Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Networked Identity and Narcissism

Today I may have figured out why it is that I constantly check and recheck my Myspace and Facebook profiles even though I already possess a crystal clear image of what they contain.

It's starts by clicking on your friend's profile. Then you click on one of their friends. After a while, you become an anthropologist of your own network, searching for patterns of social tribalism along various geographical and demographical axes.

Once I clicked to the point where I was now about 7 degrees away from my own profile, but I was still snooping around the profile pages of people in my area that all looked and expressed themselves in similar ways.

I thought the reason I always capped off this "friend research" with the strongest curiosity reserved for my own profile was because of the Narcissus in me. But by all indications, it now seems that I am a much more sophisticated narcissist than previously understood.

See, my profiles offer a different reading each time they are contemplated within a different context of human networks, each one casting unique hues onto my self-constructed online identity. There is the Said relative to the hipsters, the Said relative to the cybergeeks and the Arabists.

I belong, then, to the narcissisti who not only gaze at their own reflection, but who seek to capture every impression that every angle of the sun provides.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Wikis as tools of Critical Discourse Analysis

WikiSym 2007: Workshop Proposal (half day format)

An excavation implies the unearthing of something that is hidden at the surface level - be it fossils or systematic bias in language. Wikis have been especially efficient at harnessing the diverse intelligence of many in order to scrutinize the textual utterances and contributions of others, one individual at a time. The "discussion pages" of politically-volatile Wikipedia entries are magnets for textual scrutiny. So what would happen if wikis had its globalized masses analyzing the published works of single authors?

"Collaborative Excavations" is a proposed workshop to explore the possibility of using wikis to excavate and tease out the values that are cached in so called "objective" or "neutral" writing conventions of the journalism profession.

In this context, a news report is assumed to belong to a particular discourse that is not necessarily bound by geography, but bound in some way within a larger system of meaning. It will be assumed that within a given news report, a group of wiki contributers will be able to easily identify highly conceptual terms that are fixed in particular ways.

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, in their theory of discourse, invoke Lacan's idea of the "floating signifier"; certain words or concepts feature a high degree of polyvalence (semantic relativity) than other words. However, these varied meanings can be flattened by particular discourses that temporarily "fix" the signifier in place thereby altering what can be signified. In this case, a word or phrase (one that is conceptually-loaded but now semantically fixed by the news report) will be identified as a potential "floating signifer" and submitted for collaborative scrutiny. Once the words are isolated for analysis, collaborators will attempt to identify alternative discourses that favor using this word in others ways that diverge from the article. Participants will attempt to rewrite sections of the article as it would have been written under the identified list of alternative discourses. All the re-writings will be juxtaposed for comparison.

This workshop will also discuss the technological visual aids and tools that could be implemented within wiki software to supplement user experience in this exercise. For example, after the news report is analyzed, the font size/style of different words would vary by their identified degree of polyvalence. Each word is also a hyper-link, which takes the reader to a higher-level discussion regarding the relationship of that word to a number of discourses.

Said Kassem Hamideh is a Master's degree student in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Said is currently consulting with the non-profit interfaith organization, Children of Abraham, which unites Jewish and Muslim youth around the world in collaborative, wiki-based learning projects. Said also initiated the Collaboratively Building Concepts project at Wikiversity.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

NPOV opportunities

I'm sure I'm not the only one who views Wikipedia as would a stoner who sees beauty in things that are not so apparently thought-provoking to industrious sober people.

To these sober folks, Wikipedia is like a productive zone of collective beeworkers producing an impressive array of enyclopedia entries. In this functionalist or machinic sense, Wikipedia can be an amazing phenomenon in its own right, just not to me. It is not the statistic showing how Wikipedia far outpaces Encyclopedia Brittanica in quantity of articles that reveals to me its greatest beauty. Nor is it Wikipedia's formidable reputation as a source for accuracy.

There is a higher purpose still that seems to still be eluding those who would rather quibble over the current status of a particular Wikipedia entry.

puff puff

"Dude, the planet is calling its children together so they may heal. "

puff puff

And since this exercise tends to look rather like an acrimonious exchange between trenchant ideologues, the community of sober discussants don't see the hidden beauty of what is called a "Neutral Point of View" (or NPOV) conflict.

But maybe they would see what I'm seeing were they to call it an NPOV opportunity.

We have been living in a dialogue-deficit economy. Just go to the library stacks and peruse through the Middle East Politics section. Witness the artefacts of years of academics talking at each other-- or at the very most, profiting off the others' utterances as an excuse to produce a new book. Collectively, academia has failed to do what one encyclopedia entry on Wikipedia has done: compel a large-scale human lock-in. One that won't be broken until every possible subjectivity has been worked through, transcended into a higher realm of dialogically-informed knowledge.

Joseph Reagle, in his PhD dissertation proposal has identified this as the "transsubjective" goal of knowledge. Something I might venture to say, which is attainable only for the most politically benign of knowledges. It is sad to say that in the current state of our planet we can't even reach a healthy transsubjective portrait of what happened during the Holocaust. Just imagine, then, how difficult it would be to get a globally-coherent picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is in the context of this difficulty that I think people should be taking the longer view, by appreciating Wikipedia processes rather than Wikipedia products. Cormac Lawler's M.A. thesis takes this moment very seriously and I look forward to working with him and others one day towards optimizing the learning experience that is a very necessary consequence of knowledge production.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Spinning the Cocoon of Death

The following moment of doubt afflicted me recently and if it doesn't happen to you, you should be worried. I read a book that introduced me to the concept of an “information cocoon”.

I'ts a pretty self-explanatory term, actually. Due mostly to the Internet, we surround ourselves with information that harmonizes with our world. It is easy to do this on the Internet. We can customize our news feeds through Google, Yahoo, MSN and the countless other portals that offer to package the information we receive based on our interest, gender, location, consumer profiles and other variables. The latest buzz word that has flowed beyond cyberspace to infect everything is the prefix “my” to precede any other thing. In New York an evening news program advertises a billboard on the subway announcing how their brand of news is, rather: “my news, my weather, my world”.

But why isn't it “our” news, I ask? Can't I share my news with someone else? Oh, nevermind. This catchy individualistic phrase can certainly be attributed to the smashing success of MySpace and MySpace alone. But perhaps it is now a given that media must be customized in a way that greets me cheerily like a morning cup of coffee.

And that, folks, can't possibly be a good thing. I don't know about you, but I don't necessarily read to be entertained or comforted. Sometimes I read in order to expand my horizons and nuance and complicate my worldview. It was upon thinking about the very idea of an “information cocoon” that I immediatley panicked, wondering if I was firmly nestled into my own cocoon. Or MyCocoon.com to be exact.

I cried and cried.

I did't want to succumb to an insidious form of intellectual provincialism. Even if some of my sources of information didn't always come from a corporate news source-- no matter-- there would always be an easy spoonful of information ready to feed me.

Are you not guilty of this yourself? Who, after all, just randomly surfs the Internet these days? I follow leads – usually emails or MySpace bulletins with links sent by friends and trusted sources. When I google something, I am rarely going to check out the 15th page, but rather, I click on the first few search results, which based on Google's formula, means I am wallking down the most well-trodden path.

Then there are the information aggregators, sites like del.icio.us that display links to rightfully entertaining or usefel sites, frequented by many, and passed between friends. When I'm online and I want to suck some tasty screen but don't know where to go, I head to del.ico.us.

If information is really being consumed this way, then this leaves me with lots of questions to ask.

    1) Is my cocoon hindering my intellectual progress, creating massive blindspots preventing me from ever hearing out the 14-year old Indonesian boy who has something genius to say?

  1. Is this really even a cocoon? Maybe its the opposite of a cocoon. Maybe I am utilizing technologies that aggregrate information drawn from a very wide net.

  2. Am I quickly just becoming a passive node that is receiving and transmitting information to the next person?

  3. And finally, is the Internet the best thing we've ever had to work with? Or does it harbor the delibitating connotations of a cocoon?

I would like to answer these questions by taking a step back from the “cocoon” metaphor. Might we view everything that is resonant and meaningful to an individual, as a product of that human spinning cocoons on a daily basis, not just on the Internet? There is a huge field of literature devoted to explaining the way humans filter out all kinds of sense data in their lives in order to create meaningful and coherent worlds for themselves. It's an instinct that we can't help if we want to be human.

As to the question of is it good/bad that we are filtering out many other worlds in the process of creating a world or two. Who am I to judge? I tend to put a high premium on cross-pollinating my learning experience. That is why I write a blog solely devoted to idea of dialogue, by the way.

All I can really say is that the more I attempt traverse geography, culture and class in my readings, the more unlikely it is that I will be lulled to sleep by a particular discourse. If you don't actively take steps to design your own world, which I'm sure is a fantastic one, by the way – a world will be afforded to you.

And by all means, don't forget to link your world to this blog.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Runaway monologues

The word "dialogue" presupposes much of the professional work I have begun carving out for myself since college. At UW-Madison, where I worked and affiliated with young Palestinian student activists from Al-Awda (advocates for the Palestinian "right of return" to a pre-1948 Israel), the idea of dialogue, however, meant little more than shifting into spy mode. Attentive listening, within the context of college politics, carried the strategic purpose of forfending the rhetoric of our own educational campaigns from similar ones being carried out by Jewish student organizations. It made sense to all actors involved with the just-then September 11 attacks looming heavy on the American psyche and a vicious ad campaign carried by the largest campus paper, the Badger Herald, which featured a photograph of Palestinians celebrating the news of the attacks.

Pro-Israeli hasbara (literally "explanation" in Hebrew) from Campustruth.org also coincided with the rapid escalation of Israeli state-sponsored violence against civilians in the Palestinian occupied territories (most notably, the notorious IDF incursion into Jenin). Vile, below-the-belt insinuations that somehow Palestinians were getting what they deserved, in effect, only served to perpetuate stereotypes of angry Palestinians-- especially to those reporters who woke up, one quiet evening, to the clamor of livid pro-Palestinian activists at their doorstep, demanding apologies, retractions, or whatever it was that could soothe our pain and restore our dignity at that moment.

At the helm of our collective voice was Mohammed Abed, an articulate PhD student of philosophy. As we all waited for the next academic messiah to replace a dying Edward Said, this gallant speaker with a British accent would certainly do. He was a walking, talking PowerPoint presentation featuring statistics of encroaching Israeli settlements, diverted water resources, and violated United Nations resolutions. I remember attending a formal debate where I witnessed Mohammed put to shame some flown-in debater from Israel. The other side was obviously unaware of the danger posed by our intellectual juggernaut, our own Spartan warrior who would entertain us, make us laugh as he slay his opponent in swaggering fashion at the coliseum of reason. We, after all, understood how to effectively deploy human rights narratives for our case. They, on the other hand, were only subscribing to a reactionary, nationalist "self-defense" rhetoric, which, at the time, was but a nascent cottage industry that Dick Cheney and George W. Bush would later milk into political oblivion.

Being a Palestinian advocate, whether one was Arab or not, could be a pretty hip proposition. Curly redheads, Japanese foreign-exchange students and anarchists alike could be found decked out with the ornamental keffiya on campus. It was the new black. But black in the Superman II villain sense. We were "evil" but secretly cool and savvy. Our colors were green, red and black-- much like the bruises suffered by the people. Meanwhile, the blue and white were a bunch of whiny, rich pansies from the suburbs of New York. And no matter how hard our case for victimhood was, there they stood on campus, in ever growing numbers-- with their indignant and hateful messages, replaced year after year by crop of new freshmen parroting the same hackneyed rhetoric every other Jew was taught at Israeli summer camps paid for by their parents' parent's strife and hard work. We, on the other hand, worked in coalition with gays, minorities and 0pressed groups. Vive la résistance!


Perspectives such as these became common for those entrenched in a high-stakes battle where the winner secures American sympathy. These were also very irresponsible and childish ways to spend our energy, as were the silly things I did to impress girls in Junior High. The job of securing peace requires much more seriousness than elaborate Ad Hominem attacks considering all the irredeemable pain already out there. This isn't a criticism of the value of history and about knowing where we come from. I am simply proposing that we protect the peace process from our incisive knowledges (whose sharpness no one is really doubting). No matter how damning our lines of argumentation may be (on either side), they will never lead to airlifting the most hardline settlers and militants to Long Island and Damascus, respectively.

So as hard as it may be to ask from a victim's relative, the purpose of dialogue is, in part, to put people into the shoes of others they don't know, to share in their humanity. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one between neighbors who refuse to see each other eye to eye. Dialogue can remedy this by rescuing opportunities for friendship lost from an epic history of antagonism. No one talks enough about the fact that Palestinians and Jews could be friends with each other, helping the other prosper.

They say we only use 10% of our brains. Perhaps our shortfall is that we've only been using that 10% to feel sorry for ourselves.

pictured from Superman II, "the new black"