“Community”, student ratings and academic popularity contests

11 Mar

Last week’s episode of the TV sitcom “Community” was not only one of the series’ high points but also had a very real and unfunny warning for modern universities.

For those who haven’t seen “Community” (you should go and watch it now, seriously) it follows the lives of a mismatched group of students at a very low-end American community college. Departing from the common sitcom trope of treating its audience like a bunch of idiots, “Community” has proven to be one of the most imaginative and genuinely hilarious comedies on TV at the moment. It’s constantly been plagued with threats of cancellation but has somehow come back from a shockingly terrible fourth season (largely the result of the sacking of its creator Dan Harman, who returned for the current fifth season) to the often bizarre flights of fancy and hilarity that fans love it for; flights of fancy that include not one but three paintball-themed episodes, each one paying homage to classics of cinema such as spaghetti westerns and Star Wars.

Last week, “Community” reached, in my opinion, new levels of genius with an incredibly precise commentary on social media and the power of quantitative ratings and human detachment to corrupt decent society (whatever that is). The eighth episode of the fifth season, App Development and Condiments, saw some app developers beta test their new app on the college campus. The new app, MeowMeowBeenz, allows any user to rate any other user based on a five ‘beenz’ scale. The results are predictable and escalate to the extreme of a dystopian, caste-based society in which those with five beenz rule and those with one ‘been’ are cast into the ‘outlands’. Everyone in between works in varying levels of servitude for the ‘fives’, as they become known. This for some reason includes the introduction of a sexy dress code that takes its inspiration from sci-fi classics such as Logan’s Run, the original Star Trek and, ridiculously, Zardoz.

From denofgeek.com

From denofgeek.com

What’s so great about this episode of “Community” is that it takes the concept of ratings in an education environment to its logical conclusion (okay, maybe not the sexy costumes). From the outset, teachers desperate for more beenz do things like feigning a limp or pretending it’s constantly their birthday in order to win over other users.

Nobody is gonna down-vote a guy on his birthday

This is exactly what things like Rate My Professor and the National Student Survey do. In order to win the approval of students, we academics are tacitly encouraged to make courses easier and, somehow, be more physically attractive; these being the two things that influence ratings the most. The Guardian published two articles last week which highlighted the mental health issues faced by academics in modern universities, many of which stem from these types of ratings systems.

These systems, while ostensibly aimed at improving the quality of education for students in fact mean that academics are coming under intense pressures to not only be high-performing researchers (the REF is another issue for another day) but also generous markers, because there’s nothing that’ll get students to give you or your department a good rating on Rate My Professor or the Nation Student Survey like giving them an easy time and letting them get higher grades than they deserve. It’s an old story, the one about these types of rating systems and the effect they have on genuine academic quality, but the revelations last week about academic mental health brings it into another perspective. Not only does the ‘student as consumer’ model of higher education threaten real education, it also threatens the people providing that education. Those seen as underperforming could well face being disciplined or fired, or continuing to labour under intense pressure and mental health issues. An employemen tribunal due to conclude this week will examine Yeong-Ah Soh’s allegation that she was sacked by Imperial College London as a result of low satisfaction scores and a refusal to make a course easier.

I'm just not good at public speaking.

At the end of last week’s episode of “Community” the student body revolted against the MeowMeowBeenz regime and, following an uprising that levelled everyone to a ‘one’ (there’s also a well-put comment on revolution in there), simply deleted the app from their phones. When the National Student Survey was first rolled out several student unions protested and boycotted it, with some even burning posters and T-shirts promoting the survey. Perhaps something similar is necessary again, to protect not only the education we want to provide but also our own mental wellbeing. Could academics take the lead and encourage students to boycott the National Student Survey? It’s an idea. Although we might have to soften our stance by smearing mustard across our faces, the way one of the characters in “Community” has to in order to get people to sympathise with her.

This post originally appeared at cppeblog.org, the blog of the Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy.

Literature List on Social Media and Politics

13 Aug

I’ve decided to add a literature list to the blog, with some of the most interesting academic books and articles I’ve read over the last year or so. The list includes full bibliographical details and my own keywords for each entry, as well as, in a lot of cases, a quotation or two from the book or article that I found particularly interesting or representative.

I’ll be adding to the list over time, perhaps weekly, as my research goes on. If you think there’s anything missing, please do let me know about it and I’ll add it. Hopefully the list will be a resource to others doing similar research. At the very least it’s proof that I have actually read something and that I’m not just talking out of my arse, which I am as well, but not exclusively.


Cybernetics and Surveillance

5 Aug

In an article published last month in the journal Anarchist Studies, John Duda traced a part of the history of the relationship between anarchist ideas of self-organisation and those of the cybernetic tradition. It’s a very interesting article and sits well with a lot of the work I’ve been doing over the past year and a half. It’s also quite an important piece in that it goes some of the way to counter the claims that are often made about cybernetics as a science of authoritarian control. Since Norbert Wiener’s work in the 1940s and 50s, cybernetics has indeed always been about control, but self-control or self-organisation by systems (organic, machine and social) rather than top-down, hierarchical command.

Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics

Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics

John was kind enough to send me a copy of his PhD dissertation from last year, submitted to John Hopkins University. Titled The Idea of Self-Organization Between Science and Politics, the dissertation charts the reciprocal and intertwined relationship between self-organisation in cybernetics and computer sciences, on the one hand, and radical political thought (anarchist and autonomist), on the other.

Cybernetics often gets a bad rap as having paved the way, with its focus on networked communications and involvement in early theories of the internet, for the kinds of surveillance that penetrate almost every aspect of modern society. The French group Tiqqun, for example, argued just that in their text ‘The Cybernetic Hypothesis.’ It’s interesting to note then that early cybernetic theorists were well aware that networked communication systems were in no way necessarily liberatory and could just as easily be used for domination and hierarchical control. The following two passages, quoted in John’s dissertation, highlight this nicely:

There is an evident risk in installing a model of the public in the computer, since the return loop might be misused by a despotic government or an unscrupulous management. In considering this however we need to bear in mind the cybernetic fact that no regulator can actually work unless it contains a model of whatever is to be regulated. Much of our institutional failure is due to the inadequacy of the contained models. It is perhaps more alarming that private concerns are able to build systems of this type, without anyone’s even knowing about their existence, than that democratically elected governments should build them in open view and with legal safeguards.

Anthony Stafford Beer (Designing Freedom, 1994, p. 34)

Beer; a handsome son of a bitch if ever there was one.

Beer, a handsome son of a bitch if ever there was one

If the American Civil War hastened the supremacy of the telegraph, World War I did it for the radio. World War II did likewise for the radar and made the radio portable while advancing the basis for television. The prospectus for World War III is seemingly enclosed in the altogether non-domestic and non-human computer. Two whole modes: a population attempting to re-create for itself the scope and depth of its most intense and extensive experiences and projections for the future. And a class of near authoritarians, or fully developed ones, who are enmeshed in endless coils of wire without beginning or end, which in and of themselves are to hold society together through wiretapping and filming by secret order, television screens in company bathrooms, microphones hidden even in the offices of the self-same dignitaries seeking some means of coercion against each other. Now these two whole modes are undoubtedly inter-penetrated and give the impression of being a mixed bag of tricks but sooner or later a choice will be made.

William Gorman (‘A View From the World,’ 1966, p. 17)

It seems that far from being complicit in the surveillance culture we are now all subject to, cybernetic theorists were keen to warn of this misuse of their work. Indeed, they saw cybernetics as having the potential to resist and undermine the very forms of domination that could result from it. Cybernetics seems to be dialectical in this sense, containing within it the potential for both domination and liberation. John’s article and dissertation do very well to highlight this feature of cybernetics and present the possibilities for genuine, anti-capitalist self-organisation that lie within it.

Facebook censorship (don’t worry, it doesn’t actually work)

26 Apr

At the Unlike Us #3 conference in March, Peter Olsthoorn, the Dutch journalist behind The Power of Facebook, asked who among the some 100 people in the audience likes Facebook. Only 3 or 4 people raised their hands, of which I was one. It wasn’t such a surprise given that Geert Lovink, one of the conference’s organisers and head of the Institute of Network Cultures, took part in Quit Facebook Day back in May 2010. Furthermore, a number of participants spoke of negative and exclusionary experiences at the hands of Facebook, including Hester Scheurwater who was banned for posting artistic semi-nude photos of herself. Nonetheless, I was firmly of the position that despite the pitfalls of Facebook and it’s obvious purpose as a data-mining tool for advertising, the social networking platform is of value to activists and should be used with caution and political intelligence rather than rejected altogether. The events of yesterday have lead me to question this belief, although the jury is still well and truly out.

You may be familiar with the case, but I’ll provide a brief report for those who aren’t. At around midday on Wednesday, the Scriptonite Daily blog posted an article entitled ‘The Man Who Pushed a Toy Pig to Downing Street to Save our NHS.’ The article reported on the efforts of Mark McGowan, the Artist Taxi Driver, who was pushing a toy pig through London on his hands and knees, trying to get to Downing Street to deliver a letter signed by his children objecting to the privatisation of the National Health Service. The bill opening most of the NHS’ services to market competition was voted through Parliament and the House of Lords by individuals who stand to gain financially from the privatisation. You can read more about that on Scriptonite Daily’s blog, and about how the vote in the Lords was ignored by the media. The reason I want to draw attention to this here is the message Facebook users were met with when they tried to click on Scriptonite Daily’s link.

Rather than just going to the article users were met with an obscured image of the blog and a Facebook notice reporting that the article was possible spam that could harm their computers. Users were given the choice of confirming that the article was indeed spam and returning to Facebook or ignoring the warning and proceeding to the blog. Not only this, but in order to share the article, users were asked to fill in a captcha. In another article, posted yesterday and also flagged as spam by Facebook, Scriptonite Daily reported on the frustrated messages sent by Facebook users who wanted to view Wednesday’s article.

Scritonite Daily wasn’t the only blog affected. Tom Pride’s Pride’s Pruge blog was also listed as spam and users faced similar obstacles in accessing it. Tom has written an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg in which he notes that these examples probably don’t represent a concerted attempt by Facebook to censor information it objects to politically, but a simple lack of foresight. The true root of the problem is that if individual users (in the cases described above, allegedly government employees) report articles as spam then Facebook will automatically present users with the ‘possible spam’ message and thus discourage them from reading the articles. While this can of course be defended as a very reasonable precaution, the fact that users cannot object to possible spam-classification and allow users to access their blogs and sites directly is a massive failure on Facebook’s part, and gives those the articles are criticising a very powerful weapon in silencing opposition. As Tom Pride writes in his letter to Zuckerberg, ‘What if I was an activist in Bahrain, or a blogger in Iran or a dissident in China? Perhaps then it could well be a matter of life or death, I’m sure you would agree.’

The point of all this is that Facebook is once again revealed as a very problematic platform for distributing criticism and radical ideas. If government officials or anyone else who has an interest in stifling dissent for that matter has the power to discourage users from accessing information, then the radical potential of Facebook is severely limited. While Facebook isn’t censoring anything itself, so far as can be proven, it is in effect colluding with censorship. If a newspaper editor or journalist spiked a story because one government official complained about it, then they would surely be held partly responsible for censorship. Facebook’s position is much the same: not because it allows users to report things as spam but because it makes it very difficult for others to have them rehabilitated.

The silver lining in all this is that thankfully, it doesn’t work. The Streisand Effect came into full force yesterday as the Scriptonite Daily blog, which normally gets under 10,000 views per day received an incredible 54,770 views yesterday. This, it should be noted, is not a testament to Facebook’s commitment to critical speech, but rather to the ability of Facebook users to, in a sense, hack the system and make sure that ‘censored’ information is spread far and wide.

This is clearly a problem for Facebook, but a relatively minor one given the amount of activists actually using it compared to non-activist users. The platform does, however, have a more serious problem. In the last few months, users have become more and more frustrated with the increasing presence of adverts (first in the right-hand bar and now in news feeds). This is a direct result of Facebook’s business model: it needs to provide profits for its shareholders and the only source of extraction it has is data-mining and advertising. This will, most likely, be Facebook’s demise. At the Unlike Us #3 conference, Peter Olsthoorn gave Facebook another 3 or 4 years before something will replace it. This may seem unlikely, but who can even remember Bebo or MySpace as popular networking platforms? Hopefully Facebook’s replacement will have less advertising and, more importantly, offer less obstacles to those wanting to share articles and information of the type that were censored this week. A truly autonomous social networking platform would be an answer, but I’m not convinced as to how realistic it is in the near future.

Unlike Us #3 conference in Amsterdam, 22nd and 23rd of March

26 Mar

I was lucky enough to attend the Institute of Network Cultures’ Unlike Us #3 conference on Social Media: Design or Decline on Friday and Saturday of last week. I somehow only found out about the conference a couple of days before it took place and so I was very happy that I was able to make it along.

The first thing I thought when I arrived at the venue, the very chic and apparently exclusive Trouw building, was that this was definitely the hippest and sexiest conference I had ever been to. Being used to conferences held in drab university buildings, the sight of the concrete walls, wooden bar and industrial lighting rig was pretty intimidating (you can see for yourself in the picture below); and being surrounded by creative types, hackers and bloggers (the conference involved practitioners as well as academics) certainly didn’t assuage my feeling of being totally out of place. Nonetheless I stuck around and I was very glad that I did too.


The main hall of the Trouw building in Amsterdam, which used to house newspaper printing presses

The conference had a full programme, the videos of which should be available on the institute’s website from the middle of this week, and there was a lot to take in (also a lot to leave out, but you can’t have it all). Some of the highlights for me were those presentations that dealt directly with how activists in various countries are currently using social media platforms and actually developing their own to replace what they perceive to be inadequate tools. The Lorea network and n-1 platform are examples of these, and while these are fantastic projects and worth engaging with, they do face one significant problem: they don’t help activists connect with non-activists.

Given that these networks and platforms are small (and at the moment localised to Spanish-speaking regions) they seem to work as online spaces where activists working on different projects can come together, communicate and share information and tasks. This is no doubt useful and the specific design of these platforms enables things like consensus decision making that popular platforms like Facebook don’t facilitate. However, there is clearly still a need for things like Facebook and Twitter as a big part of activism involves making connections with those outside your own network or scene.

That the value of Facebook and Twitter can be often overstated was also brought sharply into focus by a presentation from Miriyam Aouragh. Miriyam highlighted the communications problems facing Syrian revolutionaries who have to build strategic and tactical information networks in a fight against a government which has a paramilitary organisation dedicated to online activities, the Syrian Electronic Army, and US-manufactured surveillance tools, Blue Coat, and in a country where less than 1% of the population uses Twitter. Revolutionaries have resorted to perhaps the lowest-tech communications methods in order to get much-needed information between locations. A remarkable video that was played showed the use of homing pigeons in getting messages from one village to another.

In addition to the potential reach of social media like Facebook being criticised during the conference, Dutch journalist Peter Olsthoorn also spoke briefly about Facebook’s data-mining activities. For those not familiar with this side of Facebook, it is important to understand that Facebook exists not to provide a handy way to stay in touch with your friends but as database of individual preferences that is used to direct user-specific advertising. This is where Facebook’s real economic value lies. I heard it put once that when a service is free, the users are the commodity. This is exactly the case with Facebook: we, the users, go to work liking and sharing things and in the process provide data that advertisers, for a price, can access; and what’s worse, we do this work for free. Peter has conducted a study of this phenomenon and published it as The Power of Facebook in short, popular and longer, more scientific versions. At his website you can also find out the value you as a user have contributed to Facebook’s market value. Apparently Facebook has made $128 from the work I’ve put in over the years.

Another of the most interesting presentations came from George Danezis who imaginatively outlined three ways of looking at networked decentralisation. He began with the famous images of a disorganised school of small fish being chased by one large fish contrasted with the large fish being turned on and fleeing as the small fish come together to form an even larger fish. These images are always presented to show the assumed strength of collective, decentralised organisation. George instead used these images to highlight the potential pros of centralisation (e.g. resilience and privacy) and cons of decentralisation (e.g. high costs associated with emergence and individuals actors being easily picked off).


The classic image of decentralised organisation

More interesting, however, was the third image George presented: that which is found on the cover of most editions of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Hobbes’ notion of the state of nature was presented as corresponding to decentralisation and the social contract with the state as the rational form of emergence. This is a very intriguing challenge to the orthodoxy around decentred networks, and while I don’t want to dwell on it here, I may well pick it up and look at it more closely in the near future.


The cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan showing the body of the state made up of different individual bodies

All in all then, the Unlike Us #3 conference gave a lot of food for thought. I might not feel any sexier for having attended but I definitely came away with a lot to think about.

Final Reminder: Anarchism and Critical Management Studies

26 Feb

Please find below a link to the call for papers for the Anarchism and Critical Management Studies stream at the 8th International CMS conference to be held in Manchester from the 10th to 12th of July 2013. The final deadline for abstracts submissions is the end of this week (01/03/13), so please do get in touch and send us something as soon as possible if you would like to participate. You should email both Thomas (trs6 (at) le (dot) ac (dot) uk) and Kostya (ks302 (at) le (dot) ac (dot) uk).

One may get the impression with this initiative that we are trying to marry two mutually exclusive traditions: anarchism and management. We would argue that there is in fact nothing exclusive about the study of management, either as a phenomenon of capitalist society or as a mode of organisation, and anarchism. Sadly, the only points of contact between the two seem to have been in the co-opting of anarchist and other radical ideas into mainstream management discourse; for example, think of non-heirarchical, networked workplaces or canteens with vegan options. Is it the case that these and other examples have been deprived through their integration of their powerful ethical and political potentials, or can they be salvaged for radical political praxis?

To say the least, management annoys us intensely, primarily because it is more often than not the management of one group of people by other people: workers by managers, women by men, non-white people by white people, and so on. This is one point at which anarcha-feminism, queer anarchism and postcolinial theory can intervene in the debate around anarchism and management, and we would encourage anyone working on the intersection between anarcha-feminist theory, queer theory or anarchist race theory and how these relate to contemporary business and management to consider submitting an abstract. We recognise that our original call for submissions didn’t reflect this openness to a complete picture of the social and political struggle against capital and as a result perhaps excluded many non-male and non-white academics, but we assure you this was not intentional and we more than welcome submissions dealing with all aspects of anarchist theory and how they relate to management and business, both in terms of critiquing mainstream models and realities and defining alternatives.

Another thing we want to encourage is submissions that deal with topics that are perhaps sometimes considered peripheral to management but that are nonetheless crucial to the development of both business and anarchist struggle (if such a neutral appreciation of a means can be accepted); for example, marketing and PR, economic analysis, etc.

If you or any of your friends and/or colleagues are working on anything that would fit within this broad definition of anarchism and critical management studies, then please do get in touch with us as soon as possible.

The full CFP is available here: https://socialmediaandradicalpolitics.wordpress.com/2013-cms-conference-cfp/

Tweets, streets, strategy and tactics

28 Jan

A couple of weeks ago I received the good news that a review I wrote of Paolo Gerbaudo‘s Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism had been accepted for publication in Organization. At present I’m not sure whether the review will remain behind a paywall once it’s finally published. Only today I heard that Sage, who publish Organization, have decided to make all their content free for the time being, an obvious response to the tragic and scandalous death of Aaron Swartz. In any case, I’m including the full text of the last but final version of the review (the one I submitted) below. This is almost identical to the review that will be published and only a few phrases and wordings were changed by the editors for readability.

The most interesting thing about Gerbaudo’s book, so far as it relates to my own research on social media and activism, is his account of tactics and strategy. While he doesn’t explicitly develop either concept, the way he uses both is, in my opinion, spot on and gets right to the heart of the distinction and how it relates to organising. Authors such as Marianne Maeckelbergh (in her The Will of the Many) also include discussions of tactics and strategy, but seem to frame the distinction as one of ‘good’ practise which doesn’t reduce political actions to their ends versus ‘bad’ practise which does just that and potentially sacrifices any current concerns to some future goal.

Gerbaudo, instead, is correct to note that the distinction between tactics and strategy comes down more to the immediacy of the practice in question. Political activity that is spread over a long period, such as mobilising people for a demonstration, would be described as strategic, while activity that is concerned with minute to minute organisation, such as during a riot or when a demonstration turns into a running confrontation with the police,  would be described as tactical. The difference is a matter of degree, not quality. As I mention in the review, the clearest statement of this comes from a perhaps unlikely source: Carl Von Clausewitz, who writes: ‘tactics teaches the use of armed forces in the engagement; strategy the use of engagements for the object of the war‘. Here the distinction is clear; strategy is involved in, for example, getting people to the demonstration, tactics is about what you do when you’re there.

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