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Yesterday I went to a lecture on "Media Life: A Life Lived in Media" by Mark Deuze after having heard an interview he did regarding his new book. I found the interview rather more informative but there were some interesting tidbits in the lecture. (You can access his slides here.)

The speaker's previous book was about people who work in the media industries, and how there is now a shift to creating content about content. What we once called marketing is now considered a form of content creation itself, as it is used to push attention to other content. That book explored the frustration of people who had gone into these industries to tell their own stories, only to find themselves instead promoting the work of others.

With the new book he is looking past changes for those working in the media to what the general public is going through. He has turned this into a philosophical question about media as an environment that we live in rather than something external that we access or utilize through tools. Media devices amplify the world around us to the point where it becomes more real to us than our immediate environment. He used the example of how speaking to a loved one through a cell phone will make you feel closer to them than if you are speaking face-to-face, and certainly the reality of that conversation can take precedence over actions in the physical context. (Witness the distressing number of cases recently of people killed while drivers are texting.)

Media has been framed as things we live with – content, devices – and this has led to research in certain disciplines that divide studies into areas such as technology or consumption. Deuze thinks that this is a fallacy. Returning to the issue of marketing, he said that his talk was subtitled "love, sex, and death" because who wouldn't be interested in that? But he did address those topics, and began by focusing on the importance of the metaphysics of media and exploring what it means.

He showed with a photo of a nuclear family, which is only 24% if U.S. households, an upper-middle class white family. The kids are using laptops, the dad reads the paper and the mother reads a book – an example of modern media life where we are both together and yet alone at the same time.

He then referenced a concurrent media exposure study done in Indiana, (which may be the same one I reported on a few months back although he said it was from 2003). A study was done through phone surveys, diary keeping, or observation. The average time reported spent on media from the phone survey was 4.8 hrs., the diary one was 9.5 hrs, and the observational one was 11 hours per day across reading, radio, TV, computer, and online use. Deuze felt this indicated that media use is increasingly invisible to people. He suggests that part of the issue is also that what people are doing with media is "making media" not just utilizing it. He suggests that anything from downloading a ring tone to going through a video game is a form of creation, because the experience is different for each person. He pointed out how much this has been changing by the disappearance of the Billboard ring tone charts, because today the most popular ring tones are the ones people create for themselves rather than ones they pay to download.

Lived experience is also becoming mediated experience. He used an example of his presence at an Obama campaign rally that he took part in at Indiana U. There were photos taken of Deuze on stage with other rally participants, showing him taking a photo of the back of Obama's head. Significantly, the photo showed a sea of people in front of Obama, nearly all of who had a camera raised. Deuze suggested that people are gathering, selecting, and editing information constantly rather than simply experiencing the present.

The context of media-are-us is rapid global urbanization. By 2030, 80% of the developed world will live in urban areas. Regional boundaries are also disappearing, so that there is less demarcation where one city stops and another begins. We are hard wired to create very basic categories to see and explain the world to ourselves so we actually look for lines of demarcation. What do we see then, when we look at physical spaces?

He first cited Japan's "otaku towns" or fan towns. The whole city looks like one large mediated frenzy, and people dress as their favorite characters of anime or TV shows. Media life may also be expressed in walled cities, things that create invisible walls that provide electronic access to things. These create hidden complexities to explore in modern life. He spoke about gated communities, which are more often the case for rental communities than homes. He said that in Atlanta one can not even get a permit for building unless the development is gated (really? I have to wonder why). He then spoke about how these communities don't have sidewalks, but instead people are building media rooms and home theaters. The U.S. is also an extreme commuter society with an average commute of 50 miles. This means that home and the office are two fully mediated spaces – what happens in between? The car is now a social network. Cars now have onboard wireless internet, people use GPS and satellite radio. Cell phones are networked individualism (idea from Barry Wellman) with communities on the go. Our concept of community is changing as a disembodied space with deep interconnections through GPS, video, and social networking software.

What happens in this media life? We create endless versions of ourselves. Not everyone shoots and uploads videos to YouTube, but we do have accounts there, which are then linked to our Gmail accounts, etc. Who are we in all our online spaces – Facebook, Last FM, IM, Blogger, ad infinitum? Among Deuze's 400+ freshman students the average number of online profiles they maintain is 3 and as high as 20. He cited the example of how often people feel guilty when they have been away from these online spaces, not interacting or carrying out obligations. A Digital Anthropology Report 2009 produced in England concluded that "the extent to which people use social networking and promote themselves online will become more important in determining their careers than what school or university they went to." It's a matter of self-branding. This suggests a level of deliberation, that we put on a certain mask when we present ourselves in spaces. But do we do this when we sit down to watch TV? What about the photos we put on Facebook profiles? If we go to a party and take 100 photos, 6 go up. Why not all 100? It's not technologically any more difficult to upload them all. What guides the selection? Deuze suggests it's the same things, generally, that tell the stories we used to put in photo albums – happy people having happy times that make us look good. The same thing can guide what we put in profiles or the tastes we claim to have. If we were hiring a publicist they would do the same thing, creating preferred versions of us. Advertising doesn't tell the truth but it doesn't necessarily lie either. These things are us, just not entirely. But it is not an endless replication of one's self in an infinite mirror – these representations are different. He claimed "Stephen Colbert is one of the greatest media thinkers of our time." He showed Colbert's annual paintings, which are like an infinite mirror of earlier portraits. Which one is most him? None is more or less real, this creates confusion which is the area that Deuze wants to explore.

He moved on to talking about love online saying it was easy. He showed the distribution of singles in the U.S. as well as examples of places online where you can have an affair, and of a truck with a law firm ad that suggested "Life's short. Get a divorce." He said that what everyone knows is that when you fall in love, you will also fall out of it. It's a temporary cycle, and we all know it even though it's one of the most profound experiences we can have. So is it real?

Is sex in media life real? He used a still from Grand Theft Auto of two characters having sex, and pointed out that Hillary Clinton brought up the issue in Congress – an act taking place in a video game. There was also in World of Warcraft an in-game burial ceremony for a fellow player who had died offline. A rival guild decided to attack the mourners while they were off guard and killed them all. This created outrage, even though nothing "real" had actually happened. A study run in the Journal of Couple And Relationship Therapy (2006) found that 30% of people studied who had online conversations about sex ended up having sex with one another. Is it really something solo then? He cited a possible statistic about 1 in 5 marriages having started online. He then showed an ad for Xcite!Online, a company that creates S&M toys to use with one's avatars in Second Life, something people actually buy. He also cited teledildonics which, again, is solo but isn’t.

Death in media life – what happens when someone reaches their 50s and they have had profiles and avatars since they were 5 or 6. What happens when they die? Have you really died if your avatars and profiles go on? There's currently a service that monitors your online activity to notify people if you've died. He also cited various deaths that took place online – one where someone was beaten to death on camera in an airport, and two men who suicided on webcams. The debates that accompanied the events revolved around whether the events were real or not. He also cited the Demi Moore suicide case where she stated that Twitter was not an appropriate venue for such a serious issue when one of her followers threatened to kill himself. Ikigomori is a diagnosis in Japan of kids who no longer want to leave their rooms and instead choose to live their lives through a screen. Is that our future, or are we all living in one large city where each of us connected? He cited Slavoj Zizek who suggested that the Great Other is to be found today in cyberspace.

Geuze showed a phot of "silent discos", where everyone dances with headphones on, and DJs beam music into them which prevents noise. They are all dancing together but all dancing to different things.

Geuze's overall point was presented through arguing for and against four views of how our reality in media life can be interpreted. These are: The Matrix (actual reality is underground, we live in a giant illusion, we can't change programming, just unplug it), Wikiality (something we can all agree on, taken from Colbert's Word on it, it's how Google works, a consensual reality that is collaborative, but this can be oppressive to minorities), the Panopticon (a perfect prison without guards where everything you do is tracked and stored, leading to consequences beyond your control and where you have no power. Reality is then something outside yourself). And then there's the Truman Show, (reality is a delusion, and he is the only "true man" "we accept the reality of the world with which we're presented" and that's why we don't know the true nature of the world). Deuze said all of these views miss the point. He provided four statements in conclusion.

1. There is the sense that the ordinary is changed or different and that there is particular significance in this.

2. This is coupled with a searching for meaning.

3. A profound alternation of subjective experience and of self awareness resulting in an unstable first person perspective with varieties of depersonalization and realization, disturbed sense of ownership, fluidity of the basic sense of identity, distortions of the stream of consciousness and experiences of disembodiment.

4. The Truman Show syndrome has been diagnosed and we all have this delusion, we already live inside of media, there is no outside. But there is incredible creative potential for us to make our own world, and how can we take responsibility for these desires?

I thought that the discussion raised some interesting questions but on the whole the issues of reality and interactivity jammed together a lot of disparate things that didn't necessarily belong together. For example, 50 years ago it was much more difficult to be aware of as much activity and to be in contact with as many individuals as we are today. This was due to, I would say, three things.

The first was cost. Gathering information has generally been a costly endeavor, and while the more valuable information we have continues to generally be very costly (witness the Census -- it can't be turned over to private enterprise because no one has the resources to do it but a central government), it is possible to get bits of information directly at a very low cost today, in large part due to the convenience and disintermediation of the information object as opposed to an multipurpose informational device. And since cost has gone down significantly per unit of information, information devices are still fairly expensive and require infrastructure that many people still do not have. Nevertheless, the lower the cost of anything the more democratizing it is likely to be. Thus the more people that are taking part in a given form of life, the more universal the experience. But this sort of awareness was possible in the past, it was just very expensive.

The second issue remains just as constant today, which is the limitation of time. We can now get direct contact with many more people than ever before but we don't have any more time to do it in. Instead, thanks to devices that allow us to multitask, we can use small spaces in our lives to maintain these connections (little wonder Twitter is growing in popularity since contact takes precedence over meaningful interaction). This is also due to rapid but asynchronous communication which allows us to connect when we are able to, rather than by demand. But we still have limits to how many people we can actually include in our social circle.

The third is an issue I felt he glossed over, which was meaning. I got the impression that this need to determine "reality" was a synonym for determining meaning. Hence, his description of the online suicides and concurrent debate about whether or not webcam viewers were seeing a person actually dying. But in that case the issue of meaning had to do with responsibility. If a person is actually under physical threat (as the case of the guy killed in the airport) then the viewer bears a responsibility to assist. If the incident is staged, there is no need. Similarly, if the incident is in the past -- we have all seen video footage of people being killed in real life, whether in war footage or otherwise -- our emotional reaction is what is being sought rather than some intervention. And, given the amount of violence in the media, clearly in many cases we are not intended to react to death at all.

But I don't think that the issue of determining meaning of things we observe is really anything new. There have always been hoaxes, there has always been fiction, and there have always been distanced realities -- things occurring with real consequence to sentient beings who we are too separated from to really connect to. People have always been able to make great meaning of something which never occurred, and to ignore grave realities that would require too great a change of behavior.

So the real issue seems to be that of interactivity, because the reduction in cost and time of our encounter with information and strangers/near-strangers is what has allowed this to occur. And here's where I didn't get where he was going with his discussion of people living forever through their online profiles. He was saying that dead people's profiles were still part of social circles, still receiving contact, still something others were interacting with. And for some people, that could remain true for a long enough period that one could argue people were going on after their death. Elvis, for example, with pilgrimages to his "profile" established at Graceland, or through myriad other media instantiations. But for the average person, how long would such contact be likely to continue when a response isn't forthcoming? Is the litter of dead profiles at sites such as LJ really any sort of change in the status of death? Deuze, at least in his talk, doesn't seem to distinguish among different forms of connectivity, and different levels of interactivity as if all of it is one and the same, and thus somehow different from the actual communities versus imagined communities of the past.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-11-11 12:42 pm (UTC)
princessofgeeks: (attention by paian)
From: [personal profile] princessofgeeks
this is fascinating; thank you for posting. i will look for his work.

the other factor that made the experience of people before mass media and the internet different was the real impact that distance made.

but i wonder how real other cultures, other societies are when we only see them through a screen and have never visited them in "meat space". really grappling with how small the world is now can change people's priorities, but what I worry about is the blurring of fact and fiction -- what you say about fictional events not requiring any response from us at all. fascinating stuff.

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Social Informatics and Media Studies

April 2010

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