online forums

In an earlier post I discussed the way blogs relate to how Jurgen Habermas’ envisaged his concept of the ‘public sphere’. I spoke about the ideological splintering of viewpoints that are put forward in the blogopshere and the lack of real scrutiny applied to them. Today I would like to draw attention to a different type of ‘sphere’ represented by ‘ online forums such as BigFooty (http://www.bigfooty.com/forum/forumdisplay.php?f=19).

BigFooty is a forum devoted to discussing all facets of Australian Rules Football. Users who wish to contribute to the discussion must register themselves and then follow a set of rules regarding the material they post — basically disallowing any ad hominum attacks and other unsavoury contributions. The forum is moderated by other BigFooty users. In essence the structure and order of online forums allows for greater direct scrutiny to be applied to the viewpoints expressed by people.

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Lovink on blogs

On blogs, Lovink argues that “No matter how much talk there is of community and mobs, the fact remains that blogs are primarily used as a tool to manage the self”. On this point of “management” Lovink goes further, referring to the “need to structure one’s life, to clear up the mess, to master the immense flow of information”.

Lovink’s point is an interesting one. Why does one neeed to “clear up the mess” and “master the immense flow of information” by using a blog? What is there inherent in blogs which attracts people to use them for such tasks? Are people attracted to blogs to use them for such tasks? I would’ve thought diaries to be a far more useful tool to keep my life in order and give it structure, or even Facebook…

Indeed, Lovink’s argument about blogs is a cynical one. A key reason people use blogs is because they provide an accessible platform from which we can express ourselves.  Self-expression and life structure are two completely unrelated human concepts. An example of such expression is seen in the following blog:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/williamswishwellingtons/

As most people lack celebrity, people have historically conducted their self-expression in private in the forms of hobbies, private journals etc. Some went further and joined writing societies, book clubs, started bands etc. But with blogs the ability to promote one’s self-expression is made far easier. People like to promote their self-expression often due to a natural yearning for vindication. It is this desire for vindication which underpins the growing prominence of blogs as a means for self-expression. Indeed, in the blog afore mentioned, this desire for vindication is seen. There is no sense of “clearing up the mess” in it. His photography is exhibited in a virtual gallery and is thus made available to a much wider audience — a wider net can be cast for vindication. Some might point to analysis based blogs such as ones that analyse film, television, politics, music and literature as evidence of this desire to “master the flow of information”. But such blogs are unavoidably couched in subjective opinions and are thus also a manifestation of self-expression.

That said, there is, at least to a certain degree, some merit in Lovink’s claims about structure. These “structure” based arguments are, however, still rooted in this concept of self-expression. What blogs provide is an ability to express one’s self from an accessible platform in an organised and structured way. We can select and edit what we choose to express about ourselves and thus streamline the process of self-expression. Though this sense of structure is no different to how celebrities have expressed themselves throughout history (using art galleries, books, published essays and music manuscripts), blogs grant people this sense of structure and control in an accessible way.  The photography blog posted above is an example of this streamlining of the process of self-expression. Though the photographer in question would have used several rolls of film, his blog allows him both a visible platform from which to express himself as well as the ability to select and edit the photos he wishes to publish.

References:

Geert Lovink, Blogging, The Nihilist Impulse, in Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture, London: Routledge, pp 28.

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Do blogs more effectively inform the public?

In blogs we see a splintering of the way information is presented to the public. Though old media sources such as newspapers and mass media sources such as television have always presented information to the public in a diversified way, the infinite ‘space’ provided by the internet facilitates an infinite number of perspectives that news issues can be viewed from. Does this mean, however, that blogs inform the public in a more effective way than old and mass media sources?

To answer this question it is relevant to examine Jurgen Habermas’ concept of the ‘public sphere’. Habermas envisaged the public sphere as a discursive forum where issues of political concern could be raised in the public eye in an inclusive and egalitarian manner. In this sense, it could be argued that the ‘blogosphere’ better meets the requirements of the public sphere than older media sources. Indeed, as a participatory culture, blogs allow for far greater community engagement than either newspapers or the mass media.

If blogs are to better inform the public, however, then it could also be argued that they must transcend the political divides that have often defined media consumption. Indeed media is often consumed along set boundaries of political values. For example, the ABC,  The Age and Sydney Morning Herald are far more likely to be consumed by those possessing more liberal political values while Sky News and The Australian are far more likely to be consumed by those who possessing conservative leanings. In this sense the supply and consumption of news is undertaken in blocs of political allegiance. But is this a problem?

Though it must be conceded that the media has a strong influence in shaping the political agenda, it is wrong to perceive media consumers as existing in the same rigid political blocs as media suppliers — to do so is to deny that society possesses any sense of pluralistic thought. The adversarial nature of media supply strikes a balance between the left and right sides of politics. Sometimes this adversarial relationship causes both sides to resort to unscrupulous tactics such as misrepresentation and obfuscation,  but both sides tend to act as a kind of check on the other’s veracity and integrity. Indeed though both political blocs of media supply antagonise the other, the finite amount of discursive space formed around older media sources allows for such media sources to be held to a reasonable amount of scrutiny and because of this they maintain reasonably moderate political views — whether left or right.

It is this sense of finite space and scrutiny that is lost in the blogosphere. The infinite discursive space provided by blogs will inevitably lead to a vast diversification of political views and inherent within this diversification is a loss of moderation — we will see more and more the organised distribution of radical political views (left and right) being disseminated in the blogosphere. Though it has been, and always will be, impossible for the old media to report news objectively, objectivity has always been held as an asymptotic goal for all news reportage — seeking to give the public the facts and allowing them to form their own opinions. It is this asymptotic goal which will be less valued in the blogosphere as editorial interpretations of the news dovetail into an infinite array of political stances. Indeed, if everyone is given the opportunity to rant from their own soap-box, we are bound to see some extreme opinions being articulated but not adequately scrutinised. Political opinion in the blogosphere will inevitably move closer and closer towards implacable dogma and further and further away from objectivity.

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Jose van Dijck on Youtube.

Jose van Dijck suggests that the Youtube user interface favours certain videos over others through the use of a ranking system. Van Dijck’s appraisal raises two points worth considering. The first is the notion of the internet as a democratic forum which promotes public choice. From this perspective it could be argued that Youtube’s ranking system is simply a manifestation of this democratisation.  Users are given the opportunity to affirm their approval or disapproval of particular videos. In this sense the “like/dislike” function present on Youtube to a certain extent empowers its users with the ability to express their opinions on video material, albeit in a binary way. This empowerment is further supported by the comments section underneath each Youtube video — providing a forum for discussion about the above clip.

Conversely, however, the system of ranking videos based on their amounts of views subverts this idea of democratisation. The concept of creating a popularity hierarchy on Youtube undermines the public choice of the site’s users. Instead the user interface funnels users into a pool of particularly popular videos, thus constricting the empowering influence of public choice. Furthermore, this funneling of users based on popularity is a purely quantitative method of ranking videos. Put simply, just because a video is popular does not mean it is of high quality, intellectually stimulating or even humorous. Indeed, inherent in the quantitative nature of such popularity-based ranking systems is their tendency to self-perpetuate their own popularity. For example, when Youtube users are encouraged to view a certain pool of videos due to their “popularity” they unavoidably add to the popularity of this same pool by viewing them. In this sense their popularity becomes arbitrary rather than merit-based; Youtube facilitating this popularity rather than allowing it to occur through public choice. Because of the quantitative nature of such hierarchical systems, some might argue that a more qualitative method of ranking videos is needed. The diverse nature of the Youtube environment, however, makes this argument an impossibility as such qualitative ranking systems are unavoidably couched in subjectivity.

I would argue that the only way to maintain the integrity of public choice on sites such as Youtube is to modify their user interfaces and thus remove the funneling process that occurs. The gravitas granted to particularly popular videos does nothing to promote diversity on online communities and is in fact counter-productive.  It could be argued that the only reason such weight is granted to popularity on the Youtube user interface due to the demands of advertising. It is far easier to run a targeted advertising campaign on videos that possess a high likelihood of being viewed (due to how popular they are). This argument is supported by the fact that highly popular Youtube videos are far more likely to be prefixed by an advertising clip than their less popular peers. It is from this line of thought that we can conclude that the popularity-based ranking system present on Youtube is simply in place to increase their revenue from the sale of online advertising space. Indeed, the sense of empowerment that some might associate with the ranking of videos through views is a bogus one. It is merely a veneer for Youtube’s money-making ambition.

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Ducky

 

 

Some rights reserved by ferran pestaña

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Mark Zuckerberg’s comment on sharing (start at 0:26 – stop at 0:39)

In the above video, Mark Zuckerberg discusses the need for balance between connectivity and privacy in collaborative social networking practices. Zuckerberg’s argument is that the greater connectivity of people around the globe makes it far easier to resolve global problems. He argues that connectivity leads to understanding and that this understanding is critical in problem resolution as it informs all parties of their peers’ perspectives. Zuckerberg’s argument is a logical one. Friction between parties is often either caused or exacerbated by misunderstanding — thus anything which helps to improve such understanding is surely welcome.

Yet the arguments in favour of increased global connectivity straddle a thin line between being beneficial and being arbitrary. Though connectivity can underpin increased cultural and political understanding, it is still the right of an individual to choose who they are ‘connected’ to. It is this individual right which Zuckerberg refers to when he communicates the improvements he and his team have made to Facebook’s privacy settings.

Though joining Facebook involves acquiescence to the site’s own set of terms and conditions, no entity has the right to share an individual’s private information without that individual’s consent. Private information is an individual’s property and as such, individuals have the right to either share or conceal this property as they see fit. It is for this reason that Facebook has drawn the ire of many of its users. Though Facebook has always provided fairly extensive privacy settings which can be used by its users, when updates and alterations have been made to such settings, users’ privacy settings were automatically returned to their default settings which happen to be the least private setting possible.

Though an inconvenience, this return to default settings wouldn’t pose so much of a problem if users were notified of this change. As it happens, however, no such notification is provided — often the only way users discover the change is by viewing their profile whilst logged out of their account. This lack of proper communication between Facebook and its users has caused some to accuse Facebook of treating its users’ privacy with contempt and attempting to remove privacy settings by stealth.

But why is this a problem? Surely reduced privacy settings allow for greater global connectivity and understanding? The problem with this argument is that understanding can only occur where there is engagement between two parties. It must be conceded that greater connectivity can facilitate such engagement but one does not necessarily bring about the other. Indeed the problem with the arguably contemptuous attitude held by social networking sites towards their users’ privacy is that it makes users vulnerable to identity theft, harassment and bullying. Society does not accept such behaviour on the street so why should it accept such behaviour on the web?

It is not necessary for Facebook to take liberties with its users’ privacy in the name of connectivity. The site’s social networking capabilities allow for people to connect around the world at their own discretion. Whether or not they choose to connect is entirely up to the individual, but the fact that they can is all that is important. People have a right to pick and choose who they let into their lives, and no organisation or entity is entitled to subvert this right for any reason, regardless of how noble or well-intentioned that reason may be.

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File Sharing.

The record industry would have us believe that file sharing will ultimately see the death of music production. They would have us believe that file sharing is making the music industry financially inviable. In effect the music industry seeks to obscure the overwhelming benefits of file sharing for the consumers and creators of music. The consumer and creator win in this situation and it is this fact which the record industry, being the increasingly stranded middle men that they are, refuses to accept.

It could be argued that the music industry formed a rigid hierarchy for musical achievement. The path to commercial musical success was inflexibly laid out by the record industry and it was this path that musicians were forced to traverse on their way to fame. In effect the music industry had monopolised the only avenue to musical success and were thus able to exert a degree of control over the finished musical products their clients produced. It was an example of feudalism in a contemporary context. Record companies owned and controlled the means for musicians to air their work and thus musicians became their vassals.

What we see today with the advent of file sharing technology is the ability for musicians to bypass the gate-keeping role once performed by the record industry. Their music can be easily uploaded onto the world wide web and then shared free of charge around the globe.  A perfect example of this is the path to fame trodden by British artist Lily Allen, who in late 2005 begun uploading music onto her Myspace Profile – she has become one of the most acclaimed artists in the world over the last six years.

Due to its growing prevalence around the world people in the record industry, some musical artists (ironically including Lily Allen) and government institutions have spoken out against the practice of file sharing – believing that it breaches copy right laws and withholds streams of revenue to both artists and record companies. In essence both of these arguments are linked. Copy right laws are used by record companies as a means to qualify their indignation at the loss of revenue they are experiencing due to the process of file sharing. The reality, however, is that this indignation is unfounded as both artists and record companies have adapted to ensure their financial viability in a world now dominated by the influence of file sharing.  A piece of music obtained through file sharing can never compare to experiencing that same piece of music live on a grand stage. Tours and live performances by artists have increased since the early 2000s, and consumers are charged in real terms more than they ever have before for the privilege of attending such performances. What we see is the loss of revenue caused by file sharing being recouped through other means. Record companies have adapted to now represent immense apparatuses of PR and promotion.

Though the legality of file sharing is debatable due to the nebulous world of cyber law, there can be no debating the cultural benefits to society brought about by the birth of file sharing technology. File sharing has liberalised the global exchange of culture. It allows users instant access to the film, music and literature of every nation around the world. Where once the consumer’s access to an international product was limited, it has now become infinite. File sharing doesn’t directly broaden inter-cultural understanding but it has the ability to facilitate it by providing users with the means to sample the culture of other nations. I have experienced an example of such facilitation. Besides M*A*S*H, the films of acclaimed American film director and writer Robert Altman are unavailable in Australia due to the convoluted distribution laws which are tied to his works – this is despite his reputation as one of the most influential and brilliant people ever to work in American Cinema. As a lover of film I was understandably angered by this scenario and thus turned to file sharing to obtain many of his films including Short Cuts, The Player and Nashville. I have had similar experiences with music which I have been unable to locate through conventional means. I have listened to artists such as the French Indochine, the Belgian The Chakachas and Swedish group The Tough Alliance only because of the empowering effects of file sharing.

A counter-argument to the liberalisation brought about by file sharing is that it only further serves to entrench the dominance of Western Culture throughout the world – as the cultural vacuum formed by file sharing is most likely to be filled by Western material thus proliferating Western Culture at the expense of those with a lower profile. There is merit to this argument, especially when one considers the fact that it is those countries in the West that have the greatest access to file sharing technology. Yet technological inequality has always existed throughout the world and where the record industry created a finite space for cultural output, the space provided through file sharing is infinite. The majority of material shared peer-to-peer may be of a Western origin, but this does not come at the expense of a non-Western presence. Indeed both can co-exist due to the limitless space provided by the World Wide Wed. Whether or not we choose to broaden our cultural horizons is entirely up to the individual – but at least with the power of file sharing we always have the opportunity to do so.

 

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