Monday, October 18, 2010

Information Conglomerations and Online Community

The most wonderful thing about the Internet is that it allows for enormous bodies of correlated information to be nearly seamlessly tied together through hyperlinks and localized cultures. The Internet is the latest, greatest, and most all-encompassing examples of large, organically-formed texts that has existed to date, but it is certainly not the first extensively hyperlinked crowd-sourced project. People love making and exploring large, dense conglomerations of related information. This essay discusses how information sources develop localized culture, methods that sustain culture after the fact, and the powerful effects of the world's biggest and best conglomeration.

If 20th century media has taught us anything, it's that above all, people enjoy consuming continuous information. After Marconi patented the radio in 1896, it was only 10 years later that the first commercial broadcasts began to occur. Radio paved the way for television, which was commercially available by the 1920s, but matured into a highly profitable medium by the 1950s. Today, most people have favorite television programs, even if they don't own a TV, but instead watch what is transposed online. The broadcast method, where one source of information is constantly distributed to a public audience, has proven to be highly successful, as long as there is wide enough appeal in content or wide enough variation in available content.

If we only consider the basic definition of a broadcast - one source point of information distributing a feed of information to a wide audience - broadcasts are critical to human power structures. A speech, a sermon, or a performance can be considered broadcasting. Walter Benjamin, an early 20th Marxist art theorist, said this about watching movies: "The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested." Benjamin is talking about the directional aspect of cinema, the control that video exerts over its viewer because of its temporal aspect. All broadcast media possesses amounts of this trait for the same reason - the viewer must spend time listening or watching, and therefore their consciousness is directed. This leads to the development of new ideas and new associations in a person.

As successful as the broadcast model might be, it leaves the viewer with a head full of ideas and experiences with no outlet. The solution for this build-up has been the accumulation of culture around broadcasted media. This is an old practice - people generally enjoy hearing things and watching things, and then reenacting and discussing with their peers. Some examples of this might include the formation of music genres and political groups, or the evangelizing method of most major religions. However popular these ideas and groups might be after the initial period of broadcasting, cultures require constant input to remain cohesive. Once a TV show ends its run on the air, most fans of the show gradually disperse and find new shows to follow. In order for a broadcast to maintain followers, one or more methods must be used to keep the culture alive.

One of the least popular words commonly used online in academic circles right now is "curation," referring to the act of an individual sifting through information and choosing favorite bits that seem to be related for distribution as a body to the public. This term is looked down upon primarily for its overuse, which seems to be indicative of two things. First, the act of conscious curation implies superiority in the individuality of the curator - "I am especially qualified to make these choices about the dissemination of this information." This can be seen as intimidating, and is most likely why pastors and politicians attempt to become impersonal by relaying messages from another power, be it abstract or mythical, in their speech. Second, curation is a widespread practice online, which implies the fragmentation of culture (because of the necessity for so many niche sites) and exacerbates it further. The idea that culture is a monolithic or dualistic entity is still very popular, and so offering a Balkanized model is seen as pluralist. All things aside, curation seems to be the main form of online entertainment right now - the sharing of music, videos, articles, and all other media is endless, and very different content is disseminated by each different person. Everyone is curating the content they receive into broadcasts. This constant churning of the sea of information keeps broadcasted information fresh for a very long time.

However, general personal curation is not enough to maintain an idea. Eventually, most people hear a popular joke or song if the initial broadcast reached and excited enough followers in the first place. Old television shows have their enduring fans and nostalgic enthusiasts - nostalgia being a very powerful, but intermittently cyclical method of culture preservation. I would go as far to speculate that nostalgia is a hard-wired survival tool, but an investigation would be outside of the scope of this essay. What becomes fascinating about information once the initial broadcast is over are the timescales at which its surrounding culture reasserts itself within the other cultures of its followers and as a whole. Different sources of information - different broadcasters - reassert themselves within surrounding (overlapping) cultures at different timescales, and these timescales are dependent on choices made by both the broadcaster and the ensuing culture in the preservation of the initial broadcast.

One popular, reasonably functional method of maintaining a culture is marketing the idea of gnosis, "hidden knowledge." The Gnostics of the first few centuries C.E. literally carry this concept in their modern name because of their belief of secret methods of communing with their god. I mean to stretch the term as far as "limited edition" objects in relation to a franchise, "director's cuts" of movies, and DVD releases with cast commentaries. George Lucas, producer of the Star Wars series of films, has time and again used gnosis in stretching the commercial viability of the Star Wars universe. Various online communities, especially the chans, have a popular joke about "VIP Access" to secret areas of their websites. The appeal is obvious: within a preferred cultural experience, if the possibility exists of a "deeper, more fulfilling," more information-rich experience, most people would jump at the offer. Of course, the downside to this approach is that if too much gnosis is revealed too quickly, the excitement of the exclusivity is lost. God, or Lucas, is most successful when lurking in the wings, contributing on rare occasions.

Another method for cultural survival is the spin-off, which many TV viewers are familiar with. In our definition, we don't need to even note distinctions such as the difference between "I Love Lucy" and "The Lucy and Ethel Show," as long as we recognize that both are part of the same "Lucy" culture. In a spin-off, a content producer that formed a culture looks for particularly successful and popular pieces of information within their broadcast, and broadcasts again, expanding upon that chunk of data. Though this can sustain cultural phenomena, it also decreases the half-life of the original culture's relevancy. Consider the seven spin-offs of the 70's TV show "Happy Days" - itself a spin-off of a late-60's TV show - this is where we get the idiom "jumping the shark." Spin-offs are deliberate on the part of the original content creator and a risky move - they are inherently unstable because the viewpoint making the decisions is the broadcaster, not the receiver. The common mistake here is the assumption that because a broadcast forms a culture, the broadcaster is doing something right. The problem with this is that the broadcaster is not a receiver, and is therefore not experiencing the work in the same way. Andy Warhol talks about aura in his book, "The Philosophy of Andy Warhol": "I think that 'aura' is something that only somebody else can see, and they only see as much of it as they want to. It's all in the other person's eyes. You can only see an aura on people you don't know very well or don't know at all." The broadcaster cannot see the aura of the broadcast, the aura is only in the minds of the fans, formed by a complex series of relationships with the work that caused them to become fans in the first place, and the shared similarity of complex relationships with the work between fans is what makes culture. With agency comes knowledge, and knowledge destroys the aura. The broadcaster/aura relationship therefore limits a broadcaster's attempts to sustain a culture.

So far, this discussion has been predicated on the idea that the broadcaster maintains full responsibility for the continuation of the developed culture. This is an unnecessary assumption. Because of the danger of destroying the aura of a culture, the broadcaster must actually seek public absolution of responsibility. Instead, what has historically served to maintain a broadcast's wider relevancy in the long term has been the formation of a group-assembled conglomerate text centered around the premises of the original broadcast. Some moderately successful examples of this would include the Bible, the many commentaries on Hinduism, the Lord of the Rings fantasy milieu, Wikipedia, and just about anything that has a "theory" school of thought. If anything, these examples should demonstrate the popularity of conglomerate texts and the power that they hold over their resultant cultures.

Unlike previous centuries, the 21st brings even stronger methods to preserve data than ever before. Everything is recorded, shared, and networked to some degree. This changes immensely how humanity decides what to actively record; the test of time has changed. Now, if a broadcast is strong and popular enough to cause a small fan culture to develop, the test of preservation as a distinct unit and not as scattered information comes in the form of fan-based archival and annotation, rather than simple linkage and physical preservation.  Two things happen if this occurs: First the allure of the culture changes focus from "new information" to "catalogued information." Second, in the organization of information by the culture, the "hooks" of aura - the qualities that formed the culture in the first place - become exposed in the hierarchy of information. Naturally, if there's content in a broadcast that people relate to, they're going to talk about it more. This has the added effect of bringing in more fans that can relate to the hooks, if the message is clear (and if the message is allowed to leave the culture). More fans means more eyes on the broadcast; as Linus Torvalds said about his decision to freely share the development of Linux, "Many eyes make all bugs shallow." More eyes on a broadcast means that a broader audience will be searching for hooks and categorizing the information, further widening the external and internal appeal of the preserved broadcast. In this way, a culture around a broadcast can become self-sustaining.

Today, our strongest tool for bringing people together to examine broadcasts is the Internet, the ultimate conglomeration of information. Supremely disorganized with regard to content, billions of dollars are spent every year in developing better ways to index and cross-reference the information available online. Every day, people develop more innovative ways to link content together online, so to some extent the Internet is as self-reorganizing as it is messy. No body of information as large, dynamic, and varied in content has ever been created in human history. Almost fractal-like in its nature, the Internet is composed of individual web pages of specific information organized into websites concerning general topics that link to each other by topical similarity. Search engines then index these sites by relevancy, directing the user to an individual web page that functions as a facet of a website. The physical structure is uninteresting for the purposes of this discussion; the hyperlink is the key to understanding cultural phenomena today.

Hyperlink usage has evolved significantly from the early web. Before search engines were anywhere near as powerful as they are today, hosting sites like Yahoo and Geocities would organize content into categories for their users' perusal. This led to the practice of forming webrings, essentially curated groups of websites on similar subjects specific enough to be outside the scope of the listings. These websites would have links either to the next site in the ring, or to a hub with a listing of all of the participating sites. The practice eventually died off as online content production changed user bases; this probably had something to do with the rise of more powerful search engines as well. As the sites would have been indexed as linked, they would show up in search results together; eventually the search results trumped the webring. Nowadays, if a website or blog has a "links" section, the links aren't necessarily reciprocal or even topical; they have more to do with personal context. Though irrelevant today, these early aggregations of related information served to jump-start Internet culture by sharing members, providing enough review and polishing of some early websites to allow for experimentation and growth. Much like Darwinian evolution, users provided the pressures necessary to encourage websites to speciate in their structures, and as mass appeal widened this process became exponential. This led to the switchover that many refer to as "Web 2.0," from a mostly static web nursed by external forums to a social web developed in personal interactions.

Links nowadays in more dynamic settings, such as a tweet or a blog post, function either to provide context, set a mood, provide access to a service, present information at a point in time, or even subvert expectations. The hyperlink is becoming as much of a part of language as the clause. Social linking restructures the Internet, and builds it in our organic likeness. Active consumption of information online makes the text adapt to the reader; new chunks of the conglomerate collect in our news feeds every morning, ready to be consumed, contextualized, "liked," and re-dispersed. We are constantly creating broadcasts of broadcasts of broadcasts, all fully annotated, and our Facebook friends listen, judge, and sort. Personal interests are the new sitcoms. It is easier than ever to form a conglomeration of work around a broadcast, and therefore easier than ever to spawn a new, localized culture.

What repercussions exist due to the new conglomerations? Because cultures are now more separate and varied, it becomes a necessary skill for the 21st-century browser to be able to know how to interpret the vocabularies and organizing structures behind each new culture they encounter. The modern reader needs to know how to find the information they seek, rather than simply memorizing information. This is the difference between the 20th-century "nerd," who memorizes statistics and formulas, and the 21st-century "geek," who maintains "geek cred" by keeping up on the discussions relevant to their interests. The latter strategy of constantly hunting for and receiving new information allows for spontaneous discovery of associated information, which encourages broader knowledge rather than deeper knowledge. The broader thinker may not have the reliability of the deeper thinker, but it is more likely that the broader thinker will find more associations between seemingly unrelated content. This has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand the informed viewer with an eye for information can enter and mingle with many cultures easily; this allows them to spread the ideas they encounter via the translation of their experience into the vocabulary of other cultures. This is where memes come from: ideas, mostly self-encapsulated, that translate easily from one culture to another. On the other hand, if the hooks are strong enough and the geek searches hard enough, he or she is more susceptible to entrenchment - investment - in a culture.

Like-minded individuals can more easily form cultures online than anywhere else; this leads to the "amplification" of ideas within these cultures as their vocabularies develop. Although this usually leads to harmless in-jokes and sometimes net-wide memes, amplification can be dangerous. A good example of this would be the formation in the mid-2000s of "Pro-Ana" (pro-anorexic) communities on Livejournal, an early social-media/blogging platform. In these blogrings, anorexic individuals encouraged each other to continue the dangerous practices that people with the eating disorder tend to undertake. Before the Internet, few, if any, Pro-Ana organizations existed, much less shared ideas for "thinspiration" and traded tips for suppressing hunger pangs. More controversial communities such as the Pro-Anas thrive on anonymity due to possible real-life repercussions. Few anorexics will admit to their peers that they have an eating disorder, although identifying it as a lifestyle choice might change their attitude. Current web trends indicate a push towards less anonymity on social networking platforms, however this does not stop anonymous communication (such as on the chans) from occurring. It's not impossible to be anonymous on the Internet of 2010, but it diminishes the size of one's social safety net, and one's audience. It's also important to keep in mind in light of such an example that the Internet amplifies all communities that invest in it -  human rights groups, sexual fetishists, whatever. As a society, we aren't becoming better or worse, just moreso. Save for the spread of literacy, nothing in history can compare to the transformation that cultural amplification will effect - does effect - on the world.

I'd like to conclude by reiterating the successful behaviors that lead to a living culture in modern society. A broadcast needs fans to survive, and in order for a fan culture to develop, fans need a place to communicate and exchange information regarding the broadcast. Culture is best sustained by allowing for contextualization and analysis of the broadcast; this happens when people can both categorize information about a culture locally and easily distribute the ideas of the culture to other cultures.

When cultural information is easily accessible from outside the fan culture, more people are likely to discover the culture and cross-reference their own cultures with its elements. Crossover interests encourage the creation of memes, mostly self-encapsulated ideas that move easily from culture to culture. Memes are powerful tools because they extend the lifetime of a culture by reinforcing social ties between fans and non-fans. The sustained culture usually will draw more members over time, leading to an "amplification" of ideals within the group; this can have few to many repercussions, depending on the content.

Memebers of a culture need to remember that it is their choice and their efforts that keep a culture alive. A good leader acknowledges this fact and puts into place systems that encourage the aggregation and organization of cultural content, so that their ideas will spread. As part of the larger conglomerate, the Internet, it becomes almost a virtue for users to connect content in ways that facilitate others to do the same. Those in power should be aware of the spread of knowledge made possible by humanity's evolving methods of spreading information. A light hand and equal access to both explore and add to the conglomerate encourages democratic behavior and unanticipated innovation.

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