New book excerpt: The Gentrification of the Internet

Hi SMC friends! Just a quick post to announce a new book, out this month from UC Press. In researching craigslist for an earlier project, I started thinking about changing digital culture as a form of gentrification. With this book, I wanted to think in more depth about how the internet is gentrifying, with the hope of writing for a general readership. Here’s a quick video (courtesy of the awesome comms team at Annenberg) and here’s an excerpt from the intro (courtesy of UC Press). I’m grateful to the support I’ve had from many SMC folx on the way to writing this book!

An Internet for the People – First Chapter Preview

I’m delighted to share that my new book, An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of craigslist, is out now from Princeton University Press. This book considers the vision of a single platform as instructive for thinking about the future of the web: craigslist. Over its 22 year history, craigslist has grown into a multi-faceted website for local exchanges, which can include buying, selling, hiring, apartment seeking, dating or simply ranting about the neighborhood. At once outdated and highly relevant, easy to use and easy to overlook, craigslist has mostly stayed the same while the web around it has changed, becoming less open and more profit driven. The design decisions and user policies governing craigslist give shape to particular a form of politics, and examining these rules and norms reveals what we stand to lose if the web continues to become less open, more homogenous and geared towards sleek professionalism over messy serendipity.


Here’s the introduction (thanks to the folks at Princeton University Press for letting me share this new work) and here’s a fun video with highlights from the book (thanks to the communications team at Annenberg for their help!).

pdf is from AN INTERNET FOR THE PEOPLE: The Politics and Promise of craigslist by Jessa Lingel. Copyright © 2019 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted here by permission of the publisher

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.

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

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)

Continue reading “The internet(s) as metaphor, the internet(s) as craft”

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.

Continue reading “Spatial metaphors of the internet: Resources”

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}

When communication is not free

In the wake of so many news stories related to issues of surveillance and privacy, it’s perhaps particularly important to note that tomorrow, the FCC will consider an action that has the potential to reshape access to ICTs for one of the most heavily surveilled populations in the world – those who are incarcerated. While many of us who are economically and legally privileged worry about how to protect (or whether it’s even possible to have) a sense of privacy when we make cell phone calls or write emails or conduct online searches, the FCC’s decision would be welcomed by many for whom basic access to landline calls is the primary concern of communication. 
Although I’ve been interested in issues of information inequality as experienced in prisons for some time, I was mostly thinking about collection development policies of prison libraries, and the politics of telephone communications were new to me (although not to Steven Jackson, who has a terrific article from 2005 on the political economy of the prison telephone industry; it goes without saying that it’s also not news to the 2 million + people currently serving time in U.S. prisons). For some context, the FCC is addressing longstanding initiatives (filed with the FCC in 2003 and 2007) proposing oversight of and guidelines for phone services to prisoners.  Incarcerated people have severely restricted access to forms of communication, which has led to some remarkable workarounds for those facing extreme isolation. Among the general population, for whom phone calls are technically allowed but not necessarily accessible, inmates are typically limited to collect or debit-based calling from payphones (calls that are legally monitored by prison staff).  Collect calls from prisons usually involve a two part charge – a per-call set up charge and a per-minute charge (debit calls are charged to an inmate’s account and typically incurs just the per-minute charge). The amount of per-call charges varies wildly from one institutions (and one state) to another. A 15 minute phone call can cost as much as $20, as opposed to the mere cents that the same call would cost outside prison walls – or indeed from prison staff within the same walls.
In some ways, the story of this particular set of socio-technical inequalities is tied to complexities of monopolies – the 1984 break-up of AT&T meant that a range of fledgling companies could compete for bids to provide phone service. But in the topsy-turvy world of doing business with prisons, this bidding process does not result in driving down prices. Instead, there’s evidence to suggest that companies in fact compete to provide the highest fees, and thus the biggest kickbacks to the state. By some estimates, as much as 60% of what incarcerated folks and their families pay goes to the state government. Eight states (Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Michigan, South Carolina, California and Missouri) have banned kickbacks entirely; New Hampshire, Kansas and Arkansas have reduced their kickback commissions, and Montana recently entered into a limited-commission contract. As a result, prison phone rates in those states have plummeted. The FCC decision could provide exactly the kind of regulation that would make it much more difficult in remaining states for prisons and phone companies to take advantage of a group of people with few legal rights and intensely restricted access to tools of basic communication.
There are a number of reasons that this decision matters.  To deal first with some of the most obvious points: regular telephone contact with family has been linked to reduced recidivism, meaning that even those with the most conservative policies on the purpose of prisons should see reason to support affordable phone calls.  Keep in mind, no one here is arguing to subsidize prison phone calls, only to bring the cost of making those calls in line with what the rest of society pays. Of course, it’s somewhat naïve to think that reducing the amount of money states get in the form of phone company kick backs won’t result in decreased services elsewhere, given that prisons are already operating along an ethic of mercenary frugality. 
The FCC decision stands to intervene in a system in which costs of basic communication are borne disproportionately by people of color and the poor, because that is who goes to prison in the United States.  It is perverse that the country with the highest rate of incarceration and third highest rate of (cell) phone use (rates of landline adoption are a little harder to find) has shown no interest in making sure that the two converge.  Structural inequalities of race and class are fundamental to explaining this gap.
Beyond my hopes that the FCC decides to intervene, as someone who studies information inequality and is interested in forms of information activism, the politics of prison phone calls is moreover useful as a reminder that studying divergent uses of technology is not just about the most sophisticated ICTs but also about technologies that are functionally much simpler, although no less complex in their entanglements with power, legitimacy and legal structures.