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Reflection
October 23, 2010

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I’m studying something I’m right in the midst of. I use the internet everyday. I use it for my job, my assignments, my social life (I arranged a guest list for my 21st birthday all online, for example), my leisure time, everything. I wouldn’t say that my life is centred or dependent on computers, but my specific lifestyle certainly is. It has been interesting for me to look critically at the internet given that it is so pervasive in my life.

One of the things that I think I’ve come to understand about the internet that I never really thought of before, is in terms of this word ‘pervasiveness’. Because yes, I might use it everyday and so might my peers, but my grandparents don’t even have a computer. And then, there are people out in the world who never would have seen a computer. So, we might talk of it in terms of globalising us, which is true for there are computers and the internet throughout the world, but people don’t experience the internet the same way or on the same level of pervasiveness that we might. I guess it isn’t in itself particularly related to my project but it makes me think twice about saying things like ‘computers are everywhere these days.’ They aren’t. But obviously the idea that it is has held us captive if we are willing to make those kinds of assumptions.

Additionally, this project has been quite different for me than usual assignments. I’ve been given some virtual space to wonder around the theoretical aspects of this question and to use lots of really salient case studies. I’ve been given the opportunity to unravel everything a little further than what I would be given in a normal essay. As a result, it has complicated the project a lot, but I think that means that it has deepened it. I’ve been thinking and learning quite a lot.

Now that the project is finished, there will be no future posts on this blog, however I would encourage anyone reading this to comment if they have thoughts they’d like to share or otherwise contact me via email (my details are on the About The Project page).

Bringing it all together
October 23, 2010

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Over the past few weeks I’ve covered a myriad of topics on neoliberalism and the internet, to the extent to which some posts have contradicted others! In this post, I plan to (finally) bring everything all together and come up with what I think is a reasonable view on the topic at hand. Which is:

The internet is a technology that engenders neoliberal values. Discuss

In order to do this, I’m going to divide my data into a number of concepts which have come up continuously since I started writing the blog:

What happens on the internet is reflective of wider circumstances.

My exploration of Second Life, I feel, really epitomises how, when people go online, they can pretty much work to recreate the offline world. Neopets is similar, and so is facebook insofar as the information available on facebook is similarly limited as the information available to you in terms of markets. Even wikipedia, a website based on the idea of many contributors making unbiased ‘knowledge’ available to everyone reflects some neoliberal ideologies.  I’m sure this doesn’t always hold, and indeed, people may use the internet to get away from the discrimination and what have you that happens online by doing things like creating blogs and posting discussions, or even by hiding the fact that they are a member of oppressed group when they go online. Nonetheless, what happens online is a function of the status quo. Whether your challenging it or agreeing with it, you still have to deal with it. The internet does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it is another aspect of our ‘real life’.

We know this because different people use the internet in different ways. In different cultures, it serves different functions. Genevive Bell’s talk on this over on this post provides some particularly salient examples of how this might be. Additionally, as I explore here, internet censorship can work to enforce different political ideologies. I have found it difficult to find very much scholarly information on how in different settings the internet is used differently. I suppose that it’s a very new area to study and maybe not much thought is given to it because realistically, the same websites exist for most internet users. But I think  this is something anthropologists should pay attention to and study. It opens us up to thinking that maybe globalisation doesn’t mean global homogenisation, or even the spread of neoliberalism around the world. Instead, it highlights important particularities of different cultures and something to do with the imagination of people using the interent in ways it may not have initially been designed to be used, but in a way that makes sense to everyone using it.

Alongside cross cultural considerations on this matter, there are also within-culture demographical differences. According to one source which I talk about here, elderly people tend to use the internet quite differently to young people, and additionally people can use it to build new relationships and/or strengthen existing ones. It depends on what one really wants out of life and how they can use the internet to that end. So, in this sense, when everybody is using the internet for different purposes, whatever neoliberal values it may engender is extremely limited by the subjects making use of the internet.

Technology can be quite individualising and democratising, but what this might mean is still complicated.

I have established that one can use the internet for very anti-neoliberal messages and the Zapatista effect describes this very idea. The thing is though, isn’t the free exchange of these ideas really neoliberal unto itself? What’s more, the fact that anti-neoliberal messages compete with messages that may be neoliberal for the attention of readers suggest that information on the internet is kind of market-based, by virtue of the fact that there is a limited amount of time to explore the internet, and a seemingly neverending generation of content online.

Even though anyone with access to the internet can create content, the content is still subject to being part of a hierarchy. I’ve explored this a number of times, here, here, and here. And of course, linking to my previous sub-heading, ideas and people that face discrimination offline also tend to face it on the internet. Some articles are simply more read than others. So, really, it both is and isn’t demoractising. When it isn’t, it usually reinforces neoliberalism because market forces are at work determining what pages you’re going to visit. When it is, it also reinforces neoliberalism because of the same reason, adding also that it also promotes a democracy!

Democratisation of the internet is also limited by the concept of privilege that I’ve spoken about throughout my whole project (my first mention of it was in my third post) – the truth is, not everyone can access the internet and not everyone can use it powerfully.

The concept of individualisation is touched on in my post about Facebook and I also explored it here. The internet was invented with the point of having people connect to each other in networks. Having a unique network individualises you because it shows that you are separate to, not only the links in your networks, but to anyone who has different networks (this is not the case in some societies. For instance, in some cases one’s social networks might be identical to the social networks of the rest of their family). Individualism is really very essential to the concept of neoliberalism and can easily be a bi-product of the internet.

The effect of the fact that the internet is globalised is unclear, as I talk about in this post. Do people talk to others in the same contexts as them or different ones through the internet? Does the internet just reinforce people’s opinions on the world and on politics, or can it fundamentally change them? These are questions that I believe future research could cover, because the internet may have so much potential to do this.

In this sense, while, as I stated earlier in this post, that there are limitations to how much the internet can engender neoliberalism, this section shows something different. Namely, that there is a limit to how much the internet is completely apolitical as a technology.

The Internet can assist in the workings of neoliberalism

I’ve spoken before about how the internet provides a very useful way to achieve the ideal of a neoliberal perfect market (and since in neoliberal economies there is relatively little government intervention, a perfect market is very important to achieve) it also helps political debates and makes it so more people can be a part of them. Lastly, it clearly and obviously supports the interests of business, as I talk about here, here , here and here.

This is an important topic to cover, but rather than saying that as a result of this, neoliberalism is engendered in the internet, I would say that the internet is merely a tool for the workings of neoliberalism. It works as part of the wider context I was talking about earlier, but there is nothing inherent within the technology in which these neoliberal support mechanisms can be deemed a necessary facet of the technology.

Summary

As with any good investigation, the answer is ‘yes and no’. There are tensions and complications which will get in our way of saying something absolute and concrete. It seems to me that the internet is an entity that works to support neoliberalism in the ways I have earlier mentioned. However, this power is limited. After all, you can be quite critical of neoliberalism online, and you don’t have to subscribe to particular beliefs or cultural practises in order to take part in it and additionally, you don’t even have to use it in neoliberal ways.

I would also say that it’s possible that the internet has a neoliberal bias – it doesn’t mean that one can only behave in neoliberal ways online, it does mean though that certain people are going to necessarily be more widely read online than others and it does mean that there is an uneven level of even basic access to the interent. It was also made with the purpose of letting people being able to connect with their own networks, assuming that users are individuals and inherently individualising them. You can still decide not to use the internet like this, but realistically, that’s what it was set up to do. The internet is not apolitical unto itself.

Lastly, as I explore here, it is not completely unproblematic to talk about neoliberalism as a theoretical framework in the way I have. But I think doing so has been really useful in that it served as a lens for me to explore the internet in a critical way. As a result, the conclusions I’ve come to on this project I think are really interesting and they contribute something new to the discussions about the internet.

Second Life: The kind of world people create when they could create anything
October 20, 2010

Virtual reality - Second Life - one of my own ...

Image via Wikipedia

Second Life, as a game/networking online-thing isn’t really all that popular these days compared with a few years ago, but it nonetheless serves a very good example of how the virtual world might reflect the world offline (since I’ve started this project I’m uncomfortable with using the term ‘the real world’, as if life online and all the relationships that might entail is any less valid than life offline. It’s still very much real and still can be incredibly meaningful).

For those who don’t know, Second Life is web-based. You pick out an avatar, perhaps one that looks like you, perhaps not (people do tend to play with age, gender, race, etc. – something I’ll get to later), you go around to different ‘places’ that are represented through images and you can have typed conversations with other people. Second Life can be used for roleplaying, or merely just socialising.

Most second-life users are either European or North American.

There are a few aspects of Second Life that I want to focus on today. I’ve never actually played it myself, but I know more or less how it works, and in researching this post I’ve read a fair bit about it. The two main things I want to talk about are: how offline inequalities are replicated online in Second Life and secondly, I would like to look at people’s sense of ownership in what is essentially ‘virtual’ space and the Second Life economy that seems to replicate that of many user’s first life.

Society

This section relates to an earlier post I wrote about how often certain inequalities or types of discrimination that are found offline can also be recreated online. You can take a look at my original post here. Second Life is an extremely potent example of this. This may be because race and gender is such an obvious thing when people manifest themselves in their avatar form, when you’re merely reading someone’s words (as is quite common with the internet) you may have no idea of their demographics.

Stanford University has done a host of studies in how the way people see and treat you and the way you behave in Second Life can be affected by what your avatar looks like. Yee and Bailenson write a really interesting article on The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behaviour in relation to Second Life. It showed that people who had attractive avatars were more likely to act more confident online than if they had unattractive avatars. Additionally, people are more likely to be nice to someone with an attractive avatar. But beyond this, and into the realm of something resembling relevance, the inequalities offline are often played out as well in Second Life.

This article by Eve Shapiro deals with this issue exactly:

Many early utopian theories of computer-mediated communication asserted that as people “moved online” they would cast off gender, race, class, and body limitations to exist as undifferentiated equals.

Just like in offline life, certain structural inequalities exist and are recognised. There are relatively few people on Second Life who aren’t tall, thin and pale. Additionally, those of certain races may be treated badly by others. It shows that those inequalities that exist under neoliberalism additionally exist on Second Life (not to say that inequalities are only in the domain of neoliberalism, but as Margaret Thatcher so puts it, neoliberalism directly protects people’s ability to not be equals). Interestingly, fat avatars are also looked down upon. In a Foucauldian  sense, fat bodies are bad for neoliberalism because they are less economically productive than thin, fit bodies. Presumably though, whether or not someone’s avatar is fat or thin has no bearing on their productivity in Second Life. Regardless, the users of Second Life have reproduced offline inequalities online.

Economy

Second Life users buy land which they can use to build houses or businesses. As Tom Boellstorff writes in his book, Coming of Age in Second Life, people can gain a real sense of ownership over the property they bought (often indirectly with real money). He tells a story of how one woman built a dance club in a part of the Second Life world. It had become quite popular and she had clearly put a lot of time and effort into making it so. Later, another individual came in and built a store. The store was reportedly really ugly and one of the firends of the dance club owner told the store owner off, quite angrily “shouting” (insofar as anyone can shout on the internet, with ALL CAPS and a gratuitous use of exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). He was concerned that the ugliness of the store may not just detract visitors from coming to the club but it was also an insult on the eyes that was genuinely unpleasant.

Become time, effort and money go into creating property in Second Life, ownership is understood in a neoliberal sense. While Boellstorff notes that there is a real gift economy, ownership and boundaries are also quite obvious and sacred by virtue of the fact that it is not okay to encroach on other individual’s territory. This clear vision of ownership, even though what is at stake here is virtual space, rather than physical space (again, I’m deliberately not using the word ‘real’, because it is clearly significant to users), certainly reflects neoliberal values of property. Your stuff is yours – it doesn’t belong to the state and it ought not be shared.

The game is additionally useful for commercial gain. It is possible to make money on Second Life, as this article explains. If you have a particular talent or skill, you can sell your wares (in this case, fashion) to others. When you make money on Second Life it is in a specific currency called Linden Dollars. Linden Dollars can be exchanged into any local currency (US dollars, Australian dollars, Japanese yen, the Euro, etc.). Et voila! Your skills are valued on the basis of a dollar figure and having skills that are highly valued can be worth a lot of money. One Second Life user even became a millionaire! This is a typical neoliberal money-making framework. But for the fact that it’s online.

There are some really interesting articles on Second Life, unfortunately I couldn’t really talk about them because they were largely unrelated to my project, but I definitely recommend taking a look at these.

Different People Use the Internet Differently
October 19, 2010

When I went to Vietnam, I recall being absolutely inundated with pictures of western celebrities, western cinema, books, TV shows, music, etc. Of course, there was also a lot of Vietnamese media too, and media coming from places like Japan, India and China. Could it be that the presence of global media means that Vietnam is becoming somehow less Vietnamese? I don’t think so. I met a Vietnamese girl, the same age as me, who owned a copy of Twilight. She had it on her bookshelf alongside a range of posters and other books and music CDs that were from all over the place. Firstly, it struck me as odd that someone my age was reading Twilight. In Australia, reading Twilight as a twenty-something is frowned upon, especially for students at university. And while it’s okay to have read it, it’s only okay in an ironic sense. People say, ‘I wanted to read it so see how I should use the word “sparkiful” correctly‘. But they don’t put it on their bookshelf and say that they love it to strangers. I’m not saying this to denounce this girl’s level of literacy or even taste in books. Instead, what I am suggesting is that Twilight may well be the same book all over the world, but it means something different to her in Vietnam than what it does to me in Australia.

This leads very nicely into a discussion about the internet. The internet does have a strong global presence. As I’ve mentioned numerous times now, obviously not everyone can access it, but it does appear to at least exist in every country. But, in each place that the internet exists, people may be using it in very different ways to how you or I may use it. Genevive Bell talks about this in the following YouTube video:

The idea that the internet is not something that everyone uses in identical ways is reflected over in The Anthropology of Homo Digitalis and His Tribes where Jukka Jouhki talks about 6 different ways in which westerners alone engage with the internet, those who use it for merely staying in contact with people, those who need it for work, those who use it to research their areas of interest and hobbies, among others (I’m a digital extrovert, according to the quiz that accompanies this article). Add to that a myriad of other ways to use the interent in different cultural contexts, when one has different levels of access, and different wants needs and values.

This data really highlights the anthropological nature of this project. Which is, it would appear that, even though the internet may have been constituted for a specific purpose, people are able to take it and use it in whatever way they want to or are able to. It seems to become a function of one’s lifestyle, rather than something that can change one’s lifestyle. In that case, of course the internet is not necessarily inherently neoliberal, it’s just used for neoliberal ends by certain people. But, if you tell your son to email a letter to a relative and ask the son to recount the reply to the letter, there is nothing particularly neoliberal about that. You are probably using the website of a specific company such as Google or Microsoft to send emails and sort of contribute to those companies because then advertisers are able to market to you, but the extent to this is fairly minimal, I would argue. Particularly if you don’t speak the language they’re advertising to you in.

The Invention of the Internet: How might technology be embued with neoliberalism?
October 19, 2010

xkcd

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(click for larger image)

Looking at how the internet was invented may allow us to see its intended uses and the kinds of interactions it was initially designed to facilitate. According to Internet History, the story goes like this:

In the 1950s, the USSR launched Sputnik, a satellite that essentially has the function of communicating information. The US, as was typical of the Cold War era, in turn decided that they would need to build something better and more powerful than what the Russians had built, essentially as insurance against some kind of satellite related, space-based nuclear attack. In response to this, some Americans created a communications-based network which roughly approximates what we would today call the internet.

In the 1960’s one American in particular, Marshall McLuhan ‘foresaw’ that the internet could be used as something of a ‘global village’. He likened the connectivity of the internet with a central nervous system, with many nodes in which one could connect to others. He wrote:

Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.

When you are a node in a network, a certain level individualisation can take place. If you’re a node connected to different people with a different set of contacts to anyone else, then it begs to be acknowledged that, to some extent, you are distinct from other people. Individualisation is very much a neoliberal process, as I touch on here.

Further, corporatisation has made it so that computers are now objects that some people in the world are now realistically able to consume. Computers and similar devices continue to develop up to the point where I can actually carry the internet around with me everywhere through my iPhone. But notice the word ‘develop’ there? That’s very culturally specific, and neoliberalism is definitely based on the ides that everyone’s life improves through economic investment and entrepreneurship. The rate at which things are changing is a ground for neoliberalism to actually thrive in the midst of corporate interests and people’s willingness to buy stuff. And although I’m personally quite happy with this (I can barely imagine life without the internet), this is an idea that we definitely want to look at closely and be critical of. How much does ‘development’ improve our lives? What do we pay (in a non-monetary sense of the word) in order to experience these technological changes? Additionally, how does the gadget and computer industry effect the way we live, and how much does it merely reflect the ideas of a few dominant philosophers and politicians who have sung the praises of neoliberalism in the past? Are we putting those political and philosophical ideas upon other people from different cultures?

(That last question will be explored a little more in depth in my next post)

A Site of Privilege
October 18, 2010

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This post will be made in reference to William Osborne’s essay, ‘Neoliberalism and the Internet’s Privileged Epistemologies

I have spoken already a bit on how the internet is a privileged place. Relatively few people in the world have access to it and those who do are relatively wealthy in the grand scheme of things. After all, they can afford a computer. Osborne also talks about privilege and the internet, but not so much in terms of being able to access it, but instead in terms of being able to make a contribution on the internet and actually be listened to.

I’ve drawn up a Paint diagram (in my opinion paint is an under-utilised programme) which maps out the hierarchical distinctions in terms of being able to contribute to the internet:

pyramid
click for larger image

Point A is in relation to this post, and is touched on also in this post.

Point B will make up the content of the post I am making right now.

Point C is covered in two earlier posts, here and here.

The middle part of this hierarchy I’ve provided is really what Osborne talks about in his essay. He argues that whatever forces there are in real life that stops others or the dominant group from taking them seriously due to discrimination translates directly over the internet. He uses his own personal experiences in being part of an online discussion group to illuminate this point.

In the discussion group, the moderators and a few other members discussed whether or not it the group itself should be more highly moderated. There were instances of quite colourful language and certain members were found to be intimidating to other members, particularly new ones, which inhibited the pursuit of diversity in the group (it was largely white male dominated).

When the hapless woman who regularly participates said the list’s language was indeed a problem for her, one of the men responded: “I don’t really give a fuck as to how a person says what he/she needs to say…it’s the fuckin’ IDEA that ultimately counts.”

The idea of moderation was met with almost unanimous complaints of censorship by the men. The owner confirmed that the list is a place where anything goes, and that there would be no controls except the exclusion of concert notices (which are reserved for a separate address.) When the discussion of diversity became more heated (thus empowering the theme) one list member advised the others to quit addressing it, “Don’t wrestle with a pig,” he wrote, ” you both get covered in shit and the pig loves it.”

Another participant trivialized diversity by comparing it to musical recordings that present “elephants” and “five year olds”:

“Here’s something of interest to those of you who would like to see more inclusion of minorities in the music. Not only are these elephants Thai, but they are elephants. Very refreshing to see more folks including elephants. There’s also a very tempting CD by an orchestra of 5 year olds.”

In the end, the dominant view was that the group ought to be an ‘anarchy’. For some, this may be seen as refreshing. The discursive power of an unmoderated group means that anyone can express any view and so people who are marginalised may gain power by being able to communicate their ideas freely with the dominant majority. This is a very optimistic idea. Rather, Osborne writes:

This raises important questions about the Internet’s presumed anarchy and who it benefits. On one hand, anarchy guarantees a kind of free speech, but on the other, it grants the ruling status quo (which is often that of white males) an unrestricted exercise of power that can further marginalize those who are different. Since the general ethos of the Internet stigmatizes regulation, it is seldom that lists grant any form of encouragement or “epistemological privilege” to marginalized views. Lists tend to gravitate toward norms that leave members little to do except preach to the choir. Those who are different are relegated to smaller, more specialized lists where their concerns are ghettoized.

To some extent, those who are ordinarily marginal in their offline life can gain some power online because they can publish their ideas in the form of a blog or in a discussion group or on a message board and they become more powerful and able to put across their perspective than any other time. Unfortunately, the internet does not operate inside a utopic vacuum. The marginal still have to compete for attention with dominant perspectives, and given that the presence of the economically privileged on the internet is much higher than those marginalised people who may not be able to afford a computer in the first place, there are many more dominant perspectives on the internet than marginal ones.

Neoliberalism and Facebook
October 14, 2010

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My post today will be based on Ilana Gershon’s papers on Facebook and neoliberalism. These papers have yet to be published, so I cannot provide a link here, though one will appear in Anthropological Quarterly (pending revisions).

The relationship between Facebook and neoliberalism starts with an understanding on Hayek’s understanding of the market. He basically feels that the market is an ideal social situation. Why? Well, we don’t really understand the workings of the market very well. We are generally quite bad at processing economic information. Luckily though, the market does this for us. ‘The market managed information in a way no single person could.’ Facebook, and specifically, the act of ‘Facebook stalking’ can be thought of in a similar way:

This web-based social networking site brings people into a system of partial information, in which people view just enough information to want more details about ex-lovers or current lovers, but not enough information to be satisfied. This can lead to hours of Facebook stalking as they try to find information that will produce a satisfying enough context. Hayek argues that this system of partial information is precisely how people experience the market. People only have partial understanding of economic exchanges, they never fully grasp how the market works or how their own actions will affect the market.

Our understanding of markets is incomplete and it is therefore difficult to predict what is going to happen. Likewise, in the context of Facebook, information one can get to is also incomplete:

People describe their experiences of Facebook as providing information about others in the way Hayek imagines information functions – referencing a larger order yet never fully revealing this order, promising sufficient information to lead to action with predictable and predicated outcomes but never fulfilling this promise.

This gets to the crux of Gershon’s argument, which is that neoliberal discourse is not telling in the way of describing how people focus on bits of information, rather than the context as a whole. The compulsion to ‘facebook stalk’ is based on the idea that if one gathers enough information, one will become satisfied in that they know the entire context of their ex-partner or an old friend from high school or whomever. But the truth is, as with our knowledge of markets, it will never be complete and this desire for complete knowledge can never be truly satisfied. Given the frustration involved with this, and the hours spent by ‘Facebook addicts’ in ‘stalking’ people, this can hardly be said to be an ‘ideal social order’. Rather, it tells a tale of being unfulfilled by incomplete levels of knowledge.

This is not necessarily something that is restricted just to Facebook. For instance, one can ‘google stalk’ another person and try to gather sufficient information, but facebook seems like a particularly fetile site for this kind of information gathering because, in many cases, all the people you know are ‘on’ there. I think that, although I don’t think I’ve really spent much time stalking people on facebook, I have certainly gone on to other peoples profiles trying to find missing information about them, not really knowing what that might entail, and, of course, eventually finding either nothing or nothing particularly satisfying.

Facebook is a neoliberal ‘society’ in that, as we list our interests, our favourite quotes, our hobbies and bands, where we’ve lived, gone to school and worked, pictures of us, etc. as though we own ourselves in the same way we might own a business, which is in itself a presupposed neoliberal vision of selfhood. ‘This is the self that Facebook encourages its users to represent, encouraging people to update their profiles constantly through a variety of gimmicky techniques, asking people to see their profile as a display that continually needs to be embellished and managed.’

When the self becomes metaphorically a business, it is a compilation of measurable skills and assets that enters into relationships with other selves that may have different arrays of skills. From a neoliberal perspective, the more skills one has, the better. So too with alliances, the more alliances one has, the better. This is a view that Facebook seems to adopt as well, its interface is constantly suggesting that people add more and more alliances to their profile.

The amount of friends you have says something about your popularity and ability to network, your specific skills and interests are able to define you as a kind of ‘brand’ or ‘genre’ of person.

Additionally, Gershon talks about how the way Facebook is set up so that a neoliberal version of oneself is presented to others effectively makes individuals feel as though they can no longer sustain healthy relationships. She writes:

Facebook, just like the market, provides the conditions for presenting tantalizing incomplete information. As users and former users of Facebook mentioned to me, they often find it difficult to interpret information on Facebook: they feel the site provides both too much information and incomplete information. They describe this combination of excess and incompleteness as obstacles inherent to Facebook, with users trying to interpret the alliances performed on their lover’s Facebook profiles. Incomplete information on its own can be frustrating, yet was not so anxiety-provoking alone to convince these college students to quit Facebook. They quit because of the combination of incomplete information along with a socially constructed sense of obligation to perform being a neoliberal self (a compilation of represented assets that constantly required attention and enhancement). In short, the neoliberal performances of self that Facebook fosters are public performances of promiscuous alliances expressed through the circulation of incomplete information, presenting a promiscuity that some undergraduates fear should be read literally

According to Gershon, the troubles people have with Facebook – their inability to function in their relationships without paranoia as well as their inability to stop obsessing over certain people through the act of ‘stalking’ –  highlight certain problems with taking on this neoliberal persona.

In this way, we can see how the internet, or various parts of the internet, do reflect neoliberal workings in very subtle ways. That said, Gershon does remark that there is nothing inherently neoliberal in facebook as a medium. The interface of facebook does not pre-empt the ways one might make use of the platform. Rather, the designers do and the users do. And indeed, different people do use facebook in different ways, but this neoliberal version of events is informative for this project, because it shows that even social networking websites can act to mimic overarching political ideals in both the way people experience them and in the way social networking can be used to present oneself-as-a-business.

Wikipedia: Knowledge and Volunteerism
October 12, 2010

There are two aspects of wikipedia I want to talk about in this post. The first is the idea of wikipedia being a source for knowledge and the second is the structure of wikipedia – how it is made by volunteers. I think wikipedia is a website which may be useful for exploring the way in which the internet may embody or take on neoliberalism.

Knowledge
books
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Anyone who has been to university recently would have been told by now, perhaps many times that WIKIPEDIA IS NOT AN ACADEMIC SOURCE!!! It’s academic suicide to use it and perhaps it might be good enough for mass produced books to refer readers to wikipedia, it is certainly not suitable in the academic world. Wikipedia has been well and truly denounced.

However, in response to this, I’ve noticed that students often counter this by saying things like ‘if something on there is untrue, it is more likely to be removed than something that is true.’ Additionally, a great number of people clearly use wikipedia anyway. Indeed, whenever I come across an unfamiliar term or hell, even if I just want to know how many grandchildren Solomon Burke has, it’s a safe bet that I’ll look for the answer first on wikipedia. Wikipedia is so ubiquitous that in my circle of friends, ‘wiki’ has even become a verb. ‘Who hosts that show?’ ‘I dunno, wiki it.’

But what types of knowledge are found on wikipedia? We’ve been warned that it doesn’t meet the stringent requirements of academia, but does it in fact bias us towards certain ideologies? This is what ‘Conservapedia‘ (yes, it exists) has to say under the category of ‘Examples of Bias in Wikipedia‘:

# Wikipedia omits an entry on Biblical scientific foreknowledge, and instead ignores the foreknowledge with a pathetically abbreviated section entitled “History and advocacy” under “Scientific foreknowledge in sacred texts.”
# Wikipedia’s entry on the starlight problem is a typically atheistic distortion, omitting that light appears to older than the age of the universe under atheistic models as well as biblical explanations, and that the expansion of the universe can explain this anomaly under either theory.
# A Wikipedia editor going under the pseudonym Jagged85 made 67,000 edits between 2007 and 2010 until it was demonstrated that he was systematically misrepresenting Islamic science, technology, and philosophy.
# A Wikipedia editor named “Pensacolian” inserted false information about Judge Roger Vinson, claiming he was a bear hunter who mounted several of his trophy bear heads above his courtroom door. Rush Limbaugh repeated the claims on his radio show, compelling the Judge to issue a statement denying the falsehoods.
# Wikipedia includes the margin of victory for a liberal politician, but omits or downplays the margin of defeat for the same politician. For example, Alan Mollohan lost in his own primary by 56-44% after voting for Obamacare, but Wikipedia’s entry about him includes only his margins of victory in prior elections. The margin of defeat for liberal Gordon Brown is obscured in his Wikipedia entry also.

And it goes on like this. The list has some 167 items. Right-winged extremists aren’t the only ones who say that wikipedia is biased in certain ways. Left-winged extremists have something to say as well:

More than 50% Wikipedia users come from the United States, hence naturally there is a systematic pro-America bias in Wikipedia. Most of them are neoliberals, thus Wikipedia actually is a neoliberal propaganda website. Anyone who is left-leaning and who comes from a country which is negative towards the US foreign policy faces regular harassment in Wikipedia. Any article which is negative towards the United States comes under instant attack by pro-America propagandists, see Neocolonialism.

Nicholas Carr writes in “The Ignorance of Crowds” that:

for all its breadth and popularity, Wikipedia is a deeply flawed product. Individual articles are often poorly written and badly organized, and the encyclopedia as a whole is unbalanced, skewed toward popular culture and fads. It’s hardly elitist to point out that something’s wrong with an encyclopedia when its entry on the Flintstones is twice as long as its entry on Homer… Wikipedia’s administrators represent a broader mix of contributors. They’re often chosen on the basis of how much they’ve contributed or how long they’ve contributed rather than on the quality of their contributions or their editorial skill. It seems fair to say that although the bazaar should be defined by diversity, the cathedral should be defined by talent. When you move from the bazaar to the cathedral, it’s best to leave your democratic ideals behind.

Wikipedia is most likely biased. Although it seems crass to argue alongside individuals from either far side of the political spectrum, the fact that most contributors are Americans probably says something about the kinds of bias we might expect from it. Namely, it is more likely to be a neoliberal project than not.

Volunteerism
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The other part of wikipedia I would like to look at is that it’s essentially a volunteer project. Nobody gets paid for their contributions, they do it out of the kindness of their own hearts, our of a quest for knowledge and of delivering that knowledge to others. Volunteer culture is an often uncriticised aspect of neoliberalism – as the government plays a smaller role in the workings of the state, the now non-existent social welfare and diminished levels of education, health and other services need to be supplemented with donations and the help of volunteers. As Hyatt writes in “‘Service Learning’, applied anthropology and the production of neoliberal citizens” (vol. 8 Anthropology in Action):

part of their obligation as a ‘good’ citizens is to participate vigorously in the volunteer sector organisations and activities that constitute the domain generally known as ‘civil society’.

She further talks about how, in the US, there was a large media campaign, including figures such as Oprah Winfrey, encouraging volunteerism. This would make up for the lack of state intervention in the economy and would also create model citizens who no longer rely of governmental resources.

Wikipedia can be seen as a manifestation of neoliberalism online in that it relies on volunteerism in order to create an encyclopaedia that allows anyone to find the knowledge they seek. Wikipedia can cover a gap in services in that anyone can go there to find information that they may not find in school or elsewhere. Looking critically at the kinds of knowledge featured on wikipedia, those volunteering for the website are acting as model citizens in order to bring about a world view that may reinforce their own. While I think ‘propaganda’ is far too loaded a term to use in relation to wikipedia, those volunteers, simply by being who they are and thinking the way they do, are doing the job of spreading bias for the governments they are subjects of.

This is how it is possible for Wikipedia to embody neoliberalism.

The Internet and Diversity
October 11, 2010

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This post will be largely based on Kelly Askew’s introductory chapter in The Anthropology of Media: A Reader

Anthropologists are no longer the gatekeepers to other worlds, other societies and other cultures. When I was quite young, probably about 8 or so, I wanted to use email to write to new people. I had heard of penpals and indeed, one of my Japanese teachers set up a pen pal programme for us. Problem was, we weren’t assigned Japanese pen pals, we were assigned other Australian students learning Japanese as pen pals. The novelty wore off quickly.

The internet made things easy though. I did not have to disclose my address to some unknown stranger (just my email address) and I found a website where young people from around the world wrote a little bio about themselves and you could email whoever seemed interesting. Sure, you must be careful on the internet – don’t send photos or your address or anything like that, but getting oneself an ‘ePal’ from the other side of the world is pretty easy. A more recent website than the one I used is Language Exchange, where you actually make friends with someone who speaks a different language to you so as to assist you in improving in that language. C’est super truc!

Askew writes about how the internet puts us in direct contact with, well, the world:

Anthropologists remain committed to the pursuit of ethnographic knowledge and cross-cultural understanding, but it is CNN, Hollywood, MTV, and other global mediathat now present and represent cultures to the majority of our world. Local communities from Africa to America to Australia and everywhere in between catch their first glimpses of distant lifestyles through images in print, on television screens, and on celluloid. They hear unfamiliar musics and languages through radio broadcasts, music videos, and mass-produced (frequently pirated) cassettes. And they meet and interact with persons continents away by logging on to the internet.

There is a limit to this. I think it’s easy to overlook the fact that there is no such thing as the ‘World Wide Web’ when it has definitely become something quite ordinary for most of us, for instance I use email for work and for keeping in contact with people, heck, I’m writing a blog for a class assignment. That doesn’t discount the fact that most people in the world don’t have internet access. It is a thing for the globally privileged, and so diversity on the internet is not full and complete, even though we might like to think that it is.

Nonetheless, I don’t have to be an anthropologist to email someone from Korea, learn their language and ask lots of questions about them and their culture. And I don’t have to be an anthropologist in order to learn a lot from doing something like this. But, what kind of effect does this direct access to people from all over the world have on neoliberalism?

Firstly, it is obvious that people who have different ways of thinking can talk about their own political ideas to those who may have a neoliberal outlook so as to ‘expand their horizons’, as it were. Likewise, people who think in neoliberal ways can encourage others around the world to do so as well. Askew talks about this tension between homoginisation and diversification in her introduction. One example she gives is that global media may privileged Hollywood films. On the other hand, if it weren’t for global media, Westerners would know little about Bollywood films, which are also quite popular.

Of course I’m limited in my conclusions by time and practicalities, but I think the real key to figuring out this part of the equation would be to see (a) how much people do interact with people unlike themselves on the internet and (b) how much they actually talk about politics. As well as (c) how seriously do they take what the other person is saying.

In my own experience (which is hardly extensive) people from certain places are quite vocal opponents of neoliberalism. In the discussion groups I have been a part of though, sometimes opposition is dismissed. ‘Of course he’s socially progressive’, a user may say. ‘He is from the Netherlands’ (for instance).

Thus, the internet can challenge people by providing them with diversity. On the other hand though, it can also just reinforce everything one already thinks anyway. This is complex territory and there is little data on the matter.

The effect of the Internet on Politics
October 9, 2010

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The content for this post has largely come from an earlier essay I wrote for ANTH2128 (for more information about the course, look at About the Project).

The best case study I have for the way in which the internet affects politics is the recent 2010 Australian Federal Election. It is the best example because it is very recent, it only happened a couple of months ago and, as an Australian, I was in Australia at the time. I think that what this case shows is that it can actually assist the workings of democracy and neoliberalism. But, as I will explain, only to a point.

In my original essay, I argued that the internet creates different kinds of relationships in that, we can interact with people that we would have otherwise never have been able to interact with. We can join discussion groups with or follow blogs or twitter pages of complete strangers. Alternatively, we can follow people who are quite important and famous and interact with them on Twitter. For instance, one of the people I follow on Twitter is ABC journalist, Leigh Sales! In Australia, the Greens party has been particularly responsive to twittering – they actually use the form quite actively. Additionally, in the lead up to the 2010 Australian election, the voting public were able to comment on political debates a

s they happened. Television networks aired Twitter comments regarding debates at the bottom of the screen, as the debates happened. Ordinary people were able to forge relationships with television networks to share their opinion and directly comment on policy in a public manner that demands the attention of politicians and their policy makers. Even those Twitter comments which were not aired were still accessible to the general public, meaning that individuals could form conversations from people around the country, and to some extent, the world.

As the election was happening, I was a very active twitterer. On TV Kerry O’Brien and other ABC journalists were telling me all the latest results and I was instantaneously commenting on them. Same thing happens with television political debates (in TV shows such as ABC’s Q&A or SBS’s Insight). I don’t have an

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assured newspaper column or television or radio editorial everyday, but if I wanted to, I could spend my whole day writing about politics on the internet and they’d be out there for everyone to see. This is true freedom of speech and true democracy at work!

But, there are limits to this. I have about 4 followers on Twitter. I think some of them are spam bots. There isn’t much

following going on for me. My opinions are not widely read. So, even on the internet, a free form, there are hierarchies. Not everyone is equal here, not every opinion will be read. So, it can hardly be said to be a perfect democracy, can it? Still, it may be fairly neoliberal, assuming that the best opinions are the ones most widely read (or, more cynically, the opinions with the most money backing them are the most widely read).

It’s difficult to tell how much internet and its presence in the lead up to the election actually played on the results. However, the results were certainly quite different to normal. I’m not one to speculate on this issue, especially since I know that the kinds of blogs I read are biased towards political opinions I already have. I think dissatisfaction with the two major parties, leading to a hung parliament may well be a separate issue to the place of the internet in politics, even though this dissatisfaction was clearly highlighted by a number of people. Assuming that it isn’t though (a poor assumption, I think), a higher vote for the Greens seems to suggest a turn away from neoliberal policies and toward greater amounts of social progression and government intervention in the market.

If you are interested, some of the papers I read to understand the internet and its social effects were:

Phillip E Agre (2002) “Real-Time Politics” in The Information Society, Samuel M. Wilson & Leighton C. Peterson (2002) “The Anthropology of Online Communities” in Annual Review of Anthropology and Paul DiMaggio, Eszter Hargittai, W. Russell Neuman & John P. Robinson (2001) “Social Implications of the Internet” in Annual Review of Sociology.