The Crosshairs of the Split Hairs: #digciz

This week, Mia Zamora and I are kicking off #digciz 2017 with a conversation about digital citizenship, and what it means in a world wherein “the digital” is increasingly a delivery system for surveillance and spectacle and amplified uncertainty.

(Or maybe that’s just my take. Maybe it’s different in your world. Maybe you see it differently? I would pay big cash money to see it differently so I am open to being invited over. Please note I actually have no big cash money.)

In any case, the month of June will be a #digciz-fest of epic proportions *if* y’all come out and play, and Mia and I have the privilege of leading us all out of the gate with a few provocations and a #4wordstory conversation about what good citizenship means in participatory spaces.

Here’s my opening salvo. :) (I’m a bit of a shit about the word “citizenship”…)


Grumpy Cat, ultimate Digital Citizen, makes the perfect Rorschach Test for your own interpretations of digital citizenship! Is he saying:

a) Even online, we are all people. Kumbay-effing-yah.
b) Digital citizenship sucks because people. People suck.
c) It is irritating to even have this conversation. Stop being a digital dualist.
d) All of the above?
***

I myself am still not entirely sure. A little over a month ago, I wrote up a talk on citizenship and identity that I didn’t manage to explain very articulately…and got comments like it was 2008 up in here.

Note to self: PUBLISH HALF-BAKED LIGHTBULB MOMENTS MORE OFTEN.

Or rather: publish half-baked lightbulb moments more often, *if* you like the hit of attention/engagement/validation that comments apparently still provide, even years after blogs were supposed to be dead.

(Disclosure: I am actually that person who likes the hit of attention/engagement/validation that comments apparently still provide, just if there were any questions. But we do not acknowledge that publicly, do we? Because decorum. Or the games we play around palatable identities in an attention economy.)

Only my discomfort with totally half-baked posts – or the rarity of lightbulb moments in my life – will save y’all from wanton comment-chasing, folks.

Which brings me back to the actual lightbulb moment that I’d had in the middle of that talk I tried to write up.

Digital platforms and digital affordances – underpinned by the capitalist enclosure of participatory digital spaces over the last decade or so, with its surveillance and metrics and constant advertising of reductive versions of our identity back to us – do NOT lend themselves to good digital citizenship, in the sense that they do not foster a space I would actually want to be a citizen of, to whatever (limited) extent the citizenship model holds when conceptualized in the border-free digital realm.

They do not lend themselves to good digital citizenship because they shape and direct human behaviour in ways that privilege capital and circulation and extremes, rather than, say, collaboration or empathy. Or even just being alone with one’s thoughts.

They increasingly shape the logic of our learning spaces to Silicon Valley’s concept of what that should be. Spoiler: that tends to be “individualism, neoliberalism, libertarianism, imperialism, the exclusion of people of color and white women.”

They foster spectacle and scale and virality and dogpiles and dragging and while there are moments of justice and glory in it all, at its logical endpoint it’s a Hunger Games.

(Wait. Mixed my dystopias.)

Of course, if you’re reading this, chances are good you don’t live in that web, that digital space. Humans have agency. Technologies or platforms are not determinist. I read my comments section. Got it.

Most of the people who’ll ever click on this post will come to it through the variety of still-quite-participatory communities that form my network, and our collective constellation of “digital” remains very much not-entirely-subsumed by capitalism and spectacle. We resist. We share. We care.

My research was really clear about the caring, the ways in which we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, even in the strange collapsed contexts of academic Twitter.

I’d venture that in most digital spaces that build any sense of ongoing community over time, people do the same. That‘s why I’m a bit of a shit about citizenship.
***

The web, and the capacity of strangers to receive my words – all of them, even the ugly ones or the half-baked ones or the things I couldn’t say out loud – once gave me back some sense of myself as being able to contribute to a world I wanted to live in.

It gave me a sense of being a citizen – in the rights and responsibilities sense, in the belonging sense – of something I was invested in more than I’ve ever, frankly, been invested in the concept of Canada as a nation-state (no matter how much Trump has done recently to make me appreciate that particular concept and its vulnerability, AHEM).

But the operations of scale and visibility and capital – especially capital – mean that our platforms keep creeping up on us, shifting, creating all kinds of insidious ways to monetize our caring and our sharing and in doing so, shape how we relate to each other…and in the long run, who we get to be in relation to these digital spaces.


And nope, #NotAllPerformativity is negative and #NotAllSoCalledSlacktivism is empty, but platform-based and -driven behaviours that shape our sense of personal identity should be things we’re watching WAAAAY more closely than we seem to know how. Not just because we may be frogs boiling slowly towards whatever Mark Zuckerberg’s end game of world domination may be…but because polarization seems to be eating us alive, as a broader society, online and off.

The fracturing of social bonds and security is not digital. The inequality and uncertainty at the root of it is not digital.

But it all leaves us…confronted. Constantly confronted.

And the digital amplifies our confrontedness.

The digital demands constant signalling. Other people’s signalling confronts us. We create spaces to bond over that confrontedness. Performative wokeness devolves into factionalism. White supremacy festers its way into the open.

This seems to be the yearbook quote of humanity confronted by virtue signalling:

And then, as a FB friend quipped in the thread under my earlier identity/citizenship post…we get caught “in the crosshairs of the split hairs.” THAT.

I think THAT should be 2017’s yearbook quote.

And because we are human, we don’t even always completely notice the way our identities are being shaped by our social environments and what they naturalize…THEY JUST BECOME OUR REALITY.
***

So…what can we do? How can we envision and work toward something better? What kinds of civic and social spaces do we want, online?

Tell us your #4wordstories of what YOU want, using the hashtag #digciz.

The conversation will unfold for 48 hours or so, through June 1st. Or whenever we’re done. Our goal is to get a sense of what people think digital citizenship can be, but also to hash out some of the constraints and realities that shape what it is, for most of us. And what works. What we could be aiming for, as a model of human engagement.

Just a little model for human engagement. You know. Shoot the moon. ;)

Tower of Song

For my birthday back in January, Dave bought me a Leonard Cohen biography.

I opened it and laughed and laughed.

He bought it because Cohen is still alive. David Bowie – who for more than thirty years was my imaginary boyfriend and the person I wanted to be when I grew up – is dead. And I woke up the morning of January 10th and realized:

a) me & Bowie are never gonna have that conversation about identity. dammit.
b) life is short .

But I turned 44 on a paid-for plane trip back from London, so not all was ashes. I gave talks at the LSE and the Tower of London and I made a side pilgrimage to the street where the Ziggy Stardust album cover was shot the week I was born, and I woke up in my own bed the morning after I got back and there was Leonard Cohen waiting for me in the only form he or Bowie will ever be waiting for me, and I opened up the bio and the first lines I saw were Cohen’s poem that begins:

Marita, please find me.
I am almost thirty.

And then I laughed some more and it was only faintly hysterical.
***

But my point was about identity.

Given the timing of the London trip, I turned talks about academic Twitter and orality and literacy into a Bowie tribute of a sort.

Bowie songs made up the titles of half my digital identity posts back when I started this blog. I firmly believe thirty years of watching him navigate time and selves prepped me well to live in a world of hypervisibility and monetized identity and blatant performativity.

Or, you know, social media.

But I’d never fully mapped it out.  So before I got into Twitter’s collapsed publics and what Meyer (2015) calls the “smoosh” of orality & literacy, I laid out – with images and lyrics and some core points, the idea that networked identity is very much a Bowie approach to identity.

Fluidity, fragmentation, the vision and chutzpah to stand just on the edge of rising trends and embody them for audiences…notable qualities of successful networked identities.

But for scholars in particular, the core of the Bowie approach is a distinction between role and identity.

It used to be that the personal/professional axis generally divided lives into separate domains, at least where the possessors of said lives took on paid roles outside the domestic realm. In most fields – and certainly in academia – such paid roles tended to be stations within articulated, often hierarchical systems. Or organizations. Or institutions. A person – often a dude – showed up for his or her job and fulfilled clearly-delineated responsibilities that were parallel to those of other people working in similar roles, until such point at which a higher up determine he or she was worthy of another role.

Whatever kind of special snowflake this person secretly imagined him or herself to be had to be enacted off the job, at home, in the personal domain.

Under sway of this broad societal norm, only those rare animals who became celebrities of some sort or another made their individual identities – their distinctions rather than their interchangeability – the core of their professional lives.

(Enter Bowie. But Bowie was not just any celebrity).

Gossip rags vouch for the fact that a great many people catapulted to fame not only discover that the collapse of personal/professional identity results in a parallel and alarming collapse of privacy, with the public working self taking over 24/7…but for many, that public working self quickly becomes a stale trap of typecasting, minimizing their creativity in exchange for a single hypervisible public image that they tended to be pilloried from departing from. Alas, poor Fat Elvis.

Bowie may not have been the only celebrity to manage to change successfully with the times AND maintain – some of the 70s aside – a modicum of personal privacy regardless of public scrutiny and visibility…but he did a smashing, savvy job of it, for the most part. As he did a smashing job of messing openly with constraints of gender and sexuality.

Selves were things Bowie picked up and put down, serially, while managing to create an overarching identity as someone so utterly distinct that people repeatedly referred to him as “otherworldly.”

Bowie’s job wasn’t really to be a rock star, like all the other rock stars in the constellation. Bowie’s job was to be Bowie.

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***
So what does this have to do with academic Twitter?

Our academic institutions are still built on roles. Tenured roles – or permanent academic roles, for those outside North America – are an endangered species, but the hierarchical, institutional model still conceptualizes labour along roles’ interchangeable, impersonal terms.

My research into academic Twitter the last couple of years was pretty emphatic that Twitter enables actively-participant (or resident) scholars to operate beyond what Boyer (1990) would have called the “hierarchy of functions” of scholarship. Twitter doesn’t just situate users within the realm of networked scholarship…in can enhance their sense of community and engagement in their work in general.

And it can open up paths to the development, performance, and circulation of scholarly identities…even without roles. People who may not have institutional roles or academic jobs or status in the hierarchy can become known for their work and their ideas, via Twitter and broader networks of participation.

This changes things. Junior scholars and grad students and contingent academics can create forms of visibility and legitimacy within the blurred space between media and institutional scholarship that do not match their institutional status, or lack thereof.

But it changes more than who gets to join in some aspects of the academic conversation. It changes how.

When, on your campus, you need someone who does things that seem “digital,” you can look for somebody who has that word (or some other word in permanent danger of becoming imminently outdated…I’m looking at you, elearning) in their title…or you can look for the person who for inexplicable reasons seems to do that stuff. Sometimes it’s the same person, but sometimes it’s better if it’s not.

Because humans are funny. If we approach someone on the basis of their title or role, we tend to approach them within the boundaries of the institutional hierarchy. I suspect many folks in higher ed still secretly associate all things digital with the 1996-era title “webmaster”…which meant you had a seat at neither the faculty nor the admin table.

But if somebody is approached based on an interest in that person’s differentiated, visible, searchable expertise and identity…the conversation changes. The hierarchy is a little bit undermined. The conversation tends to depart far more quickly from what’s happened before to what *might* actually be possible. New things are more likely to emerge.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s just a networked approach to identity and interaction.

***

There’s a catch, though.

Carving out space as a career individual within a society primarily marked by institutionalized roles is one thing. Bowie had uncanny timing and instincts in this regard.

Carving out space as a career individual within a society – and particularly within a sector – primarily marked by the collapse of institutionalized roles is another thing entirely.

We can all be as Bowie as we can muster in the connective tissue of our networks. But those do not – at least for scholars, nor for musicians either, at least in the way they used to – an industry make.

A ton of us live here, straddling this strange gap between academic roles that don’t – and may never – exist for us, and academic-ish identities that we use to contribute in the ways we can, whether to institutions or just to the broader conversation.

Paying our rent every day in the Tower of Song, as it were.

Maybe Leonard Cohen, who found himself swindled out of everything in his seventies and hustled his way back on stage, touring til nearly eighty in his sharp gangster suit, is who I oughtta plan to be when I grow up.

Somebody call me when we figure out alternatives?

for shame

Dave and our friend Beth have a semi-regular gig on the local CBC morning show‘s social media panel…but this week, Dave’s away. Since it’s handy to have a literal in-house replacement to offer up, I got to play pinch hitter. And thanks to last week’s #FHRITP spectacle last week in Toronto, they were talking online shaming, which I’ve been thinking and writing about since the conclusion of my thesis.

So…I spent last evening to trying to unpack what’s actually happening with shame and scale in contemporary culture.

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Here are Beth & I at the brisk and perky hour of 7:30 in the morning, talking it all through. But being me, I made notes that could have filled a three-hour show, and it got me thinking about shame and scale and social media at a level that I couldn’t manage to pack into our ten minutes on air.

Here are the highlights of what a combination of years of background research into social media + frantic Googling + the threat of making a totally unprepared arse of myself on-air got me thinking about shame and all the sensationalism-driven conversations we’re having, societally, about social media and shame.

First, public shaming is in no way a new or online phenomenon. We may be experiencing a glorious new glut of it in our Twitter and Facebook feeds, but our fascination with it shouldn’t fool us…we’re not gawking because it’s new. We’re gawking because it’s uncomfortable.

We’re gawking because Call-Out Culture calls us out – no matter what sanitized shade of bland we may be as individuals – and reveals our participation in the engines of power that allow some people to chew others up. We’re not supposed to talk about power. It works hard to make itself invisible. But I think social media platforms hail us, in Althusserian terms, into complex and collapsed social and political ideologies of power in ways we can’t quite naturalize because the platforms are still so new and constantly changing. Online, we have to grapple with our own interpellation as subjects.

Second, there are two ways public shaming has always worked.

  • To control people, & force them to comply with the status quo. The Scarlet Letter is a great way to keep wives faithful.
  • To push back against that status quo or speak truth to power. If you can actually show that the Emperor has no clothes, you delegitimize his power and call into question the whole system he rules.

So I think online shaming and Call-Out Culture is a clash of these two archaic forms of public shaming. And which is which depends on where the speaker aligns – at that moment, in his or her complex and intersectional identity.

Here’s how you tell: does the speech act he or she engages in reinforce the status quo or challenge it?

The first is trolling. Trolling silences through shame. It reinforces status quo power positions: male over female, rich over poor, white over black, abled over disabled…any of those societal norms that govern who gets heard.

The second is hashtag activism. Hashtag activism allows people who experience marginalization to band together to speak back – to call out and critique others for the degrading or insulting or even just casually ignorant thing they’ve said in public.

Sometimes people have a hard time figuring out which side that status quo is actually on. Both trolling and calling out can be nasty, from a personal perspective, and people like to feel righteous, so you’ll see cases like the dude with the TV reporter who’s acting all offended that she’s calling him out for having leapt into her WORK to sexually degrade her for his own entertainment and…what? Fame?

Well, he got his 15 minutes. And he needs a new job.

And call out culture can be like that – when the hashtag activists succeed sometimes the consequence can seem out of proportion to the offence. But it raises real questions of what SHOULD the consequences of public speech be?

Because if people DO get away with disrupting and degrading others just to reinforce power positions – oh hey, it’s funny, can’t you take a joke? – then REAL PEOPLE end up living with that, feeling degraded…and that has consequences too.

Both individually and for that status quo of who gets to speak and be heard.

We don’t want a society entirely driven by shame. Those always turn out dangerous. But I am wary of the ways that pundits and media are lining up to denounce shame at this juncture, particularly when their words tend to sympathize with the risks that white, middle class Justine Saccos face in this “mob morality,” rather than with the risks and shame that those #FHRITP guys were trying to inflame as they aggressively asserted their own right to complete and utter shamelessness. Shame should not be a zero-sum. Shame as a tactical response to marginalization should not be needed…but if it works, let’s not focus on shutting down the very few effective means we have for speaking truth to power at scale.