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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

Review of Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright – Lucas Hilderbrand

In his latest book: Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape (2009) Lucas Hilderbrand explores the analog past of video nostalgically, and shows its importance and relevance to (new) media studies. Hilderbrand mainly focuses on the aesthetic, cultural and legal impact of the analog videotape era to create a refreshing view of the analog past’s heritage to the digital age.

The first chapter describes the industrial, legal and cultural history of videotape. It revolves around the desire of access, what he terms ‘aesthetics of access’. The second chapter offers case three studies, which is followed by an epilogue about YouTube.

The new media ‘revolution’ obviously didn’t start with the Internet; it started a long time ago with video. When analog videotape and VCRs were introduced and marketed to consumers in the seventies, they were able to record every television show they wanted, watch it later (called timeshifting), skip the commercials and more importantly create a bootleg. Although there were a lot of U.S. court cases in which the recording without permission from the rights owner was questioned, analog video had loose regulations.

Hilderbrand often refers to the famous Betamax case, in which Universal and Disney sued Sony for selling copyright infringing technology. Courts’ decision resulted in the existence the Fair Use policy, whereby timeshifting was considered to be a fair use. Sony couldn’t be held responsible for the inappropriate use of their machines.

Hilderbrand argues that the ‘fair use’ policy emerged from the consumers’ right to access, which over time turned into a defense for infringing copyright. Instead, according to Hilderbrand ‘fair use’ should be considered as a way to document history, personalize texts (audio/visual narratives) and distribute rare works. The way the audience accessed, altered and watched analog video should support this idea.

In the eighties Hollywood, bootleggers and the pornographic industry had discovered the potential benefits of VHS. Hollywood founded a new market instead of turning against it, bootleggers copied and distributed rare works and pornography was a widespread phenomenon.

Bootlegging a videotape isn’t just duplicating video. Hilderbrand argues there’s an aesthetic value added. With each bootleg, the audience becomes aware of its degeneration. Lines and glitches appear, the image can become blurred and the sound can change. This contributes to the video experience and can make it more personal. This is what Hilderbrand means by ‘personalizing text’.

Personally, I would have like it if Hilderbrand had addressed ‘remixing’ more clearly, not especially in the context of ‘personalized text’, but rather throughout the whole book. When I read that some VCRs had the possibility (through dubbing) to add a different soundtrack to the videotape, I coulnd’t help to relate it to the personalized music videos that today are everywhere on the web. In the digital age we’re almost constantly personalizing texts. While perhaps not mentioning remixing enough, Hilderbrand does however mention Creative Commons, but not necessarily as a fair alternative to Copyright when it comes to ‘personalizing’ texts.

He does illustrates ‘personalized text’ itself by using two splendid examples: A short experimental movie called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes, 1989) and Joanie 4 Jackie (Miranda July – 1995), which is a feminist tape-sharing network.

Hayne’s Superstar is a film where the pop star Karen Carpenter is portrayed as a miserable anorectic Barbie doll that is influenced by “the media”, and contains the soundtrack by Richard Carpenter. Consider it a cult classic. It has been popular for being ‘banned’ due to the use of unauthorized material and for the way it circulated in the audience.

In both examples video tapes were being bootlegged, altered and distributed. However, the Joanie 4 Jackie project made it possible to share and deal with interconnected issues. Joanie 4 Jackie was a project in which women distributed chain letter video tapes in their network, adding footage to it when they receive the videotapes. While the Joanie 4 Jackie project ran in a determined social network, Superstar was distributed through personal connections. It could appear anywhere, in any altered version. Both case studies illustrate how the access to video has changed. Viewers turned into users of video.

The third case study (which is the first one in the book) is about the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. The VTNA was founded in 1968 by Paul Simpson. He approached the Vanderbilt University with the idea that he wanted to archive the news from ABC, CBS and NBC. CBS sued him for copyright infringement while the VTNA was part of their organization. However, eventually it was considered as an archive worth to preserve. It is a remarkable initiative that shows need to preserve cultural (video) history. Today the archive digitally still isn’t fully available to everyone.

Digital video as opposed to analog videotape has often more restrictions and more levels of mediation; videos might be locked with a DRM technology or are uploaded to the web from a mobile device and lose quality through compression. In the epilogue Hilderbrand analyses digital video on the post-broadcasting community website YouTube. He thinks YouTube is important for replaying pop-culture memory, but it’s limited, because of its fleeting access; video can disappear fast when the copyright owners has asked to take it down. It remains a matter of time and control.

Hilderbrand concludes that copyright should serve the public good; instead of using copy-prevention strategies for market purposes, we should look for a fair way to archive and preserve media. Copyright namely endangers the preservation of cultural memory.

Inherent Vice is an interesting read for everyone who’s involved with (new) media studies; it reminded me to be aware of mediation, the possible differences in accessing media, the aesthetic value of a format and the importance of the preservation of cultural memory. First I focused more on the music industry when I studied copyright’s survival, but now video tape has opened my eyes to an important history that could possibly change the future access to media content.

Lucas Hilderbrand is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

Hilderbrand, Lucas ‘Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright’, Duke University Press, 2009

Official book page at Duke University Press
Interview with Lucas Hilderband by
watch: Superstar: a Karen Carpenter Story
Joanie 4 Jackie
Vanderbilt Television News Archive

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.