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The Individualism of Online Social Movements

The third speaker at this ASMC14 session is Paolo Gerbaudo, whose interest is in the organisational processes of informal collaboration in social media activism. In order to understand these processes it is not enough to study the large datasets of their outputs, but to also ask the people behind such activities why and how they do this work.

Across the various cases of social media activism in recent years there has been a clear power distribution – a handful of leading accounts have been driving protests such as Occupy, Indignados, or the Arab Spring. These accounts have attracted a large number of followers and serve as movement leaders and organisers. Who is behind these accounts; who is working to keep such feeds going, and how?

Wikipedia's Role as a Gatekeeper

The next ASMC14 speaker is Heather Ford, who shifts our focus to Wikipedia. In its early days, the site was seen as an underdog challenging existing publishing models – this includes news publishers, and Wikipedia was seen as a challenger to the conventional gatekeepers. It was also shown that the quality of its content was not necessarily any worse than that of traditional encyclopaedias, even though it had been collaboratively compiled. Nonetheless, a persistent view of its inaccuracy due to this collaborative model remains.

Wikipedia itself offers a range of self-definitions, which inter alia point out that Wikipedia is not a social network (or even a dating service), so personal profiles should be kept short; not a soap box from which to promote personal views or original research. Wikipedia also defines reliable sources which should be used as evidence for its articles, and in doing so for the most part explicitly rules out self-published media (blogs, etc.) as unreliable.

Thinking through Connective Networks

The next keynote at ASMC14 is by W. Lance Bennett, whose begins by highlighting the use of social media by NGOs. For them, the game has shifted in recent years – the emphasis now is less on continuing membership than on temporary calls to action. Other recent political movements – from the Spanish Indignados to the global Occupy movement – also appear to be crowd-based movements pursuing some form of collective action, and are moving away even further from conventional organisational models.

Conventional collective action in organisations has its problems – with free riders, for example –, and communication here simply reinforces the existing organisation. By contrast, in connective action there is more self-motivated networking well beyond the organisational setup: social technology enables sharing, using personal action frames, and thereby enlists a greater range of participants beyond the organisation itself.

Revisiting Produsage

After the “Compromised Data” symposium in Toronto I’ve made my way over to Europe, where my first stop is a PhD symposium in Copenhagen where I’ve been invited to present an update on my work on produsage. Here, I’ve revisited the fundamental concept of produsage and made the link to my current work on the uses of social media, especially in a journalistic context. Slides and audio below:

When Wikipedians Go Wrong

The final day at AoIR 2013 starts for me with a panel on conflict, controversy and aggression in online spaces in which Theresa Sauter and I also have a paper - but the first presenter is Heather Ford, whose focus is on Wikipedia. She has been involved with Wikipedia for some time, and has seen a substantial level of conflict (leading to article deletions and user bannings) during that time. Her paper here focusses on the specific case of a Wikipedian being stalked and banned.

Being a Wikipedian means being part of a peer-production community, which Benkler and Nissenbaum have claimed fosters virtue. But more recent research has exposed some of the darker sides of Wikipedia - as experienced especially to newcomers to the community. Entering the now-mature project at a late stage is difficult, and many contributions from newbie users are reverted by established participants; this has been seen as contribution to Wikipedia's decline and the slow-down of new user sign-ups.

The Emergent Rules of Games Spectatorship

The next speaker at this AoIR 2013 panel is T.L. Taylor, focussing here on spectatorship in gaming. The mix of playing and watching has always been central to gaming as a social activity, but game studies has always privileged the hands on the controller; spectatorship has traditionally also relied on physical co-presence (e.g. at gaming championships).

But now there are sites like Twitch, which enable gamers to make their private play public as a livestream, and even to make money in doing so, as a spinoff from The site currently has some 600 unique broadcasters per month, with some 45 million viewers per month and around 1.5 hours of play watched per day (hope I have those stats right). On Twitch, viewers can choose by game title, player, or channel, and players can trigger occasional commercial breaks in order to generate revenue.

The Emancipatory Potential of Tech Activism

The final speaker in this first AoIR 2013 plenary is Christina Dunbar-Hester, whose focus is on activist technical projects - such as micropower radio stations or community wifi networks. The activists describe such activities with the Amish term of barnraising, highlighting the community empowerment and self-sufficiency aspects of such initiatives. The hope is to demystify technology and generate political engagement through further hands-on knowledge sharing.

There is a big difference in this in how technical expertise is seen as empowering (through sharing) rather than disempowering (through the emergence of knowledge elites). But there remains a strong white middle-class basis to this - such sharing continues to speak largely to a male white addressee, and the involvement of women or minorities in these initiatives remains rare.

Radical Refusal as Couchsurfing Goes Commercial

The final speaker at this AoIR 2012 session is Zeena Feldman, whose focus is on the Couchsurfing Website. She begins by suggesting that the Net has always been a space of competing discourses, a hybrid space, and the same is true for social media as well. Social media have been seen as technologies of resistance as well as of repression, and the case of Couchsurfing illustrates this.


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