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Monthly Archives: January 2013

If you ask scholars on the pessimistic end of the spectrum, like Mark Andrejevic and Christian Fuchs, user-generated content (UGC) is horribly exploitative. The champions of peer production (Chris Kelty) or convergence culture (Henry Jenkins), on the other hand, tend to cheer on the cases where people produce digital objects as personally empowering and industry-challenging. Given that these are all smart people looking at the same set of relations in the world, how is this possible?

The answer is that these different scholars are actually not looking at the same relations a lot of the time. Commercial UGC, where companies make money from audience work and claim the intellectual property on it, is indeed exploitative. On the other hand, while certainly not free of problems like gender inequality, “peer production is commons-based insofar as it creates resources that are held in common or collectively,” as Bingchun Meng and Fei Wu argue in their 2013 piece Commons/Commodity: Peer production caught in the Web of the commercial market (p. 127), and it’s not exploitative.

The challenge, that is, is that digital objects that are produced by people are a lot of quite different things that we need to discuss in their specificity. Casey Fiesler, in 2008’s Everything I need to know I learned from fandom: How existing social norms can help shape the next generation of user-generated content, contends that “at one end is completely original material (no threat to copyright owners), and at the other end is wholesale copying (obvious infringement)” (p. 757). Fiesler wants to call attention to the huge gray area in the middle that gets flattened out of view by copyright’s current black/white ideas about derivativeness.

We can think about a similar spectrum in relation to exploitation, where one end is completely uncommercial (no threat of exploitation) and the other is completely sandboxed and commercialized (obvious exploitation). About the former, peer production champions are absolutely right: it’s about community and equality (provided that you are a member of the in-group) and not at all stealing people’s labor. With regard to the latter, the pessimists are right to rail against inveigling people with the promise of democracy or community only to get them to freely do work the company would otherwise have to pay someone for.

The trick, of course, is that it’s almost never black and white, almost never easily placed at an extreme end of the spectrum. It’s all gray. (However many shades you’d like, and a moment of silence here for the fact that we can no longer use the phrase “shades of gray” without invoking connotations not useful to every piece.)

This line of thinking started during my exams reading a few years ago, which produced a lot of frustration with peer production and convergence culture literature, which seemed to rely on an assumption that people were totally free, completely self-aware actors and to miss the fact that people were doing work and not getting paid.

Axel Bruns, coiner of the term produsage, points to some of the concerns in his 2012 piece Reconciling Community and Commerce?: Collaborations between Produsage Communities and Commercial Operators: among other failings, companies often “treat users’ contributions as disposable and bereft of individual value” and/or “simply assign ownership of these contributions to the organization operating the site” (p. 822). Ultimately his critique comes down on the side of turning these relationships  into real collaboration and community, contending that “in pursuit of short-term gains from crowdsourcing thankless tasks, the potential for generating valuable long-term outcomes through more intensive collaboration is never fully explored” (p. 818).

As I read farther in the work making a strong argument about exploitation, however, I also got frustrated by the way that body of work seemed not to understand that people engaged in these tasks without pay because they got pleasure out of it. The question of “Why do people do this to themselves?” didn’t get asked.

As Brian Brown and Anabel Quan-Haase argue in their 2012 piece “A Workers’ Inquiry 2.0”: An Ethnographic Method for the Study of Produsage in Social Media Contexts, “we have yet to adequately grasp how the ‘users’ of Web 2.0 sites and services perceive their place in this socio-economic system” (p. 489) which seems like a pretty important piece of information to have left out so far.

Neither of the hard-line positions on exploitation works for me. I need more nuance. I need more gray. I have taken to thinking of Andrejevic/Fuchs and Jenkins as the devil and angel on my shoulders in my work, pulling me in their disparate directions, and you can assign identities there however suits your own personal feelings about those scholars.

Because the fact is: most of the time, they’re both right, but at different scales. People get community and they’re exploited labor. “Current methodologies, however, do not so justice to the complex relations that exist between Web 2.0 produsers, the sense of community engendered by the mode of produsage, and the exploitative relations between these communities and the owners of the sites” (Brown and Quan-Haase 489).

We need, then, to think much harder about “the quasi-voluntary nature of the engagement in the exploitative relationship. On the face of it, participating on social networks is a voluntary act that one enters into without being compelled by force. When the unique attributes of the contemporary communicative environment are taken into consideration, however, characterizing participation as voluntary becomes less convincing” (Brown and Quan-Haase 494).

One characteristic of “the contemporary communicative environment” is that people are still often set up as consumers. Bruns is right to contend that “the very concrete effects of traditional consumer/producer distinctions on users’ self-perceptions should not be underestimated” (p. 818). When your work is set up as secondary and reacting to the “real thing,” you’re not in a position to see its worth.

Ultimately, “where such structures in the user base form more permanent shapes, we define this as a ‘community’; where the user base continues to be so transient or atomized that structures remain impermanent, it is simply a ‘crowd’” (Bruns 819). Bruns mentions this only briefly, but I think it’s a pretty good metric for thinking about exploitation.

If we distinguish carefully between community and crowd, things become visible. We can start to see the orientation of the people involved and ask the question of whether they’re getting anything out of it. We can ask whether what they’re getting is enough, by their own internal standards.

And we can still, at the same time, hold capital accountable for exploiting them, just like we can be concerned about sports franchise owners or record labels or movie studios making money hand-over-fist when the employees they’re exploiting are making millions of dollars and generally doing alright.

Because it’s a complicated world where contradictory things can be true at the same time. It’s all gray.

Where is the line between discouraging a helpless victim mentality and blaming the recipient of violence? How can we open up space to rethink violence?

There were a couple of inspirations on this question. One came after an NFL player killed Kasandra Perkins,  who was his girlfriend, and then himself.

(I know his name, but people who kill other people deserve to be forgotten, not remembered, because at least some of the time they’re interested in glory. We should remember the names of those who experience violence. We should learn from these events how to prevent future violence. But the people who do it don’t merit memory. Let’s keep that in mind next time there’s a mass shooting. Because there will be a next time. /rant Also, Morgan Freeman agrees with me.)

After Perkins was killed, feminist activist organization UltraViolet (from whom I somehow or other receive email calls to action despite my ambivalent relationship to feminism and the fact that sometimes they hail their audience in ways that exclude me) sent an email on December 7 that said:

Yesterday during a discussion about domestic violence, Fox News host and former George W. Bush White House press secretary Dana Perino actually said on the air that women should “make better decisions” to avoid being beaten or killed by their abusers. Yep, that’s right. She didn’t say anything about the abusers who terrorize their girlfriends, wives, children, and partners. Instead, she blamed survivors of domestic violence for the crimes committed against them.

The email linked to a petition  that called on Perino to “publicly apologize to survivors of abuse for saying that their own decisions caused the crimes committed against them, and make a donation to a domestic violence shelter to show she understands that survivors are never to blame.”

Then, a few days later, second hand and probably over Twitter though I can’t recall now, came a complaint from blog Feministe, And just when you thought the Good Men Project couldn’t get any worse…   which included frustration at the latter blog’s idea that  the “rapist is really a decent guy and maybe if the victim hadn’t done x, y or z this wouldn’t have happened.”

To be unequivocal, I never think that someone who is the recipient of violence is at fault. They weren’t asking for it, “no” always means “no,” everyone has a right to walk around anywhere at any time of day or night without experiencing violence. I don’t think that “their own decisions caused the crimes committed against them.”

But I also don’t think people should wait around hoping other people will stop enacting violence on them. I think that given the prevalence of people taking actions on the spectrum between boorish and awful, it’s a good idea to be prepared for the possibility. This is perhaps an impossibly fine distinction to make, and maybe it’s not practical, but I think it’s worth considering, at least.

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, at least since I was a member of a very self-defense-heavy martial arts system.  One thing that the instructors at this school suggested was thinking in terms of “It could happen to me. It could happen today. I know what to do, and I’m going to do it.” It’s cheesy, to be sure, but it does say that people aren’t powerless. Given the business they were in, perhaps it’s not surprising that their emphasis was on what one can do to protect oneself from violence, but I think it’s a pretty useful intellectual shift.

A person who commits a despicable act of violence and domination is at fault for that, but something about the way we talk about violence makes the story about the person who committed the violence, and see above about glory.

Or, at least, that’s the consequence of the way we talk about violence enacted by male/masculine/masculinized people against female/feminine/feminized people. It becomes particularly clear that victimization is only one option for how to make sense of this when one considers that the violences experienced by adult, heterosexual, able-bodied men are not explained as victimization in the same way. There are other options already in use.

The way we talk about violence against feminized humans suggests that there’s nothing those people can do other than hope the law helps after they’ve already experienced violence. That’s also why don’t like the word “victim” and I won’t use it, because it constructs a relational identity around the violence in a way that I think is a terrible idea. Victim mentality, that is, is helplessness. It’s hopelessness. It hampers our ability to live without fear.

Ultimately, all of those things act to put all the power with the person who commits the violence, and getting all the power, or belief that they have all the power, is why people commit the violence in the first place. It participates in the same logic, and it’s not the only way to think about it.

To some extent I’m echoing Sharon Marcus’s “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention” (to which I cannot find a link) here, though I like to think I’m adding to her important argument. Even if I’m not, however, the piece was published over 20 years ago—maybe longer if its appearance in Feminists Theorize the Political wasn’t the first–and we’re still using the same rhetoric of victimization and inevitability, so it’s worth pointing out again.

Should people have to walk around in alert mode, checking their six, not walking blindly around corners, keeping their hands free and their vision and hearing unobstructed? No, absolutely not. I want a world where that isn’t the case. But we have a world where it is the case. We have a world where manliness is often measured in violence done and experienced.

We have a world where men (especially in the U.S. context white, heterosexual men) feel their accustomed dominance disappearing and feel like people are committing violence on them. I saw this firsthand when I was following the Sandy Hook shooting on Twitter, since it had faster (though unverified) information than the news proper. One particularly paranoid guy (who I won’t give the signal boost of naming) blamed the “war on men” and “she-ria law” (no joke) for inspiring men to fight back violently. At first I thought he was trolling, but he was serious and that was some scary stuff. And, while this might seem different, the idea that men commit violence because they believe they have control is actually the same logic as doing it because they have lost control—it’s the idea that violence is a way to assert control, which is the divine right of men.

So this is the world we have to be prepared for. We have a world in which there’s a certain number or concentration of human predators, and–like the lions on the Serengeti in the nature documentaries who take the old gazelle, the sick gazelle, the baby gazelle–they want easy targets.  So the sane response to the insane system is to try not to be taken for the weak one in the herd. It’s a question of managing the condition of predators  having a victim optics without ourselves subscribing to victim identity. And, if someone mistakes you for easy prey, you are not doomed to whatever they want to do to you. You can put up a fight.

This is of course not to say that it’s easy. Clearly it’s no such thing. Fear is powerful, even paralyzing. Abuse is disempowering, even dehumanizing, particularly when it is routinized. Sometimes the choice is be raped or die. Sometimes it’s kill or be killed. I could never tell someone how to decide those things. Sometimes you’re unconsciousSometimes you’ve got six-to-one odds and they don’t care what kind of gazelle you are.

But to know that you have a choice on how to respond when violence comes to you, even though we can all agree that violence ought never to come? To know that it’s not inevitable, that a person who attempts violence on you is a bad person or a person doing a bad thing, and not exercising some universal right? That feels like a better way to live.


The critique that the current generation is politically apathetic is well-worn. Indeed, it has been recycled for several generations at this point and maybe is always cast at each generation by the last.

It’s certainly true that civic involvement in the form in which we’ve traditionally known it is down—people aren’t voting or going to political organization meetings or canvassing nearly as much as they did in yesteryear. But there’s also a huge wave of consumer activism through means like voting with dollars and petitions pressuring companies to go green or treat their workers better or stop supporting human rights violations by world governments.

(Which, incidentally—though this kind of action has obviously increased dramatically with the Internet, it’s not terribly different from We are the World  or Do they know it’s Christmas?  “buy a single for unfortunate people” activism in the 1980s.)

Taking these newer forms of action seriously as activism is partially the topic of the recent special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures on Transformative Works and Fan Activism, edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova of the University of Southern California. Melissa M. Brough and Sangita Shresthova, in a piece from that issue titled Fandom meets activism: Rethinking civic and political participation,  argue that they want “social movement scholars to explore the fertile but understudied terrain of fan and fanlike forms of civic and political participation” (1.2).

In the related essay Learning Through Practice: Participatory Culture Civics,  (tied to the special issue because both are rooted in the Civic Paths project housed at the University of Southern California), Neta Kligler-Vilenchik and Sangita Shresthova frame the issue as that young people “are conducting politics through a new language and through a different set of practices than more traditional organizations. (p. 48)

This comment gestures toward the point I want to make in this post: It’s not just that young people are doing things that are new and different, as the Civic Paths-involved folks argue, but a bigger change: as power has shifted from the state to transnational capital, activism has actually responded to that, which means that everything we think we know about activism is about to be wrong.

Kligler-Vilenchik and Shresthova describe “the ‘slacktivism’ critique, which claims that social action online is easy to do, and thus banal” (46), and this is an argument that has some merit, as I’ve discussed before.  But I think that a substantial portion of why people with traditional definitions of politics are so offended is that these actions and investments are directed less and less at electoral or legislative goals and more pointed at or directed through the materials of corporations.

 However, the complaint about not doing politics right is unwarranted; as I’ve argued drawing on Saskia Sassen,  the nation overall is a less relevant political category than it formerly was. Kligler-Vilenchik and Shresthova note that the fannish activists they interviewed “rarely linked their concerns to governmental solutions and often expressed feelings of alienation from ‘politics as usual’” (32-3). The idea of governmental solutions or regular politics directed at the nation, that is, has become less relevant to the contemporary distribution of power.

The other traditional kind of politics is local, but that has declined as well. Indeed, though  Ashley Hinck, in her Theorizing a public engagement keystone: Seeing fandom’s integral connection to civic engagement through the case of the Harry Potter Alliance, contends that “fandom scholars cannot talk about fandom’s public engagement as being anchored to the local in Dewey’s sense” (4.5) what she misses is that neither is anyone else’s public only spatially local. As Sassen notes in the pieces discussed in the above-linked blog post, the world is not completely dis-located or globalized, but localities are articulated to each other in very different ways than ever before.

How people make sense of the world, then, is not oriented the same frames of reference it used to be. As Henry Jenkins put it in his piece, “Cultural acupuncture”: Fan activism and the Harry Potter Alliance,  “the forums for expressing political concerns, and the policies and infrastructures shaping our capacities to do so, are controlled by private interests. Our political struggles often take place through languages and contexts heavily shaped by commercial culture” (1.6).

This suggests that we should take seriously the “significance of content worlds and storytelling (including transmedia storytelling) in the development of collective identity and the formation and mobilization of publics” (Brough and Shresthova 7.2). That is: who people are and what they care about are filtered through these largely commercial products—not nation, not locality.

Political concerns are inextricable from corporateness, I argue, because power is increasingly residing with capital and decreasingly with the state—not that the state can’t regulate industry if it has a mind to, but it hasn’t had much of a mind to lately. This means that some of Alex Jones’s arguments hold some water—“Bankers pull the strings on world governments to solidify their power”? Kind of. Transnational capital is a weight in governmental processes, to be sure.

“Companies are harming you and ducking responsibility”? Absolutely. It’s common knowledge now Big Tobacco knew about the dangers of their product long before the public caught on but hid the information. In the contemporary era there’s Big Corn (their “a calorie is a calorie” argument isn’t true when it’s fructose), Big Oil (fracking, tar sands), Big Coal (mountaintop removal), Big Gun . . . you name it, they do things that hurt people directly or indirectly and don’t pay for it. (And it may not be true yet that “President Barack Obama is using drones against Americans,” but it’s certainly possible for him or a later president to decide to do so given post-9/11 anti-terrorism cover for free rein).

Ultimately Jones is wrong to see these as governmental conspiracies to strip the God-given rights of free ‘Muricans, of course, but these results of decades of letting capital impact laws still matter. Thus, when Kligler-Vilenchik and Shresthova note that “scholars often worry that young people’s withdrawal from civic and political engagement is so significant that it endangers the healthy functioning of democracies” (p. 6), there’s actually a case to be made that the healthy functioning in of democracies has been imperiled long since as elections and representatives have been bought and paid for, and youth withdrawal from that system is a response to its fundamental brokenness.

This is why traditional definitions of what is political or activist are perhaps becoming wrong. We might want to question the system that is slowly eroding the power of the state, since no one else really can stand up to transnational capital, but given the state’s current weakness turning away from it is potentially a sane response to an insane system. Jenkins takes a stab at redefining what might count as political or activist, “describing as ‘civic’ those practices that are designed to improve the quality of life and strengthen social ties within a community, whether defined in geographically local or dispersed terms” (1.8), and that seems to be a reasonable baseline.

Getting people with a traditional definition of the political to take this seriously is an uphill battle, of course. Brough and Shresthova describe “false dichotomies of commercial versus political (or activist), and participation versus resistance” (7.2). Even when Harry Potter fans “engage in very traditional expressions of citizenship: petitioning, donating money, sending letters to government representatives, and so on,” these actions “are still met with skepticism by scholars of civic engagement because they are done in the name of Harry Potter, instead of solely in the name of duty to one’s country or ideological commitment to a political party” (Hinck 1.2).

Similarly, as Kligler-Vilenchik and coauthors Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, Christine Weitbrecht, and Chris Tokuhama contend in Experiencing fan activism: Understanding the power of fan activist organizations through members’ narratives,  “at least some of the critique around Kony 2012, we argue, can be read as a policing of the boundaries of social action, and what it should look and feel like. Many of these critiques claimed that social advocacy should be left to experts—to politicians, to ‘serious’ NGOs, to erudites” (7.5).

And indeed even these advocates of redefinition get caught up in old definitions at times, with Brough and Shresthova carefully distinguishing work for “the representation of racial or sexual minorities, or the promotion of social themes in program content”  from “real-world issues” (2.2-2.3), as if the former set of things are trivial and not important in the real world. Jenkins argues that the group he examines “is targeting young people who are engaged culturally, who may already be producing and sharing fan culture, and it helps them to extend their engagement into politics” (6.2) as if cultural engagement is not political.

Similarly, Jenkins and Shresthova, in their introduction to the special issue, Up, up, and away! The power and potential of fan activism encourage moving “beyond abstract notions of cultural resistance to focus on specific sways that fan culture has affected debates around law and public policy” (1.9) narrowing what counts as important to law and policy.

(It may of course be strategic for this particular group of scholars to go with law and policy as what counts, given Civic Paths’ funding by traditional organizations that may not recognize alternative actions as valid. Given that they are already looking at fans, they perhaps could not then also say that what is political is more expansive. This is an unfortunate reality of specific-research grants, whether philanthropic or corporate.)

However, I am not saying that anything and everything is always political. (I mean, yes, it is always political in that it is always power-laden, but not in the meaning of political as aware and taking action). There are certainly limits, where the slacktivism critique is not unwarranted.

Brough and Shrestova warn that “we may risk diluting our notion of the political to a point that makes it difficult to debate the merits of different strategies and tactics of civic participation, and difficult to focus on their material (not just cultural) outcomes. Framing all acts of engagement with popular entertainment as political acts can have a depoliticizing effect and limit analytical and tactical advancements” (3.11), and I certainly don’t want to participate in that.

 I do think, however, that the changing power landscape of the contemporary world requires changing responses, that it has actually generated new kinds of responses, and that these responses should be taken seriously, because looking to the state for protection against multinational capital is not likely to be a viable strategy in the foreseeable future—and certainly not without working on the world as it is, corporate-dominated and all.

As part of my work of professionalization, I have signed up for table of contents alerts for various journals in my areas of interest so that I can keep up on recent work. One such alert came through recently for the journal Sexualities, and Shannon Weber’s piece What’s wrong with be(com)ing queer? Biological determinism as discursive queer hegemony caught my eye.

Though I think the piece does some oversimplifying, I was struck by the feeling that it would be great to teach with–uncomplicated being good for undergrads and then I can complicate in lecture. (Inability to exercise my educational creativity muscles strikes again)

I was thinking, in particular, of starting class discussion with the statement that has become the title of this blog post: Homosexuality is a choice. I think this will be quite a jolt, given, as Weber describes, “the success that the Christian Right in particular has had in framing the debate over LGBTQ rights: telling queer people that they are not normal and do not deserve equal rights because their behavior is chosen and sinful” (687).

To say non-heterosexuality is a choice has come to be tightly linked to an antigay position, that is, and correspondingly saying that it is innate has come to be the only politically acceptable pro-gay position.

As Weber points out, following Jennifer Terry, the idea that sexuality is biologically determined positions it as something one cannot control (680). First, this participates in the same logic that stereotypes non-heterosexuals as sexually out of control—manifesting as homosexuals will always hit on every person of their “same” sex or as bisexuals are slutty.

Moreover, it participates in the same logic by which non-heterosexual desire is seen as a bad thing—that no one would choose it freely. As Weber put is, this is “an always already defensive position that argues not for sexual agency and freedom, but an acceptance of same-sex desire only inasmuch as it cannot be cured away into reformed heterosexuality” (682) which takes me back to beating my dead horse on the trouble with tolerance.

Weber speaks of strategic essentialism in LGBT politics (682), but I don’t actually think it is strategic. When you talk to an average person on the street, most of them believe that whatever orientation they have was innate—I was present recently for a round of “gayer than thou” where people were competing to have been gay earlier, but was too tired to intervene and point out their essentialism, too tired even to put my finger on why the whole thing irritated me. And if that bunch, who has read their weight in queer theory, can do that, it’s pretty pervasive.

But of course, it absolutely is a choice. I am agnostic on where desires come from, but once we have them we have to figure out what they mean and what we are going to do with them.

Even if we could prove that homosexuality was genetic and occurred in a certain percent of every population throughout time (which would be a benign variation like eye color, incidentally), how people responded to those desires in themselves and others has varied wildly. How people have made sense of such desires (as holy, as sin, as act, as identity, as mutable, as immutable) has also varied wildly, as is has how people have perceived nonnormative configurations of relationship (as failed heterosexuality, as nonsexual companionship, as sexual).

People can perfectly well choose to never act on their desires. They can choose their religion over it. (Which, incidentally, as Weber points out, using the framework of religion as a way to make cases for same sex rights is pretty clever: you’re not born locked into a religion forever, you can choose a different one, but if you have one it is a very important part of your identity that many would find it appalling  to try to force someone to change–and it would definitely be unconstitutional if the state did it.) Choosing to suppress rather than act on desire makes a lot of people miserable. But it makes other people less miserable than feeling like they’re sinning. Either way, it’s a choice.

This way of thinking of non-normative configurations as a valid choice rather than only defensible as uncontrollable is a useful framework. Weber gives the example of the way biological essentialism frequently attends narratives about transgender status, critiquing how this, like biological essentialism around same-sex desire, disallows the experience of an identity that has changed over time.

Weber stops with pointing out the trouble of essentialism, but it occurs to me that the framework of choice is also useful here: “I want my body to look like this; I want to be perceived in X way” produces a more livable life than “I can’t control this and am forced to change my body because I really am this on the inside but I was born in the wrong body.” (Though I acknowledge that the latter self-narration is often a strategically necessary essentialism for those who want access to medical body modification.)

We might contest the system that produces the self-loathing of the ex-gay or the sense that having certain wants or desires means anything about a sex or gender category to which one belongs, but people choose how to respond. It’s a sane response to an insane system.

What I’d want to get my students to see is that it’s a choice. It’s not an entirely free choice, of course, because it’s constrained by the socially available options. But it’s a choice people can make how they want to respond to those constraints. The world I want to live in is not one in which we all have to accept that the non-heterosexual can’t control it and tolerate them, but rather to open up the things that are socially possible to choose.