#dayofDH2014 3: Technological bias and cultural filters

I kept writing and reading instead of doing the more DH-specific data visualization I was intending to do. But it’s so interesting! I’m writing about filters, you know, Instagram style filters, but I’m extending the notion of filter by seeing technological and cultural filters as basically the same thing. I talk a bit about that in the presentation I did a couple of weeks ago, and am working on writing that out properly so it makes sense.

But one example of how cultural and technological filters mix is the skin-tone bias in photography, especially 20th century photography, although today’s digital cameras aren’t perfect either. Early photographic colour film was designed to show white people’s skin in detail, but did a terrible job of representing a person with darker skin – especially when people with very different skin tones were in the same image. There were complaints from parents – for instance at poorly lit children with darker skin in diverse school groups – from the 1950s on, but it wasn’t until the 70s that Kodak actually did anything about the problem, and then only because companies wanting to sell dark woods and chocolates wanted film that would show the detail better.

An older "Shirley card" for skin tone and colour calibration of cameras.

An older “Shirley card” for skin tone and colour calibration of cameras.

Recent, international calibration image.

Recent, international calibration image.

Lorna Roth, who wrote an interesting article about this history (“Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity“, 2009), notes that an important reason there were no real campaigns for film producers to create film that did a better job of representing darker skin tones was our general assumption that technology and science are objective – we thought photographs just were that way. But “[h]ad NASA, the U.S. intelligence service, or meteorological scientists already completed their research on photography of low-light areas at the time of the popular development of still photography, the evolution of film chemistry might have unfolded quite differently,” and it could certainly have changed once those developments were in place.

Sylveeta McFadden’s article in Buzzfeed, “Teaching the Camera to See My Skin“, is a very interesting personal take on this. And the comments on the Jezebel article about the same topic are wonderful explanations of how disgust at how badly conventional photography represents darker skin is a pretty common motivation for taking selfies:

Her piece is beautiful and I struggle with this thought ALL the time. Growing up all of my girlfriends (and immediate female relatives) were white. I would watch them effortlessly take a photo or get their photo taken and in return get an image that looked just like them. I never really felt that way. I still don’t – unless I take my own photo. And people call it vanity but really I just want to be able to see myself in a picture. I don’t see myself in other people’s photos, I just don’t. 

And another:

Ive alwaaays felt this way too. Some people laugh at me for wanting to take selfies rather than have someone take the photo but I’ve always felt kind of shitty pre smartphone era when the photos would come back developed and I just woudnt look like me. I think there is a features proportions issue as well as skin colour issue. – Ive felt like its not just me but other black people I see in photos too .

McFadden writes the same thing at Buzzfeed:

I couldn’t help but feel that what that photographer saw was so wildly different from how I saw myself. Is that how you see me? Could you not see blackness? Its varying tones and textures? And do you see all of us that way? (..) I started taking pictures to self protect. I just couldn’t bear seeing anymore shitty pictures of me. I didn’t want know what I wanted these images to say, but I knew I could make something beautiful.

I’m going to be using this case in talking with students about how technological determinism, cultural co-construction and how technology encodes cultural biases, that’s for sure.

08. April 2014 by Jill
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More forms

I’m a PI on an exciting. grant application led by Raine Koskimaa which would offer a training network for 15 PhD candidates in Transmedia studies, and it’s due tomorrow so I’m supposed to log into the EU submission site and add my stuff – but of course the login didn’t work the first time. I do feel like a lot of my day goes in this kind of failed logins and forms.


08. April 2014 by Jill
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#dayofDH2014: travel validation signature

It’s the 2014 Day of Digital Humanities, and digital humanists around the globe are writing about how they spend their day. I made a blog for it at Day of DH 2014, and of course I’ll cross post here too.

First item of the day: picking up my J1 scholar visa form which needed a travel validation signature so I can leave the US to go to Canada (to Jeremy Hunsinger‘s university, Laurier) on Thursday to give a talk with Scott on our visualizations of the ELMCIP Electronic Literature Knowledge Base. I suppose I don’t need the signature to leave the country, but I certainly will for them to let me back in.

travel-validationGetting signatures on forms isn’t digital humanities, just one of the not very exciting admin tasks that all scholars have to attend it. And that reminds you that your presence in a country is potentially precarious. I actually had to have Steve Jones, the lovely head of the Communications Department, sign a different form approving my going to Canada as relevant to my research so I could get this signature on the form I need to keep with my passport. Luckily Steve let me go, with a laugh and raised eyebrows at the government requiring his giving me permission. Nothing like a little governmental paternalism.

08. April 2014 by Jill
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Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: My Talk at UIC

me-prepping-UIC-talkI’m writing a book this semester about how we see ourselves through technology, and today I presented the project to the Communications Department here at UIC, where I’m a visiting scholar this semester.

Of course I forgot to press the record button on my phone, so don’t have the audio track, but the talk was recorded on video so at some point it will be online, I’m promised. Here are the slides.

Slideshare apparently no longer displays speaker notes, which makes the slideshow rather useless unless you already know what I intended to say about each image. Here’s the same slideshow on Google Drive – if you follow the link and click the little “settings” cogwheel at the bottom right you can open speaker notes and read a short version of what I said.

I’ve structured my book project around three modes of self-representation that I argue are important in our culture right now: textual, visual and quantitative. During the presentation of this talk to the communications department at UIC, someone asked about musical self-representation, and what about dance? There are probably other modes of self-representation I could look at, though I think these three are the most important online at the moment. Certainly curation should be seen as a fourth mode of self-representation. Steve Jones noted that Will Straw had written interesting things about self-curation in relation to record collections. Certainly Pinterest and Tumblr and various other media set curation as key.

13. March 2014 by Jill
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Upcoming talk on my book

I’m going to present my research on digitally mediated self-representation here at UIC’s Department of Communications on Wednesday March 12 at noon. If you’re in Chicago, please come! It’s in room 1169 in the Behavioral Sciences Building, the one that looks a bit like a spaceship.


07. March 2014 by Jill
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Celebrities’ self-presentation (notes on a paper by David P. Marshall)

Notes on Marshall, P. David. “The promotion and presentation of the self: celebrity as marker of presentational media.” Celebrity Studies 1, no. 1 (2010): 35-48.

Marshall has previously written extensively about traditional celebrity, and starts his argument by reminding us of the educational function of celebrities in the representational culture of mass media. Celebrities were how we learnt about the latest hairstyles or what to wear. The “pedagogy of the celebrity taught us consumerism: “the individual had to be taught how to consume and to recognise the value of consumption for their own benefit”. Celebrities have always had a parasocial function: we gossip about them and can assume that our friends “know” them, although this relationship is of course asymmetrical: they do not know us.

Marshall characterizes today’s social media world as a “presentational culture”, in opposition to the representational culture of mass media, and describes how celebrities today maneuver between three ways the self is presented today:

  1. the public self, which is the official presentation, often managed by publicity assistants.
  2. The private public self, which is, in Marshall’s words, “a recognition of the new notion of a public that implies some sort of further exposure of the individual’s life”. The private public self is often managed by the celebrity themselves, who may find it empowering to wrest control of his or her self-presentation from the studio, much as in the 1950s when the film star rather than the studio became central.
  3. The transgressive intimate self is the third way in which celebrities are presented, and includes personal, often emotional items that should perhaps not have been shared but that become widely spread on the internet.

Marshall only writes about traditional celebrities and their use of social media, and doesn’t talk about bloggers who have become celebrities due to their blogging or about ordinary people who are “famous to fifteen people”. I wonder whether there might be something between the private public self and the transgressive intimate self, especially for non-traditional celebrities. And how does this transfer to ordinary people? What about people using Facebook to communicate both with friends and with strangers? Can there be an intimate, public self that is not transgressive? And can the importance of pedagogical celebrity in the last century explain our love of fashion bloggers?

Related work includes Alice Marwick’s Status Update and Terri Senft, both on micro-celebrities in social media.

06. March 2014 by Jill
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What if the Greensboro 4 were on Twitter?

One advantage of being on sabbatical is that you learn things and meet people you wouldn’t have if you’d stayed home. This week I was lucky enough to go to a talk by Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal at the African American Studies Department at UIC. This is a part of American culture we don’t learn enough about in Norway, and I’ll certainly be showing many of Neal’s examples to my students when I get home. (Probably they’ll get more of the hiphop references than I do.)

Oliver Wendell Jones from Bloom CountyNeal began by showing us a picture that looked ever-so-familiar but that I had forgotten: this is Oliver Wendall Jones, the computer nerd from Bloom County, a cartoon I loved in high school – back in the late eighties. “Oliver Wendall Jones is the black patron saint of Twitter,” Neal said, and continued by tearing apart that piece in Slate a while back about “How Black People Use Twitter“. “The author might as well have been referring to dogs,” Neal said. What’s really going on, he explained, is that African Americans use Twitter as a global instant messenger. It’s kind of like fictive kin, where you “you acknowledge other black folks wherever they are in the world even if you don’t know them.” The birth of black social media in the US was  actually on plantations, Neal said. African Americans have a long history of communication with a broad public in ways that would not be seen as subversive. For instance, singing on the plantation about “go down Moses” sounds innocuous but might actually directly instruct everyone to meet after work at a nearby place known as “Moses”. This is a culture that knows how to obscure the publicness of their conversation. This creates a community, a “Black code” or “Black imaginary”, and Neal showed a quote from Elizabeth Alexander on the screen: “Tapping into this Black imaginary helps us envision what we are not meant to envision: complex Black selves, real and enactable Black power…”

Other early forms of social media used by African Americans includes the mimeograph – which is what the Greensboro 4 actually used – and the mixtape, which was an important way of spreading Black music, which was not played on the radio most places as late as in the 1980s and 90s.


The next part of the talk was devoted to a series of examples of how African Americans have used social media for community building and political purposes.

Phillip Agnew runs the civil rights group Dream Defenders and was scheduled to speak for two minutes at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, but apparently other people overspoke their allotted time and his two minutes were cut. So Agnew set up his camera and gave his speech. The speech itself is moving, but the key point for Neal is Agnew’s initial request to his listeners: record YOUR two minutes, share it. Agnew crowdsources the revolution.

Neal almost apologizes for the next example, because it certainly isn’t grassroots activism: it’s a video of Obama brushing off Hillary Clinton’s attacks during his first presidential campaign. But this, Neal says, is the single moment that won Obama the hip hop vote: he makes an unspoken reference to Jay-Z’s “Dirt off my Shoulder” by brushing his shoulder to show how he’s not affected by negative publicity. This is an example of Obama using “Black code”.

Neal then moved on to showing how community is developed through social media, although there may not be clear victories. He showed us a really interesting video where 1hood media (I think, can’t find the source) made a short, fast-cut visual and spoken documentary arguing that Troy Davis was innocent, giving new words to what Neal (a hiphop scholar) called the quintessential mourning song of hiphop culture: “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)“. Neal calls the social media activity around Troy Davis’ planned execution “this generation’s first vigil”. Davis was eventually executed, but there was a 2-3 hour stay of execution. In a way this fight was a failure since Davis was executed – but the effect of was that when Trayvon Martin was killed, there was a context to build protest that got Zimmerman to trial, which was the real victory. Every victory comes after many defeats.

The digital divide isn’t that black folks don’t have access, it’s that access is different, Neal said. More than 50% of blacks who access the internet do so on their mobile – far more than whites. For many African Americans, their only internet connection is through a handheld device. It’s difficult to fill out a job application on your cellphone – we need broadband in the ‘hood.

Neal’s talk ended with an opening up towards less obviously productive forms of engagement in social media, like #rachet, which is “this alternative black twitter” that is “a challenge to black respectability”. A young woman in the audience asked Neal what he thought of worldstarhiphop.com, a site that as far as I can glean is clearly “rachet”. Neal states unequivocally that the site is “incredibly dehumanizing of the black people.” He wants it gone. The student countered, “Well, it’s black expression.” Neal had a quick answer: “It leads people to say “But if they do it to themselves, why should we be upset other people are doing it to them? Is it middle class black folks mocking lower class black folks?” Neal’s not too worried about adults viewing it, but says that a good part of the audience is young children, pre-teens, and that the idea the site gives them of black culture is incredibly harmful.

Mark Anthony Neal has of course written several books, but also writes for The Huffington Post, is on Twitter as @newblackman (also the title of one of his books) and runs a weekly podcast titled Left of Black. So plenty of ways to follow his work.

05. March 2014 by Jill
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An online selfie course for academics

Terri Senft is also working on selfies, and started up a Selfie Research Network on Facebook the other day. The group already has 180 members and is a very active site of sharing and conversation. There’s a Zotero bibliography and a shared Evernote folder as well, and a database of people is in the making, so feel free to join if you’re interested.


One of Terri’s questions to the group was whether we should submit an experimental session for AoIR in Bangkok  in October, and lots of great ideas come up. Me, I want to do an online workshop. Ideally for AoIR, perhaps for my students next semester, but definitely building on the way that the online self-portrait courses I’ve taken are structured – so requiring participants to share images – but also thinking about ourselves as scholars and researchers. Really, every piece of scholarly writing is a selfie, of sorts, more or less obviously. As we study visual, networked culture, we need to be thinking more about how we ourselves develop and communicate ideas visually, and a workshop where we actually create images and think through photography would be really interesting.

Foucault talks about technologies of the self, and about ways in which different cultures have seen it as necessary to cultivate (and discipline) the self, and that self-care for the ancient Greeks was seen as a pre-requisite for self-knowledge. Self-portraits and blogs can be a very deliberate form of self-cultivation, as the title of the book Blogging for Bliss suggests, and in addition to books there are online courses you can take in order to become a happier, more confident person through self-portraits, blogging or scrapbooking. I’m currently following Becky Higgin’s Project Real Life, and last year I followed the NOW YOU self-portrait course.

These courses are all about empowering women – always women – to see beauty in themselves and their surroundings. They can also be seen as a way in which women are disciplined, much as women’s magazines, as Angela McRobbie notes, have been “instrumental in the training of middle class young women,” from “cleanliness, hygiene, and the whole business of good housekeeping” to “fashion, beauty and rituals around the social calendar and courtship”.

I don’t have clear assignments in mind, but I’d like at least something that is very concrete and specific and that has participants actually taking photos. I’m not sure how far to delve into taking conventional selfies.

  • Photograph workspace, or self doing research (writing? reading? in café? at desk? in bed? interviewing informants? thinking?)
  • Everyone analyses the same selfie or case study (e.g. a celebrity’s selfie) together
  • Everyone finds an example of certain kind of selfie (pregnant selfie, selfie with friend, selfie with children, selfie alone, sad selfie, funeral selfie, silly selfie, sexy selfie etc) and shares that image to the private group with a brief analysis. We see what happens when you read all the individual images and analyses together.
  • Take photos of various research related items and create a collage. Write, um, something.
  • Take a photo of an accessory, gadget or piece of clothing that helps you feel confident as an academic – for instance when presenting at a conference. Or that doesn’t help you feel confident.
  • Creating academic memes, like Talan Memmott’s for electronic literature, or the ones Leonardo Flores has his students create.

I’m sure there are better ideas, this is just a start.

You could take something like this in many different directions. You could certainly do a sort of leading people through finding themselves as researchers through photography and writing thing. But I think what would be more interesting is if we can find ways to cultivate thinking visually as researchers.

Any ideas?

10. February 2014 by Jill
Categories: Uncategorized, Visualise me | 2 comments

Automatic portraits and selfies

I got a pile of books about the history of self-portraits at the UIC library yesterday, and I’m particularly enjoying Raynal Pellicer’s Photo Booth: The Art of the Automatic Portrait (Abrams, New York, 2010; translated from French by Antony Shugaar). There are so many similarities between the ways people experimented and played with early photo booths and the way we play with digital selfies today. Photobooths really made self-portraits accessible to the general public.

Did you know the surrealists loved them, too? Automatic photos – it’s like automatic writing, perfect surrealism! Here’s Yves Tanguy in the 1920s.

Yves-Tanguy-surrealist-photo-booth-picsAnd here’s Marie-Berthe Aurenche:


Look at this wonderful definition of the photobooth by members of the surrealist movement in the December 15, 1928 issue of Variétés: Revue mensuelle illustrée de l’esprit contemporain (which I unfortunately can’t find online – it’s quoted on page 92 of Pellicer’s book:

The Photomaton is an automatic device that provides you, in exchange for a five-france token, with a strip of eight attitudes caught in photographs. Photomaton, I’ve been seen, you’ve seen me, I’ve often seen myself. There are fanatics who collect hundreds of their ‘expressions’. It is a system of psychoanalysis via image. The first strip surprises you as you struggle to find the individual you always believed yourself to be. After the second strip, and throughout all the many strips that follow, while you may do your best to play the superior individual, the original type, the dark fascinating one, or the monkey, none of the resulting visions will fully correspond to what you want to see in yourself.

Bridgette Reed’s Pinterest board of photo booth images has a lot more examples. You can also browse the PDFs of La Revolution Surrealiste beautifully digitized by La biblioteque française – in the last issue, in 1929, Magritte’s painting “je ne void pas la cachée dans la forêt” is framed by photo booth portraits of 16 male surrealists with their eyes closed, all presumably dreaming of the naked woman in Magritte’s painting.

The surrealists were of course fascinated by automatic art, and as Priscilla Frank writes in commentary on an exhibition of photo booth art in Switzerland a couple of years ago,

it makes sense that surrealists would be entranced by the photo booth, an automaton that operated independently of human consciousness or human hands. Even the subjects were barely in control of their position, those photo flashes come too fast. The resulting images are pure, independent imaging; the subject is caught in limbo between pose and natural stance. In the endless stream of images, strip after strip, the people themselves lose their humanity and begin to look like automatic images as well.

Of course, if we’re comparing photobooth portraits to today’s selfies, we should be looking not so much at artistic use as at ordinary peoples’ self-portraits. But somehow I was even more fascinated by the photos of celebrities I found on Pinterest boards like Lucia Pena Sota’s FotoMatones. Oh, some of them are polished and glamorous, but many have that searching look that I see in the mirror when I gaze at my own face, or in the selfies I delete shortly after taking them. Or maybe they’re just practicing. After all, they only get a few goes with a photo booth, it’s not like a digital camera where you can shoot a hundred selfies and delete ninety-nine of them.



Marguerite Duras.


Mel Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn and Truman Capote




30. January 2014 by Jill
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Reading a Twitter stream as a text or as a social act of self-expression

Lisa Boncheck Adams (@AdamsLisa) is a mother of three who has tweets and blogs about her life with cancer. Adams is currently undergoing radiation treatment and has been writing about the pain of side effects, with fairly detailed descriptions of the mechanics of undergoing this kind of treatment:

Often her posts are humorous, as her December 16 tweet: “In the Cancer Olympics there would be a medal for contrast chugging #contender”, which is accompanied by a photo of a jug of red contrast liquid. And each morning she posts an inspirational call to focus on what is beatiful: “Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere.”

In an opinion piece in The Guardian last week, Emma Keller wrote about Adams in a way that elicited a lot of criticism, leading to the piece being removed from The Guardian’s website, as Chris Elliott explained today. A few days after Emma Kelley’s piece, her husband Bill Keller wrote another opinion piece about Adams for The New York Times.

Emma and Bill Keller explicitly place themselves in the role of traditional audience to Adams’ tweets. Instead of participating in the conversation and seeing themselves as Adams’ peers or friends, they are readers of a text, members of a large audience watching a performance: “Her decision to live her cancer onstage invites us to think about it, debate it, learn from it,” Bill Keller writes, and his use of the term “onstage” is revealing.

Continue Reading →

16. January 2014 by Jill
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