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.
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.
“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.”
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.
Today I worked on three separate collaborations: feedback on a thesis draft, a paper revision with colleagues at other universities, and a grant proposal with mostly senior scholars. Each collaboration represents my integration with distinct project teams, on which my status varies. And along with my relative status, so too varies my relationship with the Track Changes editing tool.
When giving feedback on my student’s thesis, I wrote over existing text with reckless abandon. I also left comments, moved paragraphs, and deleted at will. When working on my paper collaboration, I also edited freely, though was more likely to include comments justifying major alterations. When working on the research grant, for a project team on which I am the most junior member, I knew not to change any of the text directly. Instead, I made suggestions using the Comment function, sometimes with alternative text, always phrased and punctuated as a question. more...
Well that was quick. Around 18 months after launching their ambitious “ZOZOSUIT” product, the Japanese clothing company has shut down all international operations and is no longer offering the custom-fit service. Quartzy, which seems to have an unhealthy obsession with ZOZO and its founder and CEO, Yusaku Maezawa, has covered the rise and fall of ZOZOSUIT pretty well, so I’ll let you catch up over there. But I wanted to post something with a few quick reactions to the demise of “Custom-Fit Clothing for a Size-Free World”.
Then I put on my scholar hat (to be honest, it’s just a red beanie that I ironed a DSA patch onto) and had a few broader questions. Right now, I’m working on a dissertation that looks at the history of those designs which we use to self-report pain to our doctors. You know, like the smiley face chart on the wall at the doctor. I’m exploring questions of who designed them, when, how, etc. I want to contextualize their prominence in the experience of someone actually experiencing pain. And so of course, I am considering a chapter on new ways to facilitate pain self-reporting—mobile sites and apps with body diagrams and color codes or EEG-based offerings that promise “true” readings of someone’s pain.
The problem is, what happens when the latest and greatest goes defunct? I dropped 1,500 words on ZOZOSUIT back in October and, while it was a great excuse to put on a spandex onesie and teach readers about Henry Dreyfuss Associates, did I jump the gun? I suppose that’s the luxury of writing for a blog like Cyborgology—we’re focused on what’s being promised next, not what’s guaranteed to stay. Still, I don’t see that post aging very well. I worry about the same thing when picking which apps or services to include in my PhD research.
It’s a struggle any scholar working on tech and culture has. Even the most exciting books I’ve read that came out in the last year document and analyze websites that are not longer active. When our collective attention (and venture capitalist’s funding) jumps from latest app to newest device, it’s tough to predict what really has staying power. So I suppose the best alternative we can hope for is that something we’ve documented has some sort of influence as a precedent, a critical step in the genealogy of something big to come. Who knows, maybe in 2040, when Cyborgology turns 30, an emerging scholar will need some sort of reference to understand where that multi-billion dollar digitally-fit clothing industry came from and they’ll stumble upon my post.
If so, I hope our image archive has degraded by then…
Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD candidate in Art History, Theory, and Criticism, with a concentration in Art Practice, at UC San Diego. He’s glad to know that those jeans really didn’t fit…it wasn’t just him being super un-hip.
I am an anthropologist of young people’s internet cultures and have spent the past 13 months learning (from scratch!) about K-pop fan practices on social media through intensive reading of academic literature, thoroughly combing through popular media, and immersing myself in various K-pop communities through digital ethnography. While I am by no means (yet!) an expert, in the past few weeks, I began to catalogue instances of misinformation in some fan network. Specifically, I traced the forms and mechanics of fan labour involved in generating or refuting such content. This interest was generated against the backdrop of a “war on fake news” in South Korea and the trend of “absurd”/”untrue” fan spoofs of idols on “fact accounts“.
At this exploratory stage, I am not yet concerned with verifying the information in these social media posts per se, but rather am focused on how young K-pop fans are innovating with creating attention-generating clickbait, instigating other networks of fans to signal boost their content, and labouring to clear up misconceptions or educate their peers about literacies around misinformation. This follows from my previous work studying how social media influencers are effective disseminators and persuaders of information in saturated internet climate, including their role in generating “subversive frivolity” and their savvy in “visibility labour“.
In this post, I present a brief overview of some of my observations focused on the fan-generated folklore, rumour, and potential misinformation pertaining to two incidents: 1) Bigbang member and soloist Seungri’s alleged involvement in a “major sex-video scandal” and “spycams” known as “molka” (parts 1 to 7), and 2) girl group Blackpink’s release of their YouTube record-breaking song Kill This Love, pertaining to platform politics and a Twitter hoax involving Starbucks (parts 8 to 10).
Screengrabs from the Seungri case study were taken from the “#Seungri” hashtag stream on Twitter on 22 March 2019. Screengrabs from the Blackpink case study were taken from the comments section of the Kill This Love YouTube video on 05 April 2019 and 08 April 2019, the “#KillThisLoveStarbucks” hashtag stream on Twitter on 06 April 2019, and the “#Blackpink” hashtag stream on Twitter on 10 April 2019.
Stories of data breaches and privacy violations dot the news landscape on a near daily basis. This week, security vendor Carbon Black published their Australian Threat Report based on 250 interviews with tech executives across multiple business sectors. 89% Of those interviewed reported some form of data breach in their companies. That’s almost everyone. These breaches represent both a business problem and a social problem. Privacy violations threaten institutional and organizational trust and also, expose individuals to surveillance and potential harm.
But “breaches” are not the only way that data exposure and privacy violations take shape. Often, widespread surveillance and exposure are integral to technological design. In such cases, exposure isn’t leveled at powerful organizations, but enacted by them. Legacy services like Facebook and Google trade in data. They provide information and social connection, and users provide copious information about themselves. These services are not common goods, but businesses that operate through a data extraction economy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the cost-benefit dynamics of data economies and in particular, how to grapple with the fact that for most individuals, including myself, the data exchange feels relatively inconsequential or even mildly beneficial. Yet at a societal level, the breadth and depth of normative surveillance is devastating. Resolving this tension isn’t just an intellectual exercise, but a way of answering the persistent and nagging question: “why should I care if Facebook knows where I ate brunch?” This is often wrapped in a broader “nothing to hide” narrative, in which data exposure is a problem only for deviant actors.
Every year at our Passover seder, my father, the consummate emcee, tells us about his Uncle Neyech, a long lost Finnish relative. I have no idea why he would bring Uncle Neyech up, nor during what part of the seder he would do so. But every year, we would laugh at the idea that the Schaffzins of Ashkenazi descent had a relative in Scandinavia, not particularly known as the epicenter of European Jewery. I always figured this was a joke; his seder is filled with these sorts of bits—falsified anecdotes meant to keep us at attention during an otherwise rote evening. And then, one day earlier this year, he forwarded us—me, my three siblings, and my mother—an email he received from a woman in Baltimore claiming to be a distant relative from, wouldn’t you know, Finland.
I, for one, was in utter disbelief. Turns out my father was telling the truth all these years (it didn’t help that his default tone is “satire”). The story, as most in my family do, includes escaping from an oppressive regime (in this case, the Czar) and dispersing around the globe: Philadelphia, Palestine, and…Finland. For all intents and purposes, this story is, for me, nothing more than an anecdote with which I will annoy my seder guests one day. But what inspired my Finnish relative (turns out we’re second cousins once removed) to track down her father’s mother’s father’s brother’s grandfather’s grandson? And why should I care about her at all?
Less than a week ago Byron Román made the above Facebook post challenging “bored teens” to pick up trash and post before and after photos on social media. Reddit user Baxxo24 (Baxxo24 looks to be Swedish while Byron lives in Arizona) took a screenshot and posted it to r/wholesomememes where it went viral. Now #trashtag (“hashtag trashtag?”) is the subject of a dozen or so feel-good human interest stories. It is unclear who the guy in the photo is (It looks like it came from a Guatemalan Travel Agency), but CNN, Washington Post, and CBS News have reported that “trashtag” is a long-dormant social media campaign for UCO Gear, a Seattle-based camping equipment company.
When I started seeing Byron Román’s #trashtag trending on my usual platforms I did what any well-adjusted person would do: I assumed it was as scam and Facebook stalked him until I was convinced otherwise. According to his Facebook profile, Román works in the non-profit home loan industry, mostly in marketing. His latest job helps veterans apply for and receive cheap mortgages. Nothing too dubious there, but it got me thinking about the long and dismal history of littering campaigns’ role in playing cover for corporate interests. more...
I want all of your mind
People turn the TV on, it looks just like a window…
What’s the point of even sleeping?
— St. Vincent, “Digital Witness” (2014)
Each day seemingly brings new revelations as to the extent of our Faustian bargain with the purveyors of the digital world in which we find ourselves. Our movements, moods, and monies are tracked with relentless precision, yielding the ability to not only predict future behaviors but to actively direct them. Permissions are sometimes given with pro forma consent, while other times they’re simply baked into the baseline of the shiniest and newest hardware and software alike. Back doors, data breaches, cookies and trackers, smart everything, always-on devices, and so much more — to compare Big Tech to Big Brother is trite by now, even as we might soon look back on the latter as a quaint form of social control.
While data breaches and privacy incursions are very serious and have tangible consequences, debates over user rights and platform regulation barely scratch the surface. Deeper questions about power, autonomy, and what it means to be human still loom, largely uncovered. And when these concerns are even voiced at all they can often seem retrogressive, as if they represent mere longings for a bygone (pre-internet) time when children played outside, politics was honorable, and everyone was a great conversationalist. Despite ostensible consternation when something goes egregiously wrong (like influencing an election, let’s say), the public and political conversation around mass data collection and its commercialization never goes far enough: why do so many seemingly reasonable and critical people accept a surveillance-for-profit economy (with all of us as the primary commodity) as tolerable at all? more...
We live in a cyborg society. Technology has infiltrated the most fundamental aspects of our lives: social organization, the body, even our self-concepts. This blog chronicles our new, augmented reality.