Visual Culture, the Internet, and Tinder.

Nothing has made me more aware of the paradigm shift from a written culture to a visual culture than my initial impressions of Tinder. Now, this seems like a weird way to start a conversation about the changing nature of culture in the 21st century that the Internet is accelerating, but stay with me on this. I recently signed up to Tinder and one of the first things that caught my attention – other than the hilarity of the whole thing – is how curated of an experience it is. But, before we get onto to that, a brief rant about oral, written, and visual culture.

Oral culture refers to the form of culture that predates written history (referred to as oral history). Here, events were remembered through the telling of stories and the singing of song; important historically events were recollected through tales and epic poetry. It stayed this way for a long time; especially among the poor sectors of various societies that would not be literate and/or have access to the means to participate in written history. So even after the advent of written language oral culture remained the norm among the majority of the population. It wouldn’t have been until the advent of the printing press, the mass production of paper, and the spread of literacy that culture would have properly become based in the written form. In this instance, culture begins to spread through the written form; this includes cultural memories. Ideas and histories begin to be collected and remembered through the written word in ways as mundane as diaries; effectively, histories and identities are written into existence. Visual culture can be seen to have started with the rise of photography and the spread of the photographic form. This has however, accelerated as the means of creating images and distributing them have become simpler and more accessible; we have reached the point now where almost everyone has a camera in their pocket. This process effectively highlights how the development of technologies leads to cultural shifts as the various technologies begin to inform and be informed by the culture they function within effectively creating cultural feedback loops.

Quick summary out of the way, getting back to my impressions of Tinder and visual culture. The first key point I noted was at a very basic level of how important photos of the self are. In no other point in my life had I been made so aware that I have almost no photos of myself (let alone photos I would consider flattering). My lack of any decent photos was then exaggerated by the plethora of profiles that had images that looked like they came from professional photo shoots. Effectively, creating profiles that are curated to look like they belong to some kind of b-grade celebrity. Effectively, identities are being carefully curated based on visual styles and aesthetics. This indicates, to me at least, a shift to visual culture; exaggerated by the general consensus that no one reads a profile’s bio.

Now, this is not a bad thing. In a lot of ways this purely visual mode of engaging with dating more closely resembles offline dating forms than anything that has preceded it. But this appears to be part of a greater shift to the visual form becoming the dominant form as how memory and history is created and archived in modern societies. Photo albums fulfilled this role for previous generations, but, a fundamental difference here is the online-offline dichotomy. Grandma’s photo album very rarely saw the light of day, let alone existed in a world wide web that anyone could access if they knew where to look. For me, this is a huge difference between the two that cannot be overlooked. Granny’s photo album will never be pried upon by strange eyes, whereas your Instagram account exists for that very purpose. Effectively, the old photo album is commemorative, Instagram is performative; it is identity visualised into existence.

However, the most affronting thing that I noticed regarding a greater cultural shift towards visual culture is from LinkedIn (as an underemployed recent graduate). This incident was LinkedIn telling me that I was much more likely to get potential employers to view my profile if I included a picture on my profile. The reason why this is so affronting is simply due to the nature of the platform: this is a platform that functions as an online CV where you would hope that your qualifications and skills speak in regards to your employability. Well, unfortunately not. Even here, the visualising of your identity into existence matters most representing a shift away from written culture and towards the visual.

Effectively, what all this has made me realise is that I should put more effort into visualising myself into existence on the internet; especially if I want to develop professionally. Given the dominance of the visual mediums to commercial forms, this cultural shift reflects a marketised logic through which individuals must marketing themselves; not just so they can get a career, but also matches on Tinder.

Alternatively, I might start selling my services as a social media photographer; business will surely be booming.

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A Brief Rant on Group Psychology on the Internet

The internet is a strange and wonderful place, it is also a bizarre and disturbing place, and ultimately an angry and confrontational place. In spite of or because of this, the Internet also provides a platform for communities to develop over long distances that would otherwise not be able to develop. In light of recent in events in the USA, and the rising tide of dangerous political factions the world over, a brief look at the part the internet has to play might be pertinent.

Now, it is not news to anyone that the “alt-right” came to prominence through their online activities. However, places like www.stormfront.org; the self proclaimed “White Nationalist Community”, has existed long before the Alt-Right was a twinkle in Richard Spencer’s eye. Effectively, the dreams of the digital utopia put forwards by liberals at the dawn of the 21st century are well dead and buried beneath a blanket of swastika.jpeg images.

It is obvious to everyone that ideology is very much at play within these groups. They subscribe to a world view that defines white men as the alpha and omega of society through a fragmented biological discourse based entirely on bad, bad science (there is bad science which is flawed due to a weak methodology, then there is bad, bad science, that has an agenda present within it). You would hope that this bad, bad science would get challenged somewhere along the line, however, it does not until people are now confident enough in their beliefs to shout it from roof tops. How does this happen?

Now I am no expert, but there are two aspects of social psychology that could explain how people become so earnest of their beliefs that lack any supporting evidence: group think and group polarization. Put simply (he says dusting off a Social Psychology textbook unused since undergrad) these theories relate to the way groups come to form collective beliefs. Group think refers to the process where everyone in the group will eventually start believing the dominant ideas within that group; if these ideas remain unchallenged, there is no reason for members of the group to challenge themselves on their beliefs. Thus, these beliefs become further entrenched into the users psychological make up. Group polarization is the process whereby groups with radical belief systems become more radical if there is no check applied to their thought processes; effectively, if a group is ideologically opposed to another group, they will further distances themselves from that group, and in the process potentially end at a more radical worldview. These twin processes explain how dangerous groups exist and thrive on the Internet.

One of the wonderful things about the internet is that everything is on it. All the porn you could shake, err… something at, all the news, and all the weird little musings of people who have an axe to grind for whatever reason they have an axe to grind. But, this is also the problem; firstly, no one needs that much porn, secondly, the internet gives rise to some potentially dangerous forms of expression that remain unhinged. The reason they remain unhinged is due to the group think process that happens. People with these ideas will use the internet to develop their community that acts as a kind of safe haven for their ideas. For instance, Stormfront as the “White Nationalist Community” will never have their racism challenged within that site the same way they would almost anywhere else (I hope). People might join this group as curious malcontents, but due to group think, they will come out of it as bona fide white nationalists. Group polarization will then lead to increased radicalization as the group continues to define itself against other ideas, real or imagined, that exist in society.

Although this is a very extreme example to be using in a brief rant, it highlights how group think and group polarization work on the Internet. The Internet, for all the digital utopian dreams about free access to information and the democratization of knowledge, is just a tool. As with any tool, it depends entirely how it is used. In the instance of groups like the Alt-Right and Stormfront, it is a tool used to reaffirm already existing prejudices that already exist in the users mind.

My Experience with Hospitalization and Media.

I was recently hospitalized for the best part of 10 days (fortunately I live in a country that has public health care). I have since been discharged and I am learning to walk again. But something that has struck me about this whole experience is how lost and isolated I would have been without various forms of media during this period.

To start with, hospitals are incredibly boring; especially when you are more or less completely immobilized. Then you add your daily dosage of needles into that coupled with the pain of your condition (I will note, I am not particularly bad with needles under ordinary circumstances). Hospitals are not the sort of place you want to spend a lot of time. I did get a pile of books delivered to me, but concentrating was difficult due to the combination of sleeplessness, pain, and needles; so many needles. So I bought a lot of data and turned to my phone for entertainment and communication.

This was the first thing media has done for me in getting through this time. At the most basic level it gave me a connection to my friends and family. It was through Facebook that I announced that I had been hospitalized and received surgery; I also did most of my communicating through Facebook messenger during this period. This served as an invitation for people who wanted to visit me; some did, some did not, but they knew where I was. In this instance social media served as a hub for communication.

At this point my Galaxy S5 turned into my personal entertainment system. Through a combination of Netflix and Youtube I was able to distract myself to a lesser or greater extent to the severity of my condition. I started watching movies and entire series on Netflix. It should be noted that this is unusual behavior for me as I actually very rarely watch shows and movies unless I am with company. However, in the context in which I found myself, this change in behavior was a welcome change. I generally spend more time on Youtube than Netflix on an average day; this relationship was reversed in the hospital. Regardless of the nature of how I used these platforms at this time, they provided me with a means to distract myself that I dearly needed.

This is basically how my media consumption functioned while I was in hospital. However, when my hospital stay ended, my reliance on media continued. Although I was now relatively mobile – I had crutches and could get myself from my bed to the toilet basically – this movement caused me a lot of pain. Therefore, for the most part, I was stationary. What I did have however was my aforementioned phone, a TV, and a Xbox. These three things became the nexus of my life over the course of the past month.

As like when I was in hospital, I relied on primarily Facebook as a means of communication. Although I was now out of hospital, I was (and still am at this time of writing) more or less stuck at home in recovery mode. So here, just like in the hospital proper, I relied on social media in order to communicate with friends and family.

My TV and Xbox became my primary sources of entertainment. To provide context, I am a person who strives to be fit. Before I was hospitalized I was exercising daily with at least three visits to the gym a week; this is something I do miss in my current condition. However, I do believe game consoles are the greatest invention in home entertainment; an opinion I share with Italian Fifa World Cup winner, Andrea Pirlo. The point of this little tangent is to highlight that staying inside and consuming media and playing games for hours is not something I would ordinarily do. Anyway, I became to rely on my Xbox for entertainment purposes and used it as a crutch in order to help me get through the initial stages of recovery; I have since started reading again now that my pain is more or less gone and I no longer require the assistance of mind altering pain medicine to get through the day.

These revelations my not be spectacular in and of themselves; I am sure lots of people have used media in a similar way in order to get through hard times. What this demonstrates to me is how important media is to us as individuals in the networked society of the 21st century. The use of media in this instance became a matter of survival; not just about the recovery from my physical injuries, but ensuring that I was at least relatively healthy mentally. Without the various forms of media that I had access to during this period, I could have very easily become depressed and overwhelmed by my situation. I was in huge amounts of pain in the hospital and media provided me with a distraction from that pain. Then at home, I was in relative amounts of pain coupled with a feeling of helplessness from not being able to be proactive in my life. Here again, media gave me a means through which to feel as though I was still part of the world and could actively participate within it; either through socializing via social media or participating as a consumer of cultural content. Ultimately, various media forms and platforms provided me with some form of empowerment during a period in my life in which I felt totally disempowered.

There will be some who say that we spend too much time on media in contemporary society and they would point to this emotional reliance on media as an example of that. To this I say, media is ultimately a tool, and in this instance it was tool I used as a crutch to help with my recovery; if you see something wrong with this, I think it reflects more your personal issues than mine.

Media Restrictions in the Age of the Internet.

Given the nature of this topic, it may not be necessarily something that most people over the age of 18 think about. But, due to the changing nature of media consumption brought about by the democratisation of the Internet, I think this is something that is worth discussing as the nature of media restrictions have not kept pace.

Age restrictions and content warnings are important. Although certain media effects paradigms have largely been exaggerated and violence is a fundamental part of story telling within specific media forms (as discussed in a previous post), young people who are not yet fully developed cognitively should not be exposed to ‘mature’ content that they will not fully understand. Two relatively high profile cases come to mind as examples of the dangers of children engaging with mature content. The first example is a case of children re-enacting a rape scene from Grand Theft Auto 5 at a school in England. The second was the ‘Slender Man stabbing‘; a case where two 12 year old girls stabbed another young girl multiple times in an attempt to appease the Slender Man. Although this second example is not about media proper, it still involves an urban legend that arose from the internet and gained notoriety through the internet. What these two examples have in common is young people engaging with mature content and then adopting anti-social behavior that is traceable to that content. I can also think of a third example involving non-children who do not appear to be cognitively developed. This is the example of the online rape mod that was added to GTA Online that allowed players to commit acts of sexual assault to other players in the game; if the oft quoted reason for playing video games “to do things I cannot do in real life” holds any water, there are people who are using this medium to act out certain rape fantasies, and that is a problem.

Now, I can already hear the hounds of protest bellowing away about this being media and, as I have said myself, media effects being largely overstated. This is true, but, we are talking about something completely different; we are talking about learning and socialisation. Socialisation is the process through which individuals learn and engage with certain societal ideas about what is and what is not acceptable behavior; this occurs through the internalisation of certain ideas as they pertain to society (here is a link to the Wikipedia page on socialisation if you so desire). In this instance, the issue is learned behavior. Like it or not, for better or for worse, media is an educational device and not everything on media is going to be positive education. For young people who are still learning about the world, certain ideas represented in certain forms of media will not be appropriate for them. Using the above example again, how many primary school students would have ever encountered sexual assault before? God willing, hopefully none! But even as an idea, a concept that exists, how many young children would have had a conversation about the causes and effects of sexual assault? In my experience, most adults do not even want to have this conversation. The point I am trying to make here is, how can we expect children to process this information in a healthy manner when they have no perspective or experience as to what it is they are actually being exposed to; there is even the possibility that this might be the first time they are exposed to such things, and as such, learn about them that way. This is why age restrictions and content warnings exist, and why they matter.

Previously, and even I remember this as a child, controlling the flow was as simple as checking IDs at a store. This process has become far more complex with the Internet becoming the main means of distribution for media content. Simply put, it is difficult for a website to check a user’s ID. They can add the ‘enter date of birth’ barriers for the website, but even the most haphazard 12 year old can delay long enough to figure this one out. Parent locks can be put on things like Netflix accounts, but this is only a small barrier to the large swathes of means through which media content can be acquired on the Internet.

I am not going to be able to come up with a hard and fast solution here. But, thinking about this issue more creatively than just age barriers is something I would endorse (with all that social and political capital I carry… yup, none). A way this could be done is viewing rating systems less as hard and fast rules, and more as guidelines. For instance, if you refer to the photo above – ignoring the age restriction for the time being – what does this actually tell us about the content. There are four “notes”: violence, horror, offensive language, and sexual themes. Firstly, violence; This could mean a magnitude of things from the most mundane forms of interpersonal violence through to modes of systemic violence. Secondly, horror; This could also mean almost anything. What is horrific for one person may be less so for the next. This could also be anything from jump scares, psychological torment, gore, or a combination of all three. Thirdly, offensive language; This one, to be fair, is relatively straight forward. Finally, sexual themes; this is probably the most ambiguous of the lot. Sexual themes could be anything from consensual sexual activity, sexual violence, or even just implied sexuality of some description. Sexual themes as a category of content is so vague that it could pertain to something as simple as discussion about sex taking place within a movie or game. Effectively, the content categories do not in and of themselves say much about the content of the game. Remove the R16 rating from this content warning and it does not provide much useful information.

Instead, in the age of the Internet, removing the age restrictions but making the content warnings clearer could be a way forward. A simple place this could improve is clear demarcations of ‘sexual violence’, ‘violence’, and ‘consensual sexual activity’ for example. Refer back to the image above, having ‘violence’ and ‘sexual themes’ listed as separate content warnings does not actually communicate whether or not there is sexual violence present within this media text for instance. Violence comes in different categories; sexual violence is a different form of violence then say, gun violence for instance. Simply stating ‘violence’ as a catch all describer does not communicate the category of violence present. What needs to be in place is a more detailed description of what type of content is actually in the media text.

This alone does not solve the issue of people potentially engaging with content that they are unable to understand. The big thing here is education. There needs to be more of an effort to educate children about certain forms of violence and their implications at an earlier age; especially due to the unregulated nature of the Internet. If there is a real and sincere concern over the nature of mediated violence – rather than just using it to play political football – this has to be the way forward. It is going to be increasingly difficult to deny young people access to mature content as the weak attempts put in place to prevent this in the online world are easily circumvented. Actively teaching young people in an educational setting what they are seeing and what it means is of fundamental importance. This needs to occur at an early age in order to prepare them for whatever media content they may encounter. For me, I can see no legitimate reason not to.

In Defense of Mediated Violence

Media violence is a rather old topic and it does not necessarily pertain to aspects of digital culture, but it is a conversation that occurs within certain cultural spaces; such as University undergraduate courses for instance.

Now, although there is ample of research that indicates that the link between media violence and real life violence is strenuous at best, the contextualisation of mediated violence matters. This matters for two reasons. Firstly, and relating to mediated violence as a social issue, it is the uncontextualised media violence that has strenuous links to violent tendencies in certain media consumers. This point is the worn road of mediated violence debates which I do not want to spend my time here. Secondly, contextualised media violence is often used as a narrative device; in particular within the Horror genre. It is this second point I want to discuss.

A brief thought experiment: Imagine all of your favourite horror films/games without any violence. Pretty dull, huh? This is because violence – both implied and literal – are genre tropes that drive the narratives of specific forms of media. Within a series like Alien for instance, the violence serves to highlight the fragility of human existence in relation to the unknown forces that exists within the outer reaches of the universe. Further, the violence of the Facehugger – Chestburster combo serve as a commentary on issues surrounding bodily autonomy and the horror of having your bodily autonomy forcefully invaded. In this instance, violence is a communicative device used to communicate messages and meanings that are fundamental to the narrative of the Alien series. Here, it is plain to see that violence has connotative meaning as a signifier rather than just the denotative representation of gore. Although this is only one example of the narrative role of movie violence, it serves to illustrate a point as to how violence is used to create meaning.

A somewhat more controversial topic is that of video game violence. But, in this instance, video game violence serves the same communicative role. An example of this is the Doom games; both the 1993 original and the 2016 reboot. The original Doom, all the way back in 1993, was defined by the use of Gothic imagery and carnivalesque sensibilities; this is something that the modern Doom inherits from its ancestor. Within this context, the gore of Doom ceases to be gore for gore’s sake, but fits as part of a sub-genre of Gothic literature known as Splatterpunk, that in the 1980s was almost a backlash against the implied, rather than literal, horror of the Gothic genre. This relationship bears out here when this present day Doom is compared to the modern trends of first person shooters as they become more based on reality claims as the violence and gore becomes removed and sanitised. Doom‘s violence and gore are part of a greater genre trope that almost appear to be in protest of the modern advancement of first person shooters. It could also be argued that games like Call of Duty and Battlefield‘s santising of the violence is problematic due to creating a narrative of war in which violence is distant; this is fundamentally different to a game like Spec Ops: The Line where the very graphic and traumatic nature of war is present, and the player is forced to be confronted with it. Tangent aside, the gore and carinvalesque sensibilities of Doom fit within a certain horror trope that differentiate it from the reality claims of other games. Here, the violence drives the meaning of the game’s narrative rather than just simply being present for the pleasure of the player.

I could go on and list more examples of this; Michael Haneke’s Funny Games being a great example of violence being used as a communicative device almost merits having an entire post written about it itself. But the purpose of the two examples that I have provided is to engage with this topic in a manner that is often erased from the popular debates surrounding it. Media violence – whether it is in film or in games – serves a fundamental part of the meaning making process of the media text they are present within. Effectively, media violence is a narrative device that can be used to create meaning and drive the plot of a particular media text.

I would like to add one quick caveat: not all mediated violence is equal. There are different forms of violence; the obvious distinction I can think of is ‘violence’ vs. ‘sexual violence’. I do not enjoy witnessing media depictions of sexual violence in media forms, and although it serves a narrative device (this person is bad because committing sexual violence is bad etc, etc), it is lazy writing. There are many more nuanced ways to communicate the unlikable traits of someone rather than jumping into them committing forms of sexual violence. A more nuanced story telling could also make the text itself richer with more depth of meaning.

An Explanation

This is a place for musing about modern digital cultures and specific meaning making and taste regimes associated with them. Subjects discussed here will include video games/gaming, fan culture, internet subcultures/politics, and many other subjects associated with digital media and culture.

Stay tuned.