User:Jasper van Loenen/RWRM/essay1
From receiver to homing beacon
Reading about artists from the seventies, I wondered how these artists’ views on new media relate to the new media of our times. Some groups of artists were displeased with the static sender-receiver roles of the mass media and its audience respectively. I wondered if anything has changed since then, and what the current relation between the two is like.
In the 1970s there were different reasons to be displeased with the way media were controlled. In Feedback (2007), David Joselit relates how in 1972 the Black Panthers called for more African American culture on-screen, more ownership of media and a larger role in its regulation - for example through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). They did so by saying: "From the beginning, those who enslaved and colored us understood that by controlling communications they could control our minds" (Feedback, p.88). By becoming part of the group behind the cameras and the regulation of information, they would be able to have more control over the contents of the broadcasts and thus over what the American audience would see on their screens. To them, access to television, or media in general, could play an important role in their larger political strategy.
The artists of Ant Farm had similar problems with the corporate ownership of media, but in a larger context, namely the American society as a whole. In 1975, during Ant Farm's "Media Burn" performance - or the "Ultimate Media Event" as the Ant Farm group called it - an actor dressed up as John F. Kennedy and credited as ‘the artist-president’ addressed the same issue but in the context of the American audience as a whole:
"What has gone wrong with America is not a random visitation of fate. It is the result of forces that have assumed control of the American system […] These forces are militarism, monopoly, and the mass media […] Mass media monopolies control people by their control of information […] And who can deny that we are nation addicted to television and the constant flow of media? […] Now I ask you, my fellow Americans: haven't you ever wanted to put your foot through your television screen?"
Ant Farm, Media Burn video report, 13:27
Though the performance was meant somewhat sarcastic, this speech does show their feeling towards the medium of television in its current form. They address the same problem of ownership and control over information and the networks used to distribute this information.
In his book ‘Guerrilla Television’ (1971) Michael Shamberg describes a system of alternative networks to overcome this problem of ownership. Using CCTV networks to create and connect communities you could enable passive consumers to become video producers and let them engage in dialog with their peers. With inventions such as the Portapak – a (then) small portable video recording system – the tools needed to use these networks became available to the general public – or at least to a larger group.
Even though these examples are from the seventies, the craving to be a creator and to share and connect with a community is still as strong today as it was then. With the rise of the Internet and its tools, it is easier than ever to create, publish, and share user-generated content. In the field of film and video a huge range of smaller and better cameras has replaced the Portapak. Video websites such as YouTube, Vimeo, DailyMotion and MetaCafe let you upload your videos and share them through international networks with a spread far beyond that of any CCTV network.
It is safe to say that the goal of being able to make our own content and share it has – at least on a technological level - been reached. But did we break free from the corporate networks that control the flow of information? A way to see if we did is to compare the new situation with the old one. In the 1973 video piece ‘Television delivers people’, in which a scrolling text directly addresses the audience, Richard Serra states that when watching television we feel as if television is there to serve us, the viewer. We are presented with all the entertainment we can dream of, since there seems to be a channel for every topic imaginable and shows are broadcasted 24/7. But in fact it is the other way around: television isn’t here to entertain, but to deliver us, the receivers.
“In commercial broadcasting the viewer pays for the privilege of having himself sold.
It is the consumer who is consumed.
You are the product of TV.
You are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer.
He consumes you.”
Excerpt from Television Delivers People, 1973
So when we compare this to the current situation it means, in order to really be in charge of the medium, the users shouldn’t be sold anymore. They should be able to use the networks on their own terms. At first it seems like they are in a very favorable position: over the last ten years, all kinds of online services have emerged – from LinkedIn, MySpace and Last.FM in 2003 to Facebook and Twitter in 2005 and 2006. Though some of these websites offer extended functionality – such as playing certain games – in exchange for a small fee, most of them are completely free to use. But if we don’t have to pay anything, how is it possible that Facebook – to stick with one example of a large social networking website – is rumored to go public in the first quarter of 2012 with an estimated value of over a hundred billion dollar? (Facebook IPO Valuation Could Top $100 Billion: Sources, 2011). Somehow Facebook has to be making a considerate amount of money for it to become worth so much in just five years time.
Of course it is clear when you look at a random page on Facebook that there are companies advertising their products. Compared to the earlier situation of the people vs. television, this is nothing new. We are still being lured with certain entertainment, and then sold to commercial parties who want us to buy their products. But actually, this is where Facebook has an ace up its sleeve. On the Facebook Adverts page (https://www.facebook.com/advertising/, 2011) they explain what they have to offer businesses:
Think about the profiles (timelines) of the people you want to reach with your ads, and select criteria based on what your audience is interested in, instead of what they might be looking to buy.
You can target by:
• Location, Language, Education, and Work
• Age, Gender, Birthday, and Relationship Status
• Likes & Interests: Select Likes & Interests such as "camping", "hiking", or "backpacking" instead of "tents" or "campers"
• Friends of Connections
It used to be that television channels tried to draw your attention by producing things you might want to see and would let you stick around during the commercials, hoping a small part of the audience might be interested in the products shown. But with social networking websites we don’t even have to be entertained by content from the provider of the website or third parties. For most users, communicating and sharing with friends is enough to get them online – if something like being offline exists these days. We’ll do the chatting, posting, poking no matter what.
What’s new is that during these interactions we are making our interests known to the owners of the website. Instead of binding us to the television screen to see our favorite film characters drink sodas some of us might want to buy, we are already broadcasting what it is we’d really like to have. We, the users, have become a product that is easier to sell than ever before. Not only can we be targeted as a user of Facebook – like we are targeted as the audience watching a certain television show – but also as a fan of a certain band or reader of a particular book. Why show an ad to the whole audience hoping a small portion of them will respond if you can single out the individuals you already know will be interested.
To be able to be targeted this way, the computer has to understand our interests. This input has to be structured in such a way that the computer can find relations – between the different types of data of a single user as well as between users in general. This means the data has to be entered in a simplified way: what is your favorite movie, book or game? Never mind the things you like but aren’t asked for; there is no room for eccentricity in a database.
This general format in which you have to fit your life shows that – even though you can share your own videos, photos, text or whatever – another person is actually creating the framework and the rules of the network. Someone else is deciding what fields and labels are needed to describe a person. These fields don’t necessarily apply to you since, as Zadie Smith points out in her review of the film “The Social Network” (Generation Why?, 2011), Facebook was “[…] designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations.”
The choices they are making are not just limited to the type of information you can put into the system, or trivial things like the design of the website – blue because Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. They also affect what you are able to do with your and your friends’ information. For example, Facebook has its well known ‘like’ button, but it doesn’t have a ‘dislike’ button. And it’s not that the users don’t want such a button: a quick search on the Facebook website reveals at least 20 Facebook ‘apps’ and ‘pages’ asking for such a feature – ironically with a cumulated total of 5 million, 452 thousand and 142 likes. There is a good chance the Facebook team doesn’t want such a button because they don’t want to risk users having a negative user experience on the website; you can use such a button to show sympathy with a ‘friend’ sharing something sad, but others could also use it to disapprove of things you are sharing. Since these networking sites are all about receiving confirmation and approval of your peers you don’t want them to respond to your posts in a negative way. Another reason might be that a dislike button would enable users to dislike Facebook’s business partners. When you’re a large advertisement agency and you’re running a viral campaign you want to show how many people liked and shared it, and ignore the ones that didn’t like it.
It is not like we woke up some day and decided to upload a photo of our breakfast to a website and have other people – some of which we would never even let into our houses in real life – show us they ‘like’ it by clicking an image with a thumbs up on it. We do so because we were given a like button. We were given the freedom to create our own content and to distribute it among friends or other people interested, but are still being restrained by the limitations of the networks we use to do so. Moreover, the content we share is immediately gathered and used against us to build a detailed profile not of who we really are, but of what they can sell us.
But if we are aware of this, we also get the change to change it. In the way the portapack changed television, so should we find and create the tools to change our online representations in the pursuit of the free network. Time to turn off the homing beacon.
• Joselit, D., 2007, Feedback, MIT Press
• Ant Farm, 1975, Media Burn, 1975 [video]
• Serra, R., 1973, Television Delivers People [video]
• Kelly, K., 2011, Facebook IPO Valuation Could Top $100 Billion: Sources [online]
Available at: < http://cnbc.com/id/43378490>
• Smith, Z., 2010, Generation Why? [online] The New York Review of Books. Available online at <http://nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/25/generation-why/>
• Facebook adverts page. Available online at <https://www.facebook.com/advertising/> [Accessed 4 December 2011]
• Lanier, J., 2010, You Are Not a Gadget, Alfred A. Knopf