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The power of social media to burrow dramatically into our everyday lives as well as the near ubiquity of new technologies such as mobile phones has forced us all to conceptualize the digital and the physical; the on- and off-line.

And some have a bias to see the digital and the physical as separate; what I am calling digital dualism. Digital dualists believe that the digital world is “virtual” and the physical world “real.” This bias motivates many of the critiques of sites like Facebook and the rest of the social web and I fundamentally think this digital dualism is a fallacy. Instead, I want to argue that the digital and physical are increasingly meshed, and want to call this opposite perspective that implodes atoms and bits rather than holding them conceptually separate augmented reality.

In a 2009 post titled “Towards Theorizing An Augmented Reality,” I discussed geo-tagging (think Foursquare or Facebook Places), street view, face recognition, the Wii controller and the fact that sites like Facebook both impact and are impacted by the physical world to argue that “digital and material realities dialectically co-construct each other.” This is opposed to the outdated notion that the Internet is like the Matrix, where there is a “real” (Zion) that you leave when you enter the virtual space (the Matrix).

I have used this perspective of augmentation to critque dualism when I see it. For instance, Read More »

This post is co-authored with PJ Rey and originally appeared on our blog, Cyborgology.

On Jan. 8, 2011, Jared Lee Loughner allegedly shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and 19 others resulting in 6 fatalities. This event has drawn attention to a number of new and important roles social media has come to play in our society, including how information is gathered, changed political rhetoric, and how these sites handle the profiles of those involved in high-profile tragedies.

Profiling the Suspect
Media coverage (i.e., cable, network, radio, and newspapers) of the event represented a broader trend in contemporary journalism: almost immediately, news outlets began to piece together a profile of this previously unknown figure using almost exclusively Loughner’s social media profiles (i.e., Facebook, Myspace, Youtube and, most recently, online gaming discussion boards). Even though his MySpace and Facebook profiles were taken down by the site, screenshots of the sites are available, including one showing a photo of gun on a US History textbook as a profile picture.

The digital documentation of our lives via social media offers an easily-accessible, autobiographical source for journalists and anyone else who is interested. Yet, there is a risk in basing our impressions solely off of this information. Loughner’s image of himself is certainly not objective and may very well be inaccurate. News outlets, however, face pressure to “get the scoop” on the story, so they tended to report on Loughner based heavily on this information, as opposed to interviewing a range of people in his life to construct a more holistic perspective.

The Post-Shooting Political Debate
In the wake of the tragedy, a debate emerged over the intensity and tone of contemporary political rhetoric. The political right in general, and Sarah Palin in particular, Read More »

The rant that anything digital is inherently shallow, most famously put forth in popular books such as “The Shallows” and “Cult of the Amateur,” becomes quite predictable. Even the underlying theme of The Social Network movie was that technology trades the depth of reality for the shallowness of virtuality. I have asserted that claims about what is more “deep” and “real” are claims to truth and thus claims to power. This was true when this New York Times panel discussion on digital books made constant reference to the death of depth and is still true in the face of new claims regarding the rise of texting, chatting and messaging using social media.

Just as others lamented about the loss in depth when moving from the physical to the digital word, others are now claiming the loss of depth when moving from email to more instant forms of communication. E-etiquette writer Judith Kallos claims that because the norms surrounding new instant forms of communication do not adhere as strictly to grammatical rules, the writing is inherently “less deep.” She states that

We’re going down a road where we’re losing our skills to communicate with the written word

and elsewhere in the article another concludes that

the art of language, the beauty of language, is being lost.

There is much to critique here. Equating “depth” to grammatical rules privileges those with more formal education with the satisfaction of also being “deeper.” Depth is not lost in abbreviations just as it is not contained in spelling or punctuation. Instant streams of communication pinging back and forth have the potential to be rich with deep, meaningful content. Read More »

Many worry about the immortality of our behavior on social network sites like Facebook. Regrettable behaviors can become Facebook Skeletons in your digital closet. However, I have argued before that what is equally true is that our online presence is extremely ephemeral. Status updates speed by, perhaps delighting us in the moment, but are quickly forgotton. The innundation of photographs of yourself and others is so heavy that particular moments often become lost in the flow. Our digital content may live forever, but it does so in relative obscurity. Just try searching for that witty status update your friend made on Facebook last month. It is this ephemerality of our online social lives that makes this art/design project by Siavosh Zabeti so interesting. When our Facebook lives are placed in a book, our socialization grasps at the tactile permanence of the physical.

When Facebook becomes a book from Siavosh Zabeti on Vimeo.

If books like this became popular, would we create our Facebook presence any differently given this new, more physical medium? Read More »

The New York Times recently ran a story about how “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” It describes a digital age in which our careless mass exhibitionism creates digital documents that will live on forever. The article is chock full of scary stories about how ill-advised status updates can ruin your future life.

These sorts of scare-tactic stories serve a purpose: they provide caution and give pause regarding how we craft our digital personas. Those most vulnerable should be especially careful (e.g., a closeted teen with bigoted parents; a woman with an abusive ex-husband). But after that pause, let’s get more realistic by critiquing the sensationalism on the part of the Times article by acknowledging that, with some common sense, the risks for most of us are actually quite small.

1-Digital Content Lives Forever in Obscurity

The premise of the article is that what is posted online can potentially live on forever. True, but the reality is that the vast majority of digital content we create will be seen by virtually no one. Sometimes I think these worries stem from a vain fantasy that everything we type will reach the eyes of the whole world for all time. Sorry, but your YouTube video probably isn’t going viral and few people will likely read this post.

What interests me about digital content is that it is on the one hand potentially immortal and on the other exceedingly ephemeral. In fact, it is precisely digital content’s immortality that guarantees the very flood of data that makes any one bit exceedingly ephemeral, washed away in the deluge of user-generated banality. Jean Baudrillard taught us that too much knowledge is actually no knowledge at all because the information becomes unusable in its abundance. This is what millions of people tweeting away is: an inundation of data, most of which will never be read by many and will probably be of little consequence [edit for clarification: I like Twitter].

If anything, one problem with social networking applications like Facebook or Twitter is that they do a poor job of archiving and making searchable specific past content. A quick glace on Facebook reveals that I cannot search my friend’s history of status updates. Looking at my Twitter stream, I cannot even find my oldest tweets. My digital content may live forever, but it does so in relative obscurity.

2-Flaws are Forgivable, Perfection is Not

The article draws from a quote about how the immortality of digital content…

“…will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them” […] “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”

I disagree. As we increasingly live our lives online, always index-able, it should be expected that many of us will have some digital dirt on our hands. Instead of this idea that we won’t be able to forgive each other for not being perfect, new realities will change our expectations. I suspect being an imperfect human being will be just as forgivable as it always has.

In fact, it very well might be the too-perfect profile that is unforgivable. As any politician knows, you cannot look too clean and sterile; else you come off as phony. A too-polished and perfect profile is increasingly a sign that you are not living with technology and making it part of your life -and thus seem a bit technologically illiterate. The overly-manicured profile screams that you are not out there using social media tools to their full potential.

In conclusion, use scare-tactic articles like the one being commented on here to remind you that what you say indeed might come back to haunt you. But do not go overboard worrying and cleaning your digital presence. Yes, riding your bike or eating chicken might get you killed (potholes and salmonella scare me more than Googling my name), but we are willing to take these risks because they are exceedingly small. Be smart, don’t post about your boss, but, in any case, the vast majority of people posting status updates about their job today will not get fired tomorrow. ~nathan

Some were surprised to learn that young Facebook users -the folks who are most implicated in the game of “mass exhibitionism” and living in public- are also the ones who are most involved with privacy online. Some have described this as contradictory and counter-intuitive – are kids exhibitionists or not?

The findings are not contradictory and the larger point goes well beyond kids, but indicates a general rule of privacy and publicity: the degree to which one is involved in the game of living in public is the degree to which one is concerned with both revealing and concealing.

facebook as fandance: a game of reveal and conceal

Living in public was once reserved for celebrities of one sort or another. Their publicity also implied close attention paid to privacy (images of Michael Jackson hiding himself in various ways spring to mind). Today, living in public has been democratized. Many of us use Facebook and other technologies to document our selves, ideas, travels, friendships and so on. Many of our friends and peers are doing the same. As all of this is woven into everyday life, a new set of cultural norms emerge.

And those most involved with social media are trying to navigate these norms as best as they can. In short, they want their digital documentation to be successful. Their peers are watching. As they have to learn how to reveal successfully, it follows that they are also very interested in when not reveal, or when to conceal altogether. Of course the exhibitionists are the most concerned with privacy.

Privacy and publicity imply each other, and are increasingly interwoven and blurred together in everyday life. My favorite metaphore for this is borrowed from social media researcher Marc Smith who describes this as a fandance; a game of reveal and conceal.

All of this comes on the heels of the major privacy fiasco Facebook is currently weathering. While I am typically hard on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, he seems to get it. As quoted in the recent Time magazine cover story:

What people want isn’t complete privacy. It isn’t that they want secrecy. It’s that they want control over what they share and what they don’t.

Here, he’s dead-on. The people that want to live in public also want to control their publicity. Unfortunately, Facebook’s record has fallen pathetically short in living up to Zuckerberg’s rhetoric. ~nathanjurgenson.com

Facebook continuously rolls back user privacy, the policy itself is increasingly convoluted, and technical hiccups have revealed users’ information – so, shouldn’t we be experiencing Facebook fatigue by now? (as PJ Rey predicted)

Sure, techno-pundits are crying foul, but Facebook users are not leaving the service in large numbers, and other technologies of narcissism -such as Formspring– continue to march along. Why?

While we know well how to become scared about decreasing privacy -and rightly so- we have only begun to articulate what increasing publicity means. I have described the will to document ourselves across the web as a new sort of “mass exhibitionism.” And while we all care deeply about privacy, this cultural impulse to live in public often wins out (often to the detriment of those most vulnerable).

Take, for example, the most recent social networking phenom, Formspring, where users answer questions about themselves that are often asked anonymously. The site has taken a dark turn. Rampant with verbal attacks, the site has already been connected to a suicide. Danah boyd often uses her expertise to dispel social media fear-mongering, so it says something when she describes the site this way:

“While teens have always asked each other crass and mean-spirited questions, this has become so pervasive on Formspring so as to define what participation there means.”

She goes on to ask,

“[w]hat is it about today’s cultural dynamics that encourages teens to not only act tough when they’re attacked but to actively share the attacks of others as a marker of toughness pride?”

I believe the answer to this question is that mass exhibitionism is simply a more powerful cultural force than even preserving oneself from cyber-attacks. Why?

The logic is just the same as what advertisers have long since come to terms with: bad publicity is better than no publicity at all.

To document oneself online is to exist. We create ourselves as product becuase what is worse than being made fun of is to not exist to begin with. Bad mass exhibitionism has come to seem better than no exhibitionism at all. ~nathanjurgenson.com

by nathan jurgenson

I’ve written many posts on this blog about the implosion of the spheres of production and consumption indicating the rise of prosumption. This trend has exploded online with the rise of user-generated content. We both produce and consume the content on Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, YouTube and so on. And it is from this lens that I describe Apple’s latest creation announced yesterday: the iPad. The observation I want to make is that the iPad is not indicative of prosumption, but rather places a wedge between production and consumption.

From the perspective of the user the iPad is made for consuming content. While future apps might focus on the production of content, the very construction of the device dissuades these activities. Not ideal for typing, and most notably missing a camera, the device is limited in the ways in which users create content. Further, the device, much like Apple’s other devices, is far less customizable than the netbooks Apple is attempting to displace (which often use the endlessly customizable Linux OS).

Instead, the iPad is focused on an enhanced passive consumption experience (and advertised as such, opposed to their earlier focus: can’t resist). Unlike netbooks, the iPad is primarily an entertainment device. Instead of giving users new ways to produce media content, the focus is on making more spectacular and profitable the experience of consuming old media content -music and movies via the iTunes store, books via the new iBookstore and news via Apple’s partnership with the New York Times.

Thus, the story of the iPad’s first 24hours, for me, is the degree to which the tasks of producing and consuming content have been again split into two camps. The few produce it -flashy, glittering and spectacular- and the many consume it as experience. And, of course, for a price.

Does this serve as a rebuttal to an argument that the trend towards the merging of the spheres of production and consumption into prosumption is inevitable? Or is prosumption indeed the trend for a future Apple seems not to grasp? Or will the applications developed for the device overcome its limitations? ~nathan

by nathan jurgenson

Some have criticized the new slacker-activism, or slacktivism, on Facebook, Twitter and other sites. Slacktivism encompasses activities where people post about issues they care just enough about to spend one minute constructing a status update or tweet about them [some early examples]. This came into the news again because of a viral campaign where women reveal their bra color in order to raise awareness about breast cancer. The critiques against slacktivism predictably followed [here, I am putting aside the important issue of the sexualization of illness that is specific to the bra-color campaign].

These critiques are justified to some degree. It is certainly annoying when you see friends whose support for various causes never goes beyond an incessant stream of awareness-oriented status updates.

However, what is implicit in much of the anti-slacktivism writing is a critique of digital social media. Specifically, that efforts spent on Facebook, MySpace or Twitter must mean less effort is spent in the material world. Opposed to this zero-sum perspective, research on social media has shown just the opposite to be true [this hearkens back to the old Hegelian idealism versus Marxian materialism debate].

Further, anti-slacktivism often falls into the ever-popular trap of criticizing that which is on social media as unimportant or trivial. What fuels this knee-jerk reaction is rooted in the tendency to see the digital realm as separate from material reality. Instead, as I have argued elsewhere, we should view the material and digital as enmeshed and in conversation with eachother. The extent to which social media awareness campaigns are actually enmeshed with material-world activism is an open question.

The point is that if you see status updates and tweets on their own, removed from the user’s everyday lives, they do seem trivial. However, acknowledging that these updates are part of a stream of sociality that bridge one’s digital and material lives allow these updates to be seen for what they are. As danah boyd points out, most of what we say in our everyday lives is trivial, and Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are no exception.

Thus, those who post their bra color or partake in other viral awareness campaigns may indeed care about the issue and be doing more to help. To label them “slaktivists” serves to downplay the overlap that these campaigns have with “real” activism (however the slacktivist-haters actually define this).

Last, it should also be recognized that the anti-slacktivists are writing blog posts, creating facebook groups and updating their Twitter feeds and status updates to fight slacktivism, using just the strategies the slacktivists are being criticized for. So much for the argument that creating memes instead of marching in the streets is ineffectual and irresponsible. ~nathan

Further, anti-slacktivism often falls into the ever-popular trap of criticizing that which is on social media as unimportant or trivial. What fuels this knee-jerk reaction is rooted in the tendency to see the digital realm as separate from material reality. Instead, as I have argued elsewhere, we should view the material and digital as enmeshed and in conversation with eachother. The extent to which social media awareness campaigns are actually enmeshed with material-world activism is an open question.

by nathan jurgenson

myspaceThere has been recent news coverage on the relationship between social status and social networking site usage. CNN asked “Does your social class determine your online social network?

“Is there a class divide online? Research suggests yes. A recent study by market research firm Nielsen Claritas found that people in more affluent demographics are 25 percent more likely to be found friending on Facebook, while the less affluent are 37 percent more likely to connect on MySpace.”

And NPR reports that “Facebook, MySpace Divide Along Social Lines.

“Social media researcher danah boyd [has] spoken to teens all over the country about their use of social media. She thinks the online social world is dividing up — just like the real world — into neighborhoods.”

I choose these quotes purposely to illustrate that CNN decided to report on this issue when a market research firm found what was already known to social scientists, such as danah boyd or Eszter Hargittai. NPR correctly focuses on boyd’s research, however, their story comes after CNN’s, and well after social scientists identified the trend.

fbBeyond this point, an argument that I previously made on this blog is that we are seeing a more post-structural, new-media, digital divide. In addition to the problematic of access to the internet, there is the issue of how different groups learn to use the web. Boyd states in the NPR story,

“Young people — and for the most part adults as well — don’t really interact online with strangers. They talk to people they already know. You have environments in which people are divided by race, divided by class, divided by lifestyle. When they go online they are going to interact in the same way.”

Thus, the wealthy are more likely to network with others of higher status, creating a situation where digital socialization mirrors, perpetuates and solidifies old status hierarchies. Following sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, it might be the case that those of high status are learning to network with each other, making themselves distinct in the way they use new media. Does this serve as a counter-argument to those that proclaim the democratizing potential of the internet? ~nathan

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