Blaugust Day 8 – Wiping the Online Slate Clean

If you could get rid of your online life up until this point, would you?

This is a question I’ve been considering for some time, mostly as I’ve been thinking about just how long I’ve been active online. How many fanbases I’ve been a part of. How many forums I’ve posted on. How I can’t remember the login details of my DeviantArt account and I dearly hope no else remembers that it exists.

Basically, I’ve grown up online, at least through my teen years, and that means I’ve left a lot of myself strewn around the internet. Now this isn’t one of those media scare worries about naked university facebook photos that people lose jobs over, because I’m well aware that there’s nothing online that would actually damage me in any way. It’s more that those forum posts, those bad pieces of fanart, videos and even perhaps some of the very early blog posts on here, were made by someone totally different to me, and they don’t really match up to who I am today.

Looking back at this, or at least the stuff I can find since very little is under my real name and some is actually gone now, is a strange trip back through memory lane. I find myself looking at them with an outsiders eye “Did I ever really think like this?” On the one hand, it’s a real privilege to be able to go back and see those perfectly preserved memories, stuck in the electronic amber of the internet. On the other hand, they’re sort of – too real. And because everything is preserved at that same level, at that same amount of importance, if it weren’t for the date stamps everything would seem oddly out of sequence. Teenage me isn’t really in the past, so to speak, because almost everything teenage me did and said is still up there, exactly as when it happened.

But then, if I were to get rid of all that, would it all have to happen again in a few years? An online purge for a new job, another I when I hit thirty, perhaps a frantic mid-life crisis wiping of the slate (assuming the internet hasn’t morphed into something unrecognisable by then.) Plus, this isn’t even getting into the details of how you could achieve such a thing – so many lost passwords, websites that have completely changed, some places I’m sure I’ve just straight up forgotten about. Honestly, it’s better to regard the years of online existence as a blessing, not a curse. After all, it is a privilege, and perhaps one I’ll come to treasure more as I get older.

Still, some of those drawings….

 

 

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Navigating the internet in the age of ‘TW’

In some publications a “trigger warning” may appear at the beginning of certain articles. These are to warn that the articles contain disturbing themes that may trigger traumatic memories for sufferers. An example of a trigger warning is: “TRIGGER WARNING: This content deals with an account of sexual assault and may be triggering to some people.

From Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trauma_trigger#Trigger_warning

Unlike the ubiquitous ‘NSFW’ (not safe for work) warning that generally denotes graphic imagery of some sort, TW often accompanies text post (though it covers the whole gamut of internet content), letting readers know that a difficult and potentially distressing topic is about to come up.

This is a very difficult topic to cover. In recent years, the trigger warning has evolved into a great way to discuss potentially upsetting topics without censorship or restriction, whilst giving people an informed choice on whether they want to continue reading. It’s an idea that I fully support, when it’s used appropriately.

However, now ‘TW’ has become a commonplace concept, I can’t help but feel it has become a form of censorship, that diminishes it’s true purpose.

Recently, I have witnessed a popular YouTuber repeatedly scolded for tweeting an unlabelled Instagram complaining about a cat scratch, because someone who self harmed might have seen it. An American journalist received a barrage of tweets asking him to stop posting links to pictures of food, because he’s followed by people with eating disorders.

As previously stated, this is an incredibly difficult topic to write fairly. It isn’t for me to say what people should and shouldn’t find offensive/upsetting, or what is more important to other people’s lives and well-being. I have always despised articles that claim that this or that online movement has ‘gone too far’ or cares about things too much when this or that cause is more important.

This isn’t about whether trigger warnings for #foodporn are more important for those on rape discussions or whatever. It’s the problem that people are taking the idea of TW and using it to censor the online behaviour of others, especially online influencers such as writers or YouTubers. It’s being used as an insidious form of attack, disguised as educating others on the proper etiquette of the web.

 

I originally wrote the above paragraphs some time ago, but left this mouldering in my draft folder, unsure as to whether I was taking this in the right direction. However, I recently discovered this article in the New Statesman ‘Why I don’t agree with trigger warnings’ in which writer Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett makes some very similar points to mine, from the point of view of someone with PTSD. It’s a great article, well worth reading.

This kind of online behaviour treads a difficult path. Trigger Warnings are a useful tool in not having to censor topics, but they aren’t an all powerful form of protection, nor are they, as Cosslett points out, a way of telling others how they should feel, think and behave online.

It’s the cutest thing… – Littleprinter Review

I accidentally acquired a Bergcloud Littleprinter about a year and a half ago, after it had been passed between a number of friends who weren’t sure what to do with it. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know what it did, so it languished in it’s packaging in the corner of my room until I really really needed a small box to send my camera off to the repair shop (yep, my beloved 60D is poorly, but it appears to be a fixable issue) so I decided to remove the contents and figure things out.

The picture shows the actual printer itself – a dinky little cube with a roll of shop receipt – type paper covered in stylised smiley faces. However, the printer is controlled by a larger box rather like a router, which plugs into your actual router. It’s got an almost 1960s TV sci-fi feel, with blocky font labels and large white LEDs in plastic.

 

My Little Printer prints it’s first ever item, actually it’s activation code. Each strip prints with the smiley face at the bottom, which the website claims can change features (hair style etc.) over time.

The actual set up is the most interesting thing. The printer is designed to be connected to mobile devices, though it can be connected to any computer – anything with internet as far as I can tell. I needed to create an account using my phone, and then things started to get strange….

Little printers are designed to do two things. They can print messages and photos from any device with account access to them – they don’t have to be on the same network. Here’s a Vine of my printer reproducing an Instagram photo of me. I can see how this might be great in an office situation where people can print messages to each other, though with it’s smiley faces and general cutesy-ness, it’s as much designed for home use – their website suggests that families and children would love using this to keep in touch.

The other big feature is publications. Little Printer has almost two hundred publications, almost like apps for a printer. These can send you the new headlines of the day, or a summary of your website use, or a picture for your kids to colour in. I was initially confused by this, but eventually opted for a sample of existential aid publication ‘why’, which twenty seconds later gave me this.

 

 

While a part of me cynically feels that this is an executive toy of the digital age, grown from a gimmicky start-up of the kind I hear about constantly on TechCrunch and similar, most of me really likes this idea. I wish it had more social media related publications: for example it can give you daily engagement stats on Flickr and some for Twitter, I would like to see more like that as the idea is really sound, especially if you were running a site or company that needed to keep track of those details and pass them on easily as something similar to a post-it note. At the moment it’s still very developer driven, a place for people to test their ideas (the creators, Bergcloud, seem to have quite close links with Github.)

At the moment I don’t massively have a use for it but I feel like I might in the future. Plus, it’s cute and a bit silly. I’m really glad I have one of these.

The Attempted Backlash against ‘Generation Overshare’

I’ve been hearing the phrase ‘Generation Overshare’ quite a lot recently – referring to the way people (especially young people, you know, with their pesky facetweets and iDroid phones…) have a tendency to share everything they are doing, comment on every situation, take a picture or video of every thing they do. It’s a derogatory, disapproving term, certainly, and I have also noticed a trend of people trying to reject the need to share in various way. Social Media detoxes, where like, diets, people cut out Facebook and limit their intake of internet calories, seem fairly popular, and others have tried to publicise how much we are ‘missing out on’ by spending all of our time online. Musicians post signs at their gigs, imploring people to enjoy them live, not ‘through their phones.’ At Manchester International Festival last year, concert goers at the Massive Attack vs. Adam Curtis shows were forbidden to take pictures of the inside of the venue so that it wouldn’t be ‘spoiled’ on social media for other nights.

(‘Look Up’ by Gary Turk, 2014)

 

This is a difficult topic where I can understand both sides. It would be hypocritical of me to claim that social media ‘oversharing’ is bad, I do it a lot, I wrote a dissertation on Instagram, and I have defended social media as a positive force before. Yet there are people who worry about the online society, who maybe feel cut off and that it affects people in a negative way. Clearly there is a problem here.

The trouble is, I don’t believe we can ever step back from sharing at this point. The Social media detox seems to be more of a crash diet, a week’s deprivation followed by a binge. The film posted above makes great points, yet to date 12,000,000 people have apparently sat online to watch it, discuss it and share it on sites such as Buzzfeed. Our world has been permanently augmented and it some ways is as much digital as ‘real’. We can stop sharing, but would we want to?

 

You can’t make it Viral – Some Thoughts on adverts and virality

‘You can’t make a cult movie.’

I found this quote recently whilst reading a film critics blog, and the idea stuck with me. The post went on to explain that some film makers recently, especially in the comedy sphere, have tried to make films that are deliberately ‘so bad it’s good’ goofy, or peppered with pop culture references, in an attempt to make a cult classic (think The Rocky Horror Show.) The problem is, this films often end up feeling flat or forced.

I feel that the same applies to online viral videos, especially in the world of advertising. Any advertiser would love to have their work go viral, but it’s not a predictable or guarantee-able event. You can study ‘Charlie bit my finger‘ or ‘Friday‘ or ‘Numa Numa guy‘, or look at the demographics, the commenters, the imitations (or even make an response of your own – EE has a great ‘sequel to Numa Numa’ that I saw in the cinema last week and it’s pretty awesome, although I feel the older members of the audience didn’t get the joke) but you can’t really purposefully make a video with these features and expect it to ‘go viral’ and possibly more if you are advertising something. Online video gives opportunities for great, original and unusual advertising campaigns but in the end they work like any other traditional campaign, through message and exposure.

If anything, an attempt to create a spreadable video might backfire badly for a company, much like the films described in that blogpost. That’s not to say that advertising campaigns and videos don’t go viral on YouTube or elsewhere, they frequently do. But it’s not something you can plan for or rely on.

 

Useful related reading: Spread That! Further Essays from the Spreadable Media Project by Henry Jenkins

Spread That!: Further Essays from the Spreadable Media Project – See more at: http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/spread-that-further-essays-from-the-spreadable-media-project.html#sthash.jJfsxIrt.dpuf
Spread That!: Further Essays from the Spreadable Media Project – See more at: http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/spread-that-further-essays-from-the-spreadable-media-project.html#sthash.jJfsxIrt.dpuf

In this, Henry Jenkins points out that media doesn’t magically spread and share all by itself – there’s an audience involved who need to be appealed to in some way.

Internet Research and Public Exposure

I’ve written before about internet research ethics when I was doing my #mscret blogs for University, but I’ve been writing about these ideas again and putting them into practice whilst writing my MSc Dissertation on mobile video and social media. I’ve just completed one case study on #NextGenHello, the Instagram-based crowdsourced film that I wrote about last time, and I’m currently conducting two research surveys – one is an open survey on smart phone users which you can take right here if you want! (Shameless plug, please take my survey. I promise it’s very short.)

The surveys are fairly easy to deal with when it comes to ethics – all entries are kept anonymous, the data is used strictly for my work, all of the questions are optional. My methods had to be pre-approved by the University as is standard in research work. However the case study has been harder to deal with. The video clips in #NextGenHello were for a film, so they were intended for a wider audience, but no-one in the study specifically signed up for my work. And how does this hurt people? Well, for starters it could hurt the communities of people who made the videos in the first place.

“…virtual communities [are] extremely sensitive; a breach in trust can
destabilise the foundations upon which the online group rests.”*

As a result, I’ve been very general when describing the videos in the study, by grouping them into general themes so as not to highlight particular videos, and not mentioning usernames or other details, even though in a way it harms my research to do so, hence why I’m doing other surveys to create more data. If I approached the video makers and asked them for their consent to study their work it might be different (and I have no doubt plenty of them would give it.) But without the informed consent, I don’t believe I have the right to do anything.

“…researchers have an ethical responsibility to understand how the diverse forums of the Internet work and how the users of these forums form expectations about what and where they are communicating. They see the greatest risk for cyberspace participants occurring in the situation where members remain unaware that their messages are being analyzed until the results of the research are published. Moreover, if the results are published in such a way that members of a virtual community can identify their community as the one studied without their knowledge, psychological harm may result.”**

Internet Exposure outside of the academic sphere

The amount that I’ve read on internet ethics often makes me uncomfortable at some of the articles I read online – Buzzfeed is starting to be a big offender here with some of their smaller articles, which tend to focus on images or statements from social media that they can use for humourous purposes.

While the ethics I’ve covered tended to focus on not harming internet users through academic work, it seems like it should be equally important in journalistic work. Although people do post their thoughts and lives publicly, there is a great difference between sharing a picture or a thought between friends, and between thousands of people on a separate site.

Unfortunately, there tends to be a negative attitude towards people who object to having their posts shared and dissected by complete strangers, probably because we as a society are so used to being told that anything we put online could have a negative impact. If someone’s Instagram picture gets ridiculed out of context on a website, the comments from readers tend to be, ‘well, you shouldn’t have put it up if you didn’t want that.’ I don’t agree with this at all. People have the right to post what they like online, but I believe anyone who writes publicly, from tiny blogs like this to massive publications, need to recognise that profiting off this can hurt people.

*Krotoski, A., “Introduction to the Special Issue: Research ethics in online communities” in International Journal of Internet Research Ethics (Vol 3, Dec 2012)

** Frankel, M.S. & Siang, S., “Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects Research on the Internet” A report for American Association for the Advancement of Science (November 1999) http://www.aaas.org/ – also has some great comments on how informed consent still applies to people using pseudonyms, because ‘people invest in their pseudonyms the way they invest in their real identities within a physical
community’

Interlinked Communities – Creating virtual worlds through social interaction

Ever since I was old enough to use the Internet without parental help, I have been a member of various different online forums. I’ve been on forums dedicated to music, books, roleplaying and gaming. Each one of those forums had a very different fan base, but interactions between communities were often very similar

For example, the Roleplaying site which I was a member of when I was fourteen or so, which was dedicated to the setting of a series of fantasy books. There were other forums dedicated to the same setting, and many users would be members of several, using the same character or characters. Over time, these interlinked sites became a sort of world in their own right, where one site would be referred to on another site as were another place within the same virtual world, which of course in a sense they were. Various ‘factions’ of characters would also have their own forums, which I’ve referred to on the picture above as ‘special interest groups.’

Through these sites, people will typically carry the same or similar username, avatar and post signature through the different sites, so that they can easily connect with friends and form a more complete online identity, even if it is a completely anonymous, online only one. Some people might choose to reveal more of their ‘real’ self, but this often depends on the community as a whole and whether it’s considered normal to do this.

The most interesting sites come from those dedicated to micro celebrities since part of their popularity is in connecting closely with fans. Often those fans are engaged in the same kind of activities that they are (music, vlogging etc.) or have been inspired to do so, and may go on to find their own fame and fanbase by posting their work on the main site. Many would then go on to found the ‘splinter communities’ which would take on their own identity and have their own core group of users but keep close ties to the main site/forum. Forums for YouTube stars etc. usually also have ‘special interest groups’ too, for activities such as fan art and fan fiction. In many cases, these groups don’t have sites of their own, but instead might use tumblr groups, Deviantart groups or software such as Skype, Vent, or even game servers to keep in touch.

Over time, I have found that these interconnected sites work best when they are created and run by the fans, rather than by an official agency. I have also been an active member of forums devoted to bands. Most larger band websites have a community aspect with a built in forum, and these can be thriving sites but I often found them to be isolated communities, with no outlet to engage with other forums.

I find myself viewing communities like this as if they are real places, towns and villages which people can ‘live in’ and ‘travel between.’ Most users tend to have a main forum which they identify with, but choose to use others, and may move from one site to another over time. The ‘services’ such as Voice Chat and IRCs are public meeting places within those towns where one might go to meet new people or hang out with friends.

Please note, with all of these sites I would love to provide examples, but that would not be terribly fair on the people involved, who are just enjoying themselves online and didn’t ask or expect to be studied in this way. In fact, one of the sites which inspired this post, a ‘slashfic’ site (a type of fanfiction which is usually pornographic or explicit in some way) have a notice specifically asking that visitors don’t draw attention to them in any way, since none of them wish to be accidentally publicly identified.