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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.

January 12 2011

19:00

“Blood libel”: How language evolves and spreads within online worlds

When Sarah Palin used the term “blood libel” to describe purported attacks on her and the Tea Party movement in the wake of Saturday’s tragic shooting in Tucson, some were left wondering why the former governor would use a phrase historically associated with anti-Semitism.

But, whatever the merits or demerits of Palin’s usage, it didn’t come out of nowhere. And that alone is a useful reminder that the Internet’s a big, diverse place, stocked with ecosystems, subcultures, and communities that each bring their own assumptions about language. For journalists (or anyone), it can be easy to think that your little corner of the Internet is representative of the big picture. It’s probably not.

The use of “blood libel” may seem inexplicable — that is, until you go back and look at how the word was used in particular digital media circles during the days since the Tucson shooting. The Lab has written previously about Internet memes, how ideas tend to move more like heartbeats than viruses through the web’s extremities. And the path “blood libel” took — while, on the one hand, it suggests the social divisions that can live online — also offers some insight into the trip memes take as they bubble up into the consciousness of the mass media.

With a bit of Google News sleuthing, supplemented by a trip to the Lexis-Nexis archive, it appears that the term “blood libel,” pre-Palin, was adopted by some conservative commentators in the immediate aftermath of the Tucson assassination attempt.

The first use of the phrase I uncovered came on January 9, one day after the shooting, on the website Renew America. As conservative activist Adam Graham put it: “When someone on the left says that the Tea Party movement is responsible for the shooting in Tucson, they are leveling the political equivalent of a blood libel that blames an entire political movement for the actions of a person who in all likelihood had no connection to the movement.” Note that Graham links to the Wikipedia page on “blood libel,” demonstrating knowledge of the traditional meaning of the term.

The term really sprang into use, however, when conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) used it in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 10. Headlined online as “The Arizona Tragedy and the Politics of Blood Libel,” the piece asked: “So as the usual talking heads begin their ‘have you no decency?’ routine aimed at talk radio and Republican politicians, perhaps we should turn the question around. Where is the decency in blood libel?”

In the days after that piece appeared, more conservative bloggers picked up “blood libel” — and it was further amplified when commentators of a variety of political stripes used the phrase in their discussion of the Reynolds op-ed. Both Reason Online and Associated Content quoted Reynolds’ use of  the term “blood libel” in their broader discussion of political rhetoric and violence. I also found “blood libel” used, without reference to Reynolds, in Human Events, The Washington Examiner, and Big Journalism (in the comment section).

The surest sign that the “blood libel” meme had caught on, though, came when it started to be used in major media comment sections like those of the Washington Post. Ordinary website readers were now referencing the term.

And then came Palin. And here we are.

None of that is a scientific analysis, of course. And as helpful as digital tracking tools like Google and Nexis can be, the fact that “blood libel” was lurking in the web’s shadows in the first place, ready to emerge almost fully formed, suggests the unknowability of the web — its anonymity, its opacity — as much as its readability.

Still, the general path “blood libel” took over the past few days shines some light on how particular terms move within the digital media ecosystem, and how the use of language that seems strange to many — as it did to many commentators, judging on their reactions to it — can appear “normal” to others who are operating within a different discursive community. That’s not to make another lamentation of “cyber-balkanization” or another call for the return of the “mass public sphere” where everyone read and thought the same thing. It is just a reminder, though, that our digital house has many rooms. Sometimes, when you feel like politicians aren’t speaking to you, you’re right. They’re not.

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