Category Archives: x2

Resharing is Caring

In his Journal entry for March 8, 2013, novelist Neil Gaiman chronicles his travels and talks briefly about the radio adaptation of his book Neverwhere (featuring the voice talents of James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, and Benedict Cumberbatch, among others). About halfway down the page, he writes, quite a propos of nothing: “Here is a photograph of Benedict Cumberbatch. He plays the angel Islington. Many of my friends strongly believe that photographs of Mr Cumberbatch and amusing photographs of kittens were what the internet was created for.” I remember reading that last sentence, being duly amused, and sharing it on my own Facebook page with an additional comment to the effect that Gaiman’s friends and I might get along.

This incident seems to resonate well with the ideas that Tom Standage brings up in “Poetry in Motion”  in Writing on the Wall. Standage remarks that “Then as now, people enjoy being able to articulate their interests and define themselves by selectively compiling and resharing content created by others. The mere act of sharing something can, in other words, be a form of self-expression.” (Standage 75-76). In my case, one might easily assume I enjoy Gaiman, Cumberbatch, and kittens (not necessarily in that order), even though I do have many other uses for the internet. Of course, much like the poems in the Devonshire Manuscript, it is assumed that all of our online writing and sharing—whether blogged, Facebooked, tweeted, Tumbled, and Instagrammed—is part of a constructed identity, even if that identity differs from poem to poem or account to account. In this age of everything-is-public,  I wonder if photographs of cats and British actors really the current equivalent of clandestinely circulated couplets and quips. If so, it seems there is much less at stake—quite literally in some of Standage’s examples (82-83)—and much less effort expended. Yet, can resharing “amusing photographs of kittens” really be just definitive an act of self-expression as writing an original composition? After all, both play into to curation of a circulated self.

My anecdote at the start of this post is fairly unremarkable—Gaiman and Cumberbatch make not infrequent appearances in my social media outlets and/or conversation—but in thinking about it again, I am struck by the implications of Gaiman’s choice of (social) media. As a professional writer, Gaiman’s is a personal and professional blog, a mix of reflection, self-promotion (both of himself and his wife, musician Amanda Palmer, so-called “geek royalty”), and things he himself is resharing from elsewhere. By reading it sporadically, am I part of the “court circle” of Gaiman fans, receiving and recirculating his witty missives? Does that group still count as a “coterie” (Standage 77) if it is available to the whole wide web?

Gaiman’s seemingly innocuous comment about the actor voicing one of Neverwhere’s main characters definitely endorses the radio production of the novel, but does so in a way seems to not only also promote Cumberbatch but induce a kind of media synethesia as well: those tuning in to the radio broadcast of Neverwhere are of course not seeing Benedict Cumberbatch as Islington, only hearing him (in this case, singing the Lyke-Wake Dirge).

Yet, by emphasizing the visual recognizability of the actor, Gaiman capitalizes on the fact that the readers of his blog might tune in for that reason if not for others. Interesting too is the fact that the photograph in question is no longer available on the blog, so it is uncertain which of the actor’s looks Gaiman might have chosen to reshare and what that in turn says about the original text in question—I myself have forgotten. Perhaps it was one of these:

2434194-otters-who-look-like-benedict-cumberbatch
Significant otters.
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Up, Down, Side to Side: Vertical and Horizontal Communication through Social Media

In Writing on the Wall, Tom Standage makes a compelling case for understanding the social media practices of ancient Rome and the web-based social media practices of the modern day as linked in important ways. Standage claims that both practices involve “two-way, conversational environments in which information passes horizontally from one person to another along social networks, rather than being delivered vertically from an impersonal central source” (Loc 43). Though he doesn’t continue to use these exact terms in his fascinating discussion of the historical development of social media, they underlie one of his boldest and most sweeping arguments: that social media like radio and television marked an historical ‘middle period’ of one-way, non-interactive vertical communication, while the ‘new’ social media afforded by the internet indicate a return to dynamic, horizontal, peer-to-peer interactions.

A simple graphic representation of vertical communication (a) and horizontal communication (b). (via emeraldinsight.com)
A simple graphic representation of vertical communication (a) and horizontal communication (b). (via emeraldinsight.com)

I think “horizontal” and “vertical” are potentially quite useful terms for thinking about the functions and effects of today’s digital social media practices—with one small caveat: that we don’t limit ourselves by defining these two forms of communication as incompatible or mutually exclusive. That is, Standage seems to view horizontal communication (and its dynamic possibilities) as the defining feature of both ancient Roman and modern social media environments, while downplaying the vertical forms of communication both environments enable(d). What I’d like to suggest is that both environments, and the modern digital one in particular, actually enable complex and almost dizzying combinations of vertical and horizontal communication that complicate the way information is circulated.

In today's web-based social media, vertical and horizontal communication converge in complicated ways. (Graphic also courtesy of emeraldinsight.com)
In today’s web-based social media, vertical and horizontal communication converge in complicated ways. (Graphic also courtesy of emeraldinsight.com)

For me, one of the most interesting features of new social media is the increasing frequency with which texts and narratives move in the opposite direction of what we might have previously expected. That is, rather than being distributed vertically en masse and then moving horizontally across a smattering of peers through face-to-face or phone conversation, we see that many texts are distributed in exponential peer-to-peer sharing before they are finally picked up, reframed, and redistributed in vertical ways. That is, they “go viral” horizontally before news outlets or other central distributors of information are able to co-opt them.

As an illustration of this ‘backward’ movement from horizontal to vertical: I’m sure most of you have heard of “Don’t tase me, bro!”— if only because the meme has been so persistently recycled online since it emerged following the initial incident in 2007. This was the episode at a John Kerry forum event at the University of Florida, where senior undergraduate Andrew Meyer became agitated that he was denied the ability to ask his question, and after a loud and very public struggle, was tased by the police. Here’s a short clip of the struggle and the line that made Meyer (in)famous. (Original video by Kyle Mitchell, 2007.)

This event had minimal press in attendance; the reason the incident came to such public visibility was a number of attendees who uploaded videos of the scene to YouTube and shared it peer-to-peer. One video reached 7 millions views—quite a bit by the internet standards of 2007. The story raised issues of free speech and excessive force by police, and was quickly thereafter picked up and reported by the mainstream press. The phrase “Don’t tase me, bro!” has since become a well-known trope on the web, and has been transformed endlessly into memes like the one below. Meyer even apparently registered the phrase as a trademark, and tried (unsuccessfully) to publish a book on the coattails of this insta-fame. In any case, it’s clear that Meyer’s narrative developed within a horizontal media sharing environment before it was captured and re-distributed vertically—an interesting early reversal of the expected vertical-to-horizontal pattern that dominated in Standage’s ‘middle period’ of radio and television, before the internet age.

Meow! Don't tase me, bro! (via cheezburger.com)
Meow! Don’t tase me, bro! (via cheezburger.com)

But beyond reversing our temporal expectations for how narratives circulate vertically and horizontally, I think we have started to see evidence that these two forms of communication are converging and playing off each other in more complicated ways. One of the simplest illustrations of the way new social media integrates vertical and horizontal communication is the share + comment maneuver we see so frequently on Facebook. This is where someone shares a story, video, or other kind of text that was composed by a professional writer for vertical, one-way, mass distribution (often from news outlets)—but frames it with their own commentary before sharing it horizontally with peers. Here’s a recent example from my own Facebook newsfeed:Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 11.35.01 AM

The information and the video itself were produced/compiled by WATE-6 News, an ABC affiliate out of Knoxville, TN—presumably, an example of Standage’s vertical communication from an “impersonal central source.” But in the very act of sharing this with peers, the communication begins to move horizontally. Even more interesting is the framing of the narrative by my friend: he sets his peer readers up to process the “vertical” information through his personal (political) lens.

So fine: we’ve got a source that was once distributed vertically and now begins to distribute horizontally. But it’s actually even more complicated than that if we look closely: the original video that was packaged by the news source was shot by some Joe Shmo in his car, and was shared peer-to-peer until it “went viral” and was picked up by the news outlet. And what happens if someone shares this video without adding their own commentary? With a link directly to the original, isn’t it essentially the same as going directly to the “impersonal central source”? Or perhaps not, since in the very act of sharing, the person is framing the narrative for his/her peers in the context of assumed approbation or disapproval? In these messy layers of vertical and horizontal communication, which are not even easily defined in temporal terms (first vertical, then horizontal, etc.), lies a peculiarly modern pattern of communication—one in which it is often not easy to draw straight lines, identify a source, or define authorship.

Okay, I didn’t get around to making the case for this convergence of vertical/horizontal communication in ancient Rome. Maybe we can talk about this in class, if anyone is interested?

Nostalgia, Net Neutrality, and the Spanish Inquisition

I have a friend who just cares so much about injustice and oppression. On her Facebook feed, she often posts exposé-style articles about injustices and petitions to change this or that about the world. I love being connected to this friend, as she often makes me aware of issues that I didn’t even know were issues and exposes injustices, but sometimes she posts something before she has had time to look into it and her worry is Snopes-worthy.

One issue that she posted about a few weeks ago was that of net neutrality. At the time, I did not take this post very seriously, even though my philosopher was adamant that I should probably care about it. As I considered this issue further I realized that I really wanted to care, but I am also pretty sure that this nostalgic idealized internet-before-regulation never existed, just like Standage’s idealized coffee shops never existed.

[For the Colbert version of net neutrality, click here. The video is longer than one-minute, though, so you don’t need to watch it in order to understand my arguments].

Standage describes the coffee houses as “forums for free speech and the free exchange of ideas” (113). In his interpretation of them, people from all classes could come together and, you know, discuss things. The problem I have with this goes back to two things: (1) it is very clear to any researcher of the period that there was little class-mixing in these coffee houses and (2) even in Standage’s examples, people tended to visit the same coffee houses in which their particular communities (the scientific qua “Philosophical” community and the sailors’ communities were his examples) gathered consistently. People, as they do now, stuck to their familiar, comfortable communities.

And now the very mild Katie-version of the Spanish Inquisition, without torture, directed at Standage:

Now, my point here is not to lambast Stangage for his misrepresentation of historical events; after all, it is clear that he really wants to think of the coffee houses and their digital reflection (the internet) as a free and open world for all to join and share ideas. I applaud this enthusiasm. My problem is with the fact that the nostalgia and idealization of processes and events creates a cloud of ignorance about what philosophers call “the facts of the matter” or the things that we really know about these idealized “freedoms” and “democratizations.” These are the facts of the matter as I—with a political ideology which is currently influenced very deeply by G.A. Cohen, to put my cards on the table—see them:

Premise 1: As long as the processes which enable the internet are controlled by capitalistic enterprises, they will be trying to enact enough control over these processes so as to make as much money as possible.

Premise 2: Capitalism is not concerned with individual freedom and liberty; it only espouses such ideology in order to make money.

Premise 3: The elite in any society that does not value and defend equality are always looking to maintain control over information and content, as knowledge = power (hence the chapter on Luther and printing).

That said I am not convinced that the internet has ever been neutral, nor do I think that it will continue to serve as the beacon of liberty that Standage espouses. I am interested, though, to hear more of your thoughts on whether you believe the internet to be a really free space which enhances individual liberties.

reddit: The Virtual Coffeehouse

After finishing Writing on the Wall, my life’s new goal is to either locate or become the proprietor of a real-life coffeehouse that operates like the ones Standage describes in Chapter 6.  Whether or not they actually existed, the idea of an “egalitarian new intellectual space” (104) where all can exchange new knowledge in diverse fields and imbibe my favorite caffeinated beverage sounds like heaven on earth.  In the words of Liz Lemon:

Liz Lemon always knows what’s up.

Sadly, I can’t think of a single real-life commercial establishment that functions as such.  I have never in my life been in a chain or independent coffee retailer that fosters the actively social “speculative environment” of their predecessors; they are more often filled with people glued to their technology, books, or other distractions in an otherwise social and public place.

Where I do find those environments, or at least analogous cultural structures, is in the virtual world.  Like the alleged coffeehouses in the days of Samuel Pepys and Christopher Wren, certain online communities function as networks driven by discussion and transactions that are based around knowledge sharing.   As the resident reddit enthusiast, I have to admit that upon reading the chapter on coffeehouses, the self-professed “front page of the internet” was the first comparable website that came to mind.

In June of 2012, redditor /u/Dapper77 described reddit as “a place friendly to thought, relationships, arguments, and to those that wish to challenge those genres.”  Subreddits, or topic/theme-based forums within the site, parallel the coffeehouses that developed a specific client base.  Like Jonathan’s, which drew seventeenth-century businessmen, /r/history attracts historians and history enthusiasts for questions, debate, and other content that is relevant to their interests.  The site has areas for users to talk about literally almost anything they can think of, and if a subreddit doesn’t exist, you can create it.  Best of all, it’s all free!

The diversity and availability of content options can mean different things for different people.  Personally, I like it for the opportunity to learn new things about any topic that strikes my interest.  Serial killers, suggestions for slowcooker recipes, adorable corgis, colorized historical images, and tips on skincare routines:  I can find information and communities immersed in each topic online.

Like the coffeehouses, most of our myriad social networking or information-sharing sites have been vilified as “distracting people and encouraging them to waste time sharing trivia with their friends when they ought to be doing useful work” (111).  At least with reddit, you’re (generally) learning something new, whether or not it is actually useful information.  Plus, the site hasn’t been overrun with irrelevant content such as ads and games, like the fictional “Friendface” from British Channel 4’s The IT Crowd.

While the environment of intellectual sharing and discussion is one of reddit’s strong points, there are certainly detracting factors.  For instance, there will always be people whose sole purpose in life seems to be posting responses that are rude, offensive, or generally irrelevant or irritating.  Often, these exchanges function like the one that Standage describes on pages 40 and 41, particularly the “comment thread” between Severus and Successus.

Additionally, instead of having face-to-face, real-time interaction, users are separated by time and space, which negates the socialization aspect that makes the idea of coffeehouses so attractive.  If you wanted to get really meta, you could go to a coffeehouse and use reddit from there!  As someone who is often most comfortable interacting with strangers through friendly, down-to-earth intellectual discussion, and assuming that they did actually exist, I look forward to the day when coffeehouses make a triumphant return!

Do not forget to remember poetry

I’m concerned about poetry. I have always been concerned about poetry. Poetry was that white muse who held my hand when I was so young, took me to a white land, entrapped me in black words, and we never came back.  I grew up to grow my own manifesto of poetry: a real poem would carry all its needed instruments within itself. A real poem needs neither camera, nor light to be projected in your mind. A real poem creates images, music, shadow, light, pauses, rhythm, pains and joys out of words; nothing but words. They only exception for me seems to be the voice of the poet. I think a poet’s voice is a part of poetry. I have believed in pure poetry.  Am I too old to revise my manifesto? Do I even need to revise it? I still want to think about poetry, as I still want poetry to think about me.

Billy Collins, the former Poet Laureate of the United States , in his amazing Ted Talk Everyday Moments Caught in Time explains why he has decided to present some of his poems in a new visual medium   , with animation, despite his initial resistance, as he always thinks that “poetry can stand by itself.”  I am amazed by discovering a huge harmony between my own view of poetry and Collins’ standpoint. “If you are reading a poem that mentions a caw, you don’t need on the facing page a drawing of the caw”, absolutely true, I say. Now the same Billy Collins announces that he is going to present poetry-animations or animated poems to his audience, that he has been trying to take poetry to public places, “poetry on buses, poetry on subways, on billboards” and let it “happen to you so suddenly that you don’t have time to deploy your anti-poetry deflector shields.” This idea is totally strange to me, to let poetry happen suddenly to the resentful  busy audience of a crowded world. Collins presents his animated poems, and the experience turns to be unbelievably unique. I can explain it as a conceptual visualization of visual concepts or something like that! What he presents is different from the hasty juxtaposition of poems and random pictures that usually make me stop the clip before the end to avoid letting the beauty of a pure poem be ruined by some mediocre visual supplements. Collins introduces the possibility of creating new forms for presenting poetry in digital age. Poetry needs new weapons to take part in digital revolution, and digital revolution needs that call for new weapons to still be revolutionary.

The fourth chapter of Tom Standage’s  Writing on the Wall  indicates that poetry, along with other genres, has also been used as an available social medium, but as a minor participant in an ongoing act of communication. The historical stories of this chapter talk about “the circulations of poetry within court circle” (77) and how poetry was used as a hidden messenger of forbidden desires or “as a way to amuse friends, win the favor of patrons and advance their careers” (82.) Poetry in this chapter is not depicted as an art but as an available means of communication, “self-expression and self-promotion” (69) which existed before and naturally enough continues to exist. Poetry has been taken for granted. This pervasive underestimation of a super-sensitive art makes me remember once more that we should really think about poetry. The question of poetry’s position in the context of our contemporary creative and communicative world is as essential as any other primary concern that we might have today. Poetry is not really a circulating self-expressing method to be generated, replaced or adapted easily. Poetry needs to be helped to survive our new world;and  our new world would need poetry to survive.

Eating on the Wall

So I tend to go out to eat a lot, particularly when I end up back in Philadelphia (even if I’m there for only an hour and this is why). This is one of those central things my significant other and I agree upon, though I do sometimes frustrate her with my constant desire to eat a whole meal at literally any time of day.

As of the first paragraph, I’m actually doing that right now. For atmosphere, put this on in another tab, wait through the ad and the promo (because apparently noise can’t sell itself), and then come back. We can pretend to be in a coffeeshop together.

You done? Okay. Fiddle with the volume. I can wait. Ignore the sidebar–Youtube is trying to distract you with paid content.

All the time in the world here.
All the time in the world here.

Anyway, full disclosure: the S.O. uses Instagram (and no I don’t have the link to her profile). Her fascination with Instagram has made her a rather good photographer, doubtlessly in some small part due to a family tradition of taking artful pictures all the time. This practice extended to our frequent mealtimes, and created a ritual I have come to call Saying Hipster Grace. It this daily ritual, the adherents await the presentation of the meal, at which point the participants make a ritual ablution with their phones, where they aggressively rearrange the table to get all the food in frame and then use their cell phones to take a picture.

The food then begins to cool as they select filters and post to Instagram. A sigh of satisfaction signals the end of the ritual, as the picture uploads and the phone goes away.

My being rather agnostic about Saying Hipster Grace (I refuse to get baptized into Instagram, and just store pictures of good meals on my phone) is uncharacteristic and difficult to explain. In Standage’s terms, where we’re all Romans running down to the dock to get our mail (26), I’m the literate plebe that taught himself how to swim. I need data, all the time, and as many of you found out today, I’m constantly trying to keep my social media presence organized.

But I just won’t share my frankly spectacular meals on social media. Something about that just seems like oversharing, like Cicero tweeting from the restroom. And this makes me meditate on Standage’s assertions throughout Writing on the Wall that social media has, in some form, “been around for centuries” (250)–and I agree, it certainly has, even if sometimes his history chaffed the postcolonialist in me for being really traditional, Eurocentric and a bit self-fulfilling. But I can’t help but think that, as Standage himself notes, there’s something a little different this time around (239), something more pervasive, and more centralized (248).

My S.O.’s picture of cinnamon bun french toast from two days ago on Instagram was linked by 49 people in 4 hours, and by noon had been incorporated into the restaurant’s online marketing presence, all without her explicit permission. Like Cicero’s letters, she’s happy to have it reproduced and used (the dish was lovely, after all, and the attention is her gift to the restaurant), but unlike Cicero’s letters, her social media is being used for a pretty thoroughly centralized, wholly commercial end. This is Facebook Corporation via Instagram, not Cicero’s scribe, and breakfast ads don’t usually save the Roman Republic from ruin. Something is different here, but I’m not sure it’s just corporate centralization (one of Standage’s constant perils).

Super-Serious.
Super-Serious.

I take pictures of my best meals because I want to remember them, not to share them. I get the impression I’m carrying around a model of “what is important information” that Standage might attribute to the broadcast media age–that magically approved authorities like CNN (which constantly posts pictures of food) have a greater claim to talk about their lunch than I do. Sponsored results like the ones at the top right of the Youtube video I’m having you listen to, and the annoying voice-over at the beginning of the video, perpetuate this broadcast-privilege model of importance–the business that provides this service has more authority to sponsor or review than the average user, despite my profligate linking to things I like. Despite Standage’s closing note, I still feel like I have to “squeeze through the bottleneck of broadcast media” (250) despite not actually being dis-enabled from having that scale of web presence. This rebirth of social media is having some trouble shaking off its broadcast media phase, like a horrible Nazi-connected (202-203) puberty that has left its marks. That might be why a lot of people (and the language of twitter, with “followers”) imagine a me-as-central-broadcaster-to-audience model of social media, even though the constant desire for response and “likes” (and followers talking back) shows how this is different and interactional.

I guess, to declare my independence from broadcast-media thinking, I should take and post a picture of the cappuccino I was drinking in Elixr as I wrote that last paragraph, but I logged out the coffeeshop without logging in to take a picture.

Different Quotes for Different Folks: Our Totems of Chat

As I read the epilogue to Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years, I was struck by a particular sentiment that Standage could have lifted verbatim from Baron’s A Better Pencil, namely that “[n]ew technologies are often regarded with suspicion” (247). In addition to this initial resonance, what I would like to call particular attention to is Standage’s subsequent discussion of how old and new technologies come to blows at each stage of technological innovation: “There is always an adjustment period when new technologies appear, as societies work out the appropriate etiquette for their use and technologies are modified in response. During this transitional phase, which takes years or even decades, technologies are often criticized for disrupting existing ways of doing things. But the technology that is demonized today may end up being regarded as wholesome and traditional tomorrow, by which time another apparently dangerous new invention will be causing the same concerns” (247).

What we get, then, is a vicious cycle of resentment, hesitation, and adoption that seems to go on and on, forever and ever, Amen.

Image  or, better yet  Image

And here is where I’ll do my best digital impression of Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City: But what about those of us who have grown up with access to multiple reformed-rake technologies at once? Do older technologies ever cease to disappear completely, or do we find ways to still use them? Do we manage to juggle both old and new technologies simultaneously, and if so, how? And how does this wide array of options alter the ways in which we interact with each other?

As Standage quotes from Sherry Turkle, she expresses similar concerns: she “worries about the ‘flight from conversation,’ citing teenagers who would rather send a text than make a phone call” (247). But what exactly prompts this “flight from conversation”? Is it a fear of the level of intimacy that certain technologies afford? Is it an unwillingness to use them? Or is it simply a matter of access?

Take a look at the following clip before submitting your final answer (disclaimer: amateur vocal performance by yours truly, ahoy!) Below is a still from the scene I just “performed” (read: butchered). L to R: Marnie (Allison Williams) and Hannah (Lena Dunham).

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Update! (as of 2/25): A friend of mine managed to find a clip of the original scene! It’s not even 30 seconds, so feel free to watch it and perform a little bit of an adaptation analysis.

And I would have to agree with Marnie: we arrange various forms of digital communication into a hierarchy that suits our needs and our personalities. In short, we create our own “totem[s] of chat.” As Marnie’s version of her “totem of chat” suggests, old and new technologies can coexist, although how harmoniously they do is up for debate, evidenced by Hannah’s inability to contact her on-again off-again booty call Adam and her unwillingness to “bite the bullet,” as it were, and call him directly.

What I’d like to argue, then, is that we all engage in some kind of “flight from conversation,” however (sub)consciously, for all three of the reasons I listed above: a fear of intimacy, a personal unwillingness, and/or a lack of access. But unlike the Roman authors who just “varied their writing styles depending on the audience they were addressing” (27), we not only cater our digital correspondences to our specific intended audience but also change that audience entirely.

If my memory serves, the major selling feature of Google+ when it first arrived on the scene in 2011 was its ability organize your friends into various circles, all of which came with a different level of access to your personal information and updates. But nowadays we don’t need Google+ to create those concentric circles of caprice for us. Quite the contrary: we have numerous options for social media that allows us to choose where we do and do not follow certain people. For instance, casual friends may opt to follow each other on Twitter because of its “microblogging” style and low level of personal connection/commitment compared to something like Facebook. Or, if we want to remove textual communication from the picture, we can opt instead to follow that friend or acquaintance on Instagram, where nothing says friendship like “favoriting” a picture of someone’s latest meal or knitting venture, #nofilter.

Clearly I’ve exposed a portion of my own “totem of chat,” so, what’s yours?