danah boyd and Social Network Sites

danah boyd, Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, Research Assistant Professor at NYU, a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School, and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales, focuses her research on how youth use social media, particularly social network sites like MySpace and Facebook. Her work examines the ways in which social network sites complicate and extend possibilities for the formation of identities and the performance of those identities on a social stage. She also specifies unique opportunities offered by these sites for association and affiliation and endeavors to clarify the distinct appeal they hold for youth in enabling an expanded world of “peer-to-peer sociality” (“Why Youth ♥ Social Network Sites,” 1).

danah boyd makes a point of referring to MySpace and Facebook as social network sites, not as social networking sites (“Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship”). While the term “social networking sites” would imply that users routinely expand their own social circles by meeting new people, boyd’s research suggest the majority of teen users (boyd focuses predominantly on the age range between 14 and 18 years old) see “social network sites” not as an “alternate world” which surpasses the scope of their regular offline contacts, but as another venue for the further development of social relationships initiated offline. boyd characterizes most teen users of MySpace and Facebook as practicing noticeable “homophily” in assembling their networks of contacts; that is to say, users affiliate themselves with acquaintances with whom they already share common experiences, friend groups, or modes of self-identification (Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, 88). boyd notes that marginalized groups (ethnic minorities, LGBT youth) and individuals seeking to participate in a broader shared-interest communities than are locally available to them (“gamers,” politically-minded youth) are more likely to use social network sites in order to meet new people (90).

Whether teens use social network sites exclusively to associate with offline contacts or in order to seek new relationships, sites like MySpace and Facebook allow their users to “write [a] community into being” centered around themselves (“Social Network Sites”). Yet, as Finn Brunton notes in “New Networks Target Discomfort With Facebook”, existing social network sites do not always allow offline relationship nuances to be translated into online representation. As boyd writes, some “structural aspects of software can force articulations which do not map well to how offline social behavior works” (Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, 103). She references MySpace’s “Top Friends” feature (in which users post their closest friends in ranked order) as enforcing on relationships a hierarchical scheme that may not objectively exist in users’ lives. The “drama” that often accompanies MySpace usage in teens is most often tied to the “Top Friends” feature. boyd notes that the beginnings of social media use generally coincides with the transition from the predominantly “homosocial” realm of childhood to an adolescent context which is “increasingly defined by performances of heterosexuality” (83). She observes that social network site “drama” often falls along gendered lines; girls usually act as the “agents” in propagating drama, while boys are cited as the “cause” of most drama (109).

When teen interactions on social media networks have gotten press recently, it hasn’t been for their general tendency to fall within a heteronormative framework, but for specific acts of bullying and harassment responsible for the suicides of queer and/or non-normatively gendered teens. In “The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric,” boyd examines the efficacy to-date of adult intervention in online teen bullying behavior. She notes that adult efforts to reduce online bullying are often “misaligned” with teen narratives of their own behavior; teens are more likely to term what adults may recognize as “bullying” as “drama,” because admitting to the existence of “bullying” forces teens either see themselves as victims or instigators. Moreover, boyd argues that the intensity of teens’ engagement with their peers, whether through affiliation, exclusion, or outright hostility, stems at least in part from the fact that teen lives are increasingly structured in isolation from the adult world (school and extracurriculars restrict teens to social interactions within their own age groups, and the breadth of teens’ knowledge of the wider world is limited by what adults deem to be “appropriate”). Teens’ restricted social framework thus reinforces a pervasive anxiety to assert one’s identity forcefully on the social stage by participating in online “drama.”

boyd posits that this insecure impulse stems from teens’ extreme exclusion from adult society, an exclusion that “infantilizes” teens, robs them of “significant agency”, and denies them the “tools to transition into adult society” (“Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics,” 300). boyd calls on adults to “engage and guide” teens through their transition to adulthood; rather than “demonizing” online teen behavior, adults should interrogate the cultural framework which gives rise to harmful “drama,” and must address the anxieties responsible for such drama using the vocabularies of teens’ own narratives in order to be effective (297, 299).





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Finn Brunton and the Dead Media Archive

Assistant Professor of Digital Environments and the University of Michigan’s School of Information Finn Brunton conducts research on the social history of technology and is currently finishing his book The Spew: A History of Spam, set to be published in 2012. His interest in “dead, obsolete, failed, and experimental media” led him to assemble the Dead Media Archive and teach a class on Media Archaeology at NYU in 2010.

In a presentation given at a USENIX event, Brunton outlines his motivations for constructing the archive and speaks to its utility in contributing to how we conceive of the media of the future. He opens by encouraging his audience not to think of technology’s evolution as a story of linear “teleological progress,” but rather as a “Cambrian Explosion” of alternate methods of dealing with related social issues such as communication, entertainment, and the organization of knowledge. He stresses the importance of recognizing “obsolete [or] failed” technologies as offering a “fund of alternatives” for the ways we may use technology in the future. Older technologies may be absorbed by newer ones or may be used as “handrails” to make newer technologies seem more comprehensible to its users (Brunton cites the example of phones with camera capability making the sound of a shutter closing when one takes a picture, despite the fact that the sound has nothing to do with the mechanism of the camera phone itself). At the same time, Brunton cautions against trusting that newer technologies are necessarily “better” or more advanced. He references the BBC’s decision to copy the contents of the 900-year old Domesday Book onto a micro CD-ROM in the early nineties; the electronic copy is now unreadable by modern computers, but the original Domesday Book compiled for William the Conquerer may still be read.

In an interview on the social history of technology, Brunton directly addresses the limiting notion that technology has advanced linearly until the present day and will continue to do so in a predictable fashion in the future. Instead, as he reminds his audience in the USENIX presentation, “we are not smarter than everyone who will come after us.” Our task is to build on the “fund of alternatives” offered by past technologies and to facilitate future building by rendering present technologies as accessible as possible, recognizing we may not know in what direction future technologies will move.

Brunton specifically addresses social challenges which have emerged through the “grand experiment in openness” which constitutes the present-day internet in the hazards of spam, shortcomings of social media sites such as Facebook, and discrimination issues within imageboard website groups like 4chan. In an interview on “the unintended consequences of spam,” Brunton holds that while spam can pose real threats to privacy and security, its looming threat has fostered a sense of community in those it affects and serves as a “driver of innovation” by exerting a “kind of natural stress on media systems.” Similarly, he identifies Facebook’s consistent issues with “privacy and data management” as being the impetus for new startups’ efforts to create a more nuanced social media experience which better reflects users’ real-life interactions (“New Networks Target Discomfort With Facebook,” NPR).

Brunton also considers contradictory internal power politics of groups at least nominally devoted to ideals of “anarchism and libertarianism,” such as 4chan and Anonymous (for more on the hacker group Anonymous, Gabriella Coleman’s analysis is available here). In a panel on “The Politics of User-Generated Content,” Brunton calls attention to the friction between stated policies of openness and inclusion and a desire to maintain group “cohesion” by restricting members. He admits he is “filled with despair when thinking about managing the gender equity problems on 4chan…off the scale misogyny and homophobia.” He likens groups like 4chan and Anonymous that market themselves as promoting a new era of collective action and mobilization to “many US movements in the 60s, where end goals might be admirable but internal movement politics are deeply misogynist.” Though he does not paint a definitive picture of “what shape a non-hate-laden Anonymous would take,” he emphasizes the urgency of addressing the social contexts of “oppressions and violence” in which these groups operate. New media may facilitate novel ways to approach goals of greater openness and collective mobilization, but one must be critical of the “toxic environments” new media groups may create.


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“Social Media – Social Revolts” at University of Lüneburg

(Reposted from nettime)

Public Event: »Social Media – Social Revolts?«

Critical perspectives on the uses of web and media networks by recent social movements // ‘Digital Governance // Experiences, insights and consequences from the ‘Arab Spring’ and the ‘Blackberry Riots’

(This event will be held in English – with German translation)

Tuesday 15 November 2011, 20:00
Hoersaal 5, Scharnhorststrasse 1, D-21335 Lueneburg

Organised in conjunction with the workshop »does not compute – building a post-media lab«

In association with Moving Image Lab, Leuphana University of Lueneburg, Kunstraum Lueneburg & Mute

Panel Discussion with:
Graham Harwood (Media artist, Southend-on-Sea, London)
Anne Roth (Journalist and Blogger, Berlin)
Aalam Wassef (Blogger, Media-artist and -activist, Paris/Cairo)

Some describe the uprisings that swept across Egypt and other Arab and North African countries as the ‘Facebook revolution’; some are calling the riots that convulsed England this August the ‘Blackberry Riots’. More considered commentators cast doubt on the notion that social media were decisive in producing this cycle of unrest. What is certain, however, is that social media – from Twitter to Facebook, YouTube to Internet blogs as well as the availability of ‘smart’ mobile phones – have changed the forms of social contact, as well as the reach of social movements. It is also certain that social media itself has become an ever greater part of the discussion about national and international borders, social organisation, basic rights and democracy.

In this context the export of network-monitoring softwares like ‘Finfisher’, co-produced in Germany, to countries such as Egypt is more than just another instance of the commodification of ‘security’ and often repression. It is also the symptom of a wider ethical and democratic crisis relating to the definition of private and public spheres, the new ‘nature’ of communication, the juridical presumption of innocence, and even the politically contested concept of ‘citizenship’ or ‘corporate social responsibility’.

Since the materiality, codes of conduct and practical activity comprising public and private life have been so radically transformed by digital networks, we need to step back and reconsider which foundational conceptions of democracy still apply. This event will strive to reach a more global understanding of these issues by drawing together a series of partial and local perspectives and embedding the discussion of politics into real conditions.

Clemens Apprich: clemens.apprich@leuphana.de
Oliver Lerone Schultz: oliver_lerone.schultz@leuphana.de

Kunstraum Leuphana University of Lueneburg

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Are You Really My Friend?

Westbrook, Maine artist Tanja Hollander has set out to meet and photograph all of her 600+ Facebook friends in their homes—including, of course, people she has never met before in person. The project’s main page is here. Along with the striking set of photographs that have been produced, each meeting brings surprises and recalibrates notions of community. As Hollander puts it in an essay she wrote on the project, “What started out as a personal documentary on friendship and environmental portraiture has turned into an exploration of American culture, relationships, generosity & compassion, family structure, community building, story telling, meal sharing, our relationship to technology & travel in the 21st century, social networking, memory, and the history of the portrait.”

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Gabriella Coleman and Hacker Culture

Gabriella Coleman, who received her Ph.D. in Socio-Cultural Anthropology from the University of Chicago in 2005, specializes in the study of the diverse codes of law and ethics produced within and challenged by online communities. Now Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, her anthropological work on digital media raises key questions regarding the formation of transgressive, non-normative communities and on the methodological framework of valuable digital media research itself. In “Hacker Practice: Moral Genres and the Cultural Articulation of Liberalism,” Coleman posits disparate modes of social interactions within and beyond a hacker “community” as operating to both fulfill and contest traditional tenets of liberalism such as “freedom, free speech, privacy, the individual, [and] meritocracy” (256). Rather than seeking to establish a singular “hacker ethic,” she instead focuses on how core liberal notions diverge and develop distinctly in different social spaces.

Her examination of the brand of positive freedom evident in F/OSS (Free/Open Source Software) hacking is especially useful in considering the relationship between self-expression and social affiliation. In identifying itself as being “free as in free speech, not as in free beer,” (262) the exchange of Free/Open Source Software extends and complicates a liberal idea of positive freedom for individual expression and self-development. F/OSS exchange facilitates the expressive faculty of an individual to create software while opening up a space in which work produced by any person is expected and encouraged to be reused and altered by any other. Thus, F/OSS development and exchange takes on a simultaneously individualistic and communalistic structure of freedom which at times clashes explicitly with legal copyright and privacy protections (as Coleman examines in “Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest Among Free and Open Source Software Developers”). Coleman further delves into this dialectic between individualism and communalism within hacker practice by studying the way physical social interactions at F/OSS conferences complement hackers’ often solitary work in “The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld.” She cautions against viewing digital media interactions as existing in a vacuum divorced from their social contexts and instead argues for the recognition of a profound dialogue between digital media and the lived experiences of its human users. F/OSS conferences allow attendees the opportunity to recognize both sameness and difference in others. This recognition supports the formation of non-normative communities in which group solidarity may “also usher in personal transformations” and heightened individualism through self-expression (64). In a rare mention of gender dynamics, Coleman offers an example of how women have used conferences to make visible “[their] presence…in [a] largely male project” (58) without limiting the spheres of their own work to within the confines of an all-female community of hackers.

Coleman’s scholarship emphasizes the interplay between digital media and the lived experiences of its users within specific social contexts; she is able to study hacker communities in the United States and Europe most fruitfully because she avoids a “limiting” assumption of the “universality of digital experience” (“Ethnographic Approaches to Digital Media,” 489). She argues strongly against the idea that technology has the power to spontaneously effect universally consistent patterns of change which are independent of cultural, social, and political context. She posits that “significant cultural and social conclusions” regarding the varied impacts of digital media may only be reached through “the questions and analytic frames brought to bear on the objects and subjects of analysis” (498). Though Coleman does not explicitly address the study of gender and sexuality in digital media, her work would seem to advocate examining digital media’s construction of gendered and/or sexualized practices within a specific social context and analytical framework and without assuming digital media affects all gendered and sexualized bodies in consistent ways.


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Social Media Project staff

The Social Media Project is pleased to introduce research intern Ariadne Yulo, who will periodically be writing blog posts that explore issues at the intersection of gender, sexuality, and new media/social technologies. She’ll be working on developing bibliographies and webliographies—reviewing relevant scholarship and providing brief overviews of websites and other projects.

Ariadne is a second-year Gender and Sexuality Studies and Comparative Human Development major hailing from the Bay Area, California. After examining modes of artistic generativity and subjectivity in “Sexuality Studies in American Art” this Spring, she became interested in exploring the intersections of gender theory and social practice. She enjoys adventures and tap dancing.

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Siri-ously gendered

Social Media Project director Rebecca Zorach (aka me) was quoted in a CNN.com article about Siri, the female voice of Apple’s new iPhone. (I don’t even have a smart phone!)

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Social media during the Oct 15 Rome riots

A very interesting project that graphically displays social media activity over time during the October 15 riots that occurred in Rome during the international protests initiated by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The site is AOS, Art is Open Source, “the diary of the activities of xDxD.vs.xDxD / Salvatore Iaconesi and penelope.di.pixel / Oriana Persico” who “use technology, communication, performance, art and design to instantiate emotional actions and processes that are able to expose the dynamics of our contemporary world…in academic, artistic, business and activist domains.”


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Upcoming events

Monday, October 17 from 12-1:30pm, Rachel Caïdor is speaking on the topic “Feminist Work/Activist Spaces” in the Feminist/Queer Praxis series at CSGS. “How are feminist and activist spaces created? What’s the landscape in Chicago?” Rachel is an alumna of the Pink Bloque and an artist, teacher, and activist.

This event is co-sponsored by the Social Media Project.

On November 28 we will also be co-sponsoring an event with the Contemporary Art Workshop. Two artists who work with social media and sexuality, Eijane Janet Lin and Michael Sirianni, will be presenting their work. The Contemporary Art Workshop meets in Cochrane-Woods Art Center, room 156, at 5pm on Mondays.

We also have speakers lined up for winter and spring:

Lisa Nakamura, UIUC (Asian American studies, Communications, and Media and Cinema Studies), author of Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet, among other works. Monday, February 27, at 4:30pm.

Mary Gray, Indiana U (Film and Media Studies, Performance and Ethnography), author, most recently, of Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America. Friday, April 13, at 4:30pm.

More details to follow on each of these upcoming events.

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New project on gender and social media

The Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality has established a new project on gender/sexuality, new media, and social media.

The Social Media Project studies the locations and practices of gender and sexuality in new media and social media. We define new media broadly to encompass technologies of the past 40 years including video, internet, mobile phones, and other communications technologies, particularly as they have become media for cultural expression and forms of social life. We define social media to occupy a continuum: from the narrowest sense (current social networking sites and practices) to the broadest sense in which it might suggest a whole range of social technologies, both old and new. Social, political, and aesthetic questions to be addressed include surveillance and privacy, performance, pornography, political organizing, and the construction of sexual practices and communities.

In academic year 2011-12, the project will host a series of lectures and workshops (schedule TBA) and will begin preparation for a major conference to take place in 2013.

We’ll periodically post articles, links, and information on this blog.

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