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Monthly Archives: March 2012

I’m going to be presenting this idea later this year at the International Communication Association conference, and I gave a talk on some other research using these methods at the Association of Internet Researchers conference last October, so it’s maybe not entirely vital that I blog about it, but something I read a while back that made me want to do it, and now there’s the time in the schedule to do so.

So I’m going for it, in part because this platform has broader accessibility than either conference. Though, as of yet, not a broader audience. Someday.

This blog post had its genesis, as many of mine do, in something that I read. Embarrassingly enough, I can’t remember how I found this particular article, though I have a strong suspicion that it came to me via being cited in something I read from Culture Digitally,  though I can’t find it again there.

Regardless of how I came by it, however, Mary Hodder’s TechCrunch post, Why Amazon Didn’t Just Have a Glitch,   pointed to the kinds of issues that make one of my methodological innovations in fan studies vital.

In the piece, Hodder described an incident in which all books with LGBT content were filtered out of general search results because they were classified as “adult,” thus resulting in, among other outcomes, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality (to which I will NOT be linking, thank you very much) being the top result for a search for “homosexuality.” This generated a flutter of Twitter activity under #AmazonFail. But, as Hodder explains:

The issue with #AmazonFail isn’t that a French Employee pressed the wrong button or could affect the system by changing “false” to “true” in filtering certain “adult” classified items, it’s that Amazon’s system has assumptions such as: sexual orientation is part of “adult”. And “gay” is part of “adult.” In other words, #AmazonFail is about the subconscious assumptions of people built into algorithms and classification that contain discriminatory ideas. When other employees use the system, whether they themselves agree with the underlying assumptions of the algorithms and classification system, or even realize the system has these point’s [sic] of view built in, they can put those assumptions into force, as the Amazon France Employee apparently did according to Amazon.

That idea about the “subconscious assumptions of people built into algorithms” and the ways in which, as employees use a system, “whether they themselves agree with the underlying assumptions of the algorithms and classification system, or even realize the system has these points of view built in, they can put those assumptions into force,” is exactly why my research operates from the premise that it’s vital to take the interface seriously as a way power/knowledge gets enacted—that is, as a discourse.

In my dissertation, I examine technology—specifically, the interface of official media company websites for objects of fandom—in much the same way as certain branches of cultural studies (a field to which I have an uneasy relationship, to be sure) examine representation. Technology, I argue, is—like representation—not natural or inevitable but the product of social processes. (I am, of course, not alone in this contention, but I do seem to be the only proponent among those studying fans.)

Once socially produced, then, technologies render certain uses possible and not others, and I investigate this through the “affordances” of these official websites—defined by H. Rex Hartson in his 2003 piece, Cognitive, Physical, Sensory, and Functional Affordances in Interaction Design as what a site “offers the user, what it provides or furnishes” (p. 316).

The key terms I’m deploying here are Hartson’s concepts of “functional affordance,” which is what a site can actually do; “cognitive affordance,” which lets users know what a site can do; and “sensory affordance,” which “enables the user in sensing (e.g., seeing, hearing, feeling) something” (p. 322, emphasis removed).

With these latter two types of affordances, I consider the role of the site’s menu labels, how easy it is to tell what a feature does (and distinguish it from other features), and which features are easier or harder to locate due to their position on the page or how noticeable they are (Hartson, 2003).

I also build Mia Consalvo‘s 2003 discussion, in Cyber-Slaying Media Fans: Code, Digital Poaching, and Corporate Control of the Internet, of the ways in which “corporations have created new multimedia formats that circumvent the easy ‘copy and paste’ usability of older standards,” as with the advent of Flash video, to consider other technological processes that remain below the threshold of the user’s perception, such as cookies that track behavior (p. 82). Finally, I examine the sites’ Privacy Policies and Terms of Service to determine how they frame the site-fan interaction

In part, I begin from the common argument made in evolutionary psychology and design research that affordances exist only in relation to a user and read affordances back to uncover what type of users an interface implies, considering the ways in which the interfaces of these official sites work to, as Ian Hutchby put it in his 2001 piece Technologies, Texts and Affordances,  “configure the user” (p. 451). In this sense, my project also resembles that of Michele White whose 2006 book The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship  examines how interfaces work to gender and embody an ideal user.

Ultimately, I seek to examine how the industry’s decisions about features work to both a) produce a particular set of behaviors and bodies as what counts as fandom and b) consume this preferred mode of fandom as a source of value for the company, keeping in mind, as Hodder does above, that this doesn’t require ill intent or even awareness of these processes on the part of employees.

Assumptions, as things that both reflect and produce a sense of how things are or should be, are powerful things, and I want to work to bring them to light.

Posting a day early since I’ll be traveling tomorrow. Because I know everyone would feel deprived otherwise

Plenty of ink has been spilled (or, I guess, pixels? Ones and zeroes? What is it we’re spilling these days?) over #KONY2012 and its problematic premises. That critique extremely important, but it’s been done and done far, far better than I could, so I’m not going to make that intervention. (I’m also not wading into Jason Russell’s naked rampage, because that’s what late night television hosts get paid for.)

What I’m interested in, instead, is the viral-ness of this campaign, the ways it has traveled. Because, though there’s a long tradition of white liberals rushing in to a situation they don’t understand to save brown children half way around the world, this feels different.

#KONY2012, as Nick Dyer-Witheford pointed out recently when a seminar he gave on my campus turned to the subject, is about seeing social media as coextensive with reality.

Part of this is that, unlike, say, singing for famine relief, point-and-click activism (which I want to dub clicktivism but has apparently has been nominated as part of slacktivism) is light-speed. It requires no effort, which makes the self-congratulatory white-savior thing, old though it is, new by virtue of magnitude. (Confession: I make this critique as someone who “signs” almost every petition puts in my inbox but deletes the mailings that ask for money. In my defense, I do read them and decide if I agree first. I just happen to usually agree. I also sometimes show up at rallies and stuff.)

The very power of that frictionless travel is manifested in the graffiti that has sprung up in seemingly every women’s bathroom on campus.

Now, 100% of the bathrooms in my (pun alert) convenience sample say “Stop Kony” and include the website. But this Sharpie scribble particularly caught my eye (and made me sorely tempted to retaliatory/corrective graffiti) because of the massive irony of the writer putting “Do some research on the LRA if you don’t know this man’s name” when clearly she had herself not done any research.

On the other hand, my Twitter feed has been inundated with critique of #KONY2012. Like, for real, it took over. In just the 24 hours before I began this post I got: Bosco 2012: While We Hunt Kony, Another Indicted War Criminal Lives a Life of Leisure published in the New York Times, Kony 2012 screening in Uganda results in anger, rocks thrown at screen published at boingboing, Kony Heads from Timothy Burke, and a rundown on Child Soldiers Worldwide published by Human Rights Watch, among others.

What’s important here is that I don’t follow any of the original sources. I got all of these announcements at the very least second hand and likely through a longer chain of retweets—there’s no real way to tell how they traveled before they got to me (At least, I don’t think so. And if I’m right about that, somebody should really write an algorithm that can parse that, because it’s interesting. Call it the epidemiology of Twitter). They didn’t even all come to me from the same source (though my colleague who knows a lot of politically active Africans contributed more than most).

There was, in fact, not a single person in favor of the campaign in anything that I’ve seen in the period since the video took off, which led me to temporarily forget that the people I follow are not representative of general public opinion. (Despite having just written a post in which I was surprised to realize I didn’t have a good handle on public opinion of the NBC show Community. Slow learner, I guess.)

And thus it came to pass that I was startled to hear a student in my fitness class profess support for the campaign and state that she’d ordered some of the merchandise.

Let’s parse that moment: Because of who I’d been listening to, I assumed “everyone knows it’s stupid.” Because of who she’d been listening to, she assumed “everyone knows this is the right thing to do.”

And, while I will continue to maintain that the people I’m listening to are working with better information and education than the ones my fitness classmate is, the fact is that I’m just as bad as the restroom writer whose handiwork is displayed above. I haven’t done any research. I’ve just believed what people told me because I trusted those people. This isn’t to now proclaim that those people aren’t trustworthy. They are. But it’s still a bad way to make a decision about world events and public policy.

And that recognition that the educated-person echo chamber is just as bad as the superficial-crisis one is sobering.

Another outcome of Saskia Sassen‘s late-February visit to my campus was the realization that lefty internet-is-freedom types, including proponents of the “fans are liberated now” model, are actually using the same logic as righty small-government-is-freedom types.

Say what?

Bear with me—this requires some backing up, some reframing, a deployment of one of my favorite theorists, and a disclaimer that I’m taking Sassen out of context. It also requires some sympathy for the ways in which graduate school is a nonstop exercise in finding the links between disparate things while thinking on one’s feet, and it’s hard to shut that off.

Okay, so, I think it’s relatively uncontroversial to say that the right-wing, Tea-Party-style position is that less state centralization is more freedom.

It is, I believe, also relatively uncontroversial to contend that lefty folks who identify the Internet as freedom point to its decentralization as the enabling feature.

What I’d like to contend is that this identification of less centralization as more freedom by both groups shows that they’re operating by the same logic.

N.B.: This post is going to be a little under-cited because, though I realized this while doing the reading for a seminar with Sassen, the key piece that inspired it seems to have been available only to seminar participants as an email attachment. Accordingly, I’m doing my best to respect that it isn’t public by paraphrasing rather than direct quotation.

Sassen pointed out that, though digital media are technologically suited to being “distributive” (that being the point of the military research that ultimately produced the ‘Net, after all), they still get used in cultural contexts, and this means that contextual social logics have bearing on how they get used.

Thus, to pay attention only to the properties of the technology is to fail to recognize those other factors, just as to say that only government control matters is to fail to recognize other factors. In both cases, institutions like capital are just as constraining.

Importantly, this isn’t to engage in some grand Marxist reductionism of all power to capital, but to pay attention to the ways in which, as a result of the given-ness of capitalism, especially in the US, this type of control is perhaps worse because more insidious. That is, sheer lack of awareness makes this form of constraint far less transparent than even the relatively opaque world of legislation, because people aren’t even looking.

Related to this, both the internet-is-freedom left and the small-government right are operating with a set of false opposites. As Sassen pointed out in her 2008 piece Neither Global nor National: Novel Assemblages of Territory, Authority and Rights, there’s a tendency to think that as things de-nationalize they are inevitably global, which is a false dichotomy (p. 75); correspondingly, people are misidentifying de-restriction or the diminishment of certain kinds of restriction as freedom.

This, of course, is where I break out the Foucault and point out that just because an institution stops saying “no” to certain things doesn’t mean that those things begin to operate freely. Both the pro-Internet left and the anti-government right, that is, are operating with a sense of power only as repressive, only as that which prevents you from doing certain things, which prevents recognition of the ways in which one might be equally constrained (and, again, more insidiously so) by being encouraged to do certain things.

Sassen’s “critique of the notion of the common notion that if something good happens to the powerless it signals empowerment” in her 2011 piece, The Global Street: Making the Political (p. 574) is in line with this kind of calling out of false opposites. I also appreciate its snarky quippiness.

Thus, when we think about Internet-enabled freedom or political activism, we need a lot more subtlety and complexity, and a broader view. As Sassen points out in terms of the contemporary articulation of territory, authority, and rights, “proliferation does not represent the end of national states, but it does begin to disassemble the national” (2008, p. 62), and I find this really productive.

To understand state power, or Internet power, or, indeed, capital’s power, that is, we have to think in terms of disassembly, fissure, and change rather than a binary determination of the continuing existence or end of certain forms of repression.

I recently had a relatively epiphanic week with regard to my dissertation. As I spend more time inhabiting diss-space, such weeks (and the blog posts they generate) may get more frequent, as I suspect that this is a common stage in dissertating, when things suddenly become clear in batches.

First, as already blogged, those Sassen readings helped me realize it may not be so useful to think in terms of the nation.

To explain the second epiphany, I have to back up some distance. It all started because my department is somewhat anarchic. This suits most of us very well, because it gives us a lot of freedom, but it does contribute to a feeling of isolation. Particularly as students complete coursework, we all sort of lose touch with each other, to greater or lesser degree.

(Though, the way a speaker at a departmental reunion this weekend spoke about her cohort as an intellectual sounding-board to this day suggests there are ways around this.)

Consequently, when some university administrator types reviewed us, they said we needed more cohesion. The department administrators looked around at other graduate programs and decided the way to do that was to start a graduate student organization, and they tasked the representatives from each cohort with this. And so, as the unlucky soul elected to represent the 4th years, I found myself in a pub co-hosting a grad student meetup a couple of weeks ago.

This is a long story, but it was necessary to explain how I found myself seated at a table with a bunch of first and second years, who sought out my advice as a more advanced student—and particularly, one familiar with queer theory. Ultimately, it was the question “How is LGBT studies different from queer theory?” that resulted in me understanding my dissertation in a whole new way.

I said, “It’s like the difference between ethnic studies and critical race studies”—and got a blank look. I tried again “No, okay, here’s a better example: the difference between women’s studies and gender studies.” That landed more, and I went on to explain how I saw the distinctions between these categories.

Later, it hit me. That’s the move I am making in fan studies. The queer studies or critical race studies or gender studies move. (Or, since I just taught Robert McRuer, the disability studies to crip theory move.)

That is, fan studies has, to this point, been operating in a women’s studies or ethnic studies or disability studies or LGBT studies mode. It has said, “There are people called fans, who have a particular experience—to some extent, an oppressed experience—and we should document what it’s like to be this sort of person.”

This work has been and continues to be important, for fans as much as for any of the other categories of people that are researched in this way. This work absolutely should and must be done, because there are, in fact, groups of people out there that we don’t know very much about yet and we should know about them if we’re going to better our sense of what’s going on in the world. I am, emphatically, not disputing that.

But that’s not the work that I want to do in my dissertation. I’m out to queer fandom.

Now, I’m not queering fan studies in the way Julie Levin Russo does (Seriously! Can’t blog without Julie!) in her insistence that it’s important to focus on queer female fandom in Indiscrete Media: Television/Digital Convergence and Economies of Online Lesbian Fan Communities.

Perhaps most vitally, like I insisted in my academic telephone piece, I’m not saying all fans are queer in the sense of having same-sex sex or queer in the sense of sexually oppressed, because either of those contentions would be patently absurd, although some fans surely are queer in one or both of those ways. And actually I think it’s sometimes productive to think of fandom as a sexual orientation. See my Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization, and the Discursive Construction of Fandom

What I’m doing, instead, is making the move queer theory makes (and critical race theory and gender theory and crip theory all make) to not just take fans as self-evident but rigorously interrogate the process by which this category is produced.

I don’t want to look at fans out in the world as just existing, as if they just sprang up, fully-formed, not shaped in their practice by the social sense of what a fan is, as if the ability of anyone to even identify a fan or fannish behavior isn’t shaped by the social sense of what a fan is. Because, no matter what Lady GaGa says, neither fans nor queers are “born this way.”

Instead, I want to know: What are the processes by which we come to understand that there is such a thing as a fan? And what do we then understand that thing to be? What are the consequences of that construction process and constructed outcome for the norms of media audiencing in the Internet era?

This is a pretty different set of concerns from much of fan studies to this point, but I’m convinced that it’s an approach that’s vital. Just as looking at gender and race and sexuality and ability as categories has enriched work that looks at women and racial minority people and gays and the disabled, I think that queering fandom can really provide a stronger theoretical base for the LGBT-style work.

Now if only I could coin a catchy name.