Information wants to be free (maybe) – but do we want it to be leaky?

Of the many reactions to Trump’s election in 2016, one was an embrace of online tools for increased privacy.  Interest in encryption soared, from email clients like Protonmail to messaging apps like SignalCrypto parties – workshops where tech experts teach interested rookies how to use privacy tools – popped up across the United States.

At the same time that regular people are stepping up tools for information control, Trump’s presidency has seen an incredible wave of leaks from the White House and other government agencies.  Leakiness is itself a fluid, unmanageable concept, straddling individuals, institutions, mediated communication and information control. It’s up to political theorists, journalists and activists to figure out what leaks mean for politics.  As an internet studies researcher, I find myself trying to think through the politics of leakiness in terms of digital media.

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What’s queer about the internet now?

This past month, I organized the Queer Internet Studies Workshop with my longtime friend and collaborator, Jack Gieseking, and Anne Esacove at the Alice Paul Center at UPenn.  This was the second QIS (the first was in 2014 at Columbia), and our plan was to organize a day long series of conversations, brainstorming sessions, panels, and chats dedicated to broaden thinking about the internet.  Rather than a formal conference of people presenting their research, QIS is intended (1) to identify what a queer internet might look like (2) to give a sense of research that’s being done in this area, and (3) to collaborate on artistic, activist and academic projects.We’ve been lucky to have folks post some terrific blog posts about the event, but here’s a quick recap.  After opening the day with group discussions about what queer internet studies might be and how (or whether) we could study it, a carefully curated group of researchers and activists shared their expertise in a facet of queerness and media.

  • Mia Fischer talked about intersections between trans people and surveillance studies.
  • Oliver Haimson described his work on trans identity and social media.
  • Carmen Rios spoke about online communities and feminist politics.
  • Adrienne Shaw  shared her work about building an LGBT games archive.
  • Mitali Thakor shared her work on digital vigilante-ism against sex trafficking.

Artist and academic TL Cowan led a participatory workshop called “Internet of Bodies/Internet of Bawdies.” Part theoretical inquiry, part brainstorming session, and rapid prototyping exercise, the workshop offered an embodied means of working through sexuality, performativity, and technological change.

Rather than a traditional keynote dialogue, we asked Katherine Sender to act as an interlocutor for Shaka McGlotten. Their dialogue ranged from racism and desire to sped up and slowed down experiences of intimacy, from surveillance and performativity to social media platform politics. As a freeform conversation, Sender and McGlotten both addressed and reworked themes that had surfaced throughout the day around queerness, technology, and desire.

We closed the day with breaking into groups to talk about outcomes, which included pooling resources to develop syllabuses and course materials, collaborating on a special issue, and developing best practices around respecting privacy and ownership of online content.  I’m excited to see where these plans and provocations end up in the coming months.  A huge thanks to my co-organizers, the attendees and speakers, and our sponsors.  In 2017, it’s clear that we need spaces for queerness and media provocation more than ever, it’s my hope that QIS can continue to be a space for those connections and creativity, both as a physical meetup and as a chance to build enduring social ties.

Hacker activism

(This post is a slightly-tweaked version of a talk I gave as a respondant to Gabriella Coleman’s recent talk at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m grateful to DCC for inviting me, and to Biella Coleman for provoking these ideas.)

There is something both over and under-determined about the word “hacker.” On the one hand, “hacker” has come to encompass a broad sweep of practices far beyond those most narrowly associated with an entity like Anonymous, a collective that leverages computing technology to engage in pranks and protests, memes and civil disobedience. Hacking also encompasses (with varying degrees of earnestness) DIY home repair, highly-commercialized software maintenance and non-code-based trickery and mischief on any number of platforms, from newspaper comment forums to Amazon reviews. Even in this brief cataloging, hacking bears the weight of a diverse range of references. On the other hand, and perhaps a key cause of the aforementioned definitional blurriness, hacking defies concrete conceptual confinement, a vague, residual category of practices, mostly those practices that actively resist the very stability required for classification.

A number of internet and media studies scholars have made important contributions that both draw from and clarify this ambiguity, recuperating the political capacity of hacker praxis (not unlike Heller-Roazen’s work on pirates), reorienting previously dominant stereotypes of hackers as loaner, criminals and/or perverts. Starting from the premise that hacker communities can do important political work, I’m interested in using community as a lens for imagining what hackers have done and might do in terms of activist projects. In particular, I want to set up a comparison between the political actions of hackers and that of in-person direct action.  Hacking is (or can be) deeply political.  But in what ways is it activist?

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The internet(s) as metaphor, the internet(s) as craft

Like most people who read this blog, I spend a lot of time thinking about the internet. I’ve come to realize that there isn’t really one internet, there are many, and these many internets are the result of the different practices and workarounds that individuals and communities have developed to make the internet meet their needs.  As part of the Digital Culture Symposium at the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn, I organized a workshop called Meta/Hacking the Internet.  I wanted the workshop to open up a way of thinking about the many-ness of the internet. At the same time, I wanted to think about materiality, partly because there’s a stubborn tendency to think of the interent as abstract and cerebral, partly because traditional academic settings are often themselves abstract and cerebral.  So I invited four people – activists, artists, academics and social media practitioners – to share their favorite metaphors for the internet.  Sean Brown used the metaphor of fire to talk about the utility and dangers of the internet. Sara Leavens talked about the transition from cyberspace to web as a metaphor, while tracing connections between poetry and the internet. For Damien Luxe, the internet is best thought of as an open mic, while Hector Postigo​ likened the internet to play doh.


(All photos by Kyle Cassidy)

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Experiments in Cowriting

We all have preferences for how we work. Maybe you’re the kind of person who likes to work in complete isolation, in which case this blog post is not for you. But if you’re like me, there’s something appealing about being deeply engaged in your own work in proximity to people who are also being productive. This is why I have long struggled to work at home and instead tend to write in coffee shops and libraries. I’ve also experimented with more intentional forms of co-working.  For many years, my most successful attempt was with my friend Stephen. As a DJ, Stephen would work on mixes and set lists, while I would typically revise papers – beyond the fact that we’ve been friends for years and enjoy hanging out, I think we both got a lot out of the gentle pressure/quite support of collocated work. In the last few years, I’ve made several other efforts at co-working, spanning in-person, online and inter-species collaborations (#noclickbait – it’s not as exciting as it sounds), which I thought I’d share below. If you have other ideas for coworking, feel free to share them in the comments!

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Spatial metaphors of the internet: Resources

As someone who does work on online communities and spatial informatics, I’m very much aware of the extent to which we tend to use spatial metaphors to talk about web-based technologies. I asked around the Social Media Collective (including our mighty network of esteemed colleagues) for favorite critiques of the intertwining of space and the internet, and thought I’d share the list of sources here.

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404 Day: A Day of Action Against Censorship in Libraries and Public Schools

(Cross-posted from Radical Reference and

Tomorrow is 404 Day, an effort from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to raise awareness of online censorship in libraries and public schools.  They’re running an online info session today at noon, PST, and they’ve reached out to librarians and information professionals to share experiences with online censorship.

My encounters with 404 pages in libraries have mostly stemmed from my academic rather than librarian life.  While in graduate school, I undertook a project looking at practices of secrecy in the extreme body modification community.  I wanted to know how the community circulated information about illegal and quasi-legal procedures among insiders, without exposing the same information to outsiders and the authorities.  As a researcher, getting a 404 message (which happened mostly when trying to access a social network platform geared specifically to the body modification community) was mostly exasperating, but it also gave me pause for other contexts of looking up this type of information.  As a teenager, body modification fascinated me, and I spent many hours online researching procedures related to piercings, tattoos, scarification and suspension.  Eventually, I came to feel very much a part of the body modification community, and the internet was vital to that happening.  When I imagine what would have happened if I’d been confronted with 404 pages early on in those searches, it’s possible that my body would look very different, and so would my early twenties – in both cases, I believe, for the worse.  My experiences were by no means singular; while conducting research on EBM, I encountered many folks who were still struggling to locate information about procedures they wanted done, to get answers to questions about health and well being, to find a community that wouldn’t find their interests weird or freakish.  EBM is just one example of a stigmatized topic that provokes censorship at the cost of denying people information that can be deeply tied to their physical, mental and social well-being.

I’m grateful to EFF for drawing attention to 404s and monitoring policies, and am happy to join the array of information activists speaking out against censorship in public libraries and schools.

Information Science and Social Justice Issues

(Reblogged from

It’s the last day of the iconference and I’m just leaving an awesome, much needed discussion of social justice issues related to library and information science.  It’s always affirming to see people in my field who care about social justice exchanging ideas, frustrations, success stories, failure stories and giving advice, here are some brief notes from the discussion.  Many of these examples focus on teaching and academic life, but there are ways to reposition them towards other contexts.

+Discomfort is okayNicole Cooke pointed out that it’s actually productive and useful to generate moments of discomfort in class – I really appreciate this point as a reminder that as tempting as it is to shy away from moments of social awkwardness that come from identifying gaps in privilege, it can also be an important opportunity to reshape assumptions.

+When it comes to convincing administrators and senior faculty of the importance, we need allies who are higher ups and money talks.  The members of the panel were from GSLIS at the ischool at Illinois, and they noted the importance of having champions in their program. Also, having received a grant to work on diversity and inclusion lends a degree of legitimacy to politics of challenging heteronormativity.

+Even if we’re making our classes full of theories of power, students self-select for classes specifically geared towards issues of race class and gender, so how do we get issues of social justice into the curriculum as a whole? Some inventive ideas include course releases for faculty to partner with existing classes to integrate issues of critical theory and social justice into coursework.  Also, a clearer articulation of how these efforts fit into the category of service. Another idea is building momentum with interdisciplinary efforts towards feminist ideology, like Laura Portwood-Stacer’s efforts to generate conversations of feminists working on social media at a range of communication and HCI conferences.

+When it comes to the examples that you’re using in class, it’s important to think about the examples that we use.  It’s an easy thing to bring up with colleagues as a way of talking about diversity that can be fairly easily integrated into the classroom. (Shout out to Emily Knox for making this point.)

An Anarchist Ethic for the Treatment of Trolls

This post is in response to hearing Tarleton Gillespie’s AoIR plenary talk on SNS’ responses to trolling.  First, a nod to Lisa Nakamura’s point that when we talk about discriminatory acts as trolling, it potentially deescalates the real harm engendered by racist, sexist and demeaning behaviors. This in fact reminds me of boyd and Marwick’s arguments that teens use the term “drama” over “bullying” because it allows them to acknowledge a behavior without taking sides. At the risk of not doing what Nakamura suggests (usually not a good idea when talking about the Internet) I’ll continue to use the term trolling here, in fact bringing it into an offline context. In listening to Tarleton’s talk, I started thinking about two incidents at last year’s Anarchist Book Fair in NYC.  I want to look at how these two incidents were handled within the anarchist community and then consider how they differ from those of mainstream SNS policies.

I should preface this with the request to take anarchism as a legitimate political ideology – it’s only been in the past year that I’ve recognized my own deligitimizing prejudices against anarchism, having previously accepted the widely-held belief that anarchism represented nihilist, violent anti-politics.  I credit Anarchist Pedagogies as a text that helped me recognize my own failure to learn about anarchism as a belief system, which is pretty embarrassing given that the dismissal of anarchism (like the dismissals of feminism) as a viable set of practices is one of the most effective tools of maintaining hegemonic, capitalist norms.

The ABF provoked two kinds of trolling, one that arose ahead of time and the other during the actual book fair.  I was attending the ABF as a member of Radical Reference, which has often tabled at the fair to promote our activities.  As the bookfair neared, I learned that a number of organizations were threatening to pull out because a provocative figure (I’ll call him Horace) in the local anarchist community had signed up to attend.  As I learned about the stakes of Rad Ref attending or not attending the book fair (ultimately, Horace either wasn’t granted or didn’t apply for a table), I was struck by just how procedural the response to Horace was, involving a series of conversations, documentations and investigations. As a counter-example to assumptions that anarchist ethics are pure chaos, Thadeus had in fact been subject to a number of adjudication and accountability processes, as a result of violence, abuse, disruption and snitching. Anarchist ethics for managing disruptive behaviors are fundamentally centered on collective processes and accountability, holding people to a particular set of group-centered ideals. This process reminds me of the TOS processes in a lot of counter-cultural sites online. Since the early 2000s, I’ve been a member of an online community for people interested in body modification.  The TOS violations process has changed significantly over the site’s history, but for a long time, the procedure involved a TOS forum, where complaints were vetted as to whether someone had violated the site’s clearly articulated ethics of tolerance and diversity. The message board also provided documentation of users’ removal from the site, such that if you logged into the site one day and realized that a user no longer “existed” you could check the TOS forum and see if and why that person had been removed.  

Contrast this to the flag approach of sites like Facebook, YouTube and (more recently) Twitter.  Tarleton and Kate Crawford have a forthcoming paper that points out the incredible range of flagging technologies, and questions whether flags can bear the weight of contesting online content. Perhaps the thing that makes comparison so impossible is the fact that Thaddeus had run up against defined communities bound by shared political ideologies, whereas Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are platforms for an effectively infinite array of beliefs and norms. Yet how interesting that in a community frequently derided for lawless chaos, there are clear mechanisms for managing violations of standards and ethics, whereas sites like Facebook are in fact far more inchoate and chaotic.

A second form of trolling emerged at last year’s ABF, and many ABFs before. The National Anarchist Tribal Alliance attempted to attend the ABF last year, which might sound like an unremarkable thing if you’re not aware that NATA are white supremacists.  Throughout the book fair, tablers and attendees had voiced strong disapproval of the venue’s insistence on hiring a private security force to screen bags and monitor behavior, provoking ire for violations of person and property. Yet this same security force was responsible for keeping NATA folks out of the ABF, heading off a direct confrontation and probably keeping a number of my friends out of jail.  My own thoughts on whether or not the security force should have been there are mixed, but in the context of trolling, I’d like to note two things – first, note the similar Trojan Horse tactics by NATA and, as Mark Dang-Anh pointed out in his AoIR talk, the appropriation of tags to confuse and disrupt counter-protest actions. Second, the conflict in this case cannot be understood on an individual level, and only makes sense in terms of group behavior.

The biggest takeaway for me from this thought experiment – considering how offline approaches to handling trolls within anarchist communities could play out on mainstream social media platforms – is the need for collective rather than individual means of assessing offensive online behaviors. This is important for two key reasons – first, there isn’t just one Internet, there are many, and a single policy cannot hold water in all of them.  I think ABF’s treatment of Thaddeus worked because it reflected local norms and values, and moreover documented the process.  I am in a way reminded of Sara Ahmed’s work on the way that difference produces a physical marker of deviance – there’s something to be said for the production of an artifact (a flyer, a blog, a report) that documents a wrong, especially in contrast to the invisible process of flagging, the disappearance that leaves no trace or explanation of protest.

Second, as Nakamura pointed out during the plenary Q&A, it’s dangerous to assign responsibility for monitoring hateful content at the individual level. Partly, this is because a user-versus system process of adjudication makes no sense if the system lacks community level ideology; although Facebook phrases its policies as “community standards,” it is ludicrous to think of Facebook as as having an identifiable sense of community ethics. Moreover, the notion of community dissolves as soon as it becomes incumbent on the individual user to report behavior. As well, the example of NATA demonstrates the extent to which trolling isn’t always individual, and is instead collective.  Anarchist ethics for managing disruptions of community norms underscore the extent to which these processes need to be collective not only in terms of grassroots procedures for adjudication, but also a conceptualization of disruption that accounts for collective rather than individual violations.

Art, Activism and Political Consciousness

Earlier this week, I caught Molly Crabapple’s talk at the Berkman Center, where she gave a determined defense of the value of art, and particularly activist, hand-drawn art, in the midst of participatory media. In particular, I was struck by her comment that camera phones enable protestors to rob authority figures of anonymity, for example, capturing images of police officers using excessive force. At the same time, Crabapple acknowledged that video documentation is no guarantee of justice, as the horrific experiences of Oscar Grant and long before that, Rodney King, have shown. Drawing on her experiences of making art and documentation of Occupy, Gezi Park and Guantanamo, Crabapple echoed a long line of claims about the value of art in providing a distillation (or crystallization) of political consciousness that goes beyond photographic representation. In other words, hand drawn art offers a defense of (or perhaps an insistence on) subjective rather than objective (or claiming to be objective) documentation. During the Q&A, Nathan Matias asked Crabapple about connections to Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a convergence I want to develop further here. It’s perhaps worth stating at the outset that 1) Susan Sontag is one of my intellectual heroes 2) there is an entire field of visual studies in which I am not at all well-versed and probably has much smarter things to say about this. In particular, if anyone feels like sending me blog posts or articles that connect Sontag’s work to participatory media, I’d love to read them.

One of Sontag’s key arguments is that photographs “alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing” (p. 3). The photographic grammar and ethics of seeing takes place cumulatively for Sontag, where photographs become dangerous as a mechanism of gradual desensitization, a point she later underscores in Regarding the Pain of Others. Before bringing this point back to Crabapple, I can’t help pointing out that in re-reading On Photography this week, I was struck by how prescient her comments are in an age of Flickr and Instagram:

  • Anticipating memes: “Photography does not simply reproduce the real, it recycles it” (p. 174).
  • Fragmentation and overload: “Photography reinforces a nominalist view of social reality as consisting of small units of an apparently infinite number – as the number of photographs that could be taken of anything is unlimited. Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles … the camera makes reality atomic, manageable and opaque” (p. 22-23).
  • And again, when Sontag writes that photography “creates another habit of seeing,” and that this “photographic seeing has to be constantly renewed with new shocks, whether of subject matter or technique, so as to produce the impression of violating ordinary vision” (p. 99), it is (to me) a claim that ages well in the context of social media.

But getting back to photography, politics and violence, Sontag’s emphasis on the intertwining of political consciousness and photographs (where muckrakers instantiated a norm of political change in response to documentation) resonate with Crabapple’s observation of focus on the political efficacy of capturing images of authorities. At the same time, I was reminded of Finn Brunton’s discussion of charivari in Spam. Charivari refers to a symbolic form of collective vigilantism that hinges on public shaming, a “mode of collective surveillance and punishment for the violation of norms and mores” (p. 44). Brunton argued that charivari offered a means of collectively responding to the violation of technological norms, as when early spammers were in turn flooded with revenge spam, fax bombing and in some cases had  their personal information posted publicly.

It’s ultimately the sense of political and judicial efficacy that both exposes the weakness of charivari and demonstrates the need for art. While Sontag argued that “photography, though not an art form in itself, has the peculiar capacity to turn all its subjects into works of art” (p. 149), Crabapple posited that photography has the ability to turn all its subjects into memes. Brunton’s analysis of charivari suggests a form of responding to the violation of socio-technical norms, but frequently fails as a response that provides substantive change or institutionalized justice.  Thus, memes about John Pike can rob him of his anonymity, but they cannot guarantee jail time or monetary retribution. This is what gets us back to the value of hand-drawn art. For Sontag, photography is linked to a desire for distance from hardship, lending a troubling layer of paradox onto claims that participatory media is galvanizing. Personally, I am inclined to think that part of what endures in drawing by hand and part of what is lost in photographing with hand-held devices is precisely the body. Crabapple positioned drawing as a catalyst to interpersonal connectivity as well as psycho-social vulnerability, incidentally the same qualities that Gladwell associates with high-risk activism. If Lefebvre is right and we re-shape spaces through daily practices, it is perhaps practices of drawing rather than photography that stand to reshape space most provocatively.

{This entry is cross-posted from my personal site}