Monthly Archives: August 2015

Participatory Surveillance: A critique of our focus on big brother

One common misconception of surveillance studies is that by and large those who engage with this academic field study humongous and dangerous macro scale conspiracies and hierarchy based surveillance.  Indeed, this is a sentiment I fell into until I became more familiar with the field (and subsequently fell deeply in love with the literature).  Just the same, state and corporate surveillance is a major topic and theme in sociology—however, there is also a focus on the mundane.

In a folklore methods course I took in my undergraduate—the professor, Dr. John Bodner, lectured that common sense is a dangerous rhetoric.  Common sense embodies the mundane.  The mundane everyday things that we take for granted.  This could be the various privileges we do or don’t enjoy.  The shade of our gender.  The colour of our skin.  The tones of our voices and pronunciations.  All of these common sense social things are vastly complicated and have real consequences on our life choices.  Common sense is in fact a complex sense.  Because this common sense is embedded in our social relations—it is of direct relevance to a sociologist.  The mundane is actually quite interesting and when engaged through sociological methodology, we can learn an awful lot about human nature (and as relevant to this post, technology).

Surveillance as a value neutral activity is very much embedded in our everyday life.  A very capturing report by The New Transparency titled Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada offers an overview of how surveillance is embedded in the everyday lives of Canadians.  This report is written in a capturing way that is accessible to those who are not familiar with heavy and dense academic jargon.  We are surveiled by our digital technology for marketing and national security.  But we also engage in surveiling each other through the use of social media.  An example of this is when you “creep” or engaging in browsing a friends (or strangers) photos and status updates.  Anyone with a social media connection (Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and many others) engages in this activity.

The point I really want to touch on is that surveillance isn’t always terrible, scary, invasive and big brother(ish).  However, I am not proposing the opposite either.  Surveillance is not inherently good or useful.  Surveillance does not necessarily translate into safety.  One of my favorite sociologists, José van Dijck (2012), maintains that, “connectivity is premised on a double logic of empowerment and exploitation” (144).  I’d like to approach this topic with a curious excitement, as well as caution.  Though we may use communication technology and social media in empowering ways—the Internet is run by powerful corporations who are mandated to swing (large) profits.

I would like to talk about one interesting piece of literature in particular—Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance written by Anders Albrechtslund.  It is an informative and fun read that sets out to address some of the more conspiracy driven surveillance theories.  It can be found here for free published by First Monday.  Albrechtslund, among other things, addresses the dystopian discourse of surveillance.  So what is ‘participatory surveillance’?  According to Albrechtslund, “The practice of online social networking can be seen as empowering, as it is a way to voluntarily engage with other people and construct identities, and it can thus be described as participatory”.  Rather than surveillance in its original dystopic conception as destroying and rendering the subject as powerless and watched over, Albrechtslund suggests that surveillance in social media sites actually produces subjectivity (identity and community) and empowers users in a social realm that flattens (gets rid of) power relations.  In other words, surveillance is not the work of Big Brother, but the interactions of people, strangers and friends, in producing and sharing content online.

In a short and sweet summary of Albrechslund’s conception of participatory surveillance—it galvanizes the user to participate in the construction of identity, through identity construction it empowers the user to grow as a human being, and allows a sense of interactive community through the sharing of user-generated content.  We construct our identities through the use of user-generated content (posting photos, updating statuses and writing autobiographies), we engage in watching and surveiling other user’s content through our feeds or the act of ‘creeping’ while at the same time other users are engaged in surveiling us.  And finally, we are building an information economy of shared content.  All of this occurs through a horizontal power dynamic where instead of surveillance being situated in some state or corporate center—it is spread out in a complex collection of networks that are comprised of us.

I’d like to end this blog post with a thought about human nature (likely a thought that will charge the topic covered in my next post).  Engaging in participatory surveillance and social networking sites are inherently ‘anarchistic’ interactions.  I would like to proceed with caution with this word ‘anarchy’ as it is incredibly media saturated by negative latent meaning.   By anarchistic I mean that the sharing of user-generated content occurs outside of the normalized capitalist ontology of profit (we only do things to make more cash).    Think of all of those interest groups on Facebook where people share ideas with strangers and volunteer there time to generate content for free.  The Internet offers us so many great examples of human nature as inherently cooperative, and not strictly competitive.  Just a thought, but perhaps the Internet provides us with the context to shape human nature itself.


 

Sources:

Albrechtslund, Anders. “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance.” First Monday 13.3 (2008). Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

Bennett, Colin J., Kevin D. Haggerty, David Lyon, and Valerie Steeves, eds. Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Au Press: Athabasca University, 2014.  Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

van Dijck, José. “Facebook and the engineering of connectivity: A multi-layered approach to social media platforms.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19.2 (2012): 141-155. Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

 

Ala Buzreba and the Sociology of Mediated Publics

Today, Liberal Party Candidate Ala Buzreba stepped down from the electoral race because of the grief publicly received by excessively offensive posts she made on Twitter.  Normally, this may be an appropriate course of action.  However, there are a few important points of context that must be made about this entire circus of an event. Notably, that the tweets were made when she was seventeen.  But first let me offer a recap for those who have not sifted through the mainstream media.

Ala Buzreba, a university student in Calgary, is one of the youngest candidates in the 2015 Canadian Federal Election.  After conservative supporters and candidates began circulating tweets that were posted in 2011 (when she was the ripe age of 17)—the posts caught national and international media attention.  It has now become an irresponsible election issue to which even the party leader Trudeau had to make a public statement.  As well as every large media corporation has to cover it.

Here are the tweets:

This post by conservative supporter Sheila Gunn Reid brought the tweets to light,

After the tweets became “public”, Ala Buzreba posted,

However, the media hayday that erupted over the digital sphere became far to heavy to continue running in the election—either Ala Buzreba decided to step down or she was forced to step down so the Liberal Party could heal its wounds.

(NOTE: It seems that Ala Buzreba has taken down her Facebook page)

If you would like further detail I would direct you to google for an abundance of articles of every political color which paint the situation in many shades of black and white.

It becomes abundantly clear that this situation is a sort of popular smear campaign.  One which we will all forget about by sometime this weekend.  It seems absurd that with so many important political issues at hand (social welfare, economic well-being, and environmental stability, among a few), that the media would focus its attention on some tweets sent in heated debate from a seventeen-year-old girl.  I am sure we’ve all been there.  We’ve all posted things out of anger, some worse than others, in an Internet debate.  We were all also young—a period in the human life span when we do things that we later regret.  Often times in these forms of debates (the really hot and heavy kind) we tend to say things on a basis of reaction.  We do this in a short time span—not thinking about repercussions.  Certainly not thinking about repercussions that would appear several years later.

Let’s explore this incredibly social story with our sociological imaginations.  According to Danah Boyd (2007), a sociologist exploring digital communication, social media sites (SNS) are in a strange and precarious position between public and private spheres.  She uses the term ‘mediated public’ to describe this relatively new social sphere.  Boyd defines a mediate public as “environments where people can gather publically through mediating technology” (2).  In the case of Twitter and Facebook, ‘environment’ acts as a spatial metaphor to describe that particular means of communication.

There are four major characteristics that encompass a mediated public.  These characteristics are incredibly important to understand when we try to digest the events surrounding Ala Buzreba.  The four characteristics outlined by Boyd are as follow: persistability, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences.

I will explain these characteristics in terms of the case of Ala Buzreba.  Persistability indicates that things posted to the internet persist over time.  Buzreba posted her remarks in a heated debate (on a contentious and sometimes very racist topic) in 2011 (four years ago—which is a long time for a young adult).  Those remarks were used against her politically four years later.  The reason that they could be used against her was because of the characteristic of searchability.  Political supporters, volunteers and candidates could potentially dig up old posts from the past in attempts to discredit politicians.  Let’s face the cold reality—we all have old embarrassing Myspace accounts that can be found by a simple Google search.  Replicability simply means that things posted online can be copied, cut and pasted.  In this case, Buzreba’s comments were copied and pasted outside of its original context.  Not only does a post outside of its context look much worse than it is.  It can be ascribed a whole new meaning.  In this case a meaning that spoiled a young students career in politics.

The Internet is a world of strangers.  As Boyd observes, an invisible audience.  When we post things to social media networks we broadcast them through a mediated public.  Once it’s posted, we will likely have no idea who might see it or how many people see it.  Most importantly, we have no idea who might be interested in searching it up in the unforeseeable future.

Once a post becomes viral, for whatever reason, or gains traction in the mass media—that invisible audience becomes quite large.  This amplifies the consequences.

Sadly, this is event is only a repeat of many before and will continue to repeat in the future.  Our means of communicating has become so transparent that it transcends time and space only to end up in the hands of future employers or political opponents.  People are only now beginning to realize that what they post (or have posted) to the Internet may have real time consequences for their careers and future choices.  The sad thing about this story is that Ala Buzreba—a young and passionate politician—has now been removed from politics.  Her future career has been tarnished before it even became a reality.

Smear tactics are the lowest form of politics.  And the very lowest form of journalism.

Source: Boyd, Danah (2007). “Social Network Sites: Public, Private or What?”. http://www.danah.org/papers/KnowledgeTree.pdf