The students in my Cultural Studies of New Media course are currently in the process of giving midterm presentations. The assignment was to keep a technology journal for a week, interview a peer, and interview an older adult. Students were to record their own and others’ experiences with new and social media. Students then collaborated in small groups to pull out themes from their interviews and journals and created presentations addressing the role of new and social media in everyday life.
Across presentations, I’m noticing a fascinating trend in the ways that students and their interviewees talk about the relationship between themselves and their digital stuff– especially mobile phones. They talk about technologies that are “there for you,” and alternatively, recount those moments when the technology “lets you down.” Students recount jubilation and exasperation as they and their interviewees connect, search, lurk, post, and click.
Listening to students, I am reminded that the contemporary human relationship to hardware and software is a decidedly affective one. The way we talk about our devices drips with emotion—lust, frustration, hatred, and love. This strong emotional tenor toward technological objects brings me back to a classic Louis C.K. bit, in which the comedian describes expressions of vitriol toward mobile devices in the wake of communication delays. For Louis, the comedic value is found in the absurdity of such visceral animosity toward a communication medium, coupled with a lack of appreciation for the highly advanced technology that the medium employs.
But I think the story goes deeper than this, and becomes not just funny, but also revelatory about the ways technological apparatuses are deeply embedded in the fabric of intimate life.
If the medium is the message, then the apparatuses of social media—hardware, software, and infrastructures—are how we connect, remember, and find our way when lost. These media, that live in our pockets and in our homes, hold the capacity not just to appease or frustrate, but to comfort, disappoint, and betray.
Horse-race style political opinion polling is an integral a part of western democratic elections, with a history dating back to the 1800’s. Political opinion polling originally took hold in the first quarter of the 19th century, when a Pennsylvania straw poll predicted Andrew Jackson’s victory over John Quincey Adams in the bid for President of the United States. The weekly magazine Literary Digest then began conducting national opinion polls in the early 1900s, followed finally by the representative sampling introduced the George Gallup in 1936. Gallup’s polling method is the foundation of political opinion polls to this day (even though the Gallup poll itself recently retired from presidential election predictions).
While polling has been around a long time, new technological developments let pollsters gather data more frequently, analyze and broadcast it more quickly, and project the data to wider audiences. Through these developments, polling data have moved to the center of election coverage. Major news outlets report on the polls as a compulsory part of political segments, candidates cite poll numbers in their speeches and interviews, and tickers scroll poll numbers across both social media feeds and the bottom of television screens. So central has polling become that in-the-moment polling data superimpose candidates as they participate in televised debates, creating media events in which performance and analysis converge in real time. So integral has polling become to the election process that it may be difficult to imagine what coverage would look in the absence of these widely projected metrics.
But the poll-centrism ushered in by new technologies is neither natural nor inevitable, as evidenced by Amy Goodman at Democracy Now, who intentionally excludes polling data as part of her election coverage. For Goodman, the trouble with polls is that they focus attention in the wrong place. Paraphrasing from a recent interview Goodman gave on CNN, she asks “how does knowing what other people think of a candidate help me assess my own views on the candidate?” In other words, Goodman’s philosophy calls into question the usefulness of polls in helping voters make informed decisions about who will most effectively govern. Polling metrics ostensibly take away from other more meaningful information, such as voting records and the substance of candidates’ messages.
Polls have become the pinnacle metric by which commentators discern a candidate’s performance on the ground and on the debate stage. Yet polls are a metric that measures performance through appeal, essentially constructing a popularity contest and reporting the results of that contest as the most meaningful information for voters. While Goodman argues that popularity status is not very useful information for those seeking to elect a leader, popularity status does have an effect on voter behavior nonetheless. The effects of polling are at the heart of old critiques, worth rehashing in light of an increasingly pollcentric media environment.
Just as political opinion polls have been around a long time, so too have concerns over their effects. As early as the late 1800s commentators suggested that projections may influence how voters view candidates and in turn, affect voting behavior. In short, polling data don’t just take the public temperature, they set it.
Gallup apparently spent a great deal of time and energy attempting to produce empirical evidence that would dispute the argument that polls influence—rather than simply measure—public opinion. His efforts were largely unsuccessful. Instead, empirical research shows that polls do in fact influence public opinion and that the most prevalent effect is what is known as the “bandwagon effect.”
The bandwagon effect is such that when people learn about a candidate doing well, they decide to support that candidate. That is, voters “jump on the bandwagon” of a winning contender. This has been the linchpin of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. When questioned about his suitability to hold the office of President, Trump invariably touts how well he is doing in the polls. And so far, this strategy has worked. The better he does in the polls, the better he does in the polls and ultimately, the better he does among primary voters. That is, the bandwagon effect represents a self-fulfilling prophecy. Projecting success onto someone actually helps that person achieve success. In this case, connecting a candidate to poll numbers that indicate high levels of support work to actually earn the candidate more support.
The bandwagon effect paints a decidedly unflattering picture of voters, who apparently can be swayed (and quite effectively) by the documented opinions of others. However, drawing on a little social psychology, the self-fulfilling-prophecy of a bandwagon effect makes perfect sense and dovetails with status processes that permeate everyday life.
Empirical research in Status Characteristics and Expectation States Theory (SCET) shows that people develop expectations of competence about one another based upon personal characteristics (race, class, gender, physical attractiveness) and also specific skills. Those who enjoy greater presumptions of competence are given more opportunities to talk during interaction, receive deferential treatment from those with whom they interact, and tend to earn higher levels of rewards. Rewards themselves then become status indicators, such that those who have more rewards are granted greater expectations of competence and relatedly, higher status. That is, rewards beget rewards. In the case of elections, the ultimate reward is votes and through election polling, voter support begets voter support.
Knowing this, it is unsurprising that the bandwagon effect is both strong and persistent. When voters see a candidate receive support, they grant that candidate greater competence and are then more likely to support the candidate themselves. And this is what political opinion polls do:they activate status processes that allow successful candidates to snowball into victory and push those with less support to quickly wither away.
Of course, polls are not deterministic. This is clear in the comebacks, upsets, disappointments, and flawed trajectories that make the political spectacle so spectacular. Self-fulfilling prophecies and bandwagons push candidates towards victory or defeat rather than directly causing wins and losses. Candidates still have to contend with their voting records, debate flubs, and personal histories. Voters can and do research candidates of interest. However, the push towards victory and defeat shepherded in by political opinion polling is troubling given not only the prevalence of polls, but also the almost unquestioned significance of the metrics polls produce.
The science of polling has become increasingly precise. Pollsters can discern granular trends about which groups support which candidates, for what reasons, and under what conditions. Highly skilled in survey design and statistical analysis and armed with sophisticated distribution and analytic software, pollsters have the tools to learn a lot. But perhaps the most useful place for those polls is behind the proverbial closed doors of campaign headquarters, where candidates and their staff can use the numbers to assess their own performances and adjust accordingly. Polling data can also be useful for social scientists looking to better understand political processes. To be sure, however, publically projected polling data does more than it records.
The effects of opinion polling matter not just for their influence, but for their distraction. The attention economy is not limitless, and when popularity data become the pinnacle metric, substance takes a back seat.
Facebook Reactions don’t grant expressive freedom, they tighten the platform’s affective control.
The range of human emotion is both vast and deep. We are tortured, elated, and ambivalent; we are bored and antsy and enthralled; we project and introspect and seek solace and seek solitude. Emotions are heavy, except when they’re light. So complex is human affect that artists and poets make careers attempting to capture the allusive sentiments that drive us, incapacitate us, bring us together, and tear us apart. Popular communication media are charged with the overwhelming task of facilitating the expression of human emotion, by humans who are so often unsure how they should—or even do—feel. For a long time, Facebook handled this with a “Like” button.
Last week, the Facebook team finally expanded the available emotional repertoire available to users. “Reactions,” as Facebook calls them, include not only “Like,” but also “Love,” “Haha,” “Wow,” “Sad,” and “Angry.” The “Like” option is still signified by a version of the iconic blue thumbs-up, while the other Reactions are signified by yellow emoji faces.
However, the notion of greater expressive capacity through the Facebook platform is not only illusory, but masks the way that Reactions actually strengthen Facebook’s affective control.
Although Reactions offer an emotional lexicon that affords more granularity than the universal “Like,” they maintain the platform squarely within a happiness paradigm. Facebook maintains a vested interest in keeping the site a generally cheerful place. Advertisers post there, and it wouldn’t do to have users who openly dissent against those who paid for ad space. Moreover, advertisers are willing to pay because users go there, and people feel (at least a little) bad when they read disproportionately negative content. Keeping things cheerful keeps users coming back, which keeps eyeballs for sale and ad space more valuable. That Facebook designed Reactions based on content produced by users themselves is of little meaning, as the site has always facilitated a positive affective bent. Engineers are therefore pulling sentiments from a user-base whose emotive expressions were already shaped by a precisely designed platform.
Of note, alternate expressive options are only available after toggling or long-holding over the still-compulsory “Like” option. This is reminiscent of the way Facebook added more granular gender identity options, but relegated 56 of the 58 options to an “Other” category, available only as an alternative to the Male-Female binary. Just as they reorganized gender expression to reinforce cis-normativity, Facebook has now reorganized affective expression in a way that normalizes cheer.
Moreover, all of the Reactions, including negative ones, are signified with adorable emoji faces. These emoji express sadness and anger as a little bit silly, not too threatening, not too real. “Like” might not be the appropriate response to the passing of a loved one, but bulbous tears streaming down a banana yellow face feels downright disrespectful. Imagine posting a brow-furrowed Angry emoji in response to a friend’s personal story of sexual assault. It’s the symbolic equivalent of “that rascal!!” and woefully inadequate for anything that provokes real anger.
The cartoonishness of Reactions is most certainly intentional. It lets people express a degree of anger or sadness, while easing the transition into the remaining lines of News Feed filled with cute memes, funny text message screen captures, and images of friends on vacation. H.L. Starnes once compared bad and sad news on Facebook to the candy river in the 1970s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film, in which those aboard float through “a bright garden of colorful sweets” and then into “an ever-quickening barrage of lights and awful imagery only to emerge on the other side to continue a fantastical tour of candy making delight.” Facebook Reactions let users quickly pause for something awful, but then seamlessly continue on their fantastical George Takei-filled tour.
In contrast to the seeming expansion of expressive capacity, Facebook Reactions strengthen Facebook’s hold on the overall sentiment of the site. Reactions don’t just offer more options, but give users a particularset of tools with which they can efficiently engage bad news. It is challenging to respond to bad news. The person who shares bad news is vulnerable, and the task of crafting a thoughtful reply requires effort and can be quite uncomfortable. Reactions give users an “out,” and give Facebook control over how negative sentiments manifest. By encouraging emotional expression through pre-fab Reactions, Facebook does not foster expressive autonomy, but instead, stakes an ever stronger hold on how sentiment takes shape.
Nick Bilton’s neighbor flew a drone outside the window of Bilton’s home office. It skeeved him out for a minute, but he got over it. His wife was more skeeved out. She may or may not have gotten over it (but probably not). Bilton wrote about the incident for The New York Times, where he works as a columnist. Ultimately, Bilton’s story concludes that drone watching is no big deal, analogous to peeping-via-binoculars, and that the best response is to simply ignore drone-watchers until they fly their devices away. With all of this, I disagree.
Drone privacy is a fraught issue, one of the many in which slow legislative processes have been outpaced by technological developments. While there remains a paucity of personal-drone laws, the case precedent trends towards punishing those who damage other people’s drones, while protecting the drone owners who fly their devices into airspace around private homes. Through legal precedent, then, privacy takes a backseat to property.
Bilton spends the majority of his article parsing this legal landscape, and tying the extant legal battles to his own experience of being watched. He begins with an account of looking out his window to see a buzzing drone hovering outside. He is both amused and disturbed, as the drone intrusion took place while he was already writing an article about drones. He reports feeling first violated and intruded upon, but this feeling quickly fades, morphing into quite the opposite. He says:
At first, I was upset and felt spied upon. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to the opposite conclusion. Maybe it’s because I’ve become inured to the reality of being monitored 24/7, whether it’s through surveillance cameras or Internet browsers. I see little difference between a drone hovering near my window, and someone standing across the street with a pair of binoculars. Both can peer into my office.
Bilton’s response is basically “well we’re already constantly surveilled and always have been, so who cares if the technology is now aerial and our neighbors join the viewership?” Apparently, his wife cares.
Bilton concedes that his wife is far more put off by the neighborly drone visit than he. She considers getting a shotgun, he reports. Though Bilton gives cursory attention to his wife’s view and ponders the legal options for people who feel violated by drones, he eventually concludes with this dismissive advice: “do what I did, which was to wait about 15 seconds until my neighbor got bored and flew the drone somewhere else.”
First, drones and binoculars are not the same. Not even close. Although Bilton acknowledges that drones are unique in their capacity to “…reach into crevices of your home…and see from more invasive vantage points” he ignores their capacity for documentation. It’s not just that drone technology grants viewers access to more and more granular images, but that images are produced, rather than merely experienced in fleeting (albeit violative) moments of looking. Binoculars archive voyeuristic images within a memory bank. Drones externalize the archive with the potential to distribute.
But more importantly, neither drone nor binocular forms of spying are okay. Ever. It’s positively strange to me that Bilton’s defense of drones entails equating them with analog forms of peeping. I certainly wouldn’t consider it benign to find a person hiding in the bushes across the street watching me in my bedroom. I doubt Bilton’s wife would, either.
Dismissal is a luxury, one that Bilton apparently enjoys. Although he presents a counter argument foiled in his wife’s experience, Bilton treats his wife’s account as just another opinion—a balance point rounding out his less affected reaction. He did not, however, investigate the reason he and his wife had such dissimilar reactions. Had Bilton focused on the underlying cause of he and his wife’s fracture, the luxury of dismissal would likely have emerged. That cause, simply, is social position—in this case, gender.
The effects of surveillance are far from uniform. For many women, queer and trans* people, voyeurism has been and remains a reality to contend with and avoid. For people of color, surveillance is a key contributing factor in the disastrous rates of mass incarceration. Eschewing privacy has different consequences for different people. Those for whom the consequences are severe know this intrinsically. Those for whom the consequences are minimal can remain comfortably naïve.
Dismissing personal drones as technological objects that fly away after 15 seconds when their operators get bored ignores the staying power that those 15 seconds can entail. Such as the way those 15 seconds stay with watched subjects psychologically, imparting an omnipresent wariness even within the sacred confines of the home; or the way the 15 seconds stay with watched subjects as documented artifacts, distributed in ways over which the watched has no control.
For Bilton, surveillance is an inconvenient but inevitable reality. Pushback seems futile, so why bother? But intrusive surveillance is only inevitable as long as people acquiesce, and acquiescence can be most effectively disrupted by centering surveillance analyses on the perspectives of those at the margins—those for whom “inevitable” surveillance can be devastating.
Today marks the beginning of the official presidential primaries, launching off with voting in Iowa. While the political pundits and campaign camps scrutinize poll numbers, attendance trends, and even the weather, I find myself poring over this fascinating protocol document put out by NPR.
Admittedly, I’ve never voted in a primary election. I’m going to this year. Word has it, I’m not alone. With intense fractures both within and between parties, this election holds a lot at stake and political analysts say that the primary season is likely to see participation from those who normally abstain altogether, or those like me, who have historically saved their participation for the national election.
So what happens during primary voting? The answer is that it varies drastically, but Iowa has a particularly raucous caucus (<< I know).
In learning about the Iowa primaries, I am most struck by their charm, and relatedly, the simplicity of their technological apparatuses. In Iowa today, the eminent technologies include pencils, paper, voices, and feet.
Here’s how it works: Voters register with a party, and meet with others in their party at a designated venue—church basements, gyms, the occasional grain elevator. Representatives of each presidential candidate make a case to sway voters. Here, the rules for Democrats and Republicans split off. Democrats physically move their bodies into areas of the room, which represent support for a particular candidate. They try to convince one another to come over to their candidate’s areas. Each candidate must have at least 15% of the precinct’s voters. Those voting for a candidate who receives less than 15% of the vote have to redistribute themselves among the more popular candidates. Votes are tallied by the final number of bodies in each area. Republicans do not require a 15% minimum and instead of voting with their bodies, vote by paper ballot. The whole thing is blaringly low tech.
Okay, so votes are reported with a Microsoft-created app, but up until the reporting, it’s the kind of voting we might expect an elementary school class to engage in when deciding on toppings for a pizza party.
This really is a darling process. People of like-mind congregate to debate, celebrate, and enact democracy together. I imagine that the caucuses, in which bodies are the main metric, entail enthusiastic yelling, jumping, and warm hugs or playful jeers as voters shift from one corner of the room to the next. I have a tugging desire to become Iowan just to experience the redistribution process after O’Malley inevitably falls short of his 15%.
I can’t help but wonder, though, has it always been so darling? Sure, Iowans have long caucused in this manner, but is the charm retrospective? Experiences are always temporally embedded, and paper, pencils, voices, and feet were once normative technologies rather than retro throwbacks—much like cane sugar in soda used not to be a novelty.
Indeed, the caucuses exemplify the kind of community gathering that Robert Putnam mourned the loss of in his morosely titled work, Bowling Alone. While I disagree with Putnam’s thesis that we have lost community, it is certainly clear that community has changed in form. When traditional kinds of gatherings—like the Iowa caucuses— still remain, they are no longer just events, but relics of a time past, quaint and campy, and wonderfully out of place.
Almost two years ago, Facebook waved the rainbow flag and metaphorically opened its doors to all of the folks who identify outside of the gender binary. Before Facebook announced this change in February of 2014, users were only able to select ‘male’ or ‘female.’ Suddenly, with this software modification, users could choose a ‘custom’ gender that offered 56 new options (including agender, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, non-binary, and transgender). Leaving aside the troubling, but predictable, transphobic reactions, many were quick to praise the company. These reactions could be summarized as: ‘Wow, Facebook, you are really in tune with the LGBTQ community and on the cutting edge of the trans rights movement. Bravo!’ Indeed, it is easy to acknowledge the progressive trajectory that this shift signifies, but we must also look beyond the optics to assess the specific programming decisions that led to this moment.
To be fair, many were also quick to point to the limitations of the custom gender solution. For example, why wasn’t a freeform text field used? Google+ also shifted to a custom solution 10 months after Facebook, but they did make use of a freeform text field, allowing users to enter any label they prefer. By February of 2015, Facebook followed suit (at least for those who select US-English).
There was also another set of responses with further critiques: more granular options for gender identification could entail increased vulnerability for groups who are already marginalized. Perfecting your company’s capacity to turn gender into data equates to a higher capacity for documentation and surveillance for your users. Yet the beneficiaries of this data are not always visible. This is concerning, particularly when we recall that marginalization is closely associated with discriminatory treatment. Transgender women suffer from disproportionate levels of hate violence from police, service providers, and members of the public, but it is murder that is increasingly the fate of people who happen to be both trans and women of color.
Alongside these horrific realities, there is more to the story – hidden in a deeper layer of Facebook’s software. When Facebook’s software was programmed to accept 56 gender identities beyond the binary, it was also programmed to misgender users when it translated those identities into data to be stored in the database. In my recent article in New Media & Society, ‘The gender binary will not be deprogrammed: Ten years of coding gender on Facebook,’ I expose this finding in the midst of a much broader examination of a decade’s worth of programming decisions that have been geared towards creating a binary set of users.
To make sure we are all on the same page, perhaps the first issue to clarify is that Facebook is not just the blue and white screen filled with pictures of your friends, frenemies, and their children. That blue and white screen is the graphic user interface – it is made for you to see and use. Other layers are hidden and largely inaccessible to the average user. Those proprietary algorithms that filter what is populated in your news feed that you keep hearing about? As a user, you can see traces of algorithms on the user interface (the outcome of decisions about what post may interest you most) but you don’t see the code that they depend on to function. The same is true of the database – the central component of any social media software. The database stores and maintains information about every user and a host of software processes are constantly accessing the database in order to, for example, populate information on the user interface. This work goes on behind the scenes.
When Facebook was first launched back in 2004, gender was not a field that appeared on the sign-up page but it did find a home on profile pages. While it is possible that, back in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg had already dreamed that Facebook would become the financial success that it has today, what is more certain is that he did not consider gender to be a vital piece of data. This is because gender was programmed as a non-mandatory, binary field on profile pages in 2004, which meant it was possible for users to avoid selecting ‘male’ or ‘female’ by leaving the field blank, regardless of their reason for doing so. As I explain in detail in my article, this early design decision became a thorny issue for Facebook, leading to multiple attempts to remove uses who had not provided a binary ID from the platform.
Yet there was always a placeholder for users who chose to exist outside of the binary deep in the software’s database. Since gender was programmed as non-mandatory, the database had to permit three values: 1 = female, 2 = male, and 0 = undefined. Over time, gender was granted space on the sign-up page as well – this time as a mandatory, binary field. In fact, despite the release of the custom gender project (the same one that offered 56 additional gender options), the sign-up page continues to be limited to a mandatory, binary field. As a result, anyone who joins Facebook as a new user must identify their gender as a binary before they can access the non-binary options on the profile page. According to Facebook’s Terms of Service, anyone who identifies outside of the binary ends up violating the terms – “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook” – since the programmed field leaves them with no alternative if they wish to join the platform.
Over time Facebook also began to define what makes a user ‘authentic’ and ‘real.’ In reaction to a recent open letter demanding an end to ‘culturally biased and technically flawed’ ‘authentic identity’ policies that endanger and disrespect users, the company publically defended their ‘authentic’ strategy as the best way to make Facebook ‘safer.’ This defense conceals another motivation for embracing ‘authentic’ identities: Facebook’s lucrative advertising and marketing clients seek a data set made up of ‘real’ people and Facebook’s prospectus (released as part of their 2012 IPO) caters to this desire by highlighting ‘authentic identity’ as central to both ‘the Facebook experience’ and ‘the future of the web.’
In my article, I argue that this corporate logic was also an important motivator for Facebook to design their software in a way that misgenders users. Marketable and profitable data about gender comes in one format: binary. When I explored the implications of the February 2014 custom gender project for Facebook’s database – which involved using the Graph API Explorer tool to query the database – I discovered that the gender stored for each user is not based on the gender they selected, it is based on the pronoun they selected. To complete the selection of a ‘custom’ gender on Facebook, users are required to select a preferred pronoun (he, she, or them). Through my database queries, however, a user’s gender only registered as ‘male’ or ‘female.’ If a user selected ‘gender questioning’ and the pronoun ‘she,’ for instance, the database would store ‘female’ as that user’s gender despite their identification as ‘gender questioning.’ In the situation where the pronoun ‘they’ was selected, no information about gender appeared, as though these users have no gender at all. As a result, Facebook is able to offer advertising, marketing, and any other third party clients a data set that is regulated by a binary logic. The data set appears to be authentic, proves to be highly marketable, and yet contains inauthentic, misgendered users. This re-classification system is invisible to the trans and gender non-conforming users who now identify as ‘custom.’
When Facebook waved the rainbow flag, there was no indication that ad targeting capabilities would include non-binary genders. And, to be clear, my analysis is not geared towards improving database programming practices in order to remedy the fraught targeting capabilities on offer to advertisers and marketers. Instead, I seek to connect the practice of actively misgendering trans and gender non-conforming users to the hate crimes I mentioned earlier. The same hegemonic regimes of gender control that perpetuate the violence and discrimination disproportionately affecting this community are reinforced by Facebook’s programming practices. In the end, my principal concern here is that software has the capacity to enact this symbolic violence invisibly by burying it deep in the software’s core.
Rena Bivens (@renabivens) is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Her research interrogates how normative design practices become embedded in media technologies, including social media software, mobile phone apps, and technologies associated with television news production. Rena is the author of Digital Currents: How Technology and the Public are Shaping TV News (University of Toronto Press 2014) and her work has appeared in New Media & Society, Feminist Media Studies, the International Journal of Communication, and Journalism Practice.
When Sarah Palin endorsed Donald Trump, it provided political commentators with a goldmine of analytic fodder. Working through the Palin-Trump team up, there is a lot to untangle.
For instance, how do we make sense of a political climate in which the 2008 vice presidential candidate, who so damaged the presidential campaign of her running mate that he could barely mask his contempt for her on election night, is now a desirable connection?
Or what dynamics were in play that pushed Palin to Trump rather than Cruz, especially given Palin’s support of Cruz in his senate bid?
Or could her endorsement backfire, finally impressing upon moderate Republicans the urgency of nominating Rubio or Bush? And relatedly, what’s up with Rubio falling into the mainstream/moderate category?
While commentators touched on a few of these things, largely, the conversation was dominated by another topic entirely: Sarah Palin’s sweater.
To be clear, I’m not Ewwwing her sweater. In fact, I refuse to comment on her sweater. Because I’m not a sexist asshole. Rather, I’m expressing my disgust that mainstream Republicans and self-proclaimed progressives alike coalesced on social media to discuss a politician’s wardrobe—its attractiveness and appropriateness—and that this story then became the content of broadcast news. I heard CNN news anchor and political correspondent Dana Bash spend about 3 minutes on the sweater, its other appearances (CBS Sunday in November), and how the sweater fits into Palin’s larger repertoire of wardrobe choices. Mashable ran a story on the price of the sweater. And the Washington Post gave the sweater an in-depth analysis. Ewww.
Here’s the thing. Social media are heralded as a democratizing force. The voices of the people flow into the voices of broadcasters, spreading into national and international conversations in ways previously unavailable. Social media are a mechanism for the people to speak in ways that projects out into public life. This is powerful. This has been a major tool in important revolutionary movements from the Arab Spring, to #Occupy, to #BlackLivesMatter. It’s how the public insisted upon a serious discussion of interpersonal violence following the infamous Ray and Janay Rice incident. It’s where Hilary Clinton’s evocation of 9-11 to account for her ties to Wall Street were noticed, critiqued, and given back to her with striking immediacy.
But we don’t live in a media democracy. Broadcast media still have disproportionate control over what does and does not become news. Social media provide content pools, which broadcast outlets sift through to select what they will or will not, address. This means the relationship between social and broadcast media is of a curatorial nature, with broadcasters maintaining more power than those from whom they pull stories. This makes broadcast outlets responsible parties. When they don’t pick up an important story, they are accountable. When they do pick up a story that should have remained in the ether, they are also accountable. Sarah Palin’s Sweater was a story that should have withered and died.
Commenting on professional women’s clothing is sexist. It highlights fashion and beauty while backgrounding substance. It wasn’t okay with Hilary Clinton’s pants suits and it’s not okay with Sarah Palin’s sweater. It is disappointing if not surprising, however, that sexist commentary arises among the populace. It is unacceptable when that sexism translates into a headlining story.
Turn on your TV and I bet you can find a show about Alaska. A partial list of Alaska-themed reality shows airing between 2005 and today includes Deadliest Catch, Alaskan Bush People, Alaska the Last Frontier, Ice Road Truckers, Gold Rush, Edge of Alaska, Bering Sea Gold, The Last Alaskans, Mounting Alaska, Alaska State Troopers, Flying Wild Alaska, Alaskan Wing Men, and the latest, Alaska Proof, premiering last week on Animal Planet, a show that follows an Alaskan distillery team as they strive to “bottle the true Alaskan spirit.” And with Alaska Proof, I submit that we have saturated the Alaskan genre; we have reached Peak Alaska. We may see a few new Alaska shows, but it’s likely on the decline. I don’t imagine we have many Alaskan activities left yet unexplored.
Television programming remains a staple of American Leisure, even as the practice of television watching continues to change (e.g., it’s often done through a device that’s not a TV). As a leisure activity, consumers expect their TV to entertain, compel, and also, provide comfort. What content and forms will entertain, compel and comfort shift with cultural and historical developments. Our media products are therefore useful barometers for measuring the zeitgeist of the time. Marshall McLuhan argues in The Medium is the Messagethatupon something’s peak, when it is on the way out, that thing becomes most clearly visible. And so, with Alaska peaking in clear view, I ask, what does our Alaskan obsession tell us about ourselves?
In the 1980s and early ‘90s, the family sitcom reigned. These years held the ideological pinnacle of neoliberal individualism. Materialism ruled, regulations waned, and shoulder pads helped each American take up a little more space. By my count, Time’s2006 designation of “You” as the person of the year was about two decades late. Around this time, we also saw a quickly changing family structure. Divorce was on the rise, family size on the decline, and dual incomes becoming increasingly necessary and normative.
With anxieties surrounding shifting family life, it’s no surprise that the Full House/Family Matters genre rose to prominence. People wanted to sink into their couches to enjoy 30 open and closed minutes of close-knit characters who cared for each other and solved disputes with a quiet knock on the bedroom door, some short self-reflexive dialogue, and a warm hug, finally relieving the tension with a shucks-worthy joke. It was a dose of wholesome. Warm and safe like a diagonal cut grilled cheese and tall glass of milk.
Today, we’ve moved beyond the formulaic family comedy. We want complex characters and believability. We expect continuity and semiotic ambiguity, the kind of programming that spurns debate and post-show discussions with fans, creators, and actors. Or alternatively, we want voyeuristic satisfaction, long-form documentaries in the form of 50 minute segments spread across 12-16 episodes. But that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped seeking comfort. We still need our entertainment to offer reprieve from the troubles that worry us in everyday life, the concerns that accompany societal change. We still want fantasy and escape, even while demanding a realist lens.
The most obvious of contemporary shifts comes in the form of digitization and automation. We are the digital revolution, and people aren’t sure what that means, but they know things have changed and will never again be the same.
Our conversations needn’t require saliva. A day of work may elicit tears, but rarely blood or sweat. Dirt under the fingernails is more likely to originate in a community garden than on a factory floor or family farm. Our muscles may be sore, but mostly from yoga, and we can soothe ourselves with a scented bath and monthly massage membership. The gritty physicality of Alaska shines brightly against the sterile experience of everyday life here on the mainland. We are clean, and soft—at least those of us with disposable time to binge watch and disposable income to buy the commercial goods that drive programming decisions— and we are pretty sure this means something has been lost.
To be clear, our use of technology is far from actually clean. It’s actually incredibly dirty, requiring intense physical labor and causing extreme environmental strife. But we don’t want to know about the dirt and we don’t feel it in our everyday lives. And so we watch Alaskans. Or at least our fantasy of Alaskans. Those majestic creatures unsoiled by streaming News Feeds or celebrity gossip.
We watch them toil on the land. Hunt for their food and can jars of honey. We watch them barter instead of buy, and fashion Christmas gifts out of beaver parts. We watch them do things that most of us have not the skill, opportunity, nor need to practice.
Alaskans are a specimen of anthropological fascination. They give us back to ourselves as we never were, and know we never will be. They are a vestige of the rugged individualism that drives the American value system. They ease us with their living-off-the-land, even as we livetweet their experiences. We watch with reverence, our heads titled in slight confusion. And we watch desperately, for fear that these relics, these strange exemplars of the simple life, where a hard day’s work is its own reward, will remain only as part of the historical record.
As a rule, parents tend to experience concern about their children’s wellbeing. With all of the decisions that parents have to make, I imagine it’s near impossible not to worry that you are making the wrong ones, with consequences that may not reveal themselves for years to come. I’m that way with my dogs, and I feel confident the anxiety is more pressing with tiny human people. This is why recommendations from professional organizations are so important. They offer the comfort of a guiding word, based presumably in expertise, to help parents make the best decisions possible.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is one such organization, and they have some things to say about children and screen time. However, what they have to say about children and screen time will be revised in the next year, and no doubt, many parents will listen intently. NPR interviewed David Hill, chairman of the AAP Council on Communications and Media and a member of the AAP Children, Adolescents and Media Leadership Working Group. Although Hill did not reveal what the new recommendations would advise, the way he talked about the relationship between screens and kids did reveal a lot about the logic that drives recommendations. The logic that Hill’s interview revealed made clear, once again, the need for theory to inform practice. More specifically, those who make practical recommendations about technology should consult with technology theorists.
The sneaky thing about assumptions is that they inform our way of thinking without letting on that they are doing so. A theorist is trained to identify underlying assumptions and question how they shape proceeding action. From Hill’s interview, three assumptions stand out: screens are a singular category; “screen time” is inherently harmful; and digitally mediated play is distinct from analog forms of play, the latter more “real” than the former.
The most glaring (and easiest to problematize) assumption is that screens occupy a singular category. Recommendations don’t apply differentially to ipads, televisions, or phones, let alone to the immense diversity of media content that each piece of hardware hosts. Of course, condensing screens into a singular category is likely done for reasons of parsimony—busy parents don’t have time to read nuanced recommendations about the full variety of hardware, software, and content available. But that sheer volume of different kinds of screens/ways of using them should perhaps give pause to anyone attempting to give recommendations about them as a categorical unit. Maybe sweeping recommendations aren’t going to be particularly useful.
A second assumption is that screen time is inherently harmful. In the interview, Hill sets up a debate between control over screen time and wholesale screen abstinence, using food and tobacco as the competing metaphors:
The question before us is whether electronic media use in children is more akin to diet or to tobacco use. With diet, harm reduction measures seem to be turning the tide of the obesity epidemic. With tobacco, on the other hand, there really is no safe level of exposure at any age
Although Hill takes the more moderate “food” approach to technology, this still presumes that technology is a dangerous thing to be managed. The assumption of compulsory harm constructs a debate between avoidance and minimization; it depicts technological advancement as an unfortunate juggernaut with which we are forced to contend. Such a depiction robs technology of the opportunity to be good, and eliminates research and recommendations into the complex conditions under which various media are harmful or beneficial, how, and for whom. Further, it constricts the measure of harm and benefit to metrics rooted in analog styles of learning and development. Studying the effects of new media upon old ways of thinking makes little sense, but it does not appear that the AAP is considering the dynamism of the human mind as it adapts to changing cultural realities. A new kind of world requires different kinds of thinking and different kinds of skills. Spelling is less important, information sorting is more important. Intense focus on a single task is needed sometimes, other times it pays to spread attention among multiple and fast-moving targets.
Finally, the AAP seems to operate under the assumption that digital is distinct form physical, and that digital has less substance. In hazarding a preliminary recommendation for parents, Hill advises:
If [children] color or read or play basketball or ride their bikes, take some time to ask them about what they’ve done and why they enjoyed it. These conversations will help them focus on the joys of the “real” world, and they will notice that their activity attracts your attention.
This advice is a clean and clear example of digital dualism, a fallacy we regularly point out and critique on this blog. Concisely, digitally mediated play is equally real to non-digitally mediated forms of play, and both digital and analog play can co-occur.
Hill and the AAP offer an important service. This is why I implore them, and others who help people navigate digitally infused terrains, to talk with people who think about these issues more broadly. A theorist of technology brings a critical eye that can be of use to those with particular empirical expertise, who wish to take action of practical concern. In this case, a technology theorist might offer some solace to parents…your kids are probably going to be okay. Don’t fret. Pay attention to them and pay attention to what they do. Screens aren’t the enemy.
Marvel’s Jessica Jones is a dark and reluctant hero. An alcoholic private detective, Jones’ super-human physical strength remains largely underutilized when we meet her in the Netflix series opening episode. As the story unfolds, we learn that Jessica self-medicates to deal with a traumatic past in which a man named Kilgrave, who controls people with the use of his voice, held Jessica captive as his lover while forcing her to engage in violence and even murder. Their relationship ended when Jessica was finally able to resist his control—a quality unique to her—and Kilgrave was hit by a bus, leaving him presumably dead. The storyline of the first season is premised on Jessica learning that Kilgrave is still alive, has captured another victim, and is coming to reclaim Jessica. In turn, Jones hunts for Kilgrave to ensure that he dies, once and for all.
About halfway through the season Jessica realizes that Kilgrave is tracking her whereabouts by controlling her friend and neighbor Malcom Ducasse. To wrest Malcom from Kilgrave’s control, Jessica strikes a deal. She agrees to send Kilgrave a selfie at precisely 10am each day. At his direction, Jones even includes a smile.
Jessica Jones’ selfie is a significant cultural artifact. With super-human physical brawn and impenetrable emotional toughness, Jessica Jones is an icon of strength. Jones’ image—how it looks, who it’s for, and how it’s produced— represents the potential of feminist self-documentation. It therefore shines light on what a selfie can do given the tangled relationship between feminism and patriarchy in self-documentation.
The selfie has become a key battleground for gender politics in a digital age. Although front-facing cameras are for everyone, cultural tropes most often place them in the hands of women. The selfie then becomes a vehicle for the critique of femininity. The selfie-posting woman is vapid, needy, and hungry for Likes. As Anne Burns explains:
Beyond a critique of photographic form or content, the online discussion of selfies reflects contemporary social norms and anxieties, particularly relating to the behavior of young women. The knowledge discursively produced in relation to selfie taking supports patriarchal authority and maintains gendered power relations by perpetuating negative feminine stereotypes that legitimize the discipline of women’s behaviors and identities.
Combating the haters, feminist media commentators and scholars (like Burns) offer alternative readings of the selfie as an expressive cultural form. Counter readings of selfies generally take two tracks: Concern (We’re Fucked) and Confidence (Fuck You).
Concerned feminists worry about the meaning of selfies. Selfies are not an indictment of those who post them, but of a culture in which the worth of women and girls continues to hinge on sexual desirability. The selfie then signifies complicity in patriarchal reproduction. That is, selfies are a consequence of women’s pervasive subordination. In this vein, Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel calls selfies a “cry for help” and rejects any notion that selfies are good for women:
Selfies aren’t empowering; they’re a high tech reflection of the fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness.
The Confidence crew, however, insist that turning the camera on the self is a way to take control of one’s own image, lest that image remain captured and configured by an amorphous, patriarchal, controlling, Other. The selfie is a source of Gurl-Power. For Amy McCarthy, selfies are a political act of both feminist strength and personal confidence, especially for those who don’t fit normative body ideals:
When you look in the media… there are very few examples of fat, trans, or dark-skinned women. As such, selfies present themselves as a way to make our bodies visible, and in a radical way. So you take your selfies, peeps — they’re one way to say “fuck you” to the body standards that have made us miserable for so long.
Jessica Jones’ selfie, at once an expression of agency and subservience, is a microcosm of the selfie phenomenon more generally. So tell us, Jessica, what does it mean to take a selfie? Is it empowering or is it self-inflicted oppression? The answer, of course, is “yes,” It is both.
By turning the camera front facing, Jones freed herself from external surveillance, freed Malcom from Kilgrave’s service, and took power over her own image. When watching is ubiquitous, showing becomes the agentic option. While surveilled through Malcom, Jessica could be photographed in any moment. The surveillance was potentially everywhere, all the time. As Foucault so clearly illustrates, potential surveillance is a powerful mechanism of control. When the surveilling eye remains hidden, all moments are documentable and therefore never entirely one’s own. With the selfie, Jessica purchased privacy. All of the non-selfie moments were once again, hers. When she did self-document, Jones selected the timing of this documentation and configured her body and face in a manner of her liking. She could then review the images and select which to send. In a word, the selfie enabled Jessica to document with intention. We see this intentionality manifest in Jones’ masterfully accomplished Fuck You smile.
Yet, despite its Fuck You quality, Jones still smiles, as per Kilgrave’s request. She still sends him pictures, at the time he instructs (10am). She still operates, ultimately, under Kilgrave’s gaze. Jones’ life, and the lives of those she cares about, depend on her compliance. The selfie buys Jones freedom, but within heavy confines.
It is not until the final episode of Season 1 that Jessica untangles herself from Kilgrave entirely. This disentanglement comes when she kills him. And killing Kilgrave is perhaps the perfect metaphor. The selfie is empowering, given a persistently oppressive arrangement. The selfie as a cultural artifact is both a product of and response to gender relations. As long as women are objectified, turning the camera on the self is a means of intentionality. It takes the power from the other and places it within the self. Artist and subject become one. But only by killing patriarchy—and the sexual confines, normative beauty standards, and persistent microaggressions patriarchy entails—are women and girls truly free. Within patriarchy, the selfie will always carry the weight of feminism upon its shoulders.
We live in a cyborg society. Technology has infiltrated the most fundamental aspects of our lives: social organization, the body, even our self-concepts. This blog chronicles our new, augmented reality.