Archives for category: Inventing Tradition

In the UK, with the coming of the Olympics, it would seem that the police are finally trying to catch up with social media organisation. Those in “authority” are frequently seen to be tailing those who find different ways of using media generally used for trading photos of cute cats. No longer is data to be collected by those benevolent forces such as Facebook and Twitter, who’s actions turn us into commodities, but now the police want in.

In August’s Prospect, Jamie Bartlett and David Omand have described the police’s new toy as a “social media hub capable of scanning social media to better stop and spot outbreaks of disorder or criminal activity during the Games.”

This social media medium was obvious made overtly important to the authorities by last years riots. However, that organising was not, by and large, organised on open social media, but on the closed blackberry medium. Yes, there was much misinformation on the more open mediums, and some people did attempt to use Facebook to start riots, but Twitter and Facebook were also the source of the much-praised post-riot clean ups.

The riots were not planned – they generally aren’t. Protests, many (probably most) which aim to be peaceful, are often advertised and planned on these open mediums. And, what with the police’s generally abysmal performances in managing the protests, marches and whatnot, this new form of spying on the public adds a legitimate concern into what will happen to peaceful protest. If the police don’t understand the difference between UK Uncut, a man getting annoyed with the weather, and riots, what possibility do they have of understanding, as Bartlett and Omand list, the “sarcasm, exaggeration, irony and bragging” that much of social media content is made of?

The Olympics may only be for this summer, but national security online is well on its ways. Judging on their previous performances on such issues, you are best advised to refrain from making any comments which are not sarcastic, exaggerated, ironic or bragging during the Olympics.


In May 2011, the documentary maker Adam Curtis (for it is he) was interviewed by the Guardian, commenting on social networking as the commodification of emotion:

On Facebook and Twitter, you are performing to attract people – you are dancing emotionally, on a platform created by a large corporation. People’s feelings bounce back and forth – happy Stakhanovites, ignoring and denying the system of power. It’s like Stalin’s socialist realism. Both Twitter and socialist realism are innocent expressions of the ideology of the time, which don’t pull back and show the wider thing they are part of. We look back on socialist realism not as innocent but as a dramatic expression of power; it expresses the superiority of the state, which was the guiding belief at the time.

Yesterday, Adrian Short wrote a piece on the recent redesign of Facebook and why he wouldn’t be caught dead on social networking sites. By supporting the social networking sites, he suggests, we are helping to hinder and restrict a free, open and independent internet:

When you use a free web service you’re the underclass. At best you’re a guest. At worst you’re a beggar, couchsurfing the web and scavenging for crumbs. It’s a cliché but worth repeating: if you’re not paying for it, you’re aren’t the customer, you’re the product. Your individual account is probably worth very little to the service provider, so they’ll have no qualms whatsoever with tinkering with the service or even making radical changes in their interests rather than yours.

We give more power to Big Web companies with every tweet and page we post to their networks while hoping to get a bit of traffic and attention back for ourselves.

Facebook’s Open Graph technology allows third-party websites to tell Facebook what people are doing. It extends Facebook’s Like button to include any action that the site owners think might be interesting to Facebook.”

Okay, if you “like” something, you’re actively seeking something out. What about if you don’t actively like something? It doesn’t matter, Facebook knows you’re looking at it:

What most people don’t know is that the Like button tracks your browsing history. Every time you visit a web page that displays the Like button, Facebook logs that data in your account. It doesn’t put anything  your wall, but it knows where you’ve been. This happens even if you log out of Facebook. Like buttons are pretty much ubiquitous on mainstream websites, so every time you visit one you’re doing some frictionless sharing.

The result is that, without a paid-for contact, these mass internet hubs are creating a restricted, unhealthy, limited version of the web. We are given what they think we want and perhaps we accept that because the change is gradual rather than sudden. All together, now: Code is Law. We get used to it, and when we really want to find out, say, what is happening on Wallstreet with the protesters, we can’t even find the independent sites that’ll report it accurately.

Your identity will be your accounts at Facebook, Google and Twitter, not the domain name you own. You don’t pay Big Web a single penny so it can take away your identity and all your data at any time.

The resulting mindset sounds paranoid, but not unreasonable. It is also evident that it is not an innocent transaction: we are not simply using these networks freely in exchange for their increase in popularity (and it, thus, seem profitability in the market). Instead, we are signing away the power to create and use the net as we want, or even, need. What is more, we won’t even own our (online) identity anymore.

The British investigative journalist Jon Ronson has started a short documentary series about how the internet is being used in various ways to manipulate the layman (“layperson”?). (That is it in very, very basic terms).

While he doesn’t mention any theory or theories (his first video, anyway, bares no hint of sociological or anthropological idea’s of how society, (none-internet) media, and programmers already help define how we use the internet), his investigations are always illuminating and very interesting. He will, I have little doubt, add some good pieces on the subject of how the internet is being used both from above and below.

Esc & Ctrl: Jon Ronson’s stories about people trying to control the internet


Rather than attempting to understand how social networks work to create and/or maintain friendships and/or communities, the government and judges seem to be acting in fear of these means of communications. This evident in their reactionary performances of their policies and sentences. The headlines of recent days have been full to the brim of the sentences for those accused of looting/rioting in the UK recently. The Independent today (17-08-11) reported that

Two men have been handed four-year jail terms for setting up Facebook pages encouraging people to riot – even though the riots never took place.

BBC’s The World at One also reported that, although his attempt was unsuccessful,

A 17 year old youth from Suffolk has been banned from using social networking sites for a year for encouraging people to riot.

Perhaps this is based on the choice picks of sentences pointed out by media outlets I had seen (… 3 out of more than 1000 thus far sentenced), but it would seem that (at least) these ‘facebook riots’ did not happen (whether that was because of the police or people just didn’t turn up is another question.) However, with this government wanting powers to curtail the availability of the social networks during social unrest, it raises the question: are all social networks equal?

The network which the active participants used during, at least, the London rioters, seems to have been the closed BlackBerry messaging service. And while it is true to say that Facebook and Twitter will not be wholly innocent (and neither BBM itself wholly guilty), especially of spreading rumour, these two networks also provided forces of good. (see previous post for this).

The government’s further-reaching reaction is looking into how to shut down/control the social networks during points of unrest. Jeff Jarvis told the Guaridan Tech Blog that these suggested regulations ”

put the UK in the league of Saudi Arabia (which wants to control blackberry messages) and China, which wants to control communication and cuts of Twitter.

This is, he says, the curtailment of freedom of the press, as these

tools are our presses. It’s not just a communications tool, it’s more than that.

There is, of course, historical precedent of powers-that-be reacting to new forms of communication and understanding in a reactionary manner, so the actions of Cameron et al are more disappointing than unprecedented. Perhaps it suggests the real wants of those in power rather than the PR-friendly variation that has thus far flowered in the UK. At first thought, the reaction seems akin to Tony Blair’s ban on protest in Parliament Square.

Historians Terence Ranger and Eric Hobsbawm compiled a book, way back in 1983, called The Invention of Tradition. Oversimplifying: the book is dedicated around recounting ways in which traditions, through historical process or started consciously, have come to represent and maintain an idea of a culture, a nation, or so on. An example of this is the invention of the image of punks. According to (my version of) Google, punks look like this:

(Image from

While there does seem to be a strain of this sort of imagery from the late 1970s (more London than New York), it is easy to argue that the original NYC and London punks were a much more diverse bunch (musically, anyway). This variation of the punk asthetic, rather, appears to have come to prominance through the Scottish punk band, The Exploited, who appeared a few years after the original scenes.

However, the point remains. This image of punk is an invented tradition which has come to, partly, define the subculture. The music has, arguably, gone through the process, but that is an arguement for another time and place. Not enough tweed involved, really. But, what happens when the tradition comes before the idea of the movement?

It would seem that the Muslim punk scene Taqwacore “movement” has happened this way around. Author Michael Muhammad Knight wrote about the scene in his books, and then the scene was “invented” (if you will). However, according to Imram Malik of the Kominas (a “Taqwacore” band):

Newsweek wrote about a band called Secret Trial Five at a time when they hadn’t even made any music. Not a single song. This was probably one of the most documented and interviewed scenes out there, and it wasn’t even authentic.

Today there might be 60 people tops who define themselves as Taqwacore artists… But they’re scattered through America, Canada, Pakistan and Indonesia. There’s not this collection of Muslim kids with mohawks in any one place. And the strongest followings are in Indonesia, where the bands are kind of hardline Islam and don’t like gays and all that. Which isn’t really the point.”

(From an article in the Guardian:

Is it really possible to create a top-down sub/counter-culture, especially one based around notions of rebellion? The internet has not, arguably, provided the intimacy for something like a music scene to be created. Aleks Krotoski noted that studies suggest that the internet is reinforcing the local, instead of creating the global, youth cultures:

Psychologically, “youth culture” is the outcome of the process that kids, navigating the tortured period of adolescence, go through as they seek a community that’s distinct from that which has come before.

However, these youth cultures have seemingly gone from the “playground” (her term) to the internet. Many would predict this would create a global community. But

What is most surprising about the findings of the research in this field is that, despite the much-hyped global network, there is very little evidence for a common global youth culture. Boyd argues that the way media is used by kids actually reinforces local connections. “Most young people interact with people they know in their everyday environments,” she says.

This is, of course, at least partly due to the idea that Code is Law – that programmers, rather than users (as advertised) of the most popular websites define how we use the web. Thus, the filter bubble. One has to be conscious, rather than passive, of their use of the net to create the global imagined community. The current tradition of how social interaction online is programmed is seemingly reinforcing the local rather than creating the global imagined community.