Flash Points: Holy Crap, Batman!

Welcome to the third edition of Flash Points — a new feature that provides a critical overview of cultural trends and developments. This week we look at the recently formed Internet Defense League and try to defend ourselves against the contrived charms of yet another internet wedding video.

Look up in the Sky! It’s a bird… it’s a plane… No, it’s a Lolcat!

The internet as savior is arguably its first meme. It has certainly remained its most contagious — liberation movements continue to spread via word of mouse. From email to Wikileaks, the Net has helped liberate its users from (say) the tyranny of distance to autocratic regimes. We can now add the Internet Defense League to its list of resistance movements. The newly formed initiative is literally designed to be a crusading force online. It deploys networked computers to “mobilize” the internet to defend it “from bad laws and monopolies”. The people’s front has appointed itself a caped crusader — by fighting for truth, justice and the internet way. Ordinary people are invited to be members of the league and they will periodically be sent a code to embed in their own sites (URLs, Youtube channels, twitter streams, Tumblr accounts, etc). It intends to use the league of ordinary people as the internet’s own “emergency broadcast system”, and will send out a “bat signal” to contact and summon one another into action.

There have been a number of the threats to internet freedom of course — and these dangers have come from both within and outside it. SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) threatened to curtail free speech and innovation, and the resulting Web blackout was an instance of digital activism helping to combat oppressive forces offline. The Internet Defense League explicitly “takes the tactic that killed SOPA and PIPA” and hopes to turn “it into a permanent force for” good. Another threat to freedom, however, comes from within its own domains. The freedom to filter (customise, personalise) content in the information age threatens to limit our exposure to topics and points of view of our own choosing. Our new found freedom can make us increasingly inactive or resistant to change. Indeed, many internet users have been using their right to freedom to engage in pointless activities in order to close in on themselves. Being free to create the world in our own image therefore has a potential downside. It can turn the internet into an echo chamber and enclose ‘liberated’ people within their own filter bubbles.

The Internet Defense League can fight on both fronts at once. Its distress signal can burst through any filter bubble and potentially alert everyone about oncoming threats. The League has clearly modeled its call to action on the signal used to summon Batman for help — except it will be using the sign of a cat as its distress signal. They’re beaming images of pussy cats because of the cute cat theory of digital activism, which urges that most people use the internet to share amusing images of animals. According to this theory, such images — and the tools used to spread them — are the best way to get people’s attention and mobilize them into action.

The Internet Defense League has obviously found an ingenious way to make people more aware and active. Nonetheless, it inevitably raises some important questions: to what extent does the League flatter (and potentially exploit) its own constituency, and doesn’t it threaten to turn morally complex issues into events that are contrived to disarm or charm?

When the cute cat theory was originally put forward, it was coming from a different direction. It was primarily concerned about human rights issues within autocratic regimes. Certain rights that many Westerners take for granted — such as freedom of expression and downloading music for free — were being taken away or actively repressed. The Internet Defense League, however, is using the cute cat theory for its own ends: indulging our sense of entitlement. And what better way than to compare internet users to a superhero who acts outside or above the law?

By deliberately invoking the iconography of the bat signal, the League has inadvertently signaled the possibility of vigilante justice and the idea that the Internet (like Gotham city) should be a law unto itself. Whatever Batman’s strengths, deference to democratic principles (due process, being held accountable, etc) are not amongst his strong suit. Batman takes the law into his own hands and polices a lawless city as if it were his birthright. The irony is that the internet is more like Gotham city than many of us would care to admit — crime on the internet frequently exposes its dark underbelly. Many of its denizens are free to be cyber bullies, stalkers, thieves, pirates, hackers and terrorists (amongst other things). Comparing internet users to Batman, then, encourages the lunatics to take over Arkham asylum.

The image of a cute cat trivializes the attempt to monopolize and concentrate power in the hands of ‘the people’. It purports to raise the alarm by sharing information already cast in a particular light. While the option obviously remains for people to investigate complex issues further, the emphasis is upon action and acting now. It smacks of viral marketing masquerading as informed discussion, rational scrutiny or community service. The power of the people — its rights and responsibilities — will invariably be located in the popularity of trending topics, the spreading of misinformation and emotional appeals. We’ve already seen how such power sharing works. Our emphasis upon sharing (the hopping onto bandwagons in order to feel more powerful and in tune with one another) can establish a link between Rebecca Black and Joseph Kony: going viral has made a mass murderer and 13-year-old girl morally equivalent. Perhaps the biggest concern about the Internet Defense League’s approach is its ability to create a self reinforcing feedback loop, or giant filter bubble.

It is important to stress that there are no objective parties here. The threat to internet freedom is really code for vested (and competing) interests. Conflicting interests converge around irresolvable and/or intractable issues — such as freedom of expression and ‘ownership’ of information that can be freely shared. The recurring questions seem to be: whose interests are really being served and protected online and/or who poses the bigger threat there? These questions are difficult to answer when the interested parties are intent on playing a cat and mouse game, and keep alternating between the one ‘player’ (or role) and the other in the resulting confusion. Either way, they’re equally caught in contrived action involving constant pursuit, near captures, and repeated escapes .


Popping the Question

It’s nice to see that the internet can create a sense of community between strangers sitting alone at their computers. It’s even better when someone has created a video that they all want to share with one another. Internet users will call family and friends over to their computers to watch it with them or share a link into order to establish a bond with strangers across the world. During the course of the week, a homemade video immediately struck a chord with millions of people. They were all invited to Isaac’s wedding proposal.

It’s not the first time that the internet has been used to propose to someone — earlier this year Mike tweeted a wedding proposal to a woman without a Twitter account. The live stream occurred over a twelve hour period and #MikeProposes seemed more interested in attracting a following than securing the affections of his girlfriend ‘J’. At least ‘Isaac’s Live Lip-Dub Proposal’ got its act together, and it was quite the performance. The Portland actor seemed to instinctively know that a hashtag can’t compete with a youtube video — and his girlfriend Amy (also an actress) was gracious enough to allow herself to be incorporated into its mise en scene. Isaac managed to stage a seemingly impromptu wedding proposal with the help of sixty friends and two strategically placed video cameras. Bruno Mars provided the soundtrack in the form of Marry You — a song about a spontaneous marriage proposal between two people. Isaac was able to say in (app) 4 and a 1/2 minutes what #MikeProposes took 12 hours to express — but maybe that’s because Isaac’s proposal largely consisted of him getting other people to do all the singing and dancing for him.

Isaac’s wedding proposal was essentially an intimate moment turned into karaoke street theater. The Lip Dub appears to be inspired by Jill and Kevin’s wedding video sensation from 2009 (75 million views and counting). Indeed, the two videos make an entertaining couple and would ideally be viewed together — reversing the chronology heightens their emotional effect.

The way people react to Isaac’s wedding proposal, however, appears to depend on two things — the extent to which their comfortable with the video’s conflation of public and private emotion, and their degree of comfort at watching a seemingly spontaneous act being the culmination of many rehearsed performances. Isaac’s wedding proposal seems to be specifically designed to be a viral phenomenon (10 million views within a single week): everyone can get in on the action and share the love between two people. The reason for its popularity is there for all the world to see — a typically personal moment has been visibly transformed into an elaborately staged and choreographed ‘scene’. Unfortunately, the elaborate staging keeps drawing attention to the artificiality of the performance (and performers). There is no escaping the feeling that unless millions of people are watching and applauding these people making a spectacle of themselves, it’s not really happening for them. While its impressive that someone will go to such great lengths to share their love, another question pops up: why does Isaac chose to express his love through other people?