Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The 2016 Election as Casual Game: Pokémon Go, FiveThirtyEight, and the Paradoxes of the Quantified Citizen

The Norfolk Pagoda is a grim place on election night as the sun is setting. The Chinese restaurant that might attract patrons other than the addicts milling around the waterfront has been shuttered for the better part of the year. Among the people circling its garish umbrella you can overhear discussion of gambling interventions and money problems. Some of these lost souls talk about trouble with the law, especially those fending off the constant temptations of trespassing.   But mostly those gathered at the pagoda are immobile and silent. Parents interact little with the children they have brought, and couples do not hold hands or nuzzle. The casino mentality is obvious as the obsessives in the crowd only become energized when there seems to be a run of positive results on their screens.  Lots of players wear sunglasses despite the shadows and clouds in the scene, perhaps because they have not been sleeping.

This may be the ultimate place for local Pokémon Go players to gather who have hit rock bottom. I came here as a level 25 player a few days ago and am now a level 26. Participation in this game designed for mobile smart phones has forced me to interact with the Trump supporters that I have been avoiding on social network sites like Facebook. I found the pagoda through Reddit, which I normally steer clear of because of its toxic misogyny.  My local Pokémon Go gym is a Confederate shrine so I only collect the game's colorful animated digital characters rather than participate in the full range of behaviors associated with the tournament culture of battling other players that the game's affordances seem to encourage.

For the last few months Pokémon Go has been my escape from the grim prospect of a divisive U.S. election and the toxicity of online discourse.  I know a lot of us in FemTechNet have been playing the game with ritual devotion, and I know it was particularly appealing to former co-facilitator T.L. Cowan, who led the group's experimental pedagogy initiatives.  Certainly crowdsourced resources exist for instructors interested in teaching with the game, such as the voluminous Pokémon Go Syllabus.

As someone who writes about the digital rhetoric of political life (with both a capital "P" and a small "p"), it has been a time of anxiety and conflict.  Since I try to be a conscientious researcher and am teaching a course on digital journalism, I have been reading Breitbart.com, the Twitter feed of Donald Trump, and the online apparatus of Fox News.  All of this makes me feel terrible and demeaned.  It is an information stream that focuses on hatred of college campuses and of women who are judged as being undesirable potential objects of the male gaze. To resolve my anxiety I constantly refresh data from the website of fivethirtyeight.com where I could see supposedly objective results from polling statistics and quantitative projections that offer a seductive possibility for factual correlation.

Pokémon Go has offered a respite of imagined digital meritocracy as I evolved my Pikachus and Magikarps in what seemed to be a relatively color-blind, age-blind, and gender blind environment of site-specific participation.  Living in Colonial Williamsburg, where the algorithm has located a treasure trove of digital assets to be located, I often talked to other players who were scouring the landscape for rare specimens.

My friend and colleague Ian Bogost has done a lot of thinking as a game scholar about how civic virtue could be shaped and rewarded by digital cues.  His analysis of the Howard Dean for Iowa game points to the possibilities of gratifying the acquisitive obsessions of the quantified self by tallying good works by canvassing neighborhoods, passing out pamphlets, and waving signs.  Yet he disagrees with noted new media scholar Henry Jenkins, who asserts that games and fan culture might offer good models for democratic participation as touchstones for a participatory culture.  Bogost adopts a more critical stance when it comes to what gamers learn from gaming and the status of game design and user practices as morally ambiguous forms of cultural expression.

For example, like any example of procedural rhetoric, there are workarounds for those who want to avoid the healthy behaviors of outdoor social interactions that the game supposedly rewards.  Pokémon Go seems to encourage exercise by rewarding walking, but a player can also acquire candies for one's digital familiar crawling forward in a commuting vehicle stuck in traffic.   Ideally it is could spur intergenerational outings, but the same effects can be achieved in parallel play.

As a symptom of retreating from political realities to the digital world, Pokémon Go became a laugh line on the election trail.  Hillary Clinton's comment about not knowing "who created Pokémon Go" but wishing that the same tech wizards would create "Pokémon Go To the Polls" was certainly cringe-worthy, but it took place in the context of praising the growth of tech sector jobs and lauding algorithmic literacy.

What FiveThirtyEight and Pokémon Go may appeal to is a desire for magical thinking and a wish for intimacy with the dataveillance of our mobile devices.  While these election results come in this evening we need to understand the ways that digital technologies promulgate false consciousness without succumbing to moral panics about digital distraction and media seduction.  Although casting a vote in a polling place is supposed to be a defining moment of exercising agency instrumentally, generally by wielding a tool as we feed in a ballot to a Diebold machine, this election for me has been more like a casual game to be engaged with digitally in short bursts by providing input to sentient devices during the course of many days.  As Jesper Juul has pointed out, such games may not be fun, and casual games may involve powerful commitments, dreary labor, and the slog of routine.

Bogost has pointed out that in his essay "The Tragedy of Pokémon Go" that Pokémon Go had many less commercially successful predecessors.  In recounting the genealogy of alternate reality games, he also observes that it is a profoundly flawed game that depends on exploiting an intellectual property franchise.  In short, according to Bogost, the game "both a delightful new mechanism for urban and social discovery, and also a ghastly reminder that when it comes to culture, sequels rule."  I was always a fan of Bogost's mobile game Jet Set, which was about geography of airports and made light of the absurdity of security screening procedures and the place-making work of souvenir acquisition.  Critics complained that by mirroring real life it wouldn't be fun enough to turn a profit.     

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Friday, October 17, 2014

#GamerGate 101

In recent weeks a number of people have tried to explain #GamerGate.  You can check out "Why Bother with GamerGate?" or "What is GamerGate, and Why?  An Explainer for Non-Geeks" for some primers.  Now that The New York Times is running headlines that read "Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in 'GamerGate,'" public attention to the rise of menacing, intimidating, and graphic online comments about disfigurement, rape, mutilation, and murder addressed to Anita Sarkeesian Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and others is spurring a broader discussion about harassment, gender, and digital culture.

If you are interested in primary sources, it's useful to look at the testimonies of the women themselves.  Quinn has written about being the Internet's "most hated person" here, Wu describes being driven out of her home here, and Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency explains becoming a villain in a kind of nightmarish massively multiplayer game in this TED Talk

#GamerGate is a hashtag used by participants to talk about a supposed conspiracy that is allegedly endangering the future of video games.  In the paranoid universe of GamerGate in which "social justice warriors" (often abbreviated to SJW) collude to deprive gamers of the aggressive games of violent machismo that they love, independent developers like Quinn are to blame for threatening a multi-billion dollar industry of big AAA franchises and their acolytes.

I'll admit that I wasn't a fan of Quinn's Depression Quest, which seemed too simple and predictable, as well as typical of many serious games in lacking subtlety or nuance, but I understand why it might have merited have merited a review in The New Yorker, even independent of the newsworthiness of the threats to Quinn's safety.  Unfortunately for Quinn, many have attributed her critical attention to her personal relationships with game journalists and have supported the online vendetta of a vengeful ex-boyfriend who has accused her of offering sexual favors as a way to solicit good press.  The power laws of social networks led to cascading effects, particularly after actor Adam Baldwin encouraged his libertarian followers to adopt the #GamerGate handle, which was tweeted almost a quarter million times in the first week.  Eventually Quinn was doxxed on Reddit.  With details about her private personal information made public, including her home address, the specificity of threats intensified.  Soon GamerGate was a story that the Washington Post was following.  

Although her rhetorical technique may be a bit heavy-handed, I think that many of the videos at Sarkesian's Feminist Frequency are worth watching.  What is easy to miss if you haven't watched the actual videos is the fact that Sarkeesian doesn't just criticize the games industry for being sexist: she criticizes it for being derivative and relying on recycling the same motifs.  

So what else is #GamerGate about?  As Ian Bogost pointed out at the alternative games festival IndieCade, it has become a "Voldomortian" entity that many critics would rather just ignore in the interests of avoiding its wrath.

But here goes.

It's about feminism.  Tags like #SJW or #notyourshield make it seem like women are either among the aggressors or merely serving conveniently as human shields to protect corrupt interests from exposure and expulsion.  Many #GamerGate advocates deny that their movement is misogynistic and claim that they are keeping the encroachment of feminism in check rather than harassing women.  In some ways feminism has become more visible with feminists gaining access to new social media venues for publishing content online, but so has virulent antifeminism.  For every "I need feminism" selfie campaign there is an "I don't need feminism" campaign in which women seem compelled to be participants in their own subjugation.  Even this female game developer denies the accusation of misogyny and claims that trolls merely "lack social skills" rather than "hate women."  Nonetheless, "the silencing of women" seems to be an obvious theme, given how Mattie Brice and Jenn Frank also felt targeted.

It's about journalism.   The status of "journalism" in online discourse with the rise of user-generated content has been an issue for a while.  For over a decade, in the "are blogs journalism?" debate, magazines and newspapers have been bemoaning "journalism without journalists," and legal battles have been waged over the question.  Blogs are accused of delivering subjective reportage rather than objective reporting.  At the same time, those who favor the anonymous over the personal insist that transparency groups like WikiLeaks do the work of a "fifth estate" by letting whistleblowers leak evidence more safely and directly than they can as confidential informants to the press.  #GamerGate enthusiasts use a range of blogging and leaking techniques, as the diatribes of Breitbart.com about "Angry Feminists, Unethical Journalists" may indicate.

Of course, for those who have visited large game conventions, such as E3 and GDC, these charges about ethical lapses among game journalists might seem laughable, given how little influence independent game developers have in comparison to the might of the corporate manufacturers of big budget titles.  AAA titles have the means to offer the parties, perks, and enticements associated with good reviews, and obviously they provide the advertising that allows game reporting to be a viable profession.  As a sign of where monied interests lie, Intel has already pulled ads from Gamasutra in response to calls for a #GamerGate boycott,  and Kotaku may be pulling some support for crowd funding independent games.

It's about definitions of "gamer" and "game."  At a deeper level many might argue that #GamerGate is about who is a gamer and what games are.  GamerGaters have seemed particularly enraged by having game journalists opine that they are a vanishing breed in articles like "Gamers Are Over," "The End of Gamers," and "We Might Be Witnessing the Death of an Identity."  GamerGaters also defend "real games" over imitations and phony products, and much of the wrath of the group is consequently directed at independent and alternative game producers.

As members of the feminist game collective Ludica note in their challenge to define games differently, "The Hegemony of Play," narrow definitions of games, gaming, and gamers privilege white, male hardcore gamers and exclude the play experiences of women and other perceived minorities -- despite the fact that though those who play online card games, casual games, dress up games, simulations of playing house, and other forms of feminized recreation may often be a relatively silent majority to which the industry is finally paying attention.  Furthermore, surveys indicate that game developers themselves are finally seeing sexism as a problem in the field.

It's about militarism.  This might be more of a stretch, but I might argue that it's no accident that "real" games are often military-themed games such as Call of Duty in the #GamerGate universe or the fact that Leigh Alexander (who can be seen in the documentary Joystick Warriors) becomes the "worst game critic in the world" in the minds of GamerGaters.  Even a fan of CoD who claims in a fan film that #GamerGate is "not that big of a deal" might repeat many of the allegations uncritically and add more insults to the women involved.

It's about embodiment.  For a while now people in media studies have been talking about how experiences of digital media are not very virtual at all.  No longer do television commercials promote the idea that people have no gender or race online.  The bodies of these women are very much of concern for GamerGaters as objects of sexual violence or rape fantasies, as inanimate objects that can be criticized for being ugly, or as passive objects of aggression, as in the case of a Flash game that invites users to punch Sarkeesian in the face.  The marvel of heroic mission games is having an invulnerable, unkillable, infinitely replaceable body in the most unlikely of circumstances in battle, and some first-person shooter games don't even let you see your feet.

It's about language.  The language that people use to register their presence (and absence) in digital environments may spread across the whole continuum from instrumental trash talk, which functions as what Lisa Nakamura calls a "procedural strategy" in many gaming communities, to online hate speech that is intended to victimize others.  Some might understandably call GamerGaters a hate group, but policing language can also be problematic.  Schools and authoritarian regimes use filtering software to focus on offensive terms, but it may be difficult for even humans to identify context.

It's about metadata.  To get this many people to use this hashtag, it shows a group capable of making canny decisions about how to label their content and how to direct people to using a particular naming convention.  #GamerGate gets attention because it is distinctive, easy to spell, and alliterative.  It is even shorter than the equally alliterative #feministfrequency, and it takes advantage of the common scandal-signifying suffix "gate."  ("Gate" as a signifier for scandal even appears in stories about the new iPhone with #bendgate or #seamgate hashtags.)

It's about collectives.   The term "online community" is eschewed by many critics who argue that online networked publics lack the social cohesion, public culture, and rituals of inclusion of traditional communities.  Instead, the coordination of large groups of supposedly otherwise autonomous individuals can be seen as representative of everything from smart mobs to hive minds.  #GamerGate sympathizers may be promised free Steam codes, and many of them may be mere sock puppets rather than real people, but a volunteer spirit and an ethos of independence seems to motivate many GamerGaters to participate.

For its fortieth anniversary the journal Camera Obscura is celebrating the theme of collectives, but collectives aren't necessarily progressive entities, as the work of Megan Boler, Gabriella Coleman, and many other net critics indicates.

Those who want to organize collectively toward progressive ends against the nefarious GamerGate collective are encouraged to perform mass coordination by using their own hashtags (including #StopGamerGate) or to give to crowd funding efforts by visiting the donation pages for game critics.  Over a thousand developers also signed this open letter "to the gaming community."

Oddly #GamerGate is also about imagined collectives.  Sargon of Akkad has argued -- quite improbably -- in this YouTube video that DiGRA is secretly a feminist cabal. GamerGaters have compiled lists of "SJW Game Journalists" supposedly in cahoots.  There is even a satiric game where you can be turned "into a crusader for online morality, a champion of internet justice, and the lone defender standing valiantly against the encroaching morass of willful human ignorance."

It's about rights.  Women's rights are not ones that I take lightly or rights to privacy, security, and safety.  But it might be important to pay attention to rights-based claims that GamerGaters make too, even if they seem like ludicrous demands for "men's rights" that ignore the benefits of male privilege or the right to bear arms that made it impossible for Sarkeesian to speak at a public university in Utah, where a school shooting was threatened if she appeared.

It's about values.  The conversation about values is going on in a number of places, including FemTechNet.  The question will be if this conversation can be both widely accessible and broadly constructive.  We'll see.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Three-Ring Circus

As I go back to the lecture hall this quarter, it is interesting to think about all of the different experiments taking place right now in the connected courses movement, which encourages faculty and students to use new technologies for online social networks to experiment with access and collaboration in new pedagogical ways.

Last week the FemTechNet DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course) hosted its first Open Office Hour for the year, which I moderated with the help of Melissa Gregg, a renowned researcher on ubiquitous technologies, affective labor, and the quantified self movement.  Students were encouraged to watch a video dialogue themed around "Labor" with Judy Wajcman and Anne Balsamo before coming to the office hour and to read a set of open access readings on the subject.  Although we had faculty members rather than students show up for the office hour, it was still a lively discussion, which pointed to the possibilities for more kinds of synchronous exchanges in connected courses, as Gregg spoke from her own office in Intel.

Last week was also the week when the materials that I had developed with Jill Walker Rettberg and the rest of the Selfie Researchers group were scheduled to be covered in the collaborative syllabus for our Selfie Course.  Jill wrote a great blog post for our week on "Dataveillance, Biometrics, and Facial Recognition."

Before I know it, the FemTechNet week on "Diversity, Equity, Access" will be coming up in the Connected Courses initiative for "active co-learning in higher ed" with Balsamo,  Lisa Nakamura, and Veronica Paredes.  Course facilitators Jim Groom, Alan Levine, and Howard Rheingold have been building from the earlier Reclaim Open Learning challenge to rethink the MOOC paradigm with more innovative options for higher education.

As though this three-ring circus doesn't have enough going on simultaneously, I am also working with other faculty in the UC system to design and develop an online Digital Writing and Rhetoric course with the Innovative Learning Technology Initiative.  To complement course content, interviews with researchers in the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology are publicly available for others interested in digital rhetoric.  

As usual, I have also set up the video podcasts for my big Media Seductions course,  so that even my regular university teaching will continue to have an open component. 

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Respect, Niceness, and Generosity

According to these reviews from a popular apartment-sharing site, I am someone who is "nice" and "respectful" in person.  Perhaps a more substantive question -- for my future as an academic and scholar -- might be what kind of a person I appear to be online.  "Respectful" and "nice" can actually be contentious terms, I am going to argue, if they become valued by institutions and professional associations, so it may perhaps be better to aim to be "generous" instead.

Discussions about online speech and civility have decades of history in digital rights discourses.  This month many academics -- some of whom might be new to this conversation -- have been challenged to take unpopular (or popular) positions in the name of academic freedom and to explore their suppositions about how networked computational media function (or don't function) as a form of public sphere.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has finally offered a public explanation of their decision to retract a job offer made to Professor Steven Salaita, who was apparently punished for making comments on Twitter that were perceived of as anti-Israeli and allegedly antisemitic.  (See my first round of analysis of the Salaita story here.)

In a blog posting called "The Principles on Which We Stand" Chancellor Phyllis Wise has now broken her silence to purportedly defend academic freedom at her institution, which is now being boycotted by many faculty, but she also insists that respectful conduct is a fundamental precept as well.  According to Wise, participants in the university are supposed to be "learning from each other in a respectful way," to refuse to tolerate "disrespectful words or actions," and to conduct their debates in a "civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner."  (Wise had previously editorialized about abusive racist and sexist comments directed at her by disgruntled Twitter users in response to refusing a snow day for the campus.)

The Board of Trustees echoed Wise's emphasis on respect in a supporting statement that lauded "scholarship framed in respect and courtesy,"  wished to ensure that "students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views," and prohibited "disrespectful and demeaning speech."

Emails from students, parents, alumni, and even fund-raisers released in response to a freedom of information request reveal that respect was also a theme in these lobbying missives.  One student wrote, "If I happen to register for Mr. Salaita's course, how could I respectfully engage in conversation and learn material?"   As the reporter noted, many of these emails used the same language and may have followed a shared template.

On the blog of the American Association of University Professors, John K. Wilson mocked this sanctifying of respect at UIUC:

Respect is not a fundamental value of any university, and being “disrespectful” is not an academic crime. But it’s notable that Salaita really didn’t say anything personal about anyone. So here Wise greatly expands the concept, declaring that not only persons but “viewpoints themselves” must be protected from any disrespectful words. I am puzzled as to exactly how a free university could possibly operate when no one is allowed to be disrespectful toward any viewpoint. Presumably, Wise will quickly act to fire anyone who has ever disrespected or demeaned Nazism, terrorism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since all “viewpoints” are protected, then biology professors must be fired for disrespecting creationism as false, along with any other professor who is found to believe or know anything.

Although I would avoid citing Hitler in any online argument, I would tend to support Wilson's position for two basic reasons.  First of all, respect doesn't necessarily support a good education.  Having watched virtuoso teaching in the University of California for decades, I know that a willingness to overstep bounds of comfort and propriety often distinguishes a memorable pedagogical performance from a forgettable class session.  Second, institutionalizing respect makes all forms of protest impossible.  At my 1987 Harvard graduation I joined other advocates for divestiture from apartheid South Africa by carrying distinctive red balloons and wearing large lapel pins in solidarity.  My parents were horrified at the disrespect students were showing for the occasion, but I certainly don't regret my participation.  How many activists groups have been charged with disrespect in my lifetime?  The Guerrilla Girls?  Act Up?  Protestors in Ferguson have also been chastised for their supposed "disrespect for police."

Of course, Ferguson, Missouri, where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer has also been an important site of debate about the activist political stands that people take online.  The show of force by a militarized police force armed with anti-terrorism weaponry, the arrests of journalists and elected representatives, and blame-the-victim press releases and reporting has only stoked anger.  Among black Twitter users, the ability to control self-presentation and counter stereotypes of criminality has been just one of the issues playing out in the #iftheygunnedmedown hashtag.  Other hashtags emphasize proper names as a point of reference (#Ferguson, #MikeBrown) or the body at risk (#HandsUp, #HandsUpDontShoot).  The metadata matters, as Zeynep Tufekci points out in a posting on "Net Neutrality, Algorithmic Filtering and Ferguson," especially when the code running on social media shields users from material that doesn't sell products or pander to personalization.

Just this week MIT Professor Noel Jackson staged what many saw as an over-the-top online rant about the absence of material about Ferguson on the Twitter feeds of prominent digital humanities faculty and about the supposed lack of concern among DHers about politics or race more generally.  (Although Jackson seems to feel that he is breaking new ground, this is actually not that new an argument. In Debates in the Digital Humanities Tara McPherson makes it in "Why are the Digital Humanities So White?" and I make it in "Hacktivism and the Humanities.")  In a  Storify created by Adeline Koh about "The Digital Humanities, Race & Politics (or the Lack Thereof)" Jackson's wrath about digital humanities "bullies" reaches bombastic proportions, as does his vitriol about his fellow white, tenured faculty.  He calls out people by name for unfollowing him and even reposts threatening-sounding text messages.

"Niceness" might seem to be an even more compliant, feminized, and passive stance in academia than "respect," but it does have its defenders.  For example, in "Why Digital Humanities is Nice," Tom Scheinfeldt claims that DH is concerned with method rather than theory and therefore is naturally less contentious in its interpersonal relations.  Recently -- in an article for Differences -- Koh has challenged this convention of niceness as a coercive social contract intended to police behavior.  (See resources at DHPoCo for more about the work of Koh and her collaborators.)

So what do we have left if we shouldn't settle for just being "nice" or "respectful"? In Designing Culture, FemTechNet co-founder Anne Balsamo lists the principle of "intellectual generosity" first among feminist virtues that include "confidence," "humility," "flexibility," and "integrity."  As Balsamo writes, intellectual generosity includes "the sincere acknowledgement of the work of others" that fosters "intellectual risk-taking and courageous acts of creativity."

As all this boils around the Internet, I've been watching the work of the other FemTechNet co-founder, Alexandra Juhasz, as a model for how to put the intellectualism and activism of that kind of generosity into practice.  For example, Juhasz has been sharing Palestine Docs and other resources for teaching.  I see this spirit of sharing among other FemTechNet participants, who are circulating different versions of the so-called Ferguson Syllabus, which began as #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter.    You can check out a Google docs version of the syllabus, as well as a version posted on About.com.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Is the Water Hot Enough for You?

The case of Professor Steven Salaita has recently become a cause célèbre among faculty who once felt comfortable airing their political grievances on social media.  What interests me about this story is why a particular set of issues about academic freedom, political expression, and digital communication is getting so much attention precisely now.  I would argue it has a lot to do with a specific alignment of empathy and personal risk on the faculty side and the fact that university administrations have reached a tipping point in their public relations strategies toward social media that involves both emulating and monitoring network-savvy professors.  

Salaita's use of Twitter to object to Israel's policies in Gaza -- often in hyperbolic or crude language -- has been cited as a key factor in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's decision to rescind a job offer for a tenured position that was seemingly only waiting for the last pro forma approval from the Chancellor's office.  According to "Out of a Job," a story that broke in the blog Inside Higher Ed, Salaita had already resigned from his post at Virginia Tech and had made arrangements to relocate when he received the surprising news.

On the Internet there has been considerable outrage vented and analysis unpacked in the days since the revelations about UIUC's backpedaling.  Steven Krause notes Salaita had many more rights to digital expression than assistant profs, adjuncts, alt-acs, and anyone else on campus without tenure.  Ian Bogost contrasts "academic freedom" with the contractual tactics necessary for "academic paydom."  Roopika Risam writes a "love letter to Twitter" as a pre-tenure academic seeking networks and publication opportunities.  David Palumbo-Liu has been one of the most prolific critics of UIUC with blog posts about Salaita at Salon, Huffington Post, and Transformation.  Former MLA President Michael Bérubé weighed in with a castigating letter to the Chancellor warning that her campus would become a "fourth-rate" institution if the decision wasn't reversed.  The Illinois state chapter of the AAUP issued a formal protest.

One thing that's worth noting about Salaita's Twitter feed is the prodigious labor that he invested in maintaining it, apparently right up until just before he received the bad news.  Although he's picked up a few thousand followers since the controversy, the size of Salaita's audience was relatively modest in comparison to other high-profile academics, in spite of the energy and affect he obviously devoted to it.  After all, he composed almost ten thousand Tweets during his five-year period of activity and followed over three thousand other people to connect and stay current.  From all this effort he attracted about four thousand followers.

For scale, Juan Cole of the blog Informed Consent has about thirty thousand more Twitter followers than Salaita.  Certainly Cole has posted a huge volume of tens of thousands of Tweets to attract such a sizable following to his feed, but many of Cole's Tweets are reposted content, and he does not engage in context-specific debate about people's individual claims -- either agreeing or disagreeing -- to the degree that the micromanaging Salaita did.

I bring up Cole's name because he had a similar experience with the hazards of a having a noticeable social media trail for those on the academic job market.  Like Salaita he was also perceived of as an intemperate activist for anti-Israeli positions, and he failed to land a tenured job at a new institution as a result.  In 2006, a story in the Yale Daily News reported that Cole -- then at the University of Michigan -- had been denied tenure at Yale "in one of the final phases of the appointment process."  According to Yale's reporting, Cole had been characterized by fellow professors who had weighed in on his case as a potentially "divisive colleague"  Shortly afterward The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a forum called "Can Blogging Derail Your Career?" and invited seven prominent academic bloggers to expound on the crisis.    

Cole's travails ultimately didn't have the legs to stay a national story, and he didn't galvanize a movement of sympathizers to agitate for greater academic freedom in more digital contexts.  I would argue that there were a number of reasons that the firestorm of controversy around Cole's case was extinguished relatively rapidly.

For one thing, Cole was doing something that only a statistically small fraction of the scholarly population did at the time: academic blogging.  Even though academic blogging was actually in its heyday,  in retrospect, this activity might have made Cole seem like an outlier.  He was pursuing an enthusiasm for a rare form of hybrid writing and propagating an alien genre of self-sponsored op-ed with pretensions both to journalism and to short-form hyperlinked scholarship.  Today, in contrast, Tweeting is an activity that many more academics do than did blogging -- and if academics don't Tweet they are at least aware that the activity happens all around them at conferences.  Moreover, short-form and very-short-form digital postings by scholars circulate to a broader audience via Facebook and other social network sites.

In the eight intervening years faculty have also become much more aware of the contingency of their own appointments.  Fewer faculty members have tenure, legislative support for state-sponsored higher education seems more arbitrary and more dependent on political whims, and institutional governance structures are being eroded by risk averse administrations afraid of unhappy donors, bad press, and lawsuits.

There's also been a sea change in public relations for universities.  Every campus worries about its YouTube channel, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and other conduits of social media presence.  Every institution compares its social media profile to those of its rival institutions.  Social media "experts" (read "idiots") are hired to manage college messaging, and these drones from the public relations hive mind may find themselves directly vying for attention in opposition to faculty, students, and staff who might seem noticeably more human and appealing to the public.  Resentments build about "unofficial" messages getting out from challengers, and online behavior is policed by those who are both digital regulators and digital content-creators.

In The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University I discuss how students' digital rights to expression are often trampled, because faculty assume that their own privileged positions when it comes to the Internet could never come under attack.

Not surprisingly, current definitions of academic freedom already provide more rights for faculty than for students when it comes to free speech, and the leveling practices of digital culture seem to have relatively little effect on challenging divisions created by existing status barriers between teacher and pupil. As both consumers of web-based content and producers of it, students generally have fewer recognized rights and protections than faculty. Administrators loath to meddle with academic freedom often say little about faculty web pages, for example. Faculty content-creation on official institutional pages includes a heterogeneous collection of material that ranges wildly from the confessional to the satirical.  On university Webpages, one can find testimonials about personal trainers with links to their gyrating bodies, narratives about dieting that show shirtless faculty, heartfelt warnings based on personal tragedy about never leaving infants unattended, step-by-step instructions for destroying marshmallow peeps with lab equipment, and obscene mock-scientific acronyms. Ironically, political blogging and electronic civil disobedience may create more serious problems for faculty perceived as radical subversives than would more obviously off-topic or off-identity material. This might seem strange given how academic freedom is often defined in terms of political tolerance and the open marketplace of ideas, but the Internet has also generated cadres of students policing political utterances by professors. Otherwise, administrators generally do little to keep the online conduct of faculty in check.
Administrators didn't police faculty behavior online, because it was largely invisible to them, but now those days of mutually assured obliviousness seem to be over.

Recently I was interviewed by Henry Jenkins, who asked about how the University of Kansas Board of Regents had imposed new restrictions on the use of social media by faculty.
In the book I argue that part of the reason that faculty have been slow to advocate for their students when it comes to their informal learning practices and online knowledge networks is that faculty have been much less coerced than students by administrative efforts to police their computer use. Faculty bloggers might come under pressure for disclosing information that colleges don’t want shared, but they have been such a tiny minority that not many people took notice. Faculty hacktivists might be threatened for acts of electronic civil disobedience, but they are an even smaller contingent.

Twitter users like David Guth at the University of Kansas, who was suspended for an anti-NRA Tweet, are also still relatively rare among academics, but faculty see Twitter being used at conferences, and they know Twitter is part of a continuum that includes Facebook, which they might use to communicate with friends and relatives, so I am hoping that the water is finally getting hot enough that the frog might finally jump out and protest in good faculty fashion.
In the boiling frog anecdote it is supposed that an amphibian might leap out of hot water sensibly --  if dropped in -- but foolishly stay in cold water that is slowly heated to the boiling point because incremental change discourages prompt action.  Let's hope that the temperature doesn't get any hotter in these digital expression cases before faculty collectives finally intervene at the policy level

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Monday, June 16, 2014

The War on Learning

The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University is out!  Check out the first review (which appeared in Nature), a great three-part interview by Henry Jenkins, the official podcast, and this excerpt in Salon.com.  Many thanks to all of the colleagues who shared ideas and the many readers who provided feedback on the manuscript.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

DH without the DH

Today I did not tag any content with metadata.  Today I did not write any code. Today I did not work on my Scalar project. Today the plugins for Neatline did not get installed.

Today was the Day of DH, except it seems that I didn't do anything recognizably associated with digital humanities work, even though the entire day -- like almost every day -- was devoted to the digital humanities.

Which is to say that a lot of DH isn't coding or hacking or tagging or building.  A lot of DH is just about regular typing.  A lot of DH is writing e-mail, instructions, reports, and even text messages. It's about filling out Doodle polls, filling in spreadsheets, and filling in names in Google hangouts.

Some of the day was defined by the Academic Scholarly Print Industrial Complex (otherwise known as ASPIC).  I am working on finishing an article for an open-access online journal, which I promised to the wonderful Annette Vee, but the whole process of working with a stack of library books is basically the same as the one I follow for a print publication.

Of course, a lot of the day was doing digital humanities work that one can't write about on a blog.  It's about serving on committees that handle the business of people getting hired or people getting reviewed.  It's about the strange set of knowledge domains that prove to be useful to the institution that are gained from being part of the DH community for over a decade: digital archives, open access publishing, information literacy, multimodal scholarship, rich media production, and hands-on experiential learning.  It's about the need for campuses to have people to assess if they have the right people and enough people too.  It's about the Weberian bureaucracy of files, files, and more files, which are conveniently accessible online but differ little from their paper counterparts.

Yet, like most days at UC San Diego's Sixth College, it was an interesting day.  As soon as I came into the office, I sat down to do a Skype interview with Pia Mancini of the Net Party in Argentina for DML Central.  Purists would say that her work with Democracy OS isn't really a DH project.  After all the NEH Office of Digital Humanities prohibits work with a political agenda.  But I tend to argue that the continuum between politics and culture includes blended areas, and hacktivism and the humanities are not so separate.

Then there was the teaching I did today.  In an upcoming volume edited by David Theo Goldberg and Patrik Svensson, I argue that teaching is often a marginalized activity in the digital humanities.  Right now I am teaching an exciting FemTechNet course with the amazing Lisa Cartwright, in collaboration with many people who have built scholarly databases and digital collections.  It was true that much of the day's communication with students entailed educating them about their Blogger IDs and Twitter hashtags for the course.  But the bulk of our dedicated face-to-face class time involved chalkboards, raised hands, and a presentation by a performance artist.

Future projects mostly require coordinating with other people.  It turns out that the most important tool for executing our Innovative Learning Technology Initiative Grant will probably be the humble calendar.

Jacque Wernimont and I are also planning to teach a Digital Humanities Summer Institute course together, but we weren't debugging code in Processing or tinkering with our Arduinos, which are the activities slated for June.  Today we were handling more mundane tasks, such as slimming down the size of our course-pack PDF.

As usual, not every effort to coordinate was successful.  Today Jessica Pressman and I had to cancel a planning meeting.  We have an upcoming DHSoCal event slated for April 18th to prepare for, but she had an ASPIC obligation too.

On Twitter, Ian Bogost quipped that "Digital Humanities is the process of creating infrastructure in which to discuss the concept of 'digital humanities."'  Given the nature of DH work, that might be a fair assessment.  If only there were time for conceptual speculation and discussion in my typical day.  If we do it, we have to spend twice as much time scheduling it first.