Digital Culture: A Retrospective

WRT 330 at Oakland University was a class I took in which we created and organized a community involvement project. The class was presented as a course on digital culture, identity, and community. These three things came together in a graduated process, whereby the fundamental concepts of identity and digital life were negotiated and put into practice in the form of digital activism. We negotiated our own identities in this class, learning that identity is an ongoing process of identifying with something, like a particular group or activity. Active engagement is a necessary component to one’s own identity, and in WRT 330 we learned to utilize digital media to actively engage with ourselves and others, inside and outside of the classroom.

By creating video compositions that explored our own identities, we became more self-aware and more comfortable with each other. As for my part, when we finished creating our videos and held a gallery presentation in class, I was somewhat nervous about having other classmates gaining a deeper glimpse into my nature and what I identify with. But this exercise served as an ice-breaker and put everyone at ease throughout the rest of the semester.

We then continued to look into digital identity by investigating issues of “microcelebrity” and race. Microcelebrity is the phenomenon of how someone chooses to present themselves online, create multiple identities, or interact differently depending on platform and audience. By looking at online tropes featuring racism, and reading Theresa Senft and Safiya Noble, we learned that race is an artificial invention and the faceless features of the Internet can poison positive race-relations online. We also debated privacy concerns and the ephemeral nature, or sometimes staying power, of hashtags. For example, when sharing updates, interests, and “Likes” for the benefit of a close group of friends, seldom to users realize that others are watching. Being aware of privacy concerns reinforces the idea that in order to act responsibly with New Media structures of social engagement, one should behave online as if they were onstage, performing for a larger audience. Finally, the terrorist attack on the editorial offices of the Parisian Charlie Hebdo occurred before the semester started. By following the event on Twitter (among other digital news items) through the ubiquitous “#JeSuisCharlie” hashtag, the class began to understand how engagement (a necessary component to identity) on social media takes shape. The contentious nature of Charlie Hebdo and the outpouring of support after that attack took on its own rhetorical meaning, and we debated journalistic integrity, the democratic process, and the potential of sites like Twitter to enact real political change.

We spoke to four individuals via Twitter and Skype who have been involved in digital activism or awareness projects. By engaging with them, the class saw how digital media could be used constructively. Melanie Yergeau showed how social media was instrumental in gathering autistic individuals together in protest against the misguided and rhetorically harmful Autism Speaks. Live tweeting with Krista Bryson was also an eye-opening experience for me. She responded to the calamity in the communities affected by the West Virginia Water Crisis in Charleston and surrounding areas. By using her expertise in media production, Bryson created a blog and is working on an interactive documentary to spread her message. She has used social media to get exposure as well. Likewise, Logan Stark created a documentary to shed light on the issues relating to PTSD in returning war veterans. These individuals truly made an impact on me. So often when navigating through the refuse of social media, I see no point in sites like Twitter. But meeting these individuals was illuminating and made me want to pursue more active engagement in online communities that have both a purpose and mission, whether it be altruistic or creative. Indeed, the creative aspects to this class were explored in subjects like fandoms, explored with Merideth Garcia. I had always perceived fandoms as a vacuous art form providing passive entertainment. But now I see them as intertextual, creative, participatory, and meaningful, another way to negotiate one’s identity and arrive at new meanings and truths.

These insights came into being as the class prepared a community activism project of our own. Through a slow but steady process, the class created an event from scratch that was based on International Tabletop Day, an idea provided by a classmate after we all pitched community project ideas. Our event was called Game On! Grizzlies, and we held a game day in support of Beaumont Children’s Hospital. At the beginning of the semester, I thought the goal was to get off campus and engage with a community partner in person. But the way the event was planned and played out was in keeping with the whole theme of digital communities. Indeed, the class never met with anyone from Beaumont, but we still managed to communicate with the hospital through formal channels like email and informal channels like Twitter. Throughout this process, I learned that activism can really produce positive benefits even when that activism is digital.

Digital communities form through dedication and ongoing communication. Through teamwork and both print and digital media promotion, our event was recognized by hundreds of people. This was pretty significant considering there were only 11 individuals in charge of our event. We gained a following of 482 people on Twitter, and our efforts were shared through the Beaumont blog and The Oakland Press online. At the end of the day, I would imagine we had around one-thousand people becoming aware of the event. Unfortunately, the event itself was staged rather quickly, and it was only open to Oakland University students one week before a busy exam period. Therefore, the showing was marginal. But we learned how to effectively organize an event that was largely conceived digitally.

Autism Speaks and Disability Hacktivism

Last month, the advocacy organization, Autism Speaks (AS), celebrated its tenth birthday. To commemorate their decade-long milestone, the organization encouraged social media users on Twitter and Facebook to join in celebrating the anniversary by sharing personal stories about how autism had touched their lives. What resulted from this call to share and participate in the AS online community was a backlash from individuals on the autism spectrum. Leading the way in this digital activism against AS is Dr. Melanie Yergeau, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Michigan. Yergeau came up with a hashtag to counter the prescribed and celebratory “#AutismSpeaks10.” Her hashtag was “#ActuallyAutistic.” The fact that so many individuals who are actually autistic came together to pitch their collective voice online must mean that AS is not as altruistic as they would like you to believe.

On Monday, March 16th, Dr. Yergeau visited our classroom via a Skype session to discuss the digital protest over last month’s AS event, as well as some of her own research relating to the idea of Disability Hacktivism. As far as AS is concerned, we learned some rather unsavory facts about the organization from Ms. Yergeau. For instance, she told us that the organization spends more money on their own catering than on education or awareness programs. Other questionable facts include the organization having defended parents who have admittedly wanted to see their autistic child dead; a perfectly “normal” response as far as AS is concerned. Furthermore, instead of allocating resources to find ways to meaningfully integrate autistic individuals into society, the organization spends its time funding scientific research, marketing, and films such as Autism Every Day. One of the founders of AS, Suzanne Wright, even declared that autism is a “monumental health crisis.” Yergeau commented on Monday that these and other pronouncements made by the organization amount to rhetorical genocide. Indeed, such rhetorical displays are imminently harmful to the autistic community. For those with autism, the disorder is indeed present “every day.” But instead of being some kind of monster with detestable motives (like the lurking voice in the 2009 AS commercial), autism is fundamental to the identities of autistic persons. If they could, AS would eradicate this identity, which is why the organization spends the majority of its money on scientific research; relegating the autistic to the sterile margins of labs and medical journals.

Such is the discrimination against people with disorders and disabilities. Even in the way society addresses its concern for autism is inherently damning to the autistic individual. That is why Yergeau notes that we have poster children and celebrity spokespersons. We are supposed to see celebrities – successful, sexy, smart – as models for ideal living. The disabled person supposedly cannot enjoy life to this ideal degree, and so we must donate our sympathy and a small fraction of our income to produce succor for the helpless. Yergeau’s essay on Digital Hacktivism starts out in a similarly sarcastic way. For instance, many disability charities throughout the years, as Yergeau explains, have operated under the implicit assumption of doing good for individuals who supposedly can’t do good for themselves: Yergeau writes, “… the telethon is a rhetoric of charity and exclusion and infantilization. The rhetoric of the telethon denies the humanity and agency of disabled people, all the while reifying the prowess and kindliness of the presumably able-bodied.” In other words, people in groups like AS are casting themselves as society’s altruistic heroes, fighting to eradicate a disorder or come up with a felicitous breakthrough without ever having to come into contact with a disabled person.

Yergeau also writes about the disability hackathon. I am not familiar with the hackathon, but I understand it is a public event in computer programming circles where individuals create simulations, video games, or applications for an intended audience. When disabilities are taken as source material for these hackathons, the result is supposed to be a technology that can potentially make life easier (quote, unquote) for the disabled person. Yergeau gives examples of several of these disability hackathons which, tellingly, did not include the input of individuals who were disabled. Why would these hackers not consult individuals who were meant to ultimately benefit from their novel designs? No doubt, they were excluded for reasons similar in explanation to why AS has barely any autistic individuals represented in their organization. Indeed, disabled persons are seen as unable to provide constructive input. Like any management or design team, work operates on time-lines and verbal consensus. Decisions are made by “industrious” people who can “get things done.” And these people who can “get things done” have plenty of credentials in the form of Ivy League degrees, memberships in clubs and societies, etc. On the other hand, the disabled person is seen as so much impedimenta; too slow to get things done, and too mentally incompetent to provide useful commentary in an area which doesn’t concern them: computer programming, executive decisions, government policy. But, as we all know, these areas do in fact concern disabled individuals. Greatly.

Any disability advocacy or awareness group, whether it’s for autism or something else, needs active and equal representation and participation. Disability hactivism aims at establishing equality in hacking. And not just in the hackathons of University computer departments but all areas of life and society of concern to the disabled individual. Disability hacktivism is an idealogical framework meant to be inclusive, valuing diversity of experience. We can’t reasonably expect that a celebrity spokesperson has all the information we need to spread awareness or effect positive change. To avoid discrimination and harmful rhetorical practice is to invite the participation and perspective of persons affected by a disorder or disability.

The Larger Implications of Net Neutrality

In the above YouTube interview featuring Tim Wu – Professor of Law at Columbia University – Wu talks about net neutrality as being the design principle of the Internet. Net neutrality encourages freedom of speech and unhindered access to both information and entertainment. Wu contrasts the Internet with broadcast, cable, and phone companies that have historically determined what the consumer has access to. Advocating for net neutrality, Wu thinks a noncommercial network is crucial to upholding the democratic values of the Web. I wholeheartedly agree. Commenting on a prescient issue, Wu also mentions the possibility of a New Media collapse similar to the Financial crisis of 2008. In this scenario, Internet companies that go bust will disappear, and big corporate entities like AT&T or Google will approve content. More disturbing, Wu notes that even personal computers could disappear in the future, as the security issues of computer networks might be “solved” by the government through controlled obsolescence. The Internet, then, would turn into something akin to a “vacation package,” in which consumers pay an exorbitant fee to access information. These are all scary possibilities, and should compel individuals to campaign for network neutrality.

Turkish writer Zeynep Tufekci has more recently noted in What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson that net neutrality is a basic human rights issue. In the wake of the Ferguson riots, the response from Twitter propelled the incident into the national eye. Tufekci showed that local journalists were harassed by the police in public places, and the police department relied on unnecessary militarization of the streets. As a foreign observer, Tufekci also showed that the events in Ferguson were taking place while thousands were watching, not only in the U.S., but around the world. “Egyptians and Turks were tweeting tear gas advice,” she says. Indeed, sites like Twitter seem to have been the only spaces on the Internet where Ferguson was writ large, as algorithmic filtering kept the events buried on Facebook. Acting to preserve net neutrality, then, is simultaneously engaging in a fight to preserve cities like Ferguson. If it was not for Twitter, individuals outside of St. Louis would likely have never heard of Michael Brown. Tufekci argues that net neutrality gives the average citizen a competitive edge, so to speak; an opportunity to be aware of places like Ferguson, suffering from racial discrimination, police overreaction, and wage inequality.

Two weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission ruled to preserve the Internet as a “Platform for Innovation, Free Expression and Economic Growth.” The new rules inherent in the Open Internet Order provide further safeguards against broadband providers taking precedence over smaller Internet companies and creating a “fast lane” to their content. In other words, it will continue to be just as easy to access Twitter as it will be to access any content provided by AT&T, Google, etc. Based on your Internet Service Provider, then, the speed and efficiency in navigating websites will be about equal, depending on the data packets you are downloading. Without drowning in the legalese of the document, the larger implications of this new ruling will continue to fight against the restrictions mentioned by Wu above. The point is that network neutrality is an important provision for any free society in the Information Age. Without free access, there are much greater opportunities for governmental abuse.

A New Response: Activism and Social Media

Many people have heard of Malcolm Gladwell, the renowned author and staff writer for The New Yorker. Gladwell has specialized in studying trends and the “tipping points” that lead to them. In his controversial op-ed, Small Change, Gladwell recalls the civil rights movement, and how it started with four black students who performed a sit-in protest at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro on February 1, 1960. In the weeks following the event, thousands would follow in the example of David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil. This “little” act of solidarity would end up fueling a response and movement that would ultimately lead to Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington.

There are two things worth keeping in mind in the Woolworth’s example. One is that below the Mason Dixon line in the 1960s, blacks were not just subject to segregation. For “acting out of line,” these young men were setting themselves up to become victims of police brutality or, worse yet, murder at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan (a KKK group actually showed up on that momentous day). Indeed, they were risking their lives for the sake of a principle: racial equality. Their chances of success were galvanized by the increasing numbers of protesters who joined their cause. But as Gladwell points out – which is the second thing to keep in mind – this all began with four individuals who did not know what the consequences of their action would be. A shot in the dark would balloon into a civil rights war. However, this was well before the Internet, and the advent of communications technology and social media.

The recent revolutions in the Arab world, as well as in Turkey, Ukraine, and Moldova, have prompted a debate in the West about the role of social media in organizing effective demonstrations and protests. A number of writers have commented on digital activism, some saying that the ability to quickly share information online only facilitates organized protests. Participating in this debate is a diverse group of voices: Gladwell, Ethan Zuckerman, Clay Shirky, Evgeny Morozov, and many others.

As for Gladwell’s article, while I do think he may be disparaging the utility of digital tools a little too harshly, I can appreciate his argument about the four Greensboro men possessing what it took to start a movement. Gladwell was arguing that social media encourages weak ties, and that revolutions led by marginalized members of society requires a shared animus that exists on a mutually-reinforcing human level. For instance, the Greensboro men were all roommates who spent most of their time together and discussed their plans face-to-face. They built a friendship that could withstand all odds. I think these are features of our collective humanity that may get diminished through distant interactions online. As Gladwell wrote, “Activism that challenges the status quo – that attacks deeply rooted problems – is not for the faint of heart.” The question becomes, then, can social media lead to high-risk activism?

Gladwell does not seem to think so. Perhaps his position has changed, as his piece in The New Yorker is nearly five years old now. But I think his argument is cogent and still worth considering. His examples of organizations and movements that fell apart because of their weak ties and decentralized networks is convincing. The fact that social media is often focused on one-way interactions, then, seems like it would only undermine a strong organized movement. But I can just as easily see another movement similar to Woolworth’s, being motivated by coded messages and social media.

Ethan Zuckerman in New Media, New Civics? has written an extensive piece on how social media is changing the political process. He looks at how younger generations (mainly millenials) are engaging in the political process. For the most part however, millenials are disengaging. Turned off by the antagonism in partisan politics, millenials believe that becoming politically involved and joining a campaign organization will not bear any fruit. Instead, there has been a shift to grassroots, service-oriented participation. Millenials are participating in a civic engagement that appeals to their passions and interests, and social media is the new platform for discussion, replacing the more traditional halls of government. Therefore, no movement is likely to accrue members unless it is found online.

We are beginning to see digital activism grow, despite Gladwell’s criticisms against the medium. There have been events recently in which social media response has reached a fever pitch and has prompted the emergence of protests. Twitter’s hashtag serves as a kind of coding tool that organizes discussions on the social media platform. Creative hashtags like #ItStopsToday or #ICantBreathe could be perplexing to politicians unaware of their origin. Shaquille Brewster has recently referred to this phenomenon as “hashtag activism.” Whether or not the hashtag can lead to large scale, high-risk activism remains to be seen. But it certainly seems that society is evolving to respond to social and political change in new ways.

Exploring Digital Identity

Exploring Digital Identity is a video that I prepared for a class I am taking on Digital Culture. The ultimate purpose of the video was to represent my digital identity. No clip or image goes back further than 2012, so the footage is relatively recent, examining my adult digital life. But even considering the narrow time-frame, I think my video actually represents the entirety of my digital life in perhaps subtle and concealed ways.

As a fairly standard project, I used Windows Live Movie Maker to create this “digital photo essay.” One of my goals was to emphasize cinematography and aesthetics (all my years of watching art films must have rubbed off on me). Therefore, I used black and white visuals, and manipulated the speed and duration of videos and slides. However, the opening to the video was not how I intended it, and I did not have time to do another take. For the beginning of the video, I decided to shoot outdoors when it was snowing, because I thought the snowfall would add a nice natural layer. So I set my camera in a cardboard box to keep it from getting wet. My goal, of course, was to take footage without the cardboard appearing! This I failed to do. Furthermore, I wanted a lengthy take – à la Tarkovsky perhaps? – that slowly panned onto my face. But the software proved incapable of applying zoom to video. I also wanted a blurry image that gradually came into focus and met my glance. As can be seen, the whole endeavor was botched.

As for rhetorical literacy and substance, I drew on class readings to try and establish a definition between identity and digital identity, neatly fitting myself into the larger picture of how people use New Media to construct their identities. I tried to gradually move away from the whole idea of a “microcelebrity” to emphasize the difference between artificial and natural ways of being; a philosophical binary that interests me greatly. At this juncture in the video, I share my personal feelings toward the subject, in an effort to establish pathos. Images from the happiest moments of my life are punctuated by the music, reinforcing the main point of my video. Finally, my intention was for everything to come full-circle, with the 6:13 mark sort of serving as a “plot twist” to how the narrative began.

Overall, I guess it could have been worse for a first time production…


Microcelebrity

Theresa Senft coined the term “microcelebrity” in 2009 to illustrate a typical manifestation of digital identity on the Internet. It has become an increasingly prevalent idea that having a digital presence on the Web can be useful or even necessary. For instance, Senft gives the example of self-branding; promoting your skills and abilities online for the purposes of market exposure and gaining a competitive edge in the workforce. In order to be successful, the theory goes, one must have a carefully-crafted microcelebrity, as many industries are seizing upon business-oriented social networks to expand their reach. Also, there is the importance of having a “clean” digital identity, as employers are liable to perform Internet searches on you to determine your character and etiquette (never mind your skills). Because of this potential leverage, it is important to remember that privacy is easily overlooked in today’s social sphere. In fact, privacy may be negated altogether in some cases. Indeed, social media has always encouraged users to engage socially with one another. But when sharing updates, interests, and “Likes” for the benefit of a close group of friends, seldom do users realize that there are others watching. This sort of plebeian surveillance reinforces the idea that in order to act responsibly with New Media structures of social engagement, one should behave online as if they were on stage, performing for a larger audience. Of course, this advice from Senft is reminiscent of the traditional social theory of Erving Goffman, who was known for his dramaturgical analysis. Goffman maintained that, in everyday situations, we try to perform roles that will grant us social acceptance. As if on stage, individuals are “actors” trying to gain a favorable response from their “audience.”

Of course, maintaining a place “on stage” is only part of microcelebrity. Senft notes that as individuals gain abilities and take on new modes of expression, their digital identities evolve. Indeed, socializing online is just one aspect to digital identity. But as individuals find different ways to interact and transact online, something new happens. We begin to divide our attention between our multiple digital identities. Likewise, we begin to command a presence on multiple stages. For instance, one is likely to have a different identity on Facebook than they do on LinkedIn. This is only natural, as the former site encourages informal interaction, while the latter site encourages formal interaction. It is true also that we deliberately filter our behaviors in those physical spaces of work or play. But having to negotiate the privacy settings of a looming corporate third party is a lot more distracting…

There is also always that inkling to make yourself look perfect or “normal” for employers, family, friends, love interests, etc. It’s usually a harder game to play for younger people, as they are still trying to figure out their values and belief systems. But there always remains that lure to engage in identity construction online: “If I tweak this here, or tweak that there, I’ll stand a better chance of being noticed, hired, etc.” Or not noticed or hired, as the case may be. The point is, the more you tinker with your digital identity, the more likely you are to be distancing yourself from your real identity, which is always biologically rooted. Since I can’t seem to explain adequately right now, I’ll put it in Senft’s words: “”theories of naming” have been invaluable in staunching naïve (and often industry-driven) optimism that one can be “anything” online, regardless of psychological, sociological, and political realities offline.”