I am not an expert on Bolivian politics. I am, however, human, which is more than can be said about the Twitter accounts commenting on the Bolivian coup:
“Modelling is superficial, and anything superficial in the long run will never be good for the psyche”—this seems to be intuitively true. Although modelling might boost self-esteem, it cannot fill an inner emptiness. However, several years of participant observation, surveys and interviews in the scene of amateur modelling draw a different picture. Models seem to agree on the fact, that it makes them feel better. How is this possible?
Broadly speaking, there are two reasons apart from the fact that for many there is something pleasurable about it: Modelling can teach some skills relevant in everyday life and modelling can help to cope with identity.
Mark Zuckerberg testified to congress this week. The testimony was supposed to address Facebook’s move into the currency market. Instead, they mostly talked about Facebook’s policy of not banning or fact-checking politicians on the platform. Zuckerberg roots the policy in values of free expression and democratic ideals. Here is a quick primer on why that rationale is ridiculous. more...
As technology expands its footprint across nearly every domain of contemporary life, some spheres raise particularly acute issues that illuminate larger trends at hand. The criminal justice system is one such area, with automated systems being adopted widely and rapidly—and with activists and advocates beginning to push back with alternate politics that seek to ameliorate existing inequalities rather than instantiate and exacerbate them. The criminal justice system (and its well-known subsidiary, the prison-industrial complex) is a space often cited for its dehumanizing tendencies and outcomes; technologizing this realm may feed into these patterns, despite proponents pitching this as an “alternative to incarceration” that will promote more humane treatment through rehabilitation and employment opportunities.
As such, calls to modernize and reform criminal justice often manifest as a rapid move toward automated processes throughout many penal systems. Numerous jurisdictions are adopting digital tools at all levels, from policing to parole, in order to promote efficiency and (it is claimed) fairness. However, critics argue that mechanized systems—driven by Big Data, artificial intelligence, and human-coded algorithms—are ushering in an era of expansive policing, digital profiling, and punitive methods that can intensify structural inequalities. In this view, the embedded biases in algorithms can serve to deepen inequities, via automated systems built on platforms that are opaque and unregulated; likewise, emerging policing and surveillance technologies are often deployed disproportionately toward vulnerable segments of the population. In an era of digital saturation and rapidly shifting societal norms, these contrasting views of efficiency and inequality are playing out in quintessential ways throughout the realm of criminal justice. more...
In the wake of the terrifying violence that shook El Paso and Dayton, there have been a lot of questions around the role of the Internet in facilitating communities of hate and the radicalization of angry white men. Digital affordances like anonymity and pseudonymity are especially suspect for their alleged ability to provide cover for far-right extremist communities. These connections seem to be crystal clear. For one, 8chan, an anonymous image board, has been the host of several far-right manifestos posted on its feeds preceding mass shootings. And Kiwi Farms, a forum board populated with trolls and stalkers who spend their days monitoring and harassing women, has been keeping a record of mass killings and became infamous after its administrator “Null”, Joshua Conner Moon, refused to take down the Christchurch manifesto.
The KF community claim to merely be archiving mass shootings, however, it’s clear that the racist and misogynistic politics on the forum board are closely aligned with that of the shooters. The Christchurch extremist had alleged membership to the KF community and had posted white supremacist content on the forum. New Zealand authorities requested access to their data to assist in their investigation and were promptly refused. Afterwards, Null encouraged Kiwi users to use anonymizing tools and purged the website’s data. It is becoming increasingly clear that these far-right communities are radicalizing white men to commit atrocities, even if such radicalization is only a tacit consequence of constant streams of racist and sexist vitriol.
With the existence of sites like 8chan and Kiwi Farms, it becomes exceedingly easy to blame digital technology as a root cause of mass violence. Following the recent shootings, the Trump administration attempted to pin the root of the US violence crisis on, among other things, video games. And though this might seem like a convincing explanation of mass violence on the surface, as angry white men are known to spend time playing violent video games like Fortnite, there has yet to be much conclusive or convincing empirical accounts that causally link videogames to acts of violence. more...
The following contains light spoilers for William Gibson’s novel, The Peripheral.
I just finished The Peripheral, William Gibson’s latest novel, published in 2014. Generally, the work documents two different futures: a time not too far off from now (maybe 15 years or so?) and then around 70 years after that. Overall, it’s extremely Gibsonian in its plot and narrative arc (my wife asked, “what’s that about?” as I started it and I could only reply, “I’ll tell you after page 50”), and for that I really loved it. His visions of the future are informed by so much more than the utopian technolust or dystopian apocalypse of Hollywood or most pop speculative fiction. Instead, they are filled with nuanced socio-political prescience, the kind that just seems to make sense as logical progressions from our current trajectory.
While putting together the most recent project for External Pages, I have had the pleasure to work with artist and designer Anna Tokareva in developing Baba Yaga Myco Glitch™, an online exhibition about corporate mystification techniques that boost the digital presence of biotech companies. Working on BYMG™ catalysed the exploration of the shifting critiques of interface design in the User Experience community. These discourses shape powerful standards on not just illusions of consumer choice, but corporate identity itself. However, I propose that as designers, artists and users, we are able to recognise the importance of visually identifying such deceptive websites in order to interfere with corporate control over online content circulation. Scrutinising multiple website examples to inform the aesthetic themes and initial conceptual stages of the exhibition, we specifically focused on finding common user interfaces and content language that result in enhancing internet marketing.
Anna’s research on political fictions that direct the necessity for a global mobilisation of big data in Нооскоп: The Nooscope as Geopolitical Myth of Planetary Scale Computation lead to a detailed study of current biotech incentives as motivating forces of technological singularity. She argues that in order to achieve “planetary computation”, political myth-building and semantics are used for scientific thought to centre itself on the merging of humans and technology. Exploring Russian legends in fairytales and folklore that traverse seemingly binary oppositions of the human and non-human, Anna interprets the Baba Yaga (a Slavic fictitious female shapeshifter, villain or witch) as a representation of the ambitious motivations of biotech’s endeavour to achieve superhumanity. We used Baba Yaga as a main character to further investigate such cultural construction by experimenting with storytelling through website production. more...
In February, some colleagues and I visited Biosphere 2—an absurd, failed experiment in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. What sort of experiment? Well, that’s hard to pin down. Depending on who you ask or how you want to frame it, Biosphere 2 could be a science experience, a social experience, a financial one, or maybe just an experiment in American hubris.
One of my colleagues on that trip to Arizona earlier this year, Avery Trufelman, recently released a podcast episode on the project as part of her new series on failed utopias. The Biosphere piece effectively chronicles the entire timeline of this absurd effort to recreate an Earth-like biosphere in three enclosed acres. Complete with ocean, rainforest, farm, desert, and—of course—living quarters, the Biosphere 2 was funded by the eccentric Ed Bass, ostensibly an easily distracted recipient of a trust fund. Under the direction of the equally idiosyncratic John P. Allen, Bass poured hundreds of millions into building this utopian vision in the early 90s.
The first time Allen and Bass collaborated was on a project called Synergia Ranch, a counter-cultural haven in the 70s and 80s. Members of the ranch, the Synergians, created a troupe called The Theater of All Possibilities and even built a seafaring ship—the Heraclitus—to carry them around as they acted out their visions for the future on stage. That’s the beginning of this whole mess. The end came after Steve Bannon (as Avery says, “yes—that Steve Bannon”) enacted a hostile takeover to remove Allen from the reigns and return control to Bass. For everything in between, I suggest you listen to the podcast.
I’ve written previously on this blog about my issues with the field of speculative design (of which I consider myself a participant), but this whole Biosphere 2 story is just too exemplary. Eight white people with little-to-no scientific background were put in a multi-million dollar enclosure for two years because they thought they could learn something (but what?) about how Earth works. The UV-protected glass killed the bees immediately, the exposed concrete sequestered carbon and oxygen, the air got thinner, the energy required to farm was greater than what the crops could provide, and the group split into two factions (who still don’t speak to each other to this day). Meanwhile, outside the dome, businessmen and bureaucrats wanted the experiment to be so successful—so real—that they censored reports coming from participants. And as the building—which, by the way, was powered by an external natural gas source—struggled to sustain human life, egotrips decimated any hope of a well-run project.
Nearly thirty years later, we have Jeff Bezos telling us he’ll build a colony on the Moon because Earth isn’t working out for him. Sci-Fi writers are being hired to advise the French military on future attacks and how to prepare for them. The same authors are consulting with multi-billion dollar enterprises. What are we doing here?
A few years ago, there was a comment thread on MoMA’s Design and Violence page that sparked a serious debate about the overtly privileged position of speculative designers. I think about that often and how well it sparked an important introspection among the field (a few of the participants in the thread have gone on to produce long-form scholarship inspired, in part, by the discussions happening there). But I also think about how little we’ve been able to change.
At the end of her series on utopias, Avery points to Foucauldian heterotopias as perhaps a way to envision future communities that are built with inclusion and justice. “Gathering communities,” she says, “means building heterotopias for the present while studying the past…Gathering community involved imagining a way to the future” She suggests that fiction is where we can “dismantle the hubristic imperialist ideal of what the perfect place is.” I think that sounds like a good start to me.
Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD candidate at UC San Diego.
“Do you ever part it to the other side,” my girlfriend B asked one morning while I was futzing with my hair in the bathroom mirror. “I read somewhere that it’s good to part it the other way every six months so your regular part doesn’t pull wider.” Though it sounded like reasonable advice, the comment sparked an uneasy reflection – that the face I see in the mirror and in selfies is exactly reversed for everyone else…
A similar creeping feeling seems at play in people’s reactions to the Snapchat “gender swap” filters. “When the filter was released,” Magdalene Taylor recalls in MEL Magazine, “my social feeds were clogged with dudes talking about how hot they were with long hair and a feminized face. One dude even told Reddit about how he got caught jacking off to his.” Curious what might be behind these users’ apparent autoeroticism, Taylor asked psychologist Pamela Rutledge. “It appears that the gender-swap filter makes features more symmetrical, smoothes out imperfections,” Rutledge said. Taylor observes they make your eyes look subtly bigger, too. “So the filter isn’t necessarily an exact portrayal of a differently gendered self,” Taylor says, “It’s an idealized version of it.”
Social Media Famous Children
In light of recent discussions around the rights of social media famous children, where various journalists and scholars are calling for more accountability from influencer parents, social media platforms, and everyday audiences, my collaborator A/Prof Tama Leaver and I would like to share some snippets from our paper-in-progress regarding the networked trajectories of child virality for which another stakeholder – TV networks – must be held accountable.
The piece of research, ‘From YouTube to TV, and Back Again: Viral Video Child Stars and Media Flows in the Era of Social Media’, was last presented in October 2018 at the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) 2018 conference in Montreal.
YouTube and TV
While talk shows and reality TV are often considered launching pads for ordinary people seeking to become celebrities, we argue that when children are concerned, especially when those children have had viral success on YouTube or other platforms, their subsequent appearance(s) on television highlight far more complex media flows.
At the very least, these flows are increasingly symbiotic, where television networks harness preexisting viral interest online to bolster ratings. However, the networks might also be considered parasitic, exploiting viral children for ratings in a fashion they and their carers may not have been prepared for.
In tracing the trajectory of Sophia Grace and Rosie from viral success to The Ellen Show we highlight these complexities, whilst simultaneously raising concerns about the long-term impact of these trajectories on the children being made increasingly and inescapably visible across a range of networks and platforms.
We draw on an extended data set largely comprising screengrabs, archived comments, press coverage, and volumes of field notes tracking historical events that unfolded in public trajectory of young children who go viral on the internet and on the media, but also utilise data derived from an ethnographically informed content analysis of young internet celebrities and a data-driven cultural studies analysis of childhood in the age of tracking devices.
Sophia Grace and Rosie
This research takes as its primary case study the trajectory and progress of cousins Sophia Grace Brownlee (b. 2003) and Rosie McClelland (b. 2006), who went viral on YouTube in 2011 at the ages of 8 and 5 for covering Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass and were subsequently groomed by The Ellen DeGeneres Show into multi-platform celebrity.
Sophia Grace Brownlee (b. 2003) and Rosie McClelland (b. 2006) are a pair of cousins from Essex, England. Better known on the internet as “Sophia Grace and Rosie”, the duo went viral on YouTube at ages 8 and 5 when Sophia Grace’s mother uploaded a video of the girls singing Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass in September 2011 (Sophia Grace 2011a). The viral video was the debut post on the YouTube channel “Sophia Grace”, and has accumulated over 52 million views as of August 2017. A month later in October 2011, the girls were invited on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to be interviewed by show host Ellen and to reenact their viral performance. In a later segment, Nicki Minaj sprang a surprise on the girls where she appeared on stage at a last minute request to chat and sing with them. Both videos have recorded over 32 million and 122 million views respectively.
So well received were the girls on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and its YouTube channel that shortly after, behind-the-scenes footage of Sophia Grace & Rosie were released on the Show’s YouTube Channel, in a bid to capitalize upon their virality and extend the length of their appeal to the show’s audience. Subsequently, the girls were subsumed into the programming of The Ellen DeGeneres Show as they represented the show at various red carpet and starred in branded content in the YouTube content vernacular of a vlog, promoting various brands and events. Sophia Grace & Rosie eventually became a bona fide staple on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, hosting their own segment known as “‘Tea Time’ with Sophia Grace & Rosie”, with eight episodes between September 2012 and May 2013. It appears that The Ellen DeGeneres Show spotted talent and viral uptake of the girls early on, inviting them to celebrate their 100 millionth view on YouTube. Over subsequent years, the girls would frequently be featured talking about their personal lives, the experience of Britons regularly visiting America, their family lives, and the impact of their YouTube success, all of which both appeared on The Ellen Show and the Show’s YouTube channel.
As the years past and the cousins approach teenhood, it became clear that the social media presence of Sophia Grace was more intentionally curated and branded for a career in the (internet) entertainment industry while Rosie faded into the background. Aside from the structural expansion of rebranding her YouTube channel to focus on Sophia Grace rather than the duo and starting a Facebook page as “Sophia Grace The Artist”. Sophia Grace’s digital estates also underwent content expansion has she began to produce her own music meet mainstream entertainment industry and collaborate with fellow internet celebrities. Since turning 13 in 2016, Sophia Grace formally launched her Influencer career by engaging in Influencer content vernacular and YouTube tropes including participating in internet viral trends unrelated to her music career such as making and the Oreo challenge, engaging in the attention economy of clickbait such as Q&As addressing her budding romantic life and expanding her presence in other genres on YouTube such as makeup tutorials.
Networked Trajectories of Viral Child Celebrity
Following our fieldwork and content analysis of the social media presence and media coverage on Sophia Grace and Rosie, we offer the following model that details the steps and milestones through which children who first become viral on social media become systemically groomed into multi-media networked celebrities on both social and legacy media:
Complex Media Flows
To some extent, the rise and popularity of can be understood as part of what Graeme Turner calls ‘the demotic turn’, the increasing repositioning of everyday people into the media spotlight, creating a form of celebrity via reality TV, talk shows and so forth (Turner, 2013). This is reinforced by Sophia Grace (& Rosie)’s acknowledgement of The Ellen DeGeneres Show as the springboard for their expanded and extended fame post-virality in several of their public messages. However, we argue that the media flows relating to viral children as exemplified by Sophia Grace & Rosie is more complex. Rather than ‘creating’ the fame of these children The Ellen DeGeneres Show and similar TV talk show formats opportunistically capitalize upon the social capital of such viral video children by harnessing their fame and packaging it into more accessible, commercial, and deliberate consumption bytes. The girls were viral stars before they were on TV, but the networks channeled, amplified and significantly capitalized on their emergent (viral) fame. So successful is this model of viral kid celebrity factories that The Ellen DeGeneres Show has curated its own series of adorable kids in a playlist of over 200 videos with such viral children engaging in various (commercial) activities on The Show.
Viral fame online and more recognised televisual fame are increasingly blurring, with both symbiotic and parasitic relationships emerging as television networks seek to harness, and create, online attention. Viral children such as Sophia Grace and Rose exemplify this complexity, where the televisual and online flows are multiple and complex. At the heart of these flows, though, are an increasing number of children who amplified viral fame must be carefully position in commercial, social and care terms. As more and more children are featured online as proto-influencers and microcelebrities, often managed and produced by their parents, and sometimes being amplified and harnessed by more traditional media forms such as television, the rights of the children in these instances – to privacy, to self-determination and so forth (Livingstone & Third, 2017) – must be more robustly and transparently discussed. Historically, child stars have often not fared that well after bursts of fame in the media industries; viral kids need more successful and more carefully mapped trajectories.
While we are currently ushering our paper into publication, here are a few more links on the topic that might be useful:
Slides from our talk here.
Tweet summary of our key slides here.
Abstract in video form here.
Radio interview here.
Tama’s work on ‘Intimate Surveillance’ here.
Crystal’s work on ‘Family Influencers’ here.
Pop media version of our work here.
Twitter thread + reading list on the history of child influencers here.
Dr Crystal Abidin is a socio-cultural anthropologist of vernacular internet cultures, particularly young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. She is Senior Research Fellow and ARC DECRA Fellow in Internet Studies at Curtin University. Her books include Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (Emerald Publishing, 2018), Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures of Internet Fame (co-edited with Megan Lindsay Brown, Emerald Publishing, 2018), and Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures (with Tama Leaver and Tim Highfield, Polity Press, December 2019). Reach her at wishcrys.com or @wishcrys.