An apologia for instagram photos of pumpkin spice lattes and other serious things

I don’t normally pick on people whose work I really admire, but I recently saw a tweet from Mark Sample that struck a nerve: “Look, if you don’t instagram your first pumpkin spice latte of the season, humanity’s historical record will be dangerously impoverished.”  While it got quite a number of retweets and equally snarky responses, he is far from the first to make such a flippant critique of the vapid nature of social media.  It also seriously upset me for reasons that I’ve been trying to work out, which is why I found myself doing one of those shifts that researchers of knowledge production tend to do far too often with critics: don’t get mad, get reflexive.  What is it that makes such a sentiment resonate with us, particularly when it is issued over Twitter, a platform that is the target of this kind of critique?  The reasons have to do with a fundamental disagreement over what it means to interact in a mediated space: do we understand our posts, status updates, and shared photos as representations of how we exist in the world which collectively constitute a certain persistent performance of the self, or do we understand them a form of communication in which we subjectively and interactionally relate our experience of the world to others?

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The Lives of Bots

I’m part of a Wikipedia research group called “Critical Point of View” centered around the Institute for Network Cultures in Amsterdam and the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore.  (Just a disclaimer, the term ‘critical’ is more like critical theory as opposed to Wikipedia bashing for its own sake.)  We’ve had some great conferences and are putting out an edited book on Wikipedia quite soon.  My chapter is on bots, and the abstract and link to the full PDF is below:

I describe the complex social and technical environment in which bots exist in Wikipedia, emphasizing not only how bots produce order and enforce rules, but also how humans produce bots and negotiate rules around their operation.  After giving a brief overview of how previous research into Wikipedia has tended to mis-conceptualize bots, I give a case study tracing the life of one such automated software agent, and how it came to be integrated into the Wikipedian community.

The Lives of Bots [PDF, 910KB]

WikiConference New York: An Open Unconference

Jimmy Wales speaking at the conference keynote, by Laurence Perry, CC BY-SA 3.0

Jimmy Wales speaking at the conference keynote, by GreenReaper, CC BY-SA 3.0

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of presenting at the first (hopefully annual) WikiConference New York, sponsored by the Wikimedia New York City chapter with assistance from Free Culture @ NYU and the Information Law Institute at NYU’s law school. I know that I am atrociously late in writing this post, but I’m not really writing it for the Wikipedians out there. Rather, the WikiConference was an interesting experiment that seemed to apply Wikipedia’s philosophy towards editing to a conference, resulting in what the organizers called a “modified unconference.”
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Do you support Wikipedia? News from the Trenches of the Science Wars 2.0

This is a paper I wrote for a class on “Technology and Critique” – a class that blended critical theory with Science and Technology Studies.  Taking from Bruno Latour’s “Do you believe in Reality?  News from the Trenches of the Science Wars,” this work is a critical examination of the way in which the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia has been implicitly cast as a continuation of the Science Wars.  Instead of debating about the efficacy and authority of science, academics are now debating the efficacy and authority of Wikipedia. Using Martin Heidegger’s work on ontology and technology, I argue that this particular academic mindset is a way of being-in-the-world that works to either affirm or negate the integration of Wikipedia into its particular projects – namely, the production of academic knowledge.  However, I show that asking whether Wikipedia is a reliable academic source enframes Wikipedia into an objectless standing-reserve of potential citations, foreclosing many other possibilities for its use.  Instead of following Steven Colbert and countless academics by asking what Wikipedia has done to reality, I ask: what have we done to Wikipedia in the name of reality?

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Virtual Worlds in 1996: The More Things Change…

I came across this 1996 review published in Entertainment Weekly of The Palace, Worldsaway, and Worlds Chat. These were the first graphical chat programs, a genre which became virtual worlds a half-decade later. The entire article is fascinating from a historical perspective, but the last paragraph in particular shows us how some things really do stay the same:

You may also notice that nobody’s talking, at least out loud. Like all chat software, WC lets you send private messages, but it also enables you to talk in private groups, so there’s no real impetus for public discourse. Besides, most here have one thing on their minds, and it ain’t badminton. The typical experience is stumbling into a room, seeing two avatars nose to nose over in the corner, and realizing — just as at any cocktail party — that three’s a crowd. Bizarre? Sure. Sick? Maybe. A sign of modern alienation? Unquestionably. Yet in a way it’s a relief to know that even in this newest of mediums, there’s a place for the oldest of urges.

Wikimania 2008: Wikipedia as Real Utopia with Edo Navot

Wikipedia as Real Utopia: Governance, knowledge production, and the institutional structure of Wikipedia – Edo Navot, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Sociology. Here follows my rough transcription of his speech, followed by my comments.  The fact that his is the only presentation I have so far commented on should be taken as a sign of respect, not of disparagement.  I rather enjoyed his presentation, pledge to read his paper in depth as soon as possible (I have skimmed it), and admire him for being one of the few academics out there studying social and political thought on Wikipedia.

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Real, Virtual Communities: A Response to Brian Williams

I was watching MSNBC’s election coverage of the South Dakota and Montana primaries on June 3rd, and heard Brian Williams make a very interesting statement. He was talking about how surprised he was to see the resurgence of political rallies in this age, and said that people his age thought the whole idea of the rally died in 1968. He then, almost wistfully, stated that this election is showing how we still need a physical community even though we are all digitally connected 24/7. I’ll quote from the transcript:
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Memetic Inkblots

I’ve been tossing around this concept of the memetic inkblot, which refers to units of cultural information (memes) that have effectively no singular semiotic value and therefore serve as a psychosocial indicator. In other words, they are so vague and open to interpretation that you can learn a lot about someone by asking someone to give a simple definition of them. Now, if semiotics has taught me anything, it is that the sign is nothing but a social construction, and I do not intend to make the mistake of attributing intrinsic value to any meme. Obviously, how someone feels about anything is a way you can learn about them, but these concepts are so vague that they rarely have a stable, concise definition.

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