Moving Past Facebook

In this blog entry, Robert Gehl, author of Reverse Engineering Social Media, writes about the alternatives to Facebook.

At the heart of Facebook is a contradiction: Facebook is for friends (and family). Facebook is for marketers.

“Facebook for friends” is quite familiar to us. We go to Facebook to see what our friends are up to, keep up with family events, find out about the next gathering, support one another, or brag about achievements. We “friend” the friends of our friends. We like what they post, their profile pictures, and what they share. This is a software-mediated form of sociality, and what is quite amazing about it is that Facebook is only 10 years old and yet is ingrained into so many people’s lives. Facebook is for friends.

“Facebook for marketers,” however, is just as important, even if we try to ignore it. Did you “like” your friend’s post about getting a coffee at Starbucks? Well, now a Starbucks ad appears. Did you post something about your favorite movie, Toy Story? Well, now Disney is asking you to like its page. Did you post something about being a little under the weather? CVS Pharmacy appears, ready to sell you the drugs that will get you back to health. As you engage with your friends, as you post what you’re up to, there are incredibly complex algorithms parsing your statements, likes, and activities, all with the goal of bending your attention to brands and commodities. It’s as if someone is listening to everything you say to your friends and family and mining those statements to know your desires, fears, shames, and pleasures – as well as your location, your income, your education, your political stances, and your sexuality. Those aspects of yourself are sold to countless companies around the world. Facebook is for marketers.

Facebook is always caught in this tension, a powerful, dangerous fusion of longstanding traditions of sociality (friendship, family relationship, coworker relationships) and the longstanding practices of studying us as consumers in a market society. You’re caught in the middle. You probably don’t think of Facebook as a place for seeing ads or being watched as you like things, but of course it is, just as it is a place to find out what your old highschool sweetheart is up to these days.

So, let’s say you value (or “like”?) the social aspects of Facebook but deplore the reduction of all relationships to consumer preferences. Let’s say you enjoy keeping in touch with friends, managing your online sociality via software, but you don’t like being monitored as if you were on a McDonald’s focus group. What do you do?

Support the alternatives.

There are hosts of activists and technologists taking the communication practices and architectures of Facebook (as well as other sites) and recreating them in new systems. What Facebook has done that is quite incredible is help solidify and establish a new genre of communication – digital social networking. What it has fused to that genre – the intense monitoring of you as a consumer (and little more) – is, in the view of these activists, deplorable.

Reverse Engineering_smAs I argue in my book, Reverse Engineering Social Media, the activists creating sites such as Diaspora, Lorea, GNU Social, Quitter, Rstat.us, and Crabgrass are all working to “reverse engineer” sites such as Facebook. What I mean by this is that they are taking the positive aspects of Facebook – the powerful new forms of online sociality, the ability to express oneself with text, images, and media and share that expression with friends – while fending off the very real problems of ubiquitous surveillance and the reduction of our lives to consumption patterns. They attempt to keep our personal data under our control and protect our privacy.

These sites aren’t nearly as popular as Facebook, but given the steady drumbeat of Facebook’s privacy invasions – not to mention the fact that Facebook has patented a system to provide user data to governments – it’s time to take the alternatives seriously. For those who doubt that Facebook and the other social media juggernauts will ever be toppled by a privacy-conscious alternative, don’t forget that Facebook is only 10 years old, and that we’ve seen popular Web and Internet sites come and go (MySpace, AOL, and Yahoo! come to mind).

In time, the contradictory “Facebook for Friends and Marketers” may give way to a new site for friends that doesn’t sell your data to Starbucks.

Looking at Slum Clearance in the Southwest

In this blog entry, Robert Fairbanks, author of The War on Slums in the Southwest, writes about how religious leaders campaigned for slum clearance in San Antonio and Phoenix.

The War on Slums in the Southwest traces the history of slum clearance and public housing in the Southwest and reminds us of the important role religious leaders had in the campaign to eliminate slums in the Southwest.

In two cities, San Antonio and Phoenix, Roman Catholic priests were the major actors in securing public housing for their cities. Father Carmelo Tranchese served as priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe on the San Antonio’s west side within its principal Mexican barrio characterized by a Works Progress Administration report as “one of the most extensive slums to be found in any American city.” Even before Congress approved the Housing Act of 1937, the priest campaigned for federal help in clearing the slums and the erection of needed public housing for his congregation. He worked hard to publicize the ill effect slum housing had on the city and finally, after teaming up with Congressman Maury Maverick, lobbied directly with Eleanor Roosevelt to secure the much needed slum clearance and public housing projects for his Mexican parishioners, as well as other needy groups throughout the city. The mayor rewarded him for his efforts by appointing him the chair of the city’s initial housing authority.

War on Slums_smIn Phoenix, Father Emmett McLoughlin, a Franciscan priest took on a similar role in securing public housing for that desert city. The headstrong priest arrived in Phoenix in 1934 to serve as one of several clergy in St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the oldest in the city. Working with Mexican Americans and especially with African Americans in the city’s slums southwest of the downtown proved an eye opening experience for the priest. There he found unfathomable slum conditions that were in the words of one observer   “fully as bad as any he had seen in the tenement districts of New York.” African Americans often lived in wooden shacks, trailers sheds, and abandoned stores without water or sewage. His compassion for those slum dwellers led him to lobby Phoenix civic leaders for slum clearance and public housing. By publicizing those horrendous conditions and emphasizing their relationship to sickness, crime and bad citizenship, he convinced city fathers to support his effort to secure public housing for Phoenix. When state legislators final passed the necessary enabling legislation allowing Phoenix to form a housing authority, officials named McLoughlin chair of that body. As a result of McLoughlin’s efforts, Phoenix civic leaders embraced slum clearance and federal public housing by completing three projects before the end of World War II.

Even though both priests experienced physical threats and were slandered by slum landlords and others fearful of the public housing program, they were major warriors in the war of slums in the Southwest. Clergy played significant roles in other southwestern cities public housing efforts too. Almost every housing authority in the Southwest included either a Catholic priest, Protestant clergy or Jewish rabbi (and often several) on its initial housing authority. Such stories remind us that those who are passionately committed to responding to the plight of the poor could and did make a difference in the booming cities of the Southwest.

Inclusion in the Creative Economy?

This week in North Philly Notes, Tarry Hum , author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood, writes about the re-branding of Brooklyn.

New York City Mayor de Blasio was elected with a mandate to address the city’s deepening crisis of income and wealth inequality. Mr. de Blasio’s 2013 victory was echoed across the country as progressive candidates won mayoralties in cities such as Boston and Seattle. In light of federal inertia, the political will to tackle the troubling persistence of poverty and a diminished middle class has shifted to local municipalities. The first six months of Mayor de Blasio’s administration has been defined by important achievements in universal pre-K, paid sick leave, and a municipal ID. Moreover, Mayor de Blasio has stated that his approach to economic development will be premised on creating opportunities for all New Yorkers in the city’s high growth sectors including the technology industry which is essential to NYC’s creative and knowledge economy.

Making a Global Immigrant_smAn example of the events that are taking place to engage in a public dialogue on New York City’s economic future took place last week at a half-day conference titled, Onramps of Opportunity: Building a Creative + Inclusive New York, with NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer and NYU-University of Toronto Professor Richard Florida, the “rock star” author of The Rise of the Creative Class. Presenters described how the spatial geography of New York City’s creative economy is increasingly centered in the industrial waterfront neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens where factories and warehouses are retrofitted, wired, and modernized to accommodate tech, media, entertainment, and artisanal manufacturing. Almost a mantra, conference attendees were told repeatedly, “every future job is a tech job”. Tensions between the creative class and neighborhood gentrification were alluded to as several presenters emphasized the need for affordable housing. However, it’s clear that meaningful inclusion extends beyond the provision of affordable housing as evidenced in the Extell Development Company’s project which will have separate entrances for tenants of its luxury and affordable housing units.

IstanbulThe re-branding of Brooklyn as an epicenter of creativity, innovation, and artistic production has achieved international success. On a recent trip to Istanbul, I was astonished by the prevalence of Brooklyn branding in clothing and cafes. Numerous Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, DUMBO, and Fort Greene are exemplars of the clustering of skills and talent and urban amenities such as bike paths, parks, and good coffee shops that support a creative economy and the lifestyle preferences of the creative class. The potential of this economic revival was recently explored in the PBS NewsHour clip “Could Brooklyn hipsters help save the middle class?”

The revitalization of Brooklyn may be the ultimate test for Mayor de Blasio’s vision of an inclusive urbanism. Acknowledging Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood as a nexus of the human and physical infrastructure necessary for equitable economic growth, Mayor de Blasio announced the formation of a Jobs for New Yorkers Task Force in front of the Brooklyn Terminal Army along Sunset Park’s waterfront. Heavily immigrant and working poor, Sunset Park’s Latino and Asian residents are largely concentrated in low paid service jobs. Sunset Park still retains a sizable number of garment factories that continue to rely on immigrant women workers. As Professor Florida described, these are the people that pour our coffee, take care of our kids and elderly parents, clean our homes, and make our food – jobs so essential to a creative city that Professor Florida extolled these workers as the “lifeblood of the city”. As one of New York City’s few remaining industrial neighborhoods, Sunset Park is now facing the challenges posed by a growing artisanal and creative economy. According to a recent New York Times article, the neighborhood’s extensive industrial building stock is being refurbished to accommodate a new Soho. Examples of tech and artisanal firms that now call Sunset Park home include MakerBot which manufactures 3-D printers, the internationally known Jacque Torres chocolatier, and the world’s largest urban rooftop farm on a former federally owned military warehouse. Even the Brooklyn Nets want to be in Sunset Park and are planning a 70,000-square-foot training facility with a rooftop terrace to enjoy the waterfront views.

deBlasioBATThe question of inclusion in New York City’s creative economy is essential to the future of neighborhoods like Sunset Park. Framing the afternoon’s discussion, Professor Florida stated that building an inclusive economy “will require all hands on deck” to formulate a new approach to economic development. Political will is just one of the necessary ingredients – policies that support unionization, affordable housing, living wages, worker cooperatives, workforce development and placement in jobs with avenues for economic mobility, and meaningful engagement in city planning and economic development decision-making are also essential. Working class, immigrant Latino-Asian Sunset Park is ground zero in testing the development and implementation of “onramps” for an inclusive creative city.

Adia Harvey Wingfield, acknowledges receiving another award for No More Invisible Man

This week in North Philly Notes, Adia Harvey Wingfield, author of No More Invisible Man, offers her thoughts on winning the Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award from the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) section on Race, Gender and Class, 2014.

WingfieldFinal.inddI am so happy and proud to receive the Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award from the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) Race, Gender, and Class Section. This section of the ASA has long been at the forefront of focusing scholarly attention on how these fundamental issues of race, gender, and class are overlapping categories that mutually influence each other in different ways. It is a section that is replete with brilliant scholars doing cutting edge work, so it really means a lot to me to be honored in this way.

I particularly appreciate the recognition that black professional men’s work lives are significantly shaped by these issues of race, gender, and class in ways that render their experiences unique. As the title of this book indicates, for far too long these men have been ignored and overlooked by scholars and media alike. I am happy to be part of the effort to highlight how black professional men, too, live lives that are formed not just by race but also by their gender and class position, and am so pleased that the Race, Gender, and Class section saw fit to recognize these men as well.

Addressing our changing relationship with our work

In this blog entry, Peter Fleming, author of Resisting Work, addresses some of the consequences of too much work.

When 21-year old banking intern Moritz Erhardt died in his London apartment in 2013, it attracted worldwide attention. What was so disconcerting about his death was that it followed 72 straight hours of stressful work. Reports of the banking culture discovered firms gleefully celebrating such arduous displays of commitment. Working incredibly long hours was a badge of honor.

Erhardt’s parents stated that they had become increasingly worried about their son’s lifestyle, noting how his emails were sent at unusual times, 5am or even worse. A story in the London Evening Standard cited how the intern worked “crazy hours” because “he felt under intense pressure to succeed.” Meanwhile, the Independent wrote about the “furore that developed over long hours and macho culture at banks.”

In January 2014, Li Junjie, a 33-year old investment banker for a large U.S. firm jumped to his death from its high-rise tower in Hong Kong. The story was reported in the Daily Mail and on Alex Jones’ Infowars.com  Reports suggested that he had a rather stressful job, but it was news of an impending financial crash that had prompted this awful act. The wave of banker suicides in 2014 has shocked many of us, with some large firms even banning its employees from using email after hours so they can unwind. But the fact remains, why would someone take their jobs so seriously that they can contemplate ending their life when something goes wrong in the office? How does such a lack of perspective come about?

Resisting Work_smResisting Work seeks to challenge the overly sunny reputation that work has gained in our society of late. It suggests these two sad events tell us much about how a growing number of people approach their jobs in the post-industrial workforce. Many of us have become completely wedded to our work. Whereas our grandparents could ‘switch off’ after leaving the office or factory, workers today no longer see their jobs as something they just ‘do’ among others things, but something they ‘are’. While suicide and death-by-overwork are extreme cases, my book reveals numerous examples of people in similar situations who see their jobs as everything, who cannot switch off, are unable to holiday and even destroy personal relationships for the sake of it.

I hope to show that this changing relationship with our work – and some of its deeply negative consequences – is no accident. Using historical analysis, I demonstrate that it represents a new configuration of power that is symptomatic of the neo-liberal economic paradigm, which tends to glorify work as the highest virtue. But here is the rub: if we actually had pure neoliberalism in the office – say, complete individualism, no state regulation, rampant competition, no mutualism or open co-operation – absolutely nothing would get done. Neo-liberal ideals are completely chaotic when actually applied in most employment settings. As a result, corporate capitalism requires us to be fully present, socially resourceful human beings in order to pick-up the slack. We need to live with its problems and employ our whole persona to deal with them. This I call ‘biopower’, whereby life itself is literally put to work.

All of this sounds bleak, and it is. But the true focus of the book is about how we might resist work today. Given the above trends, this is easier said than done. For how might we oppose ‘biopower’ when our jobs are now somehow tied up with our very sense of self, our identities and personal worth? And what would a world without work actually look like? I argue that a new resistance moment is emerging in post-industrial societies and beyond that seeks to put work ‘in its place’. However, unlike older conceptions of employee resistance (such as the strike or sabotage) which tended to call for more, better or fairer work, these newer forms of opposition seek to escape the paradigm of work altogether. It does not view our over-attachment to working as a natural part survival, but as a political construction that we now live as if things had always been like this.

I give many examples of this new anti-work movement. And it is for this reason that I really admire a moving study by Bonnie Ware, a nurse who cares for the terminally ill. She recently reported on the most common regrets people had when close to death. First and foremost was not being true to themselves, living a life that was not authentic. A close second, however, was the regret that they had worked far too much. From the perspective of near death, all of that labor and worry seemed such a waste. For these patients, it is too late. The central question of this book concerns the following. What about us? How might we embody this final epiphany throughout our entire lives, and what might an alternative to work look like?

 

Two Temple University Press authors acknowledge their recent awards

Adia Harvey Wingfield, author of No More Invisible Man, received the Richard A. Lester Award for the Outstanding Book in Labor Economics and Industrial Relations at Princeton University. The award is presented to the book making the most original and important contribution toward understanding the problems of industrial relations, labor market policies, and the evolution of labor markets.

WingfieldFinal.inddI am very happy to receive the Richard A. Lester Award for the Outstanding Book in Labor Economics and Industrial Relations published in 2013. Given by the Industrial Relations Section at Princeton University, this important award “is presented to the book making the most original and important contribution toward understanding the problems of industrial relations and the evolution of labor markets.” As such, it is my pleasure and my honor to be a recipient.

While I am thrilled to receive this award, more credit and attention should go to the men who were the focus of this project. Part of what inspired me to conduct this study and ultimately write this book was the realization that black middle class professional men are largely absent from the literatures on race, gender, and work. Their unique experiences and the ways they are constructed by intersections of gender, race, and class often go unnoticed, particularly as academics and media instead choose to spotlight economically disadvantaged black men who all too frequently are underserved by existing social institutions. Black professional men’s work lives are frequently lumped into general studies of the black middle class or obscured by the focus on their more visible female counterparts. I thank the men of my study for sharing their lives with me and refusing to be the invisible men of years past.

Bindi Shah’s book Laotian Daughters received the Association for Asian American Studies’ Outstanding Book Award in the category Social Science.

Laotian Daughters sm FINALI am absolutely delighted to accept this book award from the Association for Asian American Studies. The award is not only recognition of my scholarship in the book, but also of the shift in the discursive representations of young Laotian women from the children of Southeast Asian refugees to active citizens and a positive voice for change.

This book would not have been possible without the Asian Pacific Environmental Network’s early vision in building an Asian American face to the environmental justice movement, and without the participation of young Laotian women in APEN’s Asian Youth Advocates program. The teenagers’ spirit, perseverance and commitment to social justice in the face of adversity provided the inspiration to write a book that challenges dominant narratives of assimilation and incorporation.

I also want to thank two people associated with Temple University Press: Linda Võ, who as one of the series editors of Temple University Press’ Asian American History and Culture Series, believed in the book from the beginning, and Janet Francendese, who supported the project through all its stages.

 

Appreciating Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30

In this blog entry, David Updike, co-editor of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30, offers his thoughts on the book and what he learned about Mural Arts along the way.

I think it’s safe to say that over the last thirty years, Philadelphia has become a city of murals. As you crisscross the city, you find them in just about every neighborhood, often where you’d least expect them. They’ve become a part of our landscape, and something that people here and elsewhere associate with Philadelphia. A lot of the credit for that goes to Jane Golden, because it wouldn’t have happened without her energy and her vision, but it also wouldn’t have been possible if the city itself hadn’t embraced the idea that public art matters. And it matters, not just because it improves our aesthetic environment, but more importantly, because it has a lasting impact on the people who participate in the process.

The Mural Arts offices are a buzzing hive of activity. In the hallways you pass a steady stream of people coming and going, to and from mural sites, or classes, or canvassing neighborhoods. And these are people who, to borrow an old phrase from Bill Clinton, look like Philadelphia. They’re young and old, they’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic. And they all carry themselves with a sense of purpose. In the gallery downstairs you’ll see exhibitions of art—some of it quite remarkable—made by everyone from elementary school students to inmates serving life sentences at Graterford. And then there’s the room upstairs with the very skylight under which Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic. And I suspect that our city’s greatest painter, were he alive today, would approve of this populist endeavor, which seeks to embrace the city he loved in all of its aspects.

I’m very fortunate to work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of our city’s other great cultural institutions. And it occurred to me as I started working on this book that, in a way, the Art Museum and the Mural Arts Program have opposite but entirely complementary missions. At the Museum we work very hard to get people to come to us and experience great art. But Mural Arts brings art to the people in the places where they live and work. And what Mural Arts brings to these communities is not a particular product or aesthetic. Rather, it’s a process of engagement and dialogue and co-creation that takes place over months and years, and whose effects remain long after the paint on the walls has dried.

Phila Mural Arts 30_smThis book seeks, above all else, to document what takes place off the walls. And really, this gets to the heart and soul of what Mural Arts does. Yes, it’s about transforming places, but mostly it’s about transforming people. We wanted to look at that process and its effects through many lenses, so we brought together a diverse group of authors from different disciplines—social sciences, public health, art education, restorative justice—to paint as broad a picture as possible of what a socially engaged art practice looks like, and what it can do, especially when it works in tandem with other organizations to address big issues like homelessness, youth violence, or urban blight.

In the book, Jeremy Nowack aptly refers to what happens in the course of creating a mural as a kind of “social contract” that arises between all of the stakeholders involved in a project—neighbors, business owners, community leaders, schools, artists. And the key word here is “stakeholders.” People feel a sense of investment and ownership in the murals. They take pride in them. They show them off to visitors. New stories and rituals grow up around them. People now ride the Market-Frankford El in West Philly just to see Steve Powers’ 50 Love Letters unfold. Inspired by the murals, couples have gotten engaged and even married on that 20-block stretch along Market Street.

Other stories around the murals are more painful, more challenging, but also rewarding in ways that aren’t necessarily visible to someone looking only at the end result. A particularly poignant example is James Burns’s Finding the Light Within, which took on the issue of youth suicide, not just with a very powerful and personal mural, but also with community meetings, writing workshops, collage workshops, and a participatory blog, all of which provided safe, supportive spaces in which survivors could share their stories. More than 800 people participated in those activities, and hopefully found some measure of healing in the process.

Elizabeth Thomas begins her essay with a provocative question: “Who makes culture?” In other words, Who decides what messages we see and read and hear? Whose stories count? Every day we’re bombarded by images and messages that tell us what we should wear, eat, drink, watch, listen to. But how often do we see our own struggles and achievements reflected in our environment, or our own stories projected into the public discourse? Socially engaged art practice has begun to address this problem of who gets represented—and who does the representing—in public culture. It’s happening in different ways in different cities around the country, but in Philadelphia its most visible proponent is the Mural Arts Program.

Much of the work that Mural Arts has done in recent years has sought to expand the definition of what a mural is and what it can do. For the mural project called Peace Is a Haiku Song, the poet Sonia Sanchez initiated what became, in essence, a citywide collaborative poem cycle. She began with a mental image of haiku by children hanging like cherry blossoms from the trees in Philadelphia. This evolved into an invitation to people of all ages to contribute poems in a series of community workshops and through a dedicated website. The poems didn’t end up hanging from the trees, but many of them ended up on posters around the city that were created by youth working with graphic designer Tony Smyrski.

The experience of seeing your own words and your own images projected into the world is an empowering one, especially for young people. As Cynthia Weiss points out, kids participating in mural projects often gain practical, real-world skills, like photography and graphic design. But they also gain a sense of agency that may be hard to come by elsewhere in their lives. And that type of experience can have a lasting impact on a person’s life in ways that we’re really only beginning to understand.

This is the essence of what Mural Arts does. It’s about creating situations in which people are drawn out of their everyday selves and both challenged and empowered to reach for something more. So while this book marks a milestone in the history of the Mural Arts Program, our hope is that it also points the way forward for others who want to use the power of art to change things for the better.

To listen to a podcast of David Updike and Jane Golden’s presentation at the Free Library of Philadelphia from March 26, click here: http://libwww.freelibrary.org/authorevents/podcast.cfm?podcastID=1216

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