Monthly Archives: August 2007

pointer remix in a culture of copy/paste code (MySpace layouts as remix)

Back in May, Dan Perkel and I gave a talk at ICA called “Copy, Paste, Remix: Profile Codes on MySpace” (an abbreviated crib of the talk is here). We wanted to explore whether or not MySpace profiles operate as a form of remix. We started sussing out something that I’d like to call “pointer remix.” I want to try to lay this out here because I think that it has tremendous implications for the conversations around remix that keep emerging.

One way to think about remix is as the production of a new artifact through the artistic interweaving of other artifacts. Many hip-hop songs are “remix” in that they mix different tracks to create a new one. Video mashups are a form of remix when a combination of video, audio, and images are reconnected to form something new. You can even argue that collage or 1970s punk clothing is a form of remix, as both took the old, chopped it up and made something new. Levi-Strauss’ discussion of “bricolage” is relevant here, as is the montage effect known as the Kuleshov Effect (especially for arguing that something “new” is created). Lots of work around remix is bubbling up, often with other terms (like Aram Sinnreich’s “configurable culture”). Getting into the nitty gritty of remix would take a dissertation, but hopefully you get the concept that I’m referencing.

All of this work on remix assumes that the artists possess the original or a copy of the artifact that will be remixed. The artist may or may not have the “rights” to possess or modify that artifact, but they have a copy none-the-less. When they create a remix, they are structurally able to distribute it (even if the legality of such distribution is challenged). Part of this has to do with the nature of digital media – a copy is often no different than the original. And making a copy is pretty trivial at this point.

With this in mind, think about an average MySpace profile. What should come to mind is a multimedia collage: music, videos, images, text, etc. This collage is created through a practice known as “copy/paste” where teens (and adults) copy layout codes that they find on the web and paste it into the right place in the right forms to produce a profile collage. One can easily argue that this is remix: a remix of multimedia to produce a digital representation of self. Yet, the difference between this and say a hip-hop track is that the producer of a MySpace typically does not “hold” the content that they are using. Inevitably, the “img src=” code points to an image hosted by someone somewhere on the web; rarely is that owner the person posting said code to MySpace (and thus, the ongoing question of “bandwidth theft”). The profile artist is remixing pointers, not content. If the content to which s/he is pointing changes, the remix changes.

An example that we discussed at ICA concerns the ever-loved world of cats. Say that my profile is filled with pictures of cats from all over the world. The owners of said cat pictures get cranky that I’m using up their bandwidth (or thieving) so they decide to replace the pictures of cats with pictures of cat shit. Thus, my profile is now comprised of pictures of cat shit (not exactly the image I’m trying to convey). This is what happened to Steve-O.

One of the most high profile cases of such content replacement came from John McCain’s run-in with MySpace profile creation. His staff failed to use images from their own servers. When the owner of the image McCain used realized that the bandwidth hog was McCain, he decided to replace the image. All of a sudden, McCain’s MySpace profile informed supporters that he was going to support gay marriage. Needless to say, this got cleaned up pretty fast.

Profile creation on MySpace is all about identity production and the remix that takes place there is clearly to that end. Yet, the artifacts that are produced (profiles) do not require creators to ever have the content that they are using in their possession in any form – they are simply remixing the pointers to display something unique about who they are. It is a bricolage of brands and images for identity purposes, created solely through a truly poststructuralist practice of pointing.

We craft our identity through pointing all the time. Language is mostly about pointers (“signs”). The list of favorite TV shows, movies, and music on social network sites are a linguistic pointer to these cultural referents. Yet, in a multimedia world, instead of having to just reference them by name, I can reference them by image, video, and audio, pulling a much more rich set of content into the fold. In some senses, these practices are the same as they both involve constructing a semiotic pointer to a cultural object. Yet, because multimedia referents are “hosted”, multimedia pointers can be altered. Furthermore, there’s a perceived cost to pointing (namely, bandwidth). And, besides, we never think of uttering the linguistic referent as making a “copy.”

As remix is ridden with questions of legality, I can’t help but wonder what the legal ramifications of pointer remix might be. We live in a world obsessed with copyright and IP, but isn’t pointing to something fair use? Imagine how ridiculous the world would be if you could only consume, but never link (linguistically or through html).

But let’s take a different angle for a moment. What about cultural and historical significance? There are all sorts of physical artifacts that must be preserved because of their historical importance (you’ll find Boston to be filled with all sorts of historical placards on houses). Might there be a time when we feel compelled to preserve the remix MySpace profile masterpiece of someone? Would the owner of content being pointed to be required to maintain that content? To pay for bandwidth? To permit a copy be made and then hosted on another server to relieve the bandwidth costs? While many argue that copies should not be permitted without permission, and some argue that pointing should not be permitted without permission (a.k.a. “deep linking”), what happens when a culture exists that rests on pointer remix for identity construction? Everything about our culture is recursive – we are all standing on the shoulders of giants and it’s definitely turtles all the way down.

We live in a world where cultural objects are consumed to produce identity (gotta love de Certeau). Pointer remix is part of how this is happening. And yet, there seems to be something funny about it… It’s not quite remix, it’s not quite collage, but it’s definitely a powerful semiotic practice. Dan and I are going to keep playing with these ideas, but I figured y’all might enjoy toying with them some too, especially if you have a mind for semiotics.

[Note: If you aren’t familiar with Dan Perkel’s work, you should be because he kicks ass. His blog is here. And a really good paper for all of you interested in education is Copy and Paste Literacy? Literacy Practices in the Production of a MySpace Profile.]

my favorite books

Lately, quite a few folks have written me asking for booklists for this that or the other – course syllabi, lit reviews, summer vacation reading, etc. I decided that I should probably put together a list of my favorite books. I’m sure that there are things that I’ve forgotten, but this probably paints a decent picture of where I’m coming from. So if this is of any use to you, enjoy!

my favorite books

Full disclosure: I get a small kick-back for the links to Amazon. What I make from Amazon does not even cover the costs of server space for this blog, but it does help, especially since I’ve chosen to keep this blog ads-free.

chemistry as architecture

Jo Guldi and I were musing last night about architecture and I got to thinking about Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. He lays out a framework that there are four regulatory forces operating in society: law, market, social norms, and architecture. The core of his argument is that code (the programming matter that makes up all things digital) is architecture.

One of the things that he points out is that when all regulatory forces align, change happens effectively and efficiently. A good example of this (not in his book) is domestic violence. The concept didn’t exist 50 years ago, but in the 1970s, social norms and law teamed up against domestic violence. The role of the market and architecture is a bit more of a stretch, but in some states, wages were withheld for domestic violence (in conjunction with divorce) and that rethinking of the home as a space that law could regulate was part of the puzzle. Still, I got to thinking about what made domestic violence spike back up in the 1990s. Domestic violence has long been associated with alcohol… and then, in the 90s, with crystal meth.

So I started thinking that there’s a third element of Lessig’s architecture:

Objects: architecture of space
Code: architecture of information
Chemistry: architecture of people

It is easy to discount chemistry as an architecture of humanity if we assume that it’s out of our control. But as we increasingly live in a world of DNA programming, pharmaceutical manipulation, and mood-altering substances (from the crap in Doritos to crystal meth), we must start accounting for the ways that chemistry serves as an architecture of human behavior and, thus, a force in regulating peoples and practices. I don’t think that it’s a distinct force, by a third leg of what constitutes “architecture.”

Part of why I think it’s important to highlight the role that chemistry (and to a certain degree biology) play as an architectural force is that it seems to me that there’s too little attention payed to the ways in which chemistry & social norms and chemistry & the law connect (while there’s a lot concerning objects and code). There are some great STS scholars in this area, including Cori Hayden (author of When Nature Goes Public) and Joe Dumit (author of Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity (In-formation)). Because of Big Pharm, there’s a lot of public talk about chemistry & the market, but I’m not aware of a lot of broader discourse about how chemistry is a regulatory society force (although Quinn Norton’s Bodyhacking Talk is fantabulous on this).

If we do conceive of chemistry as another aspect of architecture, how must we think of its regulatory powers and the needs to regulate it? In what ways is chemistry similar to and different from code or objects? (Or am I totally off base?) Anyhow, just some musings for the weekend…

Australian Education.AU seminar talks

Earlier this month, I had the great fortune to go to Australia as a seminar speaker for Education.AU. Everyone warned me that it was winter and would be frigid, but to my delight, the weather in Melbourne and Brisbane was not any colder than a San Francisco summer day. I didn’t get to see much of Australia (saving the ‘roos for next time), but I did have a fantastic time. The people were wonderful, the food was delicious (go Melbourne), and it was just so great to be around so many folks invested in education who were not afraid of technology.

To my delight, there are recordings of my talks available for those of you who couldn’t make it. There are lots of recordings cuz there was a LOT of me. In fact, I think I talked continuously for four days… many hours of which are on tape for your viewing/listening pleasure. The general topic was “Generation MySpace” and I was talking about social network sites, education, and learning. I did two keynotes, two sets of questions and answers, two panels, and a fireside chat (on top of lots of press and more 1-1 and small group conversations). Here are links of some of those pieces:

Keynote, Day 2, Melbourne

Keynote, Day 1, Brisbane, Part 1
Keynote, Day 1, Brisbane, Part 2
Keynote, Day 1, Brisbane, Part 3
Q&A, Day 1, Brisbane, Part 1
Q&A, Day 1, Brisbane, Part 2
Q&A, Day 1, Brisbane, Part 3
Panel, Day 1, Brisbane, Part 1
Panel, Day 1, Brisbane, Part 2
Panel, Day 1, Brisbane, Part 3
Keynote, Day 2, Melbourne, Part 1
Keynote, Day 2, Melbourne, Part 2
Panel, Day 2, Melbourne
Fireside Chat with Mark Pesce, Day 2, Melbourne

Personally, I liked my Day 2 keynote better (cuz I thought I was funnier) but your mileage may vary.

[More will come when I find all of the links.]

airport extreme wifi failure: help?

The Apple stores near me have no appointments so I thought I’d see if anyone out there might have suggestions before I camp out at the store for a few hours. My Airport Extreme was working quite fine until this morning. I see my network in the list of networks, but when I try to go to it, I’m told that there is an error joining it. I’m able to connect to the Extreme via a tethered Ethernet cord. I updated the firmware and I restarted it. The light is green and it’s in my list of networks but I can’t actually join that network (nor can my Airport Express). What on earth am I doing wrong?

Update: and the prize goes to DK for suggesting that I just needed to tell the router my lucky number and all would be well. (Tx to Dan and Joe and Jacob for taking the time to help me debug. Another techno doom averted!)

MacArthur Competition wrt New Digital Media and Learning

The MacArthur Foundation (the folks who fund my advisors and thus support my research) have just announced an open competition to encourage innovation and knowledge-sharing surrounding new digital media and learning. There are two types of awards:

– Innovation Awards will support learning entrepreneurs and builders of new digital environments for informal learning. Winners will receive $250,000 or $100,000.

– Knowledge Networking Awards will support communicators in connecting, mobilizing, circulating or translating new ideas around digital media and learning. Winners will receive a $30,000 base award and up to $75,000.

If this might be up your alley, check out their announcement and the competition homepage for more information.

Personally, I’m really interested in the knowledge networking awards. This is explicitly to help get knowledge out far and wide, to put theory into practice, and to make practice replicable. This is a great opportunity for educators and journalists and others who want to take what is known to the next level. Too many good ideas get locked down in small experiments or academic articles that few will ever hear of. The more effort there is to scale good ideas, the better we’ll all be! So start brewing some good ideas!

memorial for Peter Lyman

In July, my beloved advisor passed away after a long battle with brain cancer. When I posted about his death, I was moved to learn that many of you knew him and loved him so I thought you might want to know about the memorial service that will be held next month in his honor. Please pass this along to anyone else you know who knew and loved Peter. If you are inclined, a fellowship has been set up in his name.


A UC Berkeley campus memorial to honor Peter Lyman, former University Librarian and Professor in the Information School, will take place between 5 and 7 pm on Tuesday, September 11, at the Morrison Room in Doe Library.

Peter Lyman died of brain cancer, peacefully and at home, on July 2. Those wanting to honor his memory are invited to contribute to the newly established Peter Lyman Graduate Fellowship in New Media; checks addressed to the UC Berkeley Foundation can be sent to the UC Center for New Media, 390 Wurster Hall, # 1066, Berkeley CA 94720.

For the record: I do not go to UCLA…. or to CalTech

In trying to layout arguments for educators about why Wikipedia is exceedingly important, I often have to hold my breathe when it comes to the policies and dynamics that really get my goat. I try to avoid my own Wikipedia entry because it makes me want to pull my hair out. It’s been made very clear to me that I’m not allowed to be an expert on myself, but oh do I get annoyed when people use that as my bio (my bio is here). My favorite line from my discussion page:

Personally, I’m inclined to take anything from Boyd’s website with a grain of salt, as Boyd’s area of research is social networking, and for all we know this is some grand experiment on how the rules can be pushed.

Throughout the discussion, there’s ongoing references to the ways in which mass media are credible and authoritative. In the last month, I’ve been cited in the press as being a student at both UCLA and CalTech. I’d like to state for the record that, while I respect both of those institutions, I’ve never been associated with either (although I’ve attended parties at both). I’ve also been referenced as an anthropologist, a sociologist, and a professor. My apologies to academics who get annoyed at me about these labels – I know that I am none of the above, but I don’t know how to stop them from perpetuating. I’ve also been cited as working for companies I used to work at. I am not working at any company right now. (I also did not recently release a full report on a study of class dynamics in America.)

I’m trying really hard to figure out ways in which we can get youth to think critically about the construction and production of information. I believe that Wikipedia is a great source for working through and thinking about these issues, but I’m extremely worried about the ways in which Wikipedians fetishize mass media as ideal sources. Hell, I’m worried about the ways in which my own industry sees mass media as proof that the sky is falling. Media is often very useful for citations, but to assume that it is always right seems to be extremely dangerous, especially for a community that’s fighting an image issue concerning the ease with which things can be edited and published. I also think it’s dangerous for Wikipedia to perpetuate inaccuracies in mass media just cuz mass media said so.

To those Wikipedians out there who happen to read my blog – is there any conversation amongst Wikipedians about how to deal with mass media coverage? Is there any conversation about how mass media coverage is often biased or inaccurate? Why is mass media coverage so valued? (And why on earth am I notable because I’m profiled in mass media instead of because of why mass media was covering me?)

personalized viral marketing

A viral marketing campaign for Dexter (a “killer” new series) invites people to add information about their friends so that they’ll be sent a personalized video that makes them look like they’re next on the list of people a serial killer is targeting. The video site looks like a YouTube knock-off and there are thousands of views and hundreds of comments pre-populated for this “news” story.

This marketing campaign has already fooled a few. I received a concern message tonight from a friend whose friend received one of these and thought that some stalker had grabbed stuff from her Facebook. Turns out it’s just one of her friends playing a trick on her.