Category Archives: Communication Technology

Ban TikTok?

Should employers be concerned about data security?

Is TikTok an amazingly popular (especially with teens) video-sharing app? Or is TikTok a serious threat to personal, corporate and national security? The answer appears to be “Yes!” 

TikTok Boom

TikTok’s growth has been explosive. It’s been the most downloaded app in Apple’s App Store since 2018. TikTok is reported to have been downloaded over two billion times (175 million in the U.S.), and to have 800 million monthly active users, from over 150 countries. Users are young, with more than 65% being 34 or younger. And they spend a lot of time on the app, averaging 52 minutes a day on TikTok, with teens spending 80 minutes. This activity has reportedly produced $3 billion in profits last year. This app is no slouch. It’s fun. It’s growing. And its user demographics are a marketer’s nirvana.

TikTok Bust

Despite profound success, TikTok’s future is in serious question. TikTok’s growth story is being overshadowed by controversy. Concerns over user data security and international espionage are at the heart of a snowballing crisis for the Chinese-owned app. Unlike with other outcries over social media/technology privacy issues, these controversies aren’t merely rumors. They’re very serious allegations with matching consequences.

The types of actions governments and corporations have taken against TikTok are really unprecedented. Here’s a sample:

  • 2019: Federal Trade Commission fines ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) for violating online child protection laws.
  • 2019: United Kingdom opens an investigation into TikTok data protection for children.
  • 2019: India places provisional ban on TikTok for issues around pornography and child protections.
  • 2019: A large class-action law suit was filed in California, claiming TikTok illegally transferred personal data of U.S. citizens to China.
  • 2020: India permanently bans TikTok, citing security concerns around Chinese government spying. 
  • 2020: The United States Military bans TikTok from all government-issued phones.
  • 2020: Amazon accidentally releases an internal employee memo asking all employees to delete TikTok from company phones.
  • 2020: Wells Fargo directs employees to remove TikTok from company phones.

So, what is the problem with TikTok? Why are these, and other organizations, so concerned about the app’s access to data. There seem to be two primary areas of concern. The first is personal privacy and illegal consumer data collection. The second is corporate and national espionage—spying done through TikTok on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Data Syphoning

It’s widely understood that mobile devices collect immense amounts of data from user actions. They track your web browsing, app usage, driving, spending, steps, sleeping, etc.  That TikTok tracks user data isn’t controversial. The problem is what data the app tracks, how it tracks it, and what it does with the data.

Not everything is publicly known about TikTok and what it’s doing. However, it is important to recognize that TikTok is a rebranded version of the Chinese app Douyin. Because it operates behind the Chinese Firewall, Douyin was developed using a very different set of priorities, ethics and protections than apps developed in the U.S. and other liberal democracies. The Chinese people are restricted and censored in ways that are illegal here. Supposedly, TikTok runs on a separate set of servers than Douyin to enable these differences. Yet, many believe the app retains most of Douyin’s “China-market” capabilities.

There are many ways a downloaded app, like TikTok, could surreptitiously collect sensitive data from a phone without users being aware. For example, Apple flagged TikTok for copying data from user’s clipboards. Also, an app developer recently reversed engineered TikTok and found that the app has the ability to intercept and open zip files and perform other functions that should not be part of a mobile app. TikTok might also be able to collect very sensitive data, like fingerprint markers. TikTok just raises a lot of red flags for consumers.

“There’s a reason governments are banning it. Don’t use the app. Don’t let your children use it. Tell your friends to stop using it. It offers you nothing but a quick source of entertainment that you can get elsewhere without handing your data over to the Chinese government. You are directly putting yourself and those on your network (work and home) at risk.” 

Bangoral

A Trojan Horse

It’s not only user data that’s at risk. Large corporations and governments are concerned with CCP corporate and military espionage. TikTok is only one example of a concerted international curtailment of Chinese technology companies. Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the U.S. is considering a ban on TikTok. Australia, Japan and other nations have suggested that they also might join India in banning TikTok.

This is part of a greater effort against Chinese technology. Companies like Huawei are already excluded from the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan. The core issue is that many, if not all, Chinese tech companies are controlled to some degree by the Chinese military.  

Considering prior action and the strained relationship between the U.S and the CCP, it should not come as a surprise if the U.S. bans TikTok in the coming weeks and months. 

Protect Your Data

In my opinion, when there’s this much smoke, there’s fire. My response to what’s happening with TikTok is to err on the side of caution. I recommend removing TikTok from your personal phone, or any connected device that also has access to any important data. I recommend parents make this decision for their children. I also recommend any employer whose employees access any company data have employees remove TikTok from that device. 

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Signal and Noise

Blackout Tuesday taught us something about Instagram.

During the BlackLivesMatter “Blackout Tuesday” protests last week, many of us saw the following admonition in our various social feeds and in the comment section of Instagram posts:

Unintended Consequences

Why did these most earnest of social justice warriors want us to stop using #blacklivesmatter in our posts? Wasn’t solidarity and the spread of a movement the whole idea? 

The Signal

When these concerned organizers saw their own feeds become clogged with one blacked-out image after another, they realized that their messaging was lost in a sea of black. Organizers, who ironically tried to police Blackout Tuesday, were being frustrated by both the nature of social participation and how Instagram works. 

Instead of letting the protest form organically, these organizers wanted to disseminate specific messages and information using Instagram. To them, the critical thing was the signal. By focusing on their messaging, they missed the beauty of the noise. They began tamping down the participation they had encouraged. The “don’t use #blacklivesmatter” scolds started trending and became one of the predominate messages of the day. I think the simple blacked-out screen shot was more artful and positively impactful.

Blackout Tuesday

The Noise 

What the organizers perceived as noise was, in fact, the most important thing—participation. Blackout Tuesday was a success because it got millions of people to express themselves on behalf of an issue when they  might otherwise have stayed silent.  

When we participle in any social media campaign, we incrementally move from being spectators to stakeholders. This shift is gold to companies who spend millions on influencer marketing, interactive media and direct response advertising. Converting a passive consumer to a co-creator for any brand is a major step in creating lasting brand loyalty. 

No individual post listing real injustices, “important” Netflix docs, or local meet-up times is as important to the success of the movement as having millions of people do something, even something as seemingly insignificant as posting a black screenshot. Each of those little blacked-out posts represents buy in from a fellow citizen and voter. Marketing gold.   

The Platform 

Why wasn’t Instagram effective for disseminating information in the way conceived by Blackout Tuesday organizers? The easy answer is always the algorithm; that mysterious artificial intelligence that determines who, what, when and where a post is displayed on Instagram or any social media platform.

The algorithm is easy to blame, but hard to understand. Actually, it’s impossible to understand because it’s always changing. First, the algorithm’s output is always changing due to exigent conditions on the platform—like millions of black screen shots using #blacklivesmatter. And secondly, social media platforms are constantly tweaking their algorithms to make the user experience better and to increase ad revenue.

Probably the easiest way to understand why the algorithm is a necessary evil is to consider your own social media feed. First, look at the size of the feed space. Depending on your device (Instagram is a mobile phone app), you’ll see one or two posts at once. Interaction is limited to that space and by how much time you spend scrolling and interacting with each post. 

Let’s say you follow 500 people, brands and hashtags. If half of those post every day, it will take some time to get through all of those posts and stories, especially when you factor in the fact that the rate of ads in your feed might be 1:3 in prime viewing times. So, how many of those 250 posts do you actually interact with every day? 

You may think your posts reach all of your followers. They don’t. If you don’t interact much with your followers, the algorithm pushes your post down the queue, behind that follower’s more relevant interactions and behind paid content. And as time goes by, your post becomes less relevant. Even when you make it into your follower’s feed, if they don’t look at your post in a timely manner, it slips further and further down their feed. 

Consider the millions of users and companies vying for space in your feed and you’ll get a picture of how ineffective Instagram is at timely messaging. Instagram is better for branding and low-touch interaction with user-generated content. Other platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, can be more effective dissemination tools due to certain affordances like groups, direct messaging and content structure. But they also are limited by algorithmic control over the vast torrent of content generated each second. 

Complementary Media

Many try to use social media as a broadcast medium without recognizing how the media shapes the message. Consider the following simple diagram explaining user relationships to the messages via different media. For the user, social media is not like watching a single television channel, or connecting to a website. It’s like having 500 channels streaming in all at once. 

Social Media overloads the user.

Social media is a complementary media. The most effective strategy for social media–based information dissemination is to use social media to draw users to an information rich website. There, users can engage with your messages and information and action strategies. They can also up their commitment by signing up for future email, texts and other vital updates from your organization. 

As in all communication, the media matters. Understanding the limits of social media will help you determine how it fits into your quiver of options. While I can help with ways to think about and use social media, I can’t help turn it into something it’s not. For that, you’ll need to sign up for my $5,000 a month newsletter. LOL

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Choose GIF

Great on Smart Phones

This article, number four in a series on ways we communicate digitally, looks at the Graphic Interchange Format (GIF).

The creators of the format pronounced the word as “jif” with a soft “G” as in “gym”…CompuServe employees would often say “Choosy developers choose GIF”, spoofing this brand’s television commercials. The word is now also widely pronounced with a hard “G” /ɡɪf/ as in “gift”.

“It’s Pronounced ‘JIF’ not ‘GIF.’” (Steve Whilhite inventor of GIF)

Wikipedia & The New York Times

What is a GIF?

GIF was created in 1987 by Steve Whilhite and a team of developers at CompuServe, many years before we all started using the Internet. GIF is a compression technique that greatly reduces the file size of images and series of images. (The GIF below is around 250 kb in size, as opposed to 39 MB in the original video.) GIF restricts the color palette and minimizes the number of pixels while maintaining remarkable clarity.

The first GIFs started showing up on websites in the mid-1990s as primitive stand-ins for video. Try to remember how slow the Internet was, even into the early 2000s. Video requires a lot of bandwidth, making it rare, even impossible, to use in the dial-up and early broadband eras.

Initially, GIF was limited to connecting individual frames of photos. Today we have animated GIF. Which uses another technology—Graphic Control Extension (GCE)—that allows us to seamlessly connect multiple images and facilitate the creation of GIFs from video.

Animated GIF is a natural fit for super-powerful smart phones and super-fast mobile networks. They’ve become so popular that Apple and Android phones contain libraries of GIFs for users to effortlessly insert into texts, in the same way they might insert a photo or an emoji.

The language of GIFs

GIFS have some of the same characteristics as memes. (More on Memes.) They’re usually created by repurposing existing images or film. They fall into various genre—like “face palm,” which we’ll consider below. And they are additives to text messages designed to either augment or replace actual writing.

Tracking GIF usage gives us insights into the language of images/video and other non-verbal cues. As mentioned in a previous article, linguists and other communication scholars are trying to understand the evolving shared-syntaxes and grammars guiding digital conversations.

The most popular GIFs repurpose movies, television and other well-known video. Some media scholars have used this as an opportunity to find out how non-academic audiences critique film scenes.

GIFs captured from movies and television function as vernacular criticism, capturing and recycling favorite moments that audiences love or worship, or that express a particular feeling or experience.

Like memes and other online expressions of community through media appropriation and circulation, GIFs are examples of vernacular creativity among groups of users with shared interests and reference points. 

These online social worlds are not usually academic, but they are not so different from scholarly communities either. Like film and television scholars, online fans are also dedicated to the analysis, critique, and appreciation of media.

Newman, M. 2016

Another interesting line of study around GIFs is as packets of human emotion. Researchers at MIT study participants’ reactions to GIFs to create data sets that aid artificial learning (Chen, W. & R. Picard, 2016). The idea is that certain visual cues found in GIFs trigger universal emotional responses and those connections can be taught to machines to help the machines read human faces and actions. (I just hope they don’t use a lot of Three Stooges GIFs. Thirty years from now, I don’t want some nursing home robot hitting me on the head with a hammer to cheer me up.)

How we use GIFs

We insert GIFs into text messages as visual stand-ins for emotion, connection, excitement, agreement and many other various non-verbal cues.

The GIFs themselves are used to reproduce actions that in face-to-face conversation do not require demonstration. Such embodied actions in talk are implicated in the construction and negotiation of stance and emotion.

For example, embodied displays such as sighs can be used as third-position responses, indicating negative affect. Smiles and nods, when produced by listeners, are affiliative and allow interlocutors to negotiate a shared interpretation of the content of the talk.

Beyond displaying emotion, the body may be used to demonstrate behaviors. Gesture and facial expressions commonly depict actions in talk. These gestures may co-occur with a verbal description, but they may also be part of a composite structure in which the syntactic organization of a turn projects completion through the body 

Tolens, J. & Samermit p. 77

GIFs take the place of communicative elements that are challenging to write (especially within the limits of a SMS texting app). Even the most skilled writers would have difficulty capturing exasperation in a few lines of text. GIFs make it possible for all of us to have richer and more impactful “written” interactions.

The Face Palm GIF

Let’s briefly consider a specific genre, the “face palm” GIF. People, (and sometimes cats) move their hands to their faces for various reasons—shock, disgust, embarrassment, agitation, etc. This signal is also very common in stage and screen acting as a way to dramatize emotion.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that “face palm” has become a thing in GIFs. I don’t think the following GIFs need a lot of extra explanation. Just think about how you might insert any of these into a text message as response or to make a point and you’ll get the GIFs.

Feigned “face palm” reaction; Classic Picard move.
Real time “face palm” reaction. Ouch! that’s a Ferrari!
Real time “face palm” reaction; “How do I tell Gisselle?”
Real time “face palm” reaction; Rebecca is embarrassed, not disgusted.
Real time “face paw.” Exasperated or exhausted kitty?

Viral “face palm.”
Feigned “face palm” reaction; animated expresion.
Poorly feigned “face palm” reaction; the author has had enough.

In the next article, we’ll look at emoji and emoticons as we continue our series on digital communication. 🙃 Thanks for reading.

Sources:

Chen, W., & Picard, R.W. “Predicting Perceived Emotions in Animated GIFs with 3D Convolutional Neural Networks.” IEEE International Symposium on Multimedia. (2016).

Eppink, J. “A Brief History of the GIF (So Far),” Journal of Visual Culture 13 (December 2014): 298-306.

Newman, M. “GIFs: The Attainable Text.” University of Michigan Publishing. (2016).

Oleary, Amy. An Honor for the Creator of the GIF. New York Times, Bits Blog. (2013).

Tolins, J. & Samermit, P. “GIFs as Embodied Enactments in Text-Mediated Conversation.” Research on Language and Social Interaction, Vol. 49, 2 (April 2016), 75–91.

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Memes

Chicken soup for your silly bone.

Did Einstein really say that?  

A bit of “wisdom” is juxtaposed with a dead genius. A troubled Keanu Reeves sits on a bench with Forrest Gump. Outrage and irreverence repurpose a famous political poster. We’ve all seen graphic posts like these in our social media feeds and email. They’re called Internet memes.

Laurie Gries likens the spread and distortion of
Shepard Fairey’s iconic Hope poster to a “media virus”
replicating across the Internet.

Cultural Transmission

The word “meme” was coined by evolutionist Richard Dawkins in 1976. He combined the greek word mimeme (meaning to imitate/imitated thing) with the word gene as a means to extend Darwinian concepts to ideology and cultural evolution.

Dawkins’ theory was a bit of an overreach. He and other memetic scholars failed to convincingly link cultural artifacts to changes in culture in the same way scientists can link a specific gene with a physical trait. Culture is just too complex. Upon deeper inspection, it proved impossible to determine “who is the boss?” in regards to the potency of a meme versus human agency (Shifman p. 12). As a result, a memetic approach to cultural studies withered on the vine.

Yet, the idea of a meme being a discrete packet of cultural information that is transmitted visually is useful. We can see this work itself out over thousands of years of world culture in areas like religion, architecture and (more recently) mass media.

Memes everywhere you look

The Madonna and the Buddha found in
religious art, crafts and even tchotchkes.
Endurance, continuity and strength;
the memes of Western institutional architecture.

Uncle Sam, a personification of the U.S.,
is a recurring meme
in mass-media propaganda and
our greater national identity.

Devolution 

Devo-lution of memetic theory.

If Dawkins’ memes tried to trace cultural evolution, Internet memes represent cultural devolution. Forget high-browed, survival-of-the-fittest theories of cultural competition. Today’s memes are more likely to be nonsensical, disposable and misleading. They’re emblematic of our open-source, user-generated, socially-constructed digital environments.

Bottom up

One of the key challenges for memetic thinkers was linking original artifacts to historical developments. They just didn’t have a good “fossil record” of original memes. Kilroy was the exception.

The “Kilroy was here” graffiti left behind by U.S. soldiers was a traceable example of a viral meme from its emergence.

Kilroy is in this video.

Though Kilroy’s run as a cultural phenomena seems to be over, the meme is still an excellent example of bottom-up dissemination. It was the soldiers (not the leaders) who loved and spread Kilroy organically.

“Kilroy Was Here [is] an example of a pre-internet meme with the kind of cultural replication that happens on the internet.”

Because Internet (240)

If the Internet, especially social media, seems chaotic and ridiculous it’s because it is. There is no controlling authority. No gatekeepers. No grammar books. The connections, ideas and content populating social media feeds (including memes) are products of the great connected masses doing whatever strikes our fancy. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.

Understanding Internet Memes

Today’s memes often defy explanation, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Making sense of crowd noise.

Focusing on what we do rather than searching for intent, Lemor Shifman looks at how memes are produced and identifies “Two main repackaging mechanism of memes on the web: mimicry and remix” (Memes in Digital Culture, p. 30). Google any famous meme and you’ll see this process at work — the same photos are repurposed over and over until the original meaning is often lost. This straightforward analysis links meme generation to other forms of communication. How we write, for example.

Meme-generators like IMG-Flip and LiveMeme present users with pre-loaded, popular images and the ability to add their own original copy. This process simplifies, automates and drives “mimicry and remix.” To understand memes, look at how the technology guides the output as a great starting point.

Unfortunately, some scholarly writers stretch credulity a bit as they attempt to apply their respective fields to “meme studies.” (lol) When Cognitive Linguisticians Zinner and Geeraerts’ attempt to decipher the constructive act of choosing a photograph and writing meme copy, they get stuck on trying to understand how humor works. The real humor is in their analysis:

“Anti-joke chicken.”

“As [anti-joke chicken] reveals, some of these image macros only truly make sense –- or at least receive an additional layer of interpretation –-when the recipient is aware of the name of the meme – or perhaps more accurately, the overall meaning of the meme that is captured by the name. ‘Sudden Clarity Clarence’, for instance, expresses the fact that any instance of the meme in question needs to be read in terms of an unexpected (though not necessarily deep or crucial) insight. In the theoretical framework of Construction Grammar, this links up with the non-compositionality of constructions: their conventional meaning is more than the simple sum of their parts.” 

Zinner and Geeraerts, p 177

Aneeq Ejaz asks if memes are new form of literature, seeing them as a means of “transcultural expression [in a] hyperconnected world.” Maybe, but Ejaz’ critical interrogation of memes that “project emotions onto animals, like the famous Grumpy Cat,” feels a bit forced.

I wonder what code-shifting strategies Hipster Kitty is using to regain her lost feline/feminine agency?

She’s so snatched.

Even amateurs want in on the action on sites like Know Your Meme. Know Your Meme is a crowd-sourced collaboration “that researches and documents Internet memes and viral phenomena.” Sounds a little too X-files to me.

The truth is out there.

Silly, Clever, Unpredictable

To me, the joy of memes is that they bubble up from the vox populi. Who cares if they make little sense? Or if they don’t have any lasting value? Or if they can be at times ignorant, crude or patently false? Memes are made by we the people, who often make little sense.

Internet memes are glorious because they are free expression and because (like Kilroy) they rise spontaneously from the crowd, unlike the dogma produced by thought leaders and gatekeepers.

The best way to “get” memes is to make memes. I’d love to see you use the meme generators above to make and post an original meme on the comment section of Smith’s LinkedIn page .

Next in this series, we’ll look at Emoji.

Sources:

Ejaz, A. Are Internet Memes a New Form of Literature?” Quillette. November 28, 2016: https://quillette.com/2016/11/28/are-internet-memes-a-new-form-of-literature/

Gries, L. (2015). Still life with rhetoric: A new materialist approach for visual rhetoric. Logan: Utah State University Press.

McCulloch, G. (2019). Because Internet; Understanding the New Rules of Language. New York: Riverhead Books

Shifman, L. (2013). Memes in Digital Culture. Boston, MA: MIT Press.

Shifman L (2014). The cultural logic of photo-based genres. Journal of Visual Culture 13(3): 340–358.

Zinner E. and D.Geeraerts (2018). One does not simply process memes: Image macros as multimodal constructions. De Gruyter 167-193.

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