Could you “free” yourself of Facebook?

A 99-day challenge offers a new kind of social media experiment

Could you "free" yourself of Facebook?
(Credit: LoloStock via Shutterstock)

Let’s try a new experiment now, Facebook. And this time, you’re the subject.

Remember just last month, when the monolithic social network revealed that it had been messing with its users’ minds as part of an experiment? Writing in PNAS, Facebook researchers disclosed the results of a study that showed it had tinkered with the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users, highlighting either more positive or more negative content, to learn if “emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people.” What they found was that “When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.” More significantly, after the news of the study broke, they discovered that people get pretty creeped out when they feel like their personal online space is being screwed with, and that their reading and posting activity is being silently monitored and collected – even when the terms of service they agreed to grant permission to do just that. And they learned that lawmakers in the U.S. and around the world question the ethics of Facebook’s intrusion.

Now, a new campaign out of Europe is aiming to do another experiment involving Facebook, its users and their feelings. But this time Facebook users aren’t unwitting participants but willing volunteers. And the first step involves quitting Facebook. The 99 Days of Freedom campaign started as an office joke at Just, a creative agency in the Netherlands. But the company’s art director Merijn Straathof says it quickly evolved into a bona fide cause. “As we discussed it internally, we noted an interesting tendency: Everyone had at least a ‘complicated’ relationship with Facebook. Whether it was being tagged in unflattering photos, getting into arguments with other users or simply regretting time lost through excessive use, there was a surprising degree of negative sentiment.” When the staff learned that Facebook’s 1.2 billion users “spend an average of 17 minutes per day on the site, reading updates, following links or browsing photos,” they began to wonder what that time might be differently applied to – and whether users would find it “more emotionally fulfilling.”



The challenge – one that close to 9,000 people have already taken – is simple. Change your FB avatar to the “99 Days of Freedom” one to let friends know you’re not checking in for the next few months. Create a countdown. Opt in, if you wish, to be contacted after 33, 66 and 99 days to report on your satisfaction with life without Facebook. Straathof says everyone at Just is also participating, to “test that one firsthand.”

Straathof and company say the goal isn’t to knock Facebook, but to show users the “obvious emotional benefits to moderation.” And, he adds, “Our prediction is that the experiment will yield a lot of positive personal experiences and, 99 days from now, we’ll know whether that theory has legs.” The anecdotal data certainly seems to support it. Seductive as FB, with its constant flow of news and pet photos, may be, you’d be hard-pressed to find a story about quitting it that doesn’t make getting away from it sound pretty great. It’s true that grand experiments, especially of a permanent nature, have never gotten off the ground. Four years ago, a group of disgruntled users tried to gather momentum for a Quit Facebook Day that quietly went nowhere. But individual tales certainly make a compelling case for, if not going cold turkey, at least scaling back. Elizabeth Lopatto recently wrote in Forbes of spending the past eight years Facebook free and learning that “If you really are interested in catching up with your friends, catch up with your friends. You don’t need Facebook to do it.” And writing on EliteDaily this past winter, Rudolpho Sanchez questioned why “We allow our successes to be measured in little blue thumbs” and declared, “I won’t relapse; I’ve been liberated. It’s nice not knowing what my fake friends are up to.” Writing a few weeks later in Business Insider, Dylan Love, who’d been on FB since he was an incoming college student 10 years ago, gave it up and reported his life, if not improved, remarkably unchanged, “except I’m no longer devoting mental energy to reading about acquaintances from high school getting married or scrolling through lots of pictures of friends’ vacation meals.” And if you want a truly persuasive argument, try this: My teenager has not only never joined Facebook, she dismissively asserts that she doesn’t want to because “It’s for old people.”

Facebook, of course, doesn’t want you to consider that you might be able to maintain your relationships or your sense of delight in the world without it. When my mate and I went away for a full week recently, we didn’t check in on social media once the whole time. Every day, with increasing urgency, we received emails from Facebook alerting us to activity in our feeds that we surely wanted to check. And since I recently gutted my friend list, I’ve been receiving a bevy of suggested people I might know. Why so few friends, lonely lady? Why so few check-ins? Don’t you want more, more, more?

I don’t know if I need to abandon Facebook entirely – I like seeing what people I know personally and care about are up to, especially those I don’t get to see in the real world that often. That connection has often been valuable, especially through our shared adventures in love, illness and grief, and I will always be glad for it. But a few months ago I deleted the FB app, which makes avoiding Facebook when I’m not at my desk a no-brainer. No more stealth checking my feed from the ladies’ room. No more spending time expressing my “like” of someone’s recent baking success when I’m walking down the street. No more “one more status update before bed” time sucks. And definitely no more exasperation when FB insistently twiddles with my news feed to show “top stories” when I prefer “most recent.” It was never a huge part of my life, but it’s an even smaller part of it now, and yeah, it does feel good. I recommend it. Take Just’s 99-day challenge or just a tech Sabbath or just scale back a little. Consider it an experiment. One in which the user, this time, is the winner.

Mary Elizabeth Williams Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of “Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.” Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/11/could_you_free_yourself_of_facebook/?source=newsletter

After you’re gone, what happens to your social media and data?

Web of the dead: When Facebook profiles of the deceased outnumber the living

Web of the dead: When Facebook profiles of the deceased outnumber the living

There’s been chatter — and even an overly hyped study — predicting the eventual demise of Facebook.

But what about the actual death of Facebook users? What happens when a social media presence lives beyond the grave? Where does the data go?

The folks over at WebpageFX looked into what they called “digital demise,” and made a handy infographic to fully explain what happens to your Web presence when you’ve passed.

It was estimated that 30 million Facebook users died in the first eight years of the social media site’s existence, according to the Huffington Post. Facebook even has settings to memorialize a deceased user’s page.

Facebook isn’t the only site with policies in place to handle a user’s passing. Pinterest, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter all handle death and data differently. For instance, to deactivate a Facebook profile you must provide proof that you are an immediate family member; for Twitter, however, you must produce the death certificate and your identification. All of the sites pinpointed by WebpageFX stated that your data belongs to you — some with legal or family exceptions.

Social media sites are in in general a young Internet phenomena — Facebook only turned 10 this year. So are a majority of their users. (And according to Mashable, Facebook still has a large number of teen adapters.) Currently, profiles of the living far outweigh those of the dead.



However, according to calculations done by XKDC, that will not always be the case. They presented two hypothetical scenarios. If Facebook loses its “cool” and market share, dead users will outnumber the living in 2065. If Facebook keeps up its growth, the site won’t be a digital graveyard until the mid 2100s.

Check out the fascinating infographic here.

h/t Mashable

http://www.salon.com/2014/06/24/web_of_the_dead_when_facebook_profiles_of_the_deceased_outnumber_the_living/?source=newsletter

Facebook is giving folks more control over which ads they’ll get, while also plowing deeper into user data

Facebook’s faux transparency: The company is rolling out a new ad plan while digging deeper into user data

 

Facebook's faux transparency: The company is rolling out a new ad plan while digging deeper into user data
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Credit: AP/Jeff Chiu)

Today you may have received a notification from Facebook that said: “We’re improving ads based on apps and sites you use, and giving you control. Learn more.” Clicking on that notification probably brought you to this video:

Facebook has long been sharing user info with advertisers based on on what you might “like” on Facebook, list as an interest or click on your newsfeed, according to The Verge. And now, they’re actually notifying users about the process.

It is part of new Facebook advertising features. Next week, users will be able to click a drop-down menu on a particular advertisement and see why you are targeted with that particular ad. Users will also be able to view their entire “ad preferences” and make alterations to them. Seems pretty great, right? After all, Facebook did say they are “giving you control.”

Well, yes and no. The New York Times explains:

“Facebook’s move also comes as the Federal Trade Commission and the White House have called on Congress to pass legislation that would better protect consumers’ private data, including requiring companies to give people more control over the digital files collected on them.

“It is unclear how privacy advocates and public officials will react to Facebook’s efforts to provide more clarity about how its ads work. The F.T.C., which was briefed on the company’s intentions, had no immediate comment. Users will start seeing the changes within the next few weeks.

“Although Facebook will now give its users a way to modify the customer profiles that drive the ads they see, users can’t completely get rid of ads. If people were to delete everything Facebook had collected about them, they would simply see generic pitches. Nor it is clear what level of detail a user can control.”



At the end of the day, our “control” really just helps the company learn more about us, and target us with more specific ads. You know, because you really wanted Facebook to help you buy a new TV, or suggest a new brand. The move is disingenuous and creepy. And while there is the possibility of changing ads to not fit who you are, you are still being bombarded with ads — for stuff you don’t even like. Basically, users are feeding this tech giant more information so they can make money under the guise of user control.

To top it all off, Facebook also announced that it was going to start using more than just “likes” and other Facebook activity, it is also going to dig into Web browser and smartphone data to help target ads. According to The Verge, Facebook has had this data for a while, but was mainly using it for security purposes.

Users can opt out of this data sharing, but they’ll have to visit the Digital Advertising Alliance on their computers, and adjust settings on their smartphones.

h/t The Verge, The New York Times

http://www.salon.com/2014/06/12/facebooks_faux_transparency_the_company_is_rolling_out_a_new_ad_plan_while_digging_deeper_into_user_data/?source=newsletter

Who Really Owns The Internet?

http://gagful.com/uploads/2011_12/1322992719_nothing_is_fun_in_the_internet_anymore_gag.jpg

Why are a tiny handful of people making so much money off of material produced for nothing or next-to-nothing by so many others? Why do we make it so easy for Internet moguls to avoid stepping on to what one called “the treadmill of paying for content”? Who owns the Internet?

In her excellent new book The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor thinks through issues of money and power in the age of the Internet with clarity, nuance, and wit. (The book is fun to read, even as it terrifies you about the future of culture and of the economy.) She brings to bear her estimable experience as a documentary filmmaker—she is the director of two engaging films about philosophy, Zizek! And Examined Life—as well as a publisher and musician. For the past several months, she has been on the road performing with the reunion tour of Neutral Milk Hotel (she is married to the band’s lead singer, Jeff Magnum). We spoke over coffee on the Lower East Side during a brief break from her tour.

Can we solve the issues that you talk about without radically reorganizing the economy?

No. (Laughs) Which I think is why I’ve been so active. I’ve been thinking about this in connection with all these writers who are coming up who found each other through Occupy, and why all of us were willing to participate in that uprising despite all the problems and the occasional ridiculousness of it.

But the economy can be revolutionized or the economy can be reformed, and I don’t discount the latter option. That level of social change happens in unpredictable ways. It’s actually harder to think of a revolutionary event that has had a positive outcome, whereas there have been lots of reforms and lots of things that people have done on the edges that have had powerful consequences. Would I like to see an economic revolution? Definitely. But I think there are a lot of ways to insert a kind of friction into the system that can be beneficial.

This book is about economics, and the amazing, probably very American ability to not talk about economics—particularly with technology, which is supposed to be this magical realm, so pure and disruptive and unpredictable that it transcends economic conditions and constraints. The basic idea is that that’s not the case.

To a lot of people this is self-evident, but I was surprised at how outside the mainstream conversation that insight was. When money is brought up, there’s this incredible romanticism, like the Yochai Benkler quote about being motivated by things other than money. But we’re talking about platforms that go to Goldman Sachs to handle their IPOs. Money is here. Wake up!

The people at the top are making money.

In that conversation about creativity and work, there’s so much ire directed at cultural elites. And rightly so. Newspapers suck. They’re not doing the job that they could do for us. Book publishers publish crap. Cultural elites deserve criticism. The punching bags of this Web 2.0 conversation all deserve it. But when we let the economic elites off the hook, that’s feeding into the tradition of right-wing populism. Ultimately, the guys getting rich behind the curtain aren’t being treated as the real enemies.

You mention that when you wrote to people who posted your films online, you either received no response or a very angry response.

One thing I took away from that experience is that it’s almost as though people really believe that the Internet is a library. “I should be able to watch on YouTube a full-length film about philosophy. It’s a library, it should be full of edifying, enlightening things!

My response was that I spent two years making this film, and I want a window—I didn’t ask them to take it down forever, I asked for a grace period of I think two months. Conceptually, we’re not grasping the fact that even though there are private platforms that increase our access to things, first those things have to exist. How have we not thought through how these products are funded?

I empathized with the person on the other end, who wanted these films. I made them because I hoped that people would want them. But I can’t invest another two years of my life in an esoteric and expensive production if all I can do is put it on YouTube and pray that it goes viral.

And even if it goes viral, you might not make any money from it.

Right. The whole model doesn’t work in that context. And I can see both sides. Especially on the copyright issue. As a documentary filmmaker, you’re so dependent on gleaning from the world, gleaning from other people’s creations. You’re not always the author of the words on the screen. I don’t want some closed, locked-down scenario where every utterance is closed and monitored by algorithms who have no ethical imperatives and have no nuance and who don’t understand fair use.

Another person I’ve talked to for this series is Benjamin Kunkel, who said his introduction to Marxist theory is already a bit antiquated because of Jesse Myerson’s Rolling Stone article, which recommends, among other things, a universal basic income. As I was reading your book, I was thinking about how a universal basic income might help.

I actually mention universal income in passing, in the chapter that looks at the enthusiasm for amateurism that was actually a bit more prominent a few years ago, when I started writing. “We finally have a platform that allows non-professionals to participate!There were things in that conversation that were so reminiscent of utopian predictions from centuries past about how machines would free us to live the life of a poet. “We’ll only work four hours a day.Why didn’t those visions come to pass? Because those machines were not harnessed by the people. They were harnessed by the ruling elite.

I was struck by how ours is a diminished utopianism. It wasn’t that we would use these machines to free us from labor; it was that now in our stolen minutes after work we can go online and be on social media. How did it come to this, that’s that all we can hope for? And the answer is in how the economy has been reshaped by neoliberalism or whatever you want to call it over the last few decades.

The idea of labor-saving devices has been around. Oscar Wilde, Keynes. But it was pretty common in the 1960s, when there was a robust social safety net. So I think you’re exactly right, that we need something in the public-policy and social sphere, not the technological sphere, to address these issues.

It’s great that people are talking about a universal income, at least in our little tiny circles. You step outside bubble of the young intellectual left of New York, and people will say: What the fuck are you talking about?

We think this idea is getting traction, but it’s because we all follow each other online and we’re all reading the same magazines. Not everyone is reading Kathi Weeks or Ben Kunkel in their free time. I don’t agree with Ben that his book is out of date because of that one article in Rolling Stone. We need to keep harping on these basic concepts.

I think it’s a ripe time for it, considering recent research into the employment prospects for millenials. College indebtedness is insane right now. That’s why I got involved with StrikeDebt. When the economy is forcing you to separate the romantic idea of what you consider your calling from what you have to do for money since there are no fucking jobs that have anything to do with your degree, you start to think that maybe a universal income might make a lot of sense.

If the economy won’t support you to do what you love for a living, you’re already halfway there.

Can you talk about Occupy and how you got involved?

I was working on this book before Occupy, and the tech realm was where a lot of our political hopes were being invested. If you think back, there wasn’t a vibrant protest movement in the US. Instead, there was this idea of democracy through social media, and technologically-enabled protests abroad. That might account a bit for why I gravitated towards this subject.

Then Occupy happened. If anything, it distracted me from The People’s Platform. I wound up putting out five issues of the Occupy Gazette with n+1. Then I got roped into, or rather I roped myself into, this offshoot of Occupy called StrikeDebt that has been doing the Rolling Jubilee campaign.

But my work with the Occupy campaign suffused my analysis more and more. Calling attention to the economic elite fits very well into Occupy’s idea of the ninety-nine percent and the one percent. The amount of value being hoarded by these companies is just mind-boggling.

So these projects did go in tandem. Both of them are thinking about power today. In this book, I was trying to think through how power operates in the technological sphere generally, but particularly in relationship to media. So no longer are you just watching what’s been chosen for you on television. Now you’re supposed to be the agent of your own destiny, clicking around. But there’s still power; there’s still money.

People will say, “How can you criticize these technological tools that helped people overthrow dictators?We constantly use this framework of the people against the authoritarian dictator. There was a lot of buzz about how social media empowered the protests in the Middle East which mostly turned out to be false. But what about the US? There’s no dictator. There’s a far more complicated power dynamic. The challenge of our generation is how you build economic association and aggregate economic power when you’re not going to be doing conventional workplace organizing, because there are no jobs, let alone stable, long-term jobs.

So, this is depressing. Could you talk about solutions?

The solutions aren’t that radical: The library model that we project on to the Internet but that doesn’t quite fit—we can invent something analogous to it. There are lots of cool things we could be doing. But we’re locked into this model that’s really stupid and inefficient: the advertising model. That’s the most ridiculous way to create these services and platforms. The advertising model is commonsensical because it’s common, but it’s not sensical.

What would socialized social media—and non-social media—look like?

Ben Kunkel has an essay where he talks a bit about this. But first, we have to get away from the idea that the government is the bad guy. One thing that we’ve learned in the wake of the NSA scandals is that the public and private sectors are really intertwined; government surveillance piggybacks off of corporate surveillance. It might be less technological and more about funding things for their own sake. If you look at countries with robust cultural policies, under the broadcast model a lot of them instate quotas. There would be a lot of protectionist regulations, and they would invest in their own work.

Quotas are complicated, obviously. But you can look to the model of public broadcasting. Public broadcasting wasn’t a government propaganda machine. Liberals and conservatives both worry that this would create something bland. But when public broadcasting came under fire, it was usually for being too edgy and provocative. There are mechanisms that you can introduce to prevent whatever visions of sad iron-curtain art you have in your head.

One thing that comes up a lot in some liberal critiques of Edward Snowden is that he might be a libertarian.

I don’t know Snowden, so I can’t comment on him. But I think that a lot of us are libertarians. Libertarianism is the default ideology of our day because there’s something deeply appealing about the idea of free agents—people on their own in charge of their own destinies. That has to do with the retreat of institutions from our lives, which results in an inability to imagine a positive role for them to play. We’re still dependent on institutions; we just don’t recognize it or give them much credit.

This ubiquitous libertarianism, particularly in tech circles, was a major target of my book. All of these things you want these tools to bring about—an egalitarian sphere, a sphere where the best could rise to the top, one that is not dominated by old Goliaths—within the libertarian framework, you’ll never get there. You have to have a more productive economic critique.

But I also think that if you’re on the left, you need to recognize what’s appealing about libertarianism. It’s the emphasis on freedom. We need to articulate a left politics that has freedom at its center. We can’t be afraid of freedom or individuality, and we need to challenge the idea that equality and freedom are somehow contradictions.

At the same time, even on the radical left, there’s a knee-jerk suspicion of institutions. When we criticize institutions that serve as buffers or bastions against market forces, the right wins out more. It’s a complicated thing.

When I defend institutions in this book, I knew I might provoke my more radical friends. The position that everything is corrupt—journalism is corrupt, educational institutions are corrupt, publishers are corrupt—sounds great. And on some level it’s true. They’ve disappointed us. But we need more and better—more robust, more accountable—institutions. So I tried to move out of the position of just criticizing those arrangements and enumerating all their flaws and all the ways they’ve failed us. What happens when we’ve burned all these institutions to the ground and it’s just us and Google?

One of my favorite aspects of your book is your emphasis on the physical aspects of the Internet. It reminded me of the scene in Examined Life where Zizek is standing on the garbage heap, talking about how material stuff disappears.

That image we have of the Internet as weightless—it’s so high-tech it doesn’t really exist!—is part of why we misunderstand it. There are some people doing good work around this, people like Andrew Blum, who wrote the book Tubes, asking what the Internet is. There’s infrastructure. It’s immense, and it’s of great consequence, especially as more and more of our lives move online. The materiality is really important to keep in mind.

We’re moving to a place where we have a better of grasp of this. People are finally realizing that the online and the offline are not separate realms. It’s not really like I have my online life where I’m pretending to be a 65-year-old man in a chat room, and then I’m Astra at the coffee shop. Those identities are as complicated and as coherent as any human identity has ever been. That can extend towards thinking about objects.

The other night I was re-reading Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers—the sort of book that makes you feel like you’re just reheated whatever, and that this person did it so much better the first time around. He outlines planned obsolescence, stuff made to break. It’s so relevant to our gadgets, our technology. He wrote it in 1960, at that moment where the economy had been saturated, so everybody had their fridge and their car. So how do you keep GDP going up? It’s actually patriotic to make things that break.

You talk about Steve Jobs in that context.

Steve Jobs is the ultimate incarnation of that plan. You have to have a new iPod every year. But he presented himself as this artist-craftsman who would never sacrifice quality. That’s such a lie.

You talk about how both sides of the Internet debate, if you will, see a radical break with the past, whereas you see more continuity.

I think that that’s crucial to understanding where we’re at. This standard assumption that there would be a massive transformation blocked us from seeing the obvious outcomes and set us back in terms of having a grasp on our current condition. If we had gone into it with a bit more realism, more respect for the power of the market, less faith in technology’s ability to transcend it, we’d be better off.

Could you say more about respect for the power of the market?

You don’t want to be too deterministic, I suppose, but the market drives the development of these tools. Especially once you’ve gone public and you’re beholden to your shareholders.

There’s confusion because we’ve been here before with the first tech boom. One thing that got me thinking about this—and that confused me—was that I came to New York right at the tail end of that. I didn’t work for a startup or anything like that, but I had friends who did, friends who were fired. I followed what was happening in the Bay Area, they lost hundreds of thousands of jobs. You think: okay, we learned from that. We learned that because of the way the market sought investments, they propped up some really stupid ideas, there was a bubble, and it burst. What’s amazing to me is that fifteen years later, the same commentators are suddenly back, talking about social media, Web 2.0, and making proclamations about how the culture will evolve. You were wrong then, partially because you ignored the financial aspect of what was going on, and here you are again, ignoring the money. Give the market its due.

Do you have advice for what people—people like me—who write or produce other work for the Internet can do about this situation?

I’m encouraged by all these little magazines that have started in the last few years. Building institutions, even if they’re small, is a very powerful thing, so that we’re less isolated. When you’re isolated, you’re forced into the logic of building our own brand. If you build something together, you’re more able to focus on endeavors that don’t immediately feed into that. That’s what an institution can buy you—the space to focus on other things.

What would help creators more than anything else in this country are things that would help other workers: Real public health care, real social provisions. Artists are people like everybody else; we need the same things as our barista.

I quote John Lennon: “You think you’re so clever and classless and free. One thing we need is an end to artist exceptionalism. When we can see our connection to other precarious people in the economy, that’s when interesting things could happen. When we justify our position with our own specialness…

You talk about how Steve Jobs would tell his employees that they were artists.

Right. How could you ask to be properly compensated, don’t you see that you’re supposed to be an artist? Grad students were given that advice, too.

That’s where this ties in to Miya Tokumitsu’s essay on the problems with the concept of “Do What You Love.”

Exactly. Now, precarity shouldn’t be a consequence of being an artist. Everyone should have more security. But it’s more and more the condition of our time. One thing I say in passing is that the ethos of the artist—someone who is willing to work around the clock with no security, and who will keep on working after punching out the clock—that attitude is more and more demanded of everyone in the economy. Maybe artists can be at the vanguard of saying no to that. But yes, there would have to be a psychological shift where people would have to accept being less special.

David Burr Gerrard’s debut novel, Short Century, has just been released by Rare Bird Books. He can be followed on Twitter. The interview has been condensed and edited.

http://www.theawl.com/2014/04/who-owns-the-internet

The Rise of the Digital Proletariat

In open systems, discrimination and barriers can become invisibilized,’ says author and activist Astra Taylor. (Deborah DeGraffenreid.)

Astra Taylor reminds us that the Internet cannot magically produce revolution.

BY Sarah Jaffe

It really challenges the notion that we’re all on these social media platforms purely by choice, because there’s a real obligatory dimension to so much of this.

The conversation about the impact of technology tends to be binary: Either it will save us, or it will destroy us. The Internet is an opportunity for revolution; our old society is being “disrupted”; tech-savvy college dropouts are rendering the staid elite obsolete. Or else our jobs are being lost to automation and computers; drones wipe out families on their wedding day; newly minted millionaires flush with tech dollars are gentrifying San Francisco at lightning speed.

Neither story is completely true, of course. In her new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, out now from Metropolitan Books, Astra Taylor takes on both the techno-utopians and the techno-skeptics, reminding us that the Internet was created by the society we live in and thus is more likely to reflect its problems than transcend them. She delves into questions of labor, culture and, especially, money, reminding us who profits from our supposedly free products. She builds a strong case that in order to understand the problems and potentials of technology, we have to look critically at the market-based society that produced it.

Old power dynamics don’t just fade away, she points out—they have to be destroyed. That will require political action, struggle, and a vision of how we want the Internet (and the rest of our society) to be. I spoke with Taylor about culture, creativity, the possibility of nationalizing Facebook and more.

Many people know you as a filmmaker or as an activist with Occupy and Strike Debt. How do you see this book fitting in with the other work you’ve done?

Initially I saw it as a real departure, and now that it’s done, I recognize the continuity. I felt that the voices of culture makers were left out of the debate about the consequences of Internet technology. There are lots of grandiose statements being made about social change and organizing and about how social media tools are going to make it even easier for us to aggregate and transform the world. I felt there was a role I could play rooted in my experiences of being a culture maker and an activist. It was important for somebody grounded in those areas to make a sustained effort to be part of the conversation. I was really troubled that people on all sides of the political spectrum were using Silicon Valley rhetoric to describe our new media landscape. Using terms like “open” and “transparent” and saying things were “democratizing” without really analyzing those terms. A big part of the book was just trying to think through the language we’re using and to look at the ideology underpinning the terminology that’s now so commonplace.

You make the point in the book that the Internet and the offline world aren’t two separate worlds. Can you talk about that a bit more?

It’s amazing that these arguments even need to be made. That you need to point out that these technologies cannot just magically overcome the structures and material conditions that shape regular life.

It harkens back to previous waves of technological optimism. People have always invested a lot of hope in their tools. I talk about the way that we often imbue our machines with the power to liberate us. There was lots of hope that machines would be doing all of our labor and that we would have, as a society, much more free time, and that we would have this economy of abundance because machines would be so dramatically improved over time. The reasons that those predictions never came to pass is because machines are embedded in a social context and the rewards are siphoned off by the elite.

The rise of the Internet really fits that pattern. We can see that there is this massive shifting of wealth [to corporations]. These gigantic digital companies are emerging that can track and profit from not just our online interactions, but increasingly things that we’re doing away from the keyboard. As we move towards the “Internet-of-things,” more and more of the devices around us are going to have IP addresses and be leaking data. These are avenues for these companies that are garnering enormous power to increase their wealth.

The rhetoric a few years ago was that these companies are going to vanquish the old media dinosaurs. If you read the tech books from a few years ago, it’s just like “Disney and these companies are so horrible. Google is going to overthrow them and create a participatory culture.” But Google is going to be way more invasive than Mickey Mouse ever was.

Google’s buying drone companies.

Google’s in your car, Google’s in your thermostat, it’s in your email box. But then there’s the psychological element. There was this hope that you could be anyone you wanted to be online. That you could pick an avatar and be totally liberated from your offline self. That was a real animating fantasy. That, too, was really misleading. Minority groups and women are often forced back into their real bodies, so to speak. They’re not given equal access to the supposedly open space of the Internet.

This is one of the conversations that I think your book is incredibly relevant to right now. Even supposedly progressive spaces are still dominated by white people, mostly men, and there’s a real pushback against women and people of color who are using social media.

It’s been amazing how much outrage can get heaped on one person who’s making critical observations about an institution with such disproportionate power and reach.

The new media elites end up looking a whole lot like the old ones. The other conversations about race and gender and the Internet recently has been about these new media websites that are launched with a lot of fanfare, that have been funded in many cases by Silicon Valley venture capital, that are selling themselves as new and rebellious and exciting and a challenge to the old media—the faces of them are still white men.

The economic rewards flow through the usual suspects. Larry Lessig has done a lot of interesting work around copyright. But he wrote basically that we need to cheer on the Facebooks of the world because they’re new and not the old media dinosaurs. He has this line about “Stanford is vanquishing Harvard.” We need something so much more profound than that.

This is why I really take on the concept of “openness.” Because open is not equal. In open systems, discrimination and barriers can become invisibilized. It’s harder to get your mind around how inequitable things actually are. I myself follow a diverse group of people and feel like Twitter is full of people of color or radicals. But that’s because I’m getting a very distorted view of the overall picture.

I think it’s helpful to look at the handful of examples of these supposedly open systems in action. Like Wikipedia, which everyone can contribute to. Nonetheless, only like 15 percent of the editors are women. Even the organizations that are held up as exemplars of digital democracy, there’s still such structural inequality. By the time you get to the level of these new media ventures that you’re talking about, it’s completely predictable.

We really need to think through these issues on a social level. I tried to steer the debate away from our addiction to our devices or to crappy content on the Internet, and really take a structural view. It’s challenging because ultimately it comes down to money and power and who has it and how do you wrest it away and how do you funnel some of it to build structures that will support other types of voices. That’s far more difficult than waiting around for some new technology to come around and do it for you.

You write about this tension between professional work from the amateurs who are working for free and the way the idea of doing work for the love of it has crept in everywhere. Except people are working longer hours than ever and they’re making less money than ever, and who has time to come home at the end of your two minimum wage jobs and make art?

It would be nice to come out and say follow your heart, do everything for the love of it, and things’ll work out. Artists are told not to think about money. They’re actively encouraged to deny the economic sphere. What that does though is it obscures the way privilege operates—the way that having a trust fund can sure be handy if you want to be a full time sculptor or digital video maker.

I think it’s important that we tackle these issues. That’s where I look at these beautiful predictions about the way these labor-saving devices would free us all and the idea that the fruits of technological advancement would be evenly shared. It’s really interesting how today’s leading tech pundits don’t pretend that [the sharing is] going to be even at all. Our social imagination is so diminished.

There’s something really off about celebrating amateurism in an economy where people are un- and under-employed, and where young people are graduating with an average of $30,000 of student debt. It doesn’t acknowledge the way that this figure of the artist—[as] the person who loves their work so much that they’ll do it for nothing—is increasingly central to this precarious labor force.

I quote this example of people at an Apple store asking for a raise and the response was “When you’re working for Apple, money shouldn’t be a consideration.” You’re supposed to just love your work so much you’ll exploit yourself. That’s what interning is. That’s what writing for free is when you’re hoping to get a foot in the door as a journalist. There are major social implications if that’s the road we go down. It exacerbates inequality, because who can afford to do this kind of work?

Of course, unpaid internships are really prevalent in creative fields.

Ultimately, it’s a corporate subsidy. People are sometimes not just working for free but then also going into debt for college credit to do it. In a way, all of the unpaid labor online is also a corporate subsidy. I agree that calling our participation online “labor” is problematic because it’s not clear exactly how we’re being exploited, but the point is the value being extracted. We need to talk about that value extraction and the way that people’s free participation feeds into it.

Of course we enjoy so much of what we do online. People enjoy creating art and culture and doing journalism too. The idea that work should only be well-compensated and secure if it makes you miserable ultimately leads to a world where the people who feel like they should make a lot of money are the guys on Wall Street working 80 hours a week. It’s a bleak, bleak view.

In many ways the problem with social media is it does break down this barrier between home and work. You point this out in the book–it’s everywhere, you can’t avoid it, especially if you are an independent creative person where you have to constantly promote your own work, or it is part of your job. There’s now the Wages for Facebook conversation—people are starting to talk about the way we are creating value for these companies.

It really challenges the notion that we’re all on these social media platforms purely by choice, because there’s a real obligatory dimension to so much of this. Look also at the way we talk to young people. “Do you want a college recruiter to see that on your Facebook profile?” What we’re really demanding is that they create a Facebook profile that appeals to college recruiters, that they manage a self that will help them get ahead.

I was at a recent talk about automation and the “end of jobs,” and one researcher said that the jobs that would be hardest to automate away would be ones that required creativity or social intelligence—skills that have been incredibly devalued in today’s economy, only in part because of technology.

Those skills are being pushed out of the economy because they’re supposed to be things you just choose to do because they’re pleasurable. There is a paradox there. Certain types of jobs will be automated away, that can be not just deskilled but done better by machines, and meanwhile all the creative jobs that can’t be automated away are actually considered almost superfluous to the economy.

The thing about the jobs conversation is that it’s a political question and a policy question as well as a technological question. There can be lots of different types of jobs in the world if we invest in them. This question of what kind of jobs we’re going to have in the future. So much of it is actually comes down to these social decisions that we’re making. The technological aspect has always been overhyped.

You do bring up ideas like a basic income and shorter working hours as ways to allow people to have time and money for culture creation.

The question is, how do you get there? You’d have to have a political movement, you’d have to challenge power. They’re not just going to throw the poor people who’ve had their jobs automated away a bone and suddenly provide a basic income. People would really have to organize and fight for it. It’s that fight, that element of antagonism and struggle that isn’t faced when we just think tools are evolving rapidly and we’ll catch up with them.

The more romantic predictions about rising prosperity and the inevitable increase in free time were made against the backdrop of the post-war consensus of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. There was a social safety net, there were structures in place that redistributed wealth, and so people made predictions colored by that social fabric, that if there were advancements in our tools that they would be shared by people. It just shows the way that the political reality shapes what we can collectively imagine.

Finally, you make the case for state-subsidized media as well as regulations—for ensuring that people have the ability to make culture as well as consume it. You note that major web companies like Google and Facebook operate like public utilities, and that nationalizing them would be a really hard sell, and yet if these things are being founded with government subsidies and our work, they are in a sense already ours.

The invisible subsidy is the thing that we really have to keep in mind. People say, “Where’s the money going to come from?” We’re already spending it. So much innovation is the consequence of state investment. Touchscreens, the microchip, the Internet itself, GPS, all of these things would not exist if the government had not invested in them, and the good thing about state investment is it takes a much longer view than short-term private-market investment. It can have tremendous, socially valuable breakthroughs. But all the credit for these innovations and the financial rewards is going to private companies, not back to us, the people, whose tax dollars actually paid for them.

You raise a moral question: If we’re paying for these things already, then shouldn’t they in some sense be ours? I think the answer is yes. There are some leverage points in the sense that these companies like to talk about themselves as though they actually are public utilities. There’s this public-spiritedness in their rhetoric but it doesn’t go deep enough—it doesn’t go into the way they’re actually run. That’s the gap we need to bridge. Despite Silicon Valley’s hostility to the government and the state, and the idea that the Internet is sort of this magic place where regulation should not touch, the government’s already there. We just need it to be benefiting people, not private corporations.

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

Grumpy Cat, Keyboard Cat and other felines are helping cats (and their owners) build careers on and off YouTube.

 


The Growing Economy of Internet Cat Videos

(Yep, It’s Real)

Photo Credit: Veda J Gonzalez/ Shutterstock.com

The economy of internet cat videos? Yes, it’s a real thing. The Internet Cat Video Festival? Another real thing. A “meme manager” whose job is to build online brands for Keyboard Cat, Nyan Cat and Grumpy Cat? Oh yes, he’s real too.

Veteran You’ve Been Framed viewers will attest to the fact that funny cat videos were a thing long before YouTube, but cats of all shapes, sizes and degrees of grumpiness have become one of the defining content categories on Google’s video service.

A panel session at the SXSW conference this weekend dug into some of the business aspects around this phenomenon, helmed by Scott Stulen, curator of the Internet Cat Video Festival – a travelling jamboree of feline videos which sold 11,000 tickets at last year’s Minnesota State Fair – 3,000 more than Depeche Mode.

The festival has since toured the US, and popped up in Vienna, Jerusalem and Derry. “At each of these events, people showed up their passion for cat videos,” said Stulen, who stressed that the festival itself is a “break-even” event: “it basically just pays for itself, and that’s been the intent from the beginning.”

Stulen was joined on the panel by Will Braden, creator of YouTube channel Henri le Chat Noir, a series of moody “existential” videos shot in black and white which has notched up more than 7.2m views, plus another 10.9m views for the first two videos on Braden’s personal channel.

“In no way did I ever think this was going to be a career, or any money was going to come out of it,” said Braden, who posted the first Henri video six years ago. “I just thought how exciting it was that I was getting millions of views for this video.”

Braden makes money in two ways: from advertising revenues on YouTube, and then income from spin-off products including a book – subtitle: The Existential Musings of an Angst-Filled Cat – and an online merchandise store.

The book was pitched to publishers using a combination of analytics from YouTube and Facebook. “Now, a lot of the guesswork is taken away: you can come to a publisher and say I have this many followers, here’s where they live, here’s how old they are, all of that,” said Braden.

“It changes the way a publisher has to take a risk on a book. If 1% of all of the people who are your friend on Facebook buy this book, we make our money back.”

Henri’s Facebook page has more than 153,000 Likes at the time of writing, while mugs with his most popular slogans on are doing good business from his official store. “God knows why people want to take a mug into work saying ‘I’m surrounded by morons’. That seems a little antagonistic to me,” chuckled Braden.

He went into more detail on the economics of Henri’s popularity on YouTube, noting that it is “a smaller part of the revenue than people think, but also incredibly complex”.

He noted that many cat videos that have gone viral – even those with 100m views or more – make no money at all unless their creator has a “monetised YouTube account” to place ads around their videos and make money from them. The next tier of financial reward comes from securing a YouTube partner account.

With a monetised account “you might get a dollar or two dollars per thousand views, but if you have a YouTube partner account you can easily double that, and get up to six maybe,” said Braden, before showing analytics suggesting that because Henri attracts a disproportionately female audience compared to general YouTube viewership, the channel is more valuable.

“Henri goes all the way up to $10 on a CPM. This is really high. It doesn’t mean I’m rich, but compared to a lot of things on YouTube, this is a very select and very specific audience,” he said, while warning that success has been a matter of trial and error.

“There really is no blueprint in alot of ways to make something like this work. All of us, every success we have or every mistake we make, we’re collecting data for the next guy or gal.”

Remember that “meme manager” mentioned earlier? That’s Ben Lashes, who switched a job as a professional musician for a role managing the careers of a number of cat brands and other YouTube characters. His first client was musical mog Keyboard Cat and its owner Charlie Schmidt in 2010.

“He calls me up and says ‘I don’t know what to do, I’ve got this video that’s blowing up the internet’,” he said. “So we talked about it for an hour straight. I’m a pop culture geek, and saw Keyboard Cat as like any musician that had recorded a song and woken up with a hit song on the radio.”

That original video has been watched nearly 34.6m times, while the dedicated channel launched by Schmidt and Lashes has accumulated another 58m views since 2007, leading Lashes to his second client, Chris Torres – creator of the Nyan Cat meme, which started life as a YouTube video in 2011.

“It hit this new level of mainstream where all of a sudden a new level of people were understanding what cat videos were. The calls we were getting from merchandising were on a different level,” he said. “We had a legit toy company come and make Nyan Cat toys.”

Grumpy Cat followed in 2012: a kitten who shot to internet fame – initially on Reddit and subsequently on YouTube – on the strength of its naturally unimpressed face. Its official channel now has just under 155,000 subscribers and 25.4m views.

As with Henri, the real money has been generated offline, including a spin-off book, public appearances and endorsements – including the announcement this week that Grumpy Cat is the face of cat-food brand Friskies’ latest seafood product.

The book? “This week it’s in its 10th week on the New York Times bestseller list, almost nine months after it came out,” said Lashes. “The second one comes out in July… And Grumpy could care less.”

He suggested that the audience fuelling this demand is large but also diverse. “It isn’t just the crazy cat ladies, although they’re there in droves. It’s the six year-olds chanting the name of their favourite cats. It’s the hipsters there smoking cigarettes, hip-hop dudes, country dudes… It is the kind of thing where you have to learn to make everybody happy,” he said.

“There’s an evolution of the crazy cat lady,” agreed fellow panellist Grace Suriel, director of social media for TV channel Animal Planet, which has been eagerly joining the cat videos bandwagon in recent years. “From all walks of life, people have cat dresses, cat tattoos… it’s a whole new breed of cat person.”

A generous breed. There’s a strong charitable aspect to many of the businesses built around cat videos, from Stulen’s festival raising “tens of thousands of dollars” for animal charities, through to Friskies donating meals to cat shelters every time people tweet its promotional hashtag during SXSW this week.

“The audience is not only very generous, but very aware of problems with feral cats, and the money needed for shelters and things like that,” said Braden. “Charity is not just the ethical thing to do, it’s good business. Every time I was able to say ‘10% of X product goes to charity’ you’d sell 20% more.”

The SXSW session included a clear demonstration of the appeal of internet cat video stars – at least to an audience attending a panel discussion of internet cat videos – when Grumpy Cat appeared with her owner.

Cue a quarter of the audience (at least) scrambling into one corner, smartphones or tablets in hand for shareable shots while the panelists tried to continue holding the attention of the rest of the room with a key question: what is it about cats that has made them so popular on YouTube?

“Everybody just loves cats,” said Braden. “I just think it has a particular niche and a particular power, because it harnesses such a lot of what people like online. It’s funny, but it also has the ‘aw that’s cute’ thing.”

“I almost see it as a reaction culturally against all the stuff that people have been feeding you for years, now that the power is in the masses’ hands,” added Lashes. “You don’t have to listen to Warner Brothers any more. ‘I’m into this cat, so suck it!’. It’s almost like sticking it to The Man. ‘I’m going to buy a cat shirt…’”

Stulen warned that what doesn’t work are videos that are too self-consciously trying to go viral, before asking his fellow panellists what the future holds for this particular category of online content.

Suriel predicted evolution as more television brands get involved. “Will there be a cat video channel someday? I can definitely see that happening,” she said. “It’s just going to keep moving.”

“What’s been incredible is the people. Really incredible people to work with, and that’s what’s behind anything good like this: people whose intentions are genuine,” added Stulen. “The future is bright as long as those things are in place.”

Meanwhile, Lashes warned doubters that cat videos are unlikely to fall out of fashion in the near future. “With cat videos or Justin Bieber records or a movie that comes out next week, there’s always that question: ‘is this going to be cool tomorrow, is this going to be the hot thing next week?’” he said.

“Sometimes you keep asking these questions and realise hang on, that was 10 yars ago we started asking that question. As long as you keep it legit and keep fans happy, that can go on forever.”

It was Lashes who had provided the shock of the session earlier on, though, drawing an audible gasp from some sections of the audience when revealing his own status as a pet owner. “I have a dog, actually.”

Stuart Dredge is a freelance journalist and editor specialising in mobile apps and mobile content.

http://www.alternet.org/economy/economy-cat-videos?akid=11625.265072.y-d_D2&rd=1&src=newsletter972927&t=12&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

How Facebook and Twitter can change the way you think and make you unhappy

7 telltale signs social media is killing your self-esteem

7 telltale signs social media is killing your self-esteem
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetIn this technological age, social media has become a primary gateway to connect with friends and the world around us as part of our daily ritual. Yet what often begins as a harmless virtual habit for some can fast-track into a damaging, narcissism-fueled addiction which impacts negatively upon our self-worth and the way we perceive others.

Studies show that up to two-thirds of people find it hard to relax or sleep after spending time on social networks. Of 298 users, 50 percent said social media made their lives and their self-esteem worse. So just what exactly is it about social media that allows it to affect our self-worth?

According to psychotherapist Sherrie Campbell, social media can give us a false sense of belonging and connecting that is not built on real-life exchanges. This makes it increasingly easy to lose oneself to cyberspace connections and give them more weight than they deserve.

“When we look to social media, we end up comparing ourselves to what we see which can lower our self-esteem. On social media, everyone’s life looks perfect but you’re only seeing a snapshot of reality. We can be whoever we want to be in social media and if we take what we see literally then it’s possible that we can feel we are falling short in life,” Campbell told AlterNet.

How do you tell if your social network habit is healthy or harmful? If you find yourself feeling stressed, anxious or having negative thoughts after using social media, it may be time for a break. Here are seven telltale signs social media could be negatively impacting your self-esteem…and what you can do about it.

1. Social media disrupts your real-world thoughts and interactions.

If you feel worried or uncomfortable when you’re unable to access social media or your emails, it is likely your social media dependency is compromising your self-esteem. Additionally, if you’re thinking about social media first thing in the morning and just before you go to bed, or you find yourself simultaneously juggling face-to-face encounters with your social media habit like facebooking or tweeting, there’s a good chance social media is disrupting your life in a negative way and may in fact be impinging on your real-life relationships. Time to hit the breaks and take back control of your life.



2. Social media affects your mood.

If this voyeuristic habit is affecting your thoughts and feelings about yourself, it is likely harmful to your self-esteem. A new study released last week found a prominent link between eating disorders and social media. Women who spent longer periods of time on Facebook had a higher incidence of “appearance-focused behavior” (such as anorexia) and were more anxious and body conscience overall. What’s more, 20 minutes on social media was enough to contribute to a user’s weight and shape concerns. It follows that the emptier one’s personal life, the more one will be attracted to the virtual world, with bored or lonely people spending more time on social media than those who are busy or active.

3. Real-life interactions are difficult and being alone is uncomfortable.

If you’re struggling with face-to-face connections or find it difficult to communicate, social media may be to blame. Studies have shown social media is a pathway to shallow relationships and emotionally detached communication. An  Australian study found that Facebook users experienced significantly high levels of “family loneliness.” Campbell explains, “Social media is a very lazy way to be in relationship with somebody and impacts on the inability to be alone. We have a generation of kids growing up not knowing how to just sit in their own space because there is constant social noise. Kids are losing the idea of what it means to wait for information—they get it right now. They don’t know that idea of alone time or patience. Technology allows us to have connections when we want it without having to wait, but we’re never going to be able to snuggle up with the computer at night. Human touch remains a fundamental physiological need,” she said.

4. You find yourself envious about what others are promoting.

When we are depressed or down or just feel bad in general, it is easy to become jealous or envious of what other people are advertising about their life, particularly images of alleged happiness or success. This may make us feel inadequate simply because we don’t have what they have or because our self-worth is low. It is important to remember that what you are viewing is only a small sliver of someone’s life, which for the most part, is heavily embellished and mostly rooted in fantasy. When such images are starting to poison the way you look at your own life it may be time to step away from the screen.

5. You relish in others’ misfortune.

If you find yourself happy when other people are unhappy on social media, it may be time to ask yourself whether social media is a healthy psychological choice for you. You may merely be validating your own misery and unhappiness by comparing yourself to others. But even those advertising their tragedies on social media are doing so because they crave attention, whether positive or negative, in a bid to boost their low self-esteem. Christopher Carpenter, author of a study titled “Narcissism on Facebook,” explains: “If Facebook is to be a place where people go to repair their damaged ego and seek social support, it is vitally important to discover the potentially negative communication one might find on Facebook and the kinds of people likely to engage in them. Ideally, people will engage in pro-social Facebooking rather than anti-social me-booking.” If this is you, it’s time to invest in a social media diet.

6. You measure your success by others.

Reality check: the number of contacts or likes a person may receive on social media doesn’t equate with life success. Sure, social media allows us to assume everyone else is feeling and living a better life than we are but what are we really seeing here? It isn’t a person’s whole life, not even a reflection of reality, but merely a glimpse of the life they choose to present through rose-colored lenses. Campbell explains: “When someone has a lot going on and everything they post seems perfect, we think they are lucky but social media is merely a way to project your story onto somebody else—whether you’re projecting from high self-esteem or low esteem, you’re making up a story.” Campbell says it’s more productive to make real-world changes that will help you feel more successful and secure in your life than to spend time building your social media online persona.

7. You’re addicted to the attention and drama.

It’s easy to get sucked into the drama and juicy gossip encapsulated by social media especially when your own real life is lacking any sort of excitement or fulfillment. But this can be a dangerous game to play and often people get hurt. Studies have shown that Facebook contributes to jealousy in relationships and excessive use can in fact damage relationships by virtue of the fact that information a person would not normally share becomes public knowledge. This leads some to desperate measures like becoming amateur private investigators as they embark on a digging expedition to locate incriminating material. Case in point: your fiancé has just been tagged in a picture with a mysterious, half-naked woman. Uh oh! Expend your energy on more worthwhile real-life pursuits which are likely to benefit, rather than impair, your self-esteem.

Need a Solution? 

For those who think their self-esteem is being influenced negatively by social media, Campbell says the most important thing to do is reconnect with your presence and your personal brand—that means unhooking from computer land.

“I encourage people to turn off social media and eliminate it from your life. Get back into your real life. If you can’t do that, then start monitoring your usage, particularly just before bed or remove or block specific people that make you feel negative about yourself. Self-awareness is such an important step. If you realize why you’re turning to technology in times when connection or learning new information isn’t critical, you’ve made the first step to reconnecting with yourself. Spring-clean and get back to the real world,” she says.

Here are some tips to boost your self-esteem outside the realm of social media:

  • Try something new like volunteering.
  • Change your diet or get active; join a gym.
  • Groom yourself.
  • Sit up straight and practice good posture.
  • Read a book.
  • Get involved in a local meetup group you’re interested in.
  • Focus on person-to-person contact.
  • Commit yourself mentally to positive change.

UK trims the ranks of the disabled who receive aid

Balancing Without a Net

As the UK trims the ranks of the disabled who receive aid, Chris Stokel-Walker reports, social media provides a support network — and a bullhorn.

Rebecca Baker at home.

Some days you don’t feel like getting out of bed. Rebecca Baker gets those feelings, too. For most of us, it’s a too-late night or too many drinks, an infant crying at 3 a.m., or a lack of caffeine to jump-start our day. For Baker, it’s because her hip or her arm or her shoulder is dislocated out of its socket and pain is coursing through her body. But she does get up. She pops her joints back into place, feeds her rabbits, and walks her dogs.

Baker, 26, has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and syringomyelia. The former, estimated to afflict one in every 5,000 people, is responsible for the loose, painful joints, and is also called arthrochalasia. The latter is caused by a cyst — or a syrinx, to give it its proper technical term — of spinal cord fluid leaking into the spinal column and pressing down on the cord itself. It’s resulted in Baker being left an incomplete paraplegic. She manages to joke about her syrinx, naming the lump that leaves her unable to move “Dave.”

Baker’s whip-smart and has a wicked sense of humor. She paints, pens poems, and shares recipes with friends and followers. Politically, she’s so far from the current, mainly Conservative (center-right) UK government that the two may as well be speaking different languages. She lives with her husband and animals — one dog, welcomed into the family in the past few months, is also disabled — in Gloucestershire, England.

Her partner is an enormous help: dressing her wounds, helping around the home, and offering words of support when bouts of depression take hold. From the outside looking in, Baker has a creative mind that buzzes with ideas just waiting to take flight. The problem is that her body can’t keep up.

Some days Louise Bolotin, a 52-year-old journalist, doesn’t feel all that great, either. She had suffered seizures during sleep for a year and a half before she saw a doctor about it; this led to a diagnosis of epilepsy in 1997. Though when we spoke her epilepsy was comparatively under control, it can come on without warning. For half a week following an attack, Bolotin can be bedridden, unable to cook for herself; she lives alone. After a fit, it feels like you’ve been kicked by a horse, she says.

“On a day-to-day basis, I don’t need a carer to come around, get me out the bath, feed me, things like that,” she explains, “but once I’ve had a seizure, I do need help. It’s to manage those things I really shouldn’t be managing on my own.”

Bolotin’s disability seriously hinders her work. As a well-respected journalist for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, she has to travel; under UK driving legislation, she can’t get behind the wheel.

Gaining a voice

Too often the disabled are referred to as whatever illness they have, rather than as who they are. They’re held up as inspirations simply for getting on with life. We classify disabilities, not people — and, too often, people class the disabled as sub-human. “You sort of disappear into the background unless you’re willing to kick up a lot of fuss,” explains Baker.

Baker and other people in the same situation have found a space on the Internet, Twitter in particular, to talk freely about disability without undue judgment, sympathy, or pity.

Baker tried Twitter a few years back and found little joy: she closed her first account with a handful of followers and confusion over its exact purpose. But she returned, and began finding a group of similar people who were campaigning in their own small way against injustices they saw in society. Baker has played a fundamental role in @EverydayAbleism, taking on the administration of the Twitter account from David Griffin, with whom she set up a campaigning group.

One rallying point was a hashtag — #heardwhilstdisabled  — through which disabled people shared experiences of prejudice against them. When Griffin stopped using Twitter, Baker took on more of the curating role involved with the account: eavesdropping on conversations on Twitter and retweeting them to spread awareness.

A spell of bad health coincided with a step back from Everyday Ableism, until in the spring of 2013 Baker brought it back to life. She says she couldn’t let the account wither away because “things had been getting so much worse for disabled people in this country it seemed like a missed opportunity to help others understand just how difficult it can be.”

PIP PIP, hooray?

Bolotin’s and Baker’s lifeline, financial support that helps them pay for palliative care and for a life lived without the ability to work, is under threat. Like many European governments, the UK’s Conservative-dominated coalition has opted for austerity in the face of financial meltdown and is making large cuts to public service under that mantle.

The government was concerned that by 2018 one in 17 people could have been claiming disability benefits were it not to effect a change. It has planned to reduce the amount it pays to working-age disabled from £7.5 billion in 2011/12 to £6.9 billion in 2015/16. That tightening of purse strings comes with a tightening of rules.

“The only way to cut costs is to make it more difficult to claim,” says Bolotin. In the UK, 3.25 million people claimed Disability Living Allowance (DLA) in November 2012, according to some of the latest figures made available by government. Similar government stats show that 0.5% of DLA claims are fraudulent.

The government has hired two firms to carry out disability tests that allow people to qualify for a new kind of financial support, called the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), introduced in April 2013.

Stephen Duckworth, a medical doctor, is the chief executive of Capita, one of those companies, and has stated he believes that “at least a million” people classed as disabled ought not to be receiving money. The million he believes unworthy of financial support “have got there through system failure and the way society is organized,” he told the Sunday Times. Duckworth is disabled, and claims DLA. He says that DLA has pushed too many capable people out of the workforce by offering them an alternative.

Baker and Bolotin, among many, say the burden of proof required for PIP is now too high, where it may once have been too lax for DLA. Scope, a disability charity, fears that 600,000 people in all will lose their financial support from government.

“It’s a square peg in a round hole,” explains Bolotin. “Not all disabilities are the same. There’s no flexibility in it. Realistically, I’m going to lose my allowance when the transfer to PIP comes.” She took a mock assessment similar to the type being used under PIP. The threshold for the test is 15 points: “I scored six out of 15.”

“Every day is different,” Baker writes via email to me. “There’s times when each of my problems intersect; as an example, the other day my spinal cord issues flared up, causing me to feel like my legs were burning. I was in a really weird mood where I was severely anxious and irritated. My mood was made worse, productivity went down, pain tolerance decreased due to stress, ended up in bed doing nothing. Sad as it is, the sofa’s pretty much been my life for around a year now.”

Speaking out online

Though Baker may not be able to campaign door to door, she can help efforts against what she sees as the injustice that the government is bringing by altering the disability system. “Generally, disabled people don’t have the income to travel to places. We don’t have the health to, either,” she says in a subsequent phone conversation. “So we’ve adapted the way we get word out. We’ve found a way to do it.”

Baker may never find someone with similar disabilities to her by walking down the street (on the days she can walk). On Twitter she can — and share advice, support, and kind words, even if often she has to use speech-to-text software to avoid the medicated fug that can block her thoughts as they make their way from her head to her fingertips. Indeed, she’s found more than 100 people in the UK with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. And through the Web site, word about the changes to disability benefit payments has spread.

“I find it frustrating because the only way I can make a change is to join the online conversation,” Baker writes. “More positively, though, I can join the conversation.” But there’s only so much campaigning you can do online: now people are taking it into the real world.

A nationwide protest at assessment centers run by Atos, the other disability benefit assessment company contracted by the government, has been organized through Twitter. On February 19, campaigners will take their discussions offline and onto the streets, protesting what they feel is a bungled process.

Certainly, the government’s plans are not going smoothly. By late October 2013 all disability claimants were meant to be on the new PIP register. The switchover was “taking longer than expected,” said Work and Pensions Minister Mike Penning when the deadline was missed. His opposition minister, Rachel Reeves, said that the process “risk[ed] descending into farce.”

The government has subsequently removed any deadline, and the problems appear to have compounded. A whistleblower at Capita warned that the process was understaffed, under-resourced, and disorganized. Atos, the other PIP assessor, was forced to deny that a shortage of doctors was delaying its processing of applications. Earlier this week, representatives of the two companies were called in front of the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, where they were lambasted by parliamentarians, and asked if their reputation was “damaged for good.”

Meanwhile some of those caught between the DLA and PIP programs during the changeover have been forced to move house and sell clothing to try to make ends meet absent benefit payments.

Falling without a net

Both Bolotin and Baker, unprompted, bring up their biggest fear: the near-silent sound of a brown envelope dropping through their letterbox, calling them in for an assessment that has been designed to cull one-fifth of its claimants. It’s something that affects the two women, one half the age of the other, and countless others of all genders, races, and ages.

“It puts fear into people because of the way the system is at the moment,” says Bolotin. “Support is being taken away from people who really need it. Those of us who don’t even feel that vulnerable are at risk of losing money that we really need.”

Baker agrees: “Disabled people are the easiest to remove support from,” she says. “They’re the ones most reliant on the support — social care, housing, things like that. If you threaten to withdraw that, who do they turn to? There’s no one to complain to. They can’t really complain.”

Baker has pored over legislation and called on the wisdom of the crowd to unpick the language, plotting out exactly how slight changes to laws will affect her and the nearly four million others claiming these benefits. Twitter has acted as a great Roman forum, a people’s plenum for those who 10 or 20 years ago might have been forced to unpack the complex legislation alone. Bolotin interacts with the community and also advises people offline, helping out those worrying about the effect disability benefits will have on their lives. In the short term, it will mean less money to ensure quality of life.

The long-term effects of the change in the benefits system are not limited to less money, however. It can and may have a deleterious effect on the health of those most reliant on the National Health Service.

A survey of 4,000 disabled people polled by the Disability Benefits Consortium, a campaign group comprising 50 charities and companies, found that the majority were anxious about the changes to the system. They have good reason to be: some of them will find that they slip the support net due to tighter testing. More than half say they have become sicker through worry. Twitter can supply a support network and comforting words, but it can’t necessarily undo all human neuroses.

Ask Baker why the cuts are happening, and she’ll give you a forthright answer, arising from cold experience. “It’s all ideological,” she argues. “It’s not meant to save the country money or help disabled people at all. And we don’t know what’s coming next.”


Photo courtesy of Rebecca Baker.

Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based freelance writer for the Economist, the Sunday Times, the BBC, and BuzzFeed.

This article originally appeared in Issue 35 (January 30, 2013).

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays, and originally appeared in Issue 35. We publish individual pieces regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five (sometimes more) thoughtful features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and includes free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.

Tweets and Threats: Gangs Find New Home On the Net

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Social media has exploded among street gangs. … They’re turning to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to flaunt guns and wads of cash, threaten rivals, intimidate informants … sell weapons, drugs — even plot murder. ‘What’s taking place online is what’s taking place in the streets,’ says David Pyrooz, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University. … ‘The Internet does more for a gang’s brand or a gang member’s identity than word-of-mouth could ever do. It really gives the gang a wide platform to promote their reputations. … On the crime-fighting side … this activity … is transforming how police and prosecutors pursue gangs. Along with traditional investigative techniques, police monitor gangs online. [A] Cincinnati police officer who trains other law enforcement about social media says by the time gang members appear in court, authorities have a dossier of their words and videos online that challenge how they want to portray themselves. ‘If a guy goes in and says, “I’m a good person. I’ve never held a gun,” we can say, “Look at what he puts out about himself on social media. Here he is with a gun.”‘

Is social media still the way to resist in Turkey?

Is social media still the way to resist in Turkey?

by Emrah Güler on January 11, 2014

Post image for Is social media still the way to resist in Turkey?

The young protesters, who were mostly educated, creative, and computer savvy, used social media to take the resistance to a more sophisticated level.

Photo by Ozan Kose

It was déjà vu for those who lived through the summer of resistance in Turkey when they logged into their Facebook and Twitter accounts on the evening of December 22. Citizen journalism was at work once again while the traditional media opted for silence regarding to the heavy-handed police response to demonstrations in Istanbul. That afternoon, thousands gathered in Kadıköy, the Asian district of Istanbul, which had been one of the main sites of resistance throughout the the summer. The protesters were reacting to the recent allegations of corruption following the arrests of the sons of three ministers, a mayor, a CEO of a national bank, and a a construction mogul, among others. Shoe boxes filled with cash had turned into Pandora’s box, just three months before important local elections.

In the aftermath of the erupting corruption scandal, familiar pages began to resurface on Facebook, one after the other. The names of the pages will give an idea: “don’t be a slave to the system”, “the opposer”, “we are resisting”, and “Çapulers” (the name the protesters adopted after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s used the term çapulcu, or looters, to describe participants in the mass demonstrations). On the day of the urban rally, as the protesters clashed with police, photos and live-stream coverage fille Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter streams, familiar hashtags from six months ago, like #direnkadıköy and #direnankara once again united protesters across social media.

Social media proved to be a force to reckon with during the Gezi uprising, especially when all hell broke loose throughout June. As far as social media were concerned, this was definitely a revolution. But today, six months later, we should ask ourselves the question: is there now a lack of momentum? Has the urgency gone forever? Did social media play out its part? Was #diren the hashtag of yesterday?

Let’s take a few steps back and return to the day when the protests took off in Turkey: let’s go back to May 31, when a peaceful sit-in in Gezi Park to protest its demolition for a development project sparked nationwide protests. According to a study by New York University, at least two million tweets with the protest hashtags were sent in just eight hours on that day alone. This shows the scale and popularity of Twitter long before it became the designated form of communication during the protests. Social media has been big in Turkey for years now, with half the country’s population on the internet, almost 90 percent of those people on Facebook, and 69 percent of the 18-29 demographic using social media before the start of the protests.

Humor, structure and citizen journalism

The daily number of tweets sent by Twitter users in Turkey at times went up to a whooping 8 million even months before the Gezi protests. Turkey had almost always been among the top ten countries in terms of the numbers of both Facebook and Twitter users. The increase in social media use in the last two years had displayed an average of 300 percent increase.

So, the resistance had already secured its weapons of communication with smart phones, laptop computers, DNS-changing apps, and live-stream video setups. In adapting, spreading and cementing a hashtag in the immediate aftermath of the protests, the çapulers showed that the Occupy Wall Street movement was an inspiration, most evident in finding a common hashtag that could be used along with other words: #diren for #occupy.

The weeks following May 31 displayed a full-blown uprising as the çapulers and the police — which was encouraged by the government to use disproportionate force against its own citizens — clashed night after night. While Facebook and Twitter were the go-to social platforms during the protests, livestream channels, Tumblr pages, websites, blogs, Instagram and YouTube proved to be useful in uniting, and at times entertaining, çapulers across Turkey.

Humor definitely was one of the defining characteristics of the protests, both on the streets and on social media. Slogans, sprayed on the walls of the city were derived from memes that had been shared on social media platforms. “The Gasfather,” read one banner, with Erdoğan’s portrait photo-shopped over Marlon Brando’s face on the legendary poster of The Godfather. Another showed penguins marching with the headline “Antarctica supports you,” a reference to news channel CNN Turk’s running of a documentary on penguins during the clashes.

These young people were from a generation that had been thoroughly dismissed as depoliticized, supposedly spending 2.5 hours a day on the Internet. While some were affiliated to political causes (leftists, Kurds, LGBT communities), many were not political in the traditional sense. But it was apparent that most were sick of the decrepit political machinations, and finally had a chance to become political on their own terms, rejecting any kind of externally-imposed authority. Thus the protesters found their collective voice — voices of color, peace, and humor.

The young protesters, who were mostly educated, creative, and computer savvy, took the resistance to a more sophisticated level, and to the second defining characteristic of the social media: control and coherent structure. The information and content shared randomly in the panic-stricken and adrenaline-filled first days of the protests soon found more structured outlets in guides and and references on the internet. Websites of timelines, useful information, collated evidence, Tumblr pages of street art and graffiti, as well as dozens of live-stream video coverage from the protest sites, led many in front of their computers to bookmark specific sites in the coming days of the protests.

The third characteristic of the social media during the protests was the emergence of a responsible citizen journalism. While everyone on the streets with smart phones became journalists, misinformation and heated first reactions flooded the Twitter streams and Facebook walls in the first days. Soon the çapulers learned to share information after confirming and fact-checking. Within a week, there were dozens of Twitter accounts and Facebook pages that served as alternative media outlets like the independent social media journalist collective @140journos.

Trending topic is enough

All throughout the protests, most of the politicians in the AKP, no to mention the ones in other parties, showed how out of sync they were with the new generation and the new form of communication. While 55 percent of the deputies were actively using Twitter, and President Abdullah Gül had the highest Klout score in Turkey, they were just remodeling old forms of communication on new platforms. Twitter, for most of them, was a micro version of press releases, and Facebook pages provided an opportunity for photo-ops in crowded party rallies.

Prime Minister Erdoğan might have called Twitter “a menace” during the heat of the protests, but apart from a few feeble attempts to detain teenagers for sending anti-government tweets the oppression on the streets was hardly reciprocated in social media. The AKP’s style of war always was (and still is) on the defensive side, and Twitter has been its only weapon of choice, mobilizing hundreds of accounts to create offensive hashtags when a prominent name posts a critical message, or when there is an anti-government mass movement across Twitter.

The fight-back messages are almost unanimously full of slurs and insults, sometimes generated through programs, hundreds of replicated tweets. It is not uncommon to see the pro-government hashtags rise to trending topics, like the December 22’s “ErdoğanaGüvenimizTam” (Our trust is implicit in Erdoğan). Last September, intimidation tactics were used once again when a report was published in the media about the AKP’s decision to form a 6,000 team responsible for pro-government propaganda on social media.

Erdoğan was happy about his accolades’ performance on Twitter when he said that “nice things have started to happen on Twitter” back in October. However, we are yet to see the pro-government Twitter users engage in meaningful conversation, create Facebook pages that serve as alternative outlets of media, or mobilize websites, blogs and video streaming channels for intelligent and creative use.

Going back to the çapulers, apart from the occasional clash with the police, the heat of the days of resistance on social media seems to have died down. Facebook posts and tweets seem to have reverted back to holiday snapshots, Breaking Bad memes and football discussions throughout late summer, the fall, and the first days of winter.

For the careful eye, though, the spirit of the resistance is still there, dormant most of the time, but there. For every couple of cute photos of beloved pets, you will see a link to a petition against pet shops. A glamorous (or drunk, or both) photo from a wedding is followed by an article on Turkish justice’s blind eye to rapists. Your Facebook friends might seem to have gone back to their old ways, but they are no longer shy to share articles and op-ed pieces against the system.

Many seem to have found their calling in the resistance, taking up their causes, whether it’s violence against women, employment for transgender individuals or the demolition of a park. It seems the protests of the long-gone summer have opened new pathways of self-expression and resistance. A palpable sense of hope that was all but gone earlier this year keeps running strong into the new year.

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