Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Almost the Finished Product

Nearly There... This is just for those who care enough to check this without my social-media prompting. Shucks you guys! It's 8am. Wow. Bed time for a few hours I think.

Keira Anderson

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. As western society becomes increasingly secularised (with the possible exception of North America) and conventional religion takes a back seat a phenomenon is occurring on the Internet. Traditionally confession happened in a place of worship, between a religious leader and the confessor and the identity of the confessor was kept a secret. Now, there are several sites popping up on the Internet offering a similar service, without asking for anything in return. 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 inhabitations.

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. There are plenty of authors writing about the psychology and anthropology involved in identity, secrecy and private lives, and several writing about the influence of Web 2.0 but few that combine the two – and that is my challenge.

Changing relationships, changing technologies, shrinking of the world

Chapter 1

Amateur power, printing press, death or rebirth of the professional?

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.)

Figure 1 - Taken from Trendistic.com/iranelection

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 – 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.” (Keen, p.16; 2007)

He also warns that this model of media breaks the world into “a billion personalised truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile” (Keen, p.17; 2007).

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 An Inconvenient Truth, 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” (Keen, 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 (17/11/2009, BBC4) 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 na├»ve 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 – How Change Happens When People Come Together (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.” (Shirky, p.71, 2008)

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.

Chapter 2

Anonymity, trust & truth.

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.”

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.”)

Information

Daisy

Dinette

Friends accepting

46%

41%

Total friends gained

46

49

Full d.o.b. (D/M/Y)

89%

57%

Partial d.o.b. (D/M)

9%

35%

Email address

100%

88%

College or workplace

74%

22%

Town or suburb

50%

43%

Full address

4%

6%

Phone number

7%

23%

IM screen name

13%

18%

Family and friend data

46%

31%

Average no. of friends

220

932

Chapter 3

After the human: pop culture and science fiction imagine posthuman futures and virtual realities.

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, and within the past decade several have slowly brought it into pop culture and mainstream entertainment. 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.

Chapter 4

Sharing private moments and information. Questioning internet presence.
probably end up amalgamated with another chapter. Is a bit of a loose end.

Most celebrities 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,

MitchBenn: #thingsGretasays Mummy I am a bit bored. Will you make me a MILKSHAKE to make my boredness go away?” 2:53 PM Nov 4th from dabr

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”

10:27 PM Nov 14th from Twittelator

“scary traffic rear-Ender. we stopped short, car behind banged into us. cars are slightly bent, nobodys hurt but everybodys shaky.”

10:31 PM Nov 14th from Twittelator

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.

Even self-confessed technophobes will find it hard to ignore the Internet today. Most people have a web presence of some sort – whether they interact with acquaintances through social media, or use internet banking or even have used the internet to pay their TV licence, they may not realise it, but they have left behind ‘digital footprints’. The December ’09 issue of American magazine, Wired, contained an article by Euan Ratliff in which the author attempted to disappear for a month. He …

To finish, not to finish… we’ll see

Chapter 5

Changing how we communicate. Changing the design of the net.

MIGHT THIS BE MY CONCLUSION IF I ADD TO IT?! DOES IT MAKE TOO MANY NEW POINTS. 1st paragraph began as conclusion to a very early version…

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." – Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt (posthumous 2002), Build it and We Will Come (1999) 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.” (Shirky, p.73, 2008)

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. 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 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.

Chapter 6

Gaining a voice, changing the system.

The web savvy are beginning to realise the potential the Internet presents them to make changes to the lives and standards of themselves or those far away, or the traditionally more powerful, as they discover that they can influence what become normal internet behaviors. This can be seen in serious campaigns such as the networks that exist to support LGBTQ rights worldwide, or political stories such as the Iranian election in June 2009. More whimsical Internet movements, which have made the news include this years Christmas number one single. From 2005 – 2008, the Christmas number one was dominated by the ITV reality show The X Factor. In protest at the predictable nature of this trend, (especially as the show is scheduled to end the week before Christmas, thus ensuring its success) two fans of the alternative metal band, Rage Against the Machine, launched a Facebook group titled RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE FOR CHRISTMAS NO.1. The page went viral and gained a huge following in the month before Christmas. The song chosen was Killing in the Name (1992), which has a chorus line of “Fuck you, I wont do what you tell me.” Over 1 million Facebook users joined the group, pledging to buy the single, for just 29p online in the week before Christmas, in a bid to change the results. The campaign received criticism as both Rage Against the Machine and The X Factor winner, Joe McElderry are signed to Sony records and so there was speculation that this was a stunt by the company. However, Rage Against the Machine were not directly involved in the campaign and they have donated all the profit from the single to the homeless charity, Shelter. All together over £90,000 was raised for the charity. The 18-year-old song reached number one and became the first download only single to do so.

While this is clearly a far less important issue than the elections in Iran, it shows that the Internet, particularly in the west, can in some way be used by the public to change the accepted norm.

The afore mentioned Amanda Palmer has experienced a lot of trouble with her record company, Road Runner Records – their poor promotion of her album, taking huge margins from her sales and not funding her properly. She has used both Twitter and her blog to make very public her problems with her contract and generally give the company bad press. When Palmer recorded a video for her song Leeds United that had a lot of involvement from fans, Road Runner rejected it – saying that she was too fat to go topless in the video;

Outraged, fans quickly set up the website www.therebellyon.com in response. The site asked fans to send in pictures of their own stomachs – to show support for Amanda’s belly and bellies everywhere. This whimsical site is a great example of how Web 2.0 can bring people together. It also asks them to post photographs of a part of their body not often on display. In a weight obsessed world one would assume that most people would be hesitant to show their stomach to potentially everyone on the web – but something about this format, in which it is not necessary to show ones face, and where everyone is doing it, made it acceptable.

Amanda Palmer is not a well-known musician. She will never sell out arenas or have a Christmas number one. What she does have is a fiercely loyal fan base. While this may be said for any number of musicians of the past, Amanda Palmer is one of a group of artists who are creating a new model for fan/artist relationships. As I have mentioned before, she is happy to tweet and blog about personal aspects of her life – but it is not this that is chiefly responsible for this connection. Since the formation of her band, The Dresden Dolls, in 2000, she has used the Internet and live shows to ask fans for help. Fans were shamelessly asked for a place to sleep, food, transportation, the loan of instruments and even monetary loans. More recently she has stopped in the middle of her shows to sell art on stage, held online webcast auctions of her belongings and even auctioned off a date with her boyfriend’s daughter, Holly Gaiman. After spending five years working as a living statue in Boston, she is not afraid to take your money.

“If you think I’m going to pass up a chance to put my hat back down in front of the collected audience on my virtual sidewalk and ask them to give their hard-earned money directly to me instead of to Roadrunner Records, Warner Music Group, Ticketmaster, and everyone else out there who’s been shamelessly ripping off both fan and artist for years, you’re crazy.”

(From Amanda Palmer’s blog “Why I am not afraid to take your money, by Amanda Fucking Palmer.” 29/09/09)

And from the comments this blog received, her fans seem willing to accept this. Palmer has used her Internet presence and complete lack of shame to unique advantage. What do her fans get in return for their generosity? She regularly posts YouTube videos of covers and original songs, which she encourages people to share for free. She even paid out of her own pocket to have a professional music video director film a parody karaoke version of an Avril Lavigne song. Those who bought her album directly from her, and not from outlets which would give a percentage of the profit to her record company, were then eligible to download an “alternative” version of her album – which featured different recordings of tracks and extra songs. She began the hashtag ‘#LOFNOTC’ – Losers of Friday Night on their Computers – which has become a Trending Topic on more than one Friday and remains popular with fans and geeks alike. After the premiere of Neil Gaimans film Statuesque on Sky, in which Palmer and Bill Nighy star, she Tweeted a link to a torrent of the film – technically illegal. Perhaps the fans are given a sense of belonging to an exciting movement, with minimal effort on their part? Her profit doesn’t go on a rock star lifestyle – it pays for tours and covers the rent on her apartment in a Boston artists’ commune. Amanda Palmer doesn’t make art for money, but she doesn’t make it for free either.

“It’s about empowerment and it’s about SIMPLICITY: fan loves art, artist needs money, fan gives artist money, artist says thank you.
I believe in the future of cheap art, creative enterprise, and an honorable public who will put their money where there mouth is, or rather, their spare change where their heart is.” (“Why I am not afraid to take your money, by Amanda Fucking Palmer.” 29/09/09)

As the music industry, as a microcosm of industry and business in general, faces the challenges presented to it by changes in the way people consume their product, artists like Palmer are embracing the changes and using them to their advantage. The music industry was the fastest to combat the rise in piracy of their product via the Internet and only now are others such as film and fashion catching up. Palmer’s efforts are an attempt to take the control of her work back, and to make sure that those directly responsible for making art are rewarded. It may be too late, she may already have lost the battle, and it is only a matter of time before the Internet slips through the fingers of the public, just like the printing press before it, but it is still in it’s infancy and there is the chance the public can learn from the past.

There’s something particularly awesome about the fact that we are in a new age of wild west internet where the protocols and etiquettes aren’t set.”

(Amanda Palmer’s blog, 13/10/09 Virtual Crowdsurfing.)

lofnotc.jpg

Chapter 7

Challenging traditional ideas/definitions of privacy & secrecy. Collaborating between the physical & virtual.

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). 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.” Arguably, this could be quite true. However the secrets shared on his site are more often than not extremely sentimental and narcissistic – rather than shocking or indeed heart-breaking.

(Taken from www.postsecret.blogspot.com on 25/04/09)

This secret for example, while possibly being something the ‘artist’ has never admitted to an acquaintance it is hardly a deep, dark secret and its self-pitying nature is hardly heart breaking. If it has never been said out loud, it’s probably because the author realises no one will really take the “secret” seriously. This is a shame, as this form of confessional site offers something quite different from its counterparts – instead of an instant response or hastily written, ill-thought through message or secret, a site which requires a physical response (the postcards) from its users should provoke more considered answers. From secret to share takes a lot of effort. Firstly, the revealer, the person sending the postcard, must harbour a secret they feel is of worth, or which they particularly desire to share. Next they must create the postcard – most cards use a mix of collage, printed text, found images, ready-made postcards or photographs. Then they must buy a stamp and post the secret. They have no idea whether it will ever end up on postsecret.com. So why do they do it? The card must then travel to Germantown, Maryland, USA (an unremarkable town 20 miles from Washington DC) to the home of Frank Warren. Depending on the postage used and the distance, this could take weeks. It arrives along with up to 1000 other postcards that week. Then it has to make it into the top 20 selected for that week’s Sunday Secrets. 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. The Sunday secrets don’t necessarily reflect the average secret sent to Warren – he affects them in his choice. He is the one who has the power to vocalise them to the wider world, or to keep them to himself. 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 postie.jpg

Frank Warren’s post arriving in the snow.

To try and gain a better understanding of users relationship with Postsecret, I created a questionnaire on www.surveymonkey.com. I appreciate that this survey is rather unscientific – I posted the link to my Facebook page, my Twitter feed and my blog, and so while the survey was completely anonymous, it is safe to assume that most respondents are aged between 17 and 25, mostly from middle class backgrounds, have a reasonable level of English and are personal friends of mine. None the less, 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”. In response to a question about their thoughts and feelings before, during and after sending the secret they replied;

“I was nervous that someone would see the postcard(s) I was making. Once I'd sent it I felt relief and when I saw it I was slightly amused knowing that nobody at the exhibition knew that it was mine.”

Another secret submitter also admitted a certain amount of terror that someone would read the secret before it was posted, and told me that they kept it on themselves, in their pocket, until they could post it. They also 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 Frank Warren’s site is hosted from America, is largely an English language site. Postcards received can come from all over the English speaking world, but also, occasionally from other countries, sometimes written in English, and sometimes in their own language. In response to this, there are several other sites world wide. The original Postsecret site has links to German and French sites. There is also a Spanish site which is a copy of Warren’s original – with the secrets translated into Spanish. Both the French and German sites use the same blogspot template as the American site and have similar domain names (www.postsecretfrance.blogspot.com, www.postsecretdeutsch.blogspot.com). Warren endorses the French, German and Spanish sites. Similar ventures exist at www.postsecret.ru (a Russian version) and www.postsecret.gr (a Greek version). However, these haven’t worked as well as their West European counterparts. The Russian site has only a few postcards, mostly collages, and in a mixture of English and Russian. The Greek site only displays text – there are no secrets to be found. Perhaps the idea of sharing ones secrets isn’t so attractive in these countries, and it may also be due to lower rates of Internet access. While 79.8% o Brits and 74% of Americans are online, only 46% and 27% of Greece and Russian respectively have Internet access.

….

Conc…

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