Keyword Post #9

Calling gaming and play the same type of activity would be simple; we “play a game,” after all, which suggests that the ludic is part of the event of a game. Bhaduri complicates this idea, though, by expanding on how play and gaming are different.

Play, according to Bhaduri, starts from Huizinga’s conception that play is the basis of human culture and in fact predates it (142), is bound up in it, and cannot be removed. Play is a free activity but when in the context of a game or sports activity, it remains rule-bound (143). Gaming and games, on the other hand, “feature the possibility of subversion, strategy, and manipulation” (143). Games move beyond the realm of play and therefore have different and perhaps even more serious social concerns. It’s been suggested that playing is constructivist, it creates, whereas gaming is behaviorist, it can condition through repeated action and strategizing. In any case, the two are not mutually exclusive nor must they always occur together.

This ability to separate and co-mingle might come from Bhaduri’s structuring of the game as composed of two contradictory elements: “On the one hand, a game has to have a structure, fairly set rules, and definable goals and objectives; on the other, a game is supposed to lead to enjoyment” (141). The first sense, the goals and objectives, is the game, although we also see rules in play; the second, the enjoyment, is the area of play but is bound up in games, too. Because they exist together in tension that’s not always resolved, the two structures can be pulled apart and meshed together, swapping terms as needed for the activities they must describe.

Games that are not play, for example, might include bitcoin mining games. While attempting to produce wealth might arguably be fun to some people, for the most part, the strategic action coupled with economic goals would not be part of the ludic, unconstrained nature of the game. If this “game” is undertaken as a solution to a problem, a strategy for gaining desired wealth, it becomes work through the method and interface of the game.

Play that is not a game, on the other hand, could be that of playing an instrument. Anyone who has lost hours strumming on a guitar knows that there is no strategy, there doesn’t have to be an end goal; the action is purely one of enjoyment and harkens back to the origins of culture of which Bhaduri reminds us.

Of course, there is no need to separate the two, as noted, since collectivization, rules and delight, are already held in “playing a game” or “gaming.” Digital gaming, for instance, meshes them together as players cycle between freer and more bound investigations and actions. Some parts of the digital game ask for exploration; others require repeated action and strategy. This sounds simple, but requires careful analysis; as Bhaduri writes, “There are many critical reflections that must be examined in contemporary gaming culture and subcultures—no less than the reifying and fantasizing of the virulently toxic politics of gender, race, and class discrimination that many scholars have analyzed” (146).

Works Cited:

Bhaduri, Saugata. “Gaming.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 140-148.

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Keyword Post #8

As Christopher Kelty shows us, participation is no easy concept to come to terms with, partly because it’s hard to talk about and discover what comprises fair and equal participation. We might attribute this difficulty to the “schizoid” nature of the concept:

“On the one hand, it wants to signal the concerns with agency, autonomy, decision making, and involvement that are most central to the second sense. . .voice, agenda setting, democracy, deliberation, action. On the other hand, it also wants to signal the primary meaning of the term: to become-collective, to become an instance of a collective, not just one individual among others. . . .” (236)

With this push-and-pull of belonging/standing aside in individuality, both a system and its members are in a constant state of flux, giving power dynamics an instability that makes foundation-needing notions, including fairness and equality, difficult to handle.

We can see this even in systems that appear simple on the surface. Take the case of one of TLC’s popular reality programs, My Big Fat Fabulous Life (MBFFL). The creator of the show, Whitney Way Thore, encourages participation from her fans, engaging them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, giving them a glimpse of her life outside of the show and allowing them to feel a greater sense of connection through interaction. What’s interesting*, though, is how tightly controlled are the ideas that can find expression.

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In fact, the ability to assert either individual agency or belonging comes down to whether the dominant narrative/controlling idea is being upheld; everyone comes together to maintain approved ideas but must break away before making points that run counter to those that are dominant. In this way, participation as “belonging” is a way to legitimize a personal experience or view by first okaying it through the group and then, only secondarily, letting the experience have its own arena. The individual experience, the personal agency, can then be used to entrench the group dynamic and sense of belonging.

In the case of MBFFL, new group dynamics are strictly disallowed, because they disrupt the dominant ideas that Thore wishes to uphold. Anyone who wants to express belonging by participating in common beliefs may do so; those who forward anything counter are, ironically, shamed, having their participation framed as an attack on the show, Thore, or her viewers.

Participation, then, is power, when you control who is allowed to participate, what they’re allowed to say, and how others are allowed to or should react to counter-ideas. In the case of the MBFFL community, you gain participatory power by conforming, which is equated with belonging. If you wish to speak against the dominant ideas, you’re a non-comformist and denied participation. Kelty notes that “Participation is not always open to everyone—because not everyone belongs; participation is not inclusion” (237). When speaking about a reality television show, the stakes are probably fairly low. Yes, the fat acceptance movement has consequences and the potential to change minds and norms; however, what happens when this type of participation moves beyond media or fandom and into deeper realms of the political? Again, as Kelty notes, this is a thorny issue and one that is beleaguered with opposites and blind spots. We must consider, though, the reasons for making participation fair and equal, no matter how difficult this may be.

*I could not care less what people look like, whom they date, what pronouns they prefer, etc., etc. I am, however, interested in the way battles are fought.

Works Cited:

Kelty, Christopher. “Participation.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 227-241.

Keyword Post #7

Same Same But Different

Archive and database might look fairly similar on the surface. Both contain information and some type of structural system or interface that allows for accessing that information. We need both for wrangling today’s (and tomorrow’s) unprecedented level of digital media. But these similarities mask a few complex differences and interactions going on under the surface. We might see these areas as concerned with cultivation, transparency, opportunity, and gatekeeping.

Cultivation

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to think of a database as wild or without a guiding force; it’s the sum total of all contributions, no matter where they came from or who put them there. An archive, on the other hand, has an element of cultivation. Someone conscientiously decided that a group of objects belonged together for some reason: to commemorate, to preserve, to enlighten, etc. There is inclusivity in the former, forethought and exemption in the latter. This means there’s a lot at stake in an archive; Harris, describing Patrick Leary’s work, reminds us that “whatever does not end up in a digital archive, represented as cyber- and hypertext, will not, in the future, be studied, remembered, valorized, and canonized” (47). If everything is in a database, but we don’t know a thing is there, will it be remembered the way archived materials will be?

Levels of transparency

We think we can see into an archive quite clearly, but in reality, a whole host of opaque dividers are in the way. The tool, the archivist, the occasion for or drive to archival, and where/how the archive is housed stand between a clear overview/picture of the archive and the user. Databases, however, may have more viewing freedom built in because they often happen more organically and democratically. It probably wouldn’t be wise, though, to think of a database as without layers; as Azuma notes, for instance, the otaku database has strata: “The surface outer layer of otaku culture is covered with simulacra, or derivative works. But in the deep inner layer lies the database of settings and characters, and further down, the database of moe-elements” (58). In either case, reaching the levels or clearing hurdles to clarity, users must put some kind of effort in if they are to understand the system that stands in front of them.

Opportunities for remixes/derivations/creations

Because the archive is already in a preserved state, it already has some sort of narrative, which means that it could be harder to forge new works from or remix. An archive might function as inspiration, but in order to use the contained materials to make derivative works, a user would have to remove (or work around) the overarching narrative that’s already there. A database, though, doesn’t have a grand narrative, so it’s ready to be remixed and played with. There isn’t as much standing in the way. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a database will form a narrative or that users will even desire that it do so, as Manovich notes: “However, if the user simply accesses different elements, one after another, in a usually random order, there is no reason to assume that these elements will form a narrative at all” (228). Depending on the importance one assigns not just to narrative but to new, fresh narrative, these varying remix potentials could be seen as either benefits or drawbacks.

Gatekeeping

The term for those who keep archives sounds somewhat lofty: archivist. They take time to learn how to archive, to preserve; they need an understanding of history, of how parts fit together. Database entrances and remixes don’t demand nearly so much from participants. Anyone who watches some Star Trek episodes, for example, can become a creator (whether sanctioned or not) in the media property’s realm. Critics might make claims about the quality of the participant/creator’s work, but these may be of no consequence to creators and those who view their works. Archival is usually not so casually entered into, however, since an archive presents more obstacles to remixing and shuffling.

As archives and databases continue to grow, and new forms of media rise and fall in popularity, we will see more complications between archive and database. These complications are probably no bad thing, however, since they provide us with multiple ways of capturing and understanding information. Since the control of information is a form of power, we will need to continually pay close attention to how archives and databases interact to hold and make accessible our knowledge.

Works Cited:

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Harris, Katherine D. “Archive.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 45-53.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2002.

Keyword Post #6

“Go With the Flow,” Indeed

With media being more tangled than ever, it has become hard to clearly demarcate the endings and beginnings of the flow of information as it moves from one medium to another. If Buzzfeed shares an article comprising memes from Instagram and Facebook, is this an instance of journalism or social media? Which platform is considered to be primary, especially when such an article is circulated through both the original and further social media platforms? When Raymond Williams considered “flow” in 1974, he could apply it as “channel-specific”; since this is hardly possible today, what, then, does flow mean?

Sandra Braman offers a few starting points for how to conceptualize flow, as well as a few ideas regarding what’s at stake in this digital keyword. For her, flow should be understood as…

…concerned with the commercial. “Implicit versions of systems-based approaches can be found in research on the flow of content through each stage of the entire production and consumption chain” (120); an example of this type of system might be found in the way coupons and sales impact buyers. Marketing strategies must understand flow as the passing of promotions, vouchers, and flyers through forms and platforms both digital and analog.

…important to user experience. “Vendors and website designers would, and do, seek to maximize user experience of flow to ensure that their goods and services are included in the personal ecologies of as many consumers as they can reach” (125); going back to my previous post, Tom Bihn provides an example of how this “user experience of flow” can be exploited to inject the company’s bags (and lifestyle) into every aspect of a buyer’s sphere of life. This might take the form of posting pictures taken during real-world experiences with the bag to social media that are then shared and talked about on various forums, ultimately being featured on the company’s website, which legitimizes the activity.

…impeded by gatekeeping. “Other concepts long in use are being revisited. . . .[researchers] expand on our understanding of how gatekeeping affects content and information flows when the Internet is involved” (123); the issue of gatekeeping has become both so common and so interesting as to have a fairly active subreddit devoted to it (r/gatekeeping), where it can be seen that nearly any type of information is subject to gatekeeping by someone, somewhere:

…subject to differences whether it’s observed or perceived. “That is, evidence of flow must be both conceptually and operationally distinguished from evidence of perceptions of flow” (122); consider how it is to observe someone else use social media as opposed to how it is to use social media. In the former, you’re not subject to the full force of the flow of information, while in the latter, you’re an active participant.

Of course, flow, as a large concept, has many more facets, but these few suffice to make the point that flow unendingly impacts our entire mediated world, whether we exist as fans, researchers, bored audience members, or any other observer or participant. Although it’s hard to say for certain, Williams would most likely agree with this assessment of how crucial (and complex) flow remains.

Works Cited:

Braman, Sandra. “Flow.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 118-131.

Keyword Post #5

The Unsafe World We Live In

Whether people wish to discuss or ignore Trump’s presidency, it’s hard to refute the fact we’re living through an event that will leave a lasting impact, ultimately “structur[ing] our social lives and giv[ing] reference points for our life stories and global histories” (Sonnevend 109). To attempt to investigate the unfolding of this event in current media would require work longer than that of a blog post, but it is possible to take a look at smaller, constituent events. By examining how these are handled in today’s digital media, we can begin to see themes, to see some of what is at stake overall. For the sake of untying one of these threads, I’d like to examine one question: How can something that didn’t happen become the basis for an event?

Although Sonnevend is careful to note of events that “we easily forget them” (113), the cumulative effect of the smaller events in a larger one can be quite heavy. One recent argument and controversy has surrounded Trump’s executive order to ban travel from predominantly Muslim countries, with concerns including whether the act was constitutional; conflicted with human rights; actually guards against terrorism, as is claimed; or promotes racism and violence. During media coverage of this event, something even more bizarre occurred when Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway referred to “the Bowling Green massacre” as an example of why the ban was necessary. It was nearly immediately revealed, however, that such an event never happened. Although Conway claimed that she misspoke, many were quick to accuse her of purposefully trying to distort reality in pushing the necessity of Trump’s executive order.

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We can use Sonnevend’s five dimensions of an iconic event’s narration to show that although this Bowling Green massacre never took place, it is nevertheless an event in the sense that it has had recognizable and lasting consequences. The five dimensions are as follows:

Foundation: The ongoing legal battles and struggle to convince or confuse the American public on the “travel ban” EO set the stage for Conway’s comment and show what is at stake.

Mythologization: The comment led many who already mistrusted Conway to push harder for the administration to admit that she is a liar and dangerous; the comment was mobilized to show the current administration’s bending of events and speech to suit their own agenda and ultimately plays into the larger commentary around “alternative facts.”

Condensation: The term “Bowling Green massacre” quickly became a joke, inspiring Twitter hashtags and often accompanied by witty comments, videos, and pictures.

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Counternarrative: Conway was quick to defend herself, saying she misspoke. Others were quick to bring up examples of the same thing happening on the Left, e.g., Clinton’s claim about facing sniper fire in Bosnia. (Side note: Curiously, it’s tough to be sure whether this example was held up to prove that Conway is only human and makes mistakes, as have others before her, since the claim is that Clinton knowingly lied in order to achieve a certain effect. What, then, is the difference between the two acts? It’s difficult to claim that Conway is innocent while Clinton did the same thing and is a liar. It would seem that if you’re going to claim that they slipped up, then it’s an accident on both parts; but if you bring up the Clinton incident, the implication is that Conway is also guilty. It seems a strange bit of cognitive dissonance to claim the Conway incident was pure unmotivated accident but then bring up the Clinton occurrence in the same breath as malicious or as some kind of defense.)

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Remediation: The “event’s brand” quickly spread from TV news reporting to online forums, internet news sites, print newspapers, and social media, each time changing and churning under different accounts and new info. Cosmopolitan, for instance, claimed they had heard her use the same phrase before, which is one example of influence regarding how the event is talked about and portrayed in media as the story unfolds.

Overall, we might locate this event-from-non-event in part of the larger conversation regarding the administration’s use of language as persuasive tool, whether they are committed to working with language to represent and explain reality or shape it in the way that they see fit, regardless of how much of the population agrees. When the event of Trump’s presidency is examined through the lens of history, the use of words to obfuscate or illuminate will certainly be a hot topic, and although the Bowling Green incident might be one footnote among many more prominent examples, by looking at it, we can see a clear example of how event travels through media.

Works Cited:

Sonnevend, Julia. “Event.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 109-117.

Keyword Post #4

Oh, the humanity

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The algorithm. For those of us who struggle with the factually mathematical and technological, it seems something of a mystery. Its aim, however, is not: “[to act] on a body of data to quickly achieve a desired outcome” (Gillespie 19).

One thing an algorithm is not, is a person, no matter how smart it becomes. True, algorithms are becoming more intelligent and (hopefully) more and more useful. But, ultimately, they will only ever be able to keep up with us according to two criteria: how honest we are and how well we are able to create value judgements. Unless humanity can cope adequately with these two issues (related problems have not been handled so well historically), then algorithms will be useful only within limits. As Gillespie writes, “To highlight their automaticity and mathematical quality, then, is not to contrast algorithms to human judgment. It is to recognize them as part of mechanisms that introduce and privilege quantification, proceduralization, and automation in human endeavors” (27). Human judgement is still needed as a complement.

I see how algorithms fail me, personally, every day, in the targeted advertising I receive online. As I’m currently working on a marketing and SEO project, I’m constantly having to research things that I would normally never care about: marine antennas, pizza cutters, sergers, hair thickeners, trumpets. I do not wish to purchase any of these things, nor any of the types of items or lifestyles that go along with them: boats, pizza recipes, hair regrowth, tickets to the orchestra. Do the algorithms that determine which advertising I receive understand this? No. In the end, I use a separate browser and usually a VPN so that my “work self” doesn’t infect my “regular self” — both of which happen to be mediated through the same computer screen (as is in line with post-industrial societies, as Manovich notes).

Gillespie writes: “The system struggles with the tension between the operationalized aims and the way humanity inevitably undermines, alters, or exceeds those aims” (27). We can create aims, but human nature, which leads us to distort and hide from ourselves (innocently or not) will ultimately disrupt even the most beautiful algorithm. Perhaps if we can become more honest with ourselves, we can overcome this obstacle. Or, perhaps, we will take Elon Musk to heart when he calls for a merger between the biological and the artificial, a hybrid intelligence that will push human capabilities and our definitions of the machine.

One potential problem with a blending of this type would be the loss of flexibility. A computer program will run through options and come to a conclusion quickly, while humans form judgements, obey impulses that have no factual basis, and take their time. Humans aren’t quite ready to give up this control and flexibility, which could partly account for how algorithms are designed today: “Algorithm designers are not pursuing correctness; they’re pursuing some threshold of operator or user satisfaction—understood in the model, perhaps, in terms of percent clicks on the top results; or percentage of correctly identified human faces from digital images” (20). We still need to be able to control what we do with results, how well they serve us; and this will probably continue to be the case until an algorithm can perfectly synthesize what we want and need at all given moments.

Works Cited:

Gillespie, Tarleton. “Algorithm.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 19-30.

Keyword Post #2

Does personalization increase agency?

“Customization is by me. Personalization is for me” (Schulte 248). But what of agency?

Personalization increases agency in that it offers digital citizens the tools they need in molding their environments to their needs and desires. The tools and materials offered are predictive and targeted (personalized), and individuals can adapt these to fulfill both external and internal demands. In this way, agency enters the remediated self as “we employ media as vehicles for defining both personal and cultural identity” (Bolter and Grusin 231). The ads, types of digital tools, and entertainment we interact with every day give us the opportunity to fashion and refashion our subjective selves; making these choices forms the hypermediated self, the self who seeks the real or transparent, even when it’s done without conscious thought.

This notion of agency sounds useful, but it’s not without issues. Foremost stands manipulation for gain. Schulte notes that an internet that “commercializes culture and politics” (Schulte 252) is possible, which turns a huge and vital connection to the world into an area of commoditized users. Close at its heels is the loss of productive discomfort, which equates to the loss of the ability to handle being outside of a comfort zone and the benefits that come from associated growth. One might argue that agency is precisely what can prevent these, but I think the real issue is that agency through personalization, especially in the digital sphere, has focused too heavily on a few less-than-fruitful areas, including entertainment and the use of digital technologies as narcissistic mirror.

Entertainment and vanity might be described as one type of “bubble” or area that “ensconce[s] individuals within their preferences” (Schulte 250). When a group of digital citizens use agency to create impregnable areas of amusing noises and sights (that are most likely echo chambers, as well), then its ability to act in a meaningful way is forestalled. While it’s true that such a group has agency through the personalization of media, what they lack is an impetus for using their abilities to move beyond immediate concerns. If something negative occurs, they can pop back into the bubble. These types of users are in a cycle of seeking transparent experience followed by remediation, but it brings them no closer to the “real.” Agency, but for what purpose.

Is this unconcern characteristic of the many selves that constitute the digital sphere today? Do people who interact with media and technology every day consider to what degree their digital actions truly reflect them? Schulte writes: “Predictive personalization requires ‘personal’ knowledge of a person; yet ‘personal’ has historically signified that which is not, should not, or cannot be known by others” (Schulte 249). If predictive personalization becomes a vicious cycle of careless or spur-of-the-moment choices reinforced by targeted marketing, then outside data masquerade as what is “true” and takes the place of that most private interiority. When we aren’t required to consider ourselves, our connection to those close and far, how we fit in, what our impact is, then personalization fails because it leads us away from ourselves. In this way, it fails agency, too, since it lacks the ‘personal’ in personalization and creates automatons, instead.

Works Cited:

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 2000.

Schulte, Stephanie Ricker. “Personalization.” Digital Keywords. Edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 242-255.