All posts by MBHP

The Badness Catalog

TBC Screenshot
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Description:

The Badness Catalog is a hybrid digital essay and ongoing project (more on that in “Affordances”). The project argues, in essence, that writing on the internet, and particularly writing that at first appears to be “bad” (unconventional, grammatically erroneous, et cetera) is actually performing serious discursive work, and often takes on a deeper, symbolic meaning than its obvious features. In short, The Badness Catalog argues that meme-phrases (things like “I can’t even”) point to deeper meanings, often unique to life on the internet. Instead of reading them as degenerate writing performances (basically, instead of disciplining them as bad performances), we might read them as deliberate rhetorical or discursive choices, indicating a specific phenomenon or signaling membership in an online community. The Catalog takes a serious, but often humorous, look at these phrases and tries to illustrate how they can be used.

Process:

In my head, I began with my impatience for “Grammar Nazis” on the internet–particularly when those lexical fascists are so fixated on a prescriptivist use of the language that they ignore that new meaning is made in “mistakes” (also, incidentally, I was frustrated by how frequently incorrect the Grammar Nazis were). So I rallied to the defense of these “bad” phrases, because in using several of them, I began to realize they serve an important function–they often describe phenomena that are the result of life on the internet, like “I can’t even”‘s breathlessly dorky enthusiasm, or the flat, perhaps sardonic tonality expressed by a lack of punctuation in certain contexts. I drafted a brief manifesto (originally entitled “The Mission”) and began writing posts. I didn’t necessarily want people to read this in a linear fashion, especially since I fully intend on adding new posts frequently, compiling a sort of menagerie of internet phrases and the phenomena they signify.

In a strange way, I knew the politics of the mission before I really had people or scholars in mind. The site acts as a sort of public pedagogy–a resistance to prescriptivist grammarians and those who imagine a literacy crisis. It took quite a bit of soul-and-hard drive searching before I traced the genealogy of my sentiments back to an interaction between Min-Zhan Lu and a bunch of other comp/rhet scholars and my cultural-studies/postcolonial training, and so I re-wrote my mission statement (now the “Why Do This?” page) to be the scholarly manifesto of my project. The “What Is This?” page is the general population explanation, the PR release–the “Why Do This” page is the scholarly heart of the matter.

Incidentally, I coined what I thought was a new term, “multiliteracy,” but it turns out other scholars beat me to it–and thankfully, they meant almost exactly the same thing I did.

Affordances and Constraints:

Because I’m not exactly a pro at web design, I had to settle for a pre-made WordPress theme–and it’s a wonderful theme, but it imposes a bit of a linear structure on a nonlinear idea. Ultimately, I had to make certain affordance choices in order to present The Catalog as something that continues on–it’s not a one-off WordPress site, but an ongoing project. This meant that I had to really emphasize the new content, which meant moving the manifesto off the front page, since repeat readers don’t need to see that every time. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to hide it from new visitors–hence my constant anxiety about “Why Do This?”, which got moved, renamed, and rewritten half a dozen times, with infinite thanks to the Woodchucks for reading it more than once.

Right now, the biggest constraint I have is organizing my project according to the theme WordPress gives me, which means there’s a way of thinking built in to the site. I’m big on multiliteracy, and so that made me “have a sad,” to quote the LOLcat.

Not to mention the fact that I can’t change the font size. I kid you not.

My face when I couldn't change the font size.
My face when I couldn’t change the font size.

What this form was wonderful with doing was treating and maintaining images–the format is .gif friendly, displays header images on posts without those images having to be in the post, and there’s not a lot of aggressive graphic design interfering with the presentation of the images. Embedding html elements gets a little wobbly, but WordPress and the theme I chose clings happily to practically anything visual. The form also allows a banner menu, footer elements (for categories) and categorical reorganization–meaning the reader can screen posts by category easily, helping with the whole nonlinear thing.

URL: http://badnesscatalog.wordpress.com/

Distributed Communities and Classrooms: Reading Twitter, Teaching on the Internet

I’m going to break the rules a little here and talk about two “texts”–one is a conventional print book about digital writing, and another is a series of videos that help to showcase (I think) the wonderful possibilities of what I call Internet Pedagogy (as in, using the internet to teach) and how to compose it.

First, the scholarly, corporeal text.

Michele Zappavigna’s Discourse of Twitter and Social Media

81Rt2P-OV3LZappavigna’s book, in essence, sets itself out as a truly conscientious linguistic analysis of Twitter (and other high-visiblity, searchable social networks), and it’s mission is to argue for the importance of searchability and ambient affiliation (namely, how distributed communities of discourse are created by indirect reference) on the internet. Zappavigna, in other words, is trying to demonstrate that searchability and ambient affiliation are the key markers of this discourse environment, and that things like hashtags, memes, and typographic tendencies all try to serve these ends (whether the user is fully aware of this or not).

What makes this study refreshing is Zappavigna’s admission that this is a difficult, elusive, and just logistically difficult corpus to analyze, and that we cannot analyze it using only one method–it’s too big, and too complex, and changes too quickly. Incompleteness is part of the game (and indeed, Zappavigna tends to overlook things like one-off hashtags and misreads a few memes, which helped to motivate my own project). The work, as a whole, adopts a “social semotic perspective” (11), meaning it concentrates on real-time group meaning-making and–perhaps uniquely–direct interpersonal meaning-making where the two people negotating meaning are temporally and spatially distant.

In one frustrating moment, on page 101, Zappavigna lets me down, though. She asserts that “Internet memes are depolyed for social bonding rather than sharing information,” which for me is an uncareful distinction growing out of the social semiotic framework of the book. Social bonding is so important to this linguistic/sociological pursuit that Zappavigna neglects to realize that social bonding *only occurs* when information is exchanged in meaningful ways (what these meaningful ways are, of course, must be negotiated). This, in part, became the impetus for my project–to resurrect the idea that memes aren’t just membership badges without an inherent message, but they are ways of saying something so that the group will understand, a highly literate internet shorthand. It’s not just a performance of membership, it’s speaking to the membership.

Of course, just by taking on the language of Twitter as a scholarly subject and asserting that it has real, useful purposes and underlying structures, Zappavigna has already done something remarkable–she’s managed to accumulate a corpus of tweets and show how they aren’t just nonsense or fluff, but rule-bound discourse with its own grammar and conventions, that reaches out for new personal connections. And that’s a pretty big deal.

CrashCourse Youtube Series (or, How to Do Teaching on the Internet So Well We Might as Well Not Show Up Tomorrow)

Crash CourseIf you don’t know about the Youtube channel CrashCourse, by John Green (of The Fault in Our Stars young-adult-novelist fame) and his brother Hank, what have you been doing?

In essence, the channel is arranged into series, usually of several dozen episodes, that basically teach a high-school-plus to undergraduate-level course in a particular general topic. Written by a team of academics and the Green Brothers (the VlogBrothers), they use detailed visuals, a bit of humor, and a lecture-style teaching method to quickly and effectively train viewers in the topic. Each episode is, in essence, a multimodal lecture-essay, with a clear topic, audio, visuals, and the comforting presence of a person in a tweed jacket (usually) talking to your eyes like you’re in the room.

They are almost worryingly effective at teaching (if John Green ever does a CrashCourse series in freshman composition, we will all be fired), and in the case of History and Literature, are unafraid of discussing, dissecting, and identifying their theoretical frameworks, giving teachers a good model of how to talk about this in real-life classes, too. Importantly, these lecture-essays reinforce just how profoundly important visuals are on the internet in order to get your point across, and how important it still is to have (or simulate having) a real, embodied person talking to you. They know just how far you can go with the affordances of the web for teaching, without getting so wrapped up in the internet’s possibilities that they subvert their pedagogical aims.

In essence, as a pedagogical practice on the internet, they remind us just how important it is to engage with our students across several modes simultaneously in order to make the most of our time, but also remind us that a person is still required, and that there’s something to the meatspace classroom. As someone who’s taken online courses with a teacher and zero multimodality, I can say, unless online pedagogy starts to evolve, most institutions are doing a grievous disservice to its online pupils. CrashCourse gives us a model for how to teach people things on the internet, and what sort of tone is appropriate to that situation.

Really, in essence, without CrashCourse, it might have been a lot harder to remember the importance of visuals in my own project, or to understand what sort of tone internet teaching should take in order to stick in the memory of the user. CrashCourse understands the fine line between a boring Wikipedia article and a super-internetty, directionless multimodal mess with no pedagogical aim, and they know how to make a video without it sounding like someone taped lecture slides.

(And I’m not just saying that because John Green stole my lecture cadence, either.)

The Badness Catalog: Digital Essay Draft 1

Yo Woodchucks!

The Badness Catalog is basically live. (Click it to view.)

TBC Draft Screenshot

SUMMARY

While you can read all about the project on the About page (general population) and The Mission page (academic audience), I’ve distilled the salient points here:

This site examines the way a key series of apparent “literacy errors”—errors of established language or custom practices—take on a new life on the internet. Instead of being failures of linguistic proficiency,  these apparent errors in digital discourse take on a metonymic role: they become stand-ins for other ideas altogether, the original apparent error erased and repurposed for new meaning. These “bad” practices—viewed in meatspace as mistakes—become markers of proficiency on the web.

The site focuses on those practices where the experienced writer knows that these behaviors are in violation of traditional literate convention, and uses these “bad” practices to signify in a new discourse community. The focus of this project is to elucidate how this “badness” signifies both meaning and membership: in the words of Michele Zappavigna (thanks Callie!) in Discourse of Twitter and Social Media, how this badness is both ideational and interpersonal, searchable (in that it reaches out to other instances of itself to create new meaning) and indicative of community.

There are basically two major arguments going on here:

  1. “badness” is more often an indication of an unwillingness (or unpreparedness) to read a text. In other words, badness on the internet  is not always the result of a mistake, but sometimes a marker of something other than expected being said.
  2. the process by which apparently bad textual performance is actually expressing something else is not new or unique to the internet. Communication depends on a panoply of external cues  and modes (multimodality) to make it legible–it’s simply that the internet has developed, as all cultural sites do, new cues and modes to suit its needs.

GAPS

In its current state, the framework and scaffolding of the site are complete (the Readings page, notably, is empty as I haven’t yet compiled all my secondary material in one place). About 60% of the evidence/case studies/entries are fully posted at this point–the project will ultimately be longer than 2000 words and will likely not “end” with 685, as I have about a dozen catalog entries of various length planned. By the final submission deadline I plan to have about 10 entries. So keep in mind that while the site’s idea is complete, the project is ongoing and not all the “categories” have been filled out. In short, you could read it in its current state and probably get a very clear idea about the point–but I am going to add more stuff. The posts that exist right now should give you a good idea of what I’m doing–and I wanted to check in before I post more, in case something central isn’t working.

USEFUL FEEDBACK PARAMETERS

The tone is hard to capture here–I’m trying to do intellectual work, but I’m also not trying to crush the thing under the weight of complex prose, except where setup has made that viable. So really, there are three major areas of feedback I’d value:

  • are the entries answering the call I set out, as evidence that badness on the internet is often signficant/signifying? 
  • is the website organized in an easy, but nonlinear fashion? 
  • does it cite sources effectively? There aren’t many, but the affordances of the website make citation a tricky business.

A smaller, more specific question is: should I continue to put a sort of academic-style mission statement as the lead thing in the “The Mission” menu category? Right now it’s “hidden” in the master category itself–meaning you have to click on the words rather than click on an item in the drop-down menu. Should this be more prominent?

Not Newness: Wherein I Don’t Say Anything Unexpected

Banks’ first moves threatened to drive me nuts. He posits, as many other eminent compositionists have, that we now live in a remix culture, and that this paradigm was launched by DJs. That scared me, as far as an assertion goes, because (as you all now know), my whole soapbox is: We have already, always lived in the RW, remix, intertextual culture, this paradigm is not new at all, perhaps only disrupted by the Enlightenment’s love of the image of the lonely artist operating in a vacuum to create works of sacred creativity. This is not new!

No doubt part of this is me taking pleasure in everyone else finally realizing, as I have in the course of accidentally becoming a genre theorist, that all writing is remixing (genre, after all, might be seen as a shared convention of what you remix from, with deviations/scratches being celebrated as innovation) and that the stodgy literary elitism of the past century (and this century still) has no legs left to stand on: it posits that remixes are inherently derivative, that genre texts are inherently inferior to the romantically-conceived, independent artiste writing a truly unique work of universalizeable and immortal literature, and this position simply cannot be sustained. Neither, really, can the laws that pretend it’s true. Just ask the RIAA.

Even if you literally show me pictures of myself writing my novel at 4am in a locked room, I will not buy the idea that there’s an un-remix-ed version of writing, or that this is new. There are novels in the room, and in my head, so no. Nope. No.

Nope.
Nope.

But then, within syllables, Banks saves himself (see page 2)–this is a book about locating African American cultural agency inside a paradigm that has suddenly returned to the fore after being mythologized out of modernity by a system built to construct African American as “other” (in the same way non-Enlightenment, non-European, “non-modern” groups get Othered to create the Us). The DJs hearken back to oral storytelling–the griots–meaning that this is not new, that this is just one way of looking at it that might be cool.

Digital Griots is a tool for reimagining what is going on–for scholars who have discovered the model in a new fashion, not an absolute pronunciation of the newness of the system itself. The DJ is “a figure through whom African American rhetoric can be reimagined in a new century” (2). The griot maintains the past within the present (see epigraph on 10), which of course makes the distinction really fuzzy. The way it ought to be.

That, at least, makes the academic in me happy. And it also helps to explain the really weird phenomenon that happened on Twitter–somehow, Tweetku has taken on a life of its own and has its own twitter, but we’re not sure if we made it or if we just happened to be doing the same thing while it was already there all along. Remix obfuscates historicity. The agent (the romantic author) blurs into the griot (the person speaking right now, the re-vision) (156).

My attempts, and our fixation, with locating an originator are probably possible but really counter to how the internet works structurally–the internet does not make allowances for the purity (and the myth) of the original. CNN’s silly attempts, every week, to find out about the source of viral things feels about as in-touch as their five weeks of coverage for a plane crash: they’re fixated on originators. Likewise, TV news networks talk about the hacker collective Anonymous as if it’s a thing, with leaders or consistent members. It is *not*. That’s the point. There’s no satisfying author at the end of the trail of remixes.

I did not make this image. It did not spring solely from me. I do not know who made it, and even if I did, it's an appropriation of another text.
I did not make this image. It did not spring solely from me. I do not know who made it, and even if I did, it’s an appropriation of another text.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t protect remixers work, or reward particularly effective innovation, its just that we need to acknowledge that

  1. we’ve been doing that to certain remixers, called authors, but not to others,
  2. nobody operates in a vacuum (see the most recent presidential election’s key debate), and
  3. academic culture still creates systems of value, good or bad, around arbitrary distinctions between remix and original, derivative text and magical “springs fully formed from the head of the author, like Athena from Zeus” literature.
  4. Tweetku probably went viral somehow.

    This image is a pastiche of several memes, combined with a famous internet haiku. There are too many potential layered remixes here.
    This image is a pastiche of several memes, combined with a famous internet haiku. There are too many potential layered remixes here.

 

“CAPSLOCK IS CRUISE CONTROL FOR COOL!!1ONE1!”: Performed Badness on the Internet

For my project, I’m thinking about the prevalence of deliberate or (sometimes) ironic badness in discourse on the internet. By badness, I don’t mean being bad (like the cool kids in high school bad), but instead, the deliberate use of the appearance of rhetorical or cultural nonliteracy—things like deliberately transposing “your” and “you’re,” writing in all caps, spelling things idiosyncratically, “cartoonish” drawing techniques, and misidentifying cultural icons.

Importantly, I want to examine this broadly-defined internet-cultural practice in terms of its uses to signify things other than mockery of the “nonliterate.” There are rhetorical functions, and cultural meanings, assigned to these practices above and beyond their original signification of being a novice at internet communication—being a n00b or “bad at internets.” Many of these practices obviously started as internet users mocking novice users by imitation, but the practices have since moved beyond that easy sign-signifier relationship into something more mythicized or abstract, coming to carry meanings well beyond simply “badness.”

Anyone who’s been in a class with me (or within earshot in the office) knows my academic interest in “bad” texts, and this grows out of that interest. Why does the culture of the internet take up these rhetorical errors and reprocess them to mean something else? What does it mean that “badness” has become a necessary and influential rhetorical practice? What trends to we see in what the badness is supposed to express?

Why, in other words, would we be bad on purpose?

Question CatTake, as an example, the LOLCat meme—why do they spell poorly? Why do they rely on an archaic digital technology–WordArt and MSPaint—to the point where it becomes deliberately labor intensive (and later necessitates special software to emulate the limitations of the older stuff)? What are they expressing that can’t be expressed by other means? How does performed nonliteracy express internet-cultural literacy?

There are, of course, other examples—the Doge meme, using ALL CAPS WITHOUT PUNCTUATION TO SIGNIFY LIKE SUPER IRONY YOU GUYS, the “ALL THE [things]” meme and its strange artistic style. Why and how do these (intentionally) poor performances of internet composition express deeper meaning?

This is obviously far too big a project for 2000 words, but it’s an experiment (and a “why?” question), so I don’t think the objective is really to arrive at a set answer, but instead to examine ways of reading which don’t immediately assume “badness” is a marker of nonliteracy or a non-significant message (i.e. noise). There’s actually some scholarly work being done on this topic in other areas (traditionally ignored texts and literatures, for example), so there are some existing frameworks I can bring to the investigation, just to see how they work with the internet.

Bullet Point Version:

  • Texts: Cat Memes, Other Memes, Famous Webcomics, a handful of Big Blogs (the ones that resemble traditional media in their readership patterns). There’s no shortage of materials to choose from.
  • Key Question: Why is “bad discourse” on the internet used to express things other than nonliteracy? How do these things become imbued with secondary meanings and rhetorical functions?

    Irony Spelling Man
    Notice how ornate this dude’s face is even though his body is cartoonishly badly drawn? Also, textual irony, lots of it.
  • Format: I imagine a WordPress article, fairly traditional, in the genre widely used by Cracked.com (in a comic fashion)—an argument, with several examples, accompanied by images or short Youtube clips close reading those examples. Close reading “live” (i.e. in the Youtube clip) and in the text surrounding it permit compressed, digestible, and visually-reinforced conclusions suitable for fast, internet-style reading.

Questions/Issues:

In a weird way, this is an argument that operates using traditional scholarly modes, so I’m not quite sure about the format. It’s in a gray area between a one-off essay and an ongoing project, so I’m not sure if it needs a WordPress to itself, or if it might just live as a web article. Thoughts? As my other blogs posts indicate, I still frequently struggle with scale.

I’m also struggling with a good term for “badness” that gets at what I’m talking about.

This argument also strays across a comp/rhet, historical, and cultural studies series of frameworks in a way that I anticipate might be hard to organize. Furthermore, as far as I know, it’s fairly difficult to trace the provenance of rhetorical practices on the internet, given the volume (and huge gaps) in history-keeping or archiving.

Twittering in the Wings: On Credentials and Institutional Compliance

While this is probably the textual equivalent of multitasking, I’m going to attempt to respond to Dr. Harris’ observations about critical discourse on twitter, since it actually has a lot to do with what I want to respond about regarding Fitzpatrick. This will all hopefully fit together in a moment.

As simple as it seems, I don’t think the technical allowances of Twitter allow for one-off critical discourse, particularly not when that critical discourse is actually critical. It’s easy to say, on Twitter, that “I really like what this scholar is doing here bit.lylink #tweet #epic”, but rather intensely more challenging to compose a response which might take issue–as my own stilted interactions with Tom Standage show. It’s impossible to fit Joe’s sentiment about the big-name panel in a tweet, particularly when he needs to spend more time on careful wording than concision. “Big-Name Panel was so TEDIOUS #4c14 #yawn #probablyshunnedforever” is not a satisfactory critical response, but it’s impossible to say “Saw Big-Name Panel, which was well-selected, but disappointing. Want to know more about Panelist’s ideas on [Issue-at-Hand], particularly when it comes to [Academic Soap-Box Issue] #4c14 #bigname” without pulling a + or a “(1/2) (2/2)”, which simply wastes more precious characters and risks dissolution in the sea of hashtag-filtered responses.

The perpetual personal surveillance that Twitter builds in doesn’t help, as a person can find your tweet about them even if you didn’t @ them. Twitter is all credentialed gossip, but none of the gossip can stay gossip, and the credentials can quickly become an albatross.

Seems Legit.
Seems Legit.

Twitter seems built primarily for praise, forwarding, or snark. Academic publication, as Fitzpatrick frequently points out, is built for analogous, but strategically different aims (11). Rarely is our praise unqualified (see: all of our blog posts on every author), but academic forwarding, (genteel) snark, and idea development are key–which is precisely why the current academic publication system hardly works better for these purposes than Twitter. Joe can’t tweet that the big name panel was tedious in the same way he can’t really publish a book out of Duke University Press about how tedious the panel was entitled [Big Name Panelist] is Silly. The peers are watching, and the credentials are at stake. An uncareful move might make Joe’s economy of reputation go the way of the Russian actual economy–and thus, academic speech has developed both an “ethical obligation to listen” (43), a means of gatekeeping (Peer Reviewed Publications), and a discourse based more on precision and diplomacy than concision (which is wonderful, but also not suited to microblogging). (For more thoughts on publishing, see Katie’s x5 post and all the comments on it regarding a new system of credentialing, funding, and publication not wholly unlike some of Fitzpatrick’s suggestions).

Fitzpatrick points out that this existing system of credentializing is necessary but restrictive–for instance, the abuse of institutional sponsorship to propagate outdated ideologies is protected by this system–and a more Twitterian, algorithmically-based system is similarly restrictive “bean counting” (47) reminiscent of the disastrous evaluation policies of No Child Left Behind (collective shudder). The disqualification of these open systems wholesale–emblematic in the early-2000s institutional dismissal of Wikipedia even as that publication does not employ this system–is not unlike the myth of Read Only culture I mentioned last week: it is, as Fitzpatrick put it, an artifact of an obsolescence-phobic “political project aimed at intervening in contemporary public life, perhaps with the intent of shoring up a waning cultural hierarchy” (2).

That’s why I’m glad Fitzpatrick gestured towards hybrid systems–while I still plan on writing monographs, it’s nice to think someday I might be able to write an article and put it out on the web for academics to read (since my field has no 100% applicable journal) and still have that publication “count.” Unlike Twitter, the web generally is not structured as to preclude academic forms of writing, and the fact that we tend to ignore that potential institutionally is disappointing. If the academic publication industry is a “zombie” system, shuffling along in an unsustainable fashion, academic writing in *form* and *aim* is less a zombie than (oh boy here we go) a cyborg–something not necessarily integrated with current technology that might be enhanced or reformulated to include it without particular difficulty.

Like the technophobic antagonists in every “Good Cyborg” story ever, though, we have to get over our institutional fear of this technology if we want it to work.

Official Tiny Leaves
Credentials: I Got ‘Em

My point, oddly, is this: the fact that Dr. Harris has no way to properly critique a panel for being tedious or nonproductive is already indicative of the serious problems facing not only academic discourse and publication, but the system of institutional influence and credentials that might allow the abuse of power by those who benefit from being able to be boring on big-name panels.

Case and point: last year I attended a conference on a prevailing issue in academia, and a very powerful, established academic (and Federal Funding magnet) gave a keynote speech on the issue. The speech was a tedious patchwork of outmoded ideology, institutional policy nonsense, statistics from the 1990s, and clearly-appropriated ideas on a series of projected slides. At the end, a room full of normally semi-revolutionary academic activists clapped.

Nobody said or tweeted a word.

Sentence Forming Nathan Fillion

The Mythical Read-Only Culture

While I was reading Lessig’s Remix, I realized something.

I have never seriously imagined myself to have inhabited an RO environment. In the same way, I’ve never even considered a desire for privacy, at least not as Lessig describes it (or RO media).

When it comes to privacy, perhaps the reasoning behind this is obvious: I’ve used Amazon forever, and so I’m not super creeped out (technical term) for its fairly on-point suggestions for my buying choices. I’ve never imagined that I wasn’t being monitored. Perhaps, in addition to my (apparent) digital nativity, my years at Catholic School panopticon and SEC-compliant businesses, my urban residence and only-child status created this.

I don't see any citation here.
Shakespeare’s estate did not get paid for this.

When it comes to content creation and consumption, then, it should not be surprising that I’ve tended (on some fundamental level) to view all content as “public.” When I started writing fiction as a kid, it started out (as Lessig notes on 81, via Jenkins) as an “apprenticeship” of remixing–not in the literal fanfiction sense, but in the archetypical sense. I copied works’ conventions in order to enact their genres, only gradually moving away from this obvious forms of appropriation to the more abstracted forms: the practice of genre and audience awareness, of rhetoric, of convention employment. All writing (and all creativity) is always remix, even if the remix is marked (as many are) by the refusal to pull content from the expected sources.

I first wrote fiction because I found the fiction I liked to be insufficient, and sought to practice creation in order to fill these gaps. I became a Literature Academic because it appeared, to me, that literature scholarship *really* needed my help. As egotistical as that sounds, I doubt anyone reading this isn’t nodding right now (if you’re the nodding type), or gesticulating in some way. You finish your BA in English out of a love of books, but what carries you through the apprenticeship of graduate programs (MA, MFA, PhD, whatever) is knowing that you need to fill a gap you’ve found.

Our greatest fear.
Our greatest fear.

I’m not really sure RO culture really exists outside the minds of a few people at the RIAA. I’m not even sure Lessig thinks it exists (or at least, in 2008, believed that it would survive the decade). For any of Remix‘s other flaws, the hybrid culture Lessig describes has a high degree of veracity.

This is (maybe?) a vindication of Chris and Callie’s insistence that Broadcast Media is not passive, at least in the Michael-verse, because I can’t for the life of me think of a time when I imagined something to be really read-only. Lessig’s notes on remix in education, too, seem obvious given my history of writing and my current pedagogical (and theoretical) tendencies to see conventions, genres, and appropriations as the backbone of a text, and the meaningful recombination of research data plus new observations from that recombination to be the height of professional writing (see: all instructions for academic writing ever).

I can only hope Lessig’s right about the law catching up to the culture—of ditching its enterprise to perpetuate/create the RO culture myth—since it never occurred to me prior to today that the AMVs I consumed avidly just 8 years ago were in some way potentially illegal. I always considered the arguments in favor of royalties in music and film to be predicated on an elitist belief that film and music, as less-accessible-therefore-less-pedestrian arts than writing, were therefore more worthy of reward. As more and more of our readings gesture towards it (however remotely), I begin to get the impression I was right–that digital means gradually break down access barriers to new forms, and threaten the cultural elite that benefits. Much of the drama around the Internet has to do with controlling access, with creating artificial scarcity—with inventing the myth that an RO culture ever truly existed, much in the same ways other reactionaries create nostalgic mythic pasts to defend.

What is Genre? (A Video, and a Beta Test)

Below is my “Concept in 60” on the problem of genre–really, the super-basic-est of issues at the heart of genre theory and genre studies and every other thing with “genre” in front of it. The nice thing about video is that it lets me draw (or show you, generally) the problem in a way that’s easy to understand.

Warning: it’s a bit quiet–I need to reconfigure the gain on my microphone.

The other reason this video exists is that I find the “watch while I draw with a sharpie” genre of educational Youtube videos to be both visually efficient, attractive, and pedagogically effective. So I’m beta-testing my ability to create these videos with only the equipment I have on hand (namely, a smartphone, 2 PCs and Audacity).

Curated Reality: Directives, the Collapse of Collaboration, and Technology in School

If we all took the Invisible Gorilla experiment (1-3), and you were one of the people who saw the gorilla, you’d probably try and figure out who else saw the gorilla, detect what they have in common with you that let them see the gorilla, and find a way to say “Hey, you saw the gorilla too. What’s the deal with the gorilla?”

Since you’d been directed to count all the passes, though, you would then convene with the Basketball Counters (who, all this time, have been doing to their calculations what you’ve been doing to the gorilla) in an attempt to arrive at an accurate picture of what’s going on here. That’s the collaboration that Davidson gestures ambitiously towards in her introduction (5), it’s the framework for the book’s objectives–to examine how we might adapt our schools and workplaces to account for this human tendency to pay attention to some things and not others, and to seek new information on what they’re missing when they need to problem-solve.

But let’s suppose (in a little mental experiment) that the Invisible Gorilla experiment that no one directed the audience to count the passes—there is no clear problem to solve. Without this directive, people would watch the video with a more open filter, with the counting-inclined counting all sorts of passes in different categories, the sports-inclined watching the form of the passes, perhaps, the literature-inclined attempting to close read the scene for symbolic meaning, and a fair number of people just watching. A larger number of people, without their attention externally directed elsewhere, might see the gorilla–without telling everyone to count (as Joe deliberately neglected to do on Friday), most people see the gorilla. It’s a gorilla.

In a group large enough, without this counting directive, people might generally see the gorilla and understand the passes and the coding of the colored shirts, and talk about what it means. But this central consensus on the (now obvious) gorilla presence would still generate a series of outlier groups: people who don’t think the gorilla is important, who counted all the passes between black shirts, or white shirts, or all the passes from one color shirt to different color shirts, and so on. They form their own small groups, reinforcing each other’s beliefs.

This is basically the internet in a nutshell. There is a mass of data, to be processed by people, with no filtering directives or directive towards problem-solving. Like Baby Andy (47), it’s just spitting data at us, and we’re selecting parts, giving them value, reinforcing the reproduction of that data, and grouping up with other people to form cultures where “Dada” is a word and “Mada” is not, where the gorilla doesn’t matter but the black-shirt passes do.

Internet Opinions

Collaboration under these circumstances may or may not be as prevalent as under the “count the passes” directive, but this collaboration is fragmentary and self-reinforcing non-collaboratory (or intra-group collaboratory) activity is just as common. Team Gorilla and Team Mathematics don’t always talk. They have no reason to. This self-selecting group-identity without an impetus to collaboration creates what I call a Curated Reality (sometimes called a bubble world, or a pundit sphere, or when properly financed, a cable news network). Davidson seems particularly unconcerned about this (the book is deliberately “optimistic” [back cover] after all), but it does make me nervous. I’m usually one of those “the internet is THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED” people, but there’s no ignoring the fact that people (all of us) select data that we are already pre-inclined to find interesting, accessible or agreeable, and filter out as “crap” all that stuff which is uninteresting or contrarian, and are generally blind to these filtering activities.

What this has to do with my experiences as a student and as an instructor grows out of the fact that, like Duke, my undergrad institution distributed iPods to its incoming freshmen (in the 2006-2007 school year). The problem was, without the financial resources of Duke or the Apple branding help garnered from Duke’s large public profile, the iPods were only distributed by specific programs in specific colleges. Unlike Duke’s student population, which as Davidson indicates was directed towards education their whole lives (64), the population at my not-quite-Ivy institution was less inclined to go along with the overtly experimental program, effectively fragmenting the student population (and the school) into iPod Education Advocates (developing apps and doing work), Happy iPod Hijackers (who laughed at this heavy-handed idea that if you just dump new tech into an old classroom things will get more efficient, and just used it to listen to music), and The Humanities Students (who did not receive the technology at all, despite appealing to the administration). The collaboration that Davidson commendably notes at Duke (65) collapsed before it even formed, except for isolated, intrepid pockets of iPod Education Enthusiasts and iPod owners. Like miniature Dukes.

In the following years, whole colleges in the university abandoned the program. The programs that abandoned the iPod did so because collaboration and innovation was stifled–ironically, stifled because these programs had implemented free iPods in an unequal fashion and hoped that crowdsourcing without directives would somehow magically collaborate them straight into the information age. iPod education became a Curated Reality–those who had it said it worked, those who had given up on it said it was worthwhile but not exemplary, and those who never had it scoffed at the idea that technology had anything new to offer, and none of these groups was really interested in talking because there was no directive, no problem to solve. Collaboration became in-group only, and attention blindness became the mode of the day.

While Davidson says Duke’s program never came with a directive (62-63), it did implicitly have one. Duke distributed the technology to a student population already inclined to work outside class time on improving the university, with specifically branded partnerships with Apple, under an educational initiative undertaken by the whole university with the direction of Davidson herself (64). In essence, she did the Invisible Gorilla experiment on a room full of professional counters at a conference on counting basketball passes–a directive is implicit in the context, creating an object of, and impetus for, collaboration.

The excerpt from a Youtube video that follows, by user Gabgorilla from October 20, 2011, stands as a prime example of both an argument for technologically enhanced education, and as an example of an artifact of collapsed collaborative possibility and implicit, limiting directives, forming a Curated Reality:

In the video, the user (a student or professor, perhaps, in a digital composition course) juxtaposes the “classrooms of today” (which are filled with laptops, mostly Apples) with the “classrooms of the past” (with patriarchal paintings and warped desks) (see 00:16 to 00:19), using Dictionary.com and proprietary clip-art to make a point about technology and classrooms in a painfully artificial use of technology that students would giggle a bit at. The video transitions from talking about technology in education generally to focusing implicitly on composition, challenging the notion that technology can only be used for “word processing” (01:48 to 01:50) while it fails to cite any uses that are not composition-oriented. The end result is commendable, but fails to reach outward beyond its implicit focus on composition technologies, proposing to enable a collaboration it implicitly fails to imagine. The video’s author challenges us to use technology in new ways, which in the video seems to mean making essays with more expensive software than a word processor.

This video gets caught up (as Davidson does, a bit) in the rhetoric of technology as panacea for education–a Curated Reality based on enthusiasm for technology and education whose laudable enthusiasm frequently erases the dangers of technology inequality and of shoehorning technology into a classroom without regard for its actual pedagogical usefulness or the ways in which technology has already impacted the classroom. Technology, despite everything said, insistently remains a replacement for or enhancement of older technology, and paying attention to it at all is grounds for self-congratulation (see all of Davidson, Chapter 3). Likewise, it remains bound up in an implicit economic language where the cost of these technologies, and their accessibility, is ignored. iPods are used to record and distribute spoken lectures to other iPod users (Davidson 66), and Duke (and Davidson) congratulate themselves on crowdsourcing new ways to use technology to make education accessible to everyone (with the several hundred dollars necessary to purchase an iPod in 2006).

Selective attention to one aspect of educational technology by a specialized group of educators with a specialized group of students (Davidson’s Duke and it’s implicitly elite student body) with the directive (implicit or otherwise–it was certainly obvious to Duke students) of modernizing educational practices creates a small group which can collaborate but collapses the possibility of collaboration outside that context–no one cites the problem of unequal implementation, or of the social forces built into educational systems which disqualify certain approaches (and which contaminated Davidson’s experimental control of not telling students what to do). Davidson, pointedly, recognizes this skewed basis but continues to universalize her experience at Duke anyway (64). She claims there are no directives or conditions–but directives were built in everywhere. Likewise, at my undergraduate institution, the unequal implementation of the initiative put further directives in the mix, rapidly enabling very specific kinds of collaboration and utterly destroying any other kind.

My much-belabored point is this: Much like the video’s limited embrace of technology, Davidson’s ideas of where this technology goes in Chapter 3 perpetuates some of the problems she wants to fight: it disables the awareness of attention blindness and collaboration that she champions. As many education technology enthusiasts (like me, and Davidson, and others) have done, we have challenged the conditions of an old, conservatively anti-technology Curated Reality on education and, in the process, perpetuated our own Curated Reality, blind to our structural preconceptions. We have enabled some forms of collaboration by disabling others, blind to our own implicit directives while claiming to be “open.” Our utopia is smaller than we imagined, because membership and collaborative knowledge is governed by criteria we pretend aren’t there.

Eating on the Wall

So I tend to go out to eat a lot, particularly when I end up back in Philadelphia (even if I’m there for only an hour and this is why). This is one of those central things my significant other and I agree upon, though I do sometimes frustrate her with my constant desire to eat a whole meal at literally any time of day.

As of the first paragraph, I’m actually doing that right now. For atmosphere, put this on in another tab, wait through the ad and the promo (because apparently noise can’t sell itself), and then come back. We can pretend to be in a coffeeshop together.

You done? Okay. Fiddle with the volume. I can wait. Ignore the sidebar–Youtube is trying to distract you with paid content.

All the time in the world here.
All the time in the world here.

Anyway, full disclosure: the S.O. uses Instagram (and no I don’t have the link to her profile). Her fascination with Instagram has made her a rather good photographer, doubtlessly in some small part due to a family tradition of taking artful pictures all the time. This practice extended to our frequent mealtimes, and created a ritual I have come to call Saying Hipster Grace. It this daily ritual, the adherents await the presentation of the meal, at which point the participants make a ritual ablution with their phones, where they aggressively rearrange the table to get all the food in frame and then use their cell phones to take a picture.

The food then begins to cool as they select filters and post to Instagram. A sigh of satisfaction signals the end of the ritual, as the picture uploads and the phone goes away.

My being rather agnostic about Saying Hipster Grace (I refuse to get baptized into Instagram, and just store pictures of good meals on my phone) is uncharacteristic and difficult to explain. In Standage’s terms, where we’re all Romans running down to the dock to get our mail (26), I’m the literate plebe that taught himself how to swim. I need data, all the time, and as many of you found out today, I’m constantly trying to keep my social media presence organized.

But I just won’t share my frankly spectacular meals on social media. Something about that just seems like oversharing, like Cicero tweeting from the restroom. And this makes me meditate on Standage’s assertions throughout Writing on the Wall that social media has, in some form, “been around for centuries” (250)–and I agree, it certainly has, even if sometimes his history chaffed the postcolonialist in me for being really traditional, Eurocentric and a bit self-fulfilling. But I can’t help but think that, as Standage himself notes, there’s something a little different this time around (239), something more pervasive, and more centralized (248).

My S.O.’s picture of cinnamon bun french toast from two days ago on Instagram was linked by 49 people in 4 hours, and by noon had been incorporated into the restaurant’s online marketing presence, all without her explicit permission. Like Cicero’s letters, she’s happy to have it reproduced and used (the dish was lovely, after all, and the attention is her gift to the restaurant), but unlike Cicero’s letters, her social media is being used for a pretty thoroughly centralized, wholly commercial end. This is Facebook Corporation via Instagram, not Cicero’s scribe, and breakfast ads don’t usually save the Roman Republic from ruin. Something is different here, but I’m not sure it’s just corporate centralization (one of Standage’s constant perils).

Super-Serious.
Super-Serious.

I take pictures of my best meals because I want to remember them, not to share them. I get the impression I’m carrying around a model of “what is important information” that Standage might attribute to the broadcast media age–that magically approved authorities like CNN (which constantly posts pictures of food) have a greater claim to talk about their lunch than I do. Sponsored results like the ones at the top right of the Youtube video I’m having you listen to, and the annoying voice-over at the beginning of the video, perpetuate this broadcast-privilege model of importance–the business that provides this service has more authority to sponsor or review than the average user, despite my profligate linking to things I like. Despite Standage’s closing note, I still feel like I have to “squeeze through the bottleneck of broadcast media” (250) despite not actually being dis-enabled from having that scale of web presence. This rebirth of social media is having some trouble shaking off its broadcast media phase, like a horrible Nazi-connected (202-203) puberty that has left its marks. That might be why a lot of people (and the language of twitter, with “followers”) imagine a me-as-central-broadcaster-to-audience model of social media, even though the constant desire for response and “likes” (and followers talking back) shows how this is different and interactional.

I guess, to declare my independence from broadcast-media thinking, I should take and post a picture of the cappuccino I was drinking in Elixr as I wrote that last paragraph, but I logged out the coffeeshop without logging in to take a picture.