December 6, 2016 § Leave a comment
The symposium opened with a panel on Banal Precariousness.
Anne Allison, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University, spoke on “Cleaning up dead remains in times of living/dying all alone: social singlification in Japan”, building on her book, Precarious Japan. As demographic changes happen in Japan, many older people have become worried about dying alone rather than with their families, and about not being mourned. Companies have emerged that “help in your move to heaven” – wrapping up loose ends, disposing of (or ‘ordering’) deceased people’s belongings, and providing a sense of care and respect. The labour of this is both material and affective.
There’s a growing economic sector around ‘the business of the end’, catering for people who don’t have family, or feel their families would be burdened by caring for them and their possessions. This can also be seen as part of a neoliberal shift towards individualised responsibility: an expectation that the individual will take care of themselves, including in the moment of death. There’s a lot of reference made to ‘the stink of a bad death’ – a sense that individuals need to ensure that they don’t leave a mess (literally and morally) in dying. Companies manage ‘special cleanup’, burial, mourning, and in some cases are encouraging people to make ‘grave friends’ – people who they meet before death, who will be buried nearby, so that they won’t be lonely after death. Companies will perform mourning ceremonies for your possessions, too, while you’re still alive – Allison wonders if this allows people to grieve themselves by proxy, as even mourning becomes an individual responsibility.
Tanja Dreher, ARC Future Fellow at the University of Wollongong addressed Precarious Attention. She opened by acknowledging that thinking about precariousness benefits from centring Indigenous experiences in settler-colonial states. Dreher’s research has been informed particularly by work by Indigenous women in Australia, including Amy McGuire, Marcia Langton, and Celeste Liddle.
There are key long-term concerns of media studies that underpin work on precarity that come in part out of Judith Butler’s work. Vulnerability, grief, and value are unevenly distributed. From Black Lives Matter to social media memes around terrorist attacks, there is a politics emerging around the grieving of particular lives (and the failure to grieve others). Some lives are produced as more grievable than others, which enables the ongoing prosecution of war. Media is a key factor in this process, and therefore also an important site of struggle.
Dreher notes that often understandings of uneven attention and concern are framed within visual metaphors. Auditory metaphors can also be useful, however. We can think about calls for attention to different tragedies, and calls for listening to different voices, including those of Indigenous women. It is a political act to struggle against the configuring of particular kinds of suffering – and the suffering of some groups – as banal and unworthy of comment or grieving.
Finally, Susan Leong, Research Fellow at Curtin University, spoke on ‘Banal Precariousness: a Daily Prayer’. Much of our precariousness is related to work. Guy Standing talks about the growth of the ‘precariat’ as a new class in the making. ‘Precarious’ comes from the Latin root which means both a prayer and petition. Leong spoke about different metaphors of precariousness: rather than standing on a precipice, we might think about climbing constantly-shifting sand dunes in the wrong shoes and clothing, without hopes of being saved. It might be banal, if it weren’t so fundamental and essential to our experience.
In Australia, the Turnbull government is creating a situation of ‘churning innovation’, in which we are expected to be nimble, agile, and flexible. As many as 40% of Australian jobs could be replaced by automation over the next decade: in higher education, we see the shift to sessional employment, and shifts in teaching delivery like MOOCs. We need to understand the technologies that perpetuate and facilitate – and sometimes allow resistance to – banal precariousness. Ideas are fragile, according to Mary Douglas, and they require support to travel, grow, and rest. Leong notes the time it’s taken her to work through these ideas around banal precariousness, particularly as traversing the precarity of research within academia.
October 13, 2016 § Leave a comment
Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking more about the idea of ‘belonging’ in academia, following on from my reflections post-AoIR. The converse of not having a single place that feels, unproblematically and fully, like my academic home, and the place where I belong, is that I get to have many spaces where I get energy and inspiration, where I connect well with a few people, and where I find ideas and frameworks that stretch me to think about my research in news ways.
I think about the activism and academia pre-AoIR satellite event, where people were crossing different approaches (the gaps between ‘activism’ and ‘civil society’; between anti-capitalist and more reformist perspectives; between different ways of seeing governance). About conversations I had this year at AoIR about content moderation, feminist research methods, teaching, and finding different ways to fit within academia. About the first time I went to AoIR, and my excitement at finding so much space for critical methodologies, and for women’s voices, and for connecting the personal and the political. About last year’s AoIR, and the attention paid there to how we engage with the broader politics of the world (also a theme this year).
Every conference and symposium I’ve been to has had these kinds of moments. Sometimes it’s only a few talks that shift my understanding in a key way, sometimes I meet people who are working on radically different areas but still offer me a new way to think about research, or about my negotiations with academia. Collaborations that help me link my work with others.
And then there interviews and protests, where I get to learn more about how activism works in practice. Or workshops where my research intermingles with people’s daily experiences, and always changes. Talking at a huge event in Athens, and dancing with friends there afterwards, because that’s important too. Adacamp and Barcamp unconferences, World Social Forums, and other events. And threaded through them all, conversations with people who are changing the world in so many ways.
And, when I go home, my department, and my gradual exploration since returning to Perth of the other researchers at Curtin who are working on overlapping areas. Because Internet studies is a jumble of areas, I’m often working on very different issues to my colleagues, but I’m learning so much from starting to read more of their work. More importantly, it’s been a space within academia where I feel like I can be honest about who I am and what I care about, and where I can find support.
I may not have a clear academic home, but I’m grateful for all these overlapping spaces.
October 9, 2016 § 1 Comment
A lot of people attending talk about having found their academic ‘home’, or about having found their ‘people’. This is understandable: AoIR is an eclectic space, full of amazing, interesting people who are tackling important new problems (and often having to create new methodologies in order to do so).
It’s not my home, though. Except insofar, perhaps, as there’s often a significant gap between idealised images of home and many places in which I’ve actually lived. I’ve gone to quite a few different conferences, across a number of different fields, and I’ve never found ‘home’. I’ve always felt a little out of place, a little unsure about where my work fits in, a little like everyone else seems to know each other and I’m the one standing awkwardly at the edge of groups at social events wondering if I should just give up and go home.
Conferences are a challenge because of this, but still valuable. I’ve met a lot of good people, heard about interesting work that is mostly a few steps away from my own, and occasionally prodded other people’s ideas in the direction of new approaches that I think are important. I think a lot about cross-pollination.
AoIR felt especially hard this year. Part of that was the fact that I’m at a low ebb in terms of energy. In the last few months I’ve moved house, had a rather intense teaching semester, and had some health issues that left me feeling more exhausted than I can ever remember being before. The couple of years before that already depleted my reserves: they’ve been tremendously difficult on a personal level. But part of it was also the strangeness of feeling out of place amidst this narrative of AoIR as home, as ‘our people’. It’s especially jarring to feel my usual awkwardness as so many other people are talking about their sense of belonging.
And in academia, belonging is important. I’ve helped build some collaborations with other early-career scholars that I’ve found tremendously valuable, but I haven’t found mentors to help with some of the tougher aspects of navigating academia. I do okay at publishing, I think, but grants are hard to navigate when you don’t have more established scholars to include you on their projects so you can get your own track record.
I’ve had some very generous advice provided by older academics, but because they’re not quite in my area, it’s not always easy to implement: ‘Believe in your work!’ (I do!) ‘Try applying for grants x and y, they’re low-hanging fruit!’ (Their terms specifically prohibit the kind of research I’m most excited about.) I’m still trying to make these connections, but it’s hard to continually approach more senior academics with a lot of demands on their time and ask: can you help me?
I don’t know if there’s a place in academia that would fit me in the way that AoIR seems to fit others. Much of the work at AoIR is very close: there’s a significant concern with critiquing power structures and creating change in the world, albeit often coming with a different set of assumptions to my own. I met many wonderful people who I hope to stay in touch with, even if I often felt like I was getting in the way of them talking to people more important for their work. I also missed a few chances to meet and talk with others working in similar areas – perhaps in other, less exhausted years, I will be better at finding these connections.
But for others who might have felt the same way as I did at AoIR, worried that we weren’t belonging in the ways that others seem to, I wanted to write this. To remind myself, too, that it’s okay if there isn’t already a perfect home for me in academia. To remind myself that it’s okay to be at the margins. That sometimes even though it would be good to have a place already waiting to accept me, I just have to keep working at building communities where I can fit. Finding people, stitching networks, helping others who also feel out of place, questioning the assumptions that other people are working within. Sometimes, perhaps even often, remaining awkward, and doing my best to make the most of that space on the edge.
September 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
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.
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.
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.
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!