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.

Economy of Culture

Boris Groys’ On the New would’ve productively informed my essay on the how the media event of True Detective could be understood as part of the revaluation of cultural values.  We are reading it as part of our aesthetics reading group. Groys wants to present an understanding of innovation and by ‘innovation’ he does not mean the Silicon Valley destructive innovation sense. Innovative theories or innovative art are not described and justified on the basis of signification to reality or truth but whether they are culturally valuable. He is drawing on Nietzsche’s conception of the revaluation of value. Page 12 of On the New:

The economy of culture is, accordingly, not a description of culture as a representation of certain extra-cultural economic constraints. Rather, it is an attempt to grasp the logic of cultural development itself as an economic logic of the revaluation of values.

I am enjoying Groys’ non-market ‘economic’ interpretation of Nietzschean truth.  He develops an economic  conception of Nietzsche’s non-moral version of value without turning to Marxist conceptions of value that would position cultural value as a consequence of the social relation between capital and labour power.

In my True Detective essay I develop a notion of ‘meta’ so as to grapple with the epistemological displacement that occurs in the midst of a revaluation of values. I call this a ‘liminal epistemology’, which has been commodified as ‘discovery’ in contemporary ‘apps’ that assist users access various kinds of cultural texts (music, written texts, phatic/social media texts, etc). The media event of True Detective (as compared to the televisual text) is interesting as it dramatises the ‘detective work’ of this liminal epistemology itself. From the introduction of my True Detective essay:

If nothing else, True Detective clearly triggers meta-detective work by the audience. The show, its inter-textual references, and non-diegetic exegetical explanations of these references produced new edges of surprise and a new sense of expectation. For example, there is a folding of the crime fiction genre into existentialist horror and a topological transformation wrought upon both. Both genres frame a passage of discovery by the characters and audience. “Discovery” has become a buzzword in user-centred design to describe the design of platforms that assist users discover appropriate content, and this refers to the way users willingly embrace the delegated agency of “smart” interfaces. The liminal epistemology of discovery in meta-stable media assemblages pose answers to questions that haven’t yet been asked. The question isn’t simply asked of the characters of the show, but of the entire event itself as it repeated different elements of genres in different ways; in effect, the audience carries out meta-detective work.

The reason why I am excited about Groys’ work is that he has already isolated a similar problematic with regards to the revaluation of values. His focus so far is not animated by the same concerns as I am, but there is a similar problematic. I make it very clear that what I found the most interesting about the True Detective media event is that it is part of a broader constellation of cultural texts that are all, in different ways, working through this revaluation of values. From the introduction of my essay:

In the final section I develop meta in terms of what Sianne Ngai (2012) calls a minor aesthetic category, and in this case what characterises meta as a minor aesthetic category is the way any text, object or event that dramatises the suspension of cultural values. In Simondon’s terms, meta is an aesthetic category that refers to works that in some way repotentialise values that serve as the “preindividual norms” of value in a state of meta-stability ready to be potentialised in a multiplicity of ways (Combes 2013: 64). As I shall explore in detail, True Detective dramatises a conflict between systems of belief and cultural value through the figures of the two main characters, Rust and Marty. In this way, “meta” signals a threshold of value (or what Nietzsche (1968) calls “transvaluation”) more often associated with nihilism.

I look forward to reading the rest of On the New.

#thedress for journalism educators

Black and Blue? Gold and White? What does #thedress mean for journalism educators?

The Dress Buzzfeed
Original Buzzfeed post has now had 38 million views.

At the time of writing, the original Buzzfeed post has just under over 38m visitors and 3.4m people have voted in poll at the bottom of the post. Slate created a landing page, aggregating all their posts including a live blog. Cosmo copied Buzzfeed. Time produced a quick post that included a cool little audio slideshowWired published a story on the science of why people see the wrong colours (white and gold). How can we use this in our teaching?

Nearly every single student in my big Introduction to Journalism lecture knew what I was talking about when I mentioned #thedress. I used it as a simple example to illustrate some core concepts for operating in a multi-platform or convergent news-based media  environment.

Multi-Platform Media Event

Journalists used to be trained to develop professional expertise in one platform. Until very recently this included radio, television or print and there was a period from the early to mid-2000s when ‘online’ existed as a fourth category. Now ‘digital’-modes of communication are shaping almost all others. We’ve moved from a ‘platform only’ approach to a ‘platform first’ approach — so that TV journalists also produces text or audio, writers produce visuals, an so on — and what is called a ‘multi-platform’ (or ‘digital first’, ‘convergent’ or ‘platform free’) approach.

When with think ‘multi-platform’, we think about how the elements of a story will be delivered across media channels or platforms:

  • Live – presentations
  • Social – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc.
  • Web – own publishing platform, podcast, video, etc.
  • Mobile – specific app or a mobile-optimised website
  • Television – broadcast, narrowcast stream, etc.
  • Radio – broadcast, digital, etc.
  • Print – ‘publication’

‘Platform’ is the word we use to describe the social and technological relation between a producer and a consumer of a certain piece of media content in the act of transmission or access. In a pre-digital world, transmission or delivery were distinct from what was transmitted.

Thinking in terms of platforms also incorporates how we ‘operate’ or ‘engage’ with content via an ‘interface’ and so on. Most Australians get their daily news from the evening broadcast television news bulletin. Recent figures indicate that most people aged 18-24 actually get their news about politics and elections from online and SNS sources, compared to broadcast TV.

#thedress is a multi-platform media event. It began on Tumblr and then quickly spread via the Buzzfeed post to Twitter and across various websites belonging to news-based media enterprises.  It only makes sense if the viral, mediated character of the event is taken into account.  #thedress media event did not simply propagate, it spread at different rates and at different ways. The amplification effect of celebrities meant #thedress propagated across networks that are different orders of magnitude in scale. Viral is a mode of distribution, but it also produces relations of visibility/exposure.

New News and Old News Conventions

Consumers of news on any platform expect the conventions of established news journalism. What are the conventions of established news journalism?

  • The inverted pyramid
  • The lead/angle
  • Sourcing/attribution
  • Grammar: Active Voice, Tense
  • Punctuation
  • Sentence structure
  • Word use
  • Fairness

When we look at #thedress multi-platform media event we see different media outlets covered the story in different ways. Time magazine wrote the most conventional lead out of any that I have seen; the media event is the story:

Everyone on the Internet Wants to Know What Color This Dress Is
The Internet took a weird turn Thursday when all of a sudden everyone started buzzing about the color of a dress. A woman had taken to Tumblr the day before to ask a seemingly normal question: what color is this dress?

Cosmopolitan largely mediated between the two, both framing the story as an investigation into colour, but also reporting on the virality of the multi-platform media event:

Help Solve the Internet’s Most Baffling Mystery: What Colors Are This Dress?
Blue and black? Or white and gold?
If you think you know what colors are in this dress, you are probably wrong. If you think you’re right, someone on the Internet is about to vehemently disagree with you, because no one can seem to agree on what colors these are.

I’ve only include the head, intro and first par for Time and Cosmo and you can see already they are far more verbose compared to Buzzfeed’s original post. The original Buzzfeed post rearticulated a Tumblr post, but with one important variation:

What Colors Are This Dress?
There’s a lot of debate on Tumblr about this right now, and we need to settle it.
This is important because I think I’m going insane.
Tumblr user swiked uploaded this image.
[Image]
There’s a lot of debate about the color of the dress.
[Examples]
So let’s settle this: what colors are this dress?
68% White and Gold
32% Blue and Black

The Buzzfeed post added an ‘action’: the poll at the bottom of the post. Why is this important?

Buzzfeed, Tumblr and the Relative Value of a Page View

Buzzfeed COO Jon Steinberg addressed the question of the Buzzfeed business model by posting a link to this article back in 2010:

Some of its sponsored “story unit” ad units have clickthrough rates as high as 4% to 5%, with an average around 1.5% to 2%, BuzzFeed President Jon Steinberg says. (That’s better than the roughly 1% clickthrough rate Steinberg says he thought was good for search ads when he worked at Google.) BuzzFeed’s smaller, thumbnail ad units have clickthrough rates around 0.25%.

The main difference now is the importance of mobile. In a 2013 post to LinkedIN Steinberg wrote:

At BuzzFeed our mobile traffic has grown from 20% of monthly unique visitors to 40% in under a year. I see no reason why this won’t go to 70% or even 80% in couple years.

Importantly, Buzzfeed’s business model is still organised around displaying what used to be called ‘custom content’ and what is now commonly referred to as ‘native advertising’ or even ‘content marketing’ when it is a longer piece (like these Westpac sponsored posts at Junkee).

Buzzfeed
Image via Jon Steinberg, LinkedIN

On the other hand, Tumblr is a visual platform; users are encouraged to post, favourite and reblog all kinds of content, but mostly images. For example, .gif-based pop-culture subcultures thrive on tumblr and tumblr icons are those that perform gestures that are easily turned into gifs (Taylor Swift) or static images (#thedress).The new owners of Tumblr, Yahoo, are struggling to commercialise Tumblr’s booming popularity.

I had a discussion with the Matt Liddy and Rosanna Ryan on Twitter this morning about the relative value of the 73 million views of the original Tumblr post versus the value of the 38 million views of the Buzzfeed post. Trying to make sense of what is of value in all this is tricky. At first glance the 73 million views of the original Tumblr post trumps the almost 38 million views of the Buzzfeed post, but how has Tumblr commercialised the relationship between users of the site and content? There is no clear commercialised relationship.

Buzzfeed’s business model is premised on a high click-through rate for their ‘native advertising’. Of key importance in all this is the often overlooked poll at the bottom of the Buzzfeed post. Almost 38 million or even 73 million views pales in comparison to the 3.4 million votes in the poll. Around 8.6% of the millions of people who visited the Buzzfeed article performed an action when they got there. This may not seem as impressive an action as those 483.2 thousand Tumblr uses that reblogged #thedress post, but the difference is that Buzzfeed has a business model that has commercialised performing an action (click-through), while Tumblr has not.

Gender and the garage-assemblage

Yesterday, I sent off my final version of a paper I’ve been working on for some time. The question of gender in the context of my existing work is somewhat problematic. Except for a few notable exceptions, I was not entirely happy with the way masculinities have been critically discussed. Clifton Evers work on surfing and masculinity is the primary (published) exception. Clif develops what I’d call an intensive masculinity by mapping the transversal circulation of affect across and through surfing bodies, boards, waves, beaches and a broader ecophilosophical context of beaches in Australian culture. I am aware of forthcoming work from at least one other person who thinks the development of gendered subjects in similar ways. Feminist philosophers (Grosz, Probyn, Driscoll) have been discussing the relationship between affect and becoming-gendered subjects for about two decades.

The paper I just sent off was a thorough engagement with the garage as an assemblage. My focus was developing an account of the passage of masculine action, primarily in the context of men working on cars. The ‘highlights reel’ of the substantive points made in my argument include:

1. The garage is a territory, but the garage-assemblage is a territorialising machine. Classic example is of the roadside repair.

2. Men territorialise technical discourses in intensive or ‘minoritarian’ ways by mappng the intensities of socio-technical objects through a process of anthropomorphisation. Technical discourses become heteronormatively gendered not so much to exclude women, but to enable a sensuous engagement with technology.

3. This produces produces statements, visibilities and ‘tactilities’ congruent with the affects in circulation. (Minor point here about Foucault’s epistemic conception of discourse, I am looking at discourses of techne.)

4. Draw on Simondon’s notion of techno-aesthetics to argue that the vernacular epistemologies of the garage-assemblage operate according to an immanent sense of ‘(mal)functionality’. ‘This’ technology functions in ‘this’ manner ‘here’.

5. Masculine techno-aesthetic competence is valorised through this intensive discourse by articulating a relation between this ‘functionality’ and the subcultural tests of effectiveness by which technological performance is measured.

6. ‘Know how’ is the outcome of ‘figuring out’ the immanent functionality of a given socio-technical object.

7. The homosociality assembled through the garage-assemblage is premised on an economy of respect determined by a subject’s techno-aesthetic competence.

8. Production of ‘know how’ is one passage of masculine action afforded by the garage-assemblage. It draws on the affordances of an intensive technical discourse and the other affects of the garage assemblage.

9. There is another complex passage of action developed through a correspondence between related assemblages (garage and street, or garage and motorsport track, etc.). Masculine ‘appetition’ (Whitehead) belonging to the garage-assemblage is organised around the ‘associated milieus’ (Simondon) of these related assemblages. A mechanical failure on the track, for example, serves to structure the challenge in the garage; it is this challenge that mobilises masculine enthusiast bodies into action.

Overall, my argument is largely a critique of Connell’s structural concept of masculinity, as it is focused primarily on the movements between different assemblages of contingent patterns of affect and bodies ‘in relation’. I’ve tried to expunge as much ‘normativity’ as possible and focus on the processes of (collective) individuation.

Like Clif I have spent some time in the spaces that I am writing about. To give you an example of what I mean by the correspondence between assemblages, below are some images of the last time I worked on my Falcon (that I still own, in storage). I took this shot while working on my Falcon so as to replace a snapped pushrod.

Here is the offending pushrod.
offending pushrod
This is the above car just beforehand. I filmed it idling on the driveway.

Working paper seminar series

Below is the title and abstract of a paper I shall be presenting this Friday as part of our working papers seminar series. It is based on about the first third/half of a paper I am trying to finish about the garage-assemblage. Actual paper does not really engage with Summernats.

Title: “Show us your tits”: Summernats, Gender and Simondon’s Techno-Aesthetics

Abstract: A genealogy of the Summernats street machining festival must include the mid-1980s historical turning point of where it shifts from the Street Machine Nationals run “By street machiners for street machiners” to the 1987 spectacular Summernats event. The Street Machine Nationals was organised around the display and appreciation of the street machine projects understood as the outcome of the creative labour of enthusiasts. The Summernats event shifted the composition of relations where the elite street machines (still appreciated as above) were used to individuate a much larger market of the interested public. This spectacular mode of car enthusiast festival was pitched as a “party”. A constant critique of this party-like event is its explicit masculine character best captured by the misogynist demand: “Show us your tits”. “Show us your tits” is a demand for visibility and invitation for females to ‘belong’ to the hyper-masculine experience of the event.

In a 1982 letter to Jacques Derrida, philosopher of technology Gilbert Simondon outlines what he describes as “techno-aesthetics” and explores technology and the technical from the point of view of aesthetics. Early in his letter Simondon includes a comment from the architect Eupaulinos (in Paul Valéry’s version of Socrates’ dialogue with Phaedrus): “Whereas passersby merely see an elegant chapel, I see the exact proportions of a girl from Corinth whom I happily loved.”

The seemingly incongruous relation between Simondon’s techno-aesthetics and the misogynist cultural practices of Summernats I shall stake out in this paper involves thinking about the way men heteronormatively aestheticise technology through gendered anthropomorphisation. I shall argue that the libidinal-affective intensities of the female form are mapped onto the non-human intensities of (pre-digital) technology. Later gendered relations to technology map the intensities of war to the non-human intensities of computers, particularly in gaming cultures. I shall read Simondon’s theory of the individuation of environment-subjects in terms of Felix Guattari’s theories of the multi-dimensional subject. The pre-individual field of the subject co-individuated with technology at an intensive level (such as found in the homosocial spaces of enthusiast car culture) transversally connects different experiences from any given subject’s development (‘individuation’). The point I shall make is that in the case of Summernats, the misogynist domination of women is a consequence of the reproduction of heteronormative and intimate relations with technology (and other men) that ward off the anxiety of wayward libidinal-affective desire.