Things that matter

Naomi Klein published a short and sweet piece in The Nation with her speech at Occupy Wall Street in October 2011. I just wanted to quote my favourite part of it so it is locked into my memory bank:

There are some things that don’t matter.

  • What we wear.
  • Whether we shake our fists or make peace signs.
  • Whether we can fit our dreams for a better world into a media soundbite.

And here are a few things that do matter:

  • Our courage.
  • Our moral compass.
  • How we treat each other.

Weak ties and revolutions

Pop sociologist Gladwell made it into our readings today as he wrote a relevant piece in the New Yorker in 2010, Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. It stirred an engaging discussion around some of his key points -mainly that platforms of social media are built around weak ties, but these ties don’t convert to high-risk activism. While there are criticisms of his argument, his article is worth bookmarking as he cleverly weaves in the evolution of media, networking, small world, organizational hierarchies, open models, and he even threw Shirky in there. I’ve always enjoyed Gladwell’s writing because he brings academic thinking into the mainstream… (let’s face it, people don’t go poking around sociology journals or critical thinking textbooks on the weekend).

Mark Granovetter’s weak tie theory keeps sneaking up on us. I think Gladwell does credit weak ties for being actors in the mix, but I think they are more than that. Twitter’s ability to enable and manifest weak ties is game-changing (stealing phrase from Kate). Weak ties echo the cause and the movement; they are critical nodes that help source more evangelists; they spread the message to other social circles who may not have received the information otherwise; they are delicate and vital veins that support the movement.

DIY Newsmaking

Dorothy Kidd wrote a short piece about the Independent Media Centre (IMC), a large global network of journalists who write about political and social issues and offer an alternative views against corporate-led globalization. This led to me to explore the the site ( a little more and though I don’t find the website design particularly welcoming, their message and purpose is inspiring:

The Independent Media Center is a network of collectively run media outlets for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of the truth. We work out of a love and inspiration for people who continue to work for a better world, despite corporate media’s distortions and unwillingness to cover the efforts to free humanity.

I am completely in love with this mission. It has all the right language to make an evangelist out of me, but for some reason, I haven’t read a lot of independant news over the years. I thought more about this as I perused the the IMC website articles covering a whole range of hard-hitting topics. I think some of it has to do with the usability of the site – I can’t trace the background of issues in a chronological order, it immediately dives into the issues so it is difficult for new readers to engage, and the overall design is difficult to navigate. I completely appreciate that it is run by volunteers and efficiently served its purpose during critical times.

As we discussed in class, the Vancouver Media Coop takes a refreshed approach to usability and design. This is being added to my regular online reading list as we speak.

Social capital

Heather kicked us off on the topic of social capital with one of my favourite Big Bang Theory segments (it was also the perfect afternoon pick-me-up for the class). The basis of the clip, and Chapter 10 in Kadushin’s book, is that social networks have value. He explains that we can have social capital as individuals and as groups/communities. While this notion is not a new by any means, it gave me the vocabulary to describe something we talk about all the time.

I was part of a program where business professionals (with some degree of social capital) take on senior undergrad students to mentor them in their transition to industry. The idea of networking was heavily emphasized, as strong and weak ties were important for weaving the community together. The overt efforts to ‘network’ was more of a business-card collecting exercise in the end, but I did take two things away that resonated with me: grant yourself permission to meet whoever you want; and approach every situation by thinking about what you can do for them. Both of these thoughts put me in a positive mental space while reflecting values of safety and effanctance.

In our discussion about the negatives of social capital, I think sometimes social capital can come unsubstantiated (ie. what Kate said about people who are famous for being famous). It can become a dangerous thing if we celebrate or reinforce role models and leaders who misguide the community. I guess one can argue that ‘unsubstantiated’ is similar to ‘potential’ – which relates to Pierre Bourdieu‘s definition of social capital: “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.”

Week roundup

My brain is fried from the week, so I can’t muster out a school-related post… but I updated this week’s Photostream page (because that’s not work). Enjoy the photos and thanks for a great week everyone. Intense homework weekend in front of us before we head into our third and final week.

Balancing act

In the past few years, I’ve spent a fair bit of time learning and exploring applications and platforms to understand how these technologies are tackling their little niche. It can be easy to get swept away by it all because each new product/release always seems to solve a new problem (that you may or may not have been aware of). And many urge you to use an integrated sign in system with your existing Facebook or Twitter accounts. I admit, I’ve gone with the path of least resistance to quickly get my hands in the pie. Meanwhile, with each sign up, I’ve given another external source information about me. After six years of signing up for accounts, I’m pretty sure I’m drop-dead-easy to learn about and track. Even with nothing to hide, this is an unsettling feeling.

I found our discussion about privacy and surveillance fascinating today, as I never thought deeply about what this means – for me, fellow netizens, authoritative bodies, nor for society at large. We had lots of interesting case studies from Christopher Parsons and Kate about the interplay of our text and images on the web and notions of freedom, democracy, and the soul of this public space. Key takeaways for me: it is ultimately up to users to manage their content and to be aware of the privacy boundaries; nearly every input we make into the online world can be tracked, traced, and even held against you in legal situations; these privacy issues could have repercussions on a macro level, affecting how people interact and behave as a society; and finally, there are a lot of socially active people out there fighting the good fight.

A few things I did in the past couple of days as a result of our discussions, tweets, and chats:

  • Revisited the privacy sections of my social media sites with this handy link that takes you straight to that specific page:
  • Cleaned out the junk emails and subscriptions from my inbox:
  • Turned off a whole bunch of geolocation data for apps on my phone

Participating in this community is an incredible thing, but it is a balancing act between sharing and maintaining some sense of privacy. If you have any other resources, post in my comments section!


Network Society by Manuel Castells

The term Network Society was coined by sociologist and communications scholar Manuel Castells. He shared his hypotheses about technology, economy and capitalism in relation to networks and communications in the book, The Rise in the Network Society (volume one of three). Here is a copy of my slides from today’s presentation. Thanks for the discussion!

View more presentations from Sylvia Tan

Let’s do something

Collective action, where a group acts as a whole, is even more complex than collaborative production, but here again new tools give life to new forms of action. This in turn challenges existing institutions, by eroding the institutional monopoly on large-scale coordination. ~ Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody

In Chapter six of Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky discusses collective action and how it has been enabled by technology. I thought of one of my favourite examples of this: In 2010 and 2011, I volunteered to help with a global initiative started by @amanda called Twestival. It was a global movement which culminated in a one-day event that brought people offline to support global and local causes. The event, involving more than 200 cities around the world, supported causes like clean water and education amongst hundreds of local charities. The planning, organization, and advocacy utilized social media tools to encourage collective action. (Twestival raised $1.75 million for over 275 causes in three years, which is incredible!)

With this example (and others like global crisis’ like earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, etc.), it is pretty incredible how quickly people mobilize. Information flows quickly, people with like-minds assemble, and real action is executed. When it comes together, it is incredible. As Skirky says, while social tools don’t create collective action, they remove obstacles and enable them to take place.

Whole > Sum of its parts

Benjamin Phelan explores the notion of altruism in his article, while examining the selfless behaviour of ants, bees, and wasps. It has been found that altruism is tough thing to grasp in evolutionary terms. “When you look at pro-social behaviors,” says David Sloan Wilson, “behaviors that are for the good of the group, they’re not locally advantageous. If you’re an altruist, and you’re doing what’s good for the group, that fundamentally requires time and energy and risk on your part.”

Words like altruism, philanthropy, and love are concepts closely tied with humanity and how we relate to others around us. More and more, these ideas are intimately weaved in with technology, science, and innovation – in fact, they are often the reason why people create and share. There is usually a vision to make it better for everyone.

We see this in web projects like Wikipedia where Jimmy Wales set out to give free access to the sum of all human knowledge, Firefox where they believed that openness, innovation, and opportunity are key to the continued health of the Internet, and of course, the web itself, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee who fought to keep it free for the masses. In a recent court hearing, Berners-Lee was asked “Who owns the web?” in which he responded, “We do.” Meanwhile, many other innovations are tightly guarded with patents, copyright, licenses, and access to products and services come at a pretty penny. They operate in their own silos and there is an emphasis on ownership and the bottom line.

We touched on this during our bar talk on Friday night, and it got me imagining a utopian web, where everything is free to access and people create to solve a problem for someone else, and participants start from a place of altruism. While I snap out of my dream-like state, I will say that I’m genuinely excited about the influx in terminology around altruistic movements in the web space – ideas like the sharing economy, social good, social entrepreneurship, and collaborative consumption are very compelling to me.

PS. I added a Photostream page with a few snapshots from last week!

Everything is connected to everything else

The social science theory Actor-Network Theory (ANT) was developed by Bruno Latour in the 1980s. It looks at the relationship between subjects and objects, and how they form, sustain, and compete. People, animals, objects, and everything around us are all actors in a endless network, and each of those actors/actants may be “enrolled” depending on the situation. There is a deep interdependency between the social, technological, and natural so any given scenario can not be viewed in a vacuum. Essentially, everything is tied to everything else.

Admittedly, Latour lost me at several parts of this speech at a dinner seminar, but the overall perspective makes sense. A simple act to illustrate: the coffee I had this morning was influenced by the time I got up, the coffee shop options nearby, the company I was with, the menu design, the Sunday special, the barista, the concept of fairtrade, the expectation of consistency, previous experiences there, etc. All of these tangible and intangible elements are actors engaged in a network.

ANT might be a useful lens to help us understand how our micro actions are affecting global movements. The decisions we make, the conversations we have, the things we consume, the people we advocate for – every element plays a role in influencing our society and universe. (On this note, I’ll leave you with this short video on how our planet get conquered by humans in 200 years.)

I haven’t dove too deeply into criticisms of ANT, but there is writing about how non-humans can not be agents, assumptions of equality while ignoring existing power structures, and a good point raised in class – it would be virtually impossible to studying anything at all if we can’t section off a digestible chunk!