@Civic Paths: Lina Srivastava

Lina Srivastava (http://linasrivastava.blogspot.com/) is a consultant and media activist who works with companies and organizations on various projects in order to impart transmedia design and participant engagement to activist causes. Trained as an Intellectual Propety lawyer, she switched to present work, founding a Consulting Firm in 2008, which focuses on the strategic planning of Transmedia campsigns which target the intersection of Human Rights and The Arts. She is motivated towards working on what she describes as “Transmedia Activism”.

Currently she is working on several projects addressing immigration and cultural preservation, working with Human Rights organizations, NGOs, UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, and private companies. The work consists of creating fleshed out transmedia campaigns which targets these issues as well as devising means of creating engagement in viewers and in creating business models for the campaigns.

Her talk elucidated some of the challenges of bringing transmedia design to activist spaces, particularly creating compelling narratives that transcend an individual text and inspiring engagement across media. She also expressed the importance of balancing factual knowledge and understanding of cultural context with creating and expressing affect with media. Srivastava emphasized the importance of narrative, grounded in factual data, that inspires people to become involved in political and civic action.

Happy Financial Literacy Month!

by Liana Gamber Thompson and Lana Swartz

April is National Financial Literacy month. Although it may seem slightly outside the purview of a civic engagement research group like Civic Paths, between the Occupy movement and Students for Liberty, we’ve begun to see money matters popping up more and more in our research. With confidence in economic stability at a low, Americans have begun to see personal financial decisions as having political and civic dimensions. Nevertheless, attempts to teach financial literacy tend to avoid the political, focusing instead on seemingly “neutral” best practices like budgeting and saving.

Occupy George

Occupy George turns bills into infographics

After the jump, check out some examples of groups trying to grapple with the idea of finance, both personal and macroeconomic, from an Alternative Reality Game (going on right now!) about electronic trading and financial crisis to a fanvid about economist Friedrich Hayek by young libertarians.

[Read more…]

Responses to Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign

On behalf of the Civic Paths Project Research Group, I have been selectively collecting online essay and article responses – both critical and positive – to Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign, as well as Invisible Children’s reactions to them. I have focused on blog responses from experts and activists in relevant fields with particular attention given to Ugandan and other African voices. I’ve attempted to capture a broad  range of representative responses to IC’s campaign amongst these groups. A selection of the links have been categorized using the Storify website here.

Why youth are drawn to Invisible Children: Prefiguring Kony 2012

The astonishingly rapid and expansive spread of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 film has garnered immense attention (both positive and negative) online. While much of the criticism is around the organization’s rhetoric, its suggestion of military intervention, or its financial practices, I would like to touch on a different aspect of Invisible Children — its impact as an organization on youth participation in US civic and political life.

Why has Invisible Children’s approach resonated so well with young people and what impact does this and other campaigns have on their sense of themselves as political agents? The Kony 2012 video has been most popular with 13-17 year old Americans (as well as 18-24 year old American males…), and part of the video’s soaring viewership is attributed to these teenagers’ sharing of the video through their various social networks. So far, it would be simple to dismiss their sharing of the video as a form of Slacktivism: these young people, allegedly, are practicing easy and thus meaningless forms of social action, actions that don’t go beyond pressing ‘share’. This critique, however, ignores the possibility that for the millions of young people who watched Kony 2012 and shared it with friends, the movie may be meaningful in mobilizing young people as civic actors. Making such statements around Kony 2012 would be premature, as only time will tell what the long-term impacts of young people’s experiences with this movie will be. But, we can gain some preliminary insights by looking at what Invisible Children has done before, over its years of mobilizing young Americans to action. At this time, we do not want to get into the controversies about the right action to take around the war in Central Africa. Rather, we want to highlight Invisible Children’s ability to powerfully engage young people through what we call Participatory Culture Civics.

Let’s first provide some background. Invisible Children (IC) is an organization that has been around for 8 years. IC’s previous 10 movies, while not circulated as widely as Kony 2012, have sparked similarly intense reactions from many of its viewers. Some of these previous viewers joined what became the “Invisible Children movement”, consisting of volunteer staff, interns, roadies, and local club members in high schools and colleges. These members participated in IC’s large-scale, performative campaigns, including the Global Night Commute, Displace Me and 25, and dedicated time and energy to promoting IC’s causes nationwide. While this was not Invisible Children’s original goal, the organization became increasingly aware of its “inadvertent” role in encouraging American youth’s social engagement. The organization has increasingly focused on this role as part of its action, as exemplified by the “Fourth Estate” event they held in the summer of 2011, an event dedicated to empowering 650 socially active youth to become activists for the causes they care passionately about. The key elements of this event are summarized in the following video.

The Civic Paths Project Research Group, working with Professor Henry Jenkins at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California and supported by the Spencer Foundation, has been looking at Invisible Children as a case study of what we call Participatory Culture Civics: organizations which build on top and harness the strengths of participatory cultures to further their civic goals. Invisible Children sparked our interest due to its innovative and non-orthodox use of media, but even more so, due to the way it created a participatory community around its goal. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Among the tens of millions (we’ve given up on updating this number) of viewers of Kony 2012 are hundreds of thousands of young people who have joined Invisible Children’s mission long before this film. In 2010-2011, we interviewed 30 such members, who told us about how they learned about Invisible Children and got involved in the organization, and how becoming involved with the group helped shape their identity as civic actors. We talked to members who were relatively highly engaged: interns volunteering to work at IC offices for the summer, roadies, who volunteered 3 months of their lives to tour IC movies around the nation, and leaders of local IC clubs in high schools and colleges. In short, they were young people who dedicated significant time, energy and effort to IC’s cause. Yet in some ways, they are not unlike some of the new viewers of Kony 2012: many were in high school when they first encountered IC, and to many (though not all) viewing the film and becoming engaged with IC was a first experience of taking part in any civic action. We believe that listening to these members’ accounts of their experiences can help us better understand why young people are attracted to Invisible Children and what role the organization has played in the past in helping young people begin to conceive of themselves as political agents. This blog entry is based in our research with Invisible Children and builds on a forthcoming article “Experiencing Fan Activism: Understanding the Power of Fan Activist Organizations through Members’ Narratives” which will be published in the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures in June 2012.

Creating content worlds – Invisible Children’s storytelling through movie

Our analysis of Invisible Children’s model of youth engagement began with the lens of “fan activism”: forms of civic engagement and political participation growing out of experiences of fandom. We were examining Invisible Children as a parallel to another case study of Participatory Culture Civics: the Harry Potter Alliance, a non-profit organization that mobilizes the Harry Potter fan community toward civic action, using metaphors from the popular narratives. In comparing the two organizations, we found that while the Harry Potter Alliance built on an existing fan community and harnessed a pre-existing content world (a powerful narrative that strongly resonates with members) toward its civic goals, Invisible Children began with a goal–ending the use of child soldiers in the civil war in Uganda–and built a content world around it.

Invisible Children has been creating documentary films since 2004, when they released their first, and for many viewers most powerful, film, Invisible Children: The Rough Cut (watch here).

For an analysis of IC’s transmedia storytelling practices see this piece by fellow Civic Paths member Lana Swartz.
This movie documents IC founders Jason, Bobby and Lauren’s trip to Uganda, where they first learned about the war with the LRA and the existence of child soldiers. In members’ narratives, this movie is attributed with an almost magical effect in transforming their worldview:

“They showed me the film and I remember being so floored like, ‘I cannot believe that this is going on’ and ‘why have I never heard about this.’ I remember something in me shifted that night.” (Ruth, IC intern)

The main strength of the movie to most IC members is the feeling of identification with the protagonists—the three filmmakers and future IC founders, young people not much older than themselves, who go out to Uganda, encounter a social issue and launch a movement:

“The movie is just very raw, and it’s, even though they were older than me they were kids, and you see these kids just go, they see something, they run into a problem and they’re like, OK, now we have to fix this problem.” (Beth, IC intern)

In this respect, the Kony 2012 movie represents a significant shift in point of view and style. If Rough Cut presented the founders as naïve but good-intentioned film students accidentally stumbling onto a war, Kony 2012 shows Jason as a leader of a viable movement and, predominantly, as a father. When he teaches his 5 year old son about Joseph Kony being “the bad guy”, it’s not clear with whom young viewers most identify – with the 30 something old dad, or with the innocent but earnest 5 year-old.

While Kony 2012 was released online, previous IC movies were mostly distributed through “screenings”: 1.5-2 hour long events, taking place in high schools, colleges and churches. In screenings, IC roadies, who are volunteer staff members, show the movie, and accompany it with an introduction and Q&A sessions. Some screenings also include young Ugandan, recipients of IC scholarships in Uganda, who come to the U.S. for a short period of time to tell their own story in screenings. After screenings, audiences were encouraged to donate to Invisible Children, buy its merchandise, as well as become more involved with its local clubs.

This distribution model, of course, reached a negligible audience when compared with Kony 2012. At the same time, the live interaction with the roadies enabled Invisible Children to create a different experience than that possible when watching Kony 2012 online. By supplementing the movies with live interaction with the roadies, Invisible Children could supplement the information given in the movies (e.g., explain the current state of affairs in Uganda), answer audience’s questions (e.g., how are donations used) as well as create contacts between roadies and IC supporters, which were later maintained online. This model, while reaching much smaller audiences, enabled IC to create a more nuanced and informed message, and thus counter some (though not all) of the criticisms it is now encountering.

Accusations of Slacktivism, or, can watching a 30 minute movie make you a social activist?

image source: http://jeffzelaya.com/

Part of the critique around the Kony 2012 campaign is that it promotes Slacktivism: a genre of social action that is easy (done with a click of the mouse), comfortable, and thus meaningless. One of the memes that’s been circulating around Kony 2012 presents this critique. This critique already ignores some of the more active forms of participation that are planned as part of the Kony 2012 campaign, such as the “cover the night” events planned for April 20th 2012, in which participants are called to cover their local cities with posters of Joseph Kony. Countless notices have already sprung up for such local events on Facebook (though, arguably, the goal of getting the world to know who Joseph Kony is, has pretty much been achieved).

Beyond that, however, talking to members of Invisible Children shows how previous IC movies indeed played important roles in helping young people become socially active, though not always in clear, immediate ways. Beth’s story is one example of this. When we interviewed her, Beth was an IC intern, in charge of updating their website with news on the war in Uganda. Beth claimed that she used to be an apathetic, selfish kid (though her family had always been involved in aid in Africa). She happened to watch The Rough Cut at a church, where it was shown by a youth pastor. Beth described watching the movie as a formative moment, an embarking on a journey of engagement in activism: “I guess it affects everybody differently. For me there was no way I could do anything else. I couldn’t go get a white collar job […] I don’t even remember what other selfish tracks I was on.” The movie opened her eyes to the world of non-profits, and she began researching them online. She became engaged with the student organization STAND, and is now their local president. Through her work with STAND she reconnected with IC. In the interview, she claimed that she now sees no other alternative for herself but being involved in activism: “That life to me just seems like the kind of life everyone should live, a life where you’re not doing something only for yourself, whatever you’re doing is putting something back into the world”.

Beth’s story exemplifies an element we heard in many IC members’ re-tellings: a narrative of self-transformation. In this narrative structure, IC members often describe their ‘former selves’, before joining IC, in contrast to who they are today. Beth describes her former self as apathetic and selfish, in many ways echoing prevalent stereotypes about disengaged youth. In her narrative, watching the Rough Cut represented a life-changing turning point. Her commitment to social engagement, then, seemed to be created at that moment of realization, “understanding that there’s more to life than the mall” (Beth).

These narratives of members are extremely powerful, though they may not be the full picture of what’s going on. Digging down deeper reveals that many IC members (though not all) had been previously socialized to altruistic values and practices. For example, while Beth understates the significance of her parents’ involvement in aid in Africa to her own activist desire, research shows that parental modeling is a key variable predicting youth civic engagement. Yet the movie served as an important catalyst to civic action, one that allowed Beth to feel that she shifted from selfish child to civic actor. Moreover, we found that seeing IC movies was part of a larger process through which young people could become socially involved.

Even when young people want to create social change, finding ways to get meaningfully involved, particularly in world affairs, is described by many members as a challenge. Many “traditional” non-profits, like the Peace Corps, offer limited possibilities for youth (under 18), and often require extensive voluntary commitments. Other organizations may offer young people ways to become involved, but are perceived as old-fashioned and out-dated, “charities run by middle-aged women” (Edie, IC intern). A key strength of IC, and one that Kony 2012 exhibits as well, is the way it offers young people actionable steps, concrete channels to express a pre-existing activist desire:

“I had been trying to find ways that I could get into volunteering or working to become part of a more global community. I saw the screening and they were in the process of trying to get the bill passed and they were encouraging us to talk to senators to hold a meeting, a cool way that you guys can make a big change, and so I got really involved from there.” (Tina, IC roadie)

While signing an online pledge or purchasing a $30 action kit (which are now completely sold out) may be seen as meaningless steps, for young people they can be perceived as significant first steps in taking civic action, giving them a sense of agency and empowerment that often sparks further action, as Beth’s story shows.

“White man’s burden?” Nuancing the message

One of the accusations against Kony 2012 has accompanied Invisible Children from its start: the accusation of presenting “poor Ugandan children” who “need to be rescued” by white Americans. Invisible Children as an organization has grappled with this accusation and over the years made many attempts to nuance their message. One of the leadership’s key statements is that their relationship with the Ugandans is one of friendship and mutual learning, not only one-directional aid. This message is in fact one that was very peripheral to Kony 2012, but it is strongly echoed in the narratives of members we talked to. IC members repeatedly expressed shared affiliations with the people of Uganda whom they have never met.

“Even though I haven’t met anyone from Uganda, I feel like they’re kind of my extended friends now. I care about them not just a far off, ‘Oh, I want everybody to be okay’ but I really feel somewhat connected.” (Dave, IC intern)

Janelle, an IC intern, is one of few IC members who have visited Uganda. She similarly speaks of a mutual relationship:

“It was such an eye opening experience. You put faces to the people you’re helping, it’s not just helping others but building friendships and exchanging. It was definitely what [the Ugandans] were giving, they were giving to us as well, learning from their culture.” (Janelle, IC intern)

It is still early to tell which relationships toward Ugandans Kony 2012 may invoke in its viewers. In trying to create a movie that people will be compelled to share, Invisible Children may have sidetracked their previous commitment to a nuanced representation of their relationship with the Ugandans. Yet when young people participate in conversations online about whether or not Kony 2012 is a representation of White Man’s Burden, they may be creating such nuanced understanding themselves in active ways that may be particularly effective. In this manner, the movie may again be seen as one aspect of a wider experience through which young people gain awareness of a problem they previously did not know about, become more informed about it, but are also mobilized in concrete and empowering ways.

The message young people are getting (again)

Beyond the specific discussion around Kony 2012, we have, as scholars, a wider agenda.
Part of the criticism that Invisible Children is receiving is a normative and ideological one: it is about what social action needs to look like, who may participate in it, and what it should entail. Bluntly read, what some of critics are arguing is that social advocacy, particularly around world affairs, should be left to experts: to politicians, to “serious” NGOs, to erudites. Young people—and this includes both the film’s 30 something-old creators, and its mostly 20 and under viewers—are told that this isn’t a world for them. It is too complicated, too hard, too serious. These are the same messages young people are getting about politics: If you don’t know exactly what you’re talking about, you’d better not talk at all.

A lot of the criticism of Invisible Children and Kony 2012 can be read as a protecting of boundaries and barriers. Who is and who is not allowed to speak; what is the right way to speak; and what should that sound like. There are many ways to take social action, and there are many other organizations out there that probably do many things better than Invisible Children. They have more nuanced messages, they offer more detailed information, they spend more of their budget on direct aid programs. IC is accused of spending too much money on filmmaking and “marketing”. Yet this statistic is seen in a different light if we consider fostering youth engagement as a central role of what Invisible Children does, as the Fourth Estate youth leadership event implies. When was the last time so many young people were so engaged around any social issue, let alone a war in Africa?

IC belongs to a new genre of civic organization, one that plays with and challenges accepted definitions of social action and what it should look and feel like. Over the past days, many critics have again and again articulated what IC is doing wrong. But in speaking to young people, it is obviously doing something right.

Many critiques of Invisible Children and of Kony 2012 may point to real improvement areas for the organization, and IC will have to meaningfully grapple with these critiques over time. But in addition to pointing out important problems, non-profit organizations, politicians and scholars should also ask, how is Invisible Children able to resonate so strongly with young people? How does it mobilize and get them involved? We suggest that the answer to these questions can be found not only in their film-making but also among IC’s young viewers, supporters and members, who want to speak up – but they need to be spoken to and invited to participate first. Invisible Children is asking them to participate. Are you?

The Born This Way Foundation and Bullying

When I started my Ph.D at USC I was just wrapping up a major writing project for the Berkman Center working with danah boyd on online bullying and sexual solicitation. In retrospect, the latter has faded, whereas harassment and bullying remains an extremely pressing issue, particularly when exacerbated by LGBTQ suicides. In fall of 2009 there were few campaigns that were based on empowering youth. The alternatives were basically glorified PSAs, or astroturfed “online communities” that no kid would consider spending time on. That’s why Lady Gaga’s Born This Way foundation has me particularly geeked out.

Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta formed the Born This Way foundation, which was launched at an event last week at Harvard University. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation donated 1 million dollars, and Lady Gaga pitched in $1.2 million. It’s founded on three pillars:

Safety (creating a safe place to celebrate individuality)
Skills (teaching advocacy, promoting civic engagement, and encouraging self-expression)
Opportunity (providing ways to implement solutions and impact local communities)

Their press release talks of exploring the best ways to “reach youth and create a new culture of kindness, bravery, acceptance and empowerment.” Gaga was quick to describe the foundation as focused on grassroots “youth-empowerment” rather than just bullying, but this seems to be the first area they have staked out, as evident in the working papers assembled and hosted by Berkman and discussion at the event launch. Here is why I am hopeful that this is a valuable step forward:

1. Re-framing of bullying
As danah boyd and John Palfrey note in their 20 Elements that you Must Know (created for and linked from bornthiswayfoundation.org), ““Bullies” aren’t the source of the problem; they’re often a symptom of the problem.” Bullying is imbricated with a litany of other risk factors, including substance abuse, sexual abuse, and depression. Mary L. Gray, now at Microsoft Research, advocates for more education about difference, rather than linking homophobes to the “cause” of suicides. Generally, we have a “limited capacity to celebrate difference.” Weeding out bigots isn’t going to alleviate the problem. We need to offer kids an alternative that addresses environmental factors and a positive way they can act on their altruistic impulses through a transmedia activist network.

2. Helping youth connect and find their voice
One way we can think about how Born This Way can move forward is to think about how it differs from previous attempts to help LGBTQ youth. The “It Gets Better” campaign was started by columnist Dan Savage and his husband in September 2010 to address the serious problem of suicide among LGBTQ youths, who remain at increased risk. It eventually migrated to its own website, and now hosts over 30,000 videos. It was an admirable campaign focused on connecting and giving hope to LGBTQ youth. However it was also criticized for framing self-harm and suicide through the lens of the privileged white male who has the ability to move to a large city and go to college. It also presumes a certain type of environment, one that must flee to survive; Mary Gray’s In the Country, for example, presents a different vision of rural queer. Many of the suicides in recent memory (e.g. Tyler Clementi) have been college students, which opens up the possibility that not addressing bullying among youths merely leads to adults who exhibit the same behavior, and it’s hardly a “rural problem.”

I applaud the success of the campaign, but disagree with its framing of who has a voice and when. Saying “it gets better” is that it is a statement that you must wait for your life to get bearable. This is a reflection of the very dire circumstances youth find themselves in, but it also neglects to give youth a more empowering message. For many youth, it could be easily argued that it must get better NOW.

3. Transmedia Platforms
Participatory culture requires low barriers to entry and spreadable content to flourish. Gaga is well-situated to capitalize on her network. As has been pointed out, Gaga just passed 20 million Twitter followers, and unlike many celebrities, she also follows a good portion of them (140,000) back. Conversations and testimonials are also sparked on YouTube in the comments section of her videos. It Gets Better focused on the importance of video testimonials as a vehicle to deliver extremely emotional messages. Gaga has been a vocal friend to the LGBTQ community, such as when she thanked “god and her gays” at the 2009 VMAs (later clarified/expanded on the eve of the Equality March). It’s unclear the role of the Born This Way website; right now all features is a blog, basic information, and a way to post your picture on the site.

4. Celebrating Difference and Togetherness
One trick with capturing altruistic impulses through a movement is to still remain cool. As Amy Wilkins points out in Wannabes, Goths and Christians, “young adults employ freakiness as a mediating category between geekiness and cool” (p. 27). Goth dress style and “freaky bodies,” according to Wilkins, is shock tactic that lends greater power to their identity, while also being a marker of taste. Thus, Gaga dubbing her fans as “monsters” lets them define themselves, celebrating their difference by coming together through shared rituals and dress. This admittedly basic framing (I am side-barring for simplicity her music and very public history) stretches back to Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School of cultural studies. The question is if she can turn identity play into identity politics or a broader sense of community that avoids the pitfalls of Born This Way and can mobilize youth to change negative cultures and improve support networks.

The next step for us is to keep track of the foundation’s efforts while also comparing them to similar organizations focusing on LGBT bullying, such as the Make it Better Project, and participatory culture coming out of popular forms more generally, like the Harry Potter Alliance and Imagine Better.

Why Twitter’s hiding tweets by location accomplishes the opposite of censorship: It extends the reach of Twitter and censored tweets

There has been a huge amount of international discussion about Twitter blocking tweets based on the country in which you reside. If you’ve missed it, Twitter has publicly stated that if you make a tweet that your government claims breaks the law in your local country, they can request that Twitter block it. Twitter would then decide if they will fulfil the request. If they do, the tweet would not be visible in your country. The rest of the world would still be able to see the tweet.

Twitter is trying to thread a needle of being gaining entry to non-US countries while continuing to grow. They need to remain profitable through paid access to its firehose, promoted trends, and promoted accounts, all of which are research or marketing features. Alongside these very economic goals they also want to be a many-to-many communication medium for the entire world. It’s a pretty difficult thing to do — meet the requests of western marketers to sell products while providing a way for people to collude in the downfall of dictatorships.

You have to read between the lines a bit in their blog post: “we try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent with users when we can’t. The Tweets must continue to flow.” So let’s start a bit of deciphering to detail why I am not calling for a boycott of Twitter…

1. It is better that Twitter is mostly permitted in other countries than blocked entirely. Twitter cannot simply demand that countries let them into their corner of the Internet. Twitter functions because, like all Internet services, it relies on the layers of networking that make up the Internet. China has opted to try to block it, while during the “Arab Spring” it was heavily throttled in Syria. So there are examples of how a government can deem Twitter too much a risk and block it or make it unusable by fiddling with the inner workings of the Internet. As Nancy Messieh put it, “Twitter isn’t censoring you. Your Government is.” Asking Twitter to not delete tweets where they are breaking local law is a little unrealistic. Twitter will just cease to work in these countries if government or other entities muck with the underlying technology. Furthermore, it is better to have a technology with easy workarounds than an entirely unusable one.

2. Twitter has tacitly endorsed workarounds. Individuals have a long history of finding loopholes in online technologies. There’s currently an easy workaround to blocking by location that could easily be removed, but so far has not been. Other workarounds include proxy servers, which is one more complex way of getting around China’s blocking. Right now the workaround is exceedingly simple and known to anybody who cares to search.

Hey, I was just thinking, how easy would it be to make a Twitter bot use the takedown list to find and retweet from one country tweets that were banned in another, thus making the banned posts visible again? The answer is: really freaking easy.

3. Twitter will make all requests (complied and otherwise) public through ChillingEffects, which will amplify the “censored” topic. This point has been apparently lost in the vociferous objections to Twitter’s public policy of removing tweets. Google and others already have the same policy. This effectively turns the spotlight toward the governments or entities that made the request. In fact, it will probably amplify the message behind whatever the tweet was about, because the takedown requests appear to have enough information in them to figure out approximately what the objection was to the content. Remember also that people can view tweets in other countries.

Twitter is also not the only way word gets around online. It is one but not the only technology that can flow across borders, and works well in combination with blogs, news websites, and social network sites. Talk about an easy way for journalists to find their next story – what was the repressive government so concerned about that they tried to block it? Check the takedown request, find the offending tweet, then go interview the sender.

4. Takedown requests are woefully inadequate to keep up with Twitter traffic. Twitter is about what is happening right now. Fifteen minutes ago is old news. Hundreds of millions of tweets are broadcast every day. Twitter knows this when they state that “we are going to be reactive only.” A delay of even an hour basically ensures that someone else will pick up an important tweet and relay it. While this is not a guarantee that a voice will not be silenced, Twitter thrives on echos of its own users tweets, so it seems likely the important messages will get out.

In my last post I detailed how takedown requests (all 4411 of them) have been limited in scope (DMCA only), mainly UK/US, and clustered. In other words they have been made by western interests and involve US law (the digital millennium copyright act). China and Saudi Arabia racked up one request each. So far it has been a western conversation fueled by the same piracy concerns that have been around for years. It’s really nothing new. It remains to be seen when and how Twitter complies with other types of requests.

5. What are the politics of platforms? Do companies have different sets of obligations than other entities towards local space? This is the most important open question, and goes back again to the challenges of making money on marketing features while also providing a way for people to politically mobilize. Twitter was built as a platform rather than a program, meaning it has all the back-end functionality for programmers to easily build apps around the service. Tarlton Gillespie describes platforms as boundary objects, where companies and individuals can have competing visions of what a platform should do. For participants in the Arab Spring, Twitter is a symbol of freedom. For Twitter executives, it’s a difficult to monetize technology that has slowed in growth, and dammit, we need to keep expanding! (always and forever… sigh)

Right now users and Twitter are tenuously aligned. Executives want more people to use the service, while individuals want to be able to use the service in an unrestricted way. Yet, local governments have entirely different demands, as do protesters. So you see this delicate dance of wording and features play out over the last few days between Twitter and the rest of the world.

Platforms have also become part of physical space, which complicates frictions between the global and the local. As Eric Gordon and Adriana De Souza e Sila state in Net Locality, “The concept of the web as a metaphorical city has given way to the reality of the web as part of the city” (p. 9). We participate online in an endless series of short encounters that reference physical space as a kind of contextual linkage that may fade into the background, or revealed. A previous post of mine on the PIRT blog about Google Streetview is one example of problematic revealing. People are mostly objecting to Twitter’s decision because this could block online conversation from those who most need to participate in it. This is a very real and valid concern. But in the blocking, the conversation will be amplified through public takedown notices, and the tweets still visible from other countries.

So in summary… this is not SOPA. SOPA would make entire domains invisible at the packet layer. Twitter has offered governments an olive branch in the form of blocking functionality that works merely at the data layer, leaving open a variety of easy workarounds. Takedown requests are also insufficient to keep up with the speed of tweets. If we could take a few collective deep breaths and see if and when Twitter opts to use this functionality we will have a much better idea of the long-term effects. Making the statement to not protest Twitter requires serious trust, but I would much rather offer a mostly usable technology to people trying to organize than have it entirely blocked.

[ crossposted to andrewrschrock.wordpress.com ]

——

Andrew Schrock is a Ph.D student at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. His research focuses on mediated creativity and collaboration in online and blended (online/offline) communities, as well as cultural histories of cloud computing. He is currently a research assistant to Anne Balsamo (Director of Emergent Technologies and Culture at the Annenberg Innovation lab), an Innovation lab fellow, and a member of Henry Jenkins’ Civic Paths research group.

This is what a broken internet feels like

Google protests SOPA/PIPA

Yesterday, thousands of sites participated in an online protest to raise awareness about two pieces of anti-piracy legislation making their way through Congress. The bills in question, best known as SOPA and PIPA, are often said to “break the internet.” The phrase appears frequently in both academic and journalistic contexts and is used about as often by supporters of the legislation as opponents.

And, yet, in spite of the proliferation of the phrase, critics struggle to describe how a “broken” internet will look, feel, or function differently from the (presumably unbroken) internet their readers use everyday. Sure, you can spend a few hours browsing through countless youtube videos, earnest comment threads, detailed expert analyses, and even a flowchart – but what would this regulation feel like?

ICE/DHS seized site, blacked out Wikipedia

Blocking access to all of Wikipedia’s English-language articles was a powerful awareness-raising tactic but it more closely resembled the Department of Homeland Security’s habit of seizing domains than the enforcement techniques described in SOPA or PIPA. Unlike the digital crime scene tape employed by the DHS, enforcement in SOPA and PIPA follows what Tarleton Gillespie calls “a strategy of forced invisibility.” Today, a link appears in Google searches; tomorrow, it doesn’t.

Darken this photo

Flickr approached the day of protest differently from its peers. Rather than blackout its logo (like Google) or its content (like Reddit), Flickr built new functionality into its software that enabled users to censor each other:

“Flickr is letting members darken their photos — or the photos of others — for a 24-hour period to deprive the web of the rich content that makes it thrive. Your symbolic act will help draw attention to this issue and let others know about the potential harmful impacts of these bills.” — Zack Sheppard, Flickr blog, January 18, 2012

By mid-afternoon, Flickr users had darkened over 200,000 photos, including (for a limited time) all of the photos on The White House stream.

White House Flickr photos censored

Flickr’s participatory tactic shifted the affective timbre of the protest from anger at a denial of access to uncertainty at a loss of control. Whereas the blacked-out Wikipedia asked a simple – perhaps hyperbolic – question, “What if the U.S. government blocked this site?”, Flickr forced users to critically consider their expectations regarding the stewardship of photos they upload.

Positioned as both censor and censored, users collectively acted out a possible enforcement scenario. As the day wore on and unwitting users encountered their darkened photos, hundreds took to a thread on the help forum to express their support, frustration, glee, anger, and utter confusion during the protest.

“I fully support the cause, just not the means by which I am being force to get involved[.] Choosing to black out my photos is a decision for me to make, not for Flickr to allow others to do so without my consent[.] I understand and accept a server error that disables my photos. But not an deliberate act like this.” — Jericho777, January 18, 2012

For the thousands of users who found their photos darkened, Flickr’s protest software provided an opportunity to experience “what censorship really feels like” – but the specific mechanics of the protest still fell short of simulating the “strategy of forced invisibility” inscribed in the proposed legislation. Under a regime governed by these laws, Flickr photos accused of copyright infringement would not appear darkened – they simply would not appear at all.

YouTube’s Content ID system provides an all-too-real example of internet regulation enacted in running code (with disastrous consequences for free speech.) Flickr’s software-assisted protest of SOPA/PIPA suggests that simulation might provide a powerful tactic for engaging with proposed media regulation in the future. By producing software that simulates the effect of a given piece of legislation, critics can move past vague hyperbole (“SOPA will break the internet”) to demonstrate how it will actually feel to use the internet under the proposed regulatory regime.

(Cross-posted to Hacktivision.)

The Visual Culture of the Occupation: Month One and Counting

(Photo: Ed Schipel)

Dr. Alison Trope, Clinical Associate Professor, USC Annenberg
Lana Swartz, PhD Student, USC Annenberg

Since September 17, the Occupy Wall Street movement has produced an overwhelming array of visuals, offering a significant lens on the movement itself, its ties to history, its divergent voices, perspectives and styles, as well as its multiple distribution channels from mainstream outlets to social media. Despite the criticism from experts who do not necessarily see much potential in Occupy’s “brand,” the visual aspects of the protest clearly have impact and traction. Although it would be impossible to fully assess this rich visual output, this blog post attempts to understand its emergent themes as well as the potential uses and value attached to visual commentary and protest.

Jump to:
Politics and Visual Culture
Wall Street Protests and History
The Revolution Will Be Hashtagged: Culture-Jamming and Rewriting Popular Culture
Targets: The 1%, America, The Banking System
Tactic: The Face of the Faceless
Tactic: Ready to Go and Ready-Made
Tactic: Making the Occupation Visible
Final Thoughts

Next: Politics and Visual Culture

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Making Meaning on Twitter

Twitter is increasingly offering alternative narratives to broadcast events, such as award ceremonies and sports finals, where Twitter provides an alternative, collective commentary that unfolds in real-time alongside these real events:

Tweetstream for #emmys

It is also used by fan communities to share their experiences while watching new episodes of shows such as Glee:

Tweetstream for #glee

I am particularly interested in the commentary that takes place alongside live broadcasts of award shows. This study topic draws upon work on internet studies in the domains of collective intelligence, transmedia and social networking. According to Henry Jenkins, “[c]ollective intelligence refers to [the] ability of virtual communities to leverage the combined expertise of their members. What we cannot know or do on our own, we may now be able to do collectively” (2006: 27). This describes the hashtagged tweetstream, as the participants voluntarily gather around a shared topic of interest to produce a text that exceeds the knowledge or viewpoint of any single contributor. The Twitter text exemplifies the different perspectives through which knowledge is mediated, and the technological platforms that allow broad participation and the open display of collective intelligence. The knowledge in this scenario is a reading of the television event, which can be subversive and personalized as a parallel narrative that runs alongside the broadcaster’s narrative.

While drawing on elements of collective intelligence and transmedia, this Twitter community and the text produced are distinct in several ways. While transmedia is conventionally seen as a way of deepening knowledge of a story, i) a broadcast awards event is not a conventional fictional narrative ii) the members participating in these communities cannot really be considered fans, and iii) the platform and content of this tweetstream generally provides a fragmented, rather than more profound, reflection on the event.

Fragmentation occurs due to the volume of tweets – a reader or participant cannot realistically read all the tweets as they appear in real time. Neither is the Twitter interface designed for a linear and comprehensive reading; it is more likely that users are toggling between watching the broadcast and tweeting, as well as reading tweets.  Moreover, participants regard themselves as tweeting to multiple audiences (boyd & Marwick, 2010). Without the express purpose of trying to clearly articulate information to a defined audience, tweeters post tweets that are in different languages; meaningful only to a single recipient; cryptic; and that speak out against the topic.

Despite this tendency towards fragmentation and partial perspectives, it is argued that this collective intelligence community is valuable, both in terms of the knowledge produced and as an area of research. In terms of the narrative written by tweeters, if the tweetstream is able to provide a complete narrative of events as they unfold live on television, Twitter offers a way for individuals who are online but without access to the broadcast to keep up to date with the events, and there is evidence that audiences follow the topic for this specific purpose:

@patmandhu: @PrimetimeEmmys Thanks for this feed. Only way can keep up with #EMMYS action live in UK without pc

Although there are live blogs that can fulfil this role, Twitter often provides a more entertaining narrative due to the variety of opinions and the humorous tone that is often adopted. This is an example of a new way of consuming media in convergence culture.  Another audience that could benefit from following the tweetstream is the broadcaster, who gets free access to the attitudes of their audience who – because of the diversity of the audience will not necessarily be aware of the presence of industry observers – gain a relatively uncensored sample of opinions. Thirdly, a benefiting party is the community of tweeters that momentarily gathers around the event. Twitter enables the audience, formerly isolated by the domesticated television technology, to transform into a community. There is evidence that there is enjoyment of the wit and commentary provided by other tweeters:

@TheodoreLeaf: What a crazy fun @Emmys day! Thanks for all of the twitter love everyone

It is also argued that Twitter users tweet to serve personal interests, in order to self-brand the individual through their consumption patterns. Although members participate in this community voluntarily, tweets are also posted on their personal account and events are commonly recounted in terms of personal opinion:

@aecrisostomo : The two programs I cared the most about were the biggest winners tonight. #Emmys #DowntonAbbey #ModernFamily Cheers, world. Steady on.

or display an attempt to create a personal voice, such as the fashion/gossip blogger persona:

@CaliforniaKara: Katie Holmes elegantly mixes Joey Potter and lobotomized Stepford Wife in an electric blue frock. #emmys).

Despite the personal motivations for participating in these conversations, a more useful collective information text is produced, suggesting ways in which narcissistic social networking technology can be harnessed to produce work of collective value; it is an example of personal self-interest being mediated to provide a public benefit/good which could in turn provide a model for online civic engagement. Social networking is being used more frequently as a means of sharing news items. As audiences are increasingly getting news from the social networking community, it becomes relevant to evaluate the quality of the information produced and the ways in which it is disseminated.

[Read more…]

Infrastructures to think with

World Wide Web at Breakfast

For most of the internet’s history, the difference between a service (e-mail) and service provider (Hotmail) has been fairly clear. If you don’t like Hotmail for some reason, you don’t have to opt-out of e-mail altogether. Instead, you can create a new account with a different service provider and send a mass message to all of your friends. Once you’re certain that everyone has your new address, it’s curtains for Hotmail.

The recent turn toward highly-integrated, centralized “platforms” like Facebook and YouTube has muddied this picture. There is no gateway nor common protocol for exchanging friend requests between Facebook and Google+ like there is between Hotmail and Gmail. If I post a video to Vimeo or blip.tv, it isn’t going to show up in a search on YouTube. In a break from tradition, these service providers and the services they provide are tightly interwoven and difficult to pull apart.

The turn away from transparency leaves researchers with some tricky new challenges. First, what is meant by the term “platform” exactly and how is it different from a service provider? Second, how do we study these spaces if we can’t parse out the provider from the service?

YouTube embed error message

Last year, Tarleton Gillespie examined the strategic use of the term “platform” by YouTube to appeal simultaneously to multiple audiences with different needs and values. Users, advertisers, professional media producers, and government regulators each understand the term “platform” to mean something different: a populist forum, two-sided market, commercial channel, or impartial carrier. As long as “platform” retains this ambiguity, it affords YouTube and others an advantage in both the marketplace and regulatory arena. They can benefit financially from popular media practices like vidding while at the same time avoiding responsibility for protecting participatory cultures from spurious copyright claims.

Though these service providers have proven themselves unreliable stewards of popular discourse, their “platforms” are nevertheless powerful tools to enable, circulate, and augment participatory culture civics. To better understand this tension between popular use and commercial interest, we need to extract the service from the service provider, an analytical practice that Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker called “infrastructural inversion.” Rather than look only at the content of tweets, YouTube videos, and Facebook statuses, we need to find ways to access the tangle of technologies and institutions that undergird these phenomena.

From the outside, the infrastructures of highly-integrated services like Twitter or Facebook are almost totally obscured. Users and researchers can only guess at the internal structures of these “black boxes” by poking at the box – either with a web browser or through the public API – and examining what comes out. (For a fine example, see Scott Smitelli’s systematic analysis of YouTube’s copyright filters from 2009.) But inductive exploration of black boxes is a slow, unreliable process with no guarantee that the infrastructure will remain stable from moment to moment. Time and again, service providers alter their infrastructure with little to no warning, causing headaches for the developers and users that rely on them.

Another way to study infrastructure is by building it. Matt Ratto offers the term “critical making” to describe reflexive technology projects that engage both the symbolic and material aspects of media in society. Critical making asks us to imagine how existing infrastructures might be altered, improved, or replaced. For a small scale example, the image below is a mockup of what a YouTube page might look like if all of the metadata and user commentary were preserved after a video is removed for copyright violation. (Currently, this information is also removed when the video is taken down.)

Mockup of an improved page for disabled YouTube videos (complete)

But critical making can occur at much larger scales as well. YouTube enables users to store, share, sort, comment on, respond to, and search for digital video. Numerous infrastructures might make this same set of verbs available. Miro Community uses free and open source software to build YouTube-like infrastructures for schools, local media, and other small civic organizations. Downloading their code and producing our own video infrastructure might yield a new perspective with which to examine YouTube itself. This approach is not about building an alternative to YouTube; it’s about focusing critical attention on infrastructure. What features would we want? What could we do with Miro Community that we can’t do with YouTube? What seems easy to implement and what seems difficult?

In 2010, a project called “Diaspora” raised $200,000 from 6,479 individual donors on Kickstarter to build a decentralized social network site with strong privacy controls. A year later, it has not attracted the volume of users that would make it the “Facebook-killer” some early supporters hoped it would be. But in a recent blog post titled, “We are making a difference” Diaspora’s founders point to features first publicly available in their 2010 alpha launch that are now implemented by Google+ and Facebook. Regardless of Diaspora’s future as a social network site, its mere existence contributed to shaping the infrastructures of more highly-capitalized, highly-visible social network sites.

Like Miro Community, Diaspora’s code is also freely available. Last winter, Sarah Mei changed the code so that users are asked to input their gender via an open text field rather than a drop-down menu (see above). This change means that users are not limited to a set of canned choices (“male” or “female”) but are free to identify however they wish. By building a feature of her ideal social network site in code, Mei crafted an experience for thousands of Diaspora users that calls into question the gendered assumptions embedded in most social network profiles.

Star wrote that infrastructure appears most readily when it breaks down. In our short study of the Living Room Rock Gods, for example, the importance of their messageboard infrastructure came to light only after their YouTube network was dismantled by copyright takedowns. Unfortunately, not every community will survive the devastating break downs that can happen when they depend on on private infrastructure. All of the organizations we’ve written about on this blog rely in one way or another on centralized “platforms” such as Vimeo, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. But how many are “disaster ready” should their preferred platform go down?

Critical making enables researchers to imagine and realize alternative infrastructures before disaster finds their fields of study. We cannot know what is happening inside of a “black box” like YouTube but building and playing with imitations, mockups, and experiments can provoke new ways of thinking and asking that draw attention to the crucial role of infrastructure in public discourse and civic engagement.