onsdag 21 december 2011

Transmedia storytelling

The idea of telling stories in several different platforms in parallel has been called "transmedia storytelling". It has become increasingly popular, with books becoming movies and movies becoming book series. Or comic albums. Or computer games turning into books or movies - or books and movies turning into computer games. Or board games. And so on. I recently even saw that the popular board game "Settlers of Catan" had been turned into a book!

One example of transmedia storytelling is the Matrix universe/franchise which was documented in a chapter in Henry Jenkins' book "Convergance culture: Where old and new media collide".

Another example is the the popular real-time strategy game Warcraft and the popular online game World of Warcraft expanding into book series, comics, board games, collectible card games as well as an upcoming movie (info on the Warcraft universe/franchise here).

But those traditional forms of mass media are just the beginning though as there are also dedicated users/fans out there who extend these stories/universes by producing their own (user-created) contents such as for example fan fiction (literature), podcasts and other materials.

In terms of World of Warcraft, there are a number of popular (amateur) podcasts being produced such as "The Instance", "WoW insider", "All things Azeroth", "World of Warcast", "Blue Plz", "Rawcast" and "In the world".

In this thesis proposal you are free to explore the media franchise/universe of your choice. The specific research question will be formulated together with your advisor (me).

- A good start would be to read Henry Jenkins book "Convergence culture" and also make a visit to the Science Fiction bookstore in Gamla Stan.
- Also have a look at Giovagnoli, "Transmedia storytelling: Images, shapes and techniques" (2011) which is available online for free.

måndag 19 december 2011

E-sports/professional computer gaming

Computer gaming is not just a leisure activity, but has been "sportified", professionalized and commercialized during the previous decade. There are nowadays leagues and computer gaming/e-sport competitions as well a some professional computer gamers and many hopeful wannabes.

I was the advisor of no less than two bachelor's theses about different aspects of the commercialization of computer gaming last spring; Croona and Bleichner's "Starcraft: A spectator sport for a wider audience?" and Kjellnäs and Virtala's "The economy around professional e-sport players, with a focus on Counter-Strike".

I also did a study of my own some years ago. It resulted in a 2007 paper called "Exploring E-sports: A case study of gameplay in Counter-Strike" (pdf file).

I will also attend a workshop on sports and games/e-sports in the spring, although my own presentation will not be about competitive computer gaming per se, but rather about competitive computer programming and programming competitions (students who are interested in writing about this topic are of course also welcome to get in touch with me!).
Students who are interested in e-sports can have a look at the list of almost 20 examples of topics of interest in the workshop invitation. Do note that the topic of this specific workshop happens to be computer games + sports. By altering that formula, other topics could also be possible to explore, e.g. computer games + hacking = (game) mods and modding culture, lan parties (like Dreamhack) and hack days, programming competitions (ICPC, TopCoder, Google Code Jam) etc.

If you are interested in computer games there are many possible topics that could be explored in this area. I will personally have more ideas and suggestions after having attended the workshop in mid-february 2012.

I might complement this online thesis proposal with a literature list at a later point. Do start by having a look at my paper and at Croona and Bleichner's 2011 bachelor's thesis (linked above). Also keep your eyes open for T.L. Taylor's forthcoming book "Raising the stakes: E-sports and the professionalization of gaming" which is slated to be published in March 2012.

Here is a reading list on e-sports that T.L. has put together.

This is a Finnish Ph.D. student's blog about e-sports, "Mind games: Exploring the mental edge in e-sports". Do note the collection of links at the bottom of the page.

söndag 18 december 2011

Impact of social media on social behavior

At a seminar in my course on social media, a student talked about the experience of going to a job interview and being interviewed by someone who was a graduate from "his" educational program a few year earlier. The interviewer:
1) had checked him out in Facebook in advance (is that strange or normal nowadays?)
2) mentioned that they shared the same taste in music at the meeting (that must be strange, right?)

The fact that the interviewer knew and referred to his taste in music to him felt strange. This anecdote led to a discussion at the seminar about "Facebook etiquette" or "social media etiquette". See also this blog post about (the lack of) "social translucence" in LinkedIn.

I made the connection to Joshua Meyrowitz 1986 book "No sense of place: The impact of electronic media on social behavior". While it was possible 100 years ago to "know" some about the lives of others through literature, it was neither very easy nor very wide-spread. Meyrowitz' argument is instead that television (the "electronic media" that his book title refers to) has made it possible for vast numbers of people to "know" (or to think they know) about the lives of others through the magic of television drama. We can thus nowadays "know" what it's like to fight a war (Band of Brothers, Generation Kill) or live a life of crime (The Sopranos, Sons of anarchy), to be a policeman (The Wire, The Shield) or sit in a prison (Oz, Prison break), to live a life of glamour in New York (Sex and the City) or in suburbia (Despearate housewifes), to work for the president of the US of A (West Wing) or to be hit by the recession (Weeds, Breaking bad, Hung).

Meyrowitz' more general examples were that nowadays and through television:
- Women can know more than ever before about the lives of men (and vice versa).
- Children can know more than ever before about the lives of adults (sex, marital problems, divorce, economical problems etc.).
- Ordinary people can know more than ever before about those in power (politicians, captains of industry etc.).

Sometimes we don't have a "true" picture of those other groups, but we still feel we know a lot about other people and we still know a lot more than what was possible in former times. But the knowledge Meyrowitz refers to is general knowledge of different groups of people (women and men, policemen and criminals, rich and poor people etc.), but nowadays you can also know a lot about individual persons by searching on the Internet. Meyrowitz wrote a book about the impact of electronic media (TV) on social behavior. The question in this thesis proposal is "what is the impact of social media (Facebook etc.) on social behavior?".

- Read Meyrowitz' book carefully while all the time thinking of what "equivalent" but updated questions for today would be. What are the similarities and what are the differences when reading Meyrowitz book but thinking and applying it to the present situation (e.g. replace TV/electronic media with Internet/social media).
- Do a study based on qualitative interviews. Let your readings in the area guide you as to what questions you should ask your informants. It would probably be best to interview young social media users (e.g. high school or university students or perhaps younger professionals).


torsdag 15 december 2011

Para-social Facebook relationships

I have had a longtime interest in so-called para-social relationships, i.e the perception that you have a relationship with someone (a celebrity of some kind) even though you have never met that person in real life. A para-social relationship is a one-way relationship that has been (mass) mediated by radio or (most often) television and movies. People (fans) can feel they have a relationship or even a "special" relationship to an artist (actor, singer), a sportsman or perhaps a politician. Which they of course don't have, since they have never met. Or do they?

The term "para-social interaction" was coined in 1956 by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in their article "Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance".

So what are the implications of "para-social Facebook relationships" that we can have with people who don't actually really know us, i.e. when it feels like you know someone because you have checked up on or followed that person on Facebook and even though he/she doesn't know who you are? What happens when, at a party, you already know the name and the face of a friend's friend - even though he/she has never met you and has no idea of who you are? Do you pretend not to know him or mention that you "know her" from Facebook? This example is based on an issue that came up in a seminar discussion on my course on social media, and most students stated that they (would) pretend not to know/recognize the other person. To not do so might feel creepy, "stalkish" to the other person. What happens in the opposite situation - when they know who you are, but you don't know them? Or when (if) both "know" each other although they had never met before (physically).

With social media (Facebook) you can keep tabs on a friend's friend; you can follow them on Facebook, read what they do and watch pictures from their latest vacation or party without them ever realizing it. The border between following someone on Facebook and stalking them online can sometimes be fine...

So what happens when social media (Facebook) allows us to have para-social interaction (interaction as if we are friends/acquaintances even though it is a "one-way relationship") with ordinary people who are not celebrities and who have no reason to expect others to know them or to know about them? What does Facebook do to the concept of para-social relationships, and what do para-social relationships do to the whole concept of relationships in the age of ubiquitous social media? How do people reason about these issues and concepts? What do they feel is the proper "etiquette" in terms of these issues?

Beyond "relationships" with persons who have never met us, we can also have "relationships" with people we once knew but no longer keep in touch with. We can follow someone on Facebook and feel like we (still) have a relationship with her and like we "keep in touch" with him by reading what he did yesterday. But feeling as if we (still) have a relationship must surely be an illusion if we never speak on the phone and never meet for a cup of coffee, right? How do (young) people reason about these issues?

We thus have three cases:
- "Traditional" para-social relationships with celebrities that are mediated through mass media (radio, tv, movies).
- Facebook-mediated para-social relationships with non-celebrities/friends of friends - people we feel we have a relationship to even though we have never met then.
- Facebook-mediated para-social relationships with former friends - people we feel we have a relationship with even though we in fact don't meet them (any longer).

For someone who wants to write a thesis on "para-social Facebook relationships", I suggest the following methods (to be discussed depending on the question you will explore):
- Search for and read as much as you can about "traditional" para-social interaction/para-social relationships and what has been written about para-social interaction in the age of the Internet/social media.
- Think about and analyze similarities and differences between traditional and Facebook-mediated para-social relationships (this will be your "theoretical contribution" to the field).
- Do a study based on qualitative interviews. Let your readings in the area guide you as to what questions you should ask your informants.

The exact research question that you will explore and appropriate methods to explore this question should be discussed with your advisor (me) before you start your work. The emphasis should be on the changing character of para-social relationships in the age of the Internet and social media. How do informants feel and think about these issues? When (in what situations) does para-social (imagined?) relationships create problems? How are these problems solved? Or can they instead solve what used to be a problem, but isn't any longer?

- There are numerous studies and articles about para-social relationships. Search for and read those that seem suitable.
- There are also books on the phenomenon, for example Richard Schickel's "Intimate strangers", Sherry Turkle's "Alone together" and Fredrik Strage's "Fans".
- The theme has also been treated in movies such as (for example) "The fan" and "Taxi driver".


tisdag 1 november 2011

Grönt distansarbete i Sverige

Nya sätt att använda informations- och kommunikationsteknologier (ICT) hyser potentialen att göra det möjligt för fler personer att anamma en mer ekologiskt hållbar livsstil. Det verkar troligt att telependling och distansarbete [telecommuting] i kombination med "downshifting" - att man går ner i arbetstid och samtidigt väljer att prioritera en enklare, långsammare och mindre materiell livsstil - skulle kunna göra dem möjligt för fler personer att bosätta utanför istället för inuti, och/eller i mindre snarare än i större städer.

Detta förslag är brett och inkluderar tre separata exjobbsförslag:

1) En bred inventering av distansarbete och telependling i Sverige idag och under de senaste decennierna. Fokus ligger på en litteraturstudie av visioner och utfall samt på att genomföra en enkät, förslagsvis genom att ta kontakt med större statliga institutioner med personal i hela landet (t.ex. Försäkringskassan, Skatteverket etc.).

2) En smalare studie med fokus på "gröna distansarbetare". Istället för att fokusera på distansarbetare i största allmänhet (enligt förslaget ovan), ligger fokus i detta förslag istället på att hitta och kartlägga "rurala distansarbetare med en grön agenda". Den grupp kan preliminärt definieras som 1) distansarbetare som bor på en mindre ort eller på landsbygden, 2) som jobbar hemifrån minst en dag i veckan (eventuellt har man även gått ner i arbetstid) samt 3) som skäl till detta har en "grön agenda" (spara klimatet, minska sin energiförbrukning i vardagen och sitt CO2-fotavtryck etc.). Fokus i detta exjobb ligger på att genomföra det detektivarbete som det innebär att identifiera och hitta denna specifika grupp distansarbetare samt att genomföra en enkät med denna grupp.

3) Samma som förslaget ovan, men utgåendes från ett mindre antal kvalitativa intervjuer (snarare än genom att sprida en enkät).

- Torbjörn Lundkvist (2010), "Visioner om IKT i arbetsliven: Från distansarbete till arbete när som helst och var som helst?". Arbetsrapport från Institutet för Framtidsstudier (2010:14). Tillgänglig online (pdf).
- Bill McKibben, "Deep economy"
- Lerner, T. "Hejdå ekorrhjulet"

- Jorge Zapico, zapico(a)kth.se
- Daniel Pargman, pargman(a)kth.se

tisdag 15 mars 2011

Astroturf robot wars


Internet is great, and nowadays (with web 2.0), Internet has become not just the greatest library the world has ever seen, but also a social space. It is now possible for ordinary people to spread information and discuss any and every issue with like-minded people (or with people whose opinions differ from yours). It has been said that "freedom of the press is limited to those who own one", but nowadays anyone can own their own printing press in the form of a computer with an internet connection. Any person can thus set out and attempt to become an opinion leader by starting a blog or a podradio show of her own.

The possibilities for open discussions, honest attempts to weigh different sides of an argument and to deliberate and reach a conclusion have never been as good as they are now. But not everyone plays by the rules. In any issue where large organizations or corporations are involved, where partisan interests are present, and where commercial interests are at stake, it might not be in everyone's best interests to encourage open discussions on the Internet. It might in fact be in the interests of some actors to derail such online spaces in order to control, manipulate or shut down a discussions where the answers seem to go in the "wrong" direction (for example threatening large commercial interests).

One way to manipulate the public discussion is to jumpstart an astroturf campaign, i.e. a "fake grassroots movements" that is paid for by some corporations with an interest in affecting the public opinion. Andrew Roswell's writes in "Green backlash: Global subversion of the environment movement" (1996):

Since its inception in 1983, the Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain has spent over $7.5 million attempting to defeat acid rain legislation, without a sensible citizen in sight, just some large electricity companies.

Other examples of organizations and networks that try to steer public discussions in pro-corporate directions are organizations such as the "Information Council on the Environment" (funded by among others the National Coal Association) and "The Climate Coalition" (funded by Exxon, Shell, Texaco, BP, Ford, GM, DaimlerChrysler).

The definition of certain key terms are not totally clear in this thesis specification, i.e. that is something that you would need to think some about yourself. Several terms overlap such as "astroturfing", "spam", "trolling", "denial-of-service attacks" (DOS). Furthermore it is not totally clear what the most salient (and dangerous) characteristic(s) of astroturfing is; what exactly makes astroturfing immoral and dangerous? Is it the fact that people get paid to pretend to be "ordinary citizens"? Or that the activities in question are systematic? Or instrumental (instead of "authentic")? Or that the goal is to silence and supress discussions or certain opinions?

The background and description above could result in several different directions for a thesis in this area. Here are two examples, the first being more oriented towards technical issues and the second being more oriented towards content issues:

Astroturfing through persona management software
Map technical tools and software that is nowadays used to impersonate an army of "ordinary citizens" to create the impression that there is major support for an opinion (that for example a corporation "might happen" to hold). Not much is known about the "persona management software" that is used and the questions are thus many, for example:

- What kind of technical knowledge and technical infrastructure is needed to create and run persona management software?
- How do these tools actually work?
- What kind of firms (PR? Computer security?) offer services in this area?
- What services do they offer more specifically?
- Does cloud computing already provide all the services needed?
- Are dynamic IP addresses sufficient, or are other technical services or measures needed to reduce the "traceability" of these efforts?
- How can websites "defend" themselves against "cyberspammers" and astroturfers who use persona management software? Or can't they defend themselves with anything less than a de-anonymization of Internet?

Astroturfing in action
Analyze a corpus of material and try to discern systematic efforts to control the public exchange of opinions. One example is the Swedish-langauge energy, economy, climate and ecology site Ställ om that was run by the Swedish Television (SVT) and was active for a period of 10 months. The site produced 300 articles but was unfortunately "infested" by a relatively small group of vocal opponents who questioned anything and everything about each and every article, as well as the very site itself (including its very existence).

- Were these people "ordinary citizens" with strong opinions or were they payed off to patrol and "kill" the discussions on the site?
- What indicators of a systematic approach can be discerned in the more than 5000 comments that were made over the better part of the year that the site existed?
- Are there reasons to believe that the sustained effort was the result of high-tech "spammers"?
- Are there other sites or movements in Sweden or elsewhere that can be linked to Astroturf campaigns and funding from corporate interests?

Four shorter columns by British journalist and author George Monbiot are a good starting point for reading up on the subject:
--- On astroturf robot wars and software for impersonating an army of "ordinary citizens" on the web (Feb 2011).
--- On astroturf campaigns trying to control who and what is being heard in the cyber-commons (Dec 2010).
----How the tea party movement was jump-started by fossil fuel lobbying seed money (Oct 2010).
--- On systematic disinformation that is spread by corporations with political agendas and money to spare - but hiding behind innocent-sounding organizations that do their dirty work (Dec 2009).

- A Daily Kos article about "persona management software".
- A Guardian article on US military use of such software.
- A long article from The New Yorker on the Koch billionaire brothers "covert" political operations and a more general portrait of David Koch and the family's history.
- On China's "50 cent army" of Internet commentators (so named for the small kickback they receive for each post they make).
- (Astro)turf wars. A documentary movie and a companion website.
- An early (2004) text from Wired about "content spammers".
- A well-formulated example of (yet another) blogger who succumbs and turn the switch on (some) commenters who comment in "bad faith" and who might be paid to spam his blog.

- On the ethics of attention: On tweetbombing and a follow-up blog post about using Twitter bots to affect/manipulate public opinions (rally for civic engagement).  

- Beniger, James (1987). "Personalization of mass media and the growth of pseudo-community". Communication Research, Vol.14, No.3, pp.352-371.

- The Atlantic (Oct 2013), "Russia's Online-Comment Propaganda Army"
- The Guardian (April 2015), "Salutin' Putin: inside a Russian troll house"
- Climatecrocks.com (blogpost, Oct 2013), "Trolls R Us: How Fox News Sock Puppets Spam Comment Threads"
- The Conversation (Oct 2013), "Astroturfing the climate wars: five ways to spot a troll"
- The Guardian (July 2009), "Climate denial 'astroturfers' should stop hiding behind pseudonyms online"

In Swedish:
- A blog post about a relatively awkward attempt by a political party to Astroturf an issue. The blog post also refers to the successful Swedish PR firm Studio Total who have pulled off Astroturf campaigns that mix commercial and "artistic" ambitions to "tell stories" (or to confuse the general public). One example is the Black Ascot blog. The PR firm in question, Studio Total, was portrayed in a longer article in the magazine Filter (#17, Nov 2010).
- An article from Expressen, "Dold lobbying bakom fejkad folkstorm" and a good comment about "Cyberbalkaniseringen i kommentarsfältens kloaker".
- A text about how to recognize astroturfers; " 'Alliansens vänner' inte gräsrotsarbete utan astroturfing".
- A text on Astroturfing at SVT (Swedish Television)
- A short but right-on-spot analysis of pro-nuclear astroturfing.

- "Republic.com 2.0" by Cass Sunstein argues for the danger of being able to filter out opposing points of view.

This thesis topic has also been published on the national thesis pool ("Nationella Exjobb-poolen").

Contact person:
- Daniel Pargman, pargman(a)kth.se

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