The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Future Fragments: Orwell, Obama, Big Data and Mind of Man

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

Everyone noticed last week when Obama popped in to do an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit, presumably baring his soul–typos and all–to users across the Internet. While the stunt crashed the forum, and showed Obama’s savvy as well as his willingness to play along with “pics or it didn’t happen” requests, it ultimately didn’t grant us much more access to Obama’s thoughts than any other press interview with carefully chosen questions and mostly canned responses. This type of questioning to public figures may be nothing new–but it is an interesting case for the politics of online speech, which elsewhere in pop culture right now has been a subject for dystopian play.


The best moments from Obama’s chat were, unsurprisingly, the most mundane–like a promise that the White House’s beer recipe is tasty, and a mention of a favorite basketball team. This is the type of self-reporting that goes on in all of social media–Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and onwards–without much remark, and usually it involves the tastes of far less famous people than the President. We put a lot of data out in public all the time, but only occasionally does that information become fuel for popular culture. Twitter is particularly powerful for this type of instant sharing, amplified, thanks to shared hashtags mined for “insights.” But what else can we do with this giant database of thought, opinion, and mundane sharing? A new iPad app, Mind of Man, offers a disturbing glimpse of some of the possibilities out there. The app looks into the world of Twitter and comes back with questions–like a tweet from Kevin Smith with the question “Is this sexual?”, or a tweet from Obama himself with the disturbing question “Is this tweet from a thought criminal?”

“The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed–would have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper–the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.” – George Orwell, 1984

The app advertises itself as a game, although there isn’t much recognizable as playable in the early stages. Instead, “MOM” is at its heart a big data gathering tool, using its players to analyze content: players logging on are presented with tweets and asked to judge them as saintly or not or on other criteria, presumably adding to the metrics that MOM uses to judge all of Twitter. If this all sounds a little Orwellian and Big Brother, that’s intentional. The Mind of Man app offers this corollary to their terms of use: “As far as you know MOM is not a front for the CIA, KGB, FBI, NSA, Illuminati, Freemasons, reptilians, aliens, or any other secret society, cabal or think-tank known to the public.” It’s a brilliant concept–a slick combination of visuals, data analysis, and the disquieting reminder that even users not plugged into MOM are fodder for analysis.

It’s the creepy personal analysis where Mind of Man really shows its strength. Using an elaborate visual system, MOM represents the Twitter data it processes about all users. (Apparently, I’m a “rebel” who lives “in a permanent state of exhilaration”–just reading that analysis has made me more aware of my tendency to use question and exclamation marks on Twitter.) The system includes a basic level system reminiscent of Klout’s ranking system, but with simple messages for users at different ranks. As the player “progresses” — earning points by spying on other users, for a start– the unlockable analysis gets more serious, including a “know your fate” evaluation of saints and sinners and finally the ability to unlock your virtual nemesis. There’s even an option to find your Twitter celebrity match, information that can be particularly telling in guessing at how others might see your own Twitter habits.

The same data is available for a fee of points (gained mostly by extending the value of MOM’s data analysis protocols) about every user, thanks to a “spy on your friends” feature that feels appropriate given how intrusive the analysis feels when compared to our expectations for the use of social media. The fleeting nature of Twitter often offers us a comforting illusion of anonymity. A tweet “disappears” from the visible Twitter stream in moments, but of course the archive extends far longer than that. Just ask politicians or reporters who’ve lost their reputations or jobs over a poorly-considered tweet. And of course, an invisible Tweet finds a number of second lifes–in search archives, in Storify, in the personal history of a user and even in the Library of Congress.

As a game, Mind of Man is more visual spectacle than truly playable experience at this stage. It’s not the only social media game to make good use of Twitter–and it’s far from the first datamining experiment, with Klout being one of the best-known but far from the most tailored–but it is a reminder of how deep into our lives the social media rabbit hole goes.     Unlike our offline discourse, if such a binary even is worth noting anymore, the permanence of digital on this scale applies to even the most mundane or incidental of thoughts. Any social network itself might fail, and the future will certainly hold networks to replace Facebook and Twitter while those names fade into the Internet Archive and distant memory, but the records remain and our tools for probing them are so accessible as to provide fodder for everything from this type of simple game to the deeper network analysis that truly Orwellian intentions might best be served by.

In the meantime, politicians will continue to turn to technology to humanize them–but in an interesting twist, they do so by participating in the same confessional modes as everyone else. The question “Is this tweet from a thought criminal” juxtaposed with a random message from the official Obama account might have been a completely algorithmic generation of Mind of Man, but in light of the scrutiny Obama’s digital presence has received (and the current political discord as November is coming) it is perhaps suprisingly in tune with the larger web of discourse. But then, what else can we expect from an Orwellian Illuminati app-game so well-fed on the big data we’ve produced that it can ideed “ask us anything”?