Broadcast Yourself

What is an Internet celebrity?

It’s 3 a.m. on a Tuesday night. You’re a twenty-something student and you have work to do for the morning and so, naturally, you’re surfing the Internet. You’re on Tumblr, a site that compiles blogs into a single feed on its homepage. Think Facebook’s newsfeed, but instead of text-posts from your friends, it’s a culmination of pretty pictures, memes, Gifs, and blog-posts from anonymous strangers.

You start to notice a pattern; some girl who looks like she’s thirteen is dominating the site. You have no idea who she is, but a meme with the words “Theatres stress me out. So many seats,” has over 10,000 notes. Essentially, this image has either been “liked” 10,000 times, or has shown up on 10,000 different personal blogs. It turns out to be a combination of the two.

You start to realize that you’re missing out on the joke, so you start to investigate. (This is much more compelling than reading the overly-convoluted, theoretical text that was assigned for tomorrow morning’s philosophy class.) The girl is Rebecca Black, a singer whose tweeny-pop single “Friday” went viral the weekend of March 12. The song features the bizarre musings of a thirteen-year-old girl, as she tries to decide whether to be “kickin’ in the front seat” or “sittin’ in the back seat”; implores us to have “fun, fun, fun, fun”; and reminds us that “tomorrow is Saturday, and Sunday comes afterwards.” Nobody knows who this girl is or where this video comes from (yet), but her name is Rebecca Black and her Youtube video has over ten million views. She is the trending topic on Twitter — globally — meaning that more people are talking about her song online than any other topic in the world.

Internet celebrity is a specific kind of celebrity. An Internet celebrity isn’t someone you can find and research on Wikipedia. Instead of possessing a clear-cut sort of fame; instead of being the kind of person the paparazzi stalk at LAX airport; the Internet celebrity wriggles its way into the social consciousness through Youtube, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook. The individual begins to pop up in different locations on the Internet, until they have become a household name amongst the online-literate, and nobody seems to know how or why. References to the individual become a kind of universal inside joke. Everyone who’s visiting the same pages, watching the same videos, and giggling at the same memes is in on it.

For an Internet celebrity, nothing is centralized; there’s not a fan page, and it’s unlikely that they’ll make it onto the cover of People magazine for their antics at some club in Hollywood. Instead, they become your go-to for a clever hash-tag on Twitter, the thing you post on your Facebook stream to show that you’re hip with the current global joke. They’re a commodity of the absurd; a multi-media expression of societal cleverness and ironic detachment.

But the individuals who become Internet celebrities have the last laugh. The commodity of the absurd Internet celebrity has an unlimited potential for monetization. Internet celebrity can be an end in itself, but it doesn’t have to be. Just ask Justin Bieber, the most notable example of someone who went on from YouTube fame to make it big; or, alternately, “Your Friend in a Box”; a third-year Ryerson student and filmmaker who became a YouTube Partner when his Canadian Music video attracted 10,000 views overnight. “Your Friend in a Box” currently has over 5,000 subscribers, and is paid by YouTube for every video upload, and every page view.

The web 2.0 generation

The thing that ultimately distinguishes an Internet celebrity from the more traditional variety of celebrity is user involvement. Rebecca Black would never have achieved her current viral status without numerous users who took her image and her work, and created their own content. Internet celebrity is celebrity 2.0. Instead of being a policy of entertainment consumption, it is an entertainment of creation. Rebecca Black, in the first week of her viral fame, is fascinating because her public image is not controlled by publicists and major media outlets. Instead, she is an enigma.

Finding out who she is is a process of investigation. Watching her music video “Friday” is not an end in itself; rather, it is an access point to creating new websites and web-based content that make people laugh. Her exposure is hinged on a typical user’s desire to create something to entertain other users; her exposure and relative fame is a statement of the dynamic relationship between user-generated content and an individual. An Internet celebrity, as such, requires an ambiguous power to fascinate users; an ability to cause users to want to find out more, through any method available. It is a reflection of a new era of entertainment; our generation, the children of a web 2.0 era, no longer want to simply consume, we want to be involved with our entertainment. We want to create.

Voyeurism and Cory Kennedy

The first person I ever e-stalked is a party girl by the name of Cory Kennedy. In the summer of 2005 she met photographer Mark Hunter, who maintains the party-photo website The Cobra Snake. She’s a skinny hipster — she looks like she’s on drugs most of the time, she wears a lot of eyeliner, and when I was a sixteen-year-old high schooler she was everything that I had ever wanted to be. For an inexplicable reason, Mark Hunter realized that every time he posted pictures of Cory, web traffic on his site increased. Her photos were constantly reposted on other blogs, and she fascinated me. I didn’t know exactly who she was, but that was part of the appeal. Through these party photos, I was gaining access to a world of hipster parties, fashion, and club-culture that I wouldn’t experience until much later in my life.

Her Internet fame peaked in 2006, when she appeared in a Good Charlotte video for the track “Keep Your Hands Off My Girl.” All she does is listen to the song on her iPod and dance as she eats Indian food. Anyone could have done it. She looks emaciated and kind of drunk. She’s not the prettiest girl I’d ever seen and she’s not extraordinarily talented at anything in particular. She’s not even especially fashionable. But she was still fascinating to my sixteen-year-old self, mainly because through these limited channels of exposure; through The Cobrasnake and her WordPress blog ( she allowed me to gain access to a different world. I identified with her, and I began to feel like I knew her on a personal level. I wasn’t alone in my fascination with her, she has since forged a fairly successful modeling career. She has over thirty-one thousand followers on Twitter, and works as an interviewer for Nylon magazine’s online vlog.

Through the channels of the Internet, we have access to different worlds without ever having to take part. When a vlogger makes a video, we gain a limited access to the spatial constructs of their world. When photos are posted — either on personal blogs, or Flickr accounts— we see a little bit more through the eyes of the object of our fascination. Without ever having to experience the vulnerability of personal interactions we are drawn into the world of another. We can have experiences with no consequences. We can feel the fulfillment of knowing someone without bearing the responsibilities of real human relationships. The object of your e-stalking will never judge you; because they have no idea who you are. An e-stalking relationship is one with all the benefits of getting to know a person, but without the risk of rejection or judgment.

The key to being an Internet celebrity is to capitalize on what seems to be a societal desire for voyeuristic experience; to construct an alternate sense of reality around yourself; the goal being to make your life seem much more interesting than anyone else’s, and worth paying attention to. Through the elements available to you — Flickr, Tumblr, Twitter, WordPress — an Internet celebrity creates a fragmented persona that is a strange balance between exposure and concealment. Anyone could do it, but not everyone can do.

So, if anyone can do it, why doesn’t everyone do it? How can I become an Internet celebrity?

alt text

I tried vlogging. I really did. I sat in front of my web-cam and tried to speak to the audiences of YouTube. I think I’m an interesting person. I’m artsy, I live in a major metropolis, I go to cool bars, I try to dress fashionably, I have nearly a hundred followers on my personal Tumblr blog, and something like one hundred and fifty on my Twitter account. But hardly anything in recent memory has made me feel more vulnerable than the experience of seeing my face projected on my webcam and addressing an anonymous and potentially infinite audience. I couldn’t do it. I’m not cut out to broadcast myself.

The interesting thing about the online apparatus before us is that nearly every twenty-something has the technology and the skills necessary to connect to an infinite audience. All you need is access to a web cam, some kind of photo-taking device, and a reliable Internet connection. But there’s also a certain je ne sais quoi to the equation. There needs to be something about you that has the ability to go viral. You don’t need to be talented, you don’t need to be good-looking — you need to be relatable and, for lack of a better term, someone who inspires others to stalk you.

There are different facets of this; you can be absurd like Rebecca Black, whose latest single has been dubbed the “worst song of all time”; you can be fragmented and fascinating like Cory Kennedy, the unsung hero of wannabe hipster girls everywhere; you can be adorable and genuine like Justin Bieber. Celebrity is no longer dictated to us by the powers that be. Instead, it is directed by a fickle, web 2.0 generation that is just looking for entertainment, and something to distract them from their philosophy readings at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday night.


E-stalk: To follow someone’s online persona obsessively; generally through use of Facebook, but also applicable to overly thorough Google-searches.

Flickr: A social-networking site based on photography. Users upload their own photos on their Flickr and connect via groups centered around photo genre and visual interest.

GIF: Stands for Graphic Interchange Format. In layman’s term it is a single file that switches back and forth between several still images, with the appearance of a soundless film-loop.

Meme: A concept that spreads via the Internet; usually some kind of an inside joke. Popular memes include lolcats, and “Rick Rolling.” An Internet meme can be a website, a phrase, a parody, or a video clip.

Viral: An Internet meme that is fast spreading with a pervasive online presence due to its high-re-postibility and re-playability.

Trending topic: A list of the most popular and talked-about topics on Twitter that is updated in real time.

Tumblr: A micro-blogging platform and community. Members of Tumblr maintain their own blog and follow others; all blogs are conglomerated together in a personal Dashboard, and all posts can be ‘liked’ and ‘reblogged.’

Vlog: A video blog, usually hosted on YouTube.

Web 2.0: The ideology behind web applications that require user involvement. Notable examples of sites that have emerged from this ideology include Wikipedia, social networking sites, and photo and video sharing sites.

WordPress: A simple and free blogging platform.

YouTube channel: The site that hosts all of a specific user’s uploaded videos.

YouTube partner: A program offered by YouTube for users who attract a significant amount of views to their channel. The program offers services to analyze the user’s audience, protect your copyright, and earn money for each upload.

YouTube subscriber: A YouTube user who has officially followed another YouTube channel, and therefore receives updates every time the followed-channel is updated.

The E-Famous: Justin Bieber

alt text
Even if you’re not a Bieliber, by now, everyone in the public sphere is aware of Justin Bieber. The American talent manager, Scooter Braun, discovered the teenager from Stratford, Ontario in 2008. Braun came across Bieber’s YouTube videos of his singing, and Bieber has since achieved international acclaim for his musical career, most recently peaking with the 2011 bio-film, Never Say Never.

Cory Kennedy

alt text
The troubled-teen made her way into the public sphere through her involvement with hipster-party-photographer Mark Hunter in 2005. Hunter recognized that traffic to his website increased every time he posted a picture of Kennedy, and soon introduced her to the editors of fashion and culture magazine, Nylon magazine. Now 21-years old, Kennedy has been dubbed at ‘It’ girl by theLos Angeles Times, has been featured in a number of fashion magazines, and in an major exhibit at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA.

Chris Crocker

alt text
Crocker gained international attention for crying in his now-infamous 2007 YouTube video “Leave Britney Alone” in which he ardently urged the public to stop criticizing Britney Spears for her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. Crocker has since received over fifty million plays on his YouTube channel. Post “Leave Britney Alone” Crocker has utilized an autobiographical comic strip to state his plans to star in his own TV show, and to leave his grandparents home. In 2008 he was featured in Weezer’s music video for the song “Pork and Beans,” and has acted as an Internet correspondent on the BBC show Lily Allen and Friends. Crocker has also released two singles, and has announced that he will be self-releasing an album in 2011.

Antoine Dodson

alt text
On July 28, 2010, Antoine Dodson from the Lincoln Park projects was interviewed by NBC affiliate WAFF-48 News after a break-in and attempted rape of his sister, Kelly Dodson. The clip of his interview became a viral sensation as he addressed the attempted rapist, while staring directly into the camera. His words,“You are dumb, you are really dumb, ”and “Hide yo’ kids, hide yo’ wife,” have become viral catchphrases, and his interview was auto-tuned and turned into the hit “Bed Intruder Song.” The video has been viewed more than seventy-five million times; and he has made quite a bit of money through sales of the song on iTunes, and selling T-shirts and other merchandise featuring “Bed Intruder Song” quotes. Dodson has also used his Internet fame to launch a donations website to get his family “out of the hood.”

The Body Electric

Steve Mann attaching electronic devices to his body in his youth. The purpose? To experience a reality that has been technologically mediated. Steve Mann is a cyborg. That is, he’s a human with both biological and artificial parts. Others know him as a professor of engineering at the University of Toronto, and a devoted techno-futurist. Mann’s signature invention is the WearComp, a series of wearable computer devices. One example is the EyeTap, a set of computerized glasses that enhance or diminish objects entering the wearer’s field of view. Using computer technology, he can control what he wishes to see and not see.

Precisely ten years ago, Mann released a book detailing his life as a cyborg. CyborgL Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer is Mann’s manifesto. He’s an inventor with purpose — one deeply rooted in a personal ideology that has shaped his life. Although Mann’s understanding of technology ten years ago was considered radical, his writings forecasted what we have now lived over the past decade of our digital revolution.

Vicarious soliloquy

Over the years, Mann has delivered talks at universities and conferences about wearable computers and technologies. He does so in the comfort of his own home. Wearing the WearCam, a camera attached to his head that projects onto a screen in the conference auditorium, Mann presents his talks using pictures he draws at his desk. He also occasionally looks at himself in the mirror to assure the audience that it is in fact he who is speaking.

The point is to let the audience connect with him on a different level. Instead of simply watching him speak, the audience can “become” him by seeing exactly what he sees. Mann describes this as a deeper identification with another person.

The implications are compelling. How will our perspective on human rights change when we can experience, at least visually, exactly how repressed and mistreated individuals live in their societies? How will aid to a country following a natural disaster change when we can experience the disaster for ourselves?

Humanistic Intelligence (HI)

Artificial intelligence aims to create intelligent machines that can fulfill roles previously played by humans. Mann argues against this goal. Instead, he advocates the advancement of humanistic intelligence.

HI is about using technology to enhance human capacity. Under the HI model, users of a given device can take control any time they wish. The technology is responsive to the users: we shape the computer’s behaviour, rather than having computers shape our activities according to pre-programmed assumptions.

Do we want to wake up in a world where only a computer knows how to drive the bus? Mann hopes for a world where a human bus driver is equipped with a brain-implanted microchip that enhances his attention to make him a safer and more efficient driver.

Free agent

In his book, Mann openly acknowledges that he is alone. He is a one-of-a-kind being, a self-made mechano-human entity. However, he is not alone as a cyborg. Techno-culture has given us the means to become cyborgs — think of your wristwatch, pacemaker, or cellphone. While we rely on techno-culture to mass produce our electronic enhancements, Mann is the only one who creates his own enhancements; he is the free agent.

The free agent tailors technology to his life. Everyone else is forced to embrace the technologies available on the market. Think of every computer operating system you have ever used. Now ask your friends what they use. Are the answers mostly the same?

Cyborg envy

Mann describes the hostile reactions he has received from strangers he encounters. Instead of curiosity, they show an aversion to his weirdness. This, he says, is a symptom of our existence in a world of mass-produced technologies.

Cyborg envy stems from society’s overall failure to implement and explain technology as something that human beings develop and control. Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of biology and technology merging in one person. Such encounters are, after all, the stuff of myths and legends. Frankenstein’s monster, the Golem of Prague, and even the Terminator are incarnations of the fear that we will one day endanger our humanity through technology.

The free agent embodies these apprehensions because he can create his own artificial self.

alt text

I am a camera

The impact of social networking on social movements is older than most people realize. In fact, in the era of the wearable computer, the term social networking will take on new meaning. Every cyborg will be equipped with a wearable camera. Knowing where someone is and what they are doing will no longer be limited to text descriptions. People may be able to see and eventually feel the conditions of where their friends are and what they are doing.

Using his WearCam, Mann can browse the produce aisle at the grocery store while his wife shops from home, essentially shopping through him. Facebook and Twitter have certainly changed relationship dynamics by allowing for the constant supply of updates on what others are doing. How will relationships change once you can “live” the other person, too?

The virus

Pervasive systems like Windows are like viruses. A friend creates a document in Microsoft Word and sends it to you. You need to buy Word to open the document, and so you need to buy Windows to run Word. Hence the virus has spread to you. Now you start learning Word and send documents to your friends. You then become a carrier of the disease.

Mann argues these operating systems are designed to function independently of us. We do not need to know how they work; we only need to apply our needs to their functions. But what happens when something goes wrong? Our total ignorance means we cannot sharpen our own pencils. There is a gap in what should otherwise be a closed loop.

Microsoft only allows us to operate on the principle of a straight line: either the computer tells us what to do or we tell it what to do. The system can’t enhance our intelligence or understanding. If we want to change Windows to operate in a fundamentally different way, we cannot. When our pencils snap, we must hire someone to come and sharpen them for us.

We are only permitted to function in the way Microsoft wants us to. We are trapped in what Mann calls a “desktop prison.”


In a world of increasing surveillance, individual privacy will be determined by the large bodies that control surveillance technology. These bodies could also regulate the flow of free information to the public.

Mann fears a world where our ability to communicate with one another will be suppressed. We currently live in a panopticon: a prison where we cannot know when and where we are being watched.

According to Mann, the WearComp helps us reclaim our individual and collective freedoms. By constantly monitoring those who monitor us, individuals gain power over the governing bodies’ primacy in surveillance. Using his WearCam to conduct his own surveillance of surveillance systems and employees in stores, Mann was met with hostility from the corporations’ security guards. This, he argues, is the suppression of the individual’s right to freedom of information.

In the WearCam age, everything an individual sees will be recorded. This information will be distributed freely and will be available to anyone. Similar to the Internet’s impact on civil society, the WearCam will allow for survelliance information to be spread more freely around the world.

Cyborg beauty

Mann’s original motivation in inventing the wearable computer was to mediate reality, and to experience the world in different ways. He discovered that this ability is as much of an aesthetic experience as it is an intellectual or technological one. Currently, artistic endeavors are not considered a particularly potent means of reflecting how new technologies might affect society. This attitude towards the arts hinders our culture’s ability to grapple with technological change in a meaningful way. WearComp can potentially close the gap between art and technology, requiring the user to respond creatively to the world by shaping it, changing it, and exploring it in novel ways. The view through a computer’s lens is essentially an honest one: it demands that we accept artificiality as a given.

Are computers just a “little bit pregnant”?

Suppose someone designed a television that monitors the programs you watch and blocks access if it detects you watching an objectionable program. Or an mp3 player that shuts down if you start listening to music from an illegal file-sharing website. Or an e-book reader that prevents you from reading anything on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books. Would you buy it?

The answer is probably a resounding No. Yet there are corporations like Apple and Viacom who intend to design computers that are capable of betraying their users.

As an expert on this terrifying subject, Canadian blogger and journalist Cory Doctorow gave a keynote address on March 5 at the third annual University of Toronto iSchool student conference, “Boundaries, Frontiers & Gatekeepers.” Doctorow is a noted science fiction author and technology activist from Toronto, and currently resides in London, England. His first book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, was the first book released under a Creative Commons license online so that users could copy and share the work.

His other novels, Little Brother, Makers, and For the Win, have garnered commercial success and critical acclaim. Much of Doctorow’s fiction addresses contemporary issues in a near-future setting.

Doctorow regularly lectures on issues such as copyright, digital rights management, and technology regulation. His talk, A Little Bit Pregnant: Why it’s a Bad Idea to Regulate Computers the Way We Regulate Radios, Guns, Uranium and Other Special-Purpose Tools, explored attempts to regulate technology to prevent copyright infringement. According to Doctorow, “Building a general-purpose PC [a desktop or laptop computer] that is just a little bit locked down is like finding a woman who is just a little bit pregnant. Once the facility can be used for a legitimate purpose, it can also be used for illegitimate purpose.”

He began his talk by listing a series of scenarios and asking what they had in common. These included Viacom demanding Google create an artificial super-intelligence that can instantly delete copy-righted videos, and mobile network providers locking their phones so customers cannot take them to rival characters. The commonality was that these were examples of regulating the general purpose computer.

“Historically, we’ve thought of computers as a special purpose object,” said Doctorow. “It seems the expense and bulk of computers was an extremely temporary condition; and that every year we’ve seen an accelerating trend of computers that become cheaper, smaller, more powerful.”

Computers are now becoming less and less specialized. They do everything: radio, Internet, videogames, word processing, self-publishing, graphic design, and more. Anything can be accessed, hacked, rebuilt, and broken down into new forms. This is exactly the “maker” culture Doctorow addressed in his book of the same name.

To illustrate this issue during his lecture, he brought up the example of BBC’s iPlayer, a device allowing users to download and view BBC shows. Despite its aim to make these programs more accessible, it featured “strange characteristics.”

“For some reason or another, they only want you to be able to look at those files for thirty days and only be able to download it for seven days after the program airs, giving those files on your computer a maximum life of over thirty-seven days,” he noted.

This seems an absurd and heavy-handed approach to policing what people watch on their computers, and the response from users has been typical. The software meant to delete these files has been easily hacked with the result that every program from the iPlayer ends up for free download on the Internet.

The response of those corporations who consider themselves copyright holders has not been to look to user-based solutions or even give up their attempts at enforcement. Instead, they are trying to find more ways to lock down computers and networks.

“Internet service providers are being told all over the world that they should act as copyright police and they block certain websites,” he said. If this violation of net neutrality isn’t bad enough, there is finally the attempt to embed these kinds of copyright protections in hardware.
alt text

“They want to design computers from the ground up that have this ability to run programs that their users can’t control or inspect, or [are] designed to work even if the user doesn’t want them to,” Doctorow explained. “They could run even if the owner of the computer does not believe it could be in their best interest for them to be running.” Locked phones and Apple products that only allow you to use apps that have been approved by Apple (apps that give Apple a thirty per cent cut) are early examples of this type of technology.

“Indeed once you start calling this what it is, a computer that is designed to betray its owner’s interest, it becomes immediately obvious why we shouldn’t do it,” argued Doctorow. “We are adding the legal and technological infrastructure to arbitrarily prevent code from running on computers, or to covertly run software on a computer to eavesdrop on all network communications, to block certain websites and services, and to have websites remove content on an even greater set of nebulously defined pretences with greater penalties for failure to act.”

Frightening. Corporations are creating a regulatory framework that would seek to put Big Brother on your PC and punish the people who use their products. Imagine accidentally visiting a website that may be deemed “copyright infringing” or even illegal and having the government or a corporation sending you a friendly email explaining that you will be fined or arrested.

But why are corporations hitting the panic button now? “Well that didn’t work the first time, so let’s try something harsher and more draconian.”

To put Cory Doctorow’s talk into context let’s consider a discovery made by designers of artificial intelligence that can explain some reactions to technology. This discovery is the “frame problem” and it denotes the inability to understand or see all consequences of a particular object. One cannot properly see outside of their “frame” of reference.

For example, no one was able to foresee that the car would have uses or implications beyond moving a person from point A to point B. Cars not only revolutionized the structure of cities, they also became the most efficient emitters of harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan referred to it as “rearview mirror thinking” — the attempt to apply the concepts and approaches of the old technology to the new. Think of “horseless carriages” and you get the idea.

In the case of the computer, it was never foreseen that it would be a device that could not only connect people, but could also allow users to quickly and efficiently share music with one another or even create whole other areas of “cybercrime.” Having failed with the traditional “top down” regulatory framework, corporations are now looking to bottom-up hardware solutions that do nothing to solve the problem and will inevitably punish the rest of us.

“These rules and systems have the effect of magnifying the advantage of the powerful and unscrupulous at the expense of the scrupulous and the honest,” explained Doctorow. Attempts at blanket solutions for computers and networks only aid and abet such groups as medical quacks who use, in Doctorow’s example, Britain’s strict libel laws “to pursue science writers who make such outrageous claims as ‘AIDS cannot be cured by vitamins’ or ‘chiropractors won’t cure your cancer by holding their hands over you.’”

Doctorow was himself a victim of a blanket solution to solve copyright problems over the Internet. Copies of Doctorow’s book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which was published online under a Creative Commons licence, were removed from Scribd, a site that allows users to share text files with each other. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, using the Digital Millenium Copyright Act as justification, argued that a number of works on Scribd were infringing on the copyright of SF writers Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg. However, the list only included their last names and pulled up every work on Scribd that mentioned Asimov or Silverberg even if they didn’t write the books themselves. Included in the takedown were a high school teacher’s SF bibliography and the back issues of an out-of-print publication called Ray Gun Revival. The works, including Doctorow’s, were restored when SFWA realized their mistake.

“Designing general purpose computers that sneak around their owners’ backs is a terrible idea. We’ve already seen what happens when you add just a little bit of control to networks and computers — most recently we saw Iran’s and Egypt’s secret police mining Facebook to figure out whom to arrest,” he explained.

Furthermore, imagine if you’re a virus writer, an identity thief, or a hacker. These hidden programs that users would not be able to control or access would be the perfect ones to break into since you could adversely affect the normal functionality of their computer or spy on them without their knowledge. Locked down computers are the bad guys’ paradise.

Doctorow’s conclusion can only be described as a stirring call to action not only for librarians, archivists, and information studies students, but for anyone who regularly uses technology.

“This fight is the leading edge of a series of regulatory battles that are going to take us through this century and have at stake whether the infrastructure of the information society is going to have embedded in it control surveillance technology that will do nothing to mitigate harm, but put us all in harm’s way,” he concluded.

Computing technology stands at the precipice of an exciting frontier in which all of us can become “makers” and enjoy a world in which we can innovate and recreate old technologies to make something better and new that can be easily shared across free networks. Or it might succumb to a dark future of locked-down computers and monitored networks that will be used by the unscrupulous, the dishonest, and the distrustful to control us all.

I can haz DEMOCRACY?

Last month a 1994 clip of The Today Show went viral. The scene opens with three intrigued hosts discussing an email address, wondering what to call “that little mark, with the ‘a’ and the ring around it.” Eventually a puzzled Katie Couric asks her co-hosts, “What is Internet?”

A few years later, people gazed at the potential of the “information superhighway.” With a phone line, a modem, and a few hundred dollars, you could read news from across the world, and it only took half an hour to download.

The World Wide Web hype persisted. As the speed, availability, and cost of Internet rapidly evolved, buzzwords like “global village” and “inter-connectivity” conveyed a borderless world where every human would be connected to the other. Bright-eyed professors spoke of the inevitable world peace and solidarity resulting from the realization of our common humanity.

The academic term for this thinking is media determinism. The theory asserts a cause-and-effect relationship between new forms of media and societal change. This idea was touted most prominently by twentieth century U of T scholars Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan.

The Internet is unlike all other mediums because it allows massive amounts of information to be transmitted beyond the typical confines of time and space. Media determinists believe that the web ultimately creates more transparency, opens up closed societies, and allows previously disparate groups to encounter one another — thus generating a collective consciousness that demands democracy.

Belarus-born journalist Evgeny Morozov thinks otherwise. In his book, The Net Delusion, he argues against what he calls “cyber-utopianism: a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication” that fails to recognize the implications of online propaganda, surveillance, and censorship.

In a chapter titled “Orwell’s favorite Lolcat,” Morozov explores Russian Internet policy, a rather successful policy of distraction over censorship.

While dozens of websites stream movies and sitcoms for free, many surfers recognize the Russian as a top source for a wide selection of fast-streaming videos. The site seldom crashes and offers many copyrighted works that almost never get taken down.

Although some sites promoting terrorism or child pornography are censored in Russia, little is done to combat piracy. But it’s not just lax copyright enforcement that allows RuTube to thrive. The site is funded by Gazprom, a state-owned energy corporation.

Another popular site adds to this culture of distraction. is a website produced by Kremlin associates. It contains some news — mostly propaganda with a heavy spin — but is known for its high-quality entertainment reporting, profiling Moscow’s bustling club scene with liberal amounts of booze, drugs, and bare skin.

Russia doesn’t censor much online — it doesn’t have to. The theory is that entertainment deters disenchanted citizens from taking to the streets; and it seems to be working. Bountiful access to a variety of entertainment and pornography are small but effective comforts for those living in what some describe as a mafia state.
alt text

In a New Yorker article published last October, Malcolm Gladwell played down the role of social media in creating political change. He touched on the plethora of online campaigns, mostly Facebook groups and online petitions, that require no commitment and thus no results.

This phenomenon has been dubbed “slacktivism,” a portmanteau for those who’d rather sit in front of a computer than perform an actual sit-in.

Gladwell opined that most online activist movements are, at best, forums that propagate groupthink. He believes social media is ineffective for activism, unless participants engage in causes through traditional means of protest that existed before the Internet.

But the Internet allows an exchange of ideas that can lead to mobilization. When Stephen Harper decided to prorogue Parliament for a second time at the end of 2009, tens of thousands of Canadians took to the streets for the first time in recent memory.

A Facebook group called Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament mobilized angry and concerned citizens across the country. While these marches in the streets were organized using traditional means of mobilization, it’s undeniable that Facebook played a role in sparking the protests. CAPP provided a forum for Canadians across the country to voice their frustration, and to co-ordinate their tactics.

A similar case can be made for North Africa: While causes of recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere are multi-faceted, one definite cause is cute cats.

The dictator’s dilemma is a political science theory advanced ten years ago suggesting that the Internet poses a double threat for repressive governments. Websites open the door to mobilization and free speech, but blocking the net results in severe economic consequences. The theory can be stretched to fuzzy kittens on Facebook.

Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, developed his self-described “cute cat theory” in 2008. He encourages activists to use social media and blogging platforms for a variety of purposes, rather than just activism.

By diversifying content on these sites, users make it harder for their governments to block access. A dictator has little reservation to shut off Tumblr if ninety per cent of content posted is activism. But if a country’s Facebook usage is mostly pictures of cute cats and only a small percentage is mobilization, governments would face a huge public outcry by blocking the site — the antithesis of the RuTube effect. Thus, the more people use Facebook for mundane entertainment, the harder it is for activists to be censored.

Many originally associated the Internet with transparency, community building, and the its potential for fostering world peace. Two decades later it’s become dominated by entertainment, and the repercussions on civic life remain undetermined. Will the proliferation of fun content harness active citizen voices, or divert our attention? Cute cat videos, porn, and illegal movies could be the end of democracy, or perhaps its saving grace.

The death of the physical

Click to see it larger

Streeters: What was your first email address?

alt text

Around the world

When a young person in Toronto, Nairobi, or Jakarta goes online to check out what their friends are up to, they’re probably logging onto Facebook. But this may not be the case. Although, in North America, Facebook has captured both the social network market and cultural zeitgeist, it is not the only option out there.

Whether it’s thanks to linguistic and cultural differences, or simply a government blocking select foreign websites, the planet is dotted with unique social networks and media, often unheard of beyond borders — with some exceptions being stalwart users in the University of Toronto community.

When social lives are increasingly driven and defined by online activity and communication, these distinct, yet oddly familiar websites almost present an alternative digital reality. In the face of cultural globalization, it’s heartening that even if a person halfway around the world is accessible in a few clicks, not everyone uses those clicks in the exact same way.
alt text

China – Ren Ren

Referring to Ren Ren as “Chinese Facebook” isn’t necessarily oversimplifying or diminishing it — that’s literally what it is. From profiles to the newsfeed, the site almost completely resembles the layout of Facebook. Even if you’re Mandarin-illiterate and not trying to keep in touch with friends in Beijing, you’ve probably already seen Ren Ren. Much like with Facebook, it’s a common sight to see a student logging onto Ren Ren in the middle of a Sid Smith lecture hall.

Ren Ren owes its Facebook-aping interface to the twin factors of laissez-faire copyright law enforcement, and the fact that Facebook has been blocked in China by the so-called “Great Fire Wall” since May 2009.

Founded in 2005 by graduates of Beijing’s prestigious Qinghua University and the perhaps slightly less esteemed University of Delaware, the network was originally called Xiaonei, referring to its nature as an internal network for University campuses. In 2009, the name was changed to Ren Ren, “ren” being Mandarin for people, and thus implying a network open to all. Although Ren Ren users are still generally college-age or younger, the network has undergone massive growth and now reportedly hosts 160 million users.

France & Russia – Badoo

Badoo is not the most popular social network — but it is arguably the sketchiest. Headquartered in London, owned by a corporation in Cyprus, and ultimately linked back to a Russian owner, the site has been accused of having some of the laxest privacy and security settings in the field. The site earns its keep by having members pay to have their profiles briefly posted on the homepage.

The result is a disquietingly sleazy combination of a dating site and social network. Badoo is mostly popular in South America and Europe, especially France and Russia. Visiting the homepage reveals a checkerboard proudly declaring 110 million users have signed on, as well as the profiles of users in the general geographic area. Apparently Badoo does have some users in Canada, one boldly declaring that he’s looking to “Smoke a fat joint with a girl, age 18-25.” Perhaps there’s a reason for Facebook’s popularity after all…

South Korea – Cyworld

“When I was in Grade 7 or 8 I really wanted a Cyworld,” laments literary studies major Janet Son. “But I tried to sign up and discovered that I needed a South Korean government identification number. I don’t have Korean citizenship, so I couldn’t get it.” Such is the heartbreak caused by social network and blog hub Cyworld. Though it may not possess as many users as other networks (it’s in the neighborhood of 20 million), Cyworld manages to sustain itself by selling digital goods used to decorate users’ online rooms.

The site’s graphic design aesthetic is perhaps overwhelming, hemmed by advertisements, and controlled by the whims of users. The network ambitiously expanded into North America in 2006, believing the market ripe for a takeover, but had to retreat and shut down its operations there two years later.

Accordingly, the number of users on Cyworld has declined somewhat in recent years, but it remains popular, and retains a foothold in Toronto: The University of Toronto Korean Commerce Community club keeps in touch with its members both through a Facebook group page and also with an exclusive club page on Cyworld.

Brazil & India – Orkut

Orkut Büyükkökten’s parents must be proud. Not only did the Turkish software engineer invent Google’s social network, he also got it named after him. Orkut, the man notwithstanding, is an intriguing entity, barely known even where Google is ubiquitous, yet highly popular elsewhere, namely in Brazil and India.

Out of roughly 100 million Orkut users, Google reports that around half are in Brazil, with much of the remainder located in India, along with a smattering of users in Pakistan, Japan, and America. The numerical dominance of Brazil and India emerged organically, with the site initially registering far more users in America. But now Orkut works hard to promote itself in these strongholds, both re-designing special headers to celebrate Carnival in Brazil and offering giveaways for tickets to film screenings in Mumbai. Orkut’s predominance in Brazil seems to be waning somewhat due to Facebook’s encroachment, but the site does offer unique features for a social network, such as video chatting available thanks to Google technology.

The Chinese Underdogs – Weibo & Douban

Thanks to its potential for political use (dissenting artist Ai Wei Wei was an early adopter), Twitter has also been blocked in China since 2009. But the format still proved hugely popular, leading to a flurry of imitatos, frequently shut down or edited when tensions rise. For the moment, Weibo, run by Sina (the country’s largest web portal) is the most popular. In fact, it’s occasionally presented as a potential Twitter competitor. Weibo itself faces competition from a spin-off of QQ, a ubiquitous instant messaging service.

The slightly more bohemian Douban is far less popular than Ren Ren, but still widely used. The site presents a sort of fusion. Users set up groups to share their love of the Velvet Underground, but can also search a database of books, CDs, and Criterion Collection-worthy DVDs. The site’s event pages serve an integral role promoting art exhibits, film screenings, and music festivals.

Entrepreneurs for the 21st century


In the last few years, technological developments like GPS and Google Maps have changed the way we understand directions. A group of University of Toronto graduates have harnessed this geo-location technology, and have applied it to what they believe is an important part of life as a college student: partying at bars. On February 3, the group released an iPhone app known as DrinkOwl, a tool for finding drink specials at the closest bars in your neighborhood, or wherever you may be on a Friday night. The app also has a catalogue of every liquor retail store in Canada. Since its initial launch, DrinkOwl has gained over ten thousand users, and has now accumulated information in thirty cities across North America.

DrinkOwl was in development for a year before its launch in February. “When we would go out at night, the question would come up: What’s going on? Where are the specials tonight? That question would come up over and over again,” says Ryan Cooley, DrinkOwl product manager.

Using their technical know-how as engineering students, the group of friends wanted to create a system which would have the information regarding drink specials and make it available to the masses in an accessible form. “It started as a localized thing, just a bunch of students trying to help other students,” says Cooley. Since its launch, DrinkOwl has expanded into the United States.

The DrinkOwl team has the future in their sights. In upcoming releases, they hope to incorporate a social networking feature within the app — this feature will not only inform the user where the drink specials are, but will also provide the thoughts and opinions of people who have been to the bar and a list of those currently at the location.
alt text

“Such technology […] is pretty new,” says Cooley. “The accuracy and power of it, and the speed, is amazing. But the fact that we can take technology and add on specific things, like how to find this and how to get there, exactly from where you’re standing is a technology we are excited about. Communication is a key part of our app, and also a key part of new technologies.”

“It’s amazing to see that you can be anywhere in [the] country and have your mobile device be able to pinpoint you and tell you exactly where you are,” he adds. For a bunch of students, using this technology to find a great bar with drink specials seemed to be the next logical step.

The team is also developing a feature for bar owners to input information about their business in the DrinkOwl database. Android and Blackberry versions of the app are also in the works.—Jakob Tanner


Danial Jameel spent last summer holed up in a U of T library, running on little more than four hours of sleep a night. Whether it was midday or creeping into the early hours of the morning, Jameel could be found glued to his computer screen in the cramped residence library with two fellow undergrads, James Dang and Alice Dinu.

“We basically hijacked our residence library in the basement at UC until they kicked us out,” Jameel recalls. It was a routine more reminiscent of the spring exam crunch than a scorching summer afternoon.

But Jameel, Dang, and Dinu weren’t writing essays or cramming for exams. Instead, they were building their own mobile application from scratch, enduring marathon-like coding sessions à la The Social Network for months on end.

The final product, launched in November, is OOHLALA Mobile, a free downloadable app geared toward university students. It combines coupon deals with a chatting service and a calendar of student life events. Think GroupOn meets instant messenger meets student listserv — all in the palm of your hand.
alt text

Now available to users on various mobile platforms in both Toronto and Montreal (Queen’s University in Kingston is the next target audience), this student-designed, student-centric app has already gathered more than 3,000 active users. Earlier in March, OOHLALA was also featured as one of the top fifty free applications in the Lifestyle category of Apple’s App Store.

Like so many startup success stories, OOHLALA began as little more than a pipe dream for its creators, who first proposed the idea at a business competition for the Rotman School of Management.

“Apparently, the idea was good enough that we actually won the competition so we thought, ‘Wow, maybe there’s something here,’” says Jameel, who currently divides his time (not altogether evenly, he admits) between OOHLALA and studies in political science and economics.

The OOHLALA team, which now includes seven students, predict their app will begin turning a profit by the end of March. Considering there are more than 350,000 applications available for download on the iOS platform alone, this will be no easy feat.

Equally impressive, however, is the team’s ability to stay afloat in the face of long hours, little money, and the looming odds of failure — not to mention the regular demands of being a student.

“When we’re not studying, this is pretty much all we do,” admits Jameel. “Most of our expenses come from our head and our heart; how much time and effort we can put in.

“But that’s what we love: helping students out,” he explains, pegging OOHLALA’s success on the team’s passion. “If we did not have fun, honestly, we would not be doing this.”—Meghan Lawson