Virtual Culture Vulture
As part of my KCB201 assessment this blog discusses the cultural applications of the internet and new media technology.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Thursday, May 8, 2008
I’ve been reading a book lately called Wild Swans by Jung Chang. It’s a fairly well known book that describes the lives of three generations of Chinese women – the author, her mother and grandmother. Jung Chang explained how Mao Zedong was able to manipulate an entire country because he could control the information that entered, exited and circulated within China. One passage struck me in particular:
“Next, Mao moved in on the media, primarily the People’s Daily, which carried the most authority as it was the official Party newspaper and the population had become accustomed to it being the voice of the regime” (1993, 368).
This led me to wonder whether the same sort of totalitarian control would be possible today?
On the surface, it seems that advances in internet and mobile technology have thrown citizens who live under oppressive governments an information lifeline. Citizen journalism is the process by which ordinary people sidestep traditional news sources to seek out or contribute news information. As We Media states:
“Armed with easy-to-use Web publishing tools, always-on connections and increasingly powerful mobile devices, the online audience has the means to become an active participant in the creation and dissemination of news and information.”
The topics covered by citizen journalism often draw attention to issues that are ignored or inaccessible to the mainstream media, and the combined efforts of online communities means that the content produced is often more up-to-date than the commercial versions. In an article for Time magazine Jodi Zu discusses the huge popularity of video-sharing websites, particularly Tuduo.com, in China. Technology, such as camera phones, has allowed Chinese citizens to view and distribute content that the government has attempted to stamp out (one notable video apparently showed drunk police officers beating a college girl). Outside of China, collectives such as mobileactive.org use mobile technology, (a powerful force when you realize that there are 3.5 billion mobile phones in the world), to push for social change.
Yet although people have greater opportunities to access, record, distribute and receive information, at the end of the day, these intrepid citizen journalists still answer to their respective governments. Simon Elegant’s article for Time magazine related the story of one Chinese ‘netizen’ whose blog covered disputes between Chinese authorities and ordinary citizens. Although Zhou Shuguang’s blog received over 20 000 views per day at the height of its popularity, the authorities intervened and Zhou was given an armed escort to the airport. Zhou’s career as a blogger for social change lasted barely six months, and he has now returned to his previous role as a vegetable seller. Commissioner Faith Pansy Tlakula, a member of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, told worldchanging.org that she receives a ‘considerable number’ of reports that detail incidents of journalists in Africa being harassed, arrested, tortured and even murdered by the authorities in charge.
Totalitarian control of information, as exhibited by Mao Zedong, is certainly no longer possible. Yet while citizen journalism clearly has the power of numbers and technology to draw attention to pressing global issues, irresponsible governments still exist. Robert Mugabe is still in power even though the Zimbabwe elections were followed by eyes the world over, and the results were clearly fabricated. Yet instant results cannot be expected. Installing democratic governments does not automatically occur merely because we become aware of their unjust practices.
I think ‘we’, as a motley crew of politically active and interested citizens, are moving in the right direction. Global online communities are banding together and driving for social change, and oppressive governments are becoming subject to greater scrutiny. Rather than answering to organizations such as the United Nations, where proposals and calls for action can take months to process, undemocratic governments are now feeling the instant glare of global scrutiny. Whether this increasing pressure will bring about lasting change remains to be seen, but for the moment I believe that the vast numbers and strength of online communities is a heartening testament to the number of politically active citizens spread across the globe.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
For several years now traditional media companies (newspapers, television, etc) have been desperately trying to prevent the internet from undermining their massive profits and power. You would be hard pressed to find a media company these days that does not have its own website, yet some of these (such as ninemsn) are barely more than thinly veiled attempts to hook people into buying magazines and watching television programs. This, I feel, represents the backwards thinking that most media organizations apply to their online presence: “We won’t actually change what we do, we’ll just make a website that sells our existing products! Neat-o!”.
The reluctance to embrace the capabilities of the web is most likely due to the fact that the internet does not function according to the same straightforward revenue model as traditional broadcast media. As Jim Willse, editor of Newark’s Star-Ledger, put it to a conference of news media producers earlier this year, "the business model of newspapers that we all grew up with has blown up.” (For the full article click here).
People no longer have to pay for content, and can access a variety of global media within seconds. However, all is not lost as there are media organizations that I believe are working with the internet, resulting in a stronger media presence and greater engagement with their readers.
One of these media organizations is Ode magazine. The website describes Ode as “The online community for Intelligent Optimists”, and is a great example of how to effectively combine print and online media. The site makes use of the internet’s capabilities as a social networking tool: spaces are provided for blogs; exchange of ideas; information on members of the community; and various interest groups within the Ode community. The website does provide information about the magazine and opportunities to subscribe, but is more concerned with providing a space for users to share their thoughts and ideas. Ode magazine could possibly be seen as a realisation of Howard Rheingold’s virtual communities, which are detailed in Flew (2004, 62). Rheingold (in Flew, 2004, 62) was one of the first to muse about the potential for online communities to reinvigorate users’ sense of community value and foster greater interest, and therefore participation, in public life. He believed that for this to occur, three factors must be in place:
- Social networks and social capital
- The sharing of knowledge and information
- The enabling of new modes of democratic participation in public life
Ode’s online community can tick all of these boxes quite easily. The magazine has managed to achieve what other print publications have not: establish a strong presence on and offline, both of which function independently but remain extensions of a single brand.
There are several aspects of Ode which may have contributed to its success. Firstly, the magazine was established relatively recently, in 1995. This means that rather than having to remodel an existing organization to suit web developments, Ode would have been able to adapt to the internet as both the magazine and internet technology took off. Secondly, the focus of Ode magazine is the sharing of ideas and linking people. This is at odds with the profit-driven motives of the majority of magazines (or any media product for that matter). Naturally, the powers that be at Ode gravitated towards the internet as a perfect vehicle hold open-ended discussions and exchange knowledge and ideas.
Flew, T. 2004. Virtual Cultures. In T. Flew, New media: an introduction, 61-82. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. Queensland University of Technology: Course materials Database (accessed March 14, 2008).
Friday, May 2, 2008
Thursday, May 1, 2008
Throughout my time at QUT there has been one major contradiction that has leapt out at me every time I've jumped on the internet. Although we study at a leading university and most of our learning and information resources are accessed over the internet, QUT's online systems are inconsistent, inefficient and difficult to use. This seems entirely at odds with our current focus of study – how individuals use and interact with the internet in ever more sophisticated ways.
A major theme that runs through the KCB201 content is the developing role of internet users as producers of online content. Open source software is one area in which the expertise of many internet users is combined to produce applications (such as websites, programs or even servers) that are cheaper, more functional and more reliable than commercially produced versions. For example, the Mozilla Firefox web browser is a product of open-source software that just passed the 500 million download mark.
One of the benefits of open source software is that the source code can be modified as glitches in the application are discovered. This means that if you are using a program and it does not perform the way you would like it to, you can simply look at the source code and change it to suit your needs.
So one day, after entering my sign-in information for the fifth time in a row, I pondered wistfully... what if the QUT online systems could be redesigned using open source software? What if these systems were a product of user-led collaboration? Here are five reasons why QUT websites would make an ideal open source project:
- The current websites are, quite simply, ineffective and limited in their functionality. As a student, I have to access four different webpages to do the following: find out information about my personal enrolment (QUT virtual); communicate via email (QUT webmail); access learning resources (QUT blackboard); and locate university information (QUT homepage – prepare to burrow 17 pages deep). To complicate things further, the information spread across these webpages is often inconsistent and out of date. If open source software was used, QUT students, teachers and staff would be able to modify the websites to suit their needs. Currently, the QUT online systems are a typical example of what opensource.org refers to as a “traditional closed model, in which only a very few programmers can see the source and everybody else must blindly use an opaque block of bits”.
- QUT has access to an extremely valuable bank of IT knowledge: its students and teachers. This collective knowledge would be more than capable of designing and adapting online systems that are more user-friendly than the current models. Also, current students would have a vested interest in producing online systems for QUT as they would directly benefit from their enhanced usability. This would avoid any ethical qualms associated with ‘hijacking the hive’, as those who contribute are those who are rewarded.
- Many hands make light work. The diversity of courses, faculties, students, teachers, campuses (and so much more) means that the amount of information to be transferred online and on time is way beyond the capacity of the Web Solutions or Information Technology Services (ITS) staff. These divisions are more concerned with functional problems, such ensuring that servers stay online and audiovisual equipment performs correctly. This leaves little scope to assess the practicality of online systems, as the task of ensuring that these systems, however ineffective, keep running is huge in itself.
- The websites could be updated and adapted as needed. Although forums and discussion boards do exist on QUT blackboard pages, I doubt these are used to their full potential. Currently, the content of the KCB201 ‘Feedback’ folder on QUT blackboard reads: “folder empty”. While the university conducts Learning Experience (LEX) surveys, these are more focused on course content and teaching standards, and do not consider the performance of websites and online systems. There are no opportunities for feedback about the usability of websites, or for ideas for new features to be floated. In fact the last time the ITS conducted ‘Quality of Service’ surveys was in 2004 and 2002. It is reasonable to say that the needs of students have changed in the last four years. Certain parts of QUT virtual and blackboard are redundant, while in other areas there exists a need for new services. If QUT’s students were able to contribute ideas and information, or request amendments to services, the web systems would be more functional and would be a closer match to what students actually require.
- QUT would save enough money to shout the entire staff a holiday to Vanuatu. This may be exaggerating slightly, but the cost of maintaining and designing webpages for an institution with over 40 000 students would be staggering. Instead of paying for commercial education software, such as Blackboard and Virtual systems, QUT would be able to internally develop web applications that exactly suit the needs of its staff, students and teachers. Redundant tools would be cast aside, leaving us all with a streamlined system designed to suit our individual needs.
Of course, my idealistic proposal will probably never make it into the real world. Firstly, because I do not have the background in IT to assess whether this idea is even feasible (although for a similar project, take a look at Stanford University's Open Source Lab project here). In fact I’m certain that there are gaping holes in my argument, but this post is more of a hypothetical question rather than a technically flawless proposal. Second, the security risks and lack of control over open source software mean that it is unlikely to be adopted by QUT anytime soon. But for a university that espouses its focus on creativity and innovation, and on learning for ‘the real world’, I think that the functionality of online services could definitely be improved. The following quote is lifted directly from the QUT Creative Industries webpage, and its lofty aspirations grind against the rigid and stale web services that we are all forced to work around in order to complete our study.
“QUT Creative Industries is commited (sic) to staying at the forefront of creative enterprise, practice, learning and research. We challenge tradition, providing new meanings, environments and perspectives, training graduates that are ready not only for today’s demands, but for the creative world that is yet to arrive.”
Sunday, April 20, 2008
The music industry is currently weathering several major changes that include the development of production and distribution technology; the emergence of new media forms and changing patterns of media consumption. It can be argued that of all media, music is the type that we are exposed to the most, either by active consumption or by its inclusion in any number of situations. Homan supports this idea by stating that “perhaps more than any other medium, popular music intersects with and influences the uses of other media in everyday life” (2006, 238). Music is present in our lives whether we are jumping around in front of our favourite band at a live gig or trawling up and down supermarket aisles. Adding to music’s omnipresence is the explosion of personal mobile media players such as ipods and mobile phones with customized ringtones; in this setting, music becomes part of our ‘digital lifestyles’ and a marker of personal identity. Homan confidently announces that “more music is being consumed by more people than ever before,” and it would be difficult to disagree. For those who require hard facts, the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) reported that “recorded music sales in Australia increased by over $12 million, or 5.8 percent, to over $224 million in the six months to June 2006” when compared with the corresponding period of the previous year (ARIA, 2006, cited in McIntyre, 2007, 84). The increase in consumption could lead us to assume that all participants in the music industry are riding a wave of success, but the reality is quite different. Philip Graham’s lecture provided insight into the challenges that recording artists and other members of the Australian music industry must face today. While the turnover of the music industry may be increasing the majority of musicians further down the food chain often cannot reap financial rewards for their work (McIntyre, 2007, 91). Rapid advances in technology and the increased tendency for people to share, swap and download music over the internet ensure that today’s recording artists are working in an industry that is more unstable than ever. The nature of today’s music industry has changed from an earlier, more stable model to an industry that is trying desperately to adjust to technological change and the shift in power from industry organisations to the consumer.
The internet has proven to be both a blessing and a curse for recording artists worldwide. Recorded tracks are available in compressed and easily-manipulated digital formats such as mp3, and the influence of the internet has loosened the stranglehold that recording companies previously held on the music industry. Triple j Unearthed; a project established by Triple J radio station to provide a media platform for emerging musicians; is evidence of this and currently has more than ten thousand artists and twenty-four thousand tracks available on its website. The fact that the website is barely one year old makes this volume of content all the more staggering (2007). Clearly, the major technological benefit of the internet to musicians is its potential as a distribution tool (Jones, 2002, 216). Online music was originally restricted to retail music stores operating via websites, allowing customers to browse and purchase copies of recordings over the internet (Jones, 2002, 219). Since then, the development of computer technology has completely changed the nature of online music in a very short space of time. Homan explains that “the internet enables musicians to bypass many traditional industrial structures” within the music industry (2006, 256). Instead of having their careers at the mercy of recording companies, musicians can distribute and promote their material via the internet and have the potential to reach a global audience (Jones, 2002, 219). The Arctic Monkeys are a well-known example of how the internet can be utilized as a promotion tool; fans of the band started a website which attracted significant interest and resulted in the band’s album debuting at number one on the
While technological advances have partially liberated musicians, the group that benefits most are the users and consumers of music. New technologies have, in effect, placed media power in the hands of the consumer (Jones, 2002, 220). Today’s consumers have the ability to pick and choose specific media from a huge array of media forms and content, developing a ‘digital lifestyle’ in the process (Livingstone, cited by Martin, 2006, 318). This phenomenon allows users to access rich content that is specifically tailored to their interests, and then to consume their chosen media at whichever time and place they wish. Users are also able to share and access music without incurring any financial cost, usually via well known p2p (peer-to-peer) file-sharing programs such as Napster, Kazaa and Limewire. This liberal freedom and flow of music content may represent greater exposure for artists, yet very few of them are able to reap any financial reward for their work (Jones, 2002, 220). As Philip Graham put it, “people don’t want to pay for music. They never have” (2007). While artists are keen to embrace the freedom and potential of new technology and the internet, these advantages are weighed down by the huge field of competition and the ability for music to be acquired by users free of charge (Homan and Gibson, 2007, 61). This leads us to the subject of popular music policy and the current upheaval surrounding copyright and intellectual property (IP) regulation, an area which represents major problems for recording artists.
1. Cunningham, S and Turner, G. (2006) “The media and communications today.” The Media and Communications in
2. Graham, P. (2007) “Key changes in the music industry.” Lecture presented at Queensland University of Technology on Tuesday 2 October, 2007.
3. Homan, S. (2006) “Popular Music”, in S. Cunningham and G. Turner (eds) The Media and Communications in Australia, Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 238-258.
4. Homan, S. and Gibson, C. (2007) “Popular Music: Networks, Industries, and Spaces”, Media International
5. Jones, S. (2002) “Music that moves: popular music, distribution and network technologies”, Cultural Studies, 16 (2), 213-232.
6. Martin, F. (2006) “New Media, New Audiences”, in S. Cunningham and G. Turner (eds) The Media and Communications in
7. McIntyre, P. (2007) “Copyright and Creativity: Changing paradigms and the implications for intellectual property and the music industry”, Media International
8. Sternberg, J. (2006) “Youth Media”, in S. Cunningham and G. Turner (eds) The Media and Communications in Australia, Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 329-343.
9. triple j Unearthed website. 2007. http://www.triplejunearthed.com/Default.aspx (accessed 3 October 2007).
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
One of the major features of the internet is the ability for people to form and participate in online communities. In his book, New Media: an Introduction Terry Flew (2004, 67) quotes Langdon Winner who describes how virtual communities enable people to connect with others who share similar interests. The internet’s potential as a site for community establishment is especially appealing to individuals whose interests and ideas may not be widely shared in the offline community. To quote Shenton and McNeeley, again courtesy of Flew (2004, 69), people often participate in online groups because they are able to express views and opinions that are not usually raised in more mainstream media outlets.
While the majority of these interests are well-meaning, there has been concern raised over the potential for groups that share antisocial interests to form online communities. Articles relating to mySpace suicide pacts and how terrorists use the internet are relatively common. Axel Bruns stated in his week six lecture that one benefit of online communities is the “ability [for people] to operate in fields of interest neglected by mainstream media, business, politics, research.” While this may allow for greater coverage of socially valuable topics such as news, current affairs and politics (see Slashdot, Current TV, and Crikey); antisocial groups such as neo-nazi, terrorist, paedophile or pro-anorexia networks are also provided with the same opportunity to form strong communities. Like-minded individuals can overcome physical and social barriers to participation and exist as part of a network while concealing their true identity. There is no doubt that such groups exist, and I am not going to attempt to find them to prove my point. Instead, I think it is more important to think about whether the internet encourages these groups to form. Is antisocial networking and behaviour increasing because internet and mobile technology allows groups to operate more effectively?
Essentially, I think the answer is no. In the tradition of moral panics, it is easy to assume that the perceived rise in the number and power of antisocial groups such as the Al Qaeda network is due to advances in internet and mobile technology. Alex Iskold’s blog post, Technology and Terrorism: Are we being too naive?, veers towards this line of thinking and discusses how google earth has the potential to provide terrorist organizations with valuable information. . Yet while terrorist operators may be able to use internet and mobile technology for their own destructive purposes, or neo-nazis can air their views in online forums, this does not mean that these technologies should (or could) be censored or banned. If we did try to stifle or dismantle these communities, would we be undermining the very ideals of using the internet as a site for free expression? In March 2005, one year on from the 2004 bombings in Madrid, an international summit was held by the Club of Madrid to discuss current issues of democracy, terrorism and security. One panel addressed the specific topic of Democracy, Terrorism and the Internet, in order to determine whether use of the internet should be censored because of its possibility to be used by terrorist organisations. To quote from the keynotes provided on the website:
"the panellists agreed that interfering with the democratic freedoms offered by the internet would probably damage democracy more than it would harm the terrorists, and that the internet's positive effects, in connecting people for example, far outweighed the possibility of abuse".
Although it may seem easier for undesirable communities to form and function thanks to the internet, the internet has not caused or increased the prevalence of such communities. All of the groups I mentioned existed and operated before the internet. Their methods of organization and communication have changed, just the same as conventional community groups have done. I would argue instead that rather than spawning more antisocial groups, the internet actually serves to expose these groups to greater scrutiny.
The human race has always had its unsavoury elements, and the internet has not increased the prevalence of these. Instead, these anti-social aspects of our global community are now more visible than ever before. I believe that this visibility acts as a censor of sorts. Because internet content can (largely) be viewed by any user, any sites that deal with antisocial communities actually provide us with information about these groups, and can help us to anticipate antisocial action or work to solve problems within our society.
Flew, T. 2004. Virtual Cultures. In T. Flew, New media: an introduction, 61-82. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. Queensland University of Technology: Course materials Database (accessed March 14, 2008).