Digital Money, Mobile Media, and the Consequences of Granularity

Nicholas Negroponte famously insisted that the dotcom boomers, “Move bits, not atoms.” Ignorant of the atom heavy human bodies, neuron dense brains, and physical hardware needed to make and move those little bits, Negroponte’s ideal did become true in industrial sectors dependent upon communication and economic transaction. In the communication sector, atomic newspapers have been replaced by bitly news stories. In the transactional sector, coins are a nuisance, few carry dollars, and I just paid for a haircut with a credit card adaptor on the scissor-wielder’s Droid phone.

The human consequences of the bitification of atoms go far beyond my bourgeois consumption. This shift or what is could simply be called digitalization, when paired with their very material transportation systems or networked communication technologies, combines to form a powerful force that impacts local and global democracies and economies.

What are the local and political economics of granularity in the space shared between the fiduciary and the communicative? To understand the emergent political economy of the practices and discourses unifying around mobile media and digital money we need a shared language around the issue of granularity.


Granularity is the reduction of symbols to binary-type simplicity such as lines of computer code or small economic integers. Granularity means to break down money or media into symbolic and quantitative units for digital delivery and reconstitution. Granularity and networks are what gives bit-based media and money its mobile advantage over its cousins–film stock that needs to be “bicycled” to theaters and precious metals that need to be stored in fortified treasuries. Granularity is the physical principle that allows the discourses of money and media to meet. With granularity come two conflicting social worlds –the financialization as well as the democratization of media and money.

More philosophically, the media/money verisimilitude reveals the already tenuous analytical separation of thought and action, discourse and practice, and rationalities and tactics.

Financialization and Democratization of Money/Media

Digital money and mobile media, in a state of fine granularity, are symbolically opened for innovative as well as manipulative financialization and potentially wide democratization. Granularity, by refining things into ever-smaller units, increases the opportunities for access to previously closed systems. On the one hand, this can be empowering as peer-to-peer media and financial transactions can increase and, for a time, transpire under the radar of regulators and speculators. On the other hand, media/money granularity can also result in “flexible accumulation,” the post-nation manufacturing of information/financial/mathematical tools such as seen in the derivatives market that is increasingly difficult to regulate, litigate, or access if you are a citizen.

Digital Money as Democratizing

The granularity of digital money can create opportunities for access by materially poor people to small investment-able capital. This form of capital democratization is dependent upon new technologies and networks. Digital money, largely a numerical system within ornate cultural contexts, is easily made granular and digitally shared via phone or internet from person to person, micro-lender to person, and employer to person. Such transactions on unregulated communication networks has democratized new forms of money sharing, saving, and transfer.

While it isn’t popular in the United States, mobile granular financing has exploded in Kenya. For instance, Vodaphone affiliate Safaricom started m-Pesa, a mobile money transfer in Kenya in 2003. M-Pesa has 12 million users out of 17 million mobile phone users representing 70% of the mobile market in Kenya and 21% of the Kenyan GDP flows through the system, wrote mPay Connect founder Menekse Gencer in 2011. It works and it’s profitable for Vodaphone shareholders. And yet its commercialization balances any breathless optimism about m-Pesa’s democratizing impact.

This democratization of capital provides an opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with the overbearing symbology that is money. It also invites us to reconsider basic issues of financial autonomy and agency. How will mobile money challenge, magnify, or articulate with local customs? As digital currencies evolve will they be pegged to national or international banks? How will they be regulated and by whom? How are they insured and what backs their legitimacy? As these pragmatic questions are answered and applied digital money will likely move further from democratization and nearer to financialization.

Financialization of Digital Money

Few have bank accounts but the 1.7 billion materially poor people will have a cell phone in 2012. This phone can be used to make calls, many can take photos and videos, upload them to the internet, and, increasingly, receive and give money. Even before this form of digital money there were banks micro-lending. Following CK Prahalad’s claim that the collective material wealth at the bottom of pyramid can make development profitable, a number of microfinance organizations went into non-profit “business.” Kiva, who started in 2005, the same year as YouTube, is the most recognizable microlender for Westerners. Kiva founders were inspired by a talk by Muhammad Yunus at Stanford. Yunus, of course, started Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, the first microfinance organization. Kiva, Grameen, Yunus and the following, Banco Compartamos, are all vigorously successful and have all claimed to alleviate poverty. Such philanthrocapitalism is rich with contradictions. The World Bank, for instance, is the largest micro-lender in the world. The problematic financialization of granular money is evident in Banco Compartamos that started as a non-profit micro-lending bank to materially poor Oaxacans, took a shot at becoming private in an IPO, raised a billion dollars, and made its shareholders wealthy. Yunus was outraged by the high interest rates and simple bald privatization of the now profitable banco.

While the granularity of digital money can create capital access and capital democratization, it can also create access for corporate financialization. By financialization I refer basically to commercial or market tactics and discourses; of tacking profit generating financial instruments onto each grain of digital money and a charge onto each node it its circuitous pathway through the technological and social network. This is an important facet of “flexible accumulation” which refers both to the global mobility of capital as well as the instrumentalization of social life.

Mobile Media Democratization

The democratization of digital money is spiritually linked to the tactical and discursive interventions of local entrepreneurs who “hacked” into public systems –satellite television, electricity, water– that had been privatized. My research into the history of cable and satellite “guerrilla television” producers reveals how techniques and rationalities are mobilized by marginalized producers to gain access to systems of media power closed by economic or political power. The process goes something like this. A disruptive network communication technology evolves out of tinkerer communities (radio, cable television) or large-scale federal investment (satellite, internet). The indigenous or local innovators are either responsible for the technology, as in the case of radio and cable television, or adapt to exploit it like early internet hackers, public access television producers, and phone phreaks. Examples include TVTV, a psychedelic television producer community who created an opening on cable television in the 1970s and Deep Dish TV, a progressive producer collective who exploited inexpensive satellite rents to distribute their anti-war message. They used their policy discourse and interventionary practices to exploit an opening in an otherwise closed system. These opening can provide the context for the democratization of (capital) production. These examples of media democratization are from the pre-digital phase, how does granularity impact media democracy as well as the financialization of media?

Mobile Media Financialization

Granularity impacts two forms of media financialization: personalization and fragmentation. The obsession the Google founders Page and Brin have with artificial intelligence is dutifully documented by Nick Carr in The Big Switch. They hope to know enough about each of us through recording our search records to be able to recommend consumer solutions to life. This they call personalization, the individualization of search. This ‘give-them-what-they-appear-to-like’ mentality includes searches we do on politics as Eli Pariser explains, keeping us in homogenous “filter bubbles.” Just yesterday it was reported that Google’s personalization ambition has been branded as “Search,  Plus Your World” to honor how they merge their search data with the person data we freely give them on their fledgling social network Google+. The point is that every granular piece of personal data has a price. It is on these grains of identity that Google and Facebook hang their future business plans.

Google is financializing another stream of granular data, the video clip. Beginning back in 2007, I began documenting the transformation of amateur to professional YouTubers. By the end of 2011, this transformation is now complete and YouTube is fully prepared for the convergence of broadband home entertainment by creating the Partner program, buying Next New Networks, and recently enshrining 100 top video producers. Many of the professionalized channels are vloggers whose work is not granular in the traditional sense of the term (micro-payments or lines of code) but it is granular in reference to the lengthy documentaries, over-cooked television talk shows, and studio call in shows of the past. They are short and often include ever more granular clips. Ray William Johnson, the most subscribed and viewed YouTube celebrity built his business around making fun of little clips. Kind of like America’s Funniest Home Videos for tweens. Taken as a whole, from the semi-famous vloggers making almost a million dollars a year from revenue sharing with Google to the one-hit wonder who uploads an addictively watchable cat video and who make a few thousand dollars for Google and herself, granularity is part of the financialization as well as democratization of visual media.

Possible Social Consequences

What are the possible global and local impacts of the theory that granularity is turning money and media into objects easily interchangeable, financialized, and democratized? In essence I am concerned with the manufacturing and exploitation of desire, the commercialization of bio-politics, and the death of democracy. I worry about the emergence of a corporation capable of exploiting the verisimilitude of money/media and developing financial/media instruments that can control and monetized the smallest units of both symbolic systems. I worry about the capacities of these money/media corporations to manufacture ubiquitous entertainment environments that can extract financial rewards based on phenomenologically inconsequential but altogether quantifiable granular units of sensual attention. I worry about the media, which includes journalism, being colonized by financial interests to such a degree that there is no media (and no journalism) without a financial product immediately inscribed in its metadata. That would negate any democratization granularity would produce.

And yet, I have faith in the rationalities and techniques of the indigenous innovators, phone phreakers, “guerrilla television” producers, and hacktivists to intervene in this worrisome future.

This post is largely inspired by Anke Schwitty’s excellent 2011 article, “The financial inclusion assemblages: Subjects, technics, rationalities” in Critique of Anthropology 31[4]:381-401.

Online Community Managers

Every case we investigate has them. Either FSE-housed and salaried individuals doing the work the algorithm can’t–humanly cultivating, curating, and cheerleading participation–or the OP netizen doing it for free, fun, or the Lulzzz–online community managers. Alex Leavitt recently asked the AIR-L list about research on this necessary yet precarious species of knowledge. These were the returns:

The Art of Hosting Good Conversations Online by Howard Rheingold


Misbehavior in cyber places: The regulation of online conduct in virtual communities on the Internet by Janet Lynne Sternberg

The Public Sphere of Occupy Wall Street

I keep returning to the public sphere as Habermas originally described it as I think about progressive political movements of today: Occupy Wall Street and its global dimensions, Anonymous and its more theatrical and political wing LulzSec, and progressive and independent cable television news network Current. Internet activism, television news punditry, and street-based social movement each work together implicitly or explicitly to constitute a larger public sphere. As scholars we need to resist the temptation of excluding one form of resistance as being inconsequential to social justice or to analysis and instead see all three as working together in a media ecology.

It is widely acknowledged that Habermas idealizes the era of 18th century bourgeois Europeans inhabiting markets and coffee houses deliberatively dialoguing on the future of the nation, markets, religion, and the species. Those halcyonic days quickly gave way to our present situation where the public sphere is colonized by corporate media, where our dynamic and eventful two-way chatter about the fate of the planet is replaced by the one-way monologue from the culture industries. This is our present day inheritance, and, according to Habermas, all networked communication technologies are tools of capital propaganda. Yes, the notion of the public sphere is monolithic and universalizing; ignores counter-publics of gender, ethnic, and class minorities; and has little to say about the specific affordances of contemporary networked communication technologies. The ‘political sphere’ should certainly be a plurality of spheres and publics.

One thing Habermas did get absolutely right was that in the context of culture, power, technology, and the public sphere there is transformation from open to closed systems, to borrow a perhaps reductive idea from Tim Wu. I want to discuss three cases in regards to the two stages of the public sphere. I will conclude by attempting to show how future theorization of the public sphere and of social movements need to consider the media ecologies that consist of social media, cable television, hacktivism, and grassroots activists sleeping in solidarity in city parks.

Habermas uses the unfortunate term bourgeois to describe the class of the people in his ideal public sphere.  Occupy and Anonymous both would likely detest this term to describe the methods of their political action, but Habermas saw the bourgeois against the specter of feudalism and monarchism. To him, the bourgeois were a uniquely liberated people, who braved ostracism to speak freely. If we must discuss Occupy and Anonymous in Habermas’s terms we might do well to think of these “bourgeois” activists resisting corporate feudalism. In a fascinating interview ending with him walking off stage right, Occupy activist and journalist Chris Hedges describes the financial “criminal class” as involved in “neofeudalism.” His is such an excellent example of cable television functioning, against Habermas’s dystopic views, as a public sphere that I typed it out for you:

Those who are protesting the rise of the corporate state are in fact on the political spectrum the true conservatives because they are calling for the restoration of the rule of law. The radicals have seized power and they have trashed all regulations and legal impediments to a reconfiguration of American society into a form of neofeudalism.

Habermas use the term “refeudalization” to describe how the public sphere was colonized by corporate propaganda. The point is that Occupy is an attempt to defeudalize what remains of the middle and working classes through modeling a laterally-organized direct democracy in their General Assembly. Here is an excellent video of the General Assembly using its structure to discuss the role of hierarchy in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

An article describes anthropologist David Graeber’s work at Occupy establishing the horizontal General Assembly as opposed to the vertically organized leader-based organization:

A ‘general assembly’ means something specific and special to an anarchist. In a way, it’s the central concept of contemporary anarchist activism, which is premised on the idea that revolutionary movements relying on coercion of any kind only result in repressive societies.

A “GA” is a carefully facilitated group discussion through which decisions are made — not by a few leaders, or even by majority rule, but by consensus. Unresolved questions are referred to working groups within the assembly, but eventually everyone has to agree, even in assemblies that swell into the thousands.

Occupy’s General Assembly is not unlike how Anonymous and LulzSec make their decisions on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) systems. The IRC process is a bit more chaotic but similar to the GA in that both are laterally organized, allowing for leaderless deliberation and action. Direct democracy is a messy practice; one that has confounded mainstream consolidated news media looking for a dominant agenda. But as we shout in the streets: “This is what democracy looks like!” (I am one who believes there is a single issue perfectly described in the included photo above I took at Occupy LA.)

The question on many media pundits’ lips as well as those keyed in to Habermas’s revelation regarding the historical transformation of the public sphere is: when will this open, deliberative public sphere of Occupy’s General Assembly or Anonymous’s IRC space of praxis give in to formalization and consolidation? Perhaps the techno-structure of the GA or the IRC prohibits such integration and institutionalization, or perhaps the power of persuasive culture assists participants in resisting leadership and agenda aggregation. I don’t know but I will provide an example of an open, laterally organized corporate public sphere giving way to a non-participatory, top-down corporate public sphere. Yet, despite this, and in counter-distinction to Habermas, I argue, a public sphere perseveres in this example from Current.

The progressive and independent television news network Current originally was founded on the idea of media democratization which they attempted to achieve through creating a lateral network of documentary video producers (Viewer-created content producers or VC2) working through the central hub of Current as a television network that showcased the work, a social media destination used to discuss the documentaries, and a corporation incentivizing participation through payment. While enmeshed within a for-profit media system, Current saw itself as a formal critique of consolidation and the “refeudalization” of the public sphere. Indeed, the network’s chairman, Al Gore was apt to quote Habermas in his book Assault on Reason.

But by 2011, this specific media democratization project was over at Current, replaced by pundit-based, ratings driven news programming led by the return of Keith Olbermann to cable television news. Now it might be convenient to criticize this transformation of the deliberative bourgeois public sphere of the VC2 model to the for-profit refeudalization of what was once a vibrant public sphere. But a wider look at the role played by Olbermann and progressive media punditry exhibits how various elements work in consort to produce the educative conditions for the public sphere. What remains under-theorized and documented in both Habermas and in regards to the social movements of the present, are the ecological dynamics between various constituencies that produce the conditions for a progressive public sphere. I call upon the General Assembly of Occupy Research to empirically document the Occupy movement within its cultural context that includes hacktivists, television newscasters, as well as boots-on-the-ground Occupiers.

For most of us too busy (in our non-market activities) to be sleeping at the various liberation parks around the nation and globe, we know the Occupy Movement as #occupywallstreet, or #occupyla. It is something we know less through the experience of inhabiting a space in protest but more as something known through sitting at home and engaging with social media. For others, we know the Occupy Movement through cable television news–Fox, MSNBC, CNN, or Current. Cable television is a networked communication technology with specific cultures of consumption. Unlike those reading about Occupy through Twitter and its hashtag #occupywallstreet, cable news viewers have few options of engaging with the material through the media itself. Habermas, who correctly prioritizes two-way, dialogic engagement over top-down listening, thinks this form of political mediation expressed by cable news is part of the problem of democracy—passivity and propaganda.

Again, Habermas misses the point of active cultures of consumption and how information can lead to action. For instance, Cenk Uygar of the Young Turks, and formerly of MSNBC, announced in Zuccotti Park the political action committee (PAC) he is forming, Wolf-PAC, with a sole focus of getting a 28th US Constitutional Amendment limiting personhood to people not corporations. Via YouTube and soon via his up-and-coming cable TV program on Current he will continue to encourage political action. While scholars have wondered if the rich dialogue that occurs in the public sphere ever actually leads to democratic action, mainstream cable television, despite lacking two-way engagement, exhibits the conditions of an attenuated public sphere by encouraging political action.

What is the cause for these emergent horizontal organizations? Yochai Benkler, in his new book, claims that humans are essentially selfless and collaborative; the open architecture of the internet is just helping that gene to express itself. It’s a provocative argument he makes with quite a bit of social, psychological, and biological anthropological data. Perhaps, but the point is that horizontal organizations exist as temporal and transitional boundary objects impacted by technology, power, and culture from all directions. Likewise, power, culture, and technology are mediated by forces within the media ecology, some of these forces are laterally while others are vertically ordered—this is the mediated context for the present social movements.

Diversity within FSEs and OPs: A Lesson From Google Corp. and Google+

We have been dealing with cultural totalities—a single FSEs here and its single OPs there. Perhaps at an earlier point such holism and universalism was plausible. Closer examinations of each entity under the same banner provides evidence that each FSE and OP is likely an accumulation of numerous micro-communities. If we are going to explore the cultural diversity in the FSE-OP dyad we might want to think of each localized entity as a polymorphous system.

For example, as I explore more fully in a different blog, Google Inc. is doing two things that may give us reason to look more closely at the diversification, internal to their forms, of FSEs and OPs: 1) In-house, Google, Inc. encourages its employees to develop ERGs or firm-based affinity moieties; 2) the new social media platform Google+ gives users options for how to categorize their “friends” into select Circles. These two observations have implications for the relationship between Google’s FSE and its OP and more generally the internal integrity of analytical categories such as FSEs and OPs. The internal mechanism for FSE and OP development are subject to the hording and cliquey practices the workers and social media users.

Three or Four Theories of Networked Activism

The social dynamics and genesis of inter-networked activist cultures are little understood and the focus of some of our research at UCLAs Part.Lab and a bunch of new business, activism, and pop theory books. Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics through Networked Progressive Media (New Press 2010) by Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke is a strategy guide about how four levels of internet-enabled networks have an impact on progressive journalism, political commentary, and activist organizing: 1) networked users, 2) self-organized networks, 3) institutional networks, 4) networks of institutions. All but the first, networked users, articulate well with the categories and process we devised in Birds of the Internet Towards a Field Guide to the Organization and Governance of Participation to explain internet-based cultural behavior, namely, the self-generating or organized publics assisted in their construction by formal social enterprises. Like our 2011 publication, the book is a field guide designed to identify new species of networked culture, their interrelationships in the emergent media ecology, their diverse communicative practices, and the values they seek to reproduce throughout society. The power of this book lies in the elegance and utility of these network categories and in the suspenseful fast histories of netroots progressive movements.


What are progressives and netroots? Apparently a progressive is someone left of Democrats and liberals. They are “opposed to conservative philosophies that seek to maintain older systems of value and power.” Progressives are into “social change” (Clark and Van Slyke 2010: 3). While progressive values are variously but never concretely defined in this book I would quickly add social justice, social liberalism, civil society, and technoprogressivism. Progressives value “social justice,” or the promotion of the dignity of every human life; “social liberalism,” or the promotion of access, participation, diversity, and democracy; and “civil society”, a contested term that describes an arena for public discourse. Emphases on openness and public cultures overlap in social justice, social liberalism, and civil society. (In addition to the right to be heard and accounted for, the right to privacy is also a value of social justice.)

The progressive brand “Netroots,” a conflation of internet and grassroots, describes a politically coordinated and technology-enabled public. It can be considered synonymous with the progressive blogosphere, the internet-activated and discourse-constructed public sphere. Netroots express the value of technoprogressivism—a promotion of the positive role of technology in achieving progressive political objectives that has its historic roots in computer and countercultural notions of techno-cultural change. Netroots activists focus on the agencies provided by technology. Networks are seen as enabling not limiting factors. Beyond the Echo Chamber is designed to motivate not give a sociologically factual and balanced account of the promises and perils of networked political economy. Much of this idealism is identifiable in this self-interview between the authors. Importing a dose of critical pessimism, that is a focus on overcoming impediments, from the media reform movement might have made this book more believable to academics but not as inspirational to activists.

Networks of Users and Institutions

The four networks go from the most abstract and loose to the most concrete and institutionalized. The first is “networked users” which include “tens of millions of individuals” and analogous to the “networked public sphere.” “Users” is deployed deliberately to define the confluence of “audience member and participant” (Clark and Van Slyke 2010: 34). I like this simple term “user” better than the clumsy neologism “produser” but the authors do not define the “networked public sphere” other than inferring that it is public, big, free, semi-communal, and potentially political and creative. If you hear some of the cyber-utopianism of Yochai Benkler, Henry Jenkins, Don Tabscott, and Clay Shirky in these notions then you are correct, they are cited throughout. Where the authors fail in describing these users is by ignoring the fact that they are networked not by some neutral, natural, or publically-owned infrastructure but by privately-owned or non-profit platforms with their own set of affordances, prejudices, values, and persuasions that limit and provoke certain types of networks that are not simply user-driven but semi-hierarchical, striated, partitioned, unbalanced, and more often then not governed to maximize capital. In their calculation there is an amorphous mass of politically minded people organized but unorganized. In a way, this is like people without culture, without an internalized self-governing structuration.

We cannot understand users without their correlating structuring principles. On the internet this means looking to cultures of production and collaboration that aggregate around issues, tools, and practices–these can be named by brands or parties–but the point is they can be named. And that is what indeed the authors do as they provide several examples of networked users by referencing the users of the brands YouTube, progressive television Link TV, ethnic magazine Colorlines, citizen video journalism nonprofit The UpTake, etc. So what they are really referring to when they discuss “networked users” is not the unincorporated masses, which doesn’t exist, but their second category, self-organized networks.

If our research or disciplinary paradigm as anthropologists and sociologists cannot affirm the existence of “user networks” we do however observe evidence of the remaining three categories. These include self-organized networks, which we call organized publics or OPs. Organized publics develop without the formal economic or infrastructural assistance of institutions or what we call formal social enterprises. Jenkins is key to assisting the authors’ speciation of these self-organizing networks by providing them the concepts of pools, webs, and hubs. Self-organized network form pools around common projects, create webs around social communities, and aggregate around brands or hubs. Clark and Van Slyke’s concept of self-organizing networks is an excellent example of the formation of organized publics in the realm of progressive media. In our research we’ve gone a step further by adding a temporal input to the concept of the self-organized network or organized public by showing that in all likelihood such organized publics become institutions through time. This brings us to their third category.

The third category also coordinates with our analytical distinctions. The author’s concept of the “network organized by institutions” is akin to the relationship between the formal social enterprise, or what they simply call an “institution” and the organized public, or what they call “self-organized networks.” Institutions such as the Sierra Club, National Organization for Woken, and the ACLU provide internet infrastructure to publics in order to seed activism. They did not spend much ink on “network organized by institutions” but with the examples provides by Clark and Van Slyke we can reasonably conclude that within the progressive media sector the FSE-OP relationship is present.

Finally, the forth category is one Ive written about before in regards to progressive media organizing and I would like to expand upon. I am not sure if it falls exactly within the rubric we’ve set out to test at Part.Lab, that is, the development of OPs and the relationships between FSEs-OPs, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to isolate FSEs from other FSEs. Clark and Van Slyke’s forth category, “networks of institutions,” explores the lateral relationships between institutions, or what I previously called, collaborations. The key example comes from The Media Consortium, a 2005 journalism meta-organization both authors are intimately involved in that serves as a nexus for meetings, conference calls, and email lists that coordinate messaging and projects across a number of progressive groups.

The Media Reform Movement and Network Neutrality: A Case Study

How do these netroots networks synergistically interact and self-generate? Examples come from the rise of Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004, Ned Lamont’s 2006 primary victory over Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, and Virginia Senator George Allen’s 2006 resignation over the viral video of him calling an opponent’s aide “macaca.”  A more elaborated case comes from the media reform movement’s work on network neutrality. And yet based on their evidence I can recognize three distinct networks but not “networked users.” Clark and Van Slyke (2010) might argue that the 1.6 million people signing a petition for network neutrality is an example of networked users but weren’t these users’ signatures aggregated by institutions and thus an example of their term “institutional networks?” Or perhaps these publics constituted a self-organized network, also one of their categories? (In this movement there certainly was a strong “network of institutions” with 850 organizations constituting the Coalition.) It may seem like a small point but to really concentrate on what I am vaguely calling publics or what Clark and Van Slyke call “user networks” means to begin to understand the origins of social motivation.

Beyond the Echo Chamber confirms our suspicion that networked environment can incubate organized publics and facilitate the interactions between institutions and those publics. The book also wrestles with but ultimately misunderstands that earliest and vaguest moment of genesis of networked users. This is understandable; we don’t quite get it either, hence the research into it. The difficulty is understandable; within convergence culture clear lines demarcating consumers from producers and this networks from that network are difficult to define. We have at our disposal excellent examples of organized publics developing out of Wikipedia, open source software development, and the anti-corporate globalization movement. But if such radically transformative events such as the Arab Spring are to be ethnographically and historically understood then we may begin to grasp the transformation of isolation to belonging and apathy to activism.

Rules and Restrictions in Social Media Journalism

Sivek, S. C. (2010). Social media under social control: Regulating social media and the future of socialization. Electronic News, 4(3), 146-164.

Susan Currie Sivek has written an article that bears attention for Part.Lab’s focus on internet-enabled participation, and in particular its use in political television. A new generation of young new media journalists are being socialized in the era/practice I am calling convergence capitalism–the market/mission and producer/consumer conflated period dictated by internet/television business/social projects. With its print demise, the invasion of PR, its utter necessity for democracy, and the transmedia liquidity of its practices, journalism is a great place to look at convergence capitalism. Sivek throws us great lines about the socialization of new media journalists: “Convergence, to them, won’t even merit its own name as a trend” (Civek 2010: XXXX) The article brings up an issue Part.Lab might address–Rules and Restrictions.

Every company is grasping for ways to monetize or incorporate the social graph that constellates around them. News services immediately both saw and felt the threat and possibility of social media. For all the negative criticism it gets for begging its audience to Tweet and for the consistent joke around the idea of the Wolfster tweeting, CNN has a relatively open social media policy for its journalists. Consider the options. Australia’s Sydney Star Observer and Johannesburg’s The Star have “blocked all access to Twitter for their offices. ESPN also prohibits its employees from having personal websites or social media accounts…” (Civek 2010: 154-155). The Washington Post, BBC, and Wall Street Journal all have strict restrictions that fit between these above and the subjects of my work who are extremely liberal in their encouragement of engagement between their journalists and audiences. Al Jazeera English’s The Stream has the most porous membrane separating the audience from the producer. They want us to give them ideas for the show and send them messages for inclusion in the programming. Conversely, the producers freely tweet and Facebook with their audiences. They are encouraged to do so by their higher-ups. The absence of rules and restrictions undoubtedly impacts the relationship between the firm and its productive audience.

Civek clearly thinks Al Jazeera English as seen on The Stream is the future. The strict policies at the Post and BBC are draconian and express the death throes of legacy journalism. For Civek the younger generation’s socialization into social media will eventually overcome the managerial logic of the strict control over social media use. For one, survival in this gutted knowledge industry requires adroit networking savvy by which the personal journalist’s brand trumps their business affinity. This may compel these new media reporters to ignore the rules against social media that are a necessary tool for self-promotion in a precarious workworld where they might get pink-slipped tomorrow. This is likely related to the neoliberal capitalization of the self that is discussed by my colleague Sasha David in reference to the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood actors. Regardless, Civek believe the restriction prone news firms are on the losing side of history.

I am not sure if social media policies of openness and “independent” personal branding are going to win out. And I am not sure if I want it to. The freelancing of the journalistic workforce is not applaudable. It is a strange world in which young freelancing journalists are more concerned with gaming SEO and writing re-tweetable quips than facts, investigative depth, editorial responsibility, peer review, and transparency. The inflated price of AOL’s purchase of the Huffington Post is evidence of the hysteria around impressions to the loss of quality. Journalism is a job driven by passion, politics, and position, what might be called civic republicanism or a mix of economic and social liberalism. These new media journalists also express some inherited cultural or economic capital that helps to propel them through the lulls in political media employment. Independence and freelancing means to be able to tweet whatever you want and also means financial insecurity. Independence and freelancing means to be able to tweet whatever you want and also means financial insecurity.

Secondly, I fear independence is on its way out as conglomeration and vertical integration are on the increase in internet business and particularly in video entrepreneurship–which is one area of growth in downward trending news firms. I’m watching several news firms experiment with liberal social media policies. Current TV, in its 2005-2009 heyday, thrived on the ethos and vision of community engagement with a very open social media policy, only to minimize community involvement and amateur impact in favor of the professional creed by 2011.

Part.Lab has developed a positive theory of the tasks and resources that firms, organizations, or well-resourced publics grant to their friends and others publics for the production of useful objects. Ours is a generative model for an era of cognitive surplus and creative excess. Civek documents how news firms limit, restrict, and negate the ways their journalists engage with their co-producing audiences. Our category regarding the availability of the resource is a close fit but not as precise as it could be. Again, resource restrictions for who? Civek’s work looks at how the enterprise curtails access by its employees to its resources for community development. An analysis of tasks and resources paired with a study of rules and restrictions might help us to recognize the mounting professionalization of this field of internet-enabled participation.

Resources and Partnerships in Participatory Video

Pilfering the good ideas of my Part.Lab colleagues, I intend to get into the question of multiple resources, perspectivalism, and partnerships through an analysis of two species of participatory video: citizen journalism and entertainment talent networks. For those not in the Lab, FSEs, or formal social enterprises, are the video firms and OPs, or organized publics, are the audiences. As you will see below and in MSNBC’s recent rebranding exercise around the slogan “lean forward,” some efforts have been made to transform the passive audience into active participants. This post looks at the resources FSEs and OPs provide to each other in their co-production.

In our recent paper we wrote:

“For every FSE/OP there is at least one resource at stake. By resource we mean whatever is produced that is most valued by both the FSE and the OP” (p. 167, my italics). We focus on “resource[s] at stake” but for whom?

Each FSE and OP has resources 1) it can offer and 2) resources it needs. As we have defined it, resources are those process or objects that both FSEs and OPs value. Like goals and tasks, resources fuse the two entities. However, we’ve yet to account for how the FSE and the OP perceive resources differently.

Below I will discuss how both OPs and FSEs have distinct resource offerings. Point 2 above, resource needs, that are sated not only from the specific FSE/OP relationship but from other partnerships, FSEs, OPs, and resource ecologies I will briefly address in the conclusion.

To illustrate this I quickly analyze two species of participatory video FSEs/OPs we’ve investigated that speciate into two FSE/OP dyads: citizen journalism and entertainment talent networks. The resources I will focus on in both species of video FSEs and OPs include people (talent) and content (video code). Continue Reading →

Cooperation with the Corporation?

Kperogi, Farooq A. 2011. Cooperation with the corporation? CNN and the hegemonic cooptation of citizen journalism through, New Media & Society, 13: 314-329 (Accessed April 3, 2011).

Can user-generated content, promoted and contained by a corporation, constitute an alternative or resistance to mainstream media? This is Kperogi’s timely question. Its asking portends a new era of realistic criticism of the once ballyhooed liberatory capacities of “peer production” and “participatory culture.” Kperogi’s answer is a resounding no. CNN’s iReport project to stimulate and aggregate user-generated news is not the threat to mainstream news but instead plays into the economic and hegemonic designs of the non-fiction industrial complex. In this argument Kperogi goes too far, failing to problematize his primary distinctions between mainstream and alternative journalism, ignoring the agency of iReporters, audiences, and UGC producers, and forgets to discuss the particular affordances of video and internet systems. Continue Reading →

Participation, Collaboration, and Mergers

I work here at UCLA’s Part.Public.Part.Lab where we investigate new modes of co-production and participation facilitated by networked technologies. Internet-enabled citizen journalism such as Current TV, public science like PatientsLikeMe, and free and open software development like Wikipedia are key foci. In the lab I investigate the vitality or closure of a moment of freedom and openness within cable television, news production, and internet video when the amateur and the alternative disrupted the professional and the mainstream. What are the promises and perils of social justice video in the age of internet/television convergence? Will internet video become as inaccessible, vapid, and homogenous as cable television? In our recent paper, Birds of the Internet: Towards a field guide to the organization and governance of participation, we draft a guide to identify two species flourishing in the internet ecology: what we call “formal social enterprises,” which include firms and non-profits, as well as the “organized publics” the enterprises foster or from which they emerge. These two types share a vertical or inverted relationship, power comes down from visionary CEOs and charismatic NGO directors to provoke rabid social media production, or a viable movement foments amongst grassroots makers that percolates upwards towards the formation of semi-elitist institutions. In light of this research and with a discreet fieldwork experience to think through I would like to clarify and address three types of social interaction: participation, collaboration, and mergers. Continue Reading →


Entrenched hierarchy within open communities