When we sign a petition to keep a local school open, and then give permission for the petition site to ‘share’ that act with our network on Facebook, this constitutes a performance of civic participation. When we engage in a debate on twitter about asylum seeker policy in Australia, our tweets can become records of our views and attitudes. When we change our Facebook profile pictures to support or reject marriage equality (or same-sex marriage or ‘gay marriage’, whichever discourse you want to plug into, a topic for a whole other post) we’re participating in a complex, global conversation about rights and equality. At the same time, though, we’re also performing that civic participation, and telling a story about ourselves.
On March 25, the ‘Human Rights Campaign’ (HRC) - an LGBT lobby - urged people to change their Facebook profile pictures to a pink-on-red equals sign to show support for marriage equality, corresponding with the U.S. Supreme Court meeting to debate the issue. The Facebook data science team reported that 2.7 million more U.S. users changed their profile pictures than usual on March 25, which they attributed to the HRC push.
Although a U.S. based campaign, the profile picture (and many variations on the profile picture, a few of which are shown below) rapidly spread and became a global phenomenon. This might be interesting in itself, but what I’m more interested in here is how this represents the performance of civic participation.
Does changing your profile picture equate to activitsm? Or is this just ‘slacktivism’? In this (long-ish, sorry!) post I’m going to argue that it’s part of the broader discussion, ‘invigorating’ (Christensen 2011) the discourse. Beyond this, however, we can also use this HRC case study to think through some of the ways we can use the social web to reconceptualise civic participation.
I’m really excited to be co-editing a forthcoming themed issued of New Media & Society with my friend and colleague, Dr Siân Lincoln. The theme of the issue is ‘10 years of Facebook’, to coincide with Facebook having been up and running for a decade next year.
It’s a good opportunity to reflect on the impact the site has had on a whole range of things: the way we think about sociality on the web, how we conceptualise privacy, how we mediate stories of transition and loss, how relationships are made visible and managed online, and also how the internet is (or is not) regulated. It’s an appropriate time to critique Facebook itself, too, and consider the ideologies and imperatives that drive the site and the people who control it.
Facebook is embedded into how many people conduct their daily lives. I think we’ve moved beyond a discussion of whether that’s simply good or bad (although many people still cling to this binary) and for the past few years we’ve been able to see the results of some very fine-grained research that is fundamentally concerned with the social world of people who use Facebook. I’m hoping that in this themed issue of one of my favourite journals we can take stock of some of that research, add to it, and cast our gaze on what the next decade might hold by refining research agendas that continue to mature.
We’ve already received interest from a range of truly excellent scholars from around the world, many of whom have been writing about Facebook for years. The call for papers on academia.edu has been viewed over 1100 times over the past few weeks, and the email versions we’ve been sending to listservs have generated some great interest too. This says something about how many people are interested in and doing research related to Facebook all over the world, and I’m certain this interest will translate into an impressive set of abstracts from which Sian and I can piece together a journal issue. For the sake of my inbox, though, I’m glad Sian is the one compiling them!
This week I had a chat with journalist Angela Ranke recently that lead to some more chats with radio presenters who are interested in the discourses around ‘social media and addiction’. I did a post on my PhD blog a while back on this very topic, and these discussions I’ve been having recently are a good opportunity to reflect again on what’s going on here.
Social media can sometimes be engrossing, and we can even find ourselves habitually checking our Facebook or Twitter news feed. Does this mean we’re addicted? No. It might mean that we’re under-stimulated or bored or procrastinating or taking a quick mental break from whatever task (mundane or otherwise) that we’re working on. Or maybe we’re zoning out at the end of a day, and attending to the stuff that matters most to us - friends, family, or even ‘snooping’ on friends we are not that close to, but are still interested in.
Aside from talking about my own research with young people on Australia’s Gold Coast, another piece of research I like to trot out in these discussions is Brent Coker’s 2011 (p. 238) article on social media in the workplace. He explains that ‘workplace internet leisure browsing’, hitting up some Facebook of Twitter, for instance, can serve as an ‘unobtrusive interruption which enables restoration of mental capacity and fosters feelings of autonomy’. This has to be tempered, obviously - sitting on Facebook all day at work does not constitute an unobtrusive break. However, the central message here is that social media use is being managed strategically and in a generative way in workplaces. Blanket bans are problematic and unfortunate. On the flip side, of course, not doing what you are ‘supposed’ to be doing at work can still serve as a powerful mechanism for jamming the imperatives of corporate productivity, and I don’t want to erase that. I’m having flashbacks to that scene in the 1999 film Office Space (pre-Facebook!) where Peter (Ron Livingstone) is cleaning a fish at his desk. I couldn’t find a picture of that exact scene, but this one carries the same spirit.
As I did with the aforementioned post on my old PhD blog, I’m going to end this post with a quote from an interview with Sherry Turkle related to her 2011 book Alone Together. Like others, I’m critical of Turkle’s ‘zero-sum’ equation where if people are socialising online then they are forsaking a ‘more meaningful’ set of social interactions offline. Neither the zero-sum or the measure of meaningfulness argument are tenable, from where I’m sitting. However, I do think Turkle’s point on the addiction discourse, raised in the interview with Jenkins, is spot on:
No matter how much the metaphor of addiction may seem to fit our circumstance, we can ill afford the luxury of using it. It does not serve us well. To end addiction, you have to discard the substance. And we know that we are not going to “get rid” of the Internet. We are not going to “get rid” of social networking. We will not go “cold turkey” or forbid cell phones to our children. Addiction—with its one solution that we know we won’t use—makes us feel hopeless, passive.
We will find new paths, but a first step will surely be to not consider ourselves passive victims of a bad substance, but to acknowledge that in our use of networked technology, we have incurred some costs that we don’t want to pay. We are not in trouble because of invention but because we think it will solve everything. As we consider all this, we will not find a “solution” or a simple answer. But we cannot assume that the life technology makes easy is how we want to live. There is time to make the corrections.
‘A teacher at a leading Melbourne high school has reportedly quit her job after posting raunchy pictures of herself and making explicit sexual references on a public Twitter account’ (Kristian Silva, The Age, Dec. 16 2012).
This story is just one case in a long line of similar cases, but it’s also an excellent case to help us discuss the very slippery and blurry line between what is private and what is public, and who should be held more accountable for their performances of self online, and what kind of performances are inappropriate for some. According to the article in The Age by Kristian Silva, the teacher ‘posted a number of “selfless” on the Twitter account… [under] a pseudonym… and never named the school’. The pictures the teacher posted did show her face though, and again the account was public. The posts were pretty explicit, like ‘left work early to come home and masturbate’.
[Edit: Since posting this, another blog post has been brought to my attention, in which the author, Amy Gray, very thoroughly critiques the journalism going on in Silva’s original story. My post and Gray’s post are attending to different issues mostly, but her critiques of the story, from a more informed position given that she was following the teacher in question on twitter, are very valuable to read in conjunction with this post. My post picks up on some broader discourses in the story from a sociological perspective, Gray’s post focuses more on the specific details of the story and the associated journalistic practices.]
There are so many interesting threads in this story, but there are three assertions I want to address directly.
Last week at the Youth Cultures, Belongings and Transitions conference in Brisbane I presented a paper framing the profiles that constitute social network sites as spaces of reflexive identity-work where both critical and mundane moments in transition narratives are articulated, made visible and archived. Here are my very bare-bones slides (the only way I can keep to time) and some stripped back notes, which I’m in the process of writing up into a more substantial (academic) publication. The paper I presented at the conference also included a video and some extracts from my own research that I’ll build back into the full paper.
[Working notes, paper in progress]
Giddens argues that identity formation is a reflexive process. Individuals frequently (if not constantly) undergo what he describes as a ‘psychic reorganisation’ (1993: 304) of their identity, negotiating the influence of large impersonal organisations that characterise late modernity. Giddens defines the ‘stable individual’ as someone with a ‘feeling of biographical continuity which she is able to grasp reflexively and, to a greater or lesser degree, communicate to others’ (1991: 54). The social aspect of identity – the act of communicating a reflexive story about self – is central to stability for Giddens. Importantly, he argues against assumptions that we reinvent ourselves only at crisis moments in our lives, instead contending that individuals are actively and endlessly negotiating and constructing self-identity, even amidst the mundane experiences of the everyday (and it’s the attendance to the mundan that I’ll explore more fully in the fuller version of this paper). Taken together, Giddens describes this approach as the reflexive project of self, ‘the process whereby self identity is constituted by the reflexive ordering of self narratives’ (1991: 244).
I’ve been fascinated by ‘bronies’ for a little while now. In another life I’d do my PhD on bronies — men (bros) who are fans of a television show/franchise called ‘My Little Pony’: bronies. There are so many sociologically fascinating dimensions to the bronie phenomenon, most of which are summarised really well in the below Idea Channel video. The challenges to dominant conceptualisations of gender and age appropriate cultural consumption are the most obvious lines of inquiry, but I’m also really interested in how bronies consume, are initiated into, and consume the MLP culture, largely mediated online. Let’s file this under future research projects and videos for use in introductory sociology lectures on gender.
Next week there are two exciting academic youth cultures events in Brisbane. The first is a two day symposium titled Youth Cultures and Subcultures: Australian Perspectives. This symposium brings together a really impressive array of scholars doing research into youth cultures/subcultures/post-subcultures in Australia. We are hoping to turn the symposium into an edited collection in the not too distant future. I was one of the organisers of the symposium along with my wonderful and very impressive colleagues Dr Sarah Baker, Chris Driver and Bob Buttigieg. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend the whole thing due to other commitments, but I am looking forward to presenting my paper and attending as many other papers as possible. My paper is titled ‘Belonging in-between subcultures: Multiplicity in everyday systems of belonging performed on social network sites’. I’ll put the slides up here in the next few weeks.
The second event is a slightly bigger conference called Youth Cultures, Belongings, Transitions: Bridging the Gap in Youth Research. Clearly this conference has a wider focus than the symposium, but will no doubt touch on many similar themes and issues. I’m also looking forward to presenting a paper at this conference, titled ‘Transition narratives and critical moments on social network sites’ - more when I put the slides up.
I was asked to review an introductory sociology textbook recently, called Sociology in Today’s World (Furze et al. 2012, Cengage) and I thought I’d post my thoughts and comments up here. The reviewer form also asked some broader questions on the challenges associated with teaching introductory sociology, managing assessment, and so on. It’s a great textbook that I’d certainly recommend to sociology students and instructors. Very thorough, accessible writing style, and full of good examples. The review itself on specific chapters might not make a lot of sense without having seen the textbook.
The review is after the jump.
Recently I was invited to speak to a group of local year 12 (completing) high school students about social network sites. I suppose I was asked to speak to some of the ‘dangers’ associated with young people and the social web, but that’s really not my bag (and I think young people hear way too much of that) so I decided to take another route, and spoke about how identities can be managed on the social web.
It was a bit of a challenge for me speaking to a group of high school students. There isn’t a big age difference between a room of high school students and a lecture theatre of first year uni students, but high school and uni are very different places. The last time I spoke to a group of high school students was when I was in high school, probably giving a farewell speech on behalf of my cohort at a graduation ceremony (I was the school captain, #nerdlife). This time I was not only talking to these students about the nuances of how identities can be managed on social network sites (audience segregation, impression management, etc.) but the subtext was that I was a uni lecturer and I was giving a ‘mini lecture’. It was a strange experience, but the students listened carefully for the half hour or whatever it was, and they had lots of questions at the end. I hope more high schools will be open to having these kinds of discussions in the future - I think it’s pretty vital.
What I found in talking about my own research (transcript extract in slides below) and some of the great research Pew has done on impression management, was that these young people knew (to differing degrees) about how to manage a sense of self online, but they didn’t really have the language or the capacity to explain to people (adults, teachers, parents, etc.) that this is what they were doing. So rather than getting exasperated when confronting negative discourses and moral panics about how and why young people use the internet, maybe they can use some ideas like ‘audience segregation’ and ‘impression management’ to articulate a response.