30-05-2013

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Internship Report: Understanding Social Media Monopolies and their Alternatives

Abstract: 

A reflection on my time spent interning with the Institute of Network Cultures, where I focussed specifically on their unique Unlike Us initiative. My internship contained a balance of research and practical tasks, all of which tied into a theme of understanding social media platforms through a critical lens.

From the outset of the Master’s Programme, I have been interested in studying the psychological impact of our social media interactions. This was evident across a number of the papers I submitted during semester one, which explored online social environments in relation to offline racial constructions and self conceptions. From February to April, I completed a research internship with the Institute of Network Cultures (INC), which offered the perfect opportunity to continue along this line of enquiry. A media research centre, INC operates in affiliation with Hogeschool van Amsterdam to actively contribute to the field of network cultures through research, events, publications and online dialogue. With an emphasis on content, the Institute seeks to foster an open and sustainable research forum in which a diverse range of ideas can be contextualised.
 
Of course, inextricably woven within the very fabric of network culture is social media, an internet-fuelled revolution that has taken the world by storm. Social media platforms are often hailed as great democratising spaces, immersive virtual networks that lend a voice to the previously unheard while promoting the formation and maintenance of various social ties. But is there a more sinister side to this increasingly omnipresent phenomenon? Probing beyond a culture of superficial complaint, INC has played a crucial role in developing ‘Unlike Us’, an international initiative that analyses the cultural impact of social media monopolies and their decentralised alternatives. More specifically, Unlike Us is aimed at identifying important emerging topics within the social media landscape and understanding the complex dyadic interaction between medium and user.
 
During my three-month tenure, INC was responsible for publishing a reader, launching an iPad magazine and organising a conference all within the Unlike Us framework. The bulk of my practical tasks were concerned with the conference (titled Unlike Us #3), which was staged on the 22nd and 23rd of March at TrouwAmsterdam. Adopting ‘Design or Decline’ as its broad theme, Unlike Us #3 encompassed a diverse and unique range of topics, including theory and critique of the ‘social’, terms of decentralization, political economy of the social network, mobile media activity, and the revolutionary and riot-based usage of social media. There were also a series of workshops aimed at putting some of the theory into immediate practice and thus aligning the artistic, activistic and academic pillars of Unlike Us.
 
My responsibilities ranged from producing videos to writing blog entries to conducting interviews to taking minutes, along with a host of administrative duties. Working alongside my fellow interns, I was also entrusted with evaluating the conference for the sake of subsequent events as well as researching potential future themes and partners.
 
Another important dimension of my internship comprised independent research. Drawing inspiration from Unlike Us, I sought to gain a preliminary understanding of how the combination of interface restrictions and user tendencies lead to a Facebook representation of romance, and what shape this romance might take. Given the ongoing conceptual conflation of online and offline realms, I also considered the impact that Facebook intimacy may have on life away from the screen. Much of the theoretical framework weaved throughout this paper was informed by the Unlike Us Reader, in which I found the sections on ‘Critical Platform Analysis’ and ‘Platform Case Studies’ particularly useful and interesting.
 
The freedom afforded by INC when it came to conducting my own research allowed me to spend a lot of time fine-tuning my interest and focus within the field. I was ultimately pleased with the topic I pursued and now intend to expand upon the notion of a Facebook ‘curated couple’ for my upcoming thesis. While it is too early to jump to conclusions, my research to date has indicated that Facebook often houses quixotic romantic representations that are not far removed from the dominant Hollywood narrative of love. I look forward to unpacking this idea over the coming months and greatly appreciate the help and support of the INC as I think my internship experience has prepared me well for the remainder of the Master’s Programme.