Twitter, the great echo chamber

Today on Twitter Paris_David said “We need to get out of the echo chamber people. Conroy was always going to stay. Furious agreement on Twitter is not a campaign.”   Which pretty much summed up some of what I had been thinking about for a while. On Twitter there was a huge number of sincere, intelligent, well-meaning, slightly deluded people. Why on earth would Conroy have been changed? The anti internet censorship campaign has barely scratched the mainstream surface, yet for all of us who constantly listen to the opinions of people who agree with us, we start to get convinced that there is a great groundswell of opinion out there. The technical term for it is confirmation bias apparently.

I won’t claim to be the first person to think such thinky thoughts, and there is apparently a significant article out there somewhere which discusses the way that blogs help to both engage in confirmation bias and suffer from attitude polarisation which Google is not helpfully finding for me. Examples of some other articles include this one from Livescience on the way that political junkies choose their news and the Huffington Post on whether the internet can fix politics. Even my last post here proves the theory to some extent – with a piece promoted through like-minded folk on Twitter and through their blogs, I have received not a single negative comment. I wonder whether that might change if it got linked to by a mainstream media site – or whether the confirmation bias approach would mean that only those who were inclined to agree would bother to follow the link anyway.

What I wanted to discuss here though was the potential ideological impact of this echo chamber effect – yes, for those who are more familiar with my blog you know I can’t resist an opportunity to drag out some Althusser and Marx when I can. Does engaging in the great echo chamber make us believe that we have participated in political action and thereby act as a dis-abler for further political acts; acts which might penetrate beyond the sphere of the Twitta-sphere, and, more specifically, the Twitter community to which we belong. Before I start, let me just say, I love Twitter. Totally love Twitter.  And I am not arguing that it doesn’t have its role. It is just a matter of working out exactly what that role is.

Anyway, firstly, let’s face it, the people we follow, and the ones who follow us, are generally people or organisations we have sympathy with. Hands up everyone who has unfollowed someone because they said something we found offensive for essentially political reasons . And so we should  – we want to read things that we enjoy and find interesting, rather than things that anger us all the time. Occasional reading of right wing columnists is entertaining from time to time, and we all don’t mind a bit of outrage, but an endless stream of it would make Twitter exhausting. So we find like-minded people and we share our thoughts with the. So let’s not fool ourselves that when we link to something, or we make an important political statement, we aren’t generally preaching to the converted. This is a little different for people with a large imbalance in their follower-following ratio, or people who are famous, but even then the same holds true to a certain extent.

So following on from this, when we add a Twibbon to our avatar, when we write an outraged post and link to it on Twitter, do we really think we are reaching anyone who doesn’t already agree with us? There are certainly times where we might influence an ignorant-but-sympathetic follower, and we will certainly let others in furious agreement with us know what is going on. But how effective is this as a campaign strategy?

None of this is a problem, and there are indeed many positives in alerting people who are interested and sympathetic to events and ideas. The problem arises if we believe that we have actually engaged in some kind of significant political act. Like those people who turn off their lights for an hour during Earth Hour and think that they have done their bit for the environment for the year, putting a twibbon on your avatar, posting an outraged comment or turning your avatar green should be the beginning of action, not the end. Twitter has the potential to be the Prius of political protest, allowing us slightly complacent educated middle class types to pat ourselves on the back and think we’ve made a difference. That’s ideology at work.

As a slightly complacent, middle class type myself, I am not sitting here being superior and advocating burning down government buildings or throwing petrol bombs. I think that we just need to be careful to believe our own publicity, not to live in a world where we are convinced that 140 character statements can achieve real change alone. Twitter, Facebook and blogs have the potential to be an effective part of political organising and protest, but as long as we recognise the audience to whom we are speaking, and the limitations of what we can achieve.

Twitter etiquette – break ups

Early in the rather patchy Couples Retreat, one of the women remarks that someone “got us in the divorce.” And it is true that usually, following a break up, there is some division of friends and social acquaintances which usually happens, just because it is too hard otherwise.

Which left me wondering, what is the etiquette of break ups iin the land of Twitter?

Often, both halves of a couple tweet. Often, because both havles of that couple have similar ideas and perspectives, they end up with a lot of (complete strangers) as followers in common. So what happens with those people? I guess some would enjoy the television-like spectacle of a relationship break up being played out, with the ability to see both sides. But is that the right thing to do? Should one pick a side and respect the privacy of the other? If still following both,  does one get involved? What do you do when one side is moving on but the other is mooning on and on? What does the couple itself do? Do you immediately unfollow out of resppect, or do you keep an eye on what is happening ina bordering-on-the-stalker-like manner? Do you unfollow or block? Does blockign an ex make the break up permanent while unfollwowing indicates so ambivalence? Or do you just ensure you don’t tweet in a way which is personal any more, conscious of the fact that you are being watched by those who follow you both.

These things indicate a whole different range of questions in the post-break up environment from those of the past, although I guess in some ways they are variations of who gets the social club where both went before. Thoughts anyone?

Social media and sexual harassment

Today I unfollowed someone on Twitter and told them why, which is something I have never done before. I’ve unfollowed people before – because they are dull and tweet too much, because they are smart arses in love with their own cleverness, because they have political views with which I disagree or find offensive. But I’ve never bothered to tell anyone why before, mostly because it is my choice and my offence and really, they can keep on doing what they want and if I don’t follow them, then I have freed myself from that space and concern.

However, today I did bother. Today I thought it mattered.

Since I have been on Twitter I have generally found it a relatively safe space, which is interesting given how public a forum it is. Apart from the porn-bots, generally I have been free from sexual harassment, from unwanted innuendo, from those types of things which leave one feeling icky and a little violated. I guess this is because one has a strong degree of control; we can follow and unfollow at will, and in extreme cases block or protect our tweets. These things leave Twitter safer. For me on Facebook it has been exactly the same, again because I can control who is my friend. Interestingly with Twitter, despite the fact that I have not met in real life over half of those I follow, I have still managed to generally avoid bad places.

So it is slightly jarring when you find you are following someone who makes you feel uneasy, and yet you can’t quite bring yourself to unfollow. Having followers in common, led me to feel a degree of peer pressure – is it OK to exit from this? A bizarre reaction when these are virtual companions in a virtual world, but showing to me how easy it is for the kinds of externally imposed “rules” women are expected to behave by can embed themselves deeply. But, after a certain point, one has to draw the line. If women cannot empower themselves to speak against harrassment in an area like Twitter, where can they be? The final straw was when this older man made very pointed comments about a much younger woman’s (potential) sex life. Now, I don’t know whether she found it offensive, and that is a call for her, but I did. So I unfollowed.

I thought about it for a bit. I recognised that, if no one ever calls people on their behaviour, it is hardly fair to expect them to change. So I did, publicly amongst that peer group. I don’t necessarily expect that my statement will lead to a change in behaviour. But if I didn’t make the call, then there would definitely be no way I could expect a change. By doing it publicly, I risk subjecting myself to humourless-feminist types comments/unfollows, but that is besides the point. Interestingly so far, and reinforcing the fact that I like my Twitter community in general, the only two tweets in response have supported my comments. By making the call publicly, on the other hand, one hopes to empower other people to do the same thing – so call others on behaviour they find harassing, racist, sexist or homophobic and to unfollow others they find threaten the safety of their space.

I don’t propose Twitter vigilantism – seeking out those communities on Twitter which you are definitely going to find offensive and trying to reform them, really, it is probably not going to work. But if people enter into your space, or seek to enter into it, I think it is important to share with them the rules that you consider important.

Douchebag society

So unsurprisingly there has been a massive outpouring of anti-Sandilands feeling given the whole, fairly appalling display of humanity that went on this morning. If you missed it, Hoyden has a transcript as well as commentary, and other commentary can be found at a shiny new coin and on The Punch, for starters.  I am reluctant to provide a link to Sandilands own response on The Punch as I wouldn’t want to dignify it by driving further traffic that way – suffice to say it is self serving and unhelpful. The issue has driven at least two top trending topics on Twitter with the #sandilandsisadouche subject and Kyle Sandilands itself.

There are a number of threads to the general discussion that seems to be about the place: (a) Kyle is to blame, especially for the callous way he continued and asked the unbelievably insensitive question (b) the mother is to blame – she apparently knew of the rape (c) rape or not, asking a 14 year old on air about her sexual experiences is abusive (d) not only Sandilands and the mother but the producers and everyone involved should share the blame, and finally, the one which really just turns my stomach (e) people should just toughen up and get over it. Yes, that’s right folks, toughen up – we shouldn’t be disturbed by young girls being forced to recount sexual assault on air – we’re all soft, bleeding hearts etc. Because child sexual assault is funny!

Aside from all of that, I think the whole scenario shows demonstrates a destructive set of cultures coming together with a horrible bang. I don’t think we can blame the media for problems is society – in fact, I think blaming the media is part of the problem. But we can certainly critically examine the various impacts that a number of cultural trends are having on us.

Parenting is becoming a very public event. There is an enormous amount of verbiage out there about what is and isn’t good parenting. Parents can be held responsible for their children’s actions and google reveals a massive list of articles about parents being gaoled for their children’s truancy. On the flip-side, a lot of parenting is being pushed onto others – we need internet censors and bans of junk food advertising and schools to teach children everything from values to sex education to healthy eating. I would have thought that in all these cases, engaged parenting could and should be just as effective as external influences. And then there is this increasing trend toward giving parenting over to reality television – Supernanny, Brat Camp, The World’s Strictest Parents…..etc. So perhaps in this climate, someone might think that using a lie detector and a shock jock is a reasonable approach to parenting. One also has to wonder – did the mother do it for the celebrity, another driving force in our current reality-drive 15 minutes of fame society, or did she do it because she was bereft of support and parenting skills and didn’t know how to address what she perceived as her child’s behavioural problems? Not that this excuses her choice to publicly traumatise her child, but perhaps it starts to explain it. And I have seen at least one comment that seemed to think it was a fair enough approach to getting vital parenting information – the writer complained that the girl “deflected the question” with the statement about rape, and Sandilands was right to probe further. Yep, women cry rape at every opportunity to deflect attention from what they have done wrong….

There is also the sex angle. Clearly the radio station loves the idea of talking about sex on air. And the constant buzz around sex and girls and the frisson that ensues, leads to a saturation of sex and young women closely associated in the media. And yet, ironically, pedophilia and sexual exploitation of children is an area in which the media loves to create controversy and what borders on moral panic. While the art world is vilified over its use of girls in art, commercial radio thinks that it is OK to sexually harass a 14 year old on air? the constant contradictions in the media about children and sex are constantly there, but this is hardly new – as Billy Bragg sang a lot of years ago about newspapers  “where they offer you a feature on stockings and suspenders next to calls for stiffer penalties for sex offenders.”

The other interesting contributing factor is the weight that is put on shame by our society. We love to “name and shame.” We relish the shame of fallen stars and use shame as a tool against things like drink driving by publishing the names of those convicted. Here, it would appear, that the mother and Kyle and Jackie were trying to shame this girl – perhaps as a punishment, perhaps as a tool to make her modify her behaviour. But it is a long way from redemptive shaming – a long way from anything that is healing or helpful.

So in this scenario, all the individuals are culpable for the individual choices they made which allowed this to happen. But individuals don’t exist in a vacuum, and, while Kyle Sandlilands undoubtedly is a douchebag, perhaps we also need to try and understand the social forces at work which lead to the creation of such a douchebag.

The Twitter-isation of memory

The other night, just before I was about to go to sleep, I checked my BlackBerry and discovered an email containing really annoying news. As I then lay sleepless and annoyed in my bed, two things occurred to me:

(1)  don’t read emails from work right before you go to sleep. That is just stupid.

(2) I was framing all my reactions to this news immediately into the form of how I would express my disgust in my Facebook status and tweets in the morning.

We are constantly constructing and reconstructing memory. Ernst Schachtel in his article On Memory and Childhood Amnesia discusses two aspects of memory and its construction. The first is the idea that we frame memory according to social expectations – one’s wedding/birth of a child is always remembered as “the happiest day of my life”. not because it was, but because that is what we are socialised to expect and remember. Secondly he discusses the manner in which we frame individual remembrances so much that sometimes, even as we experience things, we are structuring are recall of them. Think for example of how when something is happening you are thinking about how you will tell your friends about this. As we remember, we narrativise, condense, cast ourselves as the hero/victim, create a coherent construction of memory which is what we present to others. In retelling and re-presenting our own past, we reinforce in our own mind that particular construction of memory. Thus our memories become completely mediated, framed in the most comfortable structure for retelling, influenced by our own embellishments and solidified.

So what happens to that construction of memory when are recall is mediated through 140 characters, or a status update that can be read by everyone from our mother to our work colleagues? Not only do tweets and status updates involve our own representation of experience, but they are also likely to be retold to others and returned to ourselves. They are a written representation which can be easily circulated of our (mediated) memory.

While I would hope that people re-present their own experiences in enough other ways to ensure that our recall of an event can be longer than 140 characters, it does pose some interesting possibilities. Will be retell stories to our children with hashtags? Will we learn to symbolise “like” and “unlike” for each memory? On Twitter the other day, a shiny new coin suggested that we needed to invent an air quote symbol for hashtag – perhaps it could be the first of many that structures interaction both inside and outside our internet existence. And if the American Constitution can be put on Twitter, why not our entire memoires?

My life, brought to you one status update at a time.

Female voices and the Hottest 100

Well, it is good to see the issue of female representation in the Hottest 100 now being picked up all over the place. Hoyden About Town presents a wrap up of the blogs on the subject and I notice the subject has been picked up by News Ltd in the form of this article on The Punch. And as I write this the issue is being vigorously debated all over the place on Twitter (albeit with the limitations that Twitter imposes on debate).

Triple J’s Hack picked up the story tonight and led off with expert commentary (ho ho) from yours truly. Most disappointing was how defensive Zan Rowe was – it is not the fault of Triple J, it is the fault of the dominant paradigms of society. Triple J does quite a good job of promoting female artists and other divergent voices. However, it alone cannot change the way we think about the world. And slightly disturbing that in the second 100, there were only 6 female artists!

What was edited from my commentary was the fact that what I think this represents is the massively culturally constructed nature of “taste”. We didn’t choose songs for our Top Tens just because of their innate quality, we chose them, at least in part, because of the cultural, social and, even personal, meaning that attaches to them. One of the callers on Hack showed insight when she noted that amongst her friends people voted for the songs they thought would be in the Top 100, rather than necessarily their favourite. At the beginning of the week I asked on Twitter whether it was cooler to have all your songs in the Hottest 100, or to have them miss out because you are sooo cutting edge. Clearly for this set of people, inclusion was compelling. This of course means that what we have is a reproduction of social norms, of what people think that should like – and this construction is not always conscious.

So, the meaning that attaches to songs sung by women is obviously different to the meaning which attaches to those sung by men. This is hardly surprising in a society where the social meaning attached to anything about women is vastly different, and, unfortunately, unusually still inferior to that attached to men. So how do we change this: well, not easily, but at least the fact that this is a debate being had – and being picked up in the increasingly mainstream media, has got to be a good step forward.

I could say something really negative about ideology and the obscuring reality here, but I’ll try and end on a positive note.