Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"Kids these days are so narcissistic"

I hear that every so often: that the way youth plaster their lives all over the Internet these days is a sign of their incredible narcissism. I suppose it's an easy way of fitting the way new media is currently used by youth into an understandable framework. It seems premature to dismiss it as just that though.

"Narcissism" implies self-indulgence: that the sharing of sometimes very intimate aspects of their lives with the entire world is an exercise in completely unnecessary ego-gratification. Ego gratification maybe, but unnecessary? Wanting a child so that your name might live on could be called ego gratification, but it wouldn't be called "narcissism" unless that's all that it was.

What else could be involved in youth expression on Myspace et al that would go beyond mere personal aggrandisement? I see three possibilities:

(1) Power. It's hard not to notice that in today's mediated world, media exposure and power in society are directly related. A person might readily conclude that amassing an audience could today lead to as much influence in society as amassing wealth has in previous years - assuming the audience likes what you have to say.
(2) Existentialism. Again a product of today's mediated environment, summarised by a quote I read somewhere describing the situation in high schools in the US today: "if you don't have Myspace, then you don't exist". Asserting a person's own personal life online might be seen as asserting their existence in a world which by and large doesn't care about them, or even know who they are, in an environment where they're surrounded by people who are asserting their existence, and validating the existence of others, through online media such as Myspace. Previous generations only needed to assert their existence to those relatively few people around them whose lack of validation might have led to existential uncertainty. Today's youth are connected to the entire world. Is it any wonder that they want the entire world to validate their existence?
(3) Identity formation. Tricky, this one. Premise: the process of growing up involves an adolescent defining their identity not just to others, but to themself. Premise: successful self-definition requires self-differentation: I am this, I am not that. Premise: successful self-differentation can only be done through reference to an external source which can describe to a person what certain aspects of their identity are or are not.

The peer group can be helpful here in determining whether someone, for example, is emo or is not hardcore, but the Internet offers new opportunities to ask more people the question "Who am I"?. In this approach the online exposure isn't asserting an identity so much as asking what that identity is: "here are my likes and dislikes in music, books and TV. Who does that mean that I am?", "In this blog entry I say I did this today, this is who I think that makes me, do my friends agree?". That's not the questions asked, but that's the subconscious subtext.

So there's more than one way to examine the embrace of "exhibitionism" online by modern youth without leaping to the conclusion that it's something negative like "narcissism", or for that matter, "exhibitionism".

Bad media coverage

My media environment seems to be awash in hysteria about (a) the Internet (b) emo subculture, and (c) the Internet and emo subculture of late. I had the misfortune of having my intelligence insulted when someone presented me with this woefully bad Today Tonight segment on the emo subculture in the wake of the double suicide of two teen girls in Melbourne. Last night my lecturer suggested watching Difference of Opinion on ABC as it was covering issues concerning new media, and both my boyfriend and I found it so cringe-worthy that we had to stop.

I'm no longer youth, but I was part of an "alternative" subculture, as well as currently being a heavy user of the Internet, and really, the reporting conventions for "evil youth subculture" don't change much. Henry Jenkins wrote a post on a similarly overblown US report on the emo subculture in "Dissecting a Media Scare", which basically describes Today Tonight's coverage as well - the only real difference being that Repentant Recanter didn't get a play in the Australian coverage, while Overwrought And Overtaxed Parent did. I guess the goth kids are feeling kind of thankful that they're not in the media cross-hairs this time, although they probably shouldn't relax just yet with headlines like "Drug use and gothic culture led to WA murder" starting to crop up.

The emo kids themselves are for their part distinctly unimpressed. Here's one Myspace user who seems to think that the trouble he's facing in life stems far more from the "concern" adults show at his subcultural identity than it does from the subcultural identity itself. I can just hear the cries of thousands of misunderstood teenagers facing off against their newly concerned Today Tonight-watching parents with that old teen trope "why can't you just let me be who I am?!!".

As for Difference of Opinion's "The Digital Revolution: Communications Breakthrough or Breakdown?", I really think it's the adult "experts" that have got things wrong there. The main argument against youth adoption of new media was the claim that they didn't understand the full implications of what those media were capable of doing. I respectfully disagree: I think they understand the implications better than those of us who haven't grown up immersed in them by virtue of having more experience with them, and perhaps also by having no preconceptions about how they "ought" to work.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Gay in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe: Gay activist goes into hiding.

How many people use the global nature of the Internet to actually examine the rest of the globe I wonder? Here's an article from Zimbabwe, where scarcity of resources has apparently led to a comma shortage. But I shouldn't sneer - not until I'm capable of understanding what the non-English parts of the comments say I guess. I find it a stark reminder of conditions for people in other parts of the world, particularly gay people in this case.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

American interest in the refugee swap

Wildframe is an Australian blogger, but they present an interesting perspective on how the refugee deal might go down in the US. The post Republican's export Cuban refugees to Australia makes me think more seriously that this bizarre "refugee swap" is intended to benefit the US government more than the Australian government.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Australia, USA organise "refugee swap"

Okay, this agreement between Australia and the US makes absolutely no sense. Does John Howard seriously expect us to believe that offering boat people the possibility of ending up in America rather than Australia will have a negative impact on people-smuggling?

The conspiracy theorist side of me wants to say "no, it'll encourage it, and that's the whole point". The Coalition's had a lamentable lack of potential terrorists asylum seekers trying to enter Australia of late which they can struggle against with great fanfare. Nothing like trying to encourage a few to try it in an election year in order to recreate Tampa 2001.

Less conspiracy theoryish, but still in that kind of paranoid territory, is the thought that this is more about what the US government wants than what the Australian government wants, which would explain why Howard is doing something that doesn't look like it'd be very popular in Australia even among the "go back where you came from!" mob. Some kind of quid pro quo for David Hicks perhaps? This hasn't been reported in American media at the time of writing - no idea how US citizens will view it.

More prosaic - and therefore probably accurate - is the possibility floated by Asylum Seeker Resource Centre spokeswoman Pamela Curr in the article linked above:
Ms Curr said political pressure from Nauru had prompted the island nation to set boundaries on the processing of boat people bound for Australia.

"I think (Australia) is worried that Nauru's going to cut up rough and put pressure on the government to get these young men and boys off Nauru," she said.

Doubts in the US over the future of Guantanamo Bay may also have come into calculation, she said.
Besides the problems with their respective offshore refugee processing regimes, it strikes me as an awfully convenient way of basically ensuring that a potential refugee from Australia (or the US) can get further delayed from receiving refugee status by requiring them to restart the entire process of seeking asylum anew in the US (or Australia).

I can only guess at any of this, but even these kinds of possibilities seem less absurd than the reason the Australian government is trying to get Australian citizens to swallow.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Social networking site aggregators

I was expecting something like this:
Loopster Makes Friends of Social Networks. Techcrunch profiles efforts in creating "meta-social-networking" sites which try to transcend the limitations of having multiple disparate and incompatible social networking sites in existence. Various strategies of aggregation are discussed, with the featured site being a thing called Loopster

From the Techcrunch article:
Once you’ve registered with Loopster, you hand over your credentials for MySpace, LinkedIn, Facebook, Live Journal, or your Blogger user name and click “Add”. This gets Loopster’s crawlers working.
Just hand over your credentials? Just like that? I would've thought there were privacy and security concerns to worry about. Not dealing with those issues is one way of dealing with those issues I guess. Then again, efforts that actually try to deal with these issues, like OpenID, don't seem in any hurry to get off the ground. Then there's the issue that the OpenID approach relies on co-operation of the social networking site to work, while Loopster's approach just needs a user's username/password combo to access any site that they can support, no site co-operation required. The Techcrunch article actually mentions Myspace's active resistance to this sort of arrangement:"MySpace doesn’t have an API for its site, and has been known to send some nasty C&D letters to people who crawl their network."

These meta-social-networking sites highlight an incompatibility between the desires of social networkers and the desires of the companies that maintain social networking sites. Your typical social networking site user wants as wide a selection of people to meet and services to use as possible. Your typical social networking site company wants people to meet other people on, and use the services of, its own site and no others to as great an extent as possible. The tendency for new social networking sites is for segmentation and specialisation, like the specialised services for dog-lovers, families etc mentioned in the Techcrunch article. I don't think that's what users want at all.

What users seem to want is compatibility between sites, but the sites themselves rarely if ever offer tools that facilitate this. Even where cross-site tools exist within a social networking site, the tendency is to use them in a way that promotes one site at the expense of others. Vox, for example, allows automatic crossposting to other blogs but defaults to a setting which posts only part of the entry with a "read the rest of this entry on Vox" link appended (an option to cross-post the whole post has since been made available at the request of Vox users, although it's not the default behaviour).

The whole compatibility issue may become moot if Myspace continues its role as the Windows 95 of the social networking world and becomes the only social networking site that anybody uses, but I'm sort of hoping that doesn't happen. It'd be nice to see consumers able to make their own choices about how they want to segment their social spaces instead of having it foisted on them by incompatible social networking regimes. It'd be nice too for people to be able to start using new and possibly superior services without having to address the "but everyone I know is on Myspace, not [different service]" issue. Vox, as noted above, sort of does this by easing migration to the new service through convenient cross-posting, but even Vox tends to sandbox its services by, for example, only allowing comments on the Vox blogs from registered Vox users.

One of the commenters in the Techcrunch article wondered if the meta-social-networking site would meet the same unsuccessful fate as the meta-search engine. I don't think it will. A meta-search engine doesn't really add any function to that already provided by a search engine, but a meta-social-networking sites actually provide a necessary functionality that social networking sites don't (won't?) provide in their current form: that of convenient cross-site communication.