Wednesday, 27 January 2010
Monday, 11 January 2010
This essay looks at the way the Internet is evolving in its current “Web 2.0” manifestation and looks to where it might evolve beyond that. There is a particular focus on modern society’s relationship with the web and the way this effects their treatment of themes such as reality, identity, truth, secrecy and privacy. Looking at examples from popular culture, it considers new formats and models for future Internet behaviour.
What I REALLY meant to say was;
"This dissertation is the result of a misspent adolescence, wasted on the Internet. And after all, it's only the beauty on the Internet that really matters."
Keep it virtual. xxx
The term “Web 2.0” does not refer to any technical advancement, but instead to a change in the way software developers and end users are using the World Wide Web. The idea behind this new model for the Internet was that everyone would be equal and would have the opportunity to share their opinions or administrate their own websites. User generated content is an important aspect of this, where a site requires a certain amount of input from the user to create the content. Obvious examples of this change are social networking and media sites such as Facebook or MySpace, video-hosting sites like YouTube as well as blogs, Wikipedia and Google Maps’ Explore function. Most of these websites allow other users to comment on or reply to the original object.
In this essay I intend to explore these sites and their role in modern society, particularly focusing on the way they are affecting our relationship with themes such as identity, reality, truth, secrecy and privacy. In 2009, it was estimated that a quarter of the world’s population use the resource of the Internet. It has never been easier for people to connect across the world. Millions of strangers now have the ability to come together and share common experiences and interests. Thus far, people seem to be far more open on the Internet than would be socially acceptable in reality. There is something about the format, which allows people to lose their inhibitations.
I have held an interest in this subject ever since I was first linked to Frank Warren’s www.postsecret.com in 2005. This site asks users to send secrets on one side of a postcard to Warren’s home address and to use a certain amount of creativity in their efforts. Postsecret is the most popular example of a confessional site, but I am also interested in things like Twitter and Facebook, where it is easy to quickly display one’s life to the world, or online banking, which asks a person to trust the internet with all their finances – even when they are aware fraudulent “phishing scams” exist. I find it fascinating that the Internet offers a chance to change your identity, to become whomever you desire. This feature can be used innocently, in online games such as Second Life, where the user creates a persona, which can be as life like or as fanciful as they wish, or for the most sinister means such as fraud or for grooming.
Discussions such as this are so new – the internet was only set up in a meaningful way in the mid-1990s – that it can be quite difficult to find relevant, academic literature, which can be regarded as more than just opinion. A Google search of “Web 2.0” using the Timeline application yields results no older than mid-2005, with the majority falling between 2007 and 2008. As we begin to harness this new model of the Internet, and technologies adapt to work within in it we see new fascinating behaviours emerging. It is now we must decide whether these are an acceptable model for the future, or whether we should attempt to steer ourselves in a different direction.
1: The Death of the Professional & the Forming of New Identities.
As mentioned above, Web 2.0 does not represent a change in technology, merely a change in the behaviour of the Internet’s users and developers, which lead to the emergence of user-generated content sites. These websites require some form of input from the audience to make up a portion of their substance.
As these tools become more and more common to everyday use it is possible to see a shift towards the Internet being greatly edited and used by the amateur user. Is this change in power a positive or negative transformation?
During the summer of 2009, after the controversial election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, the Iranian government imposed strict limits on foreign media within the country, requiring journalists to obtain permission before leaving their offices. As the majority of media in Iran is government controlled, protests against the government and the violence involved were going largely unheard. Iranian’s began Tweeting their experiences and soon ‘#iranelection’ was a Trending Topic (and remained so for a considerable time). Since then the hash-tag has never disappeared from Twitter (see Figure 1.)
Taken from www.trendistic.com/iranelection (01/11/09)
Soon, eyewitnesses were uploading their pictures and videos to sites such as Flickr and YouTube – many showing graphic scenes of violence and bloodshed. Users also began to overlay their avatars in green to show their support for those in Iran. So this seems like a positive shift towards users having greater power on the Internet – giving repressed people a voice, raising an awareness of the situation and letting others show their support. However, as was discussed on the 04/11/09 edition of Radio 4’s Moral Maze, which was about Twitter and its power to create protest and “mobs”, this wasn’t necessarily the positive, free protest of the Iranian people. It is known that many accounts Tweeting about the election were actually agent provocateurs working for the Iranian government, which were trying to give out misinformation. While it would seem that a large amount of attention was being drawn to the plight of the Iranian people by the movement, many of the Tweets coming from outside Iran clearly were ill-informed about the situation or were viral RTs (RT stands for “ReTweet” where one account holder reposts the Tweet of another, at marks it with “RT” to show this). Social media such as Twitter allows the user to express an opinion, or re-express the opinion of someone else, with little thought or consideration. On the other hand Twitter is often used as a place to bounce readers to news sites and blogs, which can help them, create more enlightened opinions on a subject. Those who argue for Twitter would say that the Iranian people would not be on the streets protesting if Twitter had not been there to organise and liberate them. Those opposed argue back saying that they were on the streets because they had been oppressed for 30 years.
With this ability for amateurs to take control of the web, there is clearly a loss of professional opinion – informed experts, professional journalists and newspapers, web designers and official sites all lose out. And we lose their expertise. While it may be liberating for the man on the street, or rather behind his computer, to express his opinion – “the opinion of the people” (which it is so often not) – he has no real knowledge of what it is to practise professional journalism. Usually this information will be at least second hand, or mere opinion, rather than the more reliable first hand experience that a journalist has the resources to find. In his book The Cult of the Amateur (2007) – an exploration of the way the Web 2.0 revolution has handed the web to the narcissistic citizen - Andrew Keen gives his opinion of this shift;
“For the real consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution is less culture, less reliable news, and a chaos of useless information. One chilling reality in this brave new digital epoch is the blurring, obfuscation and even disappearance of truth.” (2007: p.16)
He also warns that this model of media breaks the world into “a billion personalised truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile” (2007: p.17).
Of course there are examples of professionals and experts abusing the opportunity the Internet presents for them to pretend to be amateurs. For example, a video appeared on YouTube, parodying Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), mocking its serious message. This seemingly homemade video, which has at the time of writing received 602,000 views, turned out to have originated from DCI Group, a conservative Washington, D.C. lobbying firm whose clients include ExxonMobil.
Many commentators claim that the Internet is having a detrimental effect on society. The tagline of Keen’s book reads:
“How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy” (2007)
As mentioned above, Keen’s work focuses particularly on the opportunity Web 2.0 gives its users to consider themselves, and be considered as experts or professionals, and to feed their egos. Keen appeared on the BBC4 show It’s Only A Theory (BBC4, 17/11/2009) arguing his theory that “User generated media is killing our culture and economy” – and specified that he is focusing his attention on sites such as Facebook and YouTube. His theory stated that our society is suffering and that the Internet has become merely “a platform for our feelings”, suggesting that we had a great opportunity in the Internet, but we have wasted it on Web 2.0 interaction. As an example he asked the panelists to imagine that they selected members of the audience and asked them to produce the show – “it would be a farce” quipped Keen. His argument followed that there are two main problems with the Internet – that it is a technology which allows us to express ourselves freely, without thought or with prior knowledge of a subject, and secondly that we are consuming less mainstream media such as newspapers and television, which tends to come from an informed perspective.
If it was discovered that an article, in a national newspaper, posing as a researched piece, was written by a naïve member of the public, speaking only from their own opinions and hearsay, there would be public outcry and the paper would have to publish an apology or an explanation. Writing in his book Here Comes Everybody (2008), Clay Shirky, talks about the publishing and journalistic worlds of the past,
“…we have a professional class of truth-tellers who are given certain latitude to avoid co-operating with the law. We didn’t have to worry, in defining those privileges, that they would somehow become general, because it wasn’t like just anyone could become a publisher.” (2008: p.71)
Shirky then admits that, in the current version of the Internet, anyone can become a publisher. Viewers are (generally) aware that the majority of blogs, YouTube channels, Wikipedia and Twitter feeds are run and updated by amateurs (of course, professional journalists, scientists etc also update and maintain information on these sites, but are a minority compared to the overall population of the Internet). However most still demonstrate an instinctive trust in these sources. We know that sites such as Wikipedia are written and moderated by amateurs but most would admit that it is their first port of call in understanding a subject. The word “wiki” is Hawaiian for “fast”, but has become a meme on the Internet for a collective knowledge. Rather than a factually accurate account of the subject, Wikipedia gives a quick snapshot of it, in a language understandable by the average citizen, even if it is not very academic. Traditionally, we are taught from the moment we begin to read that most written media – textbooks, newspapers, non-fiction books, journals – are intrinsically correct. Of course, free-thinking is encouraged, but the sense that the author knows their subject well, and thus has an elevated status above us, always lingers. It may be the transfer of these paper-based skills to the relatively new platform of the Internet, which causes users to trust online sources.
When one uses the Internet, a strange thing is happening. With face-to-face interaction, and even with a phone call it is possible to know something about the person with which you are communicating. If you can see them then you can make a guess at their age, can read their body language and make assumptions about their character based on the information your eyes have collected. When speaking on the phone things such as accent and tone of voice give away personality traits and basic personal information. The Internet however provides a completely anonymous communication platform. This puts an interesting spin on our ideas of trust, truth and privacy.
Anti-virus software and data protection firm, Sophos, conducted a probe into identity theft via Facebook (published on 07/12/09). In their investigation they created two Facebook profiles, both with names based on anagrams of the words “false identity”. “Daisy Felettin”, 21, displayed a picture of a rubber duck as her profile picture. “Dinette Stonily”, 56, was represented by two cats lying on a rug. Facebook users were randomly chosen in their respective age-groups and 100 friend requests were sent out to each profile. Within two weeks, 95 users had accepted the friend requests from these false profiles. This proved to be an even higher rate than when the experiment was first done two years previously with a plastic frog. Eight users added Dinette without being asked. Of those who befriended the profiles 89% of the 20-somethings and 57% of the 50-somethings gave away their full date of birth. On top of this, just under half of the 20-somethings and just under a third of the 50-somethings gave out personal information about their friends and family. Paul Ducklin, Head of Technology at Sophos’ Sydney offices, who conducted the study said,
“Our honeymoon period with social networking sites ought to be over by now – but many users still have a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude to their personal data.”
Total friends gained
| || || |
Full d.o.b. (D/M/Y)
Partial d.o.b. (D/M)
College or workplace
Town or suburb
IM screen name
Family and friend data
Average no. of friends
So why do people readily accept complete strangers as friends on the Internet? The design and concept of social networking sites tends to be inherently narcissistic. Users are usually represented by photographs of themselves, there is often a ‘status feed’ where they can update thoughts, feelings or activities, and they are asked to list their hobbies and interests. There are reams of applications to show how well travelled you are, to test your knowledge of popular culture or to test your IQ. Less of a communication tool, social networking often acts as an advert. There is a pressure to prove how cool, how funny, pretty or intelligent you are and of course, how many friends you have.
On top of this, the amount of information people are giving freely is alarming, a perfect hotbed for identity theft. Many social network users are sharing all of this data with criminals, who themselves are only traceable through their IP address – and even that can be concealed with free software such as Tor (ironically Tor describe themselves as “free software and an open network that helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security known traffic analysis.”)
Hopefully in the coming years this trend of sharing too much information will stop. To make this happen, user-generated content sites will have to change their formats to some extent in an effort to protect the identities of their users. Currently people are positively encouraged to tell all, but there is a pressing need for the format of these sites to mature.
2. Posthuman Futures & Virtual Realites.
Paula Rabinowitz’s essay Soft Fictions and Intimate Documents: Can Feminism Be Posthuman? proposes that women are in fact “posthuman” as until the recent achievements of the feminist movement history has been recorded in terms of “Man” and from a male perspective. Reading this led me to question whether the interface of one’s computer could be regarded as a “posthuman”. A remote user, a stranger, gives the machine a voice – but they are so distant to us that they are dehumanised and we are less sensitive to the reality. Do we trust these posthuman machines because we feel they cannot betray us? Or perhaps it is just much easier to confess to a faceless machine, as they do not appear to judge our behaviour. If we consider them “posthuman”, outside conventional human society, then perhaps they can sympathise with our unconventional secrets.
We know, in the back of our minds, that when we converse with a screen, we are conversing with a human somewhere. Perhaps the distance we feel from them liberates us on the Internet. Our personal lives will not affect those of strangers, or perhaps they will and we hope that our victories and failures might inspire them. Are online confessors and groups are seeking something they cannot find in their everyday lives? In general, there is an increase in overlap between social and online lives – social networking sites provide opportunities for “real life” friends to come together – Facebook for example has an ‘Events’ application to make easier the organising of events, parties, protests etc and a more intimate e-mail service which makes it simple to add several contacts to a conversation for inviting guests, to say, a dinner party. The organising of ones social life using Internet tools is increasingly becoming a mainstream activity amongst teenagers and twenty-something’s (although it is interesting to note that the average age of a Facebook user is 33). In the past, socialising via the Internet carried a certain stigma; it was the domain of online role-playing gamers or the lonely. But there is a growing feeling that the Internet should not replace real life, merely be an aid to it, and as people become more familiar with Internet life and real life crossing over and merging there is a chance for these tools to become more useful and creative. So we find ourselves at a crossroads, where the Internet could either stall in its current format, or evolve further onto different platforms and to form new functions. The technologies of the moment, smart phones and tablets, do bring the Internet to new spaces – perhaps the posthuman cyborg is not far away.
Science fiction writers have tackled ideas of posthumanism for a century, from George Orwell’s Thought Police of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) to the Borg of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), and within the past decade several have slowly brought it into pop culture and mainstream entertainmen. Robert Venditti, the writer of The Surrogates (2005-2006), a five issue graphic novel, which has recently been made into a film, was inspired by several reports of people who lost either their partners or jobs due to their addiction to the Internet or their online personas. He created a world in which everyone lives their lives, from the comfort of their own homes, by sending out humanoid, robotic, remotely controlled versions of themselves, “surrogates”, to interact with other surrogates. Venditti is quoted as saying;
"It dawned on me that if you were somehow able to create a persona and send it out into the real world—where it could go to work for you, and run your errands, and so on—then you would never have to go back to being yourself."
These posthuman, walking, talking avatars, can of course be created to be more attractive and any pain they experience is not experienced by their humans. Set in 2054, this concept feeds the fears of many Internet sceptics – that the masses are living increasingly through their online personas, to the detriment of their real lives. The film was set in 2017, bringing forward the potential of this reality to a mere 7 years from now.
Various other authors and directors have used online worlds as inspiration for their work. James Cameron, best known for directing Titanic (1997), spent 15 years developing new camera technology, with his private funds, to bring to life the planet Pandora for his most recent work, Avatar (2009). The film sees a paraplegic former marine, Jake Sully, given the chance to take over from his dead identical twin brother in a mission to a distant planet, rich in a valuable material, to study the indigenous population. The DNA of his brother has been mixed with that of the native Na’vi to create a humanoid ‘avatar’, which can be controlled remotely by the respective human (or one with identical DNA, i.e. an identical twin.) While Cameron has stated that the inspiration for the avatars was the Hindu belief that gods can come to Earth in the form of an avatar, and not the modern use the word - a picture or icon, which represents a person’s online persona - it is easy to draw parallels between the latter and the avatars of the film. We see that Sully becomes increasingly comfortable in his avatar body, and progressively more reluctant to return to his human body. In his avatar he regains the ability to walk, learns to fly pterodactyl-like creatures and falls in love. He also turns against his own species in order to help the natives save their home. The bio system of Pandora is interconnected, in a similar way as neurons in a brain, or computers networked to create the Internet. Na’vi can “upload” thoughts and memories to the bio system through ports in an appendage that grows from their heads. So whilst being real, it is as if they exist in our virtual worlds. The humans plugged into avatars have the ability to disconnect from this world, as an Internet user could disconnect. By the end of the film, Sully decides to leave his human body behind, to let it die, and live forever in his avatar body, by essentially uploading himself to the planets bio system, and then downloading into the avatar. Leaving behind the human body, the one in which all his experiences, pre-avatar, had been felt, and moving his consciousness to the machine, the avatar, is an unimaginable act. James Cameron has created a human future, much like Robert Venditti has with The Surrogates, in which the posthuman becomes a possibility, where humans can live in manufactured bodies forever in a virtual world. Posthuman experiences such as these are a clear extension of our current relationship to virtual lives.
Other examples of pop culture and science fiction using our increasing reliance on the virtual to create a horrifying version of the future include the television series Dollhouse (2009-2010), created by Joss Whedon, writer and director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). The show follows life in Los Angeles’ Dollhouse – a place where young people who have usually experienced some trauma give their bodies over to a company for five years. Their minds are then wiped and stored on disc, to be downloaded again once their contract is up. The company can then upload new personalities to the minds of the “dolls”. Dollhouse clients pay large sums of money to have these dolls programmed to any personality specification. This mixture of slavery, prostitution and the questionable morals of the company and its clients of course lead to disaster, and the first season finale (titled “Epitaph One”) depicts a world, ten years in the future, where any technology which transmits a signal, i.e. televisions, radios, telephones, can be used to wipe the minds of the public and install new personalities. This splits the world in to two tribes – those who are themselves, and those who are part of the doll army. Finally, in an emergence of a theme prevalent in science fiction, society breaks down and there is little chance of survival, as we know it.
All of these examples present a future where the human sense of self will be consumed by machines or technology and the introduction of a collective consciousness. This alludes to the fears of some commentators that our personal lives and privacy of thoughts are being compromised in the digital world.
3. Discovering Communication.
I personally don’t think that Web 2.0 is “killing our culture and economy” as Andrew Keen believes – merely that we are in a transitional period where our technologies are advancing faster than we can learn to understand them and use them properly. The Internet has developed over a relatively short space of time – public interest in it only really came about in the 1990s, with its most explosive level of growth between 1996 and 1997. Thus the majority of current users learnt to use the Internet during their adult lives. Currently there is a conflict between what they have learned in the real world to be socially acceptable and the opportunities presented by Web 2.0. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author, Douglas Adams is quoted as writing this set of rules, which describes humanity’s reactions to technologies:
“1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things." The Salmon of Doubt (2002: p. 95)
The introduction of the Internet is comparable to the invention of the printing press, around 1440. Both are examples of technological leaps, which facilitate the free spread of information, and both were met with scepticism from the professions they were perceived to threaten. Clay Shirky comments;
“The comparison with the printing press doesn’t suggest that we are entering a bright new future – for a hundred years after it started, the printing press broke more things that it fixed, plunging Europe into a period of intellectual and political chaos that ended only in the 1600s.” (2008: p.73)
As Shirky says, the printing press began by creating more problems than it was solving, but over time it found its place as a useful tool in society and eventually became not only an accepted part of it, but a hugely important element. It is clear that the Internet is already a significant tool in modern society. It is hard to imagine that it will take as long as 150 years for the Internet to find its place, to settle down, but it is clear that we are still only developing its potential. Most Internet based communication is currently modeled on existing forms of communication, where a conversation takes place between a speaker and an audience, whether that is an individual or a group, and where the conversation happens in a chronological order. Tools such as GoogleWave, currently only available as a preview of the final application, allow users to post information and ideas to a familiar web-chat format. Each piece of the conversation is then editable by any member of the conversation or ‘wave’. Changes are highlighted and the author of the change is credited on a group member’s first viewing of the amendment. Each person who contributes to pieces of conversation is recognized as an author of the post, and the post becomes a collaboration. Communication techniques such as this are an example of possible future Internet developments, where the identity of the author becomes less important or apparent. Interestingly, it was the invention of the printing press, which first gave the final word, as it were, on a work, to its original author. Before that, each copy of a piece of writing was a manuscript, which had been copied by a scribe, possibly from another copy, or a copy of a copy. Thus a given manuscript may have been altered greatly from the original piece, and its author or title lost. We are already witnessing how technology is changing language, shortening words and grammar and giving new meanings to old words such as avatar or wiki. Perhaps, as Internet technologies develop, we will begin to move back to older practices and models where idea ownership is less important than the actual idea.
Users will also have to write the rules on what is socially acceptable on the Internet. The way the Internet allows people to connect worldwide is so different from what has gone before that there is not necessarily a precedent for how people should behave on the Internet.
Looking specifically at www.postsecret.blogspot.com, a site which challenges traditional perceptions of secrecy, privacy and truth, we find a website devoted to the secrets of it’s viewers. As mentioned in my introduction this site requires users to send in postcards which tell a secret on the front side, usually decorated in someway, the tag line being “PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people
mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard.” (www.postsecret.blogspot.com, 08/11/09). This is a unique use of the Internet as a form of communication – it asks its users to take time and effort, to use some creativity to create a response.
Started by Frank Warren in 2005, it claims to be the biggest, advertisement-free blog in the world and has received 280, 822, 820 visitors at the time of writing. Warren, who has been described as “the most trusted stranger in America”, often opens the talks he regularly gives at colleges across America saying, “Everyone has a secret that would break your heart, if only you knew.” This may be true, however the secrets shared on his site are more often than not extremely sentimental or narcissistic – rather than shocking or indeed heart-breaking.
(Taken from www.postsecret.blogspot.com on 25/04/09)
While the secrets can be inconsequential and flippant, they can also often be inspirational or thought provoking. Whether these polar opposites are a sign that the public are not ready to bear their souls on the Internet, even anonymously, or whether it shows that they will never be ready is unclear. There aren’t many outlets for this type of communication yet – where virtuality and reality crossover and ask for anonymous creatively. Perhaps we are so used to having an identity, to claiming our work and thoughts as ours that we are not entirely comfortable when giving our personal thoughts away to be viewed by millions of strangers. When asked how he chooses which secrets make the cut Warren has said “I look for a ring of authenticity and real human emotions.” If the secret doesn’t make the grade then it has the chance of getting into the next Postsecret book or being part of Warren’s lecture series, in which he tours colleges in America, talking about the project. I wonder how the owners of the rejected secrets feel. Do they feel liberated, simply for having shared their secret with Warren or do they experience something else? Fear perhaps that the secret has fallen into the wrong hands, or indifference as nothing has been gained or lost.
Frank Warren’s post arriving in the snow, taken from www.postsecret.com (22/12/09).
To try and gain a better understanding of users relationship with Postsecret, I created a questionnaire on www.surveymonkey.com. In 24 hours I had received 17 replies, which ranged from those who had never heard of Postsecret, or were disinterested in it, to those who checked it every week, and even a few who had submitted their own secrets. . The majority said that they had heard of the site (13 had compared to 4 who had not), probably because those who had were more likely to be interested in taking part in the survey. From the responses it was clear to see that those who had first accessed the site between the ages of 15-16, or while still in high school had a much greater emotional attachment to it than those who were introduced to it whilst at university. A conclusion that might be drawn from this is that those using the Internet in an intimate way, at a younger age, have developed a more emotional attachment to it. They are more comfortable with digital relationships. One respondent, who first came across Postsecret, aged 15 and in school admitted to having submitted a secret. When asked what motivated them to do so they replied;
“To share something with the world that I would never have been able to get off my chest otherwise.”
I noticed that they didn’t articulate why they felt they needed to “share something with the world”. Another secret submitter said that they sent in a secret because Postsecret gave them “The ability to tell something to everyone, yet no one.” This comment was interesting to me – it implies that the nature of the anonymity of this site cancels out its purpose.
As people begin to connect and share information all across the Earth, there is a merging of various cultures and backgrounds which have to gel together, as well as an entirely new set of behaviors. And so, in these early years of the Internet we are seeing an emergence of what may become the norm in the future, or evolve further. Websites like Postsecret or YouTube which offer narcissistic outlets and give the opportunity for everyone’s 5 minutes of fame (all be it anonymously in some cases) may seem strange, vain, vulgar or mundane and self pitying at present, but in years to come it may become a more normal way for people to communicate, especially in an increasingly touchy-feely world. As it becomes socially acceptable for people, especially men, to show their emotional sides or be considered “metrosexual”, more outlets for egotism and narcissism may materialize, and be an accepted part of modern life.
However, currently there are a lot of people abusing social media to gain fame in these pioneering days of the Internet. Tila Tequila is the most obvious example; a model who rose to fame for having the most popular MySpace page in the world (most views per page) circa April 2006. From this she landed two reality television series and has released several singles. To keep herself in the public eye, she often Tweets outrageous and controversial things. At the start of 2010 her fiancé, Johnson&Johnson heiress, Casey Johnson died suddenly. It was Tila Tequila who first broke the news, via Twitter, only hours later. Other Twitter users critisied her for grieving so publically but she reminded them “I started off as the "INTERNET GIRL" remember? So I have ALWAYS been VOCAL on the net!” While most people would claim an aversion to her brand of vulgar and blatant attention grabbing, they would also have to admit it caries a certain intrigue.
Most celebrities and public figures traditionally shy away from media intrusion on their lives, or at least pretend to. We know that “leaked” details can often come from PR, aiming to increase the press coverage of a certain celebrity – the old adage that “there’s no such thing as bad press.” Increasingly there is a new generation of celebrities using social media to their advantage – and who are often far more willing to give people what they want in terms of personal information. Mitch Benn (comedian and musician) often tweets with the hash-tag ‘#thingsGretasays’, Greta being his 4 year old daughter. An example would be,
Of course, this is a relatively harmless post, merely commenting on the funny and sometimes inspirational things that young children say. However, one must question whether posting comments about one’s children crosses a boundary? Mitch Benn’s 13, 500 followers all hear snippets from Greta Benn’s life – a 4 year old unable to control what her parents say about her on the internet. On the 22/12/09 the Benn’s started a separate Twitter account for their daughter in which they Tweet as if they are her. I wonder what will happen, assuming that Twitter is still relevant, when Greta becomes old enough to have her own Internet presence.
Other examples of celebrities using social media in an interesting, different or meaningful way include Imogen Heap – a musician who tweets regularly on her life as a musician and on tour, and Amanda Palmer, a punk cabaret musician who also tweets about her life. Palmer in particular is also happy to give more private details;
“Amandapalmer: i am so menstrual”
1:52 AM Nov 6th from web
Other examples have seen her giving detailed descriptions of illness, posting photos of her posing nude, online auctions which include personal items such as a glass dildo and what her and her boyfriend, Neil Gaiman (aka @neilhimself) are doing and where they are. Neil Gaiman doesn’t tend to post such personal things himself, and is the 110th most popular Tweeter in the world (Palmer is 448th). In a recent tweet, Palmer said;
“Amandapalmer: just got in a car accident with @neilhimself on the brooklyn queens expressway. Brilliant”
“scary traffic rear-Ender. we stopped short, car behind banged into us. cars are slightly bent, nobodys hurt but everybodys shaky.”
Her own followers began sending messages saying they hoped she was safe. However, by naming Gaiman she inadvertently caused him to be inundated by messages.
“poor @neilhimself got a gazillion emails and phone calls after i tweeted our fender bender. sometimes i forget how famous he is. oops.”
2:13 AM Nov 15th from web
Social media such as Twitter, which allows a user to name another user via any interactive element similar to Twitter’s own “mention” feature (where, by placing an “@” sign in front of a username, a link to their page is created, and other users can search for these mentions) gives account holders the power to share personal aspects of not only their own lives, but those of others. Before the subject of the mention has time to react or object, the interactive link has alerted thousands to their actions, especially with the ability of other readers to ReTweet the original text. Incidents such as this are examples of the way that social media is evolving faster than we can get a handle on it.