The Wall Street Journal‘s Alistair Barr writes about the controversial changes to Google Plus. As only an occasional user, mainly via my phone or other Android devices, I do note the reduced complexity of this social networking service. Was it necessary to do this?
Google Plus began in 2011 as the company’s answer to Facebook FB -1.00%: a social network that could help hundreds of millions of people stay in touch — and help Google, a division of Alphabet Inc.GOOGL -0.88%, collect valuable identity and interest-based data about them. But the result was a complex, confusing service that tried to act as a central hub for many other Google products. Ultimately, few people spent much time on it.
The new Google Plus is about connecting around common interests rather than people. It focuses on just two features, Google said: Collections, which let users follow streams of content on topics like surfing or niche types of photography, and Communities, which let groups of people with the same interests join up and discuss topics like Game of Thrones or painting.
A key difference between the new Google Plus and its earlier incarnations is that it’s now possible to follow a member’s posts about a specific subject without receiving that person’s posts on other topics.
Gone from Google Plus, or on the way out, are the Hangouts messaging service,a tool for organizing events, and the ability to share your location. Photo uploading still works, but the ability to tag people by name is limited. These features mostly survive as standalone products, some of which are successful, such as the new Google Photos storage service.
Al Monitor‘s Omar Al-Jaffal writes about how book markets and their female buyers have adapted to the trying situations in Iraq. On the one hand, it’s great that books can achieve their liberatory potential anywhere, and that markets have adapted to even the trying conditions in Iraq. On the other, it’s a terrible shame that this adaptation was necessary.
The deteriorating security situation in the Iraqi capital has prevented Noor Jamal Abdul Hamid from going to Mutanabbi Street to shop for books and stationery. Abdul Hamid is a young woman who found herself crippled by risky roads and social restrictions that prevent her from leaving her house. Despite all this, she manages to read plenty of books and hosts discussions of what she reads over Twitter.
Abdul Hamid, who was born in Baghdad in 1991, is a graduate of Alrafidain College. She is currently unemployed and reads to pass the time. In order to understand what is going on in her society and the mysterious Iraqi political life, she opted for “finding the truth in books,” as she told Al-Monitor, and so created her own library.
But how did she manage to collect 300 books, including novels, poetry and philosophy, when she had no access to a bookstore? “I found a bookstore on Facebook that delivers books to my doorstep,” she said.
This trend has emerged as a result of the security situation, giving housebound women access to books, and has also created a successful venue of commerce.
Abdul Hamid taught her friend Saja Imad how to order books over the phone or through Facebook, and Saja began to collect a set of books of her own.
“Reading is fun. It is like you are talking to someone else in another world,” Imad told Al-Monitor. She offered the following advice: “Whenever you feel like talking to someone, do not hesitate to grab a book and read.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Miya Tokimitsu’s August article in The New Republic. I fear it says an uncomfortable amount about, among other people and things, my output and me.
It’s no wonder that the qualifier “curated,” begins to appear with increasing frequency in published books in the early 1970s, precisely during the era of post-war economic liberalization and The ‘Me’ Decade, during which, according to Tom Wolfe, it became acceptable and good to spend time “…polishing one’s very self…and observing, studying, and doting on it.” (Indeed, in this passage, Wolfe describes the self as akin to a museum object.) The appearance of “curated” in print tracks steadily upward during the individualist, body-sculpting, self-improving, “no such thing as society” 1980s. The great value placed on the individual as the only valid social institution naturally elevated the consequence of previously quotidian things generated by the simple act of living, like lists and opinions. These things began to be worthy of the same white-gloved treatment and cultural esteem once reserved for fine art.
Essential to personalization is the aura of control. Curation of the commonplace not only elevates preference but also implies a sense of order that is determined by the individual. It imparts a sense of self-determination and dominant power much in the manner of 401-k investment portfolios and small-business entrepreneurship. Under neoliberalism, every individual is his own capitalist, his own world-maker. “Freedom” isn’t security in a just society, but the ability to shop—for a healthcare plan on market exchanges, for primary schooling, for stocks in your retirement plan (if you’re lucky enough to have one of those). We’re all masters of our tiny, curated realms.
For all the significance placed on “picking stuff”, one thing people are resolutely not picking is political candidates.
The feeling of control that self-proclaimed curating can provide is in direct contrast to the loss of control unleashed by the very neoliberal policies introduced in the last decades. Flat wages, dwindling public services, and a relatively weak labor market have left many people disempowered and politically alienated. For all the significance placed on “picking stuff” in the age of curation, one thing people are resolutely not picking is political candidates. In last year’s election, voter turnout was 36.4%, a 72-year low. On the other hand, re-arranging “curated” compilations, be they stock portfolios or mood boards, can provide a much craved sense of power, excitement, and importantly—comfort— that comes from self-determination.
The personalization and creativity connoted by today’s popular understanding of curation also relate to the projection of certain kind of authenticity—one that is publicly visible and determined by consumption. Hence the eager embrace of “curation” within the spheres of social media and retail shopping. These are the arenas in which we can most easily construct microcosms and publicly projected pastiches of our selves, structured entirely by our own preferences. Ida Hattemer-Higgins describes beautifully the simultaneous creation and consumption of the “curated” self on social media: “Through Facebook, I had what one might call in Lacanian terms, a late-onset mirror stage. As my own spin doctor and publicist as well as the single most important consumer of the brand I was trying to launch, I bought into myself.”
Robinson Meyer’s article is thought-provoking. I frankly remain largely inactive on that medium for different reasons, but I can see how this sort of collapse in meaning and understanding would be offputting.
Anthropologists who study digital spaces have diagnosed that a common problem of online communication is “context collapse.” This plays with the oral-literate distinction: When you speak face-to-face, you’re always judging what you’re saying by the reaction of the person you’re speaking to. But when you write (or make a video or a podcast) online, what you’re saying can go anywhere, get read by anyone, and suddenly your words are finding audiences you never imagined you were speaking to.
I think Stewart is identifying a new facet of this. It’s not quite context collapse, because what’s collapsing aren’t audiences so much as expectations. Rather, it’s a collapse of speech-based expectations and print-based interpretations. It’s a consequence of the oral-literate hybrid that flourishes online. It’s conversation smoosh.
What I like about Stewart’s work isn’t just that she identifies this mechanic. She can say that conversation smoosh (which, to be very clear here, is my term) is a force shaping the network without conceding it’s entirely a bad thing. As she writes:
Twitter, dead or no, is still a powerful and as yet unsurpassed platform for raising issues and calling out uncomfortable truths, as shown in its amplification of the #Ferguson protests to media visibility (in a way Facebook absolutely failed to do thanks to the aforementioned algorithmic filters). Twitter is, as my research continues to show, a path to voice.
At the same time, Twitter is also a free soapbox for all kinds of shitty and hateful statements that minimize or reinforce marginalization, as any woman or person of colour who’s dared to speak openly about the raw deal of power relations in society will likely attest. And calls for civility will do nothing except reinforce a respectability politics of victim-blaming within networks.
Stewart calls the ability for marginalized groups to seize the mic “tactical Twitter.” (This is a way, way better term than “Twitter shaming,” which is what Jon Ronson and many others previously preferred to call the effect.) Tactical Twitter has aided civil-rights movements and neofascistic ones. And the media intensifies Tactical Twitter by watching Twitter as a social network more closely than it does other sites—what happens there gets turned into news stories in a way that doesn’t happen in other places.
Ajay Mehta’s Caravan Magazine“Colonizing India” came up recently in a Quora discussion forum on Facebook. The influx of new members from India, or South Asia more generally, into Quora is something I’ve noticed as I’ve continued to be active there. One of my most popular answers, actually, was a quick one-paragraph answer celebrating India’s Mars mission, apparently quite popular among Indians.
I have not noticed any particular degeneration in Quora’s quality, though, at least nothing directly related to the Indian presence. I think it inevitable that the culture of a tight-knit discussion forum, any discussion forum, will change and–from the perspective of long-timers–even decline over time. But degeneration? More Indian users, even more Indian topics, does not directly translate to degeneration. And more Indian users, it’s worth noting, is inevitable: There are probably more users of English in South Asia than in North America, after all.
Intense debate is standard on Quora. The company was founded, in 2009, by two Silicon Valley veterans aiming to provide the world with “the best answer to every question.” The website quickly attracted a dedicated core of users sharing insightful answers on everything from black holes to working under Steve Jobs, the former Apple CEO. Readers vote in favour of content they find valuable, and the website ranks answers accordingly. Quora started as a private community, and its userbase remained largely centred on Silicon Valley even after it opened up to the public, in mid 2010. Press reports often described it as being overly preoccupied with start-ups and San Francisco.
That critique no longer holds. Quora today is a juggernaut, with millions of users, an expansive range of topics, and over $140 million in venture capital funding. Marc Bodnick, Quora’s head of business and community, told me in August that the website saw “particularly strong growth in India” after it introduced an Android application in late 2012, due in part to the popularity of Android-powered smartphones in the country (and perhaps also because a large number of Indians are fluent in English—currently Quora’s only language). Lengthy discussions on Bollywood actors, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Indian Institutes of Technology flooded the website. According to the traffic-measurement tool Alexa, 40 percent of Quora’s current visitors access the website from India—although Bodnick told me the figure stands at about 15 percent. Many Quora users now complain that this influx has degraded the quality of the website’s content and community.
In August, I spoke over email with Karl Muth, a lecturer in the social sciences at Northwestern University in Illinois and a long-time Quora contributor. “Particularly in the last 18 months,” he told me, the website has become “more heavily frequented by Indians.” As a result, Muth wrote, answers today can be “culturally, financially, or otherwise focused on India and not useful generally to the rest of the Quora population.”
The questions might not always be either. One post, from 2013, asked, “What are some interesting ways to annoy Sardars?” Another, from February of this year, demanded to know, “Why are Pakistani girls more beautiful than Indian girls?”
Muth told me several people he knows in academia have become frustrated with Quora because the “quality of answers has declined vastly,” and “people now proclaim ‘expertise’ in areas they know little about”—problems he views as “not wholly unrelated to the rise in Indian Quora users.” Other Quora users have been less diplomatic. Responding to the question “What turns people off about Quora?,” the user David Stewart wrote, in 2013, “The large, and steadily increasing, Indian presence.” The answer has earned him over 3,400 upvotes.