Oh, and this: vinepeek.com
@hwalker901 Please don't post personal information about another person. Please delete your tweet. You can DM that to us. Thanks.
— McDonald's (@McDonaldsCorp) January 23, 2013
Oh, and this: vinepeek.com
@hwalker901 Please don't post personal information about another person. Please delete your tweet. You can DM that to us. Thanks.
— McDonald's (@McDonaldsCorp) January 23, 2013
You may have heard of Vine by now, a Twitter-owned app that let’s you make short six-second-or-less videos with sound using an iPhone/Pod. The app records video as you hold your finger on the screen; removing the finger pauses the recording and allows you to make quick cuts to dissect your six seconds into one long shot, a couple short clips, or even many tiny brief shots to create stop-motion animation.
More than just another way to take a video, Vine trains the eye to see the world as differently documentable. It asks us to see the world as potential quick cuts stitched together. By placing new limits on video (only six seconds) but also providing new abilities (easily start/stop the recording), Vine almost begs new, creative applications. Shared on Facebook and Twitter, the short clips are already developing a visual style. In fact, I’m going to declare the first Vine cliché: the stop-motion meal being eaten. [UPDATE: ADDING THE CLICHE IN GIF FORM!]
Then there is Vinepeek. I don’t know how it works—my guess is that it searches new Vines posted on Twitter and embeds them in near-real-time on the site and I’m sure someone smarter can explain it elsewhere. In the meantime, as the site says, “Sit back and watch the world in 6 second bites.”
Vine’s loop like a GIF and the quick cuts provide a dizzying, aleatory pastiche of imagery. If Wes Anderson was Instagram before Instagram, Miranda July Pinterest before Pinterest, Vine feels like a Darren Aronofsky montage: Dog sushi computer baby bowling guy beer concert train cooking kid cat shot-glass sports videogame eating fireplace cab-ride thinking about what comes next feels a bit addictive. Vinepeek is a mostly G-rated jumpy channel-surf through videos themselves already jerky and abrupt.
This is the kind of stuff that got postmodern theorists out of bed in the 1980’s: the implosion, the dromology, the disembedding and distanciation. The rise of the quick-cut music video itself being placed in random rotation on MTV seemed new, not just modern, but something “post.”
What strikes me most about Vine and Vinepeek is the visual efficiency at play. It’s what keeps me watching. In all honesty, the individual Vine, like a random photograph on Facebook, is pretty boring. As things go, the novelty outdoes the quality. But the trivial nature of most of the individual Vines becomes fascinating in aggregate. It might be the very triviality that seems profound: that so much minutia from across the globe comes together so instantly just for us on our screens. The individual Vine, with its short time-limit and quick cuts, encourages the creator to pack in lots of information in minimal time, a quantity exaggerated by Vinepeek playing them one-after-another. The dullness of the images intensifies this effect, shifting the focus from quality onto the spectacle of quantity.
Maybe. I’m just seeing all of this tonight, and wanted to share some first thoughts. In any case, take a peek; like Chatroulette a few years back, Vinepeek is a momentary, and much needed, reminder of how bizarre the entire idea of the Internet is.
New feature! One-Purpose Tumblr’s Of The Week
Feel so bad for Teo getting screwed by the internet. Only place where reality isnt real or is real or is both. hug for u Teo hang in there
— Jose Canseco (@JoseCanseco) January 17, 2013
The past U.S. elections season was exciting for social scientists for many reasons, but none so much for the web theorist crowd as the amazing proliferation of election memes. In his essay “Speaking in Memes”, Nathan Jurgenson aptly dissects the phenomenon and its various facets: why and how election memes become viral, whether this virality is subject to campaign control, and how audiences and media conjure meaning by rebroadcasting and reporting these memes. There are many things I would love to further discuss in Jurgenson’s essay, but I will latch on to the issue of meme longevity and the possible reasons for some memes surviving far longer than most. I will also attempt to speculate about factors that afford memes the power to shift shape and adapt to new contexts, and about how and why their meaning might be transformed by the public in the process.
It is useful to look at election memes (U.S. ones and those found in other political arenas) as cases that quickly go viral, yet some fizzle out, and others persist. Of those that survive longer, some do so because they gain a sort of meta meaning, a new applicability to existing contexts (‘47%’ has gone through many, many iterations); others last because they’re universally understandable and are reflective of a shared moral or emotional experience (‘binders full of women’ owes some of its success to the fact that so many are exasperated with the exact sentiment it addresses). At least in some cases, though, political memes continue to live on and transform due not to passionate persuasions, but as an expression of a profound disillusionment on the part of the public – disillusionment with the government, the politics and the notion of democracy and nation-building in general. While this does not necessarily hold true for all kinds of democracies, post-Soviet countries like Ukraine and Russia (which are variously dubbed “developing democracies” and “failed states” in Western analytical reports), offer evidence of meme longevity through political disillusionment.
The Cyrillic part of the web is fascinating to me as a bilingual researcher, as it often picks up the most popular English-language memes and translates/adapts them in ingenious ways. But it also generates its own memes, and then the question is: do these native memes follow the same laws of growth, distribution and success (expressed through virality, fecundity, longevity and a number of other indicators)? Given the same social media and digital affordances, how do political memes in Ukraine and Russia achieve longevity? And how much control do political forces and governments have over those memes?
An example of a long-lasting meme from Ukrainian elections that I have been observing is the Ukrainian word “покращення” (pokrAschennya, or, literally, “improvement”), which was adopted by Internet users from a campaign slogan of the currently ruling Party of Regions and then adapted to be used, often ironically or satirically, as social commentary in many different contexts. The word was very quickly ripped out of its original context (praise of and reassurance from the ruling party) and flooded the social web in the form of multiple tweets posted on Twitter with the #покращення (#improvement) hashtag, as well as in photoshopped images on Facebook/Twitter.
The story of the meme is a traditional one: the initial slogan was “Покращення життя вже сьогодні!” (“Improvement of your life today!”), which the then-Presidential candidate Victor Yanukovych and Party of Regions actively used during the 2010 Presidential election campaign in Ukraine. The slogan was eventually whittled down by social media users to a single word – “покращення” (“improvement”) – which came to be associated online (and offline) with the campaign, and later, with Yanukovych’s (controversial) victory in the election, as well as with the agenda, promises and actions of the ruling Party of Regions and the President himself.
Even the initial slogan met with critical reaction and a healthy dose of cynicism from the public (at least the part of the public who dislike the ruling party). This is due to a large extent to the general dissatisfaction with the political and economic situation in the country. Ukraine has struggled with democratic development, obstructed by its Soviet past, and current widespread corruption and internal power struggles in the government have not endeared people to the ruling party. In short, announcing “improvement” when obviously no such thing is happening was not the brightest idea. People found even more pleasure in subverting a unit of political propaganda that was so blatantly false. This automatic desire to subvert any attempt by the ruling power to make a slogan go viral means that, as Sarah Kendzior puts it, “memes can be self-defeating – less an assertion of political power than an avowal of the pointlessness of politics”. By using the slogan and the word in ironic contexts, the public was essentially commenting on the uselessness of political games and acknowledging that the electoral campaign was simply a Potyomkin village of a democratic process.
The slogan quickly turned into a meme online, generating multiple photoshopped images on Facebook and various blogs, as well as a popular Cyrillic hashtag on Twitter. Most of the early social media content surrounding the “improvement” slogan in 2010 was based directly on the political video ad or on the billboards displaying the party’s slogan all over the country. What is interesting, however, is how broadly it has since spread and mutated to encompass the spectrum of issues that Ukrainian citizens choose to perceive as “political” in some way and worthy of social commentary. The “покращення” (“improvement”) meme continues to thrive as a kind of tool to evaluate the government, the social institutions and the public themselves. It is still sometimes used to make a genuinely positive comment on reality (when something does indeed improve), but is much more often subverted by the meme-carriers to reflect their ironic or satirical attitude to whatever they are commenting on. Most often, when there is said to be “improvement”, it means there is none, or things have actually gotten worse.
The Twitter hashtag was initially used to comment on actions/decisions of President Yanukovich and the ruling Party of Regions. But with the elections over, the meme did not disappear; instead, it found new outlets. I looked at a sample of 260 tweets with the Cyrillic hashtag from May and June 2012 to gauge the kinds of contexts in which people were still using the #improvement hashtag. Remember, the meme first appeared in December 2010 (!), and the hashtag is still used regularly to comment upon current events. In 2012, Twitter users applied the hashtag to a wider scope of contexts to comment on local officials and affairs, police force, businesses, urban planning, and an even broader spectrum of situations, completely unrelated to politics. These were often cases where something had changed but the effectiveness of change was doubtful. The meme then began to be applied in more personal contexts: its use broadened from general comments on politicians, police, public transit to personal comments about today’s traffic on the road, video games, broken appliances, soccer match results, a new version of iPad firmware released or Google changing Google Places to Google Local in Android firmware. The meme was there to add additional color to the tweeter’s words and to place the assertion/observation within a familiar context for other users. The meme applications went from specific words/actions by certain political persons to broader social commentary on how society functions to personal, apolitical, everyday life observations.
Here are three very different examples of tweets with the #покращення (#improvement) hashtag from my sample (translated into English, of course):
— Ilia Sukhodolskiy (@iliasunset) June 9, 2012
[Translation: Only in Ukraine do we have hipster policemen: they shoot “get the look” photos with their iPad. #хипстер #hipster #пакращення #improvement]
По дороге на работу беременная на жаре рекламирует пластиковые окна. #покращення
— outposter (@outposter) June 6, 2012
[Translation: On the way to work saw a pregnant woman by the side of the road handing out window installation flyers in the heat. #improvement]
— Yuri Woloshin (@YuriWoloshin) June 12, 2012
[Translation: http://t.co/YYvVkVUq Ukrainian App Store will open in June #habr #improvement]
Some users were so engaged with the meme that they further transformed and subverted it, like one Facebook user who started a Facebook page called Church of Improvement Witnesses (Церковь Свидетелей Покращення, a reference to Jehovah’s Witnesses, https://www.facebook.com/svideteli.pokrashenia/info) which essentially became a running collection of gags, photoshopped and real images from the web and links to various content which fans of the page deemed worthy to be branded “improvement”. Again, the page was started on February 29, 2012 – more than a year after the meme was born – and is still going strong.
There could be several reasons as to why this meme (and some other subverted campaign slogans from the same period to a lesser extent) are still so popular and have become part of mainstream symbolic vocabulary in Ukraine. For one, President Yanukovich and his party are still in power. Corruption is still rife and the disenchantment with government, parliament and any other power structures in society is still there. According to a recent Chatnam House report, civil society in Ukraine “remains weak as citizens have little capacity to influence political developments”. For the disparate members of society, even the most active ones, proliferating political memes may create an illusion that they’re participating in a broken political system “from which people feel increasingly alienated, a system run on wealth that is incomprehensible to a normal person”. Possibly, this particular meme simply fits very well with the cynicism and helplessness the public feels and supplies people with a handy, concise vessel to express their irony towards politicians’ promises and the quality of life. This expression of disenchantment through “[c]onsuming, liking, and sharing election memes”, as Jurgenson says, “places politics at an ironic distance […] making a political statement while simultaneously mocking the political process”.
But it’s interesting how the meme has transformed and is now used in completely apolitical situations as well, prolonging its shelf life, possibly because it is such good shorthand for describing a larger, more complicated set of multiple contexts beyond the political discourse. In other words, here the meme has become reusable, flexible and is able to gain slightly different meanings depending on the context in which it is used, while still being transparent enough for people to understand the suggested meaning behind it. The meme has folded seamlessly into the common language, has transcended the realms of Twitter and Facebook to be heard from the mouths of people who rarely even go online (only around 45% of Ukrainian population regularly go online), if at all, and yet have somehow caught the new, viral meaning of this word and adopted it as a useful ironic frame for their reality and their disenchantment with it. This fluidity of ideas in the digital and the physical dimensions is consistent with the augmented reality concept, suggested by Jurgenson: a meme is able to exist in the augmented reality, both offline and online; it can originate from an offline idea, proliferate online and flood our consciousness on all levels. Because of this pervasiveness, Jenny Davis calls memes “the predominant and logical form of myth in an augmented society”, as afforded by modern technology.
Just as myths are reflections of the times and communities they originate in, memes are indicative of the people who make them go viral, subvert them and make them last longer. In the case of the #improvement meme, as in the cases of some of the U.S. election memes, what goes viral and what sticks the longest reflects who people are and what they think about, and how they think about it. The long-living Ukrainian meme is entrenched in, broadened through and fed by the disenfranchisement of the nation’s people, who are increasingly finding that performing political participation through satirical subversion of campaign slogans is one of the only ways to express political critique, because it is, in the words of Sarah Kendzior, “one of the only ways to acknowledge a broken system while still participating in it” in some way that they can justify.
Tanya Lokot subverts memes and expresses her disenchantment on Twitter at @tanyalokot.
I’ve poked fun at these lazy op-eds before and, indeed, it must be tempting to retreat into the safe conceptual territory of “The Internet is fake!” when a juicy story of lies, deception, and computers makes headlines. The Te’o case is an almost unbelievable account of a football star allegedly tricked into falling for, and eventually mourning, a woman who didn’t exist. It’s the kind of fiction only non-fiction could invent. [More on the Te’o case]
What I’d like to point out is that people have incorrectly called this a cyber-deception, a digital-deception, an online-hoax, when this is not exactly right: it was a deception, and one that happened to involve digital tools in a significant way. This mistake is what I call “digital dualism”: conceptually dividing the digital and physical into separate realities. Dualists speak of “real” interaction as opposed to digital interaction, digital selves, and a digital life, like Neo jacking into The Matrix. [More. On. Digital. Dualism.]
And a writer named Timothy Egan went full on Jedi-status digital dualism last night in a piece for the New York Times about the Te’o story titled, “The Hoax of Digital Life.” He views this radical outlier of a case as “a compelling parable of digital dating culture,” and begins both by indicting “the nature of people who develop relationships through a screen,” and arguing that there is “a generation that values digital encounters over the more complicated messiness of real human interaction.” Egan states that “the Internet is the cause of much of today’s commitment-free, surface-only living,” as if that possibly could be the case. His assertion is far afield of the lived experience of many people who use digital tools and know well their real, human, messiness.
Egan goes on to say,
To fall in love requires a bit of unpredictable human interaction. You have to laugh with a person, test their limits, go back and forth, touch them, reveal something true about yourself. You have to show some vulnerability, some give and take. At the very least, you have to make eye contact. It’s easier to substitute texting, tweeting or Facebook posting for these basic rituals of love and friendship because the digital route offers protection. How can you get dumped when you were never really involved?
This is one of the tell-tale signs of digital dualism: the false idea that there is an on- and an offline that exist as a zero-sum trade-off, where time spent on one means less time on the other. This belies research demonstrating that those who use digital tools to socialize more also tend to socialize more face-to-face and do more things away from the computer.
[Te’o]’s a victim of his age, people who are more willing to embrace fake life through a screen than the real world beyond their smartphone.
Egan’s language here, while laughable for many readers of this blog, is worth not ignoring because it is pretty typical of how many discuss the Internet in op-eds, the news, and around kitchen tables and water-coolers. What needs to be insisted in response is that what happened in the Te’o case involves real deception among real people with real motives.
The point isn’t that there exists a digital world that’s fake; it’s that there isn’t a digital world. The hoax is the invention of some cyber-reality we’ve traded the offline for, where interaction is fake. The hoax is this conceptual error that Egan and other digital dualists rely on to make many of their arguments.
These writers get mileage out of calling this a “digital deception,” and declare the Internet “fake” in order to have a convenient answer (“technology!”) for real, messy, complicated, human problems like celebrity, romance, and deception. Blaming technology also provides a simpler solution: “less technology!” And, as I discuss in my IRL Fetish essay, by constructing the digital as some “other” place, and then judging that place as “virtual” and less real, one can then value their own non-use as more human and deep. Ultimately this trend may be less about putting down the digital and those who use it, and more about propping up one’s own non-use. And those reading these types of articles who are not highly involved with the Web or mobile devices can congratulate themselves.
As always, be very skeptical of those who find themselves worthy arbiters of who is more and less human or real.
In 2045, I hope a 90 year-old @tomhanks makes a THAT THING YOU DO-style movie about the early years of podcasting.
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) January 5, 2013
Going to Facebook has become the equivalent of opening the fridge & staring inside, even though you're not hungry.
— Nick Bilton (@nickbilton) December 29, 2012
Or: Lots of Words But Then An Awesome GIF, So Hang In There
Operating an automobile in an urban area is often quite frustrating. When you want to be driving, you’re often parked in traffic; when you want to be parked, you’re often driving around for a spot. Of course, there are apps for that: real-time traffic mapping apps from Google and others, and now we are also seeing so-called “smart parking” apps that display open parking spots by way of small sensors built in or near the parking space itself, fed into a network and then to a smartphone screen. A recent New York Times story on “smart parking” states that,
Smart-parking technology for on-street spaces is expensive, and still in its early stages […] Cities are marketing the programs as experiments in using demand-based pricing to reduce traffic congestion
The goal of “smart parking” is to give the city and individuals real time visualized data on which of those scarce city parking spots are occupied or not. Proponents hope this will mean easier parking and less traffic jamming. The idea of always knowing where those open parking spots are could be a huge relief. But, as the article above points out, these apps might not be so smart after all. The “smart” sensors will also make it much easier for law enforcement to ticket you when you’ve only been in your parking space moments too long. Also, new spaces are often taken as soon as they are available, and an app can’t help you much in that scenario.
To add to this, I’d like to briefly point out a different potential problem with “smart parking”: by focusing on making parking easier, we might also be encouraging more people to try to park. Like many tech-solutions-to-tech-problems, this answer could exacerbate the dilemma it is trying to solve when a better route may be to incentivize public transportation, biking, and other forms of transportation that don’t require looking for parking spaces in the first place. The logic that more parking information will lead to easier parking and less traffic congestion only holds, at best, if the number of cars looking for parking stays the same. The “smart parking” logic puts us in dangerous Robert Moses territory.
Robert Moses is famous for his concrete Haussmann-like accomplishments in and outside of New York City from the 1920’s all the way through the 1970’s. He built more and more highways and bridges in an effort to accelerate the vision of a future American car culture. His power to gather funds and build new projects was unprecedented and unchecked. Among many, many other projects, Moses built the Cross Bronx Expressway straight through existing neighborhoods. The displacement was abrupt and the devastation can still be seen today. According to his biographer, Moses was said to have purposely built tunnels with clearance too low for buses to pass through, discouraging public transportation as well as keeping those less wealthy off of his new roads.* Yes, he also built green parks, but built them far away for people to drive to (and he built those roads, too). After four decades of success, Moses planned a highway dead through lower Manhattan, which is where he met Jane Jacobs and her coalition of long-time neighborhood locals and recent gentrifiers as well as the changing cultural tide of the 1960’s. In what’s told as a modern-day David and Goliath story, Moses was repeatedly defeated and the highway pictured above was never built.**
I mention this mostly because I won’t pass up an opportunity to ramble on about NYC history (as anyone who has ever visited the city with me knows), but also because “smart parking” shares a logical error with Robert Moses’ vision. Indeed, what defeated Moses was the defeat of his underlying logic: that traffic congestion can be alleviated by adding more lanes of highway and more bridges. It seems intuitive enough: when sitting in a traffic jam you might wish for the addition of another lane. But this logic only holds if the number of cars stays the same. Instead, throughout Moses’ long power grip/trip, new roads didn’t reduce traffic; instead, the jams got worse, commutes got longer, more tolls were introduced, and drivers became more frustrated. In response, Moses built more, collected more tolls, and became more powerful. Traffic got worse. He built more. Et cetera.
What Moses failed to understand, what Jane Jacobs and others knew, and what New York City and the rest of the country took too long to realize is that adding more traffic lanes was increasing congestion. Open highways attract cars. Ease of driving meant more people were willing to drive more cars. New suburbs were built for commuting further and further away from the city. Driving became increasingly an option, and for the growing number of workers moving to the ‘burbs, a necessity.***
So-called “smart parking” certainly isn’t of a Robert Moses-like scope; those developing these apps are not (I hope) proposing to build massive concrete parking garages by demolishing existing communities. However, the logic—or more accurately, the logical error—is similar: providing an interface of all the unoccupied parking spaces will undoubtedly encourage more people to attempt to find parking.
Should I take the bus? subway? bike? Wait, I have the new smart parking app; let me check to see if there are open spots for my car. At least some people some of the time will choose the latter when they wouldn’t have before. The trouble of finding parking, like traffic congestion on urban streets, can be a prime reason why people in cities with cars leave their automobiles at home. Smart parking apps seek to remove that barrier, encouraging more new parkers.
That New York Times article above begins, “place ‘smart’ in front of a noun and you immediately have something that somehow sounds improved”, even when it has not. Since these parking apps could make spaces more scarce and encourage more cars on the road thereby increasing traffic, perhaps the “smarter” apps for making parking less of a hassle are those dealing with public transportation and biking.
Some two hundred or so low hanging overpasses on Long Island are there for a reason. They were deliberately designed and built that way by someone who wanted to achieve a particular social effect. Robert Moses […] built his overpasses according to specifications that would discourage the presence of buses on his parkways. According to evidence provided by Moses’ biographer, Robert A. Caro, the reasons reflect Moses social class bias and racial prejudice. Automobile-owning whites of “upper” and “comfortable middle” classes, as he called them, would be free to use the parkways for recreation and commuting. Poor people and blacks, who normally used public transit, were kept off the roads because the twelve-foot tall buses could not handle the overpasses. One consequence was to limit access of racial minorities and low-income groups to Jones Beach, Moses’ widely acclaimed public park. Moses made doubly sure of this result by vetoing a proposed extension of the Long Island Railroad to Jones Beach.
**Though, this left lower Manhattan to be transformed, as Sharon Zukin explains in Naked City, by wealthy gentrifiers instead of Moses’ brand of concrete rationalization.
***Facebook doesn’t cause loneliness, but there’s a good argument that this process did.