Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

May 04 2012

19:48

Jonathan Zittrain Takes the Stage at ROFLCon

Today with MIT Civic Media Center's Matt Stempeck and Stephen Suen, I'm live-blogging ROFLCon, a conference for things and people who are famous on the Internet. The livenote index is here.

Christina Xu, the event organizer, starts off ROFLCon to cheers. It's an amazingly packed venue. "One out of eight people in this room have done something crazy on the Internet," she says.

zittrain.jpg

Zittrain on memes and society

Jonathan Zittrain is an Internet phenomenon. Emerging from humble beginnings as a longtime CompuServe forum sysop, he is now professor of law at Harvard Law School where he co-founded the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

He starts by saying that fame can be tricky: "Just before the talk, someone came up to me and said, 'are you the huh guy? I thought you were the huh guy! I'm not that famous. I can aspire. In this room is the engine that makes the Internet sing ... Who's minding the store? Is this going to be a day without memes?"

"Where's Tron Guy?" asks Zittrain. Tron Guy, in full costume, raises his hand, and the room bursts into applause.

Zittrain says he isn't sure if he's one of these "Internet ROFL people" -- hence the tie. It's hard to explain what you're doing this weekend to friends and family who are not part of this tribe, he quips.

But he does have some background in the Internet. He shows us a picture of him using a Texas Instruments home computer with a 300-baud modem, with the obligatory model rockets, and the Webster's Collegiate Thesaurus -- just because you might run out of words.

Zittrain used to work for CompuServe and also got involved in politics. He threw his weight behind Mondale/Ferraro 1984. "At least I carried Minnesota," he says. "And the District of Columbia." When he wasn't doing those things, he was usually spending time stuffed inside a locker. "Whatever that does not stuff you so that you die, makes you stronger," he noted.

Zittrain thinks the image of a nerd stuffed in a locker helps us understand memes -- the dramatic moment of pathos.

"They're all crazy; I'm normal ... they're bad, and we're good. And here's to us for being good," he says. But that opens us up to the charge that this culture, the Internet, is not real life, and is rather a form of retreat. At the base of a lot of memes is some authentic, unguarded voluntary moment, Zittrain says. There's artifice around it, but there is often something authentic beneath it. That's not always the case -- consider Dramatic Hamster. Sometimes a hamster isn't a hamster. But there are other times that it's striking closer to a certain chord.

Wires can be crossed when this culture is commercialized. The nerds struck back against Hot Topic when they produced a T-shirt of Rage Guy.

unstaged authenticity

There's something about commercialization which is always at arm's length of Internet culture. Zittrain talks to us about the most recent Calgary Comic Con, where they invited the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Going to the cons involves waiting in lines to get your photo with the cast. It has an Apple Commercial 1984 feel to it -- take a photo with the cast, you cannot touch the cast. He tells us about one of the least proud moments of The Oatmeal, a contest for advice features. There appears to be a negative attitude towards those who intentionally try to "engineer" a meme. People don't like being prompted -- it feels like trying too hard, feels inorganic.

We like unstaged authenticity, like Disaster Girl, who grins deviously as a house burns to the ground behind her. She rather enjoys the attention, and we are pleased to see her embrace her inadvertent success, but there are still lines that you can cross. The point at which you're running your own network and have a store-- maybe not.

Internet Fame is like winning the lottery -- it seems good until someone gets killed. What better example of this ambivalence than Star Wars Kid? So far as he knew, this was an exercise that would be completely private. He didn't realize that when he turned the camcorder in at school that it would be posted to YouTube. Jonathan shows us the video of the the Matrix Version of Star Wars Kid. In Wikipedia, there's a debate on the talk page on whether or not it is right for Wikipedia, the knowledge repository of record for humanity, to include his name in the page. Ultimately, they decided not to name him, despite the fact that the mainstream media has done it several times. And people on Wikipedia fell into line-- upholding the process with which they disagreed.

Can we build an infrastructure of meme propagation that respects people's preferences. He shows us one of the Awkward Family photo sites, with an image that says, "Image removed at request of owner." There are enough yuks to go around, so why not take down private content when someone asks us to?

Jonathan would love to see an infrastructure built native to the web which makes it possible for people to opt out of the celebrity of being a meme. This isn't DRM, but maybe something like robots.txt (a directive that tells web crawlers like Google which subdirectories not to index). Search companies respect robots.txt. No Internet organization created this. But people and companies respect it anyway-- a way to say, "Do you mind?" This is often used with court documents. How could we build this into our technology and our culture? One guy made a T-shirt that reads, "I do not agree to the publication of this photo."

In short, how can we enjoy the culture of Lulz which also respecting people's wishes?

A longer version of this post can be found on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

July 27 2010

18:00

Uneven depths: Why the printed page has always had room for scholarly brilliance and dirty jokes

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's reading and reacting to Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twin review; here are parts one, two, three, four, five, and six. — Josh]

In a chapter called “The Deepening Page,” Nicholas Carr offers a swift and graceful account of the history of writing. He traces the rise of logic, coherence, and depth from magical formulae scratched on potsherds and wax tablets by the ancients, through the pious allusions of the middle ages to the graceful periodic sentences of the eighteenth century. Their prose represented not only a formal triumph, but a neural one as well. “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought,” writes Carr, “one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object.”

The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.

To Carr, the story of manuscript, printing, and publishing is the rise of the “deep page,” with modern literature as the apotheosis of literacy. The process a grimy Gutenberg started in the mid fifteenth century culminates in Wallace Stevens, whose poem “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” glories in the deep page: “The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind / The access of perfection to the page.”

The trouble is, it didn’t feel this way to many people going through these changes at various times in the past. Not to the manuscript bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, who condemned the coarsening presence of printed volumes in libraries devoted to books in manuscript; not to Pope Paul IV, who started the Index of Prohibited Books during the so-called “incunable era” following the advent of moveable type; not to Pope Urban VIII, who tangled with Galileo; not to Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope; not to the French monarchy in advance of the Revolution.

The printing press never only produced the kind of deep reading we admire and privilege today. It also produced propaganda and misinformation, penny dreadfuls and comic books offensive to public morality, pornography, self-help books, and much that was generally despised and rejected by polite culture. Any account of the history of “The Gutenberg Era” that lacks these is incomplete — just as any picture of the Internet that privileges LOLcats and 4chan is insufficient. We must consider both — for pornography, misinformation, and sheer foolishness have thrived from the age of incunables to the advent of the Internet. And the deep-reading brain evolved in the midst of it all.

In his report about ROFLCon in last week’s New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker argues that open culture needs the slipshod, the shifty, and the shallow in order to maintain its health.

The more traditional pundits and gurus who talk about the Internet often seem to want to draw strict boundaries between old mass-media culture and the more egalitarian forms taking shape online — and between Internet life and life in the physical world…Sometimes the pointless-seeming jokes that spring from the Web seem to be calling a bluff and showing a truth: This is what egalitarian cultural production really looks like, this is what having unbounded spaces really entails, this is what anybody-can-be-famous means, this is how the hunger for “moar” gets sated, this is what’s burbling in the hive mind’s id. But the real point is that to pretend otherwise isn’t denying the Internet — it’s denying reality.

Walker references a talk the computer historian Jason Scott gave at the first ROFLCon in 2008 in which he discussed the shallow and seemingly antisocial memes spread by communications networks long before the Internet. Scott discusses electric media going back to the telegraph, but the printing press teemed with the shallow stuff well before the advent of telegraphy. Readers in the 18th century in particular were offered a tantalizing selection of bawdy images and tawdry tales. As the great book historian Robert Darnton has shown, the age of Voltaire and Rousseau was awash in erotica, dirty cartoons, and fancifully libelous tales of the rich and famous.

So where did the deep page come from? Not merely from ignoring the dross — for many alloys exist between poetry and pornography, and at any given moment, it’s never entirely clear which is which. Jonathan Swift, writing his “Battle of the Books” in 1704, didn’t even bother with the bawdy writers. Swift’s satire depicts a war between ancient and modern authors, with the ancients on the side of sweetness and light; it was Descartes and classicist Richard Bentley that drew his ire as much as any Grub Street hack. Swift and other early modern readers engaged in an encounter with a murky multiplicity of shifting possibilities in print. And it was the multiplicity that produced the deep page — presumably along with the brain circuitry underlying it.

At the edges of the deep page lie miles of shallow estuaries, stinking, muddy — and teeming with life. Our plastic brains have been navigating their effluents for a very long time.

May 05 2010

16:00

Tracking memes on their native turf: Viral anthropology at ROFLcon

If ROFLcon isn’t the world’s largest gathering of Internet celebrities, it at least appears to have the highest concentration. In the audience was Matt Harding, who danced around the world in his series of videos, Where the Hell is Matt? Brad O’Farrell, creator of the viral hit video Play Him Off, Keyboard Cat was around and in costume, as was the man behind the cat’s paws from the original footage, Charlie Schmidt. They were among the many creators and enthusiasts of viral web content meeting at the MIT campus last weekend for the two day conference.

Now in its third year, ROFLcon (Rolling on the Floor Laughing conference, for the n00bs) seems less like a discussion of some obscure online culture than a look at an edge of the mainstream. After all, 4chan was the answer to a question on Jeopardy. CNN’s played the Keyboard Cat video, and ABC Nightly News had a segment on Three Wolf Moon. Many of the best known web celebrities have appeared on late night talk shows or in ad campaigns.

This year, ROFLcon looked to the past to better understand the Internet memes it celebrates. Guests included Usenet moderators, FidoNet creator Tom Jennings, and Mahir, whose “I Kiss You” website dates back to 1999. But the climate’s different from the web’s earlier days, with the growth of Facebook, Digg, Twitter, 4chan, and other social media networks. That Neiman Marcus cookie recipe couldn’t last an afternoon if it were sent around today.

A viral Tumblr, single serving site, or a humorous web video can now see massive traffic in a short time frame. Tens of millions have seen Matt Harding dance. Over a thousand have added humorous reviews to the Three Wolf Moon Amazon page, and since the meme began, it has ranked among Amazon’s bestselling clothing items. But the behavior of sharing and linking content is difficult to predict.

The hunt for the heart of buzz

The huckster with a formula for making your brand “go viral” is the Brooklyn Bridge salesman of our time, but ROFLcon presenter Jonah Peretti isn’t your average social media “strategist.” The Huffington Post co-founder was invited to talk about the “social reproduction rank” measured at his other website, Buzzfeed.

Buzzfeed’s focus is on the media that gets shared, with buttons and traffic stats on posts indicating the trajectory of these memes. There are millions of people bored at work every day, sharing links with their friends, and that “bored at work network” is bigger than the BBC, NBC, or any media outlet, Peretti explained. High clickthrough rates don’t always predict lots of sharing: “Porn isn’t viral,” Peretti said. (Those who click a link to see “Lindsay Lohan sideboob” probably aren’t going to then tweet or blog about it.) Peretti also finds that what people search for online is similarly kept private. But while Peretti was clear about what doesn’t create a meme, what does remained something of a mystery. Certainly, engaging with groups of “maniacs” (Ron Paul voters, Justin Bieber fans) or providing an outlet for playful narcissism (“Elf Yourself“) can build crowds — but that still leaves a lot of high-traffic Internet weirdness still unexplained.

As for the meme makers, few had an answer for why their media had taken off the way they did. Most of them were not the sort of SXSWi-attending microcelebrities who were in the audience; as Matthew Battles tweeted, “unlike most conferences, the audience are the experts & the panelists are outsiders. And *they* are the creators.” One guest pronounced “meme” incorrectly several times, and two other panelists were unfamiliar with the term “IRL.” Given the lighthearted spirit of the conference, ROFLers seemed to regard this less as ignorance than further proof of their authenticity. They weren’t “trying too hard” (the worst insult to a meme maker.)

Tracking the numbers

Sharing wacky Internet memes seems driven by some of the same desires that lead to sharing news or more serious media. The gut-wrenching video of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death and the footage of ex-marine David Motari throwing a puppy off a cliff spread on the Internet as easily as Keyboard Cat. News of a celebrity’s death — real or not — gets “shared” on Twitter, and many people first heard about the earthquake in Haiti or the bomb in Times Square via social networks.

There may be no crystal ball to predict “virality” in advance, but media organizations can control how an existing meme gets aggregated and filtered. Trending topics and to-the-minute analytics like Chartbeat are essential for tending to traffic spikes as they happen. Peretti explained The Huffington Post keeps constant watch over every post, moving items up and down the homepage as pageviews rise and fall — even rewriting headlines when they don’t appear to work.

It is unclear why one cat video finds a million viewers and another never reaches a thousand. And success may only come once: At ROFLcon, Brad O’Farrell and “Dancing Matt” even made a video together, and at around 8,000 views, it does not appear to be viral. But if your content does go viral, you’ll want to be able to laugh along with the crowd when the traffic spikes— especially if they are laughing at you. Otherwise, you’ll never live it down.

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl