[iDC] Panel Review: Identity Work and Identity Play Online

Karen Gregory karen.gregory at gmail.com
Fri Dec 6 18:46:00 UTC 2013

Hi all:

I wanted to draw your attention to an American Studies panel review that
Dan Greene, from the University of Maryland, was kind enough to write up
for those of us who couldn't attend the conference. The panel included work
from Dan on Internet entrepreneurs, Laura Porterwood Stacer on media
refusal and striking in the social factory, Anne Cong-Huyen on Voces
Moviles and day laborers, and Lisa Nakamura on Antiviral Media. Tara
McPherson responded, raising a question that may be of interest to those on
this list: Why Marxist feminism in media studies and why now? The review is
posted below.

-- Karen


Panel Review: Identity Work and Identity Play Online

Last Sunday, I was lucky to be able to convene a panel with my colleagues
Laura Portwood-Stacer (NYU), Lisa Nakamura (University of Michigan), Anne
Cong-Huyen (UCLA), and Tara McPherson (USC) at the American Studies
Association in D.C. that was intended to act as a retrospective on digital
cultural studies and a conversation about its future. The plan was to give
quick 10 minute talks on current research, and then have Tara respond to
them and moderate the discussion. After everything wrapped up—with a packed
room on a Sunday, thanks all!—I confessed to the panel that my thinking in
bringing everyone together was basically “These are good, critical people
who both stand out in the field and know how it works, they'll have keen
observations on the politics of digital communications and and the politics
of studying them—we all get along and something good will come out of
that.” But I was delighted to see a more focused debate emerge, alongside a
series of questions we felt we needed to keep asking: What counts as work
and how far can you get by telling someone that their play is work? What
gets described as a feature of the social Web and what gets described as a
bug? Why are pervasive atmospheres of racism or sexism written off as
'trolling'? How do we move beyond tired debates of exploitation versus
empowerment? Is it ever worth talking about one 'internet'?

Karen Gregory was kind enough to offer me
this platform to share our conversation with a broader audience. Below I'm
going to quickly summarize each of our talks and some of McPherson's
responses to them before commenting on some of the themes that emerged from
our roundtable discussion. The latter includes both the questions above and
interventions specific to the field such as a return to Marxist feminists
such as Selma James and Silvia Federici, and a turn, prompted by Nakamura's
talk on race and virality and McPherson's coinage of the phrase, to a
'critical platform studies' that moves us from media archeology’s focus on
the thing itself to the social infrastructure that makes the thing work or
not work in different political and cultural contexts. Please also take a
look at the original
the panel and our talks, as well as Jack Gieseking's
the Twitter backchannel. Let's keep talking.

*Access to Self and City: Internet Entrepreneurs and the Politics of
Presentation and Space*

I'm involved in long-term fieldwork with different communities in different
positions in Washington, D.C.'s
economy.  D.C.'s municipal government, like so many other
cash-strapped cities, has embraced a version of Richard Florida's 'creative
class' policy which pins our economic future on recruiting and maintaining
creative class workers—especially the tech entrepreneurs that are the
favored sons and daughter of the present moment—through place-making
projects that focus on friendly forms of diversity and lifestyle amenities.
Working with tech entrepreneurs who design and produce, but also work on
and through, various social media platforms, I have been struck by how the
production of social media spaces neatly parallels the production of
gentrified city spaces through creative class policy. Twitter, Facebook and
FourSquare may gentrify our self-presentation in a manner similar to how
cities are gentrified by creative class policies, creative workers, and
real estate investment designed to capitalize on them.

Tech entrepreneurs often use social media to erase the line between work
and play so that every interaction is a potential networking opportunity.
Formerly private information is made public in the name of authenticity;
though some information, such as political or religious beliefs, is
scrubbed in the name of more seamless sharing. This information—where you
are, when, with whom—is both a useful interpersonal wedge in business
negotiations and the raw material of the data economy. But these social
norms end up alienating those who cannot or will not lifestream—including
one of my participants who is a new mother. Gentrification of city spaces
does not only replace housing stock and push low-income residents out, it
is also an uneven process that filters attention to specific high-status
areas (i.e., D.C.'s venture capital, condo-building, and restaurant opening
booms all overlap in the same 20005 zip code) just as social media creates
'filter bubbles.'  And just as lifestyle amenities (parks, restaurants,
clubs) are the chief place-making recruitment tools of creative class
policy, so too are they the chief check-in points for location based social
media, and the backgrounds for the most shareable group photos. Why do
these overlaps exist? At this early stage, I hazard a guess that both
social media and gentrification act as 'spatial
desperate capital: social media outsources value production to
previously uncapitalized areas of everyday life and provides a
profit-making opportunity via speculation in unprofitable companies; while
gentrification of downtown D.C. kicked off during the recession, when other
real estate markets were tanking, and already shows signs of a potential
speculative bubble not unlike that in social media companies. So it looks
like creative class policy, and the cultural and financial hype over
creative workers, may actually be a symptom of capitalist crisis (the
addict's search for a 'fix') rather than a bulwark against it.

*The Work of Social Media Refusal: Thoughts on Labor, Productivity, and
Identity among Facebook Resisters*

Laura Portwood-Stacer (@lportwoodstacer<https://twitter.com/lportwoodstacer>)
just published a
lifestyle activism in anarchist communities and continues that vein of
research in her current work on the refusal of social media sites like
Facebook—asking whether the choice to stop Liking and checking-in can ever
constitute a collective politics or whether it's just the 2010s version of
“Oh, I don't own a TV.” Many of her participants, and the various
anti-Facebook manifestoes that have emerged from these protestors, readily
identify the alienation and exploitation on which Facebook's business model
is based. They complain of their time being colonized, their every
interaction being commodified by a company whose processes and profits are
not shared with its billion-strong user workforce, their conversations and
emotions being translated into sterile Likes and shares. But what happens
next? Facebook refusers often want to quit so that they can focus on real,
important, waged work. Or they use the act of quitting as a status symbol;
a case of bourgeois refinement framed against the social excesses of
Facebook zombies, often framed in feminized terms of too much flirting and
baby pics. As McPherson noted, Portwood-Stacer is here less concerned with
whether refusal *works*—whether it functions as a strike that threatens
Facebook—and more concerned with what work refusal *does *for refusers.

Portwood-Stacer thus theorized a question with which we were all concerned
in one form or another: What does it mean to strike from the social
factory? And is 'strike' even the right way to think about the relationship
between society and value today? She wants us to think past notions of
consent and exploitation—after all, we all consent to our EULAs and most
refusers acknowledge exploitation but opt out of it instead of rally
against it—and ask what free labor feels like, and what it means to tell
users they are laborers. She looks towards the historic wages for housework
campaigns as a useful corollary. Getting paid for housework was only ever
one goal of those campaigns. The real thrust was to show that value is only
ever produced via uneven social relations, that corporate profits would not
exist without unwaged labor. This is what Kathi Weeks calls the utopian
demand <http://libcom.org/library/problem-work-kathi-weeks>: Not just a
request for a policy change, but a call to rally around particular social
perspective, the distance between this world and another possible one. In
this perspective, social media is just the latest development in
capitalism's exploitation of free labor (we could also think about the
control of native traditions or our very genes through intellectual
property) and the recognition of that relationship is just as important as
any call for better privacy, more consent, or pay for free labor.

*Voces Móviles and the Precarity of Work in Online/Offline Spaces *

 Anne Cong-Huyen (@anitaconchita <https://twitter.com/anitaconchita>), an
important voice in the #transformDH <http://transformdh.org/> collective,
presented a piece of her dissertation research, which focuses on close
readings of technological precarity. Here she walked us
Móviles online storytelling project and work space, which allows migrant
day laborers, called 'reporters' on the site, in and around Los Angeles to
share life histories, working conditions, and photographs. Many are
anonymous, some are linked into ongoing narratives, but all work against
the sanitized images of Southern California as either sunny paradise or
fast-moving media mecca; images which erase the blood and sweat that goes
into maintaining those lawns, pools, and offices. Indeed, the creative
class lifestyles and consumption-oriented gentrification I reviewed in my
presentation would not be possible without the human infrastructure which Voces
Móviles makes visible.

In a political climate where day laborers are painted in broad strokes as
at best disposable workers and at worst social leeches, Voces Móviles
emphasizes the diversity of these communities: their different skills and
work environments, different ethnic and national backgrounds, and different
struggles with the naturalization process. Indeed this variation emerges in
the design of the site, where outsiders struggle to tie the different
images, voices, and stories together into coherent narratives. There are
thousands of posts, over 660 pages. This work required of the reader
reminds them not only of the invisible work of the day laborers but the
additional work they take on in order to tell their stories—and forces us
to distinguish between different kinds of work and the value placed on
each. Again, as with Portwood-Stacer, we see parallels between traditional
analyses of social reproduction and newer critiques of free labor online.
Voces Móviles also forces us to recognize that the seemingly ephemeral
nature of any information economy is always rooted in the material: devices
and their construction, service work catering to creatives, but also the
time it takes for a body to get off a ladder, take out their phone, snap a
picture, and get back to work.

*Antiviral Media: The Market for Primitive Africa in Internet Vigilante
Trophy Websites.*

Finally, Lisa Nakamura (@lnakmur <https://twitter.com/lnakamur>) closed the
presentations by using the culture of 419eater <http://www.419eater.com/>—a
site which documents the various humiliations African internet
scammers<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigerian_scam>are subjected to
by Western internet users—and other digital pillories to
intervene in two debates: media archaeology and the marketing-oriented
conversation over 'spreadable media.' For Henry Jenkins et al, memes that
don't spread are dead. But Nakamura wants us to remember that memes don't
appear out of thin air, that hate spreads as quickly as laughter and is
always culturally bound (e.g., lynching postcards and the Abu Gharib photos
could be read as cultural ancestors of the scam baiters), and that some
memes deserve to die—we just don't know how to kill them. So now we have a
series of ethical questions: Why share? Why is it better to spread? And
what makes something 'spreadable' besides technical features that make it
easy to send and receive? This is another moment where we're reminded that
what is often labelled as an invasion of the social web—the racism and
sexism written off as 'trolling'—has been there since the beginning; that
the colonial relationships re-enacted by the scambaiters are features, not
bugs, of global internet cultures. Decolonizing the internet is thus partly
about building alternatives to current social spaces. Voces Móviles is one
example, but so too Critical Commons
<http://www.criticalcommons.org/>, Vojo<http://vojo.co/examples>,
and Mukurtu <http://www.mukurtuarchive.org/>.  But this is also a critical
project that asks us not necessarily to jump to build another tool but to
sit and reflect on how we got where we are.

Similarly, Nakamura critiqued the formalist, Kittlerian media archeology
tradition for searching for this or that previously unseen or unknown
innovation, the heroic recovery of glitches and roads-not-taken by 'digital
ghostbusters.' This archaeological urge to excavate and exhibit is a close
relative to the abject spectacle of 419eater—where technological
backwardness is found, displayed, and made viral—or memes of feminine
vulnerability. Here Nakamura is not uncovering some hidden racist agenda in
media archaeology or fan studies, but sketching an alternative project that
doesn't separate container from contents and asks after the labor,
racialized and otherwise, of spreadable spectacle. This 'digital
archaeology' would track genealogies of racism and sexism that otherwise
seem to just appear from thin air and go viral in different media.

*Response and Discussion *

I've integrated some of McPherson's (@tmcphers<https://twitter.com/tmcphers>)
comments on specific papers into the preceding discussion, but want to
sketch out two more themes that emerged from her closing remarks and the
discussion that followed.

First, why Marxist feminism in media studies and why now? This was a
largely unplanned collective turn that we and our audience found ourselves
making together—though it is a turn signaled by work like Weeks' and a
possible renaissance of Marxian political economy across disciplines
dominated by poststructuralism in recent decades. Marxist feminism seems
better able to cope with the messy materials of everyday technologies than
poststructural approaches. Within James, Federici, Dalla Costa and others,
we find an intimate understanding of how value is socially produced by
marking certain spaces and activities as more or less socially necessary; a
keen attention to the collective politics around individual questions of
what counts as an act of work, love, or play; and a general attention to
the feminization of work and
the current era. They help us ask better questions about who is
our machines and why, whether refusal is consumer democracy or free labor
strike, and how the free labor critique can become more politically
mobilizing. On that last point, Marxist feminism helps chart a third way
between 'spreadable media' critiques of social media as empowering (which
ignores political-economic relations) and more traditional Marxist
critiques<http://tvn.sagepub.com/content/13/2/139.abstract>of social
media as exploitative, alienating labor (which ignores what
people actually do online and why they keep doing it).

Second, how do we balance the critique of the platform with that of the
social relations in which it is enmeshed? This is an open question. The
Californian ideology that dominates our common sense of what information
technology is and what it does stresses spreadability but also
transparency. But sometimes small is good, growth is dangerous, and the DIY
imperfect is more powerful than the smooth and shareable. We can see this
with Voces Móviles and similar projects which showcase the messy processes
of democratic technologies, but also puncture the fantasy that the commons,
technological, intellectual, or otherwise, are every truly open. The free
and open commons is, if not a myth, then a “limit case”, for McPherson. And
any critical platform studies that we build together must read, analyze,
and make with actually existing politics of technological use and abuse in
mind, and with an eye to other possible technological worlds—even if
they're only temporary spaces of refusal, privacy, or play.

This review was originally posted on the Digital Labor Working Group blog:

Karen Gregory
PhD candidate
Department of Sociology
The Graduate Center
City University of New York
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