A web of mundanity?

In a recent post I suggested that the blogosphere is now “officially mundane”. [Baby Herbal Soup]
I felt at the time EM readers might think that comment a bit pretentious and a bit of a put-down. It wasn’t meant that way, so I figured I should explain myself. I like to be provocative (in case you hadn’t noticed), but I also like to develop arguments and cases to back up my provocations. It’s the polemic method of a teacher.

The opportunity for further reflection and articulation of the Internet=Mundane idea has presented itself this week with a number of interesting news stories that show what I mean:

  • a Sky News story about the university gossip site, JuicyCampus, and attempts to have it banned on campuses
  • an NZ herald story about teenagers sending inappropriate images of themselves to each other then finding them in the public eye unexpectedly
  • a Sunday Star Times story about an irate online buyer who went round to an online seller’s house and forced him to remove comments posted to the Trade Me site about their transaction.
  • On any given day these “what were they thinking?” and “weird news” stories are in the media, they’re an indicator of something more profound.

    [Dribblejaws alert: If you don't like "theory", go away now]

    First let me explain mundane; I use this in the sense that Vincent Mosco does in his book
    The Digital
    Sublime: :Myth, Power and Cyberspace.

    [Read Curtis Frye's review of The Digital Sublime]

    [Read Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's review of The Digital Sublime]

    [J]ust as electricity withdrew into the woodwork to become an even more powerful force by virtue of its ability to empower a range of activities, computers may well withdraw into what in 1988 Mark Weiser of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center called “ubiquitous computing.”…. These researchers saw the computer as growing in power while withdrawing as a presence. (Mosco, 2004, p.2 0)

    Mundane just means “everyday”. Things that we are taking for granted now, but that didn’t even exist ten years ago. Things like YouTube, blogs and social networking that are transforming our culture in many ways. Some little understood, some welcome [?], some not. Mosco argues that as bit and bytes become embedded in everyday objects and life, the digital loses some of its sublime power. I interpret this as some of the shiny-ness of the new wearing off.

    As the novelty fades, digital technologies become quotidian (another word for the everyday) and in their ordinariness we start to integrate them in our routines, or create new routines around them. This is what my examples illustrate.

    Exploiting the misery of fools

    Gossip websites seem to me to be a bad idea, something sadly mundane, leaching our souls. I think this applies to the absolute ocean of celebrity gossip that’s drowning us in both magazines and on the web. Our fascination with the rich and vacuous is politically and culturally debilitating. We spend endless hours wishing we could be like that, while also sneering when they f*ck-up their lives. Lindsey, Brittany and Amy are just the latest trio. Remember Ashley Dupre, her life unraveled online at the same time as she tried to parley it into a higher celebrity profile.

    Now we have gossip sites devoted to gossiping about the ordinary lives of the very ordinary people in our own extra-ordinary lives. I think this is insidious, it verges on bullying and no doubt some prick somewhere is getting rich, making money by exploiting the misery of fools. Of course, its defenders would say that the regular users of these sites are just openly expressing themselves, sometimes anonymously.

    Personally, I worry about bullying and character assassination. There have already been cases of self-harm and suicide in New Zealand and elsewhere as a result of cyberbullying just through social networking sites like Facebook, Bebo and YouTube. Now that it’s an organsised sport, look out.

    A recent report suggests that around 20 per cent of teenagers may have been subject to some form of cyberbullying while at school. Should we be concerned then when this adolescent behaviour becomes entrenched in older teens who are arguably the nation’s best and brightest? Or am I over-reacting to this stuff? For example, here’s typical short post from JuicyCampus:

    This is the thing, there is a Black girl in my AP class who has like this HUGE nose. I mean big, you could park a bus in it. Anyway we were on her one day about that big pig snout and one girl said why don’t you get it fixed. She said b/c Black people scar and it would be worse. Anyway she dropped the class, But is that shit true? Black People can’t get facial surgery to fix their shit when it’s all fucked up like a huge nose?

    Anyway she dropped the class. The lack of self-reflection here is stunning. Is it too hard to imagine that the distressed girl dropped the class because of the teasing about her nose? Seriously, what is this about? I was pleased to see that there’s actually now a backlash beginning against sites like JuicyCampus.

    The site’s slogan is “Always anonymous Always juicy”, and no, I don’t think I’m being prudish or showing may age. Though, given that the students are also likely to gossip about their tutors, I am cautiously curious. On some campuses students have begun to turn against gossip sites like JuicyCampus and there’s some interesting commentary about it on Huffington Post.

    Digital optimism – the folly of youth?

    In our book Communication and New Media, John Harrison and I make the point that digital optimism was all the rage when the internet was much younger. Mosco talks about the spruikers who touted a bright digital future, but couldn’t see the wood for the trees. The optimists argued that the web would, just by its very existence, improve the world. It would be more democratic, we’d be more connected and the old power elites would be quaking in their analog boots.

    Some things happened that support the optimism thesis, but plenty also happened to mean it remains a part of digital folklore. A more balanced impression might be that the digital revolution, like any revolution, is full of contradictions that express particular social dialectics – in the economy, popular culture, science, technology and politics.

    The point is that who would have imagined that the web would be used for this sordid porn/gossip/sleaze factor crap back when it was still going to be such a progressive and revolutionary thing. I’ve read the early predictive stuff on the web, what I call the digital optimists and now, with hindsight and the effects of mundanity, we can see that the progressive myths about cyberspace were just that – myths.

    American law professor Daniel Solove has recently written The future of reputation: gossip, rumour and privacy on the internet that looks at how our privacy is dissolving and how we seem to be incapable, or unwilling to do anything about it. I haven’t read it yet, but the reviews I’ve seen make me think that I would agree with many of Solove’s arguments.

    In particular I think Solove”s right to suggest that the rise of ubiquitous digital gossip is damaging to the social fabric, that it’s corrosive and exploitative and that ultimately, it does not represent, nor does it enhance, freedom of expression.

    [Links to Solove and The future of reputation]

    Freedom of expression should not be about being able to say anything you like about anybody at all, whether it is true or not, or whether you believe it’s true or not. There’s an element of good faith, goodwill and public good involved in the exercise of freedom of expression.

    I’m not sure what Solove would think of this point, but I would go a step further and argue that the growth of skanky and adolescent gossip sites is a threat to freedom of expression because at some point the State may well decide to intervene and start banning or closing down such sites – a slippery slope indeed.

    I’m not kidding about this either. In March this year at least two US state attorney generals were considering action against JuicyCampus following complaints.

    Richard Blumenthal, the attorney general for Connecticut, now is investigating JuicyCampus.com, based on concerns that the website, which specializes in malicious—and, critics say, harmful—gossip is violating its own terms of use, reports the Yale Daily News.

    Specifically, the AG is “investigating whether JuicyCampus misleads consumers by failing to follow its own rules prohibiting defamatory and abusive posts,” the Yale University campus newspaper explains. JuicyCampus terms and conditions prohibit comments that are “unlawful, threatening, abusive, tortious, defamatory, obscene, libelous, or invasive.” [Martha Neil ABA Law Review 25 March 2008]

    This is what I call an ethico-legal and techno-legal paradox. While there are no specific laws and regulations governing what sites like JuicyCampus can do (outside of general legal constraints, such as defamation and decency) the technology of social networking generates new applications (anonymous online gossip sites) that become popular and profitable, so they mulitiply.

    There’s also the social surveillance aspect of these sites. Employers have been checking Facebook and Bebo for ages now and soon they’ll have these sites to draw data from too. This is also part of the problem with teenage lovers sending erotic images of themselves to each other.

    Miley and me (for your eyes only?)

    Oh dear, now that Miley’s doing it, the pxting of sultry pouts and sexy posing is taking off and causing angst for some parents, teachers and school communities. A quick Google shows that there’s a growing trend in the teen dating scene for the exchange of nude or semi-nude images as part of the courtship ritual. See: Scared Monkeys, WCPO.com, the Buffalo News, Star-Tribune.

    But in another techno-legal and techno-ethical paradox, It seems that at several American high schools there have been scandals involving teenagers sending nude and “provocative” images to each other via their cellphone. You can guess what’s coming…

    In some cases the proud lover might post the images to his/her social networking page to boast about the hot chick or guy they’re dating. In others recently ditched ex-lovers might do something similar out of a sense of revenge. The inevitable result is that the images become endlessly copied and reposted. “What were they thinking?” is the cry from concerned parents around the world.

    When I was a teenager we would never consider taking nude shots of ourselves or each other with a film camera (did I miss out on some incredible right of passage here?). It was just too easy to get caught. The film would have to be developed at the local chemist for a start. But with digital technology it seems so easy and appears to have no consequences. Well, yeah it does.

    According to Associated Press at a school in Santa Fe, Texas dozens of cellphones were confiscated from students who were circulating racy photos of two junior girls who had sent the pics of themselves to one or two boys who’d then circulated them wider. In La Crosse Wisconsin a 17-year-old boy has been charged for posting “pretty graphic” images of his 16-year-old ex-girlfriend on MySpace.

    The cheap and available cellphone with camera and digital photo technologies create the conditions in which such private and intimate acts (sending erotic images between lovers is cool) can lead to embarrassment, harrassment and criminal charges. It’s so much easier, quicker and cheaper than in the days of film, paper, expensive chemicals and some darkroom expertise

    [Ah, the classic French postcard has a lot to answer for]

    A final brief comment on the SST story about a TradeMe customer assaulting a TradeMe seller. This is another good piece of data for my argument that the web is now so taken-for-granted that it presents opportunities to people who take them without thinking and without understanding the consequences of their actions.

    A buyer posts complaining comments about a seller, the seller responds in kind. A number of digital insults are traded – remember the flaming email? – then one party decides to take it into the fleshworld.

    It always ends in tears.

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    9 Responses to A web of mundanity?

    1. Dr Mark Hayes says:

      Just to complicate matters a bit, we should factor in teenage and young adult binge drinking into this weirdness (or hedonism, narcissism, street level post-modernism). Zygmunt Bauman suggests we live in “Liquid Modernity” (pun deliberate) where all standards, morality, etc are shifting, liquid, and when you’re entering into young adulthood, after 12 years of intense, controlled, schooling and socialisation, assailed by advertising which tells you The Golden Ring is within easy reach if only you obey, consume lots, work hard, play hard… and then you get into the Liquidly Modern World where The Golden Ring seems even more elusive..;. You reach for booze (or assorted chemicals, legal and not) for the instant high, or downer, to render you comfortably numb (allusion to Pink Floyd’s classic song deliberate too) because of the deep disillusionment eating into your soul, or conscience, or identity like acid. You don’t exist if you don’t have a social networking site, and you load it up with all your life’s trivia because that’s all you have to say because, at the end of every day, nobody’s really, seriously, interested in you because you don’t, can’t, consume enough, and when you work hard you’re paid s*it and treated like s*it, so playing hard is all that’s left, and you even have to pay lots for that. And your prospective and actual employers are troweling social networking sites, looking for “evidence” they can use to continue to treat you like s*it. Welcome to the Desert of the Real.

    2. Mark, the humour of your cynicism is wonderful. I must read Bauman – and soon.
      Thanks for this wonderful comment.
      M

    3. uohaa says:

      Great Information blog ! Thank you for keeping up the good work. I look forward to returning to your blog, and learning more from you !

    4. Thanks for the link to my post on Mosco’s “Digital Sublime,” but it goes to the review by Curtis Frye. Mine is at the end of cyberspace

    5. there Alex, much neater all around really, cheers M

    6. [...] I came to the Quit Te Mutu site from a link on Facebook. So perhaps there’s something positive in the mundanity of cyberspace. [...]

    7. [...] The web tends to fragment and isolate its audience to a large degree – perhaps not social networking, but in general the web can end up exploiting the misery of fools [...]

    8. polly says:

      I didn’t know cyberbullying was that bad. Suicide is never good, but teenagers should also not let things get to them like that. I’ve been cyberbullied and bullied flat out. I don’t like bullying at all, it’s definitely not good. But if there’s going to be bullying going on i prefer it to be over the internet. Not in person. Cyberbullying is so much easier to ignore. And if the’re bullying over the internet they’re not all that strong either. Thanks Ethical Martini. You opened my eyes to more problematic subjects

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