AoIR16 Day 2: Imagining social justice, Connecting research and activism, and Theorizing Internet Governance

October 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Presenting on the panel Anna Lauren Hoffman put together, Imagining Social Justice through the Internet and Beyond, was a great way to start the day! Stine Eckert opened with ‘The haphazard democratic potential of social media’, discussing her research with women blogging in the US and Europe. While she draws on public sphere theory, at the same time she’s critical of it: the metaphor of a ‘sphere’ projects a perfectedness, roundedness, and homogeneity in which everyone participates, which is clearly not the case. Instead, she’s developing a theory of fluid public clusters to more effectively talk about how women shift between different topics in their blogging.

Fluid public clusters are directed towards other publics, not working towards isolation. Things are fluid and messy and change over time, like people’s lives. At the same time, women online can come together quickly around key issues, as seen particularly in the swift emergence of discussions around #yesallwomen and #uoksis (the latter among Black women, particularly in the US).

When Eckert asked bloggers about the democratic potential of social media, most women assessed it as mixed. While bloggers appreciated the ability to publish online, online harassment was a significant issue, and the biggest constraint was: “whose voices get heard?” (and taken seriously). Power hierarchies move online, that space doesn’t remove structural differences.

I followed by talking about some of the problems with limiting our imaginations of social justice to the liberal model of politics: more about that to come!

Social Justice Rogue!

Social Justice Rogue!

The next presentation, by Ruth Deller, looked at ‘Imagining the social justice warrior’. Deller noted that the term ‘social justice warrior’ started being used more around 2011/2013, drawing on a similar (but not entirely overlapping) backlash to that seen in the right-wing critique of ‘political correctness’. SJWs are seen by their critics as “people who get offended all the time” who especially like to hang out on Tumblr. Across platforms, there’s often contestation around the term, with some hosting significant anti-SJW content, while others have lots of users posting more positive takes on the term (often tagged with ‘social justice’ rather than ‘SJW’) – Pinterest is the exception, with almost-entirely positive content.

Finally, Gregory Donovan spoke on ‘Empathy and Efficiency on the ‘Smart’ Urban Frontier’, contrasting empathy and effiiency as two contrasting and opposing paradigms in the ‘data driven city’. This work draws on on examples from NYC, including Hudson Yards – previous dockyards set up to attract Google and other companies, as well as those working from them. The developers of Hudson Yards have been working with NYU to set up “the first quantified community”, which Donovan links to a push by ex-NYC-mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has personally made a bunch of money off data-driven industries,to get other cities to ‘find ways to use data’ to make money.

To counter this drive towards ‘efficiency’, Donovan argues for empathy as an ontological stance, calling for a more qualitative and situated approach to urban space. One example of this is the Researchers For Fair Policing project, which has created videos of young Black and Brown men talking about what it feels like to be harassed by the people who are “supposed to be protecting” them.

That session lead on well to the roundtable on Real and Imagined Boundaries: Building Connections Between Social Justice Activists and Internet Researchers. There was a lot of interesting discussion here that I didn’t cover in my notes, in part because it seemed a little challenging to cover the wide variety of speakers. I’m really excited that AoIR is a space where these conversations are happening, though – where people are thinking about how researchers connect with (or fail to connect with) activists in different spaces, what our research is for, and how to use the institutional power of AoIR strategically both inside and outside of academia to provide support to activist projects.

As part of this roundtable, Terri Senft talked about her research with sex workers. She notes that as researchers, we have a lot of complex ideas about what people want or need from us, and we’re often wrong. So far, Internet scholars have been mostly uninterested in sex work, with the exception of online pornography. This is ironic, given that there are lots of porn performers online discussing labour issues in the “tube” model of distribution. But sociology and public health literature (which does look at sex work) focuses heavily on street workers, which is actually a very small proportion of sex work globally. This reinforces ideas of sex workers as objects, rather than subjects – a side economy to visit, rather than integral to the economic structures we’re all working with.

So researchers need to be thinking about how to speak with, rather than to or about, sex workers, and learn from the issues they’re discussing themselves. Researchers also need to deconstruct the mainstream and subcultural fascination with sex work, and instead pay attention to what sex workers want, and what they’re talking about. A large part of this is no longer thinking of people as either “poor, subaltern, unable to speak” others, or “highly-connected” – sex workers are all connected in some way, through their own burner phones, or through others caring for or managing them in ways that involve monitoring their internet streams.

The fishbowl on Engaging with Issues of Social Justice in Higher Education covered similar ground, but focusing much more closely on our complicated position as educators: trying to open space in the classroom for challenging practices and discussions, often while in precarious positions ourselves.

The final session I went to, Governance, opened with work from Francesca Musiani on ‘Plumbing and practices: STS approaches to internet governance research’. This talk recognised the increasing interest in how Science and Technology Studies (STS) can be used to understand Internet governance, drawing on Actor-Network Theory (ANT). Internet governance has primarily been defined by practitioners of international relations, and analysed by political science scholars, but STS can highlight mundane practices that ‘do’ governance, describe governance’s hybrid arrangements and assess their performative role, look at how controversies bring governance elements to the fore, and underline instances where infrastructure is invisible, pervasive, and yet has agency. In doing this, having one precise definition of Internet governance can be a problem (and often impossible) when addressing specific case studies.

Using STS to understand Internet governance can help us to better understand privatization, architecture-embedded politics, technical and political governance(s), communities of practice, and institutions (observed as dynamic, evolving, systems, partially embedded in technological devices). This also leads to thinking about ‘multi-stakeholderism’ in a different light – thinking about hybrid forms, socio-technical assemblages, how stakeholders actually come together, and the intervention of the private sector. Jeanette Hoffman has talked about Internet governance as an ‘idea in flux’ – STS can be a way of recognising and examining this.

The presenter of the next paper, Jean-Francois Blanchette, was absent, due to a new baby (congratulations!) Dmitry Epstein gave a brief overview and encouraged us to look for more detail in Blanchette’s recent publications. The two main points here are that:

  • There is a value to trying to detach the notion of governance from institutions. What happens when we put the institution aside and look at governance manifested in mundane practices?
  • We need to ask about how users’ mundane practices and technical artefacts interact.

“The Internet governance building”Next, Dmitry Epstein talked about his own work, ‘Duality squared: theorizing internet governance’, looking at the evolving definition of Internet governance. This draws on a close examination of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and the multistakeholder model: the IGF makes no binding resolutions, but come together to discuss Internet and policy. Looking at the event, there are two categories of people. The first are celebrities (Vint Cerf, heads of state, etc), who are performing multistakeholderism publicly. And then the second are people who are less visible, the IGF nucleus, who set the agenda, decide which issues and people will get most time.

The IGF nucleus is mostly from a UN or European background (“accidentally” linked to WSIS), persistent (only 39 people and entities that have participated in more than five preparatory meetings), active (making more interventions than others during meetings), dominant (speaking more than others per meeting), socially cohesive (they know each other, sometimes go on vacation together, know each other’s families), and with a focused mobility (people change jobs to allow them to continue setting the agenda for the IGF). These are the people who write legislation, make international agreements, design standards, and it requires a more complex understanding of Internet governance to properly understand their role.

Finally, Laura DeNardis and Andrea Hackl spoke on ‘Internet control points as LGBT rights mediation’, examining how infrastructure and governance arrangements embed particular politics and thinking about different ways in which day-to-day operation of infrastructure governance (control of TLDs, accessibility standards, etc) are co-opted and ‘tampered with’. The basis of this work, as with all of DeNardis’ work, is that arrangements of technical infrastructure are also arrangements of power. This research is trying to go beyond looking at content and Internet use, and how that affects internet expression, to examine instead how conflicts materialise within the infrastructure of systems. This includes Pakistan using the structure of the domain name system to block access to LGBT sites; Santorum asking Google to change their algorithms to help his ‘Google problem’; and the use of Grindr to locate gay men by Al Qaeda. This also requires understanding that Internet infrastructure is frequently privately-held, and exists as actual, material, infrastructure. We also need to look at the ways in which the policies of social media platforms can be significant, and their implications.

Resettling at Curtin and exploring research

September 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

One of the display screens at HIVe

One of the display screens at HIVe

A big part of my focus, returning to Curtin’s campus in the last month and a half, has been trying to catch up on what other researchers here are doing. This has been a particularly good time for that, as there are a few interesting events happening for Curtin’s 2015 research week.

I’m honoured to have won the ECR prize for best humanities research chapter for Changing Facebook’s Architecture, part of the excellent collection on An Education in Facebook? put together by my colleagues Mike Kent and Tama Leaver. I’m especially grateful for Tama’s encouragement to enter the awards, which I might not have done otherwise.

The Humanities Research Celebration highlighted so much exciting work happening around Curtin, much of which I’m hoping to explore over coming months. Fiction by Kim Scott, Liz Byrski, and others; research by Elfie Shiosaki on Noongar political activism in the early 20th century; Thor Kerr’s recent book on community conservation in Fremantle; my colleagues’ work on disability activism, human-robot communications, online identity, and diaspora; and much more.

It’s great to be back, and I’m thinking a lot about the possibilities available in a space where there’s so much interesting work happening, and so many people trying to build inclusive, diverse, and critical networks and perspectives.

On (re)reading bell hooks

March 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve been trying, lately, to fill the terrible holes in my knowledge that were left by my degree. I studied political science and international relations at a pretty conservative department. This has given me a strong grounding in stuff like, ‘classical liberal thinkers who happen to be mostly white men (and Mary Wollestonecraft for ‘diversity’) who I find deeply unsatisfying’, and a very poor grounding in more radical theories.

I’ve been reading bell hooks, and Sandra Harding, and anarchafeminist authors, and trying to find theories and frameworks that both mesh with my experiences of the world and challenge me to think more deeply about structures of oppression, and possibilities for liberation.

The problem is, I’m still reading within the framework I’ve been trained in. I was reading bell hooks’ Where we stand: class matters, and taking notes for a paper I’m working on. Then I realised there was a pattern to my note-taking. I was marking, for example, passages like this:

From the onset, there has been a struggle within feminist movement between the reformist model of liberation, which basically demands equal rights for women within the existing class struggle, and more radical and/or revolutionary models, which call for fundamental change in the existing structure so that models of mutuality and equality can replace old paradigms. (101)

Passages that are abstract and theoretical, that I can take and apply neatly to the writing I’m currently doing, bolstering the argument I want to make about the need for something beyond liberal feminism.

At the same time, I caught myself skimming over hooks’ descriptions of her own experiences as a Black woman within the feminist movement. I skipped over her descriptions of having white women talk over her in women’s studies classes or feminist spaces, being patronised, and being shouted over during discussions. I took the parts of her argument that felt like they fit (the need to talk about class, the need to mention race at least in passing, the need to call for more revolutionary forms of feminism) and discarded the parts that didn’t seem relevant (most importantly, hooks’ centering of her experiences as a Black woman as a grounding for her theory).

This is just what I was taught to do at university: to discard the personal in favour of abstract theory, and in particular to marginalise the perspectives of women and people of colour. Of course, this was never done overtly: we would take about race and class, but then get back to reading the works of white men who wrote ‘objectively’, as if their own experiences were irrelevant (and, at the same time, universal).

At times, this tendency towards taking parts of a theory while discarding others has been a form of resistance. In a space where most of the theoretical frameworks I was provided with felt terribly broken, I learned to cobble together the bits and pieces that seemed least broken to try to make something I could live with and use. That strategy has been important to me in the past, and will continue to be when I’m dealing with theory built on the experiences of privileged people. But it’s a form of erasure when it means sidelining racism and other forms of oppression I don’t experience.

It will take work to undo this. It will take work to find theorists who shift me in new directions. It will take work to notice, and undo, habits of reading and writing and research that reinforce the status quo. I’m noticing, more, how often white feminist academic and activist writing seems to mention intersectionality without acknowleding the foundational work by Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, the Combahee River Collective. I’m noting how often white feminists talk about ‘intersectionality’ while continuing to centre the experiences of white, middle-class (or elite) women, sometimes not even mentioning race at all. I am noticing more the ways in which I do this myself.

I am, of course, not the only person noticing these issues. Bell hooks’ writing makes it very clear that she has been seeing this process of erasure for decades; Sirma Bilge has published on the depoliticization of intersectionality; Black, Afroindigenous and women of colour have challenged the ways their theorising and organising are attacked online; and frankly I am probably missing a whole bunch of excellent writing on this topic because I am still working to find it.

This process of realisation I’m going through has happened in large part because of social media. I’m learning from the frequently-unwaged labour referred to in #thistweetcalledmyback, work by women of colour who engage in debates that are often incredibly wearing and destructive for them. And, in writing about this here, I’m hoping to make a small contribution to other people’s (particularly white, university-educated people’s) process of learning also: to notice our research processes, to do better, to try to centre experiences beyond our own.

Social Media & Society 2014 wrap up, part 1: gender and moments of grunching

September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

This was my first attendance at Social Media and Society Conference, and sadly I could only participate in the first day, being keen to get back to Montreal to help Claire prepare for the oncoming arrival of BabyClaire. Despite feeling a little anxiety that BabyClaire might decide to make an early appearance, I enjoyed the opportunity to catch up on some of the latest research around social media use, particularly given the heavy focus on issues around social justice, race, and gender.

Click on the image for more Kate Beaton/awful velocipedestrienne excellence!

Click on the image for more Kate Beaton/awful velocipedestrienne excellence!

The morning opened with a keynote from Keith Hampton, which began with an amusing overview of some of the moral panics that have accompanied previous technological developments (including the horror of women on bicycles). After a discussion of ways in which social media facilitates increasing connection and other benefits, Hampton turned to addressing some of the costs of social media. Drawing on work by Noelle-Neuman on ‘The Spiral of Silence’, Hampton discussed recent research he’s carried out with others around the potential of social media to facilitate more lively online discourse. Surprisingly, research on Americans’ discussions of Snowden showed that only 0.3% of people were willing to the topic online but not offline. Twitter and Facebook users who felt their online connections didn’t agree with their opinions were also less willing to talk about those opinions offline, across contexts. Overall, this undermines claims that people will turn to online forums to voice opinions that might be unpopular or controversial offline.

The second potential cost of social media that Hampton discussed was the increased stress that comes from learning more about bad news experienced by close connections. Results here were highly gendered, beginning with the base measures of stress: women are, on average, more stressed than men. (Race also plays a role, unsurprisingly – Jenny Korn noted the need for more discussion on this.) Men, on the whole, experience no changes in stress levels associated with increasing social media use, while women generally experienced lessened stress with more social media use. However, the contagion effects of bad news for close connections were significantly higher for women than for men.

This was interesting research (which my short summary does little justice to), but I did experience an odd moment of grunching during this talk – a sudden sensation of being othered. In discussing women’s higher levels of awareness of stressful events in close connections lives, Hampton made a throwaway joke about his wife having ‘some theories as to why this might be’. This is not, obviously, a glaring instance of sexism, but the smattering of polite laughter did, suddenly, throw me out of my sense of ease and curiosity about research. Some of the tweets that followed helped to catalyse the source of my unease: the expectation that we could all laugh along at the disproportionate burden of emotional labour that women bear, and the lack of interrogation about why we bear that burden, or how we might shift it.

I experienced a few other moments of this sudden grunching throughout the conference (including when a participant well above forty joked on the conference hashtag about the difficulty of verifying age of consent in singles bars). I’ve decided to start writing about them despite my anxiety that, as an early career researcher, such reflections will have negative impacts on my work, because I think it’s important to name and discuss these small moments of alienation and otherness, as well as the big ones.

After the keynote presentation, I presented Tim and my research in the ‘Politics’ stream (we’re currently working on writing this up, so hopefully we’ll be able to share more soon). Next up, Mapping Iran’s Online Public‘, by Xiaoyi Ma and Emad Khazraee, laid out a useful methodology for capturing and automatically categorising tweets in Farsi. While this research does tend to support the common assumption that Twitter in Iran is dominated by young progressives (probably because Twitter is banned in Iran), Khazraee noted that the Iranian blogosphere is much more evenly divided.

Catherine Dumas’ presentation on Political mobilisation of online communities through e-petitioning behaviour in WeThePeople focused on the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, demonstrating signs of organised counter-mobilisation against gun control, including several e-petitions attempting to shift the focus to mental health services and armed guards in schools.

The final presentation of the session focused on issues of archiving and trust related to government use of social media, particularly around the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools. Elizabeth Shaffer spoke about the importance of archives to those trying to prove their experiences at residential schools and seek redress, and noted that records will continue to be important as we look back on the Commission over coming years. She suggested that social media is likely to play a key role in the discussions around the Commission, and has the potential to be used for more horizontal engagement and information sharing. This research is still at an early stage, albeit a fascinating one, bringing together literature on social media, archiving, and governance: I’m very curious to learn more about how the process of archiving social media around the Commission progresses, and whose voices are (and aren’t) included.

The next panel addressed Twitter and Privacy, with all three panelists noting that this issue is inherently gendered. Siobhan O’Flynn addressed the ways in which Twitter’s terms of service create a legal grey zone. O’Flynn argued, in part, that the existence of hashtags as a means of joining a broader conversation sets up an implicit expectation of privateness for non-hashtagged content – I’m curious about the empirical data around this, and whether users base their actions on this expectation. Nehal ElHadi, like O’Flynn, discussed the appropriation of tweets in response to Christine Fox‘s question to her followers about what they were wearing when they were assaulted, using this as a starting-point for exploring what it means for Twitter content to be ‘public’. ElHadi’s theoretical framework draws on a range of literature, including postcolonial work on the politicisation of space, bringing in vital attention to race and power online, which is often neglected in academia.

Finally, Ramona Pringle spoke briefly on some of her transmedia storytelling projects (including Avatar Secrets, which looks like a super-cool exploration of what it means to live in a wired world, told through a personal lens). Pringle emphasised that Twitter, like other social media, isn’t just a device like a VCR; it’s not a tool we read the manual for, operate, and then put down. Instead, it’s a space we hang out in – we may not understand all of the implications and potential consequences of being there, in much the same way that we may not understand all of the laws governing public spaces like a library or coffee shop. She also spoke about the inherent messiness of human relationships, which includes human relationships online, and why this means that it’s not reasonable to draw lines like, ‘adults just shouldn’t sext’, or ‘if you don’t want people to see naked images of you, don’t ever take them’.

In tomorrow’s installment of the SMSociety14 wrap up: cultural acceptance, social media use by unions, and Idle No More!

Thinking about research ethics

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

I didn’t get much (well, any) training in the ethics of research during my formal studies, apart from the documents that came along with my first ethics application. Over the years, I’ve been thinking more about what constitutes ethical research involving activists, and how I can use my relatively-privileged position within academia. The work I’ve been doing with Tim Highfield on the Mapping Movements project has also raised new challenges as we’ve tried to think about how to use social media material ethically (and rigorously). Over recent years, I’ve also come across more critiques by feminists and people of colour of the ways in which their lives, analyses, and work has been appropriated by academia and the media.

In response to this, I’ve tried to put together a rough public document about the ethical guidelines for my research. This is intended as a public statement of accountability, and I hope to continue updating it in response to further thinking and self-education.

Teaching on Facebook and content restrictions

October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today when I logged into Facebook I Imagegot a message letting me know that I was banned from posting any content for the next 24 hours. Another contributor from a group I help to moderate had posted ‘inappropriate content’ and so all moderators for that group were temporarily locked from posting to Facebook at all.

This would be mildly annoying most of the time, but at the moment I’m teaching a unit where a substantial proportion of the discussion takes place through a Facebook group. Ironically, the unit is on ‘power and politics’ and the Internet.

While there are compelling reasons to experiment with Facebook in teaching (including students’ preference for the site over universities’ official learning management systems), doing so will inevitably raise issues like this. Should I leave the group? Should I, and other educators, avoid posting to Facebook about issues that may lead to bans? Should I try to create a teaching profile and a personal profile (which is against Facebook policy)? I and other contributors have touched on some of these issues in the chapter I contributed to An Education in Facebook?, but we need to be thinking more about ownership and control as we explore new teaching tools.

MOOCs: thinking about context

May 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Recently, professors at a San Jose State refused to use a lecture series by Michael Sandel at their university: it’s well worth reading their explanation of this decision. After a long and somewhat frustrating discussion about this, I think it’s worth teasing out some of the issues surrounding MOOCs. Much of this draws on the conversation which I just had, but mostly because these views are representative of much more widely-held opinions.

Image of empty chairs in a lecture-room, overlaid with a network

Image courtesy of opensourceway

There’s the assumption that just because something is ‘open source’, it must be good. This is tied to other assumptions about what openness means, such as the assumption that ‘open source’ necessarily means more participatory and more accessible. While MOOCs certainly have the potential to make interesting, useful, learning material widely available so that students (and others) can enrich their learning, we do need to bear in mind the context in which they’re being developed. Context matters. ‘Open source’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’ in all contexts, because other considerations must be taken into account.

In this case, we need to remember that MOOCs are being developed in the context of cuts to university funding around the world, and in the context of university systems which tend to privilege publishing over teaching, with ever-increasing class sizes and workloads for lecturers. We’re seeing a massive casualisation of the workforce as we shift from full-time lecturers doing most of the teaching to the use of underpaid teaching assistants who are usually on short-term, precarious contracts. Funding for students is also limited, making it harder for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to get a university education (in the US far more than in Australia).

What does this mean for our evaluation of MOOCs? Firstly, we need to be aware of the probability that requests (or demands) that lecturers use content from MOOCs hosted at other universities are motivated more by a desire on the part of university management to cut costs than by a concern for quality teaching. Secondly, there is a strong chance that the use of lecture content from MOOCs will be used to justify further casualisation of the academic workforce on the basis that as the backbone of the unit is there, all that’s needed will be teaching assistants/tutors rather than full-time lecturers. Thirdly, this is likely to contribute to and reinforce the existing two-tier system (more so in the US than Australia): some students will have access to lecturers who develop units, have funding for research, and engage in hands-on teaching, while poorer students at under-resourced universities will get content developed elsewhere, taught by tutors who are unlikely to have the resources and support necessary to develop themselves as teachers and as researchers.

There’s also the issue of what we use as the standard. While I’m sure Sandel is an engaging lecturer with many valuable points to make, the outline for the ‘Justice’ unit which the San Jose professors declined to use states that, “principal readings for the course are texts by Aristotle, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls.” In a unit covering “affirmative action, income distribution, same-sex marriage, the role of markets, debates about rights (human rights and property rights), arguments for and against equality, dilemmas of loyalty in public and private life”, it’s worth questioning whether a backbone consisting purely of dead white men is most appropriate.

Some of the books taught in Ethnic Studies units in Arizona – those usually left out of mainstream curricula.

Universities, and particularly the most prestigious and well-funded US universities, are still disproportionately accessible to privileged groups within society. If unit content is increasingly produced primarily by these universities, and then farmed out to other places, we are likely to hear a more and more narrow range of perspectives. The existing constraints on marginalised voices within academia will be reinforced: women and minority groups will, in all likelihood, be those who are pushed (further) into precarious employment as short-term teaching staff unable to create their own units.

I’m not against the idea of MOOCs. But we need to think about the broader context in which they’re developed, and take active steps to shape them in positive directions. We need to hold open spaces for participatory, accessible learning that values a diversity of voices – including those of both students and teachers. In order to do this, we can’t take the discourse of ‘openness’ associated with MOOCs at face value.

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