It’s not (just) a question of technology
One of the biggest issues brought forth by this takedown (and many other “mistaken” ones likes it, such as Viacom’s “accidental” silencing of racism protest) is that these incidents aren’t just a question of technological oversights. The reveal an industry build on legal and economic structures that refuse to adapt to cultural change. Google’s apology email is full of passive voice — videos are “mistakenly removed” and accounts “mistakenly suspended.” With all the talk of users, flagging systems, it quickly becomes an artful dodging of accountability. It makes it seem like it was a blameless incident, a technological snafu outside anyone’s control.
But it’s important that we don’t mistake “lack of intent” with “lack of culpability.” I don’t really blame Google — their actions are responding to IP policies that equate promoting open source to being a rogue state. As Mike Masnick points out, the problem isn’t that something fell through the cracks of a the tech system in place to identify content violations quickly. The problem is the demands of that kind of speed, the kind of “take down first,
ask dodge questions later” attitude that pervades the creative industries.
Technology, and third-parties like Google, are just convenient and blamelessly neutral scapegoats in the real digital divide — the chasm between social use of technologies and industrial control over them.
Takedowns take away more than just content
Another thing that the outcry around the take-down makes us realize is that the video itself is just one part of the cultural artifact. After all, it’s not like we couldn’t still watch a duplicate video on YouTube. But what we lost that was more significant than the video were the comments, the tags, the response links, even the viewcount. The metadata and paratexts that document the significance and development of the cultural phenomenon. The video is just the book cover — the real meat of the story was the record of how people watched it. That was why this particular takedown was so outrageous. What was removed was something infinitely more unique and scarce than some video. What was removed was a rich cultural document that no one should own the IP to.
One man’s culture is another man’s spam
A final interesting aspect is the fact that the takedown wasn’t an IP issue, but a user-flagging issue. Unsurprising, perhaps, because if you’re not in on the joke, a lot of internet memes look pretty much just like spam: incomprehensible and weirdly persistent. What this reveals to us is something that those fighting the high culture/pop culture divide have been reminding us forever: that culture is ultimately wholly subjective and deeply contextual.
Much has been said about Google’s Parisian Love superbowl ad in the last week, much of it ranging from positive to gushing adoration. I was no exception, discussing the way google demonstrated its understanding of the culture of seeking. My last post focused on the content of the ad, which was lovely, but content doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A quotation from Ian Schafer, and my consequent discussion with him on twitter, inspired me to write a follow-up that looks at the ad in context.
Google’s Parisian Love inspired a lot of amorous reciprocation from people who’ve devoted a significant chunk of their intellectual energies to thinking about advertising and made a dent on twitter, but it didn’t make it into Nielsen’s most liked or most recalled ads. Part of it was the Q3 placement, of course. Almost all of the highest Nielsen-ranked spots ran during the first and last quarters of the game — presumably when more people were tuned in to the action. But nevertheless, the question remains: Google spot was certainly affecting, but was it effective?
“An online film that became an ad”
Google’s ad feels out of place amongst the raucous humor and tone of not only the other big ads, but the superbowl in general. But here I think Google again goes deeper than the surface presentation, beyond what a big sporting event looks like to what it means, it’s place in our culture(s). Major sporting events, particularly those on a national scale, bank heavily on the idea of disparate atomized individuals coming together in shared sentiment, much like the death of a celebrity. They also play strongly to feelings of community, connectivity, nostalgia, and legacy. In that light, Google’s ad seems to match the emotional appeals of the event, if not its tone and presentation.
Its disparity in presentation is also consistent with Google’s brand, which leans heavily on a certain iconoclasm, the myth of a rag-tag team of innovators that consistently proves to the world that big doesn’t mean bad. In this sense, the biggest danger to Google’s brand is its own success. Google new Buzz sought to collect all our current social media tendencies under one google-sponsored ad-driven roof and triggered a privacy controversy and user backlash, they just bought Aardvark, memorably acquired YouTube and some other smaller services a while back, and just got into hot water for shutting down music blogs. The more prominent and pervasive Google’s services get, the more difficult it becomes to fend of the mumblings of big-brotherism, of being just another mega-corporation consolidating its power, however benevolent its origins. That’s why Google’s Superbowl ad had to be “ineffective” in advertising-response terms. Superbowl advertising is a beacon of corporate, profit-driven consumerism and Google’s challenge has always been proving to us that it’s based in different values.
But perhaps most importantly, as Faris Yakob’s great analysis explains, in a lot of ways, the Superbowl spot wasn’t an advertisement for its search product at all. It was a demonstration to potential advertisers, according to Andrew Frank, that it “is not afraid of TV” and can integrate the internet with traditional broadcast media. Parisian Love wasn’t a commercial — it was just another one of Google’s series of online videos. That Parisian Love ran on TV, during the Superbowl, was the advertisement. In other words, Google’s ad didn’t suit its context. The context was the advertisement.
Google made good on all the teasing tweets and ran its first superbowl ad on Sunday night, to the praise of advertising and marketing professionals and all those who fall under Alterian’s Social Engagement Index. I was preoccupied with making sure the make-shift stadium seating in my loft wasn’t in danger of collapsing to catch it during the game, but the next morning I watched it on YouTube. Then I watched it again.
Google’s Parisian Love is everything that people have been saying: remarkable in potency of its message and the simplicity of its delivery, startlingly efficient in conveying a multitude of themes and features, and narratively delightful. But it is also a beautifully concise argument for the need to understand culture — and not just trends and technologies — in advertising.
Trends are surface patterns that can be viewed from a distance. Culture is the all the reasons underneath them, the complex structures and formations on the ocean floor shaped from countless years of symbolic debris and sediment that dictate which way the waves go. Identifying trends is just the first (and crucial) step towards understanding culture.
Humanizing technology, technologizing humanity
The trends/culture distinction is most clearly illustrated when we place Google’s Parisian Love series alongside Bing’s “Cure for Search Overload” campaign, which the Google ad also functions as a response to. Bing’s ads demonstrate their ability to identify habits of digitized world — the tendency towards free-association clicking, those rabbit-hole link excursions that leave us knowing more about walruses than we ever thought possible (or desirable) — by framing it as a problem that its service provides a solution to. Google’s ad shows us not how to salvage our lives from technology, but how technology is a part of it. In contrast to Bing, Google’s ad demonstrates how its search guidance and decision tools were so deeply integrated and intuitive that we barely noticed it was there, letting us put our concerns and desires at the forefront.
The two search engines’ ads reveal opposing angles of approach. Bing’s approach is strangely didactic, and not a little condescending — it presents us a service that can stop us from doing something (finding too much potentially irrelevant information), that can save us from our own feeble tendencies. Google’s approach is conspirational, showing it what it can help make happen instead of what it can stop from happening, implicating itself as complicit in our desires while also tapping into the cultural symbol of what the web has historically has represented: openness, possibility, limitless potential and access. So, while Bing identified a set of behavioral trends and promised to help us find things, Google showed us that it understands why we look.
Cultures of accumulation and classification
Google’s Parisian Love also conjured up for me three famous French writers and cultural critics: Marcel Proust, Georges Perec, and Roland Barthes. Proust transformed searching as an act of desire and recovery, Perec showed us how evocatively life is documented in lists and classifications of the things we accumulate, and Barthes made us recognize that it is the seemingly everyday, taken-for-granted habits and pleasures that reveal the most about our cultural mythologies and our human selves. Google’s ad demonstrates all three principles.
The potent little story at the heart of Parisian Love isn’t particularly remarkable in itself. What is remarkable is the materials of the telling: a love story, yes, but as documented through a search history. It touches upon a long-held cultural conviction that our daily debris, if properly recorded and curated, tells a story fascinating about us. Consider the rise of epistolary novels, Perec’s list of beds he’s slept in, the countless art installations featuring every X-type of object that the artist has consumed over a year. This is a conviction that’s only risen in recent years as we have the means of accumulating and displaying more and more haphazard data about ourselves — we’ve all given thought to what stories our twitter feeds, delicious tags, and facebook profile interests might tell about us accumulated over time.
In that same way, Googles ad reminds us that our searches are not only about finding what we need — they are a document of our desires and lives. The nostalgic overtones aren’t just incidental appeals to sentiment — they do the serious work of assuring us that in an age of so-called information overload, we are still producing artifacts of data that are intimate and revealing. At the forefront is a story about romance, but underneath is a story about our culture’s love affair with the stories the accumulated by-products of our daily lives can tell. Google proposes not only that its search is useful, but meaningful.
The message from google to its users is so simple and clear: we’ve always understood one another.
So coming off the Luce days, a few things about internet + the world at large:
- The Open Net Initiative has released it’s annual review of filtering, surveillence, and info warfare. What’s particularly interesting to me as I glanced through it is how different regions filtered content. Some focused on content type (e.g. pornography), while others blocked sites due to certain events or types of sites (social networks, forums, twitter).
- An interesting piece by Byron Acohido suggesting the possibility that the Chinese government wasn’t behind the google attack isn’t definitive but does point out how quickly public discourse was to assign blame and depict China as a monolithic entity.
- Also very interesting is the summary of who’s writing about ICT (Information & Communication Technologies) for development by Ivan Sigal at Global Voices. Especially provocative are the observations regarding the challenges of reconciling development experts and ICT solutions and implementation.
- Speaking of groups typically overlooked by new media guru types — it turns out that blogging is on the rise amongst older adults.
- And speaking of neat stats and charts, a couple of pieces by Ashkan Karbasfrooshan in TechCrunch discusses the state of online video puts the emphasis on context in online video consumption.
- These read nicely next my CMS/C3 colleague Sheila Seles’ piece on why Apple hasn’t revolutionized TV (yet).
Finally, a couple of pieces contemplating crowd-sourcing:
- BBH labs asks where the agency ends and the crowd begin in terms of creative and strategic development. This topic is one that touches on a lot of conversations I’ve been having recently, not the least of which is a fan labor/virtual sharecropping discussion that’s been occurring on and off on the ROFLcon organizing list.
- Through the comments on the BBH piece, I came upon the work of Daren Brabham, including his short piece in Flow about crowdsourced advertising.
- Related to the issues of crowdsourcing and co-creation, Harvard’s Radio Berkman posted up a talk on the Failing Fantasy of Intellectual Property
- And to balance out the Cambridge set, MIT’s CMS Colloquium podcast tackles old/new media and “re-fashioning” with speakers Wayne Marshall and Joel Burges. Listen for the ultimate “hmmmmm” line: “how do we theorize time?”
I wasn’t able to get a blog post up earlier this week because I spent Tuesday and Wednesday with the Henry Luce Foundation’s fellowship selection board (and Thursday catching up on all the sleep I didn’t get Monday and Tuesday night). But I wanted to get something up so a handful of scattered, poorly articulated thoughts ahead:
It was a refreshing break in perspective from the marketing/advertising/media/consumer culture world. The selectors were astonishingly accomplished individuals who hand strong hands in international politics, policy, development, finance, and so forth.
The questions I was asked over the course of two days were provocative and unlike any that I’ve dealt with from corporations or colleagues. After all, here were people who knew tremendous amounts about culture, media, politics and the world at large, but not about what I knew about. And it made me realize how insular our world can become, how easy it is to find ourselves shaping discourse exclusively with those working from a shared set of assumptions, and how much that might potentially hinder new thinking.
It seems reasonable to want to step back from the building recursion of conversations and interrogate some of the fundamental assumptions. Not just popular opinions that have been taken as fact but ideas so deeply a part of the very structure of thinking around new media that they’ve become naturalized. One of the questions I was asked is that if I were consulting with a company that wanted to bring a new product to Asia, what would be my most crucial and fundamental piece of advice? I gave a number of examples and talked around it a bit, but the core of my answer was simply this: that thing that you think you most know, the most absolute conviction you have — let go of it. If you can’t make room for your own ignorance, you can’t begin to rectify it.
So what’s the most fundamental, unquestioned assumption about new media? What immediately came to mind was first that new media is new and more to the point, that it’s what’s changed that strive to understand if we are to anticipate what’s to come. As a long-standing CMS tenant, there is as much continuity in media (and media use) as there is rupture. There is, it seems, as much to be learned from looking at what hasn’t changed, the habits and behaviors and desires that have endured across technological development are what can point us how technological change will be adopted and adapted. For instance, we think of fanservice — media producers following conversations about their properties online and then changing scripts in response — as relatively new, afforded by online forums and blogging. But fanservice has been the very foundation of the monolithic Northeast Asian idol industry since the 1960s, and before that, Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes back from the dead due to fan response. And looking at what remains the same can give us insight into what has changed: after all, the re-emergence of fan service in broadcast media can be attributed to the fact that we’ve come back to a point in which media production technologies and consumer technologies are matched in speed.
Another problematic assumption we’ve come to rely on is that the new is desirable. There’s such a focus in industry now on early adopters and the “bleeding edge” (and honestly, did no one think that metaphor through? You have to cut before you bleed, so the bleeding edge is actually just a bit behind the cutting edge) that there’s a tendency to assume a “wired” group who “gets it” and everyone else and that it’s the former that’s engaged and informed. Too often the assumption is that not everyone has adopted a technology simply because they’re behind and will sooner or later catch up and fall in line. But this perceived lagging group includes people like those that I met with on Tuesday and Wednesday who no doubt wield greater influence in the affairs of the world than any social media guru can ever dream of. Why aren’t we thinking more about their media use (or lack thereof)? Why aren’t we giving deeper consideration to how they use these tools, which tools they consider valuable, and how they might reshape the way these tools are used when they do decide to join in? In focusing to narrowly on new media culture, do we run the risk of dismissing culture at large?
So I’ve been a little lax on my “weekly” reading round-ups, but slowly trying to get back in the swing of balancing out intake to output.
As many of you know, Thursday was Data Privacy Day.
- Google released a video and written listing of its privacy principles, explaining how it uses its user data.
- Speaking of privacy and google, a recent CNN piece by Bruce Schneier reveals that Chinese hackers were aided by US government policy
- And of course, we can’t talk data privacy without talking Facebook, who posted 5 key privacy tips. Which is nice and all, but just another consolation prize in a long line of Facebook v. your data.
- Marshall Kirkpatrick over at ReadWriteWeb write about Facebook’s history with privacy with a distinctly positive view of the long-term implications. While I see his point, I remain somewhat discomforted not because of privacy, but because of ownership of my data.
- An article from 2005 on CNET by Kimber Spradlin comparing privacy legislation in the US and Europe is interesting in this context. Although she focuses on commerce and security issues, she does note that in Europe, individual data can be loaned for use by companies, but ultimately is owned by the individual, an attitude that isn’t prevalent in the US. It brings me back to a point that I think always bears repeating, which is that “privacy” violations are often more about use and ownership than wanting to keep information locked away, about who has rights to profit from our information, and what control we have over that.
I’ve kind of avoided talking about the Ipad (which, I know it’s been pointed out ad nauseum by now, but . . . that’s what you decided to call it?). New technology is cool, but what I care more about is the technological use side of things. I want to see what happens once the new gadget has been incorporated into our lives and cultures, what standing needs it fulfills (and what new ones it brings to surface). But I did enjoy Annalee Newitz’s i09 piece about Apple’s Crap Futurism, which gets to the point of why I find the ipad so lackluster. For something that I think many of us fantasized about as a sort of sci-fi future artifact — something that would come in handy as we stage a guerilla resistence in the face of a fascist dystopia built on the rubble of the world is once knew — it just doesn’t seem all that useful. But again, we’ll see. Technology alone doesn’t change how we think. How we think about technology — its role, its capacities, its uses — is what moves us forward.
And, oh yeah! Jürgen Habermas, social theorist and communications guru before the time of gurus, now apparently has a twitter account. I can’t decide if it’s more awesome if it’s actually him or someone pretending to be him. Either way, I can’t believe it took so long.
Communities are complex social formations with a nuanced system of structures, roles, and behaviors. In the world of brands and corporations, this fact it too often overlooked in favor segmenting communities according to the priorities of the brand. Brands need to know who can help push their agenda amongst the community — communities are segmented into “influencers” and “everybody else.” Or, the oft-referenced “ladder of participation” gets trotted out. Though it has more segments, it nevertheless defines participation according to criteria of activeness.
Of course, who wields influence in a community and which activities (blogging, linking, reading, etc) are common are things that marketers need to know. But if we want to actually act upon this knowledge and influence those influencers, it’s equally important what aspects of a community different types of members influence and how (and why). Similarly, with the ladder of participation, it’s incredibly useful to understand what people do (or don’t do). However, as more and more people are adapting participatory technologies into their lives and communities, it becomes equally important to understand what they’re doing it for.
In short, communities and their members must be understood in the context of the community’s structures. Only then can we begin to understand not only who they are and what they do, but how their actions and their brand relationships will be received by the community at large.
Community Structures: Types, Roles, and Behaviors
Every community is different, of course. They develop unique systems and social contracts amongst the members that define the boundaries of the community. There are, however, a some definitions that we can use as a baseline to approach understanding communities online.
While I have my own loose , they aren’t nearly as thorough as what Lara Lee and Susan Fournier developed with over 30 years of research on community formation.
3 Types of Community Affiliation
Fournier and Lee describe 3 types of community affiliation:
Pools are groups who “have strong with a shared activity or goal, or shared values, but loose associations to one another” whose affiliation is created through “shared activity, goal, or values.”
KEY EXAMPLES: Apple fans, Political Parties, Ravelry
Webs are groups who “have strong one-to-one relationships with others who have similar or complementary needs,” where affiliation is primarily defined through “personal relationships”
KEY EXAMPLES: Facebook, Twitter, cancer-survivor networks
Hubs are groups who “have strong connections to a central figure and weaker associations with one another,” and define their affiliation through “a charismatic figure.”
KEY EXAMPLES: Oprah, Joss Whedon, Obama
These categories, of course, are not absolute and there’s plenty of cross-over. For instance, we might characterize a typical high school social system as a web that has within it a number of different hubs and pools. Similarly, Obama-supporters can easily also be seen as a pool, and Apple fans might cluster around Steve Jobs as a hub.
Fournier and Lee also outline 18 typical roles that individuals take on in communities:
1. Mentor: “teaches others and shares expertise”
2. Learner: “enjoys learning and seeks self-improvement”
3. Back-up: “acts as a safety net for others when they try new things”
4. Partner: “encourages, shares, and motivates”
5. Storyteller: “spreads the community’s story throughout the group”
6. Historian: “preserves community memory, codifies rituals and rites”
7. Hero: “acts as a role model within the community”
8. Celebrity: “serves as a figurehead or icon of what the community represents”
9. Decision-Maker: “makes choices affecting the community’s structure and function”
10. Provider: “hosts and takes care of other members”
11. Greeter: “welcomes new members into the community”
12. Guide: “helps new members navigate the culture”
13. Catalyst: “introduces members to new people and ideas”
14. Performer: “takes the spotlight”
15. Supporter: “participates passively as an audience for others”
16. Ambassador: “promotes the community to outsiders”
17. Accountant: “keeps track of people’s participation”
18. Talent Scout: “recruits new members”
I would also include two additional roles that are prevalent amongst content-creation communities:
Curator: organizes and curates community content for easy navigation
Enabler: scaffolds the creation process to encourage community content production
Community Behaviors & Activities
Finally, all communities have their own set of specific activities, but the rise of participatory culture and the networked information economy has lead to the increasing scale and visibility of a general set of behaviors.
Building from Clay Shirky’s work, Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine describes four key modes of online participation: Sharing, Cooperation, Collaboration, and Collectivism
Sharing: One of the most fundamental logics of social participation online. We use YouTube to share videos, Twitter to share status updates, Flickr to share images, Delicious to share links, blogs to share ideas and information.
Cooperation: Sites like Flickr aren’t just used to share photos, but tag, group, organize, and reuse under creative commons. Through cooperation, it becomes more than just a sharing platform — it’s a vast archival resource. Similarly, aggregation sites like Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot use cooperation to “steer public conversation.”
Collaboration: Collaboration describes more organized and focused cooperative efforts, where groups and individuals pool resources toward common goals. Open-source software is a key example, where many contribute labor and expertise towards shared software development.
Collectivism: More clearly structures and potentially ideologically driven examples of sharing, cooperation, and collaboration activities.
Thus ends the basic primer on online communities, compiled from observations from my work at the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium and the work of many individuals way more awesome than myself.
The bottom line though really is that communities — online and off — are social and cultural formations. Understanding the surface trends and tools is the first step, but if we must also seek an understanding of the deeper driving structures if we hope to develop long-term strategic provisions in addition to short-term tactical responses.
Like many, I’ve been following the whole Google/China situation with some interest, it part because it really touches upon one of the central tensions surrounding increasingly globalized cultural and information networks and technological/legal infrastructures still organized around the nation-state. There’s been a ton written on it, but a few more comprehensive/interesting pieces:
- Of course, the official google blog statement regarding the matter and the Chinese government’s response.
- Darmishta over at the Difficult Problems in Cyberlaw blog has a pretty solid news round-up of the issue, including a link to the open letter from Issac Mao, a blogger in China, appealing to Google not to pull out.
- And I admit, I’m biased, but C3 also has a good roundup of key pieces in the discussion, as well as some commentary on the whole global/national tensions present in digital culture along the language and acess angle.
- ReadWriteWeb’s Richard Macmanus also discusses how this relates to google’s big competitor, Baidu. And Sarah Lacy over at TechCrunch points out that the whole Google or Baidu question isn’t just about China.
On the globalization and media tip, a few less newsy and more thinky things:
- Starting first with Aswin Punathambekar’s syllabus for his Media Globalization graduate seminar, which has lots and lots of great readings to dig into for anyone interested in how to think about media in a transnational context. Which, I think given how relevant we consider Google/China to our everyday lives, should be just about everyone.
- In Aswin’s syllabus is a link to a piece by Amitava Kumar about the limits of postcolonial theory, which in a way is also about the limits of theory as a whole.
- I’ve also recently been recommended the work of David Harvey, which I’ll start in on as soon as I procure some ebooks.
Back to more immediate media + culture stuff:
- If you haven’t by now, everyone should be reading Grant McCracken’s new book Chief Culture Officer. I admit, it’s another bias of mine, not just because Grant is full of awesome 24/7, but also the book basically makes a case for why people like me and many of my friends and colleagues should exist. Cultural understanding is crucial to the health of corporations, brands, media producers and it isn’t just something that happens. It’s a studied, systematic process, a skill-set that should be nurtured and deployed.
- A couple of pieces following Ford’s push into the media space: Karl Greenberg over at Marketing Daily and the AdAge Mediaworks piece from Craig Daitch. Have yet to gather my thoughts on this, but it does seem something worth watching.
- Finally, in a back to roots kind of move, I’m looking to start in on some of the readings listed in Henry Jenkin’s Fandom, Participatory Culture, and Web 2.0 syllabus. I didn’t even realize it when I first glanced at it, but if you scroll down to the section on global media, there’s a chapter from my thesis in there.
On a totally random note, I just realized that the two videos that were part of a project that I did with Kevin Driscoll, Whitney Trettien, and Lauren Silberman at MIT regarding Soulja Boy back in 2007, where a bunch of us in lab coats and GNU Richard Stallman danced the Crank Dat dance now has nearly half a million hits (almost 390,000 on one, and 80,000) on another. Granted, these numbers are nothing by YouTube standards, but still, a bit trippy for a random class project video done on an east campus lawn.