Internet – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What to Make of the Historic Net Neutrality Win Wed, 11 Mar 2015 14:20:19 +0000  

Tom Wheeler, Jessica Rosenworcel, Jessica RosenworcelThe FCC has done what even a few months ago seemed to most totally unthinkable: they delivered real net neutrality policy, putting in place strong regulations to protect fairness in internet access. After a decade-long policy battle, net neutrality advocates got nearly everything we’ve been calling for: clear-cut Open Internet rules that prohibit broadband network operators from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing internet content and services, that apply to both wired and wireless networks, and— the most wonky, yet most important, point— are based in Title II of the Communications Act. In other words, the FCC can now stop broadband providers from restricting your internet traffic or charging extra for exclusive internet “fast lanes,” whether your connection is to a personal computer or a mobile device, all rooted in a long-standing regulatory tradition of “common carriage” that protects openness and equality for essential two-way communications infrastructure. (For more details, you can check out my previous coverage of net neutrality here on Antenna, where I’ve written about the importance of Title II and the politics of policy that led to this point. For more on what net neutrality even is, you can check out my explainer for the Media Industries Project.)

Overall, the FCC’s new Open Internet rules represent a major come-from-behind victory for net neutrality advocates and a significant achievement for more democratic communications in the US. So, what should we make of this landmark FCC decision? How in the world did this actually get done? And what exactly happens now? Let me mention a couple of quick points along these lines.

The first and perhaps most important point is that a resilient social movement succeeded in getting a meaningful progressive victory in communications policy— an affirmative victory to enact good policy, not a defensive victory to stop bad policy. This success came even on a seemingly arcane and technical regulatory issue of invisible infrastructure, within a policy arena where corporate discourse and dollars dominate. I’ve spent the last eight years following net neutrality and, while I remained cautiously (if, as many told me, irrationally) optimistic throughout that it could get successfully put into policy, even I have to admit that it was quite a long shot to get rules this good from the FCC. Net neutrality policy has a long history of half-steps forward and large tumbles backwards, on a policymaking playing field heavily tilted in favor of the large corporations that set the terms of engagement there. Nonetheless, a strong coalition of media reform and civil rights activists, legal and technologist advocates, and online creators and startups pushed net neutrality forward in the policy sphere and the public sphere. They mobilized millions of citizens to engage with the FCC in its Open Internet proceeding— a powerful popular force in support of net neutrality that made it more than good policy, but also good politics. Some cynical defeatists are content to ignore the real difference made by everyday people’s voices and actions, instead emphasizing the role of the tech industry in lobbying for net neutrality in service of its economic interests. This perspective is not only demeaning and disempowering in terms of activist strategy, but also not very accurate: Google, Amazon, and other tech heavy-hitters mostly sat it out this time around, while smaller outsider tech firms (the likes of Etsy and Kickstarter don’t exactly have much sway inside the Beltway) worked better with the activist coalition.

The second point is this: even though this is a historic victory that should be celebrated, the fight is far from over. This is true in an immediate sense of challenges to the Open Internet rules. Broadband network operators and their allies in Congress are already seeking to block the new rules. The FCC will also surely be sued as soon as the Open Internet rules go into effect, kicking off yet another long legal battle over the agency’s ability to regulate internet infrastructure. It’s worth noting, though, that Comcast and AT&T both have potential mergers being considered by the FCC currently and Verizon’s appeal of the much weaker 2010 Open Internet rules backfired pretty bad on them, making theses corporations perhaps a bit more lawsuit gun-shy than usual (the cable and wireless lobbies look most likely to sue). Regardless, because this time the Open Internet rules are built on the strong and appropriate statutory foundation of Title II, we can be confident that the rules will stand up in court.

But the fight is also not over in a bigger picture sense: as consequential a victory as this is, it is ultimately just one step on a longer journey toward more equitable media structures. On the internet infrastructure front alone, there is much more to be done to ensure faster, more affordable, more inclusive broadband network access (although the other FCC action that same day— to overrule state restrictions on municipal broadband networks— opens a door toward a more promising future of public internet infrastructure for more cities). Having net neutrality meaningfully enshrined in communications regulations, and having FCC policy moving toward treatment of internet access as an essential utility, is huge, but net neutrality has proven a resonant discourse that can speak to critical social justice goals and can be employed more widely. Net neutrality could ultimately end up most historically significant, then, for the powerful discourse and movement that advocates put together around it— if we can build on this success and use this momentum to push forward for more victories like this one.


Downloading Serial (part 4) Fri, 19 Dec 2014 04:45:52 +0000 Serial concludes, what does its successes and shortcomings teach us about the possibilities of podcasting?]]> serial1

Previously on “Downloading Serial

… was more than a month ago. Why the delay? Partly it was personal circumstances: a dead hard drive, family commitments, end of the semester craziness. But more it was because I didn’t quite have enough to say to warrant an installment, as many of my thoughts were only partly formed, or contingent on how future Serial developments would play out before I wanted to commit to an analysis. My abiding sense that Serial itself was in flux as a cultural object made it difficult to write an analysis that could avoid its own wavering and uncertainty.

But now we are done, or at least the standard weekly release of the story of Adnan Syed on Serial has ended. His story is far from over, but the storytelling has stopped. And I’m left to reflect on what Serial was, and might have been, had it not been so wedded to its weekly release schedule and need to conclude before the holiday season kicks in. One of the most exciting elements of Serial is how it has seemed to be inventing its own structural conventions throughout its run, distinguishing itself from typical radio with variable episode lengths, and jumping onto the high wire act of simultaneously reporting and presenting astory. From the beginning, Sarah Koenig has said that we’ll be following along with her as she discovers the story, and that they did not know how exactly many episodes the first season would be. But the final month has felt like they were spinning their wheels, looking for material to structure each weekly episode (especially last week’s “Rumors” installment), even given the extra break for Thanksgiving, and finding ways to incorporate the miscellaneous new information that kept pouring in.

Despite its conclusive allusion to Dragnet, which made me smile, today’s final episode felt rather arbitrary, dictated by the desire to have a defined season of regular installments, and seemingly to avoid the counter-programming of Christmas and New Year’s. There is no resolution, with two court motions still in play but otherwise no change in Adnan’s status or compelling alternate suspects—the last minute identification of a serial killer felt underwhelming, making me yearn for an episode exploring that story and teasing out the many problems with that theory. Koenig ends by playing juror and acquitting Adnan, but even as bits of evidence may have swayed her opinions slightly throughout the series, I have no doubt that she has always held sufficient reasonable doubt. The ending of Serial, entitled “What We Know,” establishes that although we know a lot more about the case than when we began, the big picture is the same as established in the pilot: the prosecution’s case was not enough to warrant conviction, but no other explanation for Hae’s murder rises above the level of unsubstantiated speculation inappropriate for factual journalism.

I’ve been interested in how Serial draws upon conventions of serialized TV fiction, and there is no doubt that the podcast’s unprecedented popularity was fueled by those resonances. But in the end, I think those comparisons also highlight Serial’s greatest weaknesses. The producers fail to achieve the structural elegance that marks the best of serial storytelling, where each episode both stands on its own and as piece of a compelling larger whole. They tackled a genre of crime fiction where our expectations are always aimed at a revelation that will be satisfying and conclusive, answering the curiosity question of “what happened in the past?”, which is an unreasonable goal for an ongoing investigation to arrive at. They embraced a serialized form that has encouraged and even demanded forensic fandom to fill in the gaps between episodes, but did not account for how to deal with the ethics of fan investigation into an actual murder, and whether to integrate or ignore such fan practices. And by adopting the model of weekly episodes of a thematically unified season, they were forced to produce episodes without much new to say, and stop producing episodes before the story had finished unfolding.

None of these structural facets are essential aspects of a serialized podcast. Specifically, I wonder how Serial may have played out with a more flexible production and distribution schedule. There is no doubt that the weekly release creates a ritual of engagement that is hard to replicate, but after a few episodes establishing the hook, moving to a more sporadic release as motivated by the story and reporting could sustain that engagement. And why must the series end now, just because further weekly releases are untenable? Imagine that in two months you noticed there was a new episode of Serial waiting in your iTunes playlist, with an update on Adnan’s appeal, or an in-depth investigation into the possible guilt of Ronald Lee Moore. That would set Twitter ablaze, and renew interest in the series (and sustain engagement in anticipation of the next season). Unlike television or radio, there is no need for a podcast to follow regular schedules, as it can be updated and distributed more like software or blogposts. Fiction has long shaped crime stories to fit into the constraints of a book, a film, or serialized television—Serial has adopted those constraints for a new medium, rather than exploring how non-fiction audio might more radically reshape the serial form. Much has been said about how Serial’s success has made podcasting into a more legitimate and popular medium; I hope it can inspire more creative uses of the medium’s structure and serial possibilities.

I conclude here where I began as well—I think Serial is a remarkable achievement, and I found it truly compelling listening. And yet… I am left dismayed by the structural limitations it imposed upon itself, by the ethical considerations that it seemed unable to grapple with effectively, and the genre trouble stemming from marrying non-fiction content to fictional storytelling norms. I don’t find these flaws to be debilitating, or that my critiques are merely “concern trolling” (as I’ve been accused of doing). Instead, such dissatisfaction is the fuel that keeps me engaged—given the ongoing promise of seriality, we always hope for more, for different, and for better. While I doubt we’ll get more of Adnan’s story within Serial proper (although I assume there will be a This American Life episode in a few months following-up on the developing story), we will get another season. Hopefully Koenig and her team won’t try to recreate what worked this season, but rather explore a new story on its own terms, with new storytelling structures and less constrained possibilities for what podcasting may be. Regardless, I’ll be listening.


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“Hope” for Net Neutrality? Thu, 13 Nov 2014 15:00:36 +0000 On Monday, one more voice was added to the millions that have already urged the FCC to protect net neutrality (the standard that all users and uses of the internet should receive equal treatment from network operators like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T). This comment was particularly notable, though: it came from President Obama.

Obama’s statement calling on the FCC to implement the strongest possible net neutrality regulations in its Open Internet policy proceeding is significant for many reasons: how unusual it is for a sitting president to dive so deep into the weeds of communications regulation, the influence it can have on the policy the FCC actually adopts, and (amazingly) just how right on the President is in his plan. Obama’s net neutrality statement is also especially important, though, for what it signals about the politics of media policy: a legitimate social movement is pushing for fairness and equality in internet access by engaging in historically corporate-dominated policymaking processes and strategically “boring” regulatory discourses to successfully bring undoubtedly arcane yet crucially political media policy issues to the front and center of the national political stage. Simply put, the President wouldn’t jump this far into this fight with powerful phone and cable corporations and their allies in the incoming Republican-controlled Congress (and perhaps even the FCC Chairman he appointed) if it weren’t for wide public pressure to act boldly on net neutrality. The FCC is an independent agency that doesn’t have to answer to the President, so it remains to be seen if any of this is enough to shift the Commission’s current direction in Open Internet rule-making— right now toward a (likely untenable) attempt at compromise through a “hybrid approach”— but at the least it is heartening to see such prominent attention to obscure issues like paid prioritization (known as internet “fast lanes”) and Title II reclassification (somewhat misleadingly being called “utility regulation”).

15003287537_b16bdc6d26_zIn Obama’s statement, he surprised nearly everyone by laying out in unambiguous terms an Open Internet policy plan that would deliver pretty much exactly what most net neutrality advocates (myself included) have seen as what has been needed all along: a clear-cut set of rules against blocking and discrimination that apply to both wired and wireless broadband providers and prohibit paid prioritization “fast lane” deals with online content providers, all based in a “common carriage” regulatory framework with legal authority from Title II of the Communications Act. (Yes, this is the super nerdy, but now increasingly central, terrain on which this battle is being fought!) This is a stronger set of rules than those proposed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler this past spring and the rules that were previously adopted by the FCC in 2010 but struck down in court in January. As I explained in a post here in the aftermath of that case, the reason why the 2010 rules failed in court (and in enforcement) is that they were not implemented with appropriate legal authority to regulate openness and equal access and if the FCC wants to move forward with meaningful and sustainable net neutrality policy, it has to reclassify broadband. What the Commission needs to do— as called for by advocates for strong net neutrality, now including the President— is to implement Open Internet rules through Title II, where the Commission has authority to regulate essential infrastructure for two-way communications (which internet access clearly is).

This traction in the political debate around net neutrality comes as a result of a popular movement that has seen nearly 4 million public comments to the FCC’s Open Internet proceeding (a record-breaking total, of which up to 99% were in favor of net neutrality), protests and demonstrations both online (like the Internet Slowdown Day) and offline (like occupations of the FCC building and even Chairman Wheeler’s driveway), and John Oliver’s tour-de-force explanation and call to action. All of the public participation in the process (just like the President’s) may not even count for much to the FCC, but it has worked to shift the discursive terrain of the issue and, therefore, the range of possible policy action. Chairman Wheeler has backed away from his initial weak proposal and is now hinting toward wireless broadband regulations and at least partial reclassification.

Right now, though, the FCC is stalling while it decides what to do and its next move will come no sooner than 2015. For passing strong Open Internet protections, Wheeler has the votes at the Commission (with two pro-net-neutrality Democratic commissioners to make a majority with him) and now political support from President, but he may be waiting for more backup from the bigger tech industry players like Google and Facebook, which have been conspicuously quiet in this round of the fight. Strong public pressure will continue to be key to keep up this progress toward meaningful net neutrality policy.


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Downloading Serial (part 3) Mon, 10 Nov 2014 13:30:47 +0000 serial1

Previously on “Downloading Serial

I peered down the rabbit hole of Serial’s Reddit board. Today I want to explore it a little more, raising the question of how people listen to Serial.

For anyone reading this without a media studies background, this might seem like a secondary digression for a critical analysis of the podcast itself. But one of the tenets of media studies is that any text (like a film or podcast) only matters through its consumption and cultural circulation. And I contend that a serialized text’s reception is even more essential, as the timeframe of production, consumption, and circulation is intertwined, and the gaps between episodes generate far more cultural material about the series than typically occurs in a self-contained text. Thus how we listen helps shape what it is.

Right now, how people are listening to Serial is the most interesting facet of Serial to me. This is not to say the last two episodes aren’t interesting—they definitely are, both in laying out the case against Adnan last week, and this week confirming my own sense that the case left “mountains of reasonable doubt” according to the experts in the law clinic. But together they feel like a transitional moment in Serial, moving from the first wave of establishing the facts as presented in trial, to the process of pushing back against that conviction and proposing alternate narratives. After all, we’re given a key clue as to where this might be going in this last episode: “As a legal question, Deirdre says they should only have to prove Adnan isn’t their guy, he’s not the killer. But as a practical matter, she said, their chances are much better if they can go a step further, and say to the state, ‘not only is this not your guy, we can tell you who is your guy.’” I assume Sarah Koenig says this knowing full well that offering a compelling case for an alternative perpetrator plays much better not only as a legal matter, but as a non-fiction narrative too. Whether that will be Jay, as teased for next episode, or someone else is still to be determined.

But one place where such questions are already being explored are on Serial’s many paratexts. The Reddit board is thriving, with more than 7,000 subscribers (and rapidly growing) and constant chatter between episodes. Slate started tackling Serial on their “Spoiler Special” podcast after the fifth episode, and they have now created a dedicated “Serial Spoiler Special” podcast that now ranks #7 on iTunes (Serial itself is #1). Serial is a popular topic on Twitter and many culture-centered websites, generating copious conversation and analytical attention. There is even a parody series, a sure sign of cultural importance in this day and age. What most interests me is how these paratextual practices fit with norms that have been well established over the past two decades for fans of fictional television series. I mentioned this briefly last post, with Reddit fans creating timelines, but it deserves more consideration.

As I have analyzed elsewhere, fictional television viewers have embraced forensic fandom for many series to try to parse out what is happening in a program and speculate what is still to come. Often times this involves gathering together evidence from interviews with producers, subtle clues within a series like freeze-frame images or intertextual references, and exploring official paratexts that point to broader contexts. Serial fans are doing all of these things, but with the added dimension that they are researching a non-fiction story, with much of the material in the public record. This creates a very strange differential of knowledge: some listeners want to only know what has been shared in the podcast (but still want to discuss that material and often ache with anticipation for the next episode), while others are looking into other sources of information, creating what we might think of as “reality spoilers” (in Myles McNutt’s phrase, as coined in a Twitter conversation).

As with spoilers of fictional series, the reasons why someone might seek to be spoiled are wide-ranging, including wanting to short-circuit anticipation, focusing more on how a story is told rather than what will happen, and hoping to thwart the producers. In the case of Serial, it seems that the nonfiction nature of the story, with much of the “action” occurring in the past, inspires forensic fans to do their own investigations into the case largely because that story information did not emerge from the creative impulses of producers—knowing that there are trial documents and news reports out there makes them irresistible paratexts for some listeners. In this way, fans become parallel investigators to Koenig, and I’m sure some of them are motivated by the competitive drive to “scoop” or at least equal the journalists. Of course, we have seen many cases in recent years of the dangers of online communities trying to be amateur cops, as with the wrongful accusations in the Boston Marathon bombing case and others; there have been ethical discussions on the Reddit board as to what information is appropriate to share versus withhold, given the potential recriminations that being linked to the murder might bring (as discussed in this Guardian piece on the fan phenomenon). And even parties who know more about the case can be respectful of Koenig’s storytelling imperatives to avoid spoilers, as with the fascinating blog of Rabia Chaudry, the lawyer who first brought the case to Koenig’s attention—she fleshes out lots of details and perspectives, but always in deference to Serial’s sequence of revelations.

Another key element of the forensic fandom involves the operational aesthetic, the focus on how a story is being told. As I’ve argued, this is a key element of contemporary serial television, both in fiction and reality television, and such attention to the mechanics of Serial’s storytelling are a central concern of both Slate’s podcast and the fan discussions. People parse out why Koenig makes the choices she does, what she’s omitting and including (like last names of key figures like Jay vs. Jenn), and the strategies the series seems to be following. The type of analysis I’m offering here on Antenna is widespread, both among the Redditors and journalists covering the series, as there seems to be an intense focus on where Serial is going and how it is being put together.

In thinking through the fan reaction and forensic attention the series has gotten, I’ve come to one conclusion: the ending of Serial will be regarded as a disappointment for a large number of listeners. As brought up by Cynthia Myers and Mike Newman in a Twitter conversation, Serial invites comparison to The Thin Blue Line, but it seems unlikely that the series ends with Adnan’s conviction being overturned. As Koenig has reasserted numerous times, she is still reporting the case (and seemingly the Innocence Project is also still working on it), and she doesn’t know where it will end. If fans are bringing expectations from well-crafted serial fiction, an ending that doesn’t resolve neatly or conclusively would seem to violate its assumed arc. Even the best fictional series rarely nail their endings, as expectations are too high and varied to please most viewers. Given that Serial’s ending is still a moving target, it’s hard to imagine how it will resolve in a manner sufficiently satisfying to match its hype. (This point is made more expansively and eloquently by NPR’s Linda Holmes, in a piece I read after drafting my column.)

And yet, even knowing that a satisfying ending is unlikely, and that elements of the reporting fill me with discomfort for rehashing a girl’s murder to prompt fans to debate the entertainment value of the series, I still listen, read, and write about Serial. What’s the draw of this format, this series, and this story? Next time, on “Downloading Serial”…


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Redefining “Public” Education: Reflections from GeekGirlCon, Seattle, October 11-12 Thu, 23 Oct 2014 14:00:36 +0000 GGC-Logo-2013

We have been to three girl-focused cons this summer and fall: LeakyCon, DashCon and GeekGirlCon. These cons are non-profit, largely run by volunteers, and provide alternative geeky spaces to male-dominated cons. These cons extend the work of social media such as Tumbr by providing safe public spaces where feminist, feminine, and queer young people can gather to create communities that validate and encourage creative play, fannish passion, and critical thinking. The cons devote a great deal of attention to social inequalities faced by women, intersecting issues of sexism with racism, homophobia, classism, and related biases regarding ability, religion, educational level, and cultural capital. The socially critical content of these cons have demonstrated to me that we need to redefine what we mean by  “public” education. The organizers and participants of these cons are fashioning their own liberal arts education spaces. Many of the young panelists at GeekGirlCon made the point that they learned about feminist criticism, intersectionality, and social inequities from social media and at cons, not from the traditional public education system.

The role of social media and these types of cons as sites of critical thinking, community building, and social justice training for women has become increasingly urgent, most recently demonstrated by the nationally publicized attacks on Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic of video games on social media. Sarkeesian represents this new kind of public educator who seeks to make her work democratically accessible, and she was GeekGirlCon’s opening speaker. GGC hired extra security for the death threats that immediately followed the announcement of her appearance, but the attacks against her, like the more recent threats surrounding her at the Utah State University, were not only leveled at Sarkeesian but at her audiences. The GeekGirlCon hashtag (#GGC14) on Twitter was taken over by Sarkeesian trolls, and any attendee who tweeted in support of Sarkeesian or used the #GGC14 hashtag also received threatening messages directed at them, individually. As numerous panelists and attendees made clear, anyone with a feminine-perceived username is the recipient of hate on many social media platforms.

GeekGirlCon Anita Sarkeesian Tweet

It is vital, therefore, that we view Sarkeesian’s work and the hostility directed at her as not an anomaly, but part of the greater structural misogyny and inequity embedded in and perpetuated by American public institutions. Public education largely does not address social inequalities and erases many identity categories (LGBTQA and transgender most obviously in k-12). There is virtually no sex or rape culture education in schools. Humanities and creative arts programs are increasingly marginalized at both k-12 and college-levels. Career counseling, networking, leadership training – particularly for women and social minorities seeking to enter fields dominated by white men – is generally unavailable.  It is not surprising that feminized spaces such as these cons and select social media sites have become so important to young people; we have heard countless testimonials to this fact from young women at every con.

This was GeekGirlCon’s fourth year, and it has grown in both programming and attendance, with an estimated 7,000 participants this year. GGC is distinguished by its localism. Like other cons, GGC has a robust year-round social media presence but unlike them, GGC is based in Seattle and is able to foster relationships with local schools, industries and businesses and maintain a community presence throughout the year; in this way, the convention itself can be viewed as a catalyst that brings the local community together but also facilitates an extension of its female-centered space.

Used with permission

Used with permission

The age range of attendees at GGC was broad, from pre-teens to women in their 20s and 30s; many children were accompanied by their parents, and thus there were more men than at other Cons. In addition, although GGC encouraged cosplay and devoted panels to fangirl topics such as feminist media criticism and slash, GGC addressed other aspects of the term “geek.” For example, GGC highlighted women’s role in the sciences and offered a DIY “Science Zone,” where attendees were guided through experiments by female science educators. GGC also offered several workshops, booths, and panels that addressed professional career and networking strategies and opportunities for women and girls, particularly those seeking to enter technology, engineering, and science fields. Local industries and educators who support GGC’s mission offered career advice and support.

Panelists continually noted the importance of “finding a support group of other women” for any career pursuit. Indeed, some of the most interesting career discussion came from a new generation of female media journalists. They spoke of their experiences negotiating a media landscape in which their feminist critical perspectives and knowledge of fan cultures were not always welcome by editors and their published work often provoked gender-based hate. At the same time, these fangirls emphasized the importance of the fan community as a resource and support, and they encouraged attendees to draw on the skills they have learned as fans –writing, editing, graphic design, media analysis – in building their careers. One particularly popular and insightful panel on this topic is linked below.

“M from Feels to Skills panel”

GeekGirlCon also distinguished itself by holding two panels explicitly devoted to fat identity and resources. The “Fatness & Fandom” panelists represented a range of fat body types and was also the most racially diverse panel that I (Jen) attended at GGC. Fat fans spoke of being snubbed and erased by manufacturers of geeky clothing, a hot topic within plus-size communities because of the lack of availability of well-made, fashionable plus-size clothes. This panel was a great example of the local presence at GGC, composed of members of PNW Fattitude, a meetup group for fat women in the Pacific Northwest. Taking part in this panel allowed the group to leverage the larger voice of GGC to spread awareness of issues that fat fans face and to allow more people to learn about the group itself. Following the event, panelists invited attendees to an in-person meetup across the street. PNW Fattitude thus allowed attendees to see successful example of sustainable community at GGC.

This article by Allison McCracken was research and written with the help of Jen Kelly.


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DashCon Discourses: Through a Feminist Lens Wed, 16 Jul 2014 15:05:09 +0000 This past weekend (July 11-13), I attended DashCon, the first con exclusively devoted to Tumblr users (although not affiliated with Tumblr). Because of poor management by a staff that was well-intentioned but inexperienced, young, and lacking in resources, the con suffered a couple of major public calamities, including a desperate mid-con plea for emergency cash on their Tumblr site (which they received) that immediately became the target of contempt and ridicule by primarily non-con attendees on Tumblr and other social media sites.

DashCon logoThe hostility of this rhetoric often conflated the organizers with the attendees, who were primarily female and queer teens, many of whom were local and attending their first con. The largest concentration of this rhetoric is the Dashcon tag and user reblogs spread it quickly; one early Tumblr post – reblogged over 67,000 times – characterized con-goers as “white kids in flower crowns rioting for the anti-sexualization of women in media while holding panels about homoerotic subtext.” Comments on other social media sites like Jezebel swiftly adopted this derisive tone, describing attendees as “dorks who live in their parents’ basement” or “hormonal teenagers who enjoy drama way too much” in contrast to the “mature” fans on Tumblr “who discuss theories.”  Such misinformed and misogynist discourse was accompanied by paternalistic horror about the possible exposure of teenagers to an informational 18+ BDSM panel.

As a counter to this discourse, I want to highlight some of the more productive social and cultural aspects and implications of the con. For attendees, it is a vital safe space for self-expression and community bonding, intellectual engagement, counseling, and social empowerment for attendees. In turn, the implicit discomfort and hostility directed at them reveals how this space threatens social hierarchies regarding, in particular, female sexual pleasure and knowledge, “feminine” cultural production, “mass” tastes, and non-normative sexual/gender identities and practices.

I attended DashCon because I am interested in the way social media sites, particularly Tumblr, and their related cons provide young female and queer fans the opportunity to fulfill social, emotional, and educational needs that more traditional institutions do not. Last year, I participated in a series of articles for Antenna about LeakyCon, an established convention with a similar demographic. The advanced publicity of DashCon indicated a related agenda, with a “social issues” track of panels devoted to overlapping concerns of Tumblr users, including feminist politics and mass media representation, LGBTQA support, social justice concerns, mental health care and, ironically, ways to combat online hate and bullying. I enlisted a couple of con-goers who were also media studies students, and we shared the coverage of various panels and activities (although these observations are mine alone).

DashConPhoto Cosplay

The most visible way DashCon created a safe space for female self-expression was the community’s respectful treatment of its many cosplayers. In cosplay, attendees dress as their favorite media characters, often spending days creating costumes. Because attendees respected the maxim that “cosplay is not consent,” they did not touch or take photos of cosplayers without their explicit permission. Veteran cosplayers often noted with relief how unmolested they felt at DashCon compared to mixed-sex cons where they are often groped.

In addition to cosplaying, the activities of this con followed others of its type, and included games, singalongs, autograph signings, fan art sales, as well as panels. The “social issues” and media analysis panels frequently overlapped in content and politics. Media fans, especially in this demographic, are often already engaged in trying to locate alternatives to dominant ideologies through media texts, and DashCon attendees were eager to analyze the social aspects of media culture. My colleague Paul Booth has called fandom, “the classroom of your life” and it certainly had that role at DashCon, where attendees were able to learn about topics that are still largely not covered in high school or even college classrooms, where gender and queer studies are rarely integrated into the curriculum as a whole.

The panelists, a combination of academics, activists, and/or social media specialists, embraced more radical rather than liberal political positions, drawing on many aspects of queer theory and critical race theory as well as media studies. Media analysis panels emphasized the importance and lack of strong female characters, queer characters, and characters of color, and the discussion leaders were able to personally speak to these issues as well as offer strategies to advocate for more diverse representation. Straight and queer women’s investment in male/male “slash” pairings was addressed in nuanced ways tied to, for example, the lack of equivalent development of female characters.

The panelists crucially tied media production to larger social structures, noting that “people blame the media, but these are institutional problems, social hierarchies that get represented by the media. There is no villain in the tower.” Instead, they emphasized the importance of education, an understanding of historical context and change, and an appreciation of the intersectionality of identity. Panels about contemporary feminism offered both scholarly analysis and an opportunity for young women to share their stories and concerns.

The rape culture panel, for example, began by asserting that instead of telling women how to avoid rape, we as a society should instead be focusing on teaching men and boys not to rape, a message that is prevalent on Tumblr but rarely appears in the mainstream.

All the panelists, while critical of DashCon’s management, have noted how impressed they were – as was I – with the engagement and thoughtful questions of the attendees. They have also tried to debunk misinformation, noting, for examples, the racial as well as gender/queer diversity of panels and attendees, and protesting their misrepresentation and the attacks on them.

This con provided young people with an opportunity to further expand the alternative communities that Tumblr offers them. While its larger problems are disappointing, DashCon’s grassroots project should be appreciated for what it did accomplish despite its organizers and attendees’ lack of social power and resources. Other attendees felt the same. Panelist Brin posted a video of her participation in the LGBTQ&A panel (below) and another con-goer posted that he found its cost was “a small price against my first time truly feeling in a community of people who would love and understand me with almost no effort at all.”


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Popular Culture and Politics: The Hunger Games 3-Finger Salute in Thai Protests Wed, 04 Jun 2014 13:52:07 +0000 On June 2, 2014, news about protesters in Thailand holding up the Hunger Games 3-finger salute began proliferating across news networks and websites like The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Global Post, Quartz and others. Across the coverage, reporters and commenters seem unsure of what to make of political action that draws inspiration from a fictional story. Drawing from my research on popular culture, rhetoric, and fan-based civic engagement, I offer a contextualization for the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games 3-finger salute. In a blog post over at Rhetorically Speaking, I examine how the protesters appropriate the 3-finger salute to signal resistance and critique. Here, I want to offer a framing of the Thai protester’s use of the 3-finger salute by articulating the relationship between popular culture and politics and by placing the Thai protests within a history of fan-based civic engagement.

blog post katniss 3-finger salute

Journalists covering this story have struggled to frame the protests within a broader relationship between popular culture and politics in the real world. Elizabeth Nolan Brown at says, “If I say the phrases Hunger Games and ‘life imitates art’ in the same sentence, you might start to worry. But this is actually an inspiring appropriation of the practices of Panem.” Ryan Gilbey at The Guardian points toward critics’ concerns that films inspire violent copy-cat behavior. Both Brown and Gilbey frame popular culture as a causal mechanism, but in doing so they undermine the agency of actors. This is particularly problematic when popular culture is connected to political action. In these cases, we ought to understand popular culture as resources. We must recognize that popular culture does not cause political action, while also recognizing the incredibly important role popular culture plays in offering up the choices we have for political resources.

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Reporters also seemed to position the Thai protesters’ use of popular culture as relatively uncommon. Gilbey from The Guardian says, “You’d have to go back to the film adaptation of the graphic novel V For Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, to find a comparable crossover between on-screen behaviour and widespread political iconography.” But the use of popular culture in politics is actually quite common. In fact, Thai protesters aren’t even the first to utilize the Hunger Games 3-finger salute. In 2013, Senator Miriam Santiago from the Philippines used the 3-finger salute in a speech lambasting Senator Enrile in the Senate. The Harry Potter Alliance used the 3-finger salute in its Odds In Our Favor campaign, which critiqued economic inequality, particularly in the US.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 9.03.51 AMPopular culture has always functioned as resources for politics. For example, Nan Enstad describes how American women factory workers at the turn of the century used dime novels, films, and fashion to come to see themselves as both ladies and workers, and thus as deserving of fair working conditions. These women staged labor protests in unexpected numbers. Today, we see examples ranging from Harry Potter to football. In January 2014, Chinese diplomats used Harry Potter metaphors to make arguments about regional power in Asia. In the fall of 2013, the TeamMates’ Coaches Challenge campaign invited Nebraskan citizens to volunteer to mentor by connecting mentoring with being a Nebraska football fan, beating Kansas, and joining the Nebraskan team. During 2012 and 2013, DC Entertainment led a campaign named “We Can Be Heroes,” calling Justice League fans to donate money to charities working to end hunger in Africa. These are just three examples from this academic year alone. Indeed, there are many more.

What I hope this contextualization provides is a framing that enables us as audience members, reporters, and citizens to take seriously the Thai protesters’ Hunger Games salutes. While not all political appropriations of popular culture are necessarily ethical, desirable, or effective, we cannot dismiss such uses of popular culture out-of-hand. Jonathan Jones at The Guardian takes this problematic approach when he asserts that the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games salute “reveals something about the bankruptcy of political beliefs in the 21st century.” But Jones is missing the point because he’s got the context all wrong. The protesters aren’t claiming allegiance to the Hunger Games. They are using the symbol of resistance in the Hunger Games as their own, imbuing it with democratic meaning and critiques of the Thai government. Popular culture is a resource, combined and recombined with other resources, appropriated and changed through various performances. This framing is absolutely necessary to understanding the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games salute in a complex and full way.


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A “Look Back” At What Exactly? Mon, 24 Feb 2014 14:00:09 +0000 I don’t know about yScreen Shot 2014-02-23 at 4.17.11 PMour Facebook “Look Back” video, but mine is pretty boring. The video was so curiously curated, uneventful, and unrepresentative of how I perceive my Facebook use that I’m still thinking about it weeks after it was generated. After Facebook released the “Look Back” feature as a gift to Facebook users in celebration of the company’s 10th anniversary, Facebook users responded immediately by rendering and sharing “hundreds of millions” of Look Back videos for their personal accounts, as well as several parodies which utilized the Look Back video codes and conventions to create personalized Facebook narratives for Jesus, Walter White, Rob Ford, Vladimir Putin, “humans”, and many more. In addition to a few touching stories of the pleasure or melancholy comfort the Look Back videos could bring (some of which have since led to changes at Facebook in terms of memorialization practices for deceased Facebook users) there were even more critiques and negative reviews of the Look Back feature and the videos and omissions the algorithms behind the videos produced.

Unlike some of the common complaints launched against the “Look Back” videos, mine showed no evidence of overzealous partying, cringe-worthy status updates, photos of exes who were totally wrong for me (although “my first moments” section was oddly filled with images of other couples who have since called it quits), or even photos of unfortunate haircuts. Although it’s interesting to see some of my most liked posts appear in succession on the screen, it’s equally interesting to note what they say — work related announcements, personal or professional accomplishments, asking for tips about future travel plans – and what they don’t say. Although I’ve enjoyed some highs and endured some lows during my six-year tenure as a Facebook participant, these events don’t show up in my video. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the algorithm is faulty or that I’m not using Facebook “properly”, or that I’m “over sharing”. There’s a reason the automatically generated visualization of my Facebook history looks the way it does. I refuse to believe that it’s because I’ve aged out of knowing how to have a good time, or that nothing monumental has happened to me since I’ve joined Facebook in 2007. Instead, no matter how I choose to edit it, my Facebook anniversary video takes me through a history of the different privacy and impression management strategies I’ve employed over the years, the shifting audiences and contexts for my Facebook content, and how I’ve decided to fragment, multiply, and disperse my online identity across a variety of platforms (even though Mr. Zuckerberg and company would probably like me to stick to just one.)

For example, my “first moments” are directed toward college and close friends only, and represent a Facebook account that was strategically scrubbed (but not completely clean) when I began friending future colleagues and professors. My “most liked posts” reflect an effort to cater to an imagined audience of weak ties, as several of my college and close friends have “dropped out” of Facebook, that I don’t feel the need to perform my social ties and connections (especially with strong ties and family members) in the same way that I did when I was six years younger. All of this in addition to a growing consciousness and attentiveness to the shift in contexts and audiences that came with being on the job market and becoming a junior faculty member. The section of the video titled “photos you’ve shared” is exemplary of what danah boyd has called “social steganography” and represents noticeable changes to the types of images I post to Facebook after joining Instagram.

What’s shown in my “Look Back” video is rather humorously unrepresentative of what it aims to show. The tranquil yet swelling music, and the life cycle narrative which culminates in the camera’s lingering gaze on my current profile picture imply that the images and text displayed should be nostalgic, sentimental, a personal archive of emotionally-significant events. (This life cycle narrative is reminiscent of other Facebook features, social media and locative media apps, and other ad campaigns that emotionalize the ways that our digital technologies grow alongside us — a trope so familiar, yet undeniably touching, that it has even been fictionalized as a highly effective marketing tactic for consumer electronics in shows like Mad Men).

However, what the Facebook video exhibits is not that I somehow eschew an ideal construction of the Facebook user (although this is implied), or that I haven’t accomplished or shared enough personal information on the platform (though this might be true), but it creates an intriguing visualization that offers another window into my social media life on Facebook, and other platforms by comparison. Is it a “success”? I guess that depends on who’s asking and why, but at least for me, the “Look Back” feature serves as a moment to pause and examine my life not as a daughter, significant other, friend, scholar, etc., but as a Facebook participant and to reflect on what the company expects and hopes its users do, and how we’ve negotiated those expectations.


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Net Neutrality is Over— Unless You Want It Fri, 17 Jan 2014 15:27:01 +0000 series_of_tubesOn Tuesday, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals tore out the heart of net neutrality. In the landmark Verizon v. FCC decision, the court struck down the FCC’s Open Internet rules— the hard-fought regulations passed in 2010 that prohibited broadband providers from blocking or discriminating against internet traffic. Without these protections, network operators like Verizon are legally empowered to not only interfere with the online activities of their users but alter the fundamental structure of the internet and change the terms on which users communicate and connect online. The court threw out the no-blocking and nondiscrimination rules but left intact the transparency provision, so now the company you pay to get on the internet can mess with your traffic as much as it wants, as long as it tells you so. The ruling is not a surprise, but not because the Open Internet rules were not legitimate or net neutrality is a bad idea. It comes down to this: broadband providers are common carriers but the FCC can’t regulate them as common carriers because they didn’t call them common carriers. (I’ll explain in a second.) So if we want net neutrality, what should we do? Well, tell the FCC to call broadband providers common carriers. It really is that simple— not easy, but simple.

First, what’s actually at stake here? Well, the end of the open public internet and the beginning of separate but unequal private internets, under the control of the giant phone and cable companies in possession of the pipes and airwaves we depend upon for access. The FCC’s Open Internet rules left much to be desired but they were minimum protections to count on and a significant beachhead in the net neutrality battle. Without them, what do we get now? A network where Verizon can charge extra to prioritize traffic and block any service that refuses to pay a toll to reach its users (that’s what it said it would do if it won this case). A network where Comcast can derail video distribution that threatens its cable television business (that’s what it did when it blocked BitTorrent and what it does in favoring its Xfinity service— even though it’s obligated to abide by net neutrality until 2017 as a condition of its merger with NBC-U). A network where AT&T can cut deals with the biggest content providers to exempt their apps from counting against monthly data caps but squeeze out the innovative startups that can’t afford to pay (which it just announced last week with its new Sponsored Data plans). Networks — with pay-to-play arrangements, exclusive fast lanes, unfair competition, and prepackaged access tiers— where that independently-produced web video series, that nonprofit alternative news site, or your own blog are left behind in favor of those that can pay protection money to network operators. In other words, a network that is not the internet as we’ve come to know it— an open network where users can be participants in the creation and circulation of online culture, rather than a closed content delivery system for corporate media. While net neutrality proponents’ rhetoric might seem a bit overblown, we are much closer to a “nightmare scenario” than most realize.

The DC Circuit’s ruling was not against net neutrality itself, but rather the twisted way the FCC attempted to enforce it. The majority opinion actually went out of its way to describe why net neutrality regulations are necessary to curb abuses of power by network operators. It ruled that the Open Internet rules themselves were sound— they were just implemented the wrong way. Coming into the case, the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband at all was in doubt, after the agency was handed its hat by the same court in the 2010 Comcast case. The FCC tried it again this time with a slightly different tack (“even federal agencies are entitled to a little pride,” the majority wrote— federal appeals court humor, folks) and, amazingly, the court bought it this time around (while Verizon called the FCC’s argument a “triple-cushion-shot,” the judges pointed out that in billiards it doesn’t matter how much of a stretch the shot is if you actually make it). However, even though the court affirmed the FCC’s legal ability to regulate broadband, it found that it can’t regulate it the way the Commission wanted to in the Open Internet rules.

The court ruled that the FCC’s net neutrality policy treated broadband providers as common carriers, but that it couldn’t do that because it didn’t have those services classified in the common carriage portion of its legal framework. Basically, it all goes back to the FCC using the term “information service” rather than “telecommunications service” to define broadband starting in 2002. That’s it— this is a case where the importance of discourse, and the power to dominate discourse in the policy sphere, could not be more plain.

Net neutrality is essentially an update to common carriage, the centuries-old principle of openness and nondiscrimination on publicly essential infrastructure for communication and transportation. The FCC has regulated general purpose networks of two-way communication as common carriers since its inception with the 1934 Communications Act (at that time the focus was telephone service). Beginning in the 1980s as part of its influential Computer Inquiries and legally formalized in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the FCC distinguishes between these basic networks, defined as Title II “telecommunication services” (think pipes), and the content made available over those networks, defined as Title I “information services” (think water flowing inside those pipes). Under this framework, the FCC regulated internet access (the connectivity) as common carriage to ensure equality and universality, but could not regulate the internet itself (the content). As telecommunications services, internet access providers’ job is to pass communications back and forth to the internet, while the information services on the internet are publishers with editorial rights to control content. This all changed during a deregulatory binge at the FCC in the 2000s: cable companies called their broadband connections “information services” (pay no attention to their actual cables), conspicuously not subject to regulation, and then-FCC-Chairman Michael Powell was happy to define broadband that way, too (he’s now the head of the NCTA, the cable industry’s trade group, by the way).

Now, because broadband internet access is not classified as “telecommunications,” it cannot be regulated as common carriage. This means that, as the DC Circuit recognized, since net neutrality is basically common carriage, it cannot be implemented as long as broadband is still defined as an “information service.” So, even though broadband is now the essential general purpose communications infrastructure of our time, there can be no openness and nondiscrimination protections for it until the FCC is willing to change the label it has applied to it in its regulatory terminology. The answer, then, is reclassification: the FCC just needs to call broadband the telecommunications service that it is before we can have enforceable net neutrality policy. The policy really is that simple— it’s the politics that are difficult. The reason that the FCC built the Open Internet rules on legal quicksand is that it lacked the political will to go through with its reclassification proposal amidst a firestorm of pressure from the telecom industry and its allies in Washington.

If we want net neutrality, we should put our own pressure on the FCC. We don’t have the money and the lobbyists that the telecom industry does and we can’t count on the clout of any big corporations whose interests overlap with the public’s on the issue— Google already sold out to Verizon and other big online content providers are now backing away from it (the Amazons and Facebooks of the world have deep enough pockets to dominate the payola market of the future, so they seem willing to play ball at this point). It’s up to us, then, to push the FCC to do net neutrality right this time.


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Just Too Much: Batkid and the Virality of Affect Mon, 25 Nov 2013 15:00:50 +0000 batkid

A few weeks ago, I had finished my Friday lecture and retreated to my office in order to get some work done with what was left of my day. As is my ritual, I allowed myself a half hour to check email, Facebook, and other tools of digital sociality. On this day in particular, my Facebook feed was filled with links to different versions of this story.

As most of us know, the academic job market can lead to emotional mood swings. On this day in particular, I was recovering from a crisis of confidence suffered the previous night. I felt better, but was still pretty raw. Luckily, I had the office to myself because Batkid was just too much for me at that moment. The real-life melodrama of Batkid fulfilling a life’s dream seemingly so close to the end of his short life (I had not yet read that he was in remission) struck deep. I cried. After catching my breath, I decided that Facebook was not going aid my productivity and I headed over to Reddit, where I saw more Batkid stories. “Alright. . .no more social media this afternoon.” Later in the day, after I emerged from my office to interact with people, Batkid again came up in conversation with people who had read about him via Facebook posts. I had to explain that he was “just too much” for me that day. Still, my request to not be made to think about Batkid was not entirely respected.

Hollis Griffin recently wrote about the experience of online dating in an environment of ubiquitous connectivity, noting how thoroughly “the intimacies enabled by technology get braided into the rhythms of everyday life.”1 Griffin specifically describes the potential for the hurts associated with love to be “relentlessly” distributed throughout our daily lives. There are distinctions to be drawn between Griffin’s cell phone love and my Facebook-inspired empathy. Significantly, Griffin’s interactions are, I assume, largely person-to-person, whereas my connection to Batkid was filtered through my relation to a virtual group and a collection of publicly-shared performances. When people shared this story, they invariably added short notes to personalize their connection to Batkid. Some declared civic pride in the city of San Francisco or the state of California, while others simply expressed the emotional impact in personal terms.

Bat Kid Facebook Photo copy

These performances indicate an attempt to mediate between personal experience and the social body that is assumed to be experiencing the Batkid story at the same time. Milan Kundera writes that “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running in the grass. It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.”2 Setting aside the negative connotations of kitsch, Kundera captures an important aspect of the Batkid story. Not content to simply imagine all of mankind crying together, a number of people within my digital sphere of influence felt the need to actively encourage such reactions. Their desire to share in these feelings was apparently so ubiquitous as to make the story inescapable.

Although Batkid was covered by traditional television and print media, I was not exposed to him through those forums. Instead, it was social media that first made me aware of him and it was my inability to effectively avoid social media (or the social media of others) that made Batkid such an insistent story on that day. Public performances of emotion in relation to mass media events are not particular to online interactions. But Batkid suggests something particular about how and why this story spread the way it did. Strong affect played a particular role in this story’s spread through online media. The emotional impact of that story demanded a kind of sharing in search for the tears of “all mankind.” That this is a socially acceptable way to share in moments of civic emotion and requires little effort suggests that it was a particularly infectious case of digital virality.

1Hollis Griffin, “Love Hurts: Intimacy in the Age of Pervasive Computing” in Flow, Nov. 18, 2013.

2Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, trans. Michael Henry Heim (New York: Harper & Row, 1984). 248-251. Quoted in Marita Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). 22.