Swarm of Birds

It feels good / To know that you really care
It feels good / To know that I can relax when I’m with you
It feels good / To know that I can be by your side
– “Feels Good” – TONY! TONI! TONE! 

Some time ago, absentmindedly tweeting about the woeful state of higher education, I received a notification that one of my tweets was liked. This being somewhat rare, I excitedly went to check out who it was from, only to find that it was one of the institutions I was directly critiquing. If they had actually read the tweets I’m sure they wouldn’t have actually ‘liked’ them, so what gives?

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. Periodically, as I’m sure many of us do, I get likes, follows, and retweets that seem incongruous with the content of my posts. Some are a result of Twitter users actively seeking to aggregate info, gain followers, and increase their social media presence. Others are fully automated Twitter bots.

Twitter bots, for the uninitiated, are pieces of software that use automated scripts to crawl the Twitterverse in search of particular words or phrases, to follow, like, or retweet others. In 2014 Twitter revealed that as many as 8.5% of its active accounts were likely bots. Beyond mere annoyance at the lack of a human interlocutor behind a ‘like’ or ‘follow,’ however, why care about the presence of Twitter bots or the use of algorithms to harness the power of social media?

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Thiel - Girard

During the week of July 12, 2004, a group of scholars gathered at Stanford University, as one participant reported, “to discuss current affairs in a leisurely way with [Stanford emeritus professor] René Girard.” The proceedings were later published as the book Politics and Apocalypse. At first glance, the symposium resembled many others held at American universities in the early 2000s: the talks proceeded from the premise that “the events of Sept. 11, 2001 demand a reexamination of the foundations of modern politics.” The speakers enlisted various theoretical perspectives to facilitate that reexamination, with a focus on how the religious concept of apocalypse might illuminate the secular crisis of the post-9/11 world.

As one examines the list of participants, one name stands out: Peter Thiel, not, like the rest, a university professor, but (at the time) the President of Clarium Capital. In 2011, the New Yorker called Thiel “the world’s most successful technology investor”; he has also been described, admiringly, as a “philosopher-CEO.” More recently, Thiel has been at the center of a media firestorm for his role in bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, which outed Thiel as gay in 2007 and whose journalists he has described as “terrorists.” He has also garnered some headlines for standing as a delegate for Donald Trump, whose strongman populism seems an odd fit for Thiel’s highbrow libertarianism; he recently reinforced his support for Trump with a speech at the Republican National Convention. Both episodes reflect Thiel’s longstanding conviction that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs should use their wealth to exercise power and reshape society. But to what ends? Thiel’s participation in the 2004 Stanford symposium offers some clues.    more...

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Throughout their history, national conventions for American political parties have become more and more public events. Closed off affairs in smoky rooms and convention halls gave way to televised roll calls and speeches. In the Year of Our Big Brother, 1984, C-SPAN aired uninterrupted coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions. Conventions became more polished and choreographed, with 1996’s DNC being the zenith of this trend. Conventions moved to the internet in the aughts, using a variety of different platforms to distribute streams and commentary.

This election cycle, however, incorporated something new into the dissemination of gavel-to-gavel coverage of the conventions: Twitch.tv. The platform designed for videogame streaming offered full coverage of the conventions. Additionally, it gave Twitch users the ability to host the coverage of both conventions on their own channels. In the case of the DNC, Twitch users were able to add commentary to the stream of the convention on their channel, giving their followers and other users an opportunity to hear their favorite gamers’ takes on the presentation of the Democratic National Committee. more...

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“The founding practice of conspiratorial thinking” writes Kathleen Stewart, “is the search for the missing plot.” When some piece of information is missing in our lives, whether it is the conversion ratio of cups to ounces or who shot JFK, there’s a good chance we’ll open up a browser window. And while most of us agree that there are eight ounces to every cup, far fewer (like, only 39 percent) think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Many who study the subject point to the mediation of the killing –The Zapruder film, the televised interviews and discussions about the assassination afterward—as one of the key elements of the conspiracy theory’s success. One might conclude that mediation and documentation cannot help but provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theory building.

Stewart goes so far as to say “The internet was made for conspiracy theory: it is a conspiracy theory: one thing leads to another, always another link leading you deeper into no thing, no place…” Just like a conspiracy theory you never get to the end of the Internet. Both are constantly unfolding with new information or a new arrangement of old facts. It is no surprise then, that with the ever-increasing saturation of our lives with digital networks that we are also awash in grotesque amalgamations of half-facts about vaccines, terrorist attacks, the birth and death of presidents, and the health of the planet. And, as the recently leaked documents about Facebook’s news operations demonstrate, it takes regular intervention to keep a network focused on professional reporting. Attention and truth-seeking are two very different animals.

The Internet might be a conspiracy theory but given the kind, size, and diversity of today’s conspiracy theories it is also worth asking a follow-up question: what is the Internet a conspiracy about? Is it a theory about the sinister inclinations of a powerful cabal? Or is it a derogatory tale about a scapegoated minority? Can it be both or neither? Stewart was writing in 1999, before the web got Social so she could not have known about the way 9/11 conspiracies flourished on the web and she may not have suspected our presidential candidates would make frequent use of conspiratorial content to drum up popular support. Someone else writing in 1999 got it right though. That someone was Joe Menosky and he wrote one of the best episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. Season 6, Episode 9 titled The Voyager Conspiracy. more...

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I love taking and seeing photos of snow. As the east coast is enjoying right now, big snowstorms produce a blizzard of images across whatever social networks you use. As I tap through these photos this morning, I have some probably obvious thoughts as to why we take and post and like snow photos.

The Snow Day is exceptional and is thus picture worthy because we tend to document what is out of the ordinary and thus interesting and novel. The photo of snow says look how different things are right now. An image of your car so fully under it all suggests how much the normal flow is disrupted. Look what is happening to me. Look at what I witnessed.

In this way, the snow photo is participating in a larger news event, because east coast weather always seems to be an event worth caring about, which is never not funny to this midwesterner. Thus, we get the time-lapse style photo sets of the accumulation. There’s something to keeping track of the snow’s growth. How high can it go? There’s almost obsessive sports-like statistical attention paid to its progress, the hourly updated predictions down to the inch, the constant updates down to the tenth of an inch, the charting of how close we are to whatever record. The snow is progress, each extra bit making it all somehow more successful, more special, newsy, exceptional, and photographable.

Such a thick snow blanket over your world is a dramatic change of scenery, a shift in perception, and thus provides novelty worth a snap. Everyday surroundings that usually seem to have been already exhausted of their photographic potential are breathed new productive life. By making the mundane exceptional, the snow photo sits happily on any network, from the experience trophy in the Instagram scene to the spaces in between on a Snapchat stream.

And snow photos themselves look good. The white wash makes the image simple and more striking by removing extra elements from the frame. The bright snow provides instant contrast, making any subject pop. The flurries in the wind provide movement and texture and depth. The snow itself falls and is blown into beautiful and unpredictable designs and arrangements, wrapped around the contours of objects so smoothly and lifelike. And some snow photos appear almost black-and-white even when shot in color. Snow is its own photo filter.

Anyone in the snow photo is made more interesting, too. Snow implies effort and adventure, sometimes hardship and discomfort, but most of the images posted right now suggest fun. Snow is itself almost comical when it is too much. For some, snow means time off of work, off of adulthood. It can remind of childhood. So snow photos are often of play, throwing snowballs and diving in. Kids and dogs look especially happy. We get to walk, or ski, down the middle of the street. Rules suspended, we photos of people enjoying the snow dressed in costumes.

Providing extra motivation to take photos right now is that this snow is ephemeral. Like photos of a newly served plate of food, you need to document it now or never. Snow around here is quite temporary: This week’s forecast is for temperatures well above freezing. So, take and share and enjoy snow photos now. It’s not just that snow melts but that it slushes and gets dirty and refreezes into a mess that’s soon soiled and jagged. The elegant formations get shoveled and plowed into piles. The snow becomes more work than play. The novelty and documentary potential gets used up, the snow gets less photogenic, less likeable.

nathan is on twitter and this piece was crossposted from his tumblr

hyperauthenticity

Authenticity is a tricky animal, and social media complicate the matter. Authenticity is that which seems natural, uncalculated, indifferent to external forces or popular opinion. This sits in tension with the performativity of everyday life, in which people follow social scripts and social decorum, strive to be likeable—or at least interesting—and constantly negotiate the expectations of ever expanding networks. The problem of performance is therefore to pull it off as though unperformed. The nature of social media, with its built-in pauses and editing tools, throw the semblance of authenticity into a harsh light. Hence, the widespread social panics about a society whose inhabitants are disconnected from each other and disconnected from their “true selves.”

For political campaigns, the problem of authenticity is especially sharp. Politicians are brands, but brands that have to make themselves relatable on a very human level. This involves intense engagement with all forms of available media, from phone calls, to newspaper ads and editorials, to talk show appearances, television interviews and now, a social media presence. The addition of social media, along with the larger culture of personalization it has helped usher in, means that political performances must include regular backstage access. Media consumers expect politicians to be celebrities, expect celebrities to be reality stars, and expect reality stars to approximate ordinary people, but with an extra dab of panache. The authentic politician, then, must be untouchable and accessible, exquisite and mundane, polished yet unrehearsed. Over the last couple of elections, social media has been the primary platform for political authenticity. Candidates give voters access to themselves as humans—not just candidates—but work to do so in a way that makes them optimally electable. It’s a lot of work to be so meticulously authentic. more...

The Storming of the Bastille
The Storming of the Bastille

Why don’t we ever talk about taking over social media companies? We will boycott them, demand transparency measures, and even build entire alternative networks based on volunteer labor but no one ever seems to consider taking all the servers and data sets away from the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world and putting it all in the hands of the users. Even if a company was doing a bang-up job making their products easier to use, freer from harassment, and more productive in creating a better society, there’s still something fundamentally creepy about users having no democratic control over such an important aspect of their lives. Why is there no insistence that such important technologies have democratic accountability? Why are we so reticent to demand direct control over the digital aspects of our lives? more...

Would if this were true?
Would if this were true?

The Facebook newsfeed is the subject of a lot of criticism, and rightly so. Not only does it impose an echo chamber on your digitally-mediated existence, the company constantly tries to convince users that it is user behavior –not their secret algorithm—that creates our personalized spin zones. But then there are moments when, for one reason or another, someone comes across your newsfeed that says something super racist or misogynistic and you have to decide to respond or not. If you do, and maybe get into a little back-and-forth, Facebook does a weird thing: that person starts showing up in your newsfeed a lot more.

This happened to me recently and it has me thinking about the role of the Facebook newsfeed in inter-personal instantiations of systematic oppression. Facebook’s newsfeed, specially formulated to increase engagement by presenting the user with content that they have engaged with in the past, is at once encouraging of white allyship against oppression and inflicting a kind of violence on women and people of color. The same algorithmic action can produce both consequences depending on the user. more...

Image Credit Miguel Noriega
Image Credit Miguel Noriega

Two weeks ago Zel McCarthy published a story in Thump about a mysterious infographic that’s been making the rounds lately. The infographic purports to show which drugs are popular at various music festivals by scraping Instagram for references to different drugs. Anyone that knows a thing or two about research design would already raise an eyebrow but it gets worse. According to McCarthy:

this intentionally-opaque study was conducted and assembled by a Florida-based content marketing agency Fractl, which works regularly with DrugAbuse.com. While at first glance the site appears to be a credible resource for those struggling with addiction and abuse issues, it’s actually a redirect for for-profit rehab and addiction centers, mainly ones that bankrolls the site.

To help dig deep into the issues of research design, online performativity, and substance use I sat down over Skype with Ingmar Gorman, a clinical psychologist at the New School for Social Research who was quoted in the Thump article saying that this “study” was not only poorly constructed, it was also indicative of an archaic, “moralistic approach” to substance abuse research. What follows is edited to make us both sound more articulate. You can listen to the whole interview (warts and all), using the SoundCloud embed at the end of the interview. The recording, along with the sound of a computer fan and me saying “uhh” a lot, also includes something I’ll call “bonus content” about a study that used the Watson supercomputer to tell if someone was on psychedelics. Enjoy. more...

Image credit
Image credit

What does it mean to have access to the internet? It’s an apparently simple question that gets complicated when we consider the wide variety of ways people access the web and products from the web. Indeed, the question is wrapped up in recent debates about zero rating, net neutrality, “the next billion” and numerous initiatives designed to bring people from the developing world online.

At Theorizing the Web this year, I presented research that combined my fieldwork and personal observations in developing world internet contexts like rural northern Uganda, urban China and rural Philippines with emergent research and journalism on the use of sneakernets–the physical transfer of data using devices like USB sticks or Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones–in places like Mali, North Korea and Cuba. These latter formed the basis for my talk and a recent paper in The New Inquiry, in which I draw from Jan Chipchase’s writing on binary thinking about connectivity and how this ultimately overlooks the vast diversity of ways that people do access the web and its products. more...