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Category Archives: dissertation

This week’s post is a recap of an event in which I participated on Monday, April 2. It’s housed over at the blog of the organization that hosted the event, the venerable Unit for Criticism at the University of Illinois.

So please do head over there and check it out: Hack This Post! Contesting Technological Neutrality at Technology in Theory and Practice


I’m going to be presenting this idea later this year at the International Communication Association conference, and I gave a talk on some other research using these methods at the Association of Internet Researchers conference last October, so it’s maybe not entirely vital that I blog about it, but something I read a while back that made me want to do it, and now there’s the time in the schedule to do so.

So I’m going for it, in part because this platform has broader accessibility than either conference. Though, as of yet, not a broader audience. Someday.

This blog post had its genesis, as many of mine do, in something that I read. Embarrassingly enough, I can’t remember how I found this particular article, though I have a strong suspicion that it came to me via being cited in something I read from Culture Digitally,  though I can’t find it again there.

Regardless of how I came by it, however, Mary Hodder’s TechCrunch post, Why Amazon Didn’t Just Have a Glitch,   pointed to the kinds of issues that make one of my methodological innovations in fan studies vital.

In the piece, Hodder described an incident in which all books with LGBT content were filtered out of general search results because they were classified as “adult,” thus resulting in, among other outcomes, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality (to which I will NOT be linking, thank you very much) being the top result for a search for “homosexuality.” This generated a flutter of Twitter activity under #AmazonFail. But, as Hodder explains:

The issue with #AmazonFail isn’t that a French Employee pressed the wrong button or could affect the system by changing “false” to “true” in filtering certain “adult” classified items, it’s that Amazon’s system has assumptions such as: sexual orientation is part of “adult”. And “gay” is part of “adult.” In other words, #AmazonFail is about the subconscious assumptions of people built into algorithms and classification that contain discriminatory ideas. When other employees use the system, whether they themselves agree with the underlying assumptions of the algorithms and classification system, or even realize the system has these point’s [sic] of view built in, they can put those assumptions into force, as the Amazon France Employee apparently did according to Amazon.

That idea about the “subconscious assumptions of people built into algorithms” and the ways in which, as employees use a system, “whether they themselves agree with the underlying assumptions of the algorithms and classification system, or even realize the system has these points of view built in, they can put those assumptions into force,” is exactly why my research operates from the premise that it’s vital to take the interface seriously as a way power/knowledge gets enacted—that is, as a discourse.

In my dissertation, I examine technology—specifically, the interface of official media company websites for objects of fandom—in much the same way as certain branches of cultural studies (a field to which I have an uneasy relationship, to be sure) examine representation. Technology, I argue, is—like representation—not natural or inevitable but the product of social processes. (I am, of course, not alone in this contention, but I do seem to be the only proponent among those studying fans.)

Once socially produced, then, technologies render certain uses possible and not others, and I investigate this through the “affordances” of these official websites—defined by H. Rex Hartson in his 2003 piece, Cognitive, Physical, Sensory, and Functional Affordances in Interaction Design as what a site “offers the user, what it provides or furnishes” (p. 316).

The key terms I’m deploying here are Hartson’s concepts of “functional affordance,” which is what a site can actually do; “cognitive affordance,” which lets users know what a site can do; and “sensory affordance,” which “enables the user in sensing (e.g., seeing, hearing, feeling) something” (p. 322, emphasis removed).

With these latter two types of affordances, I consider the role of the site’s menu labels, how easy it is to tell what a feature does (and distinguish it from other features), and which features are easier or harder to locate due to their position on the page or how noticeable they are (Hartson, 2003).

I also build Mia Consalvo‘s 2003 discussion, in Cyber-Slaying Media Fans: Code, Digital Poaching, and Corporate Control of the Internet, of the ways in which “corporations have created new multimedia formats that circumvent the easy ‘copy and paste’ usability of older standards,” as with the advent of Flash video, to consider other technological processes that remain below the threshold of the user’s perception, such as cookies that track behavior (p. 82). Finally, I examine the sites’ Privacy Policies and Terms of Service to determine how they frame the site-fan interaction

In part, I begin from the common argument made in evolutionary psychology and design research that affordances exist only in relation to a user and read affordances back to uncover what type of users an interface implies, considering the ways in which the interfaces of these official sites work to, as Ian Hutchby put it in his 2001 piece Technologies, Texts and Affordances,  “configure the user” (p. 451). In this sense, my project also resembles that of Michele White whose 2006 book The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship  examines how interfaces work to gender and embody an ideal user.

Ultimately, I seek to examine how the industry’s decisions about features work to both a) produce a particular set of behaviors and bodies as what counts as fandom and b) consume this preferred mode of fandom as a source of value for the company, keeping in mind, as Hodder does above, that this doesn’t require ill intent or even awareness of these processes on the part of employees.

Assumptions, as things that both reflect and produce a sense of how things are or should be, are powerful things, and I want to work to bring them to light.

I recently had a relatively epiphanic week with regard to my dissertation. As I spend more time inhabiting diss-space, such weeks (and the blog posts they generate) may get more frequent, as I suspect that this is a common stage in dissertating, when things suddenly become clear in batches.

First, as already blogged, those Sassen readings helped me realize it may not be so useful to think in terms of the nation.

To explain the second epiphany, I have to back up some distance. It all started because my department is somewhat anarchic. This suits most of us very well, because it gives us a lot of freedom, but it does contribute to a feeling of isolation. Particularly as students complete coursework, we all sort of lose touch with each other, to greater or lesser degree.

(Though, the way a speaker at a departmental reunion this weekend spoke about her cohort as an intellectual sounding-board to this day suggests there are ways around this.)

Consequently, when some university administrator types reviewed us, they said we needed more cohesion. The department administrators looked around at other graduate programs and decided the way to do that was to start a graduate student organization, and they tasked the representatives from each cohort with this. And so, as the unlucky soul elected to represent the 4th years, I found myself in a pub co-hosting a grad student meetup a couple of weeks ago.

This is a long story, but it was necessary to explain how I found myself seated at a table with a bunch of first and second years, who sought out my advice as a more advanced student—and particularly, one familiar with queer theory. Ultimately, it was the question “How is LGBT studies different from queer theory?” that resulted in me understanding my dissertation in a whole new way.

I said, “It’s like the difference between ethnic studies and critical race studies”—and got a blank look. I tried again “No, okay, here’s a better example: the difference between women’s studies and gender studies.” That landed more, and I went on to explain how I saw the distinctions between these categories.

Later, it hit me. That’s the move I am making in fan studies. The queer studies or critical race studies or gender studies move. (Or, since I just taught Robert McRuer, the disability studies to crip theory move.)

That is, fan studies has, to this point, been operating in a women’s studies or ethnic studies or disability studies or LGBT studies mode. It has said, “There are people called fans, who have a particular experience—to some extent, an oppressed experience—and we should document what it’s like to be this sort of person.”

This work has been and continues to be important, for fans as much as for any of the other categories of people that are researched in this way. This work absolutely should and must be done, because there are, in fact, groups of people out there that we don’t know very much about yet and we should know about them if we’re going to better our sense of what’s going on in the world. I am, emphatically, not disputing that.

But that’s not the work that I want to do in my dissertation. I’m out to queer fandom.

Now, I’m not queering fan studies in the way Julie Levin Russo does (Seriously! Can’t blog without Julie!) in her insistence that it’s important to focus on queer female fandom in Indiscrete Media: Television/Digital Convergence and Economies of Online Lesbian Fan Communities.

Perhaps most vitally, like I insisted in my academic telephone piece, I’m not saying all fans are queer in the sense of having same-sex sex or queer in the sense of sexually oppressed, because either of those contentions would be patently absurd, although some fans surely are queer in one or both of those ways. And actually I think it’s sometimes productive to think of fandom as a sexual orientation. See my Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization, and the Discursive Construction of Fandom

What I’m doing, instead, is making the move queer theory makes (and critical race theory and gender theory and crip theory all make) to not just take fans as self-evident but rigorously interrogate the process by which this category is produced.

I don’t want to look at fans out in the world as just existing, as if they just sprang up, fully-formed, not shaped in their practice by the social sense of what a fan is, as if the ability of anyone to even identify a fan or fannish behavior isn’t shaped by the social sense of what a fan is. Because, no matter what Lady GaGa says, neither fans nor queers are “born this way.”

Instead, I want to know: What are the processes by which we come to understand that there is such a thing as a fan? And what do we then understand that thing to be? What are the consequences of that construction process and constructed outcome for the norms of media audiencing in the Internet era?

This is a pretty different set of concerns from much of fan studies to this point, but I’m convinced that it’s an approach that’s vital. Just as looking at gender and race and sexuality and ability as categories has enriched work that looks at women and racial minority people and gays and the disabled, I think that queering fandom can really provide a stronger theoretical base for the LGBT-style work.

Now if only I could coin a catchy name.

When I first proposed my dissertation, I wanted to focus on how fandom is produced and consumed in the U.S.

I had that inclination not because I’m a nationalist or it I thought it would be easy, but because that was the national context in which I had observed the phenomena that interested me. That was where it was happening. It might also be happening elsewhere, of course, but one can’t look at everything, and my dissertation was already complex enough (spectulative media and sports, fiction andnonfiction, representation andweb design) without doing comparative work in different national contexts.

My committee insisted, however, and I conceded the point that nations are pretty porous these days, so the contemporary conceptualization of the fan may not include being located in the territory of the nation. But I wasn’t happy about it.

However, a couple of pieces that I’ve read in the last couple of weeks have really reoriented my thought on this and made me see now how thinking transnationally is actually vital to what I want to do.

Oh, that uncomfortable feeling when you realize your committee was right. Though, in my own defense, I don’t think they were thinking about a transnational perspective in the same way I am. But they were, nevertheless, right.

You see, capital is transnational. That’s no revelation, to be sure, but I hadn’t thought about it quite that way until reading first Aphra Kerr‘s great post The Politics of Cultural Production over at Culture Digitally and second some pieces in preparation for a visit to my campus this week by sociologist Saskia Sassen.

Mindful of my own complaints last week about Academic Telephone, I want to note that both of these scholars touched on many issues and what caught my attention in relation to my own work was only a subset of this. Nevertheless, these pieces got me thinking, first, about how the work of production is dispersed across locations.

(This possibly also cemented me as a one-trick pony, cuz LABOR! Though, being a labor pony may not be so bad, if we take Julie Levin Russo’s excellent work on queer labor in My Little Pony fandomas the baseline)

Corporate media production work, both Kerr and Sassen mention (albeit somewhat briefly), travels around the globe to the places where there’s the right combination of high enough skills and low enough standards of living to maximize profit. Depending on the type of work—mining minerals, soldering chips, routine programming, or “creative” work (design)—that means different places.

If one of the things that interests me is the ways that contemporary fan-friendliness often takes the role of encouraging them to produce user-generated content, and I’m conceptualizing this as unpaid labor, the outsourcing (or, perhaps, global-sourcing if we’re not going to identify them as inherently “American jobs”) and casualization of official, paid labor has a lot to do with this as the background that makes this possible—and makes it make sense.

Moreover, if paid labor travels around until it finds a population with the right characteristics to exploit, unpaid labor would surely do the same—this, then, may be why these fan processes felt so American to me. Perhaps fans in the U.S. have a particular combination of skills, access to technology, leisure, and cultural inclinations toward individualism that makes them the right population for this sort of invitation to participate—but I can’t see that unless I work through to get to their American-ness at the end rather than starting there.

Kerr and Sassen also got me thinking, more directly in line with their respective foci, on transnational corporate action on the nation-state—in the context of my interests, I’m thinking specifically about intellectual property and antipiracy law.

Of course, this isn’t to position transnational capital as all-powerful the way the nation was once imagined to be (even if it feels that way sometimes). As Sassen puts it in her 2008 piece Neither Global nor National: Novel Assemblages of Territory, Authority and Rights, “corporate actors operating globally have pushed hard for the development of new types of formal instruments, notably intellectual property rights and standardized accounting principles. But they need not only the support, but also the actual work of each individual state where they operate to develop and implement such instruments in the specific context of each country” (p. 65).

So the nation is under a lot of pressure from transnational capital, but it still has to cooperate if those corporations are going to get what they want, and it plays out differently on the ground depending where you are—the different local outcomes of Samsung vs. Apple patent battle being fought out in courts across the globe point to this.

As Kerr puts it in her discussion of the specific case of game production:

As in other media sectors it is clear that a national focus is unhelpful in understanding the production of digital games. In order to understand how transnational corporations operate we need to attend to the ways these corporations act in multiple places. This is not to suggest that the nation-state is no longer important, but rather to state that to understand transnational games production we need to consider how transnational corporations compete, cooperate and lobby in pursuit of their interests and how states and other political entities facilitate, regulate and collude in these actions.

Sassen similarly contends that the processes she describes “does not represent the end of national states, but it does begin to disassemble the national” (p. 62). In these ways, then, it’s clear that the nation may or may not be a great analytic category anymore—at the very least, it can’t be assumed but instead has to be selectively deployed depending on the case. We are, then, witnessing “a partial de-nationalizing of what had been constructed historically as national” (p. 73).

So I guess I’ll be thinking transnationally after all.

Though theoretically this blog is a place to preview things I’m working on, it hasn’t ever been so far. However, in a week when no current events or pop culture topics stand out to me (though as Bradley Manning’s Gender Identity Disorder defense broke this morning, too late to blog, I was nevertheless tempted), and I’m going to be traveling on Blog Thursday anyway, I thought I’d give it a go.

I’ve recently finished reading two very smart dissertations, Julie Levin Russo‘s Indiscrete Media: Television/Digital Convergence and Economies of Online Lesbian Fan Communities and Suzanne Scott‘s Revenge of the Fanboy: Convergence Culture and the Politics of Incorporation.

These are scholars I personally know and respect and thinkers after my own heart. So much after my own heart, in fact, that my reading of their dissertations was punctuated by bouts of fear that one or the other of them—or both!—had already written what I wanted to say in mine.

Both are interested in the interface of fandom and industry, like me. They are wary, rather than uncritically enthusiastic, about the impact of digital technology, like me. They are concerned about the role of capital in contemporary fandom, especially as labor—like me. Among the objects in all three dissertations is Battlestar Galactica’s website and video maker. That’s a lot in common.

And, I suppose I could look at it as: If three dissertations, produced across the country (East Coast, West Coast, Midwest), with no more than minimal collegial interaction (like, I had already planned to look at certain issues before I got around to doing this reading, and we haven’t really discussed it—maybe Julie and Suzanne were in closer touch), are doing this work, then maybe that means it’s just time for these questions to be asked.

But I don’t entirely have the luxury of just celebrating the fact that other people have noticed the things I care about. The scholarly project, as currently defined in the U.S. anyway, is to produce something new, that no one has said, and differentiate it from what people have said before. For my dissertation to be seen as valid, then, it has to be different from Julie and Suzanne, so when those moments of “OMG, she wrote my dissertation!” came over me, I would take a moment to figure out how I differed.

Here’s what I came up with.

I am, first, way more of a Foucaultian than either of them. What I find interesting about contemporary practices of “embracing” fandom (or, at least, how I frame it) is the way that the waning of repressive power—saying “no” through cease-and-desists, say—looks like no power at all. But of course it still is power. It’s just productive power—inciting and normalizing certain behaviors and practices, and in so doing producing fandom.

To those whose behavior is incited and within the norm, it looks like a free-for-all, but at the margins—often produced through gender (Scott) and sexuality (Russo)—the seams show. We scholars can see around the edges, then (and so can some fans, to provisionally accept a standpoint, “the oppressed can see the system better” argument that I’m not sure I totally buy).

Recognizing, then, that what’s in that middle, normative space is constructed and partial and benefits industry/capital way more than fans, if the cultural status of fandom has shifted in the internet era, what is it now? How does mainstream American culture make sense of this concept “fan”?

When we see fans on our television or cinema screens, who are they and what do they do? If they’re no longer automatically murderers (which I’ll be the first to admit is an improvement), that doesn’t mean that what they are now doesn’t matter—so what’s the meaning of this concept that we see representationally constructed?

When industry extends a hand to fans, who do they reach out to? What do they invite them to do? What do they think a fan is? And, with the much-vaunted capacity of the internet to make things possible, what actually becomes a possibility? When industry invites fans to come play, what does that consist of? What do official websites afford or not afford, and how is that implicitly an argument about who fans are and what they do?

Rather than looking at specific texts or cultures of fandom, as Russo and Scott do (exceedingly well), my aim is to assess the cultural field of meaning surrounding the idea “fan” by tracing how it gets deployed across the mediascape in fictional and nonfictional representation and by industry in web design and their own conceptualization of the term.

And rather than asking how industry practice matches up (or doesn’t) to existing fandoms, I turn the question a different direction: With this productive power, what is “fan” being produced as?

And that seems different enough, and to produce enough of a different set of knowledge, to be worth doing despite the great things that have already been done.