Smart data: towards a social change enlightenment

Three hundred years ago, the spread of science and liberal revolution inspired thinkers to claim that society was on the brink of an enlightened era. Today, as new data-driven technologies exponentially increase our ability to understand social problems, new strategies engaging the heart and the head boost the impact of social change programs, and tested techniques for evaluating impact reduce the cost of programs and ensure that funding flows in the right directions, there is reason to believe that we are nearing a new socio-technical threshold.

As David Bornstein claims, we are riding the verge of a social change enlightenment.

We can see it in the way that we are tackling social problems. For decades, social reformers labored under a vision of human beings as self-maximizing rational agents, a vision developed in the first enlightenment and perpetuated in the field of economics. Today, as Bornstein claims, we’re seeing the death of ‘homo economicus’. New research in neuroscience and behavioral psychology is showing that we’re not as rational as we thought. We certainly don’t respond rationally to social problems. Today’s generation of changemakers are taking this lesson to heart. Successful social change programs are targeting the heart as well as the head, effecting change by appealing to ‘non-rational’ factors such as emotion, group identity, and relationships. [Read more…]

The family history of Facebook: how social media will change the world


I’m fascinated by social media. My Gen X friends can’t understand it. Most of them are too busy struggling with families and careers to spend time glued to Facebook and Twitter. For them, social media is a time suck, at best, at worst a gross invasion of privacy. When I tell my friends that I’m teaching on social media, I get one of two reactions. Either they leer conspiratorially, as if to say: ‘Lucrative. Smart!’, or they smile sympathetically, as if say: ‘It must be tough being a philosopher, having to root around for trendy topics to keep people interested’.

Love them as I do, my Gen X friends don’t understand social media at all. They don’t understand social media, so they don’t understand what social media is doing to us in this moment in history. They don’t understand what social media is doing to us, so they don’t understand the historical importance of social media. They don’t understand the historical importance of social media, so they don’t understand why I am obsessed with the medium itself.

It is time that I laid my cards on the table. I am a social philosopher. I am interested in social and cultural change. I believe that social media is the catalyst for cultural change in the world today. As such, it is probably more important than anything else you could care to mention. [Read more…]

The gift shift: what’s social about social media?

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, the cover art of the July 23rd issue of the New Yorker is a critical disquisition. A middle class family poses for a photo on a sunny tropical beach. Given that this is the New Yorker, we can assume that they are Americans citizens, perhaps in Hawaii or the Bahamas. Presumably they are on holiday. The point that is implied by the image is that, whoever and wherever they are, their attention is somewhere else. Instead of celebrating the moment and being together, they have their heads bent over their mobile phones, texting, tweeting, checking status updates… Who knows, perhaps they are checking the weather. Whatever they are doing, they are not engaging with one another.

The irony is palpable. To bring it into focus, let’s assume that these folks are using social media. Viewed this way, the image calls to mind a common criticism of social media. Social media, it is said, isolates us from one another even while it brings us together. In my classes on Philosophy and Social Media, I hear versions of this criticism all the time. Social media makes us slaves to our gadgets. It commits us to spending valuable time isolated from the people around us, texting, tweeting, posting, or just surfing feeds. The nub of it is that social media, in practice, is a solitary pursuit. Social media is supposed to bring us together, but in reality it sets us apart. [Read more…]

Swarm Wall Street: why an anti-political movement is the most important political force on the planet

This was originally posted on the Coalition blog on 10 October, 2011.

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Why are people occupying Wall Street? The US political elite and mainstream media don’t know what to make of it. ‘Anti-capitalist and unAmerican’, says Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, echoing the sentiments of the conservative left and political right. The mainstream commentariat, when it dares to peer closer, paints an unflattering picture of disaffected, disorganized youth, milling about Liberty Square without a shower or a set of policy demands to level at the administration.

Meanwhile the occupation grows day by day.

If camp in Manhattan makes the doyens of the status quo feel nervous, the explosion of Occupy Together events across the US last weekend will have sent anxiety levels through the roof. There were ‘Occupy’ camps in 70 cities across the nation last weekend. More events are planned for the coming days and weeks in the US and other countries.

Political leaders must be wondering what is going on. (‘Who are these kids? Would they vote for me?’) To be fair, it is difficult to say exactly what the the protesters want. They have no single message or identity. They represent, they say, the 99% who are excluded by the standing political and economic system. They say that the top 1% of the US population owns 40% of the wealth. The way the movement has accelerated seems to follow the pattern set in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world earlier this year: a contingent of dissidents occupy public space; footage of their mistreatment by police is spread via Facebook and Twitter; this consolidates the sense of injustice and inequality that inspired their actions in the first place.

Last week, the movement crossed a threshold. A localized set of swarm events evolved into a distributed swarm network. [Read more…]

Foucault and social media: the call of the crowd

This is the final instalment in a three-part series on social media and ‘subjectivation’ (Michel Foucault’s term for the self-construction of identity). Part one discusses how the open commons ideal of social media creates a ‘virtual Panopticon’ effect that impacts on the psychology of users. I argue that the awareness of being watched and implicitly judged by the material we post online (including likes, shares, and comments) leads us to unconsciously aspire to please and/or impress a certain crowd, and to select content accordingly.

Part two deepens the analysis by reflecting on author Peggy Orenstein’s experience of Twitter. Orenstein’s awareness of the crowd spurred her to work even harder to craft a positive identity. This reflects a common response on the part of social media prosumers. Users who are able to channel and utilize the anxiety produced by the virtual Panopticon seize on the positive aspects of their identity and amplify them to the nth degree. This is what I call ‘creative self-affirmation’.

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Forget Farmville and World of Warcraft. Creative self-affirmation is the most popular game online. We play this game whenever we select material to share with friends or craft messages to frame our posts. The name of the game is to present oneself, via one’s tweets, posts, likes, comments, and shares, in the light in which one aspires to be viewed. This essentially amounts to affirming the things that one loves in such a way that the love one brings to the world is reflected in one’s online activity. The rules of the game are simple: [1] share only what you love or what resonates with you; [2] pay attention to the feedback you receive from the crowd and modify your posts accordingly; [3] don’t stray too far from the truth. Be creative but don’t be phoney.

This last point is crucial. It is easy to fabricate an identity online. We do this when we create avatars on SecondLife or player characters in World of Warcraft. We create fictional personas drawn from our dreams and imaginings – personas that may have little or no connection with our real world self. Creative self-affirmation is different. Instead of fabricating an identity, it involves creatively affirming key aspects of your person – those aspects that you consider valuable, virtuous and beautiful – while editing out your weaknesses and deficiencies.

Creative self-affirmation is an artistic activity, it is true. But like all great art, it has as much to do with truth as with fiction. It starts with your sense of who you really are. If your posts, tweets, comments, shares, and likes do not reflect who you really are (or who you believe yourself to be, at least), you are playing the game incorrectly. The point is to affirm your singular potential. You need to seize on your inner awesome and put it before the crowd. [Read more…]

Back to the 60s: the power of collective imagination

Human beings have always forged their self-identities from the way that their tribe or community produces and exchanges goods. In industrial societies, people derived their sense of self-identity from their relationship to industrial labour and the social class system that was built upon it. With the rise of post-industrial societies at the end of the twentieth century, the economic system changed, and our way of creating ourselves changed too. Today, people forge their sense of self-identity and personal well-being from the products that they buy and consume. ‘I shop therefore I am’ is the mantra of twenty-first century consumer culture.

Shopping, today, is more than just a way of life. Shopping has become a means of self-creation. The discerning consumer knows that what’s important is not simply that you buy, it’s what you buy. We define ourselves with brands that reflect our personal lifestyle choices: Apple, Virgin, G-Star, Harley Davidson, etc. We kit ourselves out in tribal colours: Gucci, Converse, Adidas, Paul Smith, Yves Saint Laurent. Products are how post-industrial consumers express their personal style and identity. Products are how we tell the world who we are, or aspire to be, at least.

Studies show that brand consciousness is increasingly driving the way that people purchase and consume in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere in the developing world. This reflects a culture shift from traditionally-oriented collectivist societies to capitalist societies based in the values of self-actualization and individual expression. A similar shift took place in Western societies in the nineteen sixties at the twilight of the industrial age. The sixties countercultural revolutionaries rejected the mass-market society of their parents’ generation for a new ethos of individual self-expression. From the beats to the hippies, young people insisted on their right to determine their own identities and to freely decide their styles of life. [Read more…]

Foucault and social media: life in a virtual panopticon

This is the first instalment in a three-part series.

Part 2. I tweet, therefore I become
Part 3. The call of the crowd

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You start the day bleary-eyed and anxious. You stayed up late last night working on a post for your blog, gathering facts and memes from about the web and weaving them into an incisive whole. Has it produced a spike in the stats? You sign in on your iPhone as you brew the coffee. But it’s too early to slip into the professional headspace – you decide that you don’t want to know. Someone has messaged you on Facebook, so you check that instead. Japanese manga mashup! Killer breaks off the cost of Lombok. Lady Gaga is a man and we have photoshopped evidence to prove it! A friend will appreciate that one, so you share it with her directly. Perhaps not something that you’d want to share widely. Two new contact requests on LinkedIn. Your profile needs updating. Should you include details about the design work you completed for the local event the week before? You are not sure. You are building your profile as a graphic artist and looking for quality clients. Perhaps this is a part of your person that you will let incubate for a while longer.

You jump on HootSuite and start sharing targeted content: Facebook for friends, tweets for professional contacts. The day has barely started and already you are split into half a dozen pieces.

How did we ever get by without social media? In under a decade, free online services like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have utterly transformed how we work, play, and communicate. For hundreds of millions of people, sharing content across a range of social media services is a familiar part of life. Yet little is known about how social media is impacting us on a psychological level. A wealth of commentators are exploring how social media is refiguring forms of economic activity, reshaping our institutions, and transforming our social and organizational practices. We are still learning about how social media impacts on our sense of personal identity.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) has a set of insights that can help clarify how social media affects us on a psychological level. Foucault died before the advent of the internet, yet his studies of social conditioning and identity formation in relation to power are applicable to life online. Seen from a Foucaultian perspective, social media is more than a vehicle for exchanging information. Social media is a vehicle for identity-formation. Social media involves ‘subjectivation’.

[Read more…]

Foucault and social media: life in a virtual panopticon

This is the first instalment in a three-part series.

Part 2. I tweet, therefore I become
Part 3. The call of the crowd

——————————————-

You start the day bleary-eyed and anxious. You stayed up late last night working on a post for your blog, gathering facts and memes from about the web and weaving them into an incisive whole. Has it produced a spike in the stats? You sign in on your iPhone as you brew the coffee. But it’s too early to slip into the professional headspace – you decide that you don’t want to know. Someone has messaged you on Facebook, so you check that instead. Japanese manga mashup! Killer breaks off the cost of Lombok. Lady Gaga is a man and we have photoshopped evidence to prove it! A friend will appreciate that one, so you share it with her directly. Perhaps not something that you’d want to share widely. Two new contact requests on LinkedIn. Your profile needs updating. Should you include details about the design work you completed for the local event the week before? You are not sure. You are building your profile as a graphic artist and looking for quality clients. Perhaps this is a part of your person that you will let incubate for a while longer.

You jump on HootSuite and start sharing targeted content: Facebook for friends, tweets for professional contacts. The day has barely started and already you are split into half a dozen pieces.

How did we ever get by without social media? In under a decade, free online services like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have utterly transformed how we work, play, and communicate. For hundreds of millions of people, sharing content across a range of social media services is a familiar part of life. Yet little is known about how social media is impacting us on a psychological level. A wealth of commentators are exploring how social media is refiguring forms of economic activity, reshaping our institutions, and transforming our social and organizational practices. We are still learning about how social media impacts on our sense of personal identity.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) has a set of insights that can help clarify how social media affects us on a psychological level. Foucault died before the advent of the internet, yet his studies of social conditioning and identity formation in relation to power are applicable to life online. Seen from a Foucaultian perspective, social media is more than a vehicle for exchanging information. Social media is a vehicle for identity-formation. Social media involves ‘subjectivation’. [Read more…]

Commoning is making common

How do we make a commons?

One answer is: through law. King Henry III granted commoners rights to use the English forests in the Charter of the Forests. When people have a common right to use some good, and a law that defends this right, we have a commons. As historian Peter Linebaugh argues, there is a cultural process presupposed in this – a process by which a group of people agree that such and such a set of goods and resources should be held in common, and act together in a way that preserves the commons. Affirming the plenitude of their shared stock, and inspired by the goodwill that they receive from others and feel eager to return, they contest the limits of public and private ownership and demand a law that secures their common rights to sustain themselves, to live with dignity, and to assemble with their peers. [Read more…]

How many is a multitude? seventeenth century reflections on the social contract

Early modern philosophers used the term ‘multitude’ to describe the unruly masses, a populace that needed to be governed by the monarchy or state, or some combination of the two. In an England wracked by civil war and religious strife, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), a conservative philosopher, decided that the problem with the multitude was its disunity, the fact that it was divided against itself. For Hobbes and a continuing tradition of political philosophers, the question is how to transform the multitude into a cohesive political unit. In Hobbes’ vision of the social contract, the multitude becomes a unified people. [Read more…]