Author Archives: d. o.

The Internet and Intolerance

The report discusses how cyberpublics (e.g. blogging, social networking, user-generated media websites like YouTube) help to disseminate images and information that promote liberal ideals of tolerance and co-existence. On websites like Tumblr, for example, you are able to find a vibrant culture of awareness, advocacy, and activism that educates users on social issues and critical theory in a way that allows individuals  to engage positively with a political community. In areas that are under the control of a totalitarian or authoritarian system, the Internet offers a way for individuals to resist oppressive socio-political power in a way that minimizes personal vulnerability. Individuals in these cultures are able to connect with like-minded individuals and actively protest acts of political or structural violence, giving their subversive discourse more cultural power.

However, I also think it’s important to recognize how the Internet can, in fact, be used to encourage intolerance. For instance, just as the Internet allows positively minded individuals to connect with other people with similar aims to promote positive change, it also allows increased interaction to people with more regressive or violent interests. Traditionally, members of hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan were only able to recruit members and spread messages of extremism via person-to-person contact; now, the Internet allows members to spread dangerous ideologies to others they would have otherwise not have been able to contact. (I would link to the KKK’s website here, but I actually don’t want to give them any more web traffic.)

And it’s not just these ostentatiously regressive political groups that promote intolerance in the age of the Internet. You can find equally dangerous but more furtive discourse on other, more benign areas of the Internet. For instance, in the subreddit “The Red Pill,” a community of users encourage a perception of modern society as being female-dominated (as opposed to male-dominated). The rhetoric on this website is implicitly (and, often, explicitly) misogynistic, with women being cast as cruel, consumeristic, unintelligent shrews and feminism being characterized as a conspiracy to ruin the lives of men. However, because the community is not obviously violent (with some very significant exceptions), their ideas and ideologies are able to be consumed by naive users without critique.

My point is that the Internet can be used as an instrument of spreading both tolerance and intolerance, and that merely identifying the positive aspects without recognizing the negative results in an unfortunately unbalanced idea of the digital world.

Cyberbullying, or…?

When I first started doing my MA thesis work, my research advisor encouraged me to read more academic literature about abuse, sexual violence, etc. so that I could have a more reliable theoretical framework to refer to by the time I started writing. This is, for the most part, wonderful advice. However, one segment of academic literature she wanted me to look into was cyberbullying, which I found…odd.

On the one hand, it somewhat makes sense: after all, my research focuses on Internet-mediated sexual abuse of underage girls, and most victims of cyberbullying are young and female. However, I was uncomfortable applying the “cyberbullying” label to the events I was studying, since it seemed to trivialize sexual violence as being on the same scale as pigtail-pulling on the playground.

In this week’s reading, danah boyd talks about how categorically labeling an act as “bullying” can make it more difficult for us to later make a distinction between more minor acts of bullying (i.e. annoying but relatively harmless behaviors like teasing) and more extreme acts of aggression. By labeling all acts on this spectrum as bullying, we run the risk of delegitimizing the experience of victims who are enduring more pernicious aggressive behaviors.

However, I can see how this kind of discourse about scales and spectrums when it comes to victimization can be problematic. In analyzing the “severity” of aggressive acts, we risk ignoring the plights of individuals whose experiences outwardly appear minor (e.g. teasing) but is nevertheless doing a significant amount of emotional and psychological damage to the victim. In categorizing one type of abuse as more harmful than another, we obscure the negative experiences of individuals whose victimization we label as “minor. What’s happening here is a kind of psychological triage system, and while triage is perfectly useful (and, arguably, absolutely necessary) in medical situations, it might not be a good model to follow when dealing with issues of abuse and aggression.

On Kanye West

In “super publics,” danah boyd talks about how digital technologies are constructing and maintaining new ideas about what means to be “public.” Whereas, traditionally, the concept of public is “bounded by space, time and audience,” the introduction of new digital architectures as encouraged new understandings of the public space. While this certainly has positive implications (connecting communities that would have historically remained separate, for example), this is also introduced new challenges in competently navigating the public sphere. Information posted on the Internet has the ability to be transmitted to audiences that the user could not have predicted. Indeed, certain people can participate in the public theater of the digital world without consenting to or even being aware of their participation.

This brings me to Kanye. Yesterday, he attended the Super Bowl XLIX, where he was spotted by a couple of Seahawks fans decided it would be a great time to snap a selfie:


West very obviously does not want to be part of the photo–he’s scowling, hunching his shoulders, refusing to make eye contact with camera, and generally making it clear that taking a selfie was not high on his list of priorities. However, despite these visual cues, the boys decided to take the photo anyway. To a certain extent, it seems like West lacked any control over whether or not his image was going to be used; regardless of his feelings on the matter, he was going to be in the photo.

This seems like an extension of the enthusiastic self-representation boyd discusses towards the end of her essay. Teenagers (or, I would argue, all competent Internet users, irrespective of age) are eager to expose the details of their own lives on the digital stage, filling their Instagram feeds with pictures of their breakfasts and tweeting candid discussions of their everyday lives.

However, these savvy Internet users are also inclined to impose this pattern of open digital expression onto others. The idea that one could feel entitled to co-opt the image of another seems invasive to me. Though, as a celebrity, Kanye West is a special case (since his position as a public figure arguably lends itself to the idea that he is always part of the “public,” and therefore always selfie-able), I’ve definitely noticed friends and acquaintances snapping of photos or shooting grainy cell phone videos of people who did not receive the opportunity to opt out.

On Filter Bubbles

One of my favorite books about Internet culture is The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser, which was published in 2011. In the book, Pariser discusses the algorithms search engines like Google, social networking sites like Facebook, and other websites use in order to personalize an individual user’s experience. Google, for example, guesses what search result would be most relevant to you based on your search history, your browsing history, your location, and other idiosyncratic factors, meaning that the search results you get might be vastly different from what a different user with a different background might receive.

This is, ostensibly, pretty great–after all, who wants to sift through a bunch of irrelevant search results before they find the website that they’re actually looking for? Who wants look at boring photos on their Facebook feed when all they really care about are Buzzfeed quizzes and news articles? The use of these algorithms help to tailor our experience of these websites in a way that makes them more useful to us.

However, the application of these filters enable Internet companies to collect information about your browsing habits in order to target advertising. They see you frequently like Upworthy videos that show up on your Facebook timeline, so they make sure those videos appear more often…and also display ads about charitable donations and “socially conscious” companies. They notice that you tend to Google the lyrics to Top 40 pop songs, so they make sure that lyrics (as opposed to Wikipedia articles or music news sites) floats to the top of your search results…and also display ads about local concerts and newly released albums.

However, even more insidious than the advertising is the construction of “filter bubbles”: users get less exposure to conflicting viewpoints and end up being ideologically isolated within their own information bubble. A liberal and a conservative Googling the exact same event end up getting vastly different search results (say, searching for a specific news story and getting either MSNBC or Fox News depending on your past browsing history), which only serves to reinforce previously held convictions and removes opportunities for civic discourse. Or, as Pariser put it:

A world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there’s nothing to learn … (since there is) invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas.

Research has demonstrated that individuals who only associate with people who agree them become more extreme in their beliefs and values than they would be if they were exposed to a diverse array of ideologies–and if you look at research on the increased political polarization of US society, that definitely seems to hold true: over the past 10 years, the number of people who lie on either extreme end of the political spectrum has vastly outstripped the number of moderates. To put it differently, Republicans are becoming increasingly more conservative while Democrats are becoming ever more liberal.

The filtered nature of our virtual reality is vastly impacting the political structure of our society, and I’m not so sure that that’s a good thing.

Representing Networked Publics | On Noah by Patrick Cederberg and Walter Woodman

Screenshot from Noah.

Has anyone noticed this annoying trend in films and TV: if a plot’s conflict could be solved by a quick phone call to the police, for example, the character’s cell will either be conveniently “out of service” or (even more stupidly) the character will not even consider whipping out their phone at the crucial moment. In the heavily networked world of the modern age, these features of storytelling are jarring, to say the least.

However, in the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that screenwriters have become a lot more open to incorporating digital media and telecommunication into the show’s narrative. For example, the above screen shot is from the indie short film Noah, which takes place entirely on a teenager’s computer.  (I’ve embedded the film below, mildly NSFW.)

Without spoiling the events of the film, I can say that all of the communication is digital, with the main action taking place on Facebook. Conventional wisdom would argue that this emphasis on textual interaction would underwrite the emotionality of the film—after all, there are very few “typical” markers of emotionality (body language, prosody, etc.) that critics of new media argue are necessary aspects of communication.

However, Noah does a good job of illustrating that digital communication isn’t emotionless. We’ve adopted a method of textual interaction that does not (and, arguably, cannot) mimic IRL interaction, and have adapted to adjust to the constraints of digital media in order to express ourselves in meaningful ways.

Screenshot from Jane the Virgin.

My point, I guess, is that digital media has become a part of everyday life, with our participation in networked publics forming the backbone of modern human interaction. As Danah Boyd points out, these new networked technologies has altered the way we communicate and has impacted the social dynamics of our relationships. It would, therefore, be nice for traditional media to do a better job of accurately illustrating the role digital media plays in modern communication without also demonizing it.

In recent years, traditional media seems to have realized this. Award-winning TV shows like Jane the Virgin (pictured above) and cult favorites like Faking It (pictured below) have used clever stylistic choices to demonstrate how new media is actually used in everyday interaction.

I think we still have a bit of a way to go before the representation of new media usage in film and TV accurately reflects the way new media is used IRL, but the way networked publics are represented in the media these days has definitely improved over time.

Screenshot from Faking It.

Oh No! Not Innovation! | On “The Culture War” by Tom Standage

Photo credit: Jamie Grill/Getty Images

By some stroke of luck, a Facebook friend posted a link to this old WIRED piece by Tom Standage, an article that is perfectly relevant to this week’s reading. I’d read the article once before, back when I was in high school, and though Standage wrote it in response to a politician’s condemnation of video games, it’s a pretty succinct rebuttal to virtually any shallow criticism of new technologies.

It’s not hard to get caught up in the latest moral panic surrounding new digital technologies. “Cell phones are making our kids antisocial,” these modern Luddites mutter, quoting the latest research findings with a kind of reverence not unfamiliar to a member of a doomsday cult. “Video games are turning them aggressive. The Internet is making them stupid.”

These ideologies are as unwise as they are inevitable: since the dawn of civilization*, adults have irrationally protested the newfangled ideas and behaviors of the next generation. Every technological leap forward has been accompanied by the mad ravings of Good Ol’ Boys who love to hate change. The cycle is doomed to continue, forever and ever, ad infinitum and ad nauseum—after all, youths who once embraced new technologies (and happily ignored the baseless warnings of their parents) will grow older and learn to distrust the technologies developed by the following generation.

(For a quick overview of the cycle of moral panics in US society, see this infographic from

In this week’s reading, Baym makes the argument that anxiety about new media in the modern era stems from a non-user’s difficulty in understanding new rules of interactivity, participation, relationship building, etc., which I think does a good job of explaining every period of moral terror in American history. Uninitiated people are unfamiliar with the new rules and behaviors associated with innovative technologies, and they connect that unfamiliarity to an emotional affect of revulsion and distrust and fear.

It’s easy for me to laugh now at old fearmongers decrying the invention of the automobile or the discovery of penicillin**, and soon, it’ll be easy to laugh at the contemporary doomsayers who grumble about how much “kids these days” use Facebook. Sure, it may be inevitable how new technologies are often viewed negatively by members of the previous generation…but it’s also inevitable that the technologies that are currently the subject of the previous generation’s ire will one day be seamlessly incorporated into mainstream society.

My only hope is that in the far-off future, when my kids are off using whatever new technology of the day has caught their interest, I won’t participate in this cycle of fear and will instead embrace the new technologies as wholeheartedly as the next generation does.

* Did anyone else laugh at Baym’s discussion of Socrates’s hatred for the alphabet? No? Just me? Cool, cool.

** No, not really.