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Crowd-sourcing responsibility: Google and the Italian bullies’ video

Today’s news, covering the Google content trial’s delay, made me connect my current notions on ethics to the wider issues of responsibility in the virtual world. The BBC (Technology) reported that the continuing court case against Google Italy could “have major ramifications for content providers around the globe”. Posted in 2006, shortly before Google acquired YouTube, a video was published, “which showed a teenager with Down’s Syndrome being bullied”. Accused of “defamation and violating privacy”, the prosecutors want to see the four Google executives being charged (up to three years in prison) for not engaging enough monitoring staff and lack of content-filtering devices in place.

Basically, I agree with the Italian prosecutors in that last point. However, arguing that Google, YouTube or Dailymotion should be obliged to seek consent of all those appearing in a video is a step in the wrong direction. Rather than stifling social media sites with bureaucratic measures and creating new problems resulting in problems such as:

  • defining what constitutes consent and who can give consent
  • verifying authenticity of consenting parties
  • ensuring successful follow up of consent when changes have been made to a video

it would be time to think about users who produce and consume (produsers, following Axel Bruns) as involved, responsible, and potentially proactive audiences. Their practices of consuming and distributing content by options such as ‘favourite’, ‘share’ etc. are not given and static, but are socially constructed and hence, they can be shaped and re-constructed. In fact, they should be developed with the users (supposed a learning user is the one imagined by corporations and regulatory bodies), rather than against them.

The kind of protectionist politics informing the debate around the Italian court case echo approaches based on censorship and responsibilities, placed in the hands of a limited number of profit-making organisations rather than the 21st century communities of users. Crowd-sourcing has many faces, one of those is to harness the power of the communities and engage them in the dynamic processes of reviewing, critiquing, and reporting/suggesting changes or removals. Yet, unless the facilities are provided, little will happen in this regard.

I wished corporations would come up with more innovative ideas and helped to expand the notion of citizenship. The least promising option is full broadcast rights applied to social media, resulting most likely in a new wave of passive consumers. Hence, rather than continuing to favour and expanding an ideology of a welfare state policing its territory and society, it would be a lot more beneficial and sustainable to develop a stronger sense of responsibility, citizenship and connectivity in online space that impacts upon offline settings. For instance:

  • obligatory pop-up tutorials (brief, relevant and in plain language – similar to plagiarism statement we use as students at The Open University when submitting papers online)
  • an extended and meaningful Q’n’A section: it is not sufficient to provide a REPORT button and suggest that’s all that can be done – complaint processes must be transparent and efficient
  • citizens who face a lack of resources when reporting crime in real life will have little trust in online processes aiming at regulation: duality rather than outsourcing is required
  • an ethical turn – driven by corporations who understand that profit and ethics belong together as ignoring these repercussions, social ills can be tackled in concerted efforts rather than technology-based workarounds
  • governments present role-models, they need to do their homework: bullying (as well as other crimes) start in real life, where they need to be taken seriously. Online practices can change and make a contribution towards changes of offline/real life social practices (including reduction of neglect, ignorance, and apathy).

Internet freedom comes in a package with responsibility, I believe, and we cannot assume there is a universal sense of inherent responsibility adopted by each user who uploads or watches videos. But we can work towards stronger ethics, responsibility and citizenship. And we can start understanding that less simplified regulation would be beneficial beyond the one individual instance when the upload was prevented – otherwise, the bullying, the filming, and distribution of such content will continue, by other means, in other ways – it would be a lot less visible and less traceable, though.

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2nd Digital Cultures Workshop: Social Media Publics. Part II

Carsten Sorensen of LSE gave an entertaining keynote, we got distracted by video snippets that illustrated the stories of interaction asymmetry: mobile technology imagined in the future. James Bond shots and the General Post Office’s view dating back to 1964 helped us remember how much things have changed and how intrusive technology has become. Nodding audience. Some of the points he made echoed research conducted in the late 1990s when researchers such as Paul du Gay, Hugh Mackay et al. had started looking into the use of media in the domestic sphere with practices of appropriation ranging from muting the TV screen to behaviours such as collective commenting . I felt that even though technology has been insinuated in complex environments and helps us to micro-coordinate our multiple commitments and roles within all the massive amplification of networked connections, again, the actual practices and meaning making processes on the underlying individual level are hardly understood. This may be due to the fact that they are embedded in wider discourses, ‘unconsciousnesses’, taboos and collective cultural and sub-cultural systems – all of them extremely hard to grasp in surveys aiming at representative samples.

From the very general level to a much more specific field, the research done by David Wilson, Mark Bailey, and Philip Gray, University of Glasgow, was placed in the ‘organisational context of molecular genetics research laboratories’ and investigated individuation, privacy and social media from various angles. Collaborating and sharing data and equipment, i.e. notebooks in labs (lab books) enables post-graduate and doctoral students to capture progress but at the same time, the issue of community versus personal [intellectual] property poses dilemmas which cannot be resolved in a culture that demands individuation and places the highest incentives and rewards on those who rather don’t share. Apart from the powerlessness and the limited sense of control also issues such as monitoring others’ work progress are at stake.

The dilemmas made visible by Wilson et al. were fascinating as they may be paralleled in other fields where online collaboration and content sharing are equally subjected to the notion that competing against each other is rewarded – for status and power reasons – rather than the produced result itself. It would be a major step forward to review and redefine acknowledging practices such as the display of share of work done by individuals, for instance in papers published by more than one author. Currently, one of the most common practices is to list authors in alphabetical order. Here, also publishing entities, editors and reviewers would have a chance to bring about change. For instance by using social media and making reviewing processes more transparent, including the commenting on each other’s reviews.

Why aren’t reviews of papers submitted for conferences made accessible to delegates so they can learn from each other and/or collaborate on future projects? Facilitating such possibilities would mean to rethink plagiarism and power and take a more innovative approach. Current practices are not transparent, they often seem to protect the reviewer rather than the reviewed. In some instances, reviewers gave less than constructive feedback, resulting in a notion that more transparency would be beneficial in multiple ways. This issue was also subject to discussion at the 3rd ICWSM, the AAAI conference I attended in San Jose, California.

At The 2nd Digital Cultures workshop, though, Nic Crowe’s paper was my personal favourite. A lecturer at Brunel University with a background in youth work and teaching, his ‘Work, rest and play in the Digital Playground’ was not just striking in terms of presentation, he made all the difference due to his empathy and sound understanding of youth culture, practices and dilemmas. As Digital Natives (Prensky: 2001), youth in online worlds such as Runescape use these virtual spaces as social contexts, not any different from material spaces in their imagined potentials, they offer safe arenas which allow for trial and error experiences that prepare for real life actions. As an interlocutor was quoted “I can try my best lines online and avoid making myself a fool in real life” – she was referring to a virtual boyfriend. Becoming streetwise in virtual worlds while engaging in ‘deviant’ activities in virtual spaces as well as mundane experiences such as getting a haircut or treating oneself to a holiday too expensive in real life, the experience results in real life pleasant feelings that are all providing supplements and replacements for lost real spaces.

As conventional spaces have been made unworthy accessing or have become altogether inaccessible – Nic mentioned the curfew in Richmond/London area and spaces that had been equipped with policing devices such as mosquitos – this piece of research echoes danah boyd’s findings in the US. He also presented a few statistics that underlined why these conditions are not due to change any time soon: the US$60 billion p.a. industry is booming with 9 video games sold every second on every day in 2007.

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inkheart and new social media: imagine the other

In Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boellstorff argues that virtuality is actually an ‘ancient human practice and that many media have given us leave of the here and now: cave paintings, Jane Austen novels, Howard Nemerov poems’ (2008). His words in mind I went to see Inkheart in Berlin and could not have found a better illustration of the notion that virtuality is indeed ‘older than sin’ as Boellstorff quotes Plato. Assuming, we imagine our deeds first, then act – although, there is an element of awareness implied that might make all the difference.

Boellstorff’s extensive ethnographic research in Second Life provides us with a richness that won’t allow to dismiss virtual communities as less real as it would mean to miss the key point: what makes them real is our imagination. Equality of imagined and non-imagined places, communities and actions is probably what we can argue for now, having access to so much information and proof of what people imagine and how they imagine.

New social media are the places where a considerable amount of our daily interaction and non-verbal communication take place. Where happiness and depression have a lot in common and reproduce themselves. Without imagination there is little beyond routine: the future is a child of your creative imagination, imagination can destroy, combat crime or start wars. Imagine fear and the cold hand taking hold of you is not far. In this sense new social media is actually not new at all. Interacting with others, forming sustainable and healthy social relationships as well as learning from conflicts are subjects to our imaginative powers and just as Inkheart illustrates so colourfully: escaping from inside the written words into the world declared as real or being pulled inside a book – remember The Neverending Story, Peter Pan’s Neverland, Pippi Longstocking? – it all does seem to be very real. We used to be skilled in imagining whole worlds and futures before we internalised what we were told then: to be realistic, to not get lost in imagined and fantasized worlds. Imagination has become highly status-related: certain literature, music, opera and theatre are encouraged and socially rewarding whereas some popular culture, certain video-gaming and virtual interaction do not enhance our social and cultural capital, so far at least a still dominant argument brought up by many who don’t think much of virtual communities.

Whose reality is it anyway? Imagined readers and writers are closely tied together in Inkheart, escaping from outside into the other world becomes possible by reading the words to an audience, a listener. Do we imagine the other and their world when addressing someone in a letter, an electronic message, on the phone or in Second Life? Perhaps we need to ask when we do not imagine an audience and when we are not imagined as part of the visible or invisible audience…in online and offline worlds full of CCTV, cookies and user statistics leaving traces just as bold as tinkerbell’s fairy dust.

We would benefit from a more holistic approach, I believe, when it comes to understanding the real impact of our imaginations upon our manufactured ‘real worlds’. Imagine, all the people, sharing one virtual world – with many virtual sub-worlds, of course – in awareness of their imaginative powers….imagine all the people understanding the responsibility that comes with such powers…

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