CAUTION!! Boundary Work Ahead for Internet Studies

This past October, Mary was one of  the plenary speakers at the Association of Internet Researchers IR13.0. Below is the text from her presentation.

Suggested citation: Gray, Mary L. “ ‘CAUTION!! Boundary Work Ahead for Internet Studies …or, Why the Twilight of the ‘Toaster Studies’ Approach to Internet Research is a Very, Very Good Thing”. Paper presented at IR13, University of Salford, Manchester, October 19, 2012.

CAUTION!! Boundary Work Ahead for Internet Studies


Why the Twilight of the ‘Toaster Studies’ Approach to Internet Research is a Very, Very Good Thing

My thanks to the organizers, particularly Feona Attwood and Ben Light. I’m honored to share this session with 2 scholars I read and admire. They, along with the other plenary speakers and keynote, produce scholarship critical to the relevance and future of internet studies. Their momentum is why I think we’re heading toward the twilight of a techno-centric approach to internet studies.

This year’s conference theme asks us to examine the place of the Internet in the contemporary world and in relation to a range of existing and emerging technologies. To consider its impact in a context where life is entangled with technologies of all kinds.

My talk headed off in a preachy direction as I was composing my thoughts. I want to address the importance of queer and feminist theories to digital media studies. They are rich analytic tools for getting at marginal(ized) media use. But they offer much more than that. They also provide a lens for interrogating the production of normative media use and, by extension, sociocultural norms. These are 2 different but related enterprises. By design, these approaches use media as a way into sets of larger social questions. I’ll draw on my own work to explain what I mean and cite a couple of cases that model how to study digital media without re-instantiating technological objects as the center of the action. I fought but then gave into the urge to call out unbridled enthusiasm about “big data” as a particular kind of fetishizing of networked media. I’ll end on talking about the boundary work ahead for internet research as an inter-discipline and the challenges we face writing for publics (including ourselves) that want technologies to give us clear answers.


I would argue that despite the interdisciplinarity that defines internet research today, it often channels, implicitly or explicitly, communication studies’ “cultivation analysis” paradigm. Cultivation theory, first developed by journalist and media scholar George Gerbner in 1968, how media exposure or use (TV for most of Gerbner’s work) affected viewers’ perceptions of the world.


While a great deal of productive scholarship came out of this theory, in the popular imagination, it became the perfect explanation for everything from rising teen pregnancy to fear of the world.


Domestication Theory offered a far more relational approach to media consumption. Consumers and technologies shape one another as media make their way into the intimate lives of individuals through processes of Appropriation, Objectification, Incorporation, Conversion (Silverstone 1996; D. Miller 1988).


This introduced a way of talking about the social inflected in the technical. But, arguably, it also, inadvertently, keeps our attention on the technology or individual negotiations and exceptional use.


Correctives to early studies of nuclear family use of TV, phones, and later cellphones were studies that looked at the exceptional lives of single parents, working poor, and others less likely to be (or assumed to be) early adopters. The detailed, descriptive attention to media adoption makes it much harder to zoom out and consider the reinscription of normative users and those who will be seen as always already late to the party.


Feminist and queer critiques give us a way to think about: the normative focus on the family to the exceptional exclusion of others; the ways mobile media are framed from the get-go as frictionless and inter-personal when, in many cases, we see how they tether users to broader publics and cultural systems of surveillance.


Much of my work concentrates on what it means to be legible, visible as a citizen in the world and the cultural work it requires of all of us.


Specifically, I’ve spent the past several years learning from the lives of queer and questioning youth in the rural United States and how they negotiate a sense of difference in a place where they are presumed to be out of place. I started with the assumption that the internet would make their lives easier. I was wrong. Sometimes it matters. Sometimes it doesn’t. But “it” is always part of a process of negotiating the boundaries of public recognition and validation in places the depend on familiarity and localness over assertions of queer difference.

Here are some examples of what I call “boundary publics”.


Boundary publics negotiate…lack of info & limited public access + social marginalization + erasure from w/in gay imaginary = response to politics of visibility.


Yes, they involve digital media and the web. But those media are only part of the story. Sometimes they matter a great deal, other times, they don’t.

Tending to place and location in our research investigating the Internet in the contemporary world means we necessarily bear down on the power relations that shape the presence, absence, and silences that give texture and meaning to technologies’ role in everyday lives.


My projects are consumed with thinking about how mobility—designs and assumptions about moving through the world—also convey recognition, visibility in motion.


At the heart of my interests in mobile media are larger questions about the material conditions that animate and motivate the privileging of some representations of self over others.


The Boundary Work ahead (toward the end of toaster studies)


Tom Streeter and Zizi Papacharissi recently shared a discussion they’re having about what Zizi called the Habitus of the New. Tom noted: “the fact is, one can’t talk about current media and communication without facing up to the problem of novelty. Partly this is because of our sources of funding….the polity’s fascination with digital novelty often enough pays our bills.”

We write for publics, often ourselves included, looking for clear answers: technological innovation solves social problems.


(There’s a lot of hype out there)

Or we want to confirm that they make manifest our biggest dreams or our worst nightmares. This predisposition to the wow factor in digital media studies—the novelty of the newest LOLcat meme or latest social networking service—makes it hard to shift the conversation away from specific bits of technology to the social complexities that offer anything but clear, universal answers to our questions about media’s historical impact on society.


For example: This mad rush to quantify and model the big data of social networks. What’s that about? What do we feel we’re achieving in those moments?


Big data becomes the latest moment/potential intervention to call on our publics to resist the urge to assume we now see enough data to tell us what’s really going on and ask what kinds of relationality we can question from this new (proprietary) bird’s eye view. There is no moment of isolation that doesn’t circle back to a myth of overcoming our own location and place in the world through the liberatory power of technology.


My argument: We have reached a critical moment in internet studies: we need to challenge ourselves and our publics to think about the Internet in the contemporary world in far more nuanced, socially-situated ways. Our thinking, research, argumentation, and methodologies must practice leading with this nuance rather than ending on this note.

WHY? Because doing otherwise simply sets up emerging technologies as the next new “toaster” to study, ever distracting us from the social context that animates the cultural work of any technology, reproducing a habit of finding norms and variations rather than interrogating their production vis-à-vis media.

Complexity means focusing on the context of media use above and beyond the devices in play. We need to challenges ourselves and our audiences to think relationally, dialectically about our relationships with technology.

Our next challenge as media scholars will be pushing the conversation beyond technologies as the center of intellectual pursuits. In all cases, we must be able to articulate what our specific instantiation of technological engagement suggests more broadly. We must respond to our publics that we are not studying x, y, or z gadget or gizmo or meme but a case to help us better understand the world and our place in it. Our theories and methodologies must challenge our publics and each other to see the larger questions at stake when we study technology.

This no small request. Our publics do want to hear about how technology fixes social life or falls short in the process. They do not want to hear that technologies are only a representational object, a chimera of the nexus of social relations and material conditions that shape what we make and take away from technologies. So, our next hurdle: how do we bring our publics to a different relationship with technologies? How do we invite them to think about privacy or personally identifiable information or other manifestations that have been historically framed as individual experiences of technology as, instead, collective exchanges/participatory cultures/persona rights that include but necessarily exceed the bodies of individuals? How do we move publics to see mobile media as a metaphor for our long held modernist desires to conquer space, time, and social position? Can location ever matter more?

I hope this presentation helps illustrate the value of assuming much more about the power of social and cultural forces that make media meaningful and to resist centering technology in isolation of or independent from these forces.

Shifting to context will be hard as it will rob us from the novelty that makes us interesting to funders, reporters, and a general public hungry for the story that makes technology the hero or villain and retains the individual’s role as the arbiter of their own destiny in the face of technological change.

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  1. Pingback: Mary Gray on the future of Internet Studies | Amy Adele Hasinoff

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