On May 28th, 2016 a three-year-old black boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.  As a result a 17-year-old gorilla inside the pen, Harambe, was shot, as the zoo argued, for the boy’s protection. Nearly three months later, on August 22nd the director of the zoo, Thane Maynard, issued a plea for an end to the ‘memeification’ of Harambe, stating, “We are not amused by the memes, petitions and signs about Harambe…Our zoo family is still healing, and the constant mention of Harambe makes moving forward more difficult for us.” By the end of October, however, despite turgid proclamations to the contrary, the use of Harambe seems to be waning.

The six-month interim marked a significant transition in the media presence of Harambe, from symbol of public uproar and cross-species sympathy to widely memed Internet joke. The death and affective trajectory of Harambe, therefore, represents a unique vector in analyzing intersections of animality, race, and the phenomenon of virality. Harambe, like Cecil the Lion before him, became a widely appropriated Internet cause, one with fraught ethical implications.


thank you Ian Bogost for making this image for me
thank you for this, Ian Bogost

Sometimes it feels that to be a good surveillance theorist you are also required to be a good storyteller. Understanding surveillance seems to uniquely rely on metaphor and fiction, like we need to first see another possible world to best grasp how watching is happening here. Perhaps the appeal to metaphor is evidence of how quickly watching and being watched is changing – as a feature of modernity itself in general and our current technological moment in particular. The history of surveillance is one of radical change, and, as ever, it is fluctuating and rearranging itself with the new, digital, technologies of information production and consumption. Here, I’d like to offer a brief comment not so much on these new forms of self, interpersonal, cultural, corporate, and governmental surveillance as much as on the metaphors we use to understand them.


Image under Creative Commons
Image under Creative Commons

I start with a nota bene by saying that I do not self-identify as a “surveillance scholar” but given our current sociotechnical and political climates, the topic is unavoidable. One might even be tempted to say that if you aren’t thinking about state and corporate surveillance, you’re missing a key part of your analysis regardless of your object of study. Last week, Whitney Erin Boesel put out a request for surveillance study scholars to reassess the usefulness of the panopticon as a master metaphor for state surveillance. Nathan Jurgenson commented on the post, noting that Siva Vaidhyanathan (@sivavaid) has used the term “nonopticon” to describe “a state of being watched without knowing it, or at least the extent of it.” I would like to offer up a different term –taken straight from recent NSA revelations—that applies specifically to surveillance that relies on massive power differentials and enacted through the purposeful design of the physical and digital architecture of our augmented society. Nested within the nonopticon, I contend, are billions of “boundless informants.” more...


In case you missed when The Guardian broke the story last night, here’s the TLDR: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) got a super-secret court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (or Fisa) that says that, on a daily basis and from 25 April to 19 July of this year, telecom company Verizon must give information to the National Security Agency (NSA) about all the calls that take place through Verizon’s mobile and landline systems. The court order says that Verizon can’t talk about the court order (the first rule of Sketchy Fisa Court Order is: do not talk about Sketchy Fisa Court Order), but someone leaked the order itself—and now we all know that, every day, Verizon is giving the NSA “the numbers of both parties …location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls.”[i] Because these things are considered “telephony metadata” rather than “communication,” the FBI doesn’t need to get a warrant for each individual customer; instead, it can (and obviously has) demanded records pertaining to all Verizon customers, whether those people are or might be or ever might be suspected of anything at all.

The big questions now are: 1) whether this was the first three-month court order, or just the most recent three-month court order; and 2) whether Verizon is the only telecom that’s received such an order, or just the only telecom that’s received an order that’s been leaked. While I don’t know if I can call the first one[ii], the second seems to deserve a resounding “well DUH”; I can think of nothing to distinguish Verizon in such a way as would make it more worth data-mining than, say, AT&T. If Verizon got one, then AT&T probably got one; Sprint and TMobile each probably got one, and so too did probably every other mobile or landline carrier with a US address of operations. It seems increasingly clear that, whether we’re presumed innocent or presumed guilty, we ourselves had best presume that we’re under direct surveillance.  more...

Facebook just enabled its new Graph Search for my profile and I wanted to share some initial reactions (beyond the 140 character variety). Facebook’s new search function allows users to mine their Facebook accounts for things like: “Friends that like eggs” or “Photos of me and my friends who live near Chuck E. Cheese’s. ” The suggested search function is pretty prominent, which serves the double role of telling you what is searchable and how to phrase your search.  More than anything else, Graph Search is a stark reminder of how much information you and your friends have given to Facebook. More importantly however, it marks a significant change in how Facebook users see each other and themselves in relation to their data.. You no longer see information through people; you start to see people as affiliated with certain topics or artifacts. Graph Search is like looking at your augmented life from some floating point above the Earth. more...

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the “fear of being missed (FOBM).” The flip side of FOMO (fear of missing out), FOBM captures the anxiety surrounding a complex and fast moving online realm in which it is easy to be buried, ignored, and/or forgotten. This anxiety is amplified by the online/offline connectedness, through which invisibility online can lead to neglect offline (personally and professionally). FOMO and FOBM speak to the difficulty of deleting social media accounts, the discomfort of a dead cell/laptop/tablet battery, and the drive to livetweet, status update, tag oneself in pictures, and be physically present for tagable photo-ops.

Soon after posting my piece on Cyborgology, I read Tiana Bucher’s article in New Media & Society about Facebook algorithms and the fear of invisibility. Bucher’s work offers a useful theoretical frame (Foucault’s Panoptican) for FOBM, and an equally good (if not better) term for the phenomena (fear of invisibility). In what follows, I describe Bucher’s piece and its utilization. I then offer critiques of her work. In this way, I hope to further the theoretical substance of FOBM, framing it with the tools suggested by Bucher, and refining it through juxtaposition to Bucher’s arguments.    more...

I’d like to point readers to a terrific three-part essay by Laura Portwood-Stacer on three reasons why people refuse media, addictionasceticism, and aesthetics. We can apply this directly to what might become an increasingly important topic in social media studies: social media refusers, already (edit: and unfortunately, as Rahel Aima points out) nicknamed “refusenicks”. There will be more to come on this blog on how to measure and conceptualize Facebook (and other social media) refusal, but let’s begin by analyzing these three frameworks used to discuss social media refusal and critique some of the underlying assumptions. more...

Photos by Nathan Jurgenson, taken in Washington, D.C., 17, January 2012.

Malcolm Harris has posted one of the most provocative things I’ve ever read about social media, “Twitterland.” I’d like to point you the story and go through some of the many issues he brings to light. Harris’ story is one of theorizing Twitter and power; it can reinforce existing power imbalances, but, as is the focus here, how it can also be used to upset them.

Digital Dualism
Harris begins by taking on the idea that Twitter is a “tool” or an “instrument”, arguing that, no, Twitter is not a map, but the territory; not the flier but the city itself; hence the title “Twitterland.” However, in nearly the same breath, Harris states he wants to “buck that trend” of “the faulty digital-dualist frame the separates ‘real’ and online life.” As most readers here know, I coined the term digital dualism and provided the definition on this blog and thus have some vested interest in how it is deployed. And Harris’ analysis that follows indeed bucks the dualist trend, even though I would ask for some restating of the more theoretical parts of his argument. I’d like to urge Harris not to claim that Twitter is a new city, but instead focus on how Twitter has become part of the city-fabric of reality itself. more...

This is the complete version of a three-part essay that I posted in May, June, and July of this year:
Part I: Distributed Agency and the Myth of Autonomy
Part II: Disclosure (Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t)
Part III: Documentary Consciousness

Privacy is not dead, but it does need to change.

Part I: Distributed Agency and the Myth of Autonomy

Last spring at TtW2012, a panel titled “Logging off and Disconnection” considered how and why some people choose to restrict (or even terminate) their participation in digital social life—and in doing so raised the question, is it truly possible to log off? Taken together, the four talks by Jenny Davis (@Jup83), Jessica Roberts (@jessyrob), Laura Portwood-Stacer (@lportwoodstacer), and Jessica Vitak (@jvitak) suggested that, while most people express some degree of ambivalence about social media and other digital social technologies, the majority of digital social technology users find the burdens and anxieties of participating in digital social life to be vastly preferable to the burdens and anxieties that accompany not participating. The implied answer is therefore NO: though whether to use social media and digital social technologies remains a choice (in theory), the choice not to use these technologies is no longer a practicable option for number of people.

In this essay, I first extend the “logging off” argument by considering that it may be technically impossible for anyone, even social media rejecters and abstainers, to disconnect completely from social media and other digital social technologies (to which I will refer throughout simply as ‘digital social technologies’). Consequently, decisions about our presence and participation in digital social life are made not only by us, but also by an expanding network of others. I then examine two prevailing privacy discourses—one championed by journalists and bloggers, the other championed by digital technology companies—to show that, although our connections to digital social technology are out of our hands, we still conceptualize privacy as a matter of individual choice and control. Clinging to the myth of individual autonomy, however, leads us to think about privacy in ways that mask both structural inequality and larger issues of power. Finally, I argue that the reality of inescapable connection and the impossible demands of prevailing privacy discourses have together resulted in what I term documentary consciousness, or the abstracted and internalized reproduction of others’ documentary vision. Documentary consciousness demands impossible disciplinary projects, and as such brings with it a gnawing disquietude; it is not uniformly distributed, but rests most heavily on those for whom (in the words of Foucault) “visibility is a trap.” I close by calling for new ways of thinking about both privacy and autonomy that more accurately reflect the ways power and identity intersect in augmented societies. more...

This is part of a series of posts highlighting the Theorizing the Web conference, April 14th, 2012 at the University of Maryland (inside the D.C. beltway). See the conference website for information as well as event registration. To the questions posed in the title of the panel “Whose Knowledge?  Whose Web?”, the answer has too often, and too simplistically, been “everyone’s.”  Among Web 2.0’s most strident enthusiasts, the rise of user-generated content is heralded as the reclaiming of knowledge production from entrenched institutions, allowing a brave new world of pluralist democracy to find expression online.  These digital evangelists speak of the emancipatory promise of the Internet in language usually reserved for that of markets.  In both cases, the prescription is the same: progress is a matter of access.  Hence, the “digital divide” has become a discussion about disparities in connectivity rather than one about the expressions and reproductions of social inequalities online.

This panel, featuring work by Emily Lawrence, Piergiorgio Degli Esposti & Roberta Paltrinieri, Andrew Famiglietti, and Martin Irvine*, problematizes the rosy picture of a digital public sphere in two critical ways.  The first problem is empirical: as Web 2.0 enters its second decade, how does its track record compare to its promise of producing pluralist knowledges?  The second is theoretical: are offline social inequalities merely mapped onto new digital platforms, or do social formations in digital space create new forms of discrimination?  Papers in this session examine how publics are formed online and what are their affinities, criteria for belonging, and methods of exclusivity.

Join us this Saturday at 2:30-4:00 for discussion—come as meat to Room B of the Theorizing the Web conference or watch via livestream and tweet your questions.

*Note: Due to an unforeseen scheduling conflict, Martin Irvine will not be able to attend the conference.

[Paper titles and abstracts after the jump.] more...