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Category Archives: new media

ETA: Some people are being told that they’re “forbidden” to view the Prezi. Not sure what’s going on with that, since it is working for me (even in a different browser than is logged in). But, hopefully this link will work. If not, let me know in the comments or on twitter @melstanfill and I’ll try something else!

In lieu of a blog post this week, I’m posting the prezi of the talk I gave on Saturday at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago, IL, entitled “Between Commodity and Consent: Implications of the Vanishing Distinction between Play and Work in Fandom.” Partially, this is because several people  have requested it, but partially I was at a conference for 5 days and had no time to write a blog! So, here it is:

A couple of caveats:

First, as was noted by an aggressive audience member in the Q&A, the Marx is oversimplified. That was intentional, because I was trying to explain why we don’t talk about labor in fandom, and why fandom doesn’t seem like labor–because the everyday idea about labor is grounded in a set of ideas that don’t seem to apply.

Second, there’s a lot of slippage between fans and viewers in the piece that I didn’t really intend, and I know it’s a problem.

And third, the presentation was intended as a base for me to talk from, so the actual presentation was significantly different. Hopefully the prezi gives you a basic idea anyway.

In the first part of January, there was an exchange over the email list of the Association of Internet Researchers that started with a scholar looking for pointers to sources on social-media-based tribes. In addition to responses that just answered the question came some that were critical of the racist/colonialist underpinnings of the term “tribe” itself.

(I’m torn here between giving those contributors credit and respecting that what they said was not, strictly, public, particularly given AoIR’s long history of thinking about online research ethics and protecting the identities of one’s sources. So I’m erring on the side of not naming names or even quoting, since that would be Google-able).

The conversation about “tribe” raised a question for me: Can we separate out the usefulness of “tribe” as a type-of-social-organization term from its racist/primitivist history? And if we can’t, how can we talk about those forms of social organization?

It just so happened that I had an upcoming meeting of my queer studies reading group that was going to look at queer indigenous studies, so I put the topic on hold in anticipation of the insight that reading and group discussion would provide. And, sure enough, it did.

(What follows is heavily influenced by having read and discussed excerpts from Scott Lauria Morgensen’s Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization, but in a way that makes it hard to point to specific page numbers. So, this is both a blanket citation and a blanket disclaimer that he may not think about this the same way I do. It might be more accurate to say, like those old anti-drug commercials: This is my brain on Morgensen.)

It seems clear that “tribe” in online contexts works in much the same way as it does in other white folks’ appropriations of nativeness. It gestures toward an untainted, pre-civilizational past upheld as pure and superior, which seems like a positive representation until you realize that it relies on a primitivizing logic and on actual indigenous people disappearing into the past.  (Which I wish advocates of a certain mascot on my campus could comprehend.)

Because of what I’ve read recently, in terms of appropriations of nativeness I’m thinking primarily about gay, lesbian, and transgender social movement uses of indigenous histories of gender and sexual diversity here (I’m not aware of any bisexual organizing using this tactic, but I’m happy to be corrected), but one of the AIR-L contributors mentioned the use of Native American imagery to demonstrate masculinist pride and martial prowess through things like “Apache” helicopters.

Like these uses, the use of “tribe” or “neo-tribe” to describe online forms of social organization both grounds a way of being in a historical, “natural” and so uncontestable, precedent and perpetuates the subordination of the both the thing it defends and the precedent.

How does that work? Well, in saying that “tribal” groupings are legitimate because they have a precedent in real, live indigenous people somewhere, this logic perpetuates the idea that such groupings need a justification rather than being legitimate on their own merits. This is then advocacy for “premodern” forms of social organization without contesting the ways “modern” forms of organization—bureaucracy, say—are considered inherently good. This perfectly demonstrates Morgensen’s contention that “impersonating indigeneity and believing in colonial modernity are noncontradictory acts” (p. 17).

On top of this, and more importantly, the valorization of supposedly spontaneous and natural ways of being aligns nativeness with nature rather than culture and constructs indigenous peoples as the antithesis of civilization, a logic which played a major role in justifying dispossession and genocide in the first place. It relies on a primitivist—or, indeed, primitivizing—logic. So much for this being a sign of respect.

Morgensen discusses this dynamic as establishing “anthropological authority to determine Native truth while leaving their desire for it unexamined” (p. 15). People decide what indigeneity means and then either want to eliminate it or celebrate it (and mourn its elimination), eliding their own process of construction and not questioning the logic that makes nativeness a screen for those anxieties or desires.

But I want to take a step further.

Even if we stop using these loaded tribal logics and languages, we have to also examine the desire for historical legitimacy itself. On one hand, that is, to be able to point to people who have done things differently disrupts the naturalization of contemporary norms—“it doesn’t have to look this way, look, someone else did it differently!” Authenticity begets authorization. But this slides very quickly into resting the legitimacy of one’s difference on there being a precedent rather than making a robust argument for difference as inherently legitimate.

This contention perhaps sounds familiar, as this is the same structure by which people claim homosexuality is biological to legitimize it. What Shannon Weber calls biological homonormativity, in using nature as a cover, supports the idea that no one would ever choose same-sex desire if they weren’t compelled, and in the same way the appropriative logic of tribal authenticity relies on a belief that collective organization is lesser but legitimate because “pure.”

And instead of participating in these logics, I think the arguments in favor of diverse forms of human community need to be much queerer.

This isn’t, of course, to say that indigenous folks can’t or shouldn’t make arguments about authenticity and authority with regard to their own cultures and histories in order to make claims to things like land. I’m not legislating a queer approach to everything or for everyone, because it’s not for everything. (Also, it would be radically unqueer to do so.) Queer is a screwdriver, and sometimes you need a hammer; not recognizing that will lead to trying to screw everything when sometimes it needs nailing.

But I am arguing that appropriating “tribe” to legitimize collectivist forms of organization is not only racist, primitivizing, and reproductive of the crimes of colonization—which would be enough reason to dispense with it—but it’s actually not even productive for the purpose to which it’s set.

I first saw the story on January 19, retweeted to me by @kouredios from the Twitter of band They Might be Giants: jocotmbg

Briefly, independent artist Jonathan Coulton covered Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” in a distinctive style, and Glee’s cover of the song is virtually identical to Coulton’s, causing uproar from pro-Coulton and anti-Glee forces on the Internet under the hashtag #JoCoGleeGate. Both Coulton and Glee licensed the intellectual property of the song—the lyrics—from the appropriate parties, but Glee did not license Coulton’s arrangement from him, nor even inform him before recording and releasing the song.

jocoCNN This series of events seemed unfortunate, of course, but it didn’t arrest my attention at first. Until it made it to CNN a week later:

By the time Mythbusters co-host and geek-chic internet celebrity Adam Savage got into it on January 28, jocosavageI had also gotten around to reading Casey Fiesler’s 2008 piece Everything I need to know I learned from fandom: How existing social norms can help shape the next generation of user-generated content, and I knew I needed to write about it.

What we see from Glee’s decision and the ensuing (mini)scandal is the way in which the copyright system fundamentally fails at distinction. To reuse the quote from Fiesler that was my structural guide last week, “at one end is completely original material (no threat to copyright owners), and at the other end is wholesale copying (obvious infringement)” (p. 757), and the huge gray area in the middle is where current copyright law has no answers.

This is because anything other than “no threat” gets collapsed into “completely owned by the original rights-holder.” As Fiesler explains earlier in the piece, “legally, only copyright owners have the right to prepare [derivative] works. This applies to anything from the slightest modification to something so transformed that the original is hardly recognizable” (p. 737), which are, in the eyes of the law, all equally derivative.

Though Fiesler argues that “derivative works are transformative; basically, they incorporate copyrighted aspects of the original without being carbon copies of the original” (p. 737), that is, it’s actually the case that the transformativity or “adding new material” aspect is not something the law can account for very well, and this needs to be taken much more seriously.

Fiesler relegates the point to a note: “as it stands now, if, for example, someone attempted to profit from someone else’s fan fiction, the original fan fiction writer would probably not have a legal remedy, as they did not hold the copyright in their work in the first place” (759 n. 182), but it’s a pretty big deal. After all, it’s pretty much exactly what happened to Jonathan Coulton in a different medium.

Coulton added significant aspects to the song, but because it was based on another source song, he would seem to have no legal claim. As CNN explained, “the rights to ‘Baby Got Back’ belong with songwriter Anthony L. Ray, also known as Sir Mix-A-Lot, and his music publisher, Universal, who have apparently given proper licenses to Fox and ‘Glee.’” Coulton, despite his contribution to what Glee ultimately produced, does not factor into the equation at a legal level. He didn’t own the words, so he seemingly loses his claim to the music as well.

jocoiTunesIf that seems messed up to you, you’re not alone. Though Coulton apparently has no legal standing, he does have a moral one. It’s obvious to everyone that Coulton’s creativity went unacknowledged in this process, and as Adam Savage’s call to action quoted above suggests, people are rallying behind Coulton to the degree that his version is outselling the Glee cast recording:

The irony that it should be Glee, with its track record of supporting diversity (albeit in a sanctimonious, oversimplified way), that’s stomping on a small-scale music maker has also not escaped anyone. As Coulton complained in the CNN piece, “Glee has a reputation for being a show that celebrates the underdog [ . . . ]. It’s the anti-bullying show. But this is a bullying way to approach this.”

(Of course, Glee is a product of a massive media empire, and no one would be surprised by Rupert Murdoch bullying anybody, which is a whole other bait-and-switch and reputation-scrubbing issue.)

But regardless, the lawyers at Fox presumably knew the lay of the legal land, and knew they could get away with it either because they’d win in court, possibly immediately because there’s no standing in copyright law for Coulton, or because they knew Coulton didn’t have the financial wherewithal to sue them in the first place. Either way, it’s ultimately the weird ways that copyright has become wildly top-heavy that are at root here. So much for underdogs.


If you ask scholars on the pessimistic end of the spectrum, like Mark Andrejevic and Christian Fuchs, user-generated content (UGC) is horribly exploitative. The champions of peer production (Chris Kelty) or convergence culture (Henry Jenkins), on the other hand, tend to cheer on the cases where people produce digital objects as personally empowering and industry-challenging. Given that these are all smart people looking at the same set of relations in the world, how is this possible?

The answer is that these different scholars are actually not looking at the same relations a lot of the time. Commercial UGC, where companies make money from audience work and claim the intellectual property on it, is indeed exploitative. On the other hand, while certainly not free of problems like gender inequality, “peer production is commons-based insofar as it creates resources that are held in common or collectively,” as Bingchun Meng and Fei Wu argue in their 2013 piece Commons/Commodity: Peer production caught in the Web of the commercial market (p. 127), and it’s not exploitative.

The challenge, that is, is that digital objects that are produced by people are a lot of quite different things that we need to discuss in their specificity. Casey Fiesler, in 2008’s Everything I need to know I learned from fandom: How existing social norms can help shape the next generation of user-generated content, contends that “at one end is completely original material (no threat to copyright owners), and at the other end is wholesale copying (obvious infringement)” (p. 757). Fiesler wants to call attention to the huge gray area in the middle that gets flattened out of view by copyright’s current black/white ideas about derivativeness.

We can think about a similar spectrum in relation to exploitation, where one end is completely uncommercial (no threat of exploitation) and the other is completely sandboxed and commercialized (obvious exploitation). About the former, peer production champions are absolutely right: it’s about community and equality (provided that you are a member of the in-group) and not at all stealing people’s labor. With regard to the latter, the pessimists are right to rail against inveigling people with the promise of democracy or community only to get them to freely do work the company would otherwise have to pay someone for.

The trick, of course, is that it’s almost never black and white, almost never easily placed at an extreme end of the spectrum. It’s all gray. (However many shades you’d like, and a moment of silence here for the fact that we can no longer use the phrase “shades of gray” without invoking connotations not useful to every piece.)

This line of thinking started during my exams reading a few years ago, which produced a lot of frustration with peer production and convergence culture literature, which seemed to rely on an assumption that people were totally free, completely self-aware actors and to miss the fact that people were doing work and not getting paid.

Axel Bruns, coiner of the term produsage, points to some of the concerns in his 2012 piece Reconciling Community and Commerce?: Collaborations between Produsage Communities and Commercial Operators: among other failings, companies often “treat users’ contributions as disposable and bereft of individual value” and/or “simply assign ownership of these contributions to the organization operating the site” (p. 822). Ultimately his critique comes down on the side of turning these relationships  into real collaboration and community, contending that “in pursuit of short-term gains from crowdsourcing thankless tasks, the potential for generating valuable long-term outcomes through more intensive collaboration is never fully explored” (p. 818).

As I read farther in the work making a strong argument about exploitation, however, I also got frustrated by the way that body of work seemed not to understand that people engaged in these tasks without pay because they got pleasure out of it. The question of “Why do people do this to themselves?” didn’t get asked.

As Brian Brown and Anabel Quan-Haase argue in their 2012 piece “A Workers’ Inquiry 2.0”: An Ethnographic Method for the Study of Produsage in Social Media Contexts, “we have yet to adequately grasp how the ‘users’ of Web 2.0 sites and services perceive their place in this socio-economic system” (p. 489) which seems like a pretty important piece of information to have left out so far.

Neither of the hard-line positions on exploitation works for me. I need more nuance. I need more gray. I have taken to thinking of Andrejevic/Fuchs and Jenkins as the devil and angel on my shoulders in my work, pulling me in their disparate directions, and you can assign identities there however suits your own personal feelings about those scholars.

Because the fact is: most of the time, they’re both right, but at different scales. People get community and they’re exploited labor. “Current methodologies, however, do not so justice to the complex relations that exist between Web 2.0 produsers, the sense of community engendered by the mode of produsage, and the exploitative relations between these communities and the owners of the sites” (Brown and Quan-Haase 489).

We need, then, to think much harder about “the quasi-voluntary nature of the engagement in the exploitative relationship. On the face of it, participating on social networks is a voluntary act that one enters into without being compelled by force. When the unique attributes of the contemporary communicative environment are taken into consideration, however, characterizing participation as voluntary becomes less convincing” (Brown and Quan-Haase 494).

One characteristic of “the contemporary communicative environment” is that people are still often set up as consumers. Bruns is right to contend that “the very concrete effects of traditional consumer/producer distinctions on users’ self-perceptions should not be underestimated” (p. 818). When your work is set up as secondary and reacting to the “real thing,” you’re not in a position to see its worth.

Ultimately, “where such structures in the user base form more permanent shapes, we define this as a ‘community’; where the user base continues to be so transient or atomized that structures remain impermanent, it is simply a ‘crowd’” (Bruns 819). Bruns mentions this only briefly, but I think it’s a pretty good metric for thinking about exploitation.

If we distinguish carefully between community and crowd, things become visible. We can start to see the orientation of the people involved and ask the question of whether they’re getting anything out of it. We can ask whether what they’re getting is enough, by their own internal standards.

And we can still, at the same time, hold capital accountable for exploiting them, just like we can be concerned about sports franchise owners or record labels or movie studios making money hand-over-fist when the employees they’re exploiting are making millions of dollars and generally doing alright.

Because it’s a complicated world where contradictory things can be true at the same time. It’s all gray.

An interesting article came through my email recently, forwarded to my grad program’s student listserv by my colleague Ergin Bulut. It was a piece by Huw Lemmey published in The New Inquiry entitled “Devastation in Meatspace.”

The essay starts out talking about the optics of war generally and how armies visualize their activities for themselves and the citizenry. Lemmey remarked on the way that “the mediated aesthetics of war have always tread a fine line between the banal and heroic, always used to justify, rightly or wrongly, the slaughter of young and old while always failing to really convey the profound and fleeting moment when a state chooses to end a human life, again and again and again a thousand times over.”

This points to the latest iteration of an old technology of vision, which reminded me of Caren Kaplan’s November 2nd talk at the University of Illinois, “Desert Wars: Virilio and the Limits of ‘Genuine Knowledge,’” in which she elaborated how mapping and eventually aerial surveillance was used to make sense of Mesopotamia and eventually Iraq during successive European and then American desert wars there.

But Lemmey was doing something more expansive. He contended that the contemporary practices of visualization of Israeli military action are “an extension of the historical ‘propaganda war’: control of the networked space online. The IDF have run a comprehensive social media campaign from the first stages of the new assault, announcing the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari on Twitter, followed up by YouTube footage of his targeted killing within minutes.”

This is not just letting people see, then, or telling them what it is that they’re seeing, but something quite new. I call attention here to the use of the phrase “social media campaign,” terminology far more familiar in the context of marketing than that of providing a citizenry with the information they need about their government’s military actions. That is, while the rapid-fire nature of digital media can clearly be used to hold governments accountable and get out information to people to make decisions, this is something else again.

The link to marketing is not coincidental but actually the fulcrum for the shift Lemmey identifies. As he contends, “the images posted on Instagram and the infographics released across platforms form the core of the IDF brand; with a coherent visual theme, and consistency with the brand narrative, they are reimagining an urban conflict and occupation on a new consumer scale.”

This is not just nation-branding in the sense that has long been practiced as an incitement to tourism, but both narrower in scope (the military as national subset) and broader in dissemination (out to everyone, everywhere, simultaneously).

Lemmey’s biggest claim is that “liking and sharing IDF visual material becomes no more controversial than sharing your favourite Nike campaign — not a matter of politics, let alone ethics, but just another part of the construction of your online persona.”

This is the point at which the technological break with what Lemmey describes in the title as “devastation in meatspace” is complete. This information has become data, branding, decorative, has come to operate within the orbit of other fun and exciting technological things. And, on the model of the well-attested and expansively critiqued Israeli pinkwashing, I’d like to call it techwashing.

Pinkwashing is the term used in queer critique for the practice by which Israel plays up its gay-friendliness in a way that attempts to establish them as modern or advanced or forward-thinking and distract from more repressive aspects of their state policy on the basis of other categories of difference like race, ethnicity, or religion.

(Incidentally, the word pinkwashing is also used to describe the attachment of breast cancer awareness pink ribbons or pink coloring to a product to get people to buy it, even at times products with carcinogens in them. This makes me think maybe the gay one should be called rainbow-washing. Also, gay-related pinkwashing also happens in other places than Israel, like South Africa.)

The IDF social media campaign is thus usefully understand as the making same move as pinkwashing in a different arena. Thus, “we’re so gay-friendly, never mind that we also systematically deny rights to and chronically immiserate whole populations!” becomes “We’re so tech-savvy, never mind that we’re using this technological capacity to systematically deny rights to and chronically immiserate whole populations!”

Techwashing, like pinkwashing, like greenwashing before it, is ultimately a form of whitewashing. This is, on one hand, a metaphor about paint—the idea that you can slap a covering layer over unpleasant things and make them look nice.

But on the other hand these things are whitewashing—certainly with techwashing and pinkwashing, and maybe with greenwashing too—because they are deeply racialized. I mean, I know that race does not work in Israel quite like it works in the US context that I’m familiar with, but clearly the same structure is in play even if its component parts are defined differently.

These forms of -washing require a particular form of willful colorblindness, a refusal to see the racially disparate access to gay-friendliness or to the technological “wow” factor. Even more damningly, it requires obscuring the ways in which these forms of “modernity” act as bait-and-switch on tangible, meatspace, life-and-death human rights violations.

And ethically, it’s incumbent on us not to let that sleight-of-hand go unremarked.