Reality on the Web

Started reading An Introduction to Visual Culture and A Visual Culture Readers by Nicholas Mirzoeff.  I was reminded of both this morning when I read Mark Glaser's comments at MediaShift about "astroturf" blog commenters.  Unlike grassroots comments, astroturf comments are placed by those either encouraged or actually paid to post comments that support particular points of view.  The general problem, of course, is that the Web promotes anonymity and identity masking: "Often people will contribute anonymously or make up names or places where they live, or even lie about their gender, age or occupation."   This certainly opens the door for organized commenting efforts; a way for the opposition to talk back.  In this case, the issue is network neutrality, and the comments have been traced back to either big telecoms or their PR firms.  It seems to undermine the whole notion of blogging and commenting but also suggests a new "media literacy" skill. Glaser quotes a comment from Trish Grier in his post: “What this may end up doing is forcing more folks to be transparent,” Grier wrote. “It may also cause more folks to blog and more bloggers to better screen their comments sections. We’re going to have to get very savvy about what we’re reading and responding to in our comments. Online interaction has, though, always been very nuanced because of the lack of physical cues. Weeding out ‘astroturfing’ efforts will indeed add to one’s online communication skills set.”

I was reminded of Mirzoeff, who in the introduction to An Introduction to Visual Culture, discusses the destruction of reality that is part of the postmodern world.  In particular, he focuses on the increasing difficulty of figuring out how "real" a photograph is.   Thomas Campanella, in Eden by Wire, an essay about webcams in The Visual Culture Reader, comments, "Webcameras, a grassroots phenomenon largely ungoverned by norms or regulations, has been free to expand into a populist, globe-spanning broadcast medium–a shadow of the Net itself.  But such free-form evolution has come at a cost.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate truth from fiction, to determine with certainty which webcameras are conveying accurate visaul information, and which are frauds passing off still images or a Quicktime movie as just-captured reality.  This is an epistemological issue.  What is the integrity of the knowledge received from a webcamera, and how are we to verify it?" (p. 275).

Campanella doesn't answer his own question, and I don't think I have an answer either.  We sometimes get forwarded emails with funny or odd pictures and wonder which reflect reality, a moment captured in time by the photographer, and which are "fake," a moment in time manipulated by someone's imagination.  I suppose one small suggestion is to check a website like Snopes that tries to identify photos as real or fake as well as photos that are real but that have been given false backstories. But even Snopes has a few that it has been unable to identify.


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