Towards a post-normative communication and media studies

Twitter has announced a call for research submissions that helps them “identify indicators of conversational health that are even more specific to Twitter and its impact.” I expressed my skepticism about this on Facebook and so I am writing up some notes here.

‘Conversations’ are one way to examine interactions on social media. We looked at conversations as the unit of analysis in our Turnbull paper due out in MIA I think in a few months (based on our ANZCA paper). A simple point to make is that the ‘public conversation’ is not the same thing as ‘conversations on Twitter’ or even ‘Twitter publics’. Sure, there are conversations that happen entirely on Twitter (say a Trump tweet and reaction and cross talk), but these are not very useful as the basis of assessing public conversations. How Twitter users produce openings on other spaces, so that the circulation of discourse is necessarily cross-platform. The philosophy behind Cortico’s general approach looks interesting, but Twitter and Cortico will need to partner with other platforms.

There are broadly two ways to map the circulation of discourse. The first is derived from Bourdieu and maps a ‘field’ based on the social interactions between actors and the analytical construction of what is valued in the field (doxa). I think this is inherently flawed because of the reliance on a notion of faith (as in good or bad faith). Bourdieu’s Manet lectures are clear on this. The second is derived from Foucault and maps the discursive regularities between statements and the analytical construction is regarding the conditions of possibility based on ‘authority’ and composition of power relations (dispositif). What Foucault broadly called ‘eventalization’ (only ever in interviews, so the method has to be reverse engineered across a range of works). Interestingly, network graphing techniques seem to be aligned with ‘eventalization’ until you realise that they mostly rely on the providence of digital objects and platform-based network relations between them. There have been few attempts to map networks of discourse in spite of the platforms as this multiplies the work exponentially.

Analysing discourse in terms of the ‘health’ of conversations assumes a normative dimension that I think smuggles in assumptions about the good faith of actors. There are two problems here. First, analytics are unlikely to indicate how a particular user is ‘blinkered’, and therefore has an extremely constrained degree of freedom (in the systems theory sense), what Guattari called a low co-efficient of transversality or Warner might talk about in terms of the character of reflexivity. They will instead show how such blinkered users belong to tribes, because of the discursive coherency and affective congruence of discourse. So what? Second, Twitter does not appear to want to operate upon the good or bad faith of actors, and therefore take obvious steps to reduce the weaponised use of the platform (such as reduced functionality for new accounts until thresholds of participation are passed, such as number of followers or interactions). Getting over the normative assumptions about the good faith of users is an important first step.

Tinkering with e-bikes

In terms of balancing convenience with healthy lifestyles and environmentally conscious modes of mobility, e-bikes are at the top of many lists. Here is a good account of the benefits of e-bikes in Slate.  The main problem for consumers is that most quality e-bikes are $2000 or more and often in the $3500-4000 price range. The alternative is to use an e-bike kit consisting of a motor unit and a battery and modify a bike into an e-bike. Extremely cheap e-bikes in the $800-1100 range should be avoided. This post outlines the process I went through in building an e-bike. It is a series of reflections on the key moments in the process of deciding on the elements of the project and then an evaluation of its success.

The finished build. A Reid Urban X3 with Tongsheng TSDZ2 mid-drive electric motor kit.

There was a specific goal for the build, but this existed in a much broader range of reasons for the project. The specific goal was to encourage my non-cycling wife to commute by bike. The other major reason, but which is more contextual and formless in scope, was that I also wanted to her to experience Canberra from the saddle. Canberra is a great cycling city and even through commuting on cycle paths alongside major arterial roads it is possible to see a side of the city that is otherwise hidden. Suburban and urban Canberra is framed by bush land and waterways that give a texture to cycle commuting that can be repeated in different ways in most other major cities.

e-Bike Design

There are a series of decisions about the design of e-bike as there are different ways of adding an electric motor to the cycling system. There are basically two major designs for electric motor location, either hub-based (‘in’ the wheel) or mid-mount (replaces the crank). Similarly there two major locations for the battery, either integrated into or alongside one of the major structural elements of the frame (normally the downtube, the part of the frame from the head tube — what the fork and handlerbars are attached to — to the bottom bracket — what the crank is mounted) or sitting on a rear rack. The cheapest systems replace a wheel with a hub-mounted motor and locate the batter in a rear rack. All high-quality factory e-bikes replace the bottom bracket with a mid-mount design and locate the battery in or mounted to the downtube. The other major design decision is whether you want a pedelec system, which is torque-activated by pushing down on the pedal, or cadence or speed operated, which is activated by motion by the cranks or the wheels.

After a process of researching many different combinations I chose the Tongsheng TDSZ2 mid-mount motor and a downtube-mounted battery. Endless Sphere is a very useful resource for researching previous builds and other people’s experience with different combinations. This is a good thread on the TDSZ2. It is currently the only mid-mount motor that has torque activated assist. A year ago there was only a 250-350w version, but now there are 500w and 750w versions. This was purchased via Ali Express. The major alternative to the Tongsheng TDSZ2 is the Bafang mid-mount series. The Bafang kits have a very strong following amongst those who want extremely high powered applications (1kw+). Bafang make a torque-activated system but it is designed for special frames. The TDSZ2 can be fitted to and replaces the crank in pretty much any modern bike. In Australia, e-bikes need to be 250w max to be legal.

The battery decision was slightly easier as the commute was 25-28km in total (12.5 to 14km each way depending on the exact route), there was not any need for a very large battery. I chose a smallish battery of 10ah that came with a charger, purchased from eBay. At the highest assist level with my riding and my daughter’s trailer attached, this provides about 45km of range.

Lastly, I took advantage of a “20% off” e-Bay code to buy a new Reid Urban X3. The Reid Urban range is basically a hardtail and rigid (ie no-suspension) mountain bike setup as a flatbar road bike. It is far from the lightest bike, but it is designed to be more robust than lightweight road bikes. They seem to be out of stock of this model. I ordered ‘large’ size to suit Anne’s height. The basic requirements for a base bike for this build were:

  1. At least a 10 speed gear system. The Urban X3 comes with a Shimano Deore rear derailleur and cassette.
  2. Hydraulic disc brakes for improved braking. it could handle the power of the electric system.
  3. Robust design. Basically a heavy duty frame, probably based on a mountain bike or a commuter bike. A current alternative for those doing cycle path or road-based commuting could be a ‘gravel’ bike.



Reid Urban X3 in the state it arrived, ready to be assembled.

As well as the parts that came with the motor kit, battery and bike, I needed a suitable plug to connect the motor kit to the battery and I purchased some black heatshrink to cover-up the cabling from the battery to the motor. During the build I discovered the 11 speed quick links I already owned would not work, so I also bought some 10 speed quick links. I built and tuned the bike with an old 11 speed chain on it.

The wiring was the most time consuming part of the build.

The mechanical work was relatively straightforward. Removing the factory crank was straightforward (there are youtube videos to assist this step if need be, like this) and the TDSZ2 comes with instructions for installation (here is a good youtube video). The battery mount bolts to the downtube. The two most time consuming aspects of the build involved, first, cutting down the wiring and fitting the plug between battery and motor, and, second, cutting down the left-hand grip (with a hacksaw) to fit the XH18 display (seen below, the ‘grip’ part adjusts the level of assist or in the menu mode can select different options).

Initial power-up of the system. The XH18 display replaces part of the left-hand grip on the handlebars.

I already have a pretty comprehensive set of home bike mechanic tools from building my other bike. A bike stand is extremely handy as is a set of specialist bike tools. Aldi had both as ‘special buys’ in late 2016 and they have been invaluable ever since.


  • $600 for bike with 20% off code (normally $749)
  • $400 for motor kit with Ali Express vouchers (normally $420, now it seems it is $450)
  • $349 for battery.
  • $15 total for plug, quick link for a 10 speed, and heatshrink.
  • Additional but not necessary: Toolkit was around $50 and stand was I think $60, but I already owned these.

Total around $1365.

Use and Further Design Changes

The e-bike project was extremely successful in its primary goal of providing the basis through which my wife could explore or not cycling as a commuting mode. Anne has since changed employment and I instead use the e-bike with further modifications to tow our daughter in a bike trailer.

These further modifications include:

  1. The Urban X3 seat was actually terrible and has since been replaced with a Specialised Body Comfort Gel.
  2. I broke a spoke in the rear wheel after two weeks riding it 3 or 4 times per week and did not trust the wheelset to handle my bulk. The wheelset has been replaced with a set of 40 spoke 29er wheels.
  3. Shimano e6000 175mm cranks. I have longer legs and the motor kit’s cranks are only 170mm.
  4. 46T mainring. Kit comes with a 42T. I can sit on much higher speeds when on the flat.
  5. I fitted a longer stem (110mm over 100mm) that I had laying around and have also ordered wider riser handle bars. These would likely not have been necessary if it was an extra large size frame origainally.

Critical News Literacy and Young People

There is a study released today about news consumption habits by young people 8-12 and 13-16 years old:  News and Australian Children: How Young People Access, Perceive and are Affected by the News.

The first point made in the key findings of the report is about how young people receive news from family and friends, including teachers (from the infographic). Trust is extremely high.

My problem with the reporting in the Conversation is focuses on  ‘fake news’. ‘Fake news’ has tabloid ‘outrage’ news value among an educated audience, but it is not actually that interesting from a research perspective.

After being part of three Digital News Reports (2015, 2016 and 2017) the key critical question for me is, how do children and young people develop news literacy and their own sources of news as they mature? If they are accessing news via their family and friends, does this mean this is how they also develop news literacy? By imitating the critical relationships based on cultural values and social norms of their parents? In our research low levels of trust in mainstream news have been interpreted as relatively high levels of critical news literacy. How does this work in the context of young people developing their own news literacy if they have extremely high levels of trust in their primary sources of news?

Critical News Literacies?

What is the relationship between perceptions of bias (key finding 3) and the capacity to spot ‘fake news’ (key finding 4)? Arguably ‘fake news’ is irrelevant compared to the ideological framing of most of the mainstream news. The key development of 8-12 to 13-16 year olds seems to be the radical reduction in the percentage share of those responding to the survey who don’t know about various measures of bias (Figures 18-20). That is, there is roughly half the number of young people who responded ‘I don’t know’ to questions 13-16 year olds compared to 8-12 year olds. Rightly or wrongly having a view on the bias of news representations demonstrates critical or discerning engagement and this increases.

Breitbart and American Sniper

I scraped Breitbart’s all posts from Facebook page. This is a representation of all ‘engagement’ (likes, comments and shares) for each month. The first six months of 2015 saw tremendous growth in engagement and it would be worth exploring what actually happened in that period, so I did a search of the Nexis service for ‘Breitbart’ across January – June 2015 to see if mainstream news services mentioned the site. Nexis is not comprehensive but it does track most major news publications and services. I did not include ‘press releases’ or ‘newswires’. Plus I collated all the articles that mentioned ‘Breitbart’ without any data cleaning so likely multiple entries for same article published in slightly different ways.

The table at the bottom of this post lists the publications with the most mentions of ‘Breitbart’.  A few comments about this list. I had to search for ‘US Official News’ as I had not heard of it before. It is LexisNexis’s own news aggregation service. I think I can assume that only subscribers to LexisNexis can access this so it is not important for getting a sense of this period. MailOnline is next and as a click chasing operation it clearly went after ‘outrage’. There are multiple entries for WaPo blogs in the list so I think posts are being counted more than once. Interesting to see the Canberra Times down the bottom.

A key event early in this period was the release of the movie American Sniper. It is a useful example of how news sites refer to Breitbart as being representative of a conservative ‘right wing’ position when discussing the movie in the context of the ‘culture wars’. Breitbart ran a review describing the movie as a “Patriotic Pro-War on Terror Masterpiece” January 16. A number of news outlets then cited this review so as to include a ‘right wing’ perspective. CNN was the first outlet to refer to this review in a kind of explainer of why the movie seemed to succeed at the box office “Why American Sniper is a Smash hit” January 19. was next with “Oscars: ‘American Sniper’s’ Hopes for a Win Complicated by Politics” January 21. CNN published another piece citing the Breitbart review this time framing the ‘culture wars’ response as largely misguided if not outright wrong “What people got wrong about American Sniper“. The piece compares the movie to Spingsteen’s misunderstood Born in the USA. Washington Post ran two pieces in its Style Blog “Everything you need to know about the American Sniper culture wars controversy” and “Civil rights group: Eastwood, Cooper need to help stop anti-Arab speech inspired by ‘American Sniper’” published 26 and 28 January respectively. The 28 January piece cites a second Breitbart piece about reported incidents of anti-Arab speech triggered by the movie. Lastly, on 28 January a New York Times story “American Sniper fuels war on the home front” reports on the controversy from the previous fortnight and cites a third Breitbart story on a tweet by Seth Rogen.

Reading the three pieces mentioned in these articles requires a subtle attuned to the concerns of Breitbart. The review celebrates the movie and what is understood to be general sentiment behind it. It also couches the movie as a kind of repudiation (I think?) of ‘Big Hollywood’. ‘Big Hollywood’ is a meta-tag on the site and therefore can be understood to be one of the major concerns. I think it refers to the conservative belief that the ‘cultural left’ rules Hollywood and that there is a kind of conspiracy to de-valuing ‘right wing’ culture. The other pieces are similar and even more explicitly framed in terms of broader concerns. The second WaPo blog piece is about ‘mainstream media’ reporting on ‘hoaxes’ as if they were true. The third piece interprets a tweet by Seth Rogen in such a way as to suggest that the movie is akin to Nazi propaganda. These are also tagged Big Hollywood. In this context then ‘Big Hollywood’ is not only about the movie industry but popular culture more broadly.

Table: Most mentions of ‘Breitbart’ Jan-Jun 2015.

US Official News 64
MailOnline 40
Washington Post Blogs 35
The Guardian 22 18 15
The National Journal 10 10
Governance, Risk & Compliance Monitor Worldwide 9
Washington Post BlogsThe Fix 9
The Times (London) 9
Arutz Sheva 8
Tampa Bay Times 8
The New York Times 7
The State Journal- Register (Springfield, IL) 7
Pittsburgh Tribune Review 6
The Washington Post 6 6
Investor’s Business Daily 6
Slate Magazine 6
Washington Post BlogsErik Wemple 5
Express Online 5
Legal Monitor Worldwide 4 (The Jerusalem Post online edition) 4
Washington Post BlogsThe Style Blog 4
Contra Costa Times (California) 4
 The New York Post 4
The Justice: Brandeis University 4 4 4
Jüdische Allgemeine 4
Jerusalem Post 3
San Jose Mercury News (California) 3 3
Yerepouni Daily News 3
La Croix International 3
McClatchy Washington Bureau 3
Class Action Reporter 3
i-Independent Print Ltd 3
The Dialogue 3
Canberra Times (Australia) 3


Myth of the Digital Native, Technologies of Convenience, and Scholarship

Do technologies of convenience shape activity?

I work with students to rethink the concept of the ‘filter bubble’ and locate it in a much broader context of how the subject position of user is created through affordances of technologies and services. At stake is whether or not there is a new kind of audience passivity, one that is necessarily co-constituted through user activity, rather than the older notions of a passive mass audience.

In Culture + Technology, Slack and Wise (2005: 33) suggest that to be a “fully functioning adult member of the culture”:

you are likely to have accepted as necessities various technologies and technological practices that are not biological, but are rather cultural necessities.

My current students are afflicted with the generational myth of the ‘digital native’. The character of the ‘digital native’ frames engagement with technology and the capabilities and affordances expected or assumed of an entire generation reconfigured as ‘users’. The idea that, like speakers in language, there are native and immigrant users of technology. Digital natives “surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1). Bennet, Mason, and Karvin (2008) argue that the discourse around “digital natives .[..] rather than being empirically and theoretically informed, the debate can be likened to an academic form of a ‘moral panic.’” For Sadowski (2014) it is a rearticulation of technology discourses that boost ‘gadgets’ over people:

The larger issue is that, when we insist on generalizing people into a wide category based on birth year alone, we effectively erase the stark discrepancies between access and privilege, and between experience and preference. By glancing over these social differences, and just boosting new technologies instead, it becomes easy to prioritize gadgets over what actually benefits a diverse contingent of people.

The myth of the ‘digital native’ has been translated into an educational context with three assumptions (Kirschner and Merriënboer 2013). First, students really understood what they were doing; second, students were using technologies effectively and efficiently; and, third, it is good to design education where students can use digital technologies. What I notice with students is that they do not necessarily seek mastery over a given technology or set of skills or even competence with regards to the professional standards of proficiency, but ‘convenience’. This echoes findings from Kvavik (2005) that carried out a survey of 4374 students of the so-called ‘net generation’ to examine their relation to technology at university. Kvavik interrogated some of the assumptions that articulated a generational cohort with technological skill or capacity:

  • Do they ‘prefer technology’? Only moderate preference.
  • Is technology ‘increasingly important’? Most skilled students had mixed feelings.
  • Do they already possess ‘good IT skills in support of learning’? No, many skills had to be acquired. Skills acquired through requirements of curriculum.

Importantly, Kvavik found that ‘convenience’ was the most common unprompted open text response to good qualities of using technology at university. Relations of ‘convenience’ reintroduce new forms of passivity, where technology use is appreciated as ‘good’ if it is ‘convenient’. What happens in contexts where technology makes a given practice too convenient?

A Case for Practicing Inconvenient Scholarship?

Students are arguably disadvantaged by the technologies of scholarship that most academics and researchers take for granted, such as Google Scholar and the more general phenomena of digitized scholarship. ‘Research practice’ in the humanities and social sciences prior to web often began with a review of literature on a given topic or area of interest. This literature search was profoundly inconvenient, and shaped by limited access and a slow temporality when physical copies of texts were moved around from location of repository to the scholar. A similar moment in current ‘research practice’ in the humanities and social sciences is now characterised by digital searches of an excess of information and the immediacy of ‘answers’ to ‘questions’ just posed. The relative ‘openness’ of with regards to access to such scholarship is a boon, but only in those circumstances where the research questions are not developed in a digitally-enabled and networked context.

The challenge with contemporary research students in particular is the number of possible sources (infinite, literal rate of publishing in some areas is quicker than the maximum rate of engaged reading) and the duration of scholarship thus afforded for developing a critical appreciation. Undergraduate students face a greater challenge in that they will likely not engage with an area of scholarship long enough to develop an appreciation of the above problems.

Previous modes of scholarship would frame this as a problem of appreciating one’s disciplinary area. Come to terms with the main names in a field and you will know the field. This response relies on rearticulating normative hierarchies of scholarship that work to counteract the benefits of ‘open’ scholarship. What is the point of open scholarship if they same institutions have their work valorised over others? This reintroduces a different set of affordances that implicate users in a different (social) technology of convenience.

I think a better way to approach this initial period of scholarship in any given project is to approach the development of an appreciation of a given field as a process and the overarching relation between scholar and field in this process is one of discovery. We all become detectives investigating comparable research problems, rather than judges lording over privileged ways of doing scholarship.