This is part of a series of posts highlighting the Theorizing the Web conference, April 14th, 2012 at the University of Maryland (inside the D.C. beltway). It was originally posted on 3.30.12 and was updated to include video on 7.19.12. See the conference website for

Presider: Kari Kraus (@karikraus)

Drawing on a diverse range of approaches–from media archaeology and ethnography to queer theory and critical code studies–the “Politics of Design” panel will collectively consider where and how power pools and collects in the designed, value-laden spaces of the internet. Individual panelists will take up digital networks and anonymity (Moesch); established and proposed internet architectures (Shilton and Neal); slick Web 2.0 and grungy “dirt style” interfaces (Kane); and the failed rhetoric of the digital sublime by the founders of Google and Second Life (Chia).  Not content to dwell on surface design features, each speaker unearths hidden variables–whether technological, social, or historical–that affect the systems, platforms, and communication structures under discussion. In the process, they expose the faultlines in those structures that allow us to envision them otherwise; the politics of design, that is to say, ultimately point–directly or indirectly–to alt-design and re-design.

Please join us on 4/14 for what promises to be a fabulous #TtW12 panel!

[Paper titles and abstracts are after the jump.]

Caroyln Kane,  “An Archeology of Compositing:  From Blue Screen and Chromakey to the Alpha Channel and 2.0 Look, Dirt Style”

Using digital media to simulate “rough edges, stains, organic textures, [and] grunge-retro fonts,” can help one avoid the cliché “2.0 Look,” argues British designer Elliot Jay Stocks, characterized by “vibrant, high contrast colour; gloss; sheen; bevelled edges; gradients; and soft-focus effects (with a subtle outer glow),” all of which Stocks finds aseptic and (too) clean-cut, as voiced in his 2007 tirade entitled, “Destroy The Web 2.0 Look,” presented at The Future of Web Design conference in New York.

Stocks is not alone. Also in support of anti-aseptic (and even a bit dirty) web design is Russian-born net artist Olia Lialina who, in her 2011 talk at the New Museum in downtown Manhattan, advocated to an audience of hip designers, a future web aesthetic chalked full of unicorns, simple animated GIFFs, personal journal entries, and naïve, amateur-looking home pages. Going back to “amateur graphics” resist 2.0’s corporate and professional look, which has acted as a disinfectant to personal expression. “We are all naïve users at some point,” Lialina argues, citing web pioneer Ted Nelson, “and we don’t need to be ashamed of this.”

But what happens if these anti-style styles are placed in a broader historical context––such as the history of digital graphics and special effects––do these stylistic call to arms suffice as critical models? Do we want to see a future Internet inundated with (simulated) dirt, simply because loud color combinations that emulate the trashiness of cheap consumer culture, oppose clean, corporate professionalism? Moreover: does such amateur-looking remix or dirt style actually oppose corporate professionalism, or is it simply the elbow grease, used to ease in the next wave of capitalist-consumer products? This paper draws connections between the history of chromakey, from its pre-history in blue screen, through the development of the alpha channel, to contemporary digital compositing and web aesthetics or, the “2.0 look,” and its counterpart in dirt style. I argue that, once the alpha channel was standardized in computing in the 1980s, colors could be easily composited to produce clean, slick, and corporate-looking designs. Subsequently, anti-styles like dirt style emerged, marking a new trend in web design to use color and space in a ways that spoke out against the homogeneity and corporate professionalism of Internet culture.

Katie Shilton and James Neal, “Theorizing Future Internet Architectures: Values in the Design of Named Data Networking”

Will we shoot virtually at each other over the Internet? Probably not. On the other hand, there may be wars fought about the Internet. – Vinton Cerf (Cerf, 2008)

The Internet has permeated the economic, political, cultural and social domains of global society and transformed the way in which we present and transmit knowledge. The infrastructure underlying these communications continues to evolve, with ramifications for not only the technical protocols that govern the way the Internet functions, but also implications for social, economic, and legal issues. Internet protocols affect debates about intellectual property, cyber security, and the basic performance and reliability of Internet services (DeNardis, 2009). Our increasing reliance on a secure and dependable IT infrastructure requires attention to not only technological specifications but also to value-sensitive and ethical concerns inherent in the design of Internet architecture.

This presentation asks: what values (e.g. privacy, trust, security, equity, transparency, etc.) will be considered in the design of future Internet architectures? And how should these values be embedded within design to increase the trustworthiness, security, reliability, and usability of the Internet?

To answer these questions, we are conducting an ethnographic investigation of a case study in future Internet design. The Named Data Networking (NDN) project is one of four projects funded under the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Future Internet Architecture (FIA) program, meant to explore the conception, design, and evaluation of future Internet architectures. NDN proposes to replace the current backbone of the Internet: the protocols known as TCP/IP. While TCP/IP relies on hosts and addresses to route information around the web, NDN redesigns routing to focus on secure, trustworthy data. This fundamental change to how the Internet handles communication impacts not only a wide variety of technical affordances, but also the basic governance structure of the current Internet (Mueller, 2002). Our project seeks to understand the ethical and social impacts of these changes.

This presentation will discuss a conceptual analysis of NDN internal writings and publications. Using a framework proposed by DeNardis (2009) for analyzing Internet standards, we will examining the content of developing NDN standards, and the implications of these new standards for political processes, public policy, institutional power struggles, and the developed and the developing world. This analysis, and a resulting taxonomy of values embedded in the current NDN approach, can help us understand the social challenges and values engendered by this emerging architecture.


Jarah Moesch (@jarahmoesch),  “Queer Ghosts in the Machine: The Mechanics of Networked Anonymity in the Tor Project”

In the United States, freedom, democracy, anonymity, and the individual are misunderstood entities within, and in relationship to, digital spaces.  Digital technologies have, until recently, been popularly considered to be open, democratic networks of distributed and decentralized power, allowing individual people equal access to receive and share information. United States cultural stories of the Internet also misplaced digital technologies within the utopian ideal of a democratic society, a free space – free as in freedom- where people could leave discrimination behind, simply by becoming anonymous. Of course, academics and everyday users came to realize that socio-cultural biases repeat themselves, regardless of anonymity, across digital social spaces in much the same ways as other public spheres.

This paper focuses on the realization that, “In trying to understand how difference matters in the digital era, we should perhaps suspect that the very structures of our information economy (and of the code that underwrites it) look a particular way today precisely because the Civil Rights and other freedom movements happened at mid-century. Both cybernetics and Civil Rights were born in quite real ways of World War II and are caught in tight feedback loops” (McPherson, 2011). I argue that if we take the always already entanglement of civil rights and the code and protocols that structure our information economy as foundational to any study of digital networks, we understand that these networks have never been democratic or free.

What then are the possibilities for civil rights, for freedom? How do race, gender, sexuality, and code mutually constitute each other? What happens when we interrogate the code itself as a way of moving beyond real names policies as the singular understanding of anonymity on the Internet?  What are the tensions between identity, anonymity and queerness, especially when considering their vexed status with technology and each other?

This paper will use the Tor Project, an open-source, distributed network which allows private communications over public networks through the protection of the transport of data, as a foundation for thinking through how queerness (inclusive of non-normative sub-cultures) is central to any analysis of digital networks and the protocols and code that embody digital subjectivities.

Untangling these mechanics requires a close reading and queer interpretation of the Tor Project’s network. Using queer theory and critical code studies, I uncover anonymity’s queerness: the meaning embedded in the actions, the mechanics and the rules of the network itself.


Aleena Chia, “Google’s Mind of God”

In a much quoted interview with Technology Review, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin, proclaimed that “the perfect search engine would be like the mind of God” (Ferguson 2005). By the same token, in an interview with anthropologist Thomas Malaby (2009, 77), Second Life’s creator Philip Rosedale describes the work of designing virtual worlds as “speaking to the world through code … I think that code is physical law, or code is god.”  The analogies of the divine by these two hi-tech luminaries are examples of what David Nye (1994) refers to as the technological sublime – an essential religious feeling aroused by the confrontation with impressive technological objects. According to Leo Marx (1964), the invocation of the divine functioned in the rhetoric of the technological sublime of nineteen and twentieth century America as a sanction for technological endeavors, in an effort to neutralize the psychic, social, and environmental dissonance wrought by industrialization. This paper will explore how deployments and receptions of the technological sublime translate to digital platforms and environments such as Google and Second Life in the twenty-first century. To do this, I will outline three variations of the technological sublime that are not stages of succession but reinforcing deployments of the divine in discourses about technology that can be traced back to religious depictions of the heavy plow in the Frankish Empire of 830. Adopting the Foucauldian (1973) view of knowledge-power relations, this paper will argue that these techno-mystical discourses – of mastery through the useful artifact (heavy plow), omniscience through the world machine (search engine), and omnipotence through the complex system (virtual world) – represent escalating conjugations of the divine and the technological in the service of power. Furthermore, adopting the Durkheimian view (2001 [1912]) that God is society apotheosized, it becomes clearer that these discourses deploy the technological sublime as a way to inspire and legitimize power over society. However, unlike its nineteenth and twentieth century counterparts, Google and Second Life’s sublime were received unfavorably by the popular media. In other words, these companies’ deployments of the digital sublime were unsuccessful. This paper will conclude by assessing and explaining these failures – Google’s attempts were met not with awe but indignation because it lacked the vital experiential aspect of the geometric sublime it wanted to create. Because the technological sublime gestures towards sacredness (of the social collectivity), it also has the ability to inspire the protection of that collectivity from profane struggles for power by corporations and individuals. Therefore, unlike its nineteenth and twentieth century manifestations, the digital sublime is an affective social resource that can provide a check on power over populations.

This is part of a series of posts highlighting the Theorizing the Web conference, April 14th, 2012 at the University of Maryland (inside the D.C. beltway). It was originally posted on 3.28.12 and was updated to include video on 5.10.12. See the conference website for additional information.

Presider: Dan Greene (@Greene_DM)

Logging Off and Disconnection” presents an important new set of perspectives on a key theme of Theorizing the Web: ‘Cyberspace’ does not exist as an immaterial realm separate from human bodies and relationships. The online is instead always imbricated with the offline and the connections we make and unmake are crucial determinants of of both spaces. This panel explores this co-determination from the perspectives of those who decide, or are forced, to disconnect from online media in order to examine the relationships between personal participation and motivation and structuring forces of media design, cultural narrative, and economies of data and prosumption.

Jenny Davis’ qualitative study of Facebook users explores how social networking technology’s tight integration into the rhythms and relationships of everyday life highlights the tension between moral definitions of a meaningful life and cultural ambivalence about the technology’s effects on sociality. Jessica Roberts uses the global data of the world Unplugged projectto investigate the behavioral and emotional responses university students had to a 24-hour withdrawal from ambient media. She expands the ‘awareness systems’ tradition in computer science and stresses the integration of already-existing awareness systems into daily life, demonstrating that the seamless connectivity of ambient media makes it harder for students to recognize how their relationships with, and through, those media function. Laura Portwood-Stacer focuses on discourses of Facebook rejection in popular and alternative media outlets and in her interviews with ‘non members’. This rejection of a specific, dominant medium is an important piece of non-members’ production and negotiation of political and ethical identity. Finally, Jessica Vitak builds on the rich social scientific research literature on self-presentation and privacy in order to explore different users’ management of personal information, audience relationships, and social norms through the specific affordances of Facebook . All four researchers illustrate how in relationships with and through online media the links not made, the social graphs refused, are powerful forces in media ecologies and (non-)users’ lives. 

[Paper titles and abstracts are after the jump.]

Jenny Davis (@Jup83), “Diagnosing Technological Ambivalence”

At the same time fearful and dependent, hopeful and distrustful, our contemporary relationship with technology is a highly ambivalent one. In the present work I attempt to ‘diagnose’ this ambivalence within a cultural and historical context of increasing technological advancement and the pervasive presence of new technologies in everyday life. I argue that technological ambivalence is rooted primarily in the deeply embedded moral prescription to lead a meaningful life, and a related uncertainty about the role of new technologies in the accomplishment of this task. On the one hand, technology offers the potential to augment and potentially even enhance our experiences. On the other hand, technology looms with the potential to supplant ‘true’ experience, undermining the ability to lead a meaningful existence. I illustrate these perceived opposing potentials using data from an ongoing Facebook-based qualitative study of social media users. Specifically, I show how this ambivalence is articulated in the context of personal experiences, interpersonal relationships, and political activism. I conclude by arguing that utopian hopes, dystopian fears, and ambivalent concerns, are all amplified by the notion of technology in general, and social media in particular, as fully integrated components of everyday social life. They are seen as growing exponentially, inextricably linked to sociality, and so increasingly difficult to opt out of.

Jessica Roberts (@jessyrob), “The Effects of Ambient Media: What Unplugging Reveals About Being Plugged In”

Ambient media is a way to conceptualize the information environment in which so many of us live. It is no secret that more and more of us live in a world rich in information and media of communication that bring us that information. Besides television, radio, newspapers, computers (desktops, laptops, netbooks, tablets), we now carry devices with us. Mobile devices with digital content—phones, iPods, PDAs—have become ubiquitous around the world. A Pew Internet Project survey in May 2011 found that 83 percent of adults in the U.S. own a cell phone, and 42 percent of them own smartphones, which translates to 35 percent of all adults in the U.S. (Pew 2011).

This information environment may have consequences for the way we function and the way we think. Computer science studies have long examined “awareness systems,” which allow users to effortlessly maintain knowledge of the activities and whereabouts of other users in their system. However, most studies of awareness systems provide participants with a new system and seek information about how participants use this system, respond to being connected or feel after using the system. These kinds of studies do not examine the already pervasive ambient information accessible through the various awareness systems currently in use, nor do they allow us to consider how those awareness systems we already use are affecting us. This study examines thousands of responses from the “World Unplugged” study, conducted at 12 universities from 10 nations, considering the data in the context of ambient media, and asking what effect ambient media have on students’ emotions and behavioral patterns, as revealed by the response to abstain media for 24 hours.

Students’ responses indicate a seamless and sometimes invisible integration of technology and media systems into their everyday activities. Their sudden withdrawal out of this ambient world disrupts behavioral patterns, expectations and personal needs. Learned behavior of communication and information exchange in an ambient media world also point to a somewhat limited repertoire of alternative activities or social interactions. Students’ conceptualization of communication and interaction appear to rely on various aspects of an assumed ambient media that is especially appealing to them because of its unobtrusiveness and seeming invisibility. These latter aspects in particular make it harder to reveal the links and dependency on an ambient media that seem to have occurred.

Laura Portwood-Stacer (@lportwoodstacer), “Theorizing Social Media Refusal: Conspicuous Non-Consumption and Conscientious Objection”

This paper explores the phenomenon of media rejection through an examination of users who abstain from participating in an extremely popular social media website. According to Facebook’s published user statistics, the site has 750 million active users worldwide (the number is greater when former users are taken into account). Yet there is a small (and seemingly growing) counter-movement that advocates abstaining from participating on the site, for various reasons. This paper illuminates the various motivations behind and implications of individuals’ active rejection of Facebook membership, with a particular focus on the performative and political aspects of social media refusal. Interviews with non-members supplement analysis of popular discourses of rejection that circulate in mainstream and alternative media outlets. Of particular interest are discourses that position Facebook rejection as a practice of refusal motivated by political and ethical imperatives. Thus this paper is situated at the intersection of scholarship on both media audiences and political resistance, while at the same time illuminating the cultural significance of a specific social media site.


Jessica Vitak (@jvitak), “Protecting Face: Managing Context and Collapse in the Facebook Era” 

The growth of social media—online sites driven by the public sharing on personal information with a wide audience—raises new questions related to how individuals manage their privacy and self-presentation. The technical features of sites such as Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter lower the transaction costs of connecting and interacting with a large and diverse audience. At the same time, they may raise the costs of managing self-presentation across different contexts and ensuring that private information is not shared with unintended audiences.  

Discussions related to self-presentation and privacy have featured prominently in the social sciences for more than half a century. For example, Goffman (1959) argued that individuals’ self-presentation varies based on the audience for whom they are performing. Likewise, Altman (1975) viewed privacy not as a static process, but one of dynamic boundary regulation, in which individuals make decisions regarding which pieces of personal information to share with whom, as well as the context in which that information is disclosed.

 In online social networking communities, additional social and technical features make the process of managing privacy and self-presentation more complicated. Unlike anonymous forums, where users can create virtual identities not connected to their “real” selves, SNSs are tied to real identities, and because users often share a significant amount of personal information through these sites (Nosko et al., 2010), privacy becomes a critical element to determining both who to connect with and what to disclose. Boyd (2008) characterizes SNSs as “networked publics,” and describes three features that differentiate them from other publics: invisible audiences, context collapse, and the blurring of public and private. Each of these factors is critical in evaluating how individuals can regulate boundaries and get the most out of their use of these sites.

 Context collapse—the flattening of multiple distinct audiences into a homogeneous group—offers benefits and barriers to individuals. The average American adult has 229 Facebook “friends” (Hampton et al., 2011) who comprise a variety of personal and professional contexts. While Facebook enables users to quickly diffuse information across their entire network, communicating with such a diverse set of others through the same channel (e.g., status updates) may become problematic when it prevents individuals from varying their self-presentation for different audiences or when their full audience is unclear.

 When facing these challenges, individuals have a number of options. Bernie Hogan (2010) suggests that users employ a “lowest common denominator” approach, whereby only content appropriate for all audiences is shared on the site. On the other hand, users may employ advanced privacy settings to segregate audiences, so they can still share relevant content with their various connections. Alternatively, when faced with the stresses of performing for such a large and diverse audience, users may decide to disengage with the site completely, either for a designated period of time (e.g., through software programs such as “AntiSocial” or  by taking a “social media vacation”) or by deactivating their account.

Each strategy that users may apply to protect face offers benefits and drawbacks to the user. For example, those who choose the lowest common denominator or disconnecting methods may feel less pressure to perform in a certain way for their online connections and even feel relief from their previous reliance on social media. However, engaging in these practices may preclude them from important relational maintenance behaviors or gaining access to various resources from their friend network. Users must weigh the tradeoffs between active engagement and logging off to find the balance that best suits their needs.

Finally, theorists and practitioners should consider the pros and cons of different strategies when designing new sites/features and developing new theories to explain how individuals form and maintain relationships in a technologically driven world

Bartle Bogle Hegarty has reportedly ended the homeless-Austinites-as-mobile-WiFi-spots experiment/publicity stunt that was one of the biggest news items to emerge out of South by Southwest 2012. There was strong backlash and, on this site, a thorough consideration of how the whole thing fit into broader political-economic currents. As a former psychiatric counselor who worked with currently or previously homeless folks, I’m happy to see any public discussion of homelessness as well as some relatively safe and transparent work opportunities—at around minimum wage—available to this often ignored population. But to me that conversation seemed to emerge more from the backlash than BBH’s actual involvement with the homeless community. I’d like to pick some of these threads up, add new ones, and consider what this incident has to say about the use of information technology as a development tool and knowledge workers’ relationships to postindustrial cities. These ideas were developed in conversation with Jason Farman, who was kind enough to provide the screencaps included below.

The Internet backbone—especially urban wireless infrastructure—generally exists as a series of nodes not remarked on, or massive nondescript buildings housing server farms just outside the attention of urban knowledge workers like myself. I don’t need to know how it happens. The infrastructural activity that undergirds so much of my work and life goes on whether I notice it or not. What’s interesting about BBH’s efforts, is that they bring the infrastructure directly into focus with mobile hotspots that you must see, name, and approach. I think the short-term publicity stunt may address the invisibility of the homeless that WiFi vendor Clarence points to, “They [residents] walk around and just see people, don’t talk to them. Past the homeless too. You don’t even see us.” But this new visibility trades invisibility for infrastructural non-awareness or acceptance. In DC, I can see the cell phone antennae in my neighborhood if I look hard enough, but I still don’t really care. BBH is asking us to accept homelessness as a feature of a wireless urban landscape to be navigated:


Screencap of the display from at midafternoon March 13


The younger, whiter, richer tech crowd of SXSW is asked to predicate their technical and professional mobility—to go where they want and do what they want, to be present in multiple on and offline spaces—on the easy availability of my country’s most stigmatized form of mobility—folks who move from clinic to shelter to subsidized housing and often back again because they lack that key feature of normative American identity, a house.

That knowledge worker mobility would depend on and, I would argue, be validated through homeless mobility is not feature unique to BBH’s homeless WiFi experiment. Indeed this is a key feature of projects deploying information and community technology for development (#ICT4D) at home and abroad—especially WiFi. A portion of Wireless Networking in the Developing World (2007) traces how an explosion of development projects in Timbuktu, Mali have actually left the city, compared to other similarly remote cities in Mali, over-saturated with wireless options because Timbuktu is, for development workers in the Global North, mythologized for its remoteness and thus a prime target to prove technical expertise and project viability. This is an expertise that is often meant to be later re-deployed in Global North contexts, as Adrian Mackenize shows with the Meraki Free the Net project, and others, that use development projects as field tests for deployments in places like San Francisco or Copenhagen. This is not to say that these developers are evil or manipulative people, but that the spectacle of ICT4D is generally connected with reuse in the developer’s urban setting. I’ve always been struck by how the ICT4D community uses ‘development’ to denote both uplift for the disadvantaged (the ‘developing countries) and the creation and refinement of information technology (the ‘development cycle’). With Meraki and BBH, innovation is tested there, with them (“Africa”, the homeless), partly because of the looser regulatory environments and social norms that exist outside the the developer’s home community. To be clear: BBH needed homelessness in order to effectively deploy their spectacle of wirelessness (Mackenzie’s term). Imagine if BBH had sent out PR interns wearing ‘I’m Stacy, a 4G hotspot’ shirts instead of residents of Front Steps (a great organization). Would not have worked. Those being developed—the homeless, mobile in a ‘bad’ way—are necessary context to prove BBH’s wireless development—technologists who can blog over tall buildings in a single bound, mobile in a ‘good’ way.

Screencap of display on the night of March 12
Image courtesy of Dan Harrelson through a CC Attribution license

This is troubling to me. And not just because of questions of exploitation which we’ll continue to debate, and which BBH has attempted to answer with the voices of the vendors involved. It provides a technosocial coda to the story of urban spaces in Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red/Times Square Blue (Steven Shaviro has a quick review here). In the first half of this book, Delany describes—frankly, and with great human detail—the gay cruising scene in old Times Square and his involvement in it. It can be a shock the first time through, but it’s also refreshing to see the everydayness with which he describes his multiple sexual experiences at different times and places and with a variety of partners. For Delany, the Disneyfication of Times Square in the David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani eras that removed homeless people, pornography, and other non-family friendly sights and sites also removed the possibility of random, cross-class social contact and replaced it with planned moments of social contact modeled on suburbia. This has been repeated across the globe, with specific local wrinkles, and has particular consequences for those who rely on non-sanctioned, unplanned forms of social contact, especially in cities, to create supportive networks—especially the LGBT community.

I believe that BBH’s Homeless Hotspot publicity campaign captures and utilizes the anxiety of cross-class context just as white flight out of major U.S. urban centers has started to reverse, mainly with young people, and as people of color, especially those in the working classes, are being priced out of cities and pushed to the margins of those communities. I’m part of this trend, as are many technology entrepreneurs. And cities directly court this social and economic capital. New York’s Mayor Bloomberg recently concluded a multi-year courtship with several research universities interested in establishing a campus within the city centered on technology and entrepreneurship. The winner, Cornell, will build an almost $2 billion campus on Roosevelt Island. At one tech entrepreneur meet-up in DC, I saw a business development representative from the mayor’s office review tax-credits for tech start-ups and highlight the benefits of the city’s main centers of gentrification (e.g., Capitol Hill, 14th Street NW, Columbia Heights). At a larger event, the Mayor himself, Vincent Gray, addressed the mostly white crowd and joined them for a screening of a documentary on tech start-ups. This is the same crowd that makes up SXSW Interactive and who re-developed Austin, whether at giants like IBM or nimbler start-ups like Gowalla.

Homelessness in the US is not disappearing, it is generally on the rise. As young, white entrepreneurs stream back into walkable urban communities, it’s inevitable that they’ll meet people like Clarence. What BBH seems to suggest is that the homeless should not be pushed out of the city, but mobilized as infrastructure that supports entrepreneurial, technological mobility—in the same way that abandoned warehouses are appropriated as loft housing or old chimneys are turned into cell phone towers. Homelessness, a clear sign of the US urbanism’s structural failures, does not disappear, but is refigured into a cleaner, more productive interface for tech entrepreneurs—the new face of the city. Cross-class contact is reintroduced, but technologized and thus neutralized, shorn of risk or surprise. Recalling ICT4D, it’s the classic neoliberal, everyone-wins-through-an-open-market model: the homeless are developed, that development validates the practices of the developers, who are developing products in a re-developed city. I am concerned, like many others, that these development movements will keep re-cycling without noticing and addressing the peopled, placed, and politicized ground on which they stand.

In this space, about a month and a half ago, I laid out my design and pedagogy strategies for my mixed online/in-person AMST 201: Introduction to American Studies course. These strategies all hinged on the core idea of a building an augmented syllabus for an augmented reality: Web-based, in-class, and other tools each have their own strengths and weaknesses which can support or hamper learning objectives. In order to help students apply new ideas to their everyday lives, I’ve tried to

  • Lead with the practice of big course themes rather than graduate-level theory about them
  • Build safe spaces for engagement that reward multiple forms and levels of engagement
  • And to implement all course-related technologies (e.g., the online Ning network, podcasts specific readings or films, audiovisual materials for small-group work in class) with the prior two ideas in mind.

For the most part, there hasn’t been much student pushback and class is going well. Midterm exam grades were above average, and student responses to my midterm feedback form—which included technology-focused questions—were generally positive. That feedback is crucial, not just self-check data but a way to keep emphasizing the importance of transparency to the learning process. Keeping my core ideas and strategies in mind, I want to draw from student feedback and my own observations and experiences to review what’s worked so far, what hasn’t, and what can change.

Students seem to enjoy our Ning network more than Blackboard or equivalent LMS’s Part of this, they say, is layout: colorful, readable, and personal versus textual, crowded, and confusing. This is not to be scoffed at, layout, and visual design in general, helps students spend more time learning and less time searching, and an appealing, quick-loading space will, at minimum, make homework seem like less of a chore. Which of the below looks more welcoming, makes it seem like there’s more going on?

AMST 201 Ning Landing page
AMST 201's Blackboard landing page. We use Blackboard for document storage.

Students also recognize that Ning is their space to play around with these ideas, before they see them used in research during Friday’s 75-minute discussion. As one feedback form put it, “The Ning space is easy to access and seems less pressured. It’s easier to express idea [sic] in a less stressful environment like a blog.” More importantly, the big plan of getting students comfortable with uncomfortable issues online (e.g., structural racism, the prevalence of binary thinking, the life-and-death consequences of both) before hashing out the difficult portions in class seems to be paying off. There’s a lot of individual variation but it’s clear that, even within individual weeks, the students who put in the time designing an argument online, comparing it with other people, linking it to various texts, and responding to criticism have a better handle on the big themes and ideas. This is true whether their initial argument was solid gold or total garbage. No rocket science here—students who work harder should do better—but the point is they have a safe space to do so, without feeling the need to prove themselves in a theory-driven classroom that has little relation to the outside world and only a few ways to demonstrate comprehension.

I see students playing to their strengths generally. Those with an empirical bent shine on data-focused weeks. Those who prefer to work autobiographically give plenty of personal detail when we’re talking about the structures of feeling concerning fields like disability. Non-native English speakers and students who feel especially uncomfortable speaking up in class have a bigger presence in the forums than they do in the classroom. Everyone says they appreciate examples from everyday texts (e.g., news, television, music) that link every week to the historical or theoretical big picture, and this fits with my goals: Critiquing and crafting examples is the real meat of the course, not the research or theory texts. I want students to leave the class with a toolkit to evaluate social texts and social problems. And practice makes perfect. In class I keep referring back to examples from online discussion, and encourage students to do the same.

Forum Snapshot
Our weekly forum in action. Discussions average ~85 posts for a 16-student class.

There have been plenty of bumps in the road though, some intrinsic to teaching first-semester freshman in any 200-level class, some particular to my design decisions and which I can definitely work with in the rest of the semester.

The majority of students did not expect the rigor to be at the level it is. They’re doing fine with it but my syllabus didn’t so much trim the research as add real-world application and context. My university stresses that three-credit courses should include about six to nine hours of out-of-class work and my department chair stresses around 100 pages of reading a week for three credits. For this course, some weeks have more work and some less, but I aim to meet those time and page counts—with the important caveat that films, music, fieldwork, writing, and studying could all substitute for reading. Beyond rigor-shock, there’s also the usual freshmen issues: students aren’t especially vocal early on Friday mornings, there are learning curves around timeliness and other syllabus-mandated procedures, and of course there will always be some students who just prefer not to attend or who have serious issues with formulating and expressing an argument that should have been addressed in high school. I give gentle reminders and encouragement around all these—especially with the basics of argumentation and research—but try to keep focused on the meat of the class: the study of culture. If there’s one thing I learned from working in community mental health clinics it’s that if you blame yourself for everything the folks you’re working with do, then 1) you start a never-ending guilt trip and 2) you de-emphasize the agency and independence of the other members of your community.

But there’s definitely some other design issues that are within my sphere of control. At different places in the feedback form, multiple students complained about the repetition of weekly 250-word forum posts, with focused arguments and relevant evidence. It’s an important skill, but there’s more than one way to skin an historic bloc. In the second half of the semester, I’m introducing more participant-observation exercises, discussions of the early stages of long-term projects, and group research into new or pending legislation. This week on the syllabus, titled ‘Body Talk’, includes a fieldwork assignment to spend time in a place where your body normally wouldn’t feel comfortable (e.g., men hang out in Victoria’s Secret, students without tattoos or piercings could spend time at a tattoo shop) along with regular course activities:

This week in class….

Week 11: Body Talk

Keywords “Aesthetics”, “Body”, and “Performance”

  • Bodies fieldwork assignment, details in Forum.



In-Class 11/11:

  • ASA: Johnson, Walter. “Turning People Into Products”
  • ASA: Blum, Virginia. “The Patient’s Body”
  • Balsamo, Anne. “On the Cutting Edge: Cosmetic Surgery and the Technological Production of the Gendered Body,” in N. Mirzoeff (Ed.) The Visual Culture Reader. London: Routledge, 1998. 223-233.

So the forum remains a place to refine or complicate ideas, but producing those ideas should involve multiple skill sets. I’m also going to try to incorporate that belief into in-class activities. In several classes I’ve broken students into small groups to work with short videos or to debate other groups on the merits of certain research. It’s become clear—especially on the week around race, space and Hurricane Katrina—that getting students to open up about affective reactions to texts or biographical links to texts is quite productive, so journaling and sharing will pop up more. Students generally say the offline and online work complement each other, but I want to expand the ways in which they do so—especially when it comes to moving beyond the Ivory Tower. Recall and reuse is always enhanced if information is processed along multiple, self-referential pathways.

To encourage students to work with their own ideas and strengths, I tend to be explicit in how they’ll be graded but more open as to how they can approach different ideas. I encourage and model narrow, specific arguments with evidence but, still, it’s clear that some students prefer explicit instructions on how to complete an assignment. That’s fine, and I usually meet those needs with more individualized feedback on the boards rather than changing everyone’s assignments in every space. These frustrations can also be addressed by making use of the most important technology augmenting any syllabus: the teacher’s office. But only one student has come to office hours thus far.


I don't even charge the five cents.

Negotiating a learning space with multiple technological dimensions has been a learning experience for me and my students, and I’ll want perform another check-up at the close of the semester. I already know that Ning is an improvement over Blackboard in facilitating student engagement, but at the end of the day it’s still Ning’s and not mine or my students. So I’ll be considering how to design my own space to meet the same goals, and would love to hear more from the hivemind about experiences with linking teaching spaces to your own Web presence.

AMST 201 landing page
Landing page for my Introduction to American Studies course site

The research and writing featured on this blog generally build from the idea that digital information and material experience do not exist in two separate realities à la The Matrix, but coexist in one augmented reality where the informational and material play a role in constituting one another. This semester at the University of Maryland, I’m exploring those moves between informational spaces and physical ones in a mixed online and in-person version of an American Studies course and wanted to share and get feedback on the process of planning, designing, and enacting this augmented introduction to the study of American culture. This design is specific to this course and its themes, but the general principles should work elsewhere and the cultural context of online higher education is important to anyone involved with that system.

Online education is playing a larger and larger role in the economics and pedagogies of the increasingly privatized and ‘right-sized’ U.S. research university and my course is certainly a product of these changes. At the same time, researchers and teachers in a variety of disciplines are using this moment of transition to question and revise outdated pedagogical routines and are designing classes to better facilitate multiple levels of student engagement with reference to the real world outside the ivory tower. I would have loved to have explored interventions such as contract grading or an increased focus on navigating and designing information systems within my course but, like many graduate students, I had to work within the boundaries of an already existing syllabus. The general shape of the course was set; so my pre-semester work become more about adjusting the course’s weaknesses and flexing its strengths within the mixed online/in-person environment, knowing that the different parts of that environment would lend themselves to different kinds of learning. I organized this effort around a few core principles that apply in any learning environment:

  • The classroom is a ‘community of practice‘ with multiple stakeholders. Everyone will not contribute at the same level or in the same way, but everyone has similar interests and goals.
  • All activities and readings in every part of the course had to work towards the overall goals of engagement with American cultural studies, and the application of that new frame to themes of everyday life and identity.
  • Everyone is more motivated, and learning is deeper and more persistent, when they are actively involved with class work and when that work is related to their everyday lives (e.g., less lecturing).

Dale's Cone of Experience

Introduction to American Stuies and American Culture serves as both the introductory course to the American Studies major and a Humanities credit for UMD’s CORE requirements. This places a premium on accessibility and interdisciplinary engagement. Students learn the history of the discipline, research and apply its major methodologies, and become familiar with major themes such as social construction, the formation and limits of nation, and aspects of identity such as race, class, and gender. Reviewing old syllabi and speaking with instructors who previously worked in the mixed format, I heard both structural (e.g., lack of engagement on Blackboard due to interface issues and frequent outages, little sense of student community) and content-level complaints (e.g., no clear links from week to week, an emphasis on theoretical ‘jargon’ that precluded real-world engagement). I felt a redesign of the online aspect of the class, integrating with but not mirroring the in-class component, would be able to answer a lot of these issues.

Step one was minimizing Blackboard’s presence in our class. I use it only as a storehouse for PDFs of copyrighted material. There are plenty of detailed reviews of Blackboard’s faults and biases elsewhere, suffice to say does 500 things andnone of them particularly well. For a group of freshmen trying to share and reflect on deeply personal issues of politics and identity, I wanted the online space to have a more personal feel and a design that focused on discussion and sharing of found materials. I was especially concerned that students, given that they were only seeing each other face-to-face once a week, would have a safe space where they felt comfortable sharing multiple forms of reflection on the syllabus’ issues with each other. Following a demo from American Studies faculty member Dr. Jo Paoletti [@joyomama] I turned to Ning, a make-your-own-social-network service that included profile pictures for each student, their own dedicated blog, a forum space that I could format for each week’s needs, and an activity feed that mirrored Facebook’s—only with transparency. Knowing such transparency was key to productive, engaged classes, I tried to explain the workflow and my reasoning behind it in detail in the syllabus.

So here’s how it works:

Students leave the 75-minute class on Friday and soon after receive a brief email from me with thoughts from the week, connections to past and future weeks, and a link to that day’s Prezi if there is one. After that I grade contribution for the week, update the course site’s landing page with the next week of the syllabus, and upload a ten to twenty-five minute podcast that answers leftover questions from class and outlines how next week’s activities fit in with the big picture themes of the course. Online work generally consists of a set of brief, technical readings from Keywords for American Cultural Studies; a set of media (e.g., journalism, short stories, or films) that apply or relate to that week’s themes, a weekly, focused 250-word forum post answering a prompt of mine; and a like-sized response to someone else’s post. I comment on everyone’s posts at least once, trying to critique and compliment everyone’s style and content and stress big-picture links such as social construction, structural versus individual cultural moves, and multiple experiences of ‘America’ that include subjugated knowledges and critical histories. A week’s discussion usually runs 75 to 100 posts between 16 students and myself, so there’s a fair amount of back-and-forth. For class Friday, students read more scholarly writing and together we discuss how those methodologies work with the week’s themes and major local, national, and transnational sociopolitical events or trends.

This week—“Reproducing Capitalism and Class”—looks like this:

Week 5: Reproducing Capitalism and Class


  • Keywords “Capitalism”, “Class”, and “Liberalism”

Watch the entirety of either:



  • Why is ‘class’ important to the study of everyday life in culture?
  • How has ‘class’ (and/or the systems that reproduce ‘class’) in American culture changed in the last 20 years?

In Class 9/30:

  • Harman, Chris. “Introduction” through “How Capitalism Began” in How Marxism Works. London: Bookmarks, 1979. 4-20 in the .doc.
  • Marx, Karl. “Wage Labour and Capital” (1847)
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital” trans. Richard Nice in Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociology of Education, J.E. Richardson ed. Greenwood Press, 1986. 241-58.

The general idea is that students use the theory of American Studies to frame a discussion relating to their everyday lives early in the week. They get comfortable with applying the week’s themes—and develop their writing—before we use the co-present back-and-forth of the classroom to zero-in on the mechanics and critiques of the more difficult scholarly readings. Offline and online complement each other by encouraging different kinds of critique on different kinds of texts, different self-reflexive conversations, and different modes of cultural ‘listening’. Major assignments include the introductory self-critique in an “American Me” essay posted online for other students to read, a writing-centric midterm, a long-form critique of a cultural ‘text’ (e.g., political campaign, TV series, food tradition), and a final group presentation that guides the rest of the class through a community problem and possible solutions to it as suggested by the semester’s work.

Screen shot of the video section of the course site
Our course site's video archive. Here just featuring the ones I posted for the week on 'Methods'

So far I’ve been encouraged by the back-and-forth conversations on Ning, and the cautious embrace of both charged issues—such as the intersection of nation and Native American genocide—and the hard work of self-critique—such as the economics of the Freshman Connections program my students are all enrolled in. There’s also been early problems that range from typical issues around freshman figuring out university protocol to motivating students to engage in other parts of community building (e.g., posting relevant videos or news links to keep debate current). As with managing any community of practice, I’ll want to reassess how things are working online and off—from interface to addressing political currents—and collect feedback from my students and from you all, if you don’t mind, at the mid- and end-points of the semester.

While the tide is turning, comics are still an under-appreciated medium in 2011. This despite increased interest in superheroes given the Hollywood treatment and critical attention to thoughtful indie pieces like Fun Home and Love and Rockets. It’s a shame because comics’ juxtaposed panels, their special way of framing time in terms of space, are well equipped to address those intersections of identity, technology, and visual representation that get so much play in mainstream and academic press. Image Comics’ Infinite Vacation is one new ongoing title that tackles those ideas head on.

Writer Nick Spencer is a rising star whose big hit, Morning Glories, blends teenage drama with the surreal paranoia of 60s TV thriller The Prisoner. In Infinite Vacation, Spencer teams with artist Christian Ward to tell the story of Mark, daily user of a ubiquitous, near-future technology which allows anyone to buy or sell their existence in parallel universes through a smartphone app; for $25,000 Mark can become the hero cop version of  himself, and it’ll cost at least $3000 for him to become a Mark who did not just get walked out on by that mystery girl in the coffee shop.

Mark is a cyborg less like Robocop and more like the average Facebook user who presents their preferred self to the world via an array of edited images, clicked “likes”, and comments with friends (i.e., exactly how Cyborgology editors define the cyborg in their inaugural post).  Identity definition and presentation through web spaces and consumer devices is a major theme in Infinite Vacation, whether it’s the RSS feed of your alternate selves’ lives and deaths or that mystery girl saying, “That thing in your hand isn’t worth shit to me…” when Mark tries to prove his seriousness by showing how expensive his app-assisted reality purchase would have been. A gorgeous opening spread (below) has infinite Marks fitted into generic male outlines, reminiscent of your chosen profile picture replacing the pale blue Facebook default.

It’s risky business writing on a comics’ first issue. As with TV premiers, you never know if the creators will follow through on early promise. Still, at this stage I think I can see the shape of two core critiques of digital identity presentation in Infinite Vacation. First, Spencer explores the permanence of digital identity and its relation to physical artifacts of the same. Early on, Mark stresses the importance of his name tag which distinguishes one universe’s self from another and logs one’s place in the multiverse along with one’s record of purchases. There’s also a simmering conflict with the ‘Deadenders’ who refuse to use the Infinite Vacation. Mark refers to them as “the reality Amish”. This echoes the concerns of a generation worrying whether their party pictures or search history will follow them to a job interview, as well as Internet-era debates on the tenuous divide between material reality and its representation. Deadenders like the mystery girl call Mark’s vacation experiences fake but the lives and deaths of other Marks are just as real as his. Most readers will have experienced or witnessed the drama that ensues from a relationship status change on Facebook—is that just a silly epiphenomenon of real change, or a real sign that you’re presenting a new self to the world?

Second, Infinite Vacation’s consumerism seems to indict the monetization of identity in Web 2.0  walled gardens. Mark can easily change his self-presentation, but only through serious app-spending on a phone similar to Apple’s notoriously locked-up, non-generative iPhone. This also reminds me of Facebook’s walled garden: where self-definition via text has gradually given way to more visual choices of “likes” and geographic “check-ins” at the virtual doors of major businesses. This is the dark side of Web 2.0: We are connected and social, but, especially at the technical level, locked out from any tinkering with our data and encouraged to leave our processing and presentation needs to proprietary Web services. Mark’s infinite identities, and the company that facilitates their purchase, may offer a trippy, visual alternative to book-length Internet fright-fests like The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It or The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.

Like I said, I can’t predict where this series will go; but this strong early showing offers creative critiques accessible to all comers. Personally, I’m excited to bring it to classrooms as a complement to more social scientific looks at Internet identity or as a point of entry for discussion on how digital natives present their selves to the world.