Tag Archives: Facebook

Facebook in Papua New Guinea: What Happens When The Net Isn’t Neutral

If you care about open access, you should care about net neutrality. There are obvious reasons why: After all, there’s  no point in putting your preprints online if potential readers  can’t afford to connect to your site. Pricing the web up means moving it out of the hands of those who need it most. It hinders the free flow of information and works against an informed citizenry. But there is another, subtler danger that comes from ending net neutrality: losing not only access to information, but the habit and expectation of access.  A good example of this can be seen in the case of Papua New Guinea, where people have access to more and more information, but might never learn that they could look for it.

As an anthropologist, I’ve been going back and forth to Papua New Guinea (PNG) since 1998. PNG is the size of France and has a population of around 8 million people (that’s almost twice the population of New Zealand). So it’s not a small coral atoll somewhere. It’s a large, regionally important country, as well as a classical location for anthropological work, from Margaret Mead to Marilyn Strathern.

Unfortunately, Papua New Guineans have not received the education system they deserve. Universities struggle to stay open. The few museums in the country are underfunded and underappreciated. There are few libraries. While there are many Christian bookstores, there are few secular ones. Since much of the country is tropical, books simply don’t last as long as they do in colder climates. Today, sadly, you can grow up in Papua New Guinea without any real knowledge of its past or the great cultural achievements of its many civilizations. Many young Papua New Guineans growing up today aspire merely to become Australian, because they can’t have pride in a past they have never heard of.

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Real cash feeds Facebook’s monopoly over your private life

Facebook has been on a shopping spree in 2014. It’s looking to buy a drone company so that it can bring the internet and Facebook to the other 6 billion, and its acquisition of Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset firm, is aimed at making your friending, liking, stalking and humble bragging more experiential.

Now it seems the company is in discussions to purchase a London start up which has expertise in online payments. And it is this creeping interest in financial technologies that should worry us more than drones or our friends turning our chats into their virtual reality.

If everything goes to plan, Facebook users will apparently be offered the chance to store and transfer money on the site, rather than having to use a service like PayPal.

Facebook reps are said to have been in talks with several London-based peer-to-peer money services that could make Facebook payments a reality. One of these is Transferwise, a company that recently hit a quintessential target for a scaling tech company when it announced that it had processed £1 billion in user payments. Another possible candidate, Dublin-based CurencyFaire, has also hit the billion mark, albeit in dollars.

The convergence of social media and financial services should be seen as a profound shift in how people view, save, use, and are freed of their capital. And Facebook’s interest could mark a tipping point. Social media is being used as agateway drug to get users hooked onto much more pernicious forms of socio-technical circuitry and economic capture.

Why would Facebook sell vague social analytics about our activity to advertisers when it could go directly to our wallets? This is the ultimate “disintermediation” or cutting out of the middleman.

Capitalism requires fluidity – the transformation of static objects into cashable objects. By making money social and digital it becomes more fluid.

And since social media corporations are already learning how to turn individual users into liquid assets, the mix is all the more potent. Fluid money and personal data pools in centralised servers owned by the millionaires and billionaires of Facebook and Google.

Facebook apps for asset management will not be designed for the financial elites whose wealth is already governed by a well-paid professional managerial class. While the discourse is about empowering the working and immigrant poor to be able to send money home without costly fees, it is really about financialising a new market, the formerly private acts that are being unlocked by social media.

The privatisation of our lives is already booming. Visit AirBnB to rent out your home, Girl meets Dress to rent someone else’s high-end clothes, WhipCar to borrow someone’s car, Rent My Items to get your hands on their power tools, or Microworkers to rent minutes of your day to do small time work for menial pay.

This is financialisation masked as the “sharing economy” but at least we get to rent a nice dress or go on holiday as a result.

Facebook has been successful in inviting us to volunteer our free digital labour in producing one of the world’s most valuable companies. Some lovingly call this “participatory culture” while I and others call it exploitation.

Facebook can capture additional users by raining down wifi from drones and by making a scroll through bachelor party pictures more immersive with 3D goggles, but these markets will be small time in comparison to the financial market of online payment and banking.

This is an explicit attempt to transform the means of our digital sociality, our online public sphere and agora into a mall, a bank, a bazaar. If Facebook is successful, users will rarely leave the site. They will forgo the dangers of the wider internet for the safe comforts of our gated virtual community where we are safe to self-promote and shop till we drop.

Or worse, this is an attempt to “gamify” money management. It will be Farmville for personal finance or 3D Candycrush for cash. This sounds stupid because it is. It represents the transformation of a complex system into a simple one. The more our social life is monitored and then digitised, the easier it is to hoard, gamify, and monetise any profitable crumbs.

This will not result in more agency but less. Banking is based on hard-to-understand calculations but it is regulated. Add complex filtering algorithms and financial technological derivatives to the picture and no sane person will understand what is happening to their money.

Online payment isn’t the problem. Facebook, Google, and others who monopolise and monetise our digital lives on closed centralised systems are. The financialisation of our private lives as well as unwarranted, indiscriminate, illegal, bulk surveillance flourish in these spaces where corporations and governments gain direct access to our private lives.

What we need is a social movement to demand an information commons, decentralised servers, and digital literacy along with so-called financial literacy. We don’t need to hand Facebook yet another key to our private spaces.

Using Social Media to Teach Theory to Undergraduate Students

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Carole McGranahan.

“Political economy?” “Symbolic analyses?” Post-whatism?” Semester after semester, my advanced anthropology students told me they couldn’t remember the theories they had learned in their introductory anthropology course (even, they sheepishly confessed, if I had been their professor for that course). In response, I built a review of general anthropological theory into my classes and developed a theory course for junior and senior anthropology majors.

But re-teaching theory at the advanced level was not enough. I needed a better strategy for teaching theory at the very beginning level of anthropological instruction which, for me now as professor and earlier as graduate student, meant in a large lecture class of anywhere from 100 to 550 students. How could I teach theory so that introductory students could retain and use this knowledge beyond exam day? What new pedagogies would enable students to carry the theoretical messages of Levi-Strauss or Mead or Ortner with them? My strategy was to turn to social media, to teach theory by putting students in dialogue with each other: I created two new course assignments, a student-generated theory wiki and a theory blog.

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Jonathan Franzen: Read Some Erving Goffman. Please!

Jonathan Franzen’s NY Times Op-Ed, “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts,” is one of the most e-mailed articles and is also one of the most shared articles on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. And it hurts.

Let’s start here:

I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing social media disrespected by cranky 51-year-olds.

Yes. Next?

My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love.

Wait. What? Why is technology narcissistic? Although he starts out talking about his “sexy” BlackBerry Bold, he really means Facebook. One is a piece of hardware, the other a piece of social software accessed via that device. If, for the time being, we assume that Facebook is narcissistic, does that mean that all technology is narcissistic? What is narcissistic about a telephone, a device which allows you to speak to other people? Sure, your conversations may be about yourself, but that’s because you’re narcissistic, not because your telephone is.

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Regarding Japan: On the risks and responsibilities of engagement

The day after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s northeast coast I received a well-intentioned facebook message from a friend I hadn’t spoken with in nearly a decade.  She was checking to see if I and those I care about in Japan were all right.   Although I responded graciously and positively, my own reluctance to participate in the twittering drama filled me with suspicion.  By writing to me, was she trying to claim a little piece of the action, a connection to the disaster?  Would she secretly prefer that I were directly affected so that she could share in the piquant pang of aftershock without having to suffer its enduring losses?

About a week later, as the scale of suffering in Japan became clearer, I became less concerned with everybody else’s questionable investments in the pain of others and more suspicious of my own hesitancy to engage emotionally.

Although I frowned and cried as solicited upon seeing the unavoidable photos of people staggering through muddy ruins, I wasn’t sure how to feel the rest of the time.  Brian Massumi’s claim that

“power is no longer fundamentally normative, like it was in its disciplinary forms—it’s affective”

suggests that stories and images circulate and infiltrate strategically. Even though, as de Certeau reminds us, readers aren’t fools and we employ tactics with which to play and navigate the web of discourse, we’re still stuck inside of it—and it inside of us.  Our critique of media, savvy avoidance of manipulation, and resistance to being told how to feel are themselves already the threads of discourses that have been woven into us.

Part of me wants to believe that some basic feeling for the suffering of others arises before all of this, that there’s a relational web prior and in excess to the discursive one—and that it’s woven more tightly.

But if the mass mediated means through which we gain access to others is always already shaping how we feel for those others, how can we feel without capitulating to the powers that traffic in affect? In the case of catastrophes, which seem to (fairly regularly) punctuate the passage of ordinary life with significance, how do we resist the meaning-making machines while still engaging meaningfully?
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TV Free Burning Man

Next week as many as 50,000 people will inhabit Black Rock City, a temporary metropole constructed by volunteers for a week of personal expression and community celebration on the barren alkaline plains of a Nevada desert a half-days drive from Silicon Valley. This is Burning Man, a radically participatory event where a lot of people who labor in the digital creative industries work out collaborative utopias that make their way–the theory goes–into the social networking software and platforms they make and ask us to populate with our creative surplus, communal energy, and visually expressive humanity. The techno-culture historian Fred Turner states that Burning Man is a ‘sociotechnical commons’—the cultural infrastructure for the digital media industries of California. This is an attempt to document how and why Burning Man is a “proof of concept,” “beta test,” and practical experiment for the engineering of networked publics.

Here is the example. Burning Man influenced three projects to democratize media production initiated by Al Gore’s user-generated and citizen journalism cable network Current TV. Examples include Current’s Viewer Created Content (VC2) program, their social media website current.com, and TV Free Burning Man. Much like Burning Man, each project is an attempt to draw knowledge from the crowd and transform spectators into active producers. My observation is that Burning Man and Current’s emphasis on user-production business models is hemmed in by the looming pressures of capitalism.
Current is an example of what I call digital social entrepreneurship. It is a new media start-up and TV network deeply guided by both a mission and the market. At origin, so these firms go, the mission takes precedent over the market. As time goes by the market supersedes the mission. Current launched in 2005 with the mission to democratize media production and to provide a platform for others to discuss the future of democracy as well as view the cornucopia of voices that make democracy a dynamic guide for governance. Considering the tenuous state of democracies around the world, the consolidation of media systems by multinationals, the broadbanding of sectors of the globe, and the usability of graphic interfaces and professional grade video recorders the attempt to democratize media in 2005 was timely and prescient.

Current’s first idea about content producers was not to crowdsource content through the VC2 program. They didn’t intend to mine the producing audience for TV-caliber video submissions. Current originally planned to hire 20-30 digital correspondents to travel the world making content. A Current employee related to me how the programming executives, fresh from recent excursions to Burning Man in the early 2000s, used the open participatory model of Burning Man to argue against the exclusivity of the digital correspondent model by asking, “like Burning Man, why wouldn’t we let everybody in who wants to participate?” That spirit carried into the creation the VC2, a project to empower any amateur documentary producer to make content for television. This was the impetus behind the first user-generated television network.

From 2005-2008 Current’s website was www.current.tv. It was a space dedicated to VC2 producers to upload and critique short documentaries. In 2008, upper management decided that this was too elitist and they wanted more traffic so they put together a group of marketers, engineers, and creative executives to envision the new website, current.com. One of those creative executives, Justin Gunn, went into the first meeting to brainstorm current.com and

…hung up a map of Burning Man and I took an astronomy magazine and cut out pictures of stars and star clusters, and galaxies and galaxy clusters, and superclusters really beautiful Hubble imagery and positioned it around the  Burning Man map and I looked at [my colleagues] and said, ‘that is what we are going to make.’ And they said,’ what is that?’ And I said, ‘OK, work with me here. We are going to start with the organizational principle of Burning Man, it is a very light, lean organization. I could be wrong here but there is something like 12 full-time employees around the year everything else is all volunteer labor. But they build the structure, they set the rules, they define the parameters and then they invite anyone, anyone to come and do whatever they want as long as they stay within the confines, abide by the rules, and follow the predetermined parameters—they can do whatever they want.’…You start with an organization principle, a framework, here is how this thing works, here is the lattice, but it is empty, we will do a few key things, and we will invite anybody in as long as they abide by the rules and play within the framework, they can build whatever they want. So the constellations and star clusters were meant to represent constellations of information.

Using celestially graphic metaphors for the digitally engaged public they hoped to network together Gunn sought to inspire his co-workers to make a system as open and empty–and as charged with possibility–as the desert of Black Rock before the gates of Burning Man swing wide.

Using their shared interests in participatory community, self expression, and technology as a platform for dialogue–as well as their proximal offices mere blocks from each other in the Silicon Valley outpost of SoMa in San Francisco– producers at Current and organizers of Burning Man began to scheme about a more dynamic relationship. TV Free Burning Man was a result. Combining professional and amateur field production with a televisual aesthetic of first person documentaries and tone poems, the for profit mass media television firm Current produced content live from the playa for four years, 2005-2008. Considering Burning Man’s imperative to avoid all forms of commercialization and the strict media permitting process to even use a still camera at Burning Man, TV Free Burning Man is a testament to the shared ideals and aesthetics of Current and Burning Man.

I’ve attempted to link an outrageous event to important technological and economic digital systems used by billions of humans. The goal is to see how internet practices in virtual spaces are coconstituted by actual world practices in material spaces. Savage Mind writer Rex coolly said CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s goal with Facebook is to “scaffold” sociality–strap supportive beams to the human-to-human communication network that presently exists or might not exist without the structured arena. Rex has it right. Social media and social events, like the virtual and the actual, are coconstructed. And yet, something still trumps this transcendence of body-mind duality.

The commercial imperative looms over the users of corporately-made social media just as the end of the week at Black Rock City haunts the freedom-accustomed Burner. In a series of moves, Current has increasingly pulled back from their mission to democratize media production. In a tense economy and with venture capitalist money running thin, Current has moved to capitalize on its major asset, its cable license, through abandoning the VC2 program and relying on traditional professional programming.

Burning Man, on the other hand, remains a valiant, excessive, and privileged materialization of the ideal sociality coded into and by internet culture. Last year around this time I wrote about the emerging tourism industry in Black Rock City, But for now, the Black Rock Foundation does a tremendous job with a skeleton staff, grants art funds to hundreds of artists, and facilitates a relatively commercial free environment. As a non-profit with a seasonal ecstatic event, Burning Man has an easier job than Current of retaining its mission, a for-profit firm in a fiercely competitive TV market responsible for 24 hours of programming 365 days a year.

Openness, liberation, transparency, relativity, democracy, trust, non-privacy, and collaboration are the shared origin myths of the activists and planners of the internet and Burning Man. These ideals are coded into digital architecture in Silicon Valley and other areas around the Black Rock Desert and distributed for free use throughout the world. These digital social systems and event organizations are molded by their missions and driven by the necessity to optimize the growth of their organizations. Every ideal has a shelf life cut short usually by the profit necessity. The compromises to the mission that commercialization requires are the instances to monitor when adjudicating the sustainability of the social entrepreneurship model.

Facebook as a Potlatch

Are you familiar with the concept of a gift economy? It’s an interesting alternative to the market economy in a lot of less developed cultures. I’ll contribute something and give it to someone, and then out of obligation or generosity that person will give something back to me. The whole culture works on this framework of mutual giving. The thing that binds those communities together and makes the potlatch work is the fact that the community is small enough that people can see each other’s contributions. But once one of these societies gets past a certain point in size the system breaks down. People can no longer see everything that’s going on, and you get freeloaders. When there’s more openness, with everyone being able to express their opinion very quickly, more of the economy starts to operate like a gift economy. It puts the onus on companies and organizations to be more good, more trustworthy. It’s changing the ways that governments work. A more transparent world creates a better-governed world and a fairer world.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook