Introducing Facebook Nation

Facebook has, as usual, been riling feathers with its latest round of change. Dave Winer argued Facebook is now scaring him, and the LA Times questioned whether they have finally gone too far. At issue (this week) is “frictionless sharing” in which things people read, listen to, or otherwise engage online are sent from partner sites to Facebook, announced to their Facebook friends, and incorporated into their forthcoming Timelines (formerly known as “profiles”). Now it is true that people can opt out of this sharing, although, as Mike Masnick of Techdirt points out, doing so may be far less than transparent.

All this is disturbing, for the reasons outlined in the articles above. More concerning, however, is a likely end game, as just enacted by Spotify, in which access to partner sites requires having a Facebook account. Spotify, a music streaming service whose US launch had been eagerly anticipated for more than a year before it finally happened, has just announced that all new Spotify accounts – worldwide – will require a Facebook login.

As they told  Evolver, in a tone-deaf response meant to quell unrest:

From today, all new Spotify users will need to have a Facebook account to join Spotify. Think of it as like a virtual ‘passport’, designed to make the experience smoother and easier, with one less username and password to remember.

Think about that language: “like a virtual ‘passport’”

Who issues passports?

Do we really want to think of Facebook as a nation?

In 2010, with danah boyd and Alex Leavitt, I read through hundreds of English language news articles about Facebook’s privacy issues with an eye toward the metaphors reporters used as they described the site and its implications. Facebook as a land, or nation, was a prominent one. Among the terms used to describe Facebook were homeland and cyberland. It was referred to as the third largest country, an island nation. The site’s owners in this metaphorical scheme were totalitarian secret police, Zuckerberg their King (or sometimes, their Boy King). The users? Reporters referred to them as citizens or migrants. When they left Facebook, it was called an exodus as people sought asylum offline. Privacy in this metaphoral scheme is a regime.  For his part, Zuckerberg has been quoted lately as saying that your profile on Facebook should “feel like your home.” It is not a coincidence that the open source response to Facebook called itself Diaspora.

Educational theorists have argued that metaphors are fundamental to learning. We grab on to the new and make it make sense by understanding it in terms of something we already know. When Spotify tells us to think of Facebook logins as “passports,” they are invoking a metaphor to trigger a set of ideas with which we are all familiar and comfortable.

But we should think long and hard about its implications. Except for nations that block the internet or some of its sites (hello, China!), the internet has thrived on being a set of domains across which we could travel without passports. Do we really want Facebook citizenship to become a requirement for accessing other domains? Do we really want an internet where we not only need a passport, but a passport from a nation – any nation – owned by a privately-held corporation? Either social network “citizens” need rights beyond emigration or we need to push back hard. We must be the builders of our own futures, not subjects in a nation motivated by profit.

Addendum: John Carter helpfully points out that Microsoft’s attempt to create a “passport” didn’t work out all that well for them.

The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric

We all know that teen bullying – both online and offline – has devastating consequences. Jamey Rodemeyer’s suicide is a tragedy. He was tormented for being gay. He knew he was being bullied and he regularly talked about the fact that he was being bullied. Online, he even wrote: “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. What do I have to do so people will listen to me?” The fact that he could admit that he was being tormented coupled with the fact that he asked for help and folks didn’t help him should be a big wake-up call. We have a problem. And that problem is that most of us adults don’t have the foggiest clue how to help youth address bullying.

It doesn’t take a tragedy to know that we need to find a way to combat bullying. Countless regulators and educators are desperate to do something – anything – to put an end to the victimization. But in their desperation to find a solution, they often turn a blind’s eye to both research and the voices of youth.

The canonical research definition of bullying was written by Olweus and it has three components:

  • Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
  • Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
  • Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.

What Rodemeyer faced was clearly bullying, but a lot of the reciprocal relational aggression that teens experience online is not actually bullying. Still, in the public eye, these concepts are blurred and so when parents and teachers and regulators talk about wanting to stop bullying, they talk about wanting to stop all forms of relational aggression too. The problem is that many teens do not – and, for good reasons, cannot – identify a lot of what they experience as bullying. Thus, all of the new fangled programs to stop bullying are often missing the mark entirely. In a new paper that Alice Marwick and I co-authored – called “The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics” – we analyzed the language of youth and realized that their use the language of “drama” serves many purposes, not the least of which is to distance themselves from the perpetrator / victim rhetoric of bullying in order to save face and maintain agency.

For most teenagers, the language of bullying does not resonate. When teachers come in and give anti-bullying messages, it has little effect on most teens. Why? Because most teens are not willing to recognize themselves as a victim or as an aggressor. To do so would require them to recognize themselves as disempowered or abusive. They aren’t willing to go there. And when they are, they need support immediately. Yet, few teens have the support structures necessary to make their lives better. Rodemeyer is a case in point. Few schools have the resources to provide youth with the necessary psychological counseling to work through these issues. But if we want to help youth who are bullied, we need there to be infrastructure to help young people when they are willing to recognize themselves as victimized.

To complicate matters more, although school after school is scrambling to implement anti-bullying programs, no one is assessing the effectiveness of these programs. This is not to say that we don’t need education – we do. But we need the interventions to be tested. And my educated hunch is that we need to be focusing more on positive frames that use the language of youth rather than focusing on the negative.

I want to change the frame of our conversation because we need to change the frame if we’re going to help youth. I’ve spent the last seven years talking to youth about bullying and drama and it nearly killed me when I realized that all of the effort that adults are putting into anti-bullying campaigns are falling on deaf ears and doing little to actually address what youth are experiencing. Even hugely moving narratives like “It Gets Better” aren’t enough when a teen can make a video for other teens and then kill himself because he’s unable to make it better in his own community.

In an effort to ground the bullying conversation, Alice Marwick and I just released a draft of our new paper: “The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics.” We also co-authored a New York Times Op-Ed in the hopes of reaching a wider audience: “Why Cyberbullying Rhetoric Misses the Mark.” Please read these and send us feedback or criticism. We are in this to help the youth that we spend so much time with and we’re both deeply worried that adult rhetoric is going in the wrong direction and failing to realize why it’s counterproductive.

Image from Flickr by Brandon Christopher Warren
Continue reading “The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric”

Are Rural People Meaner?

(or: Is Online Gossip a Question of Locale or Scale?)

[This is a cross-post from my blog multicast. -CS]

I’m quoted in this morning’s New York Times Story, In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious. This came about because I’ve done some recent research on social media and rural communities (citations below), including a long-term ethnographic study of social media use in rural Native American communities in California and (with Eric Gilbert and Karrie Karahalios) a study of rural vs. urban use of social networking sites.

Here’s the story in a nutshell: In case you aren’t aware of the web aggregator(, it is a portal site owned by newspaper companies that provides a “home page” for every city and town in the US.  That page consists of a feed of local news, presumably generated algorithmically, mixed in with weather, polls, and–critical for our story today–a forum.

Topix forums have become the online place to be for some small towns.  Unlike social media sites such as Google Plus and Facebook, which have pursued a policy of only allowing real names online, the Topix forums allow anonymous posting.

The result is a cesspool of gossip, with posts that have titles like, “People to Stay Away From.” That thread consists simply of a list of the real names of people in Pearisburg, VA that the poster, a “Mr. Kickass,” doesn’t like. The NYT piece included some examples but they chose tame ones.

A normal Topix small-town board includes a purported attempt to out a gay man, accusations that so-and-so has AIDS, a diatribe against miscegenation, public shaming of “bad parents,” announcement that this or that person is a crackhead, and more.  All of these posts are anonymous.

Yes, it looks like Topix is transforming gossip. Just as the Internet has transformed buying airline tickets, is making gossip more efficient. It’s now easier to reach a larger number of people, and (a terrible side effect), indexing by search engines means that an impermanent medium like gossip can now stay online indefinitely to haunt you forever. And I agree that gossip can ruin lives. There are problems.

Yet it’s not clear to me that these are rural problems. I agree that rural people are different from urban people. They are in aggregate more likely to be older, less mobile, poorer, and less educated. And we know that rural people use the Internet differently from urban people.

But remember that Juicy Campus scandal about three years ago (NYT: College Gossip Leaves the Bathroom Wall and Goes Online)? This was a new online forum that allowed anonymous posting, and it filled up with scandalous gossip about sex and drugs (well, mostly sex). It ruined lives. That was a scenario but the locale wasn’t small-town America, it was the University of California, Duke, and Yale.

Chris Tolles, the Topix CEO, is quoted in the Times article linking the situation on the Topix forums to the Hatfields and McCoys. C’mon, Mr. Tolles. Give us a break. At least he didn’t mention Deliverance.

I think the formula is:

anonymity + a defined community (scale) = gossip

Rural doesn’t appear in that equation.

Champaign-Urbana, where I live, is a small town, but it is too big to fit most definitions of a rural area. I think it would be great if all of the gossips, racists and bigots lived on farms somewhere far away from me, but I just don’t think that’s the case. (For more on this, see Mary Gray’s excellent book.)

The situation as a whole reminds me of early efforts to spread the telephone to rural America a century ago (see Fischer’s excellent research). Then, CEOs of telephone companies often refused to build in rural areas because they thought that rural people were all poor and stupid. All of the major telephone company CEOs lived in big cities, and they were sure that rural folks, if given a telephone, would be too dumb to use it, would complain a lot about it, and would probably only play banjo to each other anyway.

I don’t think rural people are meaner.


Further reading:

Sandvig, C. (2012). Connection at Ewiiaapaayp Mountain: Indigenous Internet Infrastructure. In: L. Nakamura & P. Chow-White (eds.) Race After the Internet. New York: Routledge. (link to proofs)

Gilbert, E., Karahalios, K. & Sandvig, C. (2010). The Network in the Garden: Designing Social Media for Rural LifeAmerican Behavioral Scientist, 53 (9): 1367-1388.

[Thanks to Kristen Guth for thinking of the Juicy Campus comparison.]

Six Provocations for Big Data

The era of “Big Data” has begun. Computer scientists, physicists, economists, mathematicians, political scientists, bio-informaticists, sociologists, and many others are clamoring for access to the massive quantities of information produced by and about people, things, and their interactions. Diverse groups argue about the potential benefits and costs of analyzing information from Twitter, Google, Verizon, 23andMe, Facebook, Wikipedia, and every space where large groups of people leave digital traces and deposit data. Significant questions emerge. Will large-scale analysis of DNA help cure diseases? Or will it usher in a new wave of medical inequality? Will data analytics help make people’s access to information more efficient and effective? Or will it be used to track protesters in the streets of major cities? Will it transform how we study human communication and culture, or narrow the palette of research options and alter what ‘research’ means? Some or all of the above?

Kate Crawford and I decided to sit down and interrogate some of the assumptions and biases embedded into the rhetoric surrounding “Big Data.” The resulting piece – “Six Provocations for Big Data” – offers a multi-discplinary social analysis of the phenomenon with the goal of sparking a conversation. This paper is intended to be presented as a keynote address at the Oxford Internet Institute’s 10th Anniversary “A Decade in Internet Time” Symposium.

Feedback is more than welcome!

Cyborgs are for lovers!

Confession: I love cyborgs. I first read Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” as an undergraduate (in Anna Joy Springer‘s experimental writing class, a course that has had lingering impacts on me, my writing and my reading ever since) and although I didn’t understand all that much of what Haraway was saying, I loved it. It was weird and complicated and full of inside jokes that I very much wanted to get. I’m teaching Gender and Technology in the information, technology and informatics program at Rutgers this semester, and in preparation for the unit on cyborgs, I asked students to look for photos and videos of cyborgs, and to write up little blurbs on how gender related to the media they found. If you want to check out what they found, here’s a link to the course tumblr.

Some of the descriptions of gender are fairly straightforward (“I think this cyborg is a man because …”) but some of them are a bit more nuanced (Stephen Hawking’s choice of a masculine voice synthesizer).  I was blown away that one of my students submitted a fairly in-depth analysis of an Adrienne Rich poem.  As a whole, the themes are largely what you’d expect – sci fi, sex appeal, probably not as much bestiality as Haraway would have wanted.  And although I’m aware that for some portion of my students, the process was probably just a Google search and a quick synopsis that touched on the first thing that said “gender” to them, even those searches say something about cyborg imagery in popular discourse.  Haraway’s article was written before most of my students were born, but in re-reading the text in preparation for class, I was struck by different ways I found her piece still useful – hybridity has continued to make traction as a means of feminist analysis (particularly in terms of methodology), her comments on the industrial-military complex in education continues to be salient, and the feminization of labor (although the term “homework economy” hasn’t made much headway) is at the core of a lot of dialogue on class and labor.  It’s fun to come back to this piece periodically, partly because I get more Haraway’s humor, partly because I’m appreciative of how influential the piece has been and how relevant it continues to be, partly because I like thinking of cyborgs as a theoretical, visceral nexus of bodies, machines, technologies, discourses and perversions.

Why Isn’t the Internet a Required Course?

[Note: this is cross-posted from my blog multicast. –CS]

I study the Internet. That’s what I do.

We’re coming up on the Internet’s 42nd birthday.  We just passed the Web’s 20th birthday.  Why is it so hard to teach freshmen about them?

That is, why are so many of our courses about the Internet and digital media non-required electives? Why do we offer certificates and minors in “new media” and “digital media”?  Don’t those mean that a plain-old bachelor’s degree about media means “analog media” and new technologies are optional?

Media-related disciplines were originally founded to encompass, interrogate, and/or support particular technological forms and industries. Increasing professionalization in the press led to my university’s Journalism program in 1902, the rise of television led to the study of “mass” communication and the founding of the first communication research program here at Illinois in 1947, and so on.  The communication department here used to be dedicated to the medium of the human voice (it was the Department of Oration).

Although the media world has never been static, in the last 10 years computing, the Internet, and digital convergence have irrevocably transformed the technological forms and media industries that our system of undergraduate education has taken for granted. Yes, now we have new Internet Institutes, but what about all that older stuff still hanging around?

It’s a Great Career Move to Love Media

This link to real, material objects and systems is exciting. It presents a remarkable opportunity: media themselves, by most definitions of the word, are more popular than ever.

Declines in the use of traditional media forms are being matched and even exceeded by gains in attention made by new media (as video is replaced by gaming, or reading in print is replaced by reading online). It is commonly said that attention is shifting away from television, but the average American still spends around 5 hours per day watching video in some form, they simply use different devices (computers) and formats (YouTube, Facebook).

Indeed, newly vibrant media technologies have emerged and attracted very large and even unprecedented populations of devoted users and new libraries of content (e.g., gaming, smartphones, …). And undergraduate interest in media and communication related majors is increasing.

What is a “Media Job”?

But it’s common knowledge that this opportunity has been accompanied by turmoil in the media industries. As some of our media- and communications-related programs are committed to professional training and relationships with particular industries (Journalism, Cinema Studies, …), the disruption is obviously unprecedented.

This isn’t because the industry has gone away — rather we are still looking toward The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when we think about a “media company.” We should be looking at Microsoft, Zynga, Twitter, and more.

Even in media-related programs that employ a broadly-based liberal arts approach, substantial topical revision has been important to retain student interest.  And still the pace of change in the world has outstripped the University’s ability to adapt by a large margin (or a larger margin than usual).

So far, we at the university sort of suck at this digital media stuff.

Why are we so Out of Date?

Curriculum reform is — to put it bluntly — a monster.

It is a democratic process grounded in faculty governance and program autonomy. While a new course can be proposed by a faculty member or a doctoral student seeking to pursue their own teaching interests (or, ideally, student interests as well), curriculum reform can be an attempt to motivate changes among faculty who would not otherwise change. Or at least it can be an attempt to get those faculty to agree to new changes.

Some entrenched interests are likely to support any given status quo configuration of curricula, providing a great deal of inertia. Indeed, while curriculum changes may benefit student recruitment, satisfaction, and even learning, the faculty reward structure for curriculum reform is not clear at all, and it can be (in the worst case) a contentious, time-consuming process consisting mostly of meetings and negotiations.

In the best case, curriculum reform is organically motivated as a normal part of faculty professional responsibility and produces a renewed, shared vision that is in accord with educational mission of the discipline. Yet this is rare enough that programs in media and communications at other universities remain the “Department of Radio” when this does not describe them and give degrees in “Film” that do not involve cellulose acetate (film).

So we’re in this situation now:  Media careers are now increasingly information technology-related careers as the Internet and convergence has transformed these industries. Although it is crucial to continue to teach about media in a historically-grounded comparative way, beyond the valuable examples in comparative media history there isn’t much in the curriculum that refers to the present day and is “analog media.”  

Let’s go, “Digital 101.”

Goodbye, “New Media 599.”

This is overdue.

Socially-Mediated Publicness: A Call for Papers

Please distribute widely!


Special Theme Issue of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

“Socially-Mediated Publicness”

Guest Editors:

–         Nancy Baym (University of Kansas)

–         danah boyd (Microsoft Research)

Editor: Zizi Papacharissi

Social media call into question conventional understandings of what it means to “be public,” what it means to be “in a public,” and even the meaning of “public” itself. New types of publics are emerging because of the technological affordances of social media and individuals may be more visible than ever before, whether they seek this or not. This special issue will explore these issues.

We seek scholarship from an array of theoretical and methodological perspectives that critically examines how public life is reconfigured because of or in relation to social media.  We welcome articles from diverse fields, including media studies, communication, anthropology, sociology, political theory, critical theory, etc.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

·        Processes and practices of building and living in online publics

·        How new technologies of publicness affect celebrities, artists, musicians, and other creators

·        How mediated publics challenge social, political, and economic assumptions

·        The meaning of concepts such as “audience” and “listening” in mediated public spaces

·        How counterpublics and intimate publics are reshaped by technology

·        The relationships between being public and being part of a public

·        Degrees, boundaries, and scales of technologically-mediated publicness

·        How new types of publicness reconfigure identity and race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and/or nationality

In order to be more public, this special issue of JOBEM will be published as an open-access issue.  All articles will be available online at the point of publication. The anticipated publication date for this issue is September 2012.

Manuscripts should conform to the guidelines of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media ( [if that link is not working, try this one].

By December 12, 2011, you should send a title, abstract, and list of 5 potential reviewers to to help us streamline the peer review process.

Articles should be submitted no later than January 6, 2012 at: (select “Special Issue: Socially Mediated Publicness” as a manuscript type).

Guilt Through Algorithmic Association

You’re a 16-year-old Muslim kid in America. Say your name is Mohammad Abdullah. Your schoolmates are convinced that you’re a terrorist. They keep typing in Google queries likes “is Mohammad Abdullah a terrorist?” and “Mohammad Abdullah al Qaeda.” Google’s search engine learns. All of a sudden, auto-complete starts suggesting terms like “Al Qaeda” as the next term in relation to your name. You know that colleges are looking up your name and you’re afraid of the impression that they might get based on that auto-complete. You are already getting hostile comments in your hometown, a decidedly anti-Muslim environment. You know that you have nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but Google gives the impression that you do. And people are drawing that conclusion. You write to Google but nothing comes of it. What do you do?

This is guilt through algorithmic association. And while this example is not a real case, I keep hearing about real cases. Cases where people are algorithmically associated with practices, organizations, and concepts that paint them in a problematic light even though there’s nothing on the web that associates them with that term. Cases where people are getting accused of affiliations that get produced by Google’s auto-complete. Reputation hits that stem from what people _search_ not what they _write_.

It’s one thing to be slandered by another person on a website, on a blog, in comments. It’s another to have your reputation slandered by computer algorithms. The algorithmic associations do reveal the attitudes and practices of people, but those people are invisible; all that’s visible is the product of the algorithm, without any context of how or why the search engine conveyed that information. What becomes visible is the data point of the algorithmic association. But what gets interpreted is the “fact” implied by said data point, and that gives an impression of guilt. The damage comes from creating the algorithmic association. It gets magnified by conveying it.

  1. What are the consequences of guilt through algorithmic association?
  2. What are the correction mechanisms?
  3. Who is accountable?
  4. What can or should be done?

Note: The image used here is Photoshopped. I did not use real examples so as to protect the reputations of people who told me their story.

Update: Guilt through algorithmic association is not constrained to Google. This is an issue for any and all systems that learn from people and convey collective “intelligence” back to users. All of the examples that I was given from people involved Google because Google is the dominant search engine. I’m not blaming Google. Rather, I think that this is a serious issue for all of us in the tech industry to consider. And the questions that I’m asking are genuine questions, not rhetorical ones.

Audiences Affect Artists Too: Rethinking “Participation”

Over the last twenty years we’ve seen a boom in research about “participatory culture” that tries, in part, to make sense of the many ways audiences engage popular culture. This work tends to start from the points of view of audience members. Recently (sometimes during my visits at MSR), I’ve been coming at this from the other side, asking what audiences look like from the points of view of culture creators. I’ve interviewed approximately forty musicians, managers, and label execs to get at how they understand their relationships and communication with audiences. You might have heard of some of them – they include people like Billy Bragg, Kristin Hersh, Lloyd Cole, and Richie Hawtin.

Last week I gave a keynote at Transforming Audiences 3, held at Westminster University in London. My talk was called “Biting and Feeding the Hands That Feed: Musician-Audience Interaction Online.” In it I identify several audience practices and hit briefly on the complex and contradictory ways musicians understand how audiences congregate, criticize, share, create, reach out, help, show interest, tell stories, and complete.

The upshot? When we focus on ‘participation’ from the audiences’ points of view, we only partially understand what ‘participation’ means. Audiences are not just participating in shared practices amongst themselves, they’re participating in the emotional and relational lives of creators in ways that can be powerful and generative, moving and hurtful, validating and at times difficult. Audiences participate not just in creativity, but in life. If audiences are people who listen, the artists become audiences to their audiences, and the meaning of the creative life changes as a consequence.

You can download a PDF of the talk here.