Social media syllabus

This fall I’ve been teaching a new masters course at Uni Oslo that I’ve simply called “social media”. I spent the summer trying to figure out what to cover in this class and what to put into the reading list. Now that I’ve finished the course and my students are writing their final dossiers in our class wiki called the “social media archive”, I thought I post the syllabus here. Thanks to all the folks who’ve been giving me advice on how to design this course! This course went over 7 weeks, with weekly 4 hour sessions. In total 28 hours of lectures and seminars (standard Norwegian course load for a 10 ECTS course at the masters level).

MEVIT4610 – Social Media

Course blog (in Norwegian): http://mevit4610.wordpress.com

27/9 Introduction. What is social media? Historical context

Recommended readings (not obligatory):

  • Garden, M. (2012) Defining blog: A fool’s errand or a necessary undertaking Journalism 13(4) 483–499. (16 s.)
  • Lovink, G. (2012) Networks Without a Cause. A Critique of Social Media. Polity Press.
  • Mandiberg, M. (2012) The Social Media Reader. New York: NYU Press.
  • Rettberg, J. (2008) Blogging. Cambridge: Polity Press.

 Seminar: Blogging

4/10 Conceptual background: Keywords and central issues of concern

  • Andrejevic, M. (2011) Social network exploitation, In: Papacharissi, Z. (ed.) Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites. London and New York: Routledge, s. 82-102 (20 s.).
  • Baym, N. Chapters 2 & 3 (50 s.)
  • Jenkins, H., Ford, S. & Green, J. (in press) Chapter 4: What constitutes meaningful participation, in Spreadable Media. New York: NYU Press. (ca. 35 s.)
  • Van Dijck, J. (2009) ‘Users like you. Theorizing agency in user-generated content. Media, Culture & Society 31(4): 41-58 (19 s)

Recommended readings (not obligatory):

  • boyd, d. m., & Ellison, N. B. (2007) Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13:210-230
  • Langlois, G. (in press) Participatory Culture and the New Governance of Communication: The Paradox of Participatory Media. Television & New Media. Published as online first, 2. February, 2012
  • Terranova, T. (2000) Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy. Social Text 18(2 63): 33-58

Seminar: Wiki

11/10 Social context: Identity, audiences and the presentation of self

  • Aalen, I. (In press) En liten bok om sosiale medier. Fagbokforlaget (selection)
  • Baym, N. Chapters 4 & 5 (50s)
  • boyd, d. (2010) Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications, In: Papacharissi, Z. (ed.) Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites. London and New York: Routledge (18s.)
  • Hogan, B. (2010) The Presentation of Self in the Age of Social Media: Distinguishing Performances and Exhibitions Online. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 30(6) 377–386, (9 s)
  • Marwick, A. & boyd, d. (2011) I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media and Society 13 (1): 114-133 (19s)

Recommended readings (not obligatory):

  • Arendt, H. (1996) The Human Condition (Vita Activa). Oslo: Pax.
  • Bucher, T. (In press) The Friendship Assemblage: Investigating Programmed Sociality on Facebook. Television & New Media, published as online first, 24. August, 2012
  • Goffman, E. (1959) ThePresentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. (Introduction & Chapter One)
  • Granovetter, M. (1973) The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology 78 (6): 1360-1380:

Seminar: Anonymity

25/10 Material and infrastructural conditions for sharing and participation

First two hours: Data, protocol and APIs

Last two hours: Surveillance and privacy

  • Angwin, J. (2010) The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets, The Wall Street Journal, 30. July.
  • Bodle, R. (2011) Regimes of sharing: Open APIs, interoperability, and Facebook. Information, Communication & Society 14(3): 320-337 (17s)
  • boyd, d. & Crawford, K. (2012) Critical questions for big data. Information, Communication & Society 15(5): 662-679 (17s)
  • boyd, d. (2010) ‘Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity’. SXSW. Austin, Texas, March 13 (12 s.)
  • Papacharissi, Z. & Gibson, P. (2011) Fifteen Minutes of Privacy: Privacy, Sociality, and Publicity on Social Network Sites. In: Trepte, S. & Reinecke, L. (eds) Privacy Online. Perspectives on Privacy and Self-Disclosure in the Social Web. Berlin: Springer Verlag (15.s)
  • Simonite, T. (2012) What Facebook knows. Technology Review, July/August
  • Stalder, F. (2012) Between democracy and spectacle: The front-end and the back-end of the social web. In: Mandiberg, M (ed.). The Social Media Reader. New York: NYU Press. (12s.)

Recommended readings (not obligatory):

  • Blum, A. (2012) Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. Harper Collins Publishers.
  • Elmer, G. (2004) Profiling machines: Mapping the personal information economy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Foucault, M (1977) Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. London: Penguin Books (in particular chapter 3 ‘Panopticism’, p.195-228)
  • Margulis, S. (2011) Three Theories of Privacy: An Overview. In: Trepte, S. & Reinecke, L. (eds) Privacy Online. Perspectives on Privacy and Self-Disclosure in the Social Web. Berlin: Springer Verlag (9s.)
  • Nissenbaum, H. (2009) Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Particularly introduction and part 1.

Other web resources:

1/11 Algorithmic cultures: Social media as sociotechnical systems

Recommended readings (not obligatory):

  • Beer, D. (2009) Power through the algorithm? Participatory web cultures and the technological unconscious. New Media Society 11 (6): 985–1002
  • Gibson, J. (1986) The Theory of Affordances. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers (14 s)
  • Foucault, M. (2007) Security, territory, population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan (especially section 5, lecture 8. February 1978, s.161-174; and concepts s.489-507).
  • Fuller, M. (2008) Software Studies: a lexicon. MIT Press.
  • Latour, B. (1992) Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts, In: Bijker and Law (Eds.) Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. MIT Press. p. 225-258.
  • Metz, C. (2012) How Facebook knows what you really like, Wired, 24. Mai:

8/11 New Mobilizations? Collective action and new forms of political

First two hours: Memes and politics

Last two hours: Guest speaker: Christopher Wilson on the Arab Spring

  • Dahlgren, P. (2005) The Internet, Public Spheres, and Political Communication: Dispersion and Deliberation. Political Communication, 22 (2): 147–162 (15 s.)
  • Noam, E. (2005) Why the Internet is bad for democracy. Communications of the ACM (2s)
  • Gladwell, M. (2010) Small change: The revolution will not be tweeted, The New Yorker, 4. October
  • Howard, P. & Hussain, M. (2011) The Role of Digital Media. Journal of Democracy 22(3): 35-48 (13s.)
  • Morozov, E. (2011) Kirkegaard Hates Slacktivism, In: The Net Delusion. Toronto: Penguin Books. Sider179- 203 (24s.)
  • Coleman, B. (2011) Anonymous: From the Lulz to Collective Action. Part of the ‘Politics in the Age of Secrecy and Transparency’ cluster (edited by Gabriella Coleman). The New Everyday (March 2011)
  • Tufekci, Z. and Wilson, C. (2012) Social media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations from Tahrir Square. Journal of Communication 62: 363-379 (16s.)
Recommended readings (not obligatory):
  • Fraser, N. (1990) Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. Social text, 25/25: 56-80.
  • Habermas, J. (1974) The public sphere: an encyclopaedia article. New German Critique 1(3): 49-55.
  • Mouffe, C. (1999) Deliberative democracy or agonistic pluralism. Social Research 66(3): 745-758.

15/11 A crowdsourced lecture

Readings will be decided on a later stage, as this is your opportunity to let me know which aspects of social media you would like to know more about, or missed during the course of this class. Two weeks prior to November 15th, you can let me know what to give a lecture on and I will do my best to provide you with some insights into the desired topic.

 

 

The friendship assemblage

My article “The Friendship Assemblage: Investigating Programmed Sociality on Facebook”, has just been published online in Television & New Media

Abstract

In an age in which social networking sites have become the preferred way of socializing online, the question of how to think about the contours of friendship in and through these mediated spaces becomes all the more important. In contrast to much existing research on online friendship, this article takes on a software-sensitive approach. Through a close reading of various sociotechnical processes in which friendship is activated on Facebook (i.e., registering, making a profile, finding friends, communicating, etc.), this article suggests that friendships online need to be understood as a gathering of heterogeneous elements that include both humans and nonhumans. Moreover, this article attempts to show how the traditional notion of friendship as something created between equals and free of structural constraints does not apply to the realm of social networking sites, where software increasingly assists users in making certain choices about who will and who will not be their friends.

Blogging and pedagogy

“the quintessential blog post is a link surrounded by context “(Howard Rheingold)

I am currently preparing a MA course in social media that I am going to teach this fall at my department. I want it to be a course that integrates theory with practice and tries to shy away form the usual marketing and business-related talk around social media (I guess the students will find out this stuff sooner or later anyways). For the practice component one of the things that I have been thinking about is blogging. As I have searched the web for similar courses and the use of blogging in the classroom I’ve encountered a lot of different approaches and possible assignments. I thought I gather some of the discussions here and post a couple of the tips & experiences that I have found.

Two basic models of using blogs as part of my course come to mind:

  • The hub-and-spoke model, where students maintain their own individual blogs that aret connected through a hub blog that I’d set up for the class.
  • One central class blog that is collaboratively produced by the students and me.

I’m still somewhat undecided about which model that I am going to use. First I thought about going with the hub-and-spoke, as it would allow each student to get familiar with and explore the blog software of their choice and to choose their own themes and designs. But after I’ve checked out a few graduate and undergraduate courses using this kind of approach, I quickly realized that most of these individual blogs are not very rigorous nor do they seem to ”survive” the course. There are lots and lots of individual deserted blog islands out there, with only a handful of half hearted blog posts. It is not difficult to see how many of these blogs only seem to simulate a teacher-student assignment/grading relationship. The hub-and-spoke model also makes it less likely that students will actually read and comment on each other’s blogs.

For some useful pro and con lists and opinions about each of these models see the following blog posts:

Of course I had to ask Jill Walker Rettberg, one of world’s experts on blogging, for some advice concerning blogging in class. One key advice I got was this: Make blogging obligatory, otherwise they won’t do it. That is probably true. On the other hand, why make students use a medium that they obviously have no interest in using? After all, as one student recently asked me: ”Do people still blog?”

Yes, people still blog, at the same time blogging does seems a bit passé in light of all the glitzy new stuff that continues to surfaced on the social media horizon. However, blogs and blogging constitute something quite foundational and important in terms of social media. Blogging is all about self-presentation, different communication genres and modes of writing (combining both process writing and presentation writing), networks and linking practices, immediacy, the opportunity to be published and have a say in the public sphere, sharing online content and participating in a conversation. Not only is blogging a great way to learn about some of the core concepts involved in social media, but blogs are in many cases still one of the preferred publishing platforms of the commercial as well as public sector and thus an important part of the communications jobs that many students aspire to land after finishing their education.

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The question that I been asking myself during the past few weeks, is how exactly to organize the blogging once I’ve settled on the overall structure? For instance:

→ I could have students use the blog as a space for reflection about the readings – a kind of response blog. In this regard I found Mark Sample’s blogging guidelines quite useful:

Each student will contribute to the weekly class blog, posting an approximately 200-300 word response to the week’s readings. There are a number of ways to approach these open-ended posts: consider the reading in relation to its historical or theoretical context; write about an aspect of the day’s reading that you don’t understand, or something that jars you; formulate an insightful question or two about the reading and then attempt to answer your own questions; or respond to another student’s post, building upon it, disagreeing with it, or re-thinking it.

Quite often the blogging guidelines that I have come across encourage the students to pull in outside resources in their posts: links, videos, articles, etc.

The purpose of letting students blog would be to use it as an ongoing publishing platform for reflecting upon and expanding on the contents of the class. The blog posts should strive to be thoughtful and reflective, raising additional and new questions in terms of the topics discussed in class, rather than just being descriptive or summaries.

→ Another way of using blogging that I have seen instructors use quite often is to provide a prompt for a weekly blogging assignment. For instance, one could prompt students to find an interesting source/link online and discuss it in terms of the readings and knowledge acquired in class. Or, encourage students to choose a debated topic within the social media landscape and take a position.

Howard Rheingold’s Virtual Community/Social Media Stanford 2011 Course Wiki  is a great resource for planning a course in social media, with some great links and reading suggestions. In his blogging assignments, Rheingold tries to move away from blogging as “write about this week’s reading” to blogging as a practice of finding relevant and sharable content, encouraging students to develop a critical public voice by making new connections and developing arguments. Here are a few of Rheingold’s useful assignments:

  • you will make a post that serves a community of interest by directing attention to a worthwhile resource on the Web via an annotated link, including short, salient quotes, and explaining why your selected resource is worthy of attention by this community — the co-filtering function of blogging.
  • construct a post that links to two or more websites and explain the overarching idea that connects the sites you select — connective writing.
  • engage in online critical public discourse by analyzing the content of a site you link in a blog post, asking probing questions about the assumptions, assertions, and logic of the arguments in the site you link to.
  • construct a post that takes a position on an issue, using links to other relevant websites to support your position.

→ In a somewhat similar vein (but not involving the instructor that much), one way of organizing blogging that I think could be quite useful is to divide the class into groups with different and rotating roles. Again, I found Mark Sample’s way of thinking about this quite instructive. As he explains in this recent article:

Most recently I divided a class of 25 students into four groups, rotating week-to-week from one role to the next:

  • First Readers: These students are responsible for posting initial questions and insights about the day’s material to the class blog the day before class meets.
  • Respondents: Students in this group build upon, disagree with, or clarify the first readers’ posts by the next class meeting.
  • Searchers: Students in this group find and share at least one relevant online resource. In addition to linking to the resource, the searchers provide a short evaluation of the resource, highlighting what makes it worthwhile, unusual, or, if appropriate, problematic.
  • The fourth group has the week off in terms of blogging.

→ While most of the above suggestions imply a great deal of off-class blogging, Jill Walker Rettberg suggests making blogging an in-class activity, rather than just hastily write up the day before class. In her super useful video about blogging for learning, she gives the following advice:

  • In the last 10 minutes of class, ask your students to sit down and write about the most important thing that they learnt that day and publish it straightaway.Another assignment is to let students search online for some of the core terms discussed in class and post the best descriptions that they find on their blog, reflecting on why this link/definition/resource seems useful to them (and others). This helps them research terms and find links.
  • In order to interact with others’ writings students should be prompted in class to comment on other people’s blog posts to get the conversation going.
  • Another issue to take account of is whether to write public blogs or make them password protected. I guess there are diverging opinions on this one as well, but I think Rettberg has a good argument when she says that writing publicly equips students to deal with the realities of the networked world (accountability, responsibility, publics, etc.) and to encourage them to reach out to others as well.

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Last, but not least the questions is: How to actually evaluate and grade blog posts and comments?

I think that rather than reading and evaluating every single blog post that the students write, a better and more efficient way would be to let them pick four blog posts for assessment themselves at the end of the term as part of a portfolio. The portfolio could also include a list of links of comments on other students’ blog posts.

In order to circumvent the possibility of students only writing a set of blog posts at the end of semester for the sake of credits, writing no more than one weekly blog posts could be a way of organizing the rhythm of blogging.

Probably the best way it to rate the individual posts on some form of scale like the one used below by Mark Sample in his many classes using blogs. See for instance his Post-print fiction class.

RATING CHARACTERISTICS
4 Exceptional. The blog entry is focused and coherently integrates examples with explanations or analysis. The entry demonstrates awareness of its own limitations or implications, and it considers multiple perspectives when appropriate. The entry reflects in-depth engagement with the topic.
3 Satisfactory. The blog entry is reasonably focused, and explanations or analysis are mostly based on examples or other evidence. Fewer connections are made between ideas, and though new insights are offered, they are not fully developed. The entry reflects moderate engagement with the topic.
2 Underdeveloped. The blog entry is mostly description or summary, without consideration of alternative perspectives, and few connections are made between ideas. The entry reflects passing engagement with the topic.
1 Limited. The blog entry is unfocused, or simply rehashes previous comments, and displays no evidence of student engagement with the topic.
0 No Credit. The blog entry is missing or consists of one or two disconnected sentenc

Dawn R. Gilpin uses the following assessment criteria as part of her Media 2.0 Social Media course (original bolds):

Posts must be relevant to the subject of social media in some fashion, and consist of at least four full paragraphs. They should preferably relate to that week’s course content, but in any case the topic should apply to the class in a clearly evident manner. Each post must contain at least one external link, properly formatted (meaning that the “http://…” should not be visible to blog readers–use appropriate anchor text). Your contributions will be graded on content, writing, and originality.

Jill Walker Rettberg used these assessment criteria for the blog posts as part of an undergrad course in social media she taught in Bergen 2010 (as the course was in Norwegian the translations to English are mine, not necessarily translated word by word):

  • Correct use of sources. Does the student refer to the readings or others sources from the web? It this done in an orderly and correct fashion using links?
  • Originality and reflectivity? How descriptive is the blog post, or does the student also offer additional and perhaps alternative perspectives in order to contextualize the topic? Is there an argument? Is it evaluative? Does the post present any new ideas?
  • Does the student participate in a broader conversation? Is the post a commentary on other students’ posts, and does it provide links to others’ blog posts? Does the student enage in a discussion with his or her fellow students, for instance by commenting their comments?
  • You choose three blog posts that we will carefully read, but we will also evaluate your blog as a whole. You have to blog a minimum of 10 times. Does your blog show a consistency in blogging? Do the blog posts show an overall engagement with the course material?

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Some inspirational class blogs (if you know of other nice course blogs please let me know and I’ll add them to this list):

Technicity of attention

My article A Technicity of Attention: How Software ‘Makes Sense’ has just been published in the open-access journal Culture Machine. It is part of a special issue on “paying attention“, focusing on the politics, ethics and aesthetics of the ‘attention economy’. The theme issue draws on and extends the work produced for a 2010 European Science Foundation-funded conference, also entitled Paying Attention (see here and here for my conference reports).

This is how the editors for the theme issue, Patrick Crogan and Sam Kinsley, introduce my contribution in their article Paying Attention: Towards a Critique of the Attention Economy:

Taina Bucher, in her article ‘A Technicity of Attention: How Software “Makes Sense”’ offers a sceptical response to the neurological turn in the humanities Bucher mobilises an understanding of ‘technicity’ to critically examine the internalisation of control as ‘governmentality’ (pace Foucault) that underpins the specific human-machine assemblages of attention harnessing located in Facebook. Through a detailed reading of the specific affordances of some core protocols of Facebook, in code and the practices they engender, Bucher examines the techno-social structure of the attention apparatuses of Facebook. These algorithms operate within a form of technicity, which Bucher takes to be a ‘coconstitutive milieu of relations between the human and their technical supports’ (Crogan and Kennedy, 2009: 109). OpenSocial, OpenGraph and GraphRank are examined as particular articulations of power, realised in relation between code and subject, as the algorithms automate the ‘sense making’ processes of what content is ‘relevant’ to a particular user. Bucher thus identifies this marshalling of what is visible, and also invisible, in Facebook as a locus of attention as a form of ‘governmentality’, which she takes to be the rationalities underlying the techniques for directing human behavior (Foucault, 2008). For Bucher, then, attention is managed by Facebook to propagate a certain social order of continued participation

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EdgeRank – becoming (in)visible on Facebook

My article ” Want to be on the top? Algorithmic power and the threat of invisibility on Facebook” has just been published online by New Media & Society.

Abstract:

This article explores the new modalities of visibility engendered by new media, with a focus on the social networking site Facebook. Influenced by Foucault’s writings on Panopticism – that is, the architectural structuring of visibility – this article argues for understanding the construction of visibility on Facebook through an architectural framework that pays particular attention to underlying software processes and algorithmic power. Through an analysis of EdgeRank, the algorithm structuring the flow of information and communication on Facebook’s ‘News Feed’, I argue that the regime of visibility constructed imposes a perceived ‘threat of invisibility’ on the part of the participatory subject. As a result, I reverse Foucault’s notion of surveillance as a form of permanent visibility, arguing that participatory subjectivity is not constituted through the imposed threat of an all-seeing vision machine, but by the constant possibility of disappearing and becoming obsolete.

Interview with curator Gaia Tedone

Check out my interview with curator Gaia Tedone published on Furtherfield.org. We talked about her latest online curatorial project called ‘Is Seeing Believing?’ as part of the TRUTH programme at or-bits.com, an online platform for the display of contemporary arts and production of new works. Born in Italy, in 1982 Gaia Tedone holds an MFA in Curating from Goldsmiths, and has for the past year been one of the curatorial fellows at the Whitney Independent Study Program, New York. She has been involved in a number of art projects and worked with institutions such as Whitechapel Gallery, James Taylor Gallery, The David Roberts Art Foundation and Tate Modern.

Picks of the week

To put the best knowledge about the future of Facebook into the hands of the public, we’ve launched The Future of Facebook – an Open Foresight project. The goal is to synthesize expert commentary and public insights about the world’s leading social media platform into easily digestible, visually rich, commons-owned videos that can easily spread and generate ongoing public participation in the project (about the Future of Facebook)

  • Facebook userscripts: a good chance you’ll find what you’ve been looking for in order to customize your Facebook
  • How Can We Understand Code as a “Critical Artifact” ? Interview with Mark Marino on Critical Code Studies by Henry Jenkins (in two separate parts)
  • Videos from the conference ‘Science and Technology: The Next 20 years‘, held at Harvard University April 7-9. 2011 (from somatosphere.net)
  • Seeing things, nice video talk by Ian Bogost for the Third Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium (Sept 14, The New School)

 

September update

It has been a hectic couple of months and even more hectic it will become until next spring/summer when my PhD thesis is due. Since July 21 when I last updated the blog, Norway and Oslo have become world news. This week I attended  a seminar with cognitive scientist Mark Turner. He presented the work that he currently does together with Norwegian professor Francis Steen on the construction of the  UCLA Communication Studies Archive. They had been looking for a world-wide news story coming from Norway with regards to their archival work and there had never (!!) been one, until July 22. I think everybody here was glued to the television and online news in the following weeks!

In August I went to Akureyri, Island for the NordMedia conference, where my colleagues from the Media Aesthetics group and I organized a panel on Technologies of Visibility. It was a great trip with lots of hot springs bathing.

Sadly I had to cancel other conferences as I have decided to fully concentrate on writing. I would love to have been able to attend the Rewire 11 conference talking about social media art, or going to the upcoming Media Acts talking about software as a medium and listening to Rancière. But then there is always a time after the PhD, or is there? One of the things I will do, however, is to attend a two day workshop about social media and information practices at the University of Borås in November, where I have been invited along with a couple of other scholars from each of the scandinavian countries to give my perspective on where I see social media heading in the next 5 years. Should be fun.

I have been somewhat busy editing the forthcoming issue of the Norwegian cultural and arts magazine Utflukt. Each issue is themed, not very unlike my other favorite magazine Cabinet, and the theme for our upcoming issue is Architecture. I’ve been reading a lot of interesting architecture related stuff, especially with regards to digital architecture. One of my favorite academic journals, Grey Room, has come especially handy in this regard. Some really nice articles of lately are Eva Díaz’s Dome Culture in the Twenty-first Century (Winter 2011) on Buckminster Fuller and impossible forms as well as Reinhold Martin’s Financial Imaginaries: Toward a Philosophy of the City (also Winter 2011). I’ve also become a huge fan of the Writing Architecture series, MIT Press, especially Mario Carpo’s new book The Alphabet and the Algorithm. But hey, once I was at it, I just had to get Elisabeth Grosz’s Architecture from the Outside, John Rajchman’s Constructions (I mean I loved his article on Foucault from 1988..don’t remember the name), and Bernard Cache’s Earth Moves. Great, great books.


 

 

Unlike Us: Understanding Social Media Monopolies and their Alternatives

Invitation to join the network (a series of events, reader, workshops, online debates, campaigns etc.)

Concept: Geert Lovink (Institute of Network Cultures/HvA, Amsterdam) and Korinna Patelis (Cyprus University of Technology, Lemasol)

Thanks to Marc Stumpel, Sabine Niederer, Vito Campanelli, Ned Rossiter, Michael Dieter, Oliver Leistert, Taina Bucher, Gabriella Coleman, Ulises Mejias, Anne Helmond, Lonneke van der Velden and Eric Kluitenberg for their input.

Summary

The aim of this proposal is to establish a research network of artists, designers, scholars, activists and programmers that work on ‘alternatives in social media’. Through workshops, conferences, online dialogues and publications Unlike Us intends to both analyze the economic and cultural aspects of the dominant social media platforms and propagate the further development and proliferation of alternative decentralized social media software.

If you want to join the Unlike Us network, start your own initiatives in this field or hook up what you have already been doing for ages, subcribe to the email list. Traffic will be modest. Soon there will be a special page/blog for the initative on the INC website. Also an independent social network will be installed shortly, using alternative software. More on that later! List info: http://listcultures.org/mailman/listinfo/unlike-us_listcultures.org

Background

Whether or not we are in the midst of Internet bubble 2.0, we can all agree that social media dominate Internet and mobile use. The emergence of web-based user to user services, driven by an explosion of informal dialogues, continuous uploads, and user generated content have greatly empowered the rise of participatory culture. At the same time, monopoly power, commercialization and commodification are also on the rise with just a handful of social media platforms dominating the social Web. These two contradictory processes – the facilitation and the commercial exploitation of social relationships and communications – seem to lie at the heart of contemporary capitalism. On the one hand new media create and expand the social spaces we interact, play and even politicize ourselves through; on the other hand they are literally owned by three or four companies that potentially have phenomenal power to shape such interaction. Whereas the hegemonic Internet ideology promises open, decentralized systems, why do we, time and again, find ourselves locked into closed familiar corporate environments? Why are individual users so easily charmed by these ‘walled gardens’? Do we understand the long-term costs that society will pay for the ease of use, simple interfaces of their beloved ‘free’ services?

The accelerated growth and scope of the Facebook social space, for example, is unheard of. Facebook claims to have 700 million users, ranks in the top two or three first destination sites on the Web on a worldwide basis and is valued at 50 billion US dollars. Its users willingly deposit a myriad of snippets of their social life and relationships on the site, invested in an accelerated play of sharing and exchanging information. We all befriend, rank, recommend, create circles, upload photos, videos and update our status. Their offering of private moments in public virtual lives is orchestrated by a myriad of (mobile) applications that aid the production of an expended virtual world seamlessly embedded in users’ everyday life. Despite its massive user base the phenomena of online social networking remains fragile. Just think of the fate of the majority of social networking sites. Who has ever heard of Friendster? The death of Myspace has been luring over the horizon for quite some time. The disappearance of the Twitters and Facebooks – and Google, for that matter – is only a masterpiece of software away. This means that the protological future is not fixated or stationary but gives space for us to carve a variety of techno-political interventions. The project is developed in the spirit of RSS-inventor and ueberblogger Dave Winer whose recent Blork project is presented as an alternative for the “corporate blogging silos” (Winer). But instead of repeting the enterpreneurial start-ups turning corporate Behemoths process isn’t time to reinvent the internet as a truly independent public infrastructure that can effectively defend itself against corporate domination and state control?

Agenda

Going beyond the culture of complaint about our ignorance and loss of privacy, the proposed network of artists, scholars, activists and media folks will ask fundamental and long-arching questions about how to tackle these fast-emerging monopoly powers. Situating inquiry within the existing oligopoly patterns of ownership and use, issues to be investigated include the support of software alternatives and related artistic practices, and the development of a common vision of how the techno-social world might be mediated in alternative ways.

Without falling into the romantic trap of some harmonious offline life, Unlike Us asks what sort of network architectures could be designed that contribute to ‘the common’ understood as a shared resource and system of collective production that supports new forms of social organizations (such as organized networks) without mining for data to be sold. What aesthetic tactics may be more effective in putting an end to that expropriation of subjective and private dimensions we experience daily in social networks? Let’s code and develop other ‘network cultures’ whose protocols are no longer related to the logic of ‘weak ties’. Why should networks that refuse the (hyper)growth model and instead seek to strengthen forms of free cooperation be ignored as possible alternatives? Let’s turn the tables and ask ourselves what type of social relations we want to foster and discover in the 21st century. Imagine dense, diverse social exchanges, digital and networked, between potentially billions of people throughout the planet, outside of corporate and state control. Imagine discourses and imaginary forms able to return subjectivities to their ‘natural’ status of open nodes within networks based on dialogue and an ethics of free exchange.

To a large degree social media research is still dominated by quantitative and social scientific endeavors. So far the focus has been on moral panics, privacy and security, identity theft, self-representation from Goffman to Foucault and graph-based network theory that focuses on influencers and (news) hubs. What is curiously missing from the discourse is a rigorous discussion of the political economy of these social media monopolies. There is also a substantial research gap in understanding the power relations between the social and the technical in what are essentially software systems and platforms. With this initiative, we want to shift focus away from the obsession with youth and usage to the economic, political, artistic and technical aspects of these online platforms. What we first need to acknowledge is social media’s double nature. Dismissing social media as neutral platforms with no power is as implausible as considering social media the bad boys of capitalism. The beauty and depth of social media is that they call for a new understanding of classic dichotomies such as commercial/political, private /public, users/producers, artistic/standardised, original/copy, democratising/ disempowering. Instead of taking these dichotomies as a point of departure, we want to scrutinise the social networking logic. Even if Twitter and Facebook would implode overnight, chances are big that the social networking logic of befriending, liking and ranking further spreads across all aspects of life. The social networking logic may be traced back to the blogging era, with blogging networks where one ‘followed’ each other’s blogs, the blogroll, and ranking mechanisms and in that sense ‘social media’ are remarkably a-historical. Bathing in the eternal real-time, there is no technological memory.

The proposed research agenda is at once a philosophical, epistemological and theoretical investigation of knowledge artifacts, cultural production and social relations, and an empirical investigation of the specific phenomenon of monopoly social media. This has been done on purpose so that the lessons learned from theoretical research activities can inform practice oriented research and vice-versa. Unlike Us is common initiative of the Institute of Network Cultures (Amsterdam University of Applied Science HvA) and the Cyprus University of Technology in Lemasol.

An online network, a reader connected to a series of bigger and smaller events, initially in Amsterdam and Cyprus (early 2012), are already in planning. We would explicitly like to invite possible other partners to also come on board, if they identify themselves with the overall spirit of this proposal, to organize related conferences, festivals, workshops, temporary media labs and barcamps (where coders come together) with us. The reader (tentatively planned as number 8 in the Reader series published by the INC) will be produced mid-late 2012. The call for contributions to the network, the reader and the event series is going out in July 2011, followed by the publicity for the first events and other initiatives by possible new partners.

Topics of Investigation

The events, online platform, reader and other outlets may include the following topics inviting theoretical, empirical, practical and art-based contributions. Not every event or publication might deal with all issues. We also anticipate the need for specialized workshops and barcamps.

1. Political Economy: Social Media Monopolies

Social media culture is belied in American corporate capitalism, domined by the logic of start-ups and venture capital, management buyouts, IPOs etc. 3-4 companies literally own the Western social media landscape, capitalizing on the content produced by millions of people around the world. One thing is evident about the market structure of social media: one-to-many is not giving way to many-to-many without first going through many-to-one. What power do these companies actually have? Is there any evidence that such ownership influences the user-generated content? How does this ownership express itself structurally and in technical terms? What conflicts arise when a platform like Facebook is appropriated for public or political purposes, while access to the medium can easily denied by the company? Facebook is worth billions, does that really mean something for the average user? How does data-mining really work and what is its economy? What is the role of discourse (PR) in creating and sustaining an image of credibility and trustworthiness, and in which forms does it manifest to oppose that image? The bigger social media platforms form the central nodes such as image upload services and short ulr services. This ecology used to be fairly open with a variety of new Twitter-related services coming into being but now Twitter is taking up these services itself therewith favoring their own product through the default settings. On top of that it is increasingly shutting down access to developers which shrinks the ecology and makes it less diverse.

2. The Private in the Public

The advent of social media has eroded privacy as we know it, giving rise to a culture of self-surveillance made up by myriad voluntary everyday disclosures. New understandings of the private and the public are needed to address this phenomenon. What does owning all this user data actually mean? Why are people willing to give up their personal data, and that of others? How should software platforms be regulated? Is software like a movie to be given parental guidance? What does it mean that there are different levels of access to data, form the partner info brokers, third-party developers to the users? Why is education in Social Media not in the curriculum of secondary schools? Can social media companies truly adopt a Social Network Users’ Bill of Rights?

3. Visiting the Belly of the Beast

The exuberance and joy that defined the dotcom era is cliché by now. IT use is happening across the board and new labour conditions can be found everywhere. But this should not keep our eyes away from the real existing power relations inside the current Internet companies. What are the geopolitical lines of distribution that define the organization and outsourcing that goes on in global IT companies these days? How is the industry structured and how does its economy work? Is there a broader connection to be made here with the politics of land expropriation and peasant labour in countries like India, for instance, and how does this analytically converge with the experiences of social media users? How do the monopolies deal with their employees use of the platforms? What can we learn from other market sectors and perspectives that (critically) reflect on for example techniques of sustainability or fair trade?

4. Artistic Responses to Social Media

Artists are playing a crucial role in visualizing power relationships and disrupt subliminal daily routines of social media usage. Artistic practices provide an important analytical site in the context of the proposed research agenda as artists are often first to deconstruct the familiar and to facilitate an alternative lens through which these media can be understood and critiqued. Is there such a thing as a social ‘web aesthetics’? It is one thing to criticize Twitter and Facebook for their primitive and blend interface designs. How can we imagine the social in different ways? And how can we design and implement new interfaces in such a way as to provide more creative freedom to cater for our multiple identities? Also, what is the scope of interventions with existing social media, as, for example, the ‘dislike button’ add-on for Facebook? And what type practices are really needed? Isn’t it time, for example, for a Facebook ‘identity correction’?

5. Designing culture: representation and software

Social media offer us the virtual worlds we use every day. From Facebook’s ‘like’ button to the user interface of blogs, these tools empower and delimit our interaction. How do we theorize the plethora of social media functionalities and features? Are they to be understood as mere technical functions, cultural texts, signifiers, affordances, non or all at once? In what ways does the design and the different functionalities influence the content and expressions produced over time? And how can we map and critique this influence? What are the cultural assumptions embedded in the design of social media sites, but also, what type of users or communities does they produce? One possible route into the question of structure and design is to trace the genealogy of the functionalities used, to historicize and to look for the discursive silences. How can we make sense of the constant changes occurring in the platform, both on and beyond the interface? How can we theorize the production and configuration of an ever increasing algorithmic and protocological culture more generally?

6. Software Matters: Sociotechnical and Algorithmic Cultures

One of the important components of social media is software. For all the discourse on sociopolitical power relations’ governed by corporations such as Facebook and related platforms one must not forget that social media platforms are through and through defined and powered by software. What is needed is a critical engagement with Facebook as software. That is, what is the role of software in reconfiguring contemporary social spaces? In what ways does code make a difference to how identities are forms and social relationships are performed? How does the software function to interpellate users to its logic? What are the discourses surrounding the software? One of the core features of Facebook for instance is its News Feed, which in its default mode is algorithmically driven and sorted. The EdgeRank algorithm of the News Feed governs the logic by which content becomes visible acting as a modern gatekeeper and editorial voice. Given its 700 million users, it has become imperative to better understand the power of EdgeRank and its cultural implications. Another important analytical site for investigation are the ‘application programming interfaces’ (APIs) that to a large extent have made the phenomenal growth of social media platforms possible in the first place. How have APIs contributed to the business logic of social media platforms? How can we begin to theorize social media use from the perspective of the programmer?

6. Genealogies of Social Networking Sites

Feedback in a closed system is a core characteristic of Facebook; even the most basic and important features, such as the ‘friending’ logic traces back to early cybernetics’ ideas of control. While the word itself got lost during transitions, the ideas of cybernetics have remained stable in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and the biopolitical arena. Both communication and information theories shaped this discourse. How does Facebook relate to such an algorithm shape of social life? What can Facebook teach us about the powers of systems theory? Would Norbert Wiener and Niklas Luhmann be friends on Facebook?

7. Is Research Doomed?

The design of Facebook excludes the third person perspective as the only way in goes through ones’ own personal profile. What does this inbuilt ‘me-centricity’ imply for social media research? Does it require us to rethink the so-called objectivity of researchers and the detached view of current social research? Why is it that there are more than 200 papers about the way people use Facebook the site is “closed” to true quantitative inquiry? Is the state of art social media research exemplary of the ‘quantitative turn’ in new media research? Or is there really a need to expand and rethink the methods of inquiry in social media research. Going beyond the usual methodological approaches of the quantitative and qualitative approaches, we seek to broaden the scope and ways of investigating these media. How can we make sense of the political economy and the socio-technical elements, with what means? Indeed, what are our toolkits for collective, transdisciplinary modes of knowledge and the politics of refusal?

8. Researching Unstable Ontologies

Software destabilizes Facebook as a stable ontology. As software is always in becoming, never really static it is by nature ontogenetic. It grows and grows. Facebook lives of constant input. What does this fluidity and changing nature of Facebook imply for how we can make sense of it and studying it? Logging onto Facebook, one never encounters the same, it is in constant change, both on an algorithmic level and in terms of the platform itself. New features and functionalities are added and taken away on an ongoing basis. Facebook for instance willingly complicates research: 1. It is always personalized (see Eli Pariser). Even when creating ‘empty’ research accounts it never gives the same results compared to other people’s empty research accounts. 2. One must often be ‘inside’ social media to study it. Access from the outside is limited, which reinforces the first problem. 3. Outside access is ideally (for FB and Twitter) arranged through carefully regulated protocols of APIs where access can easily be restricted. Next to social media as a problem for research, there is also the question of social research methods as intervention.

9. Making Sense of Data: Visualization and Critique

Data representation is one of the most important battlefields nowadays. Indeed, global corporations build their visions of the world increasingly based on and structured around complex data flows. What is the role of data today and what are the appropriate ways in which to make sense of the burgeoning datasets? As data visualization is becoming a powerful buzzword and social research increasingly uses digital tools to make ‘beautiful’ graphs and visualizations there is a need to take a step back and question the usefulness of current data visualization tools and to develop novel analytical frameworks through which these often simplified and nontransparent ways of representing data can be critically grasped. Not only is it important to develop new interpretative and visual methods with which we engage with the ubiquity of data flows, data itself needs to be questioned in a much greater fashion. We need to ask about the ontological and epistemological nature of data. What is it, who is the producer, for whom, where is it stored? In what ways do the terms of service that social media companies enforce to regulate data? Be it adopting alternative social media or the perpetual innovations to monopolistic platforms, how are our data-bodies exactly affected by changes in the software?

11. Pittfalls of Building Social Media Alternatives

It is not only important to critique and question existing design and socio-political realities but also to engage with possible futures. The central aim of thi s project is therefore to contribute and support ‘alternatives in social media’. It is simply not enough to celebrate offline romanticism as a lifestyle choice. What would the collective design of alternative protocols and interfaces look like? We should find some comfort in the small explosion of alternative options currently available, but also ask how usable these options are and how real is the danger of fragmentation? How have developers from different initiatives so far collaborated and what might we learn from their successes and failures? Understanding any early failures and successes of these attempts seems crucial. A related issue concerns funding difficulties faced by projects. Finally, in what ways does regionalism (United States, Europe, Asia) feed into the way people search for alternatives and use social media.

12. Showcasing Alternatives in Social Media

The best way to criticize platform monopolies is to support alternative free and open source software that can be locally installed. There are currently a multitude of decentralized social networks in the making that aspire to facilitate users with greater power to define for themselves with whom they want to share their data. Let us look into the wildly different initiatives from Crabgrass, Appleseed, Diaspora, NoseRub, BuddyCloud, Protonet, StatusNet, GNU Social, Lorea and OneSocialWeb to the distributed Twitter alternative Thimbl. In which settings are these initiative developed and what choices are made in their design? Let’s for example hear from the Spanish activists have recently made experiences with the n-1.cc platform developed by Lorea. What kind of community does the platform enable? While traditional software focuses on the individual profile and its relation to the network and the public (share with friends, share with friends of friends, share with public) the Lorea software for instance asks you whom to share an update, picture or video with every time you upload/update. It finegrains the idea of privacy settings and sharing settings to a level of content, not the user’s profile. At the same time, it requires constant decision making and awareness on the part of the user, or else a high level of trust in the community you share your data with. And how are the experiences with the transition from, or interoperability with, other platforms? Is it in this light useful to make a distinction between corporate competitors and grassroots initiatives? How can these beta alternatives best be supported, both economically and socially? Aren’t we overstating the importance of software and isn’t the availability of capital much bigger in determining the adoption of a platform?

13. Social Media Activism and the Critique of Liberation Technology

While the tendency to label any emergent social movement as the latest ‘Twitter revolution’ has passed, a liberal discourse of ‘liberation technology’ (information and communication technologies that empower grassroots movements) continues to influence our ideas about networked participation. This discourse tends to obscure power relations and obstructs critical questioning about the capitalist institutions and superstructures in which these technologies operate. What are the assumptions behind this neo-liberal discourse? What role do ‘developed’ nations play when they promote and subsidize the development of technologies of circumvention and hacktivism for use in ‘underdeveloped’ states, while at the same time allowing social media companies at home to operate in increasingly deregulated environments, and collaborating with them in the surveillance of citizens at home and abroad? What role do companies play in determining how their products are used by dissidents or governments abroad? How have their policies and Terms of Use changed as a result?

14. Social Media in the Middle East and Beyond

The justified response to downplay the role of Facebook in the early 2011 events in Tunisia and Egypt by putting social media in a larger perspective has not put the question of how to organize social mobilizations off the table. Which specific software do the ‘movements of squares’ need? What happens to social movements when the internet and ICT networks are shut down? What kind of spaces do the outsides of digital networks become? How does the interruption of internet services shift the nature of activism? How have repressive and democratic governments responded to the use of “liberation technologies”? How do these technologies change the nature of the relationship between the state and its citizens? How are governments using the same social media tools for surveillance and propaganda or highjack Facebook identities such as happened in Syria? What is Facebook’s own policy when deleting or censoring accounts of its users? How can technical infrastructures be supported which are not shutdown upon request? How much does our agency depend on communication technology nowadays? And whom do we exclude with every click? How can we envision ‘organized networks’ that are based on ‘strong ties’ yet open enough to grow quickly if the time is right? Which software platforms are best suited for the ‘tactical camping’ movements that occupy squares all over the world?

15. Data storage: social media and legal cultures

Data that is voluntarily shared by social media users is not only used for commercial purposes, but is also of interest of governments. This data is stored on servers of companies that are legally bound to the specific legal culture of a certain countries. This material-legal complex is often overlooked. Fore instance, the servers of Facebook and Twitter are located in the US and fall therefore under the US jurisdiction. One famous example is the request for the Twitter accounts of several activists (Gonggrijp, Jónsdóttir, Applebaum) affiliated with Wikileaks projects by the US government. How do activists respond and how do alternative social media platforms deal with this issue?

Contact details:

Geert Lovink (geert@xs4all.nl)
Korinna Patelis (korinna.patelis@cut.ac.cy / kpatelis@yahoo.com)

Institute of Network Cultures
CREATE-IT/Hogeschool van Amsterdam
www.networkcultures.org