the near-ubiquity of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. At the time of the ‘eyes of the world’ statement, Flickr was at the height of its early fame in the technology media as one of the darlings of the ‘Web 2.0’ moment. Much of the industry rhetoric around Web 2.0 was focused on the new development of web-based platforms that not only allowed individual users to upload their own content, but also provided the means for the user community to organise and evaluate that content collectively, via the now quaint-sounding principle of the “folksonomy” (O’Reilly 2005). But with the exception of blogging, even in the most enthusiastic accounts of these developments in the technology press, there was little indication that social media might come to play as significant a role in media culture more broadly – that is, beyond ‘web culture’ – as is now increasingly the case. In the years since, it has become clear that social media are not only enabling individuals to more conveniently access publishing technologies, but that they are also playing a significant role in global public communication; in some cases at a scale that far exceeds the original intentions of the founders of the platforms concerned.

As a demonstration of this shift, Flickr’s slogan in 2004 was rather modest and primarily focused around its technical affordances for individual web users: potential participants were invited simply to “Share pictures in real time!”. Now the tagline on the home page much more ambitiously reads: “Share your photos. Watch the world.” This shift in social media from personal technology to public communication is also borne out by the similar evolution and widespread popularity of the short-message sharing social network site Twitter.com. Twitter recently changed its tagline (the short slogan which acts both as invitation to users and an evocation of the platform’s overall purpose) from the ‘me-centred’ “Twitter is for staying in touch and keeping up with friends no matter where you are or what you’re doing” – which users could do by answering the question “What are you doing right now?” in 140 characters or less – to something more akin to a global mission statement built around real-time events: “Share and discover what’s happening right now, anywhere in the world.”

These examples demonstrate that there is a shift occurring in the way that the role of everyday communication and personal media use are thought to figure in public discourse; and this shift has accompanied the widespread (but by no means universal) uptake and usage of social media platforms, alongside the increasingly global ambitions of the businesses that provide these services. Via user-created content networks and social network sites, the everyday lives of individuals are being remediated into new contexts of social visibility and connection – through Facebook and Twitter status updates, videos uploaded to YouTube, and photos contributed to Flickr. [etc]

Oh, and something else I tweeted later in the evening:

SCORE! on Flickr’s current homepage (without logging in): “Community. Flickr is made of people.” #soylentmedia

Read More

Obligatory Google Buzz post

Cross-posted to the Air-l list.

In a discussion about Google Buzz, surveillance and privacy, Christian Fuchs said:

Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently remarked about Internet privacy: “If
you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you should
not be doing it in the first place”, which points towards a lack of
understanding of the online surveillance threat and privacy issues.

[He really did: see here]

Absolutely, and there is something more to this jaw-droppingly blasé statement as well. I don’t think it’s only a result of Google’s desire to facilitate and track and cross-aggregate everything everyone does on the internet ever (which is clearly the manifest destiny of Google, and several others).

We also had this today in the WSJ:

After taking steps to stem the public backlash against its social-networking service Buzz, Google Inc. is planning further updates and considering changing how it tests new Buzz features.
 
Google product manager Todd Jackson said in an interview Monday that the number of people initially uncomfortable with the service underscored that the company’s approach of testing Buzz among its employees hasn’t been sufficient.”

“Getting feedback from 20,000 Googlers isn’t quite the same as letting Gmail users play with Buzz in the wild,” Mr. Jackson said. “We needed to launch to the public and get feedback from users.”

Um…

(Thanks to Michael Zimmer for tweeting the link)

As various commenters have pointed out elsewhere, Google’s apparent “lack of understanding” of the threats to privacy has an identity politics as well. At least in my head (and tell me if I’m crazy), the ideal, undifferentiated internet user says: “I mean, I live my life online and it’s fine. I don’t care who knows which Starbucks I’m using my Blackberry at or which of my business contacts I compare Geek 2.0 conferences with or what Business 2.0 book I’m buying.” All very obvious – the assumed, unrecognised privilege that goes with a certain class position, geographically myopic worldview despite the desire for global colonisation, and so on.

But this assumption of a universal ‘we’; the complete carelessness about the idea that public exposure can do harm; the shrugging off of the social complexity of social media, and so on, also have a gender politics.  In some of the *critique* of Googlebookspacetube, so does a similar shrugging off of the messy mix of pleasure, affinity, and risk of social media participation; and indeed the insistent bracketing off of concrete lived experiences, so we can get at the main game: Economics. The World. History. Everything.

But back to Buzz. Most obviously, as the widely circulated (but now password-protected) “Fuck You, Google” blog post on the Fugitivus blog so clearly demonstrated, even in the affluent West, if you have ever had a stalker, an abusive ex- or current partner, or live in a community/family where it might not be safe to be outed as gay, there are plenty of things you might not want people to know you’re saying or doing. It doesn’t mean you “should stop doing them” – or saying them – on the Internet.

What would a social media platform look like if it listened carefully from the beginning to what users are actually doing with the platform -  collectively constructing a wide and often overlapping range of uses, communities, etc., including a nuanced set of publicity/privacy settings. What if the provider provided the tools to do that, and didn’t come crashing in in the middle of the night to redesign everything and randomly release ‘features’ that have no obvious relationship to the practices of users? 

To finish by returning to the subject of business if not capital-E Economics:

I understand that there is actually no business case for blanket privacy in the free-to-use, advertising-supported business model that drives Google, Facebook, and Twitter (indirectly), but I’m not sure there isn’t a business model (where “business model” might or might not include a profit motive) that could work quite well and treat user communities with more respect – including respect for the knowledge and expertise they have developed through their work as users. I still think Flickr had it more or less right in some ways (especially in the areas of privacy settings and community governance) – but theirs is a Freemium business model (where you have a choice of a fairly full-featured free account, or a paid ‘power’ account).

I genuinely mean this as a devil’s advocate question: given the helplessness of users in a free-to-use model, are we better off as customers than we are as users? How might we ask to be addressed as citizens as well, or instead?

Read More

Flussgeist & ambient intimacy

I’ve been playing around with various twitter mashups, tools and toys lately, and I just had to give this one a quick mention.

Unusually for me, I am about to talk about some art…

Gregory Chatonsky’s work L’attente/The Waiting (warning, Flash-heavy), part of a series called “Flußgeist”, the “spirit of the flow”, mashes up twitter posts with Flickr photos whose tags match keywords in the tweets, along with an ambient soundtrack (pulling in data from Odeo) and video footage of urban pedestrians waiting at the lights, lost in thought, walking, or just standing around.

The overall effect is quiet and beautiful, of course, and it’s a nice comment on the ambient intimacy we are learning to associate with twitter. I think it is also doing something in the way of reflecting on the very different ways of being together-but-apart that the experience of sharing space in cities brings with it – the intimacy of strangers, maybe; it invites us to consider the slight frisson associated with observing the ‘private’ moments of others in a ‘public’ place. The ‘private’ (or personal) and the ‘public’ are of course precisely what is being reconfigured through social media. More importantly, as Melissa points out, the uses and meanings of particular social media platforms, and the social practices that are associated with them, are emerging via the mass popularisation – the large-scale takeup – of social media, and not as a simple consequence of the invention of new things – platforms, widgets and gizmos. That’s why we won’t simply see ‘migrations’ from one platform to another; facebook is not myspace is not twitter.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that we can’t know what Twitter, as a relatively open and underdetermined platform, but one that is at this stage used by a relatively ‘niche’ population, will turn out to be ‘for’ in the end.

And a note to self more than anything: the mashing up of video footage from the street with twitter posts also reminds me to be very careful about how I interpret things. I will try with renewed vigour to remember how cheap and unproductive it is to simply import categories and metaphors derived from existing cultural and social theories developed to understand social life in modernity (the ‘flaneur’, the ‘voyeur’, the ‘narcissist’) to think about the relationships and practices that emerge via the collective use of each new social media platform. We have to look as hard as we can at what really seems to be going on, as ‘new’ practices emerge and ‘old’ ones are remediated.

Read More