DQ: Distributed Trolling, Crime, or Activism?

It may be easy to think of large distributed online groups like 4chan and Anonymous as groups of troublemakers, ruled by a mob mentality. However, Gabriella Coleman’s “Anonymous: From Lulz to Collective Action” provides a more complicated history and study of these groups, noting that they do have social organization and social norms. But what do these groups, along with WikiLeaks, represent in our society? Are they merely fringe groups? Troublemakers? Online cyber-bullies and mobs? Freedom fighters? Political activists? Perhaps because of their distributed nature and wide range of activities, there is some of all of these.

This is a question Vanessa Gringoriadis mentions in  “4chan’s Chaos Theory”, saying:

This is an argument we’re likely to keep having over the next few years: Are Anonymous cyber-vandals or vigorous grassroots protesters? On one hand, Web sites are property, and taking them down is stealing, in a way.

How should we view these groups both as a society, and through the law? Perhaps DDoS attacks are akin to protesting in front of a business, blocking access by amassing hundreds of protesters. How should the law look at these efforts? Has the law caught up to what the internet affords – perhaps our categories of cyber-terrorism and cyber-crime do not fully cover the range of marginal internet activities, and we need “less criminal” classifications for these actions.

In another view, could the protest work of Anonymous be seen as the antithesis to “slacktivism?” They do have very different routes – “slacktivism” based in mainstream open social media, and Anonymous in anonymous action, amongst a smaller set of actors. Perhaps this mirrors traditional activism, which is generally carried out by a smaller set of actors relative to the entire population.

The question we come back to is what do these groups represent, and how can we explain them? Coleman’s brief history of Anonymous points to the fact that an “unruly mob” definition does not really describe them. At the same time,  Felix Stadler  seems to posit that they create an online public sphere, but their numbers compared to all internet users are relatively small, and they tend to skew male. Another question to ask are what ideals are they promoting, especially in their support of Middle East revolutions – they seem to be based in a Western-dominant view that access to more information creates a freer, more democratic society, which may not always be true, such as in examples of Chinese youth having access to Western information, which they use in Chinese nationalistic arguments.

Perhaps for further academic study into these groups, online ethnographic research may be appropriate.

Essay Resource: Lawrence Lessig: Laws that choke creativity

Another TED Talk (I’ve been watching a bunch for a different course).  We already encountered Lessig earlier, and now he discusses user generated content, which is relevant to fandoms and remix cultures.

There’s some history of the music industry and early broadcast, with the ASCAP creating a legal cartel, and BMI using music in the public domain and “remixing” it.

Lessig argues that the 20th century has been mostly a read-only culture, and that the internet, through user generated content, remix culture, and amateur culture (which is not necessarily low quality, but done out of love, not for money), will lead to a read-write culture (which we may have had a long time ago). The importance is that the technology and tools of creativity are now open to everyone with computer and internet access.

Lessig looks at the law and how it has not come along with common sense ideas – that they presume that remix is theft, because remix is a copy, and a copy is theft. Here, he looks at the extremism on both sides – taking down every remix that uses copyrighted material, or trying to give up copyright and ignore it altogether.

Lessig argues for a path somewhere in between. However, he says that government have failed.  He looks to a private solution, and the role of competition. He argues that content creators need to promote their work as being more open (allowing artists the choice of how their music is used), and that read-write culture enabling companies have to embrace it, creating a system of competition between free and not-free content.

Again, Lessig probably has a large body of work and writings on which to draw from that will be relevant to the discussion of fandoms and remix cultures.


Essay Resource: Charles Leadbeater: The Era of Open Innovation

This is a TED talk by Charles Leadbeater, who discusses open innovation, talking about how the users are producers, as opposed to traditional organizations. The traditional model is of special people and special places (closed) who make content for passive consumers. Now, in a more open organizational form, the consumers also make content. Traditionally, there were limits to consumer interaction, like in newspapers, they could write in a letter or have a comment. But bloggers today don’t want to be journalists necessarily, but be engaged in a conversation. This shows how different actors have different views about the role of who and what participants are, and what their goals are.  This has implications about copyright, digital rights. Perhaps Leadbeater has further literature to investigate also.



RB: The Historical Relationship Between Star Trek Fan Films and Paramount

In doing some initial research work for my essay on fan culture and copyright, I have looked into the relationship between Star Trek fans who create their own fan films, and how CBS or Paramount (the copyright holders to Star Trek) have reacted.

It seems this has changed over time – perhaps due to the profitability of Star Trek – it seems that the copyright holders were more strict about allowing fan productions in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when previous Star Trek movies (before the JJ Abrams 2009 “reboot”) were being released and the Voyager and Enterprise series were still online. However, there may also be a relationship over time with a greater prevalence of online fan films, as well as interactions that led to changes and mutual understandings about not profiting from fan films.

According to a 1997 Wired Magazine article, in 1996, at the same time as the buildup to the release of the film Star Trek: First Contact

“Viacom Inc. sent a barrage of cease-and-desist letters to webmasters of Star Trek fan sites carrying copyrighted film clips, sounds, and insignias. Under threat of legal action, many Trekkers shut down”

While at this time, Lucasfilm had a policy regarding fan content of Star Wars fanfiction – that they are not for commercial gain, and protect the “image” of the characters, Viacom did not respond to requests for clarification of their policy at that time.

But by 2005, things had changed, Star Trek Enterprise was off the air, and there were no more movies or tv shows in the works. Wired Magazine profiled a new fan show, Star Trek New Voyages, that continued the original 60’s series. While these are fan productions, Wired noted that

“Each New Voyages episode is produced with the help of a growing network of Star Trek professionals. The makeup supervisor for the new episode…worked on one of the many Trek TV series…The script is by D. C. Fontana, a story editor for the original Star Trek series…And it will star Walter Koenig, the actor who played navigator Pavel Chekov in the original series”

Perhaps this institutional support had a role. But Paramount also had a clearer policy, as according to Wired:

“Paramount permits Trek-related fan projects, as long as the creators don’t profit from them”

Thus, the show was distributed for free, and has survived by labor and cash donations. In 2005, Variety profiled another Trek fan series, Hidden Frontier, also saying that:

“It’s all volunteer; the only reason Par isn’t shutting them down for copyright violation is that they’re scrupulous about not profiting from the series”

By today, as seen on the “Fan Films” section of a major Star Trek news site, there are numerous fan productions being created today and distributed for free. Thus it seems over the past 10-15 years, an environment has been created that allows the proliferation of these projects – perhaps partly to the role of new media and crowd sourcing, new media and new ways for fan distribution, but also perhaps the ability to tap into professional networks and the creation of an understanding (even if not formally written) between the distribution company and the fans.