“I’m not really a ‘fan’, but…”: Fandom, Learning and the Future of Higher Education
Josh Stenger, Wheaton College (Massachusetts)

‘We can be heroes’: First-Year Students Cosplaying at Rhode Island Comic Con

‘We can be heroes’: First-Year Students Cosplaying at Rhode Island Comic Con

In two recent articles for Flow, I’ve attempted to make the case that as colleges and universities take up the hard but exciting work of transforming higher education for the twenty-first century, fan studies offers a useful model for many areas of the academy that have begun to think seriously about alternatives to certain structures and practices long considered to be irradicable. This view derives in large part from the basic fact that, like most academic fields with comparably complex genealogies, fan studies exists despite rather than because of the entrenched institutional practice of organizing knowledge – and with it, curricula, research opportunities, and staffing decisions – in primarily disciplinary terms.

Obviously we want our students to acquire knowledge, and to develop skills, competencies, and ethics that prepare them not just for the classroom or the workplace, but for the world they will go on to shape. Perhaps there are some scenarios in which this is accomplished more effectively by fostering students’ disciplinary expertise than their intellectual curiosity and ability (to learn how) to learn, but I confess none come immediately to mind. Which brings me to the focus of this, the third and final installment of my short treatise on fan studies and higher education: namely, that participatory fandom is legible as a mode of integrative, often autonomous learning, one that presents higher education with a sui generis opportunity to help undergraduates identify the skills and habits of mind they have already developed as fans, then strengthen and apply these in intentional, edifying ways in more traditional academic settings.

screenshot of a tweet by Josh Stenger. The tweet reads “During one on one meetings with students in my first year seminar on #fandom: Student X: I’m not really a “fan” but I’m psyched we’re going to Rhode Island comic so I can wear my chain mail body armor, hemet and broadsword from #Merlin. Me: Let me stop you right there. . .

“I’m not really a ‘fan’, but . . .”



LARP: Learning As Role Playing

The Twitter exchange pictured in the screenshot above took place the day before the start of a first year seminar I taught last Fall called Fan Communities and Creations. It perfectly (and quite charmingly) anticipated a conversation I planned to have with the class the following day and that I suspect virtually everyone who teaches a course or a unit on fandom has with theirs, in some form or other, early on: What does it actually mean to be a “fan”? Working toward an answer to this question allows us to begin drawing links between fandom and fan studies, in part by identifying ways to close the distance between the affect commonly associated with young people’s media consumption and the intellect typically associated with higher education. To get the ball rolling rarely requires more than pointing out that seemingly simple questions often have very complex answers, and then asking, again, “What does it mean to be a fan?”

Screenshot of Video Autoethnography on Fan identity. Star Wars opening scroll with the text in yellow over a black background. The text reads: Yo! My name’s Sammy, and as you can probably tell, this is going to be about my identity as a fan of Star Wars. While I still consider myself a fan of shows like “Game of Thrones: or “Breaking Bad”, Star Wars . . .

Video Autoethnography on Fan identity

This is also an opportunity to have a discussion about the labels and/or roles with which we identify (or from which we distance ourselves), and how and why they matter. Here, the question becomes “What does it mean to be a fan?” This is a worthwhile conversation in any undergraduate fan studies course, but especially so in a room full of first-semester, first-year students on the first day of class. Before the conversation moves too far away from roles and role-playing, I ask everyone to consider what, if anything, might change – for them, for others – if they thought of themselves not as “students”, but as “learners”, especially if we stipulate the following:

Students study. Learners learn.
Students have teachers. Learners learn.
Students attend classes and schools. Learners learn.
Students write essays and take exams. Learners learn.
Students pass and fail. Learners learn.
Students graduate. Learners learn.

This exercise is not meant to besmirch being a student, but to make visible the fact that whereas learning can be undertaken somewhat autonomously, a student’s relationship to knowledge is impacted and arguably circumscribed by multiple, often mutually reinforcing factors. Thus, being a student does not necessarily prepare one to be a strong learner, but being a learner will very likely prepare one to be a strong student. Nevertheless, undergraduates seem firmly attached to their student identities, and just as reluctant to identify as learners.

It occurs to me that this dynamic may in fact be homologous to the one that I believe motivated my student to make clear that she was “not a ‘fan’” only to immediately (and unselfconsciously) enthuse about the chance to don her Merlin-inspired chain mail body armor, battle helmet and broadsword. Why reject the “fan” label one minute then embrace the accoutrements of fandom the next? Was it because she could disappear into the latter but had to declare and own the former? Was it because wearing chain mail was ‘just’ cosplay but being a fan was an identity?

My sense is that there is a strong but misunderstood parallel here with respect to considering oneself a “student” or a “learner”. The educational system and its institutions, to say nothing of the popular culture, have so thoroughly naturalized the role of “student” for young adults that by the time they arrive to college, it is almost inconceivable that they could be anything else. If they are students IRL, learning becomes relegated to a kind of role-playing, a very different version of LARP. Unfortunately, this is quite backwards. Students are students within an academic context, yes, but what about when they are interns, employees, athletes, tutors, friends, partners, parents, and so on? There is ample room in all of these roles to be a learner, though, just as one can be a fan regardless of what book one is reading or what show one is watching.

Learners and fans have much in common, beginning with the decision to identify as such. Unlike being a student or a consumer, to identify as a learner or a fan is to name oneself rather than be named. Whether or not it registers as such immediately, it is also an assertion of agency, one that both requires and reflects a degree of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. It is a declaration of intellectual curiosity as well as of a desire and capacity to become autodidactic. It is an acknowledgement that every person has a right to make meaning, and to access and produce knowledge. And as the closing section below illustrates, it has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not one is enrolled in a college or university.


#FanWorksTaughtMe

In mid-June 2015, anxious that a Congressional review of U.S. copyright laws might result in changes that would have a chilling effect on fanworks, The Harry Potter Alliance took preemptive action in the form of Fan Works Are Fair Use. During the weeks that followed, groups such as the Organization for Transformative Works and the Supernatural Wiki expressed their solidarity, promoting the campaign at the San Diego Comic Con and providing signal boosts on social media.

Image of a Fanworks are fair use promotional card. The text on the blue and yellow card reads:

Introducing Fan Works Are Fair Use at San Diego Comic Con

Rather than rely solely on the name of the campaign, organizers of Fan Works Are Fair Use encouraged online supporters to “[show] the world how valuable fanworks are by using the hashtag #FanWorksTaughtMe.” At first glance, one might read the wording here as counter-intuitive insofar as it emphasized personal anecdote over organized action. To do so, however, would be to overlook the way in which #FanWorksTaughtMe strategically drew together the individual (‘me’) and the collective (‘fanworks’, and by extension those who create them). Crucially, the relationship between them is structured not around the former’s affective attachment to the latter, but rather around their shared investment in and respect for the kind of informal education that regularly takes place within fandoms but that is rarely valued in traditional academic settings.

A Twitter search for tweets using the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag produced fewer than 300 results.[ ((This number reflects the results of a Twitter search executed in May 2019 for tweets published during the Fan Works Are Fair Use campaign (roughly mid-2015 through early 2016). It will not include any tweets posted by users who have removed their accounts or changed their Twitter handles, and thus the number of tweets returned by the search is virtually certain to be lower than the actual number of tweets that made of use of the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag.))] This is a modest number, to be sure, yet more than large enough to reflect a wide range of focus, voice, and even ostensible purpose and perceived audience. In tweet after tweet, users credit fanworks with teaching them to be a documentary filmmaker, a community organizer, a podcaster, a musician, to build worlds and share them, to give and take criticism with grace, to persevere, to respect others even in the absence of understanding them, that their stories and voices matter, that they are not alone, that their credentials don’t necessarily reflect their potential. The list goes on.

Voice bubbles with some of the voices on the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag. The bubbles read: 1. #FanWorksTaughtMe to think of scenes with different angles, tones, POVs, universes – to both demolish and salute a story’s sanctity. 2. #FanWorksTaughtMe that I don’t have to be passive. I can have a voice. I can be audience and the creator. 3. #FanWorksTaughtMe how to critically analyze narratives. Actively reimagining how stories were told helped me reimagine the real world. 4. #FanWorksTaughtMe how to edit and how to be edited. 5. #FanWorksTaughtMe that underserves markets serve themselves . 6. #FanWorksTaughtMe to think outside the box and to write the “what ifs.” 7. #FanWorksTaughtMe English as a second language, how to tell stories and write beautiful texts, how to be a community organizer.

Some of the voices on the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag

Diverse as they are, the individual voices in this conversation give rise to a unified and unifying message, one that celebrates creativity; defends individuals’ right to create, and thus to make, transform, and question meaning; and that attributes their respective and collective knowledge not to a college education, but to fans, fandom, and fanworks. In this, they recall Claire Pentecost’s concept of the artist as Public Amateur, someone who “learns outside the circuits of professional normalization and reward,” and who embodies

[…] a proposition of active social participation in which any non-specialist is empowered to take the initiative to question something within a given discipline, acquire knowledge in a non-institutionally sanctioned way, and assume the authority to interpret that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives.[ ((Claire Pentecost, The Public Amateur, https://publicamateur.wordpress.com/about/ [n.d.].00))]

Like Lawrence Lessig’s discussion of read/write culture,[ ((Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), chapters 1 and 4.))] and Henry Jenkins’s application of collective intelligence and popular epistemologies,[ ((Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), chapter 1.))], Pentecost’s construct of the public amateur serves as yet another potent reminder of the growing importance of informal knowledge networks.

As higher education contemplates ways to coexist with these networks and how to implement the inevitable shift in undergraduate education away from a focus on disciplinary expertise and toward more dynamic and integrative forms of learning, it would do well to keep fans and fandom in mind. Consider, for instance, that although they may not always think of their fannish behavior in these terms, fans tend to have strong online research skills; know how to differentiate between primary and secondary sources; are able to evaluate the reliability of information they encounter; regularly produce close, critical readings of texts; participate actively in online knowledge and affinity communities; and are prolific creators and sharers of digital content and transformative works. And that’s often before they even get to college. Imagine if, once there, their institution valued and helped to strengthen these skills rather than dismiss them as undisciplined, or inadequately disciplinary.

Image Credits:

1. Rhode Island Comic Con (Nov. 3, 2018); photograph by author
2. “I’m not really a ‘fan’, but…” via Twitter; author’s screenshot
3. Still of first-year student’s video autoethnography on fan identity; author’s screenshot
4. Image via Twitter user @TheHPAlliance (July 9, 2015)
5. #FanWorksTaughtMe tweets via Twitter; collage by author.

Please feel free to comment.




Punk, Disco, PornThe Deuce ’77—Part 3
Matthew Tchepikova-Treon / The University of Minnesota


The Deuce Season 2 Cover Image

The Deuce Season 2 Cover Image

Porn. “What am I watching? What the fuck are we doing here? Come on, so now we’re making art?” Rip-and-run porn producer Harvey Wasserman, in the lap of a churning 16mm Steenbeck, examines the climax sequence from Candy’s latest film: close-up images of a woman and two men with cutaways to a ceiling fan, wild life, juiced fruit, etc. Candy responds: “It’s cut the way an orgasm feels… So some of it’s in her head. Some of it’s real. Some of it’s somewhere in between.” Harvey responds with a string of sardonicisms, applauding the “ethereal Warholian fashion” with which Candy has attempted to visually represent “the female mind for the final stampede to nirvana.” In a way it’s a genuine, if still patronizingly veiled, recognition of aesthetic ingenuity. Nonetheless, Harvey cedes to an industrial imperative—“Keep the focus on the fucking”—that demands phallic fantasy production. Candy responds with a dissatisfied summation: “Porn.”

Candy's Film Clip from Season 2

Candy’s laborious rough cut and Harvey’s I can’t sell this reaction, expressing hard-core cinema’s historical straddling of art, exploitation, and commerce.

Aural Pleasure & Acousmatic Women

Concerning sexual penetration, “proof” of orgasm, and conventional filmic displays of female pleasure, this scene practically stages Linda Williams’ well-worn dictum that hard-core pornography “seeks maximum visibility in its representation but encounters the limits of visibility of its particular form.”[ (( Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 94.))] In mainstream heterosexual porn production, where the industry-standard “money shot” serves as visual confirmation of male satisfaction, conversely, women’s overdubbed voices do the work of sonically signifying orgasmic bliss, becoming “aural fetishes of the female pleasure we cannot see,”[ ((ibid, 123.))] while also further revealing “the inability of a phallic visual economy to imagine female pleasure as anything but insufficiency or excess.”[ ((ibid,109.))] Additionally, Eithne Johnson argues that, “at the site of the female body,” this disembodied sonic excess is “displaced onto the ‘body’ of the film, where it functions as surplus semiotic material.”[ ((Eithne Johnson, “Excess and Ecstasy: Constructing Female Pleasure in Porn Movies,” Velvet Light Trap, 1993, 31. ))] As an immediate example, listen to the overdubbed vocal work of a female performer added by Candy after recutting the aforementioned climax sequence and how The Deuce crosscuts Candy examining her film with a sex scene of its own:

Crosscutting Overdubbed Sounds from Matthew Tchepikova-Treon on Vimeo.

Given HBO’s own scopophilic tendencies concerning the objectification of women in many of the network’s premier shows,[ ((For a keen take on “the evolution of prostitution and the birth of large-scale porn production in a medium—on a specific network, even—that’s been criticized for its gratuitous and sometimes violent sexual content,” as well as an interview with season one pilot director, Michelle MacLaren, about the ways she and the show’s production team worked to address this, see: Alison Herman, “How Michelle MacLaren Brought The Deuce to Life,” The Ringer, September 6, 2017.))] as with punk and disco, we again find an attempt at both sonic historiography and immanent critique in The Deuce’s aesthetic engagement with female vocal performers’ affective labor.

We hear the electric hum of Candy’s 16mm projector running film, its monophonic speaker emitting the thin sound of a woman moaning, her voice unmoored from any image, from any sense of corporeal verisimilitude,[ ((Such an effect often resulted from technical limitations as well as recording techniques that sacrificed spatial realism for a sense of aural presence.))] then the far more convincing sex sounds of Abby and Vincent in bed with heavy breathing and Abby’s own voice coming out in arhythmic fits of pleasure. Then back, the overdubbed voice in Candy’s film becoming almost laughable while also sounding more like ecstatic whimpering or even cries of pain.[ ((For more on this aural slippage between pain and pleasure, see: Clarice Butkis, “Depraved Desire: Sadomasochism, Sexuality and Sound in mid-1970s Cinema,” Earogenous Zones: Sound, Sexuality and Cinema, ed. Bruce Johnson (Sheffield: Equinox) 2010, 66-88.))] Comparatively, Abby and Vincent finish, yet with a notable lack of spectacularized pomp or circumstance, but then Abby intones a deep “mmhmmm” between breaths, suggesting satisfaction. The film likewise finishes and we hear the sound of leader tape slapping the take-up reel as it spins out, clicking rhythmically with every pass as Candy lights a cigarette—we’ve just seen Vincent reach for his—then exhales. Notably, her own satisfaction seems uncertain.

Red Hot Clip from Season 2

Lori Madison and Larry Brown starring in Candy’s first feature-length porn production Red Hot, an X-rated retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” shot mostly on the Deuce.

Invoking a lineage of women filmmakers from Doris Wishman to Candida Royalle,[ ((See: Elena Gorfinkel, “Sex and the Materiality of Adult Media,” Feminist Media Histories, Vol. 5 No. 2, Spring 2019: 1-18.))] in season two of The Deuce, Candy works to make alternative filmic representations of sex available.[ ((Beyond the aesthetic economy of mainstream heterosexual porn production, for a fantastic analysis of the political potential of sound and the voice in gay male pornography, as well as particular techno-erotic affiliations with the phone sex industry during the 1980s, see John Paul Stadler’s recent article “Vocalizing Queer Desire: Phone Sex, Radio Smut, and the AIDS Epidemic,” Feminist Media Histories 5, no. 2 (2019): 181-210. And for more on the phone sex industry, listen to Sexing History’s podcast episode “Sex Over the Phone.”))] Nevertheless, as her opening exchange with Harvey attests, we are reminded again and again that she finds herself doing so within a restrictive audiovisual regime of erotic cultural production, a regime shot through with regulatory powers that extend far beyond porn.

Within a simultaneously emergent audio culture outside the production of moving-image pornography, the female voice as a fetishized sonic object flows between myriad forms of media while repeatedly servicing the same phallic order of hard-core porn’s visual economy. In the broader context of Seventies sexology, Jacob Smith demonstrates how erotic LPs marketed as “instructional” records routinely featured women vocalizing orgasms in order to “sonically index” particular sex practices while also arousing listeners.[ ((Jacob Smith, “33 1/3 Sexual Revolutions Per Minute,” Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution, ed. Eric Schaefer (Durham: Duke University Press), 2014, 179-206.))] Likewise, John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis track technologically mediated acousmatic women through a multitude of pop songs that further work to reproduce these “aural codes of sexuality.”[ ((John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis, “Aural Sex: The Female Orgasm in Popular Sound,” TDR 40, no. 3 (1996): 102-11.))] “Do it to me again and again,” Donna Summer moans on her disco classic “Love to Love You, Baby.” In Moroder’s extended mix, she performs a “marathon of 22 orgasms”—a writer at Time magazine apparently counted them back in 1975.

As evidenced here, I am inclined to follow Eric Schaefer’s argument that, throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, “a rapidly and radically sexualized media accounts for what we now think of as the sexual revolution.”[ ((Eric Schaefer, Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution, 3.))] However, this media revolution was likewise accompanied by a censorious scientism that, as if attempting to re-suture the audible excess of female pleasure back onto women’s bodies, worked to reinforce staid representations of ‘tasteful’ sexuality.

Exposed Legs & the Legibility of Excess

In my previous column on The Deuce and disco, I gestured toward the fact that, throughout the 1970s, urban sound, acoustic research, and the politics of cultural production converged within a revised discourse of noise pollution where familiar sexist visual tropes of female promiscuity emerged in politically motivated projects aimed at ‘cleaning up’ U.S. cities in the name of sexual sanitization. Recall the acoustician who cited a New York discotheque as the loudest source of noise in the city, writing that “the miracle of electronics allowed performers to create a sound level as astonishingly elevated as the dancers’ hemlines.” And while analogizing short skirts and noise during this time was by no means exceptional, as with The Deuce’s second season, we can move from New York to LA to find a most extreme instance.

Dr. Knudsen & 10 Women

Newspaper rendering of physicist Vern O. Knudsen measuring reverberation from the sound of a .22 caliber pistol.

“Dr. Knudsen fired a pistol in a room with 10 miniskirted girls,” reads an account of this famed acoustician discharging a blank cartridge in a UCLA physics department’s reverberation chamber along with ten women in short skirts to measure the level of sound reflection off their exposed legs.[ ((Popular Science, October 1969: 20.))] Using an acoustical unit of measurement for sound absorption, Knudsen recorded a sabine count of 2.5 that he compared to a test conducted back in 1964 with more thoroughly clothed subjects where reverberations from the gunshot had registered 4.6 sabines.[ ((These details were publicized in the University of California’s University Bulletin, Volume 18, January 12, 1970.))] In conclusion: Knudsen used his gun to prove (an already well established fact, mind you) that “as skirts go up, sound absorption goes down.” Associated Press science writer Ralph Dighton’s descriptions of the “experiment” received notable traction in trade journals and city newspapers, with headlines ranging from the pedantic, “Acoustical Test Shows Miniskirts Affect Sound,”[ ((ibid.))] and the epigrammatic, “Miniskirted Girls Long On Sound,”[ ((Tucson Daily Citizen, October 30, 1969: 14.))] to the prolix, “Honey, Your Miniskirt Looks Great, But It Sounds Awful,”[ ((The Miami News, October 29, 1969: 2.))] and the prognostic, “Miniskirts Bound To Be On Way Out.”[ (( In this last article, one Clayton Rand of The Jackson Sun foretold of the miniskirt’s imminent falling out of fashion, then claimed, “There are also stock market experts who believe that lengthening skirts usually herald a depressed economy.” He cites no evidence. November 30, 1969: 4.))]

While Knudsen’s ostensible concern involved modern methods of concert hall design utilizing sound-absorption coefficients that accounted for heavily clothed audiences—coefficients reportedly threatened by women’s skin—my reason for comparing his “experiment” (and the rhetorical trope of the miniskirt at large) with that of moving-image pornography’s aural fetishization of female pleasure is to highlight a certain epistemological affinity between ways of seeing and ways of hearing where shared vectors of power, difference, and knowledge converge through science, aesthetics, and cultural politics alike. “Modern fashions are fine for rock and roll concerts,” Knudsen claimed, “people who go to them like loud noise.”[ ((Quoted in “Honey, Your Miniskirt Looks Great, But It Sounds Awful.”))] But for classical music, he suggested “seat cushions so absorptive it doesn’t matter what the audience wears. With the trend to nudity, audiences will welcome additional padding anyway.”[ ((There are two unmistakable ironies: First, the unit of measurement used by Knudsen takes its name from physicist Wallace Sabine who, as Emily Thompson’s work shows us, once threw out thousands of measurements while evaluating the duration of residual sound “after determining that the clothing worn by the observer (himself) had a small but measurable effect upon the outcome of his experiments.”Second, as early as 1900, Sabine had developed a quantitative analysis of various absorption powers with precise focus on seat cushions as a remedy to unwanted sound reflection. Knudsen, undoubtedly aware of this, proved nothing. For more on Wallace Sabine, see: Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (Cambridge: MIT Press), 2002, 36.))] Thus, in Knudsen’s spectacularized stunt, exposed legs became both source and synecdoche of unwanted sound when acoustical engineering attempted to take an aurally perceived (and culturally determined) excess and make it visibly legible on women’s bodies.

Muybridge and Candy

Photographs of nude women by Eadweard Muybridge and a porn production sequence from season one of The Deuce with Candy and Harvey.

Accordingly, where Linda Williams recognizes in the protocinematic photography of Muybridge a “scientific impulse to record the ‘truth’ of the body”’ that constructed “women as the objects rather than subjects of vision,”[ ((Linda Williams, Hard Core, 38-45.))] by attending to sound as a culturally contested mode of knowledge production concerning human bodies, convergent bodies of knowledge, and the sonic production of social space, we find a similarly motived acoustical discourse where old prurient fears of an unruly eros have been quite literally re-envisioned in sonic terms. And from the porn industry’s frenzy of the audible to an industrious scientism that sought to elide undesirable sounds, in the 1970s, as the tagline for The Deuce Season Two tells us, “pleasure was a business, and business was booming.”

Image Credits:
1. The Deuce Season Two Poster Art (color altered by author).
2. Shots from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre” (transferred to GIF format by author).
3. Sound from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre” (excerpted as audio by author).
4. Shots from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend” (transferred to GIF format by author).
5. Newspaper clipping from The Joplin Globe, October 29, 1969, front page.
6. Eadweard Muybridge photographs taken from the cover of Linda Williams’ 1999 edition of Hard Core and a still image from The Deuce, Season One, Episode 8, “My Name Is Ruby.”

Please feel free to comment.




Twitter and the Politics of Citation
Sarah Florini / Arizona State University


Researchers Twitter

Researchers have increasingly turned to Twitter for social media analysis.

In recent years, as more scholars have begun turning their attention to social media, quoting and citing material from social media sites, particularly Twitter, has become a source of great controversy. Traditionally academics have considered anything publicly available online as “published.” Therefore, no permissions are required to cite this material with proper attribution. While this is an established standard among researchers, it is not universally agreed upon by social media users, many of whom feel citing their tweets is equivalent to eavesdropping on a personal conversation or even intellectual property theft. This has emerged as an ongoing debate with little consensus.

Because social media blurs the lines between public and private, producer and audience, and mass and interpersonal communication, users have complicated and often contradictory beliefs about how their social media timelines should be viewed and potentially used by researchers.[ ((Nancy K. Baym, “Fans or Friends?: Seeing Social Media Audiences as Musicians Do,” Particpations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 9, no. 2 (2012); Manuel Castells, “Communication, Power and Counter-Power in the Network Society,” International Journal of Communcation 1 (2007); Alice Marwick and danah boyd, “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience,” New Media and Society 13, no. 1 (2010); Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Patrick O’Sullivan and Caleb T Carr, “Masspersonal Communication” a Model Bridging the Mass-Interpersonal Divide,” New Media and Society 20, no. 3 (2017).))] Twitter is a particular challenge because it so commonly functions as both mass media, a one-to-many style of communication, and interpersonal comunication. Politicians and celebrities rarely hold official press conferences anymore. They instead make statements via Twitter and other social media. Many Twitter users see their tweets as contributions to a larger public discourse and will often describe them in terms of intellectual labor and/or property. At the same time, Twitter is social media and retains some of the expectations of social interaction. Users have conversations and interactions that they see as sociality, not mass communication, and consequently, quoting or referencing these tweets is viewed as similar to quoting a conversation that was overheard. Users in the same networks, sometimes even the exact same users, interpret Twitter in both of these contradictory ways.

Twitter's Terms of Service Page

Twitter’s Terms of Service Page

Unlike many social media platforms, Twitter’s Terms of Service does not grant the platform copyright of users’ content. According to Twitter, “You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. What’s yours is yours…”[ ((Twitter, Terms of Service, .n.d. accessed November 10, 2017, https://twitter.com/en/tos#usContent ))] The the rights and regulations of intellectual property have been governed by a set of federal laws that outline who can use ideas, how, and under what circumstances. Section 107 of the Copyright Act allows for unlicensed use of copyrighted material for commentary and criticism, parody, news and reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.[ (( Copyright.gov, “More information on Fair Use,” n.d. accessed November 10, 2017, https://www.copyright.gov/fair-use/more-info.html))] Academics are covered under several of these categories, making direct citation permissible with proper attribution.

However, though that is the legal standard, in the age of massive media conglomerates the de facto standard for Fair Use has been based on which entities have the resources for legal action. For example, academics are routinely forced to pay licensing fees to cite song lyrics in their work. Under fair use, quotation of song lyrics should be permissible as commentary, criticism, or scholarship. However, after the music industry began aggressively pursuing peer-to-peer file sharing and other intellectual property issues in the early 2000s, fair use seems null and void when it comes to materials owned by this industry. Publishers of academic books and journals simply can’t afford to be embroiled in a legal conflict with large media corporations and will instead require authors get permission for quotes. Obtaining this permission generally involves the author paying a licensing fee that can be several hundred dollars per line of lyrics. This phenomenon is not confined to academia. Stephen Colbert did several segments on The Colbert Report where he joked about his inability to use footage of NFL games or even use the trademarked phrase “Super Bowl” because Comedy Central’s parent company Viacom was unwilling to take the legal risk. Thus, while there are legal standards, ultimately copyright and usage is a matter of power, not legality.


Stephen Colbert jokes about his inability to use the trademarked phrase “Super Bowl”

Some Twitter users express attitudes about intellectual property and quotation that are in line with fair use, merely wanting their ideas attributed to them. However, some users express a belief that on the surface is more in line with the licensing model embraced by the music industry or NFL, that they should be compensated when their words are used regardless of the context. In part this is grounded in the ways that marginalized people, particularly Black women, are systematically denied the opportunity to benefit from their intellectual contributions. Outlets often seem eager to quote marginalized people’s ideas while rarely giving them opportunities to write professionally. This licensing-style approach to quotation seems to grow out of this inequality. These users are often chided for claiming intellectual property rights that far exceed those granted by law or norm. But, given that the enforcement of intellectual property rights have largely become about power, rather than legal standing, demanding compensation for quotation can be understood not only as an attempt to rectify an economic imbalance, but as an attempt to reclaim power. Users from marginalized groups have long had little say in how they were written about and how their ideas were used. Demands for remuneration when they are quoted are both an amelioration of inequitable material circumstances and an assertion of agency.

These power dynamics require researchers to be particularly attentive to the ethics of their citational practices. The days of codified, agreed-upon field-wide practices are gone. To be ethical in our research, scholars must be attentive to the complex, nuanced, and fluctuating contours of power in Twitter networks. Our approaches to citation of social media sources must be contextual, adaptable, grounded in cultural competencies, and created in conversation with those we cite.

Image Credits:
1. Researchers Have Increasingly Turned to Twitter for Social Media Analysis
2. Screengrab of Twitter’s Terms of Service Page
3. No consensus among Twitter users about fair use and copyright.

Please feel free to comment.




Grace and Frankie Open the Door: Dramedy, Netflix, and Small Screen Lily Tomlin
Kelly Kessler / DePaul University


Grace and Frankie billboard
Billboard for Season 3 of Grace and Frankie

When Grace and Frankie launched as an original Netflix comedy series in 2015, the Internet was all a twitter in anticipation of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, feminist icons of 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, reuniting a full 35 years after their blockbuster feminist manifesto 9 to 5. Despite the fact that anything with Fonda and Tomlin had me at “hello” and the duo’s interactions and roles as simultaneous foils and unexpected soul mates were what made the show so special, I want to take this opportunity to consider Tomlin and her contested space in the televisual landscape. Although Tomlin has visited and at times frequented the small screen ever since her 1966 debut on The Garry Moore Show, something about 21st century generic innovation and allowances of the Netflix era opened up a space for Tomlin, one just out of reach for the comedienne for much of the last half-century.

Tomlin’s Susie Sorority from her 1975 comedy album Modern Scream.

It’s not as if series television had wholesale shuttered its electronic doors to comediennes or ladies of standup comedy. Wanda at Large and All-American Girl may have floundered, but Roseanne’s ratings blew everyone out of the water and Grace Under Fire and Ellen scored five seasons each. But those women were more traditional stand-ups or joke-tellers. Tomlin’s bread-and-butter was one-woman sketch comedy, trotting out her cadre of eccentrics. A 1976 New York Times article defines her style as “docu‐comedy” and “sentire” or “sentiment/feelings cum satire.” Its author Ellen Cohn repeatedly questions the small screen marketability of Tomlin’s performance style and evokes its tendency to render television producers and executives gun-shy and baffled. She says “Docu‐comedy? Sentire? Poetry? On Friday night in prime time? It’s enough to make the toughest network vice president hang his head and weep.”

This discomfort on the part of television execs didn’t keep Tomlin from away from the small screen. She was a series regular on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In from 1969 to 1973 and had won five primetime Emmys by 1981, including those for her 1973 and 1975 specials, Lily and The Lily Tomlin Special, and her 1981 all-star Vegas-themed reflection on art versus commerce Lily: Sold Out. She later won a daytime Emmy for the animated The Magic School Bus, clocked-in 46 episodes of Murphy Brown and 34 of The West Wing, and appeared in a string of other series including the ABC dramedy Desperate Housewives, the FX thriller Damages, and HBO’s Eastbound and Down.

Tomlin in various television roles
Tomlin across the dial: (left to right) Murphy Brown, West Wing, Desperate Housewives, Eastbound and Down.

Rather than embracing the comedy style which had unnerved TV execs, however, her post-Laugh-In gigs tended to illustrate her breadth and knack for skillfully doing something else. Her stage act and comedy albums had not only included the well-known Edith Ann and Earnestine, but a parade of characters from Susie Sorority, radio evangelist Sister Boogie Woman, and lounge singer Bobbi-Jeanine to disaffected punk-rock adolescent Agnes Angst, struggling feminist Lynn, and prostitutes Brandy and Tina. Often such characters’ parallel existences helped construct Tomlin’s larger humorous and heartfelt projection of struggling humanity. In 1976 Cohn had described Tomlin’s characters by saying, “They are meant to touch us and tickle us; they are meant to set us thinking. Thigh‐slapping is not prohibited neither is it slavishly sought. Tomlin is satisfied with the smile and sigh of recognition.”

Tomlin and lounge singer Bobbi-Jeanine forego knee-slapping for more introspective and contemplative moments of humor and humanity in Lily: Sold Out (1981, CBS).

Although Polydor who distributed the bulk of Tomlin’s 1970s albums may have been at this ease with such a sigh of recognition, her act lacked the kind of climactic and comedic button standard to most situation comedies of the 20th century. Although Grace Under Fire and Roseanne cultivated a combo of emotion, pathos, and slapstick, they also followed a pretty traditional sitcom structure raising, complicating, and solving a problem with some kind of humorous action and moving on to the next episode with only marginal memory or seriality. Not until the early 2000s and 2010s was serialized dramedy commonplace on American TV, exemplified by HBO’s lady-driven variety with Sex and the City, Weeds, and The Big C. Whereas critics hail these shifts for allowing space for the “comic genius” of a Louis CK or Larry David, these evolutions in genre, continued splintering of viewers, and the rise in offbeat original streaming series also helped open a space for a comedienne who had frustrated broadcast strategies for decades.


Tomlin and her writer/partner Jane Wagner discuss the motivation and struggles behind Agnes Angst from The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

The embrace of shows like Grace and Frankie opened a door just the shape of Tomlin’s comedic introspection. The show takes two big characters—Fonda’s acerbic society matron and makeup mogul and Tomlin’s aging bohemian artist—and provides room—not unlike Tomlin’s Tony winning The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (hereafter Search for Signs)—to feature a mix of humorous foibles and pain. Although perhaps more dram-EDY than DRAM-edy, the show doesn’t always demand the laugh, but does allow Tomlin moments of excess whether chanting “blood on my hands” while smeared in faux monkey blood protesting the use of palm oil in her yam-based vaginal lube or practicing guttural Tuvan throat singing. Alongside such big bits and big laughs, the show explores the pain of later-in-life divorce, as the frenemies are thrust together after their husbands reveal they’ve been having a 20-year affair. Like Tomlin’s feminist divorcee Lynn in Search for Signs, they now have to strike out on their own and discover power outside of their men as they buck cultural notions of aging womanhood (all the while sharing the screen with cast-off actresses “of a certain age” like Marsha Mason, Estelle Parsons, Mary Kay Place, and Swoozie Kurtz).

Trailer for Season 2.

The very characteristics that made the show Tomlin-friendly irked reviewers. The Hollywood Reporter insisted Grace and Frankie felt more like a network show than “something trying to stand out in the streaming world” while Vulture criticized the show, produced by Friends’ Marta Kauffman, for being too much like a traditional sitcom via its “bigness of the physical comedy,” embrace “of set-’em-up, knock-’em-down jokes,” and what the reviewer saw as a “seeming aversion to authentic human pain.” A Daily Dot reviewer faulted Netflix’s agreement to allow Kauffman to conceive the show as a series and not just pilot, claiming the producer’s sense of security acted as “fertilizer for misplaced grandiosity.” I argue these flaws cultivate a Tomlin-esque sweet spot, one embraced by her 1985 Search for Signs which was described by the New York Times as treating the audience to “an idiosyncratic, rude, blood-stained comedy about American democracy and its discontents.” As season one opens with Sol and Robert announcing their affair and plans to leave their wives, the show’s focused exploration of Grace and Frankie’s desperation alongside bigger comedic moments allows it to blend with other Netflix genre hybrids like the more drama-leaning Orange is the New Black (a show that notably provided a space for 50-something butch lesbian comic Lea DeLaria) and Tomlin’s tendency toward “sentire”.

Netflix promo images for Grace and Frankie=
Season 1 ads humorously project the rollercoaster of human emotion in Grace and Frankie’s dramedy.

Alongside these shifts in genre, a splintering television landscape and viewership has led to the kind of niche marketing which has provided an “out” for the type of anxiety 1970s execs may have felt regarding Tomlin’s docu-comedy style. No one is expecting a 25 rating or 20 million viewers anymore. Add in the branding and economic model of Netflix, which has allowed offbeat, niche television(ish) series to thrive one full season at a time, dropping all episodes on the same day, and the scene was set. Season 2 of Grace and Frankie ranked 19th out of the 22 original Netflix series with only 757 thousand viewers (versus Fuller House’s 7.3 million). Despite ratings, a reported audience resistance to ads depicting the politically polarizing Fonda, and the fact that the show stars two women in their late seventies and early eighties and traffics in talk of vaginal dryness, Alzheimer’s, broken hips, arthritis, and ageism, the series—low ratings and all—is heading into its sixth season and sits as Netflix’s longest-running comedy series with Tomlin already garnering four Emmy nominations and unplanned audiences perhaps finding it unexpectedly relevant. As Fonda said in a 2015 NPR interview “It’s like making one very long movie, and because it’s Netflix you don’t have to have a button on the end of every episode, you know, to keep people coming back next week. You can just kind of make it all flow together.” This distribution/viewing structure also allows the show to emerge as a kind of extended set more akin to Tomlin’s one-woman shows and LPs, weaving together experiences, developing the “sentire,” and allowing the comedy and drama to build upon each other. It may have taken nearly half a century since her Garry Moore debut, but television seems to have caught up with the genius of Tomlin.

Photo of author with Lily Tomlin
Me with Tomlin after her 1999 performance of an updated version of Search for Signs at the University of Texas at Austin Performing Arts Center and autographs from Tomlin and Wagner.

Image Credits:
1. Billboard on Vine Street in Hollywood for Season 3 of Grace and Frankie
2. Clip from Tomlin’s 1975 Album Modern Scream
3. Strip of television shows on which Tomlin appeared (various sources)
4. Clip from Lily: Sold Out (CBS, 1981)
5. Clip of Agnes Angst from The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe with commentary by Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner (original source unknown)
6. Season 2 trailer of Grace and Frankie (Netflix)
7. Season 1 “stages of grief” advertising campaign (Netflix)
8. The author with Lily Tomlin and autographs from Tomlin and Wagner (circa 1999, author’s collection)

Please feel free to comment.




Reflections on an $1,800 Dissertation
Josh Braun / UMass Amherst


Braun Yale Book

My shoestring budget dissertation project eventually evolved into a book published by a reputable press.

In 2010 I applied for an external grant to fund the field work for my dissertation. I was rejected. I elected to proceed on a shoestring budget[ (( I spent a little over $1,800 to fund my dissertation, which I got through an internal university grant. If I price out the same expenditures today, they come to around $2,500. The internal research grant offered by my graduate school, however, has not changed and still stands at $2,000. ))] and, eight years on from filing said dissertation, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the that experience from different perspectives—first as a Ph.D. candidate, then as a job applicant, a book author,[ (( For those who would judge my advice on the outcome of this project, I will say that the dissertation was subsequently published as a book by a reputable press and received positive reviews. ))] and a faculty member working with grad students.

This seems like a good place to think through what I learned—both from the process of doing dissertation on a tight budget and the contours of inclusion and exclusion that dissertation funding stakes out within the academy. If you find yourself in the same boat I was, here I offer you combination of advice and laments. What I write here will be primarily addressed to folks doing field work in Media Industry Studies, but regardless of your discipline or tradition, feel free to follow, discount, or reject my advice as you see fit. I hope it helps someone down the road.

Rejection

First off, I want to normalize rejection. Advisors and institutions are quick to encourage students to go whaling after big dissertation improvement grants from the NSF or various private foundations. That’s as it should be. You can’t win a sweet award of that sort if you don’t apply. But grants like these are highly competitive and rejection is the most common outcome.

It doesn’t mean your research isn’t worthwhile. It’s entirely possible to get positive reviews across the board and still not get such an award. Quite often the issue is not one of quality, but of fit. There are lots of “penumbral” topics within Media Industry Studies that are essential, but fall at the edges of what the major funding programs are focused on.

Years later, I would find out in conference discussions and email threads among established colleagues that—even for research faculty—studies like my dissertation, which sat at the intersection of Journalism Studies on the one hand and Science and Technology Studies on the other, could be particularly hard cases for which to locate external funding (though I hope things are changing for the better).

Your advisor or committee will hopefully give you insight into such funding trends and help you to put the best face on an application that may lie at the edges of a funding program’s priorities. That said, it pays to think ahead as to what you can do if your proposal is rejected and how you might complete your project on smaller internal university grants or other limited funding sources.

Be Realistic About Your Methods

Folks in Journalism Studies and Media Industry Studies often live at the intersection of media studies and sociology and so we read and talk a lot about ethnographic methods. Folks in mainline sociology grumble about loose use of the term “ethnography,” and often with good reason. For them, an ethnography often involves spending months or years immersing themselves in a community, and it’s a fair point that researchers who spend a few days or weeks someplace probably shouldn’t be billing the resulting paper in similar terms. I won’t belabor this point—reasonable people can disagree on the appropriate time horizon with respect to calling something an ethnography. My take is simply that there’s no reason to invite potential criticism on this front when you don’t have to.

If you’re doing a field work-driven dissertation in the absence of external funding, let’s face it: Unless your field site is next to your university (I’m looking at you Columbia, USC, and Stanford), you’re probably not going to get to spend months, let alone years in the field. Weeks is more like it. And while you might have written your initial grant proposal(s) with the intention of conducting a long-term ethnography, let me say it forcefully here: Field work and ethnography are not one and the same. It’s perfectly fine to go into the field as a qualitative interviewer and not to call yourself an “ethnographer” or your study an “ethnography.”

Former Seattle PI Building

I completed field work at the former Seattle Post-Intelligencer Building, which was home to an MSNBC.com subsidiary called Newsvine.

In the end, I spent five weeks in the field for my dissertation, during which time I visited two field sites. I wouldn’t have been comfortable calling myself an ethnographer in those circumstances, but the length of time was ideal for intensive interviewing. Yes, I could’ve conducted interviews solely over the phone, but being physically at a field site and taking extensive notes was helpful for all sorts of reasons.

Showing up to the same site every day was an opportunity for the folks I wanted to interview to get comfortable with the prospect of talking with me. It allowed me to pull people aside or strike up conversations during the natural breaks in their work day, and thus to gather many conversations in a short span, as well as more easily conduct follow-ups. Had I tried to do the same interviews remotely, I think I could’ve lost an academic year before I’d played all the email and phone tag necessary to collect the dozens of exchanges I assembled in days during my site visits. And, of course, nothing stopped me from doing the occasional follow-up by phone.

Being in the field also provided tons of useful context for the interviews that drove my dissertation. For example, seeing who sat next to one another or attended which meetings gave a world of context to my sense of my subjects’ interactions that I likely never would’ve have had otherwise. Being in the field can also reveal truths that phone interviews may not. On the phone, a subject may tell you that two divisions within their company always see eye to eye. If you’ve just been privy to a heated exchange in the office, their answer to your same question is likely to be both more honest and more useful.

The point is, you can collect lots of rich data in the field in a condensed time frame without doing a traditional ethnography or setting up a potential confrontation by applying the term in a loose fashion.

Choose Your Field Sites Strategically

Obviously, if you’re dissertating on a budget you’ll have to give some consideration to how expensive different field sites are. But at the end of the day your choice of site(s) has to be methodologically defensible, not just cheap. If you have a local, self-contained field site, this may be an answer to many of your budgetary woes. But if you’re studying a large media organization or sector with offices across the country or the world, you may wish to look into or develop conceptual tools that will help to place the available sites into context.

Phil Howard’s “network ethnography” framework (yes, the term ethnography is in there), furthered by media scholars like Gina Neff, is one example.[ (( Howard, Philip N. “Network Ethnography and the Hypermedia Organization: New Media, New Organizations, New Methods.” New Media & Society 4, no. 4 (2002): 550–74; Neff, Gina. Venture Labor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. ))] For my own dissertation, I developed a conceptual frame I called “tracing” to explore the relationship between my field sites. Importantly, the idea here isn’t to justify or defend the choice of just any field site, but to clearly define the limitations, as well as the benefits of a particular choice of sites. The resulting cost-benefit analysis may make some sites inadvisable as choices under the best of circumstances.

Living on a Budget

NYC hostel

I stayed at the HI NYC Hostel to save money when completing field work.

This advice may seem superfluous for a stereotypical grad student. But here are a few of the things I did to stretch my budget in the field. First, Hostelling International was my best friend. With an HI membership, I was able to stay in expensive cities like Seattle and New York for a fraction of the cost of a single night in a hotel. Hostels also have kitchens stocked with cookware you can use to make your own food and they can point you to the nearest grocery store. If you’re prepared to live for several weeks largely on ham and cheese sandwiches, you can eat for fairly cheap even in high-cost locations. For me, New York was accessible by bus, so I bought food for the start of my trip at my local grocery store and lugged it along to avoid Manhattan prices.

If you’re staying for an extended time in a hostel, be sure to note whether there’s a limit on the number of consecutive nights you can bunk there. You may have to find alternative lodging for a night or two or beseech a local friend to crash on their couch (thank you, Matthew Powers) before you can check back in.

Of course, despite my deep affection for Hostelling International, I readily concede that not everyone will feel comfortable bunking in a room with a dozen strangers. And in retrospect, as a white cis guy, I recognize that my budget dissertation was made simpler by privilege. To save bus fare in Seattle, I walked two and a half miles at odd hours through upscale city neighborhoods to reach my field site without any negative interactions. When I got back to my hostel in the evening, I was able to sit in the common area for hours to organize my field notes without getting harassed by the strangers drinking a couple tables away. I also made these extended solo trips before I had small kids at home—something that would make them an impossibility now.

These things highlight inequities in graduate education that are important to grapple with at the institutional level. It would be easy to point to my experience as a fun adventure that I had on the cheap, but I think it also illustrates that inequities in doctoral research aren’t just about who’s loaded with grant money and who’s not. Inequity also shows up when we consider who is most easily able to make a meager budget work.

Image Credits:
1. Cover of This Program is Brought to you by…, published by Yale University Press in 2015
2. Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer Building
3. HI NYC Hostel, where I stayed to save money while completing my field work.

Please feel free to comment.




Tits or GTFO: The Aggressive Architecture of the Internet
Alison Harvey / University of Leicester

The image of computer scientist Katie Bouman’s joyful expression was circulated widely with the announcement of the first picture produced of a black hole

The image of computer scientist Katie Bouman’s joyful expression was circulated widely with the announcement of the first picture produced of a black hole

The breaking news on April 10, 2019 was the unveiling of the first photo of a black hole ever created, but within a few short days reporting shifted to focus on the consequences of this story for the young female fellow who contributed a significant algorithm to the collaboration. Katie Bouman, who was frequently used as the face of the Event Horizon Telescope project in media stories, took to social media to situate her work within the international scope of the collaboration. Still she became the target of vitriolic sexist and misogynist harassment focused on discrediting and diminishing her input into the project.

As The Guardian article reporting on the attacks notes, such practices are “par for the course for women“, a now-familiar pattern of toxic speech, doxxing, account spamming, and assorted hatred documented across many domains. This includes politics, journalism, and popular culture, and is particularly intense for women of colour. GamerGate, the coordinated campaign of harassment against visible and vocal women, LGBTQ individuals, and people of color in games, was perhaps the moment where these tactics of exclusion garnered mainstream media attention, but as Emma Jane [ ((Jane, E. 2014. “‘You’re a Ugly, Whorish, Slut’: Understanding E-Bile.” Feminist Media Studies 14(4): 531-546.))] notes there is a long history of incivility online that has not been adequately documented.

Game designer Zoe Quinn was targeted by the GamerGate harassment campaign in an attempt to discredit her work through accusations of corruption in games journalism

Game designer Zoe Quinn was targeted by the GamerGate harassment campaign in an attempt to discredit her work through accusations of corruption in games journalism

This is partly because the mediation of misogyny, racism, and hate is easily dismissed as the work of ‘trolls’, anonymous online entities easily distinguished and distanced from one’s colleagues, friends, and family members. Digital culture scholarship has begun to address the gaps identified by Jane, with researchers including Adrienne Massanari [ ((Massanari, A. 2017. “#GamerGate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s Algorithm, Governance, and Culture Support Toxic Technocultures.” New Media & Society 19(3): 329-346.))] and Caitlin Lawson [ ((Lawson, C. 2018. “Platform vulnerabilities: harassment and misogynoir in the digital attack on Leslie Jones.” Information, Communication & Society 21(6): 818-833.))] exploring the persistence and potency of online hate and incivility from the perspective of platform politics. This work draws from Tarleton Gillespie’s [ ((Gillespie, T.L. 2010. “The Politics of Platforms.” New Media & Society 12(3): 347-364.))] foundational intervention into discourses celebrating the neutrality and progressiveness of online intermediaries such as YouTube via recourse to the metaphor of ‘platform’. In tandem with a growing body of research into networked media infrastructures [ ((Parks L. & Starosielski, N. (Eds.) 2015. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.))], these analyses highlight the importance of considering the interplay of the social and the technical when examining online norms and practices, as networked communication technologies both shape and are shaped by economic and political interests as well as ideological values.

These perspectives are informed by science and technology studies, which provides a critical vocabulary for understanding the politics of technologies that captures the mutually shaping relationship between social actors and technological systems, including within media culture. In ‘Do Artifacts Have Politics?’, Langdon Winner observes that technologies can embody political properties in two ways, as “forms of order” or “inherently political technologies” [ ((Winner, L. 1980. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus 10 (1): 121-136, 123))]. Whereas the latter indicates systems ordaining particular political relationships, the former refers to technologies that “favor certain social interests” with “some people…bound to receive a better hand than others” [ ((Winner, 125-126))]. When the harassment of women, people of colour, and LGBTQ groups online becomes normalized as part of everyday life, it becomes clear that the deck is not stacked in their favour in the design, governance, or regulation of networked media technologies.

Massanari’s research into Reddit and Lawson’s multiplatform analysis indicate that there are designed elements of online spaces enabling the generation and circulation of toxic speech and harassing activity just as much as the celebrated practices of information seeking, community building, and social play. Increasingly, blue-sky perspectives about the promises of digital life are tested by research on in-built technological biases, such as Safiya Noble’s [ ((Noble, S. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press.))] damning revelations of Google’s racist algorithms and Katherine Cross’ [ ((Cross, K. 2014. “Ethics for Cyborgs: On Real Harassment in an ‘Unreal’ Place.” Loading… The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association 8(13): 4-21.))] work on structures supporting toxicity in online games. In their challenges to long-held notions of freedom, democratization, and progress associated with digital environments, such critiques are met with ferocious defences of freedom of speech in particular. This is but one example of the social norms framing these technologies and practices around them, for as Danielle Citron [ ((Citron, D.K. 2014. Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.))] notes civil rights legislation is an equally applicable legal framework to deal with abuse though is it rarely invoked, to the detriment of women and young people specifically.

League of Legends is a game widely cited when discussing toxic game communities

League of Legends is a game widely cited when discussing toxic game communities

When taken on the whole, growing evidence suggests that the designed technological systems and artefacts constituting our digital life serve to discriminate, marginalize, and exclude some publics in an increasingly naturalized but largely invisible fashion. This is neither intended nor deterministic as online feminist and anti-racist activism indicates, and of course the Internet is not the origin or sole site of hate or discrimination in everyday life. However, inattention and indifference to how participation may be inhibited by designed affordances and functionality, likely due to how these interactions are linked to platform profitability, is what makes the Internet’s built environment one that is increasingly an ‘aggressive architecture’.

This concept is derived from critical architecture and urban studies, which tackles those Othered by invisible systems through the rise of what is called ‘defensive’ or ‘hostile’ architecture [ ((Petty, J. 2016. “The London spikes controversy: Homelessness, urban securitization and the question of ‘hostile architecture’.” International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy 5(1): 67- 81.))] aimed at discouraging or deterring certain kinds of activity in public spaces. For example, spikes as well as specially designed benches in outdoor spaces are implemented by local councils to deter homeless people from lying down. These forms of silent, repellent design are documented as examples of ‘unpleasant design‘, a moniker indicating how such structural obstructions pervert the ideals of architecture- to design spaces that improve people’s lives. For this reason, it is more accurate to refer to these types of hostile innovations within built environments not as defensive but aggressive, as they invisibly enshrine a desirable public and systematically disadvantage those not valued within this vision.

The Camden Bench is an exemplary case of hostile architecture discouraging a range of behaviours and publics

The Camden Bench is an exemplary case of hostile architecture discouraging a range of behaviours and publics

While it would be fallacious to suggest that an architecture built on open communication is inherently hostile, I argue that ‘active inactivity’ in dealing with toxic and hateful speech and action in the regulation of these sites is what becomes aggressive architecture as the concerns, needs, and well-being of publics continue to go unaddressed despite their visibility. The value of this framing is that it highlights the necessity of social-technical approaches and analysis to account for the political nature of designed spaces of digital life, enabling a broad view of these exclusions as structural, systemic, and interlocking rather than about individual high-profile cases or specific sites.

The expression Tits or GTFO (Get the Fuck Out) likely originated on 4chan in the mid-2000s and became common in a range of imageboards, game communities, and BBS sites as a challenge to the genuineness of female participants in those spaces.

The expression Tits or GTFO (Get the Fuck Out) likely originated on 4chan in the mid-2000s and became common in a range of imageboards, game communities, and BBS sites as a challenge to the genuineness of female participants in those spaces.

For instance, digital gaming and anti-social networks such as 4chan have long been infamous for incivility towards women, LGBTQ individuals, and people of colour, generating memes such as ‘Tits or GTFO’ that encapsulate how some are not acknowledged as legitimate or credible publics within these spaces. As this kind of harassment, hate, and abuse spreads more broadly across the Internet, socio-technical approaches that tackle the systems and artefacts enabling this become vitally necessary. Fortunately, thinking about aggressive architecture equally affords opportunities for addressing constraints and designing for a more equitable, safe, and inclusive online environment, important and exciting work that has already begun with various projects engaging with the vision of a feminist Internet. Social justice-oriented work into networked technologies, considering the injustices embedded in digital data and design as well as more consentful approaches to technology provide innovative socio-technical approaches to dealing with exploitation and exclusion. Support and adoption of these principles and tactics is urgently needed, and so too is resistance against the growing naturalization of harassment as part and parcel of engaging in everyday life.

Image Credits:

1. Katie Bouman
2. Zoe Quinn
3. League of Legends and toxicity (author’s screen grab)
4. Camden Bench
5. Tits or GTFO meme

Please feel free to comment.




OVER*FLOW: Dynasty, Reproduction, Coalition: Why the Game of Thrones Finale Was Queerly Satisfying
Alexander Cho / UC Irvine


Drogon torches the throne
Drogon torches the throne.

A lot of folks are upset with the final season, and the final episode, of Game of Thrones. I don’t blame them. Characters’ essences seemed to veer at right angles, a lot of loose threads weren’t tied up, and Arya is all set to be Westeros’s very own Christopher Columbus.

However, some of the online vitriol has made me wonder if we have been watching the same show. As Kristen Warner points out, thinking through gendered modes of reception is vital to unpacking this show and its fandom. Here, I offer a take: the show (and its source text, but more on that later), has always been fundamentally queer. And the finale was oddly, queerly, satisfying.

From day one in Game of Thrones, anyone who tried to assert power in the traditional masculinist patriarchal manner—war, birthright, honor, chivalry, overpowering your enemy by force—simply died, was a shit ruler, clueless to soft power, or all of the above. Because patriarchy is a violent, closed system and heteronormativity specializes in its reproduction, from day one it was always the queers/disabled/kids/social outcasts (read: those who can’t rely on the system to ratify their genital agency) in Westeros who have known what’s up. They have rarely if ever been invited to the table, they have to move in the wings in order to get what they need, and as such they have a clearer sense of power and injustice, unclouded by masculine ego and dickly posturing (Varys, anyone?). They’re better at the game precisely because they have never known the dull safety of state-sponsored patriarchy. This is a powerful social critique that is embedded in George R.R. Martin’s text. It resonates with the late media scholar Alexander Doty’s famous argument in his book, Making Things Perfectly Queer: it is not enough to “read” some media “queerly”; in fact, shows such as Designing Women or Laverne & Shirley are literally queer, in their politics of relation, their eschewing of norms, their baked-in values.

What viewers may have missed in their rightful rage against this season’s clumsy plotting and its especially poor exposition of Dany’s sudden, so-called “descent” was the subtext hidden in the ostensible way forward in Westeros—specifically, the makeup of those who wind up on Bran’s Small Council as the series ends. If Dany wanted to “break the wheel,” she did so inadvertently, and via her death, for she would never have picked this strange assortment herself. But their specific selection is anything but random. The Small Council is really where ruling power resides in Westeros, though this may be emphasized in the novels more than the show, and thus easier to miss. This is the sly redemption built in to the finale, and begins to make sense if we consider the figures specifically:

  • Brienne, a gender outlaw whose influential father unsuccessfully tried to betroth her to proper suitors many times, and who describes herself in the novels as “The only child the gods let [my father] keep. The freakish one, one not fit to be son or daughter”
  • Sam, ruthlessly disowned by his influential family for being a gender outlaw (guess what happened to his normative brother—whose name is Dickon—and dad)
  • Bronn, not only a former working class commoner, but an especially despicable one who did the dirty work of the powerful (a mercenary), and who is unconcerned with reproduction, honor, and lineage in favor of sex work
  • Davos, not only a former working-class commoner, but an especially despicable one who did the dirty work of the powerful (a smuggler), whose son was killed
  • Tyrion, who begs a whole slew of analyses, and has always been positioned as an outcast with an unusual perspective due to his stature and his toxic relationship to his golden, gorgeous family
  • Even Podrick makes an appearance, a lowly, lumpy squire who apparently upends all expectations of virility, leaving normative bro-types utterly perplexed
  • And then Bran, perhaps the queerest of them all, if we mean “queer” as in not invested in any “normal” regimes of bodily comportment, diversion, sex, or even temporality (!)

The show’s final Small Council
The show’s final Small Council.

All of these folks would have been laughed out of the room (and most were) because they didn’t “belong” there, or ever fit the mold of who could be in charge—think the Lannister council or even Ned’s. And now they’re the ones repairing Westeros. The show has offered us a vision of queer coalition politics that we are too busy raging about Dany to see.

So where does this leave our heroine? Unfortunately, by series’ end (but really all the way throughout) Dany falls into the former category, of slash and burn, of womb and birthright—whenever she’s in a pinch, she torches everyone in sight. As one friend of mine said, incredulous at the Daenerys fan outpour: she basically turned out to be a fascist. If this thesis holds, are we really that surprised with what happened to her? You can’t dismantle the master’s house with his tools; the show may be reminding us, as decades of queer and feminist scholars such as Lorde have, that even heroic (white) women can be agents of patriarchy. Instead, by series end, we have the disabled, the disowned, genderqueer, working class, the “criminals,” and the geeks running the (six) kingdoms. To boot, we have a wise and practical Sansa, wanting nothing to do with the cursed chair, hardened by her own experiences with patriarchal trauma, ruling her own independent nation (historically the bro-iest of them all) without killing scores of her own people, OK, thank you.

Daenerys, dragon mom
Daenerys, dragon mom.

Even the notion of the “wheel” that needs to be broken has a famous antecedent in queer theory. The queer and feminist scholar Gayle Rubin’s concept of the “charmed circle” resonates here: the idea that a certain, narrow constellation of gendered sexual practices lines up nicely inside what any given social moment deems acceptable, while those outside it—non-reproductive sex, swapped sexual power roles, sex with unsanctioned organs and orifices—are anathema to our social order. Could this be the true subtext of the broken wheel?

On the subject of organs, what seemed like a Sansa non sequitur about Bran’s kingly impotence during the final episode’s makeshift continental referendum is actually crucially important to this narrative: he’ll never be able to dick his way into prolonging his power through the tried, true, and horrible mechanisms of patriarchal dynastic tyranny via favored progeny. “Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell—they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins,” as Dany laments early on, can be read in this way at show’s end—not simply as an eye-roll at the same old rotating cast of characters, but also as an indictment of something so taken-for-granted as the assumptive security-via-futurity of reproduction and lineage, in an echo of Lee Edelman’s provocative thesis. In a way, this is also what Cersei wrestled with throughout her arc, painfully straining against the system to recraft her womb as phallus over and over again in search of agency, ultimately leaving herself bereft, glum, and childless.

All along, there has been a problem of race in Game of Thrones, and admittedly, the final Small Council’s composition doesn’t address this foundational aspect of intersectional coalition head-on, in favor of other axes. But they didn’t have much to work with on this front, and that is one of the show’s (and novels’) persistent failings. Dorne, in the novels, is the only racially diverse part of Westeros, with its own problematic colorist hierarchy, but that barely registered on the show, to the disappointment of many. (In fact, Dorne is given several significant storylines in the novels that have been condensed or completely erased in the show.) Though it is a fantasy, and on another planet, Martin’s world-building has always mapped uncomfortably onto Euro-medieval conceptions of “race” and geography: most of Westeros is England/Scotland, complete with “first men” and ensuing Roman and Norman conquests; swarthy Dorne could be Spain; fallen Valyria is a call-out to ancient Rome. And then there’s the land of “Yi Ti” to the East, across the “Jade Sea” with its inhabitants who sport rat-tail hair queues, and the jet-black skin of the people of the “Summer Isles,” to the tropical South. In light of all this, who can blame Grey Worm and the Unsullied for wanting to get the eff out of Dodge at the end?

But what I find more interesting is the possibility that Martin, knowing how it would turn out, may have been clucking to himself while we all uncomfortably cringed during Season 3’s “Mhysa,” with its incredibly bad optics of throngs of enslaved people of color holding up an alabaster foreigner as their savior, which we went along with anyway because we wanted to. D’oh! Maybe Martin tricked us into this misplacement—pinning our hopes on one woman is never the answer, and the mere fact that we thought a “hero” who needed to win a “throne” to right wrongs would even be one person at all reveals our deep-set conditioning to gaze in the patriarchal mode, especially if that patriarchal hero is platinum blonde, gorgeous, and female. Maybe heroically violent white women conquerors are simply a prettier iteration of racialized patriarchy.

Unfortunately, Dany, by series end, fails to realize to herself that she is the last spoke holding the wheel together. The throne room scene is telling (not because Drogon apparently understands symbolism), but because a delusional Dany tries to clutch at the cogs of the machine she had wanted to destroy, lusting at the possibility of security in the progression of almighty family alongside Jon in a new (old) dynasty for a new (old) era. The actress Emilia Clarke purposely played it this way. In regards to her final scene, she told the New Yorker, “I wanted to play a game with what the scene was about. It’s not that I wanted to show her as ‘mad,’ because I really don’t like that word. I don’t enjoy fans calling me ‘the Mad Queen.’ But she is so far gone in grief, in trauma, and in pain. And yet our brains are fascinating in the way that they find a fast route to feel O.K., whether you’re relying on a substance or you’re mildly deluded.” For a blip, we kind of wanted it too; that’s the way these stories are supposed to go.

There is a radical point gurgling under the surface here, for those interested in the potential of progressive, intersectional politics: it turns out that a power-hungry entitled woman may not be our feminist savior after all, and in fact may end up reproducing the very politics she wanted to dismantle. Maybe truly breaking the wheel—and an exercise in intersectional queer world-building—looks more like a motley bunch of social outcasts, gender misfits, and former “criminals” at the council table doing the boring but important work of rethinking old-boy givens (State-funded brothels? Haha, no. Feeding the poor? Yes) instead of flying in on dragons or slaying kings.

Image Credits:
1. Drogon torches the throne.
2. The show’s final Small Council.
3. Daenerys, dragon mom.