Anonymous communities can easily be mixed up with as a thick mess of senseless social interactions. At least, that is how I saw this world when I first decided to study anonymous communities for my Master’s thesis. I thought I would study how surveillance operates in anonymous social media applications—specifically, a very popular (at the time) application called Yik Yak.
When I first downloaded the app a month before I decided to dedicate two years to it—my room mate had convinced me to check it out. An seemingly infinite central feed of anonymous comments that were sorted by a slurry of up-votes and down-votes. The Yak feed is tied to a geolocational system that connects the app to particular locations. My Yak, was the Queen’s University Yak. It was a busy feed. And it was constantly changing. To me, it seemed to be a chaotic and nebulas thick tangle of associations. A fun challenge for a scholar following and Actor-network inspired philosophy.
The popular posts stood out from the unpopular posts by an upvote/downvote feature. It was kind of like a mash between Twitter and Reddit with a touch of anonymity.
After a stint of digital ethnographic work and a ton of interviews with enthusiastic and committed users I began to see something else. Something that, as an outsider, was invisible to me at first. There was an elaborately balanced Yik Yak community. As Gary T. Marx asserts, anonymity is entirely a social process. The only way for anonymity to occur is through a faceless interaction with another faceless person. This includes social regulations, exploitations, and oppressions. But also, playfulness and a culture of care.
I would like to play with a concept I’m thinking of called (a)social. ‘a’ can be used as a negation. ‘a’ can also be used to represent anonymity. But mostly, ‘a’ will be used to approach a society which remains almost entirely faceless. A community of people interacting around nothing more than posts from people who occupy similar space. Similar cultural values.
Though I have major problems with the corporate side of Yik Yak with their capitalist motives and try-hard branding schemes, their application has facilitated the construction of an elaborate community. It’s created an (a)social experiment. It is a community that both contains a culture of trolling and a culture of care.
All things are a collective endeavor. The (a)social communities are also a collective endeavor. In Donna Haraway’s most recent philosophical publication, Staying with the Trouble, she discusses her concept of sympoiesis—a collective unfolding of reality. This collective includes everything. All human, inhuman, and nonhuman components that are threaded into the collective mess.
When we load up Yik Yak to our mobile phones and post snippets of thought to the main feed (or engage in grueling arguments over all controversies in the comments)—we work with silicone, wires, codes, telecommunication companies, algorithms, molecules, humans, bots, and entire scaffoldings of bureaucracies, legal frameworks, and governments. Interacting with the Yak spans the world over.
Furthermore, the Yak’s platform—allows particular functions and blocks others—shaping its users to interact in particular ways. They impose standards, through their Code of Conduct, which they enforce through algorithms looking for offensive key words. And they sometimes change up everything in an update (to remove their main feature, anonymity). These are the institutional forces that shape and provide stability to the community.
However, I have noticed that there is something more powerful at work in maintaining the community. It seems that the mess of interactions from users balance out particular norms and ways of acting. This is done through both the comments section and the up-vote/down-vote feature. These are the vernacular forces that generate norms and cultures. Certain topics, maybe, offensive topics, are down-voted (a -5 score from votes deletes the comment from the feed). This vernacular power, though institutionally enabled, allows for a regulation of trolls and bullies without Yak’s employees ever having to get involved.
(a)social sympoiesis initially looks like a senseless and dense knot of relations. It’s noisy and confusing. But, once, as an ethnographer, you begin the arduous work of untangling these associations—it begins to look like every other community. Despite all of the contradictions, despite the arguments, the controversies, and the confusing faceless interactions—the Yak community is able to balance out, stabilize, and “hang together” as a coherent whole.
Though such an (a)social collective is not shielded from the larger world. Once, for whatever reasons or motivations, Yik Yak decided that their users didn’t want to be anonymous and forced every user to get user handles (and suggested they link up their Facebook page)—the entire community collapsed. All that is left are groups of Yak “refugees” with no where to go but to be visible to the world.
I recently completed eighteen months of living in China’s far-western province of Xinjiang. As part of the coming-home process I contacted Kyle and offered to write a brief account of my experience in the ‘internet censorship laboratory of the world.’ What follows is a whirlwind of thoughts, opinions, and personal anecdotes that I will be the first to admit require much fact-checking and cross-referencing. Please consider them pages torn from my personal journal and shared with readers of Socionocular for their curiosity value.
One random day in mid-2014 three of my soon-to-be coworkers received text messages from the propaganda bureau of Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in far western China. The messages reminded them that foreigners weren’t to be trusted, and that they must not share secrets with outsiders.
Which foreigners were these good Chinese citizens supposed to be wary of? And what secrets did three English teachers possess that could possibly compromise the safety of the nation? When later I asked these questions I betrayed my newcomer status. I would eventually conclude that all foreigners are suspect, especially in Xinjiang, and that the point is not so much to safeguard secrets as much as it’s to maintain the atmosphere of low-grade xenophobia.
The question that possessed my local friends was more pointed: why them? Broadcast text messages signed by the propaganda bureau weren’t uncommon, but this message was specific in its content and its recipients. For one, even though there were numerous foreigners working out of that office, only three of the more than two dozen Chinese staff got this particular message. As they chatted about it over lunch, they tried to work it out. One girl was dating a foreigner; the other was sleeping with one; the third was very close to a foreigner in a chaste, conservative Christian un-relationship that everyone could see through. But other staff had been so close with foreigners before. Besides, who would have been interested but inconspicuous enough to report these various liaisons to the propaganda bureau? And why would they bother?
The conclusion they eventually arrived at was that all three had used their ID cards to buy a SIM card for ‘their’ foreigner. That was the link.
And the phone company and Propaganda Bureau were evidently watching closely enough to notice.
To sign up for social media in China, most popular services require authentication using a mobile phone. In order to get a mobile number, one must register their government ID with the phone company before being given an activated SIM card. If the pieces fit together correctly anonymity is impossible on the Chinese internet. While I have friends who assure me that one can sever a link in this chain elsewhere in China, it’s much more difficult in Xinjiang.
The reason is, I suspect, that the stakes are higher in Xinjiang for the government, and so the fist is a little tighter. Like Tibet, Xinjiang is an autonomous region principally populated by China’s minorities, not the majority-everywhere-else Han. The Uyghurs who lend their name to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are a majority-muslim turkic ethnic group who share neither language nor culture with Beijing. The history of the region is complex, and contested, and supporting the wrong narrative or questioning the ‘right’ one is considered subversion.
20th century Xinjiang has been marked by episodes of pan-turkic, and separatist thought. There were two abortive independent states declared in the past century, both called East Turkestan. Both collapsed quickly. In the 21st century Beijing has bundled separatism with extremism and terrorism, labeling them ‘The Three Evils‘ which must be opposed at every level of society. The official line, packaged with China’s notorious control over the mainstream media has had the result of conflating each of the three evils with each-other.
The result of the party’s stranglehold on most of the news-media in China (if you’re curious, read The Party Line by Doug Young) is that the really interesting stuff is happening online. In China, the internet and social media have become somewhat of a haven for off-message thinking, mostly in the form of jokes. As mentioned, true anonymity is difficult on Chinese social media, but the Chinese language’s rich ability to cast puns has been used as a tool to avoid automated censorship, and make subtle jabs at those in power.
But the government has some surprisingly grassroots-seeming tactics of it’s own, such as its ability to rouse patriots to comment on the internet to support the party (mostly in Chinese, but also in other language). The use of paid government commenters is also an open secret. These paid internet posters are derogatorily called 五毛 (‘wǔmáo’), meaning ‘five mao’ (a unit of currency) because that is supposedly the going rate for one internet post (.5元is about $.07 USD).
I’m sure you can imagine that in this atmosphere it’s impossible to take others at face-value unless you are very close with them. Very often people will claim apathy or ignorance when asked uncomfortable questions, or echo the official line even if they roll their eyes while doing so. Contrary opinions are not shared easily, and paranoia is pervasive.
There is much I haven’t even touched on, some of which has been discussed at length by others (such as the Great Firewallblocking Chinese citizens’ access to many foreign websites). Instead of repeating myself (or others), I’ll conclude this introduction to the situation here. Shortly I will follow up with another post containing a series of anecdotes which touch on this self-censorship and paranoia.
Let’s see some examples:
“We collect information to provide better services to all of our users – from figuring out basic stuff like which language you speak, to more complex things like which ads you’ll find most useful, the people who matter most to you online, or which YouTube videos you might like”.
Let’s look at Facebook.
“We give you the power to share as part of our mission to make the world more open and connected. This policy describes what information we collect and how it is used and shared. You can find additional tools and information at Privacy Basics”.
Another example of the good intentions of Facebook.
“We work with third party companies who help us provide and improve our Services or who use advertising or related products, which makes it possible to operate our companies and provide free services to people around the world”.
What is missing is the way these companies use the user data to swing huge profit margins. This is arguably the most important factor that transparency is suppose to solve. Both Facebook and Google, the two Silicone Valley tech-giants, make a strong claim that they do everything to better serve their customer base–however, their intentions are more so geared towards data monetization.
However, this does not mean that such data can’t be re-identified (for more in-depth explanation—check out this revealing paper). It is often said in the surveillance studies community that meta-data is more revealing then data. meta-data isn’t merely unidentifiable and arbitrary. If it was, why on earth is it treated like the gold of the digital age?
Though Google and Facebook are certainly important and high quality tools, these issues are still exceedingly problematic and must be addressed. One reason we should be concerned is that we rely on these social media tools several times a day to maneuver through our social and cultural lives.
It isn’t just a corporate product anymore; it is an indispensable piece of social/cultural capital. Don’t believe me? Try to quit Facebook and/or Google—I bet you can’t. It is very difficult to engage productively in our communities without using what these corporations have to offer. These corporations are silently bleeding us dry of our privacy in order to establish high profit margins. And I am willing to bet that most people don’t know the extent of all of these injustices.
The more privacy that we allow these corporate entities to take from us, the more they will push to widen the gaping hole in our already transparent lives. This can be a terrifying prospect in terms of politics of freedom of speech and expression. You may not be hiding something now—but we all hide something eventually. And we have a right to do this. For an example, the right to obscure your sexuality. This is a touchy subject as the homophobic and heteronormative ideologies that lead to hate crimes tend to fluctuate. One day you are accepted for who you are, the next, you might be beaten to a pulp or socially stigmatized. You may lose your job. Your house. And in some terrible cases, your life. We need the right to hide. And we need the right to choose anonymity.
So what now? Don’t be so complacent. The tech-giants are simulating transparency without telling the whole story. They know very well that if their surveillance capacities are pulled into the spot light that they will be forced to change. But they also know very well that no one reads these documents anyways. And because no one reads them—they are left quite untouchable.
Technology and its surveillance capacities are constantly changing and improving. However, our laws and policies are not keeping up with this. It is why it is so important to speak-out and inform those around you. As academics, as citizens, and as consumers.
Pokémon Go is lulling the world in to a humungous augmented distraction. A distraction that is covering up some pretty intense politics. It is almost as if we stepped into Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One—where distraction through virtual reality meets the war between anonymity and surveillance.
It has been well publicized that this new app, of which is fueling a Pokemania (a nostalgic resurgence of interest in Pokémon every time a new rendition of the game is released), has some rather arbitrary and invasive access to your mobile phones data—particularly, unhinged access to your Google account and other features of your mobile device.
What is Pokémon Go? This almost seems pointless now, seeing the popularity of the game—but for those of you who have not tuned in to the pokemania. Pokémon was a TV show released in the late 90s, which became dream fuel for a generation of children and young adults. It featured a young boy, Ash Ketchum, who embarked on a Journey to capture Pokémon in a technology known as the “pokeball” through the direction of the Professor (A man who studies Pokémon). After the Pokémon is caught, the young boy (and the thousands of other Pokémon trainers) would aspire to train it to battle other Pokémon.
Shortly after the show caught on, Nintendo released Pokémon Red and Blue for the Gameboy Colour. These games became an absolute hit. I remember walking to school with my eyes glued to my little pixelated screen—traversing over roads and dodging cars while battling with Pokémon and trading them with my other schoolyard peers. The games slogan repeating through my cranial, “Gotta Catch Them All”.
Nintendo continued to release Pokémon games designed for their various game platforms up until present. Each successive game included an obsessive and nostalgic excitement that took over the gaming community. Or anyone who had grown up playing Pokemon Red and Blue, as well as collecting the Pokemon cards.
Pokémon Go is a game that can be played on a mobile smart phone that uses geolocational data and mapping technologies that turn the phone into a lens peering into the Pokémon world. Through the interface of your mobile device, you can catch Pokémon wandering the “real” world, battle through gyms, and find items that will aid your journey. It augments the world around the user so that everything and everywhere becomes a part of the game.
Just like its predessor, a game known as Ingress, many of the geo features in the game were set up around important places: art exhibits, cultural or historical sites, and parks. Following the maps would lead you through a productive tour of a cities geographical culture.
I want to explore the obsessive and nostalgic excitement through a techno-socio-cultural lens. I will unpack this critique into three parts: (1) the sociology of privacy, (2) Big data and algorithmic surveillance, and (3) the culture of nostalgia and the digital sublime.
Before I continue with this post—I want to assert that it is not an all-in-all terrible, megalomaniac, Big Brother type game. Pokémon Go is enabling new ways for people to engage in the social world. Check out this sociological blog post exploring just that. However, it would be silly to not apply a critical perspective to this.
There are some restrictions I’d like to apply to my analysis: (1) Pokémon Go is not an immature or irrelevant activity, millions of people of all ages and cultural backgrounds are playing it—meaning it has a ton of significance. As well as, (2) The people playing Pokémon Go are not zombies or passive consumers, they are very intentional and unpredictable social actors that have the ability to understand their situation.
Sociology of Privacy
One thing that boggles the minds of surveillance studies scholars is how the vast population of people using social media and mobile applications do not care about invasive surveillance embedded in everything they use.
In my own interviews of Facebook users in 2014, many of my participants claimed, “I have nothing to hide”. A pervasive mentality that enables big corporate and governmental entities to gain access and control to large swaths of data. This nonchalant attitude towards surveillance allows for massive ground in the dismantling of our rights to privacy. Though such an attitude is not surprising, as the entire ecosystem of social media is set up to surveil.
David Lyon, in his book “Surveillance After Snowden”, asserts that privacy is generally seen as a natural and democratic right that should be afforded to all citizens—but admits that a problem lay in that informational privacy is not as valued as bodily or territorial privacy. Even if information, data, and metadata are much more revealing than the both bodily and territorial surveillance.
Lyon notes three important points about privacy that are all very relevant to the current epidemic of pokemania: 1) the collecting of information has now been directly connected to risk mitigation and national security, implying that we are not safe unless we are surveilled. 2) Everyone is now a target of mass surveillance, not just the criminal. 3) Data collected through mass surveillance is made to create profiles of people—these may be completely inaccurate depending on the data collected, but you will never know the difference.
I would like to add a fourth. How can the data be used to swing massive profits? The corporation Niantic, creators of Ingress and Pokémon Go, use their privacy policies to legitimate “sharing” (sic: selling) of data with governments and third party groups. Government surveillance is often the focus of criticism. However, capitalist corporations are not often held accountable to ethical practices. Who is selling this data? Who is buying this data? And what is this monetized data being used for?
As Lyon asserts, Privacy is not about individual concerns—it is important socially and politically for a well-balanced democracy. Edward Snowden has been known to say, “It’s not really about surveillance, it’s about democracy”. While we continue to allow powerful groups to chip away at our privacy for entertainment, we literally give up our ability to criticize and challenge injustice.
Snowden reminds us that when we give up our democracy to the control room—there is zero accountability, zero transparency, and decisions are made without any democratic process.
So while we are distracted trying to catch a Snorlax at the park, we are giving away more and more of our lives to mysterious and complicated groups that want nothing but large profits and control. For a much more scathing review of this, see this blog post on surveillance and Pokémon.
Big Data and Algorithms
So what about the data. What is big data? First off, it’s all the craze right now. As data scientists, social scientists, policy makers, and business gurus scramble to understand how to use, abuse, and criticise such a thing. Big data is consistent of two large disciplines—statistics and computer science. It is the collection and analysis of unthinkably large amounts of aggregated data that is collected and analyzed largely by computer software and algorithms.
Boyd and Crawford (2012) offer a much more precise definition. They assert that Big Data is a “cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon” that can be broken into three interconnected features:
Technology – Computer science, large servers, and complicated algorithms.
Analysis – Using large data-sets compiled from technological techniques to create social, political, cultural and legal claims.
Mythology – Widespread belief of the power of Big Data to offer a superior knowledge that carries immense predictive value.
The big problem that remains is how to find, generate, and collect all of this data? In terms of social media and video games much of this has to do with offering a “free” service to consumers who take the role of the “prosumer”. The prosumer is a social actor that both produces and consumes the commodity they are “paying” for.
In terms of social media (like Facebook), while users interact with each other, they are producing affective or emotional data through liking things, sharing things, and discussing things, that are then collected by algorithms and fed back into the system through targeting advertisements. The user is implicit in both the production and consumption of that data.
The user is given free access to the social media platform, however, they pay for it through giving the platform a transparent window into their lives that is than monetized and sold for large profits. People’s reactions to this form of surveillance are variant: some people offer scathing criticisms, others don’t give two shits, and some act a little more cautious.
Why is this important for Pokémon Go? Because you trade your data and privacy for access to what Pokémon Go has to offer. It is incredibly clever of think tanks in Niantic—using the nostalgic Pokemania to usher users into consenting to ridiculous surveillance techniques.
It gets worse. As Ashley Feinberg from Gawker identified, the people responsible for Niantic have some shady connections to the international intelligence community. Causing some in the surveillance studies field to fear that Pokémon might just be an international intelligence conspiracy (It sounds crazy—but it makes complete sense).
David Murakami Wood coined to the concept of “vanishing surveillance”. This is a phenomenon, intentional and unintentional, that allows surveillance capacities in devices to fade into the background. Resulting in users not being aware, or at least completely aware, that they are being watched. Pokémon Go, an innocent video game that is enabling new ways of being social in public, becomes an invisible surveillance device that may have international and interpersonal consequences. And it is the Pokémon themselves that allow for the surveillance to vanish from sight and mind.
A Culture of Nostalgia
So what drives people to consent to all of this? What kinds of cultural patterns allow and shape us to an almost fanatical state when a Pokémon game is released?
The first factor within the culture of Pokémon is its appeal to nostalgia. Jared Miracle, in a blog post on The Geek Anthropologist, talks about the power of nostalgia. It taps into the childhoods of an entire generation—it even moves outside the obscure boundaries of gamer culture into the larger pop cultural context. It wasn’t only geeks that played Pokémon. It was just about everyone. This might provide an explanation to why so many people are wandering around with their cell phones before them (I’ve seen them wandering around Queen’s campus today, while I was also wandering around).
However, it is not all about nostalgia. I believe that the nostalgia plays a role in a bigger process of the digital sublime and the mythologizing of the power of media.
What is a mythology? According to Vincent Mosco, in his book The Digital Sublime, defines myth as, “stories that animate individuals and societies by providing paths to transcendence that lift people out of the banality of everyday life”. This is a form of reality that represent how people see the world from the every-day-life perspective.
Myths are also implicit in power. “’Myth’ is not merely an anthropological term that one might equate with human values. It is also a political term that inflects human values with ideology… Myths sustain themselves when they are embraced by power, as when legitimate figures… tell them and, in doing so, keep them alive”.
These myths, along with nostalgia for Pokémon paraphernalia, generate the digital sublime. A phenomenon that has us go head over heals for new technology. The mythologies that support it can be positive or negative.
Positive mythologies might sound a little like this: “Pokémon Go is allowing us to leave our homes and experience the world! We meet new people and we are empowered by new ways of interacting with each other. Hurrah!”.
Negative Mythologies are also important: “Pokémon Go is creating a generation of zombies. People are wasting their time catching those stupid Pokémon. They are blindly and dangerously wandering around, falling off cliffs, and invading private property. Damn those immature assholes”.
Both of these mythologies cross over each other to colour the experiences of those who play and those who watch.
We need to be careful of generating mythologies about the capacity for games to facilitate freedom, creativity, and sociality. We also need to be careful not to apply to much criticism. Such mythologies not only create a basic, overly simplistic way of understanding gaming, surveillance, and human culture, it also blinds us to nuance and detail that may be important in its broad understanding.
Drawing things together—A Political Economy of Pokémon
Taking a techno-socio-cultural perspective allows us to engage with Pokémon Go with a nuanced understanding of its positive and negative characteristics. It is possible to look at how this media creates a complex ecosystem of social concerns, political controversies, and cultural engagements with nostalgia, mythologizing, and capitalist enterprise.
Pokémon Go is indeed enabling a ton of new ways of interacting and helping people with mental illness get out of their homes to experience the world—however, we can’t forget that it is also an advance technology developed by those who have interest in money and power.
Regardless of the benefits that are emerging from use of this application, there are still important questions about privacy and the collection and use of Big Data.
So Pokemon Go isn’t just enabling new ways of being social with the larger world. It is enabling new ways of engaging with issues of surveillance, neo-liberal capitalism, and social control through the least expected avenues.
After all of these problematics become more and more public—will we still trade off our freedom for entertainment?
Surveillance is being called ubiquitous by most of the leading scholars who study the social, political, and cultural ramifications of surveillance technology. A focus that I have been studying and thinking about is how surveillance is understood by everyday people living everyday lives.
I do this through the lens of Folklore, the study of everyday life. Or the study of the Folk (lay-person). This is obviously problematic—as such a term equates everyday life with peasantry. So for the remainder of this post I will use the term vernacular performance (i.e. everyday performance).
I’ve written about this work in the past. One of the ways that we demonstrate our cultural anxieties and fears is through the collective performance of legend cycles. In this case, I am speaking about the boogieman of the Internet—the Slender Man.
What is a legend?
Legends are repetitive and variant. Meaning people tell it over and over again, and as it is told and spread it changes form while keeping a central theme. Legends are a performance between storyteller and audience. Meaning that people perform legend cycles. A teller typically recounts a story to a listener or audience. This does include digital legends. Finally, Legends are not constructed by the teller, but by the community. The interaction between the storyteller and the audience constructs the story and allows it to spread. It is a collective process.
The Slender Man is a creature born the performative interactions of a group of users on the forum Something Awful. The Slender Man is a tall, monstrous figure. One that resembles a tall man in a black suit. He has no face, and extraordinarily long arms. He is sometimes depicted with many moving tentacles. All of this, and his many disproportions give it a Lovecraftian appearance. An eldritch monstrosity.
As Tina Marie Boyer (2013) asserts in terms of the Slender Man, “a monster is a cultural construct” (246). And as such, understanding the ‘anatomy’ of a monster sheds light on the problems people face in their day-to-day existence.
What is the anatomy of the Slender Man? I decided to do some ‘fieldwork’—exploring many of the blogs/vlogs that contributed to its legendary constitution. I found three major themes: Surveillance, Social Control, and Secret Agencies. This returns us to the topic of this blog post: The Slender Man is a vernacular performance that demonstrates our collective anxieties of a culture that is under the constant gaze of massive and complicated networks of surveillance.
The Slender Man is known to watch its prey. It is rarely confrontational, though it seems to relish in making its presence known. One scene that sticks out to me is from the YouTube series Marble Hornets—the main protagonist, after becoming increasingly paranoid of the faceless man in a business suit following him began to leave his camera running while he slept—only to discover that the slender man watches from a crack in his door while he sleeps. The Slender Man watches, seemingly from everywhere—but even when it is seen, the Slender Man has no eyes to watch from. It is as if it sees everything from nowhere. The Slender Man appears and vanishes, seemingly at will, haunting victims with little to no motive. The Slender Man represents the phenomenon of ubiquitous surveillance in the virtual world. A world where anonymity and pseudonymity are quickly disappearing. A world where only the experts understand what to surveil and how to read the data such surveillance produces. And a world haunted by faceless watchers.
The Slender Man also represent themes of social control. The most obvious instance of this is the ‘proxies’, otherwise known as the ‘hallowed’. These are people who have been overcome by the Slender Man’s will. In many instances, the Slender Man legend telling ends in the main protagonists going mad and disappearing. They are either killed by the Slender Man (or its minions), disappear from time and space and sometimes memory, or are turned into a proxy. This means, they lose their minds and begin to do the bidding of the Slender Man. In the blog ‘Lost Within the Green Sky’, the main protagonist Danny describes it as a form of indoctrination that slowly drains the will from its victims. Even as a proxy, once their usefulness dries up – they are often killed. This theme is not surprising as it emerges from a cultural context that is known for its pervasive ability to control through silent software mediators.
The Slender Man is also known as The Operator (signified by a circle with an X through it). This name, along with the black suit it wears, makes the Slender Man a clear reference of Secret Agents. Those organizations who haunt the Internet, forcing those who wish to remain anonymous into the depths of TOR browsers and VPN applications. The Slender Man is representative of the NSA, FBI, CIA, CSIS, KGB and other notorious spy agencies operating with little oversight and behind a secretive veil. They are just as faceless as the Slender Man. And just as cryptic. Few understand the significance of their presence. And those who come under its haunting gaze have quite a lot to fear.
Folklore is a small branch of the social sciences. There are few people who work beneath its flag. And fewer of those people study contemporary, digital folklore. However, this does not diminish its importance. Folklore offers us a lens to peer into how everyday people interpret the world through vernacular expression. It is an essential dimension to the surveillance studies canon. An understanding of how people interpret surveillance is essential if we are ever going to take action to educate people about its dangers.
Social media is neither good nor bad, though this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily neutral as it certainly has the potential to exploit and empower. Nicole Costa’s rendition of her experiences and tribulations with Facebook in her recent article My online obsessions: How social media can be a harmful form of communication were incredibly touching. Her refusal and resistance to appearing and contributing to the Facebook community is empowering. However, I believe it is also misleading. Social media and digital exchange and interaction are here to stay (save for some cataclysmic event that knocks out the electrical infrastructure) and because of this I believe that we need to learn how to engage with it productively and ethically. We need to engage with social media in a way that doesn’t jump straight into a moralizing agenda. By this I mean illustrating social media as the savior of humanity or a dystopian wasteland where people’s communication collapses into self-absorbed decadence.
How do we maneuver this politically charged land mine addled cyberspace? First we need to recognize that a great number (in the billions) of the human race use social media (of all sorts) for many reasons. However, this is far too broad, let’s focus on Facebook. Facebook is among the most popular of social media with over 1.5 billion users and growing. It is built into the very infrastructure of communication in the Western world. If you have a mobile phone, you very likely have Facebook. You might even use Facebook’s messenger service more than your text messaging. Facebook allows us to share information, build social movements, rally people together in all sorts of grassroots wonders. As an activist, I’ve used Facebook to run successful campaigns. Why? Everyone uses it, and because of this, it has the power (if used correctly) to amplify your voice. Facebook, and most social media, can be very empowering.
But hold your horses! Facebook is still terrifyingly exploitative. Their access to your personal and meta data is unprecedented. Furthermore, they actively use the data that you give them to haul in billions of dollars. Issues of big data and capitalism are finally coming to the forefront of academic and popular discussion, but the nature of such complicated structures are still shrouded in obscurity. The user sees the interface on their computer monitor. But Facebook sees electronic data points that represent every aspect of the Facebook user(s) in aggregate. Through elaborate surveillance techniques, these data points are collected, organized, stored, and traded on an opaque big data marketplace. Furthermore, the user is not paid for their (large) contribution to the product being sold. They are exploited for their data and their labour—as everything you do on Facebook is a part of the data that is commodified and sold.
At the same time Facebook (and other prominent social media platforms) allow for an unprecedented freedom and speed of communication. They have been embedded into our everyday ways of socializing with each other. New social media have become an invaluable and ubiquitous social resource that we engage in from the time we wake to the time we sleep. It has been used to organize events, rallies and protests. It is used to keep in touch with distant family and friends. It is used for romance, hatred, companionship, and debate. Facebook is playful and empowering.
So if you are like me than you may be absolutely confounded on how to resolve the tensions between Facebook (and other social media) being at the same time exploitative and empowering. We have gone too far down the rabbit hole of social media and digital communication to merely refuse to use it. It is now a intimate part of our social infrastructure. Those who resist through refusal may find themselves at multiple disadvantages in how they engage with the world. My own ethnographic research into why users refused Facebook illustrated that those who abandoned Facebook may have felt empowered by overcoming the “addiction” of social media, however, they also felt excluded and alone. And it must be noted that mostly everyone I talked to who had quit Facebook are now using it again. So clearly, refusal to use these services is not enough to meaningfully challenge problematics in social media.
The Luddites historically were textile workers who were opposed to the invasion of machines into their workplace. Machines that they figured would gouge away at their wages. Today, it is a term used for those who refuse to use certain technologies. In the realm of social media, a Luddite resistance has proved to be incredibly ineffective. It is also important to note that this sort of refusal obscures ways of meaningfully resisting mass surveillance and the exploitation of user data.
I propose the complete opposite. I propose the path of knowledge. We need to learn how to maneuver through social media and the Internet in ways that allow us access to anonymity. Ways of asserting our right to anonymity. This is critical. We need to mobilize and teach and learn through workshops. We need to scour the Internet for free resources on the technical perspectives of social media. We need to also spread awareness of this double edged nature of social media. It is no use to take a stance of refusal, to ignore the importance of social media, and thus remain ignorant to how it all works. When we do this, we actually empower these large capitalist corporations to exploit us that much more. The less we know about the calculus of social media and how it works on a level of algorithm, code and protocol, the more able the capitalists are at disguising and hiding exploitation.
For those of us who have been reading science fiction for some time now—it becomes clear that SF has a strange propensity to becoming prophetic. Many of the themes in science fiction classics are now used as overarching metaphors in mainstream surveillance. Most notably among these is: Orwell’s Big Brother, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Kafka’s Trail. Other common tropes we might refer to is Minority Report, Ender’s Game, and Gattaca.
Though I am not trying to claim that these classics aren’t good pieces of SF literature, they may not do a superb job of covering issues implicit in contemporary surveillance. Imagine George Orwell coming to the realization that the Internet is one humungous surveillance machine with the power of mass, dragnet surveillance. Or imagine Huxley’s reaction to the lulling of consumer affect through branding and advertisement. The power of surveillance tools to control and shape large populations has become a prominent and dangerous feature of the 21st century.
As Richard Hoggart says,
“Things can never quite be the same after we have read—really read—a really good book.”
So let’s stop recycling old metaphors (if I read another surveillance book that references Big Brother or the Panopticon I’m going to switch fields). Let’s look at the work of our own generation of writers and storytellers. What I think we might find is a rich stock of knowledge and cultural data that could illuminate some optics into our (post)human relationship with advance technology.
The reason why I am using mixed media, as opposed to focusing on a singular medium, is that I believe that our relationship with media is not limited to one or the other. Novels, movies, video games, graphic novels and YouTube videos all offer us something in terms of storytelling. Part entertainment, part catharsis premised and constructed through the engagement with the story. Our generation of storytelling has shifted into the realm of mixed media engagement. What follows are some stories that I think are critically important to understanding the human condition in our own generational context.
P.S. They are in no particular order.
Disclaimer: Though I tried to be cautious not to forfeit any critical plot or character points, be careful for spoilers:
SOMA is a survival horror video game released by the developers of Amnesia (another terrifying game), Frictional Games. It is a 2015 science fiction story that both frightens you and an imparts an existential crisis as you struggle to find “human” meaning between the fusion of life and machine. After engaging in a neurological experiment, the main protagonist Simon Jarrett, wakes up in an abandoned underwater facility called PATHOS-II. As opposed to people, Jarrett finds himself trapped with the company of both malicious and benevolent robots—some who believe they are human. The interesting overlap with surveillance here is the focus on neurological surveillance. Scientists (in and out of game) transform the biological brain into a series of data points that represent the original. From this, scientists hope to predict or instill behavior. Or in the case of this game, transform human into machine. This is done by literally uploading the data points of the brain in aggregate to a computer. The game instills a constant question: is there any difference between human consciousness and a copy of human consciousness? SOMA is more than just a scary game—it is a philosophical treatise on the post-human illustrated through an interactive story.
Ready Player One
Ready Player One, is a novel written by Ernest Cline, which covers a wide breath of themes: notably the uneasy relationship between surveillance and anonymity, visibility and hiding. Cline constructs a world that doesn’t seem very far off from our own. A world where people begin to embrace simulation through virtual reality (VR) as environmental disaster plagues the actual world. People hide in the sublime. The VR game, OASIS, a world of many worlds, is the home of many clever pop culture references. Mostly music, video games and movies. With an extra emphasis on science fiction. Embedded in this world of worlds is several “Easter Eggs” (surprises hidden in videogames) that act as a treasure trail to the OSASIS late founder’s fortune and ultimate control over the virtual world. Anonymity is the norm of OASIS—a utopian world where the original, democratic ideal of the Internet is realized. A place where anyone can be anybody—without reference to their actual identity. However, this world is jeopardized as a the corporation Innovative Online Industries is also searching for the Easter Eggs to take over OASIS and remake it to generate capital. The theme of anonymity vs. mass surveillance for profit is arguably a major fuel for global debate as all “places” of the Internet are surveilled in increasingly invasive ways. Anonymity has almost disappeared from the Internet, to be replaced with quasi-public profiles (Facebook and Goggle+) that exist to make billions of dollars off of people’s identities and user-generated content. The original dream of the Internet, sadly has failed.
Nexus is a science fiction novel written by Ramez Naam following characters who are engaged with a new type of “nano-drug” that restructures the human brain so that people can connect mind to mind. There are those who support the drug and those who are against it. This conflict is followed by a slurry of espionage that exposes the characters to incredible dangers. The theme of surveillance in Nexus follows a new fixation on neuroscience. The ability to surveil the very essential, bio-chemical features of the human mind. As well as exposing mind and memory to others participating in this new psychedelic (psychosocial) drug. This is a level of exposure that far supercedes our experiences with the Internet and social media. Imagine being hardwired into a computer network. The book also follows traditional surveillance themes as the main character Kaden Lane becomes entangled in the conflict of private corporations and state government.
Social media in the 21st century has positioned Western society within the context of visibility and exposure. Most people are simultaneously engaged in self-exposure and participatory surveillance—as we post content about our lives and browse and read content about the lives of our friends and family. The Circle by Dave Eggers works this theme through a character, named Mae Holland, who has just been hired by the world’s largest IT company located in a place called the Circle. The Circle is a place, much like a University campus, with literally everything on it. This place boarders utopia—a place where work and play blends. However, following the mantra “All that happens must be known”, social media penetrates the lives of those who exist in the Circle in pervasive and exposing ways. Very quickly, the utopic illusion slips away into dystopia.
Slenderman was, in its bare skeleton form, introduced to the Internet by Eric Knudson on the (in)famous Something Aweful forum board for a paranormal photo editing contest. However, within a year, Slenderman was sucked into a collective narrative construction across all media platforms. People blogged about it, tweeted about it, YouTubed about it. A massive and ever changing (and unstable) urban legend (or Fakelore) was constructed in the chaos of cyberspace. Slenderman, the paranormal creature, can be described as a tall man with unnaturally long arms and legs (and sometimes tentacles), wearing a black suit, with no face. It is usually depicted as a creature who watches, in other words surveils. It watches from obscure areas, slowly driving its victim to paranoia and insanity. Than the victim disappears, without a trace. Slenderman is the contemporary boogieman. But it also shares a narrative with dangerous, obscure, and mysterious secret police and intelligence agencies. As Snowden revealed to the public, governments, through mass surveillance techniques, watch everyone and everything. Could the slenderman narrative be telling of a deep seeded cultural fear of government surveillance in the 21st century? There are many ways to tap into this story—google blogs, tumblr accounts, and twitter accounts. But also, YouTube series’ like Marble Hornets, EverymanHYBRID, and Tribe Twelve. Also check out the genre called Creepypasta for an extra home brewed thrill.
Let’s talk about anonymity. I had just finished a book recently, a really interesting and socially relevant science fiction called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. This book is centered on a technology called OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) which is an immense virtual reality video game. It is comprised of a pastiche (collage) of all of history’s Western pop culture in one seemingly infinite digital space. In other words, this virtual world is a large mash up of Star Wars, Star Trek, Disc World and just about every movie or imaginary world you can conceive of. Very po-mo, I know. What is truly interesting about this world, however, is that its creators—two computer engineers from Gregarious Simulations Systems (GSS)—made the entire world centered on anonymity and Internet freedom. They also provide the game for free to all users. Though there are internal costs and hardware costs in order to use OSASIS fully. It is almost utopic. However, the surrounding physical world has faded away due to neglect and capitalistic exploit and has become frighteningly decadent. So there is a sharp contrast between the utopian paradise of OASIS and the dystopian wasteland of the actual world. As well as the inevitably interconnectivity of these two worlds that make you question if OASIS is actually the utopia it claims to be.
Book Cover Art — Ernest Cline
The concept of anonymity in our society (across many societies) is becoming increasingly important. Even more important is the question of whether or not access to such a social status as anonymity is even possible anymore due to the complex issues of surveillance. The ability to surf the cyberweb as anonymous beings is a skill in computer literacy that is lacking in our educational systems. This is incredibly important because so much of our interaction is now on the Internet and connected mobile devices. Our interactions are thus transparent to various groups with the power or capital to spy on us.
What is anonymity? Gary T. Marx (1999) defines anonymity through a series of features. He writes, “To be fully anonymous means that a person cannot be identified according to any of the seven dimensions of identity knowledge”. These features include: access to legal name, access to a person’s physical address, access to symbolic sets (SIN or biometric data), access to other symbols that may not directly link to legal name and address, distinctive behavioral patterns or appearance (tattoos), social categorization (race, gender, sex and sexuality), and possession of knowledge or artifacts linked with a particular group. It is important to note that pseudonymity and anonymity are two different things. Pseudonyms can be traced back to particular social patterns, groups and other symbols or data that can betray a person’s identity.
This sort of internet utopia, even with the (in)famous TOR browser (anon internet browser), does not exist (nor may it ever exist). Even in the OSASIS anonymity is an illusion as characters build fame and notoriety through the use of pseudonyms. As is even demonstrated in the story of Ready Player One—the characters physical locations and identities are betrayed by their psuedonyms and online behavior.
Ernest Cline’s story tackles very important cultural friction that is currently occurring over the Internet. It is a digitized civil war that is taking place between Internet Service Providers, Multi-national Corporations, and National Security Intelligence groups and hackers/hactivists, open-source coders, computer scientists, and activists. The Internet is not a neutral place. Though, the original ideological projections of the Internet devised this digital “space” to be one of the free sharing of information, knowledge and communication. It has been carved up with imaginary corporate and state boarders. And these boarders are likely to be very opaque, intersect, converge and are difficult to discern. And as the surveillance report in Transparent Livesilluminates,
“…In twenty-first-century Canada, surveillance is expanding steadily as personal data flow, in unprecedented ways, between private and public bodies. The blurring between these agencies may be illustrated in many ways, but the effect of driving more surveillance is common to each case. Public and private bodies have different mandates and different modes of accountability, and personal data become vulnerable to misuse and abuse as the data streams flow in new directions.”
This is especially true when data flows over national boarders where our state laws can no longer protect the data of Canadians.
To sum up my point: we live in an era of mass and mysterious surveillance and it is incredibly problematic that we (including myself) lack the computer literacy to traverse the Internet anonymously. This is an incredibly large societal issue in the Western world (and abroad) as many of us conduct most of our work and social life over the Internet. Cline’s novel, among other things, really speaks to this issue of anonymity and surveillance. The Internet provides us with various “spaces” where we can practice sociality outside of the regular contexts of capitalistic and individualistic life.
I would like to also note that there are many places to learn computer science and coding for free:
There are many other resources over the Internet that you will be able to explore through a Google search: including free courses and video games that teach code as you play. I am incredibly new to this world as well. If you have more sources you would like to share, please feel free to comment below. The way forward in preventing the full carving up of the Internet is to learn to become computer literate so we (those who traverse cyberspace) are able to build and protect safe and open-source spaces.
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.
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. Random House, 2011. Print.
Marx, Gary T., What’s in a Name? Some Reflections on the Sociology of Anonymity. The Information Society, 1999. Web. Sept 17. 2015.