The Social Media Paradigm

Recently, while watching 4OD – Channel 4’s Video On Demand service – I saw an advertisement for Google’s ubiquitous web presence. In this video we can see snippets of the life of a little girl growing up, and various information linked to her first years. Pictures, videos, e-mails, but also a caption of Google’s street view was included into this short and emotionally appealing spot from a company that was founded in 1998, and hence is relatively new. Google has since then become a great success story, and have been an innovating company since it first started ranking web-pages according to “votes through links” in addition to relevancy in semantic markup.    [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4vkVHijdQk[/youtube]

This video displays that they understand an important aspect of digital media: how it is being adapted and molded by its users. It is stories such as these which gives the physical nodes, the TCP/IP protocol and other technical perquisites, physical or not, its soul. How we take advantage of, adapt to, redesign and develop these platforms, and change the uses and conventions of the underlying frameworks is what makes this platforms so interesting to study.

I recall two speeches from my years as an undergrad of Digital Media in Oslo. One of these year an election was held (as it is every second year fluctuating between local and regional elections, and parliamentary elections), and Jens Stoltenberg, now Prime Minister of Norway,  in one of his first speeches after the votes was counted and result published thanked the organisational apparatus of The Norwegian Labour Party. Nothing particular about that. What caught my attention was that he juxtaposed their job with the effect of election work in social media. Could it be that a service that Generation Z, or as Don Tapscott coin them/us: the Net generation, had used for a couple of years could be equally  important as the biggest political party in Norway? Later the same year the King of Norway, Harald V, in his traditional New Year Speech mentioned the social network Facebook. From being a subcultural phenomena and youth activity the Internet as a social platform had now become a part of the agenda of the mainstream. In the years to come it would also change the agenda of the mainstream media.

Let us forward a year or two to the US presidential campaign and election that Barack Obama won. Through active use of social media, community and grass-root involvement, micro-funding economic support, and active participation in what until recently was perceived as a “virtual” playground of a second life Obama created a best practice example of what social media can be and do.

So, we have established the claim of the attention and perhaps exaggerated importance of social media, but what is it all about?

Publisher Tim O’Reilly gives a good introduction to some of the core ideas of what he coins “Web 2.0” in the blog post with the descriptive name What is Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is not just technological improvements, but also a change of mentality in development, maintenance, content production, and use of web platforms. The blog post was put online six years ago, and most of the concepts are already a part of the digital media discourse, but here are some keywords just to give you a brief summary: collective intelligence, crowd sourcing, service not version, perpetual beta, user involvement, user content creation, some rights reserved, leveraging the long tail. In case you not have  read his article, I recommend that you do so.

A popular understanding of social media can be found in the roles we are when we use media. This is not just the nouns we are, but also the verbs we do. If I go to the shop to buy a product I will be a customer, and in a larger scheme I will probably also be categorized as a consumer, and consummation is often perceived to be passive. If I was taking the opposite role (note the binary pairs) and make something, no matter if it was tangible or not I would have been producing. This schema can be superimposed on many other contrasts. Work and home, labor and leisure, (men and women in families of the 50s?), and important in communication: sender and receiver. The information model is more complicated than just sender and receiver, and in various versions there is also a feedback channel, but what is important here is that if you speak into the TV or Radio it would be in vain, it has no capabilities to send back, and is used for broadcasts. Sure, amateur communication existed, but most of the channels which were built for two way traffic was not built for many users. This was also true for the computer and the Internet in the early years.

During the first years of the mass Internet not many had web-pages. The HTTP and HTML standard made it easy to mark up and publish content, but few did. Some did, but many of these can be summarised with a common link title in the 90s “click here to see my dog”. The early web was not built for harnessing the power of the people. Yes, you could send e-mails, you had mailing-lists and news group, even dynamical solution for create-content-on-request, but trough several steps technologies, modification and new use changed the paradigm. Perhaps Stoltenberg and Harald’s speeches marked – at least for me – the tipping point. The net is not just about what technologies things are built on, and posibilities, but also about it users and usage. With dynamic technologies easier publishing emerged and the aggregation of content grew as well did the number of users.

The five last year has brought about an increasingly attention to social media. Facebook has now over 500 million users, and its story is turned into books and a movie. Facebook and Twitter is cited on a daily basis in news media, and have even been ascribed as a reason for the revolutions in North-Africa. Bloggers are having real-life meet-ups, competition, and tax numbers, and an increasing number of people write or publish other content online. The exponential development we have seen recent year was almost unimaginable when my friends and I was sending small messengers to each other through ICQ – The flower IM -, and later through HamarUngdom, a surprisingly early local social network for the Hamar region north of Oslo, or other early solutions.

Today, social media has developed into even more. It is no longer what users of the web explicitly do, say or write (if it at some point just was this). Sites where users upload pictures and videos also plays a big part, not just in the value of the artifices, or the abundance, but perhaps more important is the combination, tagging, and application of intelligent code on all this data. Important is also the mass-amateurisation, the DIY culture, and changes in licensing that has been introduced. Whether this phenomenon will develop to be of any significant value in years to come will only the future show. The seed is planted and it grows rhizomatic. It will become what people make of it. The fun has just begun.

 

 

This video has been seen by 14 Million viewers on YouTube. It does not deal exclusively with digital media, Internet, or globalization, but the Internet has brought with it a cultural disruption and been a game changer in many structures (structures can be deducted to information?). This shows some interesting figures, numbers and facts. This is one of many videos online which leaves a feeling of *wow*. For a less intense, but equally saturated view on the changes we are experiencing as we are realizing the world is getting smaller please look at this interesting talk by New York Times collumnist, and best selling author, Thomas Friedman from MIT World: The World is Flat 3.0

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cL9Wu2kWwSY&feature=fvsr[/youtube]

 

The article picture is licensed under a Creative Common licence by the Opte Project. Please refer to their webpage for more info. The picture is a visualisation of the Internet with nodes and connections between them. Pictures from the project can be found online, but also at Boston Museum of Science and The Museum of Modern Art.

Analysing the Bible

The computer is a good tool in many areas but within its defining field, computations, it is great. With over a million computations per second even a big, large and heavy book (in its physical manifestation) can be sorted in just a blink of an eye. A while ago I tried to sort the King James version of the Bible.

Inspiration

During the last few years you may have encountered Jonathan Feinberg’s Wordle. This visualisation of word frequency in text has been popular in conveying  writing patterns, showing established key terms, especially from texts where users have been expressing them selves in just single words (describe this BRAND with five adjectives). Which words we use when we express ourselves are important, the statistical frequency can give us an indication of important topics, trends, values etc, it can also convey how languages change over time.

The Process

I chose to apply a relatively new language, both in the terms of computer history and my computer skills: Python. Python is a flexible language, which is said to come with “batteries included”, in other words, much functionality is available in the standard library. Python does also come with a live interpreter and many different frameworks are supported through portations. The logic of my little program is quite easy. It can very crudely be divided into five steps: 1) read the text file 2) for each word create if no previous occurrence is found or iterate counter 3) sort the occurrences according to the frequency 4) print the total numbers of words with frequency and word, separate frequency and word with comma and words with newline.

[cc lang=”python”]

#!/usr/bin/python

from string import maketrans
import operator
import sys

if len(sys.argv) <2:
print “Error: Please provide a textfile as argument”
sys.exit(1)
else:
textfile = sys.argv[1]

words = {}
outtab =”                             ”
intab = “,.;:#[]()?!0123456789&<>-‘\n\t\””
transtab = maketrans(intab, outtab)

try:
linestring = open(textfile, ‘r’).read()
linestring = linestring.translate(transtab).lower()
items = linestring.split(‘ ‘)

except Exception:
print “Error: Could not open file.”
sys.exit(1)

for item in items:
if item in words:
words[item] = words[item] + 1
else:
words[item] = 1

sorted_words = sorted(words.iteritems(), key=operator.itemgetter(1))
f = open(textfile+”out.txt”,”w”)
t = open(“testfile.test”,”w”)

for k, v in sorted_words:
print k,v
t.write(k+” “+str(v)+”\n”)
f.write(k+”,”+str(v)+”\n”)

print “The total amount of words in “+  textfile + ” is “+str(len(words))

[/cc]

 

The code is more complex than the five steps explain above.  The code gets the file-path to the text from an argument following the program name in the terminal, and it does also print simple error messages in case anything should not work.

Findings

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913) divided language into langue and parole, French for language and speech, but where the first is the impersonal, social structure of signs, and the latter the personal phenomenon of language as speech acts. An example can be found in the game of chess. The simple structures defining the rules of the game can easily be understood, but the usage of these rules is what gives the game its complexity. Let us use this distinction while analysing  the outfile of the program above.

Parole: The Bible is an interesting text. The last two thousand years the book has been taken for law and a life guide for many millions of people, and even today religious texts are used as legislation in a few countries in the world, and as a rule for how some live and organise their lives. The whole tradition of hermeneutics began with the study of interpretation of religious texts, and also wars have been fought over the analysis and the subsequent execution of actions described explicitly or implicitly. Our little test does not rely on semantic interpretation, but see what you will interpret from these words:

Love: 318
Hate: 87
Jesus: 990
God: 4531
Satan: 57
Jerusalem: 816

Langue: When Samuel Morse tried to make an efficient language for transferring messages over the wire in the 19th century, he looked to the English language and its use to find out how a message can be sent efficiently. To do this he went to typographers to see of which font cases they had the most. The morse language (getting so popular that we today can use it as a generic name) is constructed with a short dot corresponding to ‘e’, and a long dash corresponding to ‘t’. These are the most frequent letters in the English language. So how to write ‘z’ or ‘y ‘, letters that are less frequently used? ‘Y’ is dash-dot-dash-dash, and ‘z’ is represented by dash-dash-dot-dot. You may at this point guess what the most frequent occurrences of this little program brought. Here is the 20 most frequent words used:

them,6514
him,6695
not,6727
is,7119
be,7188
they,7490
lord,7990
a,8438
his,8563
i,8868
unto,9041
for,9130
shall,9851
he,10517
in,12891
that,13229
to,14048
of,35312
and,52167
the,64926

Some of the largest occurrences are removed since they had no semantic value. Before sorting and processing several characters were replaced with whitespace and everything was lowercased.

This shows us that the most frequent words are in fact the small words having a more structuring function: preposition, articles, conjunctions. We can also see that the world ‘lord’ is on the “top-20” list, and this may be related to the subject role the lord plays in many biblical sentences e.g. the lord said, the lord told etc.

Program-wise is there still potential for improvement in the program I wrote. It seems to be a parsing error causing a small group of the occurrences to be printed in a not standard format. They are written with a comma before the words.

Yesterday I received the book Visualizing Data by Ben Fry, one of the creators of Processing, so hopefully I will get some visual representations of data up and running soon.

If you want a copy of the counted and sorted file, that can be found here.

 


The Article Picture is named Bibles, and is the property of GeoWombats. The picture is licensed with Creative Commons and acquired through Flickr. Please refer here for more information.

Master thesis

I’m now finished with two semesters coursework for my masters, and the thesis is left to write before I hopefully will be entitled to receive my masters degree. I have learned much from the two previous semesters, and hope to learn even more from the process leading up to my dissertation is printed and handed in. As a part of my documentation and thought process I will use this blog to write about topics and findings related to my thesis. This way I can both contribute to the Internet community (or a tiny tiny fragment of it) by adding knowledge I acquire, gain more experience in English writing and conveying academic ideas and results. Since I already update this blog I think this is a better solution to write here, than to create a new dedicated master blog. To make it easier for you to find information related to my master thesis, I have created a cloud tag to refeer to articles linked to this final paper. The tag “master project” will lead you to general post written about my project, and the tag “master thesis” is dedicated to information about the specific paper.

During the two previous semesters I have written, among more, about the following subjects: what is information and data, the bloggosphere and the agenda of the mass media, advertising  and branding in contemporary digital media society, technological determinism, the philosophy of technology. I have also revitalised my interest in programming, so for my final project and thesis I want to combine knowledge learned from the courses taken and also include a practical element.

I want to look into governments sharing their data repositories with the Internet users, and various topics related to this. Here is my project description at the current stage:

 

Introduction:

Democracy:

The liberal democracy, and the modern national state are ideas indebted to ideals of the enlightenment. As the power of societies changed from the Feudal state to the Bourgeois, a structure where the political decisions were to be rooted in the citizens became a goal. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas has described the conditions which lead up to and followed from the rise of the bourgeois public sphere. In a period from the late 18th and to the early 19th century democratic decisions were a result of discussions, exchange of meanings and political activity in coffee houses, in pamphlets, and in private arrangements. With changed conditions in the mid 19th century the bourgeois public sphere demised. Core ideals of the liberal democracy are information, education, equality and impartiality. Good decisions are often those that are well informed, and information is a key value to make weighted decisions. Habermas’ concern is about contemporary society is, among other, directed towards the commodification of the mass media. Critique is also directed towards public management, and the transformation where citizens are now users of public services or consumers of private commodities.

Many have asserted that the wide diffusion of the personal computer, and similar devices providing interactive means of gathering, sharing, commenting upon, analysing and treating information, in combination with the Internet, providing a two-way channel of information will reinvigorate democracy. Users are now free to make their own information based on their own sources, and create their own knowledge communities outside the domain of the mass media.

Open Government:

The United States’ government opened the service data.gov in 2009, and in 2010 was United Kingdoms’ equivalent data.gov.uk released. Other governments have also created similar initiatives, sharing data repositories with the public. These data repositories contains data aggregated through the various state agencies, ministries, governmental organisations, and political administrations ranging from national to local levels. The UK government has shared 6,900 datasets, and the US shares 250,000. The sets are released under an open licence, and the sites encourage users to take advantage of the collections in creative ways by creating communities and sharing applications made from the datasets.

Visualisation:

Various open frameworks have been developed and made available for users to create their own representations from the datasets shared by the open government. I want to use two tools, which are not exclusively visualisation tools: Processing, and its HTML5 canvas-object portation ProcesssingJS (where JS is the abbreviation for JavaScript) and Python. In addition I may use Google’s Map API for integration with geographical data.

 

Research aim:

I will see how Open Government data is an can be used to democratise the representation and interpretation of information gathered and produced by the governments. I will see what information the US, UK and Norwegian government shares on their data sites and review some ways these data are used. I will mainly look at examples where data has been used in new and alternative ways to convey information about the society, and how this is visualised. I will look into why data is shared, which motivations lies behind this sharing, how it can be used and how this sharing fits in with democratic ideas. I do also want to look into the semantic web aspect of such services.

 

Methodology:

My research will consist of two approaches.

First, I want to get in touch with people who have combined governmental data in applications to learn more about their motivations, aims and process, and to ask about the results and their opinions on digital media. I will also, at an early stage of the process, get in touch with government sources working with Open Government to learn more about the motivations, challenges and practices. To conduct these interviews I will use a qualitative semi-structured research interview that I will record and transcribe.

Second, I want to have a closer look at how these data are combined, what data that are available, and combine two or three different dataset in an application. I will write an application taking data from two or more sources and combine these to create meaning from data. In this process I hope to experience first hand how these repositories can be used, and learn more about the technical aspects of gathering, structuring and displaying data.

In addition I will read relevant literature ranging from the practical aspects with DIY-handbooks and blog post tutorials, to philosophy on democracy, public sphere, information and rationality.

 

Learning outcomes:

I want to combine the theoretical normative ideals of democracy, transparency, creativity and knowledge with the practical approach to sharing information and data. The theoretical aspects will be beneficiary for understanding information and its importance for democracy. The practical aspects will give insights to widespread technology that is expected to be utilized in more areas and to a greater extent. The project will also be interesting as many relevant theories within the field of digital media can be combined, e.g. intellectual property, crowd-sourcing, decentralisation of knowledge, bricolage, and semantic web. The project does also potentially hold an interesting philosophical debate in the epistemological questions which can be raised from a “data as truth”, and instrumental reason.

 

The article illustration is licenced under a Creative Commons licence, and is the property of OpenSoruceWay. It is found through Flickr. Please refer to link for more information about the illustration.