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Sharing, Theft, and Creativity: April 25th talk on my research

Rather than having a dissertation “defense,” the School of Information asks its graduating doctoral students to give a public talk during business hours (getting the signatures was the defense…). I’ll be presenting a portion of my research on April 25 from noon to 2pm at South Hall on UC Berkeley’s Campus.

What: “Sharing, Theft, and Creativity: deviantART’s Share Wars and the Production of the Web” (abstract below)

When: April 25, 2012, 12-2pm
12-12:30: Bring your own lunch; Snacks and drinks provided
12:30-2:00: Talk and discussion

Where: Room 205, South Hall, UC Berkeley

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The debate about the latest round of anti-piracy legislation (SOPA, PIPA) revealed sharp differences in how people conceptualized the Internet, creative work, and the relationship between the two. Much of the debate was framed as old vs. new: an older generation of people, technologies, media institutions, and notions of creativity clashing with the Internet, youth, and a revolution that they have brought about. Indeed, the web and social media help constitute new infrastructures for the distribution of media products and the social recognition of people—younger and older—as creators and artists. Conventional features of the contemporary web provide new means for the display of artistic products, tools for social commentary and interaction around these products, and means of enhancing existing artistic communities or forming new ones.

Over the past decade a Web 2.0 “creativity consensus” has emerged that envisions creative and artistic production via new Internet platforms as universal, democratic, communal, non-commercial, and revolutionary. The avant-garde of Web 2.0 creativity are said to be young, web-savvy media makers: a digital generation that has embraced new technology and is upending old notions of creativity and related cultural practices. In this talk, however, I argue that a critical aspect of what is new about the web is in how it resurfaces old tensions in art and creativity and brings them into contact with ideals of the Internet. The consequences are the generation of new tensions in practice that in turn propels the ongoing production of the web.

I draw from a four year ethnographic investigation of deviantART, a web site that describes itself as “the world’s largest online art community” with the tagline “where art meets application.” In this talk I will examine the consequences of deviantART’s introduction of a seemingly conventional set of features for sharing content on the web. These new share tools sparked a six week conflict among site members and designers that conflated technical and moral arguments about how art and the web work. The conflict surfaced new tensions among ideas about property, theft, sharing, and marketing and, in turn, the nature of the web. Rather than seeing young, web-savvy artists as the avant-garde of new forms of creativity tied to the inherent nature of web technologies, I argue that participants in deviantART play active roles in seeking new balances between historical tensions in art and the web. These young creators are thus important participants in producing deviantART and the web more generally.

Dissertation abstract – Making Art, Creating Infrastructure…

I officially filed my dissertation in December. It will be available through the UC Berkeley library and ProQuest soon enough, and I plan on having a nice web-formatted version up at some point in the near future. But in the meantime, the abstract is below and here is a link to the full dissertation (warning: large PDF…).

Making Art, Creating Infrastructure: deviantART and the Production of the Web

The development and widespread use of Internet technologies and platforms that are grouped under the labels “Web 2.0” and “social media” have led to celebratory accounts of their potential as tools to unleash human creativity. A “creativity consensus” has emerged that describes a vision of creative production via these new platforms as universal, democratic, communal, non-commercial, and revolutionary. The avant-garde of Web 2.0 creativity are said to be young, web-savvy media makers: a new generation that has embraced new technology and is upending old notions of creativity and related cultural practices.

This dissertation challenges these views through an ethnographic investigation of deviantART, the self-described “world’s largest online art community.” The dissertation demonstrates how conflicting ideals of art, creativity, and the web, when put into practice, shaped the site as ideological and technical infrastructure for creative practice and the formation of members’ creative identities.

In their use of the site, participants in deviantART actively, and at times contentiously, engaged with historical tensions concerning both art and the web. The dissertation explores tensions emerging around three sets of concerns: (1) gaining artistic recognition through visibility, popularity, or quality; (2) demonstrating artistic “seriousness” in relation to ways of improving at art; and (3) controlling and circulating work through the concepts of property, “sharing,” and “theft.” The dissertation argues that rather than upending Romantic conceptions of art and creativity, the web uneasily accommodates multiple conflicting ideologies.

Intersecting with tensions in art are tensions around the web and its overlapping corporate, commercial, and communal uses. deviantART brought together a diverse set of art worlds and creative practices via a seemingly conventional set of interfaces, features, and functionality. In turn, participants on the site helped manifest, reproduce, and transform these tensions in art practice and web use.

These findings illustrate flaws in conventional accounts of creativity in a world with the web—accounts that fail to recognize the active, contested, and ongoing work underlying the mutual production of creative practice and the web.

Read the full dissertation

Updates on the Art of Theft

The Art of Theft: Creativity and Property on deviantART. Background: In my dissertation research, I have spent quite a bit of time investigating with participants in my research refer to as “art theft.” In late 2008, I presented a talk at the American Anthropological Association that were some of my early thoughts on the topic. This past summer, I was lucky enough to be asked to write a short piece on the topic for the edited blog Material World, out of New York University. So here it is: The Art of Theft: Creativity and Property on deviantART.

Updates from Pew on content creation and sharing online

The Pew Internet and American Life Project released results from a new round of surveys last week on teenagers and young adults use of social media. What I appreciate in this particular report is that it is one of the first (perhaps the first?) in which we can see “young adults” compared to teenagers. It a welcome change from the 12-17 studies that seemed really isolated from the 18+ ones in a way that seemed to make teenagers just look so different than everyone else rather than pointing out differences by age cohort that were a bit more nuanced.

Given my research interests in media production, distribution, and re-use, I am glad to see updated numbers on what Pew describes as “Content creation and sharing.”According to Pew:

Recent data suggests that some online content creating activities have remained constant over time, while others have shown slight or even significant declines since 2006. Adults, however, have shown some increases in content creating over the past few years, with most of the increases found among adults older than 30. (p 22)

Teens’ numbers, they argue, has held steady when it comes to posting “self-created content,” like “photos, videos, artwork, or stories.” 38% of teen internet users report engaging in these activities without variation, as of 2009, by sex, age, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. This is a difference from 2006 when the overall number was at 39%, but older female teenagers were more likely to post original content.

More adults also do this stuff since 2006 (from 21% to 30% of online adults), but none of the growth has come from young adults under 30 (the numbers are steady, like for teenagers). Among adults, there are no differences by gender or ethnicity, though there might be by education.

Numbers for “remixing” content haven’t changed much either, at least no statistically significant changes since 2006 (21% in 2009, 26% in 2006). Girls remix more, says the survey (26% of girls, compared to 15% for boys). No variations reported by age, race, or socio-economic status. The numbers for the 18-29 year olds are similar, also unchanged since 2006, while overall there are now more adult remixers than there had been in 2007, due to a increase from 8% to 13% by adults over 30. Little variation in this group by any of the demographic categories.

See pages 22-24 for fun bar charts and a few more details.

Pew’s headliner, and what I’ve seen on a few other blogs, is the stat that teenage blogging is down, down substantially, as is teenage commenting on blogs and on social network sites. According to the report:

14% of online teens now say they blog, down from 28% of teen internet users in 2006. This decline is also reflected in the lower incidence of teen commenting on blogs within social networking websites; 52% of teen social network users report commenting on friends’ blogs, down from the 76% who did so in 2006. By comparison, the prevalence of blogging within the overall adult internet population has remained steady in recent years. (p 2)

In December 2007, 24% of online 18‐29 year olds reported blogging, compared with 7% of those thirty and older. By 2009, just 15% of internet users ages 18‐29 maintain a blog—a nine percentage point drop in two years. However, 11% of internet users ages thirty and older now maintain a personal blog. (p 2)

I’m not sure what to make of that just yet. I have to do more thinking.

I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to take a look at the survey questions, even though Pew has posted a link to them. I don’t want to say much more until I see them. But I felt the numbers were worth posting, and it might even help me remember them.

If anyone can get to the survey questions and wants to email them to me, that would be much appreciated. Never mind.

Thoughts shook up from an unlikely source

I don’t read Wired that much but this article by Daniel Roth was kind of provocative. It presents a few schools where some reforms have been implemented that would try to make kids all “geeks.” Okay, so that’s not particularly provocative. The interesting part to me is how the means to this end is to break down youth culture in the school and to surround them by adults throughout the day:

But more important, Rosenstock keeps the students surrounded by adults. There are no teachers’ bathrooms or lounges. Parents roam the halls. And the students are required to present their work to outsiders. This, it turns out, is the key to geekifying education. “A big chunk of the school experience is having them hang out with the adults they could imagine becoming,” says private-equity manager Tom Vander Ark, former head of education investments for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a onetime school superintendent. “A big high school has a youth-owned culture. You’ve got to break that.”

Huh. Rather than see schools as being the proxy for a particular style of “adult culture” with many  kids getting the shaft, it turns it completely around and sees that youth culture pervades schools. That’s reminiscent of Paul Willis’ argument in Learning to Labour (Put rather poorly: Youth have some agency in their path to the class reproduction that is a product of schooling). I don’t know who Daniel Roth is or if the schools that he’s talking about are as rosy as he presents them, but this really is getting my brain going.

As an aside, perhaps the school referred to above might also break down typical “adult culture” in the school as well and perhaps that makes as big a difference as the break down in youth culture? After all, the adults lose their bathrooms, lounges, and have to be around kids all day. A study of the adults at that kind of school would be really interesting to compliment a study of where “youth culture” get relocated.

Kids (and adults too!) Talk to Many at Once

This past week, NPR has been doing a series on The E-mail age. I haven’t listened to all of them. In fact, I found the series serendipitously because of a story I was looking for that I heard on the radio this morning on Chinese Fans of American TV Shows, which I may try to come back to in a later post.

I listened to a few of the email stories that struck me because of their relevance to Digital Youth research.

First up: Connected Kids Talk to Many at Once. That seemed to be an old topic, but maybe there’s something new here based on the provocative abstract:

Beyond e-mail, there are ever more ways to connect and communicate: text messages, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, IM and, for the old fashioned, phone calls. Help! How many connections can one person manage? How do people decide what is the best way to keep in touch?

The piece is rather strange. It’s four minutes long and there are two people featured by the journalist, Laura Sydell. The first person is actually not a kid at all, but an adult, Lenny who is 35 and is a marketer at a “Silicon Valley tech firm.” From Lenny, we hear a bit about all of the different technologies for communication that he uses and how he segments those he uses depending on situation. He describes how he can have “multiple layers of conversation” as a part of his job (Skype calls with clients, while text messaging colleagues at work, etc.). Sydell reports that when she arrived he had three IM windows open at the same time. Apparently, he used six different technologies of communication in the forty five minutes that Sydell spent with him.

This is actually quite interesting, but so far, nothing to do with kids.

Almost a minute and a half into the story the voice of Stanford Communications professor Clifford Nass comes in and talks about how at one point psychologists would have said that these kinds of multiple conversations shouldn’t be able to happen–due to “interference” which can lead to “mixed up” and “chaotic conversation” for the brain to process–but they are. Okay, sounds reasonable: theories of communication and psychology need to be refined and reconsidered (besides, sometimes I feel like my head is exploding when I have too many conversations going at the same time).

But here’s the funny transition, about halfway through, and where kids finally come into the story:

Nass says he and other social scientists suspect that many of us are walking around a little mixed up. But, it may be different for people who adapt to it versus those who are growing up with it.

Enter 16 year old Sonia (or Sonja?). Sonia is ending an IM conversation when Sydell walks into the room and, like Lenny, has a few up on the screen of her computer at the same time. She’ll talk to up to six people at once, we learn from Sonia. We also hear that she uses different communications for difference purposes, depending on the context. So far, sounds a lot like Lenny.

Lydell says that even Sonia can get overwhelmed. Going back to the point of the story, though, we didn’t hear Lenny getting overwhelmed. Not that he doesn’t, but we didn’t hear about it. (I should add that I’m not sure Sonia’s quote really supports the interpretation of “overwhelmed.” Decide for yourself around the 3:20 mark.)

The piece ends with Nass making some good points about how, historically, communication media, for the most part, don’t replace each other when they are invented. Though that point has been made before it’s worth repeating over and over again until people stop claiming otherwise. Thus, it seems like that all of us will have to deal with more and more choices of media going forward.

Okay. I am still trying to figure out how this story ended up with the title that it did and what it says about any differences between kids and adults.

To recap: here’s what I heard, at a little more abstract level.

1. 35 year old marketing guy is using many different communications media, has reasons for using different ones with different people, and often has many conversations at the same time.
2. Researchers once thought this not possible. In fact, maybe adult brains are still a little mixed up by all of it (implication: Lenny is an outlier). Ah, but what about those “growing up” (different than “adapting”) with all of this?
3. Answer: 16 year old Sonia is is using many different communications media, has reasons for using different ones with different people, and often has many conversations at the same time.
4. Conclusion? We will continue to have lots of choices in communication technologies going forward and, well, we’ll learn to deal with them.

I think I know what Sydell (or is she paraphrasing Nass and the other social scientists?) are trying to say when they differentiate “adapt” vs. “growing up with” but I’m not sure that this distinction would really hold up as we unravel what “growing up with” really means. Superficially, sounds like “adapt” just a younger age, but adult brains, as I keep hearing more and more, don’t just stop developing. I can’t really get into this here and now, but it’s worth thinking about some more.

Even though I really enjoyed the responses that Lydell elicited from her interviewees and even liked the little concluding points offered by Nass, what bothers me about this story, is that it seems to be designed to fit into the larger narrative of how adults and kids are so different from one another when it comes to technology. I won’t say more on my thoughts on that now (mainly because they are largely incoherent and I’m still working through them). But, titling this story “Connected Kids Talk to Many at Once” and then trying to turn the story on a difference between those who adapt vs. those who grow up with seems kind of sloppy considering how what Sydell reported on doesn’t seem to fit at all.

An obvious alternative framing might have been: given all that we have heard about kids and adults being so different when it comes to technology, how are Sonia and Lenny so similar? In what other ways might they be different?

Dumbest and Dumbester (and Dumbesterer)

A couple of weeks ago, the rhetoric was out of control over a book called The Dumbest Generation by Emory U. Professor Mark Bauerlein. I haven’t read the book so i won’t comment on it. There have been lots of comments on it all over the web and internal among the members of the Digital Youth research group. In a recent article by Bauerlein that appeared in Inside Higher Education, we were rolled up into a mass critique of research funds for technophiles, so I’m not sure what I can say that would have much credibility anyhow. Let’s just say that the nice thing about the work that we have been doing is that we aren’t studying the fascinating question of whether or not this “generation” (uh, whatever that means) is dumber or not (uh, whatever that means) than previous ones.

But if you want to inquire into the Generation Dumbest Debate some more, than I’d highly recommend two recent articles on Radar Online. I suggest we start by collectively reading Robert Lanham’s piece in Radar:

In an article titled “Generation Slap: They’re naive, self-important, and perpetually plugged in. This is a call to arms against Millennials,” Robert Lanham is attempting to rally the 30 million or so Gen-Xers against the 50 million or so Millenials (formerly Gen-Yers) who downright suck:

“That’s why the time has come for Generation X to unite. We need to call bullshit on these naive, self-important crybabies trying to rob us of what is rightly our own. Remember how the Baby Boomers all turned into self-serving, narcissistic assholes who deified Michael Douglas in the ’80s? The time has come for us to turn into assholes, too, minus the Michael Douglas part.”

If you have fond memories of 80s and early 90s pop culture this is a great read and downright hilarious. Some of my favorite parts include a photograph of the Apple Store with the caption: “MECCA The Apple Store, where Gen Yers congregate to kneel at the foot of Steve Jobs.” There is also a nice elucidation of the double standard in coverage of this gap in his comparison of media coverage of Gen X back then and media coverage of the Millenials now. And, I like this discussion of the millenials’ 2008 venture into politics:

“Sure, there are those who defend the Millennials against the accusations of superficiality, generally by suggesting that they’re more politically engaged than the disenfranchised Gen X. But let’s be honest, had George Bush, Jr., been in office when we turned 21, my generation would have sweat through our flannel shirts running to the voting booth to replace him.”

As a member of Generation X (I guess! I used to not be. Then I was. Then I wasn’t again. But now I am.), I was so mad afterwards, I wanted to take a club to the next punk 12 year old DS-player I saw. Stupid stylus.

Oh, but then I saw that there was an equally funny response from a Millenial called “Get Off the Stage: One Millennial responds to Gen X’s discontents” by Alex Pareene. Apparently, he’s one of those meddling millenials.

Shoot. This guy makes the pop culture of my childhood and teenage years super-lame. On the list of ridiculous products of my generation: Reality Bites, “a generation of dudes whose primary goal in life was to sleep with Winona Ryder.” (Hey! When I was a kid I thought she was super cute in Lucas. Wait, no I didn’t. I thought Kerri Green was super cute in Lucas. Goonies also. Well, at least on this point Pareene’s not making fun of me!).

And this comeback is right on the money:

“I’m sorry Time made fun of your generation. But, guys, it’s Time. Don’t worry about it—we Millennials made it irrelevant. We’re killing print! You think we want Morley Safer calling us the Next Greatest Generation? We don’t know who Morley Safer is!”

(Man. All great points. Anyhow, Safer didn’t seem that credible in that 60 minutes show two weeks ago anyways.)

I guess it’s time to go buy a DS and take a club to the next person I see going into a library.

Enjoy the reads. Much better than outrage against the dumbest generation.

The downfall of the “Digital Native” and the “Google Generation”?

Henry Jenkins recently came to speak to the School of Information (audio here). While much of the talk was on his take on the notion of new media literacies, the beginning of the talk was more focused on the problematic concepts of “Digital Native” and “Digital Immigrants.” He recently wrote about the these metaphors that both academics and the popular press often invoke to refer to a sense that that the consequences of “those kids today” being born into an internet-ed world make their brains fundamentally different from those of their parents and the rest of us adults.

So, even though I’ve been lucky to have had easy access to a computer since I was in elementary school, have had difficulty writing essays in long-hand for the past ten years, and my laptop and I are best of friends, I am still an immigrant to some digital world. Jenkins talks about the power this metaphor had for him at one point but also why he can no longer use it. Not only does it rely on “out of date assumptions about immigrants” (the not-digital kind), the implications, he says are dangerous:

Yet, I worry that the metaphor may be having the opposite effect now — implying that young people are better off without us and thus justifying decisions not to adjust educational practices to create a space where young and old might be able to learn from each other.

I agree with Jenkins here. Additionally, however, I would add that the metaphors also imply a universal notion of what “kids today” do. This to me is just as silly as trying to describe what the rest of us do in universal terms.

One of the themes that the researchers on the Digital Youth project have discussed for the past three years is how complex the world of young people looks when you start to compare across situations and forms of technology use. We have been delighted and surprised by both the differences and similarities between what participants in our studies say and do and things that we thought and did in our pre-Internet days. For example, Christo Sims found at that…surpise…kids in rural California still value all of the freedoms that come with getting a drivers license (even though they should be able to do everything through the internet…right?). Starting our research with the assumptions that go along with the rhetoric of a generation gap would have been costly.

Recently, a UK study made some empirical findings to help bolster this critique of the notion of digital natives and digital immigrants, of the obvious generation gap.

Besides having one of the greatest report covers I’ve seen for an academic publication, some of the findings were quite interesting. The researchers used data presented in other studies (surveys by other organizations, such as Ofcom) and did their own research on how the so-called “Google Generation” and older people used various library services (note that the term “Digital Native” predates the rise to prominence of Google so this “generation” may be even younger, but it’s hard to say how to relate the terms precisely…). Their conclusion: the idea of a generation gap is overblown and misunderstood. When there are differences amongst age groups, they note that they don’t know what can be attributed to generational issues or what can be attributed to moving through different life stages:

This is a powerful reminder that people have different information needs at different points in their lives. There are very very few controlled studies that account for age and information seeking behaviour systematically: as a result there is much mis-information and much speculation about how young people supposedly behave in cybersace.

Later, they point out that while it is “generally true” that younger users are “more competent with technology” (confidence level: medium), they also believe that “older users are catching up fast.” Note that they don’t present empirical results that justify this sense of “catching up,” but it seems no more far-fetched than the idea that young people “naturally” are more competent than their parents.

Kid making a great face at a computer not in frame with reflection of Darth Vader

They have several pages addressing the usual claims made about younger generation vs. their elders and they shoot down most of them (see pages 18-20).

Here, their conclusions actually make a great deal of sense:

“In a real sense, we are all the Google generation now: the demographics of internet and media consumption are rapidly eroding this presumed generational difference. The evidence indicates that more people across all age groups are using the Internet and Web 2.0 technologies widely and for a variety of purposes…

In many ways the Google generation label is increasingly unhelpful: recent research finds that it is not even accurate within the cohort of young people that it seeks to stereotype.”

There’s a lot of other stuff worth checking out in the study, especially if you are a librarian or educator.

Read the full report (warning: large PDF).
Go to the “Google Generation” project page.

A young artist’s take on copyright over on the Digital Youth site

I just posted a short “Story from the Field” over on the Digital Youth site called “No, I don’t feel complimented: A young artist’s take on copyright.” It talks about the experience of 15 year-old Sharon, an aspiring photographer, and the tensions she experiences as she posts work to various online art websites and then grapples with the consequences of having her work available for people to repost, reuse, and “remix” on their own sites, blogs, or other places. The scenario I describe shows that the notion that all teenagers have radically different take on copyright than the rest of us is (as if the rest of us have a uniform take) is not necessarily the case. As I conclude in the article, I can’t claim that Sharon is representative of all teenagers or all artists, but that I suspect there are others dealing with the same conflicts.

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