Against entanglement

I’ve been ‘against’ a few things in my time. In 1978, I was one of 80,000 people marching from Trafalgar Square to a park in East London for a Rock Against Racism carnival. Apparently this was the largest protest of its kind since the 1930s, and a new generation of people are keeping the momentum going in things like Love Music, Hate Racism. By comparison, the ‘Students Against Crap Teaching’ (SACT) group on Facebook is a minor affair – 21 members, and no posts for nearly a year. Nevertheless, the THE found the fact that we are mentioned on it momentous enough to ask for a comment, which appears in the current THE (Threads that twist and tangle, THE, 28 February 2008.) I get to say some brainy things about social networking (hooray for me), but my disparagement of the SACT itself (pointless and dormant) was omitted.
This goes to show how the permanent, searchable nature of social networks differentiate them from word of mouth. If someone had made a mild comment about teaching at Edge Hill a year ago in a pub somewhere, it’s unlikely that a national journalist would be emailing us for a response twelve months later. But the words (and pictures) that populate the Web 2.0 sphere are always there to be examined, like the fossil record or those layers of broken pottery they find on Time Team (‘So, what kind of household would have lived on this site, Phil?’ ‘Well Tony, these pots were imported from the Mediterranean, so they would have been quite a high status family…’)

But does it matter? In the SACT example, one person expressed a negative opinion on one occasion – big deal. Obviously, sustained attacks suck as ‘**** UEL’ or ‘[a named individual at another university] is ****’ (check out the THE for the full potty-mouthed version) are more worrying, but generally speaking positive comments outweigh the negative and it’s all part of the free exchange of opinion that makes a healthy society.

The THE point out that ‘Edge Hill University already monitors web activity relating to the university’, which could imply that we have a room full of gimlet-eyed analysts monitoring screens all day, perhaps in a darkened room like the headquarters in ’24’, or the curiously-understaffed MI5 in ‘Spooks’. In fact it’s a much more low-key affair, involving judicious use of RSS feeds, common sense, and little time. We are following the threads, but not becoming entangled in them.

Slow news day

Being A-level results day, I bought a wheelbarrow full of newspapers on the way in to work shortly after dawn. A quick read through of these brought some heart-stopping moments as well as a bit of wry amusement. The Times published what it called a ‘Good University Guide’… this included a list of university profiles, which had been subbed down to 53 out of 113 institutions. The choice is pretty random but we were one of the omitted ones, though the online version isn’t too bad (unjustified table position notwithstanding.) Meanwhile in the Sun, we’re cited as having exceptionally cheap beer – not a bad thing as students do sometimes drink this beverage, and may wish to purchase it economically. (This article also makes Bishop Grosseteste College sound like a latter-day Playboy Mansion.) More locally, the Ormskirk Advertiser is moving into ‘Wired’ territory with its story about a Facebook fan group for the town’s famous roller-skating grandad. After all that, a BBC story about our campus expansion plans seemed like a return to media sanity.

The day I killed the NME

My efforts to understand Facebook have been a bit like the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the apeman is bashing the ground with a bone. I could sense that this new tool did something, but couldn’t quite figure out what, so I kept thrashing around. Perhaps eventually the bone would turn into a spaceship. (Digression: If this doesn’t make sense, watch the clip – I saw this movie when I was six, a week after seeing The Wizard of Oz at the pictures – I’ve never been the same since.

(There’s a longer clip here.) Digression over.)

The more I saw of Facebook, the more questions I had.

One of these questions was: how do magazines get to have profiles, the same as people? This seemed like a neat thing to do for an organisation: have a profile that could befriend people, put neat stuff on it – videos, blog feeds, pictures; organise events… However, the T&Cs forbid one to ‘register for a User account on behalf of any group or entity’. There is a pricy paid-for advertising option to create a sort of temporary corporate site, but the magazines I looked at didn’t look like corporates such as ‘I Heart Virgin Mobile’. So how do they do it? I friended the NME, largely out of nostalgia: the NME, or New Musical Express as it was then, charted and to some extend created the musical epochs I lived through as a teenager. NME cover
I looked forward to seeing what kind of content they would provide via Facebook… perhaps reliving my leather-jacketed youth in the process.

Meanwhile, to try and figure out what kind of deal the NME were on, I asked the Facebook advertising sales guy I’d been emailling to explain the different levels; what did NME and others do differently from the heavyweight advertisers like Virgin and Apple? Were they paying or was there a class of ‘entity’ that could have a profile? A few days later, a reply came, thanking me for reporting the ‘abuse’. And the NME page disappeared. One less social networking channel for them, then…

Oh dear. Some ‘Friend’ I turned out to be…

I guess Facebook is just for people – and advertisers with deep pockets.

Facebook cyborg

Purely in the interests of researching new communications channels, I’ve been busy playing with Facebook. Really, the only way to understand a lot of Web 2.0 stuff is to have a go, so that’s what I’ve been doing… researching tirelessly on the university’s behalf. So what is this Facebook mallarkey then? Among other things, it seems to me
– It’s a seductive toy, or rather, a bottomless toybox – sharing and using an endless succession of gadgets is part of the fun. (An example: a list of movies I’ve rated, which can be compared with your ratings to see how our tastes match.)
– It’s a way of communicating – distinctively, through lots of mini-bites of phatic communication – the most basic of which is the content-free ‘poke’ function, which just tells the recipient they’ve been poked. (Honestly, it’s that innocent – no need to invoke an HR procedure…)
– It’s like MySpace – but also like the front door of someone’s house or the clothes they put on – in that it’s an expression of identity.

The final of these is interesting. Social networking has created new ways to present oneself to the online world, and Facebook is (currently) one way this happens. But the medium itself isn’t neutral… In his interesting book about PowerPoint, David Byrne (yes, the Talking Heads bloke) explores some ways in which the popular presentation software shapes what is being communicated. For instance, our thoughts don’t come in bullet points, but that’s how they’re likely to end up in a public presentation because that’s what PPT does, specially if you use the wizards and templates. Similarly, Facebook channels one’s presentation of oneself into a collage of cultural choices, a way of writing, a visual presentation with a particular set of nuances. Which is fine – I don’t wish to take a puritan stance and say this is some kind of oppressive wickedness – just that it’s good to be aware of how these things work. To me the opportunity to have an electronic ‘face’ visible to a distributed network of friends is another way for technology to augment my physical body – like my walking boots, spectacles and diary which enable me to walk, see and remember things better than I could naturally. Maybe one day I’ll have breast implants, or a pacemaker. Westerners are all living in a world where technologies extend our capability, arguably becoming part of identity in the process. To quote Donna Haraway, ‘we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism, in short, we are all cyborgs’. (A Cyborg Manifesto)

So Facebook is a handy tool – slightly interesting, somewhat useful. There’s a price to pay, a kind of toll – in that it comes with a heavy freight of cultural baggage. For instance, I just added the ‘Coffee’ application – a toy which let’s you arrange to have a boiled beverage with me (and feel free to do so.) The default venue and the application icon is Starbucks… Now if I was a developer I could make my own Facebook app with, say, a picture of a bone china teapot with a Union Jack on it, and a Lyons Corner House as the default meeting place. But, dude, it would still come cocooned in US college/IT geek/Web 2.0 discourse – it’s customisable, but only up to a point. Again, I don’t think this is super-bad – Facebook users aren’t hypnotised into becoming instant Californians. We may be cyborgs but we aren’t robots – people are highly skilled at using the tools and either ignoring the cultural packaging, or adopting parts of it, for a bit of a giggle.

As for marketing – one can advertise on Facebook, for relatively big bucks – eg Liverpool’s ubiquitous ads for online Masters. However that’s not using the medium, just piggybacking on it. I would rather try a more grassroots approach, creating groups and events, using the highly targeted and realtively unintrusive flyers and (gasp) actually communicating with people.

Got to go, I’ve just been poked…