[This is an excerpt from a longer essay, forthcoming in the Westminster Papers on Communication and Culture special issue on the Internet and the material turn.]
For millions of people around the world, social media systems now represent a central, material-semiotic mode of relation. Choosing to befriend someone and not someone else, to mark one’s location in the world, to linger over one product instead of another, or to select some search result over those above or below it, are all moments that help to differentiate a daily collective significance through these platforms. At the level of algorithmic technique, their vision of the social is primarily achieved through the capture of, and interactive feedback upon choice and decision—itself a defining feature of computation. How might new materialist thinking understand, or intervene into this mode of relation? Excerpted below, I wonder whether the current technical schemas for social media, which understand choice as an epistemic relation, might be fruitfully reconceived in terms of a prior ontological relation. Borrowing conceptual vocabulary from new materialism, and especially the philosopher Gilbert Simondon, how might we understand information today as a differential effect of the distributed potential for becoming?
Set back into the texture of everyday life, we tend think of computers in very pragmatic terms, as means to a communicative end. But at the level of software design, currents in philosophy and social theory have long shaped their form and function. When it comes to social media, profound insights from phenomenology and phenomenological sociology have steered their conceptualization in a variety of ways, for example (Dourish, 2001; Suchman 2007). Acknowledging this paradigm as the default way to think about social computing today, in what follows I adopt a more new materialist approach, to see how it may offer a different philosophical vocabulary for describing these tools, and defining the social role of users. Consistent with its commitments to distributed agency, the materiality of perception, and most importantly, a bracketing of methodological anthropocentrism, new materialism can especially help us to understand the protocols and algorithms of social media in the altered terms of a non-, or a-humanistic, material-semiotic relationality.
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-Contributed by Neal Thomas, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill-
It’s easy to forget the larger, community benefits of an Open Internet that doesn’t discriminate based on the content flowing through the fiber (or however it gets to you). But let’s get specific. How does this open network nurture and support underserved and marginalized LGBT communities and why does something like Net Neutrality matter to our future?
Earlier this year, The LGBT Technology Partnership released research that I co-authored with media scholar and sociologist Jessie Daniels. In it, we lay out the reasons that LGBT-identifying individuals and our communities became early adopters of broadband technology and why the Internet continues to play such a pivotal part in our political and social lives. Maintaining Net Neutrality – keeping all information equally accessible on the Internet – is something that all LGBT-identifying people and our allies should care about and fight to maintain.
I have researched the Internet’s role in LGBT life for more than a decade. I study how and why LGBT-identifying young people and youth questioning their identities use the Internet and other media. There are 2 main reasons that marginalized communities, including LGBT people, use the Internet more than the typical U.S. citizen: 1) we are able to go online and connect to people we identify with, without having to battle the stigma and potential physical threat that comes with accessing LGBT-supportive physical spaces and 2) we are able to access services and information specifically for us – from dating sites to health information – tailored to our needs…not just a clumsy version of what’s made available to our heterosexual peers.
Let me give 2 concrete examples from my fieldwork among LGBT youth in rural towns throughout Southeast Appalachia. When Brandon, a young person living in Eastern Kentucky, wanted to find other young African-American, bi-identifying people to talk with about the pros and cons of coming out before turning 18, he literally knew no one and found no organizations in his town of 5,000 where he could meet other out, bi-identifying youth. He went online and found chat rooms for his region. All of them were dominated by adults. He had to spend a significant amount of time, searching through various websites and YouTube videos to access other kids his age to talk with. In a perfect world, he wouldn’t need to work so hard to find someone just like himself online and he’d have neighbors and friends in his high school to turn to for support. But there’s no critical mass of LGBT-identifying people in his home town (yet! We can hope that changes for him). That makes the Internet an important communication channel connecting him to a broader community of LGBT-identifying folks. But the Internet is not just for accessing other LGBT-identifying people online.
As I said, the Internet has become a vital resource for accessing information specifically tailored to us. So, for example, many of the towns I worked in had no LGBT-specific public health services or HIV prevention information available for LGBT-identifying youth. That meant braving the school nurse or walking into a local health clinic and talking with someone who they could not assume to be an advocate for LGBT rights. Adults in big cities like DC might struggle with doing that. Imagine being a 14 year old in a very small town doing that. Youth I work with depend on web-based resources, like Trevor Project, Advocates for Youth, YouTube, and other non-profits that list resources for LGBT-specific health information. The Internet is a vital communication and information channel. The presumption that heterosexuality is the default setting makes the Internet a precious resource for LGBT-identifying people. LGBT and questioning youth in particular need places for them and information written for them readily available. It’s not a perk. The Internet has become a basic need and a public good.
From my perspective, the Net Neutrality debate is important to LGBT communities because, simply put, LGBT-identifying people will be collateral damage if Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are allowed to discriminate among content, apps, or services. without Net Neutrality protections, content providers generating critical information would likely have to pay more to get their content into (and from!) the hands of LGBT people. That means ISPs become the defacto gatekeepers controlling what content survives and what content falls by the wayside in the wake of a market-driven content tsunami. This, in turn, will raise the cost of providing LGBT content, reducing the overall amount of LGBT content available. This will be a significant barrier to the non-profit sources of content that have proven critical to LGBT communities, including information provided by the U.S. Government.
Net Neutrality is a simple principle: don’t make it harder to access or download something on the Internet based on the content of that information or service. Individuals, not our Internet Service Providers, should determine the information that they can access online. ISPs should not be legally allowed to block content or limit a private citizen’s opportunity to see what information is available online for them to purchase or made available to them for free.
Like broadcast TV, phones, and libraries, the Internet plays a special and critical role in connecting and educating citizens. I wish that every public school, community center, and local radio and public access TV station offered a wealth of LGBT-specific resources. They do not. The Internet, currently, picks up this important duty for the public.
Right now, like all citizens, LGBT people and our allies have the basic right to access any information available on the Internet. LGBT-specific information on the Internet – from other young people’s websites to the It Gets Better campaign on YouTube – can be vital to LGBT lives, particularly young people looking for affirmation and reflections of themselves. LGBT-specific information is typically hosted or created by non-profits and private individuals who care about LGBT people’s needs. In the same way that it should not be harder at the public library to see the stack of books most relevant to LGBT communities, it shouldn’t be harder or cost more to access information specific to LGBT communities.
The providers of Internet access are not just delivering binge TV through Netflix. They are serving up those webpages that LGBT-identifying and questioning young people rely on to survive and thrive. As much as I love the entire catalogue of Queer as Folk, it is not the same content – and cannot do the same vital community-building work – as coming out videos accessible on YouTube or HIV prevention information, local resource lists, and opportunities to access other LGBT-identifying people available through non-profit websites. If ISPs are allowed to sort content differently, those random, youth-created and driven websites that offer crucial, eclectic information to small, niche audiences, are, potentially, at risk of being lost to us. I don’t think we, as LGBT people and allies, can afford that loss.
On Monday November 10, 2014, President Obama made a statement outlining four “bright-line rules” for maintaining Net Neutrality, including no blocking, no throttling, increased transparency and no paid prioritization. I wish that we could achieve keeping content equally accessible without regulation. I sincerely do. But, right now, all we have are promises from the Internet service provider’s major companies that they will not block content, throttle download/upload rates, decrease transparency behind their billing or let content owners pay ISPs to “cut to the front of the line” of the information buffet that is the Internet.
There are several cases, dating back to the beginning of the content-rich web of the mid-2000s, that suggest Internet service providers will block or slow down content delivery and price some content differently to keep competition at bay. There are 3 options: 1) make it illegal for Internet service providers to discriminate among content, apps, or services online or 2) fund municipal broadband for every community in the United States so that all citizens have access to the Internet’s content or 3) do both 1 and 2 and let the market and innovations, like playing with unlicensed spectrum, handle the rest. The Internet operates as a public good. We need it to register for many government services at this point. We can’t go back and say, “Internet content and services are just extras that society can do without.” We’ve got to have clear guidance and enforceable rules to maintain the deep investments we’ve already made in making the Internet one of the world’s greatest information repositories and sites for community connection, particularly among communities, like those of LGBT folks, with limited resources and social opposition offline.
Having worked in the rural U.S. for some time, my sense is that the best solution for ensuring an open Internet is by recognizing what ISPs have become: stewards of a critical public resource. We use our Internet connections to talk to people, pay our parking tickets, and make appointments to get our drivers licenses. LGBT communities use Internet connections to reach people like them and share strategies on how to move through a world that still can’t decide if we have the right to marry the people we love. Those are services and information resources necessary for a robust and healthy civic and civil society. It’s too late to treat the Internet like an expendable, frivolity. LGBT communities are particularly dependent on the Internet to find and connect with the people and information that we need to live healthy and productive lives. What can you do about all of this? Get the facts, advocate for a free and open Internet to your local representatives, and support your local LGBT activists creating content that reflects the richness and diversity of our lives and communities.
-Contributed by Mary Gray, Microsoft Research New England / Associate Professor of Communication and Culture with affiliations in American Studies, Anthropology, and the Gender Studies Department at Indiana University-
by Zachary McDowell and Mike SohaThis is an abridged draft of a paper we are developing for publication. We invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please honor that it’s being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission.
At its peak, the Harlem Shake meme was immensely successful at both generativity (generated nearly 4,000 YouTube videos uploads per day), and popularity (it only took about 40 days to reach 1 billion views on Youtube, half the time that it took “Gangnam Style”). It is safe to say that the “Harlem Shake” rapidly surpassed the status of a “simple” internet meme and found its way as pop culture phenomenon, inspiring countless hours of creative endeavors participating in an “internet dance craze.” During this “internet dance craze,” the rights owners of the song that formed the musical accompaniment of the meme quickly realized the profit potential of the phenomenon, profiting handsomely from this opportunity through the architecture of control provided by YouTube.
“Harlem Shake” offers a case study to explore the contentious relationship around ownership, authorship, labor and sharecropping in the contemporary digital age through an examination of how the viral meme emerged and spread, its monetization, and the subsequent rise to stardom of the song’s composer.
On May 22, 2012, Baauer (the musical alias of Harry Rodrigues, a 23 year old American DJ and producer) released a track titled Harlem Shake. Released as a free download by the label “Mad Decent,” the song was well received within it is genre; Pitchfork awarded it “Best New Track”, describing it as having “an irresistible appeal” and “a purely visceral pleasure”, and the New York Times referred to Baauer as a “rising talent.” Although somewhat popular in the EDM world, the viral spread of Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake” emerged not from inclusion in DJ set lists or radio play, but from a YouTube video posted eight months later.
On January 30th, 2013, “Filthy Frank”, the YouTube persona of a 19 year old Communication major in New York, uploaded a new video titled “FILTHY COMPILATION #6 – SMELL MY FINGERS.” The video began with a 19 second clip of Filthy Frank and three friends, all dressed in skin tight spandex body suits, dancing to Baauer’s Harlem Shake.
A few days later, a group of Australian high school students (known on YouTube as TheSunnyCoastSkate) uploaded “The Harlem Shake v1 (TSCS original)”. Building off of Filthy Frank’s 30 second crazy dance, TheSunnyCoastSkate’s version featured a lone person wearing a motorcycle helmet dancing much like Filthy Frank along to the 30 second clip of Baauer’s Harlem Shake. When Baauer’s track drops the line “do the Harlem Shake,” the video jump-cuts into a crazed dance party of extreme silliness (and much pelvic thrusting). TheSunnyCoastSkate’s use of the jump cut further set the template for the coming dance phenomenon.
Perhaps sensing something important was happening, merely two hours after TheSunnyCoastSkate uploaded their video, Filthy Frank uploaded “DO THE HARLEM SHAKE (ORIGINAL)”, featuring the short original dancing scene. This was followed by “The Harlem Shake v2”, based on the video from TheSunnyCoastSkate and uploaded on the same day by YouTube user PHLOn NAN, which was picked up and posted by the influential web-culture site BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed’s posting of “The Harlem Shake v2” helped to garner it 300,000 views in 24 hours. Nearly at the same time, a post of “The Harlem Shake v3 (office edition),” by Maker Studios, was upvoted to the frontpage of Reddit, generating additional momentum. By February 7th, the generative power of the Harlem Shake meme had spawned remakes from all over the world (Norwegian army, playgrounds, offices, and many dormitories).
The meme reached a fever pitch by February 12th, and within a week began to peter out, with many pronouncing the meme “dead” after mainstream TV programs and corporate advertisers had begun co-opting the meme. To date, Filthy Frank’s “DO THE HARLEM SHAKE (ORIGINAL)” has received more than 52 million views on YouTube, TheSunnyCoastSkate “The Harlem Shake v1 (TSCS original)” more than 26 million, and PHLOn NAN’s “The Harlem Shake v2” more than 12 million.[i] The video creators all credited each other for inspiration, acknowledging the importance of each of the pieces within the generation of the Harlem Shake meme.
Weeks after the meme climaxed in popularity and noting the strange series of events that he inadvertently set in motion, Filthy Frank tweeted at Baauer:
Baauer didn’t respond.
While the speed with which the Harlem Shake meme was born, spread, and died was remarkable, dance crazes are nothing new. The Tango, The Twist, The Mashed Potato, The Hustle, and The Macarena are just a few of the dance crazes that swept through the dance halls, living rooms, and discotheques of the US, and around the world throughout the 20th century. These were memes in the pre-Internet, Richard Dawkins sense of the term; pieces of culture that successfully spread, replicated, and transformed into popular phenomena.[ii]
For example, The Hustle’s origins go back to a Puerto Rican dance style that emerged in the South Bronx in the early 1970s. In this case, a grassroots culture provided the raw cultural material for a dance style, or “dance meme”; as musicians caught on and expanded its reach, The Hustle crested as a national dance craze and was cemented into national culture through a blockbuster movie.
The original Harlem Shake, the 1990s dance style from which the Harlem Shake meme inadvertently takes its name, emerged collectively from the unique hip-hop culture of Harlem, and was utilized and transformed by hip-hop artists who brought the dance into the mainstream. Other dances similar to the Harlem Shake emerged in that time period, such the “Chicken Noodle Soup,” which combined the dance styles of Harlem Shake and the Toe Wop.[iii]
Nobody “owned” the Harlem Shake, The Hustle, or the Chicken Noodle Soup dance styles. They didn’t have any authors. Both emerged collectively, emanating out through the smaller communities and into mainstream community. This process mirrors much of hip-hop music in general, which has historically relied heavily on sampling, remixing, sharing, and collaboration between artists and borrowing from other genres. Understanding the collaborative and networked spread of dance crazes helps us understand the similar, but much faster and more global spread of dance memes in the digital era, and the tension between social and economic capital in creative spaces.
Baauer and Mad Decent have profited handsomely from the Harlem Shake track. Not only did the meme bring incredible exposure to the song Harlem Shake, eliciting hundreds of millions of streams through YouTube and audio streaming sites, but the attention also prompted sales of over a million digital downloads from iTunes. Additionally, the timing was perfect for Baauer, as Billboard had just re-vamped their metrics for the Billboard Hot 100 chart to include YouTube hits. Due to the explosive popularity of the meme, Baauer’s Harlem Shake rocketed to the #1 position in the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and stayed there for five weeks. The value of being able to derive both global fame and revenue from the Harlem Shake meme was so great that Diplo, head of Mad Decent noted that the phenomena “saved the label” which he claimed was headed for financial ruin.
“Through a service called Content ID, YouTube automatically trawls its servers looking for copies of copyrighted materials that owners have asked to be protected. Users of the service can then have these copies removed from YouTube, do nothing, or have ads sold against the videos if they qualify for monetization.”
Content ID gives rights holders the choice between trying to profitably harness the creative (and free) energies of users on YouTube, or blocking any use of their material. The Content ID system splits the ad revenue profit between YouTube and the rights holder, each receiving somewhere between 40-50% (some cases may enable a small portion, around 4 or 5% to go to the video creator/uploader).
It is unclear exactly how much money Mad Decent & Baauer generated from Harlem Shake videos on YouTube. However, it can be reasonably estimated from the roughly 250 videos of one million viewers or more that Mad Decent could claim through YouTube’s Content ID, that Mad Decent’s ability to harness the meme through their copyright privileges netted them, in direct revenue from YouTube alone, at least a few million USD.[iv]
From the perspective of Mad Decent and YouTube/Google, the Harlem Shake meme was a potent and harness-able force. Content ID allowed Mad Decent to harness millions of hours of creative free labor, and profit handsomely. The millions of hours of creative labor that went into producing the tens of thousands of Harlem Shake meme videos were a creative undertaking the scale of which not even the largest record companies could muster. While no one person created the Harlem Shake meme, the ability of Mad Decent to control and profit from the phenomena through Content ID gave them a kind of de facto ownership of the collectively produced meme, as they remain the majority profiteer.
Baauer’s EDM song, the Harlem Shake itself depends heavily on sampled music. Two of the most crucial samples which form the base of the song (and the dance meme) “do the Harlem Shake” and “con los terroristas,” are samples from two different songs, used without attribution or permission. While answering questions in a Reddit AMA, Baauer was asked where he got the “con los terroristas” sample. He responded as if he didn’t know, remarking:
Despite Baueer’s ignorance (feigned or not), Redditors quickly figured out the origination of the sample, posting to his AMA thread:
It is curious whether Baauer really had no idea where the sample came from, or if he was intentionally feigning ignorance as he knew that now that his song had gone viral along with the meme, there would be scrutiny of its copyright infringements. As Redditors pointed out, the “con los terroristas” sample comes from a 2006 song “Maldades” by Puerto Rican reggaeton artist Héctor “El Father” Delgado. In a radio interview, Delgado noted that he only learned about this Harlem Shake meme when a friend phoned him to tell him, and that he was planning on suing Baauer for the unlicensed use of his track. The other key sample comes from the 2001 song “Miller Time” by Plastic Little, a relatively unknown rap group. The clip “do the Harlem Shake”, from which Baauer titled his own song and forms the key moment for the meme when the beat drops, has its own rather strange story. Plastic Little’s Jayson Musson, who wrote the lyric, explained in an email to The Fader that the line is based on bloody fist fight he had with a graffiti artist, to whom he danced the Harlem Shake after beating. The lyric is “And if you bring a 40 bottle to battle me/ I’ll just punch you in the face/ then do the Harlem Shake.” Due to the unlicensed sampling, Baauer’s label Mad Decent, a small independent label, had to cut deals with both Delgado and Musson.
The issue of authorship and sampling has long been a contentious one in the music industry. As an artist only well known within his genre, Baauer could easily get away with unlicensed sampling, as many artists have. The Harlem Shake meme rocketed Baauer not only into the mainstream, but pushed his song “Harlem Shake” to the #1 spot in the charts, as well the #1 selling track on iTunes. In light of the Harlem Shake meme causing such a ruckus over unlicensed sampling, Dorian Lynskey, writing for The Guardian, asks if “cut-and-paste Internet culture can continue to flourish on the Internet”. Dorian notes that historically over the past few decades, legal battles have increased over unlicensed sampling, pressuring mainstream artists to avoid sampling unless they can afford the licensing rights up front. Sampling in music reached a breaking point in 1991, when hip-hop artist Biz Markie lost a lawsuit and rights over his song Alone Again due to “heavy sampling.” In the end, only artists on major (wealthy) labels could afford the sampling rights for their songs, while small or independent artists would have to go without sampling, stunting one of the most prevalent elements of early hip-hop.
Given the struggle to have a more free and open culture through more permissible copyright policies, the Harlem Shake experience can generally be seen as a mostly positive example. YouTube’s Content ID system seems to be a big improvement over the status quo, as it can be positive for both artists and users, professionals and amateurs alike. In this case, an artist was able to decide to freely allow users to remake, remix, and share the meme which utilizes his song. Users took take part in a fun and exciting activity, and Baauer received massive recognition and financial revenue while tens of millions of people enjoyed watching and participating in a global meme.
However, the basic premise of ownership, even with the more flexible potential of systems like YouTube’s Content ID, still poses larger issues for digital culture. The fundamental problem of copyright does not ‘fit’ the way culture is created. The whole idea that Baauer has, or should have, the exclusive right to be a kind of copyright decider on YouTube is, at least, problematic. Although YouTube considers Baauer the “author,” not only is his song a remix of prior samples, genre, and culture, but the force behind the virality of the phenomena lies with the likes of Filthy Frank, TheSunnyCoastSkate, Redditors, and everyone else who contributed to the collective formation of the meme, not to mention the thousands who reproduced and shared the meme, making it a global phenomenon. A meme, due in part to its seemingly accidental, authorless collective creation, cannot be owned or “authored” like a song. Just like the Harlem Shake dance, the Harlem Shake meme is a collectively produced cultural phenomena. This is not to say that this kind of authorship grey area is new, but what is new is that we can see the process happen more clearly, in real time. In short, the memetic nature of digital culture highlights the process of production, rather than a finished, authored product, as well brings to light the labor of the accumulated hundreds of thousands of hours that went into the production and reproduction of the Harlem Shake meme.
In many ways, this is a kind of “so what” question – who cares that Baauer will make from YouTube’s Content ID? Before Content ID, copyrighted material in YouTube videos was met with takedown notices, which makes this seem like a major step forward for cultural participation on YouTube. However, while systems like YouTube’s Content ID seem to comprise some form of a solution (or at least a compromise) it doesn’t address the root problem of digital cultural production: amateur and noncommercial remixes, mashups, fan videos, etc are still acts of copyright infringement, still a form of “theft”.
As the Internet and digital culture transforms further into the “walled garden” model of social applications and platforms, harnessing of vast pools of free labor for profit increases without bound. What Nicholas Carr refers to as digital sharecropping gets more complicated with Content ID, as the amateur producers are not simply sharing their baby photos or status updates, but creating semi-professional music videos as participatory culture. The eagerness with which corporations are now co-opting memes for marketing purposes seems to suggest that amateur and noncommercial culture seem to be increasingly tied to or hybridized with corporate marketing strategies, further commercializing every aspect of internet culture.
The concept of digital sharecropping is a slippery one. Alexander Galloway, in The Interface Effect argues that “[i]t is impossible to differentiate cleanly between nonproductive leisure activity existing within the sphere of play and productive activity existing in the sphere of the workplace,”[v] and, in this arena of monetizing activities of indecisive spheres, the distinctions between commercial and noncommercial, professional and amateur that characterize cultural production on the web remain as blurry as ever. Nicholas Carr wrote about the idea of digital sharecropping in 2006, in a debate over the Web 2.0 era:
“By putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, Web 2.0 provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very, very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very, very few.”
Clay Shirky further clarifies Carr’s concept, arguing that although the critique of digital sharecropping is not entirely appropriate for many of the Web 2.0 platforms (as those who create the value for Yelp, Amazon, Facebook, etc., are spending their leisure time to create and share material based on their interests) it can apply when a platform allows for the exploitation of noncommercial and amateur work, which YouTube, especially in this case, seems to be profiting handsomely from. YouTube’s own FAQ on Content ID makes it clear: “In most cases, you can’t monetize a video that has a Content ID claim. Instead, the copyright owners can choose to monetize your video.” Although these might be labors of love, people not directly involved with their creation are harnessing these vast troves of labor, therefore engaging in a new form of digital sharecropping by copyright holders that fully profit from the labor of others.
With high quality video cameras on most smartphones, and digital production tools available previously only to professionals now available for free on most personal computers, what was previously seen as a labor of love can now easily cross over into noncommercial amateur production, blurring distinctions yet again between work, play, amateur and commercial. YouTube’s Content ID’s refusal to allow producers to monetize thousands of videos (and millions of hours of work), instead granting rights to monetize (or ban) soley to a copyright claimaint seems, at very least, problematic.
Not to say that the copyright holders don’t have a stake in the monetization, but as we have illustrated, the meme itself is more than a small track that was composed by DJ from things “found on the innerweb,” and those amateur laborers deserve recognition. Of course, this is not a new story by any stretch of the imagination. As Andrew Ross notes, “each rollout of online tools has offered ever more ingenious ways of extracting cheaper, discount work from users and participants,”[vi] and Content ID, while at first glance seems a step in the right direction, only assists in extracting additional profit from free labor.
In Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in The Hybrid Economy, Law Professor Lawrence Lessig notes of YouTube that “No site—ever—has more quickly become central to popular culture.”[vii] From the very beginning, YouTube provided a platform for people to post and share dance videos, styles, techniques. Today the dance crazes of the world spread virally through the social media networks of the Internet, rather than late night dance halls. Among other things, YouTube can act as a worldwide dance club. In the digital age have progressively gravitated towards participating in both the celebration and transformation of cultural phenomena online, and, as always, people want to dance. Transforming the open platforms of the Internet into more closed systems of profit extraction threatens one of the basic bargains of culture: people celebrating and enjoying culture without having their “labors of love” directly dictated and exploited for profit for copyright holders. Especially not those who only indirectly or even accidentally contribute to a cultural phenomena like a dance meme. YouTube’s Content ID system, or more important, the idea behind the system, sets up a rationale for increasingly aggressive for-profit harnessing of noncommercial and amateur cultural creation, creating platforms of digital sharecropping that change the basic bargain of social/noncommercial use of culture. What we have in this case is the establishment of a troubling new normal for the amateurs of YouTube: your content will be sharecropped or blocked.
YouTube’s Content ID gives front-end control to rights holders, leaving them in the position of dictators (benevolent, if we are lucky), blocking or harnessing the incredibly productive power of collective labor. While Content ID does not seem to immediately hinder “amateur” content production, the underlying problem of giving exclusive control to authors and rights holders over viral phenomena and memes that they didn’t create (and whose exposure they already benefit from), further leverages the genuine production of social capital into a system of commercial exploitation. Digital sharecropping and the leveraging of cultural memes for profit appears as an endless source of economic growth potential for this burgeoning industry. While the the individual instances of sharecropped labor may be negligible, the normalization of digital sharecropping as the new cultural bargain of the Web becomes widespread, those individually negligible instances amount to an incredible assemblage of unacknowledged labor which reinscribes the core environment of the Internet from one of open cultural production and vibrant social capital to one that may be ignoring both current and historical labor systems.
[i] There is a video timeline of the Harlem Shake meme, “The Evolution of the Harlem Shake Video” from Hardfest available at: http://www.hardfest.com/news/the-evolution-of-the-harlem-shake-video/
[ii] The Selfish Gene (1989) R. Dawkins
[iii] Notably, YouTube’s first Internet dance craze was “The Chicken Noodle Soup”, which became popular among teenage hip-hop fans. The dance craze spread thanks to hip-hop enthusiasts emulating the dance on YouTube (with millions of views), and linking to their videos on blogs and Internet forums. Soon the dance was performed by kids in the suburbs and was even performed by Justin Timberlake in drag on Saturday Night Live.
[iv] Adding up all of the views from the 250 Harlem Shake meme videos with over 1 million, we get over 1,382,000,000 total views (counted in November, 2013). It is difficult to estimate how much revenue was generated per video, as we don’t know the exact CPM (cost per 1,000 views) rate which advertisers were charged, given that CPM often varies given the country of origin and video (users in wealthier countries typically are priced at a higher CPM). Generally speaking many YouTube videos receive a CPM of around $2. At $2, these 250 Harlem Shake meme videos would generate roughly $2,764,000 total in ad revenue. Given that YouTube takes about 45% of revenue, this would leave around $1,520,200 for Mad Decent. According to MSN Money however, Harlem Shake videos received a CPM of $6, which would generate roughly $8,292,000, of which $4,560,600 would go to Mad Decent.
[v] Galloway, Alexander R. The Interface Effect. 1st ed. Malden, MA: Polity, 2013: 135
[vi] Ross, Andrew. “In Search of the Lost Paycheck.” In Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory., 13–32. London: Routledge, 2013.
[vii] Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Penguin Press HC, The, 2008: 195
-Contributed by Zachary McDowell, Wikipedia Teaching Fellow and Managing Editor of communication +1 (communicationplusone.org)-
A draft of this essay appeared in : www.organizationaldynamics.wordpress.com
Microsoft FUSE lab’s recent call for project proposals on the “peer/ sharing economy” emerging online prompted me to dig a little deeper into both the available literature on the peer economy and the online platforms that populate it. I found some parallels between platforms that organize peer exchange and the platforms that I have recently studied in more detail which organize microvolunteering and -lending (Postigo and Ilten, work in progress). Sure, the obvious similarity between Uber, TaskRabbit, and Kiva and Sparked is that they coordinate participation of growing numbers of users. But who are they – peers? Not so much. The most interesting parallel to me is that these platforms are similar organizations. Here is an attempt to articulate those thoughts more clearly – and maybe end up with a research question and theoretical agenda.
While there is a good amount of research on contributors and labor in peer production (Benkler and Nissenbaum 2006; Dijck 2009), as well as a literature on trust and reputation systems (see also the Journal of Peer Production), we are still lacking an understanding of managed peer economy platforms as new forms of socio-technical organizations. This perspective becomes crucial as newer peer economy platforms move further into the service sphere, where online coordination and offline services are mediated by platforms as brokers. Much of the discourse about peer-to-peer platforms still focuses on platforms that seem to meet the ideal of cyber-communism and practical anarchism – a perceived absence of management (Benkler 2013; Vadén and Suoranta 2009), and ignores the organized actors which increasingly provide the architectures for mass peer-to-peer systems. These brokers, often companies, govern inclusion and exclusion of participants to the platforms, for example through more and more elaborated identity provision systems. Airbnb, Uber, and TaskRabbit do not meet utopian visions of communal sharing; rather, CEOs and designers deliver a matching service to entrepreneurial individuals and derive a profit through monetizing those peer-to-peer services. A hybrid market niche for mediated – or rather: managed – peer-to-peer services seems to have emerged – a phenomenon that calls for an organizational analysis.
A few authors have mobilized social theory and organizational theory to make sense of the governing processes that occur in all structures of coordination. For communities of hackers, O’Neil uses Weber’s theories of authority to explain the hybrid forms of hierarchical organization that emerge therein (O’Neil 2014). He posits that index-charismatic authority is a new, reputation-based system that institutes authority in the context of networked architectures. Rather than “hacking Weber”, Kreiss et al. (2011) bring organizational theory of bureaucracy (the ideal type of rational, formal organization ) back into peer-to-peer platform analysis. Criticizing the “utopian orthodoxy” (the consensus in new media studies that views peer production as inevitably non-proprietary and socially leveling) Kreiss et al. suggests that “the rationalist spirit and bureaucratic power may yet infuse peer production” – in both welcome and alarming ways (2011:243). While bureaucratic structures can be highly constraining, they have also introduced mechanisms of accountability and explicit rule-making into peer economy systems, structures that may be desirable but whose fate is uncertain in peer economy systems. Kreiss et al. ask whether “peer networks serve less as alternatives to Weber’s iron cage of rationalization, than as implements of its diffusion.” (Kreiss et al. 2011:256)
How can we begin to answer that question? We need to untangle (but possibly re-tangle) the two concepts that make up the iron cage: 1) bureaucracies and their organizational structures (i.e. the iron of the “iron cages” and 2) the rationale and logics of organizational structure (i.e. the social construction of the “iron cage”). With this distinction, we can start asking about the location of power in these structures. So if peer economy platforms and micro-action platforms fail to meet ideal type criteria for formal bureaucracy in terms of accountability and impersonality, then why should we think about them as bureaucratic structures?
We may need to turn to the other most widely used metaphor for bureaucracy: that of a rational machine, an architecture that is designed to coordinate large amounts of processes smoothly. This technical dimension of bureaucracies goes to the heart of what a peer-to-peer economy does: divide up labor. At the same time, fuzzier mechanisms of sharing are at work (John 2013). For example, in order to participate, peers must provide identifying information (thus sharing themselves). The design mechanisms (or affordances) for identity production are elements of a socio-technical architecture not developed by users, but delivered by entrepreneurs, programmers, and designers. Counter-intuitive to the standard start up narrative, we are seeing a sharp organizational pyramid: A very small power center manages all communication by providing the interface (typically an app) as well as financial brokerage in the way of processing payments. Companies do not, however, own the real, material means of production that “peers” employ in the delivery of their services, such as Uber drivers’ cars. The brokers’ profit is based entirely on taking fees for connecting peers. This constitutes a management service: “Most of what managers do is arrange social relations among those who make and distribute products in order to maximize the ratio of output to input.” (Roy 1997:264) By retreating from production, online peer economy platform brokers focus on this core task of management: arranging social relations among those who exchange services – all the while steering clear from the vagaries of operations on the ground. This, of course, maximizes the input to output ratio dramatically – especially where responsibility for services is fully waived in the terms and conditions, and the brokerage fee amounts to as much as 20% of prices. The aesthetic of the interface can easily veil these relations – there is no need to invoke Marx to see that the terms of the contract are beyond most users’ grasp. Organization theory can help us map out the (not so) new hierarchical relations that managed architectures consist of.
Science and technology studies have a long history of showing how technological infrastructures are not neutral, but unfold social and material power – artifacts have politics (Winner 1995), and this is particularly critical for digital platforms, where materiality can evade our view (Gillespie 2010). While most research on the peer economy either ignores the material basis to peer exchange systems, or heralds web structures as inherently “peer” (decentralized), organizational theory on bureaucracy can help us critically engage the “plumbing” (Musiani 2012) that structures peer economies. Again, we must focus on individual platforms (organizations, architectures), and look out for the broader rationality that is embodied in these cases. They certainly have a new look and feel that is quite different from Weber’s state bureaucracies. But the structures governing participation and exchange, cast in algorithms, are no less rule-based and hierarchical on the technical dimension of the architectures. Importantly, the newer architectures of participation that I have called managed or mediated above come with some fairly centralized design/power structures. This is a departure from what we could almost call “traditional” (or, to stick with Weber: value-rational) online peer production in for example Free Software projects. This bazaar is brought to you by Peer Economy Design, Inc., the banner could read.
So what kinds of cages are these new architectures? Weber’s original term stahlhartes Gehäuse translates not so much into cage as into casing, or housing. Or, in the era of online structures, into platform. We are not so much stuck in that iron casing as we are voluntarily stepping onto new iron platforms that efficiently and appealingly organize processes we feel compelled to participate in. The rationalist spirit has a new vehicle, it seems – a great opportunity to bring organization theory, social theory and STS together (once more) to see the bigger picture that connects rationalities and social structures.
Benkler, Yochai. 2013. “Practical Anarchism Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State.” Politics & Society 41 (2): 213–51.
Benkler, Yochai, and Helen Nissenbaum. 2006. “Commons-Based Peer Production and Virtue.” Journal of Political Philosophy 14 (4): 394–419.
Dijck, José van. 2009. “Users like You? Theorizing Agency in User-Generated Content.” Media, Culture & Society 31 (1): 41–58.
Gillespie, Tarleton. 2010. “The Politics of ‘platforms.’” New Media & Society 12 (3): 347–64.
John, Nicholas A. 2013. “Sharing and Web 2.0: The Emergence of a Keyword.” New Media & Society 15 (2): 167–82.
Kreiss, Daniel, Megan Finn, and Fred Turner. 2011. “The Limits of Peer Production: Some Reminders from Max Weber for the Network Society.” New Media & Society 13 (2): 243–59.
Musiani, Francesca. 2012. “Caring About the Plumbing: On the Importance of Architectures in Social Studies of (Peer-to-Peer) Technology.” Journal of Peer Production 1 (online).
O’Neil, Mathieu. 2014. “Hacking Weber: Legitimacy, Critique, and Trust in Peer Production.” Information, Communication & Society 17 (7): 872–88.
Roy, William G. 1997. Socializing Capital the Rise of the Large Industrial Corporation in America /. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press,.
Vadén, Tere, and Juha Suoranta. 2009. “A Definition and Criticism of Cybercommunism.” Capital & Class 33 (1): 159–77.
Winner, Langdon. 1995. “Political Ergonomics.” In Discovering Design: Explorations in Design Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
-Contributed by Carla Ilten, -
If someone says “Dark Web,” the first thing to come to mind might be drugs. Or guns. Or hitmen for hire. Or worse, child pornography. Indeed, we are in yet another Internet moral panic, this time about mysterious Web sites that cannot be accessed with a standard browser, sites that have bizarre URLs such as http://7vrl523532rjjznj.onion/ and http://anoncoin.i2p. Many news outlets, especially in the UK, have lurid stories of depraved activities that exist just beyond your browser’s reach, accessible only to those so paranoid as to have Tor or the i2p router installed on their computers. This anonymous, encrypted realm of the Internet brings out the worst in users, at least according to the news.
So it might be odd to see that social networking has come to the Dark Web. As I explore in a paper that will appear in New Media and Society (you can get a pre-edited version here), it’s oversimplifying things to say the Dark Web is solely comprised of taboo activities. Indeed, social networking – that is, friending, liking, micro-blogging, and persona-building – is thriving on the Dark Web in the form of the Dark Web Social Network (DWSN), a .onion hidden service that is only accessible to Tor-equipped browsers. My paper is an early exploration of that site, drawing on interviews with site admins and members and participant observation.
What happens on the DWSN is what I would call, following the work of Foucauldian scholar Colin Koopman, an experiment in power/freedom. I see this experiment as tied into two main historical and cultural contexts.
First of all, the DWSN has emerged in the midst of a dominant media ideology that holds that the Dark Web is a space solely dedicated to all the taboo and illegal activities I described above: namely, drug and gun sales, hiring someone to kill an enemy, or child porn. The news reports that describe the Dark Web implicitly (and even sometimes explicitly) call for police to “clean up” these practices. However, many of the same news and magazine stories on the Dark Web also note that .onion sites are useful for activists and journalists who operate under state surveillance. Thus, the Dark Web Social Network arises in a media ideology that presents the Dark Web as caught in a reciprocal and incompatible power/freedom assemblage. This is a complex mix of power and freedom – i.e., a mix of the call for a specific form of police power to bring light to the Dark Web and the repeated valorization of a liberal freedom of speech.
Secondly, the DWSN is a social networking site; it deploys the elements of that genre of online interaction. This means that there are affordances: if you use the DWSN, you can build a profile, post an avatar, friend people, like posts, write blog posts, and share media. However, there are also constraints: it is centralized, with admins holding onto the codebase and data, structuring the site to privilege certain actions over others. All of this is complicated by the fact that the form of social networking that one is expected in engage in on the DWSN is anonymous social networking, a far cry from the obsession with real-world identity we see on a site like Facebook.
This second historical thread – the genre of social networking – interacts with the first in that mixing anonymity and social media infrastructure results in a new formulation of power/freedom that is specific to the DWSN and opposes it to both the moral panic about the Dark Web and the ubiquitous surveillance found in sites like Facebook. Admins in the site enjoy anonymous and centralized power over site activities – mirroring the centralized power of Facebook. However, they use this power to shape the culture of the site to prevent the taboo Dark Web activities reported in the news. Moreover, they encourage site users to take advantage of anonymity to discuss and debate illegal and taboo topics.
The paper thus complicates a lot of the common ideas about the Dark Web by focusing on this highly complex social networking site, seeing how it relates to the historical conditions it finds itself in and how it negotiates the tensions of social networking on the Dark Web. As always, I’d love to hear your feedback.
-Contributed by Robert Gehl, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication and Affiliated Faculty, University Writing Program | University of Utah-← Older posts |