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.




#Save: NBC’s The Voice and Live Social Television
Maggie Steinhauer / University of Texas at Austin


Image 1
NBC The Voice season 13 promotional poster

In recent years, Twitter has noticeably intertwined itself with live television as an interactive tool through its clever integrated hashtags and corresponding custom emojis. Live performance-based reality competition shows such as America’s Got Talent (NBC), The Voice (NBC), American Idol (ABC, and the former FOX series), and So You Think You Can Dance (FOX) all utilize some form of Twitter voting, either as an alternative to calling in your vote or through a #Save promotion. Social media integration is typically hailed as an exciting, interactive feature for audiences, yet the real beneficiaries of these Twitter tactics, from an industry studies perspective, are the producers and networks. Twitter integration, in that respect, is a producer-fueled trend to encourage live viewing and boost advertising revenue by incorporating viewer and fan labor into the process of production. The ways that these features are marketed to audiences and the implications of their standardization warrant further academic attention, and The Voice ‘s success with social media integration makes it a prime example.

Time-shifted television and online streaming can spell disaster for live reality programs like The Voice, as both viewing methods allow for commercial skipping. Event television, which Idol ‘s original run used to qualify as, can be a deterrent against non-linear viewing as it creates an impetus to watch live. But as the dominant scheduling conventions of these kinds of reality programs become ingrained for viewers, the necessity to even turn on the television before the final moments’ reveal begin to fade. For example, the fixed format of FOX’s Idol eventually became unnecessary and amid falling ratings, it eliminated the results-only episode in 2014. With popularity waning all around, there was less impulse to watch live rather than catch up on DVR. Or better yet, just browse headlines on social media without ever watching.

In 2013, The Voice (and Twitter) introduced their “Instant Save,” or #VoiceSave, during season five and ushered in a new live interactive component to the genre, reminiscent of the QUBE TV in the late 70s, as discussed by Amanda Lotz. [ ((Lotz, Amanda D. “Interactive TV Too Early: The False Start of QUBE.” Velvet Light Trap. no. 64 (Fall 2009):106-107. As Lotz links to in her article, check out this unofficial “nostalgia website” for QUBE TV. ))] Previous iterations of Twitter voting on reality competition shows were surely entertaining, but they failed to achieve interactivity in the same manner as The Voice ’s #VoiceSave. With the #Save feature, viewers were “in control” for a small portion of the episode, and as a key component, they had to follow along with the live broadcast in order to participate and likely stay tuned through those commercial breaks.

Image 2
Graphic from @NBCTheVoice during the #VoiceSave window on the November 28, 2017 episode

Two years prior to The Voice ‘s version, Simon Cowell’s cancelled X-Factor became “the first-ever TV series to allow voting by Twitter,” but instead of using hashtags as the other current programs do, X-Factor asked viewers to vote by private Direct Messages to the show’s official Twitter account. [ (( Hibberd, James. “‘X-Factor’ to allow voting by Twitter.” Entertainment Weekly. October 25, 2011. ew.com/article/2011/10/25/x-factor-twitter/. ))] And although not performance-based, it is noteworthy that Big Brother on CBS also experimented with Twitter as early as 2012. AGT may not have been the first reality competition program to use Twitter voting, but they were the first in this wave of Twitter-integrated programs that allowed audiences to vote by hashtag in order to save a contestant. Essentially, this method was the next logical step in television voting’s evolution, from calling in, to texting, to web votes, and then to Twitter, but without the live component. The following year after The Voice began using the #VoiceSave, Idol (on FOX) and SYTYCD instituted similar measures.

With the addition of the #VoiceSave, The Voice ‘s results segments now invite the audience to determine which contestants will be eliminated in real time. During the last minutes of the live broadcast, host Carson Daly bring ups the bottom two or three contestants previously determined by conventional overnight voting methods. He proclaims the #VoiceSave open for five minutes only and cuts to commercial. The power, supposedly, rests solely in the hands of live viewers and they are only able to take part in the decision-making on Twitter. In The Voice ‘s recent seasons, the #VoiceSave has become more streamlined through their official Twitter account, @NBCTheVoice. Daly still reminds the viewing audience about the #VoiceSave throughout the broadcast, but the instructions are relayed through Twitter simultaneously to the point where Twitter users (and non-east coast viewers) can follow the live broadcast without actually tuning in. I’ve compiled several screenshots of and links to the @NBCTheVoice account from the November 28, 2017 episode (all on EST) to illustrate how the #VoiceSave functions. Around the halfway point of the episode, before the bottom two contestants are announced, @NBCTheVoice tweets:

Image 3
8:29 PM Screenshot of @NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017

Ten minutes later, @NBCTheVoice announces the bottom two contestants. In this episode, contestants Janice Freeman and Adam Cunningham are up for elimination and will give final performances before the live Twitter vote. After the first performance, a second reminder goes out:

Image 4
8:45 PM Screenshot of @NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017

At 8:50 P.M., twenty-one minutes after the process was initiated online, the five-minute voting window is officially opened via Twitter. @NBCTheVoice tweets out identical messages using the hashtags #VoiceSaveAdam and #VoiceSaveJanice that quickly begin to rack up retweets which Twitter adds up live. By 8:55 P.M., @NBCTheVoice tweets “The #VoiceSave window is now CLOSED!” and at 8:58 P.M., it announces, “YOUR TWEETS just sent @adam_cunningham to the #VoiceTop10.”

Compared to previous voting methods, The Voice ‘s iteration was a shift because it capitalized on the second screen experience and in doing so found a means to motivate viewers to watch live TV. Where the other programs had developed a “feature,” The Voice had gone interactive, in a move noted by Variety editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein as the “gamification” of reality TV. [ (( Wallenstein, Andrew. “‘Gamification’: The Way to Revive Reality TV.” Variety. January 30, 2014. https://variety.com/2014/voices/news/true-interactivity-could-revive-the-reality-tv-genre-1201075198/. ))] Wallenstein posits that such practices directly involve audiences in the action of the live programming, essentially turning segments of the program into a game for audiences, and that process may be the key to “revive” reality TV. The term is also associated with video game design researcher and scholar Sebastian Deterding. As part of a conference presentation in 2011, Deterding, et al. defined the concept as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.” [ ((Sebastian Detering, et al., “From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining ‘Gamification,'” (paper presented at MindTrek. Tampere, Finland, September 28-30 2011, 13. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230854710_From_Game_Design_Elements_to_Gamefulness_Defining_Gamification. ))] In the case of #VoiceSave and other #Save’s, the closer these processes are to games through their structure, rules, and real-time effects, the more they represent an interactivity as opposed to participation enabled by convergence culture.

Image 5
2013 Graphic from Nielsen on the connection between ratings and Twitter

There is still debate as to the effectiveness of social TV, as Todd Spangler writes. Although, Spangler does offer that the Nielsen’s social television ratings are “designed to show the total Twitter activity relating to specific shows, to help networks and advertisers figure out how to better use the social service to drive awareness and tune-in,” not necessarily to increase ratings. [ ((Todd Spangler, “Nielsen and Twitter Unveil Social TV Metrics, Showing How Little Tweets Line Up with Ratings” Variety. October 7, 2013. variety.com/2013/digital/news/nielsen-and-twitter-unveil-social-tv-metrics-showing-how-little-tweets-line-up-with-ratings-1200702169/. ))] Yet, Twitter and Nielsen released various reports detailing increased ratings, higher audience engagement, and better brand retention. For example, the first night AGT enabled Twitter voting in 2013, the show witnessed an “8x increase in overall tweets” during that episode compared to the previous week, with a total of 117,000 tweets. [ ((Liz Myers (@thisbeliz), “America’s Got Talent Viewers Vote via Twitter,” Twitter Blog. July 26, 2013. https://blog.twitter.com/official/en_us/a/2013/americas-got-talent-viewers-vote-via-twitter.html. ))] And approximately a year after The Voice instituted their #Save, it aired the “most-tweeted about TV series episode since Nielsen Social began measuring Twitter TV conversation in 2011” with 1.92 million tweets reported during the May 13, 2014 episode. [ ((Adam Flomenbaum. “How Telescope-Powered Voting Helps ‘The Voice’ Set Twitter Records.” Lost Remote. May 21, 2014, “http://www.adweek.com/lostremote/how-telescope-powered-voting-helps-the-voice-set-twitter-records/44871. ))] And Nielsen Social data shows that in 29% of programs, a spike in tweets influenced changes in ratings, and the effect rose to a 44% increase in ratings for competitive reality programs, specifically. [ ((The Nielsen Company. “The Follow-Back: Understanding the Two-Way Causal Influence Between Twitter Activity and TV Viewership.” Newswire. August 6, 2013. “http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2013/the-follow-back–understanding-the-two-way-causal-influence-betw.html. ))]

Whether viewed as the last-ditch strategic maneuver of a fading industry or rather as a shrewd reflexive adaptation to existing user behaviors, interactive Twitter voting in live performance based reality competitions is becoming a norm for the genre. It opens up worthy discussions of the rise of TV’s gameificiation, interactivity, fan labor, and the connection between social TV and liveness. The specific use of Twitter for live voting in its various iterations has ushered in noticeable format changes in primetime reality tv. All this increases the stickiness of results-only episodes, and remodels the audience’s viewing labor. To these mass ephemeral programs dependent on high viewership and advertising, their ability to promote liveness and engagement remains paramount, but is continually challenged by the current post-network era. In this post-network moment, a portion of programming power shifts toward audiences as part of a larger initiative to combat a less engaged mass audience. The central question for contemporary broadcasters, especially for their prime-time reality tentpoles, is how to continue providing their product, that highly engaged mass audience, to their advertisers.

Image Credits:
1. NBC The Voice season 13 promotional poster
2. Graphic from @NBCTheVoice during the #VoiceSave window on the November 28, 2017 episode
3. 8:29 PM Screenshot of@NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017
4. 8:45 PM Screenshot of @NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017
5. 2013 Graphic from Nielsen on the connection between ratings and Twitter

Please feel free to comment.




Rose McGowan and the “Neutrality” of Social Media Platforms
Adrienne Massanari / University of Illinois at Chicago


TRIGGER WARNING: This article or section, or pages it links to, contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.

Rose McGowan Tweet

On October 11, Rose McGowan, best known for her roles in the movie Scream and in the TV show Charmed, was banned temporarily from Twitter. Ostensibly the ban was for McGowan’s inclusion of a private phone number in a tweet, thus, running afoul of the platform’s rules prohibiting the sharing of private information. But the timing couldn’t have been more suspicious – McGowan had very publicly come out to denounce Harvey Weinstein as having allegedly raped her in 1997. McGowan was also in the process of publicly condemning a number of other male celebrities who she alleges knew about Weinstein’s long history of sexual assault and harassment. After McGowan reported the suspension through her Instagram feed, her followers and the news media became suspicious, as Twitter offered no reason for the action. Many speculated that the suspension was actually a result of McGowan’s criticism of the well connected, high profile Weinstein, rather than any specific infraction. After Twitter notified McGowan of the actual problem, she was given the opportunity to delete the tweet in question, which she did. However, it took Twitter more than 12 hours to actually reinstate McGowan’s account.

Scene from Mad Men

At even the best of times, Twitter’s application of its own content rules is inconsistent. For those of us who watched the ongoing harassment and doxxing of women game developers and their allies for months during #Gamergate while Twitter seemed to do little to protect them, the actions against McGowan were both frustrating and entirely predictable. Twitter has a long history of not supporting marginalized communities, especially when it comes to racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, etc. speech. But it’s not just Twitter. Facebook has suspended people of color for reporting on the racist, virulent harassment they’ve received – a twisted application of the platform’s rules against violent speech.

Prince

And on Reddit, which is the focus of much of my research, the problems are even more pronounced. [ (( See also, Massanari, Adrienne L. (2015). #Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures. New Media & Society. ))] Site administrators have long resisted enforcing even the most basic rules that might protect and support marginalized communities, instead applying a misguided approach to “free speech” that implicitly serves to amplify the speech of certain communities (such as the “alt-right”) and effectively silence others. Complicating matters is that Reddit’s upvoting/downvoting system creates the illusion of a democratic system at work, even though it can be gamed and often works instead to create a kind of power-law dynamic where the most popular content becomes even more popular because it has already been upvoted (and is thus more visible).

Moments like this remind us that social media platforms are not politically neutral, despite what the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world might have us believe.

Awkberg

They are actually a complex assemblage of policies, algorithms, user practices, and economics; what constitutes appropriate “use” of these spaces is an ongoing negotiation between platform designers, users, and technologies. As Tarleton Gillespie argues, we tend to regard platforms as if they are simply neutral spaces for reading the news or watching cat videos. [ (( Gillespie, Tarleton. (2010). The politics of “platforms”. New Media & Society, 12(3), 347-364 ))] But because design itself is a rhetorical act as it shapes what and how we are to do something with a given object, platforms reflect particular values and political-economic realities. For example, the imperative of “sharing” has become normed as a primary way we experience social media, in no small part to the advertising revenue model most of these spaces employ. [ (( For more on sharing as a cultural value in social media, see van Dijck, José. (2013). The culture of connectivity: a critical history of social media. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ))]

The culture of Silicon Valley also plays a large role in the ways in which platforms are designed and thus experienced by users.

Aziz Ansari

In his book about Stewart Brand and his Whole Earth network, Fred Turner traces how the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s played an integral role in the development of Silicon Valley. [ (( Turner, Fred. (2006). From counterculture to cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the rise of digital utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ))] These early technologists built alternative communities, championed meritocratic organizing, and viewed technology as a way to both ensure personal liberation and solve social problems. And, we can see these forces still at play today – just listen to the CEOs of Apple or Google or Facebook talk – and it becomes apparent that they view their mission as nothing less than changing the world through technology.

The problem, of course, is that Silicon Valley is the domain primarily of cisgender, educated, straight white men, whose privileged experiences in the world remain foregrounded in the kinds of products and experiences they create.

Silicon Valley

This extends, in many cases, to the policies and technologies platforms use to regulate content. Universal, one-size-fits-all content rules become normed around the experiences of the most privileged in these spaces. So, for example, Twitter creates a “no sharing of personal information” rule (which, on the surface is sensible), but then does not apply it with regard to context or in any nuanced way. Is Rose McGowan’s inadvertent sharing of a phone number during a discussion about the problem of sexual harassment and assault the same as a Gamergater sharing the address of a woman game developer with the intention of encouraging others to harass her until she flees her home in fear? Should it result in the same response from Twitter? The answer is clearly no, but the tools and policies that Twitter employs do not account for the complexities and power differentials at play in these cases. This kind of disregard for context becomes especially problematic in light of Twitter’s reluctance to do anything about the myriad bots spreading propaganda and misinformation and the large numbers of “alt-right” figures who have successfully staked out the platform as being welcoming to their invective. In 2015, Twitter’s CEO acknowledged that their team “suck[s] at dealing with abuse,” but subsequently has done very little to fix it.

Scene from Workaholocs

Underlying all of this is the assumption that platforms should provide a space for all kinds of speech, no matter how violent, racist, sexist, transphobic or homophobic. On the surface such an approach might appear appealing – isn’t this what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was talking about when he advocated that the “remedy” for problematic speech was more speech in Whitney v. California? Maybe. But social media platforms themselves are not the US government and thus are not constrained in the same way governmental bodies are when it comes to the First Amendment; they are private corporations that can pretty much do whatever they want (for good or for ill). Unfortunately, many platforms have encouraged certain populations to feel emboldened to such a degree that they seem to think “free speech” equals consequence-free speech. Further complicating matters is that these same platforms are loath to suspend the accounts of some of their most troubling users because they are advertising cash cows. Take, for example, Richard Spencer, the white nationalist whose account remains on Twitter despite a history of violent speech and troubling harassment.

Lucille

Such an approach ignores the ways in which algorithms, site policies, and design decisions actually do more to support and amplify the speech of particular individuals and groups. Like most social media platforms, Twitter’s design reflects the values of Silicon Valley – emphasizing personal liberty over community safety. Instead of creating effective tools and policies that ensure everyone can engage in important democratic debates (or just share their favorite reaction GIFs), this strategy actually serves to suggest some users (particularly those whose social location already provides significant power and privilege) are more important than others. So, the question remains: how and for whom are these platforms actually changing the world?

Image Credits:
1. Tweet from Rose McGowan
2. Scene from Mad Men
3. Prince
4. Scene from Saturday Night Live
5. Scene from Parks and Recreation
6. Scene from Silicon Valley
7. Scene from Workaholics
8. Scene from Arrested Development

Please feel free to comment.




TV Finales: Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Casey J. McCormick / McGill University

ObamaCartoon

The Obamas’ final day in the White House

Last week, President Barack Obama delivered his Farewell Address, and many viewers expressed emotional reactions to the broadcast via social media. I was fascinated by the number of tweets comparing the event to watching the finale of a fictional TV series. While some of these comments were clearly sarcastic, in many cases, the comparison between this political address and fictional finales expressed a deep emotional experience — one of loss, heartbreak, and grief. Similarly, the above comic strip uses a familiar TV finale trope (turning out the lights on an empty sitcom set) to convey the existential darkness of a Drumpf America. This response to #ObamaFarewell shows that our engagement with longform storytelling can impact how we structure other parts of our lives — in particular, how we resist endings and manage loss.

Friends Finale The Mary Tyler Moore Show Finale description of image

Friends, “The Last One, Part 2” (2004) | The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “The Last Show” (1977) |
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “I, Done, Part 2” (1996)

The numbers show that audiences care about TV endings. Super Bowls (“finales” of the NFL season) and series finales of fiction-based programming make up the vast majority of most-watched TV broadcasts in US history. [ ((For the most part, these are instances of planned finales, in which TV creators know that an episode will be the series’ last. In this article, when I refer to “finales,” I’m referring to planned finales. ))] Even floundering or failing shows often see an increase in viewership for their series finales, with viewers who have otherwise divested themselves from a show tuning in just to see how things turn out. And popular shows usually see an uptick in live viewership, highlighting our desire to experience finality as a viewing community and, more practically, to avoid spoilers. Meanwhile, finales are some of the most criticized episodes of TV, with “disappointment” and “anger” being two of the dominant responses to this category of episode. Over the past few years, I’ve been working on a dissertation project that examines TV finales from historical, formal, and experiential perspectives. Here, I’d like to share some of the key points from my research regarding why finales matter, and how audiences express an ambivalence regarding the ends of longform TV storytelling.

In 1957, a review of The Nat King Cole Show finale stated: “From now on six thirty pm will seem strange until we come to realize other programs can be good.” [ ((The Chicago Defender, 28 December 1957. ))] This quote demonstrates that finales have been important for most of TV history. Even in the case of musical variety shows, talk shows, and episodic shows like sitcoms or procedurals, “the end” is fundamental to our viewing experiences. [ ((Perhaps the biggest exception to this rule would be soap operas, which thrive on their ability not to end. ))] But as TV storytelling has become increasingly complex and serialized, finales have taken on a more significant role — for many shows, finales are often the terrain upon which a series fails or succeeds, and these episodes can spark intense emotions — positive and negative — in TV viewers.

Structurally, TV finales tend to: be longer than the series’ average episode, include flashbacks and/or flashforwards, and feature a marriage, death, or change in vocational status for one or more main characters. It rarely behooves creators to close off a storyworld completely, so most finales attempt to strike a balance between closure and openness to satisfy viewers but keep the storyworld malleable, setting up potential spinoffs and/or inviting fan engagement. The patterns that emerge in analyzing TV finales across a wide range of genres suggest that we are aware of similarities across texts, and these conventions create expectations about what TV closure should be. Jason Mittell writes of the pressure on long-arc serials to “stick the landing” in series finales, but I am equally interested in the pressures we feel as viewers when confronted with the end of a beloved series. [ ((Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. NYU Press, 2015. Pg. 322 ))]

Mash-up of promos for Fringe’s final season demonstrates the paratextual hype leading up to the finale

Our ambivalence towards TV endings goes something like this: we want our questions answered, we want to feel a sense of closure, of satisfaction, but we also don’t want the story to be over. We want the world to continue to exist — in particular, we want the characters that we’ve grown to love to keep on existing. But we also enjoy being surprised, even shocked, by a significant death or major plot twist. Our attachment to a TV narrative comes through its characters, so killing someone off is an easy way to garner an emotional reaction and instill closure. In a series focusing more on a single character than an ensemble, killing the main character also generates closure through synecdoche (e.g. Tony Soprano’s death = the death of The Sopranos). Meanwhile, “twists,” at their best, offer a thought-provoking surprise; at their worst, they betray the entire storyworld and undermine the potential for satisfying closure. Indeed, some of the most controversial finales are considered so because of dubious plot twists.

Battlestar Galactica St. Elsewhere Finale

“Daybreak, Part 3” (2009), the finale of Battlestar Galactica, contains a massive temporal jump that angered many fans. In “The Last One” (1988), St. Elsewhere reveals that the show’s six seasons have been taking place in the imagination of autistic child, Tommy Westphall

Responses to finales vary based on our individual experiences with a particular show, or with TV more generally. They vary based on our social, religious, and political beliefs. And they vary based on our specific circumstances of viewing (for example, someone who binge-watches vs. someone who dedicates years of incremental viewing time). But when we really care about a show, the conflicting desires for closure and openness and the intensity of emotion when we reach the conclusion emerge as common denominators in our experience of TV finales.

There was a fascinating trend in the Tweets comparing #ObamaFarewell to fictional finales: people claiming that they weren’t watching the address, just as they couldn’t bring themselves to watch the finales of much TV fiction. Casual polling revealed that this practice is far more common than I’d imagined: on Facebook and Twitter, I received dozens of testimonials from people who deliberately resist finales out of the desire to end a series on their own terms, to spare themselves disappointment at a lackluster finale, or because they just find the experience of finales too sad. This resistance to TV endings is evidence of the power of finales and our ambivalent attitude towards closure and finality. In many ways, our attachment to a TV series feels like a romantic relationship: we invest time and energy, go through ups and downs, threaten to quit, get sucked back in…lather, rinse, repeat. But like any relationship, breaking up with a TV series is hard to do — especially when you’re the one getting dumped.

Image Credits:
1. Cartoon of the Obamas’ final day in the White House
2. Friends, “The Last One, Part 2” (2004)
3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “The Last Show” (1977)
4. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “I, Done, Part 2″ (1996)
5. “Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 3” (2009), the finale of Battlestar Galactica, contains a massive temporal jump that angered many fans
6. In “The Last One” (1988), St. Elsewhere reveals that the show’s six seasons have been taking place in the imagination of autistic child, Tommy Westphall

Please feel free to comment.




Of Bhakts, Deplorables and More: Posthuman Communities Performing Political Partisanship in the Age of Social Media
Sushant Kishore / BITS Pilani

kishoremoditrump

The 2014 General elections in India and the 2016 Presidential elections in the USA shared a list of attributes, from two-terms of incumbent liberal governments to the rise of the extreme right to power. Both elections laid bare the complex virtual/real helix that constitutes the digital sensorium that is the contemporary world. Large numbers of netizens were called upon in both constituencies to join ranks with the candidates. In the case of India these groups appropriately called themselves, “Modi’s army”. Neither internet, nor politics has been the same since the 2014 elections. The internet emerged as a political tool where false truths, rumors, sentimentality and sensationalism could explode with a click and eclipse all opposition and politics became more internet marketing than polity. Campaign rhetoric and name-calling became hashtags and hashtags became social media communities.

Theoretically, at the intersection of the digital, the political and the performative, this column attempts to explore the changing terrains of politics with respect to the digital media and the performatives of communitas and political partisanship in the context of the 2014 General Election in India and the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States. The objects of interest are the posthuman social media communities that extensively participated, through multiple social media platforms, blogs, micro-blogs, etc., in the aforementioned election campaigns and continue to shower uncritical and absolute loyalty on the candidates for the highest administrative post in the two largest democracies of the world: India and United Sates of America.

The Digital-Political

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Graph of Internet Penetration

Articulating, the mid-20th Century techno-human condition, Marshall McLuhan wrote –

During the mechanical age we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both time and space as far as our planet is concerned. (( McLuhan, M. (1964). “Introduction.” In M. McLuhan, Understanding Media : The Extension of Man. London: The MIT Press. ))

This was in the 1960s when the electronic medium had started gaining traction in the west, the television and radio had become common household furnishing. The computer had just reached its adolescence and internet was yet to be conceived. In the contingent milieu McLuhan foresaw what the future of technology had in store for humans. With the internet boom, the McLuhanian the digital sensorium expands to envelope all aspects of quotidian life. The internet is growing exponentially and covers over forty-six per cent of the world population. If technology was the extension of the central nervous system in 1960s, the internet embodies the prosthetization of consciousness itself (another Mcluhanian prophecy). A consciousness that is rhizomorphic – networked and hyperlinked with infinite others, virtual and built/stored on inconspicuous corporate servers yet personal and quantifiable with a cornucopia of information – facts, fictions, news, rumors, data, memory – easily retrievable through keyword searches. (( Lyman, Peter and Hal R. Varian, “How Much Information”, 2003. Retrieved from http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/how-much-info-2003 on 07 December 9, 2016 )) These attributes that make the silicon consciousness remarkably seductive and widely accessible to all, also evoke an impression of democratic rapture where a user has the luxury of disembodied presence and disembodied unreasoned voice. Any individual can set up a blog or a website at minimal cost and with minimal skills and social media removes even these hurdles. Social media allows and encourages (with Twitter’s 140 words microblogs) instant, knee-jerk reactions to be posted to the world without any inhibition and/or fear of intellectual confrontation. The episode of the first presidential debate best illustrates what I mean by the “luxury of disembodied presence.” Donald Trump confessed he refrained from bringing up Bill-Lewinsky because he saw Chelsea Clinton in the audience but he could uninhibitedly do so, about Hillary and several other women, on Twitter.

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Trump’s Uninhibited Online Sexism

Very often the social media does indeed give “legions of imbeciles the right to speak, when they once only spoke at a bar after a wine, without harming the community.” (( Il Messaggero. (2015, June 12). Umberto Eco attacca i social: «Internet ha dato diritto di parola agli imbecilli». Retrieved December 7, 2016, from Il Messaggero: www.ilmessaggero.it/societa/persone/umberto_eco_attacca_social_network_imbecilli-1085803.html )) Within seconds the post snowballs with likes, comments, retweets, shares, reposts of like-minded individuals until the unreasoned impulsive argument/opinion starts to “#trend”. Manufacturing consent becomes easier in this digital prosthetization of the consciousness where users, through their Twitter feeds, Whatsapp, Facebook walls, and more, are constantly bombarded with information/misinformation and search engines literally froth with content manipulated with keywords, backlinks and shock-value. This is the picture – this constant wrestle of attention and distraction – that informs politics in the age of social media. Our ability to assess political candidates and make political decisions has become impetuous, conforming to the configurations of the digital milieu. “Once scuba diver[s]…. Now… [we] zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” (( Carr, N. (2008, July). “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/ ))

2014/2016 – Performing Political Partisanship

Performativity in this disembodied virtual space is reduced to profile pictures, tweets, retweets, blogs, posts, likes and shares. Political assemblies transform into social media communities, and political rhetoric transforms into hashtags. “Bhakts” and “deplorables” became the highest trending ‘tag’ that were used against any candidate in both constituencies. Bhakt is a Sanskrit word which means devotee. In the context of the 2014 General Elections in India, it connoted the apotheosis of Narendra Modi – the Prime ministerial candidate for the Hindu Right party, Bharatiya Janta Party (Indian People’s Party). His campaign team had mobilized an army of Twitter accounts (mostly fake) to campaign for their candidate and slander and heckle politicians and/or supporters of other parties. In a snowball effect, many supporters took the cue and took to social media to glorify their leader and bracket every other alternative as traitor, Muslim-appeaser, pseudo-secular and/or anti-national. The trend has continued even after the elections and dissenters are subjected to frequent online abuse. In November 2015, BJP’s Twitter army launched a campaign against a popular Bollywood actor who expressed his views on rising religio-cultural intolerance in India. The campaign asked people to boycott his films and the products that he endorses. Being a Muslim made his situation worse. It led to the termination of his advertising contract. Several others who have disagreed with governments policies or questioned its objectives have faced similar flak at the hands of these swarms of devotees. The situation would be reiterated with every activity. (( Pal, J. (2015). “Banalities Turned Viral: Narendra Modi and the Political Tweet.” Television and New Media, 16(4), 377-386. )) On 16th May 2014, Modi posted what would be the Golden Tweet of the year and the most retweeted tweet ever in India.

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Top five tweeters during 2014 Election Campaigns

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Modi’s Victory Tweet, “India has won! India’s Victory. Good times are coming.”

While the keyboard wars were largely tilted in one direction in India, the Presidential Elections in the US witnessed widespread digital campaigns. Although Donald Trump was unbeatable in his bullying and name-calling (despite a limited vocabulary), Clinton’s prognosis of Trump’s followers as “a basket of deplorables”. shocked people but quickly started trending. After a long campaign that Trump ran on lies, fear and hate, no other word could describe the people who continued to support him as one after another skeleton popped out of his closet.

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Popularity Trend for #Deplorables

Filtering through claims of sexual harassment, misogynist statements, unfounded theories on migration-crime, blatant generalization of ethnic groups as criminals and terrorists, of women as sexual objects who “should be treated like shit”, the only sections of the demography Trump did not abuse in his campaign were uneducated working class/middle class white men. There were pro-Trump automated Twitter handles consistently tweeting false news and to their advantage there were groups of teenage content writers with absolutely no interest in the U.S. elections accept the attention economy it was generating. (( Tynan, D. (2016, August 24). How Facebook powers money machines for obscure political ‘news’ sites. Retrieved December 8, 2016, from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/aug/24/facebook-clickbait-political-news-sites-us-election-trump )) Thus, Macedonian teens would spin and publish scandalous and sensational stories that would be picked up by Trump supporters and extensively retweeted or shared.

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Sample Stories from Macedonian content writers

It appears in both cases that in an abundance of information and a decadence of research or critical thinking, people filter information based not on ideology or interest but on a certain kind of inertia that this information highway affects. More than creating bubbles of self-interest or self-preservation the propaganda creates communities and cults of a leader. The two years since the General Elections in India have witnessed a number of radical policy changes, some quite progressive and others outright blunders of management. The notion of dissent as akin to anti-nationalism still dominates social media discourse and the fickle nature of the medium prevents any intellectual debunking of these views. What turn will politics take once Donald Trump assumes office is still unpredictable. Unlike India, partisanship might dwindle once he starts backing out of his poll promises. On a lighter note as a cyborg completely incorporated within the Twitter ecosystem, his quips on China don’t bode well for diplomacy.

Image Credits:
1. Modi Trump
2. Internet Penetration
3. Trump’s Sexism
4. Top 5 Tweeters
5. Modi’s Victory Tweet
6. #deplorables
7. Macedonian Content Writers

Please feel free to comment.




Teach-Ins and Twitter
Michael Newman / University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

teach-in against the Vietnam War, 1965

Vietnam War era Teach-in, March 1965.

The first teach-in was held at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1965, and the -in came from the sit-ins at lunch counters and other segregated public places in the 1950s and 60s where African-Americans demanded equality. It was organized by professors who gathered up members of the campus community to protest the Vietnam War by teaching about the conflict, an alternative to a work stoppage. A teach-in was to be “a shrewd means of energizing the university without disrupting it.” (( Charles DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1990), 108. )) The overnight event was attended by thousands of students and hundreds of professors. It was covered in the national news.

Many more teach-ins were staged on college campuses during these tumultuous years when universities were at the center of movements for social justice and New Left politics. They were thought to make many students who had not been paying much attention to foreign affairs conscious of America’s involvement in Vietnam. A teach-in at Berkeley attracted as many as 30,000 participants (such estimates being contentious) and was a bona fide media event, with folk singers and well-known figures like Dr. Benjamin Spock and Norman Mailer. It was broadcast on the radio. There were also pro-war teach-ins, but whatever ideas were conveyed, the key purpose of a teach-in was nonviolent demonstration through pedagogy, building a platform for public intellectual discourse. Faculty and students along with members of the public could engage politically within the space of the university, and the university gave legitimacy to dissent over the war.

One statement at a 1965 teach-in provoked a huge controversy over academic freedom and political speech. Eugene D. Genovese, a history professor at Rutgers University, spoke these words at a teach-in on his campus: “Those of you who know me know that I am a Marxist and a Socialist. Therefore, unlike most of my distinguished colleagues here this morning, I do not fear or regret the impending Viet Cong victory in Vietnam. I welcome it.” This was quoted in the papers, and became an issue in the New Jersey gubernatorial race when the challenger called on the sitting governor to fire Prof. Genovese. In this instance, the academic freedom of an outspoken critic was protected when Rutgers’ president and Board of Governors took no action against him.

Teach-ins have not been common for several generations, but the engagement of university students and faculty in political debate perseveres, and in some ways it has a more public presence than it ever did. As they have for years, critical scholars speak publicly, appear on television and radio, and write for mainstream media outlets. But few platforms have the real-time immediacy of twitter, or its potential to become the grounds for controversy. Twitter is a polarizing medium. Its ardent users really get it, and use it in ways that outsiders find irritating, confounding, or nonsensical. Twitter is many things for many people, but one way it is being used is very similar to the teach-ins of the 1960s. It is a platform for academics’ social and political criticism, with an often broader potential for spreading dissent than can be contained in a campus auditorium. But the same public soapbox that twitter represents as a place for critical opinion, commentary, and information is also a bright potential target for the outrage machines seeking offending statements to call out.

The most famous case of this is Steven Salaita, and the tweets at the middle of his ordeal are, like the statements of the Vietnam protests, about a war that should be of concern to all Americans. The Israel-Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014 may have shed no American blood, but our government’s policies in the Middle East mean that we are never disinterested bystanders to clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. Salaita, who was hired to teach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign beginning in Fall 2014, tweeted passionately and with great urgency and anger about a catastrophic Israeli military assault. (( Some of these tweets are collected here. )) Salaita was “unhired” during the summer of 2014 as a consequence of his tweets on the war and Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and his legal action against the university is ongoing.

He is not the only scholar whose tweeted statements on matters of public concern have drawn chilling responses from right-wing media as well as campus leaders. Saida Grundy, recently hired to teach at Boston University, faced conservative outrage over tweets she wrote about racial politics and American history, particularly for calling out white people. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was similarly targeted for a tweet describing a conversation with her grandfather, who saw similarities between our Governor Walker and Adolph Hitler, and calling Walker and Republican lawmakers fascists, as well as tweets at undergraduates about the situation in the UW System suffering cuts and changes to tenure and shared governance. It can hardly be random that those singled out for their critical, so-called offensive views are often women and people of color.

Twitter seems to invite clashes of contexts, and as a platform for dissent and public pedagogy, it has clear virtues and limitations. To members of a community within the world of twitter, who engage with one another on a regular basis and share each other’s codes and references, twitter can sustain remarkably vigorous discussion and debate. The short character limit is a constraint (though it also makes for succinct writing), but detractors often miss the crucial point that you can tweet more than once. Twitter is a constant flow of ideas among communities just as much as it is a collection of very brief expressions by individuals. It’s also a medium typically used for conversation rather than polished, edited prose. To outsiders, however, tweets are easily excerpted from the flow, abstracted from their context, and run up the flagpole as banners of transgression. They said WHAT!? Because twitter is so public, and tweets are so easy to quote and embed in stories, the public intellectuals using it are taking huge risks. This isn’t always good for movements critical of the current power structures, and yet it does help to spread a message. The potential for public pedagogy in scholarly tweets is promising but there can be unreasonable costs.

And these costs can only be managed if our universities rededicate themselves to the fundamental values of shared governance and academic freedom. If only the leadership of the University of Illinois in 2014 had shown the same judgment as the Rutgers administrators and Governors in 1965. Much has changed since then, but one undeniable factor has to be the shrinking investment of the state in public education, and the privatization and corporatization of academe. The influence of pro-Israel donors on the UIUC administration and the Board of Trustees was undoubtedly a cause of Salaita’s unhiring.

My own University of Wisconsin System — where I earned two degrees and have taught for 18 years — has been one prominent example of a public institution weakening its academic freedom protections as its transforms from a thriving public trust into a corporatized and privatized shadow of itself. To be nimble, flexible, efficient, etc., our masters in state government, abetted by a friendly Board of Regents appointed by a very conservative governor, have dramatically diminished the faculty’s rights. In place of the nation’s strongest tenure and shared governance protections enshrined in state statute we have new conditions wherein layoffs can be made in the event of academic program changes imposed from on high. This weakening of our position might seem disconnected from the contemporaneous outrages over Salaita and other outspoken tweeting profs. They are actually part of the same political process of curtailment of the freedom to do critical or controversial work in higher education. Who on a UW System campus will feel free to speak out against an Israeli (or American) war, or will sustain research programs on stem cells or climate change, or will have confidence to criticize an administration’s complicity in shifting the costs of education from the public to the individual? Why would we feel confident that administrators will protect us?

Under current conditions, all kinds of pedagogy are under threat — our work in the traditional classroom as well as the public discourse of blogs, tweets, Facebook updates, Chronicle columns, and whatever else we do to share our knowledge and insight online or off. A real university needs not just to tolerate but to incubate critical, unpopular, and controversial ideas. The teach-ins of the 21st Century, whatever forms they assume, will need the freedom even to outrage.

Image Credits:
1. Vietnam War era Teach-in, March 1965.

Please feel free to comment.