Last week, as the inaugural paper in CCAT’s new seminar series Adventures in Culture in Technology (ACAT), I presented a more in depth, although still in progress, talk based on a paper I’m finishing on Facebook and the questions of birth and death. Here’s the slides along with recorded audio if you’re interested:

The talk abstract: While social media services including the behemoth Facebook with over a billion users, promote and encourage the ongoing creation, maintenance and performance of an active online self, complete with agency, every act of communication is also recorded. Indeed, the recordings made by other people about ourselves can reveal more than we actively and consciously chose to reveal about ourselves. The way people influence the identity and legacy of others is particularly pronounced when we consider birth – how parents and others ‘create’ an individual online before that young person has any identity in their online identity construction – and at death, when a person ceases to have agency altogether and becomes exclusively a recorded and encoded data construct. This seminar explores the limits and implications for agency, identity and data personhood in the age of Facebook.

I’ve got a new article in the most recent issue of the M/C Journal entitled ‘The Social Media Contradiction: Data Mining and Digital Death’. Here’s the abstract:

Many social media tools and services are free to use. This fact often leads users to the mistaken presumption that the associated data generated whilst utilising these tools and services is without value. Users often focus on the social and presumed ephemeral nature of communication – imagining something that happens but then has no further record or value, akin to a telephone call – while corporations behind these tools tend to focus on the media side, the lasting value of these traces which can be combined, mined and analysed for new insight and revenue generation. This paper seeks to explore this social media contradiction in two ways. Firstly, a cursory examination of Google and Facebook will demonstrate how data mining and analysis are core practices for these corporate giants, central to their functioning, development and expansion. Yet the public rhetoric of these companies is not about the exchange of personal information for services, but rather the more utopian notions of organising the world’s information, or bringing everyone together through sharing.

The second section of this paper examines some of the core ramifications of death in terms of social media, asking what happens when a user suddenly exists only as recorded media fragments, at least in digital terms. Death, at first glance, renders users (or post-users) without agency or, implicitly, value to companies which data-mine ongoing social practices. Yet the emergence of digital legacy management highlights the value of the data generated using social media, a value which persists even after death. The question of a digital estate thus illustrates the cumulative value of social media as media, even on an individual level. The ways Facebook and Google approach digital death are examined, demonstrating policies which enshrine the agency and rights of living users, but become far less coherent posthumously. Finally, along with digital legacy management, I will examine the potential for posthumous digital legacies which may, in some macabre ways, actually reanimate some aspects of a deceased user’s presence, such as the Lives On service which touts the slogan “when your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting”. Cumulatively, mapping digital legacy management by large online corporations, and the affordances of more focussed services dealing with digital death, illustrates the value of data generated by social media users, and the continued importance of the data even beyond the grave.

Read the rest at the M/C Journal (open access).

Incidentally, yes, one of the points in this article is already out of date as last month Google quietly launched their Inactive Account Manager. While far from perfect, this Inactive Account manager gives Google users more control over what happens to their Google stored assets after they pass away (well, actually, after they don’t log in for a specified period of time). It is, however, far from perfect.

Links for October 30th 2011:

  • Cashing In on Your Hit YouTube Video [NYTimes.com] – In the unlikely but not impossible event of a YouTube video going unexpectedly viral, here’s a quick guide from the New York Times on how to act quickly and make the most of your possible revenue and exposure.
  • When I died on Wikipedia | David McKie [The Guardian] – Amusing and insightful column from David McKie who Wikipedia incorrectly claimed, was dead. McKie points out that the Wikipedia is far from the first media service to prematurely announce people’s demise: “It was disconcerting to learn recently from a much used reference source that I had died on Friday August the 26th. True, one’s memory gets more fitful as one grows older, but I didn’t remember this happening. When I looked that day up in my diary, I found that I had noted it down as “a very empty day” when it rained and nothing much happened. Empty, perhaps, but not as empty as that. Still, there it was, in all its bleak finality, in a summary on Wikipedia: “David McKie (1935 – 26 August 2011) was a British journalist and historian.” [...] Wikipedia, I see, welcomes corrections. Indeed, its section on premature obituaries accepts it is incomplete and appeals for more, well-sourced, entries. So now I shall write to correct their error …”
  • Untangling the web: how the internet has changed the way we treat death [Technology | The Observer] – Good overview by Aleks Krotoski looking at death in a networked, digital world: “Death in the age of the web reminds us how much the technology has become part of the fabric of our personal and social identities. Once we’re gone, what we leave behind is a rich resource of who we are. We may not survive beyond the release of the next social network, but our inevitable ends are being extended by our digital lives.”
  • @AlanJoyce abused on Twitter, but he’s not the Qantas boss [Perth Now] - “An American science student who shares his name with the CEO of Qantas has found himself the target of a deluge of abuse on Twitter. The unfortunate American, whose name is Alan Joyce and who holds the name @alanjoyce on Twitter, is currently studying computer science at Stanford University, as well as having written two guidebooks to the Disneyland Resort in California. To clarify his identity the American replied to one accusation: “I’m glad to see someone appreciating my impeccable American accent, but I’m guessing you’re looking for a different Alan Joyce.” [...] The American Alan Joyce first responded to the attacks after @DognutsTom tweeted, “Well I’m stuck at home with broken wheelchair thanks to QANTAS! You think @alanjoyce CEO of QANTAS could work it out right?” Alan replied, “Sorry about your wheelchair, but I’m no more CEO of Qantas than @willsmith is a famous movie actor.””
  • Q&A;: Felicia Day, from ‘The Guild’ to ‘Dragon Age’ [latimes.com] - “Playing” Felicia Day: “And when Electric Arts [makers of Dragon Age] called, that was the first call in years that was really like, “Oh!” They asked, “What would you like to do?” and I said, “What properties do you have?” And when Dragon Age came up I was, like, “Yes!” Because when am I ever going to be able to be in a medieval world as an actor? Probably never. So I’ll help create it myself. This will be the first time that a video game property is a Web series; and the elf is an actual playable character. So my character will be a DLC [downloadable content] piece; if people own Dragon Age II, they’ll be able to purchase an extension pack and play with my character. It’s full motion capture with me, full facial capture, full vocal acting. It’s pretty much the coolest thing I could ever imagine: Not only am I in a game, but it’s as a character I created.”

Links for November 9th 2010 through November 11th 2010:

  • Great Scott! Over 35 Hours of Video Uploaded Every Minute to YouTube [YouTube Blog] – “… the amount of video uploaded to YouTube to 35 hours per minute. That breaks out to 2,100 hours uploaded every 60 minutes, or 50,400 hours uploaded to YouTube every day. If we were to measure that in movie terms (assuming the average Hollywood film is around 120 minutes long), 35 hours a minute is the equivalent of over 176,000 full-length Hollywood releases every week. Another way to think about it is: if three of the major US networks were broadcasting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for the last 60 years, they still wouldn’t have broadcast as much content as is uploaded to YouTube every 30 days.”
  • Hulu Brings in the Dough: $240M of Revenue in 2010 [NewTeeVee] – “Hulu is going to make more than $240 million in revenue in 2010, the company’s CEO Jason Kilar revealed at GigaOM’s NewTeeVee Live conference today. Kilar added that Hulu generated $108 million in revenue in 2009. Hulu had 30 million users in October 2010, who watched some 260 million content streams as well as 800 million ad streams during that month. Kilar said that Hulu now has 235 content partners. The company had 352 advertising clients in Q3. “The leading source of revenue is through advertising,” said Kilar, adding that more than 40 percent of money generated with content in this industry is generated through advertising. This has led Hulu to optimize its ad experience, and Kilar showed a few new features that the company will roll out in the future. Hulu will introduce personalized advertising, addressing users by name. “
  • How Conan O’Brien Beat Leno And Letterman [Fast Company] – Team CoCo rides the social media wave to ratings success: “I know what you guys are thinking: ‘Hey, it’s the guy from Twitter,’” joked Conan O’Brien, before launching into a mock-impression of his Internet fans. “Why am I doing that!” he began laughing. “Those people saved my ass! Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.” Indeed, a strong Internet following fed Conan, who debuted his new show last night on TBS, very well. Bolstered by his almost 2 million Twitter followers, a first-of-its-kind social media strategy, and an innovative digital team, Conan soared on the late-night scene with huge ratings, besting both David Letterman and arch-nemesis Jay Leno with 4.2 million viewers [...]“Conan’s audience has been very vocal online, and he clearly made a smooth transition from Twitter to TBS,” said Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks.[...] Team Coco’s digital strategy a “brilliant launch campaign that incorporated social media better than I’ve ever seen.”
  • BBC iPlayer going international next year, will be either fee- or ad-supported [Engadget] – “The BBC’s iPlayer video-on-demand service has been an unqualified success since its rollout back in 2007 and now it’s taking the next logical step in expanding its reach: it’s going global. Such is the word from John Smith, the generically named head of BBC Worldwide, who sees the international market for British shows as “under-exploited” and wants to see the iPlayer opened up beyond the Queen’s home isles. Of course, since continental Europeans and North Americans aren’t subject to the same backbreaking TV license fee, there’ll be a new commercial element to the service, though the Beeb’s bigwigs have yet to figure out if that means users will have to pay a levy or put up with some ads.”
  • Ghoulish Facebook vandals mock Australian laws [SMH] – Tribute pages to young people who have died, being ‘defaced’, but is it illegal? “Also defaced was a tribute page to Chantelle Rowe, 16, who was found dead with her parents in their Adelaide home yesterday. Inappropriate messages and doctored photographs were posted to several tribute pages for Chantelle and her family, who police believe were killed in a triple murder. A cousin, Steven Rowe, wrote about the material on Facebook: “He even sent this shit to my inbox … thats my cousin and i honestly hope some [sic] kicks your head in!” But the user responsible for the messages replied: “I won’t go to jail … i’m not in Australia, therefore I cannot break the Australian law”. Victoria Police and South Australia Police both refused to comment, arguing no offence had been committed. However, Jesssica Chantelle Cook, 22, from Queensland, received a three-month suspended jail sentence in August for posting offensive material on a Facebook tribute page…”

Links for July 15th 2010 through July 18th 2010:

  • As Older Users Join Facebook, Network Grapples With Death [NYTimes.com] – How Facebook does (and doesn’t) deal with death: “For a site the size of Facebook, automation is “key to social media success,” said Josh Bernoff, [...] “The way to make this work in cases where machines can’t make decisions is to tap into the members,” he said, pointing to Facebook’s buttons that allow users to flag material they find inappropriate. “One way to automate the ‘Is he dead’ problem is to have a place where people can report it.” That’s just what Facebook does. To memorialize a profile, a family member or friend must fill out a form on the site and provide proof of the death, like a link to an obituary or news article, which a staff member at Facebook will then review. But this option is not well publicized, so many profiles of dead members never are converted to tribute pages. Those people continue to appear on other members’ pages as friend suggestions, or in features like the “reconnect” box …”
  • Facebook Breaks All Bit.ly Links, Marks Them as Abusive [Mashable] – For a period of time, all bit.ly links were blocked on Facebook; clicking on them returned a ‘reported as abusive’ page from Facebook. I’m sure this will be resolved relatively quickly, but it does underscore the danger of URL shorteners as platforms (not just Facebook) battle phishing and spam. Blocking a whole domain is overkill, of course, but it’s going to happen and it’s worth asking about the extra burden that one extra (shortened) step brings to the internet at large. (It’s fixed now.)
  • New Spice | Study like a scholar, scholar [YouTube] – Definitely my favourite parody of the Old Spice guy so far: “Do you want to be a scholar? Then study at the Harold B. Lee Library. Do your research here, study here, and be a scholar!” I’m on a cart …
  • Everything you need to know about the internet [Technology | The Observer] – Nine ‘big picture’ notions about what the internet is and isn’t from John Naughton (Professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University). Useful as a primer for Web Communications 101.
  • The Trouble at Twitter Inc. [Gawker] – Gawker’s rumour-ridden piece suggesting that Evan Williams may be losing the reigns as CEO of Twitter.
  • World Vision I Old Spice [YouTube] – Tim Costello from World Vision makes his own Old Spice guy (parody) reply, pitching World Vision as the charity of the future. It’s actually quite funny.
  • O’Farrell lays low after Twitter gaffe [ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)] – “New South Wales Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell is laying low after posting an embarrassing message this morning on the social networking site Twitter. Believing he was sending a private message to journalist Latika Bourke’s Twitter account, Mr O’Farrell opened up on his thoughts about the delay on candidate selection. [...] “Deeply off the record – I think the timetable and struggle to get candidates reflects internal poll – pre and post the ranga,” he tweeted, a reference to Prime Minister Julia Gillard.”

Links for  November 2nd 2009:

  • How to Give Your Movie Away Free and Still Make Money [Jawbone.tv] – Some great ideas from Brian Newman about ways to both freely distribute and make money from feature films. (Thanks, Chuck.)
  • Teens Sue School Over Punishment For Racy MySpace Pics [Huffington Post] – “Two sophomore girls have sued their school district after they were punished for posting sexually suggestive photos on MySpace during their summer vacation. The American Civil Liberties Union, in a federal lawsuit filed last week on behalf of the girls, argues that Churubusco High School violated the girls’ free speech rights when it banned them from extracurricular activities for a joke that didn’t involve the school … some legal experts say that in this digital era, schools must accept that students will engage in some questionable behavior in cyberspace and during off hours. “From the standpoint of young people, there’s no real distinction between online life and offline life,” said John Palfrey, a Harvard University law professor and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “It’s just life.”” (It’s called MYspace for a reason, methinks!)
  • Memories of Friends Departed Endure on Facebook [Facebook] – Facebook adds the ability to “memorialize” a Facebook page of someone who has passed away, but their loved ones wish their profile to remain online as a place for people to remember and reminisce about their lives. This feature has probably come along since Facebook got some bad press after suggesting people ‘reconnect’ with their deceased loved ones.[Via BBoing]