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

A quick primer, for those who don’t know (this has been going on for a while but only came to my attention in the last few weeks): Webdriver Torso features approximately 77,000 separate 10 second videos featuring cycling colors and tones. The purpose of these videos and their content was unknown, and of course, this being the web, there was a frantic search for explanations as well as frantic speculation about same.

The explanation – of course – turned out to be very mundane:

Isaul Vargas, a New York-based software tester, spotted the videos in a post on BoingBoing and recognised them from an automation conference he had been at a year ago. They were being shown by a European firm that made streaming software for set-top boxes, the kit that sits under a TV and connects to services such as Sky or Netflix.

The company needed to be able to quickly and reliably upload digital video, a capability which it tested by uploading short, randomly generated snippets to its YouTube channel and running image-recognition software on it. “Considering the volume of videos and the fact they use YouTube, it tells me that this is a large company testing their video encoding software and measuring how Youtube compresses the videos,” says Vargas.

Cue disappointed sigh. But the explanation doesn’t interest me so much as how people reacted to this account and what they saw in it.

Something that pops up again and again in these news stories is Horse_ebooks, primarily – I think – because that’s the easiest social media reference point for many people. What was great – and frustrating – about Horse_ebooks was what it revealed about our fascination with perceived signals in the noise, with hidden meaning behind what seems random. It served as a reminder that we are, as I said in a post after the Horse-ebooks outing, “little sacs of walking pattern recognition algorithms”.

With Horse_ebooks, though, we thought we had the answers. We thought we knew what was going on. We didn’t. It wasn’t just a bot, it had real intent and purpose, and it was not randomness, at least not completely. And that ended up being disappointing for a lot of followers, because the meaning we thought we had found for ourselves had been put there by actual people. Our story was not legitimate. It wasn’t just that the explanation was mundane; we thought we already had the explanation, and it was mundane. The problem was that a lot of people felt lied to.

Webdriver Torso was and is something quite different, and I think we can analyze it using the concept of the uncanny. With some modifications.

The uncanny, as it’s commonly used, refers to the “uncomfortably strange”, things that are almost recognizable but which fall short in such a way as to make us feel disoriented and repulsed – as with robots who look just human enough to be majorly creepy. That latter definition isn’t entirely useful when it comes to Webdriver Torso, because it doesn’t make much room for attraction and fascination, which we tend to feel even for the most nightmare-fueling mysteries. Webdriver Torso is uncanny because it presents the possibility of a signal that we feel we almost understand, but that lack of understanding is discomfiting and even frightening, depending on the context. We recognize order. Chaos is bewildering and therefore scary. But the hints of order lurking within chaos are uncomfortable on an entirely different level, because we can’t understand and we desperately want to in a very instinctive way.

An additional useful and related concept is abjection – an object that has been removed from the familiar symbolic order and is therefore rendered strange and threatening. The difference here is that this kind of mystery hasn’t been removed from anything. It comes from the outside unknown and is unknowable; we feel like it should fit somewhere but it doesn’t. It doesn’t upset the social order but rather the order by which we understand anything at all. Normal ways of understanding no longer apply.

Another example that shows up in a number of these news pieces – an example that I think is much more analogous – is that of numbers stations. The explanation for the weird sounds and voices carried by these shortwave signals seems to also be relatively mundane, though still pleasantly unsettling: they’re probably coded signals being sent to various undercover agents in various countries, shortwave radio being quite appropriate to the task. But the codes themselves are just that kind of uncanny: hints of signal in the noise that tantalize and unsettle. One of the best examples of this is the deeply creepy “Swedish Rhapsody”:

Mysterious children’s voices are never not creepy, by the way.

What makes this particular to contemporary forms of technologically-mediated communication is that we’re especially primed to look for signals in that noise and therefore especially worried when we aren’t quite able to grasp those signals. This obviously isn’t confined to the web; radio seems to do the job just as well. There’s also, I would argue, something specific about audio that lends itself to this kind of uncannyness. Couple audio with video/images, as in the case of Webdriver Torso, and you truly have something special.

We can also see fascination with this kind of uncanny mystery in certain Augmented Reality Games (ARGs). Much of the time we know what we’re dealing with, but sometimes we only find out once we’re pretty deep into it, and in any case the results can feature exactly that kind of spine-shiver that one gets from listening to numbers stations recordings late at night. I’ll never forget how I felt when I saw the spectrogram image that someone pulled out out of the static at the end of one of the songs on the Nine Inch Nails album Year Zero.


So what differentiates the workings of our capacity for pattern recognition between things like Horse_ebooks and Webdriver Torso is that mystery, that need to understand, and discomfort at the elusiveness of the signal. Of course the understanding is never as fun. But the discomfort, while it lasts, is something we treasure even as it keeps us up at night.


Sarah is frequently unknowable on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

The “Sex Work and the Web” plenary, April 25th. Photo courtesy of Aaron Thompson.

When the Theorizing the Web 2014 committee got together to construct an anti-harassment statement, I don’t think any of us thought that we’d actually have to enforce any of it. If you’re creating and maintaining a space like TtW, and nothing has actually happened before, it doesn’t seem like something that’s likely in the future, although intellectually you know it’s a possibility. You create something like this because it seems like an important statement, and because you want to protect your space and the people in it, and because you want to be welcoming. But like any contingency plan, it’s never something that you put together because you actually expect it will be imminently used.

Yet this April, pretty much out of the gate, ours was.

A lot has been said about the incident in question – at the time it happened and after – and I don’t want to rehash that here. I don’t think it’s useful, and I honestly don’t think it’s very interesting. Suffice to say that a conference attendee was behaving in a way that violated the principles of our conduct statement on the TtW Twitter hashtag, and in a way that made people feel harassed and unwelcome. They were asked to leave the physical space of the conference itself, which they did. That’s really all that needs to be said.

What I want to talk about, rather, is what it meant that it went down the way it did, and the logic on which we were operating. Because I think both are important, and both indicate some significant things regarding how we protect and maintain spaces that are digital every bit as much as they are physical.

Right from the start, we were basing our statement off of what other conferences like ours had done and had found successful. We wanted to make it clear that Theorizing the Web is a space that’s not only open to but actively welcoming of diversity, and that we recognize that diversity carries with it a social context of unequal power relations. Safe spaces must, by definition, take into account these systems of power. We constructed the statement as not only an expression of expectations, but a statement regarding the specific kind of space we wanted to create.

So what we did with the idea of “space” was significant. It was a small part of the statement. It was given its own line, but it might still have been easy to miss. But it ended up making all the difference in terms of how things unfolded.

In keeping with a central theme of Theorizing the Web, we also want to remind you that what is said online is just as “real” as what is said verbally.

This single sentence contains several implications and assumptions, one of the primary ones being that if the physical “space” of TtW is one that we want to construct and protect, the same is true of its digital “space”. One of the things about TtW that we all value – and that others seem to value as well – is its vibrant hashtag discussion. As we’ve cultivated the conference, we’ve tried to make that discussion an integral part of how the event works. That implies that we bear some responsibility for the protection of that discussion as well. In that statement, we were indicating that we were prepared to act to ensure that the space was safe and welcoming for everyone.

I’m not sure any of us really had any clear idea of what it would look like if we had to. I’m not sure anyone really could, short of knowing from experience. I’m saying none of this to put us forward as some kind of shining example of How To Do It; rather, I’m emphasizing how – although we were drawing guidance and inspiration from others – we were also to a very large degree making it up as we went.

Because sometimes that’s just what you do.

So what ended up happening was that someone was asked to leave a physical space on the basis of what they were doing on Twitter. Which – let’s face it – is strange, if for no other reason than I think few of us are at all accustomed to seeing it happen.

But let’s look more closely at the actual practicalities of what happened and how we did what we did.

We stated that we would act in defense of the hashtag. Somewhat to our own surprise, we ended up having to act in defense of the hashtag. But that action was purely symbolic. People seemed to feel that it was a powerful symbol, but it was just a symbol. Removing the person from the physical space had no practical impact on their ability to keep talking on the hashtag. They could have continued all they wanted, and the only recourse people would have had would be to block them or to stop using Twitter entirely. We may have acted in defense of the hashtag, but the fact remains that we couldn’t actually do anything to compel anyone to leave the hashtag.

So what happens in that case, where they don’t leave? What do we do? I don’t know. I think that’s an open question, and I think it’s one that eventually we’ll have to answer, because if there’s one thing I think we’ve learned it’s that things don’t happen right up until the point when they do.

It’s also worth noting that, adding to the complex interplay between physical and digital that was a fundamental part of the incident in question, the removal (“blocking”, even) of the person from the physical space was recorded and shared and discussed via social media. People saw it, and they talked about what they saw and how it made them feel and how it made them perceive the spaces they were in. The significance of that can be interpreted as an action with symbolic power that had feet solidly in both “spaces” – which were really a single space – from which this person was both physically and symbolically removed. The sheer complexity of all of this makes it even more important – and potentially more challenging – to consider our actions and their meanings carefully, on all levels.

One of the most difficult and potentially fraught parts of creating any kind of anti-harassment statement is dealing with the question of what you’ll do, as curators and maintainers of a space, if and when someone violates the principles of that statement. It can be easy to make a statement and incredibly hard to put it into fair practice – something that I’ve had sad occasion to see in the science fiction and fantasy community, where policy enforcement has been a problem at even well-respected cons. So we asked ourselves and we continue to ask ourselves: How do we do this? What do we do when it goes wrong? What are we able to do, and where do our abilities fall short? Can anything be done about that? How do we engage with the people we’re intending to protect and empower, and the people whose help we need?

This is our space – our space. Not in the sense of ownership but in the sense of responsibility and obligation. And it’s also our space in the sense of community, something that extends beyond any core group and into the hands of everyone who participates. Something that we all help to create. I think we’re still in the process of figuring out exactly what all of that entails.

This is a work in progress. It always will be. We need your feedback – and your assistance – in making this happen next year and in the years to come. We started this conversation at the end of April in a studio in Brooklyn with a statement and a few minutes on Twitter. Let’s not let it end there, with a pat on the back and a well, that worked out. We can’t say for sure that it did, or that it will. There’s more work to be done. Let’s get started.

Sarah curates and maintains their own (reasonably) welcoming space on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

Tim Pool with his Occucopter. Photo courtesy of Sean Captain/Wired.
Tim Pool with his Occucopter. Photo courtesy of Sean Captain/Wired.

The death machines made new death and she drove the aliens from the desert, reclaiming the craters and jagged rocks and dry brush as hers and hers alone, for her heart is the heart of the death machines and no longer has room for any other.

–  “A Shadow on the Sky” (unpublished)

Last weekend – as anyone will know if they’ve been paying even marginal attention to this blog – the fourth annual iteration of Theorizing the Web took place, featuring panels and plenaries on selfies, the attention economy, activism, memes, sex work, race and social media, big data, and more other amazing stuff than I could reasonably list here (look, just go look at the program).

Among the rest of that awesomeness, we also hosted a symposium on drones, which featured James Bridle, Olivia Rosane, Adam Rothstein, and Eleanor Saitta, and which I had the great privilege of moderating (here’s a link to a link to a place where it can be viewed).

This particular conversation about drones is a couple of years old now, and it’s been fascinating to watch it evolve as periodically I get to pop in and contribute to it in various odd ways. The discussion in this particular setting covered a lot of different patches of ground, but one particular question stood out to me: To what degree can those without much political power reclaim/make use of a category of technology that was created to be both agent and enforcer of coercive state power?

Because technology, as all the panelists noted and as many others have done, isn’t neutral. Design isn’t separable from the designer’s intent and political context. Some drones are made to surveil, and many are made to kill, and just because they also have a variety of “non-violent” civilian uses doesn’t necessarily mean that the violence inherent in the code – so to speak – is erased.

Does it? I mean, I don’t know. The general conclusion of the panel seemed to be “hell no, it’s still there”, and I find that a compelling position, but I’m still troubled by the very question, and in part that’s because I’m very attracted, on a gut level, by the idea of using the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house, as intensely problematic as that idea is. It appeals to my sense of ironic justice. But I’m also enough of a realist to know how unlikely that is.

So we see Occupy using a quadcopter as a potential way to watch the watching police. We see Russian citizen journalists using similar tech to capture amazing aerial photos of election protests. We see the potential of this technology for empowerment, resistance, the ability to look back. But is that good enough?

Another major observation to come out of this entire conversation is how complex and ambivalent is our relationship with drones. Hobbyists love their quadcopters and insist that they have nothing to do with Reapers and Predators and Global Hawks. Environmental groups insist that they can help with conservation efforts. But we construct a hopelessly complex network of fearful cultural connotations around them, and they’re sites for the revelation of existing systems of social power – a more positive relationship with this technology is a function of privilege, of having no obvious reason to fear that a drone will watch or kill you. When Olivia, Adam, and I sat on a panel at the Drones & Aerial Robotics Conference this past fall – James Bridle was also there, on a separate panel – I couldn’t help noticing that it was awfully white (and so was the symposium at Theorizing the Web, incidentally).

But the title of the symposium was “Drones, for Better or Worse”. We exist with these machines. There’s almost certainly no going back. The open question – and I do think it’s still open – is whether we can live with them or against them. Or which position we should adopt, or attempt to adopt.

Adam (I think it was him, someone please correct me if I’m wrong) said during the discussion that in order to beat a sword into a ploughshare, one has to literally remake it. It’s not a simple process of alteration but of melting down and reforming. That suggests a certain kind of relationship between a human and a machine, to the extent that we can still differentiate the two. It both suggests possibilities and forecloses on them, and it implies certain obligations, depending on what kind of society you want to live in.

So I’m still not sure what to make of this. Let’s keep talking.


Sarah mrrmmmmmmmmms on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

Panel Preview

Presider: Sarah Wanenchak (@dynamicsymmetry)

Hashmod: Amanda Brennan (@continuants)

This is one post in a series of Panel Previews for the upcoming Theorizing the Web conference (#TtW14) in NYC. The panel under review is titled –––⁂–(⊗__⊗)–⁂–––: Drones, for better or worse

We’ve talked a lot about drones in the past couple of years, and with good reason. Not only are they a category of technology that’s expanding its presence beyond the more familiar context of warfare – not only not going away but proliferating like mad – but they’re also challenging us to think in new ways about our relationship with our machines. Where is the line between operator and drone? How do we construct that line? How does it blur? Is it there at all? Who is more subject to droning and who controls the drones? What are the stories we tell about drones, and what do those stories mean? What is our drone discourse? What can it do, and what are its limitations? How do we navigate it? What do we talk about when we talk about drones? What do we mean by drone, anyway?

We obviously can’t tackle all of these questions in a single panel, but we hope to address at least a few of the more pertinent ones. This is simply a fragment in a much larger, ongoing conversation. This fragment will be populated by Adam Rothstein, Olivia Rosane, James Bridle, and Eleanor Saitta, but the talking should not and cannot end there. Under the cut is a preview of that conversation, a short interview with the panelists.

What is your approach to the panel’s topic? What are your thoughts on some of the primary issues posed by the existence of drones?  

Olivia Rosane: What interests me about drones is that they don’t provoke a neutral response. They inspire both fear and fascination, and my goal in talking and thinking about them is to engage with both reactions. I think part of why drones cause such a stir is because they remind us of the autonomous robot killers of science fiction, when in fact drones are not autonomous. The real moral issue they raise is a different one, namely, what happens to war when one of the combatants can kill remotely and therefore faces no physical risk at all, while the other faces all the risk and has no means of fighting back? So I’m also interested in untangling the imagined futures drones suggest to us from the present and future they actually create/ are creating.

Adam Rothstein: Every technology has an ethical component to it. We tend to separate ethics from other questions of technology–design, potential uses, even environmental effect. We think that the decision on how and when to use technology happens later, after the “product is on the shelf”, so to speak. I want to put ethical questions back in our central considerations for a technology. It should be part of our longest range design process for tech to consider how it could possibly be used and misused. We can’t predict everything, but we can do better. I think drones are important because we can see the potential effects if we don’t consider the ethics of technological development, and yet, we are not doing so.

James Bridle: I imagine I share common interests and questions with the rest of the panel – I certainly do with the above. My interest stems however from the existence of drones as one visible endpoint of large, complex systems, a point of entry into a discussion of such systems – like the architecture of datacenters are a good way to start talking about the internet. The fact that this most “visible” part of these systems is also largely invisible is, for me, a cue to start talking about the way technology masks political intent, rendering it apparently neutral to those without the literacy to read it. Conversely, such intent is very clear to those who possess such literacy, so there’s still hope for our more utopian dreams of tech.

Eleanor Saitta: I’ll second what folks have said above, and raise that in addition to being part of a large infrastructural system, they’re also one of the thin ends of the many-wedged Empire.  Drones are an end-effector in a system of social and structural control, a tool of inherently asymmetric force projection.  Institutions (including states, their subsidiaries, and large multi-nationals) are generally aware of the liabilities of guard labor and of both the inefficiency of devoting large numbers of people to it, and more importantly the risk of that guard labor breaking down.  Drones are one of the more legible faces of efforts to automate that labor.  Drones in times of pseudo-peace are to me more interesting than drones in an actively hot battlespace.


How do drones figure into your work/research?

Olivia Rosane: Over at the State, I’ve been writing for almost two years about the way people are using digital technologies to create art and literature. Out of this came an interest in the ways drones are both used for art and represented in art. My fellow State blogger Adam Rothstein and I decided to co-curate Murmuration, a Festival of Drone Culture last June in order to generate and showcase more art, writing, video, and music that dealt with drones. Part of our goal was to use art to explore questions drones raise. What is it like to live under drones? What is it like to pilot drones? What would it be like to be a drone? We were also interested in challenging popular, inaccurate fictions about drones, such as their autonomy, with more complex fictions that dealt more precisely with what drones do and could do.

Adam Rothstein: Drones are super interesting because they are both new tech, and old tech. Global Hawks use cutting edge satellite communications and digital imagery sensors, and yet the plane is basically an updated U-2 frame, designed for a mission over 50 years old. Drones are a great opportunity to look forward into our technological future, while keeping our technological history in mind. A lot of people think that “looking forward” means history is less important, because we are “changing the paradigm”, “disrupting”, etc. But drones remind us that’s not really true.

James Bridle: I use the image of the drone to explore the representation of complex, network technologies in the Drone Shadows series, 1:1 outlines of drone aircraft in public spaces. Marked out in London, Istanbul, Washington DC (and a host of other cities, increasingly by volunteers following published plans), they take on a new resonance in each location, such as the research following the censorship of a Global Hawk shadow in Brisbane, Australia in 2013, which focused on the use of drones to police and enforce abusive asylum practices, far from the battlefield uses we hear more about. Dronestagram and Watching the Watchers explore the disparity in surveillance capabilities and point of view between the public, the media, and governments, again attempting to give virtual form to these political, technological narratives.

Eleanor Saitta: Drones to me are a cipher; I’m less interested in their specificity than in their position within the larger scheme of soft and hard force projection.  That said, their specificity, like the specificity of all sociotechnical systems, is where much of their meaning is encoded.  The fact, for instance, that drones are mostly flown at trans-oceanic levels of remoteness, safely from within the heartlands of Empire, completely changes the social relationship they have with the people they’re used to murder.  To the same degree, the situation of hobbyist-led DIY drone manufacture and that community’s relationship with the hacker community speaks to unfolding relations between that community and the military-industrial state.  In all of these cases, the cipher of drones let us speak about the dreams we have for the future we want to build and the political and social impacts of those dreams and of the technology we build on historical time-scales.


Why are drones worth talking about?

Olivia Rosane: Drones are worth talking about because they are currently being used to oppress marginalized populations in real ways, both by  U.S. military and intelligence forces in Pakistan and by domestic police departments. We have to confront the oppression these drones enable. Drones also, however, represent a major technological innovation: the ability to remotely control an object over large distances. We have to decide if this ability can be used for good and then determine ways to make sure it is used for good rather than for violence and control.

Adam Rothstein: Drones are a military technology that is now being forced into commercial markets, less because of that market really existing, but because there is such a futuristic fascination with drones that they are being driven there by investors and developers. This could result in a bubble, or it could result in a major problem, if drones suddenly take off, but they are still more military technology than commercial technology. Our tech enthusiasm is basically throwing a weapon into the skies, without preparing for the consequences. It could end up okay–like GPS technology has, for the most part. Or, it could end up more like the AR-15. People are somewhat concerned about this possibility–but in my opinion, the discourse is distracted and not really up to date on what the real risks are, and so we’re not tackling the real issues on converting drones from weapons into commercial tech.

James Bridle: In talking about drones, we may develop a new vocabulary to describe the networks, visible and invisible, and the forms of agency, granted and denied, which are produced by the seamless interweaving of contemporary technologies into the world around us. This vocabulary is urgently needed both to address the immediate concerns of autonomous warfighting, but also to fully and truly articulate and critique the world in which we find ourselves today, the networked present.

Eleanor Saitta: We live in a brief moment of visibility for algorithmic systems of structural power.  Drones, along with the surveillance systems we’ve spent so much time talking about in the last year, cameras, and any number of analytics pipelines are in this moment all new enough to be visible socially, and in the case of drones and cameras, still large enough to be obvious to the eye.  The negotiations that we come to with power on the use of algorithmic and robotic technologies of control during the course of this period of visibility will echo through decades of sociotechnical power relations.

Where can people go to find more of your work?

Olivia Rosane: You can visit my archive at The State: http://www.thestate.ae/author/orosane/ or follow me on Twitter @orosane. You can also visit the Murmuration tumblr: http://murmurationfestival.tumblr.com

Adam Rothstein: http://www.poszu.com is my personal site. I’m @interdome on Twitter, and http://interdome.tumblr.com on Tumblr. I’m also a contributing editor at The State.

James Bridle: I write about what I do at http://booktwo.org, and keep a record of most of it at http://shorttermmemoryloss.com/portfolio/. I’m @jamesbridle on Twitter and have far too many Tumblrs, including http://new-aesthetic.tumblr.com and the drone-focussed http://onevisiblefuture.tumblr.com.

Eleanor Saitta: You can find some of my essays at http://dymaxion.org/essays, which, although it’s permanently behind on being updated, attempts to collate at least most of my writing.  I’m relatively active on twitter as @dymaxion.

Olivia, Adam, James, and Eleanor’s panel presentation, “–––⁂–(⊗__⊗)–⁂–––: Drones, for better or worse”, will be held during Session 7 (3:30-4:45pm) on Saturday the 26th in Studio C.

Panel Preview

Presider: Malcom Harris (@BigMeanInternet)

Hashmod: Heather Rosenfeld (@brainvom)

This is one post in a series of Panel Previews for the upcoming Theorizing the Web conference (#TtW14) in NYC. The panel under review is titled Mobilized: Actors and Activism

By now, we’re all familiar with the significance of the presence of social media in protest movements. Theorizing the Web has made them a focus since its inception. But one of the most important features of political resistance via social media and the web in general is that it’s constantly evolving. In order to understand that evolution, we need to be sensitive to the sheer diversity of the places in which we find an enormously diverse selection of forms of resistance. This panel highlights a few of these, ranging from mobilization in Kathmandu to the creation of queer micropublics in the American South to gendered labor “strikes” in social media to counterperformance against hegemonic identities on Reddit. These presentations incorporate instances of social media facilitating – and not facilitating – protest in physical spaces along with instances wherein resistance is taking place largely online. Again, the diversity of representation points the way forward to a deeper and richer understanding of how protest and resistance is organized and moves with the digital in play.

Elizabeth Saldaña (@esaldana) “That’s Never Going to Work Here” – Social Media Mobilization in Kathmandu, Nepal
Since the Arab Uprisings and Occupy Wall Street, scholars, journalists, and activists have debated the utility and efficacy of social media in political mobilization and social movements. Perhaps with good reason, most of this work has been concentrated in areas of the world with relatively high Internet penetration rates – the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, China – although recent work by Merlyna Lim and Mark Warschauer discusses the use of the Internet and social media in Egypt. At the other end of the spectrum, Mark Liechty, Heather Hindman, Tanel Saimre, and various non-governmental organizations have written extensively on the influx of Internet technologies and infrastructures into Nepal as a consequence of development. However, there is scant attention paid to how these technologies are actually used, and specifically to the possibility of social media as a mobilization tool in ‘developing’ countries. The significance and meaning of the Internet as a mobilization tool changes with lower Internet penetration, and models and theories of the web-based mobilization are not nearly universally applicable in Nepal.

In this paper, I examine a recent urban social movement, Occupy Baluwatar, which was the first social movement in Kathmandu to explicitly and consciously incorporate social media into their mobilization strategy. I present online ethnographic material from Twitter alongside site-based ethnographic material from Kathmandu, Nepal to show the difficulties and debates of using the Internet to mobilize in an area with low Internet penetration. I argue that in the case of Occupy Baluwatar, the question of social media as an organizing strategy divided the movement’s leaders and caused a deep fissure among organizers, splintering them into two groups. While this did not end the movement, it weakened the movement, and has serious implications for divergences in Kathmandu’s activist communities. This case study illuminates the problem of the digital divide within Kathmandu, and the political consequences of decontextualizing Internet use in social movements. Internet users in the ‘developing world’ has lessons to offer scholars of the Internet and activist communities alike, and this paper will bring some of these issues to light.

Laura Meadows (@A_L_Meadows) Queering Dixie: Movement Micro-publics and the Southern LGBT Movement
This paper draws on ethnographic research on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) movement in North Carolina to theorize the concept of ‘movement micro-publics.’ Defined as informal groupings of individuals and organizations that share a set of political, social, and/or cultural sensibilities in relation to the goals of the movement, the development of movement micro-publics has allowed Southern LGBT movement activists to broaden their bases of support and to speak to people where they are. And, where they are in the South differs in significant ways from other regions of the country.

The South is more rural, more racially dichotomous, more religious, and more ideologically conservative than the rest of the United States. Whereas 80% of Americans nationwide live in urban areas, just 66% of North Carolinians do so. While African Americans comprise 12% of the population nationally, 22% of North Carolinians are black. Though the country as a whole is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country, evangelical, Mainline Protestant, and historically black churches thrive below the Mason-Dixon line. Finally, more than 40% of North Carolinians identify themselves as conservative, while just 20% label themselves liberals.

Working within this specific political, social, and cultural landscape, North Carolina’s LGBT activists have engaged in the instrumental practice of developing movement micro-publics to mobilize historically underrepresented publics with only tenuous connections to the movement, most notably in rural, faith, and African American communities. For instance, illustrative of this type of movement work is the Mitchell County Gay Straight Alliance (Mitchell County GSA). Organized by two local residents of Bakersville, NC, population 459, in conjunction with activists from the state’s largest LGBT organization, the group’s initial meeting was attended by dozens of protesters holding signs exhorting ‘Christian’ values and giving voice to fears that the group would work to ‘force their lifestyle’ upon the town. Less than two years later, in 2012, the Mitchell County GSA organized a reading of ‘8,’ portraying the closing arguments of the trial that overturned Proposition 8, a California ballot proposition that banned same-sex marriage. They held the event in the Mitchell County Historic Courthouse. More than 100 people attended. There were no protesters.

This paper examines the ways activists have utilized platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to supplement older forms of face-to-face organizing to build and mobilize movement micro-publics in places such as Bakersville. Drawing upon a body of theory on ‘identity deployment,’ I argue that the larger LGBT movement will benefit from adopting a ‘Southern strategy’ to speak to people where they are in order to build a coalition of micro-publics capable of reshaping the social, political, and cultural contexts of their communities. While the LGBT movement has amassed a host of victories over the past several years, the path to full equality, both legal and cultural, runs through locations and publics historically understood to be antagonistic to the movement’s goals: farm country, churches, and communities of color. Movement micro-publics provide an exemplary strategy to navigate the road ahead.

Laura Portwood-Stacer (@lportwoodstacer) Free Labor on Strike?
If participation in social media networks constitutes a form of “free labor,” what would it mean for the workers to go on strike? Approaching this question from a feminist standpoint, this paper explores the nature of the work performed by online social networkers, specifically with respect to the caring labor often (though not exclusively) performed by feminine subjects. I bring this discussion of care work into conversation with my research on “media refusal,” my term for conscientious non-use of media platforms and technologies. Given that social networking has become a professional and personal imperative for those from whom caring labor is expected, I argue that we must question the extent to which “opting out” is a viable response to the many legitimate political problems presented by corporate social media platforms. While I do not rule out non-participation as a resistance tactic, I make the case that gender must be present in our analyses if we are to formulate effective strategies of protest and change.

Adrienne Massanari (@hegemonyrules) “Why are all of you such assholes?” ShitRedditSays, Gender, and Counterperformance on reddit
Participatory culture platforms and online communities are not only site of (potentially) liberatory, democratic discourse, but also spaces where dominant ideologies shape interactions. This is particularly true in a space like the social news-sharing site reddit, where the community votes on material that is most interesting or relevant to its interests. As a result, while reddit is made up of a large number of diverse communities of interest (called subreddits), patterns of interactions often reflect the site’s demographic realities: largely young male, cisgendered, straight, and college-educated. It is not surprising, then, that while reddit’s “ethos” suggests a post-racial or post-gendered social reality, actual talk on the site often reflects hegemonic tendencies. At the same time, reddit is also a space of carnival (Bakhtin, 1984) and inventive play. From novelty accounts that respond to other commenters watercolor images (/u/ShittyWatercolour) to pun threads to grotesque stories, reddit functions as a space of ritualized performance (Schechner, 1985; Turner, 2001) where wit and depravity coexist.

Enter /r/ShitRedditSays (SRS) and related subreddits (called the “Fempire”). SRS creates a counterperformance of reddit’s “circlejerk” tendencies. Specifically, it functions as a safe space for redditors to highlight problematic interactions – those that exhibit sexist, homophobic, racist, or ablest tendencies – while not having to explain why these interactions are disturbing. In addition, SRS was instrumental in Pedogeddon, a campaign to, “paint Reddit…as a den of child pornography – and free-speech-loving redditors as complicit pawns in its spread,” (Morris, 2012) which eventually lead to the shut down of /r/jailbait and doxxing of infamous moderator Violentacrez (Chen, 2012). Not surprisingly, SRS has earned the ire of some other redditors, and led to the spawning of a number of anti-SRS subreddits (for example, /r/SRSsucks and /r/antiSRS).

This paper attempts to theorize and interrogate the concept of counterperformance (Alexander, 2004) in online spaces such as reddit. Drawing on Bourdieu’s (1977) concept of doxa, I analyze the ways in which SRS Fempire creates its own space within, around, and in opposition to the rest of reddit – and how the larger community receives these actions. I argue that much of our understanding of online communities such as reddit tend to overstate their democratic, open potential while downplaying the significant infrastructural, social, and cultural barriers that limit and close the kind of discourse that occurs in practice. And yet, ritualized counterperformances like those that SRS engages in highlight the possibility for resistance, but also raise panoply of other questions regarding ethics and free speech in these spaces.


I haven’t done an actual fiction review through a Cyborgological lens since I wrote a critical analysis of Catherynne M. Valente’s Silently and Very Fast back in 2012, but I think a story I read yesterday is worth examining in that light, because it’s a great example of the kind of subtle theorizing that we can do through fiction, especially through speculative fiction. And, among other things, it’s about communication and performative memes. It’s also about how those memes, when they gain sufficient cultural power, alter social reality for good or for ill.

The story in question is “The Cuckoo” by Sean Williams, which appears in this month’s issue of Clarkesworld. The basic premise is simple enough: In 2075, after we’ve developed basic matter-transportation technology capable of allowing humans to travel from one place to another, a person or persons unknown uses April 1st as an opportunity to launch a prank. “More than one thousand commuters traveling via d-mat arrive at their destinations wearing red clown noses; they weren’t wearing them when they left.” More pranks follow in the years after and take on a life of their own – a cult grows up around what becomes popularly termed “The Fool”, complete with festivals, fans, erotic fanfiction, copycats, critical social analysis, and endless speculation.

The story, clocking in at just under 2100 words, is a tight exploration of what memes might actually do and might actually be; there are a number of levels on which it’s operating.

One of the most obvious can be approached via the post linked above: memes that are fundamentally performative in nature and which, when performed in response to other performances, act as both a kind of cultural communication and the reification of a community loosely based around the meme in question. Referring to “planking”, “owling”, and “stocking”, David Banks writes:

Planking does not create the means by which one shares their planking activities, but it does create the context in which the activity gains meaning. By participating in performative memes we show others that we are a part of the same international community. By engaging in performative memes, participants constitute a social imaginary that gives meaning and context to the actions of subsequent and existing participants. When someone goes owling in an art museum, I might owl in a natural history museum and post my picture as a response. We are communicating a shared idea, and we derive pleasure from the shared experience.

This is pretty much exactly what happens in the world Williams creates. Why it happens, or why it’s suggested to happen, is additionally interesting: It’s meme as political tactic, meme as open resistance to the holders of social power for whom control and order are primary goals. It’s no accident that April Fool’s Day is the day of the meme’s launch; that day has a long history stretching back to the 1500s and even earlier. Precursors were medieval and Roman holidays. The more relatively recent version of April Fool’s Day focuses primarily on pranks, but the concept of “The Fool” and the dedication of a feast day to that concept has deeply political roots. The medieval Feast of Fools and the Roman Saturnalia were days when the social order was upended; the weak and marginalized were given power and authority and those in power were relegated to subordinate positions. The Feast of Fools featured events that, openly and free of consequence, mocked the hierarchy of the Church. On the Saturnalia, masters waited on slaves.

So The Fool is a symbol of a claim to political power; more, they’re a symbol of resistance to the established social order. In Williams’ story, The Fool becomes a performative meme that is not only employed, Occupy-like, as a part of a larger resistance movement but in itself becomes the resistance. It/they become(s) a Robin Hood-like figure, a folk hero, especially when their antics are aimed directly at the people who seek to stop them:

April 2nd, 2079, 12:03am

Following the attack on children the previous year, PKs worldwide are on high alert for any sign of The Fool. There are no incidents for twenty-four hours. After declaring the operation a complete success, outspoken octogenarian lawmaker Kieran Defrain is redirected in-transit and dumped in Times Square, wearing nothing but a cloth diaper and a tag tied around his left big toe, inscribed “Gotcha!”

This is an old tactic, and one we can see recently in, for example, the Guy Fawkes mask that’s now used by a tremendous multiplicity of groups, sub-groups, formal organizations, loose coalitions, and everything in between. Jenny Davis writes on internet memes as the “mythology of augmented society”, sites where meaning is produced and reproduced, where we tell stories to ourselves about ourselves, often – though not always – with political significance:

We can see clearly that the myth and the meme share a semiotic structure in which the first order sign becomes the mythic and/or memetic signifier. The Guy Fawkes mask, for example, is simultaneously the sign of an historical moment, a popular film, and the hacker group Anonymous, as well as a signifier of the contested relation between political institutions and the anonymous components that make up “the masses.” Moreover, the meme, like the myth, is divorced from its construction, stated instead as indisputable fact. Just as Barth’s saluting  Black soldier does not offer up a viewpoint for debate, the Guy Fawkes mask does not make an argument, it asserts a cultural refusal to be oppressed.

It’s also worth noting that the initial pranks are focused on methods of transit. One of the primary ways in which states exercise power is in the regulation, facilitation, and prevention of people moving from place to place. Instantaneous or near-instantaneous matter transport would raise some interesting and troubling questions regarding the power and significance of state borders, though it’s easy to think of ways in which that could be regulated. But one of the things The Fool does is to redirect a large group of children – harmlessly – to Macau. The control of controlled transportation is thrown into question. Anyone might go anywhere, and indeed some people go nowhere at all:

Ignoring stern Peacekeeper warnings, the “Fool’s Tools,” a loosely organized movement of everyday citizens travel en masse continuously for twenty-four hours, awaiting, perhaps inviting, the latest prank from their hero. None is forthcoming, although over the course of the day six copycat stunts are easily detected and reversed, their perpetrators taken into custody. The only work ascribed to The Fool is a maze of d-mat addresses that, once entered, cannot be exited. The technician who stumbled across the artifact is never seen again, prompting another global manhunt. The Fool is now a wanted murderer . . . but remains no easier to catch.

So The Fool’s political resistance is not physically harmless; it’s a real, potentially lethal threat.

At this point, also, The Fool has become a powerful enough performative meme that “The Fool” might refer to both the individual thought to be responsible for it all and the mass culture that’s grown up around them. And indeed, no one is certain that The Fool is only one person, or that they’re even still active at all:

Anggoon Montri, 32, from the Thai Protectorate, confesses to being The Fool. After eight hours of intense interrogation he recants, claiming he simply wanted to publicize his own original artwork and leaving The Fool’s true name and motives a matter of keen speculation. Some say that he or she is a disgruntled employee intent on exposing the flaws in the d-mat network, others that “The Fool” is actually a collaboration of many people dedicated to Eris, the ancient Greek Goddess of chaos. Still others believe that each incident is perpetrated by copycats, and that the original Fool went to ground long ago. No evidence exists to confirm any of these theories.

There is no one single Fool in any practical sense, though the idea of a singular folk hero persists. There’s mass participation, imitation, creation and recreation – even if there was originally one single Fool, it no longer matters. Professor Marburg of New Leiden University, who has been writing and publishing articles on The Fool, comes to a somewhat alarming conclusion:

She suggests that The Fool never existed at all, in any sense that matters–not as a person, or as a series of people copying each other, or as a group of people acting in concert. “The Fool” might very well be an emergent property of the world’s memeverse, in the same way that magnificent dunes form out of the simple interaction of sand grains and the wind, without conscious control or intent. Hence, she says, we have organizations that mimic The Fool, inferior to the original in some eyes but nevertheless an authentic part of the phenomenon. If that is so, she speculates, it is entirely possible that the sealed maze–cause of The Fool’s one and only direct fatality–might be a sign that the original Fool, whoever or whatever that might be, is now turning on itself, strangling itself in a knot of memetic transmutation that can only conclude one way.

She recants her previous prediction, and issues a new one: The Fool is dead. The knot has been tied off. All that remains is aftershock.

If The Fool is chaos, chaos is inherently destructive – of systems, of organizations and structures of power, and of meaning itself, though it’s also constructive of the latter. This is exciting to some and troubling to others, even those not especially interested in maintaining the status quo. Marburg is one of these, and for Williams she becomes the primary character (really, the only actual character) through which to examine these anxieties. Marburg is troubled by the very process of destructive creation and recreation, of which she comes to see herself as an integral part. By analyzing the culture of The Fool, she plays a role in creating that culture – she is a participant in the culture created around The Fool’s performative meme:

She herself is part of this complex whether she wants to be or not, both by traveling via d-mat and by publicly posting her speculations. She cannot help but wonder what role she has played in the evolution of The Fool. Did she inadvertently name it, for starters? Did she shape its evolution by noting its past connections and predicting its disappearance? What if her musings are the butterfly wings that created a storm that is still unfolding, albeit invisible to her, now?

Marburg plays witness to a meme gone mad, a creature as much as it is a collection of performative cultural elements. She considers whether such a thing could even form a rudimentary kind of collective consciousness, something with purpose and intent. At this point, The Fool-as-meme has grown beyond political resistance; it is pure chaos, and its ultimate meaning is impossible to know, incomprehensible even for those caught in the middle of it. The Fool began in mutilating the regulation of the transportation of matter, a way of altering the shape of reality itself. Now The Fool is altering reality on a much larger scale. Marburg becomes so disturbed by this, and by what she perceives as her role in it, that – spoiler alert – she takes her own life. Her suicide note is misunderstood and then disregarded:

Few hear about the death of an obscure academic in a small European city, even fewer the typo in her suicide note. However, the coroner makes a note of it in his report, an electronic document readily available to anyone who cares to read it.

In the suicide note, instead of “I have cancer,” Professor Marburg wrote, “I am cancer.”

Careless, the coroner observes, for a woman of such impressive intellect.

The Fool is not merely a meme that mocks social order and authority, and it’s not merely a fun collection of performative responses organized around a culture. It becomes disorganization, utter destruction, and the implication of a new kind of life form. We’ve already seen a world where new kinds of technology alter our relationships to each other, our understandings of ourselves, our perceptions of reality, our very neurology. Williams imagines a world wherein a great deal of this proceeds to one logical conclusion. We already know that we can’t think about memes in exactly the way we used to. It’s worth taking that a step further and imagining what might be next.


Sarah is an emergent property of the world’s memeverse on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

Panel Preview

Presider: Jeremy Antley (@jsantley)

Hashmod: Kate Miltner (@katemiltner)

This is one post in a series of Panel Previews for the upcoming Theorizing the Web conference (#TtW14) in NYC. The panel under review is titled Nations, Ideologies, and the Games They Play.

One of the best things about Theorizing the Web is its dedication to exploring topics that either sit on the fringe of mainstream consciousness or underlie, to a large extent, those forces that increasingly shape our augmented lives.  This year, Theorizing the Web would like to discuss a topic that is rapidly increasing in both scope and relevance for daily life: games.

We invited three emerging scholars whose work explores and critiques the games we and others play; Catherine Goodfellow, Cameron Kunzelman, and Daniel Joseph.  Below is a Q&A, conducted over email, between these panelists and TtW.

TtW: Can you summarize your presentation for TtW14?

Cameron:  Videogames are not objects operated on by human subjects. Instead, they are giant living bodies of which humans are but one single organ, they are the opposite of games like casinodames.com.

Catherine:  It’s a bit of an exploration of Russian games which are designed to – or inadvertently – promote Russian culture and history in Eastern Europe. I noticed during my doctoral research into Russian gamers that many of my respondents were Russian-speaking but not Russian. Russian-language games and resources were evidently a more natural fit for them than similar English-language material. There’s been a lot of work on games as vehicles for Western, American or capitalist ideologies, but regional power dynamics tend to go unexplored. That’s what I’m trying to do here; suggest ways in which Russian regional influence affects or even surpasses the dominance of American games worldwide.

Daniel:  I would say that my presentation tries to get at the peculiarities at the heart of new virtual and digital spaces of capital accumulation and value production. The rise of legal and regulated commodity exchanges like online casino and agen sbobet made possible through digital distribution services like Steam quite possibly prefigure commodity production in the still untouched parts of our lives.

Online casinos are not just popular for offering great gambling and betting games, they also provide the players to enjoy the comforts of their home and play hands at the virtual casinos. The online casinos are generally an online version of the land based casinos and allow the casino players to enjoy playing games through the World Wide Web. Apart from providing the opportunity to win some amount of real cash, these casinos offer numerous appealing bonuses to players as well. A mind boggling thing worth considering about these online casinos is that the playback and odds percentage provided by these casinos are comparable to the land based ones. With the development of technology, three different kinds of online casinos are now available for the casino lovers to try their luck at. These three kinds of virtual casinos differ from one another on account of their interfaces.

Dominoqq live based casinos offer a real time casino atmosphere to the players. In these types of casinos, the online players have an ability to interact easily with dealers along with the other players at tables in casino studios. Players are even allowed to see, interact and hear the dealers and this in turn offers a real world casino feel to the online players. These live based online casinos are actually meant for all those who wish to take pleasure in the real world gaming atmosphere while enjoying the interesting online games.

TtW:  How did the larger topic of games work itself into your research?

Cameron:  Videogames didn’t work themselves into my research so much as they presented themselves as leviathans that had to be acknowledged, literal elephants in room that always seem to get reduced to interactions like play or work. What if those concepts aren’t sufficient, or rather, what if they only tell part of a giant, science fictional horror story about the uncaring and uncanny structures that we interact with on a consistent basis?

Catherine:  The larger topic of games IS my research right now! I have a Russian studies background and have always maintained a strong interest in countercultural and subcultural or subversive youth cultures. In my doctoral research I’m mapping video game culture in Russia and the official and unofficial discourses which surround it.

Daniel:  Games were always an object I wanted to study in the large context of history and politics. The rise of game studies over the past 10 years has given me a lot of room to stake out my place in that field while bringing the study of video games more into conversation with cultural studies, political economy and communication studies.

TtW:  Why should people care about using a critical lens to study games?

Cameron:  We are parasites on a giant, pulsing edifice, and criticism might be the only way to get perspective on that.

Catherine:  I’m particularly interested in using regional or marginal case studies to challenge some of the assumptions we hold about gaming and gamers. Game studies often makes general claims about culture, socio-economic status, places and modes of play, power and ideology. Some of the best work on games and gaming that I’ve seen turns a critical eye on these claims and uncovers some amazing dynamics in gaming communities around the world.

Daniel:  They should care about a critical lens on video games because games are everywhere and because of that increasingly prosaic – which is when culture is at its most reified. It is at these moments that a critical eye is most needed.

TtW:  What game(s) are you playing/have been playing recently?

Cameron:  I’ve been playing the Assassin’s Creed series for a longform research project. Also Spelunky. Ceme online games it’s about poker and gambling.

Catherine:  Banished and 2048 most recently, StarCraft, DOTA and Skyrim for a while, I’ve also been following fantasy news at https://www.fanduel.com/theduel/channels/fantasy for my fantasy league basketball team and football team, you know I can’t ever stop playing.

Read the latest wrting about prediski togel. Everyday, thousands of voices read, write and share important stories on medium about prediski togal.

Daniel:  I go through two pretty strong currents in my video game playing. I oscillate between playing story heavy AAA single player games like the Assassin’s Creed franchise in marathon play-throughs and then binging on big budget online First Person Shooters like Counter-Strike or Titanfall. The games I’m most proud about playing aren’t even digital: my two year long running Dungeon’s and Dragon’s game and the card game Android: Netrunner.

TtW:  Where can people go to find more of your work? 

Cameron:  thiscageisworms.com, heylookatmygames.com, kilmercast.com, @ckunzelman

Catherine:  catgoodfellow.com is your one-stop shop for all my information; abstracts and proceedings papers are at https://manchester.academia.edu/CatGoodfellow

Daniel:  If you want to go find my regular musings twitter is always the most updated, but my blog (http://dropouthangoutspaceout.tumblr.com/) is a good one stop shop for quotes of books I’m reading and the odd musings on Marxism, computers and video games.

Cameron, Catherine, and Daniel’s panel presentation, “Screenplay: Nations, Ideologies, and the Games They Play”, will be held during Session 2 (2:00-3:15pm) on Friday the 25th in Studio A.

"Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in the Louvre in Ruins" - Hubert Robert (1796)
“Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in the Louvre in Ruins” – Hubert Robert (1796)

Last week I wrote a follow-up to a much older post I did here; today I want to do another followup that moves in the footsteps of a bunch of other great posts on this site recently, that offers possibilities for consideration rather than seeking to nail down any specific answers. Basically, considering links, I expanded on an earlier theoretical approach toward abandonment and ruin in both digital and physical “spaces”, and I concluded that:

[W]e can understand the appearance of abandoned digital space as past-oriented atemporal. But the fact that there exists a literal process of rot means that the properties of a webpage are future-oriented atemporal – to the extent that we notice at all, it invites us to imagine the dissolution of our webbed pathways, the vanishing of entire sites, or at least their relocation. When a site goes offline, we might notice it when we can’t get to it anymore, provided we go there regularly – or if it’s a large, frequently used site like Facebook or Twitter – but otherwise, like those species of insect in the rainforests that no one ever discovers before they go extinct, websites probably disappear every day without anyone really noticing. Until you click on a link and nothing is waiting for you at the other end.

I think that lack of anything waiting for you at the other end needs more attention, as do other things. I spent a little time on web archives like Archive.org and the newer Memento Project, which – I argued – salvage abandoned websites but, because of broken image links and other lost elements, lock them into a static state of ruin. So now I think there are some points that need clarification and further exploration.

  • We need clear differentiations between abandonment and ruin. Abandonment – given how certain kinds of abandoned digital space can work – does not necessarily imply ruin but simply that no one is doing anything to it anymore. Abandoned digital space can be in a state of ruin but is not always. Whereas abandoned physical spaces are pretty much in a state of ruin by definition, unless they are extremely recently abandoned. However, physical spaces in a state of ruin are not always abandoned. Many physical ruins are the precise opposite of abandoned: people flock to see them, they become tremendous tourist attractions and local treasures, they’re put into museums, they’re sites for all kinds of ongoing activity. Physical spaces are also ruined via a process that can take years, whereas the ruin of digital space can be nearly instantaneous. So we’re dealing with much greater complexity – and therefore much greater diversity of experience of a space-time – than simple ruin and abandonment.
  • As Atomic Geography pointed out in a great comment that also got me thinking about the above, everything we experience is both spatial and temporal, and the physical and the digital share these properties, though not in the same ways. In fact, no two spaces are an identical spatial-temporal experience. They are as individual as people. And in this we experience both time-in-space and space-in-time, but also time-of-space and space-of-time. We experience time as a space through which we move in both a linear and a non-linear fashion, but we also experience space as something existing within and defined by time. And this experience is both interior and something that can be imagined to exist apart from ourselves. In another post, Atomic Geography discusses the book Code/Space by Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge, and notes that they approach space as something continuously constructed through the experience of relationships:

[T]his allows one to think of space either as metaphor or container, social or apart from the social, outside of time or fundamentally temporal, always in a state of becoming.  Reformulating this a bit, we can think of each set of these binaries as parallel lines, as local functionalities that apparently never intersect but in fact do.

This would basically mean that, like abandonment and ruin, there’s a much greater complexity to how we need to think about space and time as co-constructive, and our relationship to them.

  • What do we do about abandoned digital spaces that, as a feature of their abandonment, simply no longer exist? How do we conceptually approach the construction of a definition of something that’s absent? It strikes me as a little like the difficulties that we run into whenever we try to talk about any kind of non-existence. As I said in my previous post, we’re only aware of the absence of these spaces when we go looking for them; otherwise of course we don’t see what isn’t there. So this presents an entirely new problem.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but I’m obviously going to continue working through some of these implications, and I’d love additional input.


Sarah is neither abandoned nor ruined on Twitter, though sometimes they are absent – @dynamicsymmetry

image courtesy of Quartz
unclaimed pixels on the Million Dollar Homepage. image courtesy of Quartz

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts on the atemporal nature of ruins and abandoned spaces. I moved from physical ruins to the nature of abandoned digital spaces, and the conclusion that I came to was that although both physical and digital “spaces” (not totally comfortable with that word but it seems the easiest and most understandable one so I’m going with it) are both atemporal – because a state of ruin/abandonment is intrinsically atemporal – physical ruins are atemporal with an orientation toward the future, while digital abandoned spaces are oriented toward the past. This is because physical ruins visibly decay, and that results in a kind of forward-thinking memento mori; we imagine our own future death and ruin through the present ruin that we see. By contrast, digital “ruins” – in the form of webpages – are marked as abandoned by the fact that they have stopped changing. They are locked forever into the last thing that was done to them, a snapshot of a past present (assuming they continue to exist at all). To borrow my brief summary of what the hell atemporality is in this context:

Atemporality most simply refers to the idea that our experience of time is not necessarily as linear as we like to present it; that we don’t just move in a straight line from A to B in time but that we often experience aspects of the past, the present, and the future simultaneously, simply by virtue of our nature as remembering, imagining creatures — as I wrote in my last piece on this topic, we remember the future, imagine the present, and experience the past. Moreover, this phenomenon is intensified by technology and especially by technologies of documentation and sharing.

However, that analysis left out something sort of important: links.

Sites on the web are defined by their webness – they hardly ever exist in isolation. You can reach them directly through the URLs you enter, but I think most of us access webpages through hyperlinks way more frequently. The pages almost always contain links of their own. Links are in many ways the markers of the presence of pages in the most fundamental sense.

So what does it mean when those links decay?

The technical term for this is link rot, and Quartz did a rather interesting case study recently that examined what link rot actually looks like, using the Million Dollar Homepage. For those who don’t know (I confess that I didn’t), the Million Dollar Homepage was a project started by a college student named Alex Tew, who essentially paid for his entire education by selling 10×10 pixel units of his webpage for $100 a unit. Basically, we’re talking about a (somewhat nightmarish) webpage that consists entirely of link ads.

That was eight years ago. In the sense that I talked about digital space being frozen in a past present, the MDH is exactly that – nothing has changed about it in terms of its appearance. It’s a perfect snapshot of the moment the last ad was posted. But it has changed. We can see decay. Because if one of the fundamental features of almost all webpages is the presence of links, there’s no rule that says that those links will still go anywhere eight years after the fact. And indeed, 22% of the MDH now appears to consist of doors to nowhere.

Therefore, we can understand the appearance of abandoned digital space as past-oriented atemporal. But the fact that there exists a literal process of rot means that the properties of a webpage are future-oriented atemporal – to the extent that we notice at all, it invites us to imagine the dissolution of our webbed pathways, the vanishing of entire sites, or at least their relocation. When a site goes offline, we might notice it when we can’t get to it anymore, provided we go there regularly – or if it’s a large, frequently used site like Facebook or Twitter – but otherwise, like those species of insect in the rainforests that no one ever discovers before they go extinct, websites probably disappear every day without anyone really noticing. Until you click on a link and nothing is waiting for you at the other end.

Complicating the picture, however, are databases like Archive.org that feature projects that essentially back up large portions of the web. When the online zine that published one of my short stories vanished without warning, I was able to go to the Wayback Machine and retrieve an archived version of the page that I could link to on my author site; my story is still accessible if anyone wanted to read it. But it’s clearly an archive.org URL. It’s still accessible, but it’s also still clearly a webpage that isn’t officially there anymore in its original form. The Memento Project seeks to address this; it proposes an approach to archiving that would make web content available via the original links that led to it – this subtly alters the nature of the ruin of these abandoned pages, though it doesn’t erase that nature.

Archived websites also often don’t look the same – image links are frequently broken. They aren’t the pristine snapshots that I wrote about above. They’re in a state of ruin – a static state, for the most part, but ruin nevertheless. Even archived, it’s not uncommon for other links to go nowhere, if Archive.org didn’t save them (this is also leaving aside the very real possibility that the servers on which the archived content is stored might themselves be destroyed; this past November Archive’s scanning center in San Francisco caught fire and scanning equipment was lost).

This all introduces yet another question: if not all atemporality works in the same way, can we say the same of abandonment? Are archived websites – visibly in a state of ruin or not – really abandoned? Do we need a more complex set of definitions for what abandonment means in this context?

One of the things that Wallace Koheler, a researcher at Valdosta State University, discovered was that link rot appears to stabilize over time; the longer a link stays active, the more likely it is that it will remain active. This suggests that, like ruined physical space, not every digital space will experience ruin in the same way, but it also suggests that, unlike physical space, digital space may essentially stop its process of ruin after a certain point.

I’m still not sure what to make of all of this, but, again, it suggests a more complicated picture than the one I presented two years ago. There’s clearly more work to be done here.


Sarah is still there on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


A couple of weeks back, I had the pleasure of doing a quick interview on NPR’s Marketplace, using the post that David Banks and I co-wrote on the poor use of technology in film and TV (and written fiction) as a jumping-off point. I want to expand on something I said in that interview, as well as some things David said in a great post on the BBC’s Sherlock, and how texting is used as a visual storytelling component in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen text of any kind presented before. This is partly because – true confession – I hadn’t seen a whole lot of Sherlock before the last week or so, when I finally sat down to watch all of it. So I’m very late to the party, but some things struck me.

On Marketplace, I noted that one of the most interesting things about how Sherlock depicts text messages is that it makes them a direct part of the scene and the communication of a scene – rather than looking at a boring little screen, the text itself is given a central place in the primary shot. There is no cut to the phone or laptop. The text is also presented in a visually pleasing and even dynamic way: the words are clean san serif, not oppressively bright, sometimes animated, and they feel like they fit into the rest of the shot with surprising grace and ease.

As David noted, this is at least in part a reflection of how we experience communication mediated by our devices:

You will also notice that we are almost never forced to view a tiny, too-bright, Blackberry-esque screen every time a phone is used. Not only is that unpleasant to see, but it is not how we experience the information our phones give us. We look at the phone and see the screen, but the social action is ephemeral and separated from the screen itself. As N. Katherine Hayles might put it- we anthropomorphize the computer, while the virtual creatures “computationalize” us. The phones are not props, but they are not characters either. They disembody characters and translate their utterances across space and time. It is a different story told in a different world.

One of the things that I love about how Sherlock does this is that it conveys so much about tone and personality with simply the text – rather like how we actually experience such communications. When Sherlock texts Wrong! to a room full of reporters, the rapid-fire mass text and its phrasing reflect the often rapid-fire (and blunt) manner of his speech.


It’s not simply that the texts are divorced from the screen; it’s how they make their way through the world outside the screen that can be such a rich source of storytelling. The details of aesthetics are so important here.

In that same interview, I compared the texting seen in Sherlock to the use of dialogue bubbles in comics, and I think the comparison is an apt one, especially given what dialogue bubbles allow one to do. I think it’s easy to conceive of dialogue bubbles as simply vaguely circular things in which words are said, but there can be – and often is – a lot more to them. The aesthetics of the bubble itself can convey so much about what’s being said and how, and what that manner of speaking says about the character. A good example is how Morpheus’s speech is shown in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics:


If Morpheus’s speech was conveyed in a standard bubble, imagine how different it might sound in your head. The nebulous black bubble is crucial to how the dialogue works in this scene, and indeed in every scene in which the character is present.

What else do the texts on Sherlock and the dialogue in comics have in common, besides the importance of aesthetics? Pacing. One of the reasons why it makes very little narrative sense to show texts on a screen – besides the fact that it’s clunky and ugly and hard to look at – is that texts are not like physical paper notes or letters in terms of time. One can show a letter in a shot – often with some vocal narration – and it holds on its own, because there may well be no rapid reply, and even if a reply is shown in the next cut, given how quickly letters travel we can assume that it took some time to get there. But we can now text with almost the speed at which we talk, and we perceive vocal communication as a part of the action on screen, not in a little device separated from it. Again, texting and similar forms of communication are dynamic in a way that a letter is not, and the pacing of delivered vocal communication is one of the things that can raise or lower the overall intensity of the scene. The same is true of texting; Sherlock’s characteristically rapid delivery simply can’t be expressed in the same way if we’re all looking at little screens.

Like the dialogue in comics, texting requires immediacand speed in terms of how it’s shown. Anything else rings false to us, because, as David points out, it’s simply not how most of us experience that kind of communication.

One of the things that excites me about this is that it appears to be catching on, though whether it’s because writers are understanding why it works or because they’re all like that show that people like does this so let’s do it too I honestly can’t say. Liam Neeson’s newest Silly Action Movie Non-Stop is centered around a dastardly murderer initially shown only via text message, and the presentation is very similar to Sherlock (though gussied up a bit, because this is Hollywood):

non-stop text

Note that the previous texts are also shown in order to make it clear that the conversation exists in time, with older texts increasingly blurry. I think that’s fascinating.

So I think – and hope – that we’ll be seeing more of it. It’s more interesting to look at, it contributes more to a scene, it’s a better reflection of how these technologies augment our communication with others, and it’s flat-out better storytelling. It matters.


Sarah is text on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry