Tag Archives: internet

Regulating the internet: geographies of cyberspace

By Helen Pallett

Computer_keyboard

Image credit: Gflores

From the threat of ‘cyber-bullying’ to misogynist abuse, to fears about the invasion of privacy and the accessibility of pornographic material, serious concerns have been expressed over recent weeks about the increasing incursion of the internet, and particularly social media, into our everyday lives. For many of us it is difficult to imagine conducting our social and professional lives without the daily use of sites like Twitter or Facebook, or other internet forums, but are they, as some commentators would have us believe, having negative impacts on our societies? And if so, what can be done with the humongous entity of ‘the internet’?

In response to high profile media coverage of several tragic suicides of teenagers who experienced bullying and abuse on social media and other sites, the British Prime Minister David Cameron called for a boycott of websites which failed to effectively deal with such abuse. Similarly, the social media platform Twitter has come under pressure to alter its reporting procedure for abuse after high profile female activists, writers and political figures were sent bomb and rape threats through the site. Following the discovery of child abuse images on the computers of individuals convicted of recent high profile child murders, David Cameron announced a plan to block pornographic content by default on all computers unless users asked to receive it and asked internet providers to make greater efforts to block images of child abuse.

So what can emerging geographical perspectives on ‘cyberspace’ and internet usage tell us about these challenges and the likely effectiveness of these initiatives? In a recent review article in Geography Compass, Sam Kinsley pointed out the tendency to slip into either naively utopian or bleakly dystopian meta-narratives when talking about the internet. Whilst the development of the internet undoubtedly has the potential to democratically connect and engage people just as much as it aid those seeking to terrorise and abuse, these narratives or imaginaries fall into a further trap: they tend to cast the internet as a monolithic entity. Often this singular entity is assigned moral characteristics and subject to demands for wholesale reforms. But what if the internet is not one entity at all? What if, as Kinsley suggests, there are actually multiple internets?

These internets both shape and are involved in shaping the actions of their users, and are mediated through multiple devices from spam filters to smart phones, to social media platforms and webcams. Mark Graham has also made a similar argument in a recent commentary in the Geographical Journal about the use of the metaphor of cyberspace as a monolithic imaginary of the multiple interactions which exist between people, codes, information and machineries. Thus there is not just one lived experience of the internet or even any given websites or platforms, but many, and there are multiple ways for internets to enable empowerment and abuse. This raises questions about any one government policy or attempt to promote reform of a particular website or platform can fully account for this diversity of experience or be sure to protect against potential ills.

A further development which Sam Kinsley draws attention to, is the increasing blurring between the states of ‘online’ and ‘offline’. Particularly following the sharp growth in smart phone usage in recent years it has become difficult to separate the times and spaces in which people are connected to the internet to when they are disconnected. Furthermore, activities such as socialising, entertainment, working and relaxing increasingly incorporate a complex of both online and offline elements which are hard to distentangle. This means that, for example, in the case of ‘cyberbullying’, whilst abuse may start online or be enabled by a particular website or internet platform, it may also impinge on the offline parts of an individual’s life through technologies like text messaging or through face to face contact. How then can such challenges be ameliorated through internet regulation alone?

As has been pointed out in some of the media coverage of the recent surge in favour for internet regulation (for example, see here), the problem is always more complex and multifaceted than we would like to believe and needs to be understood as situated within a broader set of societal developments and changes.

books_icon Samuel Kinsely, 2013, Beyond the Screen: Methods for Investigating Geographies of Life ‘Online’Geography Compass 540-555

books_icon Mark Graham, 2013, Geography/internet: ethereal alternate dimensions of cyberspace or grounded augmented realities?The Geographical Journal 179 177-182

60-world2 Boycott websites which don’t tackle abuse, says Cameron BBC News, 8 August 2013

60-world2 Twitter ‘report abuse’ button calls after rape threats BBC News, 27 July 2013

60-world2 David Cameron urges internet firms to block child abuse images BBC News, 21 July 2013

60-world2 Online pornography to be blocked by default, PM announces BBC News, 22 July 2013

60-world2 When politicians get the internet wrong, the internet can be ruthless The Guardian, 16 August 2013

Facebook connections

By Kelly Wakefield

visualisation of where people live in relation to their facebook friendsWith the film ‘Social Network’ being nominated for six Golden Globes in 2011, Facebook is rarely out of the media or off our screens.  The image above, taken from a BBC article visualises our Facebook connections.  The map is the work of Paul Butler, a Facebook intern who has attempted to show where 500 million people live in relation to their Facebook friends.  Each line connects cities with pairs of friends, the brighter the line, the more friends there are.  On Butler’s blog he writes that “not only were continents visible, certain international borders were apparent as well”. 

This map, although showing physical features of the world, highlights the human relationship, not the political or environmental.  Lai (2009) suggests that ‘research agendas have shifted away from the taxonomic description and constructing hierarchies to examinations of networks and flows…reflecting a methodological shift from quantitative methods to more qualitative approaches of interviews, cultural analysis and ethnography’.  Lai goes on to say that this recognition leads to better appreciation of the specific historical circumstances and contexts that contribute to the contemporary development of global(ising)cities and influence their integration into the global city network, as highlighted by research into post-colonial, post-socialist and other ‘alternative’ cities.

This is an important point within the context of this article as one can see from the map that large areas of the world are missing from the Facebook network, in particular China and central Africa, where Facebook (and I would argue, the Internet) has little presence.  These areas are missing due to many factors, including political and economic, but historical and development factors cannot be ignored more contemporarily.

BBC, 14 December 2010, “Facebook connections map the world“.

Lai, K (2009) ” New Spatial Logics in Global Cities Research: Network, Flows and New Ploitical Spaces“, Geography Compass, Volume 3, Issue 3, Pages 997-1012.

Paul Butler, Facebook, 14 December 2010, “Visualising friendships“.

For or against the social network?

by Jayne Glass

Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, has warned us this week that social networking is undermining the Web as we know it.  He argues that the storage of data behind virtual corporate walls, and the many deals being cut between content companies and telecoms operators, are threatening the founding principle of the Web: that systems should all work together based on sets of agreed, open standards.  Berners-Lee fears that these changes have begun to ‘chip away’ at the Web’s principles by walling off information posted by site users from the rest of the Web.  He also suggests that governments – totalitarian and democratic alike – are monitoring people’s online habits, which endangers important human rights.

However, in an early-view article in Area Dr Stewart Barr from the University of Exeter explores the great research potential embedded with the social networking phenomenon.   Barr recognises that internet discussion forums and other forms of virtual social networking media are increasingly being used as sites of discursive practice.  Using a large amount of text generated from an article in The Guardian about climate change and sustainable lifestyles, it is clear that the comments made about the article on the online discussion boards provide valuable insights into the social construction of the topic in question. Would Berners-Lee see this as an infringement of human rights?

Read Barr, S. (early view) ‘Climate forums: virtual discourses on climate change and the sustainable lifestyle. Area

 Read Tim Berners-Lee’s article in Scientific American


Why Cartographic Accuracy Still Matters

A cartographic error that nearly started a war between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Benjamin Sacks

THE DIGITIZATION of maps in recent years has radically altered how we interact with our world. Such formal atlases as The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World continue to provide high-quality, trusted reference charts for geographers and political scientists. But for millions of tourists, armchair geographers, and students, Google Earth, NASA’s World Wind, Skyline Globe and Microsoft’s Bing Maps provide an unrivaled global lens. Coupled with advances in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and satellite topographic imagery, digital map platforms serve in a wide range of applications. Rahul Rakshit and Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger (Clark University) highlighted the use of GIS ‘virtual earths’ in an October 2008 Geography Compass article. They are unequivocal in their analysis of virtual earth possibilities: ‘Since the release of Google Earth in 2005, virtual globes have become one of the hottest topics within the professional geographic community…Virtual globes provide a lot of new avenues for spatial education both for teachers and students’ (pp. 1995-1996). Similarly, another Geography Compass article, authored by Benjamin T Tuttle (University of Denver), Sharolyn Anderson (University of Denver), and Russell Huff (University of Colorado), reviewed virtual globes from a holistic perspective, suggesting a range of ‘technical advances, data availability, and end-user expectations’.

Limitations to this new technology, however, do exist. Satellite imagery models, such as those used by Google, are often little more than haphazard photographic puzzles, pieced together complete with clouds, lens- and heat-based distortions, and other cartographic obstacles. Even when using official data (e.g. that provided by the United States Department of State), they are intended as educational and investigative tools, not as legal arbitrators in international dispute resolution.

These limitations were underscored last week when, according to the BBC, a Nicaraguan army officer led fifty troops across a low-lying island known to them as Harbour Head in order to tear down a Costa Rican flag. Citing Google Maps, the officer argued that the Costa Rican flag was illegally flying in Nicaraguan territory. Costa Rica responded that it had been invaded and demanded the withdrawal of Nicaraguan troops. Acknowledging the error, Google admitted that they (and their data source, the United States Department of State) had drawn the border according to contemporary Nicaraguan national maps, ignoring (or, at the very least, unaware of) an 1888 resolution and 1897 map survey both favouring Costa Rica: ‘The right bank of the San Juan river is Costa Rican territory but the river itself is Nicaraguan’. Although the Organization of American States (OAS) is currently mediating the dispute towards a peaceful resolution, future military officers should think twice before relying on internet maps.

Rahul Rakshit and Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger, ‘Application of Virtual Globes in Education‘, Geography Compass 2 no. 6 (2008): pp. 1995-2010.

Benjamin T Tuttle, Sharolyn Anderson and Russell Huff, ‘Virtual Globes: An Overview of Their History, Uses, and Future Challenges‘, Geography Compass 2 no. 5 (Jul., 2008): pp. 1478-1505.

Google Goofs‘, The Economist ‘Daily Chart’, 17 November 2010.

Troop pull-out urged in Nicaragua-Costa Rica border row‘, BBC News, 14 November 2010.

Geographers and technology (part 2)

By Kelly Wakefield

This article follows on from my last article about geographers and technology and is the second part because I am currently on my summer(?) holidays.  The first article discussed geographers and mobile phones, which got me thinking about how mobile phones are not just mobile phones anymore.  They are the key to so many of our daily activities and yet are materially so small.  The connection between my two articles is that of the advancement of mobile phones to be able to connect to social networking sites.  Pfaffs’s (2010) article concentrates more on the ways in which geographers have engaged with the mobile phone rather than the mobile phone being the core of the article.  Geographical narratives from Laurier (2001) and Thrift (1996) have questioned the mobile as being a designer item to some to just a rental agreement to others.  I would argue though that as the mobile phone has increasingly become more important in our lives and as such has become a staple of business and social interaction, people view their mobile phones as much more important than just a status piece or business transaction.

A recent BBC article called “Facebook film The Social Network tops US box office” charts the rise of Mark Zuckerberg and his friend at Harvard University after launching the social networking site, Facebook.  The film took £14.5 million in its first weekend in the USA, which leads me to ask, why are we so interested in this technological phenomenon?  It may be because the supposed story line tackles the legal battle between Mark Zuckerberg and his friend and three fellow students who claim he stole the idea of Facebook from them.    The most modern mobile phones can access social networking sites like Facebook with such ease that we are just a few taps on a screen away from chatting and interacting with anyone we want.  It is easy to see why so many people have an interest in Facebook and its history, or maybe we just like a film with a good storyline and a controversial court case as the plot.

Pfaff, J (2010), “Mobile Phone Geographies“, Geography Compass, Volume 4, Issue 10, Pages 1433-1447.

BBC, 4th October 2010, “Facebook film The Social Network tops US box office

Political Coverage

By Alexander Leo Phillips

As I write this I’m watching David  Cameron deliver his first Conference speech as Prime Minister.  This is naturally a big event for him; not only is it the first time a Conservative Prime Minster has addressed the Party Conference since 1996, but it also comes at a difficult time for the party itself and wider Britain.

Over the past few weeks of ‘conference season’ we’ve witnessed the Liberal Democrats confuse themselves as they struggle to reconcile the problems of finally tasting power, along with the poisonous knowledge that power has been achieved through the betrayal of many long-standing principles.  Similarly we have seen the alleged death of New Labour and the general bafflement of MPs as they try to comprehend just how they’ve managed the elect the ‘wrong Miliband’.

The Prime Minister’s problems however, are intensified by the burden of government.  The coalition has upset many in the party’s right-wing and has pushed the party too far to the political ‘centre’ than many would have liked.  As a result it has been alleged that the Conservative Party could be on the march towards a state of civil war, which could see the coalition strained not by blue/yellow splits, but by blue/blue splits (see Rawnsley).

Conferences themselves have numerous functions (most of which hold little interest to non-members).  However, one of the most significant is the opportunity to transmit their policies to the wider public in the hope of securing votes.  It is at this point where the power of the media becomes paramount.  Each conference is almost guaranteed to lead the nightly news headlines along with networks like the BBC and Sky offering live rolling coverage and analysis throughout the day.  Geographers Smeltzer and Lepawsky address this point by investigating the important role “[m]ainstream and alternative media play  … in circulating powerful narratives within and often beyond a country’s borders” (2008:86).  Although they’re work focuses upon the Malaysian elections of the last decade, they’re argument and conclusions can be applied just as interestingly to the UK or elsewhere throughout the political calendar. The rise of political blogging through sites such as this, along with countless others; has provided an ever expanding platform of expression upon which people can spout their political views and read the ramblings of others.  A quick look to America and the success of groups like ‘The Young Turks’ provide and effective example of this, as the views of their videos and blogs rival that of the major news networks.

Such coverage raises important questions about ‘framing’.  In the battle for viewers/readers many media organisations have become increasingly partisan in the way they chose to frame their political coverage.  Smeltzer and Lepawsky address this issue of framing by focusing on the relationship between ICT and the electoral process and question the political implications of this framing activity.

Smeltzer, S. and Lepawsky, J. 2008. ‘Foregrounding technology over politics? Media framings of federal elections in Malaysia’, Area. Vol 42 (1). pp. 86-95.

Andrew Rawnsley’s Political Commentary: The Guardian/Observer

The Young Turks website

Why Facebook might be good for us

By Kelly Wakefield

Earlier this year “How Many Friends Does One Person Need?” was published, written by Robin Dunbar.  Currently a Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, the number 150 is attributed to him as “Dunbar’s Number”.  This being the maximum number of acquaintaces one can have.  For those of us that do have an active Facebook account, the number of 150 ‘friends’ may be slightly lower or slightly higher than what our profile suggests. 

However, these ‘friends’ are not necessarily people we speak to everyday, every week or even every month.  They may be people we have met once, knew from many years ago or may be just a mutual friend.  These so called ‘friends’ on social networking sites such as Facebook are called ‘weak ties’.  A recent article in New Scientist, ‘Why Facebook friends are worth keeping’ discussed the possibility that these weak ties have a much greater impact on ones life than they necessarily should and are transforming our social structure.  For example, research conducted at Harvard University has studied the various ways we communicate using social media.  By building a ‘supernet’, that is a network of easily accessible contacts, many people now turn to these networks ahead of newspaper sources for information. 

The New Scientist article suggests that studies have revealed that these ‘weak ties’ may benefit our health and happiness.  The down side to this though may be the fact that social networking is good for maintaining friendships but possibly not building them, still relying heavily on face to face contact.  Nevertheless, maybe all that time spent on Facebook isn’t such a waste?  After all, if one conversation or piece of information produces something positive then it may be a useful way to spend an hour (or more) a day.

Richard Fisher, New Scientist, 7th July 2010, “Why facebook friends are worth keeping”