I want to recommend a new post at Culture Digitally, “Digital In/Justice,” both because it may be of interest to the readers of this blog, and because it features Microsoft Research’s Mary Gray. Culture Digitally arranges occasional dialogues, in which two or more scholars go back and forth in conversation on a topic they are just working out in their own mind. It’s meant as a chance to make visible the raw development of ideas, unpolished and engaging. In this one, Mary Gray and Nick Couldry (King’s College, London) tried to develop their idea of “digital injustice,” offering an opportunity to rethink issues like the digital divide, equitable access, voice and opportunity, and the institutional environment necessary for such issues of equity to be addressed and protected. It is at once philosophical and quite personal, and I hope those of you who want new ways to think about digital media and the ethics of public participation will find intriguing ideas in it.
For instance, here’s a tiny clip, a comment by Mary:
Yes, cutting off access to an individual’s capacity to contribute to cultural dialogue and deliberation is, arguably, a case of injustice. But this formulation presumes or, at least, prioritizes individual autonomy and agency as the (pre-public/pre-mediated?) source of voice. If negotiation and articulation of the self are collective acts… then the greater injustice is not the loss of individual access to media as sites of personal narrative and expression. The more pressing injustice is that such a loss forecloses the use of media as processes of contribution, deliberation, contestation, and play in the social construction of the self — from the well of possibilities of a future articulation of self. Simply put, I’m interested in prioritizing information and technology access as a precious cultural resource…
And one from Nick, later in the conversation:
Is this where privatized conditions of digital discourse… bite most, in undercutting the common spaces of debate where claims of social injustice might be made, heard and recognised, and by distributing unequally access to the discursive resources that enable some to command general attention? If so, then I would like to add to your interesting conception of digital media as a ‘space of possibles’ the idea that such a space must allow to be heard and registered claims for the redistribution of ‘actuals’.
I love being a scholar, but one thing that really depresses me about research is that so much of what scholars produce is rendered inaccessible to so many people who might find it valuable, inspiring, or thought-provoking. This is at the root of what drives my commitment to open-access. When Zizi Papacharissi asked Nancy Baym and I if we’d be willing to guest edit the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (JOBEM), we agreed under one condition: the issue had to be open-access (OA). Much to our surprise and delight, Taylor and Francis agreed to “test” that strange and peculiar OA phenomenon by allowing us to make this issue OA.
Nancy and I decided to organize the special issue around “socially mediated publicness,” both because we find that topic to be of great interest and because we felt like there was something fun about talking about publicness in truly public form. We weren’t sure what the response to our call would be, but were overwhelmed with phenomenal submissions and had to reject many interesting articles.
But we are completely delighted to publish a collection of articles that we think are timely, interesting, insightful, and downright awesome. If you would like to get a sense of the arguments made in these articles, make sure to check out our introduction. The seven pieces in this guest-edited issue of JOBEM are:
- “Socially Mediated Publicness: An Introduction” by Nancy Baym and danah boyd
- “Knock, Knock. Who’s There? The Imagined Audience” by Eden Litt
- “Facework on Facebook: The Online Publicness of Juvenile Delinquents and Youths-at-Risk” by Sun Sun Lim, Shobha Vadrevu, Yoke Hian Chan & Iccha Basnyat
- “The Digital Storyteller’s Stage: Queer Everyday Activists Negotiating Privacy and Publicness” by Sonja Vivienne & Jean Burgess
- “‘There Isn’t Wifi in Heaven!’ Negotiating Visibility on Facebook Memorial Pages” by Alice Marwick & Nicole B. Ellison
- “Hypermasculinity & Dickwolves: The Contentious Role of Women in the New Gaming Public” by Anastasia Salter & Bridget Blodgett
- “Secretly Political: Civic Engagement in Online Publics in Kazakhstan” by Irina Shklovski & Bjarki Valtysson
We hope that you’ll find them fun to read and that you’ll share them with others that might enjoy them too!
Schüll, Natasha Dow. (2012) Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Addiction by Design is a nonfiction page-turner. A richly detailed account of the particulars of video gaming addiction, worth reading for the excellence of the ethnographic narrative alone, it is also an empirically rigorous examination of users, designers, and objects that deepens practical and philosophical questions about the capacities of players interacting with machines designed to entrance them. Many books that make worthy contributions to the theoretical literature of a particular field are slogs to read. Addiction by Design is as compelling as a horror story—a sad, smart horror story that calls off the Luddite witch hunt (Down with the machines!) in favor of an approach that examines the role of gaming designers within existing social systems of gender and class disparity.
The most popular gaming machines serve up video slots and video poker. They run on paycards because inserting cash and coinage slows down the rate of play, compromising the experience. By the mid-1990s in Las Vegas, Schüll reports, the vast majority of people at Gamblers Anonymous meetings were addicted to machines—not the table games, ponies, or lotteries previously associated with problem gambling. In 2003 it was estimated that 85 percent of industry profits nationally came from video gaming. For the people (mostly women) who become addicts, the draw of the machines has little to do with the possibility of winning big. Problem gamblers are attracted to the machines because they offer portals to an appealing parallel universe in which they can disconnect from the anxieties and pressures of everyday life. One of Schüll’s interviewees, Mollie, explains, “It’s like being in the eye of a storm, is how I’d describe it. Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there—you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.”
Mollie’s experience is typical in at least two ways. First, she has a traumatic past that predisposes her to addictive behaviors. Second, she repeatedly spends all that she has in binges. But before we blame Mollie and other victims and then expound the benefits of 12-step programs with earnest optimism, Schüll asks readers to consider the insidious dependencies that arise between machine designers, casino owners, and gamblers, especially “problem gamblers,” whose struggle to control personal spending generates 30 to 60 percent of casino revenue. Schüll’s Addiction systematically builds on her basic argument that, “just as certain individuals are more vulnerable to addiction than others, it is also the case that some objects, by virtue of their unique pharmacologic or structural characteristics, are more likely than others to trigger or accelerate an addiction.”
Schüll describes the progression of changes the industry has introduced in search of higher profits. For a while, ergonomics was economics. Then high-priced animators were hired to design pleasing sounds and animations to reward winners. But some players were annoyed that the animations were too slow, so the animations were dropped. Play sped up. Faster play was great for increasing dopamine delivery to the brain. It also tended to speed players toward the end of their credits, which lowered their loyalty to particular machines and the casinos that housed them. Chip-driven gaming allowed designers to respond to this problem by tweaking the programs so that frequent small wins (often less than the cost of playing a single hand) kept dopamine surging while players’ cash trickled steadily into casino coffers. One player in a gambling support group compared video machines to crack cocaine, a comparison frequently repeated by researchers and psychologists. By some accounts, the recidivism rate is now higher for gambling than for any other addiction.
The demons here are not the machines, though they are manifest in the machines. The demons are not the people who design the machines nor the people who build palaces in which the machines are arrayed in blinking, burbling gardens of vertiginous electronica. The demons are not located in the players’ genes or childhoods. The demons are not the state regulators who now embrace video gaming after corralling it on American Indian reservations for decades. There is no single devil here, and no particular exorcism can right the wrong, but there is something devilish about the way designers’ intentions and users’ neurology meet up to make video gaming so devastating for some and so profitable for others.
 Mary Sojourner, She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction (New York: Seal Books, 2010).
Call for Research Assistant
Microsoft Research (MSR) is looking for a Research Assistant for its Social Media Collective in the New England lab, based in Cambridge,Massachusetts. The Social Media Collective consists of Nancy Baym, danah boyd, Kate Crawford, Megan Finn, and Mary L. Gray, as well as faculty visitors and Ph.D. interns. An appropriate candidate will be both passionate and knowledgeable about social media, have strong writing and organization skills, and have experience working on research projects. Minimal qualifications are a BA or equivalent degree in a social science discipline and some qualitative research training.
Job responsibilities will include producing literature reviews, coding ethnographic data, editing manuscripts, and organizing events. The RA will also get to collaborate on ongoing research and, while publication is not a guarantee, the RA will be encouraged to co-author papers while at MSR. The RAship will require 40 hours per week on site in Cambridge, MA. It is a 1-year only contractor position, paid hourly with flexible daytime hours. The start date will likely be in September.
This position is ideal for scholars who are applying to PhD programs in Communication, Media Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, Information Studies, and related fields who want to get involved with research before entering a graduate program. Current New England-based MA/PhD students are welcome to apply provided they can commit to 40 hours of on-site work per week.
To apply, please send an email to Nancy Baym (email@example.com) with the subject “RA Application” and include the following:
- 1-page personal statement, including a description of research experience, interests, and professional goals
- CV or resume
- Writing sample (preferably a literature review or a scholarly-styled article)
- Links to online presence (e.g., blog, homepage, Twitter, journalistic endeavors, etc.)
- The names and emails of two recommenders
We will begin reviewing applications on September 11 and continue doing so until we find an appropriate candidate.
At SMC, we regularly meet to discuss interesting books in our field. These discussions tend to spark conversations about a variety of related topics. In an effort to be more inclusive, we thought we’d share the questions that our conversation sparked in the hopes that the SMC community would share your thoughts about these issues in the comments!
Book: Networked: The New Social Operating System Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman, MIT Press 2012
This book is intended for an audience that includes sociologists, but also interested members of the broader public. As such, there is an interesting combination of descriptions of different sociological heuristics, particularly the corrective concept of “networked individual,” and more popular concepts such as the “Facebook generation.” Networked brings much data to bear against dystopian ideas that the internet isolates people, or that the online world and offline world are separate spheres of social activity. Most evidence rallied in the book draws on survey data from the Pew research group run by Rainie, and Wellman’s NetLab research group at University of Toronto. Wellman’s research from pre-web/pre-Facebook times, and the longitudinal data from Pew researchers describe shifts in early internet social practices to the present.
Here are some discussion questions that generated a great conversation:
- How can researchers best represent a body of work with multiple authors?
- What social work do people do to make and keep ties today, and what work did people do in “in the village”? Do networked individuals require networked digital technologies? Emma Rothschild’s book, The Inner Life of Empires, describes the work of maintaining complex social ties in the eighteenth century and raised the following questions for us: When did networked individualism start?
- In a book intended for a popular audience, how can researchers entice readers to attend to the details of the data and how that data was collected? How do researchers demonstrate expertise while also describing some of the messiness of data collection?
- How can class, race and, more generally, identity be brought into discussions of networked individuals? A point on which we all agreed is that we need to consider and better understand how social identities might constrain people’s ability to expand networks, to move across networks, and to reap the benefits of networked individualism that Rainie and Wellman celebrate. What constraints are there on the kinds of mobility and access to resources expanded and mobile social networks can offer?