ICA Montreal: Quick Wrap-Up

A couple of days ago I got back from the International Communication Association conference in Montreal. I loved the city instantly, and the week I spent there was very productive — although similarly to Jon Gray’s experience, the most productive and inspiring moments occurred in between everything else — chats in the foyers in between sessions, and even more so over lunches, dinners, and drinks with colleagues. It was the first ‘mega’ conference I’d ever been to — normally I tend to go to smaller, interdisciplinary ones, rather than huge multidisciplinary ones. I think I now understand the world of academia described so cynically by David Lodge, but my experience left me far from cynical.

I was there primarily to present with Josh on our empirical YouTube research — the content survey that forms the middle chapter of our book YouTube: Online Video and the Politics of Participatory Culture, which is forthcoming from Polity later in the year (bonus moment of excitement: seeing it in the Polity 2008 catalogue!). It was the first time we had presented our findings together in a really comprehensive way, and although we had ‘seen’ each other on video chat almost daily while writing the book, it was actually the first time we had been in the same country since we started the project. We’ll be presenting on the study again at the CCI Conference at the end of June, by the way.

Our panel was called Engaging With YouTube: Methodologies, Practices, Publics, and it was designed to bring together a group of people doing empirical work that deals with the problem of how to approach YouTube as a research object (or research problem), rather than as a convenient source of examples.

Our fellow presenters included Greg Elmer, Fenwick McKelvey and Brady Curlew, the dynamic team from the Infoscape Research Lab at Ryerson University, who were discussing their work on the uses of YouTube in relation to Canadian electoral politics, making use of a range of methodological approaches and tools, including hyperlink analysis and content analysis. Also, Ashlee Humphreys demonstrated some unconventional ways of thinking through the relations between ‘consumers’ and ‘celebrities’ in the YouTube attention economy, drawing on ethnographic (‘netnographic’, actually) data, and using the innovative models that she and Rob Kozinets have developed.

Finally, we were especially privileged to be presenting alongside Patricia Lange, whose 2 year ethnography with the YouTube community has produced a number of important insights into the ways in which YouTube operates as a social networking site for certain participants; and the rich mundanity of the communicative practices that take place there. Most importantly, her work insistently reminds us of the need to fully consider the lived experience and materiality of everyday cultural practice–which is very important, because discussions of the media in everyday life still tend to the weightless. I’m really looking forward to the book that will eventually come out of this work. In the meantime, check out the AnthroVlog!

Overall, the panel turned out to be a well-balanced and highly energetic event, despite the fact that few of us knew each other beforehand. And most pleasingly, the discussion flowed on seamlessly into a number of simultaneous and highly animated conversations among the panellists as well as with fellow YouTube researchers from the audience, continuing on all the way down the street to the pub for celebratory drinks. I take that as a good sign of things to come, and I’m looking forward to continuing the conversations into some collaboration. Based on the number of projects we heard about that are underway, it’s clear that there is going to be a proliferation of research-based articles on YouTube coming out in print in the next 12 months.

My conference highlight would have to be the excellent party generously thrown by Jonathan Sterne. I have no idea how that many people fit into one apartment, but it was a fantastic night and the site of some really stimulating arguments and discussions [and Jonathan, I didn’t break anything!]. I’m looking forward to Jonathan’s visit to Australia next month, where we will attempt to return his hospitality, as well as getting down to doing some much-needed work on the importance and materiality of sound and listening practices in contemporary culture as part of the Technologies of Listening Workshop.

At Jonathan’s party, I finally managed to connect up with Will Straw, but not until after putting a number of very accommodating Canadians to work on a Straw-hunting mission. It was a very crowded party! Will was one of the external examiners for my Masters thesis, but we had never met before, so I was excited that we got to have a bit of a chat.

Oh, and there was some pretty spectacular dancing done. Not by me, obviously.

What is Flickr Video For?

So Flickr finally ended the years of rumour-mongering and actually rolled out video. I was interested to see the way the official announcement carefully positioned the purposes of video on Flickr within the company’s (tasteful, cosmopolitan, playfully grown-up) brand identity, and its focus on self-created content:

we thought long and hard about how video would complement the flickrverse. If you’ve memorized the Community Guidelines, you know that Flickr is all about sharing photos that you yourself have taken. Video will be no different and so what quickly bubbled up was the idea of “long photos,” of capturing slices of life to share. [emphasis added, which possibly comes across as me being a bit pedantic]

They even give a carefully diverse range of quotidian examples–covering cats, places, events and people, of course.

There’s some really interesting protest going on within the sections of the Flickr community who are really invested in capital-P Photography, including this well-populated anti-video group, with some surprisingly hostile comments about the company. A lot of people seem to be worried that somehow the introduction of video will directly cause a ‘flood’ of banal, crass, and unlovely content, and will turn a photography-oriented community into ‘just another YouTube’. The controversy is tremendously interesting to me in its own right, of course–there’s technological determinism combined with symbolic boundary work and a fair amount of amnesia about Flickr’s mundane origins–at least as far as I remember there was a lot more emphasis on lifelogging using the (then) newly available camera phone than there was on digital camera arms races, fine art techniques, and so on.

So, controversy aside, how is it turning out? What do you really get when you start with a mature online social network with social and cultural norms increasingly organised around ‘quality’ content, introduce the ability to upload very short video clips (but only to Pro members), presented within the often carefully cultivated ‘photo streams’ of individual users, combined with a way of accounting for value that takes into account far more than the number of people who been tempted (or tricked) into viewing a particular piece of content?

I’m sure there will be some silliness, and unlike the Fotografrs who are protesting the move, I also really hope there will be some very cute cat videos.

But there will also be lovely slideshows designed to curate and exhibit small sets of photographic images, like this beautiful video–which is much more than a slideshow–by Timo Arnall [thanks anne, again]

And, I will bet, increasingly elegant innovations on observational and personal photography like what Photojojo is calling the ‘long portrait’:

The thing about the best portraits is how they capture the essence of a person.

Maybe the wrinkles on their hands, or the expression in their eyes, tell you about the life they’ve had.

So what if you had 30 seconds to capture that person, instead of a nanosecond shutter-click? And what if the person could talk? Whoa. Crazy, we know. We call it a long portrait.

Which sounds a lot like a micro digital story: a focus on the personal and first-person, within elegant aesthetic constraints, done with attention to detail and respect for the co-creator. Photojojo even links to the interviewing guide on the StoryCorps website to assist newbie micro-documentarists in learning the art of capturing these snapshots of individual human lives.

I really think the idea of the ‘long portrait’ is quite brilliant.

Aside from that, the collective shaping of the meanings and uses of video within Flickr’s existing community of practice is going to be extremely interesting to watch.

outputs!

I haven’t been blogging regularly, so this is a news dump. I’ll preface it with a bit of commentary, though…

As a research fellow in an ARC-funded research centre I have had certain things drummed into me–not least by virtue of hanging out with actual ARC heavyweights from time to time. Especially in the lead-up to the now defunct Research Quality Framework, one of the things I had drummed into me was the difference between research outputs and research outcomes. Outputs, I have learned, are (merely) the things you make out of your research–products, publications, patents and processes. We all scramble to produce enough ‘outputs’, to the point that I am often at a loss to figure out where the time to process ‘inputs’ (like, reading books) is meant to come from.

But the productivity agenda is only half the story. Outcomes, apparently, only occur when the outputs get taken up and used for something in the ‘real world’–this is what the RQF framed as research ‘impact’. Despite the limits of ‘impact’ as a metaphor, which doesn’t really capture very well the slow and difficult to trace dynamics of diffusion that actually characterise the influence of humanities-based research, the pragmatist in me likes the idea that I might have some kind of direct usefulness, one day. Clearly, I have travelled a long way from the Oxbridge-esque imagined future in which I would be musing over great books by a cosy fire in Hobbiton, absorbing and transmitting knowledge via osmosis.

Anyway, in the last 6 months I’ve produced some ‘outputs’ that have now seen the light of day. Most exciting: some digital stories about biodiversity in Queensland backyards, and some more about the experiences of refugees who have settled in Queensland, both projects undertaken with the Queensland Museum, produced with a team run by my long-term collaborator Helen Klaebe, from QUT. I’m not sure if they’re outputs or outcomes, since they are clearly evidence that the digital storytelling idea is being taken up with a fair bit of enthusiasm around the place. There’s also some more digital stories about the history of the gold coast (during the course of which project i discovered the wonder of margarine sculptures, among other things), and some about the gay history of Brisbane, both of which I think will be launched in a few weeks.

Last: Joshua Green and I have sent the manuscript of our YouTube book off to the publisher, where it has now gone to readers. I hope to make a more celebratory announcement in the very near future. And we’ll be presenting on the major content survey that underpinned parts of the book at the ICA conference in Montreal next month–hope to catch up with some of you there!

awesome animations, the history of the world, science and religion and everything

Via YouTube’s new recommended for you feature and also via Twitter, I found this really excellent re-imagining of the Star Wars title sequence as if created by the great designer and filmmaker Saul Bass:

Via the ‘related videos’ feature, I came across Bass’s wonderful short film Why Man Creates, which won an Academy Award in 1968. Only the first 5 minutes is available online–long enough to deliver the grand narrative of creativity and innovation in Western civilization in animated form.

Watch it for the amazing drawings and the (gently barbed) jokes if nothing else.

Since for some of us it’s Easter today and many of my readers will be muttering ‘there is no God’ through chocolate-covered gritted teeth and grumbling about the failure of the Englightenment project, I highly recommended reading The Atheist Delusion afterward. As I prepare to encounter the pointy end of science as a fly on the wall next week, I found this to be the kicker:

In pre-Christian Europe, human life was understood as a series of cycles; history was seen as tragic or comic rather than redemptive. With the arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had a predetermined goal, which was human salvation. Though they suppress their religious content, secular humanists continue to cling to similar beliefs. One does not want to deny anyone the consolations of a faith, but it is obvious that the idea of progress in history is a myth created by the need for meaning.

The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world’s pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.

Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it.

[thanks, anne]

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my first crush

Wow, really nice combination of original animation with edited audio from oral history-style anecdotal interviews in this sweet short film by Julia Pott. It’s one of a few YouTube videos that won selection at the SXSW film festival.

Oh, and while I’m embedding YouTube videos, I also found The Great Trafalgar Square Freeze sort of beautiful:

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After the Apology

Sorry the first step

Like many others, I was floored by how utterly uncynical, uncompromising, and genuinely empathetic Rudd’s speech turned out to be this morning. I’m actually proud of my government for the first time in a very long time. I’m struggling for words, and that’s quite OK.

Said with more eloquence I can muster right now at Sorrow at Sill’s Bend:

The message was loud and clear. Australia is sorry. There will be no more lies and evasions; the government of Australia apologises for what it did. The first business of the new Parliament was the making of a long overdue forceful and formal acknowledgement of dreadful wrongs and a sincere expression of sorrow for the pain and grief these wrongs caused. It is not incongruous or wrong to feel joyfulness and optimism because the joy is for what might come of what was done so well today.

For readers who weren’t able to watch the apology live this morning, here it is (part 1)

Parts 2, 3 and 4 here.

Sorry

Tomorrow, the Prime Minister will say sorry to Indigenous Australians, and especially to the members of the Stolen Generations, on behalf of the Parliament and successive Governments.

Shamefully, it comes more than a decade after the Bringing Them Home report.

It’s very significant, it’s about time, and it’s (only) a start.

The sense of occasion around it has produced spaces in the cultural public sphere for the thousands of stories that have been told and retold, but not necessarily heard; in a way the speech itself is an act of listening.

A couple of personal remarks:

Earlier I was curious about how much anticipation of the event was building on YouTube; and of what kind.

Can you guess what the top result for a search based on the keywords ‘sorry Australia’ is?

This is.

I couldn’t bear to actually embed the image, let alone the video. I will have to think long and hard about the implications for my stubborn optimism about participatory culture.

A couple of videos that date from around the time I (probably, far too complacently) assumed a government apology would happen any day.

This is Keating at Redfern in 1992, a moment which feels slightly bizarre and tuneless to me now, not least because it is so very long ago; and politically, so very distant from where we are now. Notice the one and only audible burst of applause, at about 01:42 – you can probably skip to there:

And Archie Roach – another remembered moment from the early 1990s, which probably did more to sear the need for an apology into the hearts and minds of non-Indigenous Australians than anything else at that time:

It all seemed so much closer way back then than it did just a few short months ago. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.

The Street as Platform (and the World as ‘Human Network’)

When as now I’m struggling with the agony of trying to write for publication, which means attempting to communicate carefully and clearly, and not unattractively (as opposed to ranting inadvisedly), encountering one of Dan Hill’s longer blog entries is without exception guaranteed to make me ever so slightly envious.

The way the street feels may soon be defined by what cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Imagine film of a normal street right now, a relatively busy crossroads at 9AM taken from a vantage point high above the street, looking down at an angle as if from a CCTV camera. We can see several buildings, a dozen cars, and quite a few people, pavements
dotted with street furniture.

Freeze the frame, and scrub the film backwards and forwards a little, observing the physical activity on the street. But what can’t we see?

—-

We can’t see how the street is immersed in a twitching, pulsing cloud of data. This is over and above the well-established electromagnetic radiation, crackles of static, radio waves conveying radio and television broadcasts in digital and analogue forms, police voice traffic. This is a new kind of data, collective and individual, aggregated and discrete, open and closed, constantly logging impossibly detailed patterns of behaviour. The behaviour of the street.

This is a lovely essay (with great images) that asks us to imagine the now-future city, and to mentally re-assemble what we already knew was there so that the street is (I think literally) understood as a platform. Dan then asks some good questions about the implications of that re-envisioning for governance and regulation. Even if it’s a metaphor, it’s an effective one.

Although the “yes, but” question about who is connected and the unevenness of agency of course comes to mind, along with the slightly panicky one, “But how do you turn it all off?”

Worth a read.

Update: Not two minutes after I finished this post, Luca twittered the new Cisco ad.

Wow, kind of contrasting invitations to imagine the future, there.

I guess if we don’t want to deal with the micro-politics of our everyday relationships to technology, as Dan describes, there’s always techno-utopias that manage to render technologies all-powerful, endlessly imprintable with benign human desires, and invisible, all at once. Magic.

valentine’s day, postsecret style

I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the PostSecret thing, now ported to YouTube for Valentine’s day as a video montage complete with hipster ‘home-made’ animation:

[the video is an advertisement for the books, btw, which is entirely appropriate for this made-up ‘holiday’]

Happy Hallmark Card Day.

Update: I didn’t realise how many Postsecret fanvids there were until just now. Such a nice change for me from the Jonas Brothers. Some of them are masterful examples of the ubiquitous Ken Burns effect, some of them have entirely too much pink cursive writing and Tori Amos. But I liked this one:

And after watching about another 20 of those, I am at least a little bit sick of the postsecret thing now.

Why I’m deleting my Facebook account

Update: 31 May 2010

This is by far the most visited post on my now-sleepy blog. It is also more than two years old.

A lot of people are finding this post by searching Google for other people who are thinking about leaving Facebook. This is understandable given the recent surge of discontent among the FB community. However judging by the comments there is a certain level of confusion caused by the the gap of more than two years between this blog entry and the current Facebook revolt.

In the interests of clarity I provide the following FAQ.

1. Is this a place for me to explain to Mark Zuckerberg why I am deleting my facebook account?
No.
That is, given this is the personal blog of an Australian academic, he probably won’t read your comment, but feel free to vent if you like.

2. Did you know you CAN actually delete your facebook account?

Yes, this is a change that has occurred during the more than two years since this post. Since this post, I have succeeded in completely deleting my account. I think.

————–

I know the zombies and pirates will be sad and my virtual garden/fish/panda will die, but I’m leaving Facebook. I swear it’s not a case of getting early adopter syndrome. Trust me, given my background in subculture theory, I have workshopped that one.

It’s complicated and potentially long-winded, so in a nutshell, I have both professional and personal reasons.

1. Facebook is an excellent example of worst practice in almost every aspect of how to run and manage an online social network, and as someone who ostensibly believes there are good and bad ways to do those things, I don’t want to be part of it anymore.

2. Too many worlds colliding, too many invites to vampire garden pirate fishtank zombie kissing applications, and yes, I ended up with kind of too many friends from too many different spheres of my existence (not that I don’t love them all, really) for it to be non-complicated and fun.

Which is fine, and mostly my own fault, I can just log in less frequently, right? Apart from all the obvious problems with that (ignoring friend’s requests and messages and birthdays?), when I started toying with the idea of leaving I had this thought: “Sigh. I can’t leave. Everyone I know is on there and increasingly organising events through the events application, and…”

Whoa, what? I CAN’T LEAVE a commercial service that I never thought was super awesome in the first place and now I’m sick of BECAUSE MY SOCIAL WORLD IS STARTING TO DEPEND ON IT???

Right.

So the only way to reclaim my capacity to act is to engage in the politics of refusal, which I usually think of as pretty much an expression of impotence. Which makes me even more angry.

OK, so to be a bit more rational, here are just a few of the areas in which Facebook takes the prize for worst practice.

1. I’m not the first to say this, but yes, Facebook is the antithesis of the concept of openness.

2. The Terms of Service Use are a triumph of Kafkaesque surrealism and nasty, mean, trickery.

3. Almost every means at the user’s disposal to make their experience of the site safer, more socially comfortable, and less irritating (turning off notifications, making certain content visible to certain friends, making your profile invisible to Google searches, etc) requires effort and knowledge on the user’s behalf. Which is one among many symptoms of utter contempt for the users. See 4.

4. Did I mention the Terms of Use?

5. Oh, and even though Tom Hodgkinson clearly doesn’t respect the unwashed masses any more than the company does and generally thinks the interwebs are a waste of time, according to him it might also be run by an evil neoconservative conspiracy. Which would explain 1, 2, 3, and 4, and gives me little hope that user activism will ever make a bit of difference.

Anyway, there’s always a straw that broke the camel’s back. In my case, it came when an older member of my close family rang me for info and advice about how to ‘get onto’ Facebook, because other family members were sharing photos and news there, which anyone not using Facebook was missing out on.

The longer I talked about what people use Facebook for, and how to manage friends and privacy and tried to answer questions about why Facebook needed your date of birth, and whether ‘they’d send all kinds of junk emails’, the more uneasy I felt. It wasn’t anything like the many, many ‘how to use email’ or ‘what you can do with the Internet’ or ‘how to edit your digital photos’ conversations I’d had with family members and older friends and acquaintances before. So that’s when I started thinking about leaving.

Oh, and by the way, in order to delete your Facebook account, apparently, you have to not only deactivate it, but also delete every single item you have contributed to the site (messages, wall posts, posts other people have written on your wall, photos, links to contacts, profile information) and then email customer service and request they delete your account completely. Oh, and also, in order to delete absolutely everything, I’d also have to re-add every single one of the applications I’ve ever had installed, and then go through and remove the content, and then delete the applications again. Because when you delete an application, guess what? Your data is still stored there somewhere.

That’s not just meanness, but I’m pretty sure it’s also not just to be helpful in case you’re quitting in a fit of pique like this one and might decide later that you want to come back. It’s also because of the way the business model works: Facebook and all the marketeers who sail in her pretty much just want you to visit as many ad-bearing pages per visit as possible (that’s what all those applications and invites are for), and having lost your eyeballs, they’d quite like to keep the data that can be mined from those activities. So they’re going to make it as difficult as possible to scrub that data out of the system. Can you guess how much that softens my heart toward the company?

This is all very obvious of course, and absolutely non-unique, I know that. It’s just I’m not willing to put up with it anymore in this particular case.

So off I go digging little tiny pieces of content out of my account until it’s all clean again. It will be gone by this time tomorrow.