Tag Archives: England

Twitter, Media, and Change

My mom informed me about the federal court’s ruling on voting fraud in the last election before it was reported in the mainstream media because she was tracking it on Twitter (not that the mainstream media seems to be too interested anyway).

A couple days later when I asked how the Globe and Mail paywall affected her night-time news-reading ritual, my aunt informed me: “Guess I’m getting more of my news from Twitter.”

Plenty has been written about the death of the newspaper; and it seems like for some of my family, they’re replacing it with Twitter. Maybe I’m not the best person to comment. Initially, a complete Twitter-sceptic, I now observe from afar: I regularly read my favourite hockey writers and my mom’s feeds, but I don’t have an account of my own. As frequent readers may have guessed, the 140-character limit does not suit me. I find that it limits the capacity to communicate nuance and therefore increases the possibility of being misunderstood. There was one point about a year ago, where I warned my mother that her Twitter feed made her sound like more of a political extremist than she was.  So, while brevity may be the soul of wit,[1] I am a long-winded Polonius. You could say that my attitude towards Twitter is better suited to a grumpy old man. However, the more I reflect on it, the more I realise Twitter doesn’t exactly bring anything new to the table; rather it simply magnifies, extends, and intensifies the way we already interact with the media.[2]

“The Readers’ Prejudices”

The internet has been praised for opening up dialogue and breaking down barriers.  However, while it’s very easy to find viewpoints with which you don’t agree on the internet, this ideal is generally not what happens. Instead, people tend to use the internet to find and interact with like-minded people. As  Twitter feeds are filled with people who they choose to follow, Twitter acts as a personalised collator of information that confirms people’s pre-existing ideas. I found it interesting how after the recent murders in Woolwich, my Facebook feed filled up with condemnation of the racist backlash, but was itself devoid of any racist backlash. Not that the confirmation bias arrived with Twitter. The following clip from the satirical 1980s British sitcom Yes, Prime Minister does a fairly good job of describing today’s British print media.

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Class, Taste, and British Student TV

The television in the student accommodation, which I shared with five other students in Bradford last year, was not often the source of particularly thought-provoking fare. However, when the two art students in the flat wanted to watch In the Best Possible Taste, we were provided with a rare exception. In each episode of this three-part series, Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry explored taste—“why people buy the things they do and wear the things they wear, and what they are trying to say about themselves when they make those choices”—among representatives of a different British class. He visited his subject’s homes and participated in their social activities in an inquisitive yet empathetic and perceptive manner. He would then create two massive tapestries, which symbolised what he felt he had learned about his model’s taste, aspirations, and difficulties. The subjects of the episode are then invited into his gallery to view the tapestries. Each episode spawned long-lasting discussions in my flat; we even missed a good chunk of the second episode because we started yakking during a commercial break and didn’t stop. I don’t know if my art student flatmates would agree with me—I should probably ask them—but in my opinion, good art creates those kinds of discussions.

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PeaceJam, Education, and Values

Last weekend the University of Bradford hosted the annual PeaceJam UK Conference, a conference in which a Nobel Peace Laureate joins students aged thirteen through nineteen for a weekend of talks, workshops, and community service. In addition, at every conference, youth make a commitment to advance the Global Call to Action, and at subsequent conferences, present the projects that they have worked on to fulfill this commitment. This year, the guest laureate was Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the human rights defender and sculptor, and the conference theme was “Breaking the cycle of violence.”

For the second year in a row, I was a conference mentor meaning that throughout the weekend, my mentor partner and I led sessions of discussion, reflection, and teambuilding with our “family group,” a group of ten youth. Our family group had challenging discussions about the justifiability of violence, which flowed into a dialogue about the death penalty; we also spent a session seeing who could make the tallest free-standing tower out of paper and tape. It was great watching the group bond, and hopefully, they learned something from each other’s perspectives.

One statement from Adolfo’s opening speech, which stuck with me is that we need to think deeply about what we want to achieve through education. We can train our children to become professionals, he said, to become great engineers and architects, but if that’s all we focus on, they run the risk of becoming robots—unthinking cogs in oppressive systems. He said that education should also be about thinking critically about values.

In my opinion, many problematic forms of thinking are reinforced in our education system. One major example is some people’s tendency of trying to place everything in fixed absolute categories. While we may need categories in order to understand the infinite complexity of our world, there is no reason why we should not apply them with an eye for nuance and an understanding of the fluidity of categorical borders. The more I look into any particular subject, the more seemingly fundamental boundaries blur. While I can laugh at my friends’ over-categorisation when it comes to, for example, which foods qualify as “breakfast food” and which ones qualify as “dinner food,” it becomes far more serious when categories are applied to be people, whether it be through race, gender, religion or preferred sports teams. This is why it’s troubling that—particularly at an early age—much of my schooling revolved around memorising categories and their apparently “absolute” characteristics. It’s funny the amount of times we learned “absolute” rules, when we were younger, which we had to unlearn as we get older because there was more nuance to them than we were originally taught.

Another example is the tendency to claim universality from one’s personal experience. Obviously we can only think and theorise from what we perceive, learn, and “know.” This isn’t a problem in itself; the problem comes when people assume that their inevitably subjective conclusions can automatically be applied to everyone else without taking the time to listen to them. With this in mind, I wonder why I remember teachers in the Humanities emphasising the “ability” to draw links between subject matter and our own lives. Why do we need to find relevance to our own lives in order to understand and empathise with others?

At PeaceJam, youth experienced a different form of education. One workshop that I attended focused on the relationships that connect us. Other activities, from the campaign for an Arms Trade Treaty with Amnesty International to planting potatoes with the Permaculture project, from the art with Umbrellas for Peace to the session with Peace FC [who in a completely unrelated note won the Tolstoy Cup 2-1 on Sunday], had a similar focus. I think that our education system could certainly benefit from more focus on thinking, discussing and listening about how we interact with each other and our world.

In reference to my previous post about art’s ability to communicate other people’s lives, this new photography book released by LSE (of Saif Gaddafi fame) provides a hugely insightful peak into another time and place.

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Art, Empathy, and Kony

Before I was brought on board, some of my fellow ArtQuake bloggers wrote about what draws them to art. These posts sparked self-reflection on my own relationship with art. I’ve come to the conclusion that what  draws me most to art is its ability to communicate other people’s lives, perspectives and emotions. A photograph can capture a moment, a sculpture can symbolize strength and defiance, and a poem can grant entrance to the vulnerable thoughts of a mourning grandson. Thus, I was particularly drawn to displays in the National Media Museum’s recent exhibition of the work of Daniel Meadows, who describes himself not as a photographer but as a documentarist and a storyteller. Powerful art evokes empathy and human connection.

* A sample of Daniel Meadow’s storytelling through photographs.

This reflection on art and empathy was recently brought back to my mind with the meteoric spread of the KONY 2012 film. I have never seen anything spread across Facebook like this has, and I’ve been astounded by how this has resonated across ALL demographics of my Facebook friends (age, interests, gender, race, geographic location etc.)—which I believe has a relatively wide scope. If nothing else, that’s an impressive accomplishment.

I was even more baffled, when I actually watched the film and felt none of the emotional attachment that I expected. Perhaps it’s because my internet connection’s been shaky and so I had to watch it in five minute intervals (leaving plenty of time to digest what was actually being said) or maybe it’s because the video’s many flaws are apparent in many of the other issues that I think about both in my studies and in my own time or maybe I’ve just turned into a cold-hearted cynic, but I could not understand why this video was spreading like wildfire, while so many other advocacy videos—including, if my memory isn’t misleading me, previous Invisible Children productions—have not.

Now this is not going to turn into another critique of the campaign because that has been done quite well already by people who are far more educated about Kony and the LRA than I am. Instead, I am interested in why this 30-minute video, despite its many flaws,  defied the rule that only short videos go viral, and resonated enough with millions of people that they were inclined to share it with others.

                                                                                        * Co-Founder of Invisible Children, and film-maker of Kony 2012 uses his son’s perspective on “what a bad man looks like to convey the message of his power to the world*

In his blogpost about the phenomenon, Ethan Zuckerman attributes the video’s spread to the oversimplification of narratives:

“This narrative is so powerful because ‘certain stories resonate more, and thus are more effective at influencing action, when they assign the cause of the problems to ‘the deliberate actions of identifiable individuals’, when they include ‘bodily harm to vulnerable individuals, especially when there is a short and clear causal chain assigning responsibility’; when they suggest a simple solution; and when they can latch on to pre-existing narratives.’

Sound familiar? The Kony story resonates because it’s the story of an identifiable individual doing bodily harm to children. It’s a story with a simple solution, and it plays into existing narratives about the ungovernability of Africa, the power of US military and the need to bring hidden conflict to light.”

Upon re-watching the film, a couple more elements stood out to me: the inflated sense of power attributed to social media particularly through imagery from the Arab Awakening, the immediate sense of urgency created by a big flashing deadline, and the sense of integrated intellectual and moral authority conveyed through Luis Moreno Ocampo and the filmmaker’s son respectively.

My mother forwarded me this other perspective from Kevin Allocca, Youtube’s trends manager. Allocca identifies three main elements that make videos go viral: tastemakers, participation and unexpectedness. KONY 2012 brilliantly uses one element, an appeal to participation, to go after the second element, the tastemakers. As for unexpectedness,  from what I seem to glean from reading articles and comments on the internet, it certainly seems that those who are pushing KONY 2012 the hardest are those who didn’t know who the LRA was before watching the film.

This feeds back to Zuckerman’s argument. Both Zuckerman’s observations and my own identified elements would seem to convey that widespread support can only be gained through engaging otherwise uninterested people with an oversimplified and misleading message. But is that all there is to it? It seems to me like KONY 12 is adhering to my ideal of what art should be—a source of human empathy—by twisting itself to appeal to the flawed mindsets of many of its viewers. Could a more nuanced film ever have the same impact?  Rather than adjusting to appeal to viewers, can a film gain the same widespread circulation by forcing viewers to adjust to it? I’d like to think so; however, despite considerable reflection, this blogpost is more about questions than answers. I don’t know the answers. This is why I would like to open it up to you. What made KONY 2012 spread quicker and more widespread than any previous video campaign? And can this be harnessed in a more constructive manner?

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