Category Archives: social

Using Collections – Virtually

I heard a remark the other day that struck a cord – or, churned my butter, a bit.

The gist of it was, “we should make digital facsimiles of our library materials (especially rare materials) and put them online, so they spark library use when people visit to see them in person, after becoming aware of them thanks to the digitized versions.”

Now, at Penn, we have digitized a couple of Japanese collections: Japanese Juvenile Fiction Collection (aka Tatsukawa Bunko series), Japanese Naval Collection (in-process, focused on Renshū Kantai training fleet materials), and a miscellaneous collection of Japanese rare books in general.* These materials have been used both in person (thanks to publicizing them, pre- and post-digitization, on library news sites, blogs, and social media as well as word-of-mouth), and also digitally by researchers who cannot travel to Penn. In fact, a graduate student in Australia used our juvenile fiction collection for part of his dissertation; another student in Wisconsin plans to use facsimiles of our naval materials once they’re complete; and faculty at University of Montana have used our digital facsimile of Meiji-period journal Hōbunkai-sui (or Hōbunkai-shi).

These researchers, due to distance and budget, will likely never be able to visit Penn in person to use the collections. On top of that, some items – like the juvenile fiction and lengthy government documents related to the Imperial Navy – don’t lend themselves to using in a reading room. These aren’t artifacts to look over one page at a time, but research materials that will be read extensively (rather than “intensively,” a distinction we book history folks make). Thus, this is the only use they can make of our materials.

The digitization of Japanese collections at Penn has invited use and a kind of library visit by virtue of being available for researchers worldwide, not just those who are at Penn (who could easily view them in person and don’t “need” a digital facsimile), or who can visit the library to “smell” the books (as the person I paraphrased put it). I think it’s more important to be able to read, research, and use these documents than to smell or witness the material artifact. Of course, there are cases in which one would want to do that, but by and large, our researchers care more about the content and visual aspects of the materials – things that can be captured and conveyed in digital images – rather than touching or handling them.

Isn’t this use, just as visiting the library in person use? Shouldn’t we be tracking visits to our digital collections, downloads, and qualitative stories about their use in research, just as we do a gate count and track circulation? I think so. As we think about the present and future of libraries, and people make comments about their not being needed because libraries are on our smartphones (like libraries of fake news, right?), we must make the argument for providing content both physically and virtually. Who do people think is providing the content for their digital libraries? Physical libraries, of course! Those collections exist in the real world and come from somewhere, with significant investments of money, time, and labor involved – and moreover, it is the skilled and knowledgable labor of professionals that is required.

On top of all of this, I feel it is most important to own up to what we can and cannot “control” online: our collections, by virtue of being able to be released at all, are largely in the public domain. Let’s not put CC licenses on them except for CC-0 (which is explicitly marking materials as public domain), pretending we can control the images when we have no legal right to (but users largely don’t know that). Let’s allow for free remixing and use without citing the digital library/archive it came from, without getting upset about posts on Tumblr. When you release public domain materials on the web (or through other services online), you are giving up your exclusive right to control the circumstances under which people use it – and as a cultural heritage institution, it is your role to perform this service for the world.

But not only should we provide this service, we should take credit for it: take credit for use, visits, and for people getting to do whatever they want with our collections. That is really meaningful and impactful use.

* Many thanks to Michael Williams for his great blog posts about our collections!

research diary go

binding

Lately, I feel like I’m stuck in short-term thinking. While I hear “be in the moment” is a good thing, I’m overly in the moment. I’m having a hard time thinking long-term and planning out projects, let alone sticking to any kind of plan. Not that I have one.

A review of my dissertation recently went online, and of course some reactions to my sharing that were “what have you published in journals?” and “are you turning it into a book?” I graduated three years ago, and the dissertation was finished six months prior to that and handed in. This summer, I’ll be looking at four years of being “done” without much to show for the intervening time.

Of course, it’s hard to show something when you have a full-time job that doesn’t include research as a professional component. But if I want to do it for myself — and I do — that means that I need to come up with a non-job way to motivate myself and stay on track.

That brings me to the title of this post. My mother recently had a “meeting with herself” at the end of the work week to check in on what she meant to do and what actually happened. It sounds remarkably productive to me as a way to keep yourself 1) kind of on track, and 2) in touch with your own habits and aspirations. It’s easy to lose touch with those things in the weekly grind.

I decided I will have a weekend meeting with myself every week, and as a part of that, write a narrative of what I did. I’ll write it before I review my list of aspirations for the previous week and then when I compare, not necessarily beat myself up over “not meeting goals” but rather use it as an opportunity to refine my aspirations based on how I actually work (or don’t). As a part of that — to hold myself accountable and also to start a dialogue with others — I’ll be writing a cleaned-up version of that research diary once a week here. Don’t expect detailed notes, but do expect a diary of my process and the kinds of activities I engage in when doing research and writing.

I hope this can be helpful to a beginning researcher and spark some conversation with more experienced ones. While this is a personal journey of a sort, it is public, and I welcome your comments.

WORD LAB: a room with a whiteboard

Several years ago, I attended Digital Humanities 2011 at Stanford and had the opportunity to meet with Franco Moretti. When Franco asked what I was interested in, I admitted that I badly wanted to see the Literary Lab I’d heard so much about, and seen so much interesting research come out of. He laughed and said he’d show it to me, but that I shouldn’t get too excited.

Why? Because Literary Lab is a windowless conference room in the middle of the English department at Stanford. Literary Lab is a room with a whiteboard.

I couldn’t have been more excited, to Franco’s amusement.

A room with a whiteboard. A room dedicated to talking about projects, to collaborating, to bringing a laptop and getting research done, and to sharing and brainstorming via drawing and notes up on a wall, not on a piece of paper or a shared document. It was an important moment for me.

When I was in graduate school, I’d tossed around a number of projects with colleagues, and gotten excited about a lot of them. But they always petered out, lost momentum, and disappeared. This is surely due to busy schedules and competing projects – not least the dissertation – but I think it’s also partly due to logistics.

Much as our work has gone online, and despite these being digital projects – just like Literary Lab’s research – a physical space is still hugely important. A space to talk, a space to brainstorm and draw and write, a space to work together: a space to keep things going.

I had been turning this over in my head ever since I met with Franco, but never had the opportunity to put my idea into action. Then I came to Penn, and met a like-minded colleague who got just as excited about the idea of dedicated space and collective work on projects as I was.

Our boss thought the idea of a room with a whiteboard was funny, just as Franco had thought my low standards were kind of silly. But you know what? You don’t need a budget to create ideas and momentum. You don’t need a budget to stimulate discussion and cross-disciplinary cooperation. You just need space and time, and willing participants who can make use of it. We made a proposal, got the go-ahead, and took advantage of a new room in our Kislak Center at Penn that was free for an hour and a half a week. It was enough: the Vitale II lab is a room with a whiteboard. It even has giant TVs to hook up a laptop.

Thus, WORD LAB was born: a text-analysis interest group that just needed space to meet, and people to populate it. We recruited hard, mailing every department and discipline list we could think of, and got a mind-boggling 15+ people at the first meeting, plus the organizers and some interested library staff, from across the university. The room was full.

That was the beginning of September 2014. WORD LAB is still going strong, with more formal presentations every other week, interspersed with journal club/coding tutorials/etc. in OPEN LAB on the other weeks. We get a regular attendance of at least 7-10 people a week, and the faces keep changing. It’s a group of Asianists, an Islamic law scholar, Annenberg School of Communication researchers, political scientists, psychologists, and librarians, some belonging to more than one group. We’ve had presentations from Penn staff, other regional university researchers, and upcoming Skype presentations from Chicago and Northeastern.

A room with a whiteboard has turned into a budding cross-disciplinary, cross-professional text analysis interest community at Penn.

Keep up on WORD LAB:
@upennwordlab on Twitter
WORD LAB on Facebook

academic death squad

Are you interested in joining a supportive academic community online? A place to share ideas, brainstorming, motivation and inspiration, and if you’re comfortable, your drafts and freewriting and blogging for critique? If so, Academic Death Squad may be for you.

This is a Google group that I believe can be accessed publicly (although I’ve had some issues with signing up with non-Gmail addresses) although you appear to have to be logged in to Google to view the group’s page. Just put in a request to join and I’ll approve you. Or, if that doesn’t work, email me at mdesjardin (at) gmail.com.

Link: [Academic Death Squad]

I’m trying to get as many disciplines and geographic/chronological areas involved as possible, so all are welcome. And I especially would love to have diversity in careers, mixing in tenure-track faculty, adjuncts, grad students, staff broadly interpreted, librarians, museum curators, and independent scholars – and any other career path you can think of. Many of us not in grad student or faculty land have very little institutional support for academic research, so let’s support each other virtually.

In fact, one member has already posted a publication-ready article draft for last-minute comments, so we even have a little activity already!

Best regards and best wishes for this group. Please email me or comment on this post if you have questions, concerns, or suggestions.

よろしくお願いいたします!

*footnote: The name came originally based on a group I ran called “Creative Death Squad” but the real origin is an amazing t-shirt I used to own in Pittsburgh that read “412 Vegan Death Squad” and had a picture of a skull with a carrot driven through it. I hope the name connotates badass-ness, serious commitment to our research, and some casual levity. Take it as you will.

the first-world internet

I heard an interesting presentation today, but it concluded with a very developed-world, class-based interpretation of the Internet that I simply can’t agree with.

Although it’s true that more students are coming from abroad to study in the US (attributed in the presentation partially to budgetary issues in public schools in the US, another issue entirely), the idea of ‘globalization’, I’d argue, is really a concept based in the developed world. Yes, we have more students studying ‘cross-border’ topics, and interested in the world outside of the US. American students are coming into more contact with international students thanks to their presence in American universities, and perhaps gaining more cultural competency through this interaction. ‘Global studies’ are now a thing.

But this presentation talked at the end about the global power of the Internet, and globalization generally, about being able to reach across borders and communicate unimpeded. It doesn’t just have the potential to break down barriers, but already actively does so, this presenter posited. It doesn’t just encourage dissent but is already a channel for dissent, and an opportunity available to all.

International students in the US may be experiencing this power of the Internet, yes. But at home? Students from nations such as China and Saudi Arabia may not have experienced the Internet in this way, and may not be able to experience it back home in the same way as they can in the West, in Korea, in Japan, in other developed countries. (And I realize that’s a problematic term in itself.) Moreover, not all American students have experienced this Internet either. The students we find in universities generally already have opportunities not available to everyone, including their access to technology and the Internet.

There’s also the inherent assumption that this global access – and ‘global studies’ in general – takes place in English. While many students abroad are studying English, not all have this opportunity; moreover, their access to the educational opportunities of the developed world are limited to those opportunities they can access in English. Many undergraduates and even graduate students in the US limit themselves to the kind of global studies that can take place without foreign language competency. I realize that many do attempt foreign language studies and while the vast majority of undergraduates I encounter who are interested in Japan and Korea cannot read materials in their focus countries’ languages, they are often enrolled in language classes and doing their best. However, there are many more who are not. They do not come to the world – they expect the world to come to them.

And there are many, many students around the world who do not have access to the English Internet, or cross-border collaboration in English through the opportunities the Internet potentially affords (or doesn’t, depending on the country). They may not even have reliable access to electricity, let alone a data connection. This is changing, but not at the speed that the kind of thinking I encountered today assumes.

Related to this, another presentation talked about the power of MOOCs and online learning experiences in general. And yes, while I generally agree that there is much potential here, the vast majority of MOOCs currently available require English, a reliable connection, reliable electricity. They are by and large taken by educated adult males, who speak English. There is potential, but that is not the same as actual opportunity.

Overall, I think we need to question what we are saying when we talk about the power of the global Internet, and distinguish between potential and reality. Moreover, we need to distinguish exactly the groups we are talking about when we talk about globalization, global studies, and cross-border/cross-cultural communication. Even without the assumption of a developed-world, upper-class Internet, we need to recognize that by and large, our work is still conducted in silos, especially in the humanities. Science researchers in Japan may be doing English-language collaboration with international colleagues, but humanities researchers largely cannot communicate in English and cross-language research in those fields is rare. I can’t speak for countries other than Japan and the US, really, but despite the close mutual interest in areas such as Japanese literature and history, there is little collaboration between the two countries – despite the potential, as with digitizing rare materials and pooling resources to create common-interest digital archives, for example.

Even those international students often conduct their American educations in language and culture silos. Even the ones with reliable Internet access use country-based chat and social media, although resources such as Facebook are gaining in popularity. We go with what is most comfortable for us, what comes to us; that doesn’t apply only to Americans. Our channels of communication are those that allow us the path of least resistance. Even if Twitter and Facebook weren’t blocked in China, would they prove as popular as Sina Weibo and other Chinese technologies? Do Americans know what Line is or are they going to continue using WhatsApp?

If we find that English, money, and understanding of American cultural norms are major barriers to our communication, we might find other ways. Yes, that developed-world Internet may hold a lot of potential, but its global promise may not go in a direction that points toward us in America anyway.

ruins – the past, the real, the monumental, the personal

Did I ever tell you about one of my favorite buildings in the world? It’s a public housing project named Kaigan-dori Danchi 海岸通り団地 (not to be confused with the type of projects one finds in the US, it was perfectly desirable housing in its time). This particular danchi (“community housing” or – generally public – housing project) was located smack in the middle of the richest section of Yokohama, between Kannai and Minato Mirai, perhaps one of the richest areas of the Tokyo region. Here it is in all its dirty, dirty glory, with Landmark Tower in the background.

Yes. This is Kaigan-dori Danchi, one of the grossest “ruins” (haikyo 廃墟) I had ever seen. Or, I thought it was a ruin. You know, an abandoned building. Because it looked too much like a shell to be anything else.

Then I got a message on Flickr.

In it, the messager wrote that he grew up in Kaigan-dori Danchi and now lives in New York City. He advised me that yes, it’s still inhabited, and thanked me for putting so many photos of it on Flickr. (Yes, I went for a photo shoot of this complex, more than once – hey, it was on my walk home from school!) He felt nostalgic at seeing his boyhood home and was interested to see what it looked like now.

In other words, what I’d felt vaguely strange about as some kind of ruins voyeurism – the same kind of ruins porn that takes hold of nearly everyone who wants to take photos of Detroit, for example – turned out to be a two-way street. It wasn’t pure voyeurism; it was a way to connect with someone who had a direct experience of the past of this place, a place that was still alive and had a memory and a history, rather than being some monstrosity out of time – as I’d been thinking of it. I saw it as a monument, not an artifact.

So this was in 2008, a half year after I’d become obsessed with Japanese urban exploration photography, which was enjoying a boom in the form of guidebooks, a glossy monthly magazine, calendars, DVDs, tours, photo books, and more, in Japan at the time. (Shortly thereafter, and I CALLED IT, came the public housing complex boom. I do have some of the photo books related to this boom too, because there’s nothing I love more than a good danchi.)

As part of the research for a presentation I gave on the topic for my Japanese class at IUC that year, I’d done some research into websites about ruins in Japan (all in Japanese of course). These were fascinating: some of them were just about the photography, but others were about reconnecting with the past, posting pictures of old schools and letting former classmates write on the guestbooks of the sites. There was a mixi (like myspace) group for the Shime Coal Mine (the only landmark of the first town I’d lived in in Japan). The photo books, on the other hand, profoundly decontextualized their objects and presented them as aesthetic monuments, much the way I’d first viewed Kaidan-dori Danchi.

So I wonder, with ruins porn a genre in the United States and Europe as well, do we have the same yearning for a concrete, real past that some of these sites and photographers exhibit, and not just vague nostalgia for the ruins of something that never existed? How much of ruins photography and guidebooks are about the site in context – the end point of a history – and how much is just about “hey I found this thing”? How much of this past is invented, never existed, purely fantasy, and how much of it is real, at least in the minds of those who remember it?

These are answers I don’t yet have, but I’ve just begun on this project. In the meantime, I’m happy to share Kaigan-dori Danchi with you.

politics and anthologizing

In this past year, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how the form of the anthologies I study (literary individual author anthologies in Japan at the turn of the 20th century) impacts possibilities of reading and interpretation. I’ve also commented at a couple of conferences that the narratives of who these authors “belong” to have been shaped and guided in these anthologies, and have written that taking works out of their original contexts fundamentally erases a part of their meaning (in terms of the ways readers encounter them) and simultaneously alters the work in terms of its received meaning.

After doing some reading this morning, I realized that one thing links these various threads in anthologies, and it’s a word I wasn’t using: politics.

I want to talk specifically about the example of Higuchi Ichiyō. For much of her career, she wrote for the magazine Bungakukai (among others) which was a driver of the first Romantic movement in Japan. In her anthologies, of course her serial works from that magazine are included as whole pieces, as though they were wholes from the outset, which has its own implications for reading. But the other piece of this is that just as the editors were writing the Bungakukai coterie social and ideological connections out of her career in their prefaces, they simultaneously erased this connection – this fundamental supplier of meaning – from her works by taking them out of their original Romantic context.

The first readers of Ichiyō’s works would have seen them embedded in theory and poetry heavily influenced by western Romanticism, including translations of English works and illustrations of faded ruins and statuary. The readers of her individual anthology, as well as reprints in wider circulation magazines such as Bungei kurabu before her death, would have encountered a very different context: in the magazines, other “modern” mainstream Japanese literature (presented as unaffiliated with any coterie or group other than the influential publishers of the magazines), and in the anthology, Ichiyō’s own works as a cohesive and self-contained whole. No longer would her work be infused, by virtue of proximity, with the politics of literature at the time she wrote in the early-to-mid 1890s. She becomes depoliticized, ironically despite the heavily social and what I would call political themes of her work: that is, the plight of the lower class and the inequity of Japanese society at the turn of the 20th century.

Especially in her second anthology, published in 1912, Ichiyō becomes a timeless woman writer, an elegant author of prose and poetry whose works are infused with tragedy – just as her poverty-stricken life was, to paraphrase the editors of the two volumes. Yet it is not a structural tragedy that pervades society, as it is in her work, but a personal, elegant, and heart-wrenching individual tragedy, one that makes her work even more poignant without necessarily having political implications. I can’t speak to the Romantic movement’s attitude toward this kind of theme found in Bungakukai, not being as familiar with its politics as I should be, but I can say that Kitamura Tōkoku – the founder of Bungakukai – basically started his career with the publication of Soshū no shi, a piece of “new-form” poetry about a prisoner, written at the height of his political involvement in the late 1880s.

So there is an association, simply by virtue of publishing in the same venues, between Ichiyō’s politics and those of Tōkoku, and the literary politics of the Romantic movement vis-à-vis the multitude of other ideologies of writing that existed at the time. Yet in her anthologies, this politics disappears and her context is lost entirely, in favor of a new context of Ichiyō alone, her works as something that stand alone without interference from the outside world. It is a profound depoliticization and something to think about in considering other anthologies as well, both early ones in Japan, current ones, and those found elsewhere in the world.

Meiji nostalgia: the 1910s-1920s

I’m always struck by the nostalgia for the Meiji period (1868-1912) that I find even before the end of Meiji, but especially in what ramps up in the 1910s-late 1920s, in particular with the reprinting of literary coterie Ken’yūsha’s Garakuta bunko (late 1880s) in 1927, the re-publication of Waseda bungaku‘s special Meiji articles and issues in the form of Meiji bungaku kenkyū in 1929, and the publication of Meiji bungaku meicho zenshsū (The Complete Collection of Famous Meiji Literary Writers) from 1926. It’s something about this late-20s flurry of Meiji activity, plus what precedes it in the literary journal Waseda bungaku, that fascinates the part of me that is interested in archives and social memory.*

Why social memory? Well, Waseda bungaku, the literary journal of Waseda University (started by Tsubouchi Shoyo in the 1880s-1890s, then on hiatus until 1906, restarting in that year – late Meiji), contains a huge number of articles written by surviving members of Meiji literary groups about their memories and their friends, long or recently dead, and their reminiscences of the early days of those groups and associated publications. Shimazaki Tōson writes of the founding and early period of literary magazine Bungakkai and its coterie in the early 1890s, Kōda Rohan writes of the death and life of Awashima Kangetsu, and Emi Suiin writes volumes about Ken’yūsha and its early and late history.

In fact, Suiin not only wrote these lengthy articles, he also penned the book Meiji bundanshi – jiko chūshin (A History of the Meiji Literary World – Focused on Myself) in 1927, and another, Ken’yūsha to Kōyō (Ken’yūsha and [Ozaki] Kōyō) in the same year. These are focused entirely on his memories of his life in the Meiji literary world, including big shot Ozaki Kōyō, Ken’yūsha’s founder and one of the most popular and influential writers of the mid-Meiji period (d. 1902). His books, coincidentally – or perhaps not – came out in the very same year as a reproduction of Ken’yūsha’s first literary magazine, Garakuta bunko, reprinted by an individual (Kaneyama Fumio) with the express purpose of providing more material to Meiji literary scholars interested in that coterie’s activities, for whom the archives were dwindling if they existed at all. Likewise, in 1927 an article appeared in Waseda bungaku on Ken’yūsha’s somewhat later Edo murasaki magazine, testifying to renewed (if perhaps not sustained) interest in that coterie’s publications and, importantly, that specific time period of the early Meiji 20s (late 1880s-early 1890s).

Just two years later, in 1929, a publication came out that commemorated the 27th anniversary of Ozaki Kōyō’s death with a special society pamphlet, for lack of a better word (kaishi 会誌). Why it’s the 27th anniversary is anyone’s guess (or, if I’m missing something culturally significant, please fill me in!).

I recently received a fascinating set of books for my library that collects the “Meiji issues” (Meiji bungaku gō) of Waseda bungaku from 1925-1927, and was published in 1929. It appears to be bound volumes of individual, original Waseda bungaku issues, although there is a discrepancy between those and the reproduction of the “originals” that also arrived – the ads are different, and the ones in the “1925” issues all date from 1927 or later. Leaving this fascinating publishing story aside for the time being, let’s take a look at the preface. Just as with the Garakuta bunko reprints, the editor (Honma Hisao) of Waseda bungaku and these volumes claims that there is a dearth of material for those studying “Meiji literature” and in order to help future scholars, it is a mission of “a magazine with a tradition stretching back into the Meiji period” (i.e., Waseda bungaku) to collect its issues in a gappon 合本 and re-release them to the public.

preface As Michael Williams pointed out to me, this isn’t even primary sources on Meiji literature – it contains Taisho and Showa writing on Meiji. But I think there’s a particular draw, an almost-primary-source quality, because the articles are by and large written by other Meiji big shots (if not the deceased Kōyō himself) such as Rohan and Tōson and Suiin, and they’re about those Meiji memories and Meiji experiences. They’re social memories of Meiji, giving the reader a direct connection to events and literature of the past through the firsthand experiences of the writers.

So is it really about a lack of Meiji sources? Possibly, but unlikely. Meiji literature was being reprinted and recirculated both in single-volume form as well as in zenshū, or “complete” literary collections, of various kinds. I think it’s more a mixture of nostalgia and fear of the experiences and memories of the period disappearing, perhaps along with the fires that accompanied the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and along with those who were dying, like Awashima Kangetsu had only a few years before. It was a time when the original Ken’yūsha members were old and dying off, when major Meiji figures were disappearing and no longer accessible – and no longer surrounded by others who could also remember the time of their youth.

I have one other tidbit to add to the Meiji nostalgia boom of the late 20s. The series I referenced above, Meiji bungaku meicho zenshū, was published in 12 volumes from 1926-1927 and there are publisher advertising leaflets for it stuffed into the books that make up Meiji bungaku kenkyū (the Meiji re-issues of Waseda bungaku that has been discussed). One is nearly poster-sized. The books that make them up, save for Kōyō’s Irozange and Rohan’s Fūryūbutsu, are largely forgotten now, and it even includes one translation by Morita Shiken. Yet it’s a “scholarly resource” including explications, criticism, photographs, and illustrations – not exactly nostalgic. But I’d argue that it’s the context in which I find those leaflets that makes them intimate parts of the fabric of Meiji social memory: they’re reprints of the very books that the writers of the nostalgic essays would have read in their youths, and supply the means to remember Meiji through direct experience in 1927, 15 years after the end of the period in 1912.

All of this Meiji-related publishing activity, I see as a flurry of nostalgia for and fear of the loss of Meiji memories, of Meiji experiences, and ultimately of the memories of the writers’ and publishers’ very youth itself. These actions bind up inextricably the institutions of archives (personal and official), publication (private and commercial), remembering (individually and socially), and commemorating – creating the very idea of “Meiji” and “Meiji literature,” an idea that can never be severed, at least in the late 1920s, from the memory and social fabric of those Meiji survivors still living.

leafletsmall leaflet

* Actually, I came to my dissertation research topic – literary anthologies of the recently deceased – through a course entitled “Archives and Institutions of Social Memory.”

instagram, photoshop, and publicity rights”

There has been a bit of a furor over Instagram’s new terms of service, in which I unwittingly took part – well, perhaps half unwittingly. I jumped on the bandwangon of outraged Instragram users and posted directions on how to delete your account and backup your photos on my Twitter, before getting the news (also via Twitter) that they’re backtracking on the offending language of being able to give your photos, profile information, geolocation information, and other metadata to advertisers (‘third parties’) for their use, without compensation, presumably in advertising (‘enhanced advertising’ if you will). I seriously considered deleting my account, despite my abject love of the service. As a semi-professional photographer, it’s been amazing for getting my photos online quickly, taking more shots than I would otherwise, and self-promotion. I’d be very sad to have to leave.

Yet some of the furor has been over people worrying that their kids’ photos would be used without their knowledge or compensation, even if they were private photos. I’d like to take this chance to remind people of publicity rights, the right to not have one’s likeness used to  promote products or otherwise, without their permission. This applies to everyone, not just celebrities. So the use of kids’ photos without permission is flat-out illegal and Instagram could be sued for doing so; given this, it’s extraordinarily unlikely that this would ever happen. People worried about kids’ or friends’ or family’s photos have nothing to worry about.

Still, there is some pushback on the part of media companies who want to use your photos as they see fit. (Note also that we all need to be reminded that we still hold our copyrights – what we’re granting is a non-exclusive license, not a copyright transfer, so people need to not be flipping out about this either. You still own your stuff.) Quoted from an article I came across:

Right of publicity laws protect people, both celebrities and everyday citizens, from having their names or photos used for commercial purposes. However, using a person’s name or photo for news reports is not a violation of these laws, according to the Digital Journalist’s Legal Guide , which was produced by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. 

In fact, Facebook defended its “sponsored stories” as “newsworthy” in the California lawsuit, saying that people’s brand preferences should be considered “news” to their Facebook friends.

The fact that Facebook is arguing that this is “news” is interesting and disturbing. I really hope they lose this lawsuit, because otherwise this would be a massive blow to publicity rights, and thus people’s control over their own likenesses. This is an important right in terms of privacy, one that predates the digital world, and is crucial to people’s sense of self-determination. I am going to be following this story closely, although it turns out that Facebook wants to settle a class-action lawsuit that would give only $10 to each offended individual. That is, in a word, wack.

But for the meantime, worry about services using non-likeness photos, because hopefully Facebook will lose and we will only be left with the serious issue of terms of service dictating non-exclusive licenses of copyrighted material.

What I’d really like to see is a lawsuit involving that, to see if terms of service are actually binding contracts, but I haven’t heard of any court cases of this nature so far. I’d like to hear from my readers who are more knowledgable than I am in this area, and who may have heard of court cases pending that might answer this question for me.

free software day in Cambridge 9/15

Hi everyone,

It’s Free Software Day in Cambridge, MA, this Saturday (9/15) and there is a day-long event happening in celebration, and to bring the community together. If you’re interested in attending, it’s located at Cambridge College (1000 Mass Ave) and starts at 10 AM.

http://www.fsf.org/blogs/community/celebrate-software-freedom-day-2012-in-cambridge-massachusetts