Today, we are all familiar with with what it means to be closeted. In fact, coming out has become among our most widely recognized cultural narratives. No doubt, large swaths of the American landscape still present environments hostile to sexual preferences that deviate from prevailing hetero-patriarchical norms, but progressive circles, and increasingly, society writ large, have embraced the belief that coming out (i.e., rending oneself visible) is the road to empowerment. If this is true, the queer community should be more empowered than ever. Social media allows for unprecedented levels of visibility. Broadcasting your sexual preferences to the world is never more than click away.

I, for one, am dubious as to the promise of ever-greater visibility for the queer community and its political struggles. And, I am not alone. In 1999, Steven Seidman, Chet Meeks, and Francie Transchen wrote and essay entitled, “Beyond the Closet,” in which they argued that the closet is not merely a symbol of oppression, but also serves to create an important space for safe experimentation. Their call for ambivalence toward the closet was simultaneously a critique of the culture of visibility – of “mass exhibitionism.”

Queer youth in the latter several decades of the 20th Century famously fled the pastoral trappings of their hometowns to form accepting urban communities. In doing so, they were able to escape the normalizing gaze of their families, teachers, and other locals. Newfound anonymity (invisibility?), in essence, gave these youth the freedom to establish their own identities and, ultimately, the confidence to assert these identities in the face of others’ opposition.

Social media, however, is a technology that allows for all those people who we know or, even, don’t know, to project their gaze on us, reaching across continents. Because the closet only exists out of sight, social media, as a gaze-enhancing technology, threatens the very existence of the closet itself. For this reason, the queer community may have more at stake in the politics surrounding these newly emerging technologies than other groups, particularly with respect to privacy debates. We must ask ourselves: What can be done to create a queer-friendly Internet?

While these issues might be most salient for the queer community, the metaphor of the closet speaks to us all. We all have our own closets. These closets help us to discover who it is we want to be and give us the freedom undergo the process of change. I do not want to sound overly pessimistic. Social media does also serve as a tool to build and maintain sub-communities, connecting people with similar experiences in ways that might not otherwise be possible. What I take issue with is the notion that greater visibility is always better for individuals or communities. In an age of hyper-visibility, closets might actually be worth fighting for.

By Rachael Liberman

As box office numbers for Christoher Nolan’s Inception continue to rise  – right now, Variety reports that the film has grossed $6M ($149M total) – so do the number of individuals that are confronted with the question: What if someone could control my thoughts through my dreams? Inception successfully conceptualizes this ability; Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of “experts” use unexplained technology to enter dreams and plant “ideas” into the subconscious that will, according to their logic, eventually seep into an individual’s consciousness. By entering through the subconscious mind, covert operations (including being paid to implant an otherwise controversial idea) are carried out undetected. But what if you didn’t even need to enter the subconscious to implant an idea? What if you could manufacture a desire and send it straight to an individual’s consciousness? While audiences have been pondering the radical notion that ideas can be planted into an individual’s subconscious state, they may not realize that “inception” via consciousness has been occurring since the day they were born. Yes, you guessed it: Advertising.

According to Jean Kilbourne (1999),”The fact is that much of advertising’s power comes from this belief that advertising does not affect us. The most effective kind of propaganda is that which is not recognized as propaganda. Because we think advertising is silly and trivial, we are less on guard, less critical, than we might otherwise be. It’s all in fun, it’s ridiculous. While we’re laughing, sometimes sneering, the commercial does its work” (Can’t Buy My Love, p.27). Beyond the notion that advertising turns audiences into commodities (see Dallas Smythe) is the unsettling reality that advertising can successfully plant the idea that we “need” a material object (beauty products, Mac products, etc.). Advertising, as an arm of the Consciousness Industry, appeals to our emotions, and at its most successful, has the ability to alter priorities and rationality. However, as Kilbourne notes, advertising’s genius is that it operates in the form of an effective cultural backdrop; its omnipresence is desensitizing. So, while Inception is a mental exercise in the possibility of subconscious manipulation, advertising is the actual practice (yet not always successful) of manipulating our conscious desires. In the end, entering an individual’s dream seems like a lot of work when all one has to do is construct a seductive message and deliver it to trained and willing participants.

“Advertising” from The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology

On Monday, Wikileaks, a website devoted to exposing the underbelly of the political and corporate world, revealed thousands of documents that, in a nutshell, depict the complications, perils and pitfalls of the war in Afghanistan. One piece of alarming information is that terrorist organizations in Afghanistan are clearly being supported by Pakistan. Another is solid evidence of the corruption of Hamid Karzai (though this has been suspected for quite some time). The force with which this story hit the news this week, the amount of coverage it has received and the combination of this story with recent exposés on the experience of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a situation in which increasing amounts of negative press about the war, whether in small leaks or larger bursts, are emerging. The dominant discourse or narratives about the Afghan war – hunting down a terrorist, bringing justice to terrorists in general, rooting out potential terrorist cells or the humanitarian notion that we’re providing a more stable government and safer society for Afghans – feel as though they are shifting. There is increasing discourse about a lost battle, a waste of precious American dollars and young lives, etc. Perhaps this shift is due to the number of soldiers dying, which makes it increasingly likely that you or someone you know or at the very least a distant acquaintance is fighting in the middle east. Perhaps it’s our disastrous economy and the potential double-dip recession looming that’s making it harder to justify spending billions to fight a war when about 1 in 10 of us are unemployed at home. It could be any combination of these and/or other factors, but I would like to suggest that the increased access to images, information and general visibility of this war will be a key factor in its demise.

Theories of cognitive dissonance suggest that when our behavior clashes with our cognition, an uncomfortable psychological state ensues. For instance, if I am a pacifist, but engage in a violent act, I will experience distress. As I watch the coverage of the war in Afghanistan since the Wikileaks report was released yesterday, I am lead to think about the role of cognitive dissonance in producing social change.  No matter what you believe has happened in Afghanistan, the narrative of success and progress, whether in the realm of hunting down terrorists or establishing better government, is at odds with the information in the Wikileaks documents that depict chaos. Changes in attitudes about the Afghan war have been brewing for months. Will this new and increasingly prominent information about the problems of “winning” this battle create psychological tension for many Americans who previously supported the war?


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The New York Times recently ran a story about how “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” It describes a digital age in which our careless mass exhibitionism creates digital documents that will live on forever. The article is chock full of scary stories about how ill-advised status updates can ruin your future life.

These sorts of scare-tactic stories serve a purpose: they provide caution and give pause regarding how we craft our digital personas. Those most vulnerable should be especially careful (e.g., a closeted teen with bigoted parents; a woman with an abusive ex-husband). But after that pause, let’s get more realistic by critiquing the sensationalism on the part of the Times article by acknowledging that, with some common sense, the risks for most of us are actually quite small.

1-Digital Content Lives Forever in Obscurity


By Rachael Liberman

As any respectful Western feminist knows, meddling in the affairs of non-Western women is a theoretical faux pas. Concerns, of course, are one thing, but condemnation outside of historical and cultural contexts, or “border crossing” has been ruled as downright oppressive (see Chandra Mohanty, Gayatri Spivak and Uma Narayan, among others). Issues such as genital mutilation have been fiercely debated among feminists, focusing more on the matter of Western normalizing judgment than the act itself. Discussion over the Muslim veil is another hot-button issue, and with the recent steps that France has taken to ban its adornment (specifically, those that cover the face) in public, it appears that legislation may temporarily replace feminist rhetoric surrounding the debate.

According to an article in The New York Times: “The draft bill says that ‘no one can, in the public space, wear clothing intended to hide the face’. The bill also defines ‘public space’ broadly, including streets, markets and private businesses, as well as government buildings and public transport. A fine of $190 will be imposed on those wearing the full facial veil, and anyone who forces a woman to wear such a veil will be punished by a fine up to $38,000 and a year in jail, doubled if the victim is a minor.” Further, the article reports that the bill is being defended (by the parliamentary leader of Mr. Sarkozy’s party) “on the grounds of public security and as a vital assertion of French identity and values.” The article later quotes Mr. Sarkozy as stating: “The burqa is not welcome in France because it is contrary to our values and contrary to the ideals we have of a woman’s dignity.” more...

What does an overload of information do to our decision-making process? This question becomes, at least in part, an issue of simplicity v. complexity, so I am reminded of Durkheim’s classic argument about social integration and regulation. Too much or too little of each causes problems – for him, various types of suicide emerge because of an overbearing or under-restricting/engaging society.  Simmel’s conflict over the freedom, yet overwhelming choices of the metropolis also comes to mind. In each of these cases, it is a balance that creates a healthy/functioning individual. Perhaps this is the same with access to information. Too many choices makes it difficult for us to assimilate all the information, but too few choices would presumably not provide us with as much intellectual stimulation as we might desire. In our world, is there a balance? Or, are we so inundated with information that we’ve just become accustomed to being overwhelmed. Perhaps we’ve learned to filter what’s important to us – or, might we just miss things all the time because we can’t possibly take it all in? I’m sitting here, right now, with the news on TV and several windows open on my computer screen. I’m in the midst of working on several articles at the same time. That is arguably my personal style – perhaps one of chaos – but it is fairly representative of the general environment in which we all exist these days. There is a steady flow of information abounding at all times – everywhere we turn.

In the PBS piece below (a quite excellent video clip) , the story is about the economy and decision-making about investing, but this is a theme that carries over into much of our world today. Another issue with access to information is that it forces us to make more decisions than we might otherwise have to (see the “jam” experiment in the video). With more choices, people often opt not to make a final decision because it’s hard to feel like you’re making the right choice when there are so many options in front of you. This is a basic tenet of classic social psychological studies of cognitive dissonance. In choosing, we inevitably have to live with the downside of the choice we make and with the absence of the good qualities of the option we overlooked. If we’re presented with myriad choices, what happens then? Do we just become incapable of making any real decision at all – overwhelmed by the prospect of choosing, the notion that we might be missing out on something better or be stuck with something that’s not the best possible option? Especially if there are many other options, making a final decision means high odds of regret. Or, is this precisely why we rely on online stock tips, recommendations from other shoppers on Amazon and other online shopping outlets – we never really make decisions. We rely on these infinite sources of information to help make the choices for us. Social psychological studies also allow us insight into how we make ourselves feel better if we make the “wrong” choice; we externalize the blame. If that’s the case, I can write off the novel I didn’t like because I bought it on a recommendation from another reader or the computer I bought because someone online reported that it had a nice keyboard, etc. It’s not my fault – they recommended it to me! Perhaps the wealth of information makes it harder to make a choice, but easier to deflect the blame for problematic decisions.

Your Mind and Your Money

Information Society, In Blackwell Reference Online

A wildly improbable thought experiment: what if Facebook moved to a micropayment model and gave users, say, $1 for contributing value to their site?

This would be a raise, of course, because we are currently paid $0 in wages. However, I’ll argue that if Facebook paid its users there would be a user-revolt.

First, Facebook makes money. That you diligently provide them with your personal data makes you an unpaid worker in their digital goldmine. In the traditional Marxist framework, exploitation is measured by the surplus value the worker creates (profits over and above wages). And since our wages on Facebook equal zero, exploitation would, then, be infiniteas Christian Fuchs likes to point out. However, others have also looked at the non-monetary value of using Facebook:

Second, you (arguably) get value out of Facebook through building an online identity, socializing with others and so on -and all this is at no monetary cost.

And it is this second point that explains why Facebook users do not currently feel overly exploited: they view the site and its value in non-economic terms. However, were Facebook to start paying users there would be a gestalt shift towards economic thinking that would lead them to feel exploited. That their labor was only worth a dollar would be insulting. Monetary compensation would key users into thinking of their activities as labor or work rather than as leisure or fun.

I find this thought experiment interesting because of the counterintuitive idea that getting more money would in effect anger people. Is this what you think would happen if Facebook paid us?