Johanna Blakley

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Archive for social-media

Gender & (Anti)Social Media

gamergate

I’m an English PhD and so when I was in grad school, the Modern Languages Association Conference (MLA) was THE annual event to attend – not only to get a teaching job, but to take the pulse of humanities scholarship from around 10,000 specialists in the most obscure sub- sub- sub-niches of academia. Attendance has declined about 40% since those heady days, but, at the 2016 convention last week in Austin, where I gave a talk on Gender & (Anti)Social Media, I still felt that anyone I met was the only person in the world doing the particular kind of work they were doing. Every presentation was like an exotic hybrid flower, a specimen brought to life through years of laborious research and experimentation in the hothouse climes of the academy.

This specialization is both inspiring and tragic as you encounter lonely scholars who have been toiling in their own very narrow silos, hoping that perhaps 10 people will show up to a talk that took them five years to prepare.

It is one of the main reasons that I departed from the typical English PhD path, casting my lot with a web startup and a giant computer games company. But it was a pleasure to return to the esoteric world of MLA, where new media is now something that cannot be ignored. I was especially keen to join the roundtable on Gender & (Anti)Social Media, which focused on recent bouts of social media–based harassment (e.g., Gamergate) but also on the potential for social media to create change for the better through cyber activism and coalition building.

Ever since I gave my TED talk on gender and social media, which was optimistic about the benefits that social media offer to women all around the world, I’ve been keeping an eye peeled for convincing case studies that demonstrate the potential for social media engagement to result in real-world change – things like increased awareness, attitudinal change, civic engagement, and the coup de grâce of civic intervention strategies, policy change.

I wanted to know what evidence we have that activism on social media is not simply self-congratulatory “slacktivism.”

It’s often unclear whether things like Twitter hashtag campaigns accomplish much more than increased awareness (which is nothing to sniff at). A tragic example is the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which, despite its high profile supporters, appeared to have absolutely no impact on the situation on the ground.

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However, here are three examples that should give us some faith in social media-based efforts to address gender equality:

2015 Saudi Election

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I first became aware of how social media was being used by women in Saudi Arabia from a novel I bought in a bookstore in Japan. Girls of Riyadh was a real page-turner, set up as an anonymous epistolary serial, issued on email, that galvanized the attention of the singles scene (male and female) in ultra-traditional Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Because of strict physical gender segregation, social media platforms offer a radical new channel for social interactions between males and females, and Girls of Riyadh paints a portrait of the profound pleasures and dangers to be found there for women who have been effectively locked out of the public sphere.

Of course romances in Saudi Arabia are blossoming on Facebook, but we can also see that political campaigns are triggering unprecedented conversations between men and women. Just last month, women were allowed for the first time to vote and run for political office – which meant that candidates needed to reach voters of all genders. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest Twitter penetration rates in the world and so it’s not surprising that women voters used Twitter to testify to their participation in the public sphere. In the picture below, this Saudi woman took her children with her to the poll so that they could see first-hand that she had the power to vote.

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I’d argue that much of the activity on social media platforms is driven by a desire to testify – to one’s beliefs, interests, affiliations, desires, achievements . . . the list goes on and on. Twitter, in particular, is positioned as a kind of digital public sphere, where participants who do not often have access to physical public places, can test their voice before a global audience and respond to the call of communities that they may never have known existed.

#DelhiGangRape

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Delhi protests-India Raped, says one young woman’s sign” by Nilroy (Nilanjana Roy). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

 

I went to India last year to give a talk on the social impact of social media in India. I was absolutely blown away by the adoption rates among women, and the near constant use of platforms like WhatsApp among the college students I got to know. There are currently 70 million WhatsApp users per month in India, and India has the fastest rate of growth in Internet access in the world. According to a UN Women’s report on cyber violence and gender, Indians also have a greater optimism about using the Internet for freedom of expression – compared to the French, Canadians, Americans, Spaniards, and Germans.

The infamous #DelhiGangRape had already happened in 2012, and people had already seen the political impact of the story’s dissemination on social media. Not only were massive protests coordinated, but rape reports proceeded to double and anti-rape legislation was passed that criminalized stalking, included a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years for gang rape and required the creation of six new fast-track courts created solely for rape prosecutions. Experts on the ground emphasize that this is just the beginning of the process, but making an open secret the subject of public conversation is a very important step toward broader social change.

And the ramifications go beyond gender rights. According to the Nieman Lab at Harvard, the protests were a “watershed” moment for the use of social media in news gathering and reporting in India.

Cosby

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Is it true, as this headline from vocativ asserts, that Cosby was brought to his knees by social media? If you’ll recall, it was a YouTube video of a bit by the comedian Hannibal Buress that renewed interested in the long-forgotten accusations. Often the most powerful campaigns on social media are either triggered by mainstream media reporting, or amplified by it. In this case,  the very low-quality video of Buress’ rant only caught fire when it was posted by Philadelphia magazine.

 

Cosby made the mistake of ignoring the firestorm. In fact, he seemed so confident that no one would pursue these allegations again that he invited his fans to generate memes about him on Twitter: The result was a user-generated public relations disaster for Cosby, and a huge victory for his accusers.

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All of this public interest evidenced on social media platforms led to serious investigative news reporting. The New York magazine’s cover story, which featured pictures of 35 of his accusers, along with an empty chair, ended up triggering another unplanned, user-generated social media campaign. #TheEmptyChair signaled tweets from people who had been raped, but did not come forward publicly.

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There are many more examples to explore, such as the #NoMorePage3 campaign which convinced the Sun to eliminate its regular topless babe spread. But it’s definitely the exception and not the rule to find a social media campaign that plays a key role in triggering obvious real-world action and shifts in the status-quo. As with all media, social media platforms provide the opportunity to put an issue on the public agenda: translating growing awareness, however, into a massive protest or policy change, is still quite rare.

When it comes to gender equality, it’s clear that an epic battle is being fought in the digital public sphere: some are using new media platforms to punish and chastise women; others are using it to empower them. But what encourages me is the fact that there’s a battle being fought at all. And I think it’s telling that in a 17-country survey, 85% of women said the Internet provides them with more freedom. If you happen to be one of those people who poo-poos the revolutionary potential of social media, I would suggest you contemplate just how transformative these communication technologies can be in the hands of people who have been shamed, bullied or otherwise discouraged from participation in any kind of public dialogue. For them, registering their existence, let alone their political opinions, can be a revolutionary act.

Tracking “Culture”

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I’ve been ODing on data about the arts and culture sector lately, participating in an event at the NEA and another at Disney Hall last week (you can watch the video here). I think that the arts are seriously undervalued in the U.S. and so I’m always looking for data that helps us better understand how and why humans are attracted to certain melodies, visuals and stories, and what they think they’re accomplishing when they settle into a cushy seat to soak up an opera, a ballet or a  concert.

At Disney Hall, a packed house heard top line results from Culture Track, a 13-year tracking survey of arts and culture audiences in the U.S. There’s a huge amount of data here: the 2014 survey (you can download a report) includes responses from over 4,000 people in all 50 states who are “culturally active” – they already attend some array of museums, theaters, music, dance or opera programs.

I’d say the big take-away for me is that arts audiences are not particularly loyal to arts institutions any more – they’re loyal to their own taste. Instead of subscribing to a museum or a theater, they prefer to pick and choose from the options available. Arthur Cohen, who presented the findings, described audience members as “culturally promiscuous:” they’ll have a good night at a theater and then never call for a second date.

I think that new media plays a big role in this sea change. People who use the Internet (and a vast majority of this group does) have become accustomed to seeking out what interests them rather than sitting back and being told what they might like. And so one thing you see in the Culture Track report is that attendance is down, people are going less frequently, but they are visiting a wider array of cultural offerings.

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Black Twitter, Scandal & Must-Tweet TV

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A few years ago I noticed a bunch of hashtags appearing in the “Trending Topics” section of Twitter that I just couldn’t make heads or tails of. Each one I clicked on revealed a sea of black faces and I thought, Oh! This is some kind of in-joke in the African American community. When I could figure out what the tweets were about (and often I couldn’t), they were often really funny, sometimes poking fun at black celebrities or taking white people to task for their ignorance of black culture and the black experience. There were also a lot of provocative topics such as #thingsblackpeopledo, which often played with sensitive racial stereotypes (think watermelon, unemployment, etc.) sometimes inverting them or re-invoking them in clever and surprising ways.

This development was really exciting to me because I believe that one of the huge social and political benefits of social media networks is that diasporic communities – dispersed groups that have shared interests – can cheaply and easily find one another, exchange ideas, build community and work together to accomplish shared goals.

Fast forward to 2013: we had just launched the new Media Impact Project at the Norman Lear Center and I was looking for a way to collaborate with the Annenberg Innovation Lab, a group at USC that had been publishing some very interesting research on Twitter. I was thrilled when Kevin Driscoll, a PhD student in the Lab, told me that he was hoping to drum up some interest in researching Black Twitter. We had both noticed that academic researchers hadn’t really grappled with the topic yet, even though the phrase was becoming more common in news media after Black Twitter was given credit for focusing media attention on the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases.

We were also a bit surprised that academics didn’t seem to be responding to studies demonstrating that African Americans were seriously embracing Twitter.  A research team at Northwestern found that black college students were over-represented on Twitter and Pew found that an astounding 28% of African Americans use Twitter with 13% using it on a daily basis. Just to give you some context, only 12% of whites are on Twitter and only 2% of all online adults use Twitter in a typical day.

Whoa. Read the rest of this entry »

Artifical Intelligence, Gender & the Uncanny Valley

Spike Jonze’s new film Her has sparked some fascinating conversations about artificial intelligence, gender and how we might traverse the uncanny valley we experience when real worlds and virtual worlds overlap.

Liat Clark from Wired contacted me for a great piece about AI virtual assistants and he asked me why it was that Hollywood usually depicts friendly AI as female and threatening AI as male. I think that, even though we may be more aware of gender stereotypes and how limiting and self-destructive they can be, it doesn’t mean that we don’t invoke them in the stories that we tell about ourselves. We humans are caught in some very deep cultural grooves: we still tend to associate a helpful, nurturing creature with feminine characteristics and an aggressive and destructive force with male characteristics. To reverse that association would only result in reinvoking it: everyone would notice that it was “backwards.” In that respect, storytellers cannot help but invoke the tropes that define us – particularly when they’re weaving tales about artificial versions of ourselves.

Clark was also interested in why Hollywood tropes about love and romance always seem a bit retro, lagging behind the current zeitgeist. I think that the representations that define our popular culture are profoundly disconnected from reality and are more likely to reflect a marketer’s hunch about what a particular demographic craves rather than what real living people actually want. One reason I’m so excited about the prospects for social media is that it gives marketers and media companies better information than they’ve ever had before about what animates us, what preoccupies us, and what we care to share (this is the topic of one of my TED talks). I think marketers, advertisers, programmers and creators of entertainment content will need to respond to increasing pressure to supply what audiences actually want – rather than producing hackneyed stories based on primitive stereotypes.

Clark turned out to be much more skeptical than I was about just how far we can go with AI. As my friends well know, I am borderline obsessed with the possibilities of the singularity, and so I’m convinced that we’ll be able to make life-like versions of ourselves in my lifetime. For better or worse, I believe that we’ll make AI that conforms to our current notions of perfection, whatever those happen to be at the time. I also think we will undoubtedly change our definition of perfection the moment we think we’ve achieved it. We’re sort of predictable that way.

The broader question may be why we are so obsessed with humanizing technology in the first place. There’s a great scene in Prometheus in which the robot Michael (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender) puts on some protective head gear which is entirely unnecessary for him. When a human asks him why he bothers, he says it’s because humans are far more comfortable with creatures that act and look like them. Bingo. Yes, we quite capable of empathy, but we are also deeply self-involved creatures, hard-wired for self-preservation, and anthropomorphism is a crutch we’ve been using for millennia.  Our virtual assistants and the robots we engineer will no doubt reflect our knee-jerk discomfort with anything elementally different from ourselves.

Women of Silicon Valley

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Since last fall, I’ve been working with Cognizant on their Women Empowered initiative, which has created a community for female executives interested in increasing workforce diversity — in particular, attracting, developing and promoting female employees. It has been gratifying work, yoking together research that I’ve done over the years about women and social media with Cognizant’s effort to increase the number of women in leadership positions in IT.

Although women are the key drivers of the social media revolution (you can check out my TED talk about this), several studies have indicated that women are reluctant to use their social networks – online or offline – to promote themselves professionally.

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The Benefits of Losing Control (and Exerting It Serendipitously)

My clever friend, Tim Leberecht, is a marketing guy and so he knows just how little control companies have over their brands. The reputation of a brand is basically what a brand is and no matter how much money you throw at it, ultimately, customers, and the general public, will determine a brand’s reputation.

In his TED talk, Tim explores how companies can productively cede control to their customers and employees as well as exerting new types of control and influence in creative new ways in social media contexts. I don’t want to give too much away — it’s only six minutes so check it out!

 

Media In Our Image

Kate, photographed by Jasmine Lord.

I was delighted when the editors of Women’s Studies Quarterly asked me to submit a piece to them about social media and gender. They had seen my TEDWomen talk on the same topic and suspected (correctly) that I’d be interested in pursuing those themes in print. They made another request as well: might I think of a way to add a visual component and a social media campaign of some sort?

Now that’s the kind of thing that takes a village. Thankfully, I have one! I immediately turned to the Lear Center’s terrific in-house designer, Veronica Jauriqui (who designed the visuals for two of my TED talks) and my trusty intern (and social media expert) Sarah Ledesma. Through Sarah we met the tremendously talented photographer Jasmine Lord, who immediately understood what we wanted (you can read about all of them here). I’m incredibly proud of the results, which you can check out on Pinterest and Tumblr.

Now for a little backstory: Read the rest of this entry »

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