In a recent article, Brad Allenby and Carolyn Mattick argue that the ‘rule book’ of international warfare needs to be rewritten to include of the use of new technologies, in particular drones. Drones sit in an ambiguous legal space because they are unmanned aerial vehicles that are often used to fly in a restricted airspace. Compounding this problem is that the use of drones is largely undocumented as a matter of national secrecy. Nevertheless another layer of technology, social media, is now providing a battleground for visual accountability. On the one hand, I want to draw attention to the use of Instagram to highlight the use of social media to inform – and critique – the use of drones through layered representations of their targets. On the other, and competing with this critique, we must look at the use of drone target visuals released by governments to communicate the drones precision and safety. These examples are a way of demonstrating how social media produces a visual politics that can be used to highlight the use of these new military technologies. This contestation for visual accountability may be the social inroads to in fact see the target. The target I am alluding to here is not what the drones see but the frameworks that that legitimatize the actions of these drones.
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
On this blog, I typically discuss the intersection of social theory and the changing nature of the Internet (e.g., using Marx, Bourdieu, Goffman, Bauman, DeBord and so on). In a chapter of the new third edition of the McDonaldization Reader edited by George Ritzer, I argue that what we are seeing is a general trend towards the deMcDonaldization of the Internet.
The shift from a top-down centrally conceived and controlled “Web 1.0” to a more user-generated and social “Web 2.0” is a shift away from the dimensions of McDonaldization as Ritzer defines the concept. For example, a corporate-generated website that does not allow user-generated content is paradigmatic of Web 1.0. The site is produced efficiently by few individuals, making it predictable, controllable and relatively devoid of outside human input. Web 2.0, alternatively, is not centered on the efficient production of content [I’ve made this argument previously]. User-generated content is, instead, produced by many individuals, making it much less predictable –evidenced by the random videos we come across on YouTube, articles on Wikipedia, or perhaps the best example is the downright capricious and aleatory experience of Chatroulette. The personalization and community surrounding social networking sites are hard to quantify and make the web far more humanized. Thus, Web 2.0 marks a general deMcDonaldization of the web. Examples of these points are further illustrated in the chapter.
Finally, further consideration needs to be given to the various ways in which Web 2.0 remains McDonaldized, rationalized and standardized. Many of the sites that allow for unpredictable user-generated content do so precisely because of their rationalized and standardized -and thus McDonaldized- underlying structure. In many ways, our Facebook profiles all seem to look and behave similarly. The rationalized and standardized structures of Web 2.0 seem to coexist comfortably with irrational and unpredictable content they facilitate. ~nathanjurgenson.com
I’ve written many posts on this blog about the implosion of the spheres of production and consumption indicating the rise of prosumption. This trend has exploded online with the rise of user-generated content. We both produce and consume the content on Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, YouTube and so on. And it is from this lens that I describe Apple’s latest creation announced yesterday: the iPad. The observation I want to make is that the iPad is not indicative of prosumption, but rather places a wedge between production and consumption.
From the perspective of the user the iPad is made for consuming content. While future apps might focus on the production of content, the very construction of the device dissuades these activities. Not ideal for typing, and most notably missing a camera, the device is limited in the ways in which users create content. Further, the device, much like Apple’s other devices, is far less customizable than the netbooks Apple is attempting to displace (which often use the endlessly customizable Linux OS).
Instead, the iPad is focused on an enhanced passive consumption experience (and advertised as such, opposed to their earlier focus: can’t resist). Unlike netbooks, the iPad is primarily an entertainment device. Instead of giving users new ways to produce media content, the focus is on making more spectacular and profitable the experience of consuming old media content -music and movies via the iTunes store, books via the new iBookstore and news via Apple’s partnership with the New York Times.
Thus, the story of the iPad’s first 24hours, for me, is the degree to which the tasks of producing and consuming content have been again split into two camps. The few produce it -flashy, glittering and spectacular- and the many consume it as experience. And, of course, for a price.
Does this serve as a rebuttal to an argument that the trend towards the merging of the spheres of production and consumption into prosumption is inevitable? Or is prosumption indeed the trend for a future Apple seems not to grasp? Or will the applications developed for the device overcome its limitations? ~nathan
Read More: Times Topics: the iPad
Following PJ Rey’s excellent summary of the Internet as Playground and Factory yesterday, I offer a few additional observations from the conference this past weekend, focusing on Web 2.0 capitalism, and Google as the primary target. The roughly 100 presenters were not joined by Google, as the company said that the conference content seemed “slightly anti-capitalist.” Much of the content, indeed, took the corporate ownership of our productive labor online to task.
A common theme was how to discuss Marx’s Labor Theory of Value with respect to Web 2.0. Clearly, companies are exploiting our free labor, but they do not have to coerce us. Julian Kucklich argued that we now have exploitation without alienation. That is, our unpaid labor is used for corporate surveillance and profit, even if the labor is not alienating or “foreign to ourselves.” Simply, we like using Facebook, Twitter and so on. However, Kucklich further argues that we are taught to think Facebook is fun, that companies use the “ideology of play” to seduce us into producing (or better, prosuming). Martin Roberts, in, ironically, perhaps the conference’s most entertaining presentation, also took to task the culture of “fun”, arguing that we have been trained to see our work as “fun”, making us more productive for the capitalist system. Christian Fuchs most forcefully argued for a communist Internet, stating that exploitation on Web 2.0 is infinite because users are not being paid material wages. A good Marxian, he downplayed the importance of immaterial value gained through sites like Facebook because we live in a capitalism system based on the material. And Ulises Mejias takes Web 2.0 to task for the creation of corporate Monopsonies, where we have seen Facebook, Amazon, eBay, YouTube, Google and so on become corporate titans of Web 2.0 capitalism. He argues that using these corporate Monopsonies is dangerous and irresponsible, calling for open-source and public versions of these types of services.
Thus, it is clear to see why Google was reluctant to join this conference. Frank Pasquale forcefully called on Google to be more transparent. Given what was discussed above, as well as Google’s central status in our day-to-day knowledge-seeking life, Pasquale leaves us with questions to ponder: should its page-rank algorithm be public? Should Google be allowed to up-rank or down-rank links based their relationship to the company? Should Google be able to simply remove pages from its listings? Should Google be forced to let us know when they do these things? ~nathan
For many (especially youths and young adults), attempting to quit or never start Facebook is a difficult challenge. We are compelled to document ourselves and our lives online partly because services like Facebook have many benefits, such as keeping up with friends, scheduling gatherings (e.g., protests) and so on. Additionally, and to the point of this post, the digital documentation of ourselves also means that we exist. There is a common adage that if something is not on Google, it does not exist. As the world is increasingly digital, this becomes increasingly true. Especially for individuals. One adolescent told her mother, “If you’re not on MySpace, you don’t exist.”
Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism argues that we are increasingly afraid of being nothing or unimportant so we develop narcissistic impulses to become real. The explosion of new ways to document ourselves online allows new outlets for importance, existence and perhaps even immortality that living only in the material world does not permit. The simple logic is that increased digital documentation of ourselves means increased digital existence. More than just social networking sites, we document ourselves on Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and even increasingly with services that track, geographically, where one is at all times, often via one’s smart phone (e.g., Loopt, Fire Eagle, Google Latitude, etc).
In this world where we can document our lives endlessly, we might become fixated on our every behavior. How it will appear to others, how it will help us with our jobs, friends, relationships, etc. Simply, self-presentation is a strategic game. Erving Goffman discussed this using a dramaturgical model where we are like actors on a stage performing ourselves. The new technologies described here mean that more and more areas of our life become part of this perforce because new parts of our lives are now able to be documented (e.g., our every-moment geographic locations). More and more areas of our life are lived subservient to the performance and identity we want to convey.
In this way, a hyper-fixatedness on our own subjectivity to create its own digital simulation (e.g., Facebook) can, to some degree, dictate how we live, becoming like characters on a “reality” show always performing for the camera, seduced by the importance and immortality that digital existence promises. ~nathan
As the first week of Obama’s presidency passes, a top priority, set forth prior to his election, is to transform “the internet based machinery”, that helped him get elected, into an agenda setting tool. The millennial generation tools within a new frontier of political interaction, i.e. social networking sites, like facebook, twitter, and YouTube are still in their embryonic form, particularly with regard to their impact on the political process. It is clear, however, that if one wants to be a powerful political actor he or she must embrace these new forms of media. There are a number of past politicians, once with substantial clout, who are now lying in the graveyard that this new media dug. Trent Lott and George Allen, for example, were sidelined by the powerful quotidian torrent of Internet politics. Obama’s campaign was an exposé of the galvanizing proclivities of this new medium. Now, it is the telos of the Obama administration to turn its revolutionary campaign into revolutionary governance.
Building off his campaign’s successful use of the new frontier, Obama’s first step was to revamp the white house website, modeling it after his campaign site. The improved White house website can be continually updated with presidential orders and blogs. Next, rather than utilizing the old medium of radio, Obama streamed his position on the economic crisis via video. Presidential Obama’s utilization of new media provides for an unparalleled dissemination of information. It successfully bypasses the conduits of the old watchdog media leaving the bypassed representatives of the older forms of media concerned. It can be proffered, however, that citizens are now becoming the watchdogs, as they are provided with new forums for discussion and reaction. Obama, differently than during his astonishing and meteoric rise to the presidency, will now have many more restrictions on his usage of the millennial generations tool kit. Mr. Obama was unfettered in his usage of Facebook, instant messaging and twitter, President Obama will be more regulated. Democracy theorist Benjamin Barber (1998 ) adroitly elucidates the potential of new technology’s proclivities for civics. He states, “The bittersweet fruits of science will…serve as facilitator rather than a corruptor of our precious democracy”. The Internet is interactive and the viewer has much more control, thus, fostering democracy. New technology has transformed the dynamics and structure of civics, political campaigning, and democracy. Therefore, citizens, and politicians alike must embrace this new medium and shunt aside any desire to stultify the inexorable current of this new media. We have entered the new political frontier and there is no turning back.
Lately, we have been doing lots of work, for others. For free.
Millions of users of sites like Facebook and MySpace are clicking away at their profiles, adding detailed information about themselves and others. “We” are uploading content to sites like Flickr, YouTube, the microblogging service Twitter and many others, and our labor creates vast databases about ourselves –what I previously described as a sort of mass exhibitionism.
Facebook’s profit model is built upon an ownership of its user’s labor, specifically, the intimate detail of our lives and self-presentations. This is an example a larger trend of “prosumption,” that is, the simultaneous role of being a producer of what one consumes. In the material world we are doing this more often by scanning and bagging our own groceries, checking ourselves onto planes and into hotels, etc.
The websites mentioned above are part of the user-generated and social turn the Internet has taken in the last few years –what has come to be known as Web 2.0. And prosumption generally, and especially on Web 2.0, is the mechanism by which we become unpaid workers (“crowd sourcing”), producing valuable information for the benefit of businesses. This is the almost endlessly efficient business model of Web 2.0 capitalism.
Karl Marx argued for taking control of the means of production, and on Web 2.0, to some degree, we have. But what remains in the hands of the few, the businesses, is the profit-potential. Facebook’s reach is ever-growing and the company is valued at $15 billion dollars as of 2007, precisely due to the data that users donate to the site.
Perhaps many do not mind giving away their labor because they enjoy the services provided, such as the richly social Facebook platform. However, we should also ask why the personal data of ourselves, that we are producing, does not belong to us? Given the successes of non-profit/open source software and applications (e.g., Linux, Firefox, etc), shouldn’t we be calling for a non-profit/open source social networking platform (i.e., an open source Facebook-like platform) where businesses do not own the highly personal data about ourselves and our socializing? What other ways can we think of that removes the link between our data (and labor) and corporate profit? ~nathan
Social Movements and New Media
“I would expect that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and [the] next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before.”
The Web 2.0 summit discusses the user-generated web, and of sociological interest here is that when people are given tools to share information about themselves online, they do, often in intimate detail. The massive popularity of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook highlight this trend, where millions of users display themselves in what might seem like unnecessary detail. Sites like Flickr and YouTube are updated endlessly with photos and videos illuminating users’ everyday lives. Blogging often takes the form of an online diary or journal, but one that is broadcasted to an almost infinite audience. The increasingly popular micro-blogging tool Twitter allows users to publish constant updates of everything they are doing in granular detail. The iPhone application Loopt does this as well, and also maps where the users are at all times. This is not to even detail a whole additional set of popular self-exhibitionism tools described by The Quantified Self project.
How do we interpret this mass exhibitionism online? Do we celebrate it as the free performance of creative individuality? What else is at play? We can follow the dollars and acknowledge that ‘we’ are, collectively, unpaid workers in building an endlessly detailed database, a digital gold mine of information (note here that Facebook alone is valued at $15 billion dollars as of 2007, precisely due to the data that users donate to the site). ~nathan
Social Movements and New Media
Two years ago, Google paid a copious, $1.65 billion to acquire the incipiently profitless Web site, YouTube. This video sharing website’s meteoric rise was in part due to its software’s facileness and accessibility. In this light, anyone with access to a computer and some gumption could post their own video. In an effort to transform their costly addition into a revenue-producing agent, Google announced that it would begin selling space to advertisers on YouTube’s search results pages. As a result, an advertiser can bid on key word searches. Interestingly, advertisers pay based upon the number of clicks on their ads. This new profit-making addition coincides with a recently added “click to buy” feature, which directs users to an ancillary site that provides a purchasing opportunity. Sociologists have a perennial interest in media production and consumption. Utilizing the lens of the critical theorist Walter Benjamin, it is palpable that there is the potential of what Benjamin refers to as the democratization of the media. Within this paradigm the production and consumption of media is taken out of the hands of the elite. One can see the potential promise but augur the insidious nature of the now profit seeking YouTube. With Google’s attempt to create a profit-oriented advertisement model and change YouTube’s image, the possibility of democratization is precarious. The users’ power to weed out the detritus is weakened, and the power of those with more economic capital is increased. As a result, the greatest number of “hits” or views is of content provided by major media conglomerates, thus thwarting parvenus. The question remains, is it possible for a media source to make a profit while its democratic process remains unabated? If we are to take the quotidian torrent of user interactive Internet media seriously, then we must be careful not to have content adulterated by a profit-seeking motive.