Friday, February 29, 2008

Mr. Right But Not Too Far Right

Even as the field of presidential contenders has narrowed to the Clinton-Obama-McCain trio, there is still some desire among the electorate to combine the candidates' best features to form an ideal politician, much as Alberti advised Renaissance artists to make beautiful women in paintings by assembling faces with eyes, noses, or mouths taken from different models.

Enter WikiCandidate, a project designed by two Cornell graduate students to create an "online community" that fills out the details of a fictional candidate in which users are "given the opportunity not only to voice their political opinions, but to test them against the views of others in a collaborative discussion." In addition to elaborating on the ideal candidate's biography and writing news items about the campaign, visitors to the site can also identify issues that should be at the forefront of the election or practice building coalitions.

As many have pointed out, the discursive dynamics of the Internet tend to be politically polarizing, and it can sometimes be difficult to see collective intelligence at work. The disastrous experience of The Los Angeles Times with its wikitorials experiment and the Wikipedia lockdowns on pages with politically charged subjects like "abortion" or "George W. Bush" may only illustrate this point.

Perhaps when working with a fiction there could be more consensus. Unfortunately, I fear that putting Stephen Colbert in as a placeholder for the fictional candidate may encourage visitors to treat the site as a joke. Hopefully he won't be in that position for long. Certainly, there are other competing websites promoting political consensus-building this season, including the heavily advertised from the AARP. But at WikiCandidate, you get to design and edit everything, even the buttons, placards, and bumper stickers.

Now we are entering a time of differentiation and separation in political discourse. Is Obama really like Kennedy? Is Hillary Clinton really like Bill Clinton? At a time of partitioning, this exercise in aggregation is an interesting thought experiment.

Thanks to Tarleton Gillespie for the link.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Muck Muckraking

Digital video of the treatment of downer cows, which was shot by The Humane Society of the United States, has spurred the largest beef recall in history that targets the #2 supplier of beef to the school lunch program, after the clips propagated across the web. As an example of witness journalism, the extremely graphic footage taken by an HSUS investigator, which shows live cows being dragged by chains or abused by forklifts, seems to have been enabled by smaller digital video recording devices obviously escaped notice by his coworkers. Although less likely to use online video as a rhetorical tool than PETA, which even has Martha Stewart aboard, the Humane Society is clearly trying to use new mobile technologies to raise the profile of animal rights issues.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Rube Goldberg Machine

In "Pakistan causes worldwide YouTube outage," MSNBC explains how one nation's blockage of the popular video-sharing site over a small subset of supposedly anti-Islamic films on that domain name caused the site to be down around the world for many subscribers who were dependent on the large service provider PCCW, which picked up the rerouting and shutdown order from Pakistan and propagated the error from its Hong Kong node. In the book Linked, Albert-László Barabási explains how the distributed nature of the Internet is both its chief strength and its chief weakness. This incident has caused many to look at geopolitical implications of a kind of return of the repressed of command and control in distributed networks, which Alexander Galloway explores in his books Protocol and The Exploit. As if the story weren't already transnational enough, what I find interesting is that many are tracing Pakistan's court decision back to the controversial Mohammed cartoons that were published in Denmark. An excellent timeline of the snafu is available here.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Rained Out

There are several interesting features of this video in which Lawrence Lessig explains his rationale for choosing not to run for Congress, despite the "Draft Lessig" movement on the Internet, given his poll numbers against front-runner Jackie Speier.

This video can be read as a video about the Internet and politics. Even though the web is often described as a medium well-designed for high-speed viral campaigns, Lessig admits that getting the message out (and making his political brand recognizable) within thirty days would still be impossible. And yet this video also implicitly argues for a continuing value of web platforms to politics. First, he explicitly mentions Facebook as a factor that energized the campaign. Second, he recommends a website called as a source for information about this new movement for grassroots organizing against influence peddling, although the site has an "under construction" message and a 2004 date prominently displayed, which is strange to see, since Lessig is known for his Internet savvy.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Only Dogs Need Muzzles

The worst digital rhetoric news of the month has to be the closing of, a site that posts documents about corruption and human rights violations, which was closed down by a judge's order based on a complaint from a bank in the Cayman Islands. "Judge Orders Wikileaks Web Site Shut" also includes many of the relevant documents in the case. Although The New York Times has not always championed the rights of Internet journalist's, its editorial "Stifling Online Speech" is a strong defense of the site's free speech rights that also makes analogies to freedom of the press.

Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey White ordered Wikileaks’s domain name registrar to disable its Web address. That was akin to shutting down a newspaper because of objections to one article. The First Amendment requires the government to act only in the most dire circumstances when it regulates free expression.

There are updates at Wikileak that tell a sad tale about site closings in other countries in response to political pressures. Luckily you can still access many of the items from the U.S. .org site at the WikiLeaks site in Belgium.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Chick Lit

Although The New York Times and The Washington Post ran stories this week about what might seem to be John McCain's too cozy relationship with a female lobbyist, you wouldn't know it from reading the light and frothy fare on McCainBlogette, the web log maintained by McCain's daughter Meghan, which documents her travels with her father on the presidential campaign trail.

On Friday, The Los Angeles Times ran an article about the blog, "Meghan McCain's straight blog express" that praised what it saw as the blonde bomblet's authenticity.

The children of presidential candidates are often deployed on the trail to humanize their parents, but their appearances are usually carefully choreographed and managed. The Romney sons roamed Iowa in an RV talking about their father's business acumen. Chelsea Clinton dazzles audiences with her grasp of issues like the public health infrastructure in Rio de Janeiro, but she doesn't speak to reporters.

Meghan McCain posted a photograph this week showing herself leaping through the air on a "sugar high" in Wisconsin, as her dad talked on the phone in the background. And she makes no apologies for leaving policy discussions to others.

"I don't think it's my role," she said, frowning, when asked if she deliberately steers away from the issues. The blog is independent from the campaign and not vetted by campaign staffers. (McCain said that his daughter never asked his permission for her endeavor but that "it seemed to be fine.")

Her blog is"not about politics," Meghan said. "It's not a medium to get policy or to sell my candidate's issue," she said.

Looking at the blog, I'm not sure it as unchoreographed as the LA Times makes it sound.
Those on the Blogette Team include a photographer and producer. (Since I'm nosy, I'm still trying to figure out if the photographer is this Heather Brand or this one or both.)

As someone interested in candidate McCain's positions on digital rights, it's worth noting that daughter Meghan presents herself as an active archiver and remixer of audio and video content. Her latest video claims that it contains no music, "so you can add your own while you watch." Cynic that I am, I couldn't help but wonder if Meghan had gotten rights to all the music that can be heard on her channel, Although her playlist goes straight to the corporate website for iTunes, she still flaunts what she presents as an "indie" sensibility.

Also, I have been getting my fair share of comparisons to John Cusack's character in "High Fidleity" with my obsession with creating playlists (or in his case mixed tapes) and to that I say: I am unworthy, I will never be as cool as John Cusack. :-)

According to the Times, some of her posts have "generated vicious Web commentary on celebrity or political gossip sites." Although the Times singles out "Meghan McCain is no Chelsea Clinton" in Salon as an online attack, the piece did acknowledge that "to blog as a woman" has inherent challenges, which McCain might be playing into by emphasizing her identity as "a blonde woman in politics who boasts about her own fashion sense."

Now that Romney's children have disbanded their Five Brothers Blog, the number of blogs being written by the candidates' offspring has further diminished with the shrinking of the field of presidential hopefuls.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Sourcerer's Apprentices

I've been thinking about Vannevar Bush's 1945 essay "As We May Think" a lot lately as I finish up the manuscript for the Virtualpolitik book, so I was particularly interested to hear Wendy Chun's talk yesterday, which emphasized the "may" in the title of Bush's article, which was printed in The Atlantic Monthly and Life.

The first part of her paper dealt with the questions of critical hindsight that have been so important for new media studies, particularly as it has emerged from tired utopian/dystopian binaries and the hackneyed metaphors of double-edged swords that still play out in the mainstream media. In addition to pointing out the irony of the increasingly biological obsessions of bioart and nanotech critics in a field about hardware and software, she reminded the audience that a focus on future technologies made analysis of present ones difficult. As indicators of a possible sea change in the field, Chun emphasized many scholars' interest in getting beyond "vapor theory" and the influence of presentist work by Lev Manovich, Peter Lunenfeld, Geert Lovink, and even -- more recently -- novelist and onetime futurist William Gibson.

In answer to Paul Virilio's despair that online phenomena are gone by the time that a critical discourse can be formed about them, she suggested that it might be good to consider "getting beyond speed" and seriously interrogate the idea of memory instead. She was careful, however, to distinguish memory from the archive and not to associate memory with permanence either. Much as Derrida considers forgetfulness to be at the heart of the archive, Chun is interested in what she calls "the enduring ephemeral" as well as the "degeneration" of memory or that which we "repress and deny."

Despite her interest in getting beyond speed, she was still deeply engaged with questions about new media temporality. She pointed out that Lev Manovich argued that "where" an image is could be less important than "when" an image is and seriously presented McKenzie Wark's "theory as event" and Geert Lovink's "theory on the run" as legitimate critical alternatives to her view.

Although not many people in the room had read his essay, she also corrected those who may still idealize Vannevar Bush's ideas as precursors to the present by asserting that he was describing a mechanical analog future that can not come to pass. She also showed a truly bizarre animation of the Memex from Dynamic Diagrams that adopts a first-person present address about the device while suppressing its obvious anachronisms. She emphasized how strong this belief in a source or what she punningly called "sourcery" could be, and not only among Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart who looked back to the Memex as an origin for their ideas but also among those who have recently entered the field.

I was particularly interested to hear Chun point out how Bush obliterates the difference between machine reading and human reading and presents mechanical devices as error free, much as he presents media that never degrade. Lately I find myself rereading the passages in which Bush seems captivated with the promise of what he calls a “new symbolism” divorced from the irrationalities introduced by locality, language, and culture in which one day people will “click off arguments on a machine with the same assurance that we now enter sales on a cash register” or “manipulate premises in accordance with formal logic, simply by the clever use of relay circuits” to crank out “conclusion after conclusion” as consistently as a “keyboard adding machine.”

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Mood Rings

Richard Grusin's recent talk on "The Affective Life of Media Or, What do Media Want?" combined cyborg theory with HCI research on affective computing to put forward a theory of the post-9/11 media landscape that explored what he characterized as fundamental differences between affect and emotion.

Grusin returned to the work of Rosalind Picard several times in his talk, who is known for discovering that computer users manifest the strongest displays of affect when software doesn't function properly. (Thus, with this posting, I am embedding the famed video of the "Angry German Kid," which has inspired a number of parodies and a whole misguided discourse about the harmful effects of videogames, if indeed the child was merely acting.) Picard is also known for her work on e-mail and the way it is both a low-affect communication medium that tells little about the affect of the sender and an affect intensifier for the recipient who may project his or her emotions upon the message.

Grusin takes issue with many generally held ideas about the affective bandwidth of different devices, since he points that people are often more intimately engaged and comfortable with their cell phones -- which can be further personalized with ringtones -- than they may with videoconference equipment, which supposedly conveys more information. To illustrate his point, Grusin told the story of visiting Slovenia in 2005 and listening to a colleague on her cell phone with her partner who had just landed safely. Even though Grusin didn't speak her language, he pointed out that she was communicating emotions to him and to the other people in the restaurant, as well as to other people in the restaurant. His interest in the "affective entropy" of ubiquitous computing devices and the way that there is "waste" or "surplus" in the exchanges is also interesting. I proposed the 2girls1cup reaction-video phenomenon as another possible case of what he called "distributed affect," but this example probably over complicates Grusin's case, since it recursively envelopes so many kinds of one-way communication rather than the two-way communication with which Grusin is most engaged.

Grusin also took issue with the thesis of Brian Massumi in "Fear (the Spectrum Said)" that the terror alert system was developed to motivate fear and to collapse affect with emotion. Like many new media critics (Manovich, Bogost, etc.), Grusin also tried his hand at analyzing Benjamin's flâneur. For Grusin, this figure in "Some Motifs in Baudelaire" draws attention to how human beings adapt to systems and technologies and how a single haptic action (lighting a match, lifting a telephone receiver, snapping a photo, etc.) can trigger processes with sequences of numerous steps.

Among digital rhetoric fans, Grusin is also known as a collaborator with Jay David Bolter.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

A recent story in The Los Angeles Times, "Afghan student's defenders may doom him," implies that well-intentioned human rights advocates from the west are actually strengthening the resolve of hardliners to execute Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh for blasphemy on the basis of sharing anti-polygamy materials he downloaded from the Internet. I'm not sure that they are drawing the right moral, since online petition drives are notoriously ineffective and the case has not gotten much press in the U.S.. Reporters without Borders has a page that defends him on journalistic grounds, but many other human rights groups have yet to do much Internet activism that focuses on his case.

Nonetheless, perhaps behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressures on head of state Hamid Karzai from coalition countries are creating problems for maintaining the appearance of sovereignty in the embattled nation, although the U.S. has hardly been an exponent of digital rights of late, particularly in China. Although the offender has apologized for the incident, it's difficult to have him pardoned now that his sentence has been upheld. But as one supporter of the student within the country complained, "The judges did not even know the difference between a keyboard and a monitor."

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Emily Post Posting

Since I teach digital rhetoric, I feel compelled to share this link for How to Behave on an Internet Forum, an eight-bit animation that covers the basics on avoiding flame wars, respecting not-safe-for-work conventions, and other Internet dos and don'ts.

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Gaming the System

Although I'm down in Southern California finishing up the Virtualpolitik manuscript, I've been following the goings on of the GDC or Game Developers Conference in Northern California. For starters, I always like to read the Top Ten Research Findings in game studies, which are compiled each year by Jane McGonigal, Mia Consalvo, and Ian Bogost.

Bogost gave what sounded like a provocative keynote on "Where 'Love' Belongs: an Academic's Thoughts on Game Education," which I'm sorry I missed, because A) it seemed like it had some interesting reflections about the nature of interdisciplinarity and collaboration, and B) he slipped in a slide that mentioned Jacques Lacan, which I always like to see. (Check out this Bogost mention of the mirror stage in a game trade too!)

Bogost also reported on Steve Seabolt's talk about what's happening in The Sims division of Electronic Arts these days, which has a lot of political ramifications, if you understand the term "politics" to include gender politics and cultural politics and not just questions about who's regulating whom in Washington. The fact that The Sims would be expanding possible environmental storylines wasn't much news to anyone who's played the game and has seen how it privileges policies that promulgate environmental controls and public transportation, but Seabolt also said that the company had been busy with socially conscious work in real world environments. As part of a corporation that specializes in proprietary software and big-budge IP, it is surprising to hear that The Sims may be part of the One Laptop Per Child Initiative. Of course, research shows that access to games and social networking sites, which are often criticized in mainstream culture as nonproductive leisure uses of computing technologies, is key to digital literacy in the developing world as well. News on the homefront about computer education for girls from Seabolt was not so good, unfortunately. Although The Sims 2 is partnering with Alice, the non-profit project for teaching programming skills to young women, problems in gender representation in the computer science field still persist.

As someone who couldn't help but notice that I was the only female student in my game design class, I was thinking about gender gaps a lot last night. We had a "sub" filling in at the front of the classroom, since the instructor was at GDC, so the testosterone level in his absence was particularly high. Sitting next to two hardcore post-adolescent gamers who went on and on very loudly about "blood and semen" games and all the cool ways you could kill women in various scenarios, the urge to give my pimply subhuman classmates a lecture about hate speech was almost overwhelming. Instead, I just pretended that I was deaf until we got to the actual subject matter for the day, which was about sound design, where I could demonstrate some knowledge and hence amaze the gonad brothers. A few years earlier, my husband, who is a designer, had taken almost the same class with the same teacher, and he said that at the time about half of the students were women and that they produced some of the best projects. He described these women's games as often stereotypically of the flowers-and-bunnies kind but plugged them as imaginative and witty and fun to play and cleverly coded.

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Digital Soapboxes

It doesn't have a lot of whizz-bang YouTube-friendly elements of the Diet-Coke-and-mentos variety that drive online video to the million views mark, but copyleft activist and Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig's attempt at conveying a message about political reform that he describes as "insanely difficult to communicate to ordinary people in their ordinary lives" as part of a possible bid for a vacant congressional seat uses a lot of elements of digital rhetoric nonetheless, from its appropriation of the genre of the electronic slideshow to its incorporation of stock photographs to emphasize the alcoholism metaphor that is central to its pitch. You can check out Draft Lessig and Lessig '08 for more.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Army Men are from Mars

Under Mars: an online archive of soldiers' photos comes with a justifiable warning about graphic content, although it also documents the mundane aspects of tours of duty in country that include humorously misspelled signs and the beauty of the institutionally banal. Many of the pages show the effects of roadside bombs.

A disclaimer says that this photo-sharing site is "apolitical" and is "not run by a member of the US military, nor is it run by a US citizen or resident." About the webmaster's identity, the home page only says that "who runs it, while not particularly secret, is also not particularly relevant." The choice of name for the website is explained as "an homage both to Mars, the Roman God of War, and to the otherworldly nature of the experience" of combat in the Middle East.

(Thanks to Mel Horan, creator of Garbage Island, for the link.)

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Validity and Value

Today story, "L.A. County ballot design went unnoticed for six years," provides a cautionary tale for information designers about a flaw in the printing of materials for the actual mechanics of voting that has invalidated tens of thousands of votes.

With the attention paid to electronic voting, I might argue that proponents have focused too much on getting votes tabulated quickly rather than increasing the number of valid ballots among those who go to the polls. Current scanning technology installed at polling places detects ballots with overvoting, so it's a mystery why no one programmed the machines to detect this problem for nonpartisan voters participating in California primaries, many of whom may have also mistakenly marked "Independent" on their ballots, since they were unaware that this represented a political party with candidates and contests of its own. As Chris Kelty has pointed out, little attention has been paid to rethinking deliberative processes during the debate about the security of electronic voting.

As someone who has actually been a poll worker, I would say that ballot counting isn't that difficult to do, but the problem is making sure that provisional ballots are kept separate and that the number of signatures on the voting rosters matches the verified total in the box at the end of the day. In other words, the issue is validity not value, just like the order of magnitude on currency denominations may be in some ways less important than its non-counterfeit status.

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Putting Your Best Face Forward

Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University has been working on studies of political influence, economic and sexual transactions, and public health efforts that use technologies involving virtual humans, according to "Seeing Is Believing: Maybe virtual reality isn't just a game anymore. Maybe it's a way to build a better you." Bailenson has recruited rising star Nick Yee for his team that examines questions about interactions in everyday virtual like like why are taller avatars more aggressive in addition to exploring what one Stanford colleague calls "ancient Greek stuff" about the "essence of self-understanding."

The Bailenson lab is also trying to figure out if people who watch their avatars exercise are more likely to feel spurred to exercise themselves. (Personally when I see my avatar huffing over hills and up stairs in Second Life, I just sort of feel tired.)

There was also an interesting experiment that involved giving undecided voters photos of candidates that had been morphed with images of the test subjects themselves. Apparently potential voters felt more favorable toward candidates that mirrored some of their real-life physical traits, although those who recognize virtual communities scholar Howard Rheingold in this photo may wonder about the lab's experimental methods.

Thanks to no-longer-striking pal John Brancato for the link.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Your Epidermis is Showing

In "Naked in the Nonopticon" Siva Vaidhyanathan reviews several books for the Chronicle of Higher Education to propose a more appropriate theory to suit contemporary notions of privacy that are evolving in the age of life lived largely online. To show this he points to the Beacon Facebook rebellion and what it represents for users of the popular networking site, since the managers of the popular networking site had assumed that since their users already put personal details on their regularly updated "feeds" they wouldn't mind including recent online purchases as well.

(I should note that the company incorrectly uses the term "social advertising" for this practice, which drives those who have been involved in non-profit social advertising for public health, safety, and social activism up a wall. Check out Osocio for examples of what these marketers for change consider to be real "social advertising.")

To provide context for his privacy thesis, Vaidhyanathan's essay reviews books by Daniel J. Solove and James B. Rule and includes material from pop-culture journalist Emily Nussbaum.

"Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion," Nussbaum wrote. "Every street in New York has a surveillance camera," she said. "Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not."

True, despite warnings from nervous academics and almost weekly stories about extensive data leaks from Visa or AOL, we keep searching on Google, buying from Amazon, clicking through user agreements and privacy policies (which rarely, if ever, actually protect privacy), and voting for leaders who gladly empower the government to spy on us.

But wait. If young people don't care about privacy, why do they care whether Facebook airs their purchases to hundreds of acquaintances?

It turns out that broad assumptions about the irrelevance of privacy among the young — or the old — share a basic misunderstanding of the issue. That's partly because we too often assume that the word "privacy" stands in for a set of aspects or qualities that people generally wish to keep to themselves: i.e., matters of sex, drugs, and, occasionally, rock 'n' roll.

Privacy is not a clear and common set of traits that might include sexual orientation or HIV status. Nor is it the same issue in every context in which we live and move. "Privacy" is an unfortunate term because it carries no sense of its own customizability and contingency.

When we complain about infringements of privacy, what we really demand is some measure of control over our reputation in the world. Who should have the power to collect, cross-reference, publicize, or share information about us, regardless of what that information might be? If I choose to declare my romantic status or sexual orientation on Facebook, then at least it's my choice, not Facebook's.

Through a combination of weak policies, vapid public discussions, and some remarkable technologies like camera phones and the Internet, we have less and less control over our reputations every day.

Vaidhyanathan also argues that the much cited image of the Panopticon from Foucault (and then Bentham before him) is no longer quite valid. Instead he proposes the existence of a "nonopticon," which he describes as "a state of being watched without knowing it, or at least the extent of it." Of course, I might suggest a secondary meaning of the word nonopticon in light of reading Geert Lovink's Zero Comments, one that argues that all this reputation management in service of the technologies of the self doesn't have any actual audience in the public sphere. Thus, contemporary netizens may be living in a world in which they express their most private thoughts, and even their closest friends don't notice in the digital onslaught of feeds from others. At the same time, marketers are paying attention to things that may have no emotional or personal value at all, like the number of kleenexes that you went through crying about your latest angst-related episode revealed on the web and their exact brand and color.

Of course, as Henry Jenkins has recently pointed out in his blog, privacy means something different in China among its increasingly wired youthful population. Jenkins cites a recent study on how "China Leads the US in Digital Self-Expression" and quotes statistics that indicate that Chinese citizens are five times more likely to be engaging in parallel lives online. and are more likely to experiment with how they present themselves online. Chinese participants in Internet culture were also about twice as likely to value anonymity as their "nonopticon" U.S. counterparts.

Note: You can block schemes like Beacon's with a little reconfiguration of your browser to suit the design of the social networking site. See these Facebook instructions for Firefox users as an example.

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Saying the C-Word

I can't quite figure out why I am interested in this example of Jane Fonda saying one of the FCC's forbidden words live on the Today show, while explaining her initial reluctance to participate in the tenth-anniversary production of The Vagina Monologues, which like many profanity-on-TV incidents has gotten rebroadcast on digital video, where we can watch it until the takedown notices are inevitably enforced by the networks over ownership of their intellectual property. I guess the confluence of a live theater production being discussed on TV and then repackaged for YouTube merits some attention. As I've said before, it also may be a case of creating future four-letter databases. Celebrities saying the "c-word" anyone? Would that serve Eve Ensler's goal of reclaiming the language about the female body and not have it be considered obscene? Let the remixes begin.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

I Wish I Could Say I'm Surprised

The New York Times just published this story about electronic surveillance: "F.B.I. Received Unauthorized E-Mail Access." These stories have become so commonplace that I generally don't mention them here. I only bother to mention it, because it reminds readers of an important feature of national security policy that is often overlooked, which the reporter compares to "law enforcement officials getting a subpoena to search a single apartment, but instead having the landlord give them the keys to every apartment in the building."

The episode is an unusual example of what has become a regular if little-noticed occurrence, as American officials have expanded their technological tools: government officials, or the private companies they rely on for surveillance operations, sometimes foul up their instructions about what they can and cannot collect.

The problem has received no discussion as part of the fierce debate in Congress about whether to expand the government’s wiretapping authorities and give legal immunity to private telecommunications companies that have helped in those operations.

On the technical side of things encryption experts are apparently working on creating keys that limit what could be accessed, but that might just mean that all of us have a blank warrant filled out on us that is only waiting for the right electronic signature.

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Letting Their Fingers Do the Stumbling

When it comes to political scandals related to the Internet, the big story this month is the regrettable text messages that Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick sent to his Chief of Staff Christine Beatty. Full of steamy love messages and the details of adulterous trysts that they had denied under oath participating in, the record of their text messages indicates yet again that government officials view electronic messages as ephemeral speech rather than potential documentary evidence. Some excerpts are here, although The Detroit Free Press, which has been conducting a special investigation into the mayor's affairs claims that it can't publish the more sexually explicit ones. As the Washington Post reports, the couple also used an embarrassing amount of LOL abbreviations in their messages, which made the exchanges appear particularly juvenile.

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I Don't Care If He Is a "Fervent Dodgers Fan" . . .

You know that friend of yours who is always doing stupid things? The one who is constantly making really dumb decisions? The one who you've actually decided not to bother getting mad at anymore and just to laugh whenever the consequences of that person's mistakes become obvious?

I feel that way about The Los Angeles Times.

I stayed a subscriber after the Times made the switch to a moronic "faster format." And I'm still a subscriber despite their Facebook journalism and sloppy reporting.

But now the Times has done something extra-special idiotic. You can read all about it in "Stanton named editor of the L.A. Times." As the announcement itself tactfully puts it, "Stanton doesn't have the same range of experience as many of his predecessors, who before moving into the editor's chair had won Pulitzer Prizes and other accolades for their own reporting or coverage they supervised." The paper admits that "assignments covering wars or Washington traditionally have been steppingstones to the top job at The Times and other large newspapers."

Look, I have nothing against Stanton personally. I'm a local too and also a "fervent Dodgers fan." And I've never been shot at in Iraq.

But what's amazing to me is that he was picked because of his role in "invigorating its website." The Times has a terrible website, without question the worst of any national newspaper. I suspect that my seventy-five-year old parents who still have dial-up know more about the Internet than Russ Stanton.

Of course, their website has been terrible for a long time, long before Stanton got involved.

For example, Internet subscribers constantly get spam ads from the LA Times in their e-mail inboxes. What's hilarious is that they obviously know nothing about their users based on the ads that arrive. Fine jewelry? Plastic surgery? I am positive that I never clicked through on any items featuring those topics. Here's the particularly funny part: they've never sent me a single electronics ad, even though I shop for gadgets all the time. Clearly, as an online consumer, I'm nothing more than my gender to them.

They also don't properly maintain their "interactive features." For example, one Flash developer showed me all the bugs in website done for a story that received a Pulitzer Prize. Shameful electronic hygiene that indicates that they don't get web development at all.

And they don't have the kind of archiving and tagging power that would make electronic subscribership valuable rather than just representing the hassle of memorizing another password. Come on! You guys must have seen the online version of The New York Times. Why don't you at least have "save" and "share" as options on your stories?

Besides, their online video sucks! It is little more than clips from local news and the AP. Compare that to the kind of smart use of witness journalism coming out of The New York Times or The Washington Post. Today, the LA Times has a weather story, a campus shooting story, a missing persons story, and a story about a car that could drive under water at the top of its video roster. Compare that to the NYTimes "The Assassination of Benazir Bhutto" or WaPo's "Pakistan on the Brink."

And then there was their disastrous experiment with an editorial wiki. OMG.

The new owner of the Times Sam Zell and publisher David Hiller were apparently pleased with the fact that ", the paper's online edition, has been adding readers at about a 20% annualized clip" and credit Russ Stanton with a development that would have taken place without him, given the country's changing literacy habits.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

A Hood and an Orange Jumpsuit for Your Avatar

I've known documentary filmmaker Nonny de la Peña for years, but I found out recently that she's now moved into also using virtual worlds for consciousness-raising purposess. As the growth of scholarly criticism on documentary videogames shows, this is certainly a rich area in new media studies. And Nonny already has a track record of films about civil liberties, environmental issues, and medical ethics.

For her new project, she's working with a virtual Guantánamo Bay detention facilty for enemy combatants held without traditional Constitutional protections and habeas corpus procedures. The designers maintain a blog called Gone Gitmo, which describes their partnership with the ACLU and some of their virtual philanthropy events, along with the frustration of finding that their build was damaged by interlopers at one point. Check out this machinima film about the exhibit here.

As this YouTube video explains, de la Peña has been working closely with fellow Harvard grad Peggy Weil, who is also on the team developing a new serious game for soldiers in Iraq, ELECT. The premise of the game can be explained as follows:

Imagine you are a soldier assigned to rebuilding efforts in an Iraqi town or you're an officer tasked with keeping the peace in an unstable city. Earning the trust and respect of the citizens you are trying to help is of the utmost importance. Should you bring a gift to your meeting? Should you shake hands? Does the person with the highest title actually hold any power, and how do you find out? Cultural sensitivity and situational understanding are among the necessary tools in your arsenal.

The question, of course, is are videogames the best tools for teaching the principles of deliberative democracy? Although recent research by Ren Reynolds and others looks at collaborative play and collective rule-making in MMO environments, it's difficult to break creating democratic institutions into a series of unit operations. Perhaps the team developing Virtual Congress at Indiana University will end up grappling with similar issues.

You can visit the virtual Gitmo in Second Life by teleporting through this link.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bad Viral

After using digital video successfully in her Sopranos parody, it's difficult to watch some of the current online videos coming out of Hillary Clinton's campaign. This short mockumentary rockumentary is a pretty regrettable example of pandering to young people to counter Obama's appeal to college students. "Hillary and the Band" is currently featured on her YouTube channel, although Clinton doesn't appear in the film, other than in the static form of some Photoshopped stills.

On her channel, there are also clearly infringing, badly cut celebrity endorsements from news broadcasts, such as this one from Cher, and cheesy music videos with cringe-worthy tunes.

(Link via Andy Sternberg, who also passed on the amazing YesWeCanHas, a website that combines lolcats with Obama politicking. Given that confluence of topics, I can't help but suspect that Alice Robison has already visited the site.)

Update: When it comes to viral political fun, several readers have wisely recommended Barack Obama is Your New Bicycle. As a clickable hypertext, it is definitely worth a visit.

In light of having recently read Geert Lovink's Zero Comments, I thought all the references to self-indulgent ecstasies from reciprocity in social media practices were particularly funny: "Barack Obama Left a Comment on Your Blog," "Barack Obama Favorited Your Photo," "Barack Obama Followed You on Twitter," "Barack Obama Set Your Voice as His Ringtone," "Barack Obama Listened to Your MP3," "Barack Obama made you a Mixtape," "Barack Obama Subscribed to Your Feed," "Barack Obama Spent the Afternoon Setting up Your Router," etc.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Listening to the Squares

As someone who frequently teaches philosophy texts, I recognize the pedagogical technique in this video. David Hume in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion uses it to explain the theodicy debate about how God could be both all-powerful and all-loving and yet have evil in the world.

This argument about global warming is remarkable in that it is specifically packaged with the rhetorical conventions of YouTube in mind and that it proposes a "stunningly easy" course of action that requires little more than "a few mouse clicks" to forward the video to others. As the speaker says, "In today's information age you can change the culture; you can help change public policy." In a form of digital DIY instructional film, he also presents it as a kind of how-to video, so that the author's talking points could be made "part of your thinking, part of your conversations."

I might say that the argument is as much about participatory culture as it is about global warming. And it is there that I might disagree with some of his propositions.

From a rhetorical standpoint, it's interesting to note that he's also setting some subtle ground rules about acceptable procedures for online discourse and general netiquette that are designed to head off possible flame wars from viewers in the future. "I'm asking you, who I've never met, but whose fate I'm still tied to, if you think I'm wrong, please tell me where . . . politely."

(Thanks to Susan Lynley Welsh for the link. Even though it is her birthday today, my former roommate is the one who sent me the present.)

Update: I've had to change the embedding of the video at least twice, because the video I received was actually taken down at first on the grounds that it was posted by someone other than the author. Check out the comments and the reply videos on the Ur-site that I now link to, which describes a devil's advocate version, which includes "being critiqued by thousands of people." For still more of the surrounding discourses, check out Manpollo or WonderingMind42, neither of which was created by the video's maker, who describes himself as a thirty-eight-year old science teacher. By my count, this humble video has gotten at least five million views in its various versions.

Michael Wesch alludes to the role of the blackboard in the end of his video about "A Vision of Students Today." The videos of WonderMind42 seem to be a kind of celebration of the whiteboard.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Forty-Year-Old Ballerina

I have a friend who often asks me if I am still taking "those stupid classes." By "those stupid classes," she means the classes in digital video production, web animation, and 3D modeling through which I've familiarized myself with proprietary software packages, such as Final Cut Pro, After Effects, Maya, and Flash. As she puts it, this exercise in futility is as "ridiculous" as if I had decided at forty to pursue professional training as a ballerina and to devote myself to arduous study late in life to further this specialized career.

I suppose she has a point. Unlike the one-time faculty workshops from which I learned about programs like Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and iMovie, these classes are time-consuming and aimed at an audience of younger professionals. There are also homework assignments, hours logged in the media lab, projects to complete, and lectures and demos to attend, for which a bookish researcher with a PhD in Critical Theory may be often less well-equipped than her hipster classmates from local animation schools or studio arts colleges.

On the other hand, on principle, I don't think it is really possible to have too much education. Perhaps it is professional bias on my part, but even if these classes had absolutely no real-world utility at all, I'm not sure it invalidates the personal worth of the very experience of learning. After all, as a teacher, I often have returning students in my classes who are older than I am and yet who feel motivated to complete their B.A. degrees long after the time of college graduation has passed. Some are at retirement age! Should I tell these "forty-year-old ballerinas" to go home?

In any case, these classes actually have a lot of utility for me as a researcher. These aren't formulaic lessons limited to an instrumentalist approach to software. Because these courses are aimed at active jobseekers, I've learned a lot about workflow conventions and collaborative communities of practice from my teachers and from fellow students. I would have never ventured into the LA Flash group or the Rich Media Institute, where I learned a lot about how Flash developers rely on the message boards of user groups for trouble-shooting and how often independent contractors must handle delicate legal matters that challenge social norms or their person feelings of ownership of their work. Whether I'm interviewing teams of game designers or committees of digital librarians, I also find we have more vocabulary in common as a result.

Since I'm a rhetorician, it's important to understand the constraints of digital media production and what the defaults of a given system may be. In other words, because of the way particular interfaces are set up, some messages may be easier to create than others. What may seem to be an intentional rhetorical strategy may just be a pre-set option. Or it may be a creative workaround that represents a very conscious subversion of the available menus. Without some knowledge of the software, it's hard to know.

As a teacher, who expects her students to produce as well as to critique digital media, I need to be able to mentor more advanced learners who might want to experiment with new tools. How can I teach students about identity construction or discursive personae without also showing them that the software that they choose (or don't choose) sends a message as well? If I'm interested in literacy as a social practice, isn't it important sometimes to be willing to learn alongside my students?

I've also been inspired by fellow academics who argue that it is important to create more works that can be shared and used by other faculty members and even appreciated by the general public. Because of its portability and potential for interactivity, digital media is uniquely important to this philosophy. About the time I started taking these "stupid classes" years ago, I heard a talk by Alan Liu who talked about the cultural dead-end of being a critic without in turn producing anything.

Now, I'd agree with open-source advocates for free software, that it's a shame that these courses propagate the dominance of proprietary software in the market, as expertise becomes associated with particular brand names. But I often find that I can open up and operate generic versions of these software interfaces more easily as a result of these classes, so I can actually use the open-source tools rather than just evangelize for them for others.

Frankly, I don't see anything wrong with the forty-year-old ballerina or think that she's inherently ridiculous or unworthy of attention or admiration. I read those chapters on "postmodern dance" with everyday people in grad school and accept those ideas as valid. And I've enjoyed performances I've seen with older non-professionals, whether it be Butoh dance in San Francisco or improvisational dance in Venice.

Besides, wouldn't the forty-year-old ballerina look a little less silly if she's taken some dancing lessons first?

(For those who would like more lessons on their own, check out the new Moviestorms machinima software, which is free and easy to download online. Last weekend I took a workshop from Frank Fox, in which he encouraged me to contribute 3D models of my own to the community.)

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Monday, February 11, 2008

The Highest Form of Flattery has clearly embraced the forwarded and embedded online video as a way to motivate the support of Democratic voters. This is an interesting case, however, in which the organization promoted both the pro-Obama original and the anti-McCain parody.

Update: This isn't the only parody, of course. Trebor Scholz found this one. There's another No You Can't video that came out almost immediately from Barely Political

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Captains of Industry

Athough the theme of many of the panels at the conference was DIY tools for digital video media-making, not all of the participants came at the subject from an indie-garage perspective, since the DIY Video Summit included a number of people from industry to add to the mix of academics and activists in attendance.

Marc Davis discussed several U.C. Berkeley/Yahoo! partnerships in his formal presentation and informal comments throughout the conference. Because of the scale of the number of users worldwide, Davis argued that cell phones would be critical in the global multimedia story-telling of the near future, particularly now that image and audio resolution was improving and relationships to "diegetic space" could be facilitated by communication with the computerized tools, such as the tagging of data sent by cell phones with information about the geographical location of the user. Davis showed how the Tag Maps World Explorer prototype could completely automate information from "a collective archive of human attention." In this moment in which "Web 2.0 meets DIY," Davis argued that the questions have become "not just economic or legal" but "also social" and included issues about what Davis called "social compensation" and how "annotation will aid production."

Although corporate discourses about targeted advertising were obviously not that far away, particularly when Davis was thinking about the "range of incentives" available to potential investors in new technologies, Davis argued that entrenched interests of concentrated power would actually be checked by the "sousveillance" practices of users of these mobile technologies, because they could document their counternarratives in service of activist tactics. In the urban environment, in which Davis said we are recorded on average fifteen times a day by the cameras of others, he felt that privacy concerns were misplaced and that automating collective intelligence would ultimately help preserve public spaces and civic activities for participants.
According to Davis, even mobile advertising could be "disruptive in a good way."

Of course, Davis acknowledged that if cell phones were the model for connecting global villages, software development would continue to be a challenge because of the range of proprietary technologies in use by different carriers.

Despite his corporate credentials, Joi Ito claimed to be after no less that the "overthrow of the Japanese government," since there has never been a popular revolution in the country, and he insisted that "even the people who work for the government" agreed that an uprising is needed. He contended that "top-down political interests will corrupt the system" and that "revolution is not about force; it is about information." The issue, Ito said, was "voices not votes."

At the level of technology policy, Ito asserted that it is important to get beyond what Henry Jenkins has called "the black box fallacy" and to accept that what will be produced is "not a single platform," particularly since he argued that innovation is at "the edge not at the center."

He also emphasized a "normative" approach in which he represented himself as a more global citizen than other attendees at the conference. As he put it, "Fair use is very American." In other words, he pointed out what he described as the "parochialism" of the U.S. in focusing on a doctrine designed for defending yourself in court. Besides, he argued, even in the U.S. there are other rights than copyright, such as privacy and publicity rights. Although he didn't sound keen on Egypt claiming a copyright on images of the Sphinx, he did say that being sensitive to the cultural dimensions of the rights of others could be important, for example, by not showing photos of foreign peoples in unflattering ways. He asserted that even within our own country, "you have kids and adults."

On the other hand, Ito is also known as an advocate for an open Internet. He said that ICANN should be wary of law enforcement's desire to know who owns each domain name, since "law enforcement" can wield deadly state violence in authoritarian regimes. As a board member affiliated with Witness, he reminded members of the audience that blogging anonymously with Tor should also be protected in order to publicize human rights abuses.

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Room if One's Owned

Lawrence Lessig was unable to attend this weekend's panel on copyright issues at the DIY Video Summit, but there was still a dynamic duo on the issue nonetheless.

Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation emphasized the role of political remixes on YouTube and why those remixes should be Constitutionally protected as political speech, regardless of the incorporation of copyrighted material or the disregard of the specific provisions against circumventing copyright protection systems in the DMCA and other forms of legislation. One of the first cases that the EFF had to defend involved JibJab's much-publicized This Land video from the 2004 election, which used a song that turned out to be in the public domain. Ironically, as this panel pointed out, JibJab became a copyright plaintiff against the makers of this video, which originally included a few seconds of JibJab animation that mocked the president.

For more adaptations of this particular work, you can check out the version I prefer, which uses conventions from silent film in its remixing of the Kanye West outburst against the Bush administration during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As Yochai Benkler pointed out this work combines The Legendary K.O. with Kanye West with Ray Charles in ways that fit James Boyle’s musicological narrative of copyright, borrowing, and culture.

Von Lohmann argued that some of the most pointed critiques, such as the Vote Different video, which parodied Ridley Scott's classic "1984" Apple ad, use brand identities -- and their subversion -- to propagate political messages. He argued that these appropriations should also be considered to be protected speech if they represent satiric uses that corporate copyright owners would never license at any price, such as the gross out "Hurt" video by Sad Kermit.

The biggest laughs came for the showing of this subtle anti-Hillary parody about her "Inner Tracy" that juxtaposes images from Reese Witherspoon's performance in Election with stump statements from the only major female candidate in the race.

Von Lohmann's message overall was a positive one, informed by the Zeitgeist expressed in Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence." His talk was "less about chilling effect," since the proliferation of these remixes show that regulation doesn’t appear to be working very well. Instead, he argued that "copyright law ironically made it possible," since this content could have never made it on the air and the relatively lax rules for Internet intermediaries under the DMCA freed content providers from the strict liability associated with TV and other broadcast devices, which he described as a "clearance culture" that he claimed was in decline. He argued that rather than monitor media-production with a "velvet rope" that only let a few in, the DMCA encourages a "bouncer approach" in which unruly media-makers who violate laws and norms are ejected from the webcast platform through notice-and-takedown procedures. In other words, "if you’re willing to be sued, you can reach an audience, which is a better deal that you have ever had."

He did, however express concern about "mechanized censorship" by automated filters, which he compared to setting a driftnet that could also catch dolphins. Von Lohmann argued that these technologies were "going to happen no matter what," and he also warned that legislation adding new provisions against bypassing DRM could become a tool for censorship, since the mere fact of rip occasions a fine regardless of how that content is incorporated. Panelists were concerned about the longterm consequences of "trusted systems" and "funky new rights" to creative production and civic participation. Von Lohmann argued that sampling licenses, which now have ten years of practice behind them, sometimes at exorbitant cost, could be seen as "both a bug and a feature."

Yochai Benkler described a somewhat darker narrative about "what freedom might mean and what video might capture" by taking a broader historical perspective, which he did for much of the conference. He began his talk by looking at The New York Herald and the jump in newspaper startup costs that reinvented newspapers to be not something generated locally by political parties but corporate ventures that operated on a business model. Although the message on copyright from Benkler was grim, his attitude about what he described as the decentralization of material and human resources represented important inputs of core economic activities. Thus, as he put it, "social action shifts from the periphery of the economy to a stable element at its core." To understand the significance of this sea change, Benkler looks back to the rise of the administrative state and the emergence of the rationalism of the state.

In the era of Wikipedia, Benkler laughed about the fears that print encyclopedia makers had about Encarta a mere decade ago and how 900 stubs ultimately transformed how average citizens access reference works. Before the Internet, Benkler argued, non-market decentralized action was impossible, although "social sharing" could now be part of a matrix that included traditional elements from price-systems, firms, and government or nonprofit institutions. He claimed that if YouTube resists authority, "that is a good thing," although he agreed with Alexandra Juhasz that it might make it bad for teaching.

In addition to examples of participatory culture that have gotten a lot of attention from Scholars of digital culture, such as the contributions of visitors to The Daily Prophet or Learning to Love You More, Benkler pointed to Kaltura as a prototype for collaborative video production, which can be embedded for Wikipedia. As examples of the potential for non-proprietary rich media production, Benkler showed entries about Venice carnival and Tompkins Square Park. Although Kaltura is currently Flash-based, it hopes to eventually based on the open source free software video format for the web, Gnash.

Benkler also emphasized the whistle-blowing potential for distributed digital media and pointed to Talking Points Memo, Porkbusters, and the Sunlight Foundation as examplars. He argued that the fact that this video content is embedded, often makes it difficult to understand its full impact as a communicative artifact. In this context he mentioned the potential Macaca-moment of John McCain on the campaign trail, which was released on YouTube as "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran."

Benkler argued that this push back is political and is being fueled by utter disdain for law by millions of people, combined with increasingly strong social sharing practices in the Creative commons model. As an illustration he showed a chart with those who filed public comments and amicus briefs in the Grokster case, and he pointed out that the annual revenue picture has been much better for the Pro-Grokster corporations than for the Anti-Grokster ones.

The closing presenter was Fred Graver who discussed the Remix America project that would make a database of materials available, which could include works by John Adams, FDR's "four freedoms" speech, and content from the Bill of Rights to form "America's playlist," which would be available for remixing. Although the project is funded by Norman Lear, organizers anticipated that the works created will be multipartisan. Organizationally, they plan both to use Kaltura and to develop a partnership with YouTube. Apparently they have yet to approach the famously litigious estate of the heirs of Martin Luther King who are known for prohibitive licensing fees and pursuit of infringers.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Spreadable Not Sticky

That's right. That's me filming Mimi Ito filming Mark Marino filming Henry Jenkins in the ultimate document of digital media recursiveness.

By virtue of the annual conferences about digital culture that I attend, it seems that I see MIT's Henry Jenkins keynoting several times a year, as I did here and here. But the DIY Video Summit was unusual in that we actually had an extended face-to-face conversation over dinner. Rather than rehearse some of my reservations about his theses in Convergence Culture, while sharing a table with Mark Marino, we three chatted informally about our common tasks as educators. No matter what our differences in theoretical positions or relationships to institutional authority, as a trio we shared many of the same concerns about how best to connect students' social media practices to academic literacy and to negotiate new roles outside of conventional scholarly criticism as bloggers and makers of other forms of digital media.

Jenkins, of course, has been an extraordinarily productive academic blogger, despite a travel schedule that moves him between time zones about as often as I change my shoes. It was nice to get a chance to say in person how I admired how he had made his blog a useful primary source to other researchers, by posting detailed interviews, often with creators who don't otherwise document the rationales for their work. Although it is a solo blog, Jenkins maintains a remarkably dialogic tone. In other words, it's not merely a set of meditations; it's also a series of conversations.

This conference was one in which Jenkins spent a lot of time contextualizing his newer stance as a ”critical utopian,” who has begun to express some skepticism about simplistic equations of participatory culture with Web 2.0. For starters, Jenkins resists such popular terms "meme" and "viral," because he argues that they deny human agency. And rather than talk about the "stickiness" of new media, which suggests that users are merely trapped in the digital form of a roach motel, Jenkins has embraced the term "spreadable" to describe the dissemination of content by members of online communities.

Taking a page from Stephen Duncombe in imagining new forms of activism, Jenkins also described the lifecycle of the famed snowman of the CNN/YouTube debates, with whom Mitt Romney famously said he would refuse to debate. He noted that the "posterchild" snowman borrowed much of its slapstick style from DIY TV original Mr Bill, who ended up serving as a post-Katrina advocate for change on environmental issues. (You can check out Mr. Bill defending the value of the natural history of New Orleans and Louisiana's swamps for yourself.) Thus, what could be called Mr. Bill 2.0, Billiam the Snowman, created by Minnesota brothers Nathan and Greg Hamel, who were fans of the Saturday Night Live original, appropriated Romney's own phrase, "Lighten Up Slightly" to respond to the candidate's jibes.

Like many at the conference, Jenkins also pointed out the limitations of older "digital divide" models that focus solely on access to hardware. He argued that there were three continuing areas of concern when it came to DIY media-making: 1) the "participation gap" that involved social skills and cultural competencies, 2) "majoritarian" structures that constituted user validation in the crudest quantitative terms, and 3) "hater talk" that inhibits participation from the most diverse possible audience. Although he described himself as "agnostic" on the question of whether the platforms for DIY videos should be profit or nonprofit, he did describe the challenge as "to imagine WeTube and not YouTube."

Jenkins and I have had some interesting exchanges recently about applying Lev Manovich's "database aesthetics" to YouTube and the possibility that this aesthetics functions alongside the "vaudeville aesthetics" that Jenkins has described. During the plenary panel, Jenkins pointed out that when Republican presidential contender Rudoph Giuliani objected to fellow candidate Joe Biden’s characterization of his presidential campaign message as “a noun, a verb and 9/11,” anti-Giuliani users of digital tools promptly created a number of mashups that consisted of nothing but selections from the database of Giuliani's references to the event.

For more political database art, you can check out the State of the Union Parsing Tool, this hypertext of The President's Address on Iraq, or a zillion mashups of State of the Union Addresses up to 2007.

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Filming without Rose-Colored Glasses

The connection between human rights and DIY video-creation is often taken as a simple case in which democratizing access to the means of media production will magically effect social and political change for the better. Through his involvement with The Hub, a video-sharing site to publicize issues about human rights media that capitalizes on the work of more than a dozen activist groups, Sam Gregory has had to think much more deeply about the consequences of what might seem to be relatively straightforward tactical media efforts that connect victims and activists with the devices to document their experiences.

Gregory began his talk at the DIY Video Summit by looking back fifteen years back to the footage of the beating of Rodney King, which he described as an image immediately recognizable in Guatemala, Nigeria, and Australia (although in the United States its electronic dissemination is forbidden by copyright law). Although Gregory credits a "rich tradition of tactical media" that now spans forty years, he argues that there are many challenges to "smart narrowcasting" that can't be met by what Gregory calls "1990s technophilia" that is limited to simply distributing cameras. He showed a shot of a videographer on the Thai-Burma border, which could easily be an ad for Sony -- as he pointed out -- although Gregory opted not to Photoshop out the company's logo. He contests the ndexicality of image and idea that seeing is believing and suggests that we might now be in “another moment of technophilia,” since a Rodney King type case is actually very anomalous.

He noted that systematic discrimination against indigenous people in Papua Indonesia is “not reducible to the blow of a baton.” He also pointed out that the Rodney King video was actually used as a tool for the legal defense of the police officers who beat him, when it was slowed down in court.

Gregory said that his group aims to promote “video is for a reason not about an issue” and consider how video may be submitted to courts or presented in hearing in direct to decision maker advocacy. To illustrate the power of these materials, he quoted Donald Rumsfeld's expression of alarm that people "are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon."

The website for The Hub allows users to "create own profiles and identities" without relying on YouTube, because the culture surrounding this commercial video-sharing site actually facilitates comments that mock and degrade many human rights videos with "racist and xenophobic" language. The Hub also emphasizes "telling transnational stories" and the "power to contextualize and take action." For example, after seeing a video from Egypt of police brutality, visitors to the site are reminded "YOU HAVE WITNESSED THIS NOW GET ACTIVE."

Gregory said that his site encourages both "autonomously produced finished media" and "witness journalism" recorded by mobile devices to address "ideological, philosophical, and action needs" of supporters of human rights initiative. Commercial sites, Gregory asserts, are often where viewers are "content with spectacle" and "vaudevillian performing for the camera." Moreover, commercial sites are much more likely to participate in tracking transmission networks and participating in exploitation and surveillance via IP addresses. Furthermore, Gregory admits that the "pivotal moments of online video" in human rights cases including Abu Ghraib "were shared by the abuser who did it.” Finally, Gregory talked about the need for procedures of "informed consent" and awareness of protective protocols for disclosure that emphasize comprehensive transparency and voluntary participation. To protect the rights of the victim and survivor, Gregory argues that we must think about how remix culture relates to human rights culture. Thus, we may laugh at George Bush when he is remixed but not want to see survivor of torture or a sweatshop worker similarly re-edited for effect.

However, Gregory closed by reminding the audience of the promise of this media model for harnesses not only the "wisdom of crowds" but their "energy" and the fact that sites like The Hub gets beyond "mediated horror," because they are oriented toward action. Certainly, its mobility serves those who may be diasporic refugees or transnational victims of transnational crimes, such as sex trafficking victims. For Gregory the model isn't "DIY" but rather "DIWO" or "Doing It With Others" so that participants are co-producers not consumers. Over on Osocio, the hub for social advertising and non-profit campaigns, to which I contribute the occasional item, the messages crafted in conjunction with the traditional advertising industry may too often feed the consumer culture it critiques.

Sam Gregory has a great review of the session here.

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Player Piano

Over on Sivacracy, where I also blog (along with Osocio and Design Your Life), there's been a lot of discussion about why humanities scholars read their papers aloud at conferences, while academics in other disciplines give much more spontaneous presentations. (See part one and part two to get a sense of the exchanges between Siva Vaidhyanathan and Cathy Davidson of HASTAC on the subject.)

Lately, I've seen something even more surreal taking place at academic conferences about digital cultures. Presenters come and just play video in which their argument is presented and supported entirely in edited footage. One of my fellow presenters at AoIR used this technique, and I saw it this weekend at the DIY Summit. Rather than summarize the critique of YouTube as a pedagogical environment that Alexandra Juhasz presents, I would advise you to take her video "tour" and follow her reflections from the inception of a course on YouTube to the playlists with projects, midterms, and finals.

In the Q&A Juhasz emphasized the problem with YouTube's failure to have professional archivists on staff who are indexing visual materials in ways that allow students to access video as well as contextualize it.

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Numbers Game

Academic conferences about Internet culture often have representatives from BigChampagne, the source of online metrics that are of interest to the entertainment industry and to academics alike. As Eric Garland pointed out, they have a policy of working with researchers to share resources from their tools for peer-to-peer measurement. I was certainly interested in some of the charts he showed, many of which had political connections -- such as stats on the Yes We Can video created to promote the Barack Obama's presidential bid or on the final Sopranos episode, which was parodied by Hillary Clinton's campaign on YouTube, and the ways that downloading and uploading could be quantified as the debates about digital copyright policies continues. But when he pointed out the fact that Yahoo Live had made it's debut, I'll confess that my attention was diverted while I watched DJs, cans of spam, lava lamps, shirtless men, and Asian women during much of his talk.

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YouTube Confessionals

Of course, through his high-profile, much forwarded online videos The Machine is Us/ing Us and A Vision of Students Today, Michael Wesch has brought an enormous amount of public attention to otherwise relatively arcane scholarship about Internet practices. Known as a popularizer, Wesch has certainly had some critics in the academy, because of the broad generalizations stated in these films.

At the DIY Video Summit, Wesch described how he created the Machine video while working on paper about how anthropology was going to be transformed by online environments in the isolated setting of a basement of a house in St. George, Kansas. However, Wesch also decided to make a video using content from the musician Deus in the Ivory Coast. When Wesch disseminated his illustrative video to a few colleagues for feedback, he actually took a screenshot of his YouTube page to show a relatively modest 253 views the next day, which Wesch planned to include in his tenure document, because it seemed to him like a relatively large academic audience at the time. He explained that the life cycle of the video had a lot to do with web services other than YouTube: people blogged it, chose to Digg it, tagged it frequently on, and aggregated it on desktops through pull-media services like Netvibes. Eventually Wesch found his video beating out Superbowl commercials on YouTube.

In contrast, Wesch was discussing a different pedagogical project that was oriented around a smaller audience, The Digital Ethnography of YouTube Project. Like Jeffrey Bardzell, Wesch is well aware of the problems of trying to generalize about the seemingly infinite galaxy of objects of study available on the Internet. Wesch opened his talk by asking how it would be possible to do an ethnography when over seventy million videos are currently on YouTube, thus creating more content over the course of a few years than the entire output of broadcasting during its history. As someone who had done fieldwork in a small New Guinea village with two hundred inhabitants, Wesch confessed to sometimes feeling overwhelmed with the scope of the project for the class, even though he developed a methodology that involved having students camp at the "front door" of the site and collectively evaluate what they saw.

One aspect of his course at Kansas State University, involved a viral video contest among the students, which ultimately included some lowbrow films like “How to Make a YouTube Video Sure to Impress the Ladies” or "Snow Burgler." With over ten thousand hits student Becky Roth's "The Internet Has a Face" may have been one of the most successful of these experiments.

He also had his students turn their webcams on themselves to try to understand the "YouTube Community" or "YouTubia" and the strong love and hatred of people bonding on YouTube who wouldn’t bond in face-to-face situations. Once students had to take part in this particular form of "armchair participant observation," they found themselves in an "instant identity crisis" as soon as the camera was running, which Wesch ascribed to "trying to negotiate too many identities at once" with the complex dynamics at work that Erving Goffman has described. As researchers, there was also an anxiety that they might be engaging in a form of "contrived authenticity." Wesch said, however, that students reached an understanding of "moments of catharsis" and self-reflection in YouTube videos by being in the confessional position of speaking alone in front of a webcam.

Having taught a class that asked students to produce a YouTube video, I thought that Wesch's choice to highlight a particular genre on the site could have been someone limiting in that it didn't involve thinking about interfaces and the processes of editing that are also part of YouTube learning communities. When I taught my Digital Rhetoric course, I set up a low-tech failsafe option for technophobic students, so they could use the webcams in the humanities lab rather than deal with the steep learning curve associated with multimedia. Yet not one student chose this confessional option. Of course, having turned the camera on myself here and here, I certainly sympathized with Wesch's discomfort in seeing himself on camera and would probably agree that I learned something from participating in this practice.

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