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‘Fads’ and expertise

I’m coming to the end of a first full draft of my PhD, and in the introduction I attempted to situate my work within the wider context, my work being about expertise, and the wider context being debates around ‘post-truth’ and the denigration of experts. I mention it briefly in my introduction but if I expand on it there it doesn’t make sense, so I will do so here because I think it points to some further research which could be done in the future (and not necessarily by me).

First, the rise of populism and ‘post-truth’ politics. This is discussed by Hadley Freeman in her article about “bullshitting culture”.  She points out that the denigration of expertise is a component of this bullshitting culture, “because expertise provides a bulwark against nonsense”. This nonsense includes whatever comes out certain politician’s mouths, and the “figurehead of the clean eating movement” Ella Mills. Freeman takes aim at both, claiming that both the U.S. President and Ella Mills come under “the umbrella of bullshit”. Ella in particular is  heavily criticised for claiming in an interview that she is “shocked that some of her followers have ‘taken healthy eating to extremes’ and insists she ‘can’t take responsibility’. Then, in the next breath, she talks enthusiastically about how, for Christmas dinner, she ate just carrots and brussels sprouts.” Freeman argues that:

“We live in a blog culture where it’s pitched as a triumph of democracy that everyone can claim authority, which means anyone who says that, actually, there is an objective truth is condemned. Feelings rather than facts are what matter, these purveyors of bullshit claim”

Freeman’s critique demonstrates how on social media, it is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish expertise. When experts do offer insight and facts, they are dismissed by politicians. While the author is right to point this out and be critical, she is assuming that experts are always right.

In the same newspaper 11 days later, another article emerged about the ‘clean eating’ fad and once again Ella Mills was the target of criticism for trying to distance herself from the movement. The author of this article, Ruby Tandoh, shows how some of the ‘clean eating’ pioneers are desperately trying to distance themselves from the fad after a recent BBC documentary Clean Eating – the dirty truth. Tandoh describes how some of the most popular advocates of clean eating based their approaches on the findings of doctors who were later widely discredited or even facing jail time for practicing medicine without a licence. Tandoh calls out the advocates themselves for peddling misinformation, and the book publishers which sell and help to legitimise such fads which are not underpinned by robust medical evidence. Tandoh also points out a gendered issue:

“Behind the pretty public face of wellness is a far bigger beast. With the exception of fitness guru Joe Wicks, the overwhelming majority of wellness personalities are young women, and it is these women who rise to and eventually fall from grace in the public eye. And yet the machinery of these fads is constructed largely by a small group of men. These are the doctors – self-styled or otherwise – who spin questionable academic studies, patchworks of data and sometimes little more than fanciful anecdotes into best-selling diet industry manifestos.”

These two articles demonstrate how complicated expertise can be. I believe here there is opportunity for further important research which looks at expertise, social media and contemporary aspects of popular culture which rely on ‘expert’ input – from nutrition, to fitness, wellness, mindfulness and other forms of self-help. It’s January and everywhere I go I see books, magazines and videos on these subjects, and their very popularity and the ‘expertise’ behind them could do with further critical engagement.

Registration open: the politics of expertise in media and cultural research

Free registration is now open for the symposium The politics of expertise in media and cultural research taking place at Birmingham City University on November 30 2016Register here.

Due to the unprecedented number and quality of submissions the symposium will now begin at 1pm and end at 6pm. All interested in expertise are welcome!

hello expert

Is anonymous social media the answer to cyberbullying? No

Yesterday I came across this article in Mashable about the anonymous social network whisper, and whether it is the answer to cyberbullying.

I can answer that immediately – no. It is not the answer. I’m going to attempt to explain why using some new found knowledge gleaned from my reading of Aaron Balick’s The Psychodynamics of Social Networking (buy it, it’s really good).

In the book Aaron discusses psychodynamic theory and applies that to our relating on Facebook, Twitter, email and so on. He acknowledges that even though social media may have changed how we relate to each other in some way, our identities do not suffer as a consequence, despite public criticism and empirical research which claims they do.

We’re still ourselves online

Balick argues that despite the architechture of most social media allowing us to ‘reinvent’ ourselves online and take on completely new identities, the majority of us still present ourselves without taking on any ‘fake’ identites – social media is a platform for an extension of the self. Even if we’re not playing an active part in that presentation of the self, Google does it for us by presenting fragments of us online and cobbling them together when someone searches our name online.

So what happens when that identity is completely erased?

Anonymity, transference and projection

With regards to anonymity, Balick comments:

“The more one is obscured, the more easily one can fall into transference, making SNSs amenable to high levels of transference” (p.94)

Transference occurs when a person’s feelings about previous (or current) relationships are transferred on to others. Balick also claims that high levels of projection can also occur in these obscured environments.

So when one’s identity is completely obscured, that paves the way for excessive projection and transference, because there is no tracing back to the existing online identity and no consequence. People on Whisper can say and do what they want and be as aggressive as they want. If you post something on Whisper and get some aggressive comments, you will read them and still feel they are attacking you, as a person, even though they don’t know anything about you. It’s human nature to take it personally.

Could Whisper be different?

Whisper does have a supporting environment and no tolerance for trolls and aggressive comments, but that could always change. Social networks do change and the architecture of Whisper could leave it susceptible to trolls and cyber bullies because the anonymity factor is so appealing to them. We see it all the time on message boards and Twitter.

And even if someone finds solace in Whisper, there is nothing stopping them from being cyber bullied on other platforms. It’s just one of the sad consequences of today’s hyper-connected life which we are all still trying to navigate and make sense of.

So no, Whisper is not the answer to cyberbullying. It could very well be a place of comfort and support as described in the article, but it is just as likely to be another site for trolls to run riot. Social networks are ultimately what the users make of it, and there is only so much moderating that moderators can do.

Is the development of what has come to be called Web 2.0 and similar technologies changing us in some fundamental way, or are they simply novel technological platforms through which the same old psychological traits express themselves through a different medium?

Alone Together

I’ve just finished reading Sherry Turkle’s book: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. I highly recommend it. 

My immediate thoughts as I finished the book were ‘this is fascinating and depressing’. In the book, she discusses how technology has left us more connected than ever before, but also more alone than ever before. There is little room for hope in the world we seem to have created for ourselves: we have let technology damage us and our relationships. Overall I found it scathing and worryingly accurate to some extent. 

But what about Britain?

Despite that, some of the examples Turkle presented were pretty extreme – such as the mother who doesn’t look up from her BlackBerry as she picks her daughter up from school, or the person attending a memorial service who couldn’t help but pull out her phone. I have never experienced such a dependence on technology myself and it does make me wonder – are we that dependent in Britain? It would be fascinating to do a cross-cultural perspective; and what about the rest of Europe and other developed countries? 

Connected but alone

The narrative which resonated the most with my personal experience was the idea of many weak ties; how online connections and the highly networked enable us to find what we need and dispose of the rest, with little room for creating deep and meaningful connections. This is the really scary element of the book for me, and something I want to look into further – again from a British perspective. 

Nostalgia of the young

Another intriguing part of the book, and another that I could relate to. When I lost my mobile a few months ago and relied on the landline, I felt more ‘authentic’. I felt nostalgic, and I loved the idea of not being available all the time. This nostalgia is also prevalent in teenagers according to Turkle. You can see it current trends – retro design, analogue cameras, old fashioned phones, shops such as Urban Outfitters selling LPs and turntables – we want all of this because the pace of technology has disillusioned us – despite everything that’s going on, we also find a charm and appeal in the simplicity of the past. It makes us feel more ‘authentic’. 

The Self

I work in a University and I know a couple of people are currently carrying out research on social media and communities – yet I am fascinated by the micro level of this. The self – what motivates people to act how they do on the internet. How has it changed how they relate to each other? Is it a good or bad thing? 

Social media and identity

I’ll admit, I have several social media profiles and I use all of them in very different ways. I have different friends/followers, talk about different subjects, share different things. I have several online personas. 

Aaron Balick has summed it up perfectly in his latest blog post

Identities are complex beasts. The are at the same time personal, social, public and private.”

But how in control are we of these online identities?

Aaron describes active and passive online identities. Active being the ones we can control; fluid and tailored to what we specify. Passive being the ones constructed by others and more ‘restricting’: Google search results, friends’ Facebook comments, Twitter mentions. I think to a large degree, you can determine what your ‘passive’ identity is. Comments can be deleted, posts hidden, unwanted Twitter followers blocked. We can be careful about what we post and really think about it before we hit ‘Send’ or ‘Tweet’.

What I found really interesting in his blog post was the concept that our online identities will stay with us into the future, and it’s hard to start with a clean slate. That may be true; I started off on Twitter constantly tweeting about journalism, then Liverpool FC which caused a big gain in LFC-related followers, and now it’s more about social media and personal observations (with a little bit of LFC). My Twitter account does feel a little disjointed without focus but that’s me – I have a lot of interests that have changed over the years (as have I) but that hasn’t changed my followers’ opinion of me. I haven’t lost any followers, I’ve gained. 

So the concept of online identities staying with us into the future I think needs further exploration; the more savvy social media users can probably save themselves and make sure they put out the version(s) of themselves that they want (to some extent, we can’t control everything about us that’s out there) but it is probably those who indulge in “unchecked and rather constant posting” (as mentioned by Balick) are more likely to face the consequences. 

In life we can control a lot of what we put out to the world, and the same goes for our activities online. There’s no question though that online, people tend to act completely differently, resulting in multiple personas. This is something that has fascinated me for many years and a subject I am exploring further.

I must thank Aaron for highlighting Sherry Turkle’s new book, which I’m reading at the moment.  

Know Your Place

Today I went to Know Your Place, an event organised by the lovely people at Fused Magazine and BSeen.  The event consisted of talks by various influential people in business and the creative industries, including Andy Hartwell from Substrakt, designer maker Eryka Isaak and Julia Higginbottom of Aquila TV, all centred about freelance and enterprise.

Helga Henry, of Fierce Earth, gave a presentation that tied in perfectly with my final MA project.  She talked about creating your own brand and I picked up some useful tips:

  • Everything about you is a part of your brand, from the work that you create to how you write on your blog.
  • It is imperative that you know your strengths and are able to communicate these confidently.
  • You need to have more than one web presence so that you can be found easily.
  • If you can do a lot of things, don’t say that you are a ‘journalist/designer/photographer/marketer’ – you need to wear different ‘hats’ depending on who you’re talking to so that your message is communicated clearly.  This ties in with having different web presences – you can have different websites dedicated to the different services/products you offer.

I am one of those people who says that I am a ‘journalist/designer/etc…’ and not only can this be confusing for whoever I am talking to, but I also manage to confuse myself.  In my marketing strategy, I need to acknowledge that I can wear different ‘hats’, and be different things to different people, and this could also be reflected in my branding.

A part of marketing myself is obviously networking, and this was the first networking event I have ever been to alone, and it wasn’t half as scary as I thought it would be.  I spoke to quite a few people about my educational magazine business, and I managed to try out different ‘hats’.

I now need to start my MA project and begin research on the different client bases/audiences I want to target.

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JEECamp 2010

Today was the third and final JEECamp, held at The Bond in Digbeth (click on the link for full coverage).

My job during the day was to live blog various discussions taking place.  First off was a keynote speech by Simon Waldman, Director of Digital Publishing at the Guardian Media Group.  He talked about the importance of entrepreneurship and innovation in the media industry – both for small start ups and larger, more established corporations.  The larger institutions are so stuck in their ways however that innovation has been difficult, and simply having an online presence is not enough.  Being a student on the MA Media and Creative Enterprise at BCU, I knew all of this already but Simon did illustrate some good examples, such as IBM innovating in the early 80’s to turn around a huge loss.

Questions from the audience revolved mostly about paywalls for online news, which is a highly popular and much debated issue but Simon suggested that it is useless to fixate on one thing and instead focus our energies on looking at innovative ways to generate revenue, and I agree.

Next everyone broke off into different groups to discuss the latest burning issues around journalism and entrepreneurship and I volunteered to live blog for the most relevant topic to me – Business models and funding.  The other three groups covered law, ethics and regulation, community management and news gathering.

There was a lot of discussion in my group about the need for journalists to multi-skill yet focus on a niche, and there were two prime examples present in John Thompson of Journalism.co.uk and Phillip John of Lichfield Blog who have both managed to turn their hobbies into a success because of the niches they focused on.  

In the end though, the same problems still came up – a reliance on advertising and increased competition making revenue generation for online platforms extremely difficult.  Everyone came to the conclusion that even though no solutions or answers were found during the discussion, having such conversations helps and everyone was confident that a breakthrough will be reached one day!

This was typical of the atmosphere throughout the event – everyone was relaxed.  I wondered why this was – because we are out of the recession that we were in the middle of this time last year?  Because the entrepreneurial spirit promoted throughout the day gave us hope? Who knows, but it was nice.

Then there were two fringe discussions, one about the MA Courses in the BCU School of Media (my course being one of them) and a talk by Nigel Barlow.  Nigel started his local blog ‘Inside the M60‘ last year and he described his difficulty with generating enough revenue.  I admit I was a little distracted during his talk because I took a picture of Nigel and thought I uploaded it to Twitter…but infact I uploaded a picture of my house mates instead.  I was embarrassed and unfortunately it is still there on the live coverage!  I knew I should have brought my laptop and not used my phone.

Finally there was a closing presentation by Stewart Kirkpatrick, founder of the Caledonian Mercury.  It was a very funny and inspiring presentation, and he ended with a great point: that in the future journalists will need to come together to work on projects, which will cut out the big publishers.  This is again something I have heard and read about before during my course, and I am glad people are beginning to acknowledge that the media industries are inevitably moving towards portfolios and projects rather than the office and ‘9-5’.

Everyone left the event feeling quite optimistic, and it’s a great shame this will be the final JEECamp. Paul Bradshaw has done a great job over the past few years to bring the best journalistic minds together (and give us students a chance to mingle with them).

Thanks to Dan Davies for the photos!

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Kanya King, CEO and founder of the MOBO Organisation

Last night I went to a seminar at Birmingham University by Kanya King, CEO and founder of the MOBO Organisation.  

Kanya described to us her arduous journey from a council flat in London to hosting one of the biggest, most star-studded and most relevant music award ceremonies in Europe.  She told us about how she wanted to be an entrepreneur from a young age when she was selling whistles at Notting Hill Carnival, to property development and finally when her sheer determination to make the first MOBO awards work forced her to remortgage her own house.
That huge gamble in 1996 paid off as the first MOBO (Music of Black Origin) awards were held, and featured high-profile guests including Tony Blair and Lionel Richie.  The MOBO Organisation snowballed from there and over the years has featured performances from the likes of Destiny’s Child, 50 Cent, Mary J Blige, Jay-Z, Tina Turner and Dionne Warwick.  Kanya built MOBO into an extremely strong brand and now it has branched out into magazines and community initiatives.  

Whilst audience questions were mainly focused on Kanya as an entrepreneur, I was particularly interested in her leadership style.  She commands a great deal of respect from her employees due to her sheer determination, work ethic and passion.  What I found most poignant was when she repeated a quote I have used in my own leadership assignment: “work on the business, not in the business”.  Kanya has especially needed to do this because she has a child, and the astonishing growth of her company forced her to hand over some responsibility, which she didn’t find easy.
“Getting the right team is difficult” she said.  “But I recruit people not so much based on their experience, but more based on their attitude, energy and enthusiasm.  Many interns we have here have ended up being employed because we know what they’re like.  They’re not coming here hoping to bump into Beyonce in the office, they’re here because they want to do a job.”
Kanya is also a great motivator; she is passionate and enthusiastic and balances that with the authority she has earned.  She asked everyone in the room to do some impromptu speed networking and everyone did it without hesitation. This is an example of her excellent motivation skills.

Although Kanya regularly rubs shoulders with the biggest stars in the world, she is still down to earth and has not lost her connection with ‘ordinary people’.  This is one of the reasons why she is so respected and why she has been able to successfully lead her employees towards making the MOBO Awards one of the biggest and best award ceremonies in Europe, and the company still continues to grow.
I’m going to finish with a great compilation video of previous MOBO Awards:

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What about creative entrepreneurs?

Gordon Brown this morning delivered a speech about the digital economy.  He also mentioned investing in entrepreneurship to create an environment for economic growth.  The full speech is at http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page22897.  Here is an excerpt:

Instead of a gamble on crude laissez faire economic theories we need a new industrial strategy for this country founded on an open partnership of business, people and government – doing all we can to support enterprise as the engine of economic growth and unleashing the entrepreneurial, innovative and dynamic talents we have in Britain.

Encouraging those sectors in which Britain has – or can build – a global advantage; so Britain can truly lead the world.

It means where necessary, investing now to provide the conditions in which private enterprise in these sectors can thrive.

Sectors such as advanced manufacturing, clean energy, high speed rail, pharmaceuticals, science and research; and of course the digital industries – on which I want to focus my remarks this morning.

Of course, those industries are indeed very important for the growth of our economy, but what about the creative industries?  

The creative industries that at the C&binet Forum in late 2009 was seen as the key to the UK pulling itself out of recession? The industry with supposedly the fastest growing employment rates in the country? 

What was Labour’s buzzword of choice a few years ago has gone, even though the development he is talking about will no doubt affect the creative sector and creative entrepreneurs.

When it suits, the ‘digital industries’ are a part of the huge ‘creative industries’ umbrella.  Other times, such as today, the digital industries are a separate entity, and according to Mr Brown today the ‘digital industries’ consists of scientists researching the semantic web.  Video games programmers and film makers may have pricked their ears up at the mention of digital industries and be disappointed to find that scientists are going to get a nice £30m home to research the semantic web, apparently putting the UK at the cutting edge of research.

Once again definitions of what is creative and what is digital come to the fore, as well as questions of whether the creative industries and creative entrepreneurs are just flavours of the month once more.

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