The theoretical & theatrical side of the web

I spent part of this weekend in (virtual) attendance at an academic conference in New York. ‘Theorizing the Web’ brought together scholars, journalists, artists, and commentators to examine the impact new digital technologies are having on society.

I haven’t had much time to reflect on the conference but I wanted to highlight a few things that piqued my interest.

As I’ve said on this blog before, I think it’s extremely important for us, as researchers, to have some theoretical understanding of how and why people are using different social media sites.

If you don’t, the danger is you take comments out of context and draw misleading conclusions. An obvious example of this would be the tendency to overestimate one’s audience on Twitter and the underestimation of it on forums and even blogs; with the former lending itself to a theatre in which more extreme views attract more attention.

Norm shifting

We frequently hear the Arab Spring, in which the population only felt free to criticise regimes online, referenced as a positive example of norm shifting.

However, assistant professor at UNC, Zeynep Tufekci, used the example of the reddit moderator,Violentacrez, who was sharing horrific and illegal images on the site (and who was famously unmasked by Adrian Chen), as an example of negative norm shifting.

Tufekci said that what these users were doing was an “example of digitally enabled free speech by people who think like each other but [who exist] outside the social norms of the broader community, affirming each other, such that the community’s norms shifted”.

She said his attempt to justify his actions demonstrated that he saw his online use as being like playing a “video game”, showing little understanding of the fact there could be offline consequences.

The attention economy

Microsoft researcher danah boyd talked about Newsweek’s attempt to engage Twitter users in sharing examples of ‘Muslim Rage’ as an example of powerful trolling.

She stated that “in an environment where everything is about monetization and who can get the most clicks and the most page views you can imagine, we have this ratcheting up of what can get attention and, needless to say, one of things we see about what gets the most attention is that which is most humiliating or grotesque or otherwise problematic”.

boyd argued that there was a “kind of trafficking in problematic content, whether it’s these major news agencies desperate to figure out how to get advertising revenue or whether it’s individuals trying to play with it”.

She also highlighted how dis-empowered populations attempt to sabotage the attention economy, by ‘trolling’ big brands and media organisations, “because they want to have power within a system in which they have no power”.

Privacy fears

In a similar vein, it’s very easy to dismiss Facebook privacy concerns as being those of a minority, particularly when so few actually follow through with threats to quit the network.

However, assistant professor at Fordham University, Alice Marwick, drew attention to the meme shared by millions of Facebook users which states the site can’t use your profile information.

She argued that this “beautiful piece of folk copyright” was not a “silly meme” shared by people “who don’t care about their privacy”.

Assistant professor at NYU, Laura Portwood-Stacer, also talked about the media’s framing of addiction to social media (and Facebook in particular) as a way of normalising everyday use.

In contrast, social media refusal (such as quitting Facebook) is frequently framed as a hipster trend, trivialising the real reason why people may really be leaving a site, which is often due to privacy concerns.

False assumptions about social media use

Google+ has been widely dismissed as a social network which failed to take off. Many professionals use ‘Author Rank’ simply to feature on Google’s search rankings more prominently, with profiles left otherwise inactive.

However, it’s all too easy to overlook any social networks we don’t use ourselves as not having any widespread use. I think there’s a tendency to assume we know how particular platforms are used by everyone because we base our judgement on our own experience of social media (and our network of like-minded peers).   

So it was fascinating to discover that Google+ is extremely popular with 9- to 13-year-olds in the US because it’s not blocked by schools or terms of service.

Of course I haven’t even begun to do justice to many (or, indeed, any) of the interesting ideas explored at the event, so I’d thoroughly recommend you take the time to watch the talks here yourself.