Category Archives: myspace

report on democratization and the networked public sphere

I was at the “Democratization and the Networked Public Sphere” panel on Friday night in a room full of flagrantly well-read attendees. But it was the panelists who shone. They fully grasped the challenges facing the network as it emerges as the newest theater in the political and social struggle for a democratic society. It was the best panel I’ve seen in a long time, with a full spectrum of views represented: Ethan Zuckerman self-deprecatingly described himself as “one of those evil capitalists,” whose stance clearly reflected the values of market liberalism. On the opposite side, Trebor Scholz raised a red flag in warning against the spectre of capitalism that hovers over the ‘user-generated content’ movement. In between (literally—she sat between them), Danah Boyd spoke eloquently about the characteristics of a networked social space, and the problems traditional social interaction models face when superimposed on the network.
Danah spoke first, contrasting the characteristics of online and offline public spaces, and continuing on to describe the need for public space at a time when we seem obsessed with privacy. The problem with limiting ourselves to discussions of privacy, she said, is that we forget that public space only exists when we are using it. She then went on to talk about her travels and encounters with the isolation of exurban life—empty sidewalks, the physical distances separating teens from their social peers, the privatization of social space (malls). Her point was that with all this privacy and private space, the public space is being neglected. What is important though is to recognize how networked spaces are becoming a space for public life. Even more important: these new public spaces are under threat as much as the real life publics that have been stripped away by suburban isolation.
Ethan Zuckerman began with a presentation of the now infamous 1984 Mac ad, remixed to star Hillary Clinton. He then pointed out that a strikingly similar remix had been made in 2004 by the media artist Astrubal, featuring Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Zuckerman was excited because it pointed to the power of the remix, and the network as an alternative vector for dissent in a regime with a highly controlled press. While the ad is a deadly serious matter in Tunisia, in America it is just smear. The Hillary ad seems to be a turning point in media representations on the network in the US. Zuckerman asserted that 21st century political campaigns will be different than 20th century campaigns precisely because of the power of citizen generated media combined with the distributive power of the network.
Trebor Scholz warned that unbridled enthusiasm for user-generated content may mask an undercurrent of capitalist exploitation, even though most rhetoric about user-generated content proposes exactly the opposite. In most descriptions, user-generated content is an act of personal expression, and has value as such: Scholz referenced Yochai Benkler’s notion that people gain agency as they express themselves as speakers, and that this characteristic may transfer to the real world, encouraging a politically active citizenry. But Trebor’s main point was that the majority of time spent on self-expression finds its way onto a small number of sites—YouTube and MySpace in particular. He had some staggering numbers for MySpace: 12% of all time spent online in America is dedicated to MySpace alone. The dirty secret is that someone owns MySpace, and it isn’t the content producers. It’s Rupert Murdoch. Google, of course, owns YouTube. And therein lies the crux of Trebor’s argument: someone else is getting rich off a user’s personal expression, and the creators cannot claim ownership of their own work. They produce content that nets only social capital, while the owners take in millions of dollars.
It’s a tricky point to make, since Boyd noted that most producers are using these services expressly to gain social capital—monetary concerns don’t enter the equation. I have a vague sense of discomfort in taking a stance that is ultimately patronizing to producers, saying “You shouldn’t do this for fear of enriching someone else.” But I can’t get away from the idea that Trebor is right —users are locked in to a site by their social ties, and the companies hold a great deal of power over them. Further, that power is not just social but also legal: the companies own the content.
On the other hand, users have a great deal of power over the companies, a fact made plain by the recent protest against the ‘News Feed’ feature added to Facebook. The feature caused a huge uproar in the Facebook community and a call for boycotting Facebook spread—ironically—using the News Feed feature. Facebook removed the feature. responded by allowing users to control what went in the feeds. [updated 4.17.07. thanks to andrew s.]
This discussion spun off into another one: what does it mean that 700,000 users found it in their willpower to protest a feature on Facebook, when only a portion of those would be as active in any other public sphere? Boyd claims that this is a signal that networked public spaces are a viable arena for public participation. Zuckerman would agree—the network can activate a community response in the real world. Dissidents working against repressive governments have used the network to amplify their voices and illuminate the plight of people and nations ignored by the mainstream media. This is reason for optimism. In America we’ve recently seen national and regional politics embracing networked spaces (see Obama in MySpace). Let’s hope they do so in good faith, and also embrace the spirit of openness and collaboration that is an essential part of the network.
I have hope, but I am also circumspect. The networked public space can serve the needs of a democracy, but it can also devolve into venality. There is a difference between using the network to further human freedom and the lesson that I take away from the Facebook uprising. What happened on Facebook is not a triumph of a civil polity; it’s more like the plaintive cry in a theater when the projector breaks. Public outcry over a trivial action doesn’t improve our democracy—it just shows how far into triviality we have fallen.
Ethan Zuckerman’s follow up to the event
Trebor’s presentation and follow up to the event

future of the filter

An article by Jon Pareles in the Times (December 10th, 2006) brings to mind some points that have been risen here throughout the year. One, is the “corporatization” of user-generated content, the other is what to do with all the material resulting from the constant production/dialogue that is taking place on the Internet.
Pareles summarizes the acquisition of MySpace by Rupert’s Murdoch’s News Corporation and YouTube by Google with remarkable clarity:

What these two highly strategic companies spent more than $2 billion on is a couple of empty vessels: brand-named, centralized repositories for whatever their members decide to contribute.

As he puts it, this year will be remembered as the year in which old-line media, online media and millions of individual web users agreed. I wouldn’t use the term “agreed,” but they definitely came together as the media giants saw the financial possibilities of individual self-expression generated in the Web. As it usually happens with independent creative products, large amounts of the art originated in websites such as MySpace and YouTube, borrow freely and get distributed and promoted outside of the traditional for-profit mechanisms. As Pareles says, “it’s word of mouth that can reach the entire world.” Nonetheless, the new acquisitions will bring a profit for some while the rest will supply material for free. But, problems arise when part of that production uses copyrighted material. While we have artists fighting immorally to extend copyright laws, we have Google paying copyright holders for material used in YouTube, but also fighting them.
The Internet has allowed for the democratization of creation and distribution, it has made the anonymous public while providing virtual meeting places for all groups of people. The flattening of the wax cylinder into a portable, engraved surface that produced sound when played with a needle, brought the music hall, the clubs and cabarets into the home, but it also gave rise to the entertainment business. Now the CD burner, the MP3, and online tools have brought the recording studio into the home. Interestingly enough, far from promoting isolation, the Internet has generated dialogue. YouTube is not a place for merely watching dubious videos; it is also a repository of individual reactions. Something similar is happening with film, photography and books. But, what to do with all that? Pareles sees the proliferation of blogs and the user-generated play lists as a sort of filter from which the media moguls are profiting: “Selection, a time-consuming job, has been outsourced. What’s growing is the plentitude not just of user-generated content, but also of user-filtered content.” But he adds, “Mouse-clicking individuals can be as tasteless, in the aggregate, as entertainment professionals.” What is going to happen as private companies become the holders of those filters?

the future of media companies

Every day we hear more reports about how media / hardware/ distribution companies are ever more frequently expanding horizontally (going into new categories) as well as vertically (going into more parts of their production/distribution chain).
In that, Amazon launched a download video service. MySpace opens a music store to compete with Apple’s iTunes and is also considering the creation of a print magazine. HarperCollins is selling downloadable media on their website. These are just a few examples.
What will the future of media publishing look like? How close are we from having only a few multi-national companies that produce the hardware, media and distribution? What are the other options?
Could the pendulum ever swing the other way? Could the future branded media company outsource all the creative, technology, publishing and distribution in a similar way that a laptop manufacturer has its mother board, processor, batteries, memory, drive, screen and advertising come from somewhere outside the company?

an identity of bits and pieces

As privacy fears around search engines and the Justice Department continue to rise, the issue of personal privacy is being thrust, once again, into the public spotlight. The conversation generally goes like this: “All the search engines are collecting information about us. There isn’t enough protection for our personal information. Companies must do more.” Suggestions of what ‘more’ is are numerous, while solutions are few and far between. Social engineering solutions that do exist fail to include effective ways of securing online activities. Technical services that allow you to completely protect your identity are geek oriented and lacking the polish of Google or Yahoo!.
Why is this privacy thing an issue, anyway? People feel strongly about their privacy and protecting their identities, but are lazy when it comes time to protect themselves. Should this be taken for a disinterested acknowledgement that we don’t care about our personal data? Short answer: no. If we look at what’s happening on the other side of things—the data that people put out there willingly, on sites like MySpace, and blogs, and flickr, I think the answer is obvious. Personal data is constantly being added to the virtual space because it represents who we are. melysa with a y
Identity production is a large part of online culture, and has been from the very first days of the Well. Our personal information is important to us, but the apathy arises from the fact that we have no substantitive rights when it comes to controlling it [1].
There are a few outlets where we can wrangle our information into a presentation of ourselves, but usually our data accumulates in drifts, in the dusty corners of databases. When search engines crawl through those databases the information unintentionally coalesces into representations of us. In the real world the ability to keep distance between social spheres is fundamental to the ability to controlling your identity; there is no distance in cyberspace. Your info is no longer dispersed among the different spheres of shopping sites, email, blogs, comments, or bulletin boards, reviews. Search engines collapse that distance completely and your distributed identity becomes an aggregate one; one we might not recognize if it came up to us on the street.
There are two ways to react: 1) with alarm: attempt to keep things wrapped in layers of protection, possibly remove it entirely, and call for greater control and protection of our personal information. Or 2) with grace: acknowledge our multiple identities, and create a meta-identity, while still making a call for better control of our personal data. The first reaction is about identity control and privacy and relies on technical solutions or non-participation. Products like sxip and schemes like openID allow you to confirm that you are who you say you, and groups like EPIC, and federal legislation (HIPAA, FERPA, definitely not the PATRIOT Act) help protect your information. But eventually this route is not productive—it doesn’t embrace the reality of living with and within a networked environment. The second reaction is about “identity production” [2], and that’s where sites like MySpace and blogs reign. There’s also a new service, ClaimID, that will help you create a meta-identity with a slick, web 2.0 workflow (full disclosure: the founder is a former colleague).
link to ClaimIDClaimID is interesting in several respects. It let’s you actively manage your identity by aggregating information about yourself through searches, then tagging each item with several levels of aboutness. So you could say that your website is about you, and by you, whereas an article that mentions your name in conjunction with a project is not about you, or by you. Still, it’s part of your online persona. An interview: about you, not by you. A short history of New York: by you, not about you. ClaimID allows you to have these different permutations of relationship that help define the substance within and the ownership of each item. Everything can be tagged with keywords to link items. What you end up with is a web of yourself, annotated and organized so that people can get to know you in the way you want to be known.
This helps combat the unintentional aggregation of information that happens within search engines. But we also need to be aware that intentional aggregation does not mean it is trustworthy information, just as unintentional does not always mean “true to life”. We have a sense that when people manage their identities that they are repositioning the real in favor of a something more appropriate for the audience. We therefore put greater stock in what we find that seems unintentional—yet this information is not logically more reliable. We have to be critical of both the presented, vetted information and the aggregated, unintentional information. We still need privacy rights, and tools to help protect our identities from theft, spoofing, or intrusion, but in the meantime we have the opportunity to actively negotiate the bits and pieces of our identities on the network.