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How To Get a Social Media Ph.D.

February 11, 2016

A few months ago, I asked how we might reconsider Ph.D. education in light of digital media, social media, and the changing landscape of scholarly publishing.

No matter what your Ph.D. aspirations are, all Ph.D.s are sort-of about publishing and dissemination of research and also reading research, and these activities are being transformed by digital media. I received a many helpful suggestions, and as a result I’d like to offer you a guided tour of my favorites.

I hope this list could be useful as a voyage of exploration for anyone who wants to get a Ph.D. in the social sciences or humanities, broadly defined. It’s also suitable for a professionalization seminar for first-year doctoral students (that’s what I did with it).

The point of this list is not that getting a Ph.D. is totally different now–you’ll notice many of the readings are not new. However, in this list I’ve juxtaposed older advice with much more recent reflection on the state of the academy. Old Ms. Mentor columns are listed near manifestos about the digital humanities, reflections on new scholarly publishing models, cat memes, and Web portals like PhDisabled.

Finally, note also that the point of this list is not where to get a Ph.D. about social media.  It’s: how to get a Ph.D. in any topic within the contemporary context of digital media. That is: your more senior professors probably didn’t exchange information on job wikis, struggle with Homeland Security restrictions, and haven’t installed Typinator, so they’re less likely to give you advice about these things.

 

Preliminaries:

Essential Software and Online Resources:

  • Alerting services:
    • Journal Table of Contents (ToC) alerting services (e.g., JournalTOCs or a publisher-provided service) for a few key journals in your field
    • News summary services (Google Alerts) if your research area includes developments that are likely to be reported on in the mainstream press.
    • If your research area has prominent researchers (or research organizations) with blogs, go click the “Subscribe by E-Mail” button on the blog (or use a service like FeedBurner or Blogtrottr). Some research communities might use a shared Facebook page (or some other platform) for this purpose.
    • Subscribe to e-mail lists that are important in your field. That might include discussion lists, but also announcement lists from entities ranging from your local institution to an international scholarly association. Don’t forget more general professional development lists for all PhD students (and faculty) in any field, like Tomorrow’s Professor
  • Basic scholarly reference sources:
    • Article Indices (yes, okay, Google Scholar, but also know your domain-specific article indices from commercial database providers like EBSCO or from your scholarly association — see your local academic reference librarian)
    • Web of Science Citation Indices (e.g,. the SSCI) — you don’t just need to find references, you also need to be able to perform a reverse-citation lookup to see who is citing a reference you are interested in; this lets you trace ideas and findings through the research literature
    • Scholarly encyclopedias relevant to your field (here’s one for my field)
    • Book review repositories — if your research depends on books, you should know how and where your field publishes book reviews (for older, famous books JSTOR advanced search with “reviews” checked works well)
  • Desktop/personal software:

 

Essential books:

  1. Buy the official style guide for your discipline or sub-discipline. In the humanities and social sciences, probably something like the Publication Manual of the APA, Turabian Style/Chicago Manual of Style, or the MLA Style Manual. Or buy all of them (COMIC: When You Spend Too Long Reading a Style Manual). Although it is not technically a style manual, many academics also find the AP Stylebook helpful because of the treatment of common wording and grammar problems.
  2. William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White. (2000). The Elements of Style. New York: Longman. (Any edition is fine except for the 1920 or 2011+ “Original Edition” that does not include E. B. White. It must have E. B. White.)

 

The Key 14 Topics:

A Weekly Reading List

“How should I do doctoral research?” is a question where there is no single answer that will apply to everyone. This is a list of 14 weeks of comics, blog posts, papers, contracts, and Web sites that are often quite short, first-person accounts by people advocating a particular position or relating a personal experience. Some are polemical, sarcastic, and intentionally provocative. Some readings obviously disagree with other readings. The list is offered in the hope of generating some knowledge as well as some intellectual frisson, and not because I agree with every particular claim.  I’ve added links when things are available on the Web.

  1. What are We Doing Here? (Norms of the Academy)
    • COMIC: The Illustrated Guide to a PhD
    • READING: Turner, Stephen. “Scientific Norms/Counternorms.” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Blackwell Reference Online.
    • FOR MORE DEPTH: Weber, M., (1946 [1921]). Science as a Vocation. In: From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Trans. H. H. Gerth & C. W. Mills. New York: Oxford University Press. (pp. 129–56)
  2. The Advisor/Advisee Relationship
  3. Professionalization
  4. Impostor Syndrome
    • COMIC: I still have no idea…
    • READING: Risk. In: Becker, Howard S. & Richards, Pamela. (2007). Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (excerpt — just the letter in Ch. 6: Risk, pp. 111-120) [Note: Two former students independently told me this letter was one of the most valuable readings they were assigned in their entire Ph.D. career. –Ed.]
  5. Selecting a Research Topic
    • COMIC: The statement of purpose
    • READING: So What? Who Cares? In: Graff, Gerald & Birkenstein, Cathy. (2009). They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. (2nd ed.) New York: W. W. Norton & Company.  (ch. 7)
    • READING: Networking and Your Dissertation In: Agre, Phil. (2005). Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for Ph.D. Students. Los Angeles: UCLA.
    • FOR MORE DEPTH: The Thesis Topic, Finding It. In: Peters, Robert L. (20). Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D. (rev. ed.) New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (ch. 16)
  6. Interdisciplinarity, Multidisciplinarity, and Specialization
    • COMIC: Interdisciplinary
    • READING: On Interdisciplinarity From: Sterne, Jonathan. Super Bon (blog). (note the question: “Is Interdisciplinarity the opposite of ‘bad’?”)
    • READING: Sandvig, C. (2009). How Technical is Technology Research? In: E. Hargittai (ed.), Research Confidential: Solutions to Problems Most Social Scientists Pretend They Never Have, pp. 141-163. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
    • FOR MORE DEPTH: Snow, Charles Percy (2001) [1959]. The Two Cultures. London: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Literature Reviews
    • COMIC: When You Find a New and Interesting Theorist
    • READING: Terrorized by the Literature. In: Becker, Howard S. & Richards, Pamela. (2007). Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Ch. 9)
    • READING: Edwards, Paul N. (2015). How to Read a Book. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan. (Note: This isn’t the Adler & Van Doren book of the same title.)
    • READING: The Difference Between Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources. In: Booth, Wayne C., Colomb, Gregory G., & Williams, Joseph M. (2008). The Craft of Research. (3rd ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (pp. 68-70)
  8. Tone and Voice
    • COMIC: Deciphering Academese
    • READING: Persona and Authority, On “Classier” Writing, “Finished” Products, and Removing “Bullshit” Qualifications. In: Becker, Howard S. & Richards, Pamela. (2007). Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (various excerpts.)
    • FOR MORE DEPTH: Peruse: Swales, John M. (2004). Research Genres. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Writing and Rewriting
    • COMIC: “Final.doc”Academic Writing is Argumentative (sorry this comic is paywalled, can’t find link.)
    • READING: Addicted to Rewriting In: Becker, Howard S. & Richards, Pamela. (2007). Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (pp. 91-94)
    • READING: Making Prose Speak. In: Germano, William.  From Dissertation to Book. (2nd ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (ch. 8, excerpts)
    • FOR MORE DEPTH: Re-read Strunk and White (above).
  10. Evidence
    • COMIC: Evidence
    • READING: Which Article Should You Write? Bem, Daryl J. (2002). Writing the Empirical Journal Article. In: Darley, J. M., Zanna, M. P., & Roediger III, H. L. (eds). The Compleat Academic: A Career Guide. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. (excerpt.)
    • READING: Logic In: Becker, Howard S. (1998). Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Research While You’re Doing It. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (excerpt — pp. 151-158)
    • READING: Making Claims and Assembling Reasons and Evidence In: Booth, Wayne C., Colomb, Gregory G., & Williams, Joseph M. (2008). The Craft of Research. (3rd ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (ch. 8-9 excerpts)
  11. Difference
    • COMIC: Visas
    • READING: Who’s Classier? From the Ms. Mentor advice column in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
    • READING: Adjusting to American Universities. From the Tomorrow’s Professor listserv.
    • READING: Minority Faculty in [Mainstream White] Academia and Women in Academia In: DeNeef, A. Leigh & Goodwin, Craufurd D. (2007). The Academic’s Handbook. (3rd ed.) Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (ch. 5-6 excerpts)
    • RESOURCE: See also PhDisabled.
  12. Presentations
  13. Publication and Peer Review
  14. The Future

 

Thanks to all who contributed.  More suggestions? Please comment!

 

How Do Users Take Collective Action Against Online Platforms? CHI Honorable Mention

February 10, 2016

What factors lead users in an online platform to join together in mass collective action to influence those who run the platform? Today, I’m excited to share that my CHI paper on the reddit blackout has received a Best Paper Honorable Mention! (Read the pre-print version of my paper here)

When users of online platforms complain, we’re often told to leave if we don’t like how a platform is run. Beyond exit or loyalty, digital citizens sometimes take a third option, organizing to pressure companies for change. But how does that come about?

I’m seeking reddit moderators to collaborate on the next stage of my research: running experiments together with subreddits to test theories of moderation. If you’re interested, you can read more here. Also, I’m presenting this work as part of larger talks at the Berkman Center on Feb 23 and the Oxford Internet Institute on March 16. I would love to see you there!

Having a formalized voice with online platforms is rare, though it has happened with San Francisco drag queens, the newly-announced Twitter Trust and Safety Council or the EVE player council, where users are consulted about issues a platform faces. These efforts typically keep users in positions of minimal power on the ladder of citizen participation, but they do give some users some kind of voice.

Another option is collective action, leveraging the collective power of users to pressure a platform to change how that platform works. To my knowledge, this has only happened four times on major U.S. platforms: when AOL community leaders settled a $15 million class action lawsuit for unpaid wages, when DailyKos writers went on strike in 2008, the recent Uber class action lawsuit, and the reddit blackout of July 2015, when moderators of 2,278 subreddits shut down their communities to pressure the company for better coordination and better moderation tools. They succeeded.

What factors lead communities to participate in such a large scale collective action? That’s the question that my paper set out to answer, combining statistics with the “thick data” of qualitative research.

The story of how I answered this question is also a story about finding ways to do large-scale research that include the voices and critiques of the people whose lives we study as researchers. In the turmoil of the blackout, amidst volatile and harmful controversies around hate speech, harassment, censorship, and the blackout itself, I made special effort to do research that included redditors themselves.

Theories of Social Movement Mobilization

Social movement researchers have been asking how movements come together for many decades, and there are two common schools, responding to early work to quantify collective action (see Olson, Coleman):

Political Opportunity Theories argue that social movements need the right people and the right moment. According to these theories, a movement happens when grievances are high, when social structure among potential participants is right, and when the right opportunity for change arises. For more on political opportunity theory, see my Atlantic article on the Facebook Equality Meme this past summer.

Resource Mobilization Theories argue that successful movements are explained less by grievances and opportunities and more by the resources available to movement actors. In their view, collective action is something that groups create out of their resources rather than something that arises out of grievances. They’re also interested in social structure, often between groups that are trying to mobilize people (read more).

A third voice in these discussions are the people who participate in movements themselves, voices that I wanted to have a primary role in shaping my research.

How Do You Study a Strike As It Unfolds?

I was lucky enough to be working with moderators and collecting data before the blackout happened. That gave me a special vantage for combining interviews and content analysis with statistical analysis of the reddit blackout.

Together with redditors, I developed an approach of “participatory hypothesis testing,” where I posed ideas for statistics on public reddit threads and worked together with redditors to come up with models that they agreed were a fair and accurate analysis of their experience. Grounding that statistical work involved a whole lot of qualitative research as well.

If you like that kind of thing, here are the details:

In the CHI paper, I analyzed 90 published interviews with moderators from before the blackout, over 250 articles outside reddit about the blackout, discussions in over 50 subreddits that declined to join the blackout, public statements by over 200 subreddits that joined the blackout, and over 150 discussions in blacked out subreddits after their communities were restored. I also read over 100 discussions in communities that chose not to join. Finally, I conducted 90 minute interviews with 13 subreddit moderators of subreddits of all sizes, including those that joined and declined to join the blackout.

To test hypotheses developed with redditors, I collected data from 52,735 non-corporate subreddits that received at least one comment in June 2015, alongside a list of blacked-out subreddits. I also collected data on moderators and comment participation for the period surrounding the blackout.

So What’s The Answer? What Factors Predict Participation in Action Against Platforms?

In the paper, I outline major explanations offered by moderators and translate them into a statistical model that corresponds to major social movement theories. I found evidence confirming many of redditor’s explanations across all subreddits, including aspects of classic social movement theories. These findings are as much about why people choose *not* to participate as much as they are about what factors are involved in joining:

    • Moderator Grievances were important predictors of participation. Subreddits with greater amounts of work, and whose work was more risky were more likely to join the blackout
    • Subreddit Resources were also important factors. Subreddits with more moderators were more likely to join the blackout. Although “default” subreddits played an important role in organizing and negotiating in the blackout, they were no more or less likely to participate, holding all else constant.
    • Relations Among Moderators were also important predictors, and I observed several cases where “networks” of closely-allied subreddits declined to participate.
    • Subreddit Isolation was also an important factor, with more isolated subreddits less likely to join, and moderators who participate in “metareddits” more likely to join.
    • Moderators Relations Within Their Groups were also important; subreddits whose moderators participated more in their groups were less likely to join the blackout.

Many of my findings go into details from my interviews and observations, well beyond just a single statistical model; I encourage you to read the pre-print version of my paper.

What’s Next For My reddit Research?

The reddit blackout took me by surprise as much as anyone, so now I’m back to asking the questions that brought me to moderators in the first place:

THANK YOU REDDIT! & Acknowledgments

CHI_Banner

First of all, THANK YOU REDDIT! This research would not have been possible without generous contributions from hundreds of reddit users. You have been generous all throughout, and I deeply appreciate the time you invested in my work.

Many other people have made this work possible; I did this research during a wonderful summer internship at the Microsoft Research Social Media Collective, mentored by Tarleton Gillespie and Mary Gray. Mako Hill introduced me to social movement theory as part of my general exams. Molly Sauter, Aaron Shaw, Alex Leavitt, and Katherine Lo offered helpful early feedback on this paper. My advisor Ethan Zuckerman remains a profoundly important mentor and guide through the world of research and social action.

Finally, I am deeply grateful for family members who let me ruin our Fourth of July weekend to follow the reddit blackout closely and set up data collection for this paper. I was literally sitting at an isolated picnic table ignoring everyone and archiving data as the weekend unfolded. I’m glad we were able to take the next weekend off! <3

SMC media roundup

February 4, 2016

This is a collection of some of our researchers’ quotes, mentions, or writings in mainstream media. Topics include Facebook’s supposed neutral community standards, sharing economy workers uniting to protest, living under surveillance and relational labor in music.

Tarleton Gillespie in the Washington Post –> The Big Myth Facebook needs everyone to believe

And yet, observers remain deeply skeptical of Facebook’s claims that it is somehow value-neutral or globally inclusive, or that its guiding principles are solely “respect” and “safety.” There’s no doubt, said Tarleton Gillespie, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research in New England, that the company advances a specific moral framework — one that is less of the world than of the United States, and less of the United States than of Silicon Valley.

Mary Gray in The New York Times –> Uber drivers and others in the gig economy take a stand

“There’s a sense of workplace identity and group consciousness despite the insistence from many of these platforms that they are simply open ‘marketplaces’ or ‘malls’ for digital labor,” said Mary L. Gray, a researcher at Microsoft Research and professor in the Media School at Indiana University who studies gig economy workers.

Kate Crawford’s (and others’) collaboration with Laura Poitras (Academy Award-winning documentary film director and privacy advocate) in the book about living under surveillance in Boing Boing.

Poitras has a show on at NYC’s Whitney Museum, Astro Noise, that is accompanied by a book in which Poitras exposes, for the first time, her intimate notes on her life in the targeting reticule of the US government at its most petty and vengeful. The book includes accompanying work by Ai Weiwei, Edward Snowden, Dave Eggers, former Guantanamo Bay detainee Lakhdar Boumediene, Kate Crawford and Cory Doctorow.

(More on the upcoming book and Whitney museum event on Wired)

Canadian Songwriter’s Association interview with Nancy Baym –> Sound Advice: How to use social media in 2016

When discussing the use of social media by songwriters, Baym prefers to present a big-picture view rather than focusing on a ‘Top Ten Tips” approach, or on one platform or means of engagement. Practicality is key: “I’d love for 2016 to be the year of people getting realistic about what social media can and can’t do for you, of understanding that it’s a mode of relationship building, not a mode of broadcast,” says Baym.

 

 

#trendingistrending: when algorithms become culture

February 1, 2016

trendingistrending_frontpage_Page_01I wanted to share a new essay, “#Trendingistrending: When Algorithms Become Culture” that I’ve just completed for a forthcoming Routledge anthology called Algorithmic Cultures: Essays on Meaning, Performance and New Technologies, edited by Robert Seyfert and Jonathan Roberge. My aim is to focus on the various “trending algorithms” that populate social media platforms, consider what they do as a set, and then connect them to a broader history of metrics used in popular media, to both assess audience tastes and portray them back to that audience, as a cultural claim in its own right and as a form of advertising.

The essay is meant to extend the idea of “calculated publics” I first discussed here and the concerns that animated  this paper. But more broadly I hope it pushes us to think about algorithms not as external forces on the flow of popular culture, but increasingly as elements of popular culture themselves, something we discuss as culturally relevant, something we turn to face so as to participate in culture in particular ways. It also has a bit more to say about how we tend to think about and talk about “algorithms” in this scholarly discussion, something I have more to say about here.

I hope it’s interesting, and I really welcome your feedback. I already see places where I’ve not done the issue justice: I should connect the argument more to discussions of financial metrics, like credit ratings, as another moment when institutions have reason to turn such measures back as meaningful claims. I found the excellent essay (journal; academia.edu), where Jeremy Morris writes about what he calls “infomediaries,” late in my process, so while I do gesture to it, it could have informed my thinking even more. There are a dozen other things I wanted to say, and the essay is already a little overstuffed.

I do have some opportunity to make specific changes before it goes to press, so I’d love to hear any suggestions, if you’re inclined to read it.

LA Times Op-Ed: Your job is about to get “taskified”

January 10, 2016

I’ve got a small Op-Ed from our crowdwork research in the Sunday’s Los Angeles Times’ print edition, published on January 10th, 2016 . It reflects on the challenges that workers face in a world of “taskified” labor—particularly the problem of getting paid when no one’s legally on the hook for sending you your last paycheck. Full text below:

The global digital assembly line has arrived. Its workers labor at computer keyboards, performing the behind-the-scenes tasks that make the Internet appear intelligent and functional. They assign labels like “family” or “theme park” to photos, check that Web URLs work, verify addresses on Yelp, review social media posts flagged as “adult.”

Corporations, from the smallest start-ups to the largest firms, can now “taskify” everything from scheduling meetings and debugging websites, to finding sales leads and managing fulltime employees’ HR files. Instead of hiring help, firms just post their needs to the Web.

This online piecework, or “crowdwork,” represents a radical shift in how we define employment itself.

The individuals performing this work are of course not traditional employees, but neither are they freelancers. They are, instead, “users” or “customers” of Web-based platforms that deliver pre-priced tasks like so many DIY kits ready for assembly. Transactions are bound not by employee-employer relationships but by “user agreements” and Terms of Service that resemble software licenses more than any employment contract.

Researchers at Oxford University’s Martin Programme on Technology and Employment estimate that nearly 30% of jobs in the U.S. could be organized like this within 20 years. Forget the rise of robots and the distant threat of automation. The immediate issue is the Uber-izing of human labor, fragmenting of jobs into outsourced tasks and dismantling of wages into micropayments

In the U.S. and overseas, crowdwork payments can mean the difference between scraping by and saving for a home or working toward a degree. But as Riyaz Khan, a 32-year-old from a small town in the coastal state of Andhra Pradesh in India, discovered, doing work on spec posted by someone you’ll never meet and who has no legal obligations to you has serious disadvantages.

My team at Microsoft Research spent two years studying the lives of hundreds of American and Indian crowdworkers like Khan to learn how they manage this nascent form of employment and the capriciousness that comes with it. Khan, when we met him, had spent three years finding work on Amazon Mechanical Turk. AMT is one of the largest online marketplaces that connect “providers” from around the world like Khan with “requesters,” typically U.S. or European businesses or individuals. He did tasks for companies as big as Google and as small as neighborhood print shops.

On good days, he made $40 in 10 hours — more than 100 times what neighboring farmers earned. He soon found more tasks than he could complete himself. So he hired locals to work with him out of his living room. In exchange for a cut of their pay, Khan helped his crew create their own accounts, taught them how to complete tasks efficiently, and ferreted out tasks that best matched his workers’ skillsets. He also handled any final queries after the completed task was submitted. They called themselves Team Genius.

Three years in, now dependent on this income to support family and friends, Khan heard worrying tales of Indian workers’ AMT accounts being shut down. One by one, members of Team Genius lost their accounts.

Then it happened to him. An email from Amazon’s Customer Service Team offered no explanation beyond: “I am sorry but your Amazon Mechanical Turk account was closed due to a violation of our Participation Agreement and cannot be reopened. Any funds that were remaining on the account are forfeited, and we will not be able to provide any additional insight or action. You may review the Participation Agreement/Conditions of Use at this URL: http://www.mturk.com/mturk/conditionsofuse. Thank you for trying Amazon Mechanical Turk. Best regards, Laverne P. We value your feedback, please rate my response using the link below.”

Using a “Contact Us” link, Khan sent several messages pleading his case. He received auto-replies thanking him for his patience, but no information about how to appeal or retrieve the funds he’d banked with AMT for completed tasks over the last two months. Instead, he was referred to the agreement’s “Restrictions and Limitations” clause, which grants AMT the “right to terminate or suspend any Payment Account… for any reason in our sole discretion.”

Six months later, without explanation, Khan received his final paycheck. Other members of Team Genius, unsure how to pursue resolution, got stiffed. None ever found out exactly why AMT suspended their accounts, although I suspect they know what parts of the Participation Agreement they broke. Practices such as automating the acceptance of tasks, or transferring an account to another person violate AMT’s rules but are widespread among those in the United States and India alike who are trying to cobble together a full-time living.

Khan’s experience should be a warning to us all. Crowdwork may seem like a small eddy of employment, contained to those who work on computer code and Web development. But it looms like a tsunami of change for anyone whose routine work — filing forms, drafting standardized reports, coordinating events — can be broken into bits and farmed out online.

We must recognize that crowdwork sites are not just technologies that deliver convenient services. They are sites of employment that encompass the globe. Yet there are no clear rules for how this new form of employment should operate. As Team Genius’ case demonstrates, the right to be paid for one’s labor is no longer guaranteed. Centuries of global labor activism, from child labor laws to workplace safety guidelines, are left vulnerable.

The Amazons, GrubHubs, Upworks, and Ubers that profit from brokering this new work relationship certainly bear some responsibility. More broadly, state and national governments need to reset their labor rules and reweave social safety nets. This is not a simple matter of re-classifying crowdworkers as employees; rather we need to move beyond the fulltime-freelance divide. Businesses (and their customers) demand an all-hours, at-the-ready workforce. But to get that, workers need portable healthcare, a basic income, paid leave and retirement plans.

Corporations and governments would be wise to underwrite portable benefits plans; after all, companies stand to profit the most from a flexible, on-demand workforce. With comprehensive universal benefits, more individuals could absorb the risks of letting their 9-to-5 jobs go. Governments and corporations could stabilize on-demand work, boosting productivity and global economic growth. Without such benefits, on the other hand, we have a recipe for further financial insecurity, underemployment and social unrest.

As the nation with the greatest number of tech companies dependent upon and profiting from the global digital assembly line, it’s up to the United States to set the bar for what gainful employment looks like in 21st century. We must do so with our own children in mind, as well as children in Andhra Pradesh, for their futures are intertwined. And neither deserves an emailed pink slip that makes collecting a paycheck a customer service nightmare.

kudos for upcoming SMC visitor Paul Dourish

December 21, 2015

Now that we have said goodbye to our most recent long-term visitor, Henry Jenkins, we can look ahead to our next, Paul Dourish. It’s a fine time to do so, as he has just been awarded two honors that testify to his important contributions to the study of computation and society. His 1992 paper “Awareness and Coordination in Shared Workspaces,” co-authored with Victorial Bellotti, was awarded the Lasting Impact award at the upcoming CSCW conference. And he was just chosen as a 2015 ACM Fellow, “for contributions in social computing and human-computer interaction.” Paul will be visiting the SMC group and the Microsoft Research New England lab in spring 2016.

Henry Jenkins, on “Comics and Stuff”

December 18, 2015

We have had the distinct privilege of having Henry Jenkins visit our research group for the past few months. Give the immense impact of his work on the study of digital culture and digital industries, fan communities and the creative repurposing of media texts, and political participation and new forms of online activism, it was an enormous treat to have him with us. The semester was an opportunity for him to make progress on his latest book project, provisionally titled Comics and Stuff. As we say goodbye to him today and send him back to sunny Los Angeles, we thought we would offer a recap of the colloquium he gave on the topic. This is in the style of liveblogging (though its hardly live, given that we sat on it for two weeks) so any lack of clarity is likely ours rather than Henry’s. Nevertheless, it offers a glimpse of the thinking that is animating this latest project. (Many thanks to Nathan Matias, who took copious notes and drafted this post; I merely proofed and posted.)

 

Comics and Stuff: An Introduction

Henry starts out by explaining that the use of the term “stuff” in his title is not a casual one, that it does actually matter for his early explorations of comics culture. He opens up by showing a comic strip from Mr X that shows an apartment with so much stuff that the background detail overwhelmes the rest of the scene.

== Comics ==

Henry begins by noting that comics have become an increasingly specialized medium, having at times been a mass one. He quotes Art Spiegelman in an interview in Critical Inquiry, referencing Marshall McLuhan, who said “when something matures, it either becomes art or it dies….. I thought of it very literally as a Faustian deal that had to be made with the culture, and it was fraught one and a dangerous one…. I figured it was necessary.” [[ A participant asks: are there any media that failed to become art and died? Jenkins argues that there are no dead media, just dead delivery platforms. Vaudeville and Burlesque might be examples of something that died and is coming back as an art form. ]]

Henry goes on to detail the historical trajectory of U.S. comics, beginning with the immense newspaper comics of in “The Yellow Kid” and “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” At the time, comic artists owned their page — they could do whatever they wanted. The Yellow Kid was full-page, while Little Nemo used panels. Next, Henry talks about comic strips emerging as comics pages, then printed monthly magazines, often published by people who were publishing pulp magazines.

The first “killer app” of comics is Superman: the thing that makes comics commercial viable. In the 1930s, 97% of girls and 98% of boys in the U.S., were reading comics book. As these young fans grew up, they expected that comics would grow with them and take on their concerns, with things like crime or horror comics. The comics panics of the 1950s came from the mismatch that followed, between the assumption that comics were for kids, and the way they were increasingly addressing and being marketed to adults. The industry responded by self-regulating, but also prices went up (from 12 cents to 2 dollars, due to rising paper, ink, and shipping costs) pricing many kids out. In response, comics increasingly became limited to specialty shops. The result is that now comics are almost exclusively sold in specialty shops, that are cut off from ordinary markets. The market shifted entirely to adults, but it was constrained by the codes that required comics to be for kids.

People also started to buy comics as an investment– because comics had been made to read and discard. Every mom who threw away their kids’ comics made everyone’s comics more valuable. But in response, comics were created to be collected, making the bottom fall out of the market. And that’s the context in which Spiegelman is writing, asking how comics will survive.

In parallel, we saw the rise a network of alternative comics self-published by artists, part of the rock and drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s, largely regulated and taking part in a period of experimentation with what comics could do. Emerging from this context, Art Spiegelman published Raw, a yearly comics anthology that introduced waves of new artists across different cultures. It was in Raw that Spiegelman first published Maus, the piece that many people think of as the pinnacle Spiegelman’s vision, and the explosion of graphic novels into mainstream public awareness. Before that came Will Eisner’s “A Contract with God,” which while it wasn’t the first graphic novel, is seen as the first of that time.

Spiegelman and Eisner offered one vision of how comics could go forward into the future. Will Eisner argued a different direction, arguing that comics should be totally reconfigured by being published online, without requiring paper or ink. Online, there has been a remarkable flowering of online comics, but most of them still look to print as a way to reach commercial markets. Yet another future is represented by Marvel: the idea that comics are run as research and development wings of the entertainment industry, or as places to test ideas that then get translated to other screens– the comics run at a loss, but the films make up the profit.

Henry argues that there are now parallel comics markets. Today, the top selling comics are almost all from DC or Marvel. The top selling graphic novels, on the ither hand, include a wider range of second-tier publishers. Compared to the New York Times list of bestsellers are a completely different picture: featuring Fun Home, Persepolis, Maus, and some media tie-ins (like Mad Max). Seven of the top 10 titles in the New York Times list are by women. Beyond the comics shop and bookstore, there’s a different kind of thing, something more diverse represented by the graphic novel market, Henry tells us. Almost all of this wider work has been conceived of as graphic novels developed from end-to-end rather than a serial.

What happened? Graphic novelists courted librarians, who are now key advocates of graphic novels and building new readers of contents. Much of the young adult content is by women, which is diversifying comics.

Henry notes that there are two other cultural configurations of comics beyond this U.S. story: Japanese and Euro comics (French/Belgian). Many of these models don’t apply to Japan or Europe. In Europe, for example, its cultural status has never been in crisis in France or Belgium, where they have been seen as art all along. However, it’s possible to talk about American, Canadian, British, New Zealand, and Australian comics.

Henry argues that we can see a shift from comics to graphic novels; from floppy to bound; from a disposable medium to one intended to be collected and preserve; from specialty shops to bookstores and libraries; from the idea of specialty fans to a wider public audience; from “trash” to art; from a focus on superheros to a new attention to everyday life; and from mostly masculine perspectives to a greater diversity.

As that happens, contemporary comics are not just looking forward, but also looking backwards. Jenkins cites Bill Watterson, who argued that “much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium’s history…. it increasingly seems to me that cartoon evolution is working backward…..Not only can comics be more than we’re getting today, but the comics already have been more than we’re getting today” (1989). Comic artists like Watterson are advocating for an earlier tradition in order to position themselves as part of an important tradition. In some cases, notable comics artists curate and support reprints and curatorial interventions to share and bring forward work from the past, positioning comics artists as people who do that kind of work.

Comic artists can feel ambivalent about this. What made Maus striking was not only that it was telling a story of serious import, but that it was using the form of funny animal comics– bidding for the status of pop culture, while also bidding for respectability. As they reach for a tradition, they find themselves drawing from and distancing them from this.

== Stuff ==

Henry notes that comics are stuff, in that they are objects we consume, keep, or diascard, and they represrent stuff, in that they include in their images the material element sof the life of their characters. Because of this dual relationship to stuff, comics can tell us a great deal about the lived materiality of contemporary sociality. The term “stuff,” says Jenkins, is part of a larger trend to consider the things in life, including Appadurai’s work on “the social life of things” and “the world of goods” discussed by Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, as well as Daniel Miller’s “Stuff” and “The Comfort of Things.” Anthropology and art criticism have also considered objects, in work by Orhan Pamuk (The Innocence of Objects) and Peter Schwenger, Bill Brown’s “A Sense of Things,” and Freedgood’s “The Ideas in Things,” as literary and art critics are responding to anthropologies of stuff.

Bill Brown frames his work by asking “why and how we use objects to make meaning, to make or re-make ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, to sublimate our fears and shape our fantasies.” Most of that work focuses on 19th century literature. In our current time, stuff isn’t something that will be passed along, itis designed to be discarded. Yet at the same time, we use our material things to make meaning around and of ourselves: adults are holding on to toys that were disposable, posing with images of their collections, sahring them online. This fits into a larger pattern of sentimentalizing stuff, to use it to remind ourselves of places we’ve lived and people we’ve known.

This valuing of stuff becomes a driver of sites like Ebay. Henry shows the following ad from Ebay: what nothing was ever forgotten or ever lost?

We can think of this stuff as something we’re trying to make sense of as a culture. We have things like Antique Roadshow, shows like Hoarders, or even books about “the life-changing magic of tidying up.” The result is that we end up with homes that are full of clutter, conflicting symbols of identity and history, bids for meaning jumbled together. We get the cultural call to keep and to discard. But tis doesn’t look like post-modernity, it’s not surface. People are deeply invested in stuff, and thinking about it as clutter or simply surface doesn’t get at it.

To summarize, “stuff” is a lifestyle choice. There’s been a shift from inherited objects (19th century writers) to personal selection — the stuff we own as a reflection of us rather than our family, tribal, or national history. There’s a shift from “possessions” to “belongings” — it belongs to us and signals what we belong to. There’s a shift from the disposable to the collectable, and then from trivia to expertise. Collectors are not just people who own stuff, they’re people who desire stuff and know stuff, creating forms of knowledge that former generations might have thought as trivial.

== Comics and Stuff ==

Comics artists are part of this. Jenkins notes the Canadian film “Seth’s Dominion,” as well as photographers hurriedly taking photos of art deco buildings that were about to be taken down, telling stories about those buildings, and then creating versions of those buildings in cardboard that then gets into art galleries.

The digital becomes a gathering point of this kind of thing. For example, Hip Hop Family Tree inspires media collectors to find and reassemble the pieces that are mentioned in it. Steampunk is another example of a collector culture that builds futuristic objects in the aesthetic of older objects. Retrofuturism is a similar example of this, people who are obsessed with 1930s images of tomorrow, with films like Terminal City, Tomorrowland, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. These all represent an attempt to reclaim the material objects and material imagination of the 1939 world’s fair.

Henry talks about the emergence of the still life in the early modern world. There’s a shift from paintings that are epic in scope, works funded by church and state, to a focus on everyday stuff. In Dutch capitalism, wealth is growing, yet there’s not a tradition of civic giving or charity; wealthy merchants wanted something to spend their money on, so they paid for beautiful paintings of their objects. It was a way that people displayed their own stuff and showed their appreciation of all kinds of stuff, and images of people collecting and gathering stuff. Art historians of the still life argue that there’s a shift from the crown or church to private collectors, a shift from the epic to everyday life. In the case of early modern painting, the shift to everyday life was seen as a lowering of status, unlike comics, where the shift was from lower to higher status.

Now, so with graphic novels. Jenkins shows us panels from Asterios Polyp that were designed to tell us things about a person’s life from the state of someone’s living quarters: an apartment with modernist furniture piled high with stuff. Across the book, there are six panels that show the history of a relationship. In the beginning, it’s a purely modern place. And then, there’s a moment of crisis: will his girlfriend’s belongings fit? Does she have a place in his life, as we see encated through the placing of her stuff. They integrate her furnishings into the space, then we watch is her aesthetic begins to takes over. After the relationship sours, remanants of her things linger. Readers learn to make sense of the scene by flipping back and forth between these moments. And it’s also part of a narrative.

Jenkins next compares comics about collectors with early modern about paintings that they would like to own and bring together– very similar to the kind of thing that collector comics creators are doing. Remember, says Jenkins, that everything drawn by the artist has a personal cost — they don’t get paid any more or less based on how much detail they include.

In Alice in Sunderland, Talbot introduces “cabinets of curiosity,” bringing back to the early modern practice of collecting oddities in cabinets and displays that are cornucopias of fragmented curiosity, dispersed attention, and personality. Ghost World is very much about why people own things. In two poignant moments, a teenager weeps over stuff that is important to her. There are things about stuff that shows us aspects of character that become turning points.

Compared to comics by men, female comic artists are focusing less on collecting stuff and more on the burdens of stuff and the process of getting rid of it. In Fun Home, Bechdel has problems with her father’s aesthetics that hide who her father is. It then focuses on the mother’s willingness to get rid of all the things after her father’s death. Special Exits is similarly about the death of parents, the emotional demands of getting rid of clutter, what’s left behind, with a blind mother-in-law asking if there are still ink smudges on the door frame left by her husband’s routine. Even though she’s blind, she can still guess that the stain and removal of stain is still there — something that expresses the relations in the family. Roz Chast’s “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant” includes a section on Grime and what collects on stuff.

To wrap up, as Henry reads these books, he’ll be patying attention to “Mise-en-scene as a site of virtuoso performance,” the social skills of reading stuff as key to understanding characters, collecting stories, and stories about culling through stuff (especially as men and women write about them differently), and stuff as key for thinking about memory, nostalgia, and history that run through these books. Often there’s a kind of “critical nostalgia” running through them, that is revealing of the genre and the cultural moment.

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