I have recently had the double-privilege of going to Stonehenge to witness the sunrise on summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and then onto Glastonbury festival, to witness er… lots of live music and people dancing around in mud. I’ve been to Glastonbury many times before but Stonehenge was my first time. As you can see, I captured some of it on my camera-phone, and naturally I wasn’t the only one. The photo above prompted a friend of mine to comment that it “Looks like more people enjoying it through their phones than their eyes”. At first I felt a bit defensive, because I was guilty of the same thing, but I thought it was ok. What’s wrong with taking a few pictures of a special event in an auspicious setting?
In a recent article, Brad Allenby and Carolyn Mattick argue that the ‘rule book’ of international warfare needs to be rewritten to include of the use of new technologies, in particular drones. Drones sit in an ambiguous legal space because they are unmanned aerial vehicles that are often used to fly in a restricted airspace. Compounding this problem is that the use of drones is largely undocumented as a matter of national secrecy. Nevertheless another layer of technology, social media, is now providing a battleground for visual accountability. On the one hand, I want to draw attention to the use of Instagram to highlight the use of social media to inform – and critique – the use of drones through layered representations of their targets. On the other, and competing with this critique, we must look at the use of drone target visuals released by governments to communicate the drones precision and safety. These examples are a way of demonstrating how social media produces a visual politics that can be used to highlight the use of these new military technologies. This contestation for visual accountability may be the social inroads to in fact see the target. The target I am alluding to here is not what the drones see but the frameworks that that legitimatize the actions of these drones.
When Harrisburg University in Harrisburg, PA attempted a week-long social media “blackout” in September 2010, national news media swarmed the campus. A “smartly dressed correspondent from NPR stalk[ed] the staircase,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, and as soon as the Chronicle itself spirited away some students for an exclusive interview, a reporter from the Associated Press came barging in. “Oh no—not another one,” one student cried out. Another, weary, explained with a sigh that he had just finished begging off the BBC.
In the end, the Chronicle headlined the outage as more of a “brownout” than a “blackout,” and NPR corroborated that conclusion with sound bites from students describing increased text messaging and some tenacious hacking. Even Jimmy Fallon jumped in on the analysis in his late-night comedy show, quipping: “Check this out: A college in Pennsylvania is blocking computer access to social-networking sites for an entire week, and then requiring the students to write an essay about the experience. Yep. The essay will be called, ‘We all have smart phones, dumb-ass.’” Nevertheless, campus officials declared the experiment a success with in-house surveys revealing that 33% of the private university’s 822 students reported feeling less stressed during the week of the outage and 21% stating they’d spent more time doing homework. These were happy fringe benefits, however, as the primary objective of the project had been somewhat more metaphysical—encouraging students to “push, prod, question and generally explore social media.” Or, as one speaker invited to campus during the week of the ban put it, to encourage dialogue around the question of:
“Why are we posting on Facebook? Why are we sharing, why are we disclosing in this way and for what purpose? Many people are already in the habit of, ‘I have to go post on Facebook, I have to go see what’s happening, I have to update my status.’ Why? You don’t have to…”
Last year I asked my Introductory Sociology students to approach this discussion from a different starting point—starting with how they actually used social media—and how they were using it to make and share meaning in their daily lives. For 24-hours, students recorded their social media interactions in written logs, describing what they did (texting, updating a status, sending a message, posting a photo, commenting on a photo, “liking” a comment, replying to a comment, tweeting, re-tweeting, and so on) and the context in which the action took place (home, dorm room, living room, classroom [alas!]), and reflecting briefly on what they felt about the interaction at the time (for example: “I hate that picture of me, so I untagged it”). I compiled the logs into a “data package” that they could read and reflect on before coming together in groups to discuss what they saw as emerging themes—meanings that they seemed to share about how they and their classmates were using social media in their daily lives.
What follows—with many thanks to my students!—is one approach to that oft-repeated wail of “WHY! Why are students posting/ tweeting/ texting status updating?” But social media use doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in a social context. Structures, disciplinary practices, cultural understandings, and interpersonal relationships shape interactions in any context. For these students, the classroom stood out as one particular context that created a need for social media use. In my own research, I argue that this is because power relationships shaping the classroom have informed students’ understandings of the classroom as a private place, a place where individuals need to “take in” information, but don’t necessarily get to connect to their own experiences, interests, and concerns while they are there. This social environment facilitates a sense of boredom among students.
Social media use during class was one of the most commonly observed themes from the data I collected (over 20,000 words of logs—and approximately 30 groups of students over the course of 3 semesters!). In the examples cited below, this theme is presented and described by students Christi G., Ellen N., Clare B., and Robby B. Particularly, these students point to the connection between their use of social media and boredom in the classroom.
Boredom During Class
(by Christi G., Clare B., Ellen N., and Robby B.; SOCY100 Spring 2011)
Often times, people get bored during class, but there are many different reasons for this. One of the more common reasons is because the professor lectures in a very quiet and monotone voice, which puts people to sleep. Another cause of boredom is general lack of interest in the class, such as someone taking a core elective that they aren’t actually interested in. Social media is sometimes seen as the answer to boredom in class, but could also be the problem. Social media is seen as a good answer to boredom, because it can be a small time commitment or an activity for the whole class period. People can talk with their friends rather than listening to lectures. Lectures are isolating because you sit and try to write everything down, and social media lets people connect with other people. Also, in large lecture halls, there is probably someone nearby on Facebook doing something potentially distracting. The person on Facebook is probably using it because they are bored with the class and looking for something to do. Another reason for being on Facebook during class would be that there’s some kind of very exciting event or conversation taking place that you want to take part in.
11:42am – Trying to focus in Econ but I can’t. Text other roommate telling her how boring econ is
12:15pm – Hopped on Facebook because I was bored in class.
12:00pm – I was in biology class. This class just gets boring almost every day, so I pulled out my cell phone to check if someone texted me. No text message, so I initiated a text conversation with a guy friend.
BBMing [Blackberry Messaging] my friend “Chris” because I am bored in [the library].
10:00 AM- playing wordmole on my blackberry during a very boring STAT [statistics] class.
12:15 am: Hopped on Facebook because I was bored in class.
12:30 am: Checked my Twitter for any mentions and @ replies from the Party tweets I put up earlier on the weekend.
12:43 am: Mentioned my roommate in a tweet that fried him up for putting up so many tweets in like 5 min. when u needs to be studying. I put it up on twitter and facebook so that everyone else would notice and fry up my roommate also.
12:45 am: My roommate replied back to be asking where am I at because Twitter can be used as a person to person communication medium.
12:48 am: I reply back with a [Tweet] “at class bored” because no one uses direct messages in college.
10:00 am class starts and I wish I had my laptop to keep me entertained
2:24 pm I hear my phone buzz but am doing a group project and don’t want to be rude so I ignore it
2:40 pm class is almost over and another member of the group checked his phone so I check mine. My cousin, A, texted me about her college visit to Ohio State and how she is jealous of our warm weather since it’s not as nice there. I have another text from C saying she fell asleep outside where I left her but is feeling better
8:01 PM- Bored in Physics class so I end up playing games on my phone
1:02pm: I texted my boyfriend during class because it was extremely boring and I needed something to occupy my brain. (Don’t worry…it wasn’t SOCY!) We texted for the rest of class and I don’t remember anything from lecture.
In short, when students examine their uses of social media sociologically, they reflect on their own identities, the social contexts in which those identities have developed, and the interactions that take place in those contexts. Through their reflections and dialogues via social media, they construct, share, and evaluate knowledge. These processes become particularly visible via social media. But when students reflect on their lived realities in their school work, sometimes they can become visible in the classroom too.
It’s the middle of class. Looking out into the classroom, a dim light reflects on students’ faces as they stare or type into the devices in front of them. Walking up and down the aisles, blue-tinted Facebook pages on the students’ screens are usually the source of the reflected light.
While such students might seem withdrawn from the class, this familiar scene holds a potential goldmine of sociological exploration and examples.
If these students are already intently interested in, or “studying” the profiles and usage of their friends and themselves, why not engage them to do so via in-class assignments and beyond? The setting seems ripe for investigation on topics like presentation of self, production of identities, symbolic boundaries, and social interaction of all sorts.
Some sociology departments anchor courses in such investigations. According the article “College Offers Facebook Sociology Course,” Nell Vidyarthi explains,
As a student, I was always amazed by the abilities of students to simultaneously “pay attention” and browse Facebook, but a new course from Bowdoin College in Maine brings Facebook into the course load. Entitled “In the Facebook Age”, the course analyzes sociological concepts and applies them to the emerging phenomena of Facebook and other social networks. The course itself is fluid, and its material responds to the changes that occur every day in the social sphere.
Other sociology courses could find ways to weave their themes and concepts into things that could be analyzed by using Facebook (as long as bias and investigation are incorporated into such assignments or discussions). With the many facets and pieces of information we all provide for each other via Facebook and the time our students already spend interacting through it, it seems absurd not to engage them to sociologically utilize the time they spend there.
In what ways do you or others engage sociologically with students’ Facebook usage?
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
Today, we are all familiar with with what it means to be closeted. In fact, coming out has become among our most widely recognized cultural narratives. No doubt, large swaths of the American landscape still present environments hostile to sexual preferences that deviate from prevailing hetero-patriarchical norms, but progressive circles, and increasingly, society writ large, have embraced the belief that coming out (i.e., rending oneself visible) is the road to empowerment. If this is true, the queer community should be more empowered than ever. Social media allows for unprecedented levels of visibility. Broadcasting your sexual preferences to the world is never more than click away.
I, for one, am dubious as to the promise of ever-greater visibility for the queer community and its political struggles. And, I am not alone. In 1999, Steven Seidman, Chet Meeks, and Francie Transchen wrote and essay entitled, “Beyond the Closet,” in which they argued that the closet is not merely a symbol of oppression, but also serves to create an important space for safe experimentation. Their call for ambivalence toward the closet was simultaneously a critique of the culture of visibility – of “mass exhibitionism.”
Queer youth in the latter several decades of the 20th Century famously fled the pastoral trappings of their hometowns to form accepting urban communities. In doing so, they were able to escape the normalizing gaze of their families, teachers, and other locals. Newfound anonymity (invisibility?), in essence, gave these youth the freedom to establish their own identities and, ultimately, the confidence to assert these identities in the face of others’ opposition.
Social media, however, is a technology that allows for all those people who we know or, even, don’t know, to project their gaze on us, reaching across continents. Because the closet only exists out of sight, social media, as a gaze-enhancing technology, threatens the very existence of the closet itself. For this reason, the queer community may have more at stake in the politics surrounding these newly emerging technologies than other groups, particularly with respect to privacy debates. We must ask ourselves: What can be done to create a queer-friendly Internet?
While these issues might be most salient for the queer community, the metaphor of the closet speaks to us all. We all have our own closets. These closets help us to discover who it is we want to be and give us the freedom undergo the process of change. I do not want to sound overly pessimistic. Social media does also serve as a tool to build and maintain sub-communities, connecting people with similar experiences in ways that might not otherwise be possible. What I take issue with is the notion that greater visibility is always better for individuals or communities. In an age of hyper-visibility, closets might actually be worth fighting for.
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
For years, we have been deluged with stories about the dangers of online social media. But in the last several months, a new kind of story has suddenly swept the mainstream media and the blogosphere alike. This new type of story highlights burgeoning discontent amongst the user-base of social media sites and, at least implicitly, questions whether mass exhibitionism on social media is just a faddish blip on the cultural radar.
For example, recent articles discuss how high school students have grown cautious and are adopting pseudonyms to avoid having their profiles examined by college admissions committees. More broadly, social media is being problematized for its infinite capacity to absorb attention, which makes it, at minimum, a potential distraction, and, at worse, an object of obsession. Most prominent, however, is the issue of privacy. We know that Facebook continues to expose more and more details about us, while they have made it increasingly complex to adjust our privacy settings.
What are we to make of the media’s newest infatuation: Does 2010 really mark a major turning point in the history of the Internet? While an answer to this question would be speculative at best, a more manageable, and decidedly more empirical, question lies at its core: Is there a real mass movement afoot to reduce or terminate exhibitionism on social media, or is the media imposing a sort of baseless, top-down narrative on the millions of people who have integrated social media into their everyday lives?