Author Archives: nathanjurgenson

Celebrating Bin Laden’s Death and the Return of the Knowable World

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modern world is becoming increasignly unknowable and Bauman discusses ethics based on some universal good and evil as out of date.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? (more…)

Sexting and the Criminalization of Teen Desire

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.

The Postmodern Politics of the Sanity Rally

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.

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Facebook Places and the Augmentation of Reality

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

Social Media Fear-Baiting: The Immortality of Digital Content

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

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what if facebook paid us?

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 infinite -as 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

publicity implies privacy: why teens are more private on facebook

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

trade your facebook in for a fakebook

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

Formspring.me: Display at All Costs

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

web 1.5: the web is not getting flatter

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