Tag Archives: ownership

Who Owns Our Social Capital?

Shortly after Apple debuted its version of “the cloud” four years ago, I wrote a short post contemplating the future of ownership. More recently, I’ve been thinking about the shifting meaning of ownership in the context of the social networks within which we conduct no small part of our daily lives. Namely, Facebook and Twitter.

In this intriguing piece from Pacific Standard, the author suggests we all start charging companies for our online data, conveniently eliding the fact that there are deeply entrenched power structures that would need to do an altruistic 180 for that to even enter the realm of possibility. Short of opting out of, oh, all services, how can consumers leverage any semblance of power to make such a demand?

Not easily.

To his credit, the author admits he hasn’t considered the economic implications of his idealistic suggestion, and indeed, he doesn’t seem to see the landscape of the current information/data market for his money-tree of an idea. Alas, capital is highly concentrated among the very companies he wants consumers to charge for the privilege of collecting, storing, and mining their data. How can those of us without that volume of capital, social or material, possibly set our price? We are at their mercy.

I’m of the cynical view that consumers, even as a united front, have little actual power to effect change. The means of production are too tightly wound around the hands of those at the top. They even control the means of communication and socialization. Besides, consumers would probably need social media to mount an economic revolution. It’s one of the most viable mobilization tools we have at our disposal. What happens when the services don’t like what their users are saying and doing with it and turn it off?

Conversely, what happens if (when?) ostensibly “free” services start becoming less so. As many have pointed out, corporations pay for the right to advertise their products to people using these social media services. But profit margins for Facebook & Twitter are slim to nonexistent. So at what point do these services re-evaluate and start making their monetizing more visible and felt by the user?

At what point in the process of monetization do people start migrating to new, “free” services? When Twitter figures out how to monetize itself effectively, how will that affect user experience? Will users rebel by leaving? Or will the service’s gamble pay off, with users having become so entrenched and loyal that it’s easier to stay & pay than flee for free?

It’s tough to predict, but one thing I’m pretty sure won’t happen (at least not successfully) is users demanding to be paid for their participation in these social networks.
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Impotent Signage: Discouraging Garden Theft in the Modern Suburbs

The two poster-boards shout at passers-by in clearly printed black marker. The signs are duplicates of one another, affixed at angles to a tree on a front lawn. The tree is set back far enough from the curb to not be mistaken for a city tree. Crucially, at the base of this tree is a neatly rounded pile of river rocks. At first glance, there are too many rocks to count. But the owners of the tree seem to keep close tabs on the total.

...make me?

…make me?

How I long to call on these people in a week or two and find out if they have seen an increase or a decrease in theft since they put up the signs.

For the signs to work as intended–as a deterrent against further theft–a few things have to happen:

  1. Potential and/or previous rock thieves need to come to the house
  2. Those people must be interpellated (that is, they must consider themselves addressed by the sign and identify as the intended audience of this sign’s imperative message)
  3. They must then feel remorse for their previous or intended actions
  4. They must not feel indignant, as that may lead to rebellion against the sign’s message

That you can see it from the street does not make it public; that you want it does not make it yours; that there are so many to begin with does not change the situation from the owners’ point of view.*

All of this being established, my inclination is that anyone who already feels it is their right to take something from someone else’s lawn will scoff at this feeble attempt to control their behavior and take more rocks just to spite the sign and the passive-aggressive people who wrote it.

I could be wrong. The four steps outlined above may happen. But until these rock owners get a security camera and law enforcement on their side, I do not think their rocks are going to stay put. Not with this futile sign as their only anchor.


* That I took a picture of what these people clearly consider to be their sole property is an ethical grey area, although not getting paid for this piece of writing nudges me more firmly on the “no worries” side of things.

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Walgreens Commercial Normalizes the Objectification of Women Using a Young Boy and Christmas

Briefly:

There’s a commercial running for Walgreens Pharmacy, claiming it’s a great place to find gifts for the holidays. Leaving this insane claim and any deep analysis of commodification aside, I’d like to talk about what the commercial does visually to make the objectification of women seem cute and normal. The commercial centers around a young elementary school boy who is giving gifts to various female classmates, all awe-struck by his shopping prowess. The young ladies man then turns his gift-giving attention to his teacher–at the same time that the camera turns its attention to her rear end as she writes something on the board. The boy gives her the gift, and she walks away. Cut to a shot of him smiling in the direction that she walked away, causing us, the viewer, to surmise that he is watching her walk away. Like a sleaze. We are meant to think he’s getting a good look at her ass.

And the commercial frames this as funny-cute. As normal. It implies that this boy has the right to do this because he bought her a gift. It ignores, or makes light of, the inappropriate of this in several ways:

1. On an age level, by attributing sexual motives to a prepubescent boy

2. On a gender equality level, by reducing a woman to her sexualized body part that is ogled

3. On a power and ownership level, where the buyer/gift-giver is accorded rights to transgress social decorum

Ugh. Just, ugh. All of this is what is wrong with our culture. That all of this gross sexism and scary commercialism is wrapped in a pretty, innocent bow of holiday generosity.

My ass.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Commodification, Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Gender Trouble, Uncategorized

Performing Togetherness: Sartorial Coordination at School Dances

In an effort to procrastinate on the promised treatment of that dog book, I’ve decided to take a little time to dissect another youthful phenomenon. Today it’s not cheap-ass broken friendship hearts, however. No, this topic is even more worthy of copious eye-rolling and the activation of gag-reflexes. I’m talking about high school students who go to dances together wearing matching outfits.

I’m almost nauseated thinking back on it now–realizing the implications. The market-place/political economy of securing a date for the dance, and being able to identify them as your date with visual cues. Cultural capital made materially concrete through dress. The (gendered?) performance of mutual ownership…turning “relationships” into a parody of themselves. I am ashamed to have actually participated in such displays. (Although I am rather proud for having once done it by wearing a “mens” shirt. Take that, gendered expectations!)

The tradition of dates wearing similarly colored clothing (or a corsage/boutonniere) to dances all seems to boil down to a social performance of togetherness and mutual ownership. Making visually obvious the fact that these two people came to this dance with one another. It “marks” your date as yours. This performance is so that others recognize these two people as being together–if only for the evening. I wonder at what point this matching is for the couple themselves…the chance to recognize themselves in the other and vice versa via the very obvious medium of clothing (a representation or manifestation of their inner emotional connection, if you will)…and at what point it becomes more about the outward appearance of togetherness. My guess is that this phenomenon is heavily weighted toward the latter. It’s mostly about the public’s perception of two people as a couple. The assumption that two people are receiving recognition of their togetherness is made salient in the very performance of this sartorial togetherness. TOGETHERNESS!!! (must. find. synonym.) Ahem.

One aspect of this phenomenon that bears discussion is the fact that all these school-sanctioned social functions are in an effort to play at adulthood. As one of my more arrogant professors smugly loved “revealing” to us, the Prom is in many ways a practice wedding. But these dances-as-social-spaces encourage couples to perform adulthood to a cartoonish degree. What real adult couples make a conscious, agonizing effort to match their wardrobes at social functions? (Irritating ones.) Sometimes this type of couples-dressing is sanctioned, but it’s all about context. Perhaps the most “allowable” social occasion is that of Halloween, but even then adults who match one another can be a bit much. Especially those who are romantically involved. Okay. We get it. You’re together. Enough already. But if we take high school dances as opportunities for young adults to “practice” being actual adults, it seems odd that they perform imagined adulthood to such a hyperbolic degree. Maybe you have to over-do it before you can do it, do it. (Control yourselves.)

The other adult social context in which sartorial coordination is sanctioned, even encouraged, is the wedding. This is the ultimate ritualized performance of couple-dom in our culture, and wedding parties often don similar colors, if not identical outfits. This, it need not be noted, is a special occasion. As is the school dance (albeit a more frequent one). If school dances are a shadow of the ultimate couple ritual, then matching the colors in one’s outfits makes a certain amount of sense. This is, after all, playing at being recognized as being together: practice for the ritual where you perform your together-forever-ness in front of your sacred social circle.

So the color-coordination teenagers endure can be accounted for quite easily. What I cannot fathom an explanation for is why the matchy-matchy gets so overblown at Sade Hawkins dances in particular. Is there a worry that because the girl asked the boy, it won’t be pheromonically obvious that they are together? (That’s stupid and I would never argue that.) The most I can work out is that it somehow off-sets (or complements) the relative informality of the dance. The fact that the girl is supposed to ask the guy, that the traditional gender roles are reversed, seems to be a mere correlation. Why would a switch of gender hierarchy entail the hyper-matching of clothing? Couples often literally wear the same thing, rather than simply matching color-schemes. At the Sadie Hawkins dance, there’s no mistaking who asked whom. It’s an aggressive sign of mutual ownership, commemorated forever in an embarrassing photo in front of a cheesy, themed backdrop. But exactly why the hyper-matching occurs at the informal Sadie Hawkins dance is a mystery to me. So if anyone wants to venture a theory that helps explain why this happens, I’d love to hear it.

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The 2011 Protester and Occupy Movement Uptake

A few weeks ago, Time magazine revealed its Person of the Year (a trope that has gained a lot of self-aggrandizing authority over the years as a touchstone of the state of the world and America and all that) to much mass-mediated fanfare. It was The Protester. A masked one. The image was a little sinister. To scare the white “normal” American public that reads Time and takes it seriously.

Who is the “protester” for Time, anyway? The cover is confusing and exploitative, simultaneously raising up and trivializing and making a public menace actual protesters…and differently for different audiences. How to even think about this?

Now, to be fair, the story that goes along with the cover is a little more nuanced and gives good space to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, but the protester on the cover image seems to be more of a young American anarchist.*** And readers should fear this anonymous being with its dark eyebrows and hand-knit cap and bandana-hidden face standing in front of a red back-drop, ready to charge at your magazine-reading self. That protester is going to set fire to your lawn and ask about social justice. RUN!!!

The cover of “Time” magazine for the week of December 26th 2011/January 2nd 2012

Time‘s “Person of the Year” (the protester) was being reported by local and national news websites, TV stations and radio stations as if this yearly revelation were news, but Time magazine itself purports to be news. How incestuously layered, congratulatory, and self-promoting. Its own advertisement. Making itself an event by framing itself as such and getting other news outlets to do the same. Saying it makes it true: yay, performativity! We (some of the “normal” public and the mass media it listens to) wait with bated breath to find out who Time thinks is the person of the year, thus giving it the authority to say with definity who it is.

Not news at all, but another way to sell more magazines. Capitalizing on the major mass-mediated news stories of 2011 (the revolutions big and small, international and local) by turning it into another mass-mediated message. And the “normal” public eats it up. Or at least is exposed to it over and over.

The “revolution” has been televised. And thus, the real revolution has been largely silenced in terms of how many “normal” ears its message falls upon. Its message, its narrative, was co-opted almost immediately by those in power, those of the establishment, those of the mass-media. The mass media, after all, is where most “normal” Americans go for their answers, for their news. What “normal” person has time for much else than those neat little soundpicturebites? They trust the familiarity of the mass media–not the chaotic voices of those in the trenches.

It is difficult to say with any certainty how these mass-mediated messages are received by the “normals.” But since many of them seem to fill their conversations with regurgitated sentences and viewpoints heard and read from mass-mediated news sources, I feel it safe to say that they take up much of the repeated narratives without a lot of questioning. They believe the mass-mediated narratives of what’s going on around the world. Their opinions are not their own. (And in a society that is ostensibly all about the unique and sovereign individual, that would seem to be a problem, wouldn’t it?)

And in this mess that is the ownership of narrative, who speaks for the actual protesters? The varied ones that the image on the cover of Time is supposed to represent. The “normal” public certainly does not let them speak for themselves. Not for long. (It could be argued that at first, the Occupy movement really did change the conversation, or at least brought more attention to the massive dissatisfaction Americans were feeling about the state of the nation and their own lives. The mass media even seemed sympathetic with the movement at first. But then it went on too long. It got bored and started reporting it from the perspective of the 1 percent that owns the news outlets. The conversation went back to the status quo, and the movement lost its ability to speak for itself to the “normal” public, at least through the mass mediated outlets that many of the “normals” turn to for guidance. Turn to to make sense out of what’s going on. Turn to to find out what’s going on, even if it isn’t. Even if they leave a lot out.)

No, the “normals” prefer the mass media to wrap up the complicated messages in easily digestible sound-bites of recognizable size and flavor: Crazy hippies. Bored rich kids. Rioting poor people. Naive college students. Uppity and inarticulate African-Americans. Dangerous and dirty transients. Entitled Native Americans. Basically, everyone who’s not falling into line. Not playing by the white, upper-middle-class rules.

The Occupy movement is doomed (assuming they want to affect change on a scale larger than themselves) if the “normals” keep listening to the mass-mediated take on what’s going on and investing these sources with the authority to speak for the movement. If the “normals” keep tuning out what the people on the ground, the actual protesters/members of the movement, are saying. If they keep letting the media speak for the many complicated and different individuals on the ground trying to call attention to the many issues our large society has. It’s easier to think that these issues don’t exist, or that they can be solved by placing even more stock in the status quo. It’s easier to listen to the mass media.

We really do have an impressively strong hegemony here. We think we’re free, that our society is  free, but the minute someone questions the status quo, the citizen police are out in force, squelching the questions with blindly accepted structure. This is the way things are; get a job. Stop ruining city hall’s lawn. We’ve decided it’s time for you to stop questioning the status quo: stop protesting and go home.

Because it’s not 99 vs. 1. The 1 may have all the money, but most of the 99 are helping to keep the structures that allow for the rich 1 to exist strong. Many of the 99 believe so deeply in those structures that they cannot see them–these structures have become naturalized: it’s just the way things are. And we must all operate within this system if we are to keep on keeping on, never mind get ahead. And this deep-seated belief in the invisible structures is one of the reasons the Occupy movement is in so much trouble. They aren’t speaking for the 99; most of the 99 are unwittingly in cahoots with the 1.

The Occupy movement can’t gain traction without the “normals” who are (now half-heartedly if at all) gazing in on them either listening seriously or joining. And the “normals” won’t do either when the messages of the movement have been co-opted by the mass media. As a closeted radical on the outside of the movements that are happening around the country, I feel (ashamedly) more in touch with the perspective of the “normals” than I do with the movement that I politically and socially identify with. So allow me to speak a little for them (they have no problem at all speaking for you, after all, and you won’t like what they say).

The normals hear what the media says about the movement and lets the media speak for it. The movement is too “radical”, too “disorganized” for them. “What do they want? If they just had an agenda…/Why are they wasting time holding up signs when they could be out looking for jobs? Why do they hate America?” etc. For the movement itself, I think it’s great that it’s somewhat lacking in clear leadership, instead thriving on some disorganization, anarchism. It seems invested in listening to everyone’s concerns. But for things to change–or for the national conversation to permanently change in any meaningful way–the movement needs the “normals” on board, and the “normals” like the very structure that the movement is trying to question.

Which leaves us at a stalemate. What kind of strategy can overcome this divide? Can we look to the relative successes of the revolutions of the Arab Spring for any tactics and strategies that can be adopted for our own cultural context? How can the movement get the “normal” public to join them in a conversation that isn’t mediated by the mass media? Is that even possible?

Where do we go from here?

***A Tardy Update: a link and a digression into self-critique***

Over at Al Jazeera, Larbi Sadiki has a different interpretation of the Time image as he deconstructs its many meanings. The various issues and details he points out are interesting and I think the piece is worth a read. He also pays attention to the fact that the image on the cover “veiled” the protester, and what implications that visual choice has, given the climate we live in and the many conflicting associations veiling has in the Western world (not to mention the cultures that actually wear variations of a veil).

Perhaps I’m implicitly guilty of demonizing the veil in my own interpretation when I talk about the image as a “scary” one of the hipster-anarchist…for which I apologize. That was not my intent, but it nonetheless points to the negative associations our culture has when it comes to images of people with their faces partially or fully obscured. Veils, burqas, bandanas and the like shouldn’t be signs that incite fear, because then this fear is displaced onto the person wearing these pieces of fabric and can often, as Yoda taught us, lead to hate. But for many Americans they are signs that incite fear. And when I interpreted the visual cues of the Time cover in this way, I was tapping into that negative stereotype that has been harmful to particular populations, especially post-9/11. Even though the dark red cover is also a menacing sign, I do believe I was wrong to not see that the image, as Sadiki points out, is also one that indexes Americans’ fear of cultures and populations who wear variations of a veil. I apologize for my insensitivity.

All of which goes to prove that meaning is located in the one who does the interpretation, not necessarily the one who produces. Intention has little weight. Uptake! Use! How can we determine what the producers of this image intended it to mean when there can be such radically different interpretations of it? Obviously, the producers of the image operate within the same systems of symbols that allowed for both Sadiki and my interpretations of it…but it is difficult to critique them without knowing which (or both?) the producers meant to “speak” to their readership. Either way, both of our interpretations find it problematic that the image contains overwhelmingly negative signs that cause the (white?) American viewer to call up culturally negative associations.

And I’m going to stop before this discussion spirals out of control in a vortex of fractally circular argumentation.

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