This is Jaron Lanier’s memorable description of social media in his new book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Social media is a technology for asshole amplification. To be clearly seen in the fact that “since social media took off, assholes are having more of a say in the world” (pg 43). His point is not that social media is a haven for trolls because it’s “not helpful to think of the world as being divided into assholes and non-assholes or if you prefer trolls and victims”. On pg 44 he cautions that each of us has our own inner troll:

It’s like an ugly alien living inside you that you long ago forgot about. Don’t let your inner troll take control! If it happens when you’re in a particular situation, avoid that situation! It doesn’t matter if it’s an online platform, a relationship, or a job. Your character is like your health, more valuable than anything you can buy. Don’t throw it away. But why, why is the inner troll there at all? It’s such a common problem that it must be a deep, primal business, a tragedy of our inheritance, a stupid flaw at the heart of the human condition. But saying that doesn’t get us anywhere. What exactly is the inner troll? Sometimes the inner troll takes charge, sometimes it doesn’t. My working hypothesis has long been that there’s a switch deep in every human personality that can be set in one of two modes. We’re like wolves. We can either be solitary or members of a pack of wolves. I call this switch the Solitary/ Pack switch. When we’re solitary wolves, we’re more free. We’re cautious, but also capable of more joy. We think for ourselves, improvise, create. We scavenge, hunt, hide. We howl once in a while out of pure exuberance. When we’re in a pack, interactions with others become the most important thing in the world. I don’t know how far that goes with wolves, but it’s dramatic in people. When people are locked in a competitive, hierarchical power structure, as in a corporation, they can lose sight of the reality of what they’re doing because the immediate power struggle looms larger than reality itself.

The evolutionary language here can seem off-putting to a sociologist. But it can be recast in terms of internal and external goods. Sometimes we are driven by the rewards internal to what we are doing while at other times we are driven by rewards external to what we are doing. What makes social media platforms so insidious is their tendency to, as Lanier puts it, make “social status and intrigues become more than immediate than the larger reality” (pg 49). I don’t agree with his account of why this is so but I think the underlying direction of his argument is correct. Social media is asshole amplification technology because it lends such force and vivacity to external goods, particularly recognition and reputation, leaving internal goods hard to sustain.

We often do sustain our relationship with these goods, as can be seen in the continued existence of thoughtful and intelligent exchange online. But we do so in spite of rather than because of the asshole amplification architecture of social media. It’s grasping the bivalent nature of this relationship, as internal and external goods co-mingle within platform architectures which are continually modulating in response to our (ambivalent) actions, which is crucial if we want to understand and perhaps even overcome the asshole amplification propensities of social media.

In the last couple of years, I’ve found myself returning repeatedly to the idea of platform literacy. By this I mean a capacity to understand how platforms shape the action which takes place through them, sometimes in observable and explicit ways but usually in unobservable and implicit ones. It concerns our own (inter)actions and how this context facilitates or frustrates them, as well as the unseen ways in which it subtly moulds them and the responses of others to them.

This understanding seems increasingly crucial to me because the alternative might otherwise be a diffuse paranoia. As knowledge of data brokerage and data politics expands throughout society, it generates a certainty that we are being manipulated but an unknowability about precisely who is doing the manipulation, how they are doing it and what the effects might be. Platform literacy helps ground this in a concrete understanding of specific processes and their implications for our agency.

Any recommendations for reading on this are much appreciated! Particularly those with a pedagogical focus. I’ll be working my way through the Digital Polarisation Intiative’s work and the Polarisation MOOC in the meantime.

In TroubleMakers, Leslie Berlin summarises the notion of Class 1 and Class 2 disputes propounded by Bob Taylor, founder and manager of Xerox PARC’s famous Computer Science Laboratory. Part of his renowned capacity to build community within the lab involved turning what might have been destructive disputes into constructive ones. On pg 105 Berlin explains how:

Taylor distinguished between what he called “Class 1 and Class 2 disputes.” In the first, the two sides are so estranged that they cannot even hear, much less understand, what the other is saying. In Class 2 disputes, the two sides disagree but understand each other. Taylor’s goal was to move all Class 1 disagreements to Class 2, even if resolution was not possible.

What would this look like on social media? I can conceive of particular instances where thoughtful interventions, with the right timing, might succeed in shifting disagreements from Class 1 to Class 2. Having said this, I struggle to think of any concrete examples but perhaps these are events likely to fly beneath the radar unless you are party to them yourself. Nonetheless, any instance I can imagine seems intensely particularistic, rather than representing a general category. I can imagine Taylor being able to offer general strategies, as well as specific tactics through which one might seek to shift Class 1 disputes into Class 2 disputes. We could also imagine generalisations about the conditions under which such a shift is likely to be possible. But I struggle to imagine any comparable strategy or tactics for disputes which occur through social media, as opposed to situational responses which might contingently work. Furthermore, I find it difficult to imagine how we might build up a body of knowledge about the conditions under which such a shift is likely to be possible because the dynamics are liable to be so specific to the interaction between the parties.

Am I being too bleak? This certainly seems like a gloomy conclusion to draw. But in a context like the lab, it’s possible to make all sorts of assumptions which would obviously be mistaken on social media, concerning factors such as the motivations of parties and their description of the situation. Social media has the propensity to throw people together, with the most minimal relation between them, inciting interaction in the absence of many of the cues which ensure orderly conduct in everyday life. Not only are Class 1 disputes likely on social media, a potential shift to Class 2 disputes becomes less likely with time because continued interaction multiplies the possibility for interpretive failure. The dialogue becomes self-referential, as internal cues come to substitute for the external stabilising influence that would often kick in were the same interaction to unfold in an offline setting.

The Cultural Matters Group at the Department of Sociology, Uppsala University on Sept. 27-28 organizes a symposium called Dis / Connection: Conflicts, Activism and Reciprocity Online and Beyond and we look forward to receiving your papers!

Deadline for submissions is June 18, 2018.

The symposium focuses on a fundamental aspect of social relationships, namely the idea of connection. We invite abstract submissions on the possibilities of connectivity, but also the problems and promises of the act of disconnection. Digital networks embedded in everyday lives have transformed virtually every aspect of social life – from intimate relations with family and friends to the collective acts of digital activism. Digital relations and connections are our starting point for a broader discussion of notions of connectivity and how they are developing, failing, or simply being reproduced. Therefore, we also focus on the idea of disconnection as a voluntary act to take control over one’s use of digital technologies, as an act of resistance and of saying no to the opaque structures of power and control in the networked society. The goal is to further the discussion on the gains, costs and possibilities of ethical life in the culture of hyperconnectivity. The symposium also aims to address destructive functions of connected living, such as surveillance, trolls, selfies, fake news, fake news accusations, sexual harassment, click baiting, commercialism, terrorism, viruses, spam, and the colonization of private life. In other words, we are interested in how connectivity and disconnectivity can give rise to and facilitate social inclusion and democratic processes, as well as exclusion, isolation and conflict.

Confirmed keynote speaker Adam Fish is a cultural anthropologist and senior Lecturer at the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. He will give a talk entitled “Anthropology, Atmosphere, Anthropocene: Drones, Disruptive Justice, and the Disruption of the Earth.” The talk will include insights from his latest research on the use of drones in various contexts: surveillance, environmental protection, and war. Fish is the author of Technoliberalism and the end of participatory culture in the United States (2017, Palgrave) and After the internet (2017, Polity), together with Ramesh Srinivasan, and is currently working on a book called Hacker States.

Further speakers to be announced.

Mako Ishizuka, Japanese artist based in Paris, will conduct a performance art piece in parallel with the talks and paper sessions. She has exhibited her work in solo and group exhibitions internationally, including France, Japan and the Netherlands. For more info see: http://makois.com<http://makois.com/>

Papers could address but are not limited to the following themes:

*   What is ‘connectivity’ and how can we analyze it?
*   Sexism, peer pressure and online harassment
*   Digital activism / hacktivism
*   Bad connection – communication networks gone awry
*   The digital underclass – outsourced journalists, click farm and troll factory workers, and networking refugees
*   “Someone is very wrong on the internet” – risk, edgework, and the rise of the internet as a polarized political space
*   Digital afterlives and post-humanism
*   Digital intimacies
*   Online radicalization and extremism
*   Epistemic enclosures (so called “Google Bubbles”) and the future of representative democracy
*   The colonization of attention and attention economy
*   The self promotion video as a technique of the self
*   1337 h4x0rz
*   Politicians’ tweets, dick picks, inappropriate tagging and other downsides of being connected
*   Analog relationships offline – embodied relationships between humans (and other animals) as a way to opt out of the digital
*   Voluntary disconnection

Abstract submission and fees: The symposium will be free of charge, including coffee and a dinner in the evening of the 27th September. The number of participants is limited.

Please submit your abstract to disconnection@soc.uu.se<mailto:disconnection@soc.uu.se> together with your name, affiliation and contact details. Use the same address for queries, and if you want to attend the conference without presenting a paper. Abstracts should not exceed 250 words. You will be notified concerning your participation in the beginning of July.

Deadline for submissions is June 18, 2018.

We’ re looking forward to receiving your papers!

On behalf of the Cultural Matters Group,

/Magdalena

CALL FOR PAPERS: 52nd HICSS 2019, Maui, Hawaii
January 8-11, 2019 – Maui, Hawaii

SOCIAL MOVEMENTS, COLLECTIVE ACTION AND SOCIAL TECHNOLOGIES MINITRACK
in the Digital and Social Media Track
URL: http://hicss.hawaii.edu/tracks-52/digital-and-social-media/

Submission Deadline: June 15, 2018 | 11:59 pm HST
Notification of Acceptance/Rejection: August 17, 2018

******************************************************
CfP HICSS-52 (2019) minitrack:

This minitrack focuses on three main themes: 1) theorizing about information systems through the study of collective action and social movement phenomena, 2) the application of collective action and social movement theory toward understanding technology phenomena, and 3) methodological advances that can help us better understand research topics at the intersection of social movements, collective action and social technologies. Our hope is to engage scholars and practitioners from diverse fields and generate cross-disciplinary dialogue.

We welcome submissions from authors conducting empirical and conceptual research along with practitioner reports and case studies. Potential topics include:

*   The role of digitization in shaping the nature of organization and collaboration
*   Platform design implications for message / frame diffusion
*   Why and how collective action dilemmas arise or resolve
*   Innovation through collective action
*   Cross-level (e.g., individual to societal) impacts of social technologies
*   Brand hijacking movements targeting corporate competitors
*   Implications of cyberactivism and hacktivism
*   Fake news movements and propaganda diffusion
*   Effectiveness of hashtag activism or clicktivism
*   Corporate strategy / involvement in social movements to shape public policy
*   Botivists (web bots programmed for activism), online petitions, and other tools for digital protest
*   Viral marketing of ideas and social agendas
*   Social media capabilities and facilitation of echo chambers
*   Financing of social agendas through crowdfunding or bitcoin exchanges
*   Any application of social movement or collective action concepts (e.g., frames and tactics, organization, claim making, etc.) toward understanding of social technology phenomenon (e.g., crowdsourcing, large group collaboration, social media use, etc.)

Minitrack Co-Chairs:

Amber Young (Primary Contact)
University of Massachusetts Amherst
ayoung@isenberg.umass.edu<mailto:ayoung@isenberg.umass.edu>

Jama Summers
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
jdsummers@utk.edu<mailto:jdsummers@utk.edu>

Constantinos Coursaris
Michigan State University
coursari@msu.edu<mailto:coursari@msu.edu>

Workshop: The turn to artificial intelligence in governing communication online

20.03.2018 | 9:00 – 18:00 ical | gcal
Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, Französische Straße 9, 10117 Berlin, Germany

The technology underlying artificial intelligence research has increasingly found applications in the area of content moderation and communication governance on digital platforms. While the scale of problematic online content makes a stronger move reasonable, taking down content through automated means can be risky for online expression and access to information. Amid an obscure use of AI-systems, opaque implementation, vague definitions and a lack of accountability, governments and policy-makers are heavily pressuring companies to take action. And a few EU members states have already responded with new regulatory initiatives.

The Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) and Access Now will host a workshop on technological advancements, the extent of Artificial intelligence deployment and the range of approaches to understanding the status and future impact of AI systems to govern social communication on the internet.

We invite experts from different fields and backgrounds to participate in the discussion on March 20, 2018 in Berlin. If you would like to participate in the workshop, we ask you to apply with an expression of interest being announced below.

Expert Workshop:
The turn to artificial intelligence in governing communication online
HIIG | Französische Str. 9 | 10117 Berlin
20 March 2018 | 9am – 6pm

Themes

The workshop will be organized around three problem-oriented questions in order to map challenges of this development:

• Who are the primary agents of the socio-technical change to artificial intelligence in content moderation?
• How is the turn to AI influenced (e.g. governance instruments)?
• Why is the process of change accepted, or not?
Sessions will be chaired by known experts who will provide inputs and facilitate interaction among all participants.

Participants

As the emerging issues transcend disciplinary boundaries and perspectives, workshop participants will have diverse backgrounds.The workshop particularly aims at the exchange between academics and non-academics. It will bring researchers and practitioners from key countries in Europe together.

We are looking forward to receiving applications from researchers from all disciplines, members of interest groups and NGOs, as well as practitioners (business, technology) with expertise in artificial intelligence and automation systems in the context of content moderation and the global governance of communication online.

Call for Expressions of Interest

If you would like to participate in the workshop, we ask you to apply with an expression of interest, including (1) your field of work and the related expertise, (2) the specific topics you would like to contribute to the workshop, and (3) how you would benefit from the expertise of other participants, and vice versa, how would participants benefit from your particular contribution (approx. 500 words).

The workshop is limited to 25 participants.

Please send your application to kirsten.gollatz@hiig.de by no later than 25 January 2018 with the subject line “AI and Communication Governance”. We would highly appreciate if you could forward this call across your network.

Organisers

The Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) explores the dynamic relationship between the Internet and society, including the increasing interpenetration of digital infrastructures and various domains of everyday life. Its goal is to understand the interplay of social-cultural, legal, economic and technical norms in the process of digitisation.

Access Now is an international not-for-profit civil society organisation that defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world. We are a team of 40, with local staff in 10 locations around the world. We maintain four legally incorporated entities – Belgium, Costa Rica, Tunisia, and the United States – with our tech, advocacy, policy, granting, and operations teams distributed across all regions. By combining innovative policy, user engagement, and direct technical support, we fight for open and secure communications for all. Access Now focuses on freedom of expression, privacy and data protection, network discrimination and internet shutdowns, cybersecurity and more.

This conference looks brilliant! I wish it was slightly nearer:

Independent content producers are squeezed between two extremes. On one side are platforms, some of which also create content (Youtube [Google], Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and others), as well as publishing and media firms (Reed-Elsevier, Thomsons, Time-Warner, News Corp and others) that offer content under paywalls, subscription and advertising business models. On the other hand, there is a growing number of users who are willing to generate their content for
free over a variety of online platforms, many of them owned by the former. Between these two extremes lies a group of professional content creators such as writers, artists, scientists and designers, both micro-firms and SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) that are trying to find sustainable business models/ practices in a challenging and turbulent environment. This middle group will be the focus of our symposium, with an emphasis on content production, incentive design, dissemination, curation, and monetization. We aim to present innovative work on this emerging topic as well as to highlight trends and insights from academic and industry perspectives regarding the future of content producers and the content industry as a whole.

There’s an interesting extract on pg 52-53 of Infinite Distraction, by Dominic Pettman, discussing the seductions of abundance under conditions of scarcity:

Those readers old enough to remember what it was like to live before the Internet will recall the strange phenomenon where the general noosphere seduced us by its sheer beckoning presence. Thus, we would find ourselves listening to terrible songs or talk shows on the radio in the car rather than listening to our perfectly sequenced mixtape or intriguing audiobook. Or we would end up flicking from channel to channel on the TV, preferring this cathodic wasteland to the stack of quality VHS videos that sat neglected in the corner of the living room. Such perverse behavior exhibits a profound and tenacious will-to-synchronize. Indeed, this is the source and continuing energy supply for everything we call “media” (or what Stiegler calls, following Derrida, our “grammaticization”). This crucial characteristic shapes the general desire to connect with the signals and traces of other monads, no matter how tedious or embarrassing these signals and traces may be. (Just take a look at the top ten movies, TV shows, and albums right now, for ample evidence of this claim.)

It immediately brought me back to being a seven or eight-year-old, fascinated by the Sky TV that our neighbours had, in contrast to what was now experienced as the tedium of four channels. They had Simpsons! They had Wrestling! They had endless cartoons! In reality, the abundance that gripped me so much was a profound scarcity in terms of what was produced and circulating at that time, let alone what is available to me now through the iMac and broadband connection with which I am throwing this blog post out into the world.

But it leaves me vividly recalling an earlier time, in which I was growing up within a cultural ecology profoundly different to the one I now inhabit. I remember the first time I visited an internet cafe, at a point where the idea of having the internet at home hadn’t occurred to me, being gripped by the information I could find on the computer. I used it to look up character backgrounds for Marvel comics, filling in the blanks that the comics I read had left me with. The affectivity of abundance seems interesting in retrospect: I was gripped by the possibility that gaps in my knowledge could be filled, however trivial those gaps now seem in retrospect. Has this lure of abundance now been comprehensively lost?

For a book of only 126 pages, Kill All Normies covers a remarkable amount of ground. Inevitably, the argument is underdeveloped at points and it perhaps offers less empirical detail about the alt-right than it promises, largely restricting its analysis to the study of (relatively) high profile cases and the inferences that can be made from them. But the underlying thesis is a provocative one, moving beyond the hyper-specificity of online culture and placing these politicised developments in an historical context.

Nagle’s argument is that the alt-right should be understood as an online politics of transgression, a cultural movement which has generated a political upheaval through a particular confluence of circumstances: internecine war with the ‘Tumblr left’, interaction with a more traditionally politicised far-right culture within online spaces and platform dynamics which have accelerated the development of this strange cultural mix. But at the root of it is an uncoupling of transgression from progressive politics. From pg 28:

Transgression has been embraced as a virtue within Western social liberalism ever since the 60s, typically applied today as it is in bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. So elevated has the virtue of transgression become in the criticism of art, argued Kieran Cashell, that contemporary art critics have been faced with a challenge: ‘either support transgression unconditionally or condemn the tendency and risk obsolescence amid suspicions of critical conservatism’ as the great art critic Robert Hughes often was. But, Cashell wrote, on the value placed upon transgression in contemporary art: ‘In the pursuit of the irrational, art has become negative, nasty and nihilistic.’ Literary critic Anthony Julius has also noted the resulting ‘unreflective contemporary endorsement of the transgressive’.

Those who claim that the new right-wing sensibility online today is just more of the same old right, undeserving of attention or differentiation, are wrong. Although it is constantly changing, in this important early stage of its appeal, its ability to assume the aesthetics of counterculture, transgression and nonconformity tells us many things about the nature of its appeal and about the liberal establishment it defines itself against. It has more in common with the 1968 left’s slogan ‘It is forbidden to forbid!’ than it does with anything most recognize as part of any traditionalist right.

Her claim is that the association of transgression with the left has been predominately contingent, reflecting a past context in which new social movements organised against a broader culture which participants found stifling. We can see this in the “ease with which the broader alt-right and alt-light milieu can use transgressive styles” (pg 28) and the power incipient within the “new transgressive rightist sensibility” which has now begun to make itself felt politically (pg 33). While the transgressive sensibility strikes me as an inarguable feature of some of the cultural forms being subsumed under the category of ‘alt-right’, it is by no means true of all, though perhaps this points to the limitations of the category. There’s a straight-forward empirical question here but one tied in fascinating ways to a much broader array of emerging issues in political theory, political philosophy and progressive politics.

On pg 102 of Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things, he highlights email exchanges between YouTube’s founders, released in a court case, which suggest the invocation of ‘user generated content’ might be a matter of branding rather than a meaningful growth strategy for social media platforms:

In another email exchange from 2005, when full-length movies were being posted on YouTube, Steve Chen, a cofounder of the company, wrote to his colleagues Hurley and Jawed Karim, “Steal it!,” and Chad Hurley responded: “Hmm, steal the movies?” Steve Chen replied: “We have to keep in mind that we need to attract traffic. How much traffic will we get from personal videos? Remember, the only reason why our traffic surged was due to a video of this type…. viral videos will tend to be THOSE type of videos.”

Much critical literature has focused on how social media platforms ossify existing hierarchies and establish new ones. It is too easy to see this as an unexpected consequence of a new social infrastructure, as opposed to an outcome which was knowingly designed in from the start.

An interesting snippet on pg 164 of Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things suggests a metric of content density which could be extremely interesting to explore:

Digiday looked at the race for what some are calling peak content. What it found was that in 2010 the New York Times, with 1,100 people employed in the newsroom, created 350 pieces of original content per day and attracted 17.4 million page views per day. By contrast, the Huffington Post, with 532 people employed, posted 1,200 pieces of content per day (most of it created by third-party sites) and 400 blog entries (mostly unpaid), receiving 43.4 million page views per day. One can understand why the future of original journalism is threatened.

This quantitative metric raises questions which invite qualitative analysis e.g. to what extent does an increase in content density (less staff producing more content) correlate with content being shorter, derivative and shallow? Are there cultural producers where this isn’t the case? What are the conditions which counteract this seemingly inevitable consequence of asking people to produce more with less?

In the last year, Facebook Live has been plagued by occasional headlines reporting on shocking instances of violence being streamed through the platform. The sporadic quality of these reports easily creates an impression that this is exception. There have always been violent crimes, right? Therefore it stands to reason that the spread of the platform would inevitably create occasional incidences in which it featured in such crimes. However as this BuzzFeed analysis makes clear, such incidences have been a regular occurrence on the platform since its inception:

Facebook Live has a violence problem, one far more troubling than national headlines make clear. At least 45 instances of violence — shootings, rapes, murders, child abuse, torture, suicides, and attempted suicides — have been broadcast via Live since its debut in December 2015, a new BuzzFeed News analysis found. That’s an average rate of about two instances per month.

When it launched, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted Live as “a great medium for sharing raw and visceral content.” But from its inception and over thee many months that followed that became darkly true — to terrible effect. Videos of shootings, murders, suicides, and rapes began to show up on Facebook with alarming regularity.

https://www.buzzfeed.com/alexkantrowitz/heres-how-bad-facebook-lives-violence-problem-is?utm_term=.ygvMMd55#.pf1kk3nn

What should we make of this? There are important issues raised about the accountability of platforms, as Facebook have refused to comment on this trend and instead simply pointed to past statements by Mark Zuckerberg and their committed to hiring new moderators. But there is enough evidence of a relationship between Facebook Live and violence that we should take seriously the possibility that in some cases the platform might be contributing to crime generation rather than merely reflecting it.

The disturbing possibility invoked in the article is that there is a mimetic dynamic at work, as the possibility for immediate notoriety and a growing list of exemplars incline people towards horrific acts which might have remained embryonic without these two conditions:

Some criminologists worry that broadcasts of violent crimes to Facebook Live might lead perpetrators of violent crime to view the platform as a means of gaining infamy, bypassing the traditional filter of the media. “The most likely impact is that it’s going to be a model of how to distribute and immortalize your act,” Ray Surette, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida, told BuzzFeed News.

Jacqueline Helfgott, chair of the Criminal Justice Department at Seattle University, agreed. “It’s making it easier for people to gain notoriety instantly without gatekeepers,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I definitely think there’s a mimetic effect.”

https://www.buzzfeed.com/alexkantrowitz/heres-how-bad-facebook-lives-violence-problem-is?utm_term=.ygvMMd55#.pf1kk3nn

The mainstream media have previously been gatekeepers to such notoriety. But now it’s possible to achieve it through virality, assuming moderators prove unable to near immediately remove such videos. There’s an incredibly bleak book by Franco Berardi, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, which offers useful resources for making sense of this possibility. He argues that mass murderers are “the extreme manifestation of one of the main trends of our age” involving “people who are suffering themselves, and who become criminals because this is their way both to express their psychopathic need for publicity and also to find a suicidal exit from their present hell” (pg 3).

In such crimes we see a “violent acting out, as disconnected from a conscious elaboration: just do it” (pg. 56) but one licensed by a desire for infamy. It is this fame which motivates the act, offering the possibility of transcending one’s own subordination by living on forever, showing them forever:

Like the large majority of the generation that has grown up in the Neoliberal decades, the young Eric Harris is totally persuaded that the strong have the right to win and predate. It is the natural philosophy that he has absorbed in the social environment in which he was educated, and it also the underlying rationale of the video games that he loved to play. But the young man knew very well that he was not going to be a winner in the social game. Instead, he decides that he will be a winner for a moment; I’ll kill and I’ll win; then I’ll die. The murderous action is conceived as revenge for the humiliation that he has suffered in the daily game of competition. (Pg 50)

The infamy is what ensures that victory will live on. It cannot be reversed. Through their actions they achieve the status they were constantly seeking yet could never receive within life. As with much work of this type, it’s speculative social science of a sort that can be critiqued on empirical grounds. But the underlying thesis is one we should take seriously: the promise of infamy coupled with the release of violently acting out is a socially produced temptation in a profoundly unequal society which valorises ‘winners’ while attacking ‘losers’. These exceptional acts need to be understood as extreme responses to social conditions which are pervasive.

If there is any accuracy to these claims, we ought to be extremely concerned about Facebook Live. The barriers to entry for Berardi’s ‘heroes’ are lowering radically: the pathway to infamy can be found in the everyday object of the smartphone, rather than being reliant on recognition from the mass media. What might seem like exceptional cases, inexplicable in terms of wider social forces, could in fact herald the dark future of mediatization.

While many see the term ‘curation’ as modish and vague, I see it as an important concept to make sense of how we can orientate ourselves within a changing cultural landscape. However I can sympathise with the thrust of these objections, in so far as they take issue with a sense of curation tied in with the worship of the new. Such a use of the term is possibly dominant, framing the curatorial imperative (selecting from available variety through filtering, commentary and evaluation) as a specialisation which emerges to cope with the late modern world. If we frame curation in this way, we miss out on the opportunity to explore how it has changed over time. See for example Nick Couldry’s Media, Self, World loc 1732:

Some literary cultures have been distinguished by the richness of their practices of commentary: the Jewish tradition of cabbala is frequently cited, but the ancient world’s general scarcity of textual objects meant that written manuscripts often reached people with the commentary of previous readers’ (so-called ‘scholiasts’) embedded within them, a tradition which reaches us now via the comments written in medieval versions of Greek texts.
Now we are entering an age of commentary for the opposite reason: because of the almost infinite proliferation of things to read and look at, we need to send signals to help each other select from the flux. At the same time, and for related reasons, our ability to send comments and signals has been massively extended by digital media: we take it for granted that by emailing or uploading a link we can point at something interesting we have just read and so alert someone on the other side of the world. The scope of commentary as a practice has been massively enlarged.

It is important that we can address problems and opportunities created by specific technologies without circumscribing our accounts in a way that limits them to these technologies. If we do so, we fail to recognise the continuities and we are inevitably left with anaemic conceptions of the human and the social which tend to be exhausted by the social-technical. From loc 1534 of Couldry’s book:

From searching, other practices quickly develop: practices of exchanging information by forwarding weblinks to family, friends or work colleagues, warehousing sites that collect recommendations from users so other users can narrow down their search practice (Digg, etc.), and tools for pre-ordered searches (RSS feeds and other alerts). These various search-enabling practices are increasingly prominent in everyday life as people seek to optimize their access to the vastly expanded flow of potentially relevant information. Their dispersed agency (anyone can forward a link or signal that they ‘like’ a post) contrasts with earlier centuries’ ways of disseminating interesting material: for example, the ancient and medieval world’s florilegia produced by groups of scholars, often in monasteries, who collected interesting quotes from otherwise obscure books into new volumes. Now not only do individuals (from their computers or phones, wherever they are) make the recommendations, but system interfaces, such as Digg and reddit, enable them to recommend cumulatively. Some commentators hope that ‘collaborative filtering’ and other collective forms of information sorting can challenge the dominance of Google and even create new forms of social bond.

How do we ensure we recognise these contrasts? How can we explore them in a way which allows us to productively theorise continuities and differences? There’s a fascinating meta-theoretical challenge here which I’d like to engage with seriously in future.

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself when reading through two books by Nick Couldry in which he develops a materialist phenomenological approach to understanding social reality. The first is The Mediated Construction of Social Reality (with Andreas Hepp) and the second is Media, Society, World. It’s in the latter book that he considers the representational power of media. From loc 683:

Media institutions, indeed all media producers, make representations: they re-present worlds (possible, imaginary, desirable, actual). Media make truth claims, explicit or implicit: the gaps and repetitions in media representations, if systematic enough, can distort people’s sense of what there is to see in the social and political domains.

There is a political economy underpinning this, in terms of the capacity to make such representations and the gains accruing from this capacity. The common reference points which accumulate as a consequence serve a broader economic purpose. From loc 701:

However, if basic consumer demand –for fashion, music, sport –is to be sustained at all, it requires ‘the media’ to provide common reference points towards which we turn to see what’s going on, what’s cool.

The interests and influence in play here have been crucial to the unfolding of late modernity. Media has been a site through which power has consolidated. What we are seeing with ‘post-truth’ is a deconsolidatiob of this apparatus, taking place at a number of different levels. From loc 886:

Representations matter. Representations are a material site for the exercise of, and struggle over, power. Put most simply, our sense of ‘what there is’ is always the result of social and political struggle, always a site where power has been at work. 150 But fully grasping this in relation to media is difficult: because the role of media institutions is to tell us ‘what there is’ –or at least what there is that is ‘new’ –media’s work involves covering over its daily entanglement in that site of power. Media aim to focus populations’ attention in a particular direction, on common sites of social and political knowledge. Media institutions’ embedding as the central focus of modern societies is the result of a history of institutional struggle that is becoming more, not less, intense in the digital media era. It is essential to deconstruct the apparently natural media ‘order’ of contemporary societies.

A really fascinating discussion between Kristi Winters and The Wooly Bumblebee (HT Philip Moriarty). The latter’s experience could be seen as a model for de-radicalisation in the more toxic spaces within social media. An important reminder that platform incentives might encourage this behaviour but they don’t necessitate it. Furthermore, just because someone has come to act a given way doesn’t mean they will always act that way.

The term ‘curation’ has got a bad press in recent years. Or rather the use of the term beyond the art world has. To a certain extent I understand this but I nonetheless always feel the need to defend the term. There are a few reasons for this:

  • In a context of cultural abundance, selection from variety becomes important within a whole range of contexts. Inevitably, it is something most people within these contexts will do most of the times. But ‘curation’ is becoming a specialised activity, even if detached from a specific social role.
  • I’m prone to thinking of what I do, at least some of the time, as curation. I spend quite a lot of time each week sorting through mailing lists, newsletters, websites, blogs and social media to identify relevant content for The Sociological Review’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. This is 46 social media posts per day. I’ve also shared something on Sociological Imagination daily for almost seven years. I don’t particularly care what anyone else calls it but, as far as I’m concerned, doing it effectively is a skilled activity and ‘curation’ is the term I’ve taken to using.
  • The modern sense of the word ‘curation’ rests on a specific set of institutional arrangements which are themselves relatively recent. The word has a longer history, emerging from the Latin curator (“overseer, manager, guardian“) and what many construe as a misapplication could just as easily be taken as a further shift in its use. Language is dynamic and the anti-‘curation’ rhetoric is an attempt to police its change, albeit not a particularly significant or pernicious one.

Ultimately, I don’t care if people reject this use of the term ‘curation’. I do care if people reject what the term ‘curation’ comes to designate. I don’t dispute it is often used in a vacuous way, but it is not always used this way. It is nebulous and modish but the terms which emerge in relation to socio-cultural transformations often are.

It’s the socio-cultural changes which interest me, the abundance digitalisation is giving rise to and the epistemic fog which emerges as a result. To talk of ‘curation’ is a facet of that conversation and if people want to reject its use, I hope they’ll offer an alternative language for talking about selection from abundance as an institutionalised function within digital capitalism.

This essay on ‘the cult of cruelty’ has some interesting points to make about the role of what danah boyd calls persistence and searchability in facilitating incivility online. It makes it possible to trawl through someone’s activity, enabling a degree of engagement with choices and representations that would not otherwise be possible:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — the ways in which people exact their hurt. It’s common for people to subtweet about their hate-follows and hate-reads. Nothing distinguishes between the hate cultivated for people we know as opposed to strangers — we’re all fair game for someone else’s vitriol. People have no problem playing armchair therapist; they analyze our lives from a computer screen and then proceed to deliver play-by-play commentary on how we should live our lives based on how they live theirs. Many have come to believe that an online representation of one aspect of our lives is the complete story, the whole of our lives. Who we are, the content of our character, is reduced to what we choose to publish. The choices we make — from what we wear to how we parent and whom we love — should be obvious based on the collective’s personal experience and we’re admonished in text or in forums for “not getting it”. We crave authenticity yet we vilify others for their public missteps, for being human. People talk smack behind our backs to then kiss-kiss, hey, how are you? to our face. People leave hateful comments tearing apart our appearance: Why is she naked in every picture on Instagram…ugh! Who does she think she is? Why does she wear such unflattering clothes? If she didn’t want to hear about how bad she looks she shouldn’t be posting pictures of herself online. Apparently, being public is an open invitation for hate, and it’s frightening that groups exist on the Internet devoted to the care and feeding of that hate.

It also makes it possible to trawl back through the incivility that has been directed at us:

We live in a country that espouses free speech, but many are forced into silence in fear of the hate avalanche. In a private Facebook group, many women talk about not reading the comments of their published articles out of self-preservation. “Don’t read the comments is a constant refrain. Women leave social media because they’re beaten down by people in fear of losing their privilege. A whole group of people has been reduced to a patronizing “snowflake” moniker because of their inability to toughen up, and it’s as if the Internet has become Darwinian in the sense that only those who hate, and those who can withstand and endure that hate, survive. A few years ago, I was the subject of a man’s ire, someone whom I believe I knew (or at least had come into contact with during my agency career, which makes the whole situation that much more unsettling), who wrote about how much he hated me because I stood up for women who had been ridiculed online because of their appearance. Fifteen years ago, a small circle of literary bloggers posted cruel blind items about me and I remember being at work, in front of my computer, reading these posts and my whole body going numb.t

There’s an excellent overview of ‘hate reading’ here:

Underlying all this is a weirdly common human tendency toward “hate-reading.” Call it that for short, at least, because it also includes “hate-listening” and “hate-watching.” In short, many people seem strangely drawn to material that they know, even before they’re exposed to it, will infuriate them. And hate-reading in its purest form involves not just seeking out the aggregated fodder of Media Matters or Newsbusters, but actually going straight to the source: a conservative mainlining Keith Olbermann; a liberal recklessly exposing herself to a Rush Limbaugh monologue.

A lot of us do this, but why? No one knows for sure, but there are a few potential explanations. One is that hate-reading simply makes us feel good by offering up an endless succession of “the emperor has no clothes” moments with regard to our political adversaries. In this view, we specifically seek out the anti-wisdom of whoever appears dumbest and most hateful as a means of bolstering our own sense of righteousness. “If the commentary is dumb enough, it may actually have a boomerang effect in that it reassures us that our opponents aren’t very smart or accurate,” said Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a media psychologist at the University of Texas San Antonio.

There’s a fascinating footnote in Radio Benjamin, loc 395-410, discussing Adorno’s description of Benjamin’s ideas as ‘radioactive’:

The full sentence reads, “Everything which fell under the scrutiny of his words was transformed, as though it had become radioactive,” … Although Adorno’s metaphor uses a different register of boundary crossing, the German radioaktiv, like the English radioactive, shares with Rundfunk, or radio, a connotation of atmospheric spreading, dispersal, and uncontrolled movement across and within borders and lines of containment; the airwaves, like the air or the atmosphere, represent a quasi-invisible scene or medium of transmission. While the German does not directly imply the coincidence of these two (roughly contemporary) modes of radiality, the notion of Benjamin’s gaze, and from there his work, effecting a radioactive transformation suggests the potentially dangerous, if also exciting and new, power of radio and its power to broadcast.

Radioactive ideas effect a transformation. Viral ideas simply pass through. The logic of social media platforms too easily inclines us towards a concern for virality. What we should aim for is to use their affordances to ensure radioactivity, even if this registers much less impressively on a numerical level.

In The Making of Donald Trump, David Johnston identifies the tactics used by Trump to deflect inquiries into his many shady dealings and questionable decisions. Sometimes this is a matter of outright threats, with an enthusiasm for litigation (1,900 suits as plaintiffs coupled with an explicitly articulated philosophy of vengeance proving a dangerous combination for any who dare to cross him. But somewhat contrary to his public image as a blundering fool, he is often much more subtle than this, engaging in strategies of deflection and misdirection with all the deftness of the most accomplished public relations manager. In other cases, it just becomes weird, with Trump willing to publicly deny that a recording he had previously admitted to be of his own voice was anything other than a hoax:

This combination of viciousness, skilfulness and brazenness has left him insulated from meaningful scrutiny. But what has he averted in this way? What might have happened but hasn’t? On page 154 Johnston offers a description which has caught my imagination:

Together, these strategies – muddying the facts and deflecting inquiries into past conduct – help ensure that Trump’s carefully crafted public persona will not be unmade. He will not suffer the curtain to be pulled back to reveal a man who tricked society into thinking he was all wise and all powerful.

This public persona which has been crafted, sometimes deliberately while at other times impulsively, remains intact. I’m interested in what such a ‘pulling back of the curtain’ requires to be effective: the sustained attention of an audience, a sufficient familiarity with the person(a) in question, a prolonged campaign to sort fact from fiction and a lack of contestation concerning this process of sorting.

What is being framed somewhat unhelpfully as a ‘post-truth era’ are the conditions under which this ceases to be possible. There’s lots of ways in which we could try and explain them, not all of which are necessarily mutually exclusive. The collapse of authority in late modernity. The acceleration of communication. The weakening of journalism and the dominance of public relations. Theories of social change should be able to account for the specifics of such cases, rather than simply allowing them to be rendered thematically.

In his InfoGlut, Mark Andrejevic takes issue with the assumption that fostering ‘disbelief’ or ‘challenge’ is necessarily subversive.  As he puts it, “strategies of debunkery and information proliferation can work to reinforce, rather than threaten, relations of power and control” (loc 293). Recognising this in the abstract is important but I intend to read more about the specific cases in which these tactics are used regressively, as I’m increasingly fascinated by the extent to which these tactics are informed (or not) by epistemological and ontological understandings (even if these words are not used).

Under these conditions, what  Andrejevic describes as the ‘big data divide’ seems ever more prescient by the day. From loc 464:

The dystopian version of information glut anticipates a world in which control over the tremendous amount of information generated by interactive devices is concentrated in the hands of the few who use it to sort, manage, and manipulate. Those without access to the database are left with the “poor person’s” strategies for cutting through the clutter: gut instinct, affective response, and “thin- slicing” (making a snap decision based on a tiny fraction of the evidence). The asymmetric strategies for using data highlight an all- too- often overlooked truth of the digital era: infrastructure matters. Behind the airy rhetoric of “the cloud,” the factories of the big data era are sprouting up across the landscape: huge server farms that consume as much energy as a small city. Here is where data is put to work – generating correlations and patterns, shaping decisions and sorting people into categories for marketers, employers, intelligence agencies, healthcare providers, financial institutions, the police, and so on. Herein resides an important dimension of the knowledge asymmetry of the big data era – the divide between those who generate the data and those who put it to use by turning it back upon the population. This divide is, at least in part, an infrastructural one shaped by ownership and control of the material resources for data storage and mining. But it is also an epistemological one –a difference in the forms of practical knowledge available to those with access to the database, in the way they think about and use information.