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.

Poster-for-talk-at-UIC-Rettberg_2014

07. March 2014 by Jill
Categories: Uncategorized, Visualise me | Leave a comment

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.

Neal-mixtape-as-social-media

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
Categories: social media | Leave a comment

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.

Facebook-selfie-network

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:

marie-berthe-aurenche-photobooth

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.

elvis-photobooth

marguerite-duras-photobooth

Marguerite Duras.

mel-ferrer-truman-capote-audrey-hepburn-photobooth

Mel Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn and Truman Capote

morrissey

Morrissey

 

30. January 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | Leave a comment

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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Filtering reality

I’m reading an interesting just-published paper by Meryl Alper, “War on Instagram”, about how (read it at New Media & Society or without the paywall at Academia.edu) The paper discusses how photojournalists are using smartphones and in particular Instagram and Hipstamatic to produce documentary images that are heavily filtered, like Damon Winter’s “A Grunt’s Life” series for the New York Times.

Photos taken with Hipstamatic iPhone app as an embedded photojournalist for the NY Times.

Photos taken by Damon Winter with Hipstamatic iPhone app as an embedded photojournalist for the NY Times. (http://www.poyi.org/68/17/third_04.php)

Another example is Lowy’s Hipstamatic photo of Hurricane Sandy, which made it to the front page of Time Magazine:

time-magazine-with-benjamin-lowy-hipstamatic-photo-of-hurricane-sandy

Yesterday, Talan posted a link to Filter Fakers, a website that provides us with the useful community service of alerting us to Instagram photos that are incorrectly tagged #nofilter. As Talan wrote, “who cares?”

filter-fakers

Photojournalists care, it seems.

Lowy’s concession to his critics – “toning down” the illustrative style of the very Hipstamatic photo filters that won him acclaim – touches upon an endless discussion about understanding all photography as a manipulated interaction between style and substance, and a timeless debate over the ethics of combining photojournal- ism with aesthetics. (Alper 2013: 4)

[S]cholars such as Luc Boltanski (1999) have argued that the aestheticization of what we see in the media emotionally and morally insulates viewers from the suffering of others. (5)

That’s a point made by Susan Sontag, too, as Alper notes on page 7: a worry is that “aestheticizing war leads to anesthetizing war”.

Part of the concern is, it seems, the eternal “but who is the author?” question. Alper quotes news photographer Nick Stern, who wrote that

It’s not the photographer who has communicated the emotion into the images. It’s not the pain, the suffering or the horror that is showing through. It’s the work of an app designer in Palo Alto who decided that a nice shallow focus and dark faded border would bring out the best in the image.

Does that matter, though? And aren’t our images always mediated through the work of others? If not through the code written by app designers in Palo Alto, then by the mechanics of a camera designed and redesigned by a series of people? No photographer is in control of the whole process. The best one can do is choose between different apps, cameras, processes, chemicals, software, papers all made by other people. It’s interesting how the idea of the lone genius still remains.

The place of these images in a stream – or alternatively, on the front page of Time Magazine – is also worth considering. Alper argues that the meaning of an iconic and disturbing war photo such as the famous photo of the naked Vietnamese girl running from napalm would have had a very different effect in a news feed between “photos of cocktails and kittens on an Instagram feed” (7).

I’m not convinced that this is particularly different from the ways we encountered photographs a few decades again. On television, in a news broadcast sandwiched between commercials and soap operas, or in a newspaper with ads and trivia on the next page. The very reproducibility of the photograph means that it will be encountered in many different settings, and not always in serious, museum or documentary style contexts.

The roughness of the smartphone image also claims a kind of authenticity, and Alper quotes two different  embedded war photojournalists who chose to use smartphones to mimic the soldiers’ own photographs. Alper discusses some definitely problems with this too simple idea:

Winter and Guttenfelder’s rationale falls into an anthropological trap, justifying the use of the iPhone and Hipstamatic as “naturalistic” because they empathize with how soldiers produce their own images of the war. The professional embedded photojournal- ist using Hipstamatic performs a sort of imagined autoethnography of soldiers’ own media-making practices. This performance is based on individual photographers’ highly time-bound conception of the kind of photos these soldiers would take if imbued with professional skills and competencies, as if that were the only distinction between the lived experiences of soldiers and embedded photojournalists. Embedded photojournalists are not observers, but rather, participant observers: their presence invariably alters the setting of their shots, regardless of the type of camera and the degree to which the device becomes silent and unnoticed.

The “imperfect” Hipstamatic photographs taken by embedded photojournalists are potentially misleading because they feel as though they might come from the “subjec- tive” perspective of troops rather than the objective perspective of the embedded photo- journalist. Adopting the perspective of soldiers might be appealing for photojournalists because soldier participation and visibility in the representation of war can often appear to be a “bottom up” alternative to “top down” political and military positioning (e.g., Andén-Papadopoulos, 2009; Smith and McDonald, 2011). This appeal to the vernacular in professional war media production is a reflection of what Turner (2010) calls the “demotic turn” in popular culture, or the increased visibility of “ordinary people” in media production without a necessarily more democratic public sphere.

(..)

These photos, constructed around an image of the hypothetical soldier, do not account for the polyvocality of multiple soldier perspectives and voices, speaking for troops by speaking through their imagined mode of photography. (11-12)

Alper doesn’t really discuss the soldiers’ own photographs, other than as a contrast to the professional photojournalists’ photographs, but in her conclusion she raises the #nofilter question that I started this post with. Obviously, there is no real way in which a photograph can be “unfiltered”:

Whether or not a photo has been processed with the sepia tinge of the Sutro filter, or the washed-out Walden, all photos taken though a mobile photo app such as Instagram or Hipstamatic are in some way “filtered.” Technically, even basic Instagram photos take the shape of a square, versus the automatic rectangular dimensions of an iPhone’s built- in camera. Ideologically, “#nofilter” serves a social and cultural purpose for those who employ it. The claim to clearly demarcate the real from the artificial says more perhaps about the person taking the photo than about the photo itself.

I’m reading as much as I can find right now about ways in which technology filters and mediates self-representations, like through selfies or with a Fitbit or on Tumblr or Instagram – so if you know of any work I should be reading, please let me know!

07. November 2013 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | 3 comments

note for post on surveillance being cool

Facebook is just as interesting in reading between the lines as Google is. In the Facebook Third Quarter Earnings Conference Call on October 30, Mark Zuckerberg explained that one of Facebook’s main goals is “understanding the world”:

What I mean by this is that every day, people post billions of pieces of content and connections into the graph and in doing this, they’re helping to build the clearest model of everything there is to know in the world. A big part of why this works is that people can share things with any audience they want. They don’t have to share publicly with everyone at the same time; they can share with just their friends. So this means that the model of the world that people are building in our systems includes things that people only want to share with just a few people. This has the potential to be really powerful, but right now, we actually do very little to utilize the knowledge that people have shared to benefit everyone in our community.

 

05. November 2013 by Jill
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Oxford University Press’s excellent Tumblr page

I was very impressed with Oxford University Press’s Tumblr page, which is actually exciting enough to be consistently on Tumblr’s trending blogs list (you can only see the trending list in the mobile app, not on the website) and thought their obvious skill in finding tidbits from academic books that appeal to Tumblr’s young demographic might mean they’d have good books on digital culture. But although they have an interesting series on Digital Politics (check out the upcoming Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in Politics by Jason Gainous and Kevin M. Wagner) I can’t find anything interesting on digital culture or new media from a humanities perspective. Their media studies section is astounding: they list the subcategories as “television, radio and film” – that’s it!? This is 2013, for goodness sakes! Am I missing some great books, or is Oxford simply not very interested in digital culture?

10. October 2013 by Jill
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Adapting your social media rhetoric to Tumblr or Facebook

There’s a whole rhetoric to Tumblr, and as I wrote yesterday, animated gifs are an important part of it. Compare, for instance, The White House’s official Tumblr page to the now suddenly quite staid-seeming Facebook communication. Here’s the Tumblr image they posted the day before the government shutdown:

Obama-you-dont-extract-ransom-government-shutdown-white-house-tumblr-sept30-2013

Even the italic font used is the one commonly used on subtitling of loops from videos. And here’s the version they put on Facebook:

obama-facebook-dont-extract-ransom-sept30

Until yesterday I hadn’t realised that The White House was even on Tumblr, and I certainly hadn’t considered their alternate rhetorical strategies. Are there other sites where they speak differently again? Instagram has the same image as Facebook, and Twitter has the text.

Do you know of other social media actors that use different strategies on Tumblr and Facebook?

05. October 2013 by Jill
Categories: Blogging | Leave a comment

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