Tag Archives: mass self-communication

“My name is ___, and I’m leaving Facebook.”

A good friend of mine just sent around an email, announcing that he will quit Facebook. He agreed that I put it up. Maybe somebody wants to use it as a template for announcing his or her own withdrawal from the social network. Also, I’m hoping to update this post later once my friend told me how he’s dealing with his new-found isolation/liberation. If you’ve gone through similar experiments, please share your experience. Continue reading

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Friendship based on algorithms

how do you know

What’s this now? A “News Feed” and a “Live Feed”? Facebook has changed its interface again. I didn’t immediately understand. Apparently, the Live Feed includes everything that’s currently going on in my social online world, and the News Feed just features some highlights. In other words, Facebook believes that a lot of the stuff my friends are up to is simply not relevant. Fair enough, I heard a lot of people say that the previous News Feed had become slightly overwhelming. But how does Facebook know what the interesting stuff is? Continue reading

Big Brother and the “people like you and me” genre

bigbrother

When I came to the UK last year, the TV show “Big Brother” was already ailing, it seemed. After ten seasons or so, the country had lost interest in the idea of locking up a bunch of ever more quirky human beings to broadcast their attempts to kill time. As a last outburst – as a Big Brother supernova, if you like – the media had just squeezed every last drop of news value from the death of Jade Goody, the most famous Big Brother candidate in the UK. Last Wednesday, Channel 4 announced that it will discontinue the show in 2010.

It seemed to me that Big Brother passed away rather quietly – no uproar, no vociferous calls for five more seasons, just a few flashbacks to the most unforgettable moments. But Big Brother certainly deserves some credit. If it didn’t invent it, the program definitely popularized the “people like you and me”-genre. It was the epitome of Andy Warhol’s prediction that we shall all enjoy our 15 minutes of fame, in some cases converting these into 15 minutes of shame.

Now, if we say that people got tired of Big Brother, did they also get tired of the “people like you and me” genre? I would love to say that the answer is “yes”. After ten seasons or so, we came to realize that it’s boring to watch other people going about their day-to-day life. In fact, it would be nice to say that we rediscovered how exciting our own lives can be and that we no longer need the distraction of watching locked-up Big Brother candidates.

Unfortunately, there’s only little evidence that we got tired of the “people like you and me” genre. In fact, it appears to me that we got bored with Big Brother because it wasn’t Big Brother enough… if you know what I mean. How cumbersome to put people in a house for three months until they finally perform something worth broadcasting. How constraining that all those moral conventions of regulated mainstream media still apply. Big Brother was only the beginning, not the end, of the 15-minutes-of-fame culture.

The irony of it all is that we have indeed rediscovered how exciting our own lives can be – and how fun it is to share them with everybody out there. Instead of one Big Brother, we now have millions of little brothers all filming and broadcasting themselves. It is easy and tempting to apply a strict moral judgment on this trend; one that condemns the shameless self-promotion and exhibitionism. But it is equally possible to herald Youtube videos as a form of cultural expression and identity-shaping self-representation. I postpone this debate until the next pub visit later.

The wanna-be museum of communication

phone

It was a bit of a let down, really. My dad and I agreed that today’s visit to Berlin’s “Museum of Communication” was properly disappointing. Upon entering the rather impressive (can’t think of a more eloquent word to describe architecture) building, we found ourselves surrounded by old telephones and telegraphs – lots of them, too, in roughly chronological order.

In the circular open space in the middle of the impressive building, two robots were bored to death kicking around an orange-colored plastic ball. For no immediately obvious reason, the curators then skipped over the invention of radio and television, guiding us visitors quickly to the 21st century. The new media age was represented by roughly 10 stationary personal computers, which my dad and I used to check our emails real quick.

The special of the day was a temporary exposition entitled “From diaries to blogs” (or something in that direction… I threw away lost the leaflet), which provided a non-exhaustive list of historical and contemporary figures (Goebbels, Anne Frank, and some other non-Nazi related figures as well) who wrote diaries, arriving promptly at the conclusion that both diaries and blogs can be written for all sorts of purposes. Thank you.

Now, let me wrap it up with some balance-striking words. Admittedly, the whole “Museum of Communication” started of as and is still part of a foundation for “Post and Telecommunication”, with a clear emphasis on the former. In fact, if they call the whole thing “Museum of the German Postal Service (and free internet access on the 2nd floor)”, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed. Expectation management, hello?!

And on an intellectual note, that was also the only take-home-massage from that museum: Long-distance communication in the form of letters, telegraphs, and later telephone was for a long time considered a responsibility of the German state(s). Hence, it was placed in the hands of a public body run by efficient, mainly Prussian, terribly orderly, German civil servants. No guys in flip-flops from Silicon Valley to provide email services or some foreign invaders buying up German cell phone networks. No, it had to be die Deutsche Bundespost, ja.

In times like these, when we’re about to liberalize and privatize every last bit of telecommunication, this glimpse into the past was rather instructive… Not that instructive though. After all, it was just a bunch of old telephones and telegraphs in roughly chronological order.

Always say “Yes and No”

When somebody asks you whether you think the Internet is about to change life as we know it, say “Yes… [hesitate a bit]… and no”. With that sort of answer you can never go wrong and it also makes you sound smart because apparently you’ve taken all kinds of perspectives into account. Besides, it’s probably the correct answer. If people aren’t happy with it, add something like “…but everything’s faster now and there’s more of it, too.”

Here’s an example. It was never true that the person who buys a newspaper will be the only one reading it. He/she will forget it on the bus, throw it over the fence to the neighbors in the afternoon. He/she may even cut out an article to show to someone else. In fact, that’s what my grandpa still does – complete with the newspaper name and the date handwritten in one corner. So that’s how it used to be done.

And what would my grandpa do if he was using the internet? He would go to his Google Reader or newspaper website (Kieler Nachrichten, by the way), find something interesting, and show it to someone else – now complete with the link and a nice little comment. Not much new there, just a bit more digital. The difference is, he would do it all the time, with many of his Facebook friends, across the entire Universe, and with instantaneous delivery. That’s why you can add “…but everything’s faster now and there’s more of it, too.”

I really meant to write about how and why people share online content with others, but I guess I got carried away… oh well, next post.

Facebook – an act of the devil?

Archbishop fan group

Will they ever get it? I don’t think so. Since social networking sites like Facebook have become so immensely popular, critics from all corners of society have renewed their claims that the Internet is isolating, alienating, and inevitably leading to the end of healthy community life. The latest in line this morning: Archbishop Vincent Nichols (see BBC article)

His criticism is so old it’s almost too boring to repeat. Facebook leads young people to seek transient relationships, as many of them as possible to boast about them. And when these loose relationships collapse, young people go and commit suicide, according to the Archbishop. Moreover, they forget how to interact face-to-face, loosing their ability to interpret a person’s mood and and body language. In other words, once again the end of society.

Not every friend is a friend

I do not know if the Archbishop has ever signed on to Facebook or if he was thoroughly briefed about it before making his claims. I find it unlikely, as he contradicts both the experience of most Facebook users and the current status quo in terms of academic research on this topic.

I’ve been doing a bit of work on online communication myself over recent weeks. During the interviews I conducted, all interviewees made it very clear that they use Facebook to talk to a few close friends on a regular basis. The rest of the people on their friend list are those who they just met once or were never really that close to. It’s like collecting business cards. You got the person’s details and if at any point in the future you need to contact her, you can.

Critics like the Archbishop should realize that not every contact that’s labeled a “friend” on Facebook is a true friend. In fact, many people I talked to said they started a number of separate friend lists to distinguish between those who they care about and those they aren’t that close to.

Integrate, mix, replace

Many academic an journalistic articles, as well as my interviewees, also suggest that online interaction is very closely integrated with offline interaction. If we only looked at Facebook communication, our social life would indeed be pretty sad. But Facebook is there to supplement everything else that went on before, to mix with it, or in some cases to replace it – but only partially.

Facebook and other social networking sites may even enable relationships to be maintained that were previously lost. Those students I spoke to (in addition to my own experience) all came to the UK from abroad. They say that through social media they find it much easier and cheaper to stay in touch with their friends from high school or their families back home.

Technology, the culprit

Finally, critics like the Archbishop make it sound like social networking sites dropped to the face of the earth as the source of all evil. I see that they make for an excellent culprit. But if we want to lament the decline of community life (which we have some reason to do), we should look somewhere else first. Facebook et al. only reflect and perhaps emphasize social trends that have been ongoing for quite some time, such as individualization, globalization, social exclusion, and some others.

While I wrote this, I was wondering about the Archbishops motifs to voice his criticism about social networking sites. Does he think that those who no longer go to church are now surfing the web instead? Does he find it hard to compete for the attention of young people? Does he hope they would come to his church if Facebook was outlawed?

As a side note, I find it worth mentioning that Mr. Nichols has a Facebook fan group with 222 members. Not sure whether he knows about this or how he feels about it.

Manuel Castells at LSE – Mass Self-Communication

Manuel Castells (Flickr user uscpublicdiplomacy)

Manuel Castells (Flickr user uscpublicdiplomacy)

What do the MP expenses scandal and the protests in Iran have in common? Both of them reflect how communication power can change the world – or rather, change the way we see it – says Manuel Castells.

I had the opportunity to listen to most of Manuel Castells’ public lecture at the LSE tonight. Manuel Castells has recently been the most influential scholar on the subject of communication and technology, announcing the arrival of the “network society” (one of his strengths is finding sticky labels for what he studies, as tonight’s lecture proved again).

Here’s his argument in a nutshell.

For the masses, by the masses

Power is one of the most important topics in any society, as we might all agree. For Castells, one of the most important powers is to “control human minds” and to shape meanings.

The media immediately come to mind as probably the most powerful institution to shape the way we see the world. And we need to understand that the media are mainly big business, says Castells. Globalized, decentralized, but actually highly concentrated business.

And then we got “mass self-communication” nowadays (one of those new sticky labels you should watch out for). Horizontal, many-to-many forms of communication such as Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, you name them.

As you can imagine, big media and mass self-communication don’t just peacefully coexist. They interact – somehow, sometimes, somewhere. Castells left it at that during his lecture.

Scandal politics

So far, Castells didn’t really say anything new (although he once again managed to present these points more clearly than you will find them anywhere). The real question was, how does mass self-communication change the distribution of communication power?

To answer this, he first went on to criticize big media for their focus on scandals when reporting politics. In fact, he argues that the media are running a “scandal industry” based on leaked, remixed, half-true information and semi-legal but definitely unethical investigation methods (see phone tapping case in today’s papers). Politicians must play along because they see undermining the opponent’s character as the only reliable political weapon.

Interestingly, there is no conclusive evidence, says Castells, that discrediting your political opponent always pays off. To the contrary, in several cases, it had a negative effect.

More importantly, scandal politics cause massive damage for the entire political system by undermining it’s legitimacy. That is why the vast majority of people around the world believes that democracy is failing and that they are not governed by “the people” (always an exception: Scandinavia). And when mistrust in the political system is met by mistrust in the economic system, we’re in big trouble.

The way out

So too much communication power in the hands of big media is really bad. But can mass self-communication make a difference?

Castells believes it can and it already does. His arguments are pretty well-known though, I must say. The services and technologies facilitating mass self-communication are much harder to control from top down, offer a much wider spectrum of opinion and information, by-pass any corporate or editorial control, and feature close to no entry costs. In other words, mass self-communication is autonomous.

This has already made a huge difference in politics, argues Castells. The success of social movements over the last 15 years would not have been possible without mass self-communication.When these movements go online, they form “instant political communities of practice” (another of those sticky labels).

For example, we don’t know much more about climate change than we did some 30 years ago. However, the Internet has spread the word so that 85% of the world population has now joined the global environmental movement. Another case in point would be the protests in Iran.

Early exit

Unfortunately, I had to leave at this point. Until then, Castells had argued that mass self-communication offers an alternative way through which we can see the world and make sense of it – outside any big media with all its scandals.

I had two major problems with his argument up until this point. (Maybe they were mentioned in the Q&A session?)

First, I really question the autonomy of mass self-communication. It has to rely on services which cost billions a year and which are operated by equally big business (News Corp. owns MySpace, etc.). There’s a lot to say about concentration and commercialization on the internet.

Second, I don’t quite see why mass self-communication should be any less susceptible to scandals. In fact, doesn’t it allow them to spread even fast, even more uncontrollably, possibly even more unethical?

I would love to hear your comments and maybe some notes on the last few minutes of Castells’s lecture. Thank you!