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.
The ‘beginnings’ issue of the M/C Journal, edited by Bjorn Nansen (University of Melbourne) and me, has just been published. We’re really pleased with how this issue has turned out: a number of articles engage with the beginnings of life — from pregnancy apps to social media microcelebrity infants to infant media use – but there are also some fantastically creative engagements, from the beginnings of spreadsheets in terms of both history and practice through to the rhetoric beginnings of new technologies such as smart contact lenses. As with all issues of M/C, the content is free and open access.
Here’s the issue contents:
- EDITORIAL: Beginnings – Bjorn Nansen, Tama Leaver
- Playing Pregnancy: The Ludification and Gamification of Expectant Motherhood in Smartphone Apps – Deborah Lupton, Gareth M Thomas
- ‘Getting Personal’: Contemplating Changes in Intersubjectivity, Methodology and Ethnography – Sophia Alice Johnson
- Micromicrocelebrity: Branding Babies on the Internet – Crystal Abidin
- Digitods: Toddlers, Touch Screens and Australian Family Life – Donell Joy Holloway, Lelia Green, Kylie Stevenson
- Accidental, Assisted, Automated: An Emerging Repertoire of Infant Mobile Media Techniques – Bjorn Nansen
- Extra-Planetary Digital Cultures – David Crouch, Katarina Damjanov
- Startling Starts: Smart Contact Lenses and Technogenesis – Isabel Pedersen, Kirsten Ellison
As part of the Curtin Humanities Research Skills and Careers Workshops 2015 I recently facilitated a workshop entitled Strategies for Developing a Scholarly Web Presence During a Higher Degree. As the workshop received a very positive response and addressed a number of strategies and issues that participants had not addressed previously, I thought I’d share the slides here in case they’re of use to others.
For more context regarding scholarly use of social media in particular, it’s worth checking out Deborah Lupton’s 2014 report ‘Feeling Better Connected’: Academics’ Use of Social Media.
As I’ve been neglecting the blog, a quick update on new publications so far this year:
- My invited paper ‘Researching the Ends of Identity: Birth and Death on Social Media‘ appears in the inaugural issue of Social Media + Society. The first issue contains more than 50 manifesto pieces from leading social media (and related) researchers from around the globe examining the future(s) of social media research, and well worth looking over for anyone working anywhere near the field. I’m also genuinely delighted to have joined the journal’s editorial board.
- Michele Willson and I have an article ‘Zynga’s FarmVille, social games, and the ethics of big data mining‘ in the second issue of Communication Research and Practice, the new ANZCA journal. I’m also pleased to have joined the journal’s Editorial Advisory Group, helping steer and focus the journal for its first few years. (The article is paywalled, but an open access pre-print is available, too.)
- Also, in a totally different area, my chapter ‘Radically Performing the Borg? Gender Identity and Narratology in Star Trek’ revisits work I did more than a decade ago, and appears in the new collection The Star Trek Universe: Franchising the Final Frontier.
Amongst several recent talks, I gave a presentation for Curtin Alumni at a public event in July. The talk was recorded and is now available on YouTube or embedded below. It gives a fairly decent overview of my Ends of Identity project for anyone interested.
At this week’s fantastically engaging CCI Digital Methods Summer School held at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Tim Highfield and I presented a workshop about analysing visual social media, focusing on Instagram data collection and anaylsis. It was based, in part, on our recent First Monday paper, but also looked beyond that at ways of surfacing research questions and approaches. We were pleased with the interest in the workshop, and really positive responses to it, so we’ve shared the slides here:
There will be more on Instagram from us later this year, but if you’re working on Instagram I’d love to hear what you’re doing; either leave a comment here or ping me an email if you want to get in touch.
Last year Routledge released Artificial Culture, my first book, as a paperback (having only been available as a very expensive hardback before then). Today I received five author copies in the mail which is very exciting – it really exists – but I’ve already given most of the hardback copies away, so I wasn’t quite sure what to do with these. So, naturally, I asked Twitter, and the smart folks there suggested a competition to find good homes for them. So a competition it is. With one caveat: I’d *really* like some feedback about the book, reviews, whatever. There have been a few reviews in scholarly journals, but – weirdly perhaps – I’d love a comments on the book’s Amazon page.
So, here’s the deal: if you’d like a copy of the book, leave a comment below, or on Twitter, or on Facebook, and on Monday (my time) I shall randomly select three people to get copies. If you get one, you agree within one month to write at least two sentences about the book on Amazon.com and give it a star rating. You don’t have to like the book – if you hate it, give it one star if you really want – but you should feel obliged to respond (and therefore have read it).
I should add, that in the unlikely event that I get more interest than books, I’ll prioritise people who can’t easily access one via their university library (or order in for their library, as most fulltime academics can).
Don’t feel the need to leave your details in the comments (privacy and all that): if you win, I’ll email you and ask for mailing details (do make sure you leave me an email address if you’re commenting here).
To get a sense of what the book argues, please read the blurb and make sure you really do want a copy (it’s a bit different to the stuff I’m currently working on; it’s more cultural studies than anything to do with social media).
Update (4 Feb 15): Thanks for all the interest and comments here, on Twitter and on Facebook! It’s greatly appreciated and it’s heartening to see real interest in the book! I’ve let the three randomly selected winners know (yes, I did print the names and put them in a box and select randomly!). Hopefully that means there will be a few reviews floating around at some point in the near future!
Today First Monday published A Methodology for Mapping Instagram Hashtags by Tim Highfield and myself. This methodology paper explains the processes behind the various media we’ve been tracking as part of the Ends of Identity project, although the utility of the methods go far beyond that. Beyond technical questions, we’ve included some important ethical and privacy questions that arose as we started to explore Instagram mapping. Here’s the abstract:
While social media research has provided detailed cumulative analyses of selected social media platforms and content, especially Twitter, newer platforms, apps, and visual content have been less extensively studied so far. This paper proposes a methodology for studying Instagram activity, building on established methods for Twitter research by initially examining hashtags, as common structural features to both platforms. In doing so, we outline methodological challenges to studying Instagram, especially in comparison to Twitter. Finally, we address critical questions around ethics and privacy for social media users and researchers alike, setting out key considerations for future social media research.
The full paper is available at First Monday, fully open access, with a Creative Commons license. As always, your comments, thoughts and feedback are welcome here, or on Twitter.