Digital Unmasking: the Ethical Issue of Crowd Surveillance Mathias Klang, University of Massachusetts Boston
[This talk opened, rather jarringly, with a quotation from a guy who recently left ToR after multiple accusations of long-term predatory behaviour. I admit that this unsettled me substantially and probably didn’t help with my note-taking.]
Is there a right to protest anonymously? Anti-masking laws suggest otherwise. This is, in most jurisdictions, no legal right to anonymity, but there are some cases in which we’ve developed a commitment to anonymity, for example, in voting. Anonymity in voting shouldn’t be taken for granted: it was characterised as ‘cowardly’ in US history. We have this idea that democracy should be open.
If every device has politics, what is the politics of a device that captures mobile data? This is a technology that silences uncomfortable discourse.
Bryce Newell, Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society
Some key questions about body cameras and automatic license plate recognition systems (ALPR). Newell cited several examples of the tracking of police behaviour, and videotaping of police killings. Police talk about feeling victimised, or about a ‘witch-hunt’ against them. In interviews around the filming of police violence, themes around context and control. This is also leading to attempts by police to try to limit access to footage.
In other jurisdictions, police are making data more available instead, for example, putting bodycam footage online. However, this leads to its own issues, including ‘collateral visibility’, as citizens interacting with police have their interactions shared online.
Data privacy in commercial uses of municipal location data Meg Young, University of Washington
This research asks about how data privacy is enacted by Seattle’s municipal government. Data collection drew on interviews, focus groups, and other ethnographic research. In Seattle, the state freedom of information law is grounded in a strong presumption of citizen’s right to know.
The Acyclica company collects data (MAC addresses), aggregates this data, and uses it to track travel patterns within the city. If the raw data was a public record, it would be requestable. Since it’s outsourced, it’s not. But analysis of the contract suggests that the data can be resold. Data collecting for this was rationalised in a variety of ways. For example, one employee said that people were ‘opting-in’ by having their phones’ wifi turned on in public space.
Sandra Braman provided some closing comments. One key question: what would you do (as an individual activist and as a community), assuming all of this is true, to be as politically effective as possible? We have to recognise that no matter what we do, it will be unpredictable. Activists can use big data (and other) analysis as well as researchers. [And somewhere in there discussion shifted to another skeevy JA from the tech activist world and I unfortunately ran entirely out of energy].
The Creating Knowledge session opened with Julian Unkel and Alexander Haas’ work on ‘Credibility and Search Engines. The Effects of Source Reputation, Neutrality and Social Recommendations on the Selection of Search Engine Results.’ Using a model of search engine results they added different credibility cues, including markers of the reputation of the source, neutrality of the source, and social recommendations. Students participating in the experiment tended to choose ‘high neutrality’ sources, and also preferred links with a high reputation (news sites).
Reputation influences the probability of selecting a result, but has a weaker effect than rank (how high a source turns up in the search list): other credibility cues don’t have as much of an impact. This leads to two kinds of theoretical conclusion: firstly, that people think about credibility in a secondary way; or, that search rank is seen as a credibility cue. Future research will include modelling images with Google rather than DuckDuckGo, focusing on source cues, and looking at dwell time on different sources.
Next up, Colin Doty talked about ‘Believing the Internet: user comments about vaccine safety’. This research tries to understand misinformation on the Internet. The general theory is that the Internet increases information (because anyone can post; AND/OR it’s easy to retrieve; AND/OR spread of information is rapid; AND/OR echo chambers develop). Doty, instead, focuses on understanding why people believe what they do. He focuses on vaccines because this isn’t a case where there’s uncertainty in the research: instead, like climate change, there’s a strong consensus claims truth and a tiny minority in the research community disputing them (much of it, like Wakefield’s study, discredited).
Thinking about the kinds of claims being made online opposing vaccines, one issue is the way risk/benefit analyses are framed (for example, claims that only one person in a thousand dies of measles while vaccines are “putting everyone at risk of autism”). Searching for “vaccines” on google leads to autocomplete options that include “vaccines cause autism”, and search results lead to breakdowns that over-represent the risk of the vaccines, compared to a straight literature search/meta-analysis (turning up a much higher proportion of anti-vaccine search results than exist in the research).
Other routes to misinformation online include the use of ‘common sense’ reasoning (“it stands to reason that vaccines must…”), motivated reasoning (people’s desire to hold onto ideas they’re emotionally attached to, and the emotional nature of concerns around children’s safety), the spread of personal stories and claims to authority around this (sharing personal anecdotes about vaccination – “my child got vaccinated and the next day they had extreme behaviour changes” – that are used to push back against doctors’ claims of authority). There’s also a new claim to authority being made: parents “do their own research”, arguing that the Internet is leading them to an unobscured truth. This kind of motivated reasoning can be linked to echo chambers theories: that people go looking for information that will support their felt beliefs. One notable trend found here is the rise in the perception of the ability to know, as anti-vaccination advocates claim that “the internet has empowered me with knowledge/research”.
Nicholas Proferes followed with ‘A heuristic for tracing user knowledge of information flow on SMSs’. The problem he’s addressing is the vast user misunderstanding of how social media platforms actually work. For example, users not knowing that Twitter is public by default; Facebook users’ lack of knowledge that their newsfeed is based on an algorithm; Occupy accusing Twitter of censoring Trending Topics – subsequent analysis showed this was actually because the Trending Topic algorithms measure changes in velocity, not ongoing volume; and user responses to the Library of Congress Twitter archive – many users didn’t realise that Twitter was saving their tweets.
All of these issues relate to users’ knowledge of information flow. This matters because our knowledge of information flows on SMS allows us to gauge risks for information disclosure, make meaningful decisions about use, and participate in governance decisions. In part, our knowledge about information flows allows us to push back: our power is limited, but we can participate in networked power (like organising with friends not to use Facebook). However, there’s comparatively little research on the intersection between how information flows online, and how users think information flows online.
Understanding how information flows online is a difficult task: it requires understanding algorithms and design, but also policies, and economic structures. Drawing on Jose Van Dijck’s critical history of social media, Proferes understands information flow as constituted by both technocultural and socioeconomic flows. For Twitter, understanding its system of information flows requires looking at Twitter’s development, user guides, EDGAR search results (NYSE filings), and source code, among other things.
Finally, Leah Scolere and Lee Humphrey’s work on ‘Pinning originality’ examined the curation practices of creative professionals. This starts by understanding Pinterest as a visual discovery tool for finding ideas, and one which privileges curation over creation. This research drew on interviews and participant observation with professional designers. Pinning practices among this group highlighted the idea of originality as performance, process, and product.
Originality was defined differently from how we might expect, here. Rather than being about pinning images taken by the users themselves, it was about taking content from outside Pinterest and pinning it (rather than repinning other’s images). It was also about taking offline design strategies and taking them online, for example, by collecting and effectively curiting inspirational images.
Pinboards are a means for designers to present themselves, as a performance of their identities as designers. Therefore they include a lot of design-related imagery (and a distance between this and what they saw non-designers as pinning, for example, there were no health, recipe, or workout tip pins). Originality as a process was limited by how you can curate a Pinboard, so designers would take a large private Pinboard and repin onto smaller Pinboards. Pinterest allows three private boards: use this as a space to ‘safeguard process’ and try out more ‘edgy’ ideas. There were also links between offline practices and Pinterest use, including face to face discussions between designers about group Pinboards, and conversations about the effort involved in developing Pinboards. Finally, the visibility of pinboards made them into a product presented to others: a way of inspiring imagined audiences.
The next session, Design, opened with Ben Light’s ‘Anyone Here Around Now Today: digitally mediated public sexual cultures’. The ‘real name Web’ is often posed as establishing trust (somewhat disengenously, given companies’ commercial interests in users’ providing their real names), and presented as a passport to authentic connection. However, there are still many spaces where connection happens through pseudonymity. Light draws on Nancy Fraser’s work on subaltern politics (shaped practices that are culturally unacceptable and often also illegal) and work on public sexual cultures from Frankis and Flowers to understand Grindr and other apps as tools to help you connect with other people. Frankis and Flowers differentiate between ‘public sex environments’ (not meant for sex) and ‘public sex venues’ (meant for public sex). Light instead talks about ‘public sex locations’ – as the distinction is not so neat.
This research obviously poses significant methodological and ethical challenges. Data collection draws on user comments and geolocated sites. Data is scraped and anonymised, with pseudonyms from site removed. There are many decisions not to use data in particular ways, and comments aren’t directly quoted in case they eventually become searchable. Getting participant consent was neither possible not desirable. Next James Malazita talked about ‘Non-Humans as meaning makers: Elizabeth as a co-designer of Bioshock Infinite’. Malazita asks, “who counts as a who?”, arguing for the affordances and agency, but also a subject position, for technologies (and specifically the non-player character of Elizabeth). He talks about Elizabeth as a ‘her’, a meaning-making subject [and, somewhat jarringly, Malazita also only referred to the hypothetical male player as ‘he’]. The original plan for Elizabeth was for her to be saved by the player, but for the player to rapidly find out that Elizabeth’s in-game power eclipsed theirs.
However, there’s a contrast between the potential of Elizabeth’s power, and the actual gameplay (in which she mostly hides in corners). Ken Levine talking about design of Bioshock: ‘she was the shark in Jaws’, talking about her as ‘falling through the ground’, ‘staring creepily’…a designed object, but also a ‘she’ who didn’t do what they wanted her to. ‘Elizabeth contributed to her own design’.
Jeffrey Holmes followed with ‘Teaching as designing: creating game-inspired courses’. Holmes notes that experiences, and specifically good experiences, are important for learning. A lot of teaching is about designing good experiences, which means students should have:
Something at stake (affective involvement),
Specific actions to complete,
The ability to plug in to other tools and minds, and
These are all also found in video games. This leads to a lot of literature on gamification. THis problems with this is that there is often too much focus on ‘the game’ (including the game mechanics, which means that students end up playing the game rather than the course, and there are metaphoric layers that interfere with learning). We ask teachers to be game designers (which requires skills that take a long time to learn), and end up with games that may not align well with course goals.
Instead, we might ask what video games can tell us about teaching. Holmes does this by looking at two courses he’s taught that draw on lessons from video games. Some of these lessons include the value of:
Using a World of Warcraft party model to cultivate and resource distributed knowledge skills.
Allowing customisation and problems with multiple solutions.
Treating learners as co-designers and agentive participants.
Structuring ways to gauge how a learner is doing, and where to go next (where to next is the far more important part).
Providing ways to develop a critical narrative for their learning (including how to think of their learning as meaningful; and progression not just of skills but as a journey through identities).
Finally, Helen Kennedy presented research on ‘The Role of Convention in Visualising and Imagining Data’. With the growth in available data, access is often through visualisations: this means we need to think critically about how visualisations are produced, and about how they produce data. Part of the skill in understanding visualisations is understanding that something (data) has been transformed; there’s a difference between seeing visualisations as “windows into data” and visualisations as purposeful mediations of data. Visualisations are purposeful acts: results of decisions. But the resulting visualisation pretends to be coherent and tidy, and removes traces of the interpretation involved.
The power of charts is that they communicate numbers, which people see as trustworthy. There’s an ongoing belief in ‘doing good with data’, and an idea that visualisation makes data transparent and accessible. In interviews with visual designers, they talked about trying to empower people with their visualisations, in part by representing data accurately; including links to sources; and recognising that choices are involved in creating visualisations. We need to take seriously what visual designers say, including their idealism about their work.
Visualisation conventions constrain what visualisations do. Conventions do rhetoric work, play a persuasive role, hide the messiness of visualisation. For example, the use of two-dimensional viewpoints creates a sense of objectivity (use of three dimensional views is frowned upon, as it makes it harder to view data…this makes sense, but also ‘encodes objectivity’ in the two-dimensional viewpoint). Geometric shapes and lines create a sense of order. Citing data sources makes the data look transparent, which does persuasive work – it gives an aura of truthfulnes (which means many of us don’t feel we need to go back to the source, and couldn’t understand it anyway.) We need to think about all of this critically to understand practices surrounding the production and consumption of visualisations.
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!
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.
The Responsive Policies session began with Nathan Fisk‘s work on ‘Vile pornography, sexual miscreants, and electronic stalkers: policy discourse of youth internet safety‘. Fisk argued that we are in a general mode of crisis, in which we’re seeing a transition from ways of controlling society that are focused on segmented, regimented space and time (the panopticon) to forms of control that are much more about continuous streams of surveillance and checking in. As such, we see frequent discussion of ‘choice’ and ‘individual freedoms’, although in many ways these are illusory.
In this context, Fisk discusses the ways in which media create moments of panic that have been used to extend policies of regulation. For example, movies like War Games prompted a shift from the idea of the Internet not just as a bunch of data being moved around data, but rather as a space you can go to (and also a space that can be attacked).
Similarly, recent concerns about ‘cyberbullying’ have lead to regulators pressing social media platforms to extend their own mechanisms for dealing with complaints, and reporting data on ‘bullying’ to regulators.
Next, Stacey Blasiola presented, You [don’t] gotta pay the toll troll: A Transaction Costs Model of Online Harassment, considering ways to change platform design to make it harder to engage in harassment. One of the interesting differences between Fisk’s work and Blasiola’s is that where Fisk talks about top-down pressure from regulators during moments of panic, Blasiola emphasised that the pressure on platforms like Twitter to deal with harassment has mostly come from users. A while ago Dick Costolo, Twitter CEO, acknowledged that Twitter has sucked at dealing with harassment; Blasiola pointed out that there’s a difference between sucking and something, and not trying.
Rather than asking, “what can victims do to respond to trolling?”, we should be thinking about ways that platforms and communities can make trolling [or harassment, which partially overlaps with but isn’t entirely the same as trolling] harder. One aspect of this might involve introducing transaction costs: friction that makes it more difficult to engage in trolling behaviour.
At the moment, the costs of experiencing, and trying to respond to, harassment, are high. Targets of harassment might have to deal with large volumes of abuse, lose the audience and reputation they’ve accrued online as they shift offline or try to protect their privacy, and spend a lot of time trying to report abusive tweets. For attackers using anonymous accounts, there’s little concern about the costs of losing their audiences or reputation – they can create more accounts – and sending an abusive tweet takes far less time than reporting one.
Twitter doesn’t want to lose users, and users don’t want to lose their audience (or they’d just be using a private network). Solutions might therefore include:
Options to flag one’s own account as under attack, which could activate protective features, like blocking tweets from new accounts.
Increase the difficulty of tweeting @mentions (here Blasiola is drawing on research on spammers, where increasing friction can have a significant impact).
In part, this drew on Blasiola’s experience with attacks on video game communities she was involved in, where relatively simple tactics ended the issue.
I think there are a bunch of interesting ideas here, including in drawing out the juxtaposition between top-down and bottom-up forms of regulation (which are not always clearly differentiated). I’m kind of curious, in a half-baked-ideas-just-forming kind of way, to think about what the idea of shifting forces of friction in social media would look like if we drew on Tsing‘s work on friction (as both a slowing force and necessary for traction) instead of Coates’. And about how many hurdles would need to be introduced to actually significantly reduce harassing behaviour (having just read This is why we can’t have nice things, in which Whitney Phillips tracks some of the ways in which trolls shift tactics to accommodate technical changes).
It’s not actually about ethics in games journalismI ended the day with the Gamergate session. As you may have noticed reading yesterday’s evasive notes, I don’t feel entirely comfortable writing about Gamergate. Accurate threat assessments seem challenging. Not being able to write about stuff happening at a conference feels wrong. Potentially putting other people at risk by making them more visible, or by writing about their work in ways that might expose them to abuse, feels wrong. So does not highlighting the excellent research and theorisation being done by people working in the area.
In the end I didn’t end up taking a lot of notes, thinking through this, so here’s some of the work that people on the panel have published in the area,:
Chess, S., & Shaw, A. (2015). A Conspiracy of Fishes, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying About #GamerGate and Embrace Hegemonic Masculinity. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 59(1), 208–220. [Closed access.]
Shepherd, T., Harvey, A., Jordan, T., Srauy, S., & Miltner, K. (2015). Histories of Hating. Social Media+ Society, 1(2).
Massanari, Adrienne. (2015). “# Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures.” New Media & Society.
One of the things that struck me listening to this panel was the parallels with social movement researchers’ ethical and methodological difficulties in studying ‘unlikeable’ (or awkward) movements neo-nazis, the Christian right, and others that make for difficult engagements. It seems like some of this experience and ethical reflection might be useful in thinking about how to approach research on gaming’s latest round of toxicity.
micha cárdenas‘ plenary, Trans of colour poetics: imagining futures of survival, began with the room collaboratively playing redshift & portal. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking game, and I was a little surprised by how affecting the collective experience was (“What do you mean leave? NO! STAY AND HELP!“).
cárdenas used this as a way of exploring ideas around shifting one’s location and form, and about survival. She reminded us that the conference is taking place on land stolen from Diné and other peoples*, and that Keisha Jenkins is the 21st trans woman of colour to be murdered in the US so far this year: this sets the context for thinking about the need to build spaces where people of colour, and particularly trans women of colour, can survive.
This work understands trans women of colour’s knowledge, including their experiences of and responses to violence and surveillance, as central. Trans women need to shift their visibility across contexts: passing as cis women in some spaces in order to remain safe, then becoming more visible in order to resist transphobic violence.
Stitching, as a metaphor, provides one way of thinking about cárdenas’ work: it’s a historically feminised practice, but also one currently practiced by those in sweatshops in the South. So using stitching as a practice is in part about learning from those who are oppressed, finding means to connect people who have formerly been separated.
This can, in part, be explored through wearable technologies. Some of these, like Adam Harvey’s anti-drone Stealth Wear garments, are developed to comment on technologies of violence, but without consultation with those who experience this violence, and without an expectation that the garments will be used.
cárdenas, similarly, doesn’t attempt to market garments like the mesh network-enabled Local Autonomous Networks, in part because there’s already a significant market in expensive ‘safety garments’. Instead, she focuses on exploring ideas that others might pick up on, creating new stitches to connect people and tactics. One of these projects, Transborder Immigration Tool, was described by Glen Beck as containing poetry with “the potential to destroy the nation”.
The first panel I went to for the day was on #BlackLivesMatter. Catherine Knight Steele opened with ‘When the Black lives that matter are not our own’, discussing the emergence of Black digital feminism. Steele’s work draws on Squires‘ work on counterpublics, enclaves, and satellite communities to look at the ways in which Black women’s blogging practices preserve and extend practices of Black orality, establishing spaces that are open, but at the same time limited to those who understand particularly contexts.
A number of issues are continuing themes for Black digital feminism, including:
Agency: as was seen in discussions about Beyonce’s 2014 album release – the blogosphere was less concerned about whether or not Beyonce is a feminist than about her right to claim the title for herself.
The right to self-identification: the politics involved in owning and operating in blackness, especially for those who have the option not to. By talking about blackness online, people can claim blackness offline.This is important for those dissociated from spaces of blackness geographically.
Non-gender binary spaces: thinking about how Black women’s lives are articulated differently when it comes to gender, and decentralising notions of fertility, and maternal instincts. This also means being critical about discourses of ‘worthy victims’, and calling out Black men and others within the movement who aren’t paying attention to the violence Black women, including Black trans women, and non-binary Black people, face.
Complicated allegiances: to religiousity, and to white feminists.
Dialectic of self and community needs: many Black digital feminists are aware of the contradictions between one’s own needs and those of others. In large part, this comes back to capitalism, and the need to survive within it while also pushing back against it.
Praxis: this is embodied in the discourse of blogging. bell hooks talks about ‘teaching to transgress’: Black digital feminists are blogging to transgress. Not just striving to understand the world, but to change it.
Next up, Kishonna L. Gray talked about Gaming for Change. Gray talked about the potential that video games offer to explore different approaches to activism, and at the same time the challenges of attempting this when video games are so embedded in mainstream culture.
To really use games to create change, we need to see not only games for change, but also gamers for change, and a gaming culture for change. This was made clear when #Spawn4Good emerged as a response to that Online Hate Mob That Is Totally Not About Ethics in Games Journalism and Ferguson: gamers used Twitch to collect funds for Eric Gardner’s burial costs. In doing so, they faced a significant backlash from some gamers. This also happened when people attempted to create links between #BlackLivesMatter and the Ethics in Games Journalism jerks: both gamers and mainstream feminists rejected the idea that these were connected.
The foundation of gaming technology reflects intersecting and overlapping racist structures that are hard for activist communities to disrupt. For this to happen effectively, acts of racial violence must be framed as something for the community to deal with, not just those affected. Blizzard, Microsoft, and other companies that run major gaming platforms need to be actively disrupting structures of racism, and at the moment they’re just not interested in doing that.
In ‘Toward Social Justice, Against Media Bias, Creating Tumblr Content with Purpose Through #iftheygunnedmedown’, Jenny Korn talked about the respectability politics inherent in #iftheygunnedmedown. This response to the mainstream media’s framing of Mike Brown’s murder highlighted the racialised representation of Black people in the US. Black people are portrayed as dangerous and deviant, and therefore as suitable targets of violence. #iftheygunnedmedown pushed back at that, demonstrating that the same Black people who were shown throwing ‘gang signs’ (any hand gesture), smoking, drinking, or wearing sports wear, were also parents, graduates, responsible employees, and in other ways upright citizens.
While this provides a vital critique of the racism of mainstream media, Jenny Korn also emphasises that respectability politics has its limits. It requires that Black people demonstrate their ‘value’ within the structures of whiteness before they can be excluded from racialised violence. It also privileges white comfort, trying to show that Black people are well-behaved, unthreatening.
A more complete resistance to the mainstream media’s racist portrayals of Black people murdered or otherwise harmed by structures of white supremacy wouldn’t aim for respectability, but would rather value the whole of Black experience.
Finally, Sarah Florini talk about This Week in Blackness and Leveraging Journalism. TWiB was created by Elon James White as an online video series, but now has a significant digital media presence, including seven podcasts, Twitter accounts, and an online TV show. TWiB has reconfigured the relationship between content creations and the audience: the audience is not distant, but much more visible and participatory. The people running TWiB are using social media not just to promote their content, but to have interactions with their audience, and build a sense of social connection. This means TWiB functions as a network in the old sense of the world – both a broadcast network, and a network of people and technology.
When Ferguson happened, mainstream reporting was atrocious: at times, CNN were saying that everything was quiet, while people on the ground were reporting being attacked by police with tear gas. TWiB’s audience requested that they provide coverage, and provided donations to help. By being there on the ground, Elon James White and other people were able to get better information out, and to disrupt the mainstream media narrative: it’s hard to claim ‘all is quiet’ when someone has live video in which they’re being tear-gassed.
The panel ended with a comment from the audience, which several people picked up, that we should be paying attention to #FeesMustFall protests in South Africa. I’ve been heartened to see the international attention that this is getting, and hope that this will be helpful in preventing further violence against the students.
Images from Cape Town’s #FeesMustFall protests
* I’ve used terms here that are most appropriate as far as I’m aware, but coming from Australia there’s a different context and background, so I may have messed up.
Also I am horribly jetlagged, so please excuse any incoherence in the post – hopefully I’ll fix it up later when I have time for edits.