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#BoycottUnited: does social media activism actually work?

What happens after #DeleteUber, #BoycottUnited, and #DumpKelloggs stop trending?

Over the last day, hundreds of thousands of people have decided they will never fly with United Airlines again. At least, that’s what you’d think if you believed that every user of the trending hashtag #boycottunited is true to their word. After a video emerged of United staff violently removing a passenger from a flight yesterday, the airline has faced a huge social media backlash, with hashtags such as #boycottunited and #dontflyunited soaring across the web.  

It would be safe to assume, therefore, that the airline is now a-less-polite-word-for doomed. The company’s stock has fallen 3.7 per cent, which in real terms means a loss of $830m. Bad news, right? In all honesty, it remains to be seen.

Social media boycotts are incredibly popular – but they have varied success. If you can cast your mind back to an entire five days ago, you will remember that Twitter users were invited to #boycottPepsi after its tone-deaf advert featuring Kendall Jenner. Though the company’s stock soared initially, it plummeted after Pepsi pulled its advert, a decision that was directly fuelled by social media outrage.

Yet it would be naïve to assume that Pepsi’s sales will suffer long term. Remember in 2014 when everyone boycotted Amazon because of an online petition? Of course you don’t. By their very nature, social media boycotts are immediate and ephemeral. To work, boycotts need to last.

The Trump Era has inspried numerous boycotts. But to what effect? The delay on quarterly sales reports makes it difficult to see whether last year’s backlash against New Balance, when a company boss seemed to endorse the controversial US President-elect, damaged the company. Twitter users set fire to their shoes and sales in New York decreased 25 per cent after the company seemingly backed Trump, yet in just a few days, mentions of the brand on Twitter became favourable again. In the past, brands have even deliberately orchestrated outrage in order to drum up publicity.

What about #DeleteUber, though? That must have been a success? Though 200,000 people deleted the app after it continued to serve airports during Trump’s “Muslim ban”, polls later revealed this was only a 5 per cent dip in popularity with the American public.

But is a dip in sales the ultimate aim of a boycott? Uber’s CEO stepped down from President Trump’s advisory board after the outrage, arguably making the hashtag a success. Even if sales aren’t actually affected, a trending hashtag can make a company feel very fire-emoji under the collar. Arguably, this means future decisions will be more carefully scrutinised, and hey presto, we have a better world for everyone.

Except nothing is that simple in our divided world. If Trump supporters decide to boycott Starbucks because it is hiring refugees, then Trump haters will #DrinkStarbucksToFightBigotry. While you and I boycott Uber and #DontFlyUnited, American conservatives boycott Budweiser and #DumpKelloggs. In a social media world where absolutely everyone has a voice, how do brands figure out who to listen to? If they listen to the loudest voices, it’s the right-wing boycotts that actually come out top, with negative social media mentions of Kelloggs (who pulled their adverts from right-wing site Brietbart) lasting longer than those for New Balance.

And is capitalistic wokeness really what we want? We want brands and companies to align with our own beliefs, until they do it in an incredibly lame way, à la Jenner and Pepsi. It is now apparent that many companies are trying to use social responsibility to boost sales, but this is widely seen as inauthentic and sort of gross. What, then, would a successful boycott look like? Surely not the number of little green Retweets pinging into your notifications tab?

Yet even though social media outrage isn’t always entirely altruistic, that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Many criticise “slactivism” or “hashtag activism” for being lazy, but it is clearly an incredibly important and immediate way to register your anger. Change can never be as immediate as a Retweet, but that doesn’t render the Retweet worthless.   

United’s decision to violently pull a passenger off its flight will hopefully have long-term repercussions for the brand. The act was so viscerally disgusting that many passionately want the airline to suffer and its policies to change. Because of its stranglehold over some US airports, passengers may not desert it en masse. But what has happened – 762,000 negative mentions of the brand on social media – is hopefully permanently burned on the back of a CEO’s eyeballs.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.