April 22, 2017
It may seem very innocuous, but the purloining of ideas for profit is an egregious form of journalistic harm that places no value on the thoughts, feelings, or needs of the original creator of the content. It is at the very least the laziest form or ‘journalism’ possible. In the broader scheme of things, it is a form of intellectual property theft and should be dealt with as such. Jamie Nesbitt Golden & Monique Judge, Journalism, Social Media & Ethics Part 1
“A lot of justice-oriented academics and journalists are committed to researching, writing and circulating what we see as hard truths, responding to fake news with evidence we gather from a wide range of materials. Often, the work of circulating #100hardtruths has to do with amplifying the experiences, perspectives and ideas of folks whose voices are not typically heard, or are actively suppressed, in and by dominant (white, wealth-driven, settler, US-centric) news media. For example, well-meaning academics and journalists might cite a social media content producer as evidence to show public sentiment and support for a social justice-oriented argument—for example, this is what people are saying on Twitter about state-sanctioned anti-black police violence, or about the proposed anti-Muslim ban, or about the Canadian Prime Minister’s support for another pipeline, destroying more land, air and water, or we might base an entire article or book on how social media content producers are shaping contemporary activism.
The availability of easily accessible social media posts has made it possible for scholars and journalists to find a wide range of perspectives from folks they do not have ready access to in face-to-face existence, thus allowing the researcher to easily incorporate the ideas of others in the formation of their own research argument or news story. Social media platforms make it possible to grab a “quote” from a minoritized social media content producer—who generated the content for free—without ever having a conversation with that person, or sharing the potential profit, be it financial, intellectual or cultural capital. As long as the source is cited, we’re accustomed to calling it a day, and an ethical day at that! We’ve written something that incorporates the ideas and words of folks who are not normally heard in the context of [insert the newspaper, magazine, journal or conference], possibly to tell a hard truth, uncovering the real story behind some fake news, and now we’ve helped make the world a better place. Well done!
Not so fast, comrade. As Jamie Nesbitt Golden and Monique Judge explain in their short essays (see my epigraph above) for the Center for Solutions to Online Violence (CSOV), hoisting a tweet or other social media post from a non-famous person and using it to build a scholarly argument or news story is not rigorous or ethical research, it’s idea theft. Sure the tweets of high-profile people might be fair game as public speech. But to use the tweets of folks who are having an online conversation that we’re not part of, even with a correctly-formatted citation? That’s just eavesdropping.
The politics of citation—to cite down rather than up, to cite sources that are not already in massive circulation, to cite predominantly women, people of color, trans folks, Indigenous peoples, folks from the Global South, etc.—is an important form of intellectual activism meant to center the ideas of these folks rather than perpetually re-centering the ideas of mostly white, Euro-American settler dude-experts. But, citation is, as the Northern Lights Canadian all-star charity ballad goes, not enough.1 [Heads up: this video clip opens with scenes of Ethopian people starving, during drought and famine of the early 1980s. It also features a lot of white people in Canada–though not exclusively white Canadians—singing in a sound booth and ends with the very nationalist images of Canadian wheat being flown to Ethiopia. Sorry.]
By approaching all social media content as public texts, just as available for quotation as any newspaper article, published book or policy statement, we fail to recognize that not all social media content producers (i.e. tweeters, bloggers and posters) want their words to extend beyond their immediate social media network or, indeed, that the re-circulation of a tweet or a post beyond its initial context is, in fact, unethical and potentially harmful. In so doing, as Joss Greene explains, we “flatten very different relationships into one generalized public.” Social media content producers face different kinds of risk when their words are taken beyond their original context, depending on who they are, where they live, how they live, and how targeted they may already be in a world structured by, for example, racial and gender hierarchies.
Most social media posts are created in community, in conversation. When a scholarly or journalistic researcher—especially one from outside the community in which the material was originally posted—extracts a tweet or post written by a non-famous (or not professionally public) person without covering the scope of the conversation, without getting permission to quote, without being accountable to the community of origin and context, we conveniently steal someone else’s ideas in pursuit of our own argument, exposing the content producer to risk of harm, without their consent and without sharing the profit or credit of this work.
Rather than thinking that our ethical obligation stops at citation, we can be more rigorous in our research practices towards a framework of accountability, co-authorship, resource distribution and power sharing.
So often the logic of mere citation is that in the food chain of ideas, scholars and journalists who have access to high circulation or high prestige publishing venues, will use their profile and access to increase the exposure—to signal boost, amplify the voices—of artists, activists and other grassroots cultural workers, and the payment these folks receive, as my collaborator Jasmine Rault and I have argued, is the “caché of being studied.” That is, so often scholars and journalists don’t pay the artists and activists whose work and words they study because the labour of being studied (of answering questions, of dealing with the potential blowback) is understood to be in the interest of that artist or activist, i.e., for their own good, for the good of exposure. As the artist Alexis O’Hara says about these logics and practices, “You can die of exposure.”
The politics of mere citation helps to keep the power structure—the ideas food chain— in tact, keeping grassroots social media content producers and other cultural workers putting it out there for free, and journalists and scholars using it without paying for it, to add cred to the articles that they get paid to write.
Let’s hear the chorus now, Northern Lights style: Don’t you know that citation is not enough?!
That is, mere citation does not require the kind of transformation of privilege, values, analysis and access that is needed to shake up the world of “thought leaders,” to use a particularly gross term that nonetheless reflects how ideas circulate as currency in the intellectual and news economies.
Once more: Citation is not enough!
At the Center for Solutions to Online Violence (CSOV) we have created a set of materials to help journalists, teachers and scholarly researchers to rethink how they use the work of social media content producers. Our materials are meant to shift the discussion from an obsession with proper citational practices (i.e. what does the MLA style guide say about tweets?), to a commitment to ethical community engagement and resource distribution. In particular, we hope that our materials will help scholars, students and journalists to build accountability to their social media “sources” into their research and publishing practices.
As all of the contributors to the CSOV resources have noted in one way or another, one way we can begin to make these kinds of transformations is to start thinking of social media research as community-engaged research, rather than as textual analysis or literature review.
You can check out our open-access materials on shifting digital research ethics by Izetta Autumn Mobley, Dorothy Kim, Joss Greene, Veronica Paredes, micha cárdenas, Alexandrina Agloro, Jamie Nesbitt Golden & Monique Judge, Moya Bailey & T.L. Cowan, and The Alchemists—a collective of Bianca Laureno, I’Nasah Crockett, Maegan Ortiz, Jessica Marie Johnson, Sydette Harry, Izetta Mobley and Danielle Cole. These materials are available on the FemTechNet website; they are intended for sharing widely and folks were paid for the labour of making them, although nothing is stopping you for paying them some more if you can!
These materials are created with the idea that if we shift our methodologies, it will help us to shift our ethics, and help us to match our research protocols with the community protocols of our subjects and sites, especially social media subjects and sites.
Here’s a tour through some of the CSOV digital research ethics materials:
Moya Bailey and I wrote a Research Ethics for Social Media in the Classroom guide, in which we explain the ways that often well-meaning teachers might inadvertently expose social media content producers to harm, by turning their posts and profiles into curricula without ever seeking permission or input from the OPs (Original Posters). We offer some tactics that teachers can use to be accountable to the individuals and communities they want to engage with their students. In particular, we think through the risks associated with increased, unwanted exposure and the labour and potential harms associated with that exposure.
The Alchemists—a collective of Bianca Laureno, I’Nasah Crockett, Maegan Ortiz, Jessica Marie Johnson, Sydette Harry, Izetta Mobley, and Danielle Cole—developed the Power & Control Wheel and Respect Wheel to “help creators slow down and consider the ways they cite and utilize information both on and off the web.” The Alchemists explain that these resources are “modeled from the popular Power & Control Wheels that have been created for discussing domestic and intimate partner violence, we extend those conversations to the violence we have experienced and survived online.”
The CSOV also produced the “Research Ethics, Social Media & Accountability Video Series,” based on two online workshops co-hosted with the Feminist Technology Network (FemTechNet). Six of the co-facilitators of these workshops further contributed to the project by making videos, responding to the question, Why is it important for teachers, students and journalists to think about Research Ethics when they are using social media as part of their teaching and research? Here are some of the practices proposed:
Joss Greene: “What does it mean for us as researchers to work from a place of solidarity? Social media tends to flatten very different relationships into one generalized public. In the real world we understand that there are different dynamics at play. Just because we have access to information, doesn’t mean that we are the intended audience. It is important to recognize that a power dynamic is in play here and as researchers we have an ethical obligation to negotiate with the person whose words we are interested in using, even it if seems like it would be easier to just take what we have access to…. I would encourage academics to have relationships with the communities that they’re doing research with that go beyond the researcher-subject dynamic, which is always going to be one in which we, as researchers, hold power. Being in solidarity is about taking direction. It is important that we as researchers release our grip on our researcher way and devote our time and energy in equal part towards the goals and projects that other people are defining.”
Alexandrina Agloro: “Data is not detached from real world bodies, real world lives and real world experiences. So, when using social media, think about the increased vulnerability of folks who are online.”
Veronica Paredes: “Like any other mode of communication and expression, social media has its own set of histories, communities, and practices. If a teacher, journalist or researcher imagines social media as an empty space, or only as one composed of autonomous contributions, each 140 characters long, they are missing the conversation. They are missing a lot about how individual tweets are situated, and where they come from.”
Izetta Autumn Mobley: “We are now thinking about social media as divorced from IRL (In Real Life). So sometimes we think that informed consent or thinking about context, is somehow dropping out from concerns about research. I think this is the moment when we need to consider it the most. What is the impact of the exposure? If we are educators asking students to go follow a blog or Twitter feed, what, then, is the result of that? What does that do for the exposure of the person is who now being highlighted? Did they expect for this to happen? And, probably most importantly, what labor are they now being asked to do that they previously weren’t being asked to stand up and do?”
micha cárdenas: “Just as with offline socially-engaged scholarship, try to make your work mutually beneficial to the individuals and communities you are engaging with, and to you and your students. Think carefully about how your use of social media may cause harm to people for your own benefit.”
Dorothy Kim: “Try not to do harm…. Research all the platforms and understand what those ecosystems are and what the rules of engagement might be before you do something on social media in relation to your work. … Think about the possible harm that may come from your engagement, slow down, and plan out what you want to do, and what these interactions might look like and what might be the consequences.”
As journalists and scholarly researchers in pursuit of hard truths, let’s also examine and adjust our research practices so that we aren’t just reproducing the logics of exploitation and exposure for the purposes of our own careers and reputations.
- Jamie Nesbit Golden & Monique Judge “Journalism, Social Media & Ethics Part 1.”
- Jamie Nesbitt Golden & Monique Judge, “Journalism, Social Media & Ethics Part 2.”
- Moya Bailey & T.L. Cowan, “Research Ethics for Students & Teachers: Social Media in the Classroom.”
- The Alchemists (Bianca Laureno, I’Nasah Crockett, Maegan Ortiz, Jessica Marie Johnson, Sydette Harry, Izetta Mobley, and Danielle Cole): “Power and Respect Handout”
- Caroluyn Sinders: “Designing Consent into Social Networks”
- Eira Tansey: “Large-Scale Archiving And The Right To Be Forgotten.”
- Brian X. Chen & Natasha Singer: “What else are you sharing? Here, have a cookie.”
- @tgirlinterruptd, @chiefelk, @bad_dominicana, @aurabogado, @so_treu, @blackamazon and @thetrudz “This Tweet Called My Back”. Originally posted to thistweetcalledmyback.tumblr.com
- Lisa Nakamura: “The Unwanted Labour Of Social Media: Women Of Colour Call Out Culture As Venture Community Management.” New Formations: a journal of culture, theory, politics, 106-112, 2015.
1 By the way, the song I’m quoting here, Northern Lights’ “Tears are Not Enough,” is itself not unproblematic, but it is the refrain I hear every time I write about digital research ethics. The song was a fundraiser to help folks in Ethiopia during the famine and drought of the early 1980s. However, while the song is reminding folks in Canada that tears are not enough, which is true enough, it does not engage in the structural analysis required to be accountable for Western imperialism in Africa, forced industrialization and resource extraction, in addition to the normalized devaluation of Black lives, and global maldistribution of wealth and life chances that produces and reproduces the glut/starvation divide. Relief efforts, like the one Northern Lights is promoting, are kind of like mere citation: they show a little bit of care, but require no real engagement, and keep the food chain in tact.
March 17, 2008
At last the tours are through! While I found them increasingly tedious, they did prove a useful exercise in that I made some sense of the hundreds of videos my class produced (and from these tours I am going to teach Learning from Learning from YouTube in fall 2008, stay tuned), and I got to organize my thoughts thematically. So, I end with the failures of YouTube’s archive and how this structures its problems with community.
Importantly, the architecture and ownership of YouTube draw users by fueling their desire for community. While many come to the site to be seen and heard by others, to make friends, they are much better served by the world, or MySpace. For, the very tools and structures for community-building which are hallmarks of web 2.o (or a library or classroom)–those which link, gather, index, search, version, allow participation, commenting, and networking–are studiously refused on the site, even as it remains the poster-child of web 2.0. People go elsewhere for these functions, dragging their favorite YouTube videos with them to more hospitable platforms (with YouTube’s permission).
YouTube is a site to upload, store (and move off) videos. The very paucity of its other functions feeds its primary purpose: moving users’ eyeballs aimlessly and without direction, scheme, or map, across its unparalleled archive of moving images. YouTube is a mess: videos are hard to find, easy to misname, and quick to lose. While it’s users would certainly be aided by a good archivist, the site signals to us in its conscientious failings that it is not a place to hunker down or hang out with others, not a place within which to seriously research or study, not a place for anything but solo-play. Enjoy!
March 11, 2008
The user is told she is free, but this is not the case. Nowhere near it. She makes work in forms that best serve the master’s (oops) owner’s needs. Her ideas, spoken freely through newly accessible cameras, and on little screens encircled by ads, reflect those that the master taught her. They move freely across the internet, insulting some along the way, encrusted by flames of others the longer they sit still.
The user feels she is free, and so she speaks. But the owner uses other users to censor her as the owner sees fit. The user might be a person, she’s often a corporation, but more often yet, she’s an individual servicing a corporation for free! Even though all of this is done gratis, justifying YouTube’s highly celebrated “democratic” claims, little of this labor works outside the corporate economy (even for non-profits) that does very well by users’ work.
The owner, well, he has very little to do! The user (slave, oops) does all the work, and for no pay! Makes the content; rates it; censors it; watches it (and gets her eyeballs to the ads).
This is from my fifth tour. Yes, I know it’s too negative. Yes, I know people get to speak and be heard. But this is what my students learned, (perhaps because I am their teacher [master, OOPS!]):
“In computer networking, master/slave is a model for a communication protocol in which one device or process (known as the master) controls one or more other devices or processes (known as slaves). Once the master/slave relationship is established, the direction of control is always from the master to the slave(s). The County of Los Angeles, saying the term master/slave may be offensive to some of its residents, has asked equipment manufacturers not to use the term.”
March 5, 2008
To wrap up this thread of ideas coming from my bad manifesto videos, I’d like to try to better attend to “Third-Tube,” that manner of video, currently available on the web, that is neither the vlog nor the music video. This kind of video formally marks the hand of its DIY producer (with “bad” production) while also signaling the seriousness of her mind, vision, goals or politics (with “big” ideas). It uses the sketch-like form of the You-Tube video (made and seen quickly, without aims at perfection or mastery, but with some attention to style and with clear goals of communication) so as to make videomaking and viewing a part of daily experience.
Now, it may seem that I’m suggesting that the “personal” nature of the vlog disqualifies it from Third-Tube (which is, of course, an homage to Third Cinema), but that would go directly against my feminist politics. So let me add this simple feminist formula: the personal is the political. When vlogs move to the next step, which is making systematic (theoretical) and communal (political) claims grounded in personal experience, then they move into what I am calling Third-Tube: people-made, simple-in-form, complex in thought, media about the material of daily life that is not beholden to corporate culture and products. This stuff is all over YouTube, and perhaps my next move is to be more thoughtful about what sits in Third-Tube.
I’ve recently come across the research of AnthroVlog on YouTube. Her site “examines how people use digital technologies such as video, blogs, and video sharing sites such as YouTube. We hope to take what we learn to consider new design of online environments and educational programs.For more information see: http://groups.sims.berkeley.edu/digitalyouth.”
Then there’s the Anthropology class at Kansas State that is thinking about YouTube through questions of culture, communication and community.
And AMorrow has been making comprehensive and useful lists of video that functions as art, entertainment, history, social commentary, etc.
Thanks to ZigZigger (Michael Newman) who I met in the hallway at SCMS and who kindly explained the linking function to me.
March 3, 2008
I have been thinking about the badness of this set of videos. About how when I make conventional vlogs, I never worry about form, and that’s liberating: YouTube as soapbox. About the fact that I do actually make “quality” documentaries (my most recent is SCALE, see much about it on these pages), and for that work (which I also characterize as DIY), I hire a cinematographer and an editor, it take several years of my life to complete, another year or more to distribute, and loads of money to do all this work (in comparison to the insignificant amount of time, capital, planning, or execution required for any of my YouTube videos).
What does this tell us about form, expression, and politics on YouTube?
1. Form mandates where you sit and how you move on YouTube. Bad form relegates you to the conventions of the vlog, “good” form is your passport out of NicheTube.
2. Form effects how well and how much you are heard on YouTube. The bad form of a vlog propels its movement in that this marks its veracity and authenticity. Bad form on any other form of video limits the effectivity of your message, both in how well it can be understood and in how many people will be moved to watch and listen. Bad form marks the hand of an amateur, and the space of the mundane.
3. Bad form is intimately linked to the private, humble expression of the vlog; good form (aesthetics) is required for effective expression outside the personal.
4. Politics demands the building, feeding, and inter-relating of individuals to make committed communities. If you are using media as part of this program, the media must inspire conversation and connection: because the words, images, and sounds are compelling in combination. Need they be “good” to do so?
So where does the humble YouTuber fit into this? How trained need she be? How articulate? Does this need to be her job? Isn’t the point that she is an amateur? When we actually use our own material, and the skills we have, what and who can we effect?