This semester our digital anthropology seminar has covered a lot of ground. We have been so busy, in fact, that I haven’t had much time to even do all of the blogging that I had planned. I hope to do some catching up at the end of the semester. We have read many interesting things, enjoyed thought-provoking conversations, and have just scratched the surface of the issues we have taken up.
We have also had some fun, so I thought I’d start with that.
During the first few weeks of the semester we examined the cultural specific expressions and practices of global social media platforms while reading Daniel Miller’s book, Tales From Facebook. A few weeks later, we added issues of anonymity and privacy and mixed in the playful-seriousness of hacking while reading work from Gabriella Coleman, Makenzie Wark and others. The conversations left us in part with a recognition of hacking-as-critique of the platforms and systems through which we practice and perform our digital selves.
After one of our class conversations about politics and pleasures of hacking—of bending a system or platform to one’s will in spite of its designer’s intentions—we considered how we could get a taste without harm. While we don’t have the time or expertise to hack at the level of code, was it possible to hack at the level of use—could we generate micro lulz or simulate our own version of a denial of service attack? Could we think of a case where we might use a service, platform or system in a way that would critique its normal function. And, could we do this in a way that would allow for individual innovation and creativity while also building or maintaining a sense of community among our hacker-class? Ideally it would be a real effort, but at the same time harmless.
A day or two later, with these issues buzzing in my head, I read an article about Yeti Campus Stories, a mobile app intended for college students to anonymously share images and short videos of their college lives. As one might imagine, the app was designed to be a place where students primarily share images of their social lives—shots of parties, carousing, drinking and having fun. As an anonymous platform, however, the sharing can be extreme—dipping into the dark side of campus culture. The article described how Yeti was being used for sharing sensational images of students’ guns and weaponry. Other articles have mentioned explicit images of drug use and other illegal behavior.
After installing Yeti, I held my breath and took a plunge—checking out some of the streams from various campuses around the US. Indeed, it didn’t take me long to find parties and booze and drugs and guns. It was rowdy and raw—the app itself a critique of the very idea of “higher education.” When I went to check if there was a Yeti stream from my university I wasn’t surprised to see that there wasn’t one. It was empty. Apparently the app wasn’t well known on my campus. Perhaps our school is too small for anonymity to be effective. Maybe all of our students are earnest and hardworking all the time and never party.
Nevertheless, this was an opportunity—an opportunity for our class to own our campus Yeti feed. We could take it over. We could hack it through intentional, coordinated action.
The next day in class, we decided that everyone would install the Yeti app and we would flood it with images of little fuzzy squirrels—we would fill it with all of the squirrels we could find and deny the intentions of the app developers by hacking it though use. We would change the local meaning of the platform by practicing it in a different way.
Yeti: Campus Stories would become Fluffy: Squirrel stories.
It worked. For much of the next week and continuing even until now, anonymous squirrel pics started popping up at all hours of the day and night. There were partying squirrels, masculine squirrels, squirrels in love and eating junk food. Rather than change the code of the app, we just used it differently—demonstrating that platforms are dependent on content and can be hacked through their use. Overall it was quite entertaining and did build a bit of esprit de corps among class members.
So while other students on other campuses might be using Yeti to share their lives beyond the classroom—their parties and their weed and their guns—on our campus the pictures of fluffy squirrels means The Yeti has been working for our education.