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Claire Evans has written an amazing essay that I just discovered. She brilliantly captures how old relationships grip our present thanks to social networking, which forces us to think about how we manage the digital appearance of friendships and romances.

It is a fascinating contradiction how we grapple with severed real life relationships on virtual platforms where accumulating and maintaining connections is the primary goal. Strangely, when we update our digital footprints to reflect realities of ended loves, we wind up simply carving artificial spaces which mask that relationships ever happened. The artificiality of these spaces seems more palpable considering that these histories are preserved beyond us; deleting an old email sent from a Gmail account doesn’t change the fact that Google still has a record of the words you once sent even if you can’t see it anymore.

I’m not convinced that a Luddite approach is really possible for love though, especially for  younger generations who were born embedded in social networks. Social media magnifies and distorts relationships, to which attractions, romances and breakups are not arbitrary but inherent. The ways we manage the visibility of our relationships will evolve, whether we try to be a Luddite or not.

That said. I do often find that the most significant real-life relationships are either omnipresent or mysteriously absent on my and others’ social networks. The connections that truly matter, be they good friends, nascent loves or former exes, seem to teeter either between being broadcast all over Facebook walls and photos and Tweets, or conspicuously invisible to the public eye. The interactions that seem most meaningful, be they from the past or present, rarely hover in the middle.

I tried to quote bits of this essay and then I realized I wanted it all. So here it is:

You’ve just broken up. You’ve had the last argument, or weathered the first and last betrayal. You’ve changed the locks. Now the complicated process of dislodging your heart begins: the long falling-out of love. With the topography of companionship levelled, you find yourself flowing outward to fill the empty spaces. Certain objects are suddenly impossible to abide. Your own possessions, abruptly gathered up, speak to an identity you’d forgotten existed. ‘This,’ you think as you survey the towels and serving-bowls stacked in their boxes, ‘this is my taste?’ The measures of your world — the size of the bed, the portioning of food — must be scaled back. But still the second wave of disentanglement has barely begun.

It’s time to end it online. I’m not just talking about the pedantic tick-box of Facebook ‘relationship status’: there are images to untag, emails to delete, an ‘unfriending’ to coordinate. There is the careful unravelling of the social web.

In a sense, every relationship now exists on two levels. The moments we spend in one another’s company, the neurochemical buzz of proximity, and the communion of shared silence: these are real. But just as physical places now have their geolocated overlays, every relationship, too, throws a digital shadow – and depending on the individuals involved, it can loom larger than the people who cast it. As we increasingly live our social lives in public, in a medium that retains the traces of our social noodling, the record and the relationship itself can approach a point of indistinguishability.

I prefer email to the phone because it provides me with a record of my conversations, one that I can re-experience at any moment. Typing a name, I can summon a chronology of every word exchanged: a précis of the relationship, its years condensed into one timeless block of data. For those intimacies experienced mostly, or even partially, through the web, this chronological record becomes the relationship, for all intents and purposes. My parents’ generation did this differently: that box of love notes under the bed, its own time-capsule of emotion. But while their love letters might have once served the same purpose as the cumulative ones and zeros of my online correspondences, they existed only in one place. Burn them in a fit of pique and the words remain only in the memories of those they touched: subjective, foggy, destined to vanish.

Today’s relationships are distributed, not just in the minds of people but across the network. A sufficiently talented hacker could gather fragments of data from all over the internet and reconstitute a relationship from its shrapnel. Every click leaves a trace: our online shopping records, our air travel itineraries, the books and articles we read on recommendation, the frequency with which we visit other people’s web spaces, the endless ‘likes’, the comments, emails, retweets, the ideas we absorb from those we love and disseminate outwards. Real love is transformative: it changes our social patterns. We might find ourselves delving into subjects we weren’t previously interested in, acknowledging the view from elsewhere, connecting with a new network of people. These are all quantifiable indices, easy to monitor through the public third space of the web.

Let’s return to that online breakup. In your attempts to clear the debris, you discover that, like an ecosystem, your social network reacts holistically to change. For one, it doesn’t want you to sever ties with anyone: at every turn, it seems to ask you to reconsider. The architecture of the social web, like that of a Las Vegas casino, always leads the user back inside. The engine depends on connections: groups, rather than individuals, are the commodity being sold. The social web quantifies the people who touch us.

We take this for granted, but any individual’s online network is a map of heretofore-invisible threads. Once we’ve integrated, once we’ve painted these cobwebs Facebook blue, it’s difficult to go back. The relationship and its public record share so much real estate they might be mistaken for one another. This has the curious effect of flattening the complexity of emotion: a lost friend, a shattered romance, are not just individuals ‘hidden’ from the timeline. These are cataclysms of the heart.

The information that you were friends, or lovers, lives on. It’s there, an infinitesimal blip in the global mass of data. Severance in the machine of connection must be deliberate. Where opinion and desire flow along paths of least resistance and affirmation or disavowal alike are quantified by views, where protest is as simple as a reblog and complex emotional experiences are summed up using appropriated images, purposeful unlinking is a dissonant gesture. Others look up, temporarily stunned: the click that un-friends is the loudest of all.

And even as its echoes still resonate, aspects of the un-friend will always fall through the virtual cracks. He or she will seep into your curated feed through mutual friends, images, or advertisements tailored to extinguished needs. The vast and broadly disseminated collection of bits that has served for so long as a public (and private) record of your entanglement remains. It might not be immediately accessible to you, but the information that you were friends, or lovers, lives on. It’s there, somewhere, an infinitesimal blip in the global mass of data.

Who stops to consider such things in the throes of new love, or in the honeymoon period of friendship? We’re not wired to worry about stuff like that. Before the social web, surviving a breakup meant tossing out mementos and looking over your shoulder at parties. Now it means perusing invite lists, haunting status updates, watching tiny circles of green turn orange, then red, before fading to offline grey. It is easier than ever to self-punish through voyeurism, of course, but now tactics for avoidance are so similar to strategies for stalking, so equal in the all-seeing indifference of the web, that even average heartbreak can take on sinister dimensions.

There might still be a way that we can invest in the future of our hearts. We don’t need to leave the binary husks of our relationships behind us. But we must be more considered with everything we do online, not just our flirtations. The temptation to tag, cite, post and discover others through their front-facing digital avatars is great, but the rewards of love under the radar are more profound. Love undocumented is love unadvertised and unexploited; it is love that will fade gently, like a photograph, instead of creeping up, algorithmically, like a Google image search result.

In his 2010 jeremiad, You Are Not a Gadget, the American computer scientist Jaron Lanier proposes some basic commandments for digital self-editing. His rules include thinking before tweeting and only writing blog posts that take weeks of reflection. We tend to think of the social web as an amorphous zeitgeist, he argues, a monster of inanity from whose sheer bulk meaningful patterns emerge. An idea has worth only when it manages to propagate as a meme, and digital society places value on these instances of emergence rather than on the force of any individual thought: the fantasy is of a hive-mind.

In its border-obliterating hugeness, its nearly preposterous magnitude, it seems likely that the web will always engender some kind of shared meaning through large-scale trends. But wouldn’t the patterns be sharper, the noise less oppressive, if each individual utterance was a little more thoughtful? If we took it slow? As John Freeman, author of The Tyranny of Email (2009), wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2009:

We will die, that much is certain; and everyone we have ever loved and cared about will die, too, sometimes — heartbreakingly — before us. Busyness — or the simulated busyness of email addiction — numbs the pain of this awareness, but it can never totally submerge it. Given that our days are limited, our hours precious, we have to decide what we want to do, what we want to say, what and who we care about, and how we want to allocate our time to these things within the limits that do not and cannot change. In short, we need to slow down.

The world has always moved too quickly for some people. Throughout history this paradoxical, essentially philosophical proposal to decelerate in order to appreciate brevity has arisen at cusps of technological change. In its current form, we see the outlines of a ‘Slow Internet’ movement. Thus the American journalist Jennifer Rauch hosts a blog about ‘Slow Media’. Paul Miller, a technology journalist at theverge.com, has vowed to spend an entire year offline. Six months into his project, he has weathered the US election, his career, the public library crisis, and hurricane Sandy without once dipping into the blogosphere.

The obstacles Miller encounters are specific and hard to anticipate: he is perpetually lost, struggles to pay his bills through automated phone systems, and must receive news from faraway friends via post or not at all. His missives from the slow world are edifying, distantly familiar, and inspiring: his battle to function in a wired society articulates just how seamlessly the web flows through us. Its absence from his life accentuates its muscled presence in ours. I wonder what his love life is like. All of these pundits seem to share a fear of being labelled Neo-Luddites. After all, we’ve seen the web level tyranny, watched it thrust political truths into the light. Among its nodes, young people find identities, artists find audiences, writers find solace. To speak ill of the internet, to wax nostalgic about the smell of old paper or deliberately stake out an offline life, seems reactionary and contrived. Millions of teenagers, faces lit by the glow of smartphones under their bedclothes, roll their eyes — or rather, select an exasperated emoticon. In the introduction to You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier writes: ‘This book is not antitechnology in any sense. It is prohuman.’ Freeman, too: ‘This is not the manifesto of a Luddite. This is a human manifesto.’

The Luddites were skilled laborers, displaced by industrialisation. They sought to destroy the machinery they knew might eventually replace them. Lanier, Freeman, and the Slow Media thinkers of today are hardly advocating this kind of industrial sabotage: like most of us, they accept the encroaching tides of the social web, its inevitability. There is no wrench big enough to throw into these works.

When it comes to love, however, we might all be Luddites. Wouldn’t we smash the machine that told us precisely where and when our former paramours found someone new? Unfortunately, the global index that contains every gossamer byte of our love letters — not the ones under the bed, tied with velvet ribbon, but the ones we are always unwittingly writing as we try to make contact across the ever-swelling planes of liquid crystal — is quite unsmashable. Who can smash a concept, a fibre-optic lattice across the ocean?

Luddism in the name of love is different, almost pointedly opposite to its ideological predecessor. Instead of taking hammer to motherboard, we must tread carefully in the long corridors between rows of servers, dancing in their humming shadows. Instead of rousing the ire of our fellows, we must whisper so as not to disturb the binary chatter shooting all around our heads, while we fall quietly in love in the age of machines.

–Claire L Evans, “Luddite Love

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Twiplomacy is the first-ever global study of world leaders on Twitter. The governments of almost two-thirds of the 193 UN member countries have a presence on Twitter: 45% of the 264 accounts analysed are personal accounts of heads of state and government, but just 30 world leaders tweet themselves and [a] very few on a regular basis. This study shows that while the social network invites direct interaction between users, few world leaders take advantage of this opportunity to develop connections.

RT if you’re the big Kahuna

Super interesting to read the analysis about how Rwandan President Paul Kagame has used Twitter to foster national dialogue–and maybe more interesting to read what Kagame is not willing to dialogue about via Tweet. Regardless, I have to admit it’s one thing for a mayor in the US (like Cory Booker) to be accessible and providing localised responses to constituents. But it boggles my mind that Twitter can actually enable any authentic communication between citizens and their President.

There is a certainly a large variation in the authenticity, frequency and mediation of world leaders’ Twitter accounts, namely because this is a new type of engagement with the public. In the future, as Twiplomacy increases (because it certainly will), these dynamics will probably even out towards more controlled messages and interactions, with less spontaneity and more planning.

But for now, it’s refreshing to see trial and error happening in real time, like Kagame’s Twolcano.  A la the  early days of Facebook–before it easily enabled brand management of politicians (remember pre-newsfeeds/statuses/pages/likes?)–there will be a time in the future we will marvel nostalgically about some of these first incidents of Twiplomacy. Relish it.

There is growing recognition of the importance and potential of proximity between NGOs and their audiences, between audiences and beneficiaries, and between NGO professionals and the places and people they seek to help. Survivors and beneficiaries are being seen and heard more often in television appeals and direct mailings, and via new media platforms that potentially enable longer-term, more personal connections between supporters and beneficiaries, and between NGOs and their beneficiaries. The trend is for supporters ultimately to connect directly with recipients of aid, which is challenging the traditional role of the NGO as the gatekeeper.

“Who cares? Challenges and opportunities in communicating distant suffering: a view from the development and humanitarian sector,” POLIS, June 2012, pg 19

For World Refugee Day last week, UNHCR launched a shiny new global advocacy campaign called Dilemmas. According to the strategy documents (full acknowledgement: it is awesome these are public), the new campaign

“compels audiences to consider the same life-or-death decisions a refugee is forced to make when they decide to flee – building empathy for the distinct horrors of refugee flight and the compelling need for protection.”

Revamping the ‘Take Action’ section of the UNHCR website, Dilemmas challenges users to consider what they would do if in the same situation that hypothetical refugees may face (e.g. What would you do: ‘Face death in a war zone?’ or ‘Escape but leave loved ones behind?’) . Each scenario is accompanied by testimonies from refugees and displaced people to give authenticity and humanize stories.

UNHCR has even developed a game for Android and iOS called “My Life as a Refugee.” Players can select one of three characters, based on real life experiences of refugees, and attempt to reach safety, reunite with loved ones and rebuild their lives through a series of tough decisions and chance events.

This is supplemented by glossy, artistically striking images and videos of celebrities like Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and Goodwill Ambassadors Khaled Hosseini and Juanes, all primed to be shared online.

Let’s be clear here: this is super sexy advocacy by UNHCR standards. It may not seem that impressive to those outside the NGO world, but I have seriously never seen the concept of refugee protection this amped up.

Yet innovative tech, stunning visuals and beautiful celebrities mean nothing when a campaign message gets twisted.

And honestly, I’m appalled by how twisted the messaging has gotten. Seared into almost every image and repeated by every celebrity is the tagline, “No one chooses to be a refugee,” and the more common and more problematic refrain,Refugees have no choice.

Obviously advocacy requires simplifying messages to some degree. But effective campaigns are not fuelled by stupidity and pity. And these slogans dilute the complexity of migration down to the point of being disempowering and inaccurate—at the cost of a entire, well-conceived strategy.

So let’s break down this trainwreck.

1) Um, refugees do make choices.

Even before getting into the policy and ethical implications of the notion ‘Refugees have no choice” (don’t worry, those are points #2 and #3), this makes no sense. Not just in life (because obviously refugees do make decisions). But it actually makes no sense in the context of the discussion Dilemmas frames, because the campaign starts on the premise that refugees are faced with difficult choices that are outlined for the viewer to consider.

This juncture between the campaign premise to the slogan results in a weird incoherence that permeates throughout the materials. Case in point: in Hosseini’s video clip, he blatantly poses a dilemma faced by a hypothetical refugee (“Would you stay and risk being killed, or would you escape and risk rape, kidnap or worse?”), then concluding with “Refugees have no choice.” Yes, these are both terrible options, but clearly then it is a decision to flee. So why state otherwise? It sounds dumb.

But even outside the context laid out by Dilemmas, people obviously make choices when they leave during a crisis: they decide when to go, where to go, who to go with, whom to trust, what to take, etc, etc. The decision-making ability afforded in each of these choices reveals significant power dynamics that emphasises the problem with lumping ‘refugees’ together—and can even highlight that being able to leave in the first place also reflects a certain amount of privilege. For instance, a wealthy, politically involved family may be able to legally leave before war breaks out to go to London, while a young woman from a poorer, rural area may have to stay in a conflict zone because she can’t afford to go or because her mother is not well enough to make the journey with her. All of this gets masked when with the statement, ‘No one chooses to be a refugee.’

2) By emphasising that “refugees have no choice”, Dilemmas winds up reinforcing the problematic dichotomy there are ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migrants.

I realise, dear reader, you may read point #1 and think I’m quibbling over silly semantics. Alright, maybe I am. But these silly semantics happen to be codified in international law, which provides protection to migrants based on their reason for leaving. Broadly speaking, if that reason is that the migrant was ‘forced’ to leave (i.e. because of political reasons, such as persecution) refugee protection can be granted, whereas if that reason is ‘voluntary’ (i.e. because of economic or social reasons) refugee protection is not.

While this distinction sounds clear on paper, it takes two seconds to get cloudy, because the line between voluntary/forced is actually a spectrum than a tangible divide. Take an example of an Afghan migrant: are you fleeing because a) armed groups are specifically targeting your family due to your political involvement; b) you’re afraid that your town will be affected by violence; or c) the war has made the economy collapse and you can’t make a livelihood? Turns out only A falls under ‘forced’ migration territory while B and C are closer to ‘voluntary’.

What is bizarre is that UNHCR knows these complications intimately. In adjusting to these changing dynamics towards more social/economic pressures, UNHCR’s mandate has had to expand well beyond serving refugees alone to the vague, all encompassing term, ‘other persons of concerns’, which includes internally displaced people, returnees, and other victims of conflict.

In light of the fact that UNHCR provides support to an increasing variety of migrants, it remains puzzling that the Dilemmas campaign would find it useful to reify the idea that refugees, in particular, have no choices. The implicit suggestion that other migrants do have choice doesn’t earn anybody working on broader migration any points.

3) Saying “Refugees have no choice” strips refugees of their agency and garners pity instead of empathy.

It is this last point that is probably the largest offence of Dilemmas in my book.

My skin crawled with every retweet that ‘refugees have no choice’ on World Refugee Day. Coupling that with the line ‘But you do’ felt ethically wrong. The power dynamics are all off in this campaign, ultimately empowering the viewer to feel sorry for refugees beyond anything else.

What’s most disappointing is that I think from what is outlined in UNHCR’s communication strategy for this campaign, the potential for building empathy was immense. The game and gorgeous graphics would have been interesting if put alongside text that (coherently) reflected that refugees make choices like any person would, even if in a difficult context. Basically a few words have undone a well conceived campaign. Honestly, it made me straight up annoyed and angry to see such blatant pity generated by a UN body.

Sadly, the moral of Dilemmas seems to be that the line between building pity and empathy remains razor thin in advocacy–and good strategy means nothing if your slogan is shit.

Last week was the start of the trial of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State defensive coach accused of sexually assaulting ten boys over his career. In response to the testimonies, Maureen Dowd has penned an incendiary NYT op-ed called ‘Moral Dystopia’, angrily asking the same question many of us did when the Sandusky scandal came to light:

How could so many fine citizens of this college town ignore the obvious and protect a predator instead of protecting children going through the ultimate trauma: getting raped by a local celebrity offering to be their dream father figure?

Dowd responds that the reason so many were bystanders to Sandusky’s crimes is that our materialism, online narcissism and cynicism with authority have put morality into jeopardy. Doing the ‘right’ thing is no longer an imperative, and perhaps has become optional as society recognises morality must change according to circumstances.

This, unfortunately, is an incredibly flawed argument that gravely misunderstands the complexities of intervention and whistle-blowing, particularly in relation to sexual violence and broader human rights violations. Dowd, like many others, have been particularly shocked by Michael McQueary, Sandusky’s graduate assistant coach and former Penn State quarterback, who actually witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in the shower and did nothing to stop it.

“I’ve never been involved in anything remotely close to this,” the 37-year-old McQueary said. “You’re not sure what the heck to do, frankly.”

Now in the harsh spotlight of the media and courtrooms and hindsight, McQueary’s words tremble with their flimsiness. How could he have not physically intervened to stop a boy being raped when it was within his power to do so?

Because these are the rationalizations that rape and other types of violence hinges on. Inaction–be it from fear, not knowing what to do, or denial–is inherent to impunity.

The real answer is ugly. The truth is that it is that many of us could be like McQueary and permit the rape of a young boy within earshot by doing nothing. It is, actually, sickeningly easy to see something wrong and do jack shit about it.

This does not mean we are not morally culpable in these situations. But the assumption that human nature is to intervene is problematic. In fact in most contexts the assumption should be, that left to their own devices, people will not act. This has nothing to do with individual morality, but the psychological processes and social institutions that enable structural and systematic violations to occur.

Yet, interestingly, intervention can be instilled as more of a norm—evidence of which is also embedded in the Sandusky case. In response to Dowd’s critiques, Amy Davidson contends, “The narrative of the past few years seems less about ‘sinking into moral dystopia’ than about the draining away of a swamp that hid bad behavior.”

And although Dowd fixates on narcissism and cynicism with authority as contributing to our current moral ‘dystopia’, Davidson quite rightly points out that these same phenomenon have also been responsible for getting justice for Sandusky’s victims:

Victim 1, who is now just eighteen, had a sense that he could put his loneliness to the test by turning on a computer, and that he might learn, there, that he wasn’t isolated after all. He also seems to have had a sense—in the way that young people in any number of countries have—that even a powerful person can be challenged or exposed online.

Davidson also notes that when the indictments came down, it was through alumni Facebook groups and social media that everyday citizens were able to put unrelenting pressure on Penn State’s board. She even offers, what if McQueary’s “culture-honed instinct had been to at least take an iPhone out of his pocket, and snap a picture” to intervene?

I don’t believe, as Davidson queries, that social media alone would have stopped Sandusky. But she is right that there is something amazing and powerful about how accountability is becoming increasingly wired into culture.

And I just don’t see that as dystopic.

Last week, one of my besties, Rohan Talbot had his most recent OpenDemocracy column sort of explode on the Internet.

Rohan’s article got featured around the Internet circuit because, in addition to being written by a clever koala, it:

A) discussed the increased violence in Tripoli that occurred two weekends ago; and

B) argued that social media had negative implications in the midst of  violence in Lebanon, particularly in spreading rumours and potentially aggravating ongoing tensions.

Apparently B was the controversial bit. Numerous people via the blogosphere and Twitterverse have responded, assessing the accuracy of this depiction and the relevance of social media in Lebanon.

I am not up to date or expert enough to comment on the politics of the violence occurring in Lebanon, so I’ll leave those discussions to others.

Instead, I’d like to highlight some  interesting ideas embedded in Rohan’s analysis. Specifically, he speaks to two dynamics of social media in conflict that I haven’t seen discussed much elsewhere.

1) The increasing use of social media as a vehicle for information and emotional outlet for people in violent contexts

Although we know that people are increasingly using social media and mobile phones around the wold, what that means exactly during crisis situations and violent conflicts is still an ongoing puzzle. In what contexts does getting real-time information from Facebook or Twitter enable people to find safety and support–and when does it jeopardise it? How do people filter sources to trust? How do the local and global elements of social media interact during conflict as it is happening in real time? And how do sources derived from social media become compromised or co-opted?

As the clashes started in Tripoli again, Rohan notes that while there were no updates from Lebanon’s major news outlets, social media became the means for people to share their experiences and frustration. While communities have always relied on alternative information sharing networks outside in emergency situations, (i.e. word of mouth, phone, radio), the fast-moving and democratised nature of social media accelerates how (mis)information and emotions can spread throughout a community, a country or even the world. Hashtags like #LebanonOnFire document and disseminate the living nature of information spreading, anxiety and rumour that are inherent in emergency and instability.

2) Social media can intentionally and unintentionally promote conflict

I’m surprised that this idea remains neglected in analysis of social media in conflict. There has been a large amount of coverage on the role of social media has played in non-violent protests and activism in the Middle East, being both glorified for amplifying social movements as well as sidelined for having its impacts sensationalised.

Yet strangely enough, there is a dearth of analysis on how social media can aggravate and magnify existing tensions. Obviously social media is not inherently a non-violent tool–it is just a vehicle to communicate the views of the user, no matter what those may be, peaceful or antagonistic. In contexts outside of conflict the internet is already rife enough with trolls and extremist views; there is no reason to think this changes when war is on the table. In fact the power actors have online when espousing nationalistic or controversial ideas could potentially be much more.

This isn’t to suggest that social media in itself will ’cause’ violent conflicts (a misunderstanding that has emerged in responses to Rohan’s article).  Virtual activities obviously connect back to a larger political and structural context–it is too simplistic to suggest a rogue Tweet or blog materializes violence.

What is true is that Twitter, Facebook and blogs are spaces that can cultivate and embolden increased political polarisations. Akin to the role of radio in spreading hate speech and contributing to the Rwandan genocide, it is incredibly important to consider how social media can be a catalyst for violence in certain contexts.

These are just fledgling thoughts, so please get in touch to help flesh them out.

(and tip of the hat again to Rohan for inspiring my fall down this rabbit hole!)