Archive for December, 2009

Tweeting Grief: the politics of public mourning

Posted in media on December 26th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – 3 Comments

I recently stumbled across a post on regarding the controversy surrounding prominent mommy-blogger Shellie Ross’ decision to tweet about her son drowning. I had heard vaguely about it previously and dismissed it with a long-suffering “oh lord, the internets” eyeroll, but the tomatonation piece make me think about it a little more closely.

Putting aside the impossibility (yet sad inevitability) of judging someone else’s grief, it doesn’t make sense to demonize any one channel of communication as wholly unfit for one type of information and not others. Technologies are anything but innocent of social power, but they also don’t come with predetermined regulations of use. But if we look at Madison McGraw’s now infamous backlash against Shellie Ross, it becomes clear that much of vitriol comes out of a sudden conviction that tweeting — that online activities — encroaches on the real life duties of motherhood.

In other words, the backlash is symptomatic of our contemporary crisis between public and private life, yet another flare-up of a long-brewing technology-triggered moral panic like the ones that have accompanied the development of everything from motion pictures to railroads. Once private acts can now bind us with networked publics, and public events come ready-made with backchannels of private communication. Twitter, and other social media technologies, are generating increasingly contested contact zones between the ideological bravado of the public sphere and the deep intimacies of the domestic one, a digital borderlands where it is becoming harder and harder to differentiate one from the other. And it is becoming harder and harder to accurately anticipate what things are best kept to ourselves.

Moreover, Shellie Ross’ tweets became the focus of such vicious backlash not only because it transformed one of the most deeply domestic acts — child rearing — with a very public one, but also because we are culture for whom public displays of mourning, however abbreviated, remain significantly taboo. Even now. Or perhaps especially now, as technological advancements and wonderous gadgets reassure us of our progress, our ever-increasing forward momentum. And it is disconcerting to see these things as an outlet for something as gear-halting as simple grief. Mourning seems the ultimate recursive loop.

But consider: we humans make sense of our traumas and delights by calling them out, giving them the names and reasons needed in order to share their burdens with one another. In that light, perhaps twitter is an appropriate vehicle for grieving after all. Its limited space gives us the freedom to articulate our distress with whatever utterances we can salvage from the wreckage, however mundane or superficial, and verify that we continue to exist even as someone else does not. And its publicness may remind us, crucially, that though our lives have suddenly grown unimaginably smaller, we are still not yet entirely alone.

Locating Value in Spreadable Media: Executive Summary (part 3/3)

Posted in research on December 16th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

Sorry for the delay – I meant to post this on Monday but got caught up and totally slipped my mind. Anyway, here’s the last part of the executive summary. You can read Par1 1 and Part 2 and Part 2 in this blog and download the full paper here.

I’m hoping to get up a full research page in the coming weeks, with all papers, short pieces, and presentations I’ve churned out over the last couple of years, so look for that soonish.


Conclusions: Locating Value and Courting Communities

Final Principles:

  • Within market exchanges, things enter the transaction with a set value. In non-market exchanges, however, the value comes out of the transaction. So the value is actually created through. and comes out of, the context of the exchange, rather than being set before the good enters it.
  • The difference, then, between gift and commodity exchange is not that one is socially regulated while the other is economically or rationally regulated, but rather the speci?c rules and regulations that come into play. The differences are in how these regulations are deployed, and the relative role of the context and terms of the exchange itself rather than the contents of the exchange.
  • The networked and visible participatory practices online requires media producers recognize both market and non-market systems of exchange and the types of value and worth produced in order to engage audiences online.
  • When we seek to build businesses around users generated content, or when we’re trying to engage in social media campaigns, or when we see violations of IP, all activities that are now becoming common in any media brand or property. We can’t simply take pieces of different systems of value and cobble them together and hope for the best, nor can we simply take one system and place it within the architecture of another.
  • It does a potential disservice to media properties to simply apply the regulations of control from market systems onto non-market ones, such as in the case of DMCA takedown sweeps that remove content which not only fit within the boundaries of fair-use, but also stop audience activities that potentially generate more marketing value than cause damage.
  • Ultimately, the essence to being able to court a community and build an enduring relationship with your brand requires an understanding what kind of system your fans and consumers think they’re in. That is to say, in trying to create a system that can be mutually beneficial, and generate both market value and social worth, you must fully acknowledge and honor the parameters of both systems of exchange.

Locating Value in Spreadable Media: Executive Summary (part 2/3)

Posted in research on December 10th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – 2 Comments

Here’s part 2 of the executive summary to my most recent white paper, completed earlier this year and now available to the public. This part digs more into the differences in regulation and expectations between monetary and non-monetary forms of exchange. Part 1 is here.

Spreadable Media Across Market and Non-market Exchanges

To truly begin to understand how media spreads, we must come to understand how it comes to move across social systems, cultural forms, technological platforms, and modes of market and non-market exchange. All things used in exchanges — be they physical goods or more ephemeral things such as services, information, or experiences — carry three basic forms of interrelated value: use-value, symbolic-value, and exchange value.

  • Use-value: An object’s use-value is most plainly the material characteristic of an object, that does not mean it isn’t subject to social or conditional regulation.
  • Symbolic-value: The second dimension of value comes from an understanding of consumer culture. Symbolic-value is what differentiates goods or services that have similar use-values. Brands, for instance, are the bearers of symbolic-value.
  • Exchange-value: Finally, exchange-value, is the translation of a good’s use-value and symbolic-value within a system of exchange. A good’s potential use-value to someone else determines the value that it can be

These then are the three key dimensions of value present in any form of exchange, whether that be one regulated by money and market logic or by social relations. It is therefore not a question of whether or not a form of exchange has value, but of the roles each dimension of value has in shaping the terms of the exchange.

The Social Dimension of Market and Non-Market Exchanges

The use-value and symbolic-value of an object is determined by its social context then translated into a monetary exchange-value. In a non-market gift exchange, it is the opposite wherein the context — the social relations — play the primary role. Rather than a question of whether something costs money or not, it is more a question of where the core value is determined, and for what ends.

There are three general distinctions that can be identified between market and non-market systems of exchange, as indicated in the table below.

Impersonal versus Socially Regulated Exchanges
Market exchanges, generally, are impersonal while non-market exchanges are socially regulated. The use of money as the primary token of value in market exchanges is precisely what makes them impersonal. The nature of the relationship between the parties involved in the exchange does not have an impact on the value of the good or service being exchanged in a market exchange. On the other hand, the value of an exchange in a non-market setting is heavily determined by the relationship between the people involved in the exchange.

Discrete versus Ongoing Transactions
Since market-exchanges are governed by asocial relations, they are also discrete in the sense that they don’t create an ongoing relationship. That is, market-exchanges are oriented towards acquiring the goods available for the cash you have; their purpose is not to make friends, or create an ongoing relationship. Non-market exchanges, on the other hand are engaged in “in order to evoke an obligation to give back a gift, which in turn will evoke a similar obligation — a never-ending chain of gifts and obligations” (Kopytoff 2006: 69). The completion of an exchange in a market-exchange situation finalizes and marks the end of the transaction.  In a non-market situation, the idea is to build an ongoing social relationship rather than to simply exchange goods and obtain the “counterpart value.”

Absolute Exchanges versus Legacies of Exchange
A purchase from a vendor demands no further obligations after payment because the exchange is ?nal and the producer of the good exchanged has no further say in how it can be used. In contrast, a non-market exchange creates a legacy of exchange where even when someone has given something, they have some expectations and claims to that gift and how it is used. In a system of market exchange, the symbolic-value is part of the goods and services being exchanged. Any copy of a book purchased from Amazon has the same symbolic value as any other copy. As long as what is exchanged is identical, so then is the value because the symbolic-value and the use-value is also identical. In non-market transactions, such as gift giving, the symbolic-value is tied to the actual exchange so that identical gifts given under different circumstances have different values. A book given to you by a close friend therefore has the same use-value as any other copy, but a totally different symbolic-value that is generated by the mutual ties expressed in the exchange.

Companies that try to make money from user-generated content must recognize that their users still feel some sense of ownership over the content they create, even after they’ve agreed to hand over their data and content in exchange for use of the service. Companies that fail to recognize this run the risk of alienating their user-base and leaving people feeling exploited, rather than served.

In the final installment coming next week, look for a rundown of conclusions, and a download of a full paper.

Locating Value in Spreadable Media: Executive Summary (Part 1/3)

Posted in research on December 8th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – 2 Comments

As promised in the twitter backchannel during Futures of Entertainment 4, my most recent C3 white paper on non-monetary social economies in spreadable media is finally going public!

Enormous thank yous to the entire C3 team for their enormous brains, and to Joshua Green for his editing-fu.

A few of you caught a preview of it at our annual C3 Partner’s Retreat in May in presentation form, and I’ll be sharing those slides as well in the near future. For the time being, I’ll be posting the executive summary here in three parts, then providing the full paper in a pdf download once I do some much needed reorganizing of this blog.

In last year’s foundational white paper If It Doesn’t Spread, it’s Dead, we argued that participatory culture and the networked information society are making more visible systems of value which are not predicated on the demands of market economies and the exchange of commodities. The digital media landscape is, instead, based on principles of collaboration, collective intelligence, and social participation. Companies looking to succeed online should find ways to engage consumers and audiences that respect their practices of community building and recognize the role consumers play in the production of value online.

Building on that work, this paper provides a deeper, more nuanced and systematic account of how value is created and exchanged in socially driven systems. To do so, it compares the ways value is created in systems that privilege social exchange and those which privilege monetary exchanges. Looking at the creation and circulation of value in monetary and non-monetary systems, this paper suggests ways we might more clearly understand how media moves across and between these systems as it spreads. Understanding the way content moves between these systems provides insight into how to develop brands online, court communities, and produce successful digital media strategies that can address both the social and monetary demands of mixed economies.

Some of the most successful and innovative new media companies and projects — YouTube, Wikipedia, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and even Google — rely on content and data produced through collective efforts of many networked individuals and the relationships they build with one another.  Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine, in discussing the work of Clay Shirky, identifies four categories of collective production, circulation and information gathering behavior online: sharing, cooperation, collaboration, and collectivism. As more companies move into spaces predicated upon and shaped by principles of sharing and collaboration, we are seeing the emergence of mixed economies and models. Sites like Facebook, YouTube, or Hulu, for example provide services to users at no monetary cost, and in exchange monetize attention, labor, and the data of those users through more indirect means such as advertising. These companies, however, face challenges in responding to audience practices that run counter to expectations about media use. In some cases, this may result in “diminishing the level of trust within participating parties, and perhaps even wearing away the mechanisms which insure the legitimacy of economic exchanges” (Jenkins et al. 2008).

These challenges are the result of fundamental misunderstandings between the value is created within the socially driven circulation of content by consumers and the market-driven interests of media companies and content owners. We must therefore find new ways to understand the shifting nature of meaningful and fair interactions between consumers, producers, media companies, and advertisers in the contemporary media landscape. To do so, it becomes vital to understand the nuances and principles behind how different types of social value are generated online.

Gift Economy and the Fallacy of “Free”

A striking aspect of social sharing and collective activities online is that the participants gladly contribute their labor, creative content, and time without expecting any sort of monetary payment in return. People are uploading images under Creative Commons licenses on Flickr to be shared and used by all, or contributing their expertise and time to articles on Wikipedia, or writing fanfiction and editing fan videos to be enjoyed by the community at large, free of cost.

The gift economy provides a better way to frame and understand the types of exchanges that are increasingly being labeled “free” under the currently popular discourse of the “freeconomy,” or what Wired editor Chris Anderson has called “the economics of giving it away” (Anderson 2008). To understand how media spreads online, it is especially important to understand that whether paying for a good or service, or being given one with social obligations tied, both are transactions which involve the exchange of some form of value. It is not a matter of one having a cost and while the other doesn’t; Both exact a form of “cost” in return, though what is deemed a valuable and acceptable form of “payment” in each system is different. Many systems of sharing, cooperation, and collaboration online generate value through creating mutual ties and reciprocal expectations and social “payments.” Like the offer of coffee from your neighbor, these “free” content producers and laborers actually do expect a form of (social) payment in return for their work.

To do business online, we must recognize that nothing is absolutely free, only things that operate under systems of exchange in which money is not the main or immediate form of value exchanged. Value production and exchanges online involve a complex web of different transactions, through different systems of value that are codependent. Sites like Facebook and YouTube could not generate revenue, for example, if users were not using the sites to create social worth for themselves, and in the process producing the data and attention that advertisers desire. The framework of the gift economy thus gives us a way to analyze social worth as a core value. By acknowledging that what is happening is not a “giveaway” but another form of exchange operating under a different set of standards and regulations, we can begin to examine what those standards and regulations are, and how they are formed and negotiated, and how they can be most useful.

In the next installment: a breakdown of three core dimensions of value — use-value, symbolic-value, and exchange-value — and the critical social differences between monetary and non-monetary exchanges.