It is only hours since President Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden, resulting in celebrations across the United States (in the streets, on Facebook and elsewhere). I want to point the Sociological Lens at this spontaneous and widespread cultural celebration not to argue that it is wrong or right to cheer for death, but to ask, in these first few hours, why. Beyond the obvious points surrounding Bin Laden’s involvement with the events on September 11th, 2001, I think he symbolized much more. Ultimately, what people are cheering about is the momentary return of the familiar black-and-white world of good and evil that we understand.

Gidden’s and others have discussed how our modern world is becoming increasignly unknowable and Bauman discusses ethics based on some universal good and evil as out of date. Gone are the days of World War II where we went to war against the “bad guys” and when you killed them you won. September 11th, 2001 sparked a “war on terror,” a war on an ideology rather than a country, that has been unending and unclear. It is also unclear for many why we went to Iraq -a conflict that has dragged on without clear objectivies and metrics for victory. About all the United States as a country could agree on is that Osama bin Laden is a bad guy and should be captured and/or killed, but even this dragged on for years with many wondering if we would ever capture him. This all creates a listless feeling of confusion about war and geopolitics that upsets Americans used to the Hollywood version: we know who is good and evil and the winner is clear.

This pent up confusion was cathartically relieved last night when the news broke. The world finally succumbed to the movie script where there is a bad guy and there is some clear result. However, this brief moment of clarity will pass and we will quickly move back into a world where geopolitics is confusing, winning and losing won’t be clear and neither will be just who we are fighting and why. After Bin Laden, who will be the new symbol to ground our naive presumption that the world, who is good and who is evil, is simple and knowable?

The New York Times recently ran an expose on teen “sexting” as a part of a slew of recent articles on the topic. Unfortunately, this article failed to take into account the fact that teens, especially girls, have sexual desire. A couple of quotes from the article:

“Having a naked picture of your significant other on your cellphone is an advertisement that you’re sexually active to a degree that gives you status,” said Rick Peters, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for Thurston County.

Perhaps, but what about the fact that the teen might want to enjoy the photo for themselves, too? Inner-desire is continuously ignored in the article in favor of the view that teens (again, especially females) engage sexually in order to please others.

“You can’t expect teenagers not to do something they see happening all around them,” said Susannah Stern, an associate professor at the University of San Diego who writes about adolescence and technology. “They’re practicing to be a part of adult culture,”

Teens do not need anyone to tell them to play show-me-yours. More than practicing for when they get older, teens are also attempting to explore and enjoy their sexuality in the present. It is not just adults who have sexual desire. In fairness, the New York Times did run another article that quotes teens on the topic, who are clear that sexting is the result of desire. So, why do most articles dismiss this fact?

I can accept that culture influences sexual behaviors, I am a sociologist, but to not even bring sexual desire into a conversation about sexting is erroneous. Acknowledging teen sexual desire should be at the center of how to deal with the issue of sexting moving forward. We should be promoting sexual agency, not dismissing it. Better than shaming teens is to start a conversation around how to best express themselves sexually at their age.

There are consequences to this perspective that views teen sexual behaviors as not stemming from desire but instead only as something taught. Adults too often feel they can simply squash teen sexuality through shaming and even criminalization. A scenario described in the article and that is occurring all too often is that teens are being escorted from school in handcuffs, locked up and forced to register as sex offenders simply because they shared nude photos with a significant other their own age. This over-reaction demonstrates Michel Foucault’s point: that by seemingly ignoring teen sexual desire, we’ve only succeeded in turning it into an obsession.

photos in this post by nathan jurgenson

I’ve watched mass gatherings with great interest while living in Washington D.C. From Obama’s election night and inauguration to various marches, and, of course, Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart’s rallies to restore “honor” and “sanity,” respectively. These last two, both organized by cable television personalities, brought massive amounts of people to the National Mall, so many people that these rallies might be telling us something about our current moment in American political discourse and participation. Let me describe yesterday’s Rally to Restore Sanity and argue that the politics of irony on display are more than “mere spectacle,” but potentially quite powerful.

Left, White and Bigger than Beck
Like Beck’s rally, yesterday’s crowd was partisan and mostly white. It was far less diverse than Obama’s election night celebrations or his inauguration day, a point that deserves its own analysis. It was clear to anyone who attended both Beck and Stewart’s rallies that the latter brought the larger crowd. Current estimates have yesterday’s crowd at around 215,000 people (about 2.5 times Beck’s 87,000). And, of course, Stewart’s attendees were largely on the political left.

A Postmodern Event
If you have seen any images from the event [here are some photos I took], you know that it was intended to be humorous and entertaining. Yes, there was Stewart and Colbert on stage, their shtick was good as always, but more importantly there were the many hilarious signs and costumes created by the attendees. People watching gets no better than this. The rally was indeed a site for creativity and expression. There was a somewhat incoherent “pastiche” of images presented. If there was a central theme, perhaps it was “irony” -you know, in that weird way we use it to mean “sarcastic.” This event had all the hallmarks of a more postmodern space for possibilities of all kinds, be they intellectual, artistic, humorous, etc, than just a space for political rhetoric.

But is all of this irony and humor “mere spectacle” as my friend and blogger Les Andrist states? He tries to find the meaning of the event by looking to Stewart’s words, which will fall short of being powerful becuase political rhetoric is modern politics, and this is a postmodern event. I will argue that this event followed the logic of the spectacle in a potentially subversive way by inverting its own logic from within. Analyzing such an event means looking well past the words those on stage used. It might even require moving some of our attention away from the stage, that most modern of pulpits, and out towards the crowd.

The Power of Humor
We can start by reflecting on the use of humor in the crowd. Without making this point explicitly, the hyperbolic irrationality of the Sanity Rally serves to mock those who are radical and irrational without such irony (e.g., some of the most ridiculous Tea Partiers, Beck, Palin, O’Donnell, etc). In response to media fear mongering, this rally attempted to be silly; those attending had fun during the day and danced on through the night -you don’t think the rally really ended at 3pm, do you?

Guy DeBord and the situationists in France in the 1960’s saw the blurring of entertainment and politics as dangerous, and reacted in highly political ways: riots, strikes, debate, violence, etc. However, their rejection of the logic of entertainment-politics was ultimately unsuccessful. Perhaps the Sanity Rally is a different strategy against entertainment-politics. This new strategy accepts that the logic of our moment is spectacle, and attempts to critique the system using its own logic. Sure, it reifies the logic, but it might be the best we can do to reform a political discourse out of control. The Sanity Rally was silly because the people there felt that the rest of American political discourse is increasingly a joke -remember, Stewart may be the most trusted news anchor in America. This was a massive media event lead by a comedian, ridiculous attendees were taking lots of pictures, and most importantly, it was all funny. This group of people all gathered together and ran with the idea of politics-as-entertainment, which, in effect, calls attention to precisely this trend.

Thus, it would be a mistake to dismiss the postmodern politics of irony -the dance, the signs, the costumes, the jokes, the play, the free expression- as devoid of meaning. When politics become synonymous with entertainment we can expect people to use entertainment to fight back. The joke itself is a message, and it is not trivial.

Play is Political
Instead, we should recognize that humor is an incredibly powerful tool of persuasion. Tina Fey’s famous impersonation made the very idea of Palin’s campaign look hilarious, which was potentially more harmful than if one disagreed with her. I believe the Tea-Party’s greatest limitation is not that people disagree with them substantively, but that so many Americans think they are hilarious. To be disagreed with might be tough, but to be laughed at and not be a part of the joke is debilitating.

Thus, humor is a powerful political tool. The silliness of the Sanity Rally can have powerful, substantive, real, material political consequences. If it hinders the Tea-Party, it could impact who our elected officials are, what laws get enacted and so on. In a postmodern politics, play is political.

So, was The Rally to Restore Sanity a joke or a political rally? Both. Did it make a mockery of American politics on the hallowed National Mall before an important national election? Of course, and that is kind of the point. ~nathanjurgenson.com

You probably have heard about Facebook Places, a feature that brings the site up to speed with other location-sharing services like Foursquare and Gowalla that allow users to document where they are, as well as potentially who they are with and other comments about that location.

The term “augmented reality” is often used to describe the layering of digital information onto the physical world [examples of where it is now, and where it might be going]. However, I have argued that augmented reality can also refer to our digital profiles becoming increasingly implicated with the material world. If the early days of the web were about going online as anyone you wanted to be, today, our Facebook profiles are more anchored in the reality of those we know in the physical world -and now are further enmeshed with physicality given these new location-based services.

New technologies –most prominently the sensor-packed smartphone— make possible our cyborg-like lives in an increasingly augmented reality [theorist Donna Haraway is especially important here]. More than just the augmentation of our digital profiles with physical-world information, we should also think about the ways in which digital documentation impacts our everyday, offline lives. With documentation in mind, do we alter our behaviors? Is it possible that we might experience a place differently when we are documenting it using a service like Facebook Places? Might we even change what place we go to? Or asked differently, to what degree can the tail of digital documentation come to wag the dog of lived experience? ~nathanjurgenson.com

The New York Times recently ran a story about how “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” It describes a digital age in which our careless mass exhibitionism creates digital documents that will live on forever. The article is chock full of scary stories about how ill-advised status updates can ruin your future life.

These sorts of scare-tactic stories serve a purpose: they provide caution and give pause regarding how we craft our digital personas. Those most vulnerable should be especially careful (e.g., a closeted teen with bigoted parents; a woman with an abusive ex-husband). But after that pause, let’s get more realistic by critiquing the sensationalism on the part of the Times article by acknowledging that, with some common sense, the risks for most of us are actually quite small.

1-Digital Content Lives Forever in Obscurity

The premise of the article is that what is posted online can potentially live on forever. True, but the reality is that the vast majority of digital content we create will be seen by virtually no one. Sometimes I think these worries stem from a vain fantasy that everything we type will reach the eyes of the whole world for all time. Sorry, but your YouTube video probably isn’t going viral and few people will likely read this post.

What interests me about digital content is that it is on the one hand potentially immortal and on the other exceedingly ephemeral. In fact, it is precisely digital content’s immortality that guarantees the very flood of data that makes any one bit exceedingly ephemeral, washed away in the deluge of user-generated banality. Jean Baudrillard taught us that too much knowledge is actually no knowledge at all because the information becomes unusable in its abundance. This is what millions of people tweeting away is: an inundation of data, most of which will never be read by many and will probably be of little broad consequence [edit for clarification: I like Twitter].

If anything, one problem with social networking applications like Facebook or Twitter is that they do a poor job of archiving and making searchable specific past content. A quick glace on Facebook reveals that I cannot search my friend’s history of status updates. Looking at my Twitter stream, I cannot even find my oldest tweets. My digital content may live forever, but it does so in relative obscurity.

2-Flaws are Forgivable, Perfection is Not

The Times article draws from a quote about how the immortality of digital content…

“…will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them” […] “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”

I disagree. As we increasingly live our lives online, always index-able, it should be expected that many of us will have some digital dirt on our hands. Instead of this idea that we won’t be able to forgive each other for not being perfect, new realities will change our expectations. I suspect being an imperfect human being will be just as forgivable as it always has.

In fact, it very well might be the too-perfect profile that is unforgivable. As any politician knows, you cannot look too clean and sterile; else you come off as phony. A too-polished and perfect profile is increasingly a sign that you are not living with technology and making it part of your life -and thus you seem a bit technologically illiterate. The overly-manicured profile screams that you are not out there using social media tools to their full potential.

In conclusion, use scare-tactic articles like the one being commented on here to remind you that what you say indeed might come back to haunt you. But do not go overboard worrying and cleaning your digital presence. Yes, riding your bike or eating chicken might get you killed (potholes and salmonella scare me more than Googling my name), but we are willing to take these risks because they are exceedingly small. Be smart, don’t post about your boss, but, in any case, the vast majority of people posting status updates about their job today will not get fired tomorrow. ~nathanjurgenson.com

A wildly improbable thought experiment: what if Facebook moved to a micropayment model and gave users, say, $1 for contributing value to their site?

This would be a raise, of course, because we are currently paid $0 in wages. However, I’ll argue that if Facebook paid its users there would be a user-revolt.

First, Facebook makes money. That you diligently provide them with your personal data makes you an unpaid worker in their digital goldmine. In the traditional Marxist framework, exploitation is measured by the surplus value the worker creates (profits over and above wages). And since our wages on Facebook equal zero, exploitation would, then, be infiniteas Christian Fuchs likes to point out. However, others have also looked at the non-monetary value of using Facebook:

Second, you (arguably) get value out of Facebook through building an online identity, socializing with others and so on -and all this is at no monetary cost.

And it is this second point that explains why Facebook users do not currently feel overly exploited: they view the site and its value in non-economic terms. However, were Facebook to start paying users there would be a gestalt shift towards economic thinking that would lead them to feel exploited. That their labor was only worth a dollar would be insulting. Monetary compensation would key users into thinking of their activities as labor or work rather than as leisure or fun.

I find this thought experiment interesting because of the counterintuitive idea that getting more money would in effect anger people. Is this what you think would happen if Facebook paid us? ~nathanjurgenson.com

Some were surprised to learn that young Facebook users -the folks who are most implicated in the game of “mass exhibitionism” and living in public- are also the ones who are most involved with privacy online. Some have described this as contradictory and counter-intuitive – are kids exhibitionists or not?

The findings are not contradictory and the larger point goes well beyond kids, but indicates a general rule of privacy and publicity: the degree to which one is involved in the game of living in public is the degree to which one is concerned with both revealing and concealing.

facebook as fandance: a game of reveal and conceal

Living in public was once reserved for celebrities of one sort or another. Their publicity also implied close attention paid to privacy (images of Michael Jackson hiding himself in various ways spring to mind). Today, living in public has been democratized. Many of us use Facebook and other technologies to document our selves, ideas, travels, friendships and so on. Many of our friends and peers are doing the same. As all of this is woven into everyday life, a new set of cultural norms emerge.

And those most involved with social media are trying to navigate these norms as best as they can. In short, they want their digital documentation to be successful. Their peers are watching. As they have to learn how to reveal successfully, it follows that they are also very interested in when not reveal, or when to conceal altogether. Of course the exhibitionists are the most concerned with privacy.

Privacy and publicity imply each other, and are increasingly interwoven and blurred together in everyday life. My favorite metaphore for this is borrowed from social media researcher Marc Smith who describes this as a fandance; a game of reveal and conceal.

All of this comes on the heels of the major privacy fiasco Facebook is currently weathering. While I am typically hard on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, he seems to get it. As quoted in the recent Time magazine cover story:

What people want isn’t complete privacy. It isn’t that they want secrecy. It’s that they want control over what they share and what they don’t.

Here, he’s dead-on. The people that want to live in public also want to control their publicity. Unfortunately, Facebook’s record has fallen pathetically short in living up to Zuckerberg’s rhetoric. ~nathanjurgenson.com

Today, while speaking to WYPR (Baltimore’s NPR affiliate) about the latest iteration of Facebook privacy concerns, I brought up the idea of not using your real name on Facebook -that is, having a “Fakebook.”

We live within a cultural dynamic that both encourages us to live in public and punishes us for doing the same. Teens, who are more involved with their Facebook privacy than adults, have reacted by using fake names on Facebook so they have less to worry about when applying for colleges. Creating a “Fakebook” allows individuals to use their real Facebook in one way, their Fakebook in another, all while avoiding many of the consequences of living in public.

To be clear, not using one’s real name is against Facebook’s policies (see section 4.1), and the term “Fakebook” is usually reserved for creepy stalkers or malcontents. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg states that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” He is frighteningly out of touch with the many valid reasons why users might want to keep certain things private (hint: it often has to do with social inequalities, power and vulnerability).

So forget all of that. You can create a Fakebook and use it for good.

  • Step one: Create or modify your real Facebook page. Make sure it does not contain any information you wouldn’t want the whole world to see. You do not even have to accept friend requests, instead directing those you want to friend over to your Fakebook name using the site’s email system.
  • Step two: Use your Fakebook (almost) any way you want. If you want to be extra careful, do not create any obvious connections between your Fakebook and your real name.

Aside from the privacy gains, there is a political motive, too. In response to Facebook profiting off our increasingly private data, one may want to engage in some “database vandalism.” The idea is that Facebook makes money because their database is filled with so much ‘true’ information. Maybe you have a problem with this (granted, many do not). Maybe you are just upset that Facebook has a history of making things you set private as public behind a maze of privacy settings. If so, you can gum up the Facebook database by inputting lots of false information.

Your Fakebook will save you a headache the next time Facebook pulls the privacy rug out from under its users (as it has done over and over again) while simultaneously making a statement against the corporate ownership of our personal data. ~nathanjurgenson.com

publicly

Facebook continuously rolls back user privacy, the policy itself is increasingly convoluted, and technical hiccups have revealed users’ information – so, shouldn’t we be experiencing Facebook fatigue by now? (as PJ Rey predicted)

Sure, techno-pundits are crying foul, but Facebook users are not leaving the service in large numbers, and other technologies of narcissism -such as Formspring– continue to march along. Why?

While we know well how to become scared about decreasing privacy -and rightly so- we have only begun to articulate what increasing publicity means. I have described the will to document ourselves across the web as a new sort of “mass exhibitionism.” And while we all care deeply about privacy, this cultural impulse to live in public often wins out (often to the detriment of those most vulnerable).

Take, for example, the most recent social networking phenom, Formspring, where users answer questions about themselves that are often asked anonymously. The site has taken a dark turn. Rampant with verbal attacks, the site has already been connected to a suicide. Danah boyd often uses her expertise to dispel social media fear-mongering, so it says something when she describes the site this way:

“While teens have always asked each other crass and mean-spirited questions, this has become so pervasive on Formspring so as to define what participation there means.”

She goes on to ask,

“[w]hat is it about today’s cultural dynamics that encourages teens to not only act tough when they’re attacked but to actively share the attacks of others as a marker of toughness pride?”

I believe the answer to this question is that mass exhibitionism is simply a more powerful cultural force than even preserving oneself from cyber-attacks. Why?

The logic is just the same as what advertisers have long since come to terms with: bad publicity is better than no publicity at all.

To document oneself online is to exist. We create ourselves as product becuase what is worse than being made fun of is to not exist to begin with. Bad mass exhibitionism has come to seem better than no exhibitionism at all. ~nathanjurgenson.com

As media became truly massive in the middle of the 20th century, many theorists discussed the degree to which individuals are powerless -e.g., McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message.” In the last decades, the pendulum of dystopian versus utopian thinking about technology has swung far into the other direction. Now, we hear much about the power of the individual, how “information wants to be free” and, opposed to powerful media structures, how the world has become “flat.” The story is that the top-down Internet was “1.0” and now we have a user-generated “Web 2.0”. The numbering suggests the linear march of increasing democratization and decreasing corporate control.

The pendulum has swung too far.

I have tried to argue elsewhere (here and here and here) that Web 1.0 and 2.0 both exist today, sometimes in conflict, other times facilitating each other. On this blog, I have noted that sometimes “information wants to be expensive” and how the iPad marks a return to the top-down as opposed to the bottom up. Zeynep Tufekci and I have a paper under (single blind) review that discusses the iPad as the return of old media and consumer society by way of Apple’s Disney-like closed system.

Steven Johnson recently wrote a powerful op-ed in the New York Times titled “Rethinking the Gospel of the Web” that makes a similar argument. He portrays Apple’s closed system as incredibly innovative, stating that “sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”

Opposed to the current orgy of writing about the powerful agent/consumer, Free, democratization, revolutionary potential, flat worlds and so on, let’s remember how structures and top-down corporate control remain important:

  • access is still unequal
  • how people use the web is unequal, something I’ve discussed as the post-structural digital divide
  • the “revolutions” of Wikipedia or open source are basically knowledge or software being produced by a few white men to now being produced by a few more white men (revolutionary this is not)

This world is not flat, and if the success of Apple is any indication, it is not getting any flatter. ~nathan