The graduating members of this year’s MIT Comparative Media Studies class didn’t arrive with conventional ideas about the media — and they’re not leaving with them, either. They recently presented their thesis projects, and more than a few have discovered reasons to be skeptical of the conventional understanding of the power of digital media. Here’s some of what they’ve learned.
Molly Sauter’s project on DDoS and activism on the web deals with how we understand civil disobedience on the Internet and with the portrayal of both hackers and hacktivism. In her exploration of whether “civil disobedience may be responsibly carried out in online environment,” Sauter was highly critical of journalists who write inaccurately about online activism. She argued that journalists focus on the tactics of interrupted service rather than the injustices that motivate them, leading to a characterization of those actors as “hacker troll clowns.” In this way, Sauter argues, the media is propagating a narrative of “scary cyber terrorism” that is very different from how in-the-street activism is understood.
Even worse, Sauter says, are the instances in which news organizations so misrepresent the facts that readers are endangered. Specifically, she cites an incident in which Gizmodo published a story on a method of DDoSing called LOIC (Low Orbit Ion Cannon), but failed to explain that even passive participants could be jailed. What ultimately happened when the FBI got hold of a list of participant names proved that even running a bot on your computer (rather than clicking a button yourself) can have serious consequences.
When I asked Sauter how journalists can learn to better cover these issues, she said she’s not sure there’s a way. At one point, Anonymous set up an IRC chat called AnonNews as a press channel, but not many journalists know how to use those tools. The next step, it seems, would be to determine not only the future of online activism, but also the future of how to write about it.
Chris Peterson is also skeptical about how well we understand the information we receive online. His work is very much connected to a recent study by Eric Gilbert, which found that more than half of very popular links on Reddit have to be shared more than once in order to become popular. Peterson’s thesis is an exploration into what kind of information is being buried online, and whether or not there are manipulative actors behind some of those instances.
Peterson cites the 2009-10 case of Digg Patriots, a movement organized via Yahoo Groups that tried to bury links and stories perceived by members as politically liberal. The actions of the Digg Patriots ultimately resulted in major design changes to Digg, which Peterson claims resulted in the vastly decreased popularity of the site. (It’s since relaunched.) Using transcripts from Digg Patriots’ communications, Peterson is trying to determine whether these behaviors might be far more widespread on commonly used social media sites than we might imagine, in a practice Peterson calls “user-generated censorship.”
Rogelio Lopez, whose project compares the media practices of the contemporary immigrants’ rights movement to that of the farm workers movement of the 1960s, is something of a skeptic. “There’s a lot of scholarship about how cool new media is,” says Lopez, “but that isn’t the only thing going on, for important reasons.” Citing how long it took for the mainstream media to take note of the DREAMer movement, he argues that formalization of social movements, especially of their communications arms, has diluted and limited their message. Further, he says the plethora of communication channels available has actually made the task of organizing those communications more difficult, requiring activists to create much more noise in order to be heard. While person-to-person communications can lead to significant action online, Lopez says, he has found that online communication rarely leads to in-person action. While he thinks political organizers are becoming more sophisticated in their approach, he is yet to find an analog to the efficacy of a phone bank or a pickup truck with speakers in the back.
With that kind of discourse going on, maybe it’s no surprise that Ayse Gursoy chose to focus her work on finding a new kind of criticism. Using open-ended online games as an example, Gursoy argues that the critic as writer — someone who produces “blogs and links” — is perhaps no longer the most effective method of critique for various forms of digital media. Citing film criticism in the first half of the 20th century, when critics were as likely to comment on who was in the audience as what was happening on screen, Gursoy argues that the experience of a work for the viewer or player is itself a form of criticism. Interactive forms of media, Gursoy says, should not be critiqued as objects, but as systems, and critics should not be tastemakers, but people who “model an interpretation.” In summary, Gursoy is saying that new media call for new critics, and finds that writing is not in all cases the most useful tool for evaluation.
At least one of the presenters, however, saw a bright spot in contemporary media practices. Katie Edgerton studies web series and how increased access and the “democratization of tools” is changing television writing. In the beginning, web series were usually written to be 22 minutes, mimicking a broadcast television episode. But when YouTube became popular, it had a maximum length for clips, and aspirant web series writers started writing to that cap. Edgerton says there is a dialogue of authenticity that exists around web series production that is strongly related to the openness filmmakers feel at not having to work with a publisher, distributor, or corporate studio. As a result of this freedom, some web series creators are succeeding with sustainable subscriber-based models. But as with print media, whether that model is scalable, and whether that platform independence is a reality or an illusion, remains to be seen.