"Information Geographies" and the Internet for Development

In this excellent presentation, OII research fellow Mark Graham discusses the importance of understanding who produces and reproduces the information that populates digital communications networks. Through an exploration of "information geographies", Graham concludes that "rather than democratising platforms of knowledge sharing, the Internet seems to be enabling a digital division of labour in which the visibility, voice and power of the North is reinforced rather than diminished."

Unlike Us: Adjacent Communities and the Adjacent Possible

Last week I attended Unlike Us, a conference exploring alternatives to social media monopolies. Held in Amsterdam and hosted by the Institute of Network Cultures, it brought together communities of academics, artists, designers, educators, and activists, who share an interest in developing alternative code and cultures around social media. The event proved identity affirming for me, as it brought together the disparate elements of my work practice, around subject matter I’m really interested in. I witnessed some excellent debates about the politics of centralization and decentralization; the politics of assuming different identities in social media networks; and, the problems with defining relationships in code.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook received a lot of attention. Anne Helmond’s and Carolin Gerlitz’s ‘Reworking the Fabric of the web: The Like Economy’ was a stand out presentation, as was Harry Halpin’s ‘Hidden History of the Like Button’. PhD researcher Frederick Borgesius also gave a fascinating talk about behavioral targeting and how advertisers are buying audiences through data profiles.

It wasn’t a huge surprise that Unlike Us appealed to me. I have always really enjoyed events that bring together different groups that are adjacent in proximity but have few opportunities to cross-pollinate. I like these opportunities as they give me a glimpse of what Stuart Kaufmann calls the adjacent possible: “a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

The adjacent possibilities that emerged from the gathering of these adjacent communities, involved new thinking, new software platforms, new ways of organising and new modes of coalition building. The different approaches people were taking to advance critical thinking and practices around social media alternatives – from software protocol development to digital literacy education to network theory – revealed a need in my mind to be involved in more initiatives that facilitate collaboration between adjacent communities.

Network Privacy and Maintaining Agency

Wonderful piece by danah boyd illustrating how network privacy is all about human agency: "People should – and do – care deeply about privacy. But privacy is not simply the control of information. Rather, privacy is the ability to assert control over a social situation. This requires that people have agency in their environment and that they are able to understand any given social situation so as to adjust how they present themselves and determine what information they share. Privacy violations occur when people have their agency undermined or lack relevant information in a social setting that’s needed to act or adjust accordingly. Privacy is not protected by complex privacy settings that create what Alessandro Acquisti calls “the illusion of control.” Rather, it’s protected when people are able to fully understand the social environment in which they are operating and have the protections necessary to maintain agency.

Social media has prompted a radical shift. We’ve moved from a world that is “private-by-default, public-through-effort” to one that is “public-by-default, private-with-effort.” Most of our conversations in a face-to-face setting are too mundane for anyone to bother recording and publicizing. They stay relatively private simply because there’s no need or desire to make them public. Online, social technologies encourage broad sharing and thus, participating on sites like Facebook or Twitter means sharing to large audiences. When people interact casually online, they share the mundane. They aren’t publicizing; they’re socializing. While socializing, people have no interest in going through the efforts required by digital technologies to make their pithy conversations more private. When things truly matter, they leverage complex social and technical strategies to maintain privacy.

The strategies that people use to assert privacy in social media are diverse and complex, but the most notable approach involves limiting access to meaning while making content publicly accessible. I’m in awe of the countless teens I’ve met who use song lyrics, pronouns, and community references to encode meaning into publicly accessible content. If you don’t know who the Lions are or don’t know what happened Friday night or don’t know why a reference to Rihanna’s latest hit might be funny, you can’t interpret the meaning of the message. This is privacy in action.

The reason that we must care about privacy, especially in a democracy, is that it’s about human agency. To systematically undermine people’s privacy – or allow others to do so – is to deprive people of freedom and liberty." Read full post...