Is Data the New Coal? – Four Issues with Christian Fuchs on Social Media

Following up on my initial review of Christian Fuchs’ Social Media – A Critical Introduction (Sage 2014) in German, I have expanded the main arguments and published a review essay this summer. Coming to terms with an author as prolific as Fuchs is not easy, especially as he seems to be publishing more and more books and articles by the minute. But reading through some of his most recent publications, I couldn’t help but see the same argumentative patterns emerge, and the same examples being mustered in support of his theses on exploitation and the political economy of social media. With some due reflection and sympathy for a critique of social media, I have tried to review the book on its own terms and delineate four main issues that seem important for the current scholarly and public debate about the connections of social media, publics and users.

Here are the main points:

  • Is Social Media an introduction, a theory, or a critique of social media? The book outlines basic elements of Fuchs’ Marxist framework. But the abridged, didactic format of an introduction leads to a very troubling and peculiar form of ‘theoretical sampling’, which fails to elucidate the relevance of Karl Marx’s work in relation to social media. One consequence is that the role and status of data in the analysis remains unclear and one-dimensional.
  • What kind of social media does Fuchs have in mind? There is an ambiguous tension in his argument that social media are primarily defined as “applications” by large global players, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter or Weibo, while he acknowledges that Wikipedia, Wikileaks or similar open-source platforms are embodying positive and beneficial social principles of collaboration and cooperation. The unresolved opposition of social media® as trademarked applications and social media as technologies of collaboration remains a blind spot in Fuchs’ argument.
  • What is the status of free labour and exploitation in Fuchs’s view of social media? A cornerstone of his theorising of social media is that social media usage is exploitative just as mining for rare sands in Sub-Saharan Africa or working in Foxconn’s electronics sweatshops is. But his argument on the creation of the ‘audience commodity’ through data is far from convincing and needs to be discussed in context.
  • What kind of concept does Fuchs have of users? He typically emphasises the structurally exploitative nature of social media platforms because the sheer volume of user activity is an infinite source of surplus value on the side of owners and shareholders. By associating power primarily with questions of ownership, Fuchs deliberately avoids considering the dimensions of user agency, not to say of individual creativity or rational judgement in theorising social media.

The article was published in Networking Knowlegde, the open access journal of the Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association. Cite as: Christoph  Raetzsch (2016). “Is Data the New Coal? – Four Issues with Christian Fuchs on Social Media.” Networking Knowledge. Journal for the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network. 9(5).

Creating Publics: Journalism in Comparative Perspective

This summer term, I am teaching a seminar on Creating Publics: Journalism in Comparative Perspective. The basic aim is to critically evaluate the historical, technological and cultural connections between  journalism and concepts of publics. Instead of perpetuating the close alignment of journalism, publics and democracy, the focus in this seminar will be on a contextualized reflection of concepts of publics, the role and practices of journalists, their audiences and media of communication. We are interested in the changing conditions that continuously uphold journalism as a social structure of public communication. Follow the course via #createpublics or check the assigned texts. And yes, structural transformations of the public sphere will be addressed. In English.

Block 1:     Critical Concepts, Histories and Theories of Publics

27 April    Prehistory of the Bourgeois Public Sphere
4 May    The Ideal of the Public Sphere and Public Opinion
11 May    Critique of the Public Sphere, Mass Media and Pluralization
18 May    The Reading Audience of News
  • Leonard, Thomas C. (1995). News for All: Americaʼs Coming-of-Age with the Press. Oxford University Press. Part One The Creation of an Audience. p. 3-46
25 May    The Networked Public
1 June    The End of Journalistic Hegemony?

8 June    no session

Block 2: Publics and their Media

15 June    News and the Newspaper
22 June    Satellite Publics
  • Carey, James W. (1980). “Changing Communications Technology and the Nature of the Audience.” Journal of Advertising 9(2): 3-9, 43.
  • Arceneaux, Noah (2013). “News on the Air: The New York Herald, Newspapers, and Wireless Telegraphy, 1899–1917.” American Journalism 30(2): 160-181. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08821127.2013.788439
29 June    Journalism and the Network
  • Dahlgren, Peter (1996). “Media Logic in Cyberspace: Repositioning Journalism and Its Publics.” Javnost – The Public 3(3): 59-72. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13183222.1996.11008632
  • boyd, danah. (2011). “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications.” A Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites, edited by Zizi Papacharissi, 39-58. New York: Routledge

Block 3: Publics in Transnational Perspective

6 July    Transnational Publics and the Arab Spring

… guest and text announcement follows

13 July        subject to be determined


 

Journalismus und Digitalisierung

Ich unterrichte im Wintersemester ein Einführungsseminar zu “Journalismus und Digitalisierung” am Institut für Publizistik und Kommunikationswissenschaft der FU Berlin.

Nachdem nun lange genug von einer Krise die Rede war, zeigen neueste Entwicklungen die Innovationsfähigkeit und nach wie vor hohe Relevanz des Journalismus: twitternde Chefredakteure, data-driven journalism oder hyperlokale journalistische Produkte um nur einige zu nennen. Dieses Seminar gibt einen Überblick zu den neuesten Entwicklungen im Journalismus, vor allem in Deutschland.

Themen des Seminars sind unter anderem die Veränderung der Produktionsbedingungen von Nachrichten (z.B. newsrooms, structured journalism), die Beziehungen zwischen journalistischen Akteuren und ihrem Publikum, neue Modelle der Finanzierung journalistischer Produkte (z.B. durch crowdfunding), die Pluralisierung von Nutzungs- und Verbreitungsformen, wie auch gänzlich neue Formen journalistischer Expertise (data-driven journalism, social curation, citizen journalism).

Themen (en detail)

  • Digitalisierung und Innovation im Journalismus
  • Journalistische Arbeitsumgebungen: Von der Redaktion zum Newsroom
  • Partizipation am und im Journalismus
  • Bürgerjournalismus online
  • Journalismus und Soziale Medien – Persönliche Öffentlichkeiten
  • Datenjournalismus und Structured Journalism
  • Multimedia-Journalismus
  • Wikileaks und die JournalistInnen
  • Crowdfunding und Journalismus
  • Hyperlokaler Journalismus
  • Perspektiven der Journalismusforschung

Follow and contribute via Twitter #ifpukdj.


Off/On Topic: Kitastreik in Berlin auf Twitter

Auch in Berlin soll ab Oktober wieder in den Kindergärten gestreikt werden. Im Gegensatz zur flächendeckenden Kampagne in NRW aber nur in sieben Kitas des Studentenwerks. Die neue phänomenale Strategie von verdi ist jetzt, vorher nicht mal bescheid zu sagen. Merci, Verdi. Wer denkt sich denn das aus?

Als Eltern von Kindern der sieben Kitas des Studentenwerks wollen uns beteiligen. Weniger gern am Streik, aber an der Aufwertung der Erziehungsberufe. Grüß Gott, Herr Birner von Verdi München, für Statements wie diese.

Wenn uns die Eltern unterstützen, ist es schön – aber wenn sie es nicht tun, können wir es auch nicht ändern.

Richtiger wäre es, von vornherein mit den Eltern Aktionen zu planen, statt sie überraschend vor  verschlossenen Türen von Kitas stehen zu lassen. Denn die Eltern wissen die Arbeit der ErzieherInnen sehr wohl zu schätzen.

Am Samstag, 26. September ab 10 Uhr wird es vor dem Eingang zu den Hangars am U-Bhf Platz der Luftbrücke einen lauten Auftakt zur Beteiligung der Eltern geben. Kommt vorbei und macht Krach. Vor allem die Kinder! Ausnahmsweise. Vielleicht hört’s dann auch der Birner Heinrich in München.

Facebookseite zur Aktion: https://www.facebook.com/events/1496705067313312/

Hier unten fortlaufend die Twitter-Unterhaltung zum #kitastreik und #gemeinsamaufwerten



 


Pretty Neat: Open Source Intelligence on TimelineJS

After a webinar for newbies to Python the last week, I am beginning to understand what these lines of code can do for research. Just posted by Justin Seitz and his colleagues, a neat illustration of open data using TimelineJS employed by dedicated free-range programmers on the run for interesting projects to get their claws on:  http://automatingosint.com/blog/2015/09/follow-the-money-with-python/

Future of Journalism in Cardiff

When follow is not quite the same as being there. Everyone have a great conference (and dinner :-).

Programme


Review of Mark Deuze “Media Life” online

My review of Mark Deuze’s “Media Life” (2012; Cambridge: Polity) appeared in Digital Journalism volume 2, issue 4. My criticism boils down to this point:

Media Life is a daring, provocative and mindful analysis of the many ways in which media have become an irreducible component of the social. It is written in a very approachable style, presented in an impeccable typographic design, and is impressive in its scope of concepts, terminologies, and the body of examples from market research, art and popular culture. One (ironic) consequence of Deuze’s analysis is that it makes media studies as a discipline appear redundant by emphasizing how every social and humanistic science must acknowledge the position of media in the constitution of its objects of knowledge. On a more critical note, however, Deuze’s nebulous formulation of “we” and “the people” leaves much to be desired: whether “we” refers to anyone connected to the global information circuit and “the people” are all those entertaining any tangential relation to the life Deuze describes, definitely warrants a more nuanced sociological analysis. Whose life it eventually is, that is in media and nowhere beyond, will be the task to determine in the future of media/life studies. The consequences of Deuze’s remarkable claim that “we are all on our own but at the same time more connected than ever before” (p. 158) have yet to be determined.

Get a free download of the piece here: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/muTDT8CqBCsnsMiktDAr/full

Full citation: Raetzsch, Christoph (2014). “Review of Mark Deuze “Media Life”.” Digital Journalism 2(4): 617-619. doi:10.1080/21670811.2014.885262.

Drop me your comments on Deuze or the review below.

Cheers, Christoph

 

New Article Out: ‘REAL PICTURES OF CURRENT EVENTS’: The photographic legacy of journalistic objectivity

After some time of preparation and strenuous revising, my article on “The photographic legacy of journalistic objectivity” is now out online in Media History. With images.

My basic argument is that the emergence of an ideal of objectivity in American journalism and the photomechanical processes that made photography available as photography in mass print (via the halftone process of reproduction) need to be considered in conjunction. The debate about the value of images and the advantages and deficiencies of certain illustration techniques prefigured the formulation of an ideal of objectivity in journalism, that was, at least until the end of the 19th century, heavily imbued with photographic metaphors. The article appears as part of a special issue of Media History (Volume 21, Issue 3), edited by Marcel Broersma and John Steel on “Redefining Journalism During the Period of the Mass Press 1880–1920”  (See the introduction).

Abstract

Objectivity has been regarded as a central ideal of American journalism in the early twentieth century. The concurrent emergence of photography in the press is rarely associated with this development. The article explores the photographic legacy of journalistic objectivity by discussing a crucial phase in the development of reproduction media for images, the transition from wood engravings to halftones. The former was the dominant mode of ‘illustrated journalism’, the latter became the dominant mode of reproducing photojournalism in print in the twentieth century. The halftone process introduced an equivalence between photographs and their reproductions, obliterating the mediation that had taken place in a code of reproduction that was almost imperceptible. In the contested adoption of the halftone process, it is argued, a shifting valuation of photographs can be observed that prefigures the formulation of objectivity as a transparent code of mediation in journalism.

Citation

Raetzsch, Christoph (2015). ““Real Pictures of Current Events“: The Photographic Legacy of Journalistic Objectivity.” Media History 21(3): 294-312. doi:10.1080/13688804.2015.1053387.

Links

First 50 readers can use the free download: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/kYfHUuTBSuEDkeutF2wP/full

Knight-Mozilla Fellowships in OpenNews: call open till August 21, 2015

The Knight Foundation and Mozilla have launched Open News, a program to explore new ways of doing journalism through software coding, data exploration and presentation. For 2016, there are stupendously generous fellowships available for interested scholars, programmers and/or journalists to work with selected partners:

Source and further info: The Knight-Mozilla Fellowships: How to Apply

On Writing

Many writers have left notes or whole libraries on writing. Here is a personal collection of helpful and inspiring works. On the why, the how, and the how in detail of writing.

Why write?

George Orwell (1946). Why I write. Gangrel. Subsequently published in numerous collections.
 (h/t T.J. Jackson Lears)

“Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” (last paragraph, emphases added).

Jean Paul Sartre (1964). The Words [Les Mots]. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: George Braziller.

Autobiographical study on how the words out there never quite capture what an author has in mind. And that the only way to capture that sense is to know more words, reuse them, innovate them and eventually overturn and redefine the concepts they stand for. The book is conveniently split into two sections: Reading and Writing – alpha and omega of the intellectual endeavor. Apart from speaking.

Stephen King (2000). On Writing. A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Simon & Schuster.

To many a surprise, the master of horror came back to the scene with a writing manual after a car crash almost killed King in 1999. On Writing seems to be written in an attempt to regain confidence in his own voice. King writes about character and plot development, about the personal work schedule and office necessities, and most of all about his passion for thinking up stories – and seeing them published. It’s an autobiography of a life in writing fiction, whose occasional digressions into the histories of particular novels may be only of interest to dedicated King fans. The book also features lists of essential works (says Mr. King) in fiction and non-fiction, e.g. other books on writing. See further the 20 rules for writers or even the “36 killer writing tips” destilled from the book by thewhynot100 blog.

How?

Brand Blanshard (1954). On Philosophical Style. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

In this short essay, Blanshard discusses very eloquently the benefits of a clear but personal style in writing, which need not be restricted to philosophical writing. Blanshard argues throughout the text that a complicated style, overbearing ornateness and disorienting grammatical constructions are not necessarily signs of learning or genius but often indicate that the writer wants to feel superior to his or her readers. “Persistently obscure writers,” Blanchard argues, “will usually be found to be defective human beings.” (p. 53). Central to the argument on style is that the content of writing and the way it is conveyed need to address the readers as often and as directly as possible. Style is not an excuse for lack of content, but then, what is being said needs to be said intelligibly. Especially in the social sciences and humanities, relevance for a given argument quite often is derived from general observations, general assumptions about people and society. Such arguments rely on and address a reader’s emotional and creative companionship. Contrary to works in the natural sciences, a given argument is advanced on the assumption that the reader will decide on its plausibility, that readers are offered an alternative way of conceiving of something that they may have already encountered or known all along.

“No one opens a book on algebra with anxiety as to whether the author is going to treat the binomial theorem roughly, or a book of physics with the feeling that hope will be blighted if Ohm’s law comes out badly. But people do feel that it is of importance whether the religious belief is honeycombed, or their hope of survival blasted, or even whether pleasure is made out to be the only good.” (p. 7).

Blanshard is especially at odds with the intricacies of German philosophy (and grammar). Upon reading Nietzsche, Blanshard often “felt like throwing the book across the room” because he is upset by the self-aggrandizing style in relation to what is being said. Instead of calling his thoughts “prejudices,” Nietzsche “obviously takes them for something more and something better ; he takes them as philosophy instead of what they largely are, pseudo-Isaian prohesyings, incoherent and unreasoned Sibylline oracles.” (p.15). Another example contrasts the ornate (and often self-absorbed) German style of Kant and Hegel with the apparently more reader-friendly styles of Thomas Babington Macaulay or Jonathan Swift:

“To say that Major André was hanged is clear and definite; to say that he was killed is less definite, because you do not know in what way he was killed ; to say that he died is still more indefinite because you do not even know whether his death was due to violence or to natural causes. If we were to use this statement as a varying symbol by which to rank writers for clearness, we might, I think, get something like the following : Swift, Macaulay, and Shaw would say that André was hanged. Bradley would say that he was killed. Bosanquet would say that he died. Kant would say that his mortal existence achieved its termination. Hegel would say that a finite determination of infinity had been further determined by its own negation.” (p. 30-31; example given in Barrett Wendell “English Composition,” p. 240f.)

A fine read on writing and an entertaining one at that.

Michael Billig (2013). Learn to Write Badly. How to Succeed in the Social Sciences. Cambridge University Press.

In this witty and insightful study of academic writing, Michael Billig makes the convincing case that the incessant urge to publish has had detrimental effects on the quality and clarity of research literature. The author is professor of social sciences at the University of Loughborough (UK) and thus no outsider to the increasing demands of mass publication and self promotion. He writes in an informed, self-reflective and critical way about the way research and its documentation has become a cornerstone in university education and financing. His main points of criticism are that an inflation of technical vocabulary contributes to growing tendencies of branding particular types of research (and researchers) through new approaches, theories or methods. A proliferation of writing in nominal style by using -ization and -isms all over the place, obscures questions of agency and even causality. Billig argues:

“words function as more than summaries of complex social processes … for the words have become commodities in themselves, with social scientists using the ization to label approaches that are to be championed or to be rejected.” (p. 113).

By using labels, approaches and theories as short-cuts to larger bodies of work, scholar conveniently  themselves in particular schools of thought without having to spell out the details of their analyses or research programs. As a social psychologist, Billig is especially concerned with the linguistic patterns that create authority at the expense of clarity or balanced arguments. His book is also a plea for personality in writing and an encouragment to question homogenizing trends in research and publishing.

Andrew Abbott (2004). Methods of Discovery. Heuristics for the Social Sciences. London: Norton.
Especially Chapter 1 (Explanation) and Chapter 7 (Ideas and Puzzles) are worthwhile reads on questions of inquiry, its presentation and how to generate new ideas. Abbott finds that the technical aspects of research, which to the student seem like the most important markers of academics rigor and quality, are “just window dressing” (p. xi). Abbott argues that an idea needs to be strong, interesting and challenging in the first place to drive research and inquiry for any extended period of time.

Patrick Dunleavy (2003). Authoring a PhD. How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. (h/t Karl Kaser)

From the macro structure of the whole piece to the micro structure of every single chapter, subchapter and even a paragraph. There are many quotes in this text that illustrate what famous writers said about writing and the process that makes ideas turn into words and written texts. For there is no natural procession from ideas to texts. Ideas are a psychological, spiritual or mental experience; texts and their production are a cultural technique, a skill, a craft that is learned by repetition, trial and feedback. Over years. Dunleavy makes the point that the organization of writing (what to put where and when) is just as important as the stuff you write (the content). Most writers would resist such a formalist approach to writing, but then, often enough, a clear structure of argument is visible in an understandable formal organization of ideas on the page. No matter how innovative your argument is, formal innovation tends to distract from the content. It is rarely a good strategy for clear style to labor on too many fronts at the same time.

How? In Detail.

On the technical aspects, and a good lesson in clear writing and a concise ways of expression in English, you may refer to the new (illustrated) edition of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White ([1979] 2007) The Elements of Style. New York: Penguin. The authors explain basic principles of composition and pitfalls of the English language. In general, they advocate simple expressions in place of verbose blundering. Their chapter on commonly misused phrases is especially helpful for learners of English but can also count as a general style guide for native speakers. The book has examples throughout, contrasting complicated or wrong phrases with simpler alternatives (that basically say the same thing). A collection of often misused phrases has examples such as

In the last analysis. A bankrupt expression.” (p.76).
Secondly, thirdly, etc. Unless you are prepared to begin with firstly and defend it (which will be difficult), do not prettify numbers with -ly. Modern usage prefers second, third, and so on.” (p. 86).

The details of furnishing a manuscript and the process of publishing it are laid out exquisitely in the Bible of Editors in English language academic publishing: The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago University Press). Presently in its 16th Edition (2010), the tome of more than one thousand pages is likely to cover any question you may have about types of citation, style of writing or the correct way of referencing names of ships (p.436f.). The online resource is also quite helpful. This book is not a weekend read but a valuable reference for any writer, even if they are not using Chicago Style for citation. All the chapters–ranging from manuscript preparation to copyright questions, from grammar rules to appendices on the print process–exemplify to the best of my knowledge how effective writing, elegant typesetting and an approachable style can come together to create a pleasurable, enriching and inspiring reading experience. Even for a manual.

Want to extend the list? Add your favorite quotes (with source, please) or books on writing in the comments section.