Archive for the 'assignments' Category

Interpassivity on Facebook

Social networks give online opportunities to construct social connections, stay in touch with our friends and create/share user-generated content. They are characterized by interactivity; users are capable to react to each others’ actions. However, as our connections grow, our interactivity inherently might not. Therefore the question arises: what role does passivity play in social networks?

At first sight this may be a personal question; we all have our own way of interacting in these networks and maintaining our social connections. However, as our presence and absence in social networks plays an increasingly important role in our ‘real’ social lives, it might be good to take a look at some ways social networks allow users to be passive instead of being active. I will specifically focus on Facebook, but first let’s have a look at an alternative perspective on interactivity.

In ‘The Interpassive Subject’, the Slovenian sociologist, philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Žižek terms ‘interpassivity’ as an opposing concept to interactivity. Not only new media objects, but every form of media, gives the subject (the user) the sense of interactivity. However, Žižek argues that the object is active instead of the subject, who’s passive. He states that with interactivity a false activity occurs: ’you think you are active, while your true position, as it is embodied in the fetish, is passive’. Žižek refers to the Marxist notion of commodity-fetishism to imply that social relations are increasingly reduced to objects (Žižek, 1998).

To clarify interpassivity, Žižek uses an example of someone who lets the VCR record movies, without watching them and feeling profoundly satisfied about it. He lets the VCR ‘enjoy’ the film for him as it were. The VCR watches movies on behalf of the user. From this perspective, the VCR is a medium of symbolic registration, which he calls in Lacanian terms ‘The Big Other’ (Žižek, 1998: p7). This is a clear example where an object literally takes over activities from the user.

On the other hand Žižek also describes a form of interpassivity where substitution takes place; all kinds of emotions can be moved from a subject to an object (Žižek 1998: p4). To illustrate this substituted interpassivity, Žižek uses the example of a television-show with ‘canned laughter’ to indicate that the object can influence the subject before interaction can take place. The subject’s laughter is pre-mediated as it where. The subject can experience the same emotion without laughing, because the laughing is substituted by the television. In this case Žižek would call the subject’s interpassivity ‘laughing trough the Other’.

Žižek’s interpassivity is based upon a situation where an individual seems or feels active but is instead passive trough substitution or the assigning of activities to an object. However, social networks contain a lot of individuals that are connected to others trough the same object. How does the notion of interpassivity translate in the use of Facebook?

Facebook is known for its newsfeed system: a list of friends’ updates that displays on the main page. The newsfeed consist of updates by individual users who are aware that their friends may not even read their updates, because the newsfeed is time-bound. Besides, it’s very likely that the users do not have their Facebook startpage opened constantly, which means that they can easily miss messages. Weather you open the page or not, Facebook receives everybody’s status update for you and you’re able to read the updates later. Thus, the newsfeed system can be perceived as a symbolic registration system like the VCR used in Žižek’s example; as the user doesn’t read his friends’ updates, Facebook does.

Highlights and email notifications
Facebook users might not always be able to see every link, photo or video that every other user submits on their profile page. This is why on the right side of the page there are ‘highlights’ to see what posts other friends reacted to. This way Facebook will actively show things that might be of interest to the users. The same goes for email notifications from inbox messages. You don’t have to constantly check your Facebook inbox, as you receive a link in your email when you receive a new message. Facebooks’ (default) active way of notifying users allow them to be passive, while the notifications itself can lead to reactions.

Substituted sociality and interpassive social enhancement
It’s harsh, but I think it’s quite possible for (real) social relations to become substituted interpassively on Facebook. While users are communicating with their online friends, their social communication in the ‘physical’ world can become less important to them. I’d argue that friendships can turn into a more passive one trough an interpassive sociality that occurs on Facebook. However, on the contrary, people that do care more about their ‘real’ social life, rather than about their digital one, can join Facebook, which allows them to still connect to people who are using it more actively than they are. Even if they do not like to use the service or visit the site often. Facebook is able to enhance their social lifes by making it possible for other users to connect to them, while personally they’re not actively involved on Facebook at all.

The ‘like’ button
If you like something, you can click on the ‘like’ button beneath an update, to show everyone that you do. I’d argue that this is also a case of substitution, where the ‘liking’ something is actively expressed by Facebook, while the passive user doesn’t have to literally express the emotion. The user ‘likes it trough Facebook’, which applies to Žižek’s idea of being or acting through the Other.

Facebook is a new media object that allows users to interact with each other, but I’d say that this interactivity is overrated; in many cases Facebook users seem more active than they really are. Facebook is often ‘active’ for its passive users. Žižek’s notion of interpassivity challenges and encourages us to think about how ‘active’ our interactions with new media objects really are. And as we have seen, they allow us to be interpassive too.

The Interpassive Subject. Slavoj Žižek. Centre Georges Pompidou. Paris, Traverses. 1998.

Digital activism: using social media to change to world

Online social media nowadays seem like perfect tools for initiating social change in the world. Anyone with a certain goal in mind can reach large groups of individuals, spread awareness, raise a fund and get people to feel involved. Social media like Facebook, Twitter and blogs are popular tools for ‘digital activism’. However, it requires some understanding to turn digital actions into real ones.

Thousands of people join Facebook groups, make donations to support ‘Causes’, change their Twitter avatar, add a badge or gadget to an online profile or just simply get a message across their relations within a social network. These are just some of the countless examples where individual users seem to be digitally empowered to make changes in the world and collectively form an argument to change public debate. But are they really empowered?

Digital activism is still evolving; social media sites have discovered that by facilitating the clustering of individual users that are interested in the same social issues, they could play an important role in digital activism. Although by only bringing people together, the ‘world’ obviously doesn’t change instantly. It takes more than that.

Twitter for Iran, Slacktivism, green avatar

An important distinction needs to be made between ‘slacktivism’ and activism. ‘Slacktivist’, formed out of ‘slacker’ and ‘activist’, is a term that stands for an individual that is supporting a social cause with no or little practical effect, except  for the satisfaction the person feels by doing so [1]. A recent example is the green avatar overlay on Twitter during the 2009 Iran election. By adding the overlay you could show that you supported democracy in Iran [2]. Despite of it being an exciting idea and many people following, one could argue that it was rather a useless act.

Users of social media can be quite self-indulgent. Even when they have no or little knowledge about a certain issue, they might still follow others in a ‘slacktivist’ activity because it does not only makes them feel, but also look ‘good’ and thereby shaping their online identity[3].

However, there are a lot of foundations, NGO’s or non-profit organizations that use online social media to support their campaigns, in addition to offline hands-on actions; talking to (local) authorities, negotiating, suggesting and implementing concepts that create better conditions for people or nature. In other words, effectively making changes supported by digital activism. Not only by using online social media to make people aware of social issues, but also by letting them know exactly know how they could (collectively) effectively act upon them.

Social media researcher Dana Boyd argues that skeptics shouldn’t underestimate the power of social media to bring large groups of people together surrounding particular concerns [2]. I’d like to add that social media can become useful to activism when there is a clear dialogue between online and offline action. In order for users of social media to become more actively involved in campaigns, clear guidelines are needed. An interested user might be passive at first, but may eventually turn into someone taking real action. It’s up to campaign rallyers to create or use an online environment where social media effectively is being used to support their (offline) actions by giving users clear opportunities to become more active. Thus, activism shouldn’t be replaced by digital activism. Instead, it should co-exist and form a powerful combination.

Currently, there’s an online project (in which I am involved) called Rumana’s Sweatsoap initiated by the Dutch foundation Schone Kleren Campagne (Clean Clothes Campaign) that uses social media to spread awareness about working conditions in the garment industry in Bangladesh. Next to the social media services they use (Facebook, Hyves and Twitter), a blog is the heart of the project.

On the blog, a young Bangladeshi woman called Rumana shares her real (factory-) life story. (It’s in Dutch, for they want to reach Dutch people and make them realize who could be producing their clothes and under which conditions.) People can follow and share her narrative using social media, but they also choose to become more actively involved by visiting the blog and viewing the guidelines to do so. It’s a good example of an online campaign where interested people do not have to be actively involved, but if they want to they can easily choose to support SKC’s actions. Besides that, the blog allows the users to contact Rumana by asking her questions, which can be seen as a personal method of individual involvement; moving further away from slacktivists, who are only concerned with themselves.

It might be interesting to research how different social media services currently embed (possible) digital activism within their networks and how they could do this more constructively. Is there an effective way to separate ‘slacktivism’ from ‘activism’? Would that convince more people they actually have the ability to change things and act upon social issues globally? With digital activism still evolving, social media companies and campaign rallyers are challenged to think about their opportunities and possibilities to create platform for effective change.

Rumana’s Sweatsoap (Dutch)

[2] The trouble with Slacktivism. Marcia Stepanek, The PopTech blog, 24-09-09
[3] From slacktivism to activism. Evgeny Morozov, Foreign policy, 09-05-09

White lies and orange experts: WikiTrust

For a long time, online encyclopedia Wikipedia has been criticized for not being a fully reliable source; anyone is able to edit the encyclopedia anonymously, dis- and misinformation can be posted and might even persist. There is no consistent given indication of reliability. However, starting this fall, the ‘WikiTrust’ feature could have a great impact on the trustworthiness of Wikipedia.

WikiTrust is a system created by UCSC Wiki Lab researchers that should indicate how trustworthy Wikipedia contributions are, by assigning different shades of orange as background color to new or edited texts. Its’ algorithms calculates the authors’ reputation; if the authors’ contributions are preserved or built upon he or she gains reputation, and if they are deleted or edited swiftly he or she loses reputation. The shade of orange is derived from the author’s reputation; the lighter the shade of orange, the more likely the author is to be trusted (see some screenshots here). When users view a page and do not edit or delete the authors’ text, they do contribute ‘trust’ to the author. This way information on a page that persists is more likely to be accurate and reliable and edits from unreliable sources might be noticed faster.

Actually the WikiTrust software isn’t new at all.  It has been an extension for MediaWiki since November 2008. People that run their own wiki with MediaWiki are able to make use of the this extension for free.  Also the Wikimedia Foundation has already demoed WikiTrust a couple of times. But at any moment this fall the researchers expect the (demo) feature to be added to the entire encyclopedia. Registered users will soon have the option to turn on the ‘trust info’ tab on and view the colored text to find out more about the reliability of (the edits on) a page.

The Wikipedia community never really like the worth ‘truth’. As the WikiTrust wiki states: Of course, the algorithms implemented in WikiTrust cannot discover “truth”, and cannot discover false information when all editors and visitors agree with it. The concept is based on consensus. That’s nothing new under the sun. Nevertheless, WikiTrust revolves around trusting the information on Wikipedia. With this system users are perhaps given a reason to have more general trust in Wikipedia. Why wouldn’t people ‘trust’ pages containing errors and misinformation? Probably the majority of users use Wikipedia very swiftly and does not bother about the authors’ reputation. WikiTrusts’ algorithms might be able to mark dis- and misinformation as trustworthy, if the author has a high reputation and nobody bothers about editing or deleting that certain contribution. Nonetheless, an author will always start with a low reputation; even if you are truly and expert on a specific field of study, your first entries won’t give you a high reputation, no matter how knowledgeably your contribution is.

Despite the good intentions of making Wikipedia a more reliable source, there already are skeptics that don’t believe WikiTrust will make a positive difference. A number of critical questions that could possibly arise:  Does WikiTrust really improve Wikipedias’ reliability through authors’ reputation, or does it enable dis-and misinformation over time to be perceived as credible information by the (actions of the) crowd? Will this system separate the expert from the ‘lying amateur’, or will it instead keep experts from participating, for they’ll all have the same reputation as the ‘lying amateurs’ in the beginning?

Not far from now the WikiTrust software will be implemented on the entire encyclopedia. It’ll be very interesting to keep track of the impact it will have. Will it be used often? And if so, are the users aware of their influence on the authors’ reputation? Should they be? Can the authors’ reputation be misguiding? Only time will tell.  And ‘time’ itself will become a more and more important factor to improve the reliability of Wikipedia.

Download The WikiTrust Firefox add-on (demo)
Read Wired: Wikipedia to Color Code Untrustworthy Text, 31-08-09
Visit The official WikiTrust wiki

About Me

Marc Stumpel is a new media researcher, blogger and producer.

He holds a MA degree in New Media and Culture from the University of Amsterdam (2009-2010).

His main research interest is the antagonism within the political and economic dimensions of digital culture, especially in relation to social media.

Being a privacy/user-control advocate, he is concerned with the development of alternative social networking spaces and techniques. He is involved in the FB Resistance project and has written his master’s dissertation the Politics of Social Media, focussing on control and resistance in relation to Facebook.

He also holds the degree: Bachelor of Communication & Multimedia Design, Business & Organization Interactive Media at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam, specialization project management (2005-2009).

Marc is also a musician and producer under the alias of Zuurstof.