Saturday, October 24, 2009

America, Reimagined: Social Media

(Photo: National Geographic/PopTech2009 Photo Camp)

YouTube contains a lot of irrelevant content: according to cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch, some 20 hours of new video is uploaded to YouTube every minute; he says 493,714 videos are uploaded to YouTube every day, on average—plus 1 million more to other sites. "We, as amateurs, upload more video content than any of the major networks combined in a single month," Wesch told attendees of PopTech's 2009 conference, America Reimagined, about how major forces are reshaping the idea of America at home and abroad. [Wesch said that in the brief history of social media, New Jersey teen Gary Brolsma was "the first on the dance floor" of the viral video phenomenon with his July 2006 “Numa Numa” Webcam clip, which shows Brolsma lip-synching a Moldovan pop song that made its way from Europe and then to Japan before finding its way to the States and Brolsma’s desktop (see below). That was two months before the launch of YouTube. Now, says Wesch, thousands are uploading videos, “doing the Net’s version of the macarena.”]

So how is this signficant? Collectively, Wesch says, all of this new Web video content represents a new language and form of cultural literacy, a new type of communication comprised of shared images and intensely personal revelations that can be used to connect people in new ways —and, perhaps, even get them to care more about each other. “[YouTube] is a whole new landscape of social media that we need to understand because it is about social networks, not the masses,” says Wesch, a professor of new media at Kansas State University. “Social media matter because they have the potential to transform individual pursuits into collective action.”

One hint of how YouTube is changing us, Wesch said, can be found in the fact that there are more than a million videos on YouTube addressed specifically to the YouTube community, itself—a community created by people speaking entirely through Webcams and computer screens to strangers, about whom they have no knowledge nor conversational context. Says Wesch:

"At first, you get nervous [filming yourself] but then there's this kind of context collapse, and then suddenly you have every possible context collapsing in on itself and it's hard to know what to say. Yet what's really interesting is that people get more nervous about how they occur to themselves than to others. That's why people get the most nervous: [video] replay offers a deeper level of awareness than the first play [as 1960s-era media analyst Marshall McLuhan said it would when he spoke of re-cognition.] ...And it's not just the content maker that is affected by this new medium; it's also the watcher."

For some people, Wesch says, the anonymity of the YouTube audience can offer a kind of freedom to engage in new kinds of conversations and the distance needed to connect more deeply. [Wesch says the camera allows people to confess things to a Webcam that they would never think of sharing with close friends or family members; Wesch thinks this kind of communication might lead to new forms of community and social understanding.] Case in point: A video called The Message (below). It was made by a person wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, who uses his anonymity as a platform for collaboration. He asked people to write messages on the palms of their hands and to hold them up to their Webcams for sharing; he posted a compilation on YouTube. Millions of people shared this way, Wesch said, mostly about the need to love one another and to look beyond themselves:

“This was the first time in history that humans have been wired up with all of these cameras, sharing messages about loving yourself and each other,” Wesch said. “…Someday, we may look back on this and see that moment when we connected all these cameras in this way. But when we do, I hope this will not come off as blind optimism because people would not be writing these things on their hands if these things existed. They wouldn't need to say it if they did.” Wesch says he sees this video, instead, as being “emblematic of the tragedy of our times—that we are more connected than ever but don’t really know it and don’t truly live it.”

[For more on Wesch, see “Speaking YouTube”—part of Cause Global’s coverage of Wesch’s presentation to the Personal Democracy Forum earlier this year in New York.]

Among other social media presentations at PopTech 2009:

* Nick Bilton, whose job it is at The New York Times to “explore and test technologies that could become commonplace” years from now, told conferees what seems obvious—that “everything about the news is changing.” But Bilton suggests that it’s not because newspapers are folding, but because of the way we share, absorb and manipulate information. Bilton, author of the upcoming book, I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works, told conferees that multi-tasking doesn’t deserve the bad rap it’s getting from well-being experts. Our brains are adapting—or will, he says—to ever-greater and varied amounts of media stimuli. Proof? Brodmann’s Area 10 is the name scientsists have given to that spot in the brain that regulates how many things we can comprehend simultaneously. The good news? As humans confront ever-larger amounts of information to process, this area of the brain is getting larger. "With the next generation, a lot of scientists believe this area is going to start working faster and faster,” Bilton says, allowing a leap in human productivity. [Bilton also referred to a study showing that Net savvy people's brains light up twice as much while they're Web-surfing. "There is a new type of comprehension at work here," Bilton says. As for newspapers, Bilton said, “the relevance of news is changing.” When Ted Kennedy died, Bilton said, it wasn’t news to him. It didn’t mean anything. But the shooting near his house in Brooklyn? “That was news to me, but not to you—unless you live where I live,” he said. The point: As the Internet tears down geographical boundaries, news is paradoxically becoming more relevant depending on how local it is geographically. "Local" also now means relationship-proximate: Bilton told of a friend who borrowed his laptop to check the "news"—meaning Facebook. “Our concept of trust is changing,” he said. “We trust the (news) media 29 percent and we trust our friends and family 90 percent.” And one last point? Mobile phones are expanding our notions of civic space, and now it's becoming everyone's civic duty to report the news. “Can you imagine all the stories we'd hear if 9/11 happened today?” Bilton said. “Social media would have changed the whole way we would have heard those stories" and our experience of the news.

*Alec Ross, a senior social media/technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told conferees about the Obama Administration's 21st Century Statecraft initiative, which is all about using social media to help nation states and leaders empower—rather than overpower—their citizens and each other. “If you think of the last eight years of American foreign policy, it was about overpowering others in the world,” Ross said. “[We want] to go beyond engaging government-to-government and to connect with people more directly.” For the first time in decades, he said, the White House connected with the Iranian people, an initiative “made possible by technology, by a [social media] toolbox that exists today and did not 10 years ago. …If Paul Revere were alive today, he wouldn’t make a ride; he would have just tweeted and the lantern hangers would’ve retweeted.” Ross said he is launching a new social media initiative with Mexican drug-trafficking authorities that aims to engage citizens in their war on drugs. “I was just in Mexico last week, and the big problem there with drug-related violence is that nobody will inform on the people responsible; all informants end up getting shot in the head,” Ross told conferees. “So I went [to Mexico] and took some of my crazy innovator friends there with me, and we met with NGOs and with Carlos Slim and we came up with a little system where people are able to email or text gang activity. Their personal emails are anonymized so there isn’t the possibility of retaliation, and so information can get up on a Web site so the government can respond more quickly, and then keep people informed about what’s happening [in their fight against drugs.] Everyone can get involved without fear of retaliation. This is just Chapter One of how we can use technology in statecraft.”

* James Fowler, the author of the recent book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives
, told conferees that humans—like birds and schools of fish—also tend to act in communities of purpose and suggested that online social networks will amplify these natural social tendencies.
Humans have always lived in “webs of humanity," Fowler said, and within these Webs, such physical traits as obesity and behaviors such as smoking tend to spread like viruses. In other words, there is a kind of swarm mentality in social networks, and those people closest to us can affect our behaviors more than we might like to admit. “We [as humans] are connected in ways that other social species are: [we tend to behave collectively, as do] schools of fish, flocks of birds,’” Fowler said. For example, you’re 57 percent more likely to have overweight friends if you, yourself, are overweight. Fowler also described the phenomenon of “emotional stampedes”—how emotional states of happiness or depression can spread through social networks, as well. He also spoke of “financial contagions”—such as the 2007 run on England's Northern Rock Bank, “when everyone thought he bank was going to fail.” Contagion works with voting, too. But most significantly? This kind of swarm behavior spreads as far as three degrees of separation but no further, he says; the influence of the network gets weaker the more distant in personal relationship-connection you are to its center. Fowler’s take on it all? The upside. He recently lost five pounds, he said, to influence those he loves to do the same. “Just think of it,” Fowler said. “By changing your own behavior you truly can change the behavior of others.” Social media, he says, can help humans influence their communities at new levels of impact.

—By Marcia Stepanek

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