Category Archives: commentary

Social Media, Because Neoliberalism?


from the daily mail, take with appropriate grains of salt

What sort of ideological context would make the emergence of social media, as we know it today, both possible and likely? What background ideals and institutions would motivate the development of what we now know as social media? In other words, what theory of society would help us understand why today looks like it does, why media technology and culture developed in the ways that they have, why, out of all the uncountable possibilities the internet offers, we have Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, and Instagram, and not something else?


Recognizing the digital uncanny


When news stories started popping up around the mysterious YouTube account Webdriver Torso, more than one person noted that the truth behind it would almost certainly turn out to be nowhere near as interesting as all the speculation about what that truth might be. More than one person suggested that it might be better if no one find out the truth at all, because mysteries are pleasurable, no matter how much we might think we want them to be solved.


UCSB: A Terrible Lesson in Digital Dualism and Misogyny


How does one begin a blog post about a profoundly tragic event? With shock? Only, I’m not shocked. With anger? I am angry, but starting there doesn’t feel right. Empathy, I think, is how I have to start.  I can only imagine the pain and fear of the people of Isla Vista, and honestly can’t imagine the depth of pain felt by those who lost family members and loved ones in Friday’s shooting.

As we all fumble through this event—which feels like yet another blow in a terrible but patterned chain of violent events—I believe many of us can’t help but wonder: how did this happen? How does it keep happening?

As with all things, the “how” is a complex question, one for which complete answers are largely impossible.  In this case, however, I can identify two key interlocking factors: digital dualism and misogynistic culture. (more…)

That “#Selfie” Song: but first, can we talk about the music?

This is a slightly expanded cross-post from Its Her Factory

The Chainsmokers’ song “Selfie” is the new novelty song that everyone (or, almost everyone) loves to hate. In this Fact Magazine critics roundup, the song is called everything from “a low point…even for EDM,” to the one thing worse than the “arena-bound, taurine-fuelled, optimised-for-raging EDM” that the song nominally parodies. It seems like everyone hates it because they think it embodies what one might interpret as Tiqqun’s “Young Girl,” the ideal subject of neoliberal capitalism, human capital itself–or at least, the song gives voice to who we derisively imagine that ideal neoliberal subject to be: the vapid, selfie-obsessed young woman who is only concerned with amping up her value (her “likes” on Instagram) and her enjoyment (or her male/bro equivalent).

Is all the derision targeted at what the song’s about? Or do people dislike it because of how it sounds? Or both?

I want to leave aside, at least for a moment, what the song is about and focus on how it sounds, how it works as a piece of music. Maybe a better understanding of the music will give us a more nuanced grasp of “#Selfie”’s lyrical and visual content, and people’s reactions to that content.

The song is basically a combination of (a) a ripoff of the treble synth riff, cued up here, from LMFAO’s 2011 “Party Rock Anthem” and (b) the soar from Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” The LMFAO rip is first audible in the very beginning of the song, and the Soar (the soar is: (1) the Zeno’s-paradox style rhythmic intensification up to and past the limit of our ability to hear distinct rhythmic events + (2) the measure of instrumental silence with the “but first, let me take a selfie” vocal + (3) the “hit” or drop on the following downbeat) you hear starting here:

YouTube Preview Image

So, musically, the song regurgitates two, well, old megahits. “Party Rock Anthem” and “Gangnam Style” are not fresh or trendy–they’re worn out, too young to be retro but too old to be hot. Though the song’s soar would not have been out of place in, say 2012, most contemporary EDM pop uses a much more restrained, less exaggerated and crassly maximalist soar. (Think, for example, of the soar in Calvin Harris’s most recent single, “Summer.” Compared to his 2012 “We Found Love,” the soar in “Summer” sounds refined and demur.) Compared to its contemporaries on the pop and dance charts, “Selfie” sounds both backwards and vulgar (both excessive and common). But this is the point: it’s a parody song. It’s not designed to sound “good.” It’s presenting us a caricature of EDM at its supposed worst, much in the same way that “Spaceballs” parodies late 20th c space operas, or “Scream” parodies horror films. This raises the question: if you’re making a parody EDM track to skewer mainstream EDMC (EDM culture), why make that song about selfies? If the Chainsmokers were looking for some lyrical content to compliment their sonic caricature, why choose the so-called “selfie” as this compliment? Why is the selfie–or what the song presents as a selfie (which, like the musical content, is likely a caricature of ‘selfie’ practice)–the best content to compliment this sonic caricature?

I’ll get back to that question later. For now, I want to stay focused on the music. First, it’s interesting how the refrain “but first, let me take a selfie” serves in place of the scream or silence or other sonic shock that precedes the drop. For example, in a lot of brosteppy songs, the drop is immediately preceded by some sort of distorted, disruptive vocal–”bangarang” in Skrillex’s “Bangarang,” “tsunami” in DVBBS’s “Tusanmi,” you get the idea. I like to think of that vocal disruption as analogous to the “shock” in shock capitalism: in the same way that a tsunami wipes out civilization and prepares it for redevelopment, the sonically distorted “tsunami” interrupts the flow of the song and prepares listeners to experience the reintroduction of order (the ‘hit’ on the next downbeat) as even more intensely pleasurable. The idea is that this apparent disruption isn’t actually disruptive–the shock is not an end, but a necessary first step. Why, then, would a girl taking a selfie be so (apparently, but not actually) disruptive? Why does the girl selfie need to seem like a disruption? Who benefits from–where’s the profit or surplus value in–the perception that girl selfies are disruptive?

Perhaps the answer to these questions is this: the devaluation of girl-selfies as disruptive is what makes other kinds of human capital appear both more valuable and less disruptive/violent/appropriative/etc. In the same way that the song’s hook and soar are too crass and unsophisticated for anything but the dumbest and most mainstream of EDM listeners, are selfies just too crass and unsophisticated a means of human-capital building? I mean, anyone can take a selfie, but not everyone can, say, take an unpaid internship, get plastic surgery, lose weight, quit smoking, etc. Or, perhaps in the same way gendered devaluations of pop music give “classic” or “intelligent” music its (gendered) value, the devaluation of girl-selfie-capital gives more sophisticated kinds of human capital its worth. (As musicologist Susan Cook argues, “the ‘popular’ gives the ‘classical’ its worth; the ‘classical’ is worthwhile only if the ‘popular’ is worthless” (141).)

So, that’s the song. But the video is also very interesting. It’s basically a montage of fan selfies. That in itself isn’t particularly noteworthy. However, the fans’ participation in the video was an explicit and intentional marketing decision. As Liv Buli notes in her article, this participatory (what art historians and aestheticians would call “relational”) strategy

creates a personal connection between the video and the fan, ensuring that not only would there a built-in audience for the video, but that there would be the added imperative to share. “It is social engineering to an effect,” says Luckett. [one of the Chainsmokers]

The Chainsmokers and their managers wanted to make a hit record; and, given the way the music industry measures hits, the best way to make a hit record, apparently, is to make a viral video. And the best way to make a viral video is to build in fan participation. [1] The article notes that the duo also take this approach to their music: they encourage remixes and samples because that contributes to the, erm, virality or clout, I guess, of their original. Thing is, it’s a lot easier to take a selfie than it is to remix an entire pop song. So, it seems like the way to maximize fan participation is to find the media to which fans have the most mastery and access.

I’m obviously rather pleased that this seems to support my argument here that music is coincidental to contemporary music industries and mainstream consumption practices. But at this point I also have a number of other questions:

  1. What’s the relationship between virality as an industry strategy (or a ‘mode of production’), on the one hand, and relational aesthetics or social practice, on the other? (Has anyone written on this?)

  2. Is listening as an aesthetic practice or leisure activity getting disarticulated from other aspects of mainstream music fandom and the music industry? Maybe not. But regardless, what’s the role of listening in an aesthetic and an economy that de-centers the musical work and musical experience?

[1] Buli’s article begins by noting that “#Selfie” is the most viral of all viral music videos to date: “The EDM duo currently ranks as the most viral act on YouTube, both in terms of plays and new subscribers over the past 90 days. They are all over Soundcloud, trail 5 Seconds of Summer for most viral on Wikipedia in the past 90 days, and have the fifth largest percentage increase in US radio spins of all artists in the last month.” So there’s something measurably, perhaps even qualitatively different about the kind of virality it exhibits.

Robin is on Twitter as @doctaj

Does Facebook’s Privacy Makeover Indicate a More Nuanced Understanding of Privacy and Publicity?


Today, Facebook announced some significant changes in its approach to privacy: New users now start with “friends only” as their default share setting and a new “Privacy Checkup” will remind users to select audiences for their posts (if they don’t, it will also default to “friends only”).

This announcement is significant in that it is the first time that Facebook has ever stepped back its privacy settings to be less open by default. This appears to contradict a widely held assumption that Facebook is on a linear trajectory to encourage ever more sharing with ever more people. Media reports have pitched this as a victory for users, who are supposed to have forced the company to “respond to business pressures and longstanding concerns” or “bow to pressure.” (more…)

Merriam-Webster Adds New Words: What Took So Long?


The Merriam-Webster College Dictionary announced on Monday its addition of 150 new words.  Many of these are technologically derived. Selfie, hashtag, tweep, and catfish (false identity—not the sea creature) are all included. Many media outlets reporting on this are interested in how new technologies continue to influence language through the addition of informal terms first utilized by teen populations.

However, many of the words are not, in fact, technologically rooted. There are additions in food (e.g., turducken), geography (e.g., ‘yoopers), the environment (e.g., cap and trade) etc. My question is less about why these particular words—technological and not— were added, but rather, why so late? I  ate turducken my first Thanksgiving in grad school (before vegetarianism won me over), talked about cap and trade as an undergraduate, and have been ridiculed for referring to my Twitter network as “tweeps” for years. Where have you been, Merriam-Webster? (more…)

WePay’s Disastrous Decision: Seeing Sex Workers as Risks, Not Human Beings

WePay Prohibitions

Last week I wrote about how–despite their supposed libertarian principles–Wall Street and Silicon Valley firms (most notably, Chase and Amazon) had embarked on systematic campaigns of discrimination against sex workers, seemingly intent on expelling sex workers from the financial system. I concluded that discrimination propelled by market forces is no less reprehensible and no less deleterious in its consequences than discrimination driven by personal prejudice. And, I argued that we should hold accountable those who let a commitment to profit trump their commitment to fighting discrimination.

This weekend–almost as if to make a spectacle out of how vicious the campaign against sex workers has become–WePay took the unfathomably callous action of cancelling a fundraiser for Eden Alexander, a porn performer who experienced some very serious and acute health issues and was in desperate need of financial assistance to pay medical/personal care bills. Alexander tweeted the cancellation notice that she received from WePay: (more…)

Science Dads & Corrupting the Youth: an apology for philosophy

So-krates, corrupted by the youth?

Earlier this week David wrote about science dads and their dadsplaining: “Science Guys ask us to question everything and everyone but them. Or, more precisely, they are but mere men (almost always men) delivering a message that they see as self-evident,” he writes. Science Guys often don’t have a lot of respect for philosophy, because they think, as Neil Degrasse Tyson (in)famously said in his interview with Nerdist, philosophy is too question-y and not ‘splainy enough. Philosophy “can really mess you up,” as Tyson said, because there’s “too much question-asking” and not enough, well, solutions or action, I guess. In Tyson’s view, philosophy messes you up because “you are distracted by your questions so that you cannot move forward” and be a “productive contributor” to society or knowledge. [1]

As it has been institutionalized in both the Western canon and the academy, philosophy is just another Dad dadsplaining. As many philosophers will argue, philosophy, unlike the other namby-pamby humanities disciplines, is a lot like science; we’re not stuck with our heads in “the text,” we really know things about the world! (I really like this takedown of that view of philosophy.)  But in the same way science dads betray the practice of science, philosophical dadsplaining betrays the practice of philosophy. Read in a certain way, Plato’s portrayal of Socrates shows us that philosophy is the opposite of dads: it’s about corrupting the youth (which is what Socrates is charged of in the Apology) and getting distracted so you can’t move forward, or so you take the oblique path. [2] (more…)

On Researcher Betrayal: Exposing Youth Technology Practices to Parents

A family gathered for dinner.

The other day I met a friend’s extended family over dinner, including their two sons of about middle school age, and we all had a discussion about young people’s use of technology. Some pundits argue that young people do not have standards of privacy at all in the digital age. In spite of this, studies find that youth do care about privacy but perhaps in ways that are different from adults – for example, they prefer to be visible online to peers and some public audiences but not always to parents and other family members. Over the course of dinner, however, I realized that researchers occupy a complicated position between adults and the youth they study. Parents assert the need to control standards of privacy for their children, and researchers could, accidentally, jeopardize young people’s private spaces by exposing them to their families in ways that may not encourage real dialogue. (more…)

Causes and Consequences of the Duckface

A University of Toronto Study identified the "golden" facial proportions for women (

A University of Toronto Study identified the “golden” facial proportions for women (

So about Selfies… They were the Oxford Dictionary’s 2013 Word of the Year. #TtW14 had an entire panel on them. And on a personal note, I mentored a student through an independent study of Selfies over the course of two semesters.

Today, I want to talk about one particular Selfie varietal: The Duckface. Specifically, I want to talk about the architecture of the Duckface and how it becomes the symbolic locus of control over feminine bodies within the context of compulsory visibility.[i] (more…)