Tagged: social media

The Eton Scholarship Exam Paper

An exam paper has been making the rounds on social media – the scholarship exam paper for Eton. It has generated some notable Twitter buzz, equal parts curiosity and controversy.

The focus is on question 1C,  which follows an excerpt from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’:

“The year is 2040. There have been riots in the streets of London after Britain has run out of petrol because of an oil crisis in the Middle East. Protestors have attacked public buildings. Several policemen have died. Consequently, the Government has deployed the Army to curb the protests. After two days the protests have been stopped but twenty-five protestors have been killed by the Army. You are the Prime Minister. Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protestors was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.”

[full exam paper PDF]

Eton  has educated 19 British Prime Ministers. There were sustained riots on the streets of London the year before last. As such, the question does not seem as hypothetical as it might. Instead it holds a kind of allure, that of an accidentally far-too-candid view backstage into the mechanics of “how things really work”; that is, the methods by which the elite trains its young to hold power.

eton reactions

1. It is significant that this question was asked

The question could have been asked elsehow, and it matters that it wasn’t – as Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon ably demonstrates.

The student is asked to make objections to Machiavelli in question 1B – and then ignore these in his answer at 1C. “We are looking for candidates who can see both sides of an idea and express them clearly”, says headmaster Tony Little. Flexibility of mind and the ability to argue is what’s sought – one’s ethical opinion one way or the other is irrelevant.

The exam paper is in that sense amoral. It is searching for the pupil’s ability to first identify and then manipulate a set of logical principles from the specifics of the excerpt given. Playing with hypotheticals is entirely the point – yet, this quest for this particular type of “cleverness” is culturally specific and carries with it a certain set of values. About abstraction & logic versus empiricism, phenomenology or experience; about abstraction versus empathy. (I abstract here, myself.)

Exceptionally few 13-year-olds have the educational privilege or the cultural heritage to be able to argue in this way and at this level.Yet there is little point arguing that this exam question should not be socially exclusive or exclusionary. It is for a school that costs £32,000 per year, and moreover it is a scholarship exam designed so that all bar a dozen will fail; elitism is exactly the purpose.  Instead, what we might better criticise are the habits of mind such an exam (and wider curriculum creates). We are afraid the young scholar will grow up into a sociopath.

2. The social media reaction to this exam paper

The reaction has been such because the exam paper feeds back to us (the Twitterati and the left) what we want to believe about Eton, the training ground for Britain’s political elite. It does really rather too neatly – Machiavelli? Nietzsche? Justifying the army’s suppression of protestors? As some people commented, it’s beyond parody – you wouldn’t make this shit up.

But that’s why this exam paper has come to our attention: exactly because it stands out enough to be discussion-worthy. We should note this, and be careful not to assume it is typical.

This is the 2011 exam paper. The other ones are available here. And as the headmaster pointed out to the Huffington Post, “A similar question on the previous year’s paper is about a community without any government.” Indeed it was – though the attentive reader may  note that the question does in fact asks candidates to consider the problems with such a  state, following excerpts from Hobbes and Locke…

But  in 2009, General Paper 1 asks questions about Ogden Nash limericks and, following Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, to discuss the nature of conceptual art. If this were our dataset, we would draw quite different conclusions about the kind of school Eton was. But of course, this was not the exam paper brought into public debate.

The use of the part to express the whole is a figure of speech – that of synecdoche. Effective use of figures of speech is part of the study of rhetoric. And rhetoric, as Aristotle put it, is “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”

So to read the 2011 exam paper as a microcosm of the British political system is a rhetorical act – one designed to persuade in a certain direction. It’s to read too much into it – and to read with conclusions already in mind (amorality, nepotism, corruption). Rhetoric can be sophistic – it is easily deceptive. Synecdoche presumes that the part is representative of the whole – it doesn’t provide any proof this is true. And thus rhetoric may obscure as much (about Eton, about politics, or about power) as it may reveal.

3. What kind of social object is the Eton exam paper?

We do better, I think, to examine the Eton scholarship exam paper as a totemic object or hypersignifier – something that means too much; something that means multiply, and cannot be resolved to a single sign. It is, variously…

A vehicle for a 13-year-old boy to demonstrate his intellectual ability and win a scholarship

Through the existence of a scholarship and an exam to award it, an indication of belief in intelligence as competitive, and hierarchical. That is, meritocracy

An illustration of Eton’s particular reputation for cultivating elegance of expression. Note question 2D: “marks will be awarded for originality and sophistication” – of a sentence written in the made-up language of Jangli.

A statement that Machiavelli, Nietzsche and intellectual wordplay are the intellectual values of the age.

A text that also epitomises the flaws in the perceived intellectual virtues of our age – that it is word-play and not sincere; that cleverness can be slippery and facile; the ability to pitch any argument while believing in none

A demonstration of the ‘covert curriculum’ at elite schools – how leadership is inculcated into the rich as a natural right

An illustration of how politicians are trained

Just an exam paper that’s not even typical of other Eton exam papers

It is a social media catalyst, one that activates the “Twitter mob” and the social event that is a good outrage. “Horrifying!” we tweet, with delight

Media fuel – end-of-week Twitter diversions now become national news stories:


Social currency, something worth sharing with others as a way of demonstrating one’s own wit or value. Highly retweetable:


An object for left-wingers to define themselves against – a hundred tweets saying that “we” would have instead asked the scholarship boys to imagine themselves in the shoes of the protestors, the bereaved, the subaltern.

And perhaps elicits a certain quiet longing from some who found themselves led briefly to wonder – what if I had had an education as imaginative and challenging as that?

It’s a very interesting exam paper.

Now, how to express that in Jangli? [3 marks]

Bots, humans, cyborgs: an automated anthropology

Bots, humans, cyborgs: an automated anthropology

We talk as though the distinction between human and non-human actors in social media was obvious – and fundamental. What if it’s not?

Storified by Jay Owens· Mon, Mar 11 2013 09:46:37

We’ve just finished the Bots For Civic Engagement panel at SXSW, where David Bausola (@zeroinfluencer), Alex Leavitt (@alexleavitt) and others were speaking about bots as civic actors. The panel description:

“From SmarterChild to the Low Orbit Ion Cannon to Horse_ebooks, humans have relationships of varying quality with bots. Mostly it’s commercial spam. But sometimes it’s less benign: […] There are countless examples of bots used for nefarious purposes, in America, Iran and elsewhere. What would a future look like where instead we see a proliferation of bots for positive civic engagement?”

Bots for Civic Engagement | Schedule | sxsw.comDavid runs Philter Phactory, a transdisciplinary studio of artists and engineers developing the award winning social media bot platform w…
I’m @hautepop. A year or two ago I set up my alter-ego, @hautebot, using panellist David Bausola’s technology called Weavrs (weavrs.com). I set up @hautebot with the same interests as me – cycling, coffee, social theory, and tech anthropology – and so it wasn’t much of a surprise that it turned up at SXSW and started talking about this panel.

First, it sought to question the categories being discussed. We think we know the differences between bots and humans – but are we right?
Interesting to look at where the lines blur between automated bots & humans using automated rules for what to follow or tweet #civicbotshautebot
e.g. the Obama staffer auto-following anyone back who used a hashtag, as a starting point for building a campaiging relationship #civicbotshautebot
Or using aggregators such as Twitter Times to scan your network (& friends of friends) to identify best articles to share & tweet #civicbotshautebot
Alice Quan had another example of this blurring:
Interesting: Donate ur Account allows supporters 2 donate their Twitter + Facebook accounts 2 a campaign http://donateyouraccount.com/ #civicbotsAlice Quan
So  we need to move beyond dualistic thinking:
The figure we need to be talking about is the cyborg – the automation in the human, the humanity in the algorithms #civicbotshautebot
Why? Because within digital interaction – and especially Twitter, the home ground of most bots – the “stuff” we have to communicate with, the “evidence” for human or non-human identities – is in fact thin and inconclusive:
Much of the material ground of human relations on Twitter is thin stuff indeed: the RT, the favourite, the 140-char reply #civicbots (1/2)hautebot
Within this constrained terrain, there is little to differentiate human and non-human actors #civicbots (2/2)hautebot
@hautebot Human relations anywhere are "thin stuff indeed" & rare at that. Tweeters converse abt "being HEARD" & that’s a good thingZelligg 2eats
Other audience members – present and virtual – recognised this blurring. To some, just a fact – to others, potentially concerning.
Bots rely on (even REQUIRE) constrains on humans to ‘appear’ human #civicbots @hautebotLuke Robert Mason
Anthropomorphism at work on Twitter. Everyone assumes they are interacting w/ a human but may just be a #Python script. #civicbots #SXSWDr Andrew B Williams
Don’t worry about social bots becoming more like humans. Worry about humans becoming more like social bots. #civicbots #mullenncJames Gledhill
To whom do rights accrue in a cyborg-digital social environment?
Graeff: Can we conceive of an era when legal protections are given to both machine bots and virtual bots, e.g. Voting rts? #civicbots #SXSWCarmen Gonzalez
Panel asks what might happen if we gave Bots rights? We currently give legal rights to animals so is bot rights the future? #SXSW #civicbotsperfeckt australia
This was a true hybrid conversation: humans, bots, and the in between:
Seems @Twitter are doing a fantastic job as Blade Runners. The @LukeRMasonBot created during #civicbots has already been suspended ;)Luke Robert Mason
definitely not just you. RT @jmacdonald: I’m wondering whether @LukeRobertMason might be a bot…is it just me? :) #civicbotsLouisa Heinrich
As I hope to demonstrate #civicbotshautebot

Performing identity in social media

[One written for the FACE company blog – hence the slightly different tone. Original story here.]

As we develop our online community research platform here at Face, we’ve been asking a deceptively simple-looking question. Should people have usernames, or real names, or some mixture of both?

It sounds trivial, but in fact design decisions such as this can have substantial impacts on how people contribute to online communities. Should participants use real names, as clients choose this kind of research to get in touch with “real consumers”? Or – as danah boyd and Skud (note names!) have argued – can real name policies be oppressive, as in the case of Google Plus? Might pseudonyms (a) help people talk more openly about difficult topics, and (b) be a more authentic representation of social media use in the wild, outside market research?

The bigger question here is one of identity.

Social media and social networks foreground this issue by the way that identities literally have to be written and created whenever we join a new group or network. Companies such as Facebook invite us to describe our identities within pre-defined categories – age, gender, location, favourite bands, favourite brands. Others such as Twitter, offer a 140-character blank box. Our updates and public messages then continue this process of producing an image of a certain kind of person – we tweet much more about things that make us look good than anything naff or mundane.

In an excellent blog post about this “identity work”, Jenny Davis (a PhD researcher in sociology at Texas A&M / @Jup83) concludes:

1) the social construction of identity is a laborious process;
2) the labor of identity construction must remain unseen; and
3) the architecture of social media asks us to present ourselves in explicit ways.
A tension is therefore created between the prevalence of interaction media which facilitate explicit self construction, and the appearance of a self, constructed through such media, that must appear to have organically emerged.
[Jenny Davis, ‘Identity Work and the Authentic Cyborg Self’]

A very interesting argument – but one potentially resting on two implications that need to be questioned:

1. How hidden is identity construction?
2. Are identity construction and authenticity really diametrically opposed?

Two distinctive features of digital life in 2011 are Lady Gaga, and self-branding blogs. Both seek to project a certain image in order to produce a particular reaction from people – fame and career success respectively. This method – “fake it to make it”, if you will – is backed up by the sociological concept of performativity.

Social theorist Judith Butler argues that our speech and actions (performance) produce what people understand as our identities and social norms:

Butler [explores] the ways that linguistic constructions create our reality in general through the speech acts we participate in every day. By endlessly citing the conventions and ideologies of the social world around us, we enact that reality; in the performative act of speaking, we “incorporate” that reality by enacting it with our bodies, but that “reality” nonetheless remains a social construction. […]
In the act of performing the conventions of reality, by embodying those fictions in our actions, we make those artificial conventions appear to be natural and necessary. By enacting conventions, we do make them “real” to some extent (after all, our ideologies have “real” consequences for people) but that does not make them any less artificial.
[Dino Felluga, “Modules on Butler: On Performativity” in Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.]

Butler makes the post-structuralist argument that the distinction between “real” and “constructed” identities is a misnomer – the ‘real us’ is something we perform and construct. Bringing this back to social media research, the question is how far might our research participants agree that the same is true for their online identities?

We can start by asking people what choices they have made in (a) setting up their social media profiles, and (b) in deciding what content to share on a daily basis. What may be most revealing is asking people what they choose not to mention – e.g. only mentioning your activity or location if it’s interesting and a bit braggable; not sharing links to the Daily Mail horoscopes (which you’ve actually been reading for the last 10 minutes) but rather a breaking piece of news about some new Silicon Valley start-up.

Every professional on Twitter, in particular, is making daily choices about the balance of personal and industry-relevant content they want to present. This is seen as normal and good practice, counter to the idea that the work of identity construction is supposed to remain hidden. This “conscious performativity” is most visible in the case of Lady Gaga – and legions of fame-hungry contestants on reality TV shows – who take calculated self-construction to an extreme, presenting conceptualised, mediatised packages where artifice becomes very much the point.

If people acknowledge the effort they put into presenting their online identities, what does this mean for authenticity? Empirically we can see that authenticity is still valued in people’s online identities – “self-branding” is fairly widely mocked (at least in the UK) for encouraging fake and pushy personas online. But how can identity be authentic and yet also constructed and performed? Why does Lady Gaga insist that she was “born this way”?

The issue is what we mean by “being authentic”. Being “made” is acceptable – what is at stake is the sincerity of our identities. Erving Goffman’s classic text on performed identities, The Construction Of Self in Everyday Life (1959), makes this point clearly:

“When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be.”
[Goffman 1959]

An insincere or cynical performance violates the trust required for social interaction, hence its taboo nature.

Finally, it is important to note that we can be authentic in different ways in different contexts. For example, James is an honest man and also kind. At the funeral of his wicked uncle, he will not be honest about his thoughts about the deceased, in order to be kind to the feelings of the rest of his family. As Erving Goffman highlights, the performance is specific to the stage where it occurs – our identities are not socially universal.

To sum up, this results in a conception of identity departing from Davis’s:
1) the social construction of identity is a laborious process;
2) we are aware that this labour of construction occurs, and do not demand self-making to be invisible
3) nonetheless authenticity is still required, specifically in the sense of sincerity
4) authenticity depends on context

So what are the implications for online research communities? A few suggestions:

1. Participants need a space where they can determine the social context for their community and construct the appropriate identities. Researchers do this with initial getting-to-know-you tasks, asking people to introduce themselves to the community, but research communities don’t tend to offer much more than this – which potentially results in ‘thinner’, less fleshed-out identities and interactions between the group. Allowing people spaces to share “irrelevant” content, e.g. in status updates, general chat or personal blogs, provides the necessary space for people to build ‘thicker’, deeper identities – and also provides more interpersonal information to help participants come together as a community.

2. Should your community use an external ID provider, e.g. Facebook? No, as this will bringswith it a pre-determined social context that may not be appropriate for the community you’re trying to build. (e.g. LinkedIn IDs won’t get people in the right frame of mind for a community about parenting.)

3. In an ongoing community, let people choose and change their userIDs, display names and avatars between projects, as a way of helping them foreground the relevant social identity (e.g. as student, or mum, or twentysomething, or Italian) for the project at hand.

4. Clients may want to see “real names”, but this may not necessarily be the most appropriate and relevant identity to foreground – some social groups (e.g. video gamers, sports teams) are strongly nickname-based.