Comments welcome? News sites and user comments

Posted in Ideas on February 7th, 2012 by admin – 1 Comment

This post is prompted by a discussion recently with a journalist from the excellent ABC program Media Watch about the problems caused potentially by websites (specifically news-oriented sites) that allow users to comment on stories. At issue here, in particular, is the commentary (if one can call it that) to be found at Yahoo! news in Australia. The story went to air this week (“Not all things good in moderation“)

An example not covered by Media Watch is the recent report of the arrest of a man in NSW alleged to have trafficked women for sex. The comments are revealing. One asserts “Thats why these young Thai and Philipino women come here for. They work in brothels while they await some old, dirty, fat, red neck Aussie man to marry them. You see them together everywhere, these girls are young enough to be there daughters or granddaughters. Its disgusting.”. While one reply corrects the poster, pointing out that the women had no choice, another is simply insulting “Aussie men marry Asian women because they are a much better alternative than bitter twisted hags like you”. None of the comments materially add to the debate except insofar as they reveal the limited understanding of people about this challenging issue. The story is not especially detailed, of course, and the comments reflect perhaps the quick n dirty style of internet exchange (few words, excessive opinion, designed to vent or attract attention). Nevertheless, they do not look particularly good, either for the posters or Yahoo. They mostly tell us of how little empathy there is for the people concerned.

Yahoo does utilise the normal tools of social moderation (perhaps crowd-sourced moderation?) in an attempt to manage the quality of contributions. Social moderation means that the users themselves have the opportunity to moderate, through the ‘report abuse’ and thumbs up / down voting buttons. People can comment on the original article or reply to comments, providing the means for debate of inappropriate original comments. However, this is effectively a very weak form of moderation, and it is not transparent since we don’t know what the result of using these tools might be.

Yahoo does, of course, also attempt to manage debate by not allowing comments on some stories (those which initially seem likely to promote ill-considered responses) and does filter crude language. It provides good commenting guidelines (which, one assumes, are rarely read). It also states “Yahoo!7 reserves the right to refuse or remove any comment that does not comply with these guidelines or the Yahoo!7 Terms of Service and to terminate your Yahoo!7 account (including email) for a violation. Yahoo!7 is not responsible or liable in any way for content posted by its users.” These guidelines and  after-the-fact correctional tendencies do not appear to inhibit comments such as “slope”, an offensive reference no doubt to the racial characteristics of the abused women concerned.

There are countless examples of this kind of exchange through the Yahoo website. That site’s approach stands in constrast to, for example, the Courier Mail (and many other such sites). Here, when a comment is left, it is moderated before publication. And, upon submission of the comment, one is advised: “Please note that we are not able to publish all the comments that we receive, and that we may edit some comments to ensure their suitability for publishing. Feedback will be rejected if it does not add to a debate, or is a purely personal attack, or is offensive, repetitious, illegal or meaningless, or contains clear errors of fact. Although we try to run feedback just as it is received, we reserve the right to edit or delete any and all material ”

One of the reasons for this difference is, of course, that news organisations (such as News Limited, the publishers of the Courier Mail), have a long tradition of accepting content from uses (letters) and publishing a small selection; it is part of their culture to edit (whether the words of staff or readers or news makers). Yahoo is not (despite its efforts) a true media company – it is a fused media-internet company which still has a significant cultural bias towards the less intermediated modes of communication found online.

However, it is also the case that any kind of interaction with Yahoo requires you to register with the site – logging in with their Yahoo ID (unlike the Courier Mail where an email address needs to be supplied, only). This is, essentially, the key business aspect. While advertising displaya at Yahoo generates revenue, much more is generated through the process of creating a network of users about whom Yahoo knows things (through their profiles) and which enables them to target adverts to particular users.  Furthermore, the need to log in can make users return to an existing identity with Yahoo and keep using it. Therefore, the freedom of commentary on Yahoo is both a reflection of its origins as an Internet company and its specific business models of the present.

The two-way communication capacity of the Internet is one of the most significant advantages of the web over traditional media forms. It is commonplace for most websites that distribute news or similar content to also enable readers to comment on these stories. In effect, comments allow users to conduct a distributed conversation with each other and other readers. Commenting of this kind allows different views to emerge; it can also enable readers to contribute to the quality of the news reported as well.

From a business perspective, this interaction is crucial, because it keeps readers at the website longer, keeps them coming back, and thus increases the attention being paid to a particular site. This attention translates into increased advertising revenue for commercial news organisations. Where users have to register to comment, or provide an email address, this can also create business opportunities as well.

However, commenting can be hard to manage. Some users of the web react in simplistic ways to what they read, or use the commenting feature as an opportunity for airing their views in ways that do not add anything useful to public debate. While seeking to improve the quality of news communication, or to increase revenue, companies must be careful to manage the risks. Hate speech, abuse, defamatory remarks, and plain old stupid comments can all make the commenting feature a nightmare. It can detract from the quality of what was originally presented. There are risks of litigation or even prosecution where comments from users breach laws.

Comment moderation is the only way to ensure that comments actually add something and do it safely. But there are several disadvantages. First, it is expensive and time consuming for someone to read through and approve comments manually. Second, people don’t like to wait before seeing their comments appear – thus people may not be bothered to comment if it is not immediately published. Third, moderation can make it more likely that a website can be sued for the content that appears in comments because the site cannot claim to be disinterested. Most of all, comment moderation can be perceived as a form of censorship or manipulation. While some technological solutions automate aspects of the moderation process, in most cases, only human moderation will work. I recently left a thoughtful comment on a story at the Courier Mail site which has still not been published: why would I bother to do this again if I don’t know why the first post was not published. The lack of feedback  makes moderation a challenge (note, for example, the feedback provided on the Media Watch site!)

A free for all, where any comment is published immediately best exemplifies the general nature of the Internet – think of twitter and facebook and how instantaneous, unmoderated communication is the norm. And there are some advantages to this because it enables public debate. The Internet of this kind relies on users to be astute and active readers  – ignoring rubbish, critiquing nonsense comments, and so on. Equally, while there may be objectionable discussions online, we get to see them and we can’t ignore what they say about our society.

Ultimately, however, the question is not about the general nature of the Internet. News sites are a specific form of Internet communication and can set their own rules. Indeed, they can demonstrate their difference, and perhaps improve their attractiveness to readers, by the way they offer a space for considered and informed debate which is not a free-for-all. Comment moderation, even though timeconsuming, may be part of the new ways in which journalism and news operate. Sites that want to increase interaction and build user-generated content along with their own content will need to redefine ‘news’ – it is no longer communicated from the few to the many, but is co-created, a partnership between writers and their audiences. Such sites may prosper precisely because they require the audience to invest a little more time and effort in commenting.

While the content of the comments is, in many cases, quite offensive to some, we should be wary about judging it by the standards of organised and official media communication. It is, to be frank, quite similar to what people might say to one another in face to face situations – socialising, gossiping, and so on. What differs is that this quite intimate form of speech (which normally we know nothing about) is now found online and any one can read it. IT is the change in context, from personal / private to public / visible, which makes it offensive, not the speech itself (which goes on all the time). What comments on news sites demonstrates is that the Internet has radically transformed the relationship between public and private – we can’t stop this, but we must learn better how to deal with it.

Broadband in Society

Posted in Events, Seminars and presentations on December 6th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

I recently organised a symposium at Curtin University entitled Broadband in Society: International Perspectives and Research Challenges. The symposium was held to mark the formation of the BroadBand Research Team, involving several international researchers all with a particular interest in the social and policy dimensions of emering high-capacity, fast broadband networks such as Australia’s National Broadband Network.

My presentation, entitled Broadband in Australia: commonplace but why? considers the extent and significance of the Internet connectivity in this country, especially since most people have some kind of a broadband connection, and also looks at the importance of understanding the relationship between mobile and fixed connectivity.

Broadband: infrastructure or content delivery?

Posted in Conferences, Events on November 23rd, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

I recently attended an excellent presentation by Catherine Middleton at the Australian Media Traditions conference at which she discussed the contradictory positions of the Government and the NBN Co on the way in which we might understand the difference that the National Broadband Network will make. Her paper was entitled, “Have We Ever Needed a Killer App? What could the NBN learn from the 1990s?”. Here are some notes, with a few asides from me.


Middleton begins by reminding us of the importance of the rhetoric of the “killer application” in the policies and plans of broadband development. She notes that, often, this “killer app” is located in the future, still to arrive but promised or imagined.

Broadband networks were initially understood as delivering content to people in a manner like television; but the alternative perspective which Middleton’s research has clearly demonstrated is that the broadband is a network – in effect, broadband is its own killer application, infrastructure to enable connectivity and user-based activity. Her problem is that the Autralian government promotes the NBN as infrastructure, as a network, but the NBN Co is building a model which implies content delivery.

Recounts the history of trials for broadband in the mid-1990s in the USA which concentrated on interactive TV, TV on demand and so on – these trials were seen as failures (as Time Warner concluded, however, the failure was one of the economics – insufficient demand to justify the investment). Killer application blurs with ‘compelling content’ – that the content is the application. However, as Middleton discovered, the story being told by the individuals connecting was different to that of the providers. The providers had not understood exactly what connectivity would do – evident in the reflections of providers who were ‘surprised’ by the importance of email. Another perspective was a provider saying it was ‘arrogant’ to assume that people want information pushed at them.

This resonates with my own arguments relating to the different understandings of how the Internet might ‘arrive’: telecommunications and media providers were strongly oriented towards a model of the Internet in which they, not users, played the determining role. In fact, the Internet as it developed, relocated the power to determine utility to the user. The internet that I claim was ‘the future-in-the-present’ was precisely a network where users’ social interconnectivity through information exchange was the primary experience of network connectivity

Middleton emphasises how content is central … but not as a given, as a contested space about the economics of exploiting content – who creates it, who circulates it and who benefits from it. Providers, not surprisingly, saw themselves as the owners of the only legitimate content.

Equally, I believe, telecommunications companies did not understand that communication would be textual, distributed and not real-time circuit-switched.

Middleton returns to the NBN, noting how the current rhetoric of the NBN is similar to that the 1994 Broadband Services Expert Group

I would add that of the 2001 report on Broadband]. It therefore implies that there is something of a return to the past, a recouping of the ideals which had first inspired the BSEG and similar thinking: but which was never realised through both failures of infrastructure development but more importantly the success of the Internet as it actually developed.

The government rhetoric is that broadband is understood as an investment in services, as an infrastructural multiplier of the investments in other areas (health, education) – that the NBN will leverage that investment, just as those investments also make the NBN sensible. The NBN cuts costs, but also improves outcomes. But, the rhetoric from elsewhere, often read off the plans of the NBN Co but also through the retail service providers’ assumptions, is a re-invention of the plans from early 2000s for the high-speed Internet as telephones and television via IP.

I would probably add a third perspective: I am not entirely sure that the ‘infrastructure’ model from the Government is that different to the content/communications model of the NBN Co which mimics the roll-out of cable for cable TV. This third perspective is that of users who are not currently connected; or which connection that maximises the immediacy and distribution within the home of connectivity – effectively more connectivity. In essence, the challenge is that the size of the investment does not match the perceived benefits of connectivity.

Essentially, Middleton concludes that there is a disconnection between the policy and developmental rhetoric (Government and NBN Co). She notes the difficulties of the current political climate within which the Opposition is critical of the NBN precisely because there is no compelling story about the difference that this massive (and world-leading) investment will make.

Middleton argues that the pay-tv approach might be the ‘leader’ to get people connected who then will discover all the other things that can be done online. But in Australia may not work because there is a significant number of people who have chosen not to connect for Pay TV.

Ultimately, Middleton concludes, there needs to be a new way of thinking about the way broadband is understood, outside of the competing rhetorics of ‘content delivery’ and ‘social infrastructure’.


In questions, Middleton makes the excellent point that the political messages needed to manage the contests over the NBN are simple and simplistic: that the faster speed justifies the investment.

Web 2.0 and Internet Historicity

Posted in Conferences, Events, Presentations on November 22nd, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

Gaining a Past, Losing a Future: Web 2.0 and Internet Historicity

Paper presented at 7th Australian Media Traditions Conference: Trends, Traditions & Transformations, Melbourne Australia, November 2011


This paper considers the emergence of the historicity of the Internet – that is, the explicit sense with practical consequences that the Internet has a history, and that it exists within a history which, through our use of it, also defines us as beings in time. For many years, the Internet existed as a kind of cultural future-in-the-present. For example in the 1990s, talk of the ‘Internet frontier’ was a metaphor to give cultural substance to this new and inexplicable space called cyberspace. But it was also a temporal metaphor: the frontier was the future, as much as it was a place. The alterity of the Internet, where people found freedoms not imaginable in ‘the real world’ was also an alternative time, a world of future possibilities, made real through the magic of networked computing. The Internet might have had a history, but it had no historicity. That has changed because of Web 2.0, and the effects of Tim O’Reilly’s creative marketing of that label. What can we make of the last decade of the web, which has in popular commentary, clever marketing, and actual socio-technological development, become a second version of the web we had in the 1990s? What are the consequences of coming into history for the Internet? How might Web 2.0 inform us of the way the Internet is culturally constructed through changing patterns of relations of past, present and future?

Draft paper (not for citation):

Gaining a past, Losing a future: Web 2.0 and Internet Historicity

Politics, norms and communicative irrationality

Posted in Conferences, Ideas on October 14th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

Just attended a great panel at the AoIR conference Internet Research 12.0 -  performance and participation. Three quite distinct papers on politics, discussing norms of behaviour in online forums, the avoidance of news during election campaigns, and the digital divide and why it is so hard to achieve universal service.

Reflecting on the three papers together (Fa Niemei,- , Ericka Menchen-Trevino – and Susan Kretcher –   blogged by the excellent Axel Bruns (@snurb_dot_info)), I am reminded that at its heart the Internet is a platform for conversations (diverse, stupid, brilliant, failed,sustained, confusing, enlightening all at once). What emerges from the conteporary use of the mainstream broadcast media is an almost wilful pursuit by opinionaters (that most normal form of contemporary journalism, with some notable exceptions) of communicative irrationality. Rather than the seeking of a communicative moment in which differences are aired and understood so that the differences between people become the basis for their connections with one another (I understand you think diffrently, so therefore I become more at one with you) – which for me is the essence of communcative rationality – the media creates a space which divides people from one another and requires instead allegiance to the opinion of the moment. Our social relations are emptied out and we form instead relations with half-truths masquerading as the truth. It is a form of knowledge fetishism, I guess. The truth object becomes the fetish object of our desire to belong and be heard and be knowledgeable.

Communicative irrationality deliberately excludes the diversity of opinions necessary for the operation of democracy: not because each voice is equally worthy or should be enacted in some policy or plan, but because the multitude of voices speaks the landscape of the polity. Communicative irrationality is quite literally the closing of doors in the faces of those whose opinions deviate from the accepted view. And while contemporary media (such as Fox News) practises this form of exclusion everyday (ref: punk band Bad Religion) it probably commenced with the political leaders such as Bush and Howard who created a closed world of policy and advice drawn from the sources which aligned already with the aims and expectations of the two conservative administrations which have so dominated the polities of the countries I am most familiar with in recent years.

In essence, politics can only now occur through conversations between people, mediated yes, but not by and through the ‘media’ as we might aggregate that social formation of institutional news/information/production/distribution. We hear about the death of the newspaper, and the end of the mass-audience television channel – but what we might hope for is the death of the undebated, opinionated, non-commentable ‘news’ which they tend more and more to circulate, whose primary audience is most likely the politicians whom this ‘news’ institution seeks to depose or retain.

In its place, the online spaces for conversation (which are not an ideal form of course) will proliferate I hope. How do we make sure these spaces  – where norms of behaviour are contested and politics is enacted at a micro-level – might become connected to a different form of polity which is conceived in more local terms and is not dependent on the election of one or other political party whose success and operation requires them to continue irrational communication?


IgniteIR – fast talks at AoIR Internet Research conference

Posted in Conferences, Events on October 12th, 2011 by admin – 1 Comment

Disclaimer: liveblogging

Nicholas Proferes, “Oh, the Ethics You’ll Know”

Analysis of research ethics from the Air-list – using nvivo. Ethics is a strong component of the air-list discussion. When is something public? Private? Both? Are author intentions important? What about context in which originally published? Note the link between ethical debates and new platforms/ technologies. Importance of graduate students in stimulating debate. Problem of using analog analogies: nuance of digital realm lost? There is a challenge to make space for new approaches to ethics.

Outstanding – Dr Seuss is honorary member of AoIR from now on

Alex Leavitt, “How I Saved An Internet”

Looking at Encyclopaedia Dramatica – archive of digital subculture. Assumption of net researchers is that the space / place we visit online sort of ‘stays there’. But it is not that way. Leavitt found that ED was completely deleted one day. And Oh Internet was created in its place. (but along the way, all the wiki edits which Leavitt was studying were lost). Nice contrast of ephemera vs visibility. Leavitt restored the wiki from oblivion (not always without complaint). Importance of researchers’ relationship to the objects they study.

Clever, researchers serve and protect the Internet

Janet Salmons, “See Change: the Visual in the Virtual Interview”

Importance of move from text to image in culture because of the Internet. Must questions be posed with words? Or indeed should they be answered in words? Nicely drawing on the depth, complexity and multi-dimensional form of the image which distinguishes it from words. Visual elicitation stimulates interview subjects to respond. Nice – idea of mind-map as stimulus for interviewee responses. In an online interview, a white board can be used to create visuals on the fly.

Excellent: lots to think about here because images say so much, but quickly – overcoming major challenge of interviews

Susanna Haas Lyons, “Flexing Facebook’s Civic Muscles ”

The enormous amount of people on Facebook really matters. What however are the dos and don’ts of mobilising Facebook for public deliberation for civics. Important implication – recruitment of participation is done in part through the extent of reach in Facebook. App used to create the engagement space. Nice, but also limited. “Discuss, Propose, Promote” – excellent empowerment of users by making them also responsible for building support for particular promotion. Participants have lower privacy concerns. While Facebook is not totally representative, a combination of Facebook with other methods can work. Asynchronicity of participation important. “Learn from fails”

Good presentation: liked the focus on taking risks to experiment with what works.

Stuart Shulman, “The bin Laden Post Mortem Tweets”

Focus is on crowds. Notes that political scientists did not see it coming –that there would highly charged political action from the crowd, powered by social media. Can you harness the power of the crowd to do large-scale text analysis in academia? To make the money go further, or do things which cannot be afforded. Crowd-sourced analysis of OBL tweets. There was an especially interesting approach relating to humour in the tweets. 26 people, $750 cost. Simple coding of the humour-value of tweets.

Humour does make a difference: opening our minds to new thinking – great research method.

Brian Hughes, “Super-charging Creative Teams with Negative Feedback”

Importance of negative feedback – but it is not placed on line…except by their friends! Creative teams need to be kicked sometimes. Make it personal – people need to feel disappointed. It has emotional strength – hard to get, but also hard to give. Reasonable. Thoughtful – there has to be thought involved, so it is complex. Easier to give NF to a team. Coaches and mentors are better placed to give negative feedback. Share the vision, criticise the methods. And the feedback might come in a roleplay environment.

Solid, clear and direct: no reason to give negative feedback on this one!

Richard Smith, “Doing It Right: Professional Digital Media Education”

Distinguishes professional education from research-led education. Four universities own this degree. Digital media here means ‘interactive design’. How can students create digital media experiences?  – address a need, serve a problem – real-world focus. Teamwork is central to the degree. Some of the material learned is about teams – e.g. project management. Importance of who this is for – the user, the users’ stories and expectations. Humility matters – as does courage and curiousity. And reflexivity makes a difference. Teams fundamentally depend on trust and individuals need passion. Note professional educational needs – importance of limited residency, compressed program to suit needs of people already working. Professional development is a future goal.

I like the way that the team and the task is central to the pedagogy here.

Ericka Menchen-Trevino, “The Future of Internet Research Methods:  Combining Real-World Observation & Self Reports”

There are challenges in bringing everyday life into the lab – it is too artificial. The data from companies is, while extensive, shallow. So, create some software that will acquire the rich content of individuals’ uses of the web for news consumption. Clever use of proxy server for data collection. But combined data with interviews. An interesting question: recruitment. Cragslist! Would it seem creepy to ask a person about their habits in searching and reading online. Not really. Crucially, the ‘overuse’ of media which is reported is now solved because there is evidence which can be used to prompt people who might have forgotten what they have done online.

A little challenging to consider the recording of use, but perhaps that is a sign of people’s pleasure at being research subjects? Great software idea.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “The Social Life of Scholarship”

Hilarious – a book on the falsehood of the ‘death of the book’ was written, but could not be published! Average sales of humanities books? 400 over lifetime – and most to libraries. So perhaps a book that is dying is this form. It does however conflict deeply with the scholarly futures of people. Importance of other forms of publication such as blogs which are vibrant and reach people more deeply. The problem is, always, credit: blogs are not creditable for jobs and productivity because of a lack of peer-review. Peer review = gate-keeping, to create enforced scarcity. In fact, we need to move to an economy of abundance in scholarly communication.

Brilliant – she nails it, and the problem is truly the move from scarcity to abundance.

New Challenges in Education

Posted in Events, Speeches and addresses on October 4th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

New Challenges in Education: Online learning, knowledge networks, ‘edgeless’ universities

Kennesaw State University, 6 October, 11.30 am KSU Center (Room 300).


I will be visiting Kennesaw State U shortly to present on e-learning, Web 2.0 and changing nature of education on 6 October, courtesy of Dr Keith Herndon, the university’s Institute for Global Initiatives and the Department of Communication, and the Technology Association of Georgia.


Online learning has been part of the provision of university education since the emergence of the internet. However, in recent years, there have been more intensive efforts to marry together traditions of university learning and academic excellence with the flexibility and creative possibilities of online delivery. This paper summarises the benefits that Internet-enabled learning has brought to distance and off-campus university education in the past decade or more, noting that Australia has a rich history of distance education. The paper also explores the way in which the so-called Web 2.0 revolution in online affairs has, to some extent, created a false sense of novelty in online learning. Nevertheless, Web 2.0, with its emphasis on social media and user-generated content, has made a difference and opens up new approaches to learning. The paper concludes by exploring some of the new challenges and opportunities for educators and institutions when seeking to harness technologies for online learning, especially given the growing dominance of knowledge networking in contemporary society.


New Challenges in Education

Web 2.0 from the ground up: take 1

Posted in Conferences, Ideas on September 29th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

Speaking in a couple of weeks at the Internet Research 12.0 conference ‘Performance and Participation’

My paper, Web 2.0 from the ground up: defining the participatory web in its own terms, is based on an analysis using Leximancer of 750,000+ words used to describe 12,000+ Web 2.0 applications. Some of the fun I am having includes generating dubious yet intriguing infographics….

However, I am still struggling to find the right way to explain how I get from this to what I seek to conclude, concerning the way the discourse of Web 2.0, very much a language of computing, is now reshaping our sense of self.

Being Bad Online: the case for digital media ethics

Posted in opinion, Writing on August 30th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

 I recently contributed this piece to a Curtin newsletter promoting our ICT research capability:

This year we have seen two dramatically different responses to the use of social media for organising collaborative action. The so-called Arab Spring, dubbed the ‘Twitter Revolution’ has been applauded by Western commentators. A few short months later, the same use of social media, in the context of the English urban riots, has been condemned.

While the struggle for political freedom is a long way from semi-organised looting, nevertheless these contrasting examples show us that technology itself is not the cause. Nor is its control or repression going to make much difference. David Cameron’s calls for bans or on social media to prevent its use for lawlessness suggest a dangerous misunderstanding. As Internet expert Axel Bruns reminds us: when it comes to Twitter, ‘don’t shoot the instant messenger’.

Of course, the usual fascination of politicians and the media in Australia is with the small scale and yet no less damaging uses of social media to bully or otherwise harass other individuals. While not grabbing the headlines like rioting Blackberry users, nevertheless, there is a constant concern in our society that, somehow, Facebook, Twitter and similar iconic services are out of control and, as a result, so are we.

I find it curious that the response, from governments, institutions, and the self-appointed arbiters of morals found in the mainstream media, is mostly to demand that users be protected from themselves. The problem with social media is, it seems, that users can’t themselves manage their digital media lives. Perhaps our society is still too newly enamoured with the complex, profoundly destabilising dynamics of networked digital media. So, it would appear, social media intoxicates users in a potentially harmful manner which governments should act to prevent.

I beg to differ. Our society is becoming more deeply, intricately and extensively connected, not just through wires and waves, but through the socio-technical practices which we develop as people to exploit the affordances of our computers and their networks. In such a society, what is needed is a shift in the way we think about and act through our social media uses. Instead of regulation, which is barely workable in any case, we need more ethical digital citizens.

Ethical digital behaviour is, simply, that people become more responsible for the consequences of their actions online, in advance, being considerate and thoughtful users of network services of all kinds. A digital ethics of this kind is not just the personal ‘real-world’ ethics which, hopefully, we develop as we grow up to become good citizens.  It is also the ethics of media practice, as found in the actions of journalists and others who form the mainstream media.

Recent phone-hacking scandals, cash-for-comments, and other bad practices from news organisations aside, there is much for all of us to learn from the way media has developed, over many years, a commitment to ethical information discovery and publishing. Now that our personal speech is social and public, so too must every Internet user think about the limits and consequences of speech.

While it may be less headline-grabbing, more work to achieve and longer in its timeframe, we need policy and practice in our society that explicitly builds an ethical digital citizenry, where we are both the audience for and the producers of ‘media’ in all its forms.

But how are we to do this? What do we need for this to succeed? The answer is: we don’t yet know. We spend many millions inventing a better network protocol, a new app to delight and intrigue, and new hardware to make computers more powerful, but Australia has not spent enough on understanding the social consequences of all these advances in technology.

What is also needed is research into what might a digital ethics be, and how we can develop it in society, and thus how we might collectively become responsible for the good management and social benefit of network connectivity. And researchers in the Humanities, with their strong traditions of working with people, for people, and taking seriously the deep philosophical questions posed by technological advance, are best placed to help us find the answers we need.


Connectedness: technology, humans and the future

Posted in opinion, Writing on August 30th, 2011 by admin – 1 Comment


I was recently asked to provide a blog post for IBM as part of its “Shaping Our Future” campaign. The entry is, of course, buried within the site in a way that makes it hard to find and link to. Here is what I contributed:


Because of the rise of digital network technologies, the future of human society is all about connectedness. Our lives are changing dramatically, indeed have already changed, because of it. Connectivity is no longer just having Internet access: being ‘networked’ is now deeply part of our culture and our emotional lives. As we get comfortable with our always-connected state, it becomes part of us in a way that a mere tool can never be.

We now can access (and often must use) software and hardware to create, share and receive information. These technologies permit conversations, collaborations and communities to persist and grow, free from many constraints of time and space. No longer do we need to be in the same place and time to work and play together. And, through network access wherever we are, and powerful mobile computing and communications devices, networked information and communication is becoming ubiquitous.

It is more than just ‘the Internet’, though this meta-network is a very significant part of connectedness. The technologies that make the difference also include digital cameras, audio recorders and players, the ever-present ‘clouds’ of computing power to serve applications and store data, and geo-location services provided by GPS. Databases that store and relate vast quantities of trivial data (often provided unconsciously) also matter: the code is a technology which now defines our way of life.

We sometimes think ‘connectedness’ is about our family, our friends and our workmates. And, truly, the Internet has changed these social relations and where we experience them. We work from home more, we play at work more. We connect with others through countless forms of digital exchange, reaching out to the person across the street, or across the world. Connectedness makes us imagine the world as our backyard: but we are also ‘everywhere’ all at once.

It’s not just about connections to others. We also have a different sort of connection to our own everyday life. We snap pictures, update our status, immediately find a key bit of information to put to use, there and then. Layers of data provided by our computers augment the reality we live. In many ways, we are more connected to ourselves than ever before, even as our connections to others become weaker, but more numerous. We see ourselves, online, as others see us; we see ourselves reflected in the mirror of the screen.

Technologies do not make things different: how humans use and adapt the devices and their applications remains vital. Computing technologies are not replacing humans, nor taking over from them, nor stealing our essential humanity. Skynet, the self-aware computer of the Terminator movie series that embarks on a crusade to exterminate humanity, is just the dream of an evil genius.

J.C.R.Licklider, an American scientist in the 1960s had a different dream. He was one of the pioneers in the creation of the Internet, once writing of the “ ‘man-machine’ symbiosis ” as his vision for the way humans and computers would work together. The Internet, especially in the form of the mobile connected devices which many use intimately every day, is enabling this symbiosis to occur. This dream, unlike the endless (and ultimately fruitless) quest for artificial intelligence, recognises the weaknesses and failings in both computers and humans rather than triumphantly desiring computers to be like humans or vice versa. Only through symbiosis does each compensate for the other.

But humans must also realise that they are not solely in charge of their destinies. Connectedness is becoming a pervasive fact of life. As it does so, humans form a permanent connection with the technologies of networking: they become our partners, not servants. Our future is now shaped by the interaction between our lives and the computers and networks that make them work. In effect, each connected human becomes a part of the network: we give up ideals of freedoms and are no longer autonomous individuals.

Our capacity to express our individual identity – through Facebook walls, Twitter updates, Flickr photo galleries, Youtube home videos – has never been stronger. But the basis of that individuality has never been weaker. We are as much data and code as the websites we visit, and the applications we use.

Ultimately, connectedness is the new future of humans and technology. Connectedness not only binds humans together more strongly, but binds us to our technology. It enriches us, but it also fragments our lives into diffuse packets and streams of data which take on lives of their own. Who we are, and how we make sense of things has changed forever.