CityLIS Writes: Making Sense of Social Media: A Chaotic Landscape

***This essay was written by CityLIS student Petra Killoran in January 2018. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative.***

Lately in the social media landscape the horse has got the bit between its teeth, bolted and appears to be running rampant across the fields of Twitter, Facebook and other networks in varying degrees. Cyberbullying (Asthana and Steward, 2017. Knaus, 2018. Whittaker and Kowalski, 2014), inappropriate posts of suicide victims (Wong, 2018a) and political vilification (Press Association, 2017) are riding roughshod over privacy and security rights, and as some users forget themselves verbal thuggery has become the norm not the exception.

This assignment will explore the narrative of; online safety, network and personal responsibilities, behaviours and how truthful information fits into this landscape. By examining a sample of recent social media tweets and headlines and drawing upon some of the themes discussed in City Library Information Science (LIS) Data Information Technologies Applications (DITA) module, it hopes to gain an understanding of the relationship between social networking communities and their stance towards ethical online usage and behaviours of users. Lastly, it will explore what role LIS and ethical philosophies play in the social media arena. In order to keep the narrative manageable, the predominant source of evidence will be Twitter and Facebook networks and Luciano Floridi’s online self-concepts will act as a compass for ethical philosophies and perspectives.

Ethics, Social Media and Communication

Floridi suggests that ‘our moral machine needs much information to function properly’ (2010, p.105). Such theories about information seeking behaviour philosophies can help us to understand how users seek information and this then has a fundamental impact on their perceptions and actions (Hjørland, 1998, cited in Bawden and Robinson, 2012, p.37). Furthermore, as ‘ICTs affect an agent’s moral life in many ways’ (Floridi, 2010, p.103) a ‘well-informed agent is likely to do the right thing’ (Floridi, 2010, p.105) whereas, poor judgements and behaviour can come from poor information seeking (Floridi, 2010). These philosophies’ guide us in understanding how social media exchanges can be constructive or negative in quality.

Social media communication is not a new trend, Burly (2015) argues that social media has always been around it is just the format that is different. From cave paintings, oral stories, telegrams, written letters and emails people have shown the need to interact with each other. Social Networking Services (SNSs) usage now comprises of the largest amount of time spent on the internet (Bins, 2016).

Human beings are generally social creatures and interaction is a necessary part of our genetic makeup. Today, it is principally accepted that SNS are a form of communication (Bawden and Robinson 2014, Fuchs 2017). How the term social communication links with the internet is explained by Fuchs, who considers all computer web applications and systems that convey knowledge as social and as an ‘objectification of society and human social relations’ (2017, p.7). If we merge this theory with Luciano Floridi’s (2016) philosophy of human internet life as inforgs in the inforsphere, this then appears much like a Star Trek holodeck scenario, where reality of self can get misplaced. Consequently, the interactions LIS professionals forge creates a value of knowledge and information sharing that goes beyond text.

Ownership and Responsibility: The Right to be Safe Online

Over complicated terms and conditions (TCs) misdirect via clever use of language and an ever-increasing dependence of personal demands upon social media technologies expose us to unwarranted advertising and misinformation/disinformation as discussed by Bawden and Robinson (2012), are continuously putting us at risk. Here, Floridi points to ‘contractualism’ in ethics whereby both agents agree to terms in the contract and both obtain something in return (2010, p.114). When looking at the language in Twitter (Twitter.com, 2017) and Facebook (Facebook.com 2018) TCs, the onus to protect users is on the premise that the user is vigilant not the supplying agent, unlike banks, who will monitor changes in spending habits and warn you if they change drastically to avoid loss. LIS has played a large role within research (Haynes, 2015, Bawden and Robinson 2012, Haynes etal 2017, Hern, 2016) to inform the public about Privacy and Security. By using for instance Twitter, organisations such as Chartered Institute for Library Information Professionals (CILIP) can act as informing agents or ‘librarians as activists and the tensions between privacy, security and equitable access’ (CILIP, 2017). This focus shows the changing role of LIS professionals.

Facebook, went public in 2006, popular because of its uncomplicated technology and user-friendly systems. It has not looked back since introducing the first ‘Like’ button, enabling interaction with family and friends, making the site more interactive socially and taking business from sites like Myspace (Lovink, 2016, Bins 2017). Not wanting to risk ‘social death’ (Lovink, 2016, p.41) people rushed to create profiles and join. In the haste to do so they left themselves ignorant and exposed to online risk. Early warnings given by Agre in 2002 on networking behaviours still hold true today:

‘The first thing to realize is that Internet-world is part of reality. The people you correspond with on the network are real people with lives and careers and habits and feelings of their own. Things you say on the net can make you friends or enemies, famous or notorious, included or ostracized. You need to take the electronic part of your life seriously.’ (Agre, 2002)

Portable technologies such as smart phones, tablets and iPads allow greater flexibility and increased demand of social media. For instance, the Baby Boomer generations increased access to the internet is closing the so called digital divide, with 48% of 65-75-year olds now having social media accounts and 9 out of 10 opting for Facebook. Therefore, communication trends are changing. When asked about online privacy and security 16% of over 55s stated that they had not even considered their personal data risk (Ofcom, 2017). This clearly shows a need for a more robust internet safety information campaign aimed at older users. Here the role of LIS Librarians as educators within the area of ICTs ensure the vulnerable are informed.

Privacy, consent and risk factors of online social networks (OSNs) have been much studied (Haynes et al 2015, Haynes, 2016). Social networks constantly evolve and upgrade leading to greater dangers of personal data exposure. Theft, harvesting of information, user habit tracking leading to a barrage of advertising or accidental data exposure, geo-location trackers, risk of personal details being made public and changes to privacy settings all leave us susceptible to possible cyber-bullying, privacy breaches and online attack of individual dignity (Haynes et al 2015).

Recent criticism has concentrated around the site, privacy and security upgrades particular to Facebook (Hern, 2016), that leave users open to potential risks of data being unwittingly shared and the behavioural advertising and invasiveness of the site, which harvests user information/habits to enable third party personalised marketing adverts (Haynes et al 2015) is a concern. A reduction of 25% of users posting personal information on their pages shows more awareness of risk of oversharing, showing a greater trend of personal responsibilities.

Twelve years after going live and lacklustre with constant news feeds and over advertising, a clever public relations appeasement bid by Zuckerman announced that the site was going back its roots with less “passive content” and back to more “meaningful social interaction” (Wong, 2018b). This certainly highlights staying relevant as Zuckerberg, now a family man, wants to leave behind a legacy that is good for the world! After years of exploitation and profiteering maybe paternal or personal ethics have come into play. Although, perhaps a rather cynical person would say that it is a tactic for long-term survival.

Online Personas and Privacy

Online etiquette apart from email is non-existent, each person has their own style, filters and habits. Whereas some users exhibit Jekyll and Hyde behaviours because they are having a bad day leading to a loss of personal ethical behaviour/identity (Cheng, 2017), others overshare personal information.

There exists a dark side of social networking where an entitlement of proffering insults or derogatory comments is common. However, this is nothing new. The Elizabethans’ were highly skilled forerunners of cyber trolls with Shakespeare a master of his trade, as is evidenced by: ‘Villain, I have done thy mother…Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog!’ (Horton, 2016). Ever a master of a good insult, his plays have been taught in schools for generations.

Modern day social network trolls according to Burley, are sociopaths in need of attention and the ‘easily outraged cannot see a bandwagon without jumping on it’ (2015, p.5). Cyber-ethnographers studying trolling behaviours, with particular interest in the Madeline McCann ‘Trolling Gangs’ found that ignoring abuse and staying silent does nothing to stop it. Entering into a logical debate was met with more threats and caused further abuse. In addition, ‘internet trolls seem impervious to any efforts to change their behaviours’ (Nature.com, 2017). Burley aptly suggest that, ‘true trolls are internet users that set out to ruin someone’s day, everyone else is just someone who disagrees with you, that is allowed’ (2015, p111). Therefore, at times the perception between what is critique and what is an insult can become blurred.

However, contrary to oversharing, Marder et al. discuss what they term as the ‘chilling effect’ where users manage their ‘online personas’ (2016) to conform to the expectations of others to such a degree that this can transfer to off line life. Evidence supplied by Facebook also submits that the huge majority of users participate in self-censorship (Das & Kramer, 2013) which is at odds with Derks and Bakker’s findings ‘that people say they value their privacy, but in practice they often act otherwise’ (2013, p.51).

27th Dec 2017: As Prince Harry interviews Barrack Obama for Radio 4 and the ex-president has some words of warning concerning online discourse. ‘One of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be just cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases’ (Turner, 2017). This is a valid point, yet one wonders if it is aimed at the new president’s social media habits.

Twitter has become a politicians’ tool and Parmalee and Bitchard (2013) proport that it can bring communication between government and the people closer. That said, surely it would depend on the quality of the information? Motives for political Twitter use revolve around self-expression, two-way conversation to gain viewpoints and critique (Parmalee and Bitchard, 2013) amongst others. Whatever the intention Twitter has become a main driver for political debate and has influenced election campaigns for Jeremy Corbin and Donald Trump for better or for worse. ‘Fake News’ originally coined by Frederick Burr Opa in 1894 (Loc.gov. 2018) has become a constant amongst informational credibility terminology. Yet, truth can have many sides according to view point. Factual information lies at the heart of LIS and many sites now spread disinformation to influence the public in order to gain power. Floridi explains that, ‘Moral Life is a highly information-intensive game, so any technology that radically modifies the ‘life of information’ is bound to have profound moral implications for the moral player’ (Floridi, 2010, p.103). This could be one explanation for such behaviours.

Social Media: Politics via Clicktivism and Slacktivism

Fuchs discusses social systems as having ‘economic aspects of ownership, labour, decision making and reputation generation…and systems with their own distribution of power in economic, political and cultural respects’ (2017, p.81). Here the distribution of individual viewpoints can join with the tools of social media to produce dialogue. However, Fuchs also cites Morozov (2009) who disparages those who click on likes and befriending, calling it “slacktivism” a ‘feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact’ (2017, p.230) claiming it to be the illusion of meaningful involvement without demanding anything more.

Whereas, Spier discusses the presence of unequal social capital distribution via ‘likes’, linking, attention, ‘followers’ and certain groups or agents giving more platform and so ensuring that some are more visible online and therefore have the power to change and influence over others with less presence (2017). Thus, the more attention you get the more likely you are to be seen. Ethically this distribution of power is unbalanced but no different than in other areas of life and creates yet another platform for a few. However, by joining in the debates via ‘likes’ and retweets thereby ensuring more presence, one could argue that you are part of the demand for change which takes us back to Fuchs’s (2017) ‘clicktivism’ philosophy. It follows that there is a relationship contract between the producers and the consumers of the posts that creates an ethical requirement to communicate reliable true facts. Regrettably that is not always the case and here LIS research can help to inform the public, however as not everyone reads journal articles the audience could be limited due to accessibility.

Accountability

All networks including Facebook and Twitter should be accountable for ensuring that information placed via their sites is factual and legal yet the trend towards misinformation and disinformation increases. One Russian ‘Troll Factory’ in St Petersburg is thought to have disrupted Brexit, the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) election processes by misdirecting over 126 million people online. Both Facebook and Twitter have handed over evidential information to UK and US government regulatory bodies (Mason, 2017). This at least shows some form of accountability. Although privacy should be a basic requirement between provider and user, in the case of illegal activity this must be forfeit.
Neither Facebook (Facebook, 2017) or Twitter (Twitter.Inc, 2017) make any mention of ethical obligation on their policy sites or state how judicious they are when checking their news feeds or advertisements but at least with Twitter ‘What’s yours is yours’ (Twitter.Inc, 2018). Perhaps like cigarette packets social networking sites (SNSs) should carry with them a visible health and safety warning? Social responsibility should start with governments and organisations, here LIS has an active reputation via professional bodies such as CILIP and the Library Association where difficult questions are asked and recommendations are made that are essential to information science credibility and safety holding weight with media and government bodies (Bawden and Robinson, 2012). In a bid to clean up their country’s internet providers responsibilities, Germany is leading the way with new tighter regulations.

1st January 2018: ‘Germany is set to start enforcing a law that demands social media sites move quickly to remove hate speech, fake news and illegal material’ (BBC News, 2018). Whilst some countries lag behind Germany have taken an ethical zero tolerance step and have started to enforce the new, Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (Internet Protection Safety Law). By introducing heavy fines of up to 50,000 Euros to online organisations who do not take down offensive materials and monitor their sites appropriately, it hopes to increase network accountability conduct. Although heralded as step in the right direction to protect users’ rights and privacy in explicit detail from false and abusive materials, administering and monitoring this legislative stance is no mean feat and how its impact will be enforced and judged remains to be seen.

Twitter, Politics and the Workplace

When applying theory to social media in the workplace, organisations including LIS predominantly adopt a utilitarian theory position as the aim is to have the benefits outweigh any harms, thus protecting the infrastructure, reputation and credibility; but from an employee’s point the Kantian rights to unrestricted choice and use are foremost (Bratton and Candy, 2013). With such juxtaposed and competing goals social media in the workplace or in a privileged position is bound to come into conflict. This is clearly apparent when using the President of United States of America’s (USAs) tweets as an example.

3rd January 2018: Ripples of genuine horror and surprise went around the globe as countries looked on whilst the North Korean Leader and the ‘Leader of the Free World,’ Donald Trump exchanged ego driven tweets that threaten nuclear war coming to a head. The 3rd January saw the tweet below, almost a declaration of war, resonate around the globe: ‘Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!’ (BBC News, 2018)

Here Luciano Floridi’s theory of self-conception mixed with Trumps hyper- self-consciousness (2014) political power, poor judgements and lack of information put what is deemed ethical into orbit. Bratton and Candy (2014) describe the US federal governments ethical challenges with regard to questionable practices that have global implications, while also discussing governments responsibilities as a role model and citing transgressions in the Reagan, Clinton and Obama administrations towards a need for clear ethical guideline changes. This shows a distinct need for an overhaul of ethical use and training guidance as the same mistakes keep being repeated. LIS professionals have a clear code of ethics and responsibilities to avoid such disasters and although working at a differing public level to any government, within its existing ethical framework it shows concern for the public and responsible service at its core (CILIP, 2012).

5th January 2018: Under pressure to curb dangerous presidential tweets Twitter (Twitter.Inc. 2018) released a statement via their Blog that stated,
‘Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.’ (Twitter Inc.2018)

Whilst agreeing that some form of censorship, at the very least self-censorship, should exist to ensure we are kept safe from inflammatory tweets that could escalate towards war, it is not for Twitter to practice censorship over Donald Trump but his party and the respective houses of government. If we go down the road of the 1984 Orwellian society over lordship and censor such material the truth remains hidden (Spier,2017p.133) therefore, Twitter is correct to proclaim such a stance. LIS professionals have to grapple with what is moral, safe and legal within the role of protectors of truthful information interactions by making difficult choices of how and what information is available, whilst remaining conscious of the juxtaposition of intellectual freedom and censorship dilemmas (Bawden and Robinson, 2012). At times we must stand back so as not to apply personal judgements upon others.

4th January 2018: The children’s commissioner in the UK warns of ‘children unprepared for social media cliff edge’ in a recent report entitled, ‘Life in Likes’ (The Children’s Commissioner, 2018). Astonishingly, managing multiple media accounts, liking, accepting and being accepted, being talked about and answering messages instantly is becoming more prevalent habit for many 8-12-year olds. Perpetuating a validation culture (Floridi, 2014). Also, many, especially girls wake to check their social media to such a degree it is causing anxieties with teens in particular feeling an enormous burden to be liked (Udorie, 2015). Positively, parents are getting the message of online safety, however confusion of communication intent and meaning caused great uncertainty and anxiety generally (Children’s Commissioner, 2018). The need to chase ‘likes’ and comments for social validation, places undue pressures psychologically upon self-image and esteem. Floridi suggests ‘ICT’s are the most powerful technologies of self’ (2014, p.59) as they modify the context in how we view ourselves have a ‘deep impact upon personal identities’ (Floridi, 2010:60). This is equally true of adult users many of whom are also vulnerably insecure. Further research and proactive public education campaigns would help to understand such behaviours and possibly lead to a more ethically engaged online community.
Fundamentally, how we are searching and sharing knowledge and information has changed within LIS. ‘Social media work is an increasingly important part of information professionals’ jobs’ (Simons et al., 2016, p.23) communicating, updating, marketing, events organisation, making materials public and sharing have become an online instead of on paper activity requiring greater knowledge and skill (Simons et al., 2016). By using social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter LIS organisations (CILIP, IFLA British Library) remain relevant participants in the topical conversation and therefore the significance to LIS in social capital cannot be ignored.

In addition, many LIS researchers are seeking to improve and highlight areas of concern such as privacy risk and security (Haynes, 2016, Haynes etal., 2016, Derks and Bakker, 2013) of online networking habits and are informing the work of LIS and the public of their dangers. Therefore, LIS is part of an ongoing narrative of policy incorporation to ensure a safe ‘onlife’ environment within public and organisational libraries. Furthermore, libraries remain a safe haven for those who cannot access internet rights as their social currency is poor. In this way their ethical requirements within the internet, human rights legislation is being met (Human Rights Council, 2015).

Conclusion

As politicians use social media to motivate change, the discussion around ethics and morals are an intrinsic part of information finding and behaviours on social media. Our sense of identity can become fragmented to suit an online world and its expectations. The more well informed and correct the information the more likely that the interaction is to be a positive one. LIS can go a long way to help balance and inform us of ethical implications, rights and responsibilities and help to change the landscape to make it more safe and credible for users. Privacy and safety online is still an area for concern and the wellbeing of social network users is still placed firmly at their feet by sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Informing ourselves will ensure that we remain vigilant and can protect against illegal or immoral use or abusive comments. Trolling and cyber abuse is a sad by-product of social media. More studies into online behaviours could provide useful information to shape the perceptions of the next generation in order to make them robust savvy social media users and LIS professionals are leading the way as negotiators between these problematic changes to the publics online self.

References

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Cheng, J. (2017). The awkward truth about trolls: any of us could become one | Justin Cheng. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/10/truth-trolls-internet-abusive-comments-online [Accessed 17 Jan. 2018].
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Derks, D. and Bakker, A. (2013). The psychology of digital media at work. Hove, East Sussex: Psychology Press.
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Haynes, D., Bawden, D. and Robinson, L. (2016). A regulatory model for personal data on social networking services in the UK. International Journal of Information Management, 36(6), pp.872-882.
Hern, A. (2016). Facebook is chipping away at privacy and my profile has been exposed. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jun/29/facebook-privacy-secret-profile-exposed [Accessed 17 Jan. 2018].
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Knaus, C. (2018). Akubra girl Dolly Amy Everetts father launches anti-bullying campaign after daughter’s suicide. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/11/father-tells-of-bullying-after-suicide-of-akubra-girl-dolly-amy-everett [Accessed 17 Jan. 2018].
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Marder, B., Joinson, A., Shankar, A. and Houghton, D. (2016). The extended chilling effect of Facebook: The cold reality of ubiquitous social networking. Computers in Human Behavior, 60, pp.582-592.
Mason, R. (2017). Facebook and Twitter to give details of Russian Backed Brexit Posts. The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/28/facebook-to-hand-over-details-of-russian-backed-brexit-posts [Accessed 16 Jan. 2018].
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Parmelee, J. and Bichard, S. (2013). Politics and the Twitter revolution. Lanham, Md. [u.a.]: Lexington Books.
Pengelly, M. (2018). Nikki Haley: Trump aimed to ‘keep Kim on his toes’ with ‘nuclear button’ tweet. The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/07/nikki-haley-trump-kim-nuclear-button-tweet-toes [Accessed 10 Jan. 2018].
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Simons, R., Ocepek, M. and Barker, L. (2016). Teaching Tweeting: Recommendations for Teaching Social Media Work in LIS and MSIS Programs. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science Online, 57(1), pp.21-30.
Spier, S. (2017). Collective action 2.0: The Impact of Social Media on Collective Action. Cambridge (Mass.): Chandos Publishing, an imprint of Elsevier.
Turner, C. (2018). Prince Harry interviews Barack Obama on Radio 4: Ex-President warns social media is corroding civil discourse. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/12/27/prince-harry-interviewsbarack-obama-radio-4-ex-presidentwarns/ [Accessed 12 Jan. 2018].
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Udorie, J. (2018). Social media is harming the mental health of teenagers. The state has to act | June Eric Udorie. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/16/social-media-mental-health-teenagers-government-pshe-lessons [Accessed 17 Jan. 2018].
Whittaker, E. and Kowalski, R. (2014). Cyberbullying Via Social Media. Journal of School Violence, [online] 14(1), pp.11-29. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/15388220.2014.949377 [Accessed 16 Jan. 2018].
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CityLibrary LibGuides Workshops

CityLibrary staff would like to offer a workshop for CityLIS students giving an overview of using LibGuides technology to create subject topic and software guides and incorporating interactive content.

LibGuides is an easy to use content management system used by thousands of libraries in the UK and around the world to create small websites called guides.

In this workshop, we will be giving an overview of the software and demonstrating innovative ways  it is used here at CityLibrary and in other organisations. We will focus on the importance of good guide design and demonstrate how you can create interactive materials by integrating different types of media including videos, quizzes and tutorials into guides.

We hope this will be a useful insight into how libraries are using different technologies to reach students and service users.

There will be the opportunity to feedback, share your creative ideas, have a discussion on good practice and you can ask any questions.

We have 2 dates at the moment:

Friday 16 February from 5.30pm-7pm, register at: https://libcal.city.ac.uk/event/3319337 

Thursday 1 March from 10am-11.30am, (this is a repeat of 16 February workshop), register at: https://libcal.city.ac.uk/event/3319373 

Best wishes,

Diane Bell (Research Librarian) and Alex Asman (Subject Librarian – Arts).

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Find out more about postgraduate study in Library and Information Science at CityLIS, meet alumni, current students and staff on our next open evening on 21st February 2018. Register here.

If you are a current CityLIS student or alumni and would like to contribute a post, please contact our Editor, James Atkinson.

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#CityLIS Reflections and Research: Network at the National Theatre

Joseph Dunne is researching how the arts are responding to our so -called post truth era. In this post, Joe discusses what the National Theatre production Network says about the impact media has on public perceptions of reality.

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Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 movie Network has been adapted for the stage by playwright Lee Hall. Network tells the story of Howard Beale, a middle of the road,  middle aged, going nowhere fast American news anchor on the UBS network. One day he announces live on air that he will kill himself on his last broadcast. Howard explains that he has a deficit of bullshit in his life:

Bullshit is all the reasons we give for living and if we can’t think up any reasons of our own, we always have the God bullshit…We don’t know why we’re going through all this pointless pain, humilitation and decay, so there better be someone who does know. That’s the God bullshit.

(Hall, 2017, p.24)

Against all expectations, Howard becomes a hit. His producer Diana realises that he is able to articulate the popular rage of the public. The Howard Beale show becomes a connective tissue of anger and discontent for an audience who can no longer make sense of the world:

We sit in the house and slowly the world we live in gets smaller and all we ask is, please, at least leave us alone in our own living rooms. Let me have my toaster and teevee and my hair dryer and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything, just leave us alone. Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad.

(ibid, p.49)

Television pales in comparison to the power of the internet in terms of it’s ubiquity in our everyday lives, but the principle that the valence of truth is contingent upon our perception of reality still holds, and the news remains a vital means of communicating a truth the public can believe in.

Network envisages a world that has dispensed with ideology, politics, nations, cultures, and has been replaced – in the words of the head of the UBS network, Mr Jensen – by the “endless, inexorable movement of money” (ibid, p.67). The media is the sole producer of truth and ideas have become defunct.

The brilliance of Network is to show that a litany of facts and statistics – whose been assassinated, what price the dollar is at, who said what in a speech – does not constitute the truth as people experience it in their daily lives. Information means little if we don’t believe in it’s veracity. When the facts stop making sense, all we have left is our gut instincts, a feeling that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. But Diana recognises that cynicism about the world isn’t enough to stir an audience’s emotions. The popular rage of the public does not just manifest in feelings of fear and resentment, but of a desire for change; for control. When the media tells the public that the only change can come from watching more news, which externalises their anxieties into an informational silo, the real world becomes the news.

Jan Versweyveld and Tal Yarden’s sublime design for the National Theatre production brilliantly creates a world of screens that fracture the audience’s perception of where the real action is taking place. Spectators can frantically search for the live actors admist a mass of cameras and microphones and still fail to find them. The audience are forced to watch most the action on a huge screen upstage. The effect is a double mediation of Network’s fictional reality. Howard’s paranoid proclamations of an America in crisis are made televisual flesh as a live broadcast.

The presience of Chayefsky’s writing is eerie. Bryan Cranston channels the conspiratorial tones of Fox News anchors in his description of America losing it’s greatness by selling it off to the highest bidder. The homely conspiratorial relationship he creates with the audience is reminiscent of Glenn Beck’s bizarre 9.12 project – an undefined programme for reinvigorating patriotism that harnesses the public trauma of a terrorist attack.

Chayefsky not only foresaw how the media could be weaponised by terrorist groups to spread fear and propaganda but also understood how capitalist economies can absorb such horror and refract it back to the public as entertainment. To boost the flailing UBS’s flailing ratings Diana pitches an idea for a TV show, The Terror Hour, which would show a film released by a terrorist group followed by interviews with the friends and family of the berieved. It is rejected outright by the editors, but the basic premise of The Terror Hour is one we can now choose to experience online. 9/11 was the first mediated terrorist attack broadcast in live time. Films of ISIS executions have become a recurrent feature on the news and can be accessed in a few clicks. Good taste is just a matter of finding the right medium.

The information ecology Network depicts is one that does not seek to explain the world but to embed the TV audience deeper and deeper in the information web of insatiable consumerism. Freedom in this ecology can only be expressed as a chant:

I’M MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE.

No action can follow this chant because ignorance, rage and fear are the natural order of things. The only reality is money, and once we grow tired of buying things we start to consume ourselves until our individual voice gets lost in the noise of the crowd. As Howard tells the audience in the manner of a wise father helping his children grow up, the real world works by

accepting that we are not the emperors of ourselves, we are bees in the hive, it’s not our individuality which makes us rich, but communality. We must ask how we can advance the whole rather than ourselves, each of us just a tiny node in the grand, glorious network.

(Hall, 2017, p.70).

This superb production tells us that it is not enough to know that information can entrap us inside informational silos; the internet isn’t going anywhere. What matters is arguing for a media that does not package our feelings into stories that amplify our fears into a collective howl of ecsatic rage. Network is a powerful response to our post-truth moment and leaves the audience yearning for more thinking and less feeling in our political culture.

Network runs at the National Theatre until 24th March 2018.

Reference

Hall, L. (2017) Network. London: Faber and Faber

 

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#CityLIS Reflections and Research: Immersion: A New(ish) Way to Experience Art and the World

This post explores the potential links between immersive theatre and online interactivity.

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Immersive theatre has become a popular term in the UK over the past decade. It encompasses quite a broad range of performance practices, but at it’s most basic immersive theatre denotes performances that occur around the audience, who unlike in conventional theatre spaces experience the piece by moving inside a fictional world. But immersion does not just denote spatial characteristics. Participation is also a common trope, where artists aim to give audiences some agency over how they experience the story they are immersed inside of.

When I was an undergraduate student studying drama in the mid-2000s, what is now called immersive theatre was more commonly referred to as promenade theatre. Moving inside a performance was closely aligned to the concept of total theatre – a theatre that activates all of the senses and emotions to take the audience on a cathartic journey through a drama, thereby leaving them spiritually transformed. Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre and It’s Double contains an early description of this theatre:

We intend to do away with stage and auditorium, replacing them by a kind of single, undivided locale without any partitions of any kind and this will become the very scene of the action. Direct contact will be established between the audience and the show, between actors and audience, from the very fact that the audience is seated in the centre of the action and is encircled by it. This encirclement comes from the shape of the house itself. Abandoning the architecture of present-day theatres, we will rent some kind of barn or hangar rebuilt along lines of certain Tibetan temples (2001, p.74).

A good example of the kind of space Artaud describes was Area 10. This former steel mill in Peckham, South East London was used as an art space in the late 2000s. It had no seating or any defined performance space. In 2009, I performed in Living Structures’ devised show Biosphere. The show began with the audience sat in a circle watching performers fertilising a plant with their excrement. Then, to a burst of choral singing, a different group of performers  – which I was a part of –  emerged from a plume of smoke, wearing nothing but white underpants and reindeer masks. Once the audience were ushered from the space, a large hessian tent was erected, which they were then free to explore. The inside of the tent was designed like a maze, with a series of installations located at certain nodes. The audience were given reindeer masks and hessian robes to wear. The costume was an attempt to deepen their immersion in the drama by making them part of the aesthetic environment and so become embedded in the narrative unfolding around them.

Whilst Biosphere conforms to many of the conventions of immersive theatre in terms of environmental envelopment and physical proximity between actors and audience, it is more closely aligned with promenade theatre through it’s absence of audience participation. Save for the final third act when the audience explored the maze, much of the audience’s time was taken up with watching dramatic action unfold before and around them rather than taking part in it. This “taking part” can manifest on a number of levels, from direct and improvisational contact with characters, to making choices that determine how a performance unfolds for the individual and for the audience as a whole.

A common characteristic of much immersive theatre is the fragmentation of dramatic narrative, which enables spectators to create their own version of the story. Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man (2014) is the most elaborate piece of immersive theatre I have seen to date, both in terms of it’s scale and sheer detail. The world of The Drowned Man was one that could have been plucked from David Lynch’s imagination. Part abandoned movie set, part Americana dreamscape, part Frankensteinian nightmare, this was a world that I could never fully grasp. Yet it was the very impossibility of experiencing the drama in it’s entirety that drove my movement through it. This impulse is noted as a key characteristic of immersion in theatre by Josephine Machon, who frames it in terms of exploration: “Rediscovery is central to the experience: of space, narrative, character, theme, and sometimes even of unknown depths, or hidden emotions and memories specific to that individual participant”​ (2013, p.28). The version of The Drowned Man I experienced was not the same as my partner’s nor, indeed, anyone else who saw it. True, we inevitably saw some of the same scenes, but the order in which we experienced them in relation to what we had seen previously informed our interpretation of the overall narrative. The relationships between the characters was experienced out of sync or, rather, experienced as pieces of a puzzle we could not hope to assemble as a cohesive whole in a few hours.

We can see, here, links between immersive theatre and the genre of open world games. Games like Skyrim (2011) and the Fallout series (1997-) allow players to explore highly elaborate worlds with far fewer limitations imposed on them than games that have a linear story structure. The lack of definite goal or quest in these games and The Drowned Man creates a far more tangible reality for the spectator or the player because they are not required to follow one path. Instead, they are given a choice of routes inside a virtual reality. Open worlds create many potential experiences for players compared with those that are available in linear game narratives. The ostensive freedom this structure affords audiences and players more closely aligns it with the experience of everyday life.

The links between theatre and gaming can be developed further to address how immersive worlds are built as a collaborative partnership between actors and audiences. ZU-UK’s executive director Jorge Ramos discusses participation in the context of the “experience economy” where audiences, or “players”, act as co-authors of art live art works (2015, p.8). This was evident in ZU-UK’s six hour, overnight epic Hotel Medea (2009-2012). During this re-telling of the Medea myth, players frequently interacted with characters improvisationally. Ramos uses the term “micro-events” to describe these interactions to proffer an approach to immersive theatre that he expresses as “the dramaturgy of participation” (ibid, p.3). The degree of participation increased over the course of the performance in a way that allowed the audience to gradually become part of the story rather than as invertentionist elements.

These micro-events can be understood as private or secret dramas known only to those who experience them.  Participation in the context of immersion includes the building of imaginary worlds through interactivity. In this way, immersive performance  “aims to provide, in everyday activities at the moment of the encounter, modest but pervasive communication, provisional social consensus and micro-utopias”​ (Harvie, 2013, p.7). Describing it in these terms might appear to exaggerate the impact immersive performance can potentially have on the real world until we remember that utopias are non-places of the imagination. The physical immersion in these fictional worlds allows audiences to temporarily inhabit societies that we may celebrate or fear.

The popularity of immersive theatre is partly a product of our contemporary media ecology, which places interaction at it’s centre. Technologically mediated communication has become a significant part of everyday experience. Social media enables these interactions to stretch over time, distance, place and device, thus making the locus of communicative exchanges highly diffuse. Patrick Longeran argues that Facebook, Twitter and the like act as stages where we perform identities to a “network of followers”. When analysed in the context of theatre, online communication produces a distributed mode of performance which “can extend a production both temporally and spatially, pushing [performances] beyond the boundaries of the stage, and beyond the performance of the action in real time” (2015, pp.2-4). Moreover, interaction is not just a feature of the event, but constitutes the event itself:“What makes social media distinctive from other forms of digital performance is the extent to which interactivity is not just a context for reception, but a core element of the overall composition” (ibid, p.21).

Blast Theory’s 2097: We Made Ourselves Over (2017) pushes the envelope of immersive theatre by spreading the immersive world in live and recorded iterations. 2097 presents a dystopian vision of Hull and the Danish city Aarhus following an ecological catastrophe. On 1st October 2017, every public telephone rang in Hull at 2pm. The audience listened to a voice from the future, Hessa, who invited them to record a message to send to her community about what they think is the most important thing to preserve from the present. The piece also consists of five short sci-fi films and one interactive film for smartphones. All of these different iterations act as portals into a fictional world that is embedded in reality through technology, and is therefore not confined to the spatial-temporal zone of live theatre.2097 is neither live or non-live (if we consider ‘live’ to denote physical proximity and ephemerality). It inhabits a temporal plane inbetween or outside of this binary.

Charlie Gere argues that technology has become so embedded into reality that the term digital culture “risks becoming a tautology” (2008, p.7). Whilst the importance of maintaining body-to-body contact in theatre continues to be debated, it is undeniable that performance-makers are embracing the affordances of online communication to find new ways of engaging with audiences. Matt Adams argues that the “most significant characteristic of the ‘digital revolution’ is an explosive new amount of interaction and participation from what has gone before”​ (Adams in Blake, 2014, p.ix). The link he makes between interaction and participation is important to understand when discussing the kinds of activity immersive experiences engender in audiences. Immersion in theatre is an expanding term that is now encompassing communication networks. No single event exists in this form of immersion because it is composed of individual experiences that occur over time and distance.

The immersive spaces of the performance are created by the participation of the audience. This idea resonates with Floridi’s notion of “onlife” – the merging of the digital and offline worlds to create the “infosphere” (2014). The immersive qualities of technology are beginning to be utilised by theatre and performance artists as a way of enriching how audiences can participate in their aesthetic experiences. Immersion in art could constitute a revolution in how theatre is not just experienced but also produced in collaboration with audiences. Moreover, it might allow us the opportunity to rehearse how we can live in a hyper-connected environment without becoming subsumed into a digital fugue of voices and images by providing temporary spaces for genuine intimacy and dialogue.

Adams, M. (2014) Foreword. In: B. Blake, Theatre & the Digital. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.viii-xi

Artaud, A. (2001) The Theatre and Its Double. London: Calder

Floridi, L. (2014) The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Gere, C. (2008) Digital Culture. 2nd ed. London: Reaktion

Harvie, J. (2013) Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Longeran, P. (2015) Theatre & Social Media. London: Palgrave

Machon. J. (2013) Immersive Theatres: Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance. London: Palgrave Macmillan

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