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Snurb's blog

Research, rants, and random thoughts by Axel Bruns.


The Logics and Grammars of Social Media

Sat, 08 Oct 2016 13:00:18 +0000

The final speaker in this AoIR 2016 session is Caja Thimm, whose interest is in the role of Twitter in politics. She begins by noting the transnational adoption of standard Twitter affordances across a variety of political uses, by actors on all sides (from protesters to police). This can be understood using a functional operator model across the levels of Twitter operators, text, and function; but this is merely functional and not analytical. More needs to be done here.

Instead, the question here is one of media logics: this combines elements of technology, culture, context, actors, and power, and examines their interactions. The network of these parameters is configured differently in different contexts, and provides a procedural framework through which social actions occur.

Political messages and activities are commonly designed to work within the logics of different media forms, to work within the logics of specific media institutions, and to address the media grammars of particular media technologies. This idea of media grammar is in turn drawn from an analogy with language, but includes the dynamics of different media forms and can be distinguished into surface grammar (the grammar visible and accessible to the user, and subject to the user's appropriation, and therefore also determining the economic success of a platform by making it more or less attractive) and property grammar (the underlying functional level of the platform, now driven largely by algorithms and determining the networked logics of the platform, which is not immediately accessible and appropriable for users).

On a platform like Twitter, these grammars combine into a reflexive circle, for instance – but the logics of media also extend well beyond such specific platforms and invade other spaces of media and public life, as well as other societal institutions. Both the open and the hidden properties of the media are important in this, and need to be studied in greater detail as well as connected with the broader dynamics of the platform society.

The Dynamics of Feminist Hashtags

Sat, 08 Oct 2016 12:46:12 +0000

The next speaker at AoIR 2016 is Jacqueline Vickery, whose focus is on the use of feminist hashtags such as #YesAllWomen as networked publics. These combine affective expressions of support with intimate citizenship and political activism in an ad hoc way. Political and affective dimensions are combined with the goals of such actions, and coordinated through the affordances of the platforms, such as the mechanism of hashtags themselves.

Hashtags are curational, polysemic, memetic, enable duality and tension across communities of practice, and support articulated subjectivities. Within them occur dynamics of agenda setting, re-framing, cooptation, (strategic) essentialism, awareness and mobilisation, and the amplification (or silencing) of specific narratives.

The hashtags Jacqueline has examined address discrimination or violence against women, and were often started by women of colour – but those origins are often backgrounded in further hashtag usage. Some speakers and authors are also beginning to integrate the hashtags and their sentiments into their professional activities, and this is problematic but also part of the uncontrollability of hashtags themselves. Some companies and commercial services also tapped into the audience emerging for the hashtags, often resulting in very significant backlash.

At the same time, the hashtags have the power to change agendas and engender conversations; they must also be viewed from the perspective of social movement theory. How these hashtags are designed is crucial in this context; some very generic hashtags become so widely and diversely used that they lose all distinct meaning, while others do drive some genuine change.

Corporate Responses to Hate Speech on Social Media

Sat, 08 Oct 2016 12:30:22 +0000

The next speaker in this packed AoIR 2016 session is Eugenia Siapera, whose focus is on hate speech and its regulation in social media. This is analysed by examining the Terms of Service of major social media platforms, as well as through interviews with key informants from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. What constitutes acceptable and non-acceptable speech from the point of view of these companies? What underlying ideologies does this point to?

The definition of hate speech on these platforms is usually not derived from existing legislation, but emerges from within the platforms themselves, informed especially by user reports of unacceptable behaviours. There is considerable movement of the policy-makers between these platforms as well, interestingly, so the rules of one often also influence the rules of another. Further, anti-hate speech enforcement is often balanced with the desire to continue to grow the userbase of these platforms.

All user reports of hate speech on these platforms appear to be assessed by humans rather than algorithms. The leading social media platforms have teams around the world that assess such reports, and these include a range of native speakers in order to be able to understand the finer nuances of posts; the importance of reports is also ranked by their sensitivity before they are full assessed. If in doubt, the content is retained, but if it is reported again it may be re-reviewed.

There is a general reluctance to act as an 'Internet police' here; there is a strongly stated commitment to principles of free speech, but balancing this with the need to address hate speech is difficult. The preference is for the communities of users to deal with hate speech themselves rather than to engage from the platform perspective. Further, there are tensions between local sensibilities (and legislation) and the global nature of these platforms; this is difficult to address on a general basis, and offending content is usually taken down on a case-by-case basis. There is generally relatively little sympathy for countries with strict laws against hate speech and other unacceptable content.

Largely there is also a reflection of responsibilities back to the offended users: the suggestion is that users simply block the content and users they are offended by, rather than even reporting such content. Users are thus conditioned to perform in accordance with the companies' liberal ideologies, and the management of hate speech is individualised rather than being dealt with on a more comprehensive basis.

Cloud Protesting through Social Media

Sat, 08 Oct 2016 12:15:04 +0000

The final (no, really) session at AoIR 2016 starts with a paper by Stefania Milan, whose interest is in online protest. She begins by noting that semiotechnologies now play an important role as brokers. The emerging protest/media configurations affect the materiality of the process of meaning construction.

This may be seen as a somewhat techno-determinist argument: the algorithmically mediated environment of social media certainly has the power to restructure the dynamics of social action, and social media perform a function in political socialisation and within groups. Collective action as a social construct is the result of interactions between social actors, and sense-making activities are crucial in this context. Such meaning-making is embedded in the socio-politico-technological context.

Media technologies and the Internet are not just tools, then, but metaphors and enablers of a new configuration of collective action, which Stefania describes as 'cloud protesting'. This impacts on collective identity, too. The cloud is an imagined online space where resources are stored; such resources can be used as the ingredients of mobilisation; and the online environment gives these soft resources an immaterial body. The cloud thus makes these resources available to anyone, and this enables a customisation and personalisation of participation.

The cloud is further also a metaphor for organisational forms. We have moved from the social movement organisations of the 1960s through the networks of the 1990s to the networked individuals of the present; the cloud is an analogy for such individualisation, as well as a platform where cultural and symbolic production takes place – the cloud is therefore a reimagining of the group with no strings attached.

The cloud is an enabler of collective identity (and of identity as both 'we' and 'them'); through social media everyone can participate in identity building, but the politics of identity here are also politics of visibility, and identity is often built around lower common denominator elements. Performance is central here – it's not enough to be, but identity must be expressed and shown. But social media also make such performance of social action more easily reproducible.

Social media act as intermediaries in this, enabling greater speed in protest organisation and diffusion, as well as shaping protest action in significant ways. The cloud is grounded in everyday technology that is widely available to a broad range of users; this deeply influences the nature and tactics of protest, enabling the creation of a customisable narrative and a tailored collective intelligence.

Thinking through the Parameters for Online Political Discourse

Sat, 08 Oct 2016 08:28:07 +0000

The final speaker in this morning panel at AoIR 2016 is Elliot Panek, who points out that social media are only one venue for political discourse, and that different platforms support different forms and qualities of discourse. Is it possible to develop robust, lasting frameworks for understanding such discourse that are not inherently tied to specific specific platforms, then?

Elements that are important here are technological affordances, social context, regulation, and user attitudes. Technological attributes include identity disclosure, message display, and message categorisation; the qualities of discourse we may be interested in include the levels of hostility, relevance, and tolerance, C for instance.

On identity disclosure: we might be able to distinguish between anonymous, pseudonymous, and 'real-name' participation; these settings create different levels of personal accountability, which may result in different degrees of hostility or self-censorship. Message display options could result in chronological display, sorting by user ratings, curated content feeds, or algorithmically sorted feeds; this again could result in different levels of relevance and hostility, in censorship through shared community attitudes or empowered moderators, or in the gaming of algorithmic selection processes by users. Participation could further be shaped by offline relationships, by location-based participant selection, or by interest-based self-selection; this again could result in groupthink, hostility towards individuals or the irrelevance of messages, or in hostility towards outsiders.

All of these attributes in turn also interact with each other, and are configured in a diverse range of combinations on different social media platforms. These could be explored through observational discourse studies, across diverse platforms, and also through experimental studies that manipulate specific attributes within controlled environments.

Second-Screen Engagement with Chilean Political Talk Shows

Sat, 08 Oct 2016 08:10:29 +0000

The next speakers at AoIR 2016 are Daniela Ibarra Herrera and Johann W. Unger, whose focus is on second-screen engagement with Chilean political talk shows. These shows often show tweets on screen, and promote their own hashtags as a form of engagement. There are current constitutional problems in Chile, as a hangover from the Pinochet dictatorship, and there are also ongoing issues with political corruption; this means that there is considerable engagement with current political debates.

Second-screen engagement with politics points to the everyday relevance of politics, and introduces some shifts to frontstage/backstage distinctions in politics; what emerges here is a new form of digitally mediated publics that can be studied using critical discourse studies.

The present study examined this by collecting some 5,000 tweets that were hashtagged with the talk show hashtag, from October 2015. Of these, some 30 topic-related tweets were randomly selected for further detailed analysis and coding. The focus here was especially on the semiotic resources found in those tweets, including multimodal, semiotic, and intertextual elements, as well as on topics, and argumentative strategies.

More generally, the 5,000 tweets showed a clear topic clustering, interpersonal engagement, quotations across various media platforms, and a lack of dialogue. Discursive strategies included metaphors and allusions that pointed to corruption; ad hominem attacks; intertextual quotations across Twitter as well as other media platforms; and hyperlinks to external sources. In this, different shows may well generate different publics, because of the ways in which Twitter is integrated into these shows.

Uses of WhatsApp for Political Debate in Israel

Sat, 08 Oct 2016 07:50:57 +0000

The next AoIR 2016 speaker is Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, who shifts our focus to the use of WhatsApp groups for informal political talk, especially in an Israeli context. In Israel there is a comparatively more open environment for online political talk, but also a greater propensity to violent, inciting, or racist discussion, especially in the context of major political, military, and terrorist events.

Political talk that is beneficial to democracy cuts across dissimilar political perspectives, but remains civil if robust in doing so. Such civility may be platform-dependent, however; there are distinctions between the major social media platforms and their roles in political discussions, for instance. The present paper focusses on WhatsApp, which is very popular in Israel especially for its free group messaging and its always-on, comparatively intimate nature.

There are two major WhatsApp groups for informal political talk, created for the discussion of the 2015 Knesset election, which are paid for by a nominal monthly fee, are widely heterogeneous in their membership, and serve to establish extremely active, bounded groups for conversation. The present study examined group conversations, conducted in-depth interviews, and connected this with offline events.

Mechanisms for managing disagreement include role-playing that explores political choices and unfolds over multiple conversational turns between key members, with interjections by others, which builds on the sense of comradery and shared norms within the group in spite of diverging political views. This may also represent too much political talk for some participants, however.

Repercussions of Commenting on News Websites in Norway

Sat, 08 Oct 2016 07:31:33 +0000

The next speaker in this AoIR 2016 session is Anders Løvlie, whose interest is in the repercussions of commenting on online newspaper sites for the commenters themselves. This is in the context of the 2011 terror attacks in Norway, which were inspired in part by a number of right-wing extremist Websites. In the aftermath, online commenting on news sites became seen as a form of bigotry, and Norwegian news sites tightened their comment moderation approaches.

Commenters on these sites were asked whether they had ever experienced negative repercussions from commenting – 11% said that they had. Those who participated more often and without using anonymous accounts experienced such repercussions more often, which is unsurprising; also, however, those who thought commenting rules were too strict had experienced more repercussions, perhaps because of their own transgressions of these rules, and commenters on fringe Website had been especially likely to experience repercussions.

Problems experienced included negative responses (29%), threats (23%), harassment (14%), and trouble with their employers (10%), while violence was quite uncommon. There did not seem to be any statistically significant differences between male and female respondents. There was a sentiment amongst respondents that it had become more difficult for people to speak their mind, especially for commenters espousing right-wing views.

The Impact of Commenting Systems on Civility

Sat, 08 Oct 2016 07:13:52 +0000

After a swinging party last night, we are now starting the final day of AoIR 2016. This begins with a paper by Alfred Moore, Rolf Fredheim, and John Naughton, whose focus is on online commenting practices. More and more people are getting their news online, and especially through social media; this has been creating anxieties about how people are getting their information, but the dimension of online commenting has been less thematised in this context. The structure of commenting architectures has an important role to play here.

There is a perception of a trade-off between anonymous and real-name commenting, and there has been a push for a reduction in anonymity online – but this is a fundamentally misleading approach. There are more dimensions of anonymity: configurations such as true anonymity, pseudonymity, and real-name identity are positioned across axes of durability of identity over time, and of connectedness (or connectability) of identity across platforms.

The present project captured comments on news articles on the Huffington Post over a period during which the site cycled through anonymous commenting, Facebook authentication, and commenting through Facebook. This led to an overall reduction in the volume of offensive language, but conversely also a rise in "you [insult]" formulations. Anonymous commenting invited the most offensive language, the pseudonymous phase was most civil, but the shift to real-name commenting saw an increase in incivility again.

This is also linked to gender. Comments are shorter on articles authored by women; insults are more frequently directed at women, and decline by more than the average during the pseudonymous phase. This reproduces offline power dynamics, but it also represents a bifurcation of the audience into on-site and on-Facebook audiences. The shift to Facebook means that established on-site norms for commenting are undermined, and there is a loss of the ability for the commenters to learn what levels of civility apply here.

A Network Perspective on the Twitter Reaction to David Bowie's Death

Fri, 07 Oct 2016 15:12:13 +0000

Social MediaSocial Media Network MappingTwitterAoIR 2016MusicThe final presenters in this AoIR 2016 session are my colleagues Peta Mitchell and Felix Münch, who also focus on the Twitter reaction to David Bowie's death. Twitter as a platform can be useful for studying public responses to such events, but at the same time the focus on a hashtag only also limits the study to deliberately self-selecting tweets and users; a focus on 'Bowie' as a keyword provides a different perspective. This is also complicated by the one percent rate limit of the Twitter API, as 'Bowie' tweets spiked well above that limit.Most of the millions of 'Bowie' tweets that were collected even in spite of the API limitations did not include a hashtag. Most of these tweets (more than half) were retweets, and these are especially prominent in the immediate aftermath of Bowie's death (and again following actor Alan Rickman's death a few days later). Most of these were retweets of posts by the members of One Direction, as well as of Kanye West; none of these most retweeted tweets were hashtagged. These document the particular retweet culture that exists around celebrities on Twitter, and especially around One Direction.Beyond such obvious but rather banal findings, there is a need for further meso-level analysis that explores the @mention interactions between participating users outside of the retweets. This further analysis focusses on the three days following Bowie's and preceding Rickman's death; during this time, retweets decline and other types of tweets increase. The Twitter reaction to Bowie's death is at first somewhat similar to other acute and crisis events, but organic URL sharing is even more pronounced here. The top shared URL is an iconic image of Bowie posted first by a One Direction member, but beyond this there are other types of artefacts, including more artistic content such as an animated GIF cycling through Bowie's different personas over the years. (This is complicated quite substantially by the multiple URLs circulating on Twitter that ultimately point to the same location or content, sometimes without appropriate attribution.)A visualisation of the @mention networks points to the role of celebrities and mainstream media accounts in serving as centres of the conversation, as well as of David Bowie's own (much mentioned) account as a central node. Even removing Bowie's account this network remains fairly closely connected; various celebrities, media accounts, @youtube, and others take his place as central nodes. A dynamic network visualisation points to when these different accounts take up their positions in the network, and how the network gains structure over time.Further analysis that focusses only on mutual, reciprocal @mentions adds to the further diversification of the structure, and points to a variety of brief dyadic and small-scale interactions between users; language barriers emerge as a stronger driver of network structure here. Such network analysis also assists further qualitative analysis of specific patterns in the wider network, by pointing to particular types of interactions.[...]