Ah, the internet. Facebook turned 10 last week, and took the opportunity to draw everyone’s attention to just how much of its user’s social lives are mediated on the site. Each user could access (and, of course, share) one minute videos of key moments in the user’s life as mediated on Facebook. The whirring algorithms behind the scene would pluck out photos shared early on (seven years ago for me), inducing all the nostalgia, and then proceeded to highlight popular (most liked) status updates.
Of course, within a few days, people in my feed started complaining about their news feeds being swamped by the look back videos, and then the parodies came. My favourite is the look back video for Walter White, fictional drug lord from Breaking Bad.
The surface level reading of the look back videos might be a cutesy ‘aw good times, good memories’ reflection, but the deeper implication here is ‘hey look back at how much of your life you’ve shared on Facebook - we’re part of your life now, you can’t leave us’. It makes sense for Facebook to draw our attention to this, at a time where lots of people are talking about Facebook fatigue. The depth and persistence of disclosures won’t, I think, concern too many people (‘OMG I need to go and delete some of this!’). Although, I did really like another recent ‘look back’ - Michael Zimmer’s useful review of Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘theory of privacy’. Here, Zimmer asserts that Zuck’s privacy philosophy is that a) information wants to be shared, b) privacy must be overcome, and c) control is the new privacy.
Whether or not these kind of critiques come to mind when people view these look back videos, it is clear that disclosing information on Facebook (to Facebook, to others through Facebook) has become firmly entrenched in everyday life, and these videos work to both remind us of this and to further that normalisation process.
I’m about a month late to the party on this, but I wanted to put down some thoughts on Apple’s 2013 Christmas ad for the iPhone, titled 'Misunderstood'. The ad is embedded below. It focuses on a shy teenager who is spending time with his family for Christmas, but appears always at a distance from the things going on around him, constantly glued to his phone. The big (emotional?) reveal at the end is that in fact he has been recording everything, and his gift to his family is a movie that stitches together their time, telling the story of their Christmas. We get to see the family’s response to this unexpected culmination of the teen’s labour - the laughing, the tears, the warm embrace from his father who had, in Apple’s narrative, ‘misunderstood’ his son. He wasn’t disengaged after all.
The ad has been described as endearing (even if it does valorise ‘iPhone addiction’?!) and as 'the best iPhone commercial ever'. I particularly enjoyed Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s reading of the ad over on Huff Post, which is sympathetic but also informed by Pang’s own experience as a ‘record keeper’. Of course it has attracted criticism too. On Forbes.com, Jennifer Rooney called the ad a ‘sad commentary on culture’. Gizmodo writer Brian Barrett even gives us a series of screen-caps pointing out how sad the teen is, framing him as ‘Sullen Male Youth’. Here’s a bit from Barrett’s piece that I found particularly eye-roll worthy:
The reason they are surprised and relieved, of course, is that most young men and young women—and tweens and olds and anyone, really, with access to a smartphone—act exactly like Sullen Male Youth. All the time. We Instagram meals before we eat them, tweet jokes about news stories we haven’t yet read. If anything, the unfortunate default mode for many of us is hiding behind phones, inside apps. Any other use case sends us into paroxysms of joy and relief.
I won’t bother railing too heavily against the hyperbole here because I guess it has its place, but I do want to pick up on Barrett’s reading that the family in the ad is connecting not with the teen’s movie, but instead with the revelation that the teen hasn’t been totally disengaged the whole time. I actually think it’s a bit of both, and even if it is more of the latter, how is that bad?
I think that advancing a discourse that doesn’t frame young introverts as disengaged, apathetic hermits is entirely positive. Apple is inverting the spectre of the screen-addicted, apathetic teen here, suggesting in its place the figure of the sentimental, observant record-keeper.
I’ll end this post with another story about a shy young man finding his voice. I think it serves as a useful lens through which to read Apple’s narrative. Enjoy!
"This is Harry. As a boy, Harry was very, very shy. Some people might have even said that he was painfully shy, as if his shyness caused them pain and not the other way around…"
[This entry has been cross-posted on the blog for the Australian Sociological Association’s Youth thematic group.]
Last week I was privileged to spend a couple of days in an ARC (Australian Research Council) grant writing workshop led by Professor Janeen Baxter (UQ). We talked DECRAs, Discoveries, Linkages, and Future Fellowships. Janeen is currently a member of the ARC College of Experts for the Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences (SBE) panel. This panel of 28 professors has a big say in how ARC funding in the social sciences is allocated, and they also determine which reviewers grant applications go to, so spending some time with Janeen was very valuable. I’m indebted to my colleague Kristin Natalier for arranging Janeen’s trip down to Launceston from Brisbane.
As a newbie to this grant writing dance, which involves some moves that I’m not accustomed to, a few things struck me as I started to learn the steps. Here are a few of these insights and key points from the two-day workshop with Janeen.
Last week I was at the annual meeting of the Australian Sociological Association (TASA), preceded by two pre-conference seminars - one for the sociology of youth, and one for cultural sociology. All up it was five very intense, well-organised days of hearing about and talking about sociological research. I think I must have listened to forty odd papers. I presented two of my own papers, too:
I put together a rough storify from the conference, but I left it a bit late as the hashtag seems to cut off after a week. So, I did some cherry picking of tweets from before the conference dinner. I think it gives a general sense of some of the things that were covered at the main conference…
Snapchat is an app that allows you to send photos or short movies to others, which are supposedly ‘erased’ after several seconds. When you send a snap, you choose who it goes to on your list of contacts. It can go to just one contact or to many, and the recipients won’t know who else the snap was sent to. The idea here is to (re)introduce the ‘fleeting moment’ into the networked, mediated disclosures we make through the internet. In this way, Snapchat disturbs the logic of of other networked social media in that a) Snapchat disclosures are ephemeral rather than persistent, and b) the intended ‘audience’ of disclosures is opaque. When we receive a snapchat, we don’t know if it was intended just for us or for many.
Here’s the ‘about’ blurb taken from Snapchat’s website:
'Snapchat is a new way to share moments with friends. Snap an ugly selfie or a video, add a caption, and send it to a friend (or maybe a few). They'll receive it, laugh, and then the snap disappears. The image might be a little grainy, and you may not look your best, but that's the point. It's about the moment, a connection between friends, and not just a pretty picture. The allure of fleeting messages reminds us about the beauty of friendship - we don't need a reason to stay in touch. Give it a try, share a moment, and enjoy the lightness of being!' (Snapchat ‘About’ page, 2013, emphasis added)
I’ve been using Snapchat for around six months now, and have observed a whole range of practices associated with the app. As the official blurb above alludes to, there are an interesting set of identity performances taking place through the app - anyone for an ugly selfie? Again, these practices seem to defy the prevailing logic of other networked social media associated with impression management and the presentation of an idealised self. Or is there something more complex going on here?
Dig a little deeper into the ‘philosophy’ behind Snapchat, and you’ll find a focus on authenticity, which is also a recurrent theme in Zuckerberg’s often critiqued ‘philosophy’ on how Facebook can make the world a more connected and transparent place. Is an ugly selfie taken yesterday more authentic, capturing a more ‘real’ moment, than that professional photo taken of you when you were in that wedding party that one time a couple of years ago?
There are a curious set of emerging practices here around replying and engaging in sustained conversation. Within the app, to reply to snaps, you also have to take a photo or video. This is often played out through exchanging selfies with associated text, but the conversation can also shift to other platforms. A tweet to comment on how horrifying that last snap was, or a text message to answer a question posed in a snap, or a longer synchronous conversation over Facebook IM to hash out plans for the weekend.
Concerns have been raised around how easy it might be to capture or record images shared through the app, either at the institutional or personal level. The app tells you when someone takes a screencap, but it can’t tell you if someone has a camera hovered over their phone when that snap is opened. Snapchat also fuels the moral panic over ‘sexting’, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Whether or not Snapchat persists beyond the fad phase, it certainly raises a series of interesting questions about ephemerality and what constitutes ‘authenticity’ in a networked society. Have you enjoyed the ‘lightness of being’ recently?
Last week I was on a writing retreat in Hobart with 15 colleagues from across UTas. What a great privilege. I helped an economics researcher tighten up an abstract on macroeconomic simulation models and then had the introduction to a piece I’m working on constructively critiqued by academics from health care and police studies. I sat in a room and wrote beside a research fellow working on cardiovascular physiology, a lecturer in zoology writing about the reproductive habits of blue-tongue lizards, a phytoplankton taxonomist (!) working on salmon aquaculture, and a gallery director who has been turning his dissertation on house and home into a book. How’s that for variety!
I want to reflect on five key things I’ll take away from this week…
A big thanks to Sally Knowles from ECU for being our external facilitator. It has been a productive week, and I hope I get the chance to do something similar again soon.
Congratulations and thanks to Rachel Brooks and Kitty te Riele, guest editors of the special issue of Young published today, ‘Exploring Ethical Issues in Youth Research’. Here is the table of contents, including my own work on the ethical challenges I faced in my doctoral research friending participants on MySpace and Facebook. Links will take you to abstracts.