One of the highlights for me from the Association of Internet Researchers conference (#IR15) in South Korea last week was the extra-curricular learning. About many things, but in this post let me focus on what I learnt about selfie culture and visual, digital self-representations. I watched how people use selfie sticks and learnt how to use one myself. I got to see Seoul through the eyes of k-pop fan Kristine Ask, who could explain all the cardboard cutouts of ridiculously good-looking young men outside the cosmetics stores and the lengthy schooling that goes into the very media-convergent profession of k-pop star. And as we sung karaoke into the night Crystal Abidin, an expert on Asian commercial blogging, taught us how to take selfies with the appropriate hand signs. Here is a video she sent us showing a whole pile of “cute” hand signs (cuteness or Kawaii as the Japanese call it is important throughout Asia) demonstrated by a cute Australian girl lip-syncing to a Korean song.
I started thinking about the many different ways in which we pose for the camera. Pierre Bourdieu writes a bit in Photography: A Middle-brow Art about how important it is to pose when somebody takes your photo. It’s a way of acknowledging the ritual. Even the way we tend to face the camera is part of this ritual:
Honour demands that one pose for the photograph as one would stand before a man who one respects and from whom one expects respect, face on, one’s forehead held high and one’s head straight. (page 82)
So the way you pose for a photograph is a way of establishing a relationship with the viewer. Your pose says something about how you relate to the viewer and how you expect the viewer to relate to you.
Obviously the way we pose for portraits and for selfies has changed over time – just think of the stiffness of Victorian portraits (although there are also examples of very irreverent Victorian portraits). When we see an old portrait where the subject poses in what we think of as a modern way – as in the photobooth portraits I wrote about a few months ago,
There are also cultural differences in how we pose. Some are geographic, as the cuteness hand signs in Asian culture. Showing the v-sign when someone takes your photo or in a selfie is pretty constant in Korea, it seems (and there’s a whole history to it), but not so common here in Norway. Here’s a list of 29 ways to use your hands to look cute, or kawaii. These US hand signs as explained to mothers of teenagers are clearly very different from the Asian hand signs. Rude seems more the goal than cute. THere’s also the suburban gang sign thing that goes on in some US photos, though it’s often unclear whether people in the photos actually intend their hand signs to be gang signs or just think they look cool.
You can find lessons too. Here’s a tutorial clearly aimed at people outside of Asia who want to learn how to do cute Asian poses:
I’m wondering about what other styles of pose there are. In Chicago I noticed another kind of posing where you twist your hips for full body shots in what to me looks like the style of a photo model. Sort of like the fashion poses sketched below. These poses were being struck almost identically by women and children alike. I wonder whether this is a more Hispanic style of posing, or perhaps it’s simply inspired by fashion shoots and, for children perhaps, by shows like Toddlers and Tiaras.
Obviously I pose in a culturally specific way just as anyone else does. Some of my pose is about trying to look as “beautiful” as possible and to hide features I dislike, which is probably a pretty universal drive behind poses. Over time I’ve learnt some ways of smiling and holding my chin that work better than others in the hide-the-imperfection game, although I constantly make mistakes and end up hating the photo anyway. I often wonder what to do with my hands, so having some hand signs might help – but unless done with mock irony with other selfie scholars I worry they would make me seem unprofessional. And there’s such an uneasy balance between trying to make my photos seem professional yet hip, serious yet approachable. I usually fail 😉
It’s harder for me to see the cultural specificity of the way I pose though. We (as in the group of people I try to fit in with – mid-career Westerners? Mothers who like technology? Blogging academics? How to define “we”?) say “cheese” and smile and look straight at the camera. We don’t do hand signs, unless they are ironic. We try to act “natural” while clearly acknowledging the camera. I will have to watch “us” more to learn more.
If you know more about poses and hand signs for portraits and selfies around the world I’d love to hear about it. And if some scholar somewhere has actually done research on this, please let me know!
Update: This post by Jolynna Sinanan on posing in Instagram photos in Trinidad and the UK is very closely related to the thoughts in this blog post – go read it!
[Open Access Week in 2014 is October 20-26.]
Have you noticed that scholarly books are getting more and more expensive? It’s not just the journals that are exorbitantly priced. Yesterday I didn’t buy a really interesting anthology in my field because it cost over $100. More and more of the monographs I’m interested in cost £50 or £60 or even £80.
You can download Seeing Ourselves Through Technology for free. Actually, you can download it, remix it, mash it up, buy or borrow the print book, photocopy it as much as you like, and even make tea towels or a corset out of it and resell it at a profit without asking permission. It’s published with a CC-BY license, which means you can do whatever you like with it so long as you mention that I wrote the original version.
I decided a while ago that I didn’t want to publish any more books that were closed access. I’m a public employee, so my research is paid for by ordinary peoples’ tax money. It makes sense that my taxpayer-funded research should be accessible to everyone. Not just to scholars in rich institutions in rich countries that can afford to paid skyrocketing prices for scholarly journals and books.
So when I saw that Palgrave, which is known for publishing quality scholarship, had set up a system for open access books, I was interested. Palgrave’s model is pretty simple. You pay. You pay quite a lot. My book is a Palgrave Pivot, which is a series of short books (mine is 40,000 words or about 100 pages) that are published in just 12 weeks after the manuscript is completed. (That in itself is reason enough to publish with them – I hated waited a year or two for my other books to actually be available.) To make your Palgrave Pivot book open access, you pay Palgrave a fee of £7500. Longer books cost up to £11000.
I’m fortunate enough to work at the University of Bergen, which established an open access publishing fund last year specifically to pay for fees like this. The pay-to-publish model was not familiar to me. It’s more common in the natural sciences, where closed access journals will allow you to make your article (but not all articles) openly available for a fee. I don’t think UiB’s open access people had specifically considered funding open access books as well as articles, but they loved the idea when I asked whether I could apply for money to make a book open access. Certainly the Norwegian Research Council’s open access funding specifically mentions articles, not books. In the UK, as far as I can see, you can get this kind of funding if you have a RCUK grant (apparently the funding is distributed via the universities, so see for instance Bristol‘s or Oxford‘s policies), which is, I assume, far more common in the sciences than in the humanities, and of course it is in the humanities that the book is a common form of publication. Some journals, like the prestigious Nature Communications, are going fully open access using author paid fees of up to €3700 per article, though they will give waivers to authors from low-income countries, and a list of links to ways scholars in different countries can get funding for this purpose. (Note on Oct 21: I initially incorrectly wrote Nature is going open access, it’s actually Nature Communications.)
I hadn’t heard about the idea of authors (or their institutions) paying for open access publishing until fairly recently. I’m familiar with another model that is quite common in the humanities, or at least in the digital branches of it: open access, online-only journals run by academics with no publisher involved. Game Studies, Kairos, the Electronic Book Review, Dichtung Digital, Fibreculture, Surveillance & Society and Digital Humanities Quarterly are just a few of the excellent journals I read that have been run for years in this way. Truth be told, I prefer this way of funding open access scholarship to the author-pays model – but we need to realise that this also has its costs. Editors and peer reviewers work for free – indeed, so they do at the closed access and author-pays journals, so that isn’t too remarkable. But there is also the work of designing and maintaining a quality website and of copyediting and proofing, and these things are often not so easy to find funding for. As universities and research councils begin to fund open access publishing more explicitly we need to make sure it’s not all on the terms of the commercial publishers: there are other, perhaps more sustainable ways of doing this. But we do need to actually fund them.
Open access book publishing is a lot less common. Open Humanities Press is the only scholar-run, peer-reviewed effort I know that publishes all its books online and open access. They also allow for non-traditional content in their books. I think publishing a book is a far more time-consuming task than publishing journal articles – and yet books are key in the humanities, and for good reason: there are lines of thought that simply need more space than a journal article.
Sometimes scholarly presses will publish individual books open access without fees. Danah boyd talked her publisher into allowing this for It’s Complicated, and Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost
Jeremy Douglass, Mark C. Marino, Michael Mateas, Casey Reas, Mark Sample, and Noah Vawter did the same with their book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 on MIT Press. But these are sort of sleight of hand events. They’re exceptions, and if you approach MIT Press or Yale University Press you can’t expect to be able to make a similar deal – although you could certainly try. These books also come across as sort of half-hearted open access, at least from the publishers’ standpoint. In neither case did the publisher promote the book as open access. If you try to buy the book at an online bookshop or from the publisher you will see both the paper and digital editions are for sale and there is no information about a free digital edition also being available. (Update Oct 21: See Nick Montfort’s comments below – and I should also add that both danah boyd’s and Nick Montfort et.al.’s books clearly state they are CC-BY on the “copyright” page in the front of the print and digital books.) You need to go to the author’s website to find the free copy. In danah boyd’s case, she was required to not go public about the book’s being open access until a week after publication, presumably because they were worried that sales would drop. Cory Doctorow famously requires his publishers to make his novels openly available, but even so, publishers sometimes drag their heels. His Norwegian publisher did sort of release the translation of Little Brother freely, by adding a note to the online catalogue stating that if you email the publisher they would send you the PDF. But that note is now gone and there is absolutely no indication on the website that the book is supposed to be open access. (update Oct 21: Thomas Brevik writes a bit more about this in the comments.) Perhaps the individual editor Doctorow worked with was the only person aware of the agreement. And you can see why the publishers would be leery of giving away books when selling books is their business model. Maybe they’ll sell more books if they give the digital version away, as Cory Doctorow argues. But they can’t be sure of that.
What finally sold me on using Palgrave’s open access model was the way they promote the works so clearly as open access. When I saw the (to my knowledge) only other open access book Palgrave has published in the Amazon store, I was thrilled: it states very clearly that you can pay so and so many dollars for the print book, and the Kindle version is explicitly listed as free. $0. That’s what I wanted for my book – and I got it.
Yes, my university paid Palgrave quite a lot of money for my book to be open access. But because of that very explicit exchange I have a contract that very clearly states that the book is published under a CC-BY license, and Palgrave have done a great job of showing that clearly in the catalogue text and when distributing to bookshops (although Google Books apparently doesn’t read the CC-BY license and treats it as closed). It’s not half-hearted open-access-but-don’t-tell-too-many-people-about-it, Palgrave is unabashadly proud to be publishing an open access book. I’m sure they’d love to publish more, because this is a model that might be sustainable for them as well as for me.
Paying for open access is not without its controversies. Melissa Terras wrote an empassioned blog post last November explaining why she refused to edit a book series on the digital humanities for an unnamed publisher (maybe Palgrave?) that had a fee structure just like Palgrave. She’s right, of course, that today most academics don’t have systems in place to fund these kinds of fees. When the ability to pay for open access is unevenly distributed, as it clearly is today, we risk building a two-tier structure where scholars who have strong institutional backing or are independently wealthy can pay for open access and thereby simply be read more than other scholars. I’m sure some will argue that I am buying into this unfair system – and Melissa argues strongly that we should boycott it by not publishing with such publishers and not even doing peer review for them.
Obviously I disagree. I chose to publish my book open access for a fee because I think the alternative systems for publishing monographs in the humanities are just as unfair and iniquitous. If the cost of not paying an author fee for open access is that any would be reader has to pay £80 to read the book any better? What about early career academics and scholars and students from low income countries who in practice have no access to humanities scholarship because the books all cost a fortune? Palgrave’s attempt to find sustainable models for open access publishing is a good faith attempt to build something that might work. On their website they also write that they’re working on figuring out how to make the author-pays system work for scholars from low income countries. Perhaps there are ways it could work. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that fees for rich countries like Norway might be higher in order to help subsidize open access publication for other countries. For such a system to work, though, accounting for how the money is spent should be far more open than it is today. Another perhaps fairer option might be international funds for open access scholarship, for instance financed by the EU and others, where a portion is specifically for low-income countries’ scholars.
Another possible danger of an author-pays models for open access publishing is that it could devolve into vanity publishing or predatory publishing. I wasn’t worried about that with Palgrave because they have such a well-established reputation, and the peer review process was completed and the book accepted on its own merits before we signed the open access contract. Palgrave would have published the book without the money from UiB, but they would have sold it for £50 or maybe more for each copy.
Somebody needs to pay for the work involved in publishing a scholarly book. And there’s a lot of work involved, not just for the author and the peer reviewers. Peer reviewers at Palgrave get £60 or twice that in books, which is a fairly typical rate of pay in my experience, so obviously most of their actual time spent is not paid for by the publisher but by their universities or they are donating it from their leisure time. But although peer review is immensely important, it is not the only work involved in getting a book published. The most obvious points on the list would be
- the editor’s knowledge of the field, which takes time to build and involves lots of experience, time, going to conferences, reading – this is the same kind of work that academics do, I imagine, and is necessary.
- coordinating peer reviewers, assessing the reviews
- selecting manuscripts
- editor’s professional feedback – this varies. When I wrote Blogging the editor (Andrea Drugan at Polity) not only asked me to write a proposal, she worked closely with me on the details of it. With the World of Warcraft anthology we had far less direct feedback from the editor (Doug Sery at MIT Press), but we also had a far more complete proposal when we approached the publisher.
- copyediting and proofing
- cover design
- the index (the author does most of this but page numbers are adjusted)
- organising the ISBN and DOI and so on
- distribution to bookshops and direct sales of print book
- electronic formats, distribution of ebook to bookshops
- website that is well put together and search engine friendly
Maybe I forgot something. I’ve never worked at a publisher’s, and although Palgrave states that the open access fee only covers costs and doesn’t leave them a profit, they don’t provide a specified bill breaking down actual costs. I would like to see that kind of accounting, actually.
I don’t get any royalties from Seeing Ourselves Through Technology. At first I thought I should get royalties from sales of the print book, but Palgrave insisted there was no profit to them from it and so there wouldn’t really be any money for my royalties to come from. I didn’t realise, at first, that the price of the print edition of the book would be much lower than other books in the series. My book costs £20 in print, whereas other Palgrave Pivot books are priced anywhere from £45-£65. That’s a big difference!
Royalties are pretty meagre for most scholarly books, anyway. No doubt some superstars get a nice chunk, but my royalties for Blogging and for the World of Warcraft anthology have amounted to an annual check of about $70-80 for the anthology and between £80-£200 for Blogging. The £200 was last year, when the second edition came out. Apparently Blogging sold quite well, well enough that Polity wanted to do a second edition, anyway. But ”quite well” in academic publishing apparently means a thousand copies or so over several years. Not that I actually know what others are selling. I’m sure if you write a popular textbook you’ll do much better than I have on royalties.
Given that researching and publication are already part of the job I’m paid to do, I don’t need royalties. Obviously this would be very different for a literary author or a non-fiction author who is not already being paid by a university to write and publish. I don’t think everything needs to be open access. But publicly funded research should be.
We may come up with alternative systems than peer review and publishers for ensuring that scholarship is sound. Figshare is one example of a possible alternative model: a site where you can publish your research data and findings freely, and metrics like how often its retweeted or cited are supposed to give readers an indication of its quality. Open peer review is another and probably better idea: publish scholarship in a journal or system where your peers can discuss and vet the work openly. And of course, once a work has been peer reviewed and published we use citations as an indication of how influential it is (although some fields cite so much more than others that it is difficult to read citations as value in any absolute sense).
For now, though, I think we need to try out models like Palgrave’s.
Katie Warfield posted a link to this fascinating study of what people think they look like, or wish they look like or to be more accurate, which of a series of photoshopped versions of a photograph of their face they have the most positive response to, as measured through their brainwaves. The image on the left is one of the original portraits, and on the right we see the manipulated version of the portrait that the subject felt the most positive about: their “cerebrally sincere self-image” according to the voice-over in the beautiful video created by photographer Scott Chasserot, who led the project.
Let’s stay with that term for a moment. “Cerebrally sincere.” It carries with it an idea that there is a deeper truth inside of us that we are not consciously aware of, but that technology can reveal. This is becoming an increasingly common idea, even ideology, in contemporary culture. Think of the British Airways Happiness Blanket, where customers flying in first class were given blankets that measured their brainwaves and lit up red or blue LEDs on the blanket to show flight attendants (and viewers of the commercial) whether they were happy or nervous. Or look at the work of the Dutch team of researchers who developed a tool to automatically log unconscious emotions by analysing physiological data. We need technology to measure our unconscious emotions, the researchers argue, because: “To offer capabilities that are superior to diaries, lifelogging applications should try to capture the complete experiences of people including data from both their external and internal worlds” (Ivonin et al., 2012).
At TEDxBergen last Saturday I gave a talk called “What Can’t We Measure in a Quantified World?” (a shortened version of chapter five of my new book, Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, which you can download for free from Amazon or the publisher) where I used José van Dijck’s very useful term dataism, from an article she published this spring in Surveillance Society.
I think dataism describes something very important that we need to think carefully about as we develop technologies that are more and more able to gather vast quantities of data and to analyse that data. Today we are also seeing a shift in what kinds of data we collect. Data isn’t just objective information any more. It’s interpretations of our emotions, translated into numbers and graphs and rendered more reliable – more cerebrally sincere – than our own thoughts.
Others have written about dataism without using the word. Johanna Drucker proposed in 2011 that we call data capta rather than data, which would emphasise a constructivist approach: capta is taken from reality, while data is conceived as given, objective. In an article published last year, Annette Markham notes how the meaning of the term data ‘”gradually shifted from a description of that which precedes argument to that which is pre-analytical and pre-semantic. Put differently, data is beyond argument. It always exists, no matter how it might be interpreted. Data has an incontrovertible ‘itness.'” In a study of lifeloggers published this year, Minna Ruckenstein noted that “Significantly, data visualizations were interpreted by research participants as more ‘factual’ or ‘credible’ insights into their daily lives than their subjective experiences. This intertwines with the deeply-rooted cultural notion that ‘seeing’ makes knowledge reliable and trustworthy.”
Back in 1973, Susan Sontag noted something similar of photography. She wrote, “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (On Photography, page 4). I think the ease of filtering and photoshopping photographs today makes us far less susceptible to this delusion than we were in the 1970s, before we had smartphones with cameras and image editing software in our pockets. But our general literacy about data is at about the same stage as our photography literacy was in the 1970s. Most of us have seen data visualisations in newspapers or elsewhere. Some of us have activity trackers or lifelogging apps, and can view representations of our personal data according to preset templates over which we have very little control. Very few of us know how to actually gather, download and analyse or visualise data ourselves. And not many of us have expertise in any of the methods required to really analyse data well: we don’t know much about statistics or about reliability and uncertainty. And the visualisations and the software and the gadgets generally hide the uncertainties of data from us. They present our data to us as “miniatures of reality,” as The Truth.
I think the word dataism is one that might actually make sense to the general public. Because despite humanities scholars and digital humanists debating the shortcomings of big data is useful, this is a topic that is increasingly important for the public, for everyone. If a computer’s analysis of my unconscious emotions or “cerebrally sincere” ideal self-image is going to be seen as more genuine than my own report of my feelings and ideas, what does that do to me? To us? To the way we see each other? Is this the true post-human?
This is a topic that the humanities and the digital humanities in particular needs to address. We need to discuss what data is and what it represents academically and carefully as scholars, and we also need to talk with the general public about what data can and can’t do.
Dataism is a societal challenge that cannot be understood without the humanities. Computers are wonderful tools for measuring and counting anything and everything. But we need to think about what measurements can tell us.
HOORAY! My new book, Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves was published today by Palgrave!!! The book is open access (CC-BY) so you can download it right now for free, either from Palgrave Connect, which has it available in PDF or epub format, or from bookshops like the Amazons, where the Kindle version costs $0 or £0, or from various other places. You can even convert it to another format, make an audiobook version of it, or remix it so long as you attribute me as the author.
In Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, I analyse three intertwined modes of online self-representation: visual, written and quantitative. I explores topics like the meaning of Instagram filters, smartphone apps that write your diary for you, and the ways in which governments and commercial entities create their own representations of us from the digital traces we leave behind as we go through our lives.
I received some very nice endorsements from scholars I highly respect:
“Rettberg fills an important gap in the existing literature with insightful analysis of a wide variety of very recent digital practices. Her writing presents an appealing voice of academic authority that is inflected with a personal experience strongly grounded in an ethos of embodied and situated knowledge. Rettberg explains what it means to be a participant observer who tracks her own movements, emotions, and interactions with ubiquitous technologies and many other means of self-surveillance. This is a timely and compact scholarly monograph that provides an extended critical interpretation of a contemporary topic. As an important feminist new media theorist, Rettberg is worth listening to.” – Elizabeth Losh, University of California, San Diego, USA
“Jill Walker Rettberg challenges us to take seriously selfies and other forms of digital self-expression and understand them in the broader context of culture and power. In so doing, she connects important ideas and theories about aesthetics, privacy, art and data to explore and explain contemporary data-fication of the body and identity. I will never look at a selfie the same way again.” – Steve Jones, University of Illinois, USA
“Rettberg’s incisive examination of contemporary tools and habits of self-documentation – blogs and Facebook updates, Fitbits and selfies – reveals the ways those practices relate to centuries-old patterns like autobiography and self-portraits. She also demonstrates that contemporary distaste for self-documentation is often motivated by a desire to discipline or silence the (non-elite) practitioners, a habit targeted with special ferocity at young women. Seeing Ourselves… is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the history and patterns of self-documentation.” – Clay Shirky, New York University, USA
And of course, I would love to hear what you think!
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.
- Class Introduction, Learning Objectives and Policies
- Weekly Breakdown
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.
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.
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 Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com 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:
- Written self-representations like blogs, tweets and a lot of what happens on platforms like Facebook and Tumblr.
- Visual self-representations like selfies, profile pictures on Facebook and Instagram feeds.
- 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:
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.
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.