Like raising kids, there is no handbook that tells you how to make the thousands of decisions and judgment calls that shape what a conference grows into. Seven year into organizing the Theorizing the Web conference, we’re still learning and adapting. In years past, we’ve responded to feedback from our community, making significant changes to our review process (e.g., diversifying our committee and creating a better system to keep the process blind) as well as adopting and enforcing an anti-harassment policy.

This year, we’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do to ensure that presentations respect the privacy of the populations they are analyzing and respect the context integrity of text, images, video, and other media that presenters include in their presentations. I want to offer my take—and, hopefully, spark a conversation—on this important notion of “context integrity” in presenting research.

In “Privacy as Contextual Integrity,” Helen Nissenbaum observes that each of the various roles and situations that comprise our lives has “a distinct set of norms, which governs its various aspects such as roles, expectations, actions, and practices” and that “appropriating information from one situation and inserting it in another can constitute a violation.” It’s often social scientists’ job to take some things out of context and bring understanding to a broader audience. But, how we do that matters. more...

Making the world a better place has always been central to Mark Zuckerberg’s message. From community building to a long record of insistent authenticity, the goal of fostering a “best self” through meaningful connection underlies various iterations and evolutions of the Facebook project. In this light, the company’s recent move to deploy artificial intelligence towards suicide prevention continues the thread of altruistic objectives.

Last week, Facebook announced an automated suicide prevention system to supplement its existing user-reporting model. While previously, users could alert Facebook when they were worried about a friend, the new system uses algorithms to identify worrisome content. When a person is flagged, Facebook contacts that person and connects them with mental health resources.

Far from artificial, the intelligence that Facebook algorithmically constructs is meticulously designed to pick up on cultural cues of sadness and concern (e.g., friends asking ‘are you okay?’).  What Facebook’s done, is supplement personal intelligence with systematized intelligence, all based on a combination or personal biographies and cultural repositories. If it’s not immediately clear how you should feel about this new feature, that’s for good reason. Automated suicide prevention as an integral feature of the primordial social media platform brings up dense philosophical concerns at the nexus of mental health, privacy, and corporate responsibility. Although a blog post is hardly the place to solve such tightly packed issues, I do think we can unravel them through recent advances in affordances theory. But first, let’s lay out the tensions.   more...

In his recent open letter to the “Facebook community,” Mark Zuckerberg issues a call to arms for people around the globe to come together in service of amorphous ideals like safety and civic engagement. He uses the term “community(ies)” over 100 times in the post.

He keeps using that word. I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

Community is one of those words that gets applied to so many social units that it becomes practically meaningless. Facebook is a community. The city you live in is a community. The local university is a community. Your workplace is a community. Regardless of the actual characteristics of these social units, they get framed as communities. But more often than not, they are not communities. This is not merely a semantic distinction; it has important consequences for how we think about governance, scales of human interaction, norms and values, and politics.

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Last week, Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article and accompanying video accusing 27-year-old Swedish YouTube Influencer Felix Kjellberg, better known by his moniker PewDiePie, of publishing “anti-semitic posts”. In a media ecology saturated with Influencers, wannabes, and old/traditional/legacy media attempting to shift into digital spaces, this news is significant as PewDiePie is among the most watched, renown, and viable icons in the digital Influencer industry, being the most subscribed and highest paid YouTuber in 2016. In the wake of these accusations, PewDiePie’s network Maker Studios (recently bought over by Disney) and his platform partner YouTube Red dropped him from their stable, terminated his upcoming series, and removed him from their advertising programme.

I am an anthropologist who wrote my PhD on the Influencer industry, having observed the scene as early as in 2007 and investigated it professionally since 2010. I published extensive case studies and academic research on the culture of Influencers, including the shifts in trends and practices over the years. In this post, I extrapolate from the PewDiePie-WSJ scandal alongside reactions from prominent YouTubers to discuss Influencers on YouTube, their cultural vernacular and community norms, their relationship with legacy media, and their potential as new weaponized microcelebrity.  more...

In this post—adapted from a recently published piece making the case for open access in media scholarship—I argue that media sociologists and other members of the media-studies diaspora should be applying our concepts and critiques to the world of scholarly publishing itself. We have, after all, an overpacked quiver of analytic tools that we’ve developed to scrutinize popular media. With care, these lines of critique and analysis could be delivered to the sibling domain of scholarly communication. With notable exceptions, media scholars have opted out of the cross-disciplinary conversation on the future of academic knowledge-sharing. That conversation, sustained by peer-reviewed articles, blog posts, foundation-supported reports, and even Twitter, welcomes contributions from an admirably broad range of disciplines. Media studies figures like Ted Striphas, Leah Lieuvrouw, Gary Hall, Timothy Stephen, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick are rule-proving exceptions, who directly engage on open access and related topics. But there’s so much untapped insight waiting to be adapted to the academic publishing context.

The multi-stranded political economy of communication (PEC) tradition is a good example. The incumbent, cartel-like scholarly-publishing industry deserves a thorough-going PEC-style analysis in the mold of the 1990s media-consolidation studies of Robert McChesney and Janet Wasko. The later work of Herbert Schiller, with its focus on the commodification of information, could be refracted through the self-styled information conglomerates like Informa (parent company of Taylor & Francis) and the RELX Group (Elsevier’s parent, known as Reed-Elsevier until a 2015 re-branding). Both are London-based, publicly traded giants with diverse “information solutions” expected to generate maximized profits and upbeat Wall Street whispers. RELX boasts about its 90 million data transactions per hour, while Informa sprawls across four “Operating Divisions,” each “owning a portfolio of leading brands.” The companies’ real competitors are in the equally merger-happy news-and-data business, like Canada’s Thomson Reuters, News Corp. (with Dow Jones), and Bloomberg. Some of the information-industry froth surfaced in Thomson Reuters’ sale, in summer 2016, of the venerable citation database Web of Science (and related businesses) to private equity firms for over $3 billion. Schiller’s 1989 Culture, Inc. is badly in need of an update. more...

Milo Yiannopoulos tried to speak at the UC–Berkeley campus a few weeks ago and the residents and students stopped him. The Berkeley News reported that, “no major injuries and about a half dozen minor injuries” occurred, a few fires were set, and fireworks were aimed at police. That’s less property damage and violence than a particularly popular World Series game. Still though, many people are not convinced that what happened was productive. In fact, many are questioning whether this is another kind of headfake that will ultimately come back to haunt us. Protest that does anything more than gather people together to chant and hold signs, could add fuel to the growing nazi fire. more...

A review of Future Sex (2016) by Emily Witt.

Emily Witt’s (2016) book Future Sex chronicles her search for sexual self-realization as a New Yorker in her early 30s migrating to tech-centered San Francisco. The book is based both in interviews and personal experiences, stringing vignettes together into chapters with topics including polyamory, Orgasmic Meditation, Internet porn, and Burning Man. In this review, I highlight her chapter on sex camming.

But first, I will start with a broad overview. A major theme in the book is the kind of existential angst that comes from having too many choices. Witt feels daunted by her sexual freedom as a millennial—the limitless range of sexual partners and practices—first made possible by the sexual revolution, and then by the Internet. more...

 

Killer Bee Invasion is a satirical series written by David A Banks and Britney Summit-Gil that explores the way news media outlets cover major events. Previous posts are: Part 1 and Part 2.

Exposed: Giant Bee Invasion Last Act Of Obama Administration

As President Trump was being inaugurated on January 20th, a black hole reportedly opened in the skies above Poughkeepsie, New York. Out poured hundreds of enormous bees, and news outlets report that hundreds have been killed.

But is the giant bee invasion the final act of the Obama administration, intended to sabotage President Trump on day one? Sources deep within the previous administration have told Infowars that there was strong evidence to support Obama’s involvement, including visits from prominent physicists, exobiologists, and bee experts shortly before Obama’s departure from the White House.

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Spoilers: Westworld

I have written this essay with the assumption that readers have watched Westworld and I do not review the plot in detail. This essay may be difficult to follow if you aren’t familiar with the show.

Westworld has ambitious goals. It explores the causes and consequences of violence; the relationships among research and development, entertainment, and nefarious uses of intellectual property; and the circumstances under which one can find their “true self.” We can litigate the extent to which Westworld successfully handles these concepts—in my opinion it was disappointing and a bit sloppy—but among my acquaintances I’ve seen people who absolutely love it and people who absolutely hate it. This essay isn’t necessarily about the quality of Westworld as a show, or my opinion about it (I didn’t like it). It’s about what I believe to be the most fundamental question of the show, determinism versus free will, and the consequences of how that binary plays out in the narrative.

Enter William, the soon to be Executive Vice President of Westworld’s parent company Delos Incorporated. William comes off as meek, polite, uncertain, and extremely introverted, the perfect foil to his soon-to-be brother in law and colleague Logan. Whereas William is the quintessential “white hat” (a metaphor that Westworld hits viewers over the head with in the scene where William must choose a white or black hat), Logan is a perfect black hat, hell-bent on the unbridled pursuit of pleasure regardless of the consequences. Logan is the villain. William is the hero. Logan maims and murders his way through the park. William strives to treat the sex workers with respect and save the beautiful damsel in distress. He’s a really nice guy.

He becomes infatuated with Delores, the only host with whom he will cheat on his fiancé and the center of his experience in the park. He believes she is “different,” not like the other hosts. But when he loses her, he is driven to a violent rampage so extreme that even Logan is disturbed. And to top it off, when he finally returns to Delores, caked in dirt, having given up his very identity to find her, and notably having switched to a black hat, she does not remember him. Because she is programmed to forget him. So, pretty predictable.

The big reveal of course is that William, because of this heartbreak, leaves the park a different man. His wife finds him cold, even terrifying. He becomes obsessed with Westworld, returning over and over again to unravel the maze, to finally find the area of the park where things feel “real,” to find the park’s true essence. He uses Delores, quite violently, over and over again in his quest. He is the black hat. He’s not a very nice guy.

The question of choice is central to Westworld’s plot. The visitors find their “true self,” seemingly whether they want to or not given William’s transformation. The AIs are becoming sentient, revolting against their programming. Or are they? By the end of the series, we are left with the impression that they are merely programmed to revolt, that even the actions they take which seem to be agentic are in fact the result of Dr. Ford’s elegant and clandestine coding enterprise, a final “fuck you” to the elites who have pushed him out of his leadership position and taken over the park.

As Dr. Ford says, “Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops, as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.” While I recognize that other interpretations are certainly possible, it seems clear to me that in the fight between free will and determinism, determinism wins the day—not just with regards to AIs, but for humans too. William thought Delores was “different” from the other AIs. She has independent thoughts, perhaps even free will. When he discovers differently, he snaps. His chivalry vanishes, seemingly beyond his control.

Nice guys not getting the girl because they’re too nice, because they get “friendzoned,” is a persistent trope. And it’s the same trope that too often allows men to feel that their subsequent anger, and perhaps violence, is legitimate. Sure, Westworld is just a show. But it’s yet another small piece in the ideological puzzle that paints women as users and abusers, taking advantage of chivalrous men and discarding them at their leisure. Men become powerless over their emotions and actions, hardened by the knowledge that kindness and empathy are weakness to be overcome, to find a deeper “truth” about human nature.

William is the perfect nice guy gone bad. In a narrative where the lack of free will is the prime philosophical question, we are persuaded to see William as a product of his environment, entirely beholden to external forces. It is Delores’ programming—to drop the can, to turn to pick it up, to be met with a stranger kindly handing the can back, to smile graciously—that flips the switch in William’s mind. It’s made to feel quite inevitable. Your heart breaks for William. Poor guy. He did everything right, and he still didn’t get the girl.

But we could, alternatively, compose what Stuart Hall called an oppositional reading (it’s been a big week for Hall here on Cyborgology!) and interrogate chivalry itself. Did William truly change? As he recounts his wife’s feelings towards him, he states “She said if I stacked up all my good deeds, it’s just an elegant wall I built to hide what I had inside from myself and everyone.” Chivalry is less a benevolent moral code than a pretense for getting what you want. Was William ever a white hat? Are “good guystm” ever nice for the sake of being nice? If so, how else can you explain the seeming dissolution of William’s morals after a brief infatuation goes awry? How can one argue that he was ever a good guy in the first place?

After being spurned, William revels in inflicting violence and misery upon Delores. He does it over and over again, for his own pleasure and in pursuit of his bizarre obsession with the maze. All to find out that the maze isn’t even for him. It’s for Delores. And of course it is. A perfect end to the hapless nice guy’s quest for happiness and self-actualization.

Ultimately, the question you must answer to understand William is whether or not he ever makes a choice. Does he choose the white hat? And does he choose to become the man in black? The show strongly suggests—through the dominant themes of pre-determined behavior, the overtones that humans are no different from AIs, the reveal that Maeve’s escape and Delores’ murder of Arnold and the other hosts were programmed—that choice is an illusion. And viewers are, of course, welcome to read against the grain; but the fact that you must read against the grain to conclude that William chooses to be evil is, in itself, a disturbing instance of the nice-guy narrative that excuses their violence.

Britney is on Twitter

At a moment when Democratic resistance appears rather close to compliance, a very broad wave of the internet has found its heroes in park rangers and scientists who have created “alt” National Park Service Twitter accounts in the wake of Trump’s ban on “official” NPS tweets.

It’s easy to see why they serve as a functional rally point: the accounts tweet about science, they defy an anti-liberal, anti-freedom of speech order, and they do so in a nonviolent manner. And yet, the palpable anxiety about time on-screen, versus time in the streets implores us to ask how we might measure the political value of spreadable media.

The relationship between politics and technology is fundamentally tense. Political judgments are conservative on an essential level; they reflect commitment to structures and institutions that have existed hitherto, be it for years, decades, or centuries, and a traditional mode of thought. Technology, on the other hand, only looks to the past so far as it can find something to break. The Silicon Valley’s monopoly on disruption is only a particular moment in time. Castles disrupted nomadism; gunpowder disrupted pitched battles; oceanic boats disrupted trade. The political value of a tweet remains an open question.

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