This is the fourth panel spotlight for the upcoming Theorizing the Web conference on April 9th. I’ll have the pleasure of presiding over a panel that focuses on how mobile web platforms are augmenting the world of bricks and flesh. Much more than an ethnography of Foursquare, this panel will explore our changing relationships to space and place, and the new ways public and private spaces are opening up as a result of this new augmented reality.

Presider: david a. banks

PJ and Nathan have done an excellent job on this blog of  articulating social media’s role in times of revolution, but this panel seeks to understand social media’s roll in a variety of instances. We will explore the cultural contexts that Social Networking Services (SNS) operate within, and what this does for old and new associations with (and within) place and society. From San Francisco hipsters to Chinese political activists, and from your local Starbucks, to the Second Life, social media is changing how we interact with our cities and our fellow citizens.

If anything unites these four panelists, it is their balanced perspective on the roll of digital media. Its easy to essentialize mobile computing platforms, or mistake computer mediated communication as anti-social. Without essentializing the technology, or romanticizing the past, these authors provide a balanced critique of what is happening in our cities and online. Read the four abstracts after the break  to learn more:


Presider: David Strohecker

Bearing in mind the obvious disparities created by the digital divide, how does Web 2.0 offer spaces for resistance for minority populations and historically silenced groups? Although the primary beneficiaries of new internet technologies has historically been white males, recent developments in handheld technologies have admitted several minority populations to the world wide web for the first time (the homeless, working class groups, low income African Americans, non-Western users, etc.). In addition, Web 2.0 offers opportunities for minority perspectives to be heard in ways that traditional top-down media outlets do not. For instance, the blogosphere is awash with feminist blogs and progressive voices normally silenced by mainstream media. Similarly, the internet has provided avenues for people separated by geographical distance to coalesce and converse online. I have in mind here diasporic communities that now span the globe and can access one another via the world wide web. Finally, new group formations around shared interests (such as MMO gaming) yield opportunities for counter-ideologies to gain momentum and successfully challenge prevailing ideologies on particular websites and internet landscapes. more...

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a group of truth-seekers entreats Deep Thought, an artificially-intelligent supercomputer, to reveal the answer to the most elusive question in existence, “What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?”

Deep Thought takes up the challenge, but warns that it will require no less than seven and a half million years to produce the answer. Given the scope of the challenge, Deep Thought’s petitioners accept the computer’s terms and leave it to their descendants to benefit from Deep Thought’s protracted ruminations. Finally, following eons of cogitation, Deep Thought stirs and announces, ominously, that the long-awaited answer is ready–but Deep Thought adds that the answer is unlikely to be a crowd-pleaser. Their patience at an end, Deep Thought’s supplicants insist that the computer unveil the monumental secret that they have waited so long and faithfully to hear. At that, Deep Thought heaves an electronic sigh and pronounces that the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything is…

…forty-two. more...

Jan Robert Leegte‘s scrollbars in physical space are another example of augmented reality art. More info and images here.

What is it that we exchange when we interact online? Part of my research into the notion of the branded cyborg explores the question of what we circulate in the networks that constitute digital sociality. Different platforms and communities within social media privilege different types of interactions, but two dominant  conceptualizations seem to emerge regularly. One is represented by Marcel Mauss‘ gift economy, the other by Bourdieu’s notions of capital, particularly social capital.

The concept of the gift economy resonates in the history of early web communities like CommuniTree (Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, 1995) and in the rise of Linux and the Open Source Movement. Mauss (The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, 1922/1990, p. 31) argued that gifts are never actually free, but objects of reciprocal exchange, and that “objects are never completely separated from the men [sic] who exchange them.” In a gift economy, then, objects cannot be fully transferred from one owner to another as they can in a commodity economy. Gregory’s (Gifts and commodities, 1982) work on Mauss suggests that the affiliation of the identity of the giver with the object is what compels reciprocation: gifts are inalienable, thus the act of giving creates debt that must be repaid and instantiates an ongoing relationship between individuals.  Gift exchange leads to a social bond and to mutual interdependence. more...

Presider: PJ Rey

This is the second panel spotlight for the upcoming  Theorizing the Web conference on April 9th.  I am presiding over an open paper session whose full title is  “Poets and Scribes – Constructing Fact and Fiction on Social Media.”  The title alludes to Susan Sontag’s On Photography in which she describes the evolution of thought surrounding our relationship to that earlier medium:

The photographer was thought to be an acute but non-interfering observer—as scribe, not a poet. But as people quickly discovered that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras furnish an impersonal objective image yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what’s there but of what an individual sees, not just a record but and evaluation of the world.  It became clear that there was not just a simple, unitary activity called seeing (recorded by, aided by cameras) but “photographic seeing,” which was both a new way for people to see and a new activity for them to perform.

The parallel between photography and social media is that both produce documents that are mediated through the situated perspective of the actor.  Media production is never passive and it is never asocial (though, of course, such actors fall on a continuum between the ideal-typical poet and scribe).  However, when we accept that media products are embedded within a system of social relations (particularly, relations of power), we implicitly accept the idea that these products inextricably contain poetic or fictitious elements—angles or interpretations that reflect the historical moment in which they were articulated. All media, including social media, are expressions of what Donna Haraway calls “situated knowledge.”

The salient difference between the poet and the scribe is that the poet is self-aware the her work is always a half-fiction.  She embraces the fact that expression is always a process of fictioning and uses it to her advantage.  On the contrary, the scribe is faced with the paradoxical task of trying to legitimate her existence by saying her work is necessary but adds nothing.  Her unwillingness to acknowledge what she brings to the product leaves her vulnerable to both marginalization and exploitation because she is blind to the unique interests of her social position and to the value that is created in offering a concrete expression of these interests. No doubt, the average Facebook user is more like a scribe than a poet, faithfully documenting the “truths” of their existence without realizing any claim to the value of the information generated.

The four papers on this panel are joined by a theme of inquiry into the active, poetic practice of mediating our online interaction and documentation.  Abstracts are presented below: more...

I’m a fan of artists using Google Earth or Street View images, such as Jon Rafman’s compelling Street View images or Google’s Street Art View. Here, check out Clement Valla’s “Postcards from Google Earth, Bridges” project. Google Earth renders bridges quite imperfectly, and when these images are shown together, they remind us that Google’s project is not a pure and perfect digital simulation of our world, but, instead, the creation of something new. Something that can be judged aesthetically on its own standards even if they are created as, to quote the artist, “the result of algorithmic processes and not of human aesthetic decision making.”

As readers of this blog know well, this new creation born out of the intersection of the physical and digital is what we refer to as “augmented reality.” Sometimes augmented reality is the reality we always find ourselves in: physical, but always and increasingly influenced by digitality. Sometimes this augmented reality is a collection of imperfectly rendered bridges. For me, Valla’s art provocatively reinforces this important theoretical conceptualization.

More augmented reality art: Augmented EcologiesSiavosh Zabeti’s Facebook book; Michael Tompert’s photography of destroyed Apple products; Aram Bartholl’s embedding USB sticks into public spaces. And all of Valla’s “Postcards from Google Earth, Bridges” are found here.

This book brings together a selection of key tweets in a compelling, fast-paced narrative, allowing the story of the uprising to be told directly by the people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The prosumer is one who produces what they consume and visa versa. Tweets from Tahrir places traditional consumers of content, the many faces in the crowd, as also content producers. What utility does having these tweets in book form have?  more...

Jeff Jarvis wrote a critique of having multiple identities on social media (find the post on his blog – though, I found it via While acknowledging that anonymity has enabled WikiLeaks or protestors of repressive regimes, he finds little utility for not being honest on social media about yourself. Jarvis argues against having multiple identities, e.g., one Twitter account for work and another for friends or a real Facebook for one group and a fakebook (a Facebook profile with a false name) for another.

Jarvis argues that the problems associated with presenting yourself in front of multiple groups of people (say, your mother, boss, best friend, recent fling, etc) will fade away under a state of “mutually assured humiliation.” Since we will all have the embarrassment of presenting a self to multiple groups, we all will forgive each other so that others will return the same favor to us. “The best solution”, Jarvis argues, “is to be yourself. If that makes you uneasy, talk to your shrink.” This is reminiscent of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who stated “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” or current Google CEO Eric Schmidt who said that “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

The obvious problem with this line of thinking is that the problems associated with displaying a single self in front of multiple populations is not “mutually” the same for all. Just as WikiLeaks or protestors often use anonymity to counter repressive and/or powerful regimes, we know that anonymity is also used by the most vulnerable and least powerful on the personal level as well. Jarvis misses the important variables of power and inequalities in his analysis.

Having a stigmatized and not always accepted identity can bring much conflict more...

The Cyborgology editors are throwing a conference on April 9th called Theorizing the Web. Leading up to the event, we will occasionally highlight some of the events taking place. I will be presiding over a paper session simply titled “Cyborgology” and present the four abstracts below. As readers of this blog already know, we view cyborgology as the intersection of technology and society. We define technology more broadly than just electronics, but also to things like architecture, language, even social norms. And the four papers on the Cyborgology panel offer a broad scope of what cyborgology is and how it can be used.

First, we have David Banks’ paper titled, “Practical Cyborg Theory: Discovering a Metric for the Emancipatory Potential of Technology.” David discusses what theoretical cyborgology is and what it can do. Bonnie Stewart offers a discussion of the social-media-using-cyborg as a sort-of “branded” self in her paper, “The Branded Self: Cyborg Subjectivity in Social Media.” Bonnie pays special attention to, in true cyborgology fashion, the way in which digital and physical selves interact and blur together. Next, Michael Schandorf argues that Twitter norms are akin to the non-speech gestures we make while talking (e.g., like moving our hands). What makes his paper, titled, “Mediated Gesture of The Distributed Body,” so appropriate for the Cyborgology panel is Michael’s focus on the physically and socially embodied nature of digital communication. Even digital communication does not exist alone in cyberspace but in an “augmented reality” at the intersection of atoms and bits. Last, Stephanie Laudone’s paper, “Digital Constructions of Sexuality,” empirically describes how sexuality is both affirmed and regulated on Facebook. This, again, highlights the embodied nature of Facebook while looking at how digital space operates differently than physical space.

Find the four abstracts below. Together, they will make for an exciting panel. We invite everyone to join us at the conference in College Park, MD (just outside of Washington, D.C.) on April 9th. And let’s start the discussion before the conference in the comments section below. Thanks! more...