Tag Archives: Social Networking

Regulating the internet: geographies of cyberspace

By Helen Pallett


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

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

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

The spatial politics of virtual worlds

By Matthew Rech

In the past few months the social networking site, Facebook, has been implicated in the investigation of various criminal activities. From the exploits of the ‘Facebook Fugitive’ (Times online), to the recent and tragic death of Hayley Jones (BBC news), it is clear that online social networks are becoming increasingly important (and sometimes intrinsic) in understanding the motivations for certain criminal activities.

But why, we might ask, do the virtual proofs of these often horrific acts remain central to the reportage? Why is it so often surprising that remnants of our virtual, intangible worlds cast shadows in the spaces of the real?

Writing in Geography Compass, Clayton Rosati argues that “one of the geographically important representational dimensions of media is their ability to make geography seem irrelevant, to shatter the connections of culture to land…and to alienate images from the contexts of their production” (999). “Whilst there are now not many aspects of social life – from grocery shopping to wedding registries – that do not rest on some form of digital communication” (1005), there remains a lack of focus on the “spatial contours of [certain] social forms” (996).

Much like the case of the use of fiction to interpret political and cultural realities (c.f. Tabloid Geopolitics), we must realise that media, images and networks must necessarily be considered alongside, and in parallel with, our more conventional treatments of space and place. And so, while images and networks “are obviously important, they can never form the basis of a media politics in themselves. They must, alternatively, always be understood not simply as an object but as a process as well – as power in circulation” (1000).

60% world Read Rosati C (2007) Media Geographies: Uncovering the Spatial Politics of Images. Geography Compass.