Come and join our online selfie course

Over the last few months I’ve been collaborating with a bunch of wonderful scholars in the Selfie Research Network and one of the first outcomes of our work is an online course on selfies. We’re already in week three, which is my and Liz Losh‘s topic, biometrics and how machines read our faces and our selfies. Go on, read our introductory blog post for the week, do some assignments, post images to the Flickr group or steal our assignments and readings and use them in your own teaching! The full course has a six week syllabus, where each week includes image assignments, where students actually learn to think visually, as well as readings, discussion questions and a prompt for a reflective essay.

Several of my collaborators are following the whole or parts of the course in their traditional classrooms with students in courses they’re already running. I’m not teaching a course where that would work right now, but I did use Alice Marwick’s celebrity selfie assignment from week two with my students, as well as a version of Theresa Senft’s identity selfie assignment as an icebreaker on the first day of class. The course is very much intended for other teachers to take and use as they want in their own classes. And of course we’d love to hear how other teachers used it!

We also hope that anyone who is interested will feel welcome to participate in the class – whether you’re a student, a scholar, a teacher or just interested in selfies. We don’t actually have any funding for this and we’re all really busy teaching our own classes, so the online part of the class isn’t as well curated and tended and marketed and so on as would be ideal, but it’s fun testing it out and maybe we can do something more formal in future. If you do join in and follow parts of the course we’d be quite excited!!

This online course is also part of a pre-conference workshop we’re organizing at the Association of Internet Researchers conference, IR15, in Daegu in Korea on October.

25. September 2014 by Jill
Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Who sees our health data?


One of the topics in my upcoming book, Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves, is activity trackers and health information, which I consider both as a form of quantitative self-representation and as a way in which our data – or more accurately, our digital traces – are gathered into new profiles that can be used by others, with or without our consent.

If I could have added images to my book (I was warned not to due to CC licensing requirements), I might have added some of these.



(By Kathi Inman Berens)


I’m getting the corrected proofs back to the publisher today, and the book should be out in a few weeks. You can read a short description and the table of contents in this post from a few days ago.


23. September 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

My new book about selfies, blogs and wearables is almost here!

Cover image of Jill Walker Rettberg's book "Seeing Ourselves Through Technology"

Look! The book I was working on all spring has a cover, I’ve got till Tuesday to go through the proofs, and it will be published by Palgrave in less than a month! You can preorder it at or right now, or wait a few weeks until the open access digital version is available.

I am really excited about this book. It’s about self-representations in digital media, which is a topic I’ve been thinking about and writing about for several years. Of course blogs are part of this, but in this book I wanted to understand digital self-representation in a much broader manner, and so I look at three modes of self-representation that each has a long history, but that are often intertwined in today’s digital culture:

  1. Written self-representations like blogs, tweets and a lot of what happens on platforms like Facebook and Tumblr.
  2. Visual self-representations like selfies, profile pictures on Facebook and Instagram feeds.
  3. Quantitative self-representations generated by activity trackers, calorie trackers, productivity trackers, to do lists and so on.

Each chapter has an abstract, as the chapters will be available for individual download as well as all together as a book. Here’s the proof of the abstract of the first chapter:

In working with this material I’ve become particularly fascinated with the ways in which machines are increasingly writing our diaries for us, whether through automated cameras like the Narrative Clip, through the wearable devices that allow the quantified self movement to generate visualizations and analyses that help them improve their lives, or by the automated data gathering performed by apps like Swarm, Moves or OptimizeMe, web services like Facebook or Google or our phone service providers and marketers.  The book thus moves from looking at digital self-representations in general to considering the relationships between people and machines, and lives and data in a much broader manner.

Here is the table of contents:

Rettberg-Seeing_Ourselves-TOCAnd it will be out in about a month!


19. September 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | 3 comments

Teaching with selfies: icebreaker

This morning I met my students for our first lecture of the semester in DIKULT106, where I’m teaching a three week module on digital self-representation (like, you know, selfies). So after a quick “How many of you have phones with cameras in your pockets?” ascertained that ALL of the students were carrying such devices I ditched the traditional interview-your-neighbour icebreaker and sent them out to take selfies with each other instead.

The idea was entirely stolen from Terri Senft‘s first assignment for the online selfie workshop a bunch of us are doing in advance of the Association of Internet Researchers conference in Korea in October. You see, at 6 am this morning I was Skyping with eight amazing colleagues around the world, discussing assignments and weekly readings for the course, which has already ballooned into a five week festival.

Selfie of me and the DIKULT106 students on our first day of class

It is going to be an amazing course, and the syllabus will be ready for us to share next week, I think. Most of the other teachers will be using it live with their own students (sadly that won’t work with my teaching schedule), and additionally the course will be open to anyone else who wants to join in, whether they are students, researchers or just interested.

That photo is me opening our class selfie session with one of me looking nuts in front of an auditorium of nice, quiet, well-behaved students. Actually, one of the interesting things for me was seeing this photo against the selfies taken by the students themselves. In my selfie with students, the students are so clearly disciplined by the architecture of the room: those seats, stacking them side by side with little space to be individuals. Of course I could have chosen to sit beside them to take my selfie but that actually didn’t occur to me. Of course I followed the expectations of the room – and of my role as teacher, and maybe also as selfie-taker/photographer, and put myself at the front keeping them all in their places. Look how they smile a little nervously as their crazy teacher declares they must all take selfies.

The selfies the students took themselves are quite different. Some are classic selfies with smiling faces and beautiful young people (they are all beautiful simply by virtue of their youth and enthusiasm) but others have deliberately fake smiles, grumpy faces, some are of just feet and one is just of two t-shirts. I’m going to risk sharing that one without permission, actually.


Some of the photos use filters. Some show three students as equals, giving them equal space in the frame. Others show one in front, clearly the photographer, and the others in the background. Some pretend to be asleep, others show thumbs up. Two girls frown severely with finger gestures.

Terri’s assignment (which I butchered in stealing it, as one always does) didn’t actually send students out to take selfies, instead she asks students to find flattering and unflattering selfies on their phones, and to think about how and why the photos would be good or bad for different purposes, like a Facebook profile page, a dating site or a company profile for different kinds of professions – or for a history book showing what life was like in 2014.

In my misremembering of Terri’s assignment I asked students to discuss what our selfies, taken together, would tell a future historian about what everyday life was like in 2014. Again the usefulness of students having phones in their pockets was evident: I could simply ask them to scroll through the photos on Instagram on their phones. After talking about this in small groups we talked about it together. “Future historians would think we were self-obsessed,” one group said. “Or obsessed with self-documentation,” said another. “They’d think we had no jobs at all and spent all our time smiling and taking photos of ourselves,” said a third. A fourth suggested that the biggest mystery to the future historians would be that we only had a few photos, and that they weren’t video streams. “Didn’t they record everything,” these future humans would wonder.

Next time we will have to work more specifically on how to read selfies. I didn’t really want general observations like “selfies are self-obsessed,” and unfortuantely we didn’t have time to really talk about that. Definitely on the to-do list for the next class. I think if I were to do this again (and it certainly seemed to work beautifully as an icebreaker!) I would try having much more specific analysis tasks for the students. Not the future historians question, but maybe more what Terri asks students to do in her assignment (I’m citing a draft, so this may change):

Label your six photos A-F, and then write a photo essay in which you explain which pictures would be the best and worst to use for the purposes below. In your explanations, be as specific as you can (e.g. don’t say “this photo looks professional,” explain how and why you came to that conclusion, based on signifiers like clothing, background details, and so forth.)

Probably talking more about signifiers and visual rhetoric would be important. Also, if students were deliberately choosing images they had taken previously we would have had a greater variety than when I just sent them into the courtyard for 10 minutes to snap selfies. That would have given us more to analyse.

Practically, the way I did this was to set up a shared Instagram for the class before the lecture, with a password that will be easy for our students to remember but isn’t too obvious. Most of the students already had Instagram installed and all but one already had the university’s wifi access on their phones. I gave them a few minutes to install Instagram, log out and log into the class account, split them into groups by having them count (“OK, you’re in group 1, you’re in group 2…”) so they wouldn’t be in groups with people they knew. We had no problems having 40 people logged into the same Instagram account. A very easy assignment to set up.

19. August 2014 by Jill
Categories: Teaching | 3 comments

New paper: Visualising Networks of Electronic Literature: Dissertations and the Creative Works They Cite

Over the last year I’ve spent many hours going through dissertations on electronic literature, entering information about them and the creative works they cite into the ELMCIP Electronic Literature Knowledge Base so that I could visualize the networks of works.

The final paper is now published in the July 2014 issue of the Electronic book review: “Visualising Networks of Electronic Literature: Dissertations and the Creative Works They Cite.” Hooray! I’ve also put the unedited (pre-visualized?) Gephi file on Figshare so you can download and play with the data yourself if you like. I’m sure there is more that could be done with the data – and it might be interesting (for me or for you – feel free!) to look at it again in five years time with five new years of dissertations.

Here are my previous blog posts about this research:

It would be interesting to do a new analysis of this in five years time with the new dissertations that will be written by then. And no doubt there are other approaches that could be taken to the same data. If you want to play with it, or do anything with it, please feel free. I’ve licensed the Gephi data set under a CC-BY license and would really like to see what others might do with it.

Here’s a screenshot of the preview of the pre-visualized network at Figshare, ready to be downloaded – Figshare’s preview for Gephi files actually lets you click around in the network, it’s pretty nifty. Here I moused over the node for
Jukka Tyrkkö’s 2011 dissertation “Fuzzy Coherence: Making Sense of Continuity in Hypertext Narratives” and so I can see connections (edges) to all the creative works he cited.

07. July 2014 by Jill
Categories: Digital Humanities, Electronic literature | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Life poetry told by sensors, or how automatic journalling apps are marketed

Ths app initiates thoughts and ideas for you. It makes remembering effortless, beautiful & fun. Embrace your authentic self. Save or share your best memories. Track your everyday life and learn how to improve it. Experience your life. Life poetry told by sensors.

SAGA: Choose Your Own Adventure. Be bold. Embrace your authentic self. Record your life automatically and share it effortlessly with the people you care about.

Heyday is an automatic journal. It makes remembering effortless, beautiful & fun, so you never forget another day of your life.

STEP Journal assists you in capturing and telling the amazing story of your life. Life poetry told by sensors – minimal efforts and 100% privacy. The true power of Automatic Journaling!

Rove is an automated Journal. Automatically log your day and import your photos so you can save or share your best memories.

Friday initiates thoughts and ideas for you, it helps you remember, it tries to anticipate actions. With Friday activities, you can share or, just log your favourite activities you’ve been doing all day.

Chronos Data Collector: Find your time. See how you are spending your time without lifting a finger. chronos runs in the background on your phone and automatically captures every moment.

OptimizeMe. Get the best out of every day of your life. Simply track your everyday life with OptimizeMe and learn how to improve it.

Google Now. Just the right information at just the right time.

Storica: Experience your life. Storica assembles meaningful events, defined through activities such as calls made and received, SMS messaging, IMs, or annotations made through the AIRS widgets, and creates a multimedia digital story in icon and textual form with configurable backgrounds. To complete the experience, you can define your own usual locations, based on geo-information, WiFi or BT information.

Narrato lets you privately record all of your activities, then curate them into journals that can be selectively shared. Use the Narrato LifeStream to import your activities from all of the services you already use and love, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Moves, and If you use an iPhone 5S, you can also record your daily step count from the M7 co-processor. If you want to remember something that doesn’t belong on other networks, effortlessly add thoughts, photos, moods, and locations directly into Narrato.

Samsung patent application for “Apparatus and Method for Generating Story According to User Information“: An apparatus and method summarize a user’s daily life information. The apparatus includes an information collection unit, an analysis unit, a story generator, and a display unit. The information collection unit collects log information including user’s daily life information, from at least one electronic device. The analysis unit analyzes the log information collected from the information collection unit and decides at least one topic representing the user’s daily life information. The story generator generates at least one sentence representing the user’s daily life information using the at least one topic decided in the analysis unit. The display unit displays the at least one sentence generated in the story generator.

27. May 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | Leave a comment

Wearable devices for tracking baby

The Sprouting ankle band promises to monitor your baby's sleep and heart rate and to warn parents when baby is about to wake up.

The Sprouting ankle band promises to monitor your baby’s sleep and heart rate and to warn parents when baby is about to wake up.

Benji is only four years old, but the wearable baby trackers I discovered this evening make his infancy look like the stone age in comparison. Sure, I used TrixieTracker to track Jessie’s napping six years ago, but I had to enter all that data myself. Now, you simply dress your baby in a custom-made onesie or snap a band around her ankle and you can let your smart phone alert you if her breathing, body temperature or heart rate are not OK. The Sproutling ankle band, which isn’t actually available yet but plans to go to market later this year, will even let you know when your baby is going to wake up from her nap. To the minute, they hope.

When your baby wears the Mimo Kimono with the little Turtle snapped into place, you can monitor her breathing and body motions on your smartphone app.

When your baby wears the Mimo Kimono with the little Turtle snapped into place, you can monitor her breathing and body motions on your smartphone app.

And what about a Withings baby scale? Weigh your baby every day, every hour if you want, and hey, you can sync it with your Babynes capsule based baby formula machine (like Nespresso but for baby formula and even more expensive) which will graph how much milk your baby drinks. Or at least how much milk your Babynes makes. And you can edit it.

I remember when my eldest baby was about eight weeks I realized one of the other mums was going to the well baby centre a couple of times a week to weigh her baby, not just according to the set schedule – 2 weeks, 6 weeks, 12 weeks or whatever it was. I started going more often too, thinking that was what a good mother was supposed to do, until the nurse asked me why. There’s really no point in weighing a baby that often, she told me, unless you have a particular reason to be concerned. Weight fluctuates from day to day. Frequent weighing is more likely to make you nervous than not, which probably isn’t that great for your baby. I relaxed, and stopped worrying about it.

I’m honestly rather glad I don’t have babies anymore. I know I would be torn between desiring all those gadgets, all that data and thinking the whole thing was insane.

And look, the apps generate endless data, data like diaries. With predictive abilities. Maybe.

The Withings baby scale lets you know exactly what your baby weighs as often as you like, and compares it to standard growth charts. You can even send your pediatrician a copy. Which may possibly be useful for preemies or in very rare other cases, I suppose.

The Withings baby scale lets you know exactly what your baby weighs as often as you like, and compares it to standard growth charts. You can even send your pediatrician a copy. Which may possibly be useful for preemies or in very rare other cases, I suppose.

Of course breastmilk is better for your child, Nestlé admits at the end of each ad, but look how objectively you can track your baby's food if you use a bottle instead!

Of course breastmilk is better for your child, Nestlé admits at the end of each ad, but look how objectively you can track your baby’s food if you use a bottle instead!

The app that goes with the Mimo Baby Monitor - wearable devices for a baby.

The app that goes with the Mimo Baby Monitor shows you lots of data.


22. May 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | 3 comments

Are there still academic blogs that have active discussions in the comments?

Reading my archives I feel sad that the commenting that was so key to blogs has disappeared, drifted off into closed conversations on Facebook that will be unsearchable and unfindable just a few weeks from now, and dotted around in truncated tweets. I wrote eloquently in 2001:

“How can we speak personally to one another and not be self-centred?” asks Jane Tompkins (in Kauffman, Gender and Theory). I think the clue is in the words “to one another” – and this is why blogs are so powerful: we write to one another. Blogs are always part of a context. We comment on one another’s writing, we comment on what we read, what we experience. Each post in a blog is anchored to a time (the time stamp, the immediacy, opinions in time rather than in a fictitious eternity) and to other writing (the links that posts revolve about) and to an individual. Blogs are personal, they are writing in context.

Are they still? Some blogs have certainly retained this. There are lots of comments on Soulemama’s post about gathering warm eggs from their hens, or on a sewing pattern posted at A Beautiful Mess,

Is it just academic blogs? Cyborgology is a blog I enjoy reading, but there are very few comments there – with the recent heated discussions on the posts about “seminal” being a sexist word being exceptions. danah boyd gets some comments, not too many (the post about the Oculus Rift being sexist got a pile – see a pattern here?) wrote last week about missing blogging, and is going to try blogging as part of a group called The Message at Medium. Medium has comments on each paragraph, which makes them a lot less visible (you have to click a number beside the paragraph to see them) and the discussion certainly becomes more fragmented than when comments are all on the whole text. Maybe I’ll get used to it.

I have to admit I don’t comment much myself these days. I read blogs – academic and other – regularly, but mostly on my phone with an RSS reader, and I rarely click through to the blog itself to comment.

Which academic blogs do you enjoy? Are there academic blogs that do have active comments?

04. May 2014 by Jill
Categories: Blogging | 7 comments

Talk at MIT on Monday May 5

On Monday at 5:30 (in room 14E-310) I’m giving a talk at MIT’s Purple Blurb series, kindly hosted by Nick Montfort. This will be an extra fun challenge because Purple Blurb focusses on art and practice, so I’m going to be talking about how I’ve used digital self-representation myself, research blogging and taking selfies. I’ll talk about my book project too, using bits of the talk I’ve given a few times now, but it’ll be interesting framing it using my own practice – I don’t do that as much as I used to.

I’m going to have to start with my high school diary:

My diary in high school, ca 1989.

And of course move on to my peak blogging years, which when I look back at them now were filled with much more personal posts than now, and with long comment threads. I do miss that, although the comments aren’t gone, they’ve just moved to Facebook and Twitter where there is no way that I will find them ten years from now as I find comments from Diane and Elin and Collin and Scott on a post about fiction and blogging I wrote in 2004. Here I am, ten years ago, happily showing off my new t-shirt. Terrible resolution; I can’t find a bigger version of the image.

Then my PhD was done and I was teaching and running a department and suddenly a grown up academic and blogging became difficult. I wrote an essay about that: Blogging from inside the ivory tower.

And here’s today’s selfie, from the beach here at Hull outside of Boston, squinting into the sun. I’m not sure that a selfie like this really stands in for the shift away from the personal in my blogging, but it’s all you’re getting today. Monday you’ll get more about the uncomfortableness of selfies, about the hiding that is necessary in a blog and about all the things you can’t measure, can’t visualize, can’t represent.

Selfie by the beach

03. May 2014 by Jill
Categories: Blogging, social media, Visualise me | Leave a comment

Proposals and Reviews for IR15, the AoIR conference this year

My individual paper for IR15, the Association of Internet Researchers conference this year, was rejected. I’ll still be going, because I’m keen to join in all the selfie discussions we’re bound to have, because there’ll be lots of interesting papers, and (this is important for my getting funding to go to Bangkok!) because our workshop was accepted. Hooray! It’s going to be amazing, bunch of fantastic people working together on selfies with some really fun ideas – read the description here. I’ll post more about how to sign up for the online portion soon!

So I’m not too upset about the rejection, but seeing all the posts on Facebook from people complaining about random reviews from people not in one’s field I was thinking it would be useful if the review process was a lot more open. So I’m posting my proposal and the reviews I received. Maybe others will do so too, whether they were accepted or rejected – I’d love more openness about reviewing in general.

Re-reading my proposal, I must say it’s horrifically short and really doesn’t show much of the work or analysis I was trying to cram into it. I can see how it might receive poor reviews (although I think at least my middle reviewer probably recommended it be accepted – I’m going with that optimistic theory, anyway 😉 You’re supposed to submit 1200 words, which is far too long for an abstract but far too short for a paper. I wish they would simply ask for full papers instead.

I would really like to see the scores my reviewers gave me. Here, for instance, are the scores I assigned to one of the papers I reviewed – why not share these with the author?


The IR15 conferences are very cross-disciplinary, which is a strength, but also a challenge, especially for reviewing. I know the current committee has put a lot of thought into reviewing, and it must be an enormously difficult task to manage, with (I assume?) several hundred proposals to assess. Last year there was a lot of discussion on the AoIR mailing list about reviewing that is able to see different kinds of disciplines. It’s not simple to achieve.

I signed up as a reviewer myself this year, and was disappointed that the two papers I was assigned really weren’t in the humanities or on topics or using methodologies I am very familiar with. I think the problem was that I ticked the “Digital Humanities” box when I selected topics and methodologies I was able to review, and the papers I received were both tagged as digital humanities, but really weren’t. One did some image analysis (I felt confident reviewing that) and the other statistics. Of course I added notes to the committee on my (lack of) expertise in the field, and there’s also a number from 1-10 you can assign to your own familiarity with the topic. Perhaps familiarity with the method would be even more relevant.

I would love to hear from the conference organizers what the average number was for reviewers'”familiarity with topic”. That would be an interesting measure of success in assigning reviewers to papers they were competent to review. Another option would be tracks in the conference.

There are journals that have open peer review. Is there any reason a conference couldn’t do this? A problem might be that people would review familiar names more than the actual research, but you could alleviate this, at least to some extent, by have a quota for PhD students and even a quota for early-career researchers beyond the PhD. Or maybe this all gets too complicated – organizing a conference is a lot of work, and standard, blind peer review can easily be run using existing platforms.

Here’s my proposal: “Cultivate a good life and record it”: Self-Improvement Narratives in Selfies, Scrapbooks and Domestic Blogs. It is not an ethnographic piece, though two of the reviewers want more information about the women who took the course. I’m interested in the texts – primarily emails sent out to subscribers to the courses. And because I know that the AoIR has a reputation for excluding humanities approaches, I tried to explain that – but obviously not well enough. I wrote:

This paper uses two online courses to examine ways in which the domestic blogosphere shapes ways in which mothers strive to care for themselves, whether with or against the mainstream. I take a humanities approach, using literary, visual and rhetorical analysis of the course material and of texts and images shared in blogs and social media, as well as drawing on critical theory and historical context to make my argument.

Next time I submit a paper to AoIR I’ll be even more explicit – I didn’t actually say that I wasn’t doing ethnography, and I probably should have. Maybe next time I’ll even have the opportunity to submit a real, full paper instead of 1200 words!

Here are the reviews:

Review 1

Comments for the authors
This is a really interesting topic but I would have liked more explanation of the authors’ own approach and methodology – did they sign up for these courses themselves?  Did they approach any users of the services?  Did they speak to anyone behind them?  How popular are the two sites discussed?  Do they have many users?  Why were they chosen?  

The author makes statements such as ‘For many women these courses’ clear breaks with the conventions of only presenting the perfect life rather than self-portraits or images of housework is no doubt important’ but this seems like speculation – I don’t see evidence they have actually spoken to the women involved within this abstract.  I would also like to know why the emphasis is on ‘mothers’ specifically, and if we are dealing with a particular group of women (e.g. nationality/age/sexual orientation/ethnicity) – either in terms of actual user base or in terms of who the sites are hoping to attract.

Although the examples mentioned could be potentially interesting, I would have liked more discussion of why they are significant and how this paper would differ from other literature on blogging, particularly the growing body of work (mainly US-centric) on ‘mommy blogs’ and similar practices.


Review 2

Comments for the authors
This is a nicely conceptualized study that considers the hot topic of “selfies” in relation to online self-improvement courses specifically aimed at (privileged white U.S.?) women.  As my parenthetical comment notes, the author needs to locate the subjects of this study in relation to privilege, ethnicity, and nationhood even if in this case the author is particularly interested in the ways in which subjects utilize these self-improvement courses to overcome a sense of their own powerlessness and invisibility.  

Ethnicity, race, nationality and economics are present here even if (or perhaps especially because of) their absence in the observed courses and self-presentations.  Such critiques will be especially important in the context of Bangkok.  This promises to be an interesting study and one that will garner attention due to the fact that it relates to a “hot topic.” 


Review 3

Comments for the authors
The cases are interesting, but would have liked to have seen the author weave together a more coherent theoretical grounding on which to base a study of these two courses – at the moment, this proposal lacks a deep clarity of argument that would mark a strong proposal.


02. May 2014 by Jill
Categories: Academia | 2 comments

← Older posts

Newer posts →