Technology – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Ashley Madison, Rentboy, and Dirty, Dirty Internet Sex Mon, 31 Aug 2015 13:00:13 +0000 8355232_G

Post by Hollis Griffin, Denison University

Two recent events in the world of sex-related Internet services underline ongoing problems that Americans have with intimacy and digital technology. A recent data breach resulted in the release of personal information of those who subscribe to Ashley Madison, an online service that facilitates extramarital affairs among subscribers. Just this week, federal investigators shut down the website, which posted profiles of gay male sex workers for perusal by clients seeking those services. In both cases, the Internet provided safe harbor for sexual practices that many Americans consider distasteful and/or dangerous, even though so many people are engaging in them.

One of the tenets of U.S. citizenship is the right to privacy. But as Ashley Madison and Rentboy make plain: where sex is concerned, privacy is only ever sacred when the sex you are having is deemed to be respectable. It is interesting that both events took place online if only because the pleasures that people pursued on the two sites can never really be public. Outside of swingers’ parties and Las Vegas, adultery and prostitution are—with a few exceptions—largely verboten in the United States and pushed beyond the range of privacy’s purview. Never mind that people were arranging this sex as they sat hunched over their personal computers. They were looking to have dirty, dirty sex! Hypocritical sex! Dangerous sex! A quick scroll through social media networks and comment threads on news coverage of the two events reveals a just-beneath-the-surface moral panic about sex outside of marriage and sex for money. While there has been an outcry among sex workers and other queer publics about Rentboy’s closure, those charges are nestled amidst much applause about it. All of it makes me question where the line is, exactly, between “proper” and “improper” sexual activity.

Furthermore, Americans tend to think of intimacy online as “less than.” If people were “normal” and “healthy,” they would be able to find it in the real world. In fact, so many people think the Internet is home to pedophiles and perverts that the sex facilitated by Ashley Madison and Rentboy was suspect from the very beginning. It isn’t monogamous or procreative; it doesn’t often cement a long-standing bond between the people having it. It’s carnal and criminal, forbidden and filthy. If the sheer volume and variety of pornography one can find on the Internet is any indication, it’s the kind of sex that many Americans wish they were having.

What both events cover over or hide is more difficult to parse out. Alongside the drama associated with the Ashley Madison hack and Rentboy’s closure are much more mundane truths. The first is that the physical remove of the Internet allows people to engage in the kinds of intimacy that are harder to realize in public life. The second is that those intimacies can sometimes meet needs that more valorized ways of being and wanting do not. If the bodies and acts that people so often desire run afoul of social mores, it raises questions about the viability of the norms that govern intimacy and sexuality in the contemporary United States. Where Ashley Madison sheds light on the lies people tell one another in the name of love, Rentboy underlines the lies people allow to be written in the name of the law.


The Ashley Madison hack and Rentboy’s closure are part of much larger patterns in the United States, where the comforting fictions that so many Americans cling to about sex and intimacy are revealed to be as juridical as they are romantic. The stories we tell about sex and intimacy become the rules that we inflict on one another in the name of propriety. These laws result in punishments ranging from raised eyebrows to jail time, depending on the severity of the offense. In all cases, these laws—the formal ones and the informal ones—shoehorn people into social norms that attempt to govern sex and intimacy. Alas, they inevitably fail. Ashley Madison and Rentboy are news stories because adultery and prostitution are not new stories. Rather, the two events are flare-ups in a perennial debate about whom and how people should desire and be.

The two events also provide an interesting rejoinder to the joy experienced by many on the Left after the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Barely two months after the Court declared that United States could not deny marriage licenses to people of the same sex, the Ashley Madison hack and Rentboy’s closure underscore how very traditional that ruling was. It seems that marriage is the only way Americans can ever really condone sex and intimacy. To stray from that script is to be deviant. Rather than bemoan still more instances of dirty, dirty sex online, it seems that another, perhaps more useful way of thinking about these events would be to question the sexual norms that render them “dirty” in the first place.


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What the Canadian Netflix Says About Canadians (and Netflix) Fri, 13 Mar 2015 20:27:56 +0000 Netflix-Canada-ReviewNetflix is very big in Canada. The company has recently claimed 4.6 million people subscribe to its Canadian service.  A study by a local software company estimated that somewhere between 30-40% of downstream traffic in peak hours belongs to Netflix. In addition, a large number (one report claims up to 35%) of Netflix subscribers access the U.S. version of the site through VPNs, watching shows like Louie or films like American Psycho that are unavailable on the Canadian service for rights reasons. If my cord-cutting students are a faint indication of overall use, their references to shows like Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air suggest that the reduced catalogue (some estimates say its 50% of the American service) has recirculated old television programs much like re-runs.  These shows are “new to them.”

When we talk about Netflix in media studies we tend to focus on how its algorithms frame the user’s experience.  But there is more to the service as a cultural phenomenon than big data.  Think about when we study how different versions of format television programs are “localized.” We wonder about the politics – cultural and economic – involved in “Canadianizing” something like Idol or Project Runway. What if we gave Netflix the same treatment?

netflix-reed-hastings1A striking feature about the Internet has been the absence of cultural nationalist rhetoric. No one was calling for Canadian editions of social networking sites like Facebook or suggesting that Google made it difficult for Canadians to “tell their stories.” While these platforms may have piqued the interest of privacy officials and the security establishment, Netflix has awakened those in Canada’s cultural industries. Representatives in the creative sector are concerned that Netflix operates outside of the policy framework that supports the production of Canadian television. Those in Canada’s highly protected broadcasting industry – that has companies with properties across media platforms from newspapers to telecommunications – are complaining that they cannot compete with Netflix because it does not have content regulations and other regulations that they have to follow.  The regulator (known in Canada by the acronym CRTC) is furious at Netflix for refusing to release subscriber information during a recent round of public hearings on the future of television (the company claimed it was not legally required to do so). With an election looming the ruling Conservatives – positioning themselves as “consumer-friendly” – have promised that they will not issue a “Netflix tax” any time soon, despite the efforts of one of the provinces to advocate for that very thing.

Canadians’ use of multiple versions of Netflix serves as a reminder of the cultures and practices of cross-border shopping that are part of Canadian life. During the 1990s some Canadian houses had satellite dishes and people would “know a guy” who could help them de-scramble services like Direct TV when substandard Canadian equivalents were on the marketplace. The same could be said for international broadcasters that were not otherwise available on Canadian cable broadcasting services, like Al-Jazeera, which received a license from the broadcasting regulator with conditions applied that all but guaranteed that no distributor would be able to reasonably carry the service.   Indeed, many of Canada’s mainstream media outlets – including the country’s largest newspaper – appeared to encourage VPN use by publishing the names of companies and services that permit its use and by suggesting that the company itself is not serious about cracking down on those working in grey zone. In the headier days when both countries currencies ran nearly at par, many living near the border rented U.S. post office boxes to avoid high shipping and customs rates.  This is to say nothing of the organized bus tours, shopping guides and special sales aimed at encouraging cross-border shopping.

shomi-800x410All of this attention is coming at a time when Netflix’s moment in Canada may be at its apex.  Over the last few months, competing streaming services have entered the market.  Two major telcos, Rogers and Shaw, have teamed up to offer Shomi, signing exclusive deals with U.S. specialty stations and services like Amazon Prime to make shows like Transparent available to its users.  In addition, Bell now offers CraveTV and its libraries of HBO and Showtime programs to its subscribers for an additional cost. Both services are currently restricted to the company’s respective cable subscribers and are offered as part of plea to stop customers from cutting the cords but one can easily imagine that both services will be widely available at some point in the future even for those who are already adrift (a recent announcement by the CRTC signals this may be coming sooner rather than later). As the competition gobbles up streaming rights for popular programs because of their ability to expose it across different platforms will Netflix be a less and less desirable option unless its original content continues to shine? It is difficult to imagine that the company will not be brought to heel by Canada’s broadcasting regulator at some point that may nudge subscription rates higher.

Will Netflix have the stomach to stick it out if that happens?  It certainly has consumers on their side, fed up with expensive cable packages, restrictive contracts and lousy customer service that have historically characterized the  Canadian television experience.  Its current partnership with Shomi for the show Between points to a possible way forward.  Rogers will have the rights to air the show in Canada on its City television stations and on its streaming service, while Netflix will get distribution rights outside of Canada for a year before being able to show the series on its Canadian platform. It will be interesting to see how this “Canada first” windowing method plays out.

In the future we may see this moment as one of those blips in time when large numbers of Canadians engaged in a form of audio-visual media consumption outside of the policy framework. When thinking about Netflix outside of the U.S. then the big question is not how smart the algorithms are but how its entry into new locales encourages a range of cultural practices that test the political and regulatory contours of nations before they are eventually put into place.  This settles things just long enough for people to find new ways to get around them.


As Seen on Shark Tank: Tech Entrepreneurship’s Portable Aesthetics Tue, 03 Mar 2015 15:00:02 +0000 Shark TankInternational CES, the massive consumer electronics trade show that takes over Las Vegas convention halls every January, offers a plethora of opportunities to young tech companies looking to expand their business ventures. CES 2015’s offerings included a Google keynote on branding, an Indiegogo panel on crowdfunding, and multiple venues in which to pitch products—including an open casting call for ABC’s Shark Tank, the American iteration of the international Dragon’s Den franchise, which places aspiring entrepreneurs of all stripes in front of a panel of prospective angel investors.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that shortly before its open call at the world’s largest consumer technology show, ABC aired an episode of Shark Tank (Season 6, “Week 4”) that devolved into a debate over what a technology is. The company that prompted the debate, called Reviver, makes a fabric wipe that masks odors when rubbed on clothing. Company founders, brothers Ben and Eric Kusin, of Dallas, Texas, pitched the show dressed in the Silicon Valley uniform of jeans and candy colored company t-shirts: in their case, light blue tees with their company name screen-printed across the front in lower case, white, sans serif letters. “I think you’ve got a good product,” entertainment mogul and Shark Tank judge Mark Cuban tells the brothers midway through the segment, “but first, you’re not a technology.” The soundtrack’s stock music swells, then turns ominous. The brothers counter that they’ve spent $150,000 on custom machinery; Cuban insists that machinery does not a technology make. “It’s not a technology!” he repeats as the shot closes in on Ben Kusin’s stunned expression. Dramatic twist achieved, ABC cuts to commercial.

Shark Tank plays by the reality TV rulebook: editors cut hour-long sessions into scenes lasting minutes, splice in reaction shots out of sequence, and post-zoom wide shots into close-up for dramatic effect. Ben Kusin’s slack-jawed stare, broadcast as his response to Cuban’s pronouncement, may well have come from a different moment in the shoot. Yet the tension cultivated by the TV show comes as much from the producers’ editing suite as from the judges’ ability to fast-track products and fund fledgling companies. In tech industry parlance, Shark Tank’s objective is monetization, not innovation; the argument between Cuban and the Kusins stems less from disagreement over the nature of a technology than over its association with market value. After the commercial break, Eric Kusin defends Reviver’s technological status based on its multiple applications. “We just started thinking of ourselves as a technology because the manufacturers are telling us what this can do,” he explains, and begins ticking potential features off on his fingers—but Cuban cuts him off immediately, at “mosquito repellent,” noting that talcum powder also has a lot of uses. To Cuban, it seems, technology means digital, or at least electronic, whereas to the Kusins, technology means machinic and scalable.

ReviverDespite their quarrel over the ontological status of odor masking wipes, however, Cuban and the Kusins alike define technology as a means of accruing venture capital. For the Kusins, both the uniqueness of their formula and its potential for further applications, which they see as technological properties, indicate the desirability of their product to prospective investors. Although Cuban rejects the Kusins’ assertion that the wipes are technological, he perceives the brothers’ insistence on calling themselves a tech company as a reuse for acquiring funding—from their father, founder of the video game corporation GameStop, from whom they received a two million dollar investment to start their venture. (“You only call it a technology because that allows you to go to dad and say, dear dad, we have a technology!”) Cuban may or may not be correct that the elder Mr. Kusin restricts his interest in his children to their interest in the tech sector, but entrepreneurial calculation undoubtedly led the brothers to adopt the language and aesthetics of Silicon Valley. Describing their “freshness revolution” while dressed in t-shirts that Reviver (which, like Twitter, Tumblr, and Uber follows a tech industry naming trend), the brothers emulate celebrated CEOs of the digital economy: usually, like the Kusins, young white men in jeans and t-shirts (Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick are exemplars), whose products promise to revolutionize something. Contra Cuban, it seems to me that the Kusins frame their product as a technology in the hopes that doing so will attract investors other than their father; they look like hundreds of aspiring tech entrepreneurs roaming the exhibition halls at CES.

Self-presentation is always part of pitching prospective funders. When the pitch is broadcast on national TV, performance plays an even larger role. Shark Tank contestants frequently dress according to a theme, and it’s easy to imagine introducing a similar product with entirely different stylistics. Another set of contestants, pitching a product that freshens clothing, might put on, say, aprons or athletic wear—especially if those contestants are women. Interestingly, the Kusin brothers avoid feminine associations with cleaning or clothing, distance bolstered by coding their product as a tool of technology rather than domesticity.

Shark Tank castPartnership offers the Kusins receive from Shark Tank judges at the end of the segment underscore the domestic and technological duality of their product: one from Robert Herjavec, who made his fortune in the IT industry, and another from Lori Greiner, of the QVC home shopping network. That the brothers opt to partner with QVC, drawn in part to the exposure afforded by the TV network, suggests how the entrepreneurial aesthetics of digital technology transcend industrial sectors.

The Kusins’ dispute with Cuban gets no further attention. Their post-pitch interview, a confessional clip that Shark Tank usually devotes to rehashing contestants’ perceived slights at the hands of judges, focuses on Barbara Corcoran, founder of Corcoran real estate. Upon learning that their father has already given them two million dollars, Corcoran declines Reviver on the grounds that she doesn’t invest in rich kids. “We’re not rich!” Ben Kusin tells the camera after the segment, “That’s an unfair characterization of how they made it out to be, because of our father’s success.” Blindness to privilege isn’t restricted to Silicon Valley either.


Why is My Kid Watching That Lady Fondle Eggs? Fri, 21 Nov 2014 14:52:35 +0000 ImpreriaToys

If this isn’t as articulate as I’d like, I blame it on both the exhaustion of raising two and a half year old twins and the ethical and emotional struggle I personally experience on this topic daily. Let’s just put my cards on the table. Two and a half years ago I would have spouted forth about how the quantity of age-appropriate(ish) media consumption shouldn’t really be a concern. Like many media scholars, I was a child of television. I did a solid version of binge watching in the context of a 1970s/1980s household without cable, and my feelings about kids and media consumption emerged from a childhood love of The Joker’s Wild, Match Game, and The Brady Bunch and in complete avoidance of actual research. Then I had kids. I now function, like many scholar/parents I’m sure, in an ambiguous space between a belief in the medium I love and a fear of melting the tiny brains of the actual humans for whom I’m responsible. Every morning I try to fight the good fight, when my son wakes up, immediately looks for an iPad, and proclaims “want watch ‘big TV’.” And the struggle continues.

The environment in which I’m raising my tiny 21st century viewers brings the best and the worst that technological advancements have to offer. Along with providing a wealth of totally watchable age-appropriate content, new delivery systems and interfaces instill awful behavioral patterns that transcend mere viewing habits. Although this new media landscape allows haggard parents a tremendous sense of ease with content location and selection—constantly leading my partner and I to wonder how our ancestors or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s parents survived child-rearing sans television—we should also be concerned with what it’s teaching our kids about expectations and task completion.

mashupLike many kids of the 21st century, mine live in a house with cord-cutters. Their electronic media comes primarily in the form of DVDs, cartoons on Hulu and Netflix, or videos on YouTube viewed on an iPad. Unlike their foremothers (well, just the two), they never had to wait for their shows to air. Every time-slot belongs to them. There’s no waiting around for Sesame Street or The Electric Company. They’re never forced to begrudgingly watch Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood because it’s that or Donahue. Daniel Tiger, Rabbids Invasion, and Wild Kratts are never more than a click away. Their “now” and “just what I wanted” style of viewership encourages them to be tiny, impatient content bullies. My twins are exceedingly annoyed with advertisements when watching linear television. FBI warnings on DVDs have enraged them since infancy.  If they can’t watch the episode they want when they want it, they’re incredibly frustrated, and we’re now watching this demand for personalization translate into other activities. Why won’t Target replay “Happy” over their loudspeaker now? Why doesn’t everyone have our applesauce? How dare the radio not know what we want to hear at this second? Our reliance on the ease of contemporary media delivery has only aided them—even more than the previous generation’s DVD players and VCRs—in becoming part of a pushy generation of playlist demanders.

BigUnboxingAside from instilling kids with a high degree of impatience and need for immediate satisfaction and customization—and a belief that these expectations are reasonable—contemporary media has further enabled what was once one of the main evils of children’s entertainment. Far from the days of Congress and the FCC debating the scourge of the program-length commercial (damn you Strawberry Shortcake), YouTube has wrought a range of toy videos that function as nothing short of toddler crack. An entire genre of toy unboxing videos shares with kids the wonders of consumer products (and notably, my kids have an uncanny ability to find them). New York Times Magazine recently addressed this genre in “A Mother’s Journey Through the Unnerving Universe of ‘Unboxing’ Videos,” a piece that details user DisneyCollector’s 90million-plus hits—and potential millions in ad revenue—for a video of her opening plastic eggs to reveal small hidden toys inside. DisneyCollector’s contributions, as well as videos with porn-y underscoring showing manicured hands seductively peeling Play-Doh from plastic eggs and endless videos that show kids playing with toys or toy mash-ups, simultaneously (even if as collateral damage) advertise to the very young and reinforce—through their brevity, inanity, and rewindabilty—both compulsive viewing and a tenuous attention span. My household recently deleted YouTube from some and password protected all of our tablets, as the kids were disappearing and our son shouting, “you stay in there ma!” with the hopes that we would not discover them obsessively watching other “kids” play with toys.

I love the ease of 21st century media and it’s a wonderland for kids. They can hold it in their hands and demand it play at their tiny command. For my two cents, we need to be thinking about how today’s media interactions—not just content—are helping to shape our kids’ interactions outside of the box. I’m not going to take away our TV or iPads—the iPad is, after all, the only way to keep them from puking in the car—but as a parent/scholar, I need to keep my eye on the potential residual behavioral impact of these new forms and increased levels of control. After all, it’s all happening on my watch.


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Moving Beyond Screen Time Thu, 20 Nov 2014 14:30:50 +0000 kidscreenA couple of weeks ago I was monitoring the twitter feed of a prominent early childhood conference, and was surprised to see a key voice in the community quoted as exclaiming “Screens don’t teach!” For the record, I’m being vague on purpose. Since I only saw the twitter quote and wasn’t actually there, I’m not quite ready to hang her out to dry. But watching it get retweeted and taken up as an educational “position” required me to drink extra tea and practice deep breathing exercises.

Screens are a tangible piece of hardware, whether part of a television, computer, tablet, phone, or handheld game console. They are not content. More often than not, it’s a show or game or app or program that does the heavy hitting as far as transmitting messages and eliciting activity. So it’s absolutely true and non-newsworthy that screens don’t teach. But are screens a part of a larger package that convey information and facilitate different kinds of meaning-making? Absolutely, and this deserves a conversation deeper than quips of misleading twit-bytes.

I think the attempted educational position above was referencing concerns over “screen time.” This term has been wielded as a sword of parenting fear and guilt (and sometimes trendy emulation) since before the American Academy of Pediatrics set forth their 2001 guidelines advising no more than 1-2 hours of screen time per day (which, by the way, has been adapted recently to take a more balanced approach to kids engaging with digital media). To be sure, there are legitimate concerns about the content and interactions that may be elicited via digital media. But parents and educators are not hostage to the whims of the media industry. They can approach children’s media use by thoughtfully evaluating the content and contexts for media interaction. Here are a few potentially helpful questions:

  1. What is the media content? What is the child watching, hearing, or being encouraged to do? Is the particular content appropriate for the child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development or temperament? How will the child make sense of what they see or what they do?
  1. What kinds of activity and interaction does the media elicit? Is the child engaging with the media alone? With peers? With older siblings or adults? Is joint media engagement supportive and productive? How do the narrative worlds of the media connect with the child’s play and activity?
  1. What role does this media play in the child’s broader swath of life activities? How does the child spend their time? Is there a balance in the child’s activities, including active play, imaginative play, quiet and social times, etc.?

I have a poster child for this. I use this sweetie as an example in many of my talks on the ways kids actively participate in the narrative worlds that are meaningful to them. There was a time, a number of years back, waaaaaaay before Rovio had marketed it to the high hills, when Angry Birds was just one mobile game. (I feel like I should be sitting in a rocking chair for this tale…) As a little guy, he loved to play Angry Birds on his mom’s phone. One day he ended up drawing a group of the bird characters, and used some ribbon as a tool to help launch them. Intrigued by what was transpiring, his mom let him take the lead. Soon he was building obstacles of couch cushions and furniture to try to knock down with his paper birds, which then prompted some great discussions on basic physics concepts and revising his strategies. His engagement in-game led to active creation and experimentation out-of-game, including joint engagement with a caring adult. His play pushed the boundaries of the Angry Birds narrative world. The activity was elicited by media use, by screen time, but became the catalyst for rich engagement to take place. The media wasn’t something he consumed, but something he did. But his story isn’t unique. It does bring us to a broader view of media engagement, though. And with thoughtful consideration, parents and educators can make informed and critical choices about a child’s media engagement, considering more than just screen time.

In sum, screens don’t teach. Screens don’t entertain. But the content, contexts, and interactions that are elicited via screens can have big impacts on young participants. As a term, “screen time” is incomplete. The affordances of different kinds of media and their related interactions will mean different things to different children. So the next time someone asks you what you think of kids and screen time, I hope you’ll help them think critically about media use in ways that promote a child’s positive and productive meaning-making. We’ve gotta help nip the quips in the bud.

Extra stuff:

There are a number of scholars and specialists who provide volumes to this dialogue. If you’d like to dig in more deeply, here’s a short list of people and organizations that present informed and balanced views of children’s media use. They are listed in no particular order, and this list is not exhaustive.

  • Daniel Anderson, media researcher & originator of the “media diet” perspective.
  • Lisa Guernsey, Director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, and originator of the “Three C’s” (content, context, and the individual child) perspective for thinking about children’s screen time.
  • David Kleeman, Playvangelist at PlayCollective, and all-around smart guy when it comes to children’s media and bridging industry and research.
  • The Joan Ganz Cooney Center – the digital media research arm of Sesame Workshop.
  • The Fred Rogers Center, and specifically their joint position paper with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).


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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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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.

The YouTube ID of hceO-SUoitk#t=35 is invalid.
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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Only Marginally More Unreal: Reconsidering CNN’s Coverage of Malaysia Airlines 370 Mon, 12 May 2014 13:30:14 +0000 Although the disappearance of the March 8 flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was extraordinary, the initial coverage of it was not. All the major news outlets began with lavish reporting, becoming briefly and predictably singular in their focus on the missing plane. If the story had ended conventionally—perhaps with recovery of the plane, identification of a mechanical malfunction that had sent it fatally awry, or revelation of some incontrovertible evidence that the pilot or the crew had acted deliberately—the coverage would have found its way to denouement. But the story did not end conventionally, and in the absence of this, most popular media attention has merely drifted in other directions, without resolution. Updates on the search still merit passing mentions, but the biggest story about the missing plane has now become the meta-story of its coverage, and specifically CNN’s persistent and often journalistically questionable work.

While the criticisms of CNN’s approach to Malaysia Airlines 370 are by now familiar, I want to explore the possibility that CNN’s coverage is actually—albeit unintentionally—meaningful. With its reliance on speculation, dependence on simulation, and occasional swerves into absurdity, it indexes the incomprehensibility of this disaster, marked by the failures of so many systems that seemed to promise safety, visibility, and order. To be clear, I do not mean to exonerate CNN, which is rather unabashedly utilizing this as a ratings grab. Nonetheless, their coverage vividly captures the essence of this disaster.

Some measure of qualified guessing is expected, even necessary, in any coverage of an unfolding disaster; CNN’s coverage is distinguished by its continued recourse to hypothesizing, but also the amount of latitude it gives to conjecture, as when it reported, in a way that many found insufficiently incredulous, that some people believed zombies had hijacked the plane. Criticizing such reportage is important, surely, but also eclipses its significance, as CNN’s speculation starkly illuminates the enormous epistemological gap created by the plane. It also reflects the failure of the rational and technologized systems designed to track aircraft during flight or locate them afterward. The imagined world governed by those devices (organized into grids of latitudes and longitudes, synchronized time zones, and orderly networks of predictable flight paths) cannot countenance the possibility of something like this.  But CNN’s coverage shows us how far we have strayed from that map.

toy plane

This departure is amplified by the visual elements of its coverage. The now-infamous use of a toy plane as a prop surely risked trivializing the disaster; likewise its reliance on flight simulator cockpits and computer-generated images that hover around its “virtual studio.” Even as it spectacularizes the disaster, however, simulation also resonates uncannily with it. All the visual modes of searching have failed to locate the plane: satellite images, aerial surveillance, maps of ocean topography. The utterly perplexing and apparently absolute disappearance of the plane, whereby all that is solid does not melt into air but vanishes into the sea, is the sort of thing that we, with expectations that our most advanced machines will function perfectly and our acculturation to being monitored at all times, can scarcely imagine. In that context, a holographic plane is only marginally more unreal.

The only signature element of CNN’s coverage that has not yet been widely lampooned is its attention to the stories of bereaved families and friends, many of whom give interviews in which they profess hope that their loved one will be found alive. Stories like that of the daughter who has been devotedly tweeting her crew-member father, steeped in poignant absurdity, would not find much purchase in a more staid outlet. One man, Pralhad Shirsath, in an April 23 interview, asserted that the paucity and poor quality of the information from the Malaysian government indicates that they do not have enough “data” about what happened, and, by extension, to convince him that his wife is truly lost. Necessarily, the journalist pressed him, citing conclusive evidence about the fate of the plane, but the potential widower remains undaunted. CNN, by creating this universe that defies the conventions of journalism (and the sometimes cruel boundaries of common sense), has provided these mourners with a space where their bewildering grief might be articulated. Given the likelihood that it will be months, or years, or longer before the plane is found (if it is found at all), CNN’s lingering on the story mimics the looping returns of sadness in the perseverating endlessness of grief.


Although CNN’s vigil is often self-interested and carnivalesque, the clamor against it is problematic, too. It endeavors to sanitize our visual field by expunging the traces of the logically unknowable, the empirically invisible, and the affectively unpalatable in defense of all that they threaten to destabilize. To partake of CNN’s vision of the disaster is to acknowledge that it was, and remains, both tragic and incomprehensible, and to allow those two dimensions of the event to dictate the disorderly and unpredictable terms by which it appears.


Liking Facebook Mon, 05 May 2014 13:34:24 +0000 FacebookLikeThere is no dearth of complaining about Facebook’s dark side. I won’t rehearse all the criticisms already running through your mind, or filling up this Wikipedia entry. To pick up on one current concern, last week Facebook unveiled new anonymity protection in third-party apps, which sounds nice except that you still won’t ever be anonymous to Facebook while sharing whatever you might feel secure sharing anonymously with other companies. This is merely one moment of tension between Facebook’s ambitions and its user’s needs and rights. Next week, next month, or next year there will be another and another. So let’s stipulate that in some important ways, Facebook (though not only Facebook) threatens us by exploiting our data. Conceding this, I want to affirm how much I like Facebook, and want to praise some of the network’s benefits. It’s mainly because I get something good from Facebook that I wish it would do better.

So what’s good is, first of all, that Facebook connects us meaningfully to one another. It allows for people to keep in touch even when they are no longer seeing each other face to face. It gives us ways of overcoming isolation and loneliness. It gives shy people an outlet that might be more comfortable than communication in person. Its asynchronicity makes it possible to be in touch without being synced on one schedule. All this in a world where people live far from friends and family and have too little time for leisure.

Facebook is gratifying to the active, sharing user who gets positive feedback even from minor notes about everyday life. Like Twitter and many other forms of social media, one of basic functions of the network is to reassert our identity and existence. One subtext and function of many messages is, here I am speaking, this is me. When someone clicks “like” they are affirming you, recognizing you, giving you a wink or pat on the arm. The thumbs up like button icon is a token of the body, and clicking on it is a gesture of affection. There is no question we experience the gratification of likes and comments affectively. We know, as well, that like doesn’t mean you like it. I don’t like it that my friend’s mother is sick, that my friend’s pet died, that my friend is recovering from addiction in a rehab facility. But I am touching my friends when I click like and they are touched.

Facebook is also a creative endeavor. Its ordinary uses are writing, photography, video, and sharing links. Facebook users are vernacular artists making and sharing objects of meaning for their community. Of course much of what one finds in the news feed is ordinary and banal. It can be obnoxious or trivial. Some of it is more pictures of babies or exclamations over a football team’s loss or win than you like to see. But this is life in all of its mystery and boredom and frustration and glory. And it is only against the backdrop of life’s quotidian rhythms that the dramatic Facebook status updates have their impact. Births and deaths, triumphant PhD dissertation defenses and new jobs, collective upheavals over elections and disasters, make Facebook into a magnet for our attention and feeling. Facebook’s literary, visual, and affective impacts are expressions of the traumas and pleasures of life, making them not just into documents of reality but artefacts in communal rites of passage.

Like everyone else, I have misgivings about investing too much of myself in this web space which, ultimately, will serve corporate interests ahead of the people’s. I care about privacy, about the unforgiving permanence of online culture, about context collapse when everyone from your whole life span converge at once in your social networks. I’m also annoyed by Facebook’s news feed algorithm, which chooses for me to see some items and not others. Perhaps the social web would have been better if we had all just gotten our own blogs and RSS readers. We can’t do it over, though. One reason Facebook is succeeding as a mass medium and blogs and RSS readers didn’t is that users found Facebook easier and more secure. They felt comfortable in its environment. Now the people are on Facebook, and if you want to be with them online, that is where you go. You can, theoretically, opt out. You can refuse social media, or can be a Twitter snob. You can lament that as soon as Facebook let in users outside of the early college-only restrictions, it lost its mojo. Probably true. But it gained something aside from the scale that leads to economic success. It became society, and you can’t really opt out of that.

As with many new technologies, the identity of an ideal user is central to the cultural status and widely shared meanings that define the object. When the ideal Facebook user was young and upscale (Harvard, then college), Facebook had cachet. Now that your mom, your aunts and uncles, your grammar school teachers and parents’ friends are liking your status and leaving comments, it’s not so cool any more. But note my choice of “you” in these characterizations. Who is this imaginary person? The assumption is that a normative user is young, and that older folks are marked as different if not unwelcome. The age and gender connotations of Facebook’s waning cool are hardly surprising. Fashions of all kinds tend to rise up from youth culture, while the kids move on when their elders catch wind of emerging trends. But if Facebook is to endure as a social hub of value, a force for community and sociability, we will need to think of it inclusively and not be tempted to put it down it on the basis of a distaste associated with technologies used by moms and aunts. We need to see it in a more egalitarian fashion, and recognize the value in this.

What’s good about Facebook, finally, is that it gives us, all of us, a place to give and receive of ourselves, and that we have taken it up in this way. (A network with better architecture and policies will not ultimately be better if the people don’t take it up). My wish for social media’s future is that we will keep on extracting this value from Facebook, or something like it, without the dark side of the digital overcoming us.

Michael Z. Newman is on Facebook and Twitter.


Case Studies in Technological Change Mon, 10 Mar 2014 12:59:41 +0000 Apple II ComputerTo paraphrase Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery in Film History: Theory and Practice, media depends on machines. Technology contextualizes industrial and stylistic change, reveals and obscures sites of cultural negotiation and meaning, and enables new modes of media production, circulation, and reception. The significance of technology to media studies has only become more acute with the proliferation of digital technologies, which have changed the methods and tools of our scholarship—to say nothing of the object of that study.

Too often, however, scholarship relegates technology to the background, rendering it less an object of study in and of itself than a cause of, or context for, broader situations. While useful and often necessary, this tendency can have unintended consequences. It risks the assumption that technological changes automatically engender concomitant changes in our “real” object of study, when representations and practices that endure despite technological change offer equally important insight. Similarly, focusing on broader trends may steer us away from failed efforts at technological change, where entrenched structures of cultural or industrial design are exposed and tested, while treating technology as the agent of change can ignore the roles of cultural and industrial demands in technological advancement or stasis.

telephoneThese are the issues the editors of The Velvet Light Trap hope to explore in its upcoming issue. Seeking case studies of historical and contemporary technological change that privilege technology itself as the object of study, they hope to focus the issue’s attention on specific technological changes in context rather than theories that explore how technology in broad terms is changing media and culture. VLT welcomes submissions that reexamine accepted histories of technological change, reveal little-known changes worthy of attention, or show important continuities despite technological change. For those interested, please send  anonymous electronic submissions between 8,000 and 10,000 words in Chicago style along with a one-page abstract by August 1, 2014. To submit a paper or to learn more, send an email to


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