Saturday, October 19, 2013

Culture and the Internet

I used to wonder why the internet was so snarky (regretsy), until I took the CopyrightX class.  I learned that copyright exceptions are made for parody (making it clearly legal), while other forms of quotation are legally more complex.

Thus, if you want to appropriate someone else's work in order to expand upon it, you need to secure permission or go through some other legal hoops to gain a "fair-use" copyright exception.  However, if you just want to mock someone, then go ahead.  Copyright law gives you carte blanche!  

This supports Professor Terry Fisher's argument that the law makes culture.  Does that imply that, if we reform the laws, we can reform our culture?

In a fast-paced digital environment, it is much easier and quicker to build content around parody than by relying on other forms of fair-use and needing to stop to secure permission or pass legal review.  (Or creating your own content from scratch.)

I've seen how technology can also create culture.  But, I was so struck by the observations of Zeynep Tufekci, a self-described scholar of social movements and of surveillance, that I was moved to post.

First, read Zeynep Tufekci on protest movements and capacity problems on Ethan Zuckerman's blog.  (His posts are long, but so thoughtful and intelligent, they are worth your time.)

I feel like I don't quite understand social media yet.  At first, I thought there was something wrong with me because there are so many much younger people who purport to understand social media marketing themselves as consultants.  Why am I so stupid?  Why can't I grasp it?

Then I read Tufekci's comment.
She explains that it’s hard to do conceptual work in this space because events are changing every few months, making it very hard to extrapolate from years of experience.
Then I realized, perhaps I've just been around--collecting data and observations--long enough to realize what I don't know.  Moreover, I like to collect more data before I make up my mind.

This observation about why social media has been so influential in the Arab Spring and Gezi Park protests but hasn't brought lasting change is brilliant (I added the emphasis):
To understand these protests, Zeynep turns to Amartya Sen and capacity building, looking at those capacities, not traditional outputs, as the benefits of development. The internet gives us some new capacities, but that may undermine other capacities: we end up at base camp very easily, but we don’t know how to negotiate Hillary’s step. We can carry out the spectacular street protest, but we can’t build a larger movement to topple or challenge a government.

This is an analogy for internet-enabled activism. In talking about internet and collective action, we tend to talk about ease of coordination and community. Zeynep worries that we’re getting to base camp without developing altitude awareness – in other words, some of the internet’s benefits have significant handicaps as side effects. The result: we see more movements, but they may not have impact or staying power because they come to public attention much earlier in their lives.
Social media, as it is currently built, is geared towards quick communication and gathering followers. But it's not a platform for holding deep and nuanced debates to come to a consensus on difficult subjects with people who don't generally agree with us.  That platform hasn't been built yet.

Is technology holding us back?  Or are our collective lack of imagination holding back technology?  Is governance even possible when people can't agree on axioms?  Or when many (most?) people cannot follow logic and decide rationally?

* Photo of Taksim Gezi Park protest courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I also don't understand a lot of social media and have come to the conclusion that most are just time sinks with no purpose other than to waste time. I am really good at doing that mysef already. I don't need help. I especially liked the point about the lack of deep connection.

  2. I hadn't thought of the fast communication/unsuccessful protest movement connection, but that makes perfect sense. The unhappy new revolutionary has no community of fellow revolutionaries, no network, so the whole thing falls apart.

  3. I don't want to be too contrary, but I highly doubt that the snarks populating much of the net care about copyrights one way or the other...
    Also, let's not tar all net communications with the same brush. Facebook (built by a narcissistic stalker) is not ever going to be very deep, but there are plenty of forums that are fostering deep and nuanced debates, if you're interested enough to look for them. So OK, if you define social media as facebook because they thought of that term first you won't get very far, but if you consider social media as some form of net-based interaction then...

    1. M-C You are exactly right. Social media has become synonymous with a handful of widely adopted sites such as FB and Twitter. But there are other forms of social media, such as this blog.

      A large reason why I enjoy MOOCs is because it is one of the few ways in which people from around the world can engage together deeply. I could write an entire post about what I learned anthropologically and economically from fellow students.

      So which social media platforms do you recommend for deeper engagement? What do they do differently from FB and Twitter? Are the differences in the depth of social engagement more due to differences in the technology (platform) or user group (population sampling)?

    2. I don't think it's entirely technology. Sure, there are features of facebook that encourage let-it-all-hang-out oversharing. But individuals can resist that, and some people use it not to show off how much more interesting their lives is than yours :-), but to really share useful info or deep thoughts. Likewise, some studies show that 96%+ of twits are absolutely meaningless, and we can all think of hundreds of examples of harmful knee-jerk responses. But I know a weather scientist who's incredibly happy with it, says it's allowed her international group of interested colleagues to communicate with each other as well and deeply as they used to do only during conferences. Of course I'm not pretending that conferences will ever be obsolete, as it's easier to communicate virtually with a group when you know the individual quirks. But what I'm trying to say is that given any technology, even inadequate ink and splitty goose quills, people who mean to have deep exchanges will manage to do it. Yes, it'd be great if technology would be designed less to show off how many thousands of friends you have, and more to facilitate thoughtful responses, and we should all be thinking about how to do that. I personally function better by email than phone or more instantaneous communication, as I think it removes the 'interruption' factor and gives the opportunity to think before I open my big mouth more. Most of the world does have important and useful things to say, when given the opportunity :-), and all benefit when they're encouraged to do so. But everyone can use existing technology, now, to foster discussion and exchange on a satisfactory level.

      While I'm here, let me say that I arrived primarily for sewing, as I like what you make. But I really appreciate all the interesting asides, comments on earthquakes and water and whatnot :-). I love you showing by example that sewing is not a symptom of innumeracy, and well, I'm not sure I should thank you for getting me addicted to things like Sociological Images :-), but I adore the eclectic nature of your blog roll. Keep it up GMBM!