Tag Archive for: social media

eSafety Commission

Recently, I was hanging out with my kids and we were doing a drawing tutorial on the YouTube channel, Arts for Kids Hub. We were following along learning how to draw a volcano when I was struck by some of the things Rob (the tutor) was saying to his son (the student). Every time his son wouldn’t quite make the straight line, or stay inside the colouring lines, or just go a bit wobbly, Rob would just say ‘that’s OK ’cause we’re learning’.

[Just so you know, we drew some insanely cool volcanos that day.]

Anyway, it struck me that this was a reminder that sometimes getting bogged down in the details stops us from just getting on with the overall project – it really interrupts our flow. Kind of like when you are learning a new song on whatever instrument you play, and you can either focus on each note until it’s perfect, or work you way through the piece and perfect sections as you progress. One way is probably more correct, but the other is more fun and likely more insightful of the ‘other’ things you discover along the way.

I wondered if this approach would (could?) apply to my professional world.

Academia runs on perfection and there’s always pressure on us to do the best work we possibly can. This is not necessarily a bad thing, given the significance of the work that we do and the broader impact it might have. The outcome should be the best it can, while also done as a digestible effort for a wide audience. But if we perfect each increment of every step along the way, I wonder what opportunities we may miss. Would there be new discoveries that we miss by chance, or perhaps through serendipity?

I think this is definitely the case with research grant funding.

I was recently, along with two of my colleagues Dr Justine Humphry and Dr Olga Boichak, awarded a reasonably large research grant (around $250,000) from the eSafety Commission – a tier 2 grant category as we say in the biz. This is genuinely an amazing achievement and we are incredibly happy to be one of the funded projects looking at the emerging safety issues on social media for young audiences. You can read more about the grant and project here, and about the funding scheme and other funded projects here.

This project will take us through until mid 2023, with an official kick off in January next year.

I’m now well within my mid-career researcher (MCR) phase, which means I have progressed from the early career researcher (ECR) era – ECR is often judged as beyond five to seven years after completing one’s phd thesis (I submitted mine in 2013). During this time, you usually receive strong mentorship with senior colleagues for positioning your career, focussing your research and its outputs, teaching (if that’s your stream), and grant writing. I’ve had a reasonably strong track record with grant funding for research both through schemes internally at USyd and externally at the Australian Research Council and others.

The eSafety Commission grants were officially announced yesterday, with much media coverage, to which were part of a well-deserved celebration of our successes. We had web pages launched, media releases, tweets constructed and people sending congratulations and best wishes all day and night. It was lovely.

It did make me pause and think about the development of this research project up until this point. We had two failed attempts at various grants (Facebook and ACCAN) before securing this funding go-ahead. Also there would have been so many other great ideas from other research teams that didn’t make the cut for this funding scheme – I have certainly been in that category several times over. Such much effort and time invested in developing a research project and funding application, only to have it declined.

In academia especially, we always talk about our successes as this is our currency that opens the door for the next opportunity – it is our track record. But we never talk about our failings, and this is where the real learning is located. On this most recent successfully funded project, we learnt the following from our previous failed attempts at funding:

  • Boring things like how to follow procedures to submit through administration systems (which are actually really important);
  • That there are amazing industry partners in this space, and who we now work with like Youth Action NSW and Student Edge;
  • That our project has two prongs: one in digital disengagement, the other in safety for young people online;
  • That we have some amazing emerging scholars around us (looking at you Mahli-Ann);
  • That we have excellent knowledge in our local CALD communities; and
  • There is a huge gap in our knowledge around these important areas.

So yeah, we failed. But then we succeeded spectacularly. So I think that’s OK, we’re learning.

Sydney Protests

I was asked to write an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald last week as a reaction to the anti-lockdown protests in Sydney, which took place the week before.

I found it incredibly interesting how those who attended the event left a trail of ‘evidence’ across social media, and who that would be the first place that police agencies, who are incredibly angry, would go for that evidence. There self-posted celebrations would be their downfall ultimately.

What is more interesting is that this is an event which is master-minded by a far-right group in Germany, who has brought quite disparate groups together to march on the status quo. They, who are at an arm’s length, will not be touched by any form of Sydney based policing.

Below is a version of the final article which appears here in the SMH.

Hiding in plain sight: Facebook a ‘honeypot’ for police to monitor protests


Calls for tighter regulation on Facebook are the standard reaction to the spread of disinformation across the social media giant, but considering the recent anti-lockdown protests, perhaps the platform should do nothing.

Activist groups are calling on Facebook to tighten measures on misinformation, claiming “disinfo kills”. Killer disinformation was potentially manifest in the anti-lockdown protests in Sydney last weekend, where the social media platform was likely used to promote and organise. The protest organisers are again encouraging their networks to take to the streets on Saturday to call for change against mandatory vaccinations and lockdowns. These protests have prompted renewed pressure to monitor Facebook’s capacity to attract problematic groups.

However, digital traces of the anti-lockdown protesters on Facebook serve as aides to law enforcement agencies who seek to identify and prosecute hundreds of individuals since the chaos erupted in Sydney. The platform also provides insights for planned activities of these same groups.

The amplification of social media messaging left a trail of videos, images, chats and discussion among thousands of individuals who opposed the current public health orders to stay at home, wear a mask when in public and get vaccinated against COVID-19; a veritable honeypot of data for use by law enforcement agencies seeking to identify and prosecute those who flout public health orders.

So Facebook needs to weigh the potential for the disinformation it hosts to be destructive with the intel it can gather on groups who spread it. And the intel can be vast. We now know that a combination of activity on Instagram, Telegram and Facebook, supported by a German-based group, Freie Bürger Kassel (or the Free Citizens of Kassel), was able to mobilise thousands of individuals in a number of cities around the globe. The Worldwide Rally for Freedom, of which the Sydney protest formed a part, saw a collection of somewhat aligned cohorts of anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, lockdown-opposers, health and wellness groups and far-right extremists come together to protest for their freedom.

This prompts the question: What will Facebook do to prevent these sorts of ill-intent events from occurring in the future? The answer is likely to be nothing. This is the approach that remains consistent with Facebook’s right to freedom of speech position, which enables a wide variety of opinion and conversation to continue. Given the array of horrific moments that have been broadcast live, organised and discussed by its users, one might ask why there isn’t more done to protect the safety of others on Facebook. But perhaps the best thing Facebook could do after the recent Worldwide Rally for Freedom is nothing.

While this approach may be counter to a growing public opinion of Facebook’s responsibility for safe and civil societies, the platform finds itself in a unique position that sees it collecting and profiling the personal data of those who seek to “remain free”. Inherently, through its crowd gathering and mobilisation applications – for example, Facebook Events – the platform is able to collect, sort, organise and archive the personal and network data of those who participated in the rally and documented their efforts on Facebook.

By not de-platforming, silencing or delisting the public event, has Facebook provided law enforcement the breadcrumb trail and the evidence it needs to identify those at the heart of the protest and to prosecute accordingly? This unique and insightful database may indeed be the last chance that police and law enforcement agencies have before these sorts of organisations disappear to the dark web. From there, it becomes increasingly difficult for the law to find and follow leaders of such groups.

The regulatory pressure of this moment places Facebook again in the challenging position to decide on how, in a post-Christchurch massacre world, to manage free speech against the negative and ill-conceived events that are harmful to our societies. But as we saw in the fallout of the ANOM app that brought down more than 200 members of Australia’s underworld, digital databases remain unfriendly to activities that contrast with lawful directives. In that sense, it is the users themselves who are undertaking the detective work.

Ironically, those who wish to be “free” are further incriminating themselves through their public digital traces left on social media platforms. NSW Police have used these traces to administer hundreds of fines to the anti-lockdown protesters.

Public media and automation

I’m super happy to announce a book chapter, co-authored with my colleague Jannick Sørensen, in The Values of Public Service Media in the Internet Society. Our chapter is titled Can Automated Strategies Work for PSM in a Network Society? Engaging Digital Intermediation for Informed Citizenry.

2020 was a tough year for everyone, all round. It was also tough in the research output space as reviews slowed, research focus was redirected, conferences stopped, and the overall productivity of our research space grinded to a turtle pace – at times driven by an increased demand on our skills in the teaching space.

What I think we will see is a slowing of research output in the next few years as we all took a hit in research access, fieldwork and overall ability to keep researching during 2020. But it is nice to see colleagues still publishing for the moment and getting back on track in 2021.

One of those outputs for 2021 is our co-authored chapter that explores the role automation plays in public service media. To approach this we have used the lens of digital intermediation to understand how user visibility plays into the overall strategies of increasing uses of automation within public service media.

As always, please get in touch if you have issues with access to the book chapter.

plamping

Social media preferences are shifting during COVID-19 restrictions. While many of us have been house bound during the recent COVID-19 isolation period, many social media users have been finding innovative ways to socialise online, akin to how we would in non-restrictive times. But how are social media logics playing out during this time?

New forms of connecting during COVID-19

There is no doubt, Zoom, TikTok and others have taken over as the go-to social platforms during these times. Families are sharing meals together via video conferencing, colleagues enjoy drinks after work on Friday evening, families are doing micro-dance challenges together, we’re notified when our friends fire up their ‘Houseparty’ app, and trivia games have found a new niche interest.

The recent phenomenon of ‘plamping’, however, has emerged as the one fringe-styled socialisation technique that is rapidly evolving to the mainstream. When one is ‘plamped’ they are ready to socially engage with others usually through a combination of social media platforms, focussed around live DJ sets – usually the combination of Twitch and Zoom.

The fast-tracking of reliance on these few platforms has resulted in a digital intermediation issue: who owns the ‘plamping’ platforms, and are users able to socialise while multi-platforming? [Side note dear reader, you must read the work of Kristian Møller and how chemsex is changing during isolation].

How does ‘Plamping’ work?

Plamp is a portmanteau of the words ‘plant’ and ‘lamp’ which first appeared on the Twitch Live streaming platform on the first weekend of quarantine 2020 to describe the live DJ set of Dark Deep and Dangerous. He had a plant and a lamp in his frame, which is now replicated as a typical ‘prop’ within the scene.

The term also refers to the act of tuning in to a live DJ set on Twitch TV and interacting with other participants in a hosted Zoom room – the preferred platform combination for many users.

As users engage with each other via the commenting and liking functionality on the Twitch channel’s stream, users begin to build relationships with each other. Twitch has its own style of communication, for example through the use of platform specific emojis such as WutFace, HotPokket and a host of unlockable channel specific communications. As the party starts to kick into gear, someone is likely to ask: ‘still plamped? [insert Zoom Meeting ID] [Insert Zoom Meeting Password].

Following that link can take one to all sorts of places.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Screencap of a random Twitch chat to demonstrate the variety of emoji and language norms

The Twitch/Zoom combo has become a standard for many users wanting to enjoy their Friday and Saturday nights at home, with many users setting up their houses to mimic ‘the club’ with appropriate lighting and props.

But why are users flocking to this combo of platforms over, say YouTube or the Houseparty app?

Amazon dominating the live-stream market

There is no doubt that Twitch has exploded as the go-to platform during Coronavirus times. This has been expected in the gaming industry. Italy’s Twitch traffic alone has increased by 70% in gaming traffic alone.

A close up of a map

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Source: TwitchTracker

What is emerging is the adaptation of this gaming network for other entertainment areas, including fund raising, house parties, and of course, plamping.

And Jeff Bazos is rubbing his hands together.

Twitch is owned by Twitch Interactive, a subsidiary of Amazon. Initially propped up by venture capital of around US$15 million, it was acquired in 2014 by Amazon for US$970 million. Recently, Twitch has introduced Amazon Prime, further monetizing the platform for creators who can now offer in-stream links for events underway.

It is estimated Twitch’s turnover is approximately US$1.54 billion, with creator revenue around US$600 million per year. It is estimated that Ninja, the top Twitch streamer, earns around US$500,000 million per month. 

A close up of a map

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Source: NewZoo

Zoom, however, is owned by Zoom Video Communications, who’s founder, creator and CEO has earned nearly, Eric Yuan, US$4 billion dollars as a direct result of the Coronavirus pandemic. The platform’s usage statistics have gone from ~10million daily meeting participants in December 2019, to 300 million+ in April 2020 (Iqbal, 2020).

Twitch and Zoom combined have skewed the social media space away from the usual suspects (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube) for highly engaged social media users.

Is this the end of YouTube?

It is difficult to see the sunset for YouTube (if ever), but the platform has certainly taken a significant hit as these two new platforms become the go to for users during the COVID-19 moment. YouTube are increasingly working on their ‘Live’ offering but are not having that much of an impact on Twitch as the Western streaming giant in this space.

Skype (Microsoft) must be scratching its head, wondering what happened (although Microsoft has proven its resilience time and time again).

This moment does bring into question, how much market share is there for multiple platforms? And indeed, as big tech companies are in the mergers and acquisition game to prevent market competitors, can social media users navigate (engage) more than a handful of platforms (beyond Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc.)? Or is this a typical media technology media that sees other technologies shift and change to accommodate new innovative practices?

So next weekend when Friday night hits and DJs start entertaining their audiences around the world, will people be plamping on YouTube and Skype? Probably not. But will they integrate their old favourites in new ways? That remains to be seen. In any case, I have found an amazing new field to explore an emerging area for social media logics.

Nats What I Reckon

For many of us who have been impacted by the stay-at-home isolation conditions during this global pandemic, we have turned to new forms of social media entertainment for comfort.

However, for prime-time celebrities who rely heavily on their production teams to create world-class media experiences, the transition has not been so seamless. Instead, what we have seen is the rise of those online content producers who are native to social media platforms amass new audiences of interest.

I have been researching digital first personalities around the globe to understand how single person media productions have become the go-to media source for many individuals, especially in times of isolation.

Celebrities as YouTubers? ‘That’s Chat’

On 30 March 2020, YouTubers Colin and Samir published a video ‘Is this the end of Late Night?’. On the surface this video seemed to make light of the careers of late-night hosts such as Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert. In reality, these LA based YouTube creators provide a stunning commentary on the vast difference of skill and expertise levels between native YouTubers and traditional prime time celebrities.

This difference becomes bleedingly obvious when a number of these traditional celebrities were forced to take their productions out of their ‘bright-light’ studios in New York and Los Angeles, and retreat to their private family homes.

While the hosts incorporated the inadequacies of their production design into their nightly comedy routine, for example Seth Meyers making jokes about his attic door which has become something of a regular ‘guest’, the deficiencies in production qualities began to show. Some channels went into hiatus for several days at time, interviews were plagued by poor quality internet connections, lighting was experimental and the technical issues often became obvious for the audiences of these loved programs.

This is not the case for YouTubers who continue to produce high-quality content.

Colin and Samir observe that YouTubers are equipped to not only create entertaining content, but also have the technical skills to write, shoot, edit, publish and distribute at a level far beyond our well-known traditional media celebrities.

‘Good Onya Champ’ – The rise of digital first personalities

I have written about this phenomenon as digital first personalities. Digital first personalities are individuals who produce digital content for maximum visibility by engaging social influencer publication strategies that appease platform algorithms. In other words, they are experts in ensuring their content is seen by large audiences across social media platforms by utilising their entertaining and technical production skills.

Nat’s What I Reckon is one example of online content producers that are rising in popularity on social media, based on their past abilities of interacting with their audiences. As a YouTuber and Instagrammer based in Sydney, he has recently amassed a large audience through his welcomed, no-frills isolation cooking segments. Nat has been posting videos on YouTube for several years, examining the Summer Nationals in Canberra, why cruise ships ‘are weird’, chilli eating competitions, and aliens in Roswell, USA. These videos had a steady audience of just under 10,000 views on average, but as the media hungry, COVID-19 isolated audience grew, Nat’s What I Reckon channel has grown into an almost overnight success story.

As a digital first personality, Nat has spent years not only developing his unique entertaining style, but has also sharpened his interview technique, camera skills, and audio production. Additionally, this digital first personality has honed his public relations skills by strengthening his audience across Instagram and distributing his work across several other social media platforms.

I also wanted to make special mention of Laura Clery, who even makes me laugh as I write her name here – a strong example of a digital first personality, although she does some fame from her previous YouTube life.

The End of the Late Show?

Probably not. But what we are witnessing here is a shift of audience attention away from the large-scale traditional media formats and a continued growth across social media platforms as isolated audiences change their viewing habits indefinitely.

This is a unique moment for online content producers who demonstrate key digital first personality skills. Using TikTok, the demand for content is much higher than what is produced, making this a space ideal for emerging digital first personalities to build their audiences and move from influencers towards native online content celebrities.

Original Image by Newcastle Live!

Jonathon_Hutchinson_Digital_Intermediation

Social media audiences consume approximately three percent of the entire amount of content published across platforms (Bärtl, 2018). Of this three percent, a small number of popular digital influencers create that content, for example Casey Neistat, Logan Paul, or Zoella that, arguably, leads to media homogenisation through the limited focus of popular themes and topics. Moreover, platform providers, such as YouTube and Instagram, operate on algorithmic recommender systems such as ‘trending’ and ‘up next’ mechanisms to ensure popular content remains highly visible. While platforms in the digital era exercise a social and political influence, they are largely free from the social, political and cultural constraints applied by regulators on the mass media. Beyond vague community guidelines, there remains very little media policy to ensure that the content produced by digital influencers and amplified by platforms is accurate, diverse to include public interest, or are indeed beneficial. 

This project will research the content production process of automated media systems that engage digital influencers, or leading social media users, who interact with extraordinarily large and commercially oriented audiences. The evidence base will assist in developing theory on contemporary digital media and society, which will consequently shape how communities access public information. Instead of harnessing this knowledge for commercial imperatives, this research project will examine the findings in the context of socially aware digital influencers who occupy similar roles to those found in traditional media organisations. Further, this project will examine how algorithms are making decisions for media consumers based on commercial executions, which are often void of the social awareness associated with public affairs and issues.  

At a time when mass media comes under scrutiny for its involvement in perpetuating misinformation around public issues, accurate media becomes increasingly crucial to the provision of educative material, journalistic independence, media pluralism, and universal access for citizens. At present, media organisations are attempting to repurpose traditional broadcast content on new media platforms, including social media, through automation built on somewhat experimental algorithms. In many cases, these organisations are failing in this new environment, with many automated media attempts appearing more as ‘experimental’. This should be an opportunity for media organisations to rethink how they produce content, and how new informed publics might be brought into being around that content. 

Instead of thinking of automation as a solution to their increasing media environmental pressures, media organisations should be looking toward algorithms to curate and publish informative media for its audiences. This moment provides a unique opportunity to research the contemporary social media environment as media organisations experiment with automated media processes. It also challenges our understanding of automated media through popular vanity metrics such as likes and shares, in what Cunningham and Craig (2017) are calling ‘social media entertainment’. Under this moniker, these scholars highlight the intersection point of social media platforms, content production, and entrepreneurial influencers who commercialise their presence to develop their own self-branded existence. Abidin (2016) refers to these users as digital influencers, to include YouTube and Instagram superstars who demonstrate an unprecedented capacity to manifest new commercially oriented publics. Digital influencers are typically young social media users who commercially create content across a host of social media platforms, which is liked, commented on and shared by millions of fans. It is estimated the top ten 18-24 year old YouTubers are worth $104.3 million collectively (Leather, 2016), indicating a burgeoning new media market. This model of exercising digital influence within automated media systems has potential to translate into the support of an informed public sphere amid a chorus of social media communication noise.  

The research is innovative in a number of ways. Firstly, it is groundbreaking through its approach of collecting and comparing datasets of contemporary social media practice from within the commercial and non-commercial media sectors. Secondly, it theoretically combines media studies, science and technology studies, sociology and internet studies to bolster the emerging field of contemporary life online: an interdisciplinary approach to everyday social media. Thirdly, methodologically it combines traditional qualitative methods such as interviews and focus groups, and blends these with contemporary digital ethnography techniques and emerging social network analysis. Fourth, this research contributes to the emerging field of automation and algorithmic culture, by providing a groundbreaking exploration of data science with traditional audience research: a field of particular importance for media organisations. Finally, the outcomes will provide innovative insights for digital agencies and leading media organisations. 

Aims and Outcomes 

The aims of the project are:  

  1. to understand how digital influencers operate across social media, in both commercial and non-commercial media environments;  
  2. to document how digital media agencies enable digital influencers to create large consumer based publics; 
  3. to examine and understand how algorithms are operating within large-scale media content production; 
  4. to identify how global media is incorporating digital influencer roles and automation (if at all) into their production methodologies; and 
  5. to provide a new theoretical framework, recommendations and a policy tool that enables media organisations to manifest and engage with its audiences on critical public issues.  

The aims will be met by engaging in digital ethnography methods that documents how digital influencers produce content and actively engage with their audiences in an online community. These users are responsible for creating discussion around a number of issues they deem to be important, yet are typically driven by commercial imperatives. These conversations inspired through influencer content production is then compounded by the digital agencies who operate as amplifying agents for those messages, by especially ‘gaming’ the exposure mechanisms of YouTube and Instagram. However, this research will seek to prove that if this model can work in the commercial media environment, can socially aware digital influencers adopt the same techniques. 

The primary research question is:  

  1. how do digital influencers operate to create large consumer based publics?  

The research subquestions are: 

  1. how does automation operate in media content production and distribution? 
  2. how do automated media systems make content distribution decisions based on behavioural assumptions? 
  3. how can media organisations incorporate the successful methods of automation and digital influencers in their publishing practice? 

Background 

Digital influencers are social media users, typically ‘vloggers’ or video bloggers, who create content about products or lifestyles on popular themes including toys, makeup, travel, food and health amongst other subject areas. Increasingly, digital influencers are using a number of social media platforms to build their brand and publish content to their niche and considerably large audiences. This process of content production and distribution is emblematic of digital intermediation through social media platforms that afford individuals to operate in a media ecology, while determined through algorithmic processes. As Gillespie (2014, p.167) notes, algorithms “provide a means to know what there is to know and how to know it, to participate in social and political discourse, and to familiarize ourselves with the publics in which we participate”. At the heart of these algorithmic platforms distributing trending and popular content are the digital influencers who are creating popular, entertaining media and represent the flow of traffic and information between increasingly large audiences. 

Media organisations have been experimenting with both digital influencers and automation to create and distribute its branded content. In many cases, commercial media have employed the services of digital influencers to boost their traditionally produced media content, while deploying, in many ways, crude experiments in automation. Media brands consistently send digital influencers products and services to integrate into their ‘lifestyle’ videos and images. Recommender systems (Striphas, 2015), such as those used for distribution platforms such as Netflix have proved most popular, where content is suggested based on an audience member’s past viewing habits. Recommendation systems have been adopted across a number of media services including Spotify, Apple iTunes, and most news and media websites. The integration of chatbots is also rising, where the most interesting experiment has emerged from the public media sector through the ABC News Chatbot. Ford and Hutchinson (forthcoming) note that the ABC News Chatbot is not only an experiment in automated media systems, but also a process of educating media consumers on how to access crucial information from within a cornucopia of media. 

The key theoretical problem demonstrated in these examples is an asymmetric distribution of agency when automated systems make ‘decisions’ that can be based on flawed normative or behavioural assumptions (Vedder 1999). At worst, there is no possibility to override the automated decision. That is why algorithmic recommendations are sensitive matters and should be explained to users (Tintarev & Masthoff 2015). But explaining and understanding recommendation systems requires deep technical knowledge as the results are produced by a series of complex and often counter-intuitive calculations (Koren et al 2009). Furthermore, recommendations are often the result of more than one algorithm applied in the online and offline processing of consumer behaviour data (Amatriain & Basilico 2015). The asymmetrical relationship this creates between users and media content providers is especially problematic due to the public complexion and social responsibility obligations that should be demonstrated by media organisations. 

Digital influencers as cultural intermediaries are tastemakers that operate across traditional media platforms such as television and radio, and have become more effective at their translation ability across social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Vine for example. Digital intermediation is the next phase of this research, which builds on cultural intermediation, yet focuses on its relationship with automated media systems. 

Original by Ari He on Unsplash