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Last week’s Digitising Early Childhood conference here in Perth was a fantastic event which brought together so many engaging and provocative scholars in a supportive and policy/action-orientated environment (which I suppose I should call ‘engagement and impact’-orientated in Australia right now). For a pretty well document overview of the conference itself, you can see the quite substantial tweets collected via the #digikids17 hashtag on Twitter, which I’d really encourage you to look over. My head is still buzzing, so instead to trying to synthesise everyone else’s amazing work, I’m just going to quickly point to the material that arose my three different talks in case anyone wishes to delve further.
First up, here are the slides for my keynote ‘Turning Babies into Big Data—And How to Stop It’:
If you’d like to hear the talk that goes with the slides, there’s an audio recording you can download here. (I think these were filmed, so if a link becomes available at some point, I’ll update and post it here.) There was a great response to my talk, which was humbling and gratifying at the same time. There was also quite a lot of press interest, too, so here’s the best pieces that are available online (and may prove a more accessible overview of some of the issues I explored):
- Rebecca Turner’s ABC article ‘Owlet Smark Sock prompts warning for parents, fears over babies’ sensitive health data’;
- Leon Compton’s interview on ABC Radio Tasmania ‘Social media and parenting: the do’s and don’ts’ (audio);
- Brigid O’Connell’s Herald Sun story, Parents may be unwittingly turning babies into big data (paywalled); and
- Cathy O’Leary’s story in The Western Australian, Parents airing kids’ lives on social media.
While our argument is still being polished, the slides for this version of Crystal Abidin and my paper From YouTube to TV, and back again: Viral video child stars and media flows in the era of social media are also available:
This paper began as a discussion after our piece about Daddy O Five in The Conversation and where the complicated questions about children in media first became prominent. Crystal wasn’t able to be there in person, but did a fantastic Snapchat-recorded 5-minute intro, while I brought home the rest of the argument live. Crystal has a great background page on her website, linking this to her previous work in the area. There was also press interest in this talk, and the best piece to listen to (and hear Crystal and I in dialogue, even though this was recorded at different times, on different continents!):
- Brett Worthington’s Life Matters segment on Radio National, How social media videos turn children into viral sensations (audio)
Finally, as part of the Higher Degree by Research and Early Career Researcher Day which ended the conference, I presented a slightly updated version of my workshop ‘Developing a scholarly web presence & using social media for research networking’:
Overall, it was a very busy, but very rewarding conference, with new friends made, brilliant new scholarship to digest, and surely some exciting new collaborations begun!
Over the next month, I’m lucky enough to be involved in three separate events focused on infancy online, digital media and early childhood. The details …
 Thinking the Digital: Children, Young People and Digital Practice – Friday, 8th September, Sydney – is co-hosted by the Office of the eSafety Commissioner; Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University; and Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney. The event opens with a keynote by visiting LSE Professor Sonia Livingstone, and is followed by three sessions discussing youth, childhood and the digital age is various forms. While Sonia Livingstone is reason enough to be there, the three sessions are populated by some of the best scholars in Australia, and it should be a really fantastic discussion. I’ll be part of the second session on Rights-based Approaches to Digital Research, Policy and Practice. There are limited places, and a small fee, involved if you’re interested in attending, so registration is a must! To follow along on Twitter, the official hashtag is #ThinkingTheDigital.
The day before this event, Sonia Livingston is also giving a public seminar at WSU’s Parramatta City campus if you’re in able to attend on the afternoon of Thursday, 7th September.
 The following week is the big Digitising Early Childhood International Conference 2017 which runs 11-15 September, features a great line-up of keynotes as well as a truly fascinating range of papers on early childhood in the digital age. I’m lucky enough to be giving the conference’s first keynote on Tuesday morning, entitled ‘Turning Babies into Big Data–And How to Stop it’. I’ll also be presenting Crystal Abidin and my paper ‘From YouTube to TV, and Back Again: Viral Video Child Stars and Media Flows in the Era of Social Media‘ on the Wednesday and running a session on the final day called ‘Strategies for Developing a Scholarly Web Presence during a Higher Degree & Early Career’ as part of the Higher Degree by Research/Early Career Researcher Day. It should be a very busy, but also incredibly engaging week! To follow tweets from conference, the official hashtag is #digikids17.
 Finally, as part of Research and Innovation Week 2017 at Curtin University, at midday on Thursday 21st September I’ll be presenting a slightly longer version of my talk Turning Babies into Big Data—and How to Stop It in the Adventures in Culture and Technology series hosted by Curtin’s Centre for Culture and Technology. This is a free talk, open to anyone, but please either RSVP to this email, or use the Facebook event page to indicate you’re coming.
A new piece in The Conversation from Crystal Abidin and me …
The “pranks” would routinely involve the parents fooling their kids into thinking they were in trouble, screaming and swearing at them, only the reveal “it was just a prank” as their children sob on camera.
Despite its removal the content continues to circulate in summary videos from Philip DeFranco and other popular YouTubers who are critiquing the DaddyOFive channel. And you can still find videos of parents pranking their children on other channels around YouTube. But the videos also raise wider issues about children in online media, particularly where the videos make money. With over 760,000 subscribers, it is estimated that DaddyOFive earned between US$200,000-350,000 each year from YouTube advertising revenue.
The rise of influencers
Kid reactions on YouTube are a popular genre, with parents uploading viral videos of their children doing anything from tasting lemons for the first time to engaging in baby speak. Such videos pre-date the internet, with America’s Funniest Home Videos (1989-) and other popular television shows capitalising on “kid moments”.
In the era of mobile devices and networked communication, the ease with which children can be documented and shared online is unprecedented. Every day parents are “sharenting”, archiving and broadcasting images and videos of their children in order to share the experience with friends.
Even with the best intentions, though, one of us (Tama) has argued that photos and videos shared with the best of intentions can inadvertently lead to “intimate surveillance”, where online platforms and corporations use this data to build detailed profiles of children.
YouTube and other social media have seen the rise of influencer commerce, where seemingly ordinary users start featuring products and opinions they’re paid to share. By cultivating personal brands through creating a sense of intimacy with their consumers, these followings can be strong enough for advertisers to invest in their content, usually through advertorials and product placements. While the DaddyOFive channel was clearly for-profit, the distinction between genuine and paid content is often far from clear.
From the womb to celebrity
As with DaddyOFive, these influencers can include entire families, including children whose rights to participate, or choose not to participate, may not always be considered. In some cases, children themselves can be the star, becoming microcelebrities, often produced and promoted by their parents.
South Korean toddler Yebin, for instance, first went viral as a three-year-old in 2014 in a video where her mom was teaching her to avoid strangers. Since then, Yebin and her younger brother have been signed to influencer agencies to manage their content, based on the reach of their channel which has accumulated over 21 million views.
Two new articles …
[X] Visualising the Ends of Identity: Pre-Birth and Post-Death on Instagram in Information, Communication and Society by me and Tim Highfield. This is one of the first Ends of Identity article coming from our big Instagram dataset, analysing the first year (2014). We’ll be writing more looking at the three years we collected (14-16) before the Instagram APIs changed and locked us out! Here’s the abstract:
This paper examines two ‘ends’ of identity online – birth and death – through the analytical lens of specific hashtags on the Instagram platform. These ends are examined in tandem in an attempt to surface commonalities in the way that individuals use visual social media when sharing information about other people. A range of emerging norms in digital discourses about birth and death are uncovered, and it is significant that in both cases the individuals being talked about cannot reply for themselves. Issues of agency in representation therefore frame the analysis. After sorting through a number of entry points, images and videos with the #ultrasound and #funeral hashtags were tracked for three months in 2014. Ultrasound images and videos on Instagram revealed a range of communication and representation strategies, most highlighting social experiences and emotional peaks. There are, however, also significant privacy issues as a significant proportion of public accounts share personally identifiable metadata about the mother and unborn child, although these issue are not apparent in relation to funeral images. Unlike other social media platforms, grief on Instagram is found to be more about personal expressions of loss rather than affording spaces of collective commemoration. A range of related practices and themes, such as commerce and humour, were also documented as a part of the spectrum of activity on the Instagram platform. Norms specific to each collection emerged from this analysis, which are then compared to document research about other social media platforms, especially Facebook.
[X] Instagrammatics and digital methods: studying visual social media, from selfies and GIFs to memes and emoji in Communication, Research and Practice, also authored by Tim Highfield and me. This paper came out earlier in the year, but I forgot to mention it here. The abstract:
Visual content is a critical component of everyday social media, on platforms explicitly framed around the visual (Instagram and Vine), on those offering a mix of text and images in myriad forms (Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr), and in apps and profiles where visual presentation and provision of information are important considerations. However, despite being so prominent in forms such as selfies, looping media, infographics, memes, online videos, and more, sociocultural research into the visual as a central component of online communication has lagged behind the analysis of popular, predominantly text-driven social media. This paper underlines the increasing importance of visual elements to digital, social, and mobile media within everyday life, addressing the significant research gap in methods for tracking, analysing, and understanding visual social media as both image-based and intertextual content. In this paper, we build on our previous methodological considerations of Instagram in isolation to examine further questions, challenges, and benefits of studying visual social media more broadly, including methodological and ethical considerations. Our discussion is intended as a rallying cry and provocation for further research into visual (and textual and mixed) social media content, practices, and cultures, mindful of both the specificities of each form, but also, and importantly, the ongoing dialogues and interrelations between them as communication forms.
At yesterday’s outstanding Controlling Data: Somebody Think of the Children symposium I presented the first version of my new paper “Intimate Surveillance: Normalizing Parental Monitoring and Mediation of Infants Online.” Here’s the abstract:
Parents are increasingly sharing information about infants online in various forms and capacities. In order to more meaningfully understand the way parents decide what to share about young people, and the way those decisions are being shaped, this paper focuses on two overlapping areas: parental monitoring of babies and infants through the example of wearable technologies; and parental mediation through the example of the public sharing practices of celebrity and influencer parents. The paper begins by contextualizing these parental practices within the literature on surveillance, with particular attention to online surveillance and the increasing importance of affect. It then gives a brief overview of work on pregnancy mediation, monitoring on social media, and via pregnancy apps, which is the obvious precursor to examining parental sharing and monitoring practices regarding babies and infants. The examples of parental monitoring and parental mediation will then build on the idea of “intimate surveillance” which entails close and seemingly invasive monitoring by parents. Parental monitoring and mediation contribute to the normalization of intimate surveillance to the extent that surveillance is (re)situated as a necessary culture of care. The choice to not survey infants is thus positioned, worryingly, as a failure of parenting.
An mp3 recording of the audio is available, and the slides are below:
The full version of this paper is currently under review, but if you’re interested in reading the draft, just email me.
So 2016 seems to be all about the workshops and Summer School so far!
- On 1 February, my first day back from leave, I presented “Developing a Scholarly Web Presence and Using Social Media for Research Networking” at the Perth Research Bazaar (ResBaz) held at Murdoch University (slides available here). The talk was vey well received, with some great questions. Also, kudos to the organizers for the ease of parking!
- Last week I had the great pleasure in facilitating several workshops with my collaborator Tim Highfield, updating our “Instagrammatics: Analysing Visual Social Media Workshop” (slides here) for the 2016 CCI Summer School on Digital Methods hosted by the fabulous folks at the QUT Digital Media Research Centre. This was a fabulous event, with participants from across the world, all exploring the nuances of Digital Media methods and research. Tim and I learnt just as much from our participants as we brought to the table, which makes events like this so very rewarding. And there may have been one or two moments of levity, too!
- On March 8th I’ll be giving a talk Introducing TrISMA – Tracking Infrastructure for Social Media Analytics with Alkim Ozaygen. This will be held in the new Internet of Everything Innovation Centre at Curtin and is hosted by the Curtin Institute for Computation (CIC).
- On March 30th, I’ll be facilitating a workshop at ECU Mouth Lawley (and livestreamed elsewhere, I believe) on “Promoting Your Research Online and Social Media Awareness”. This is tailored for ECU’s postgradaute students, but is open for anyone else to attend.
- Finally, for now, on May 2 I’ll be the first presenter at the Socialising Your Research – Postgrad and ECR Workshop @ UWA (flyer below). This event is open at anyone interested in WA, but RSVPs are needed (see the flyer for details).
On 8 March, I’ll be presenting an overview of TrISMA – Tracking Infrastructure for Social Media Analysis for interested researchers at Curtin. Details in the embedded flyer …
I’m pleased to note that my chapter ‘Born Digital? Presence, Privacy, and Intimate Surveillance’ is out now in the Re-Orientation: Trans-lingual, Trans-cultural, Trans-media. Studies in narrative, language, identity, and knowledge collection edited by John Hartley and Weiguo Qu for Fudan University Press. The collection is the outcome of the fantastic Culture+8: New Times, New Zones symposium in 2014 which explored cultural synergies between different countries and locations in the +8 timezone which include Perth where we hosted the event, and, of course, China.
My chapter is a key part of my Ends of Identity project; here I start to think about ‘intimate surveillance’ which is where parents and loved ones digitally document and survey their offspring, from sharing ultrasound photos to tracking newborn feeding and eating patterns. Intimate surveillance is a deliberately contradictory term: something done with the best of intentions but with possibly quite problematic outcomes. Here’s the full abstract:
The moment of birth was once the instant where parents and others first saw their child in the world, but with the advent of various imaging technologies, most notably the ultrasound, the first photos often precede birth (Lupton, 2013). In the past several decades, the question is no longer just when the first images are produced, but who should see them, via which, if any, communication platforms? Should sonograms (the ultrasound photos) be used to announce the impending arrival of a new person in the world? Moreover, while that question is ostensibly quite benign, it does usher in an era where parents and loved ones are, for the first years of life, the ones deciding what, if any, social media presence young people have before they’re in a position to start contributing to those decisions.
This chapter addresses this comparatively new online terrain, postulating the provocative term intimate surveillance, which deliberately turns surveillance on its head, begging the question whether sharing affectionately, and with the best of intentions, can or should be understood as a form of surveillance. Firstly, this chapter will examine the idea of co-creating online identities, touching on some of the standard ways of thinking about identity online, and then starting to look at how these approaches do and do not explicitly address the creation of identity for others, especially parents creating online identities for their kids. I will then review some ideas about surveillance and counter-surveillance with a view to situating these creative parental acts in terms of the kids and others being created. Finally, this chapter will explore several examples of parental monitoring, capturing and sharing of data and media about their children, using various mobile apps, contextualising these activities not with a moral finger-waving, but by surfacing specific questions and literacies which parents may need to develop in order to use these tools mindfully, and ensure decisions made about their children’s’ online presences are purposeful decisions.
The chapter can be read here.
When authenticity and advertising collide on social media
The answer, of course, is both. And 19-year-old Instagram model Essena O’Neill’s very public rejection of the inauthentic nature of social media last week can been read through both lenses.
On the one hand, O’Neill deleted her heavily trafficked Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr accounts, and re-directed her audience to her new blog decrying the artificiality of social media life. She was embraced by many for revealing the inner workings of a poorly understood social media marketplace. Deleting accounts with more half a million followers certainly does make a statement.
On the other hand, O’Neill’s actions have also been interpreted as a rebranding effort, shifting away from the world of modelling toward a new online identity as a vegan eco-warrior.
Influencing the influencers
Given the large numbers of followers, they are very attractive platforms for brands and marketers wanting to reach these “organic” social media audiences. Yet, while these social media channels often depict idyllic lives, O’Neill’s dramatic revelations have raised questions about the authenticity of many influencers.
Or, more specifically, questions about exactly what sort of money is changing hands, and how visible sponsored and paid posts ought to be on social media.
Clashes between authenticity and commerce have a long history on social media. A notable example occurred in 2009 when Nestlé courted influential “mommy bloggers”, effectively dividing the community between those happy to be flown to a Nestlé retreat and those who argued Nestlé’s history of unethical business practices in relation to breastfeeding were unforgivable.
More recently, influential YouTube star and fashion blogger Zoe “Zoella” Sugg faced a backlash following the revelations that her best-selling debut novel, Girl Online, was written at least in part by a ghostwriter.
Anthropologist and social media researcher Crystal Abidin has extensively studied and documented Singaporean influencers, noting a range of different practices, from explicit tags to implicit mentioning of brands, to indicate paid or sponsored posts.
Recognising these various tags and indicators requires a level of Instagram literacy that regular viewers will likely develop, but casual audiences could easily miss. Indeed, as Abidin and Mart Ots have argued, this lack of transparent standards can be understood as “the influencer’s dilemma”.
As Singaporean influencers have been around for a decade, some have aged sufficiently to shift from their own sponsored posts to endorsements featuring their children, becoming what Abidin describes as micro-microcelebrities.
Australia also has its own infant influencers, the most visible being PR CEO Roxy Jacenko’s daughter, four year old Instagram star Pixie Curtis. As a second generation influencers emerge, clear social norms about sponsorship and advertising transparency on Instagram become more pressing.
Australian newly launched marketing company Tribe has positioned itself as a broker between influencers – “someone with 5000+ real followers” on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – and brands.
As Tribe notes, the ACCC does not currently require individuals on social media to reveal paid posts. However, it does recommend influencers add #spon to sponsored posts to flag identify paid content.
The difference between a recommendation and a rule aside, while a quick search reveals some 47,000 Instagram images tagged with #spon, many of these are not sponsored posts.
Of the top #spon tagged posts on Instagram yesterday (9 November), they feature influencers spruiking tea, videogames, resorts, beer and a mobile service provider along with two pets sponsored by a dog show and, as seems fitting, a dog food company.
An explicit marker like #spon would at least make sponsored posts identifiable, but no such norm currently exists, and even Tribe only “strongly recommends” rather than mandates its use.
In a post ironically titled “How To Make $$$ on Social Media”, Essena O’Neill notes that she was charging A$1,000 to feature a product on her Instagram feed, a fact she did not disclose until her recent rejection of her social media modelling past.
O’Neill’s own authenticity might not be helped by the fact that she took to Vimeo – another social media platform – and her own blog, to denounce social media.
This could be read as a clear reminder that social media isn’t inherently morally charged: the value of communication platforms depends in large part on what’s being communicated.
Moreover, as O’Neill’s actions have inspired other Instagram users and influencers to add “honest” captions about the constructedness of their images, if nothing else O’Neill has provoked a very teachable moment, potentially increasing the media literacy of many social media users.
Traditional media industries have long had regulations that ensure advertising and other content are clearly differentiated. While regulating social media is challenging, calling for social media influencers to self-regulate should not be.
Far from damaging their influence, such transparency may just add to what audiences perceive as their authenticity.
A slightly longer version of this piece, with the title I’d originally suggested – The Cost of Authenticity on Instagram – is available on Medium.
At this year’s Association of Internet Researcher’s Conference (#ir16) in Phoenix, Arizona, Tim Highfield has kindly presented our collaborative work looking at birth and death on Instagram via the #ultrasound and #funeral hashtags.
A revised and much longer version of this work is currently under review.
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