Other lists could be made – of Wikileaks and Anonymous, of Napster, Mega Upload, the first Facebook facial recognition arrest and the Twitter joke trial. Digital ethics – privacy, ownership, transparency and surveillance – are thorny political topics.
But tonight I want to take another tack, to share with you seven smaller, more personal stories. Seven turning points, seven issues and events from a long span of internet cultural history which brought sharply into focus certain aspects of life, as a human being, on the internet and immersed in social networks. Some moments prescient, or where something started; others where something long-gestated finally came into public view.
I want to frame them as case studies in ethics because they bring into focus questions of how we should behave in these new spaces, these new communities and publics – they are dilemmas about the moral course of action. They bring into focus questions of meaning, and values – and an awareness of how technology changes our capacities, and how it can leave what we had thought of as norms in new and uncomfortable flux.
Perhaps this is also a media archaeology, in its interest in moments where the mainstream discourse around online cultures changed. New York Times longform articles still seem to hold a disproportionate sway. But enough verbiage: now, the list:
1. A Rape In Cyberspace
by Julian Dibbell
Village Voice, 23 Dec 1993
“I am requesting that Mr. Bungle be toaded for raping Starsinger and I. I have never done this before, and have thought about it for days. He hurt us both.”
Back in the days before the World Wide Web – back in the days before social media, even before webpages – there were always already virtual realities. They were called MUDs: Multi User Dungeons. Users dialled in over the phone network to a purely text-based landscape. Text-based exploration of a virtual space, text-based storytelling – and the text-based development of a virtual community. One of these was called LambdaMOO.
One day, one of its denizens typed some text on to a screen, and set into motion a chain of events that made it clear: there was no digital dualism. The virtual was socially real.
On this list because: this was the start of cyber ethics
The Bungle Affair raises questions that—here on the brink of a future in which human life may find itself as tightly enveloped in digital environments as it is today in the architectural kind—demand a clear-eyed, sober, and unmystified consideration. It asks us to shut our ears momentarily to the techno-utopian ecstasies of West Coast cyberhippies and look without illusion upon the present possibilities for building, in the on-line spaces of this world, societies more decent and free than those mapped onto dirt and concrete and capital. It asks us to behold the new bodies awaiting us in virtual space undazzled by their phantom powers, and to get to the crucial work of sorting out the socially meaningful differences between those bodies and our physical ones. And most forthrightly it asks us to wrap our late-modern ontologies, epistemologies, sexual ethics, and common sense around the curious notion of rape by voodoo doll—and to try not to warp them beyond recognition in the process.
2. The Cybergypsies
a novel by Indra Sinha
An autobiographical novel about the early, early days online. Before I was there – 1984, before I was born. I frame it in that way because this book is intensely personal to me – in some ways there’s not much more I can say about it than that. It’s one of half a dozen things that mean I am here, now, doing this.
The book’s about a lot of things – MUDs, MOOs, sex, Bhopal – and addiction. Sinha believes he spent about £50,000 on phone calls into these virtual worlds – avoiding his life, his job, his marriage. He wasn’t the worst hit.
On this list because: Sinha showed us the future of digitally conditioned, dopamine-chasing response:
“Jarly can’t afford food but one of the first things he did after he moved in was to have a telephone line installed. Not a telephone, just the line. (‘Don’t need a phone. Don’t want buggers ringing me. All my mates are on-line. Just need a gateway to the net.’) On the tobacco-smogged wall, amid splots of insect gore and smeared crescents of some rich, dark stuff which surely can’t – or can it? – be shit, the socket gleams incongruously white. To most people it is something they unthinkingly plug a phone into – but to Jarly it is a gateway to heaven and to hell. Into it vanishes every penny that he can earn, borrow or claim in social security benefits. From it comes pleasure, knowledge, pain. It is a plastic vulva awaiting his modem jack, a hollow vein awaiting a needle, a synapse whose long copper nerve receives and transmits signals that connect Jarly’s brain to a vast and chaotic world of the imagination. Jarly’s real life is not ‘real’ but the life which is lived in the worlds to which this tiny hole in the wall leads.
[...] He has tried many times to stop, to break his modem habit. He’s tried everything he can think of but, lying on his narrow bed, he knows that sooner or later he will succumb to the whispering of the little mouth in the wall. He describes to me the self-hatred and sweetness of the inevitable moment of surrender, of giving in, letting go, of busy fingers conjuring a fix, the buzz of the modem coming to life, the whistle of connection sliding like a needle into his brain, and the rush of relief as he floats into the game.”
[Quote via a 1999 interview with Sinha on the WELL, another seminal BBS]
A jump forward in time:
3. The Trolls Among Us
by Mattathias Schwartz
New York Times, 3 Aug 2008
The New York Times meets Jason Fortuny of 4Chan.
Something about ]the suicide of] Mitchell Henderson struck the denizens of /b/ as funny. They were especially amused by a reference on his MySpace page to a lost iPod. Mitchell Henderson, /b/ decided, had killed himself over a lost iPod. The “an hero” meme was born. Within hours, the anonymous multitudes were wrapping the tragedy of Mitchell’s death in absurdity.
Someone hacked Henderson’s MySpace page and gave him the face of a zombie. Someone placed an iPod on Henderson’s grave, took a picture and posted it to /b/. Henderson’s face was appended to dancing iPods, spinning iPods, hardcore porn scenes. A dramatic re-enactment of Henderson’s demise appeared on YouTube, complete with shattered iPod. The phone began ringing at Mitchell’s parents’ home.
On this list because: bullying, and trolling, and internet suicide. The depths of digital cruelty gained mainstream recognition around this point (2006-08), Megan Meier being another example.
But the bullying itself is not the turning point – just an old behaviour adopting new media. What was more interesting was the attention given to 4Chan, and /b/, and just how weird people could get when able to access communities of the like-minded. Around this time Anonymous were also coming into public consciousness, with Project Chanology against the Scientologists beginning January 2008.
The ethic of the lulz started to gain the oxygen of publicity – and we asked, was free speech really supposed to be used for this?
4. The nym wars: how many identities is enough?
There’s not a story here, so much as a handful of events, and key articles.
In January 2011, Facebook deleted the account of Chinese dissident journalist Michael Asti, because “that wasn’t his real name”. In March, quoth Zuckerberg, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” And in July, Google Plus launched with a controversial “real names only” policy – and the storm broke.
- Skud: Preliminary results of my survey of suspended Google+ accounts
- Geek Feminism Wiki: Who is harmed by a “Real Names” policy?
- danah boyd: “Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power
- Patrick McKenzie: Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names
Thus the “nym wars”, where tech old-handers (and women) passionately defended the virtues of anonymity against the big tech companies who smelt a profit in identity services and targeted advertising. But more than that, it’s a turning point because at this point the general media and public had become comfortable enough with online space to accept it as “real” and part of daily life – and as such be quite amenable to Facebook/Google’s arguments that online behavioural norms should include connections to one’s offline and legal identity. In this way, there was definitely an aspect of the nymwars that was old internet vs. new.
So even without a defining personal case study, it’s an important topic to keep on this list. To quote a 1995 US Supreme Court ruling (McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission). ”Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority”
As subsequent case studies indicate, it may not have long to last.
5. How Companies Learn Your Secrets
or, as Forbes retitled it, How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did
by Charles Duhigg
New York Times, 16 Feb 2012
On this list because: the moment where we realised just how up-close and personal Big Data was going to get – or rather, had already gotten.
On this list because: it marks a growing public understanding that ‘social’ was starting to get too much. Too many frenemies, personal brands and social obligations. Too much sharing – too much noise. Too little control of our own data.
7. First Attack on A Cyborg
by Amara D. Angelica
KurzweilAI.net, 17 July 2012
Augmented reality pioneer Steve Mann visited a Parisian McDonald’s with his family in July 2012. Mann has a system called the EyeTap physically installed in his skull that records photos and video, and can display augmented reality data directly in his line of sight. Upon ordering a Chicken Ranch Wrap, the McDonald’s employees accosted Mann and tried to tear the glasses out of his head.
On this list with reference to Mark Hurst’s article today, The Google Glass feature no one is talking about (28 Feb). That is, a Glass prison of total peer surveillance, upload to the Google cloud, and facial recognition and tagging.
It is of course a fallacy to think we’ll be able to resist this brave new world simply through individual actions of evasion and opposition to people wearing Google Goggles – it’s far more systemic a problem than that. Nonetheless, without wanting to excuse the violence against Mann – this attack insists on standing for far more than its own specificity.
As do all these seven stories. There are more, I’m sure, which haven’t risen to mind this evening. Your suggestions and additions are welcome.
First posted on hautepop.tumblr.com (of course!) on 16 December 2012
Tumblr is a weird social network.
Like Twitter its content is (very largely) public, and yet like Facebook it’s opaque to social analysis. Follower counts aren’t public or accessible. Ditto who’s following each blog (you can’t even really see all your own followers), and you don’t know who’s following anyone else either. Tumblr Analytics does exist, but not for ordinary users – instead you have to pay Tumblr partner Union Metrics $499 per month a
nd what you get appears to be top-level and aggregate. (since corrected: it’s awesome, complete & exportable)
This leaves Tumblr a kind of “here be dragons” among social networks, which is unusual in an age so obsessed with them. That is, its social norms are not known; there isn’t any data about how its users behave and use the network (even for most Union Metrics subscribers there are no benchmarks). Rumours spread – Tumblr’s young, it’s photo-y and meme-driven, it’s full of weird tightly-interknit subcultures who reblog each other endlessly – but there is no data to support this, no way of discerning fact from – at best – intuition about one’s little own corner of the thing.
This is a research problem, and I just so happen to be a social media researcher working a company (FACE) which builds its own social media research platform (Pulsar). *
But even that doesn’t make Tumblr analytics easy. Social data firehose provider Gnip (one of the two sellers of the Twitter firehose, alongside Datasift) do provide a Tumblr firehose to companies like mine – that is, an API stream of all the posts on Tumblr. Great! Except, as they actually note in their post on Taming the Social Media Firehose, there are complications:
1. The main way of querying the API is through keyword-based search, looking for words or phrases in the body of the post, or titles or tags. But 84% of posts are photos, and most don’t contain any or sufficient keywords to identify what’s in the image. Consequently only 20% of content can be identified with text-based filtering, leaving 4 in 5 posts “dark”. **
2. Do you want to understand patterns of sharing content on Tumblr? How far do posts travel, what’s the average reblog rate, and of course who are the key social hubs for content diffusion? But analysing reblogs is a more manual process:
“There is a list of all of the notes (likes, reblogs) associated with a post appended to that post wherever it shows up on Tumblr. Each post activity record in the firehose can contain reblog info. It will have a count, a link to the blog this entry was a reblog of and a link to the root entry. To build the blog note list that a user would see at the bottom of a liked or reblogged entry, you have to trace each entry in the stream (i.e. keep a history or know what you want to watch) or scrape the notes section of a page.”
[Gnip, Taming the Social Media Firehose]
Which is to say understanding reblogs is doable, but a hassle. It seems to work most easily with a priori identification of what you want to track. If you want to analyse the network in order to work out what’s most important – this would seem to be a little harder.
If analysing patterns of reblogging is a manual process, then, let’s do it manually. I’m lucky enough that my Tumblr provides a nice starter-size dataset. By being Tumblr Technology spotlighted I’ve acquired a fairly generous total of 38,700 followers. This audience scale (though likely largely inactive) means that some of my content has picked up enough reblogs to make mapping the pattern of them interesting.
The images below show who’s reblogged two of my posts: Adidas and Chanel. Both are playing with a Tumblr trend I’d seen of people putting brand logos on apparently non-related images – see more here. As I hoped, I played with the tropes of this meme well enough to get some reblogs – 62 for the Adidas post, and 64 for the Chanel one. Far from Tumblr viral, but also manually analysable in an evening…
5 topline findings:
1. Both posts were reblogged 3x as much as they were ‘liked’
The ratios are 71.3% reblogs for Adidas, and 76.2% for Chanel.
Hypothesis: photo posts may get a lot of reblogging – jokes & quotes somewhere in the middle – and I reckon text-based posts (and links) may perhaps get more likes than reblogs. Images are more diffuse in meaning yet may also be more emotionally evocative, lending themselves to reinterpretation and reuse through reblogging more readily than monovalent text.
2. Does content diffusion occur through hubs – that is, are there any influencers in my network who spur much of the reblogging?
Some variation here. For the Chanel post, there are no big hubs:
- My original post gains 35 direct, first-hop reblogs out of the 64 total – that’s 55%.
- 2 users, c-rystalcastles and my0wnstunts, get 3 reblogs for their posts
- 5 users get 2 reblogs and 13 users get 1 further reblogs
- Meaning that 67% of the rebloggers gained no further reblogs themselves
For the Adidas post however:
- Original post gets 24 out of 62 total reblogs
- skullc0de (a 17-year-old German girl and streetwear brand fan) is a hub, driving 10 further reblogs
- 3 users gain 4 reblogs each, 2 users get 3 reblogs, and 10 users get 1 further reblog each
- Again, about 73% of rebloggers gained no further reblogs themselves
- The diffusion of these posts tapped into no hubs more influential than myself – as I’d expect, given my decent audience size plus some hypothesised ‘author bias’ that means you’re more likely to share an original post you see than a reblogged one.In Twitter terms, I wasn’t reblogged by a William Gibson or Warren Ellis amplification type who would spark many more reblogs than the original author directly achieved.
- If you’re Tumblring for attention (and in some way, most of us are), reblogging a post doesn’t get you that much attention. In this micro-dataset, 70% of reblogs don’t spur any further reblog-engagement.
- Rate of reblogging very likely to correlate with audience size.
3. How far content travels: 6 hops in 80-something shares
By this, I mean that content is reblogged a maximum of 6 times beyond me for each post, e.g. A reblogs it from me, then B reblogs it from A, and C from B etc. This is the same for both posts, which is interesting.
Each network also has a few instances of content being reblogged 4 or 5 times. This suggests a relatively ‘fluid’ motivation for reblogging – overall, approx. half (45% or 61%) of people aren’t reblogging direct from the content creator. This suggests that a relationship with the author isn’t a compulsory motivation for reblogging in this case – liking content, whether direct or via a friend, is just as big.
(However, this may be skewed by my audience size relative to followers.)
4. Only one user reblogged both posts
Hypothesis: I don’t have a consistently engaged audience for this kind of content.
I can see I do have a consistently engaged audience in terms of likes on text-based posts, but image-sharing seems more fickle – just what you snatch in the moment from the stream. I suspect that teenage image-bloggers are following a lot of people to build up their own audiences (as evidenced by ‘please reblog’ and ‘team followback’ type posts), and as such only see a small proportion of their followers’ total content.
I can also intuit this by the sequence of reblogs – those via a particular source are clustered closely together, suggesting there was just a brief burst of time when it showed up in their followers’ streams. That said, I wouldn’t want to underestimate how many hours some Tumblr users are putting in on the platform.
5. There are missing links
The network visualisations immediately look wrong – there is one author of the original post (me), so all the nodes should come from one central point (me). But as you can see, for the top post (Adidas) there are in fact two entirely separate network graphs, whereas for Chanel below there is a weird unconnected isolate floating off to the left.
In the list of reblogs on the original post, I can see that “elements234 reblogged this from uggzm1nt” without uggzm1nt having ever reblogged it from me previously. Weird! I suspect reblogs via users who subsequently delete their profiles are themselves deleted from the post engagement data. e.g. A user Alice who reblogged the post from me, then uggzm1nt subsequently reblogged Alice, then Alice deleted herself.
While the right thing to do from a userdata point of view, the social network analyst has to hypothesise ghost users at critical bridge points in order to make the network make sense. Hmm.
So. Still no benchmarks – still not even an accurate picture of my overall Tumblr network, or any knowledge of how my normal types of posts get shared. (Generally, much less – say 10 likes & 5 shares.) But quite interesting – in summary, analysing these two posts shows:
- Tumblr is harder to analyse than Twitter
- Keyword analysis only gets you 20% of it – you need network & image analysis to really understand it
- Though popular for me, these posts were shared by only a tiny proportion of my nominal audience (followers total) – about 0.4%. Though I’m probably not typical
- People may reblog an image post at 3x the frequency they ‘like’ it. The currency is sharing, not hearts
- Rebloggers aren’t ultra-loyal – they reblog for the sake of the content, not the author
- Tumblr users delete themselves and leave holes in your network data, the rats!
Next steps are of course to analyse all my Tumblr posts, all YOUR Tumblr posts, the most reblogged post ever (11,184,542 notes!) or all the posts getting over 1000 reblogs in X period of time.
With any luck I might be doing some of this in 2013 at FACE with Francesco D’Orazio (and a dev team, and firehose access…). TBC?
* If you would like to talk to us about social media research more seriously, get in touch: Jessica@Facegroup.com.
** Gnip comment they can do character- and object-recognition in photo posts – nice! But I think it’s fair to reckon that this is difficult and limited, so doesn’t make the other 80% of posts easily transparent or knowable.
First published on hautepop.tumblr.com, 13 December 2012.
I’m annoyed and angry at the racist fear being stoked up by reporting on the 2011 England & Wales census. Yes, the country has changed – an extra 6% foreign-born residents (mostly from India, Poland and Pakistan), and Muslims are now 5% of the population, not 3%.
But in both media and popular comment, the response is hysterical – “British culture is being destroyed”; ‘We are being outbred”; “White Britons will be a minority in our own country” – and disgusting, and false.
Having more non-British born people in Britain is not “destroying our culture” – it’s not as if they’re burning Shakespeare plays, or banning morris dancing, or forbidding anyone from liking Nigella Lawson or the Specials or going out for a Ruby Murray (curry). My ability to participate in my white British cultural heritage is not remotely affected by a rise in the foreign-born population – it’s not as if Jane Austen is only legible in a monocultural setting, or the fact of a Turkish cafe round the corner makes the King’s College Choir sing flat.
And there’s not a monolithic “Muslim culture” and it’s not the enemy of anything. (Would this be North African Islam, or Indonesian, or Sufism or Black American Nation of Islam?) The “outbreeding” fears are so demographically unfounded I won’t even go into the counterarguments here – needless to say, a rise from 3% to 4.8% of the population in 10 years may be 60% growth, but that rate cannot and will not continue – i.e. Muslims won’t be 128% of the population in 2081…)
But Britain is still adjusting to being a multiethnic society. If a Londoner – or an American – it’s easy to forget how ‘white’ much of the country is – over 95% in many places. If people aren’t interacting with people from other races and cultures on a regular basis, then there’s an unfamiliarity, and it is easy – not right, but easy – for people to be worried by the ‘Other’.
The fear underlying it, though, is less racist than economic. It’s a belief that there’s not enough of the pie to go round:
Is importing a net of 200k people annually sustainable? Is our economy/society and subsequently our services able to absorb such numbers successfully? These are legitimate and uncontroversial questions to ask.
Given that we have a housing crisis, a youth unemployment crisis, increasing pressures on our schools, NHS, social security system I would say it is time to reflect on whether we can sustain immigration at current levels. We weren’t racist when immigration was at 50k in pre-nulab days and we aren’t racists now.
[Fickleposter, Guardian, 11 Dec]
A fear caused by 5 years of recession and the prospect of another decade of stagnation to come.
The fears are real, and shouldn’t be written off. Yes, people’s living standards have been hit, and people are afraid they won’t be able to survive in old age or give their children the opportunities they want. People see a changing country – Eastern European communities springing up in rural farming towns, or how many NHS doctors are Indian – and they connect the two.
Actually – there’s not a relationship between migration inflows & unemployment rates. The decisions to fund the NHS or build more schools are political – and there is money in a pot, it’s a question of how it is allocated, corporation tax cut versus Trident versus RPI-uprating welfare benefits. And housing, jesus – *that* problem is as much about major housebuilders sitting on their landbanks rather than building so as to retain profit margins.
But these are statistical and economic arguments, and quantitative figures butter no parsnips. On an emotive level, arguments like “The country is full” are much easier to grasp than the nuances of “It’s not a finite fiscal pie”.
What we need: new stories, new narratives to make sense of where we are, how we got here, and where we’re going next.
There are some of these. It’s something that the Transition movement are working on, finding ways to conceive of a post-oil lifestyles. And Milliband, E. has in a small way caught the public mood and signalled potential opposition to the Tory narrative of “benefit recipients = scroungers”, instead refiguring benefit stories to focus on the majority of striving, working poor. But ethnically, racially, immigrationally – public narratives haven’t really got there yet.
Meanwhile, 1 in 10 children in the UK have mixed-race parents and disapproval of mixed-race relationships is literally vanishing – down from 50% to 15%, and just 5% among young people. That’s not to validate any “post-racial” narratives – but it does indicate the scale at which narratives about a changing Britain might actually be built – that is, at home. Domestically. Bottom up.
#Nodads probably requires a bit of context for a wider audience: essentially it’s a meme among left-intellectual Twitter (similar in some ways to #fullcommunism). People-who-are-dads, fret not (or at least less): it isn’t about you, it’s about The Father as a principle or archetype, with essentially Freudian roots.
Key expositions include What is it to Philosophise Fatherlessly? and #NoDads Is Our Principal Of Solidarity by @BenLaden and No-dad S: A further attempt on #nodads by @IlllllllllllllI. In many ways it’s not a wholly serious idea, but that doesn’t stop it being good to think with.
This is also a very quote-heavy post, which feels illustrative of this moment in time and where conversations like these are happening most. That is, Tumblr.
Part I: Responding to America Dads: Louis CK and Barack Obama
by Aaron Bady (@zunguzungu)
29 October 2012
For me, #nodads crystallizes that realization, that assertion that while one way to nurture can, in fact, be a good way, there are many other ways to choose from, and we should choose from among them. If I choose to be a parent to my imaginary child in the ways that my father was a parent to me, it should be because he helped me be a person in the world, in society, in life, and because that help was helpful, and because that kind of help will be helpful to the child who I happen to have fathered. It should not be because my dad was my dad. It should not be because that was the only kind of relationship I could imagine.
Perhaps it means other things, of course. But Malcolm Harris likes to say that #nodads means whatever it means, that whatever it is, it isn’t “dads.” And I like that because the anti-tautology maps nicely onto and precisely attacks the kind of thinking by which “dad” is a transcendental truth, only it does so without limiting itself to any particular content we might apply to the category. As a rejection of the category itself—and of the manner in which it comes to seem a higher order category than many others—it doesn’t necessarily have all that much to do with actual dads, but only by the sociological matrix that makes biology into destiny. It deprives us of the categorical rational, that dads, because dads.
Interesting – at first I was thinking your #nodads was quite different to my #nodads – yours being about dads-as-parents, it seemed, whereas to me it orients around authority, knowledge-power, death of the author and so on.
But then you wrote “most of the time, the thing that people mean when they talk about dads is really male control of women and children” and that was the point of commonality found — that the latter current of #nodads is I would argue a bunch of young-ish people speaking ‘as children’ within the academy, or publishing, or institutions of knowledge.
Then again, Malcolm Harris, Ben Laden – most of the regulars on the hashtag bar Jesse Darling – they’re men. For them, I think, #nodads is also a confrontation with the always-already becoming-dads created by any staking out of an intellectual position.
But how does this work for me? As a woman could I ever become a dad? Am I even able to conceive (!) of the possibility? Can we have a feminist #nodads – is it feminist in its destruction of the patriarchal dad figure? Or is it fundamentally masculinist because its nexus is that always-already becoming-dad tension?
(A thought: the structure of this post is a bit dads, hmm. I let the authority speak first, then meekly offer my reaction. Why do I not offer my ideas straight off? Well, see above…)
Part II: Found: The #NoMen manifesto
I’ve voiced my hesitations about #nodads here a few times now, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to convince those who use (and maybe even abuse, if possible?) the phrase online, but Pateman has helped me feel more firm in my conviction that #nodads is generally unproductive, and often a red herring.
To emphasize society as problematically paternal makes us forget that we’re more urgently caught up in society-as-patriarchal—it takes focus away from the dominance men have foremost over women (before they are ever dads), and places the weight on fathers and husbands. The focus on families doesn’t just play up the importance and necessity of motherhood, but downplays the always present female submission implied in conjugal relations.
Others have written that #nodads can really be whatever you want it to be (of course this is a directive given to us from some one—a man, a straight white man—but beside the point), but that sort of looseness (of which, again, I am suspicious) is still contained within the emblem of “nodads.” Why not “nomen”? I understand that most people behind #nodads don’t see it as a way toward apocalypse or nihilism — that they want the possibility of reproduction without the burden of daddies, but #nomen still seems more appropriate to me. Isn’t it possible to have a no-male (or at least no-man) society too? Is it because most of the people shooting the #nodads tags aren’t (yet) dads? Is it a just-enough-distanced point from which to speak in the name of feminism, of anti-patriarchy? Is the hashtag, then, explicitly anti-paternal enough, especially with said looseness?
As it happens, I am reading a radfem book on this exact topic in another tab – Refusing To Be A Man (by John Stoltenberg; link’s to the PDF full version)
This is where I lose half my audience who aren’t familiar with radical feminism and assume it’s attacking men-as-people rather than man-as-cultural-category. You know, the ones who like to criticise Andrea Dworkin for saying “all sex is rape” without ever having read Dworkin, or made any effort to understand the point she’s actually seeking to make. Anyway, I’ve basically only mentioned Dworkin to in-advance reverse-troll them – now I’ll get on with the point I was trying to make.
Which is basically to say Jane is making a great point, and that this book by John Stoltenberg is attempting to answer that exact question:
Contrary to opponents’ dissembling, radical feminism did not hurl an accusation at a biologically determined class named “men” but rather at a value system—an ethic of injustice to which eroticism, both male and female, had been conditioned. This book urges a solution to that injustice: a radical self-examination among people born with a penis, a radical inquiry into the ethics of our social identity as men.
Stoltenberg wrote the revised introduction in the late 1990s, and makes a lot of parallels in the introduction with the then-current New Abolitionist movement seeking to overturn “whiteness” as the dominant identity structure. (Their journal: the brilliantly named Race Traitor). His argument is best summed up in 3 paragraphs where he takes an “abolitionist” passage and re-writes it in brackets as a radical male feminist one:
The rules of the white club [the men’s club] do not
require that all members be strong advocates of white
supremacy [male supremacy], merely that they defer to
the prejudices of others. The need to maintain racial
solidarity [sex-class solidarity] imposes a stifling
conformity on whites [on males], on any subject
touching even remotely on race [on sex].
The way to abolish the white race [to refuse to be a
man, to end manhood] is to disrupt that conformity. If
enough people who look white [who look male] violate
the rules of whiteness [of manhood], their existence
cannot be ignored. If it becomes impossible for the
upholders of white rules [manhood rules] to speak in the
name of all who look white [look male], the white race
[the male sex class] will cease to exist….
How many will it take? No one can say for sure. It is a
bit like the problem of currency: how much counterfeit
money has to circulate in order to destroy the value of
the official currency? The answer is, nowhere near a
majority—just enough to undermine public confidence in
the official stuff.
Which might be, for our purposes, a #nomen manifesto.
Part III: #NOMUMS / #NOMOMS
Thoughts towards what this might mean:
From the personal level it’s about need, nurturing – as with this side of #nodads, it’s about the lack perceived by the child.
The desire for total responsiveness to our wishes.
Child as dictator, in fact.
As such the mum has no power.
So #Nomums cannot be about de-throning an authority, as it is with #nodads – she never had any authority, she was constructed as a pure facsimile of the need.
It’s got to be about us, about critiquing our reaction to women.
Call out #Nomums on occasion where a woman is being expected to give give give, to caretake as a natural given, to take care of everyone else’s needs and feelings and not being recognised as a person and agent of her own.
Occasions where women are dehumanised in this way, reduced to serf-class.
A call to grow up, or for a kind of decolonialism – because yes, this is about micro-fascisms and Empire – #NOMUMS.
First published here on the FACE company blog on 9th October 2012
Did the #WaitroseReasons Twitter promotion snatch success from the jaws of disaster – or the other way around?
Three weeks on, marketers are still talking about it: it’s clearly made impact on one group at least! But to us, as social media researchers immersed in hundreds of comments every day about how people talk about brands, much of the analysis seems naïve, based on an overly superficial understanding of what people are doing when they talk on social media. A hint: they’re not really talking about your brand…
But before we explain why, a summary of the Waitrose kerfuffle:
On 17th September, @Waitrose asked their customers to share their reasons for shopping at Waitrose, using the hashtag #WaitroseReasons. They got a lot of responses – probably not in quite the style they expected… Instead of an outpouring of brand love and affirmation, Twitter became a torrent of snark:
Oops. The runaway Twitter discussion produced a corresponding surge in digital industry & marketing press and blogs trying to make sense of the situation.
This followed a classic dialectic trajectory – first, the stern claims that “Waitrose was asking for trouble”, followed by enthusiastic rebuttals that all publicity is good publicity, and all ‘engagement’ is a sign of brand affection. But this hasn’t culminated in synthesis, but rather name-calling: specifically, Mark Ritson in Marketing Week arguing “Why marketers are socially stupid”. A bold claim: let’s examine it.
Ritson begins by making a very important point: situating Waitrose’s social media tactics in the context of their overall brand strategy:
“The ultimate purpose of Waitrose’s social media strategy is not to start conversations or increase the number of followers the brand has on Twitter. The purpose of Waitrose’s social media strategy is to build its brand and increase sales. Waitrose has had a successful strategy to do just that, built around two approaches – first, getting existing shoppers to shop more frequently at Waitrose and second, attracting new shoppers into the stores.”
This is really important, and not often enough done. We entirely agree – volumes of mentions or retweets are not a meaningful end in themselves, and social media metrics shouldn’t blind researchers or brands to the real goals.
What we disagree with is his next claim:
“But this campaign inadvertently positions the supermarket as posh, snobby, overpriced and reserved exclusively for the upper classes. That’s terrible news for Waitrose, because it has spent the past four years positioning its brand away from these stereotypes and towards a more accessible, value-based position to drive market share gains.
[…] Existing shoppers at Waitrose, the middle-class segment it targets, will feel sensitive and perhaps a little less enthusiastic about entering the store now, and store traffic will decline. Potential converts to Waitrose will have had their stereotypes confirmed and be less likely to consider the switch in future. Perhaps neither of these impacts will be huge, but they will be negative and they were self-inflicted.”
What’s Ritson’s thesis – that people will take the “butler” and child-called-Orlando comments literally, and conclude that Waitrose is not a place for people who don’t have these things? This is suggesting someone’s “socially stupid” – but not the marketer: the Waitrose shopper. Twitter might allow only 140-characters, but we argue there was a lot of social nuance encoded in those tweets.
Defining features of British humour and culture: self-deprecation. Sarcasm, irony. We refuse to take ourselves seriously, and we’re somewhat keen on a bit of understatement. As a result, every international guide to British culture puzzles over the way we never seem to say what we mean. “Your report was… quite good”, says your boss with a wince. Rosie Huntingdon-Whitely “scrubs up alright”.
“Put the papaya down, Orlando!” has to be read through this lens – understanding its meaning through considering what is implied, what is inverted, and the shared tacit knowledge that’s referenced. This includes:
- Orlando is a slightly silly & pretentious name for a child – and giving children slightly silly & pretentious names is a middle-class social trend
- Recognising this shows familiarity with this class, and suggests the speaker is of this background or close to it – so it’s also a self-deprecating joke (which aren’t aggressive but rather inclusive – inviting recognition)
- Recognising buying exotic fruit like papayas as another signifier of middle-class identity…
- …and moreover the behaviour of talking loudly about specialist foods in order to demonstrate and assert middle-classness
- Using irony and sarcasm to show that you’re not “taken in” by the brand’s marketing – (you believe) you’re subverting it
- And by the way, the kind of person who does all these things would typically shop in Waitrose.
In fact, this is what almost all the #WaitroseReasons tweets were doing: making observations that demonstrate the author’s familiarity with and membership of a specific segment of the more comfortably-off middle class.
It went big on Twitter, because it was a way for people to talk about their favourite topic: themselves. The discussion around the hashtag wasn’t really about Waitrose as a retailer so much as a way for people to start talking about that great British obsession, social class, and where we fit into the hierarchy. It was a discussion about belonging: people were collectively & collaboratively playing with the boundaries of belonging to the middle class.Waitrose was just a signifier – a particularly rich and meaningful one, a national treasure whose meanings are owned by its customers (not just its marketers).
In fact, it mightn’t be something marketers want to hear, but people don’t really want to have relationships with brands as such. If you think about it, it’s pretty weird – a passionate love affair with the nexus of meanings encapsulated in your shampoo bottle? No: as Mark Earls argues in ’Herd’ (and we discuss in Augmented Research), “We talk of the relationships consumers have with our brands as if they were primary, but consumers’ most valuable relationships are not with brands but with other consumers.”
#WaitroseReasons was a chance for people to demonstrate their social tribe allegiance and how witty & clever they could be – two very desirable social markers, hence the massive participation. It’s basically #MiddleClassProblems with a brand attached. Was this Waitrose’s strategy? It’s not clear. It certainly was Alan Sugar’s, though, who invited people to share #TheWayISeeIt for the launch of his book – gaining 390,000 tweets, celebrity involvement and major press coverage from giving people a chance to share who they were.
But what about Mark Ritson’s second point: that #WaitroseReasons was exclusionary, that it was sending too many people a message of “not for me”?
There’s a grain of truth in this. What Waitrose did was bold – it wasn’t an ‘everyman’ strategy but rather spurred discussion about group norms. As such, this is necessarily a “boundary policing” activity, one that defines who’s the “us” who share these norms, and by logical extension who’s the “them” who doesn’t. And yes, for some people kids called Orlando and fruit like papayas are pretty far from their lives.
But brands have to do this – they have to define their audiences and target markets, rather than hoping to be all things to all people. Waitrose is a middle-class brand, its locations, pricing, product range and marketing all make this clear. Its value strategy is merely about trying to appeal to a more budget-conscious middle class shopper who might have moved away – they were never staking their claim to Asda’s demographic. It’s about consolidating loyalty.
By participating in a discussion about social norms, then, Waitrose strengthens its identification with this middle-class group. By being able to “take a joke” and “keep their chin up” during a hazing ritual, Waitrose comes out of a social media pasting showing they can demonstrate English middle class values too.
And connecting social activity back to brand strategy, then hopefully we’ve made it clear that this isn’t just a win on awareness. No: it’s also a complex but powerful statement of identification – and thereby brand loyalty. And brand loyalty gets feet through the door and keeps the tills ringing.
1. Google Glass is an outgrowth of the mobile phone and operates within the frame of technology, that is, prosthesis. It extends knowledge, shrinks distances and time. Each new technology takes a while to arrive at a point where it’s actually useful, but from the start the language is one of function; the aesthetic functional.
2. Fashion, by contrast, starts from a point of excess. We don’t need fashion, that’s the whole point. It’s pleasure, it’s playfulness, it’s pointless but rather fun. Its very distance from function is how it sets itself apart as fashion, not just clothes – unwalkable shoes, unwashable leather t-shirts, embellished skirts too ornate ever to sit down in.
3. Where fashion is functional it is, I think, no longer fashion.
(Christian Louboutin: “I HATE the whole concept of comfort.”)
Function – or the ideology of functionalism, at least – focuses on the material properties of things. Yet fashion is utterly symbolic: the garment only matters as a set of aesthetic, historic or cultural references, as meaning, as a fantasy, a gesture. Even worn on the body it’s about the imaginary of who I could be today.
3a. Spectacles as a category are too functional – they can be design statements, absolutely, but no-one treats them frivolously enough for them to be fashion. Sunglasses, on the other hand…
4. Fashion engaged with technology in the late 60s, with sci-fi Paco Rabanne futurism and clothes made out of wonderful new synthetics as costumes for a future life on the moon (or the Barbarella filmset). It came back to technology again some point in the late-ish 90s, through sportswear and trousers with a lot of complicated pockets that made rustling noises as you walked. [I don't understand this moment so well.]
4a. Fashion is very engaged with technology now, but at one degree of remove. There’s a lot of technology involved in materials development, but what these materials mean is a matter of difference, or discernment, or a designer being able to create a particular aesthetic – they aren’t interesting for the technology per se. Social media and the internet are revolutionising fashion marketing, fashion distribution, image research, visual stimulus and fashion design – but no-one is making dresses about this directly. (That would be too crude.) Fashion’s energy is more abstract: the pace of change.
5. Technology can be a style marker – the Macbook Pro – and can be aestheticised as street style: I’m thinking Japanese schoolgirl mobile phone accessories. Style as opposed to fashion – style is broader, it’s design, it’s taste, it’s a kind of social communication with the visual materials you’ve got. Whereas fashion is despotic, it speaks only of and to itself.
Ten years down the line when there are 500 different styles of face-mounted display screen and its varied forms aren’t trying to claim any relationship to function – then Google Glass may have a chance to be something about fashion. Or when the technology’s reverse-mounted into vintage sunglass frames. Or maybe fashion is parasitic on other sets of referents: maybe Google Glass will only be able to be fashion when to wear a pair is to be making a visual reference to sci-fi movies of the 1980s, or Taiwanese street style blogs, or a glimmer of a 2014 revival in the pre-fall collections of 2023 — that is, when wearing a pair of Google Glasses ceases to be mostly about “Oh my god I’m wearing a pair of Google Glasses”.
But now(ish), when to wear a pair is to proclaim that “I’m really into being a new adopter of technology”, or “I would like to think I am living in the future” – currently these statements cannot be parsed within the language of fashion, they are irrelevant to it. Google Glass maybe the future of interactive communications, but fashion simply shrugs.
BusinessOfFashion.com asked me to write about what New Aesthetic means for fashion, published on 16th May as Is Fashion Ready For A New Aesthetic?
In the process of writing it became clear there were two quite different audiences: a fashion audience seeking an introduction to a design trend, and the theoretical, mutually-referencing New Aesthetic discourse itself. The BoF article was geared towards the former.
Digital culture is to me about process and transparency. Remix everything. Release early, release often. Always in beta. In that spirit, here’s another version of this blog post oriented towards to you, Twitterati. Enjoy, tweet, reblog…
Instagram, Barbour and vinyl records. Moustaches, gin and vintage dresses. The biography of your potatoes lovingly detailed on chalkboard signs at Whole Foods. As Russell Davies puts it, “I think most of Shoreditch would be wondering around in a leather apron if it could. With pipe and beard and rickets.”
For the last five years, the stylistic purview of much of the creative class in London (and Brooklyn, and Berlin) has been curiously backward-looking. Perhaps in reaction against economic uncertainty and technological change – what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity’ – there has been a retreat into retro and nostalgia, emulating the signifiers of what we hope might have been simpler times. Older brands and products offer a sense of permanence and reassurance based in memories from our (real or imagined) childhoods.
Yet technology is still central to how we consume this nostalgic aesthetic: we share ‘authentic’ experiences on Twitter and Facebook, let Foursquare guide us to the latest artisanal coffee roaster, or use Instagram to rescue our snapshots from the “future shock” of instant, costless digital photography (Verdone 2011).
In contrast, the New Aesthetic seeks to address the relationship between technology and visual culture head-on.
Over the last year, a group of London designers have explored the parameters of this relationship through both found images and original work. Net artists making animated GIFs to glitches in Google Maps. Photographs from military drones in Afghanistan with supra-human vision. Techno-organic forms of contemporary architecture betraying traces of the specific CAD programmes used to design them. United Nude’s Lo Res shoes.
All explorations, one way or another, of a “robot readable world”. The designer Matt Jones asked, “What if, instead of designing computers and robots that relate to what we can see, we meet them half-way – covering our environment with markers, codes and RFIDs”?
The New Aesthetic is artistic production oriented towards this other, machinic audience – recognition that, in the future that’s already here, our human points-of-view are no longer the only agencies we must acknowledge.
In such a world we cannot talk of digital ‘versus’ physical. The New Aesthetic is the argument that a ‘digital aesthetic’ means nothing given that every aspect of design is mediated through digital technology. Instead, as James Bridle noted, “The rough, pixelated, low-resolution edges of the screen are becoming in the world.” This transference was something he wanted to document.
The New Aesthetic was born on 6th May 2011 with a blog post by Bridle – a London-based publisher, writer, and technologist. A Tumblr followed to collect examples of this “eruption of the digital into the physical” – and the ways artists were reacting. Bridle spoke at the Lift conference and Web Directions South, before his panel at SXSW Interactive in March 2012 brought the concept to wider attention.
Speaking under the heading “The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices”, Bridle was joined by four friends and collaborators who had become involved as the project developed. Joanne McNeil (Rhizome magazine) spoke about the New Aesthetic’s art historical context, Ben Terret on its relationship to commercial visual culture, Aaron Cope on drones and new geographies and Russell Davies on the New Aesthetic and writing.
This excited a lot of people, not least sci-fi futurist Bruce Sterling, who riffed on the topic in his final SXSW keynote speech and two subsequent essays on WIRED.com, affirming the New Aesthetic as a significant cultural moment. One thing particularly bothered Sterling:
“Although SXSW people do look chic, it’s a rather retro look. They don’t actually look very futuristic. I would suggest, when you come back next year… come back in robotvision glitchcore.”
Yet Sterling’s call for “futuristic” fashion seems paradoxically retro – the word implies 1960s Paco Rabanne, or 1990s sportswear neons or minimalism. More than other design disciplines, fashion is engaged in an intense dialogue with its past.
“There’s so little innovation in fashion in its current state”, notes fashion blogger Susie Lau of Style Bubble. “You can’t invent a new skirt, a new hemline, a new colourway.” Instead fashion revives and recycles the past; from Burberry to Barbour, heritage is the most contemporary business model.
Here we look for something different: a particular way of engaging with the present. Which fashion designers, image-makers, magazines and websites might be producing something we can call New Aesthetic work?
i. Pixels and voxels
When digital imagery is translated into physical form, low resolution pictures show their rough, serrated edges. This pixelated imagery appears widely in fashion, from Preen’s Spring 2012 abstracted florals to ASOS t-shirts. In three dimensions, Gareth Pugh and United Nude visually borrow from computer games with their blocky geometries referencing voxels – volumetric pixels once used in constructing computer game environments.
Pixellated imagery is something New York photography duo Reed/Rader have worked with extensively as the leading exponents of animated GIFs. Earlier fashion stories such as ‘Pow’ are explicitly 8bit, with an aesthetic they describe as “lofi, arts and craftsy collage.” They acknowledge, “There’s a nostalgia there of course, something we both grew up with as children of the 1980s.”
But is this New Aesthetic or just retro? Susie Lau of Style Bubble notes that pixellated fashion is often “another kind of nostalgia, a lo-fi way of looking at digital aesthetics. No digital images are really that pixelated any more.”
But Reed/Rader are moving on: “In 2012 computer games are photorealistic – twenty years ago they were just blocks.” They are currently working on a new project called Pyramid Hill, a 3D world using the Unreal Engine (a computer game-building platform) that extends their videos into an immersive, interactive environment. In the last few weeks they’ve been filming video textures and models for insertion into the digital world – a very New Aesthetic blurring of the boundaries between material and virtual.
What will they do next? Reed/Rader see vast possibilities: “Even in the last couple of years you’ve got the Microsoft Kinect, $120 and it’s an infrared 3D death-camera fully accessible to the mainstream.” I can’t wait to see what they create with that…
ii. Digital camouflage
If the New Aesthetic is about “seeing like a machine”, this suggests two strategies: adapt, or hide.
Hiding has received recent buzz in the format of CV Dazzle: make-up patterns that disrupt computer facial recognition algorithms. The key technique lies in “altering the contrast and spatial relationship of key facial features” through asymmetric make-up, hair styling or accessories. DIS magazine has covered this in the photo essay ‘How To Hide From Machines’, cataloguing the radical looks required for technological invisibility in what DIS calls “The perilous glamour of life under surveillance”.
But the much more mainstream approach of adapting to digital vision through “HD-ready” cosmetics should also be flagged as a New Aesthetic moment. Foundation coverage that looks ‘natural’ in person is now no longer good enough for the cruel eye of HDTV: the new digitally-mediated viewer demands hyper-reality.
iii. 3D printing
Iris Van Herpen has made surely fashion’s most beautiful use of digital imaging technology with her Photoshop-designed, 3D-printed polymer dress. As something impossible to draw or construct by hand, we are confronted by its digital origins, yet its inspiration in organic forms creates a sense of naturalness – a very New Aesthetic tension.
While this is was a one-off couture piece, Susie Lau notes that 3D printing “is fast becoming a viable way of producing really small samples” for innovative shoe designers– an opportunity to experiment that several have taken. Maloes ten Bhoemer’s Rapidprototyped shoe is custom-moulded for a perfect fit, but the most definitively New Aesthetic work is surely Andreia Chaves’ Invisible Shoe. The shoe’s mirrored, jagged form creates what Chaves calls “an obscured optical effect with each step taken” – that is, modern camouflage.
iv. Digital glitch
Throughout the New Aesthetic there is a fascination with how technology reveals itself through moments of error and glitch. This imagery isn’t however playing a big role in fashion. Quite the opposite: Mary Katrantzou use digital printing to generate ultra-precise patterns that until recently would have been impossible. Susie Lau comments, “In the fashion industry there’s an emotional attachment to hand process, it’s very valued,” citing examples from Hermes and LVMH. “If you are then championing machines, you emphasise what it does well: price, faultless, mistake-free work.”
Australian fashion designer Josh Goot stands out for taking a different tack, each season producing a collection of ultra-digital prints tending towards the cut up, noisy and distorted.
Nonetheless, Goot’s apparent glitch is carefully designer-controlled. In contrast, Philip Stearns’ Glitch Textiles project uses short-circuited cameras to generate patterns woven into blankets, with hypnotic and beautiful results.
In editorial fashion, Dazed and Confused mines a rich seam of glitched-up image-making. Dec 2010’s Daft Punk X Tron 3D editorial by Sharif Hamza is powerfully New Aesthetic in its chromatic misalignment. April 2011 saw Andre Pejic overcome by a digital eruption of blocky metallic and holographic forms (courtesy of propmaker Gary Card and photographer Anthony Maule). And Maurizio Anzeri’s geometric textile additions to printed photographs gave a tactile take on optical distortions we’re more used to seeing digitised.
In his first essay on the New Aesthetic, James Bridle wrote, “We need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder.” Digital methods of image research, image editing and production have quickly become embedded in the fashion industry, but perhaps the more critical approach of the New Aesthetic will never become widespread. As Susie Lau commented, “It’s still not something people are consciously thinking about.”
But perhaps that doesn’t matter. The apparent futurism of the New Aesthetic is in fact a guide to a future that has already arrived before we were prepared.
The generation starting to arrive in fashion schools have learnt to think about visual culture through the ceaseless stream of appropriated and juxtaposed images curated on Tumblr. Retail brands are weighing up social media-enabled dressing room mirrors, real-time location-based mobile offers, and virtual avatars assessing a garment’s fit for the customer’s physical body. These all make digital ways of seeing a ubiquitous part of the fashion landscape – the wider cultural impact of the technology is unavoidable.
As a term, the New Aesthetic may be short-lived: James Bridle shut down the Tumblr after one year on 6th May 2012, surprising many. But if the New Aesthetic is dead, the incursion of digital technologies into physical space is only just beginning. Long live the New Aesthetic.
With thanks to Vikram Kansara and BusinessofFashion.com for translating between worlds; Reed/Rader for their time, enthusiasm and GIFs; Susie Lau of Style Bubble for another fantastic conversation; and Chris Heathcote’s NAFashion Pinterest for collating and curating.
In the last year we’ve done several research projects on mobile money at FACE, as excitement around the possibilities of “mobile wallet” develops. SXSWi was a chance to hear from leading players in the industry – American Express, PayPal, Intuit and more – on where this technology is going.
What is mobile money?
It’s important to think about the category as “mobile money” rather than simply “mobile payment” or “mobile wallet”. What’s at stake is much bigger than just transfering your credit card to your phone, or simply replicating the functions of a wallet (payment, loyalty cards & receipts) on a mobile device. The technologies available – smartphones, geolocation, the development of 4G and widespread wifi, and of course NFC – mean that what’s possible is in fact much greater: re-imagining the whole human-money interface.
What’s this mean? It’s about looking at every way in which we interact with money, and thinking about the transformations in user experience that are possible if we make it mobile. The transactions up for grabs are many and varied:
- payment in a shop (of course)
- paying a friend back for the taxi ride last night
- checking to see if your credit card payment has gone out
- transferring money immediately before making a big purchase to ensure your account doesn’t go overdrawn
- adding up your receipts to see how much you’ve spent on eating out this month
- calculating whether you’ll be able to get a mortgage
- buying a flight (or just a coffee) with reward points – mobile money encompasses stored value, not just legal currencies
- getting a discount email like Groupon and redeeming that online
- searching for the cheapest iPad retailer online
- or searching for a local restaurant offering a discount 2-for-1 deal
- …and much, much more.
Making it mobile doesn’t simply mean “available on my mobile phone screen”. The mobile phone is a smart, location-aware computing device, carried almost always within a metre of our bodies, which is always connected to the internet and keeps us always connected to the people we know. Taking full advantage of these properties is what makes mobile money fundamentally transformative. The word “revolutionary” is overused in business, but making money truly mobile is a much bigger deal than the rise of credit cards in the 1960s, the last biggest step-change in payment methods.
There are however some substantial challenges in rolling out mobile money to its full potential. Here are five:
1. Money is a difficult sector to innovate in
Regulation is a big hindrance on start-ups in the money space: there is both legal incumbrance and a cultural resistance (aka trust) to companies taking risks, trying something new – and perhaps not succeeding. The big incumbents are also an obstacle – banks own the central customer account (current/checking accounts), and Visa, Mastercard & Amex control payments.
Building new back-end processing systems is very difficult, and even the big over-the-top players (PayPal, Google Wallet) are essentially innovating on top of existing card payments infrastructure. Dwolla – a New York peer-to-peer (P2P) money startup – is worth a note here, for one that isn’t.
2. What’s happening with NFC?
NFC stands for near-field communications. It’s a type of radio communications – like wifi or Bluetooth at a different frequency – that allows for short-range (10cm) communication between devices and tagged objects, other devices, and merchant terminals. It is ultimately the key way contactless payment will be delivered – although it’s worth remembering that mobile money means a lot more than just in-store payment.
Unfortunately NFC uptake is moving extremely slowly. So far there are only a handful of NFC-enabled handsets in the UK, and many of them are unappealing low-spec phones. The big player is of course the Apple iPhone, and so far there’s no news as to when or how NFC will be implemented on this device.
Without a standardised technology, merchants are naturally unwilling to invest in NFC payment terminals so these remain in a few chain stores only – MacDonalds since 2003; Pret A Manger, and so on. We’re 5+ years away yet from “leave your cash & card at home”.
3. UX benefits of mobile payment in-store
One eye-opener for me about our US trip was just how annoying magnetic-stripe payment really is. US banks haven’t been able to agree on a Chip & PIN standard (as in Europe). As such payment requires the merchant taking the card away (a security risk) and two stages of receipts. NFC payment would clearly be much quicker than this, providing a clear driver for consumer uptake. However, it’s got minimal speed and thus user experience benefit in Europe over the faster Chip & PIN.
Many commentators rate the chances of the over-the-top tech players (mainly Google, Apple, Paypal) as ahead of the banks. Despite some bank mobile apps getting rave user reviews (RBS and Natwest’s mobile banking apps) and a strong move from Barclays Pingit on peer-to-peer transfers, there’s a suspicion that banks are likely to stick to “mobilifying” what they already do, rather than really innovating and reinventing the category. That transformative capacity – and also slick UX design – would seem to be more the property of the tech companies.
But PayPal has a trust problem: we see consistent and frequent stories of how it freezes people’s accounts for months without explanation or recourse. That’s infuriating when it’s your tool for P2P and small-merchant payments – it’s completely untenable if they’re operating your current account. There’s also increasing consumer suspicion of just how much Google knows about us – so giving them access to our finances may be a step too far.
5. Who’s actually thinking big enough?
This was the core insight from a fantastic solo SXSW presentation by Omar Green, Director of Strategic Mobile Initiatives at Intuit, the payment technology firm. He talked about “creating a mobile wallet worth having”, and said he thought the company who would “win” mobile money would be the one offering every transaction listed above and more.
As suggested above, the risk is that too many of the mobile money launches we can see on the horizon are thinking too small. Credit cards on your phone and no additional functionality – so what’s in it for me the user? A couple of dozen big-brand partners rather than available everywhere – so why use? There will certainly be some early adopters who’ll take-up simply to be first and look ahead, but they’re a minority. Strategically banks, MNOs and tech firms need to recognise that these standalone offers must only be stepping stones to something much bigger if they’re going to get any real traction. (Barclaycard have had an NFC credit card since 2003. No-one cares.)
Omar Green had a vision of what mobile money could be that I’ve not seen from anywhere else in the industry. The goal is a seamless money experience addressing our fundamental financial and emotional needs – balancing the books, saving for the future, feeling in control and feeling like we’ve spent our money wisely.
Question is, how seriously will the various mobile payment and wallet apps launching this year will really address these?
Published in design/architecture magazine ICON, issue 106 on mobile phones:
This year the number of mobile phones will exceed the 7 billion humans on the planet. For this issue we asked novelists, academics, experts and designers to reflect on this communication revolution, in a 22-page special on how cell phones have changed the ways we behave, connect to and navigate the world. And to make their own predictions about how mobile phone technology will look in the future …
Your mobile phone leaks. Behind the user interface, out of immediate view, it’s sharing a lot more data than many people realise.
Take location. In exchange for offering Google Maps as a free service, Google extracts the price of knowing where your phone is at all times, even when the app isn’t running. Your home and work addresses are easy to identify (your habitual locations at 3am and 10am respectively). These can be cross-referenced against MOSAIC (market research company Experian’s consumer classification) or Zoopla house price records to transform location into income and demographic data, allowing users to be sold as micro-targeted ‘market segments’ of high value to advertisers.
Mobile web surfing habits provide another stream of data. Mobile operators use deep packet inspection and redirect mobile web traffic through their own servers to manage network performance, but this also allows them to monitor the websites people visit. Private internet use through VPNs may also be constrained, allowing fewer channels for private browsing – and child protection agreements mean that everyone not verifying their identity as over-18 will be blocked from much of the web. Legally operators must enforce blocks on a small blacklist of domains (e.g. child pornography), but monitoring web history is also data that is highly commercially exploitable.
Information storage is increasingly cheap and data protection laws some distance behind the technology, meaning that companies are building the biggest possible datasets now to hedge against future restrictions.
Less legitimately, mobile phones can also easily be compromised by malware and spyware. Apps may ask for greater rights than they strictly need, allowing remote access to the phone’s microphone and camera, and sharing text entered (e.g. emails, passwords) and location data. Occupy London protestors have been known to remove batteries and keep mobiles in a separate room while meeting to plan future actions. This may seem paranoid, but the Mark Kennedy case has shown police infiltration of ‘domestic extremist’ groups to be commonplace.
Does mobile data sharing matter? Some would argue no: users are knowingly exchanging their data for free access to entertaining and useful services. But the impact of such bargains goes beyond the individual. Companies such as insurers and financial lenders are keen to use whatever data they can to minimise risk. This may mean denying insurance or a mortgage on factors outside the applicant’s control – simply the likelihood that “people like you” (by location, or web use) are more likely to default on payments.
The customised advertising enabled by mobile data also have their costs. By being delivered on the basis of aggregated and probabilistic data, the recommendations made are normative. Does the working class teenager see ads for jobs in McDonalds rather than university degrees? Is pregnancy advice limited by religious affiliation? Personalised services offer convenience at the price of potentially constraining our possibilities for action.
Behind the commercial value of mobile data is network analysis: modelling our social relationships (call histories, social media friends) as the nodes and links of a graph, and analysing patterns and clusters. This has substantial predictive capacities: where one user is unknown to a mobile operator (or to Facebook), many personal details can be inferred from their patterns of interaction with known entities. An individual does not have to be directly known to be present in the network through their relationships with others.
Social media analysts do not only focus on the ‘social graph’ of relationships between people – they analyse ‘interest graphs’ (relationships between profile interests or topics of discussion, e.g. music or technology) in exactly the same way. To what extent does “the individual” remain the primary unit within these assemblages of behavioural data, social, material and semiotic relationships?