Author Archives: bhesslegrave

Net Neutrality and Ferguson

Prior to reading Zeynep Tufekci’s piece What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson: Net Neutrality, Algorithmic Filtering and Ferguson I hadn’t really heard the term “net neutrality”. I realized quickly what it meant – as we had heard a little bit about the concept from Safiya Noble. On a “meta” level, the term directly manifests the tension that Digital Humanities presents. How do the digital and humanities world collide? Can they coexist? How do they affect each other. In the example of #Ferguson, net neutrality stands as a solid example of this relationship.

Safiya mentioned during her talk that as a suggestion to Apple, she would hire people in the sociology/humanities fields alongside qualified programmers. Tufekci argues this lack of sociological foresight in algorithmic filtering, in that it “controls what you seen on the Internet. Net neutrality (or lack thereof) will be yet another layer determining this. This will come on top of existing inequalities in attention, coverage and control”. It shocked me to discover that there are certain mechanisms built into algorithm filter settings like “term frequency inverse document frequency” which Tufekci explains as “as people in localities who had not been talking a lot about Ferguson started to mention it, it trended there though the national build-up n the last five days penalized Ferguson”. This technical function of Twitter, for example, most likely has some reasoning to it. But when something like this, a national/international controversy sparks, how does that fit in? It seems as though it would have trended nationally – but it didn’t (or for a very brief amount of time, according to Tufekci).

“Algorithms have consequences” writes Tufekci. Like she notes, this issue is multifaceted. It does not just have one consequence in one field. It has a multitude of implications, in a multitude of fields. One in particular that really strikes a chord for me is the issue of free speech. Algorithmic filtering stands directly in opposition to the “voiceless being heard”. Around the time that the Internet was shaping up to be what it is today, there was this idealized dream that it would be a place in which everyone could discuss anything. It was to be the most free form of communication of all time. And as with this example, it is clear to see that this ideal is not quite the case in actuality.

As Tufekci notes at the end of the article, Ferguson illuminates so many burgeoning issues in this country. “I hope that in the coming days, there will be a lot written about race in America, about militarization of police departments, lack of living wage jobs in large geographic swaths of the country. But keep in mind, Ferguson is also a net neutrality issue. It’s also an algorithmic filtering issue. How the internet is run, governed and filtered is a human rights issue”.   Not only is the issue of net neutrality coming to the surface, I think it is one of the strongest forces working against these other issues that come up with Ferguson – race, police, employment. It seems that this is the most burning and easily approachable issue to begin dealing with.

Digital Natives and Slacktivism


Nishant Shah and Sunil Abraham’s report Digital Natives with a Cause?: A Knowledge Survey and Framework poses, explores, and argues directed research questions concerning the “Digital Native”. Shah and Abrahams working definition of the Digital Native identifies, “children born after 1980s; youths significantly affected by the rise of the Internet technologies; an emerging global population growing up with digital technologies central to everyday functioning…a generation who relate to digital technologies differently and live in a markedly different way that preceding generations” (7). Without knowing the scholarly name of the Digital Native, I have been thinking about this identity for a while now. A couple of quarters ago, a programming professor asked the class if anyone remembered a point in their childhood without the Internet. A couple of people raised their hands, but the majority of the class did not remember a time without at least dialup.

An interesting point that counters the general opinion towards Digital Natives and activism that Shah and Sunil Abraham discuss is the argument that they are “agents of e-change”. The example that immediately came to mind during this reading is the concept of “Slacktivism”. There is a looming sense surrounding the subject of the Digital Native that because there is this easily accessible, immediate catalyst for communication, this generation is lazy, disconnected and/or “apathetic to political participation” (23). However, Shah and Abraham counteract that “this alarm rises from evaluation Digital Natives activities based on a pre-digital understanding of politics and engagement; and from concentrating on actions rather than the conditions of change that Digital Natives create in which they mature” (23). This is an illuminating take on the Digital Natives’ political action. It’s refreshing to hear – but I’m not so sure I’m sold.

The concept of Slacktivism speaks to Shah and Abraham’s report. On one hand, I think of the ALS ice bucket challenge. This example is maybe even more active than other examples, such as posting petitions or articles with short opinions of support or disagreement. However, the ALS ice bucket challenge had a serious viral impact. The cause received a lot of critique for its failure to really contribute to the actual cause – it did more “talking” than “doing”. But on the other hand, I think of Black Lives Matter. Many of the protests were organized online, through the Facebook group and its members. Here, we can see the slippage between Slacktivism and the use of technology for critically impactful movements.

I agree with Shah and Abraham’s perspective that Digital Natives are agents of change – but only by knowing the affordance of the proposed technology. With the example of the ALS ice bucket challenge, there was the option to donate to the ALS Association. However, because of the way the campaign was composed, it resulted in so many people (through tagging/nominating) just pouring ice over their heads. There is arguable value in bringing the conversation of ALS to the table, but in terms of true activism, the campaign fails to understand the power/affordance of technology.

Race and Social Media

Senft & Noble’s Race and Social Media discusses social media as a current axes of oppression against race, gender, and class. Something not quite related to “online life” but was in fact mentioned and I think is critically important to the discussion of this class in general is “neoliberal notions of individualism” (8). The dictionary defines neoliberal; as, “relating to a modified form of liberalism tending to favor free-market capitalism”. I have heard this term before as it relates to multicultural or intersectional feminism. As I understand it, neoliberalism promotes self-reliance and autonomy within capitalism. It is easy here to make the connection between neoliberalism and behaviors that arise with the proliferation of social media outlets. Within neoliberalism, we see ourselves with agency – it is not a far stretch to explain why people do much of what they do online.

Last quarter, I took a different Digital Humanities 150 course called Internet Histories.   At the same time, I was taking Intro to Gender Studies. In the latter class we were discussing neoliberalism as it relates to intersectional feminism; we were challenged to use feminism as the entry point into an interlocking force of an oppressive system. As we tracked the developments of the Internet from its initial “birth” by the U.S. military’s funding, to universities, to the general public via private businesses, I couldn’t say I was exactly surprised by the lack of diversity. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that there should have been at least some mention about the elephant in the room. In the entire book we read, every single actor in the development of the Internet was a white, educated man (side note: the book was written by a woman). Recalling my frustration with the lack of at least one class discussion about this fact, I couldn’t agree more with what Senft and Noble had to say about the unrealistic ideals of the Internets’ founders. The original fantasy of the Internet – connecting people from disparate locations – was never truly democratic; so it’s unrealistic to say that it 100% could be now.

Another concept Senft and Noble consider is the phenomenon of “racial micro aggression” which they define as “automatic and unconsciously uttered insults and dismissal routinely directed toward people of color” (12). An example of this very real, prominent concept I encounter all the time is this: a white young woman has returned from vacation (somewhere tropical, or at least sunny), caught some sun, and is meeting up with her friend. Her friend exclaims upon their reunion, “Oh my god. You literally (big emphasis here) look black!” I hear this constantly. It has always made me uncomfortable and to be honest, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why until reading Senft and Noble’s discussion of micro racial aggression. It’s not as though the white young woman is throwing out a racial slur, or even consciously trying to insult her friend – in fact, she’s complimenting her appearance. Instead there, the implication of this “compliment” works to enforce “racing” as Senft and Noble put it. Like the authors also argue, the women in this situation do not see themselves as a race – they are “unraced”, “neutral”. Therefore, when the woman’s skin tone deepens from a tan, she resembles this raced other that must be pointed out.

Week Six

Boyd’s discussion of moral panic in Chapter Four of It’s Complicated reminded me of a recent episode of a new podcast, Invisibilia. The episode, entitled Fearless, opens with a story about a small town in the United States. The town was documented in a study in the 1950s – scientists observed where and what the town’s children were doing. The study continued to today. When children in the same town were asked where they were allowed to play today, the overwhelming results were the confines of their fenced-in backyards. The town’s crime rates were exactly the same as they were in the year that the original study took place. There was no tangible threat, and yet the freedom children had to roam was restricted exponentially. What happened in the years between? The rest of the episode discussed the influence fear has on us. It did not discuss technology, but I kept thinking about how Boyd would weigh in on this.

When interviewed about what they feared, the parents of the fenced-in children pointed to outside threats. Predators, cars, other children…even though the town’s crime rate hadn’t changed in over fifty years. I kept thinking of Boyd’s examples of past examples of moral panic; provocative music in the 1950s, enforced curfew and anti-loitering laws of the 1980s and 90s. These examples seem minute now – and that might be the result of Internet itself. Nonetheless, it does seem that access to the Internet, and therefore the world beyond a small town, opens up one’s environment exponentially.

But where is the fine line of the “dangerous” world of the Internet? As we have discussed, the Internet can be a place for adolescence to access communities that are not readily available to them in their immediate environments. It seems to me that most of the discussion about “Internet Safety” revolves around young women conducting themselves wisely online. Of course, there are threats on the Internet. Everyone – children, teens, adults, men, women – should consider conducting safe behavior online. Boyd supports this type of Internet Safety discourse – it’s useless to drive Internet-usage with fear tactics.

Women’s centrality in this discussion is not to discount the experiences of men online who have been sexually harassed. This certainly happens, but the mass media tends to discuss only women as prey. This happens a lot – Boyd’s discussion of How to Catch a Predator reminded me of Dateline – every single young female victim was described as “beautiful, so pretty”.   How to Catch a Predator set up accounts of young females – not men. I question the motives here. As sexual harassment moves into the digital space – not just the physical world – the discussion must widen. I think our current discussion of sexual harassment online tends to feminize the role of the victim. Beyond the core issue of sexual harassment, this is a harmful action. Not only are we equated women as victims (and thereby leaving men out of this experience of sexual harassment online), we are discouraging women from using the Internet with agency.

Selfies & Feminism


Selfiecity definitely poses some interesting questions within the ongoing dialogue about selfies. Gleaning over the imageplots, I noticed different overall hues for each city. Upon further inspection, the interactive selfiexploratory revealed interesting observations. These observations, however, were not made without very particular, political implications. As I continue to be surprised with how impactful – and non-superficial – selfies actually are, these perimeters for the selfiexploratory are entangled in socio-political context.

Elizabeth Losh offers common feminist critique of Selfiecity, “First, gender is presented in strongly binary terms, with “female” and “male” as the main categories separated by a territory demarcated by a question mark” (9). As it was noted, other mainstream social sites, like Facebook, have begun to include terms that span the gender spectrum (e.g. cisgender, transgender). It seems oversimplified to take these selfies (which must be from sites including Facebook) and extract them from the context set by their users.

Beyond this critique of the project, Losh herself finds the work helpful in some ways. One way in which Losh finds Selfiecity helpful in her own “articulation of media ecologies that include user-generated content from smart phones that promote the datafication of human subjects” (7). In particular, “transparent mediation” which Losh defines as “a significant subset of images on Selfiecity in which the apparatus shooting the photo is present within the frame” speaks to a very prevalent trend in selfie-taking. With the precedent of Parmigianino’s self-portrait in a convex mirror, including the way in which the selfie was achieved could be interpreted as a more honest approach to self-representation. Losh uses the example of the “come-hither look a long-haired woman in Bangkok imitates the gaze of a manufactured desire on the face of a commodified cover girl, but we also see her camera phone case covering the edge of her chin, and we can look into the glinting aperture of the lens of her device just as easily as we look into her own eyes” (9).

Losh’s example offers a deep, multilayered gateway into a larger discussion. A thick description would say that this is a self-taken image of a young girl. However, from a feminist perspective, as Losh ruminates, this means so much more. Like Losh notes, authorship is key here. A girl’s agency in taking her own photo breaks with art history’s trend of “men looking/women appearing”. Yes, the woman still appears here, but she takes the photograph, frames, mediates, and filters it. But then again, what are the social influences on these forms of mediation? I have always noticed and pondered over certain trends in facial expressions and poses (e.g. duck face, chicken arm pose). I feel like I see the same face/pose in all pictures. As Losh points out, this girl imitates the “gaze of a commodified cover girl”. This really raises the question of what it means to be a feminist today. We might be auditing our own images, but how are these images influenced?

But First…

There were so many things that resonated with me in Jill Walker Rettberg’s Seeing Ourselves Through Technology. Her main point that she states at the beginning argues that the three modes of digital media – visual, written, and quantitative- are inextricable. I kept thinking back to our discussion of technology determinism and the social construction of technology through this reading. I feel that Rettberg would sit in the social construction camp…I decided this when I read “…technology is a means to see part of ourselves. Whether we use a wearable, networked step=counter or a convex mirror and oil paints, technology can reflect back to us a version of who we are” (2). Rettberg determines that through our constant engagement with technology – whether it be oil paint in Parmigianino’s case, or a FitBit in a 21st century person’s case, technology reflects our need to represent ourselves. Though Rettberg does not quite get down to the core of this human desire, I think that it exists no matter the state of technology.

I was pretty fascinated by what Rettberg theorized about selfies. Upon reading the first chapter which compared Parmigianino’s self-portrait paintings to selfies I was like “Oh, brother…” but then Rettberg discusses “selfie hate” by the media. I immediately knew the type of media coverage she was bringing up – images of news reporters arguing the validity of selfies popped into my head. I roll my eyes at those types of news stories (there’s more/better things to cover besides selfies) but at the same time, I can’t say I don’t roll my eyes when I see someone post a selfie. Rettberg posits selfies as “self-representation” which “involves the creation of texts which will be read and interpreted…just as importantly, creating and sharing a selfie or a steam of selifes is a form of self-reflection and self-creation” (12). I guess I never though beyond the obnoxious factor of selfies, but this makes a lot of sense to me. I often hear people talking about how to “brand” yourself on social media and I think the creation of self through selfies has a lot to do with this.

An extremely magnified example of this phenomenon that Rettberg discusses is Kim Kardashian’s “selfie book” entitled “Selfish”. Kanye obviously inspired the idea, and this example has a lot to do with the cult of fame, etc. but it does speak to self-creation in a very heightened, ridiculous sense. Kim Kardashian certainly has a brand that she built – I sometimes hear people refer to the “Kardashian look”. Admittedly, I follow her on Instagram and observe her selfies. She certainly creates this image of herself, “filtering” and “curating” along the way. This selfie self-representation goes so far in this case as to solidify into a published book. This just proves how prevalent selfies are in the creation of self-brand today.B7zsr8mCIAAAIJV

Week 2


Nancy Baym’s discussion of technological determinism in Personal Connections in the Digital Age theorized so much of what I observe in everyday life. I am relieved that Baym can synthesize such abstract, uncharted behaviors in everyday life in a scholarly way. This gives these things real weight in the world – they aren’t something that just happens as the times change; they have real impact on every level. Anyway, the connection between technological determinism and domestication is of particular interest to me. From my perspective as a twenty one year old of the millennial generation, I believe that we are at the very top of the tipping point between non-domestication and domestication.

For example, it is not uncommon for my generation’s parents to be online – whether it’s email or full-blown Facebook addiction. I think the millennial generation parents got online around the same time as their kids, but the age at which this happened is important. For the older generation, there is a distinct moment in time when they remember getting online. For the younger generation, the memories are murkier. This is where technological determinism becomes so insanely poignant to today. We are at a point in which there are humans who do not know a world without the Internet (as an example of a new technology). These humans, however, live with other humans who do very much know the world without the Internet. It seems that there is a divide in this generation of humans that either completely detest the Internet or have embraced it wholeheartedly. Here I think it is particularly interesting to examine the fulcrum of technological determinism and the social construction of technology. As society has broken off into facets of technological use, we can observe humans’ relationship to technology.

A particular example of this tension comes up with Baym’s example of what Claude Fischer calls “impact-imprint”, an argument “in which technologies change history by transferring their ‘essential qualities to their users, imprinting themselves on users’ individual and collective psyches’” (Baym 14). I once heard that Steve Jobs took a prototype of the iPad to some rural village and asked a small child to use it; the objective was to develop the iPad to a point where it was completely intuitive to even a child who had no experience of prior technology. About a year ago, I was taking a trip with my mom and brother. We arrived at LAX to check into our flight. We approached a digital kiosk where my mom entered our names and flight number. Here, I witnessed my mom attempting to zoom into the kiosk screen with her index finger and thumb in an expanding motion as though she was on an iPad in order better see what she was doing.

This was extremely humorous to my brother and me. This is also a poignant example of the dichotomy between the theoretical framework of technological determinism and the social construction of technology. Supposedly, the iPad was created with the thought of human intuition and mind – the technology is ingrained with how a human might naturally navigate through space. However, my mom’s reflex to zoom into a screen that was certainly not designed by Apple proves Fischer’s “impact-imprint” – she was so innately used to the zoom mechanism that it became her intuitive response.