Hopes and Doubts

What I noticed in my classmates’ blogs and comments was that people seem to be very skeptical about people’s ability to push back against corporations in areas of copyright. As zad007 commented on my last post, “big corporations think they can bully the individual and with the convergence of media companies buying up all forms of media, it might get worse.” Pull-down requests on YouTube and public lawsuits over filesharing are very visible examples of corporations using their financial resources to protect their assets and, in this way, control the way that people engage with them tactically. What I think is worth pointing out though is how ineffective most of these attempts to control copyright have actually been. Almost all of the stuff on YouTube is copyrighted content, and as soon as one video of a popular song is pulled down, three more emerge. Part of this is that Google is hesitant to crack down too hard because they know they get most of their traffic from people wanting these materials for free, but it’s also a sign of how the size of the public makes it very hard to regulate. And that’s even leaving aside networks like ThePirateBay which have managed to operate outside of corporate spaces for many years, in spite of attempts to regulate them. The number of people successfully prosecuted for downloading copyrighted material is the tiniest fraction of the number of people who actually do it.

The greater danger to a cultural commons is the attempts by these corporations (record companies, movie studios and their parent corps) to change the way the internet is regulated by lobbying governments, especially in Washington; what this represents is an attempt to change the nature of the internet itself in order to protect copyright interests. As of now, there is “space” online to create cultural commons’ by using channels outside of the corporate world (independent mashups and remixes, appropriation, even actual original art) and distribute it through these Guerilla channels, but it is the goal of corporates to strangle this. If this happens, we might see a return to more geographically-concentrated subcultures as in the pre-internet times, mostly in urban areas where physical objects or digital art distributed on more direct person-to-person or group to group basis might constitute artistic and cultural resistance. There isn’t yet as much regulation pending about what people mail/email to each other, so if people adopt a “cell” based structure, like insurgents, it would be harder to crack down on the spread of democratic cultural production.

Other Classmate Blogs*




(Module 3) http://wherecanthemusicbe.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/module-3/

* these are the ones I commented on because their posts were finished

Tactics, Strategies and Copyright Laws

Paraphrasing Lev Manovich paraphrasing Michel de Certeau, there are strategies and there are tactics; strategies are the tools of institutions to regulate our lives, and our tactics are the tricks and techniques we develop to deal with these big, impersonal structures and turn them to our own ends, like using the highway (strategy) but taking shortcuts (tactic) to get home faster; “In other words, an individual can’t physically reorganize the city but she can adopt itself to her needs by choosing how she moves through it. A tactic “expects to have to work on things in order to make them its own, or to make them ‘habitable’” (Manovich).

When we talk about strategies and tactics in the media, strategies tend to be the medium that product is delivered through (radio, television, the major label system) and tactics are ways that artists and fans try to communicate through that system. Manovich’s point is that, in recent years, the institutions have absorbed the tactics of self-definition (style choices like: punk, goth, metalhead, indie) and turned them into marketing strategies. People choose an identity and then express it by buying products that fit that narrow niche. I feel like what this means is that institutions have been very successful in their grand strategy, which is to make it so people’s concept of self-expression is inextricable from the logic of capitalism.

What is interesting about this is that there is now a conflict between corporate institutions over the source material of these (formerly?) grassroots self-definition tactics: art. The providers of popular art, like music (major labels, RIAA), want to make sure they can continue making money off of the product they produce, and they fight hard to protect their copyrights; other media channels, such as Google’s YouTube site, have flourished because of people violating copyright and sharing music and video content, often with their own twist on it (again, remixing as a form of tactic). In-roads are being made to mending these fences through pre-video ads and corporate synergy (think of how Bauuer’s Harlem Shake was monetized, or Gagnam Style), but there are still thousands of videos pulled down every day for violating copyright, even when the copyright being violated is incidental to why people are actually watching the video.

Banksy quote, as designed by Karina Nurdinova.

Banksy quote, as designed by Karina Nurdinova.

In my opinion, the key to making a free “cultural commons” is to rely on networks that corporations do not control, like The Pirate Bay, to gain access to the pop culture materials that produsers need in order to make remixes. The results can be uploaded to public networks like YouTube where a case can be made to protect them on the basis of their artistic merit/lack of having a profit motive. As Jenkins says, “we lose the ability to have any real influence over the directions that our culture takes if we do not find ways to engage in active dialogue with media industries.” It is not healthy for the culture as a whole if we receive the messages created by these corporations uncritically, and without a response tactic that changes the original object so that is suits our purposes as individuals and not just as consumers. As Banksy’s speech (in image form above) says about advertisements, “Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.”

Jenkins, H. (2004) The Cultural Logic of Media Convergence  International Journal of Cultural Studies March 2004 7: 33-43
Manovich, l. (2008) The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production?

Wikipedia’s Reliability, Explored through Bad Heavy Metal

Wikipedia picture from "Heavy Metal Culture" page/A Typical Wiki Editor?

Wikipedia picture from “Heavy Metal Culture” page/A Typical Wiki Editor?

“About 90 percent of [Wikipedia editors] are male, and 27 percent are under age twenty-one — 13 percent are in high school— and nearly all are anonymous, with no controls by any outsider on what they write.” – Richard Jensen, Military History on the Electronic Frontier: Wikipedia Fights the War of 1812

Would you trust a high school boy to provide you with medical advice? Political commentary? Guidance on questions of religion and philosophy? Welcome to the world of “crowdsourced knowledge,” where each month 470 million people from around the world get the majority of their factual information from an encyclopedia where “expertise is not welcome” (Jensen) and editors usually do not have very much access to scholarly resources or the latest discussion among experts in the fields they are writing about. Jensen puts the number of “very active” editors at around 3 300 as of Spring 2012. Even leaving aside the age and lack of experience of many of these editors, there is also the big issue of gender. Thinking about that 90 percent male number, do you feel comfortable about the perspective of the page on Feminism? Affirmative action? Abortion?

It is for good reason that most university professors discourage use of Wikipedia for university writing assignments.

It is hard to feel good about the expertise of high school and twenty-something men in many of the areas covered by the millions of articles on Wikipedia, but I wanted to know how well the Wikipedia system works in an area where this demographic might actually be the experts: bad heavy metal.

In Flames are a melodic death metal band from Sweden. Or maybe an alternative metal band from Sweden. Or possibly a modern rock band from Sweden. There is a lot of debate about this (more about this later). All I know for sure is that they’re from Sweden. I was never a fan, but they’re pretty big as far as this music goes (2 million copies sold, according to Wikipedia) and some guys in my high school were big fans.

Anyway, they used to sound like this:

Now they sound like this:

I can’t tell the difference either, but the change was big enough to have inspired 6 300+ words of arguing over the band’s genre (their actual page is only 4 300 words!), some insisting that as (apparently) the inventors of “melodic death metal” genre, the genre’s definition should be whatever In Flames happened to be playing, others that they had abandoned that style to become some other kind of metal in the early 2000s, still others saying they now weren’t metal at all (and sucked). What was striking about this discussion wasn’t that so much of it was poorly spelled, or insulting or angry, but that so little of it made reference to any kind of outside sources; a lot of the editors make no secret of how they feel about the band, but maintained that, impartially, their own interpretation of what genre the band’s music now falls into. Instead of looking for authoritative sources, the In Flames Wiki editors seemed more interested in representing whatever camp of metal fandom they belonged to. There’s a paraphrase from Stanley Fish I have used before because I find it interesting for the Wikipedia discussion: if documents (like a Wiki) are a place where different social worlds meet, there are going to be fights between them to come to a “right” interpretation, but “for there to be a “right” way, there must be a standard and a judge external to all of the competing community-based alternatives. But there is no external fulcrum to move these social worlds that is not itself merely the internal standard of another social world” (from Brown & Duguid).

Looking over the “sources” that do actually appear on the In Flames Wiki seems to confirm that this “fulcrum” is lacking. The article is well-written enough, but its sources are mostly shoddy-looking online metal review websites and concert reviews from local newspapers. In a related idea, Leigh Star has argued that the process of “translation” of interpretations of a single document between these social worlds “often represents an attempt to subordinate one group to the other’s interpretation” (from Brown & Duguid). The main editor of the In Flames Wiki is a user who goes by Leon Sword; he is also almost the only voice on the Talk page who insists that the band has remained melodic death metal, and seems to have largely gotten his way through sheer persistence (and constantly reverting the edits of others). Clearly a big fan of the group, Leon Sword seems to believe that by controlling the content of the Wikipedia page, he can influence the way the outside world interprets the band. What is kind of alarming in a “crowdsourced” encyclopedia that is as popular as Wikipedia is that he is right. After all, searching In Flames on Google brings up their Wiki page as the second result. Without doing this much research, I for one would’ve just assumed whatever genre they were listed as on the page was correct (provided that I even noticed).

It is interesting that the one source that seems to have been aggressively blackballed by Leon Sword is the Encyclopaedia Metallum, or Metal-Archives. A massive Wiki-modelled resource for information on heavy metal with 90 000+ entries and 230 000+ users, the Metal-Archives presents an interesting alternative to the crowdsourcing idea; edits on the Archive are made by users, but before they appear, they are tightly moderated by a handpicked staff according to firm guidelines set out by the site’s owners. Sourcing is minimal; to prove a band is metal, users simply provide a link to the band’s music and the moderators judge whether they are “sufficiently metal.” The site hopes to one day catalogue every metal band that has ever and will ever exist; this task though means that there must be some definition of what metal is and is not, or else the site will eventually expand too far from its core goal. This also means that the site’s owners and moderators have drawn a line in the sand, blocking the addition of popular heavy bands such as KoRn and Disturbed as un-metal, or “mallcore.” In Flames were pointedly listed on their Metal-Archives profile as “Melodic Death Metal (early), Modern Rock (later)” for some years, though “Modern Rock” has now been changed to “Melodic Groove Metal,” a genre which has no Wikipedia page (yet). In a sense, the battle over In Flames’ Wiki is between a camp of die-hard purists of the Metal-Archives mindset with In Flames’ fanbase, or at least, a few big fans like Leon Sword, over how the band relationship with its supposed genre.

What all of this ultimately tells us about Wikipedia is that, in many cases, the idea of crowdsourced knowledge as many voices working together to create an accurate picture is misleading. As Van Dijk & Nieborg point out, “the majority of [Wiki] users, their activity is anything but a communal effort towards a shared cause; they may participate simply to satisfy their individual curiosities or because they are interested in the same product, brand, band or topic.” In this case, a small number of people battled each other to make their interpretation the one the public would see. My God, can you imagine how much trouble this might cause if they were writing about something important?

For more interesting discussion about Wikipedia’s accuracy, check out these classmate blogs:





Brown, J. S. & P. Duguid. (1996). The Social Life of DocumentsFirst Monday. 1, 1.

Van Dijk, J. & Nieborg, D. (2009). Wikinomics and its discontents: a critical analysis of Web 2.0 business manifestosNew Media & Society. 11, 5. pp 855-874.

Jensen, R. (2012). Military History on the Electronic Frontier: Wikipedia Fights the War of 1812. Journal of Military History. 76, 1. pp 1165-1182

Summation of One: More thoughts on Wikipedia and Crowdsourced Knowledge

(one interpretation of the War of 1812)

I saw a lot of the blogs in my group complaining about not getting any comments to respond to, which is weird because I definitely posted comments to all of them; perhaps they didn’t realize I was a classmate! In any case, I really didn’t get any comments, so I just want to expand on my thoughts about Wikipedia some because I will be looking at it more later this week for my op-ed.

One of the more interesting parts of Richard Jensen’s article Military History on the Electronic Frontier: Wikipedia Fights the War of 1812 was his point about how Wikipedia’s military history articles are “old-fashioned, with an emphasis on tactics, battles, and technology, and are weak on social and cultural dimensions.” This is an example of how crowdsourced knowledge a lot of the time lacks the direction that more traditionally assembled information has; in history, the trend has been to move away from always top-down narratives of great men making big decisions to look at factors like how economics and cultures create conflict, or what effect a battle had on the society around it. Vetted sources, like encyclopedias and academic journals, move along with the wider academic conversation. Wikipedia’s editors are often using sources that have entered the common domain, like old encyclopedias, books they have read and interpreted without disciplined study, or even original, unverified research.

As Brown & Duguid noted, Wikipedia brings together many different social worlds to one document that must be shared between them, even though they each have their own interpretations; “for there to be a “right” way [to interpret], there must be a standard and a judge external to all of the competing community-based alternatives. But there is no external fulcrum to move these social worlds that is not itself merely the internal standard of another social world.” Obviously Britannica (for example) is not infallible and has internal divisions, but it is still in a more limited sense a “single” community with a common understanding of the purpose of the encyclopedia and what knowledge merits inclusion. Just as crucially, the encyclopedia editors are actual experts, and they are accountable for their work. If Britannica is massively wrong about something, they could lose their jobs. Wikipedia on the other hand can, at worst, ban an editor for a big mistake, and even that threat is easily circumvented with a new account.

Wikipedia may be “accurate” in broad strokes on the factual level, but that doesn’t take into account whether the right facts are presented, and how they are presented. It is unwise to put the task of experts into the hands of amateurs when there is the risk of further entrenching outdated belief systems and explanations.

Ask the Audience?

Photo from "Audience" page on Wikipedia

Photo from “Audience” page on Wikipedia

There’s a bit on the old gameshow Who Wants to be a Millionnaire? where contestants can use one of three lifelines to try to get past a hard question. Their options are 50/50 (get rid of two of the four possible answers), Phone-a-Friend and Ask the Audience. Of these, Ask the Audience was usually the most effective because it seemed that, even when only a minority of the audience knew the answer, the people who were just guessing would end up divided between the three wrong answers and the right one would win out. This philosophy seems to be the most popular one on the internet when it comes to asking questions; people ignore the “proven” knowledge sources like Encyclopedia Britannica in favour of Wikipedia, get second opinions on their medical issues from WebMD instead of doctors and teens ask questions about sex and lifestyle decisions on Yahoo Answers instead of to their parents and teachers. Has this made society dumber, unhealthier or more likely to make bad decisions? There is no study proving it either way.

In my opinion, crowdsourced knowledge has not started to supplant expert opinions because people have more faith in it, but because it is more readily accessible. If people could just go to the doctor to talk about every minor ache and pain they had, WebMD would be out of business, but this would be a frivolous use of a doctors time even if there were not a shortage. In a similar way, Encyclopedia Britannica has always been a resource that charges people money to access it’s information, either in the form of buying a collection of encyclopedias or paying for it online. If it is free and immediate, people are willing to make do with lower quality; think about the number of really low quality mp3s on sites like thepiratebay. Much in the way I wrote my last blog on privacy in social media, resources like Wikipedia are such a convenience that people just don’t feel like putting in the effort to live without them again, so they learn to deal with the negative sides.

The negative sides of crowdsourced knowledge should be obvious. In Brown & Duguid’s The Social Life of Documents, they make reference to some of Stanley Fish’s ideas. Wikipedia is a document where many many social worlds interact, but all of them have their own way of understanding the information in Wikipedia; “Fish argues that there is in fact no right way to choose among alternatives…. for there to be a “right” way, there must be a standard and a judge external to all of the competing community-based alternatives. But there is no external fulcrum to move these social worlds that is not itself merely the internal standard of another social world.” Britannica has a bias, but it is accountable for how accurate its information is. The only reason it exists is because people believe it is right. What agenda do Wikipedia editors have? What qualifications to decide whether something is, or is not, correct? Fish’s argument could undercut both Britannica and Wikipedia, which would make them equal (a win for Wikipedia), but I think that it means that we just have to say which “external fulcrum” we find more trustworthy. I would say Britannica’s, but then, I haven’t used it in a lot of years and I use Wikipedia every day.

On the positive side, crowdsourced knowledge is a lot more flexible, and can be changed all the time as events change. Not having a really rigorous editing process makes this even faster.

This blog is getting long, but the last thing I’ll say is that while Wikipedia is a nonprofit, crowdsourced knowledge does not begin and end there; as Van Dijck & Nieborg point out, the idea of having the audience create content is not automatically a social good. Information and opinion can be manipulated very easily for commercial reasons: “Technological systems, such as labour relations and consumer positions, are implied increasingly rather than manifest.” These services are mostly provided to make someone money, and crowdsourcing is often a way for them to save money by not even having to make that content themselves, or be accountable when it is wrong. We will know things have gone very badly when WikiBritannica goes live.

Privacy Settings/Setbacks

First I just want to thank the readers who posted on my blog. I was a little late getting everything organized and it was very good of them to reply so that I could do this next part of the assignment! Thanks.

The main thing that I noticed in the comments was the concern that people have about the issues of privacy online. As I mentioned in my earlier blog post, the way people think about privacy has changed; fifteen years ago, very few people would have felt comfortable putting any of their personal information online. Eventually people became comfortable doing things like shopping online with their credit cards, Now it is common to have a Facebook account with semi-public information including address and phone numbers, pictures, lists of friends, maps and even events that could tell interested observers where you will be at a given time.

My theory about this is that once people have something that makes their lives more convenient in some way, they find it very difficult to step back from having that thing. Facebook is looked at by many younger people, some of them who have almost grown up with social media, as a social necessity. It is possible to have a social life without it, but it is inconvenient to do so, not only for the person who decides not to use Facebook but also for all of that person’s friends who have to accommodate that person. Many people cave and just use it against their better judgement, and once they are on their Facebook has a way of pulling data out of them by requiring them to fill out certain profile parts, and through the involuntary tagging of them by their friends. This loss of choice about what one shares is part of the cost of using the service.

People rely on Facebook’s self-imposed privacy tools as a way of making sure their private lives do not get out online, but few users make really advanced use of these tools; most are content to just have their content only seen by friends, but considering many people have hundreds or thousands of friends, the meaning of something being private or between friends can change when it goes out in front of many people, some of which are only acquaintances or “internet friends.” Besides this, Facebook’s main business is selling customer data to advertisers, which puts the idea of trusting their sticking to their privacy promises in a less believable light. Generally though, people feel like they need Facebook, and so they are content to not look too closely about how private their privacy actually is!

Anonymous vs. Public Internet

Public and private lives are merging online.

Public and private lives are merging online.

This week for class I was asked to look at a few academic articles about how privacy online (or at least, assuming that you have privacy online) affects the way people act. I think right now we are at a place where the internet is still making a transition between being almost completely anonymous and having all of your actions linked to your public identity. The original internet was not as “social” as the internet is now; a lot of websites were not open to input from their readers except indirectly through emails to the webmasters or in very limit ways like guestbooks. This changed when things like forums and chatrooms got popular. In these places, talking about your real identity was totally optional; most people did not share their real name but instead communicated through anonymous usernames. Some of them even took this anonymity as a chance to act out different personas than the one they were stuck with in real life. In Sherry Turkle’s article “Cyberspace and Identity” from 1999 (JSTOR link, if you have access), she talks about this stage of the internet; the article is full of dated technology references, but it is useful as a time capsule. At this time, Turkle and a lot of other people assumed the internet would stay anonymous, and this directed the way she thought about the effects it would have on people psychologically.

Check out this long quote to see what I mean:
“These more positive identity effects follow from the fact that for some, cyberspace provides what Erik Erikson ([1950]1963) would have called a “psychosocial moratorium,” a central element in how he thought about identity development in adolescence. Although the term moratorium implies a “time out,” what Erikson had in mind was not withdrawal. On the contrary, the adolescent moratorium is a time of intense interaction with people and ideas. […] Erikson’s notion of the moratorium was not a “hold” on significant experiences but on their consequences. It is a time during which one’s actions are, in a certain sense, not counted as they will be later in life. They are not given as much weight, not given the force of full judgment. In this context, experimentation can become the norm rather than a brave departure. Relatively consequence-free experimentation facilitates the development of a “core self,” a personal sense of what gives life meaning that Erikson called ‘identity.'”

Turkle saw this kind of freedom from being judged as being potentially a good thing; people were more free to act out feelings and personas they repressed in real life, and this would give them experiences that would lead to better overall psychological health. This anonymous internet still exists, in communities like reddit and 4chan, on twitter, and in comment sections on popular websites. It is worth saying though that a lot of these places are sources of some of the worst the internet has. Freedom from judgment also means freedom from responsibility for what one says or does, and this is not always a good thing. People say horrible things from behind their usernames, spread hatred and in some bad cases even engage in criminal activities; there is an argument about whether they would do these things anyway, or whether they happen because they are given license by being anonymous.

In any case, for better or for worse the anonymous internet is getting smaller all the time. In Boyd & Ellison’s article “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship” (again, link if you have access), they give a really pretty good history of social networks from the early internet days to the expansion to public of Facebook in 2006. The most interesting part of the article to me was this section about the early social network Friendster, which could have been the first social media giant but made some bad decisions and lost out. Their failing taught the others a lot of lessons, but one thing they had in common with Facebook was their dislike of anonymity:

“The initial design of Friendster restricted users from viewing profiles of people who were more than four degrees away (friends-of-friends-of-friends-of-friends). In order to view additional profiles, users began adding acquaintances and interesting-looking strangers to expand their reach. Some began massively collecting Friends, an activity that was implicitly encouraged through a ‘‘most popular’’ feature. The ultimate collectors were fake profiles representing iconic fictional characters: celebrities, concepts, and other such entities. These ‘‘Fakesters’’ outraged the company, who banished fake profiles and eliminated the ‘‘most popular’’ feature. While few people actually created Fakesters, many more enjoyed surfing Fakesters for entertainment or using functional Fakesters (e.g., ‘‘Brown University’’) to find people they knew. The active deletion of Fakesters (and genuine users who chose non-realistic photos) signaled to some that the company did not share users’ interests. Many early adopters left because of the combination of technical difficulties, social collisions, and a rupture of trust between users and the site.”

Friendster was one of the first sites that wanted its users to put their real life onto the internet. The reasons for this are obvious; their business was supposed to be helping people meet each other in real life by getting them started in a safe place on the internet. This was compromised by people posing as Mr. T (or Mr. Tea), so they tried to re-take control over an online community that was growing outside of that design; what they didn’t realize was that there were a lot of people who were used to socializing on the internet through forums and chatting who did not have interest in the “real life”/physical meeting of others. Facebook, unlike Friendster, does not care whether its users ever meet in real life, but it also wants its users to be associated with their real names because its business is based on selling information about these users to advertisers. Advertisers are a lot more interested in buying when they know that it is “real” people on the site, and not anonymous masses. When it’s your name on your profile, if you don’t write true things you will be called out by people you really know, unlike in anonymous environments when you can basically say or be whoever you want. This ensures that the data Facebook is selling is accurate. When Facebook started cracking down on fake accounts and forcing people to use their full names on the site, they waited until their site was established as a social necessity for a lot of people. They also had the advantage of having a userbase that was much more used to having its personal information published online than in 2002 when Friendster was going to war against its own users.

This “public internet” is spreading; Google still allows usernames, but it is linking emails to search histories to video views on Youtube and eventually even to map data. If they ever make the switch to insisting on real names, a big part of the internet anonymity will be gone. It also means that the psychological changes Turkle expected from the juggling of multiple identities online will not come to pass; instead, the one merged internet/real life personality means that real life has become more like social media in some ways. In her follow-up article, Turkle still sees the internet as a place where people can test out and control their identity, but people do not come back into their real life fully:

“Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little — just right.”

People, says Turkle, now prefer that more controlled world, almost as a replacement for the messiness of real life, and this is even more true now that the anonymous internet, which is at least as messy as real life, is shrinking. This is what happens when people can be held to account for their public internet life.

Check back later for some thoughts on how this might apply to music!