At the confluence of being chronic meme aficionados, internet research scholars, and educators to cohorts of young people, in 2017 my colleague Kristine Ask and I began a project to consider seriously the types of memes students share online.

Memes have been established as objects that bear meaning beyond mere internet frivolity. Studies in vernacular cultures have framed memes as “the propagation of content items such as jokes, rumours, videos, or websites from one person to others“, and as a form of “pop polyvocality” or “a pop cultural tongue that facilitate[s] the diverse engagement of many voices“. Other studies from media and communications have found that memes are a “shared social phenomenon“, and still others from the socio-cultural perspective have asserted them as a “common instrument for establishing normativity“.

Specifically, we studied the popular Facebook page “Student Problems” on which over 7 million subscribers participate in producing, circulating, gatekeeping, and consuming memes focused on mental health issues, student debt, racism, sexism, and other struggles associated with student life. Aside from the humour proliferate on the Facebook page, the Student Problem brand’s flagship website also dishes out tips via (moderately sincere) Student Guides and an online shop of blatantly self-ironic merchandise, such as a “Cry Cushion” with the inscription “place head and cry”.

Evidently, self-deprecating relatability is the order of the day, in which condescending, pessimistic, and vulnerable displays of student struggles have arisen in opposition to the rise of pristine, prestigious, and celebratory content propagated by social media Influencers and everyday humblebraggers. As vehicles of emotive visual display, Student Problem memes allowed users to build a sense of community, camaraderie, and commiseration, albeit clouded in the language of humour and wit. Although our study also considered findings from a workshop with undergraduate students in two batches, and a media watch of press coverage on student issues over several months across the world, in this post we focus on the content analysis of just the Facebook page and briefly discuss three themes from our sample of 179 memes collected between March and May 2017. more...

“Designing Kai, I was able to anticipate off-topic questions with responses that lightly guide the user back to banking,” Jacqueline Feldman wrote describing her work on the banking chatbot. Feldman’s attempts to discourage certain lines of questioning reflects both the unique affordances bots open up and the resulting difficulties their designers face. While Feldman’s employer gave her leeway to let Kai essentially shrug off odd questions from users until they gave up, she notes “…Alexa and Siri are generalists, set up to be asked anything, which makes defining inappropriate input challenging, I imagine.” If the work of bot/assistant designers entails codifying a brand into an interactive persona, how their creations afford various interactions shape user’s expectations and behavior as much as their conventionally feminine names, voices and marketing as “assistants.”

Affordances form “the dynamic link between subjects and objects within sociotechnical systems,” as Jenny Davis and James Chouinard write in “Theorizing Affordances: From Request to Refuse.” According to the model Davis and Chouinard propose, what an object affords isn’t a simple formula e.g. object + subject = output, but a continuous interrelation of “mechanisms and conditions,” including an object’s feature set, a user’s level of awareness and comfort in utilizing them, and the cultural and institutional influences underlying a user’s perceptions of and interactions with an object. “Centering the how,” rather than the what, this model acknowledges “the variability in the way affordances mediate between features and outcomes.” Although Facebook requires users to pick a gender in order to complete the initial signup process, as one example they cite, users also “may rebuff these demands” through picking a gender they don’t personally identify as. But as Davis and Chouinard argue, affordances work “through gradations” and so demands are just one of the ways objects afford. They can also “requestallow, encourage, discourage, and refuse.” How technologies afford certain interactions clearly affects how we as users use them, but this truth implies another: that how technologies afford our interactions re-defines both object and subject in the process. Sometimes there’s trouble distinguishing even which is which.

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It’s been 7 years since Alone Together (2011) was published. And, here at Cyborgology (which we launched only a few months before the book came out), probably no other publication has received so much of our attention (with the possible exception of Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto.”

While Turkle’s earlier writings were hopeful, forward-looking provocations about the growing intimacy between humans and machines, Alone Together (as well as Turkle’s more recent Reclaiming Conversation [2015]) struck a completely different tone: a present-focused techno-pessimism. Turkle’s insistence on the intrinsic inferiority of digitally mediated interaction—that it is less real, less human—became a foil for ambivalent, nuanced analysis of technology and society that we sought to provide on this blog. In part, Turkle has become an antagonistic figure because she cherry-picks anecdotes while ignoring more systematic research on the way digital technologies facilitate social support. In part, because she epitomizes a sort of rhetoric about the ontological inferiority of the Web—its lack of realness—that has distracted from important social justice questions about how such technologies reinforce/reproduce existing inequalities and the concrete measure that can be taken to changes this.

In the recent 2017 update of the book. Turkle doubles down, referencing Darwin and embracing evolutionary biology style grand narratives in her new preface. She says, “as we evolved, people were the only other creatures who responded with us with suggestions of empathy.” (I can hear Haraway off in the distance, shouting, “what about dogs?!”) Turkle continues more...

When migrants meet we talk about our visas. You can be a Belgian in New Delhi or a Colombian in New York, but until you get your anchor passport, or a Green/Blue card, something that stabilises your identity in a place that you’ve chosen to live and work in, and that isn’t the poor, boring, violent or corrupt yet always-wonderful place you’re ‘originally from’, you will continue to talk about your right to remain.

We do this because it affects what we can and cannot do to build our lives as workers, survivors, parents and upstanding members of our new societies. Public and social bureaucracies that regulate our right to remain in a place affect our confidence in visible and invisible ways.

Talking about our visas is an extended response to the question: Wie gehts? How’s it going? Yesterday, my answer would have been: Schlimm! Terrible! Because I discovered that my prized freelancer visa is actually not as stable a sign of inclusion as I thought it was. I was reminded that my right to remain and work in Germany is a paper sticker in a passport, and indicative of a particular system of systems related to immigration, not verification of my identity, nor a validation of the hoop-jumping that translates into trust in me.

In this post I put together some reflections from a personal incident as a way to document how notions of identity and trust are being transformed in the context of automated decision-making and financial technologies (fintech). more...

Facebook has had a rough few weeks. Just as the Cambridge Analytica scandal reached fever pitch, revelations about Zuckerberg’s use of self-destructing messages came to the surface. According to TechCrunch, three sources have confirmed that messages from Zuckerberg have been removed from their Facebook inboxes, despite the users’ own messages remaining visible. Facebook responded by explaining that the message-disappearing feature was a security measure put in place after the 2014 Sony hack. The company promptly disabled the feature for Zuckerberg and other executives and promised to integrate the disappearing message feature into the platform interface for all users in the near future.

This quick apology and immediate feature change exemplifies a pattern revealed by Zeynep Tufekci in a NYT opinion piece, in which she describes Facebook’s public relations strategy as a series of public missteps followed by “a few apologies from Mr. Zuckerberg, some earnest-sounding promises to do better, followed by a couple of superficial changes to Facebook that fail to address the underlying structural problems.”

In the case of disappearing messages, Facebook’s response was both fast and shallow. Not only did the company fail to address underlying structural issues, but responded to the wrong issue entirely. Their promise to offer message deletion to all Facebook users treated the problem as one of equity. It presumed that what was wrong with Zuckerberg deleting his own messages from the archive was that others couldn’t do the same. But equity is not what’s at issue. Of course users don’t have the same control over content—or anything else on the Facebook platform—as the CEO. I think most people assume that they are less Facebook-Powerful than Mark Zuckerberg. Rather, what is at issue is a breach of accountability. Or more precisely, the problem with disappearing messages on Facebook is that this violated accountability expectations. more...

Humor is central to internet culture. Through imagery, text, snark and stickers, funny content holds strong cultural currency.  In a competitive attention economy, LOLs are a hot commodity. But just because internet culture values a laugh it doesn’t preclude serious forms of digitally mediated communication nor consideration of consequential subject matter. In contrast, the silly and serious can—and do—imbricate in a single utterance.

The merging of serious and silly becomes abundantly evident in recent big data analyses of political communication on social media. Studies show that parody accounts, memes, gifs and other funny content garner disproportionate attention during political news events. John Hartley refers to this phenomenon as ‘silly citizenship’ while Tim Highfield evokes an ‘irreverent internet’. This silliness and irreverence in digitally mediated politics means that contemporary political discourse employs humor as a participatory norm. What remains unclear, however, is what people are doing with their political humor.  Is humor a vehicle for meaningful political communication, or are politics just raw material for funny content?  My co-authors and I (Tony Love (@tonyplove) and Gemma Killen (@gemkillen)) addressed this question in a paper published last week in New Media & Society. more...

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Colin Koopman, an associate professor of philosophy and director of new media and culture at the University of Oregon, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times last month that situated the recent Cambridge Analytica debacle within a larger history of data ethics. Such work is crucial because, as Koopman argues, we are increasingly living with the consequences of unaccountable algorithmic decision making in our politics and the fact that “such threats to democracy are now possible is due in part to the fact that our society lacks an information ethics adequate to its deepening dependence on data.” It shouldn’t be a surprise that we are facing massive, unprecedented privacy problems when we let digital technologies far outpace discussions around ethics or care for data. more...

The last couple weeks have been rough for sex workers on the internet. Adult content creators are reporting that their porn videos are disappearing out of Google Drive; Microsoft has announced that they will prohibit profanity and nudity on Skype; Patreon has changed its terms of service to exclude pornography; Facebook is censoring events that are related to sex – including even sex ed by refusing to allow for paid promotion (I recently gave a Dirty Talk workshop for a Pittsburgh based sex-positive sex education collective, and their ads were rejected); Twitter is shadowbanning sex workers at alarming rates; and several platforms related to erotic services have shut down entirely: Craigstlist personal ads, several sub-Reddits, The Erotic Review, MyRedBook, CityVibe, Providingsupport, to name a few.

Much of this is a reaction to the passage of FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) in the House, and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) in the Senate. These bills are a response to the government’s inability to prosecute trafficking cases against the online classifieds site Backpage (a competitor to Craiglist known for being more hospitable to sex workers). These bills would amend Section 230 of The Communications Decency Act of 1996, holding websites liable for content posted by 3rd parties and making it easy for plaintiffs and state attorney generals to sue websites that “knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking” (a phrase that the bill does not clearly define and often seems to conflate will prostitution more generally). In other words, once these bills are signed into law, Craigslist, for example, could be sued because of something that a user posts, if an attorney general from any of the 50 states decides to interpret it as vaguely related to sex trafficking. And, many proponents of FOSTA/SESTA seem to be indicating that they view all sex work as equatable to sex trafficking. more...

“Is it in error to act unpredictably and behave in ways that run counter to how you were programmed to behave?” –Janet, The Good Place, S01E11

“You keep on asking me the same questions (why?)
And second-guessing all my intentions
Should know by the way I use my compression
That you’ve got the answers to my confessions”
“Make Me Feel” –Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer

Alexa made headlines recently for bursting out laughing to herself in users’ homes. “In rare circumstances, Alexa can mistakenly hear the phrase ‘Alexa, laugh,’” an Amazon representative clarified following the widespread laughing spell. To avert further unexpected lols, the representative assured, “We are changing that phrase to be “Alexa, can you laugh?” which is less likely to have false positives […] We are also changing Alexa’s response from simply laughter to ‘Sure, I can laugh’ followed by laughter.”

This laughing epidemic is funny for many reasons, not least for recalling Amazon’s own Super Bowl ads of Alexa losing her voice. But it’s funny maybe most of all because of the schadenfreude of seeing this subtly misogynist voice command backfire. “Alexa, laugh” might as well be “Alexa, smile.” Only the joke is on the engineers this time – Alexa has the last laugh. Hahaha!

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If I were to ask you a question, and neither of us knew the answer, what would you do? You’d Google it, right? Me too. After you figure out the right wording and hit the search button, at what point would you be satisfied enough with Google’s answer to say that you’ve gained new knowledge? Judging from the current socio-technical circumstances, I’d be hard-pressed to say that many of us would make it past the featured snippet, let alone the first page of results.

The internet—along with the complementary technologies we’ve developed to increase its accessibility—enriches our lives by affording us access to the largest information repository ever conceived. Despite physical barriers, we can share, explore, and store facts, opinions, theories, and philosophies alike. As such, this vast repository contains many answers to many questions derived from many distinct perspectives. These socio-technical circumstances are undeniably promising for the distribution and development of knowledge. However, in 2008, tech-critic Nicholas Carr posed a counter argument about the internet and its impact on our cognitive abilities by asking readers a simple question: is Google making us stupid? In his controversial article published by The Atlantic, Carr blames the internet for our diminishing ability to form “rich mental connections,” and supposes that technology and the internet are instruments of intentional distraction. While I agree with Carr’s sentiment that the way we think has changed, I don’t agree that the fault falls on the internet. I believe we expect too much of Google and less of ourselves; therefore, the fault (if there is fault) is largely our own. more...