What is so interesting about the random, funny and glitchy

In the past few years, funny compilations of falls, glitches and fails from video games became popular even outside the gamer community. Acknowledged by their creators to be “random” and just “messing around”, the funny videos with goats floating up ladders, skateboarders falling through polygon walls and ridiculous car crashes in GTA have generated a lot of LOLs. Far from being just goofy and inconsequential, they can actually reveal a lot about our relationship with the newness and strangeness of virtual environments. What exactly do we find humorous about them? How do the affordances, limitations and glitches in software can be used for comical purposes and how do they allow us to experience the virtual bodies of our avatars?

My internship project investigates how tropes of physical humor are being played out in virtual environments. I am interested in how they are being performed, edited, framed and discussed. This tumblr blog, started with the help of my friend Andres Lombana from UT-Austin (who knows too much about animated slapstick) is, among other things, a chronicle of my journey to understand it and write a paper about it. It brings together both slapstick-like videos from virtual environments, other humorous content playing with the emergent nature of new media environments, quotes from literature and analytical observations. Please feel free to contribute your thoughts, comments and videos and contact me if you have any suggestions, questions or tips.

Turn This into That: a Remixing Experiment

Two sides of social production: crowdsourcing and remixing

Networked technologies have facilitated two forms of social production: remixing and crowdsourcing. Remixing has been typically associated with creative, expressive, and unconstrained work such as the creation of video mashups or funny image macros that we often see on social media websites. Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, has been associated with large-scale mechanical work, like labeling images or transcribing audio, performed as microtasks on services like Amazon Mechanical Turk. So the stereotype is that remixing is playful, creative, expressive, but undirected and often chaotic, while crowdsourcing is useful to achieve actual work but it is monotonous, and requires (small) financial incentives.

Crowdsoucing Creativity: “Mixsourcing”

The space between remixing and crowdsourcing has partially been explored. For example, one could argue that Wikipedia exists in a unique space in between these two ideas as it relies on some, albeit small, degree of human creativity, requires no financial incentives, and leverages large numbers of contributors who are encouraged to tweak one another’s submissions. However, Wikipedia’s texts are mainly functional, purposely devoid of any personal expressiveness, and constrained by the task at hand.

On the more creative end of the spectrum, artists have explored the use of crowdsourcing, such as the Johnny Cash Project and the Sheep Market, and researchers have evaluated the uses of creative crowdsourcing for design. We wondered then, if there is a way to create a generic platform to perform creative and artistic work in a more directed, crowdsourcing-like way, some kind of “bounded creativity,” which we called “mixsourcing.”

The mixsourcing of a “Moonicorn”

We decided to play with this idea of mixsourcing through an exercise that involved giving people a creative, yet directed task. The exercise consisted first in creating a novel piece of content, an image, to serve as a creative seed and then ask specific people, using plain old e-mail, to turn it into something else, i.e., to remix it. The task was specifically crafted for each individual based on their interests, which we knew through pre-existing personal relationships with them.

The seed content used in this first exercise was an image, hand-drawn by one of the researchers, showing of a unicorn with a moon as a head. We sent the email to a group of friends, appealing to their social relationship as a group and with one of the researchers; each person was offered a task: an invitation to turn the “moonicorn” into something based on what we knew they were good at:

“Hello my dear friends! […] I’m writing to see if you can help me with my summer project […] I gave you all top secret assignments below. If you can help, it would mean so so so so so much to me. You don’t have to spend a ton of time on it. And I’ll throw a boozy thanks-you party next week when I’m in town. I couldn’t ask for a better lump of friends. Much love from the west coast.

This is my moonicorn:

Jables: please create a moonicorn cocktail recipe.

Celia: please create an iPhone video documenting the rare, nut-eating moonicorn, played by @Ian

[…]

Jables not only created his moonicorn cocktail, he also prepared one, took a picture of it, and emailed a make-believe recipe to accompany the beverage:

The Sanguine Moonicorn

6oz Fresh Moonicorn Blood.

1oz Pure Moonicorn Tears [hold for virgins]

Topped with Moonicorn Sweetbreads, Moonicorn Gonad, Moon Cheese, and an olive.

Cleansed by fire and served over ice, with a Moonicorn Jerky Moon Dagger.

Celia and Ian also completed their collaborative task and produced a short video. Similarly, we received remixes in the form of a fiction article, a felt toy, and a music mix. Here is a collage of all the remixes people produced:

The moonicorn experiment was quite successful, as more than half of the people actually completed their remix. A lot of them spent quite a bit of time on it and were very keen on narrating their creative process as much as they were in sharing their finished work.

Subsequently, we decided to recreate a similar exercise on a larger scale. This failed, however. We used a school mailing list and a group on Facebook, but both failed to attract many participants. The message in both cases did not include personalized tasks and the groups included many strangers. Hence, we hypothesized that there were three key attributes for the success of the first experiment:

  1. Pre-existing personal relationships.
  2. Well-crafted, personalized tasks directed at specific individuals, compared to the diffusion of responsibilities, well-described in the social psychology literature.
  3. Detailed tasks. The messages to broader group were to open putting a burden of choosing on the remixers.

Turn This Into That

Using the insights gained from the previous exercises, we began to envision a mixsourcing platform to enable people to create and participate in remixing exchanges like the moonicorn one.

We called the platform “Turn This Into That,” as it describes the system’s premise.

To convey the spirit of the social relationships that we thought were instrumental to the success of the first exercise, we decided to build the system on a postcard metaphor.

People can send postcards challenging one another to turn something into something else, and the responses themselves can also be thought of as postcards. Furthermore, given the interest people showed in talking about their process the submissions provide space and encouragement for people to address the whys and the hows of their challenges and their remixes. Also, the challenges are specific in terms of what the remix should be, a photo for example, yet it leaves the choice of what to do up to the remixer.

Practically speaking, we aimed for this platform to merely be the embodiment of a mechanism to provide creative sparks, playfulness, and interactions among people without actually having to deal with the complexities of creating tools or even repositories for the content itself. Our system would rely completely on the social media ecosystem for all that, and Turn This Into That would create the linkages.

Before implementing the actual system we built a semi-functional prototype, and we would like to invite you to use it and give us feedback.

—-

Turn This into That is a project by FUSE Lab‘s intern Sarah Hallacher, in collaboration with Jenny Rodenhouse and Andrés Monroy-Hernández.

Cross-posted at FUSE Labs blog

Do Anonymous Websites Work?

Meme: Not sure if Facebook or 4chan
Hateful content gets posted on "real name" websites too

Some advocates of “real name” policies argue that pseudonymity is far too easy to abuse. They suggest that “real name” policies help reduce spamming and trolling. This might be true, however, you can still get a fair amount of troll-like behavior and hateful discourse in “real name” sites. Just sit on these Facebook searches for a few minutes and you will see the things people are willing to say using their real names. But what about anonymity? Do anonymous websites get run over by spammers and trolls until they collapse?

In a recent paper, my colleagues and I explored how anonymity looks in the wild. First, we started by mapping out the design choices for social sites. Some recent discussions on “real name” policies might imply there are only two options: real names and pseudonyms. This dichotomy is, to a degree, limiting and inaccurate. So we start by mapping the range of design choices for online identity along two axis:

A. Identity Representation

This refers to the identity metadata of a participant that a system displays when he or she interacts with others. Identity representation ranges from strong identity, such as Google+ and Facebook’s “real name” policies, to pseudonymity, such as Twitter @handles, to anonymity, such as 4chan’s complete lack of user names. It is important to note that the information a system collects or requires from the user is not necessarily the same as the one it displays to its peers. For example, most websites collect (at least temporarily) the IP addresses of their users but few show them to others (Wikipedia does this when not logged in). Even anonymous websites like 4chan bans users based on their IP addresses.

B. Archiving Strategies.

This axis refers to the longevity and availability of content associated with a specific person in the system. These strategies range from permanent archival, such as Google’s everlasting logs, to temporary archival, such as Twitter’s limited history, to ephemerality, such as 4chan’s five-minute post lifespan (from our paper).

online identity deisgn choices
Design choices for social websites.

Of course, even these two axis are a simplification of the design choices available. Many websites use clever hybrid models, for example, Formspring lets people link their accounts with their “real names” (using Facebook) and post content pseudonymously (with their Formspring user name) and anonymously (without user names at all). Similarly, Canvas uses a unique hybrid model that combines some of the options described above.

I mentioned before that even “real name” websites have a fair amount of inappropriate and offensive content. Pseudonymous websites are not strangers to that either, in fact, it might well be possible that they are even more likely to host undesirable content. However, pseudonymous websites can also be highly prosocial. Two of my favorite online communities, StackOverflow and Reddit, often display astonishing examples of altruistic and pro-social behavior.

But what about completely anonymous communities? Do they eventually get run over by spammers and trolls until they eventually die? The answer is not exactly.

In our paper, we analyzed a specific community with anonymous and ephemeral content: 4chan. Say what you will about 4chan, but the website has already survived Friendster, MySpace and Digg (OK, these sites are not gone, but you know what I mean). Despite its archaic visual design and its offensive and extremely inappropriate content, 4chan is a thriving community with more than 7 million users and with about 400 thousand posts per day in only one of its boards, /b/.

OK, 4chan has been alive for seven years and it is still thriving, but what about its content? The media coverage of 4chan has portrayed the site as “the Internet hate machine“. But the reality is much more nuanced than that. First, 4chan has several discussion boards. Some are more offensive than others, but the one that grabs the headlines is the random board /b/ because of its “rowdiness and lawlessness“, as 4chan’s creator put it. Indeed, a lot of /b/’s content is pornographic and offensive, sometimes it resembles public bathroom graffiti or even dadaist art, as Amy Bruckman once said to us.

The media has placed a lot of attention on the cases of off-line harassment that originated in /b/. However, our data showed that only 7% of the posts intend to agitate off-line action. The rest are mainly people sharing funny image macros, themed discussion, links, personal stories, sharing the grievances of everyday life or even asking for advice. Most of the agitation to action fails to gain any traction, they get shut with responses such as “/b/ is not your personal army”. Participants take nothing seriously and are happy to make fun of everything (except violence against cats or puppies). Understanding 4chan is also complicated. Uninitiated users might take the posts at face value which does not always capture their real intent or meaning. For example, participants often call each other “/b/tards” or some version of the word “fag” (e.g., “newfag” to refer to new users, “eurofag” for Europeans). These terms are clearly offensive, but in the context of 4chan words and insults are often re-interpreted and co-opted.

word cloud of five million 4chan posts
Common words used on 4chan's /b/. Word cloud of five million posts.

4chan’s /b/ is probably not the strongest example to argue for the value of anonymity.Protecting activists, victims of abuse or whistleblowers, to name a few, are much stronger reasons for anonymity. But what I am saying here is that anonymity and ephemerality, even at it its worst, do not necessarily lead to a community’s collapse. And in fact, 4chan’s long record as the birthplace of a lot of Internet culture and memes might suggest anonymity is conducive to social creativity.

Update: interview on MarketPlace.


If you liked this, follow me on Twitter or identi.ca.

Behind the Meme: People’s Champion

SMC alum Alex Leavitt posted this fantastic documentary on his Tumblr. It’s a behind-the-scenes breakdown of the infamous Eli Porter rap battle, which got like 4 million YouTube hits and has been referenced by Kanye West and T-Pain, among others.

People’s Champion: Behind the Battle from Trent Babbington on Vimeo.

As Alex wisely says:

“I could say a lot about this documentary, about race, class, school life, discrimination, subculture, celebrity. And about the power of the internet as a network for recontextualization. But it really boils down to this: “There’s so much about it that’s dope, in a non-laughing-at-him kind of way. There’s something about him that I really want to listen to, regardless.”

My fascination with internet celebrity is well-documented and I’m pumped to see more stuff like this. What’s it like when something you’ve made, or been in, has the visibility of a network television show? What is it like when people know you, but you have none of the traditional trappings of fame to protect you?

Anyway, this is excellent procrastination fodder as it’s only 30 minutes long and very funny. The producers are trying to Kickstart Part II.