CDCS researchers produce critical and interdisciplinary scholarship on how digital technologies shape culture, politics, and society. Read about our recent publications below, including our ongoing series "The Digital Radical."
Author: Frances Corry
This article addresses the intersection between platforms, their sociotechnical process of aging and memory practice, by focusing on local social platform OakdaleTalk and its use in reflecting on September 11, 2001. Founded in 1997, OakdaleTalk serves the town of Oakdale in New Jersey, a place significantly affected by the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Situated in literature on digital memory work, this analysis draws on interviews with 15 OakdaleTalk members who have used the platform to reflect on September 11th. Asking how users maintain particular meanings of this date while negotiating sociotechnical changes to the site over time – including the loss of posts from 2001 – it discusses how users perpetuate hyperlocal interpretation and describes how community members grapple with lost content. The article concludes by proposing a ‘preservation paradox’, an emerging memory practice under platformized media conditions describing a contradiction in user preservation attitudes and behaviors toward posts of memory-related significance.
Read "Never Forget? Memory Maintenance on an Aging Platform"
International Journal of Communication, 2022
Author: Frances Corry
The following article is adapted from a multimedia research performance held at the conference The Fire This Time: Afterlives of 1968. In it, we delve into four case studies that exemplify a moment in the sociotechnical imaginaries of 1968: Earthrise, the iconic full photograph of the Earth; the tech demo that predicted the personal computer; a policy debate over the balance of power in the air quality control crisis; and the taken-forgranted emergency line, 911. Our analysis reveals how these technological moments, each of which represented a vision of a better world, were inextricable from the social realities and power dynamics present in their making. Furthermore, this work surfaces the nuances and unique perspectives that the sociotechnical imaginary as a theoretical framework can provide.
Visual Communication, 2022
Author: Chelsea Butkowski
A long legacy of media imagery persistently distorts, stereotypes, and ignores marginalized racial and ethnic groups despite widespread calls to diversify media representations. In particular, fashion and beauty media continue to feature light-skinned models and celebrities over dark-skinned individuals, even lightening dark skin with photo editing to achieve ideals of whiteness and lightness. This practice aligns with colorism, or the privileging of light skin tones for access to economic and social capital. This study examines colorism in a particular genre of digital photography, online retail images, as a problem of visual representation. The novel method of visual computational analysis is used to quantitatively compare how mainstream clothing retail brands represent model skin tones across still and video media modes. The findings suggest that analyzed retailers tended to favor light-skinned models on their websites and that model skin tones in product videos were significantly darker than in product photos. These findings are considered through research on race and technology, photographic manipulation, and media misinformation. Ultimately, the study suggests that visual (in)consistencies can reveal the role of structural biases in shaping media representations. The article also provides a methodological tool for conducting this work.
Read "Computing Colorism: Skin Tone in Online Retail Imagery"
Social Media and Society, 2022
Author: Chelsea Butkowski
Social media platforms record and fuel the construction of memories and social identities through discursive processes of memory work—or reconstructing the past in the present—and identity work—or representing individual and group characteristics. In this article, I interrogated sites of intersection and friction between mediated memory and identity work to uncover their shared political potential. I conducted a visual discourse analysis of Facebook Live videos and Instagram photos captured at the gravesite of famed women’s suffragist Susan B. Anthony during the 2016 US presidential election. In a long-standing Election Day tradition in Rochester, NY, local women visit Anthony’s grave after casting their ballots to pay tribute to her suffrage activism. However, when the nation saw its first woman presidential candidate nominated by a major political party in 2016, the gravesite drew an unprecedented crowd. The resulting media texts both capture and shape memory and identity work as they unfold. Ultimately, I identify a collection of four discursive practices that illustrate distinct modes of interdependence between memory and identity work in the gravesite livestreams and photos: (a) representing commemoration, (b) displaying affect, (c) regulating “respect,” and (d) personalizing political imaginaries. Together, these practices illustrate how memory and identity work can spark collective sentiments, encourage political sense-making, and invite discord or social regulation. They also demonstrate how competing politics of memory and identity coincide and clash to envision participatory futures across digital and physical spaces.
Read "Livestreaming Election Day: Political Memory and Identity Work at Susan B. Anthony’s Gravesite"
New Media & Society, 2022
Author: Chelsea Butkowski
After participating in US elections, voters have begun to share “I voted” selfies, or networked self-portraits that display their political participation. “I voted” selfies exist at the intersection of competing ideals of citizenship, including dutiful citizenship, which centers civic duty and voting, and self-actualizing citizenship, which focuses on individualized and expressive forms of political participation. I argue that these images can be understood through historically resonant communication practices, namely, as a mediated manifestation of 19th-century political congregations that I term embodied mass communication. To trace how voters perform embodied visions of citizenship through shared practices of digital self-representation, I conducted a content analysis of “I voted” selfies posted to Twitter on US Election Day 2016. In these selfies, voters present their bodies as civic evidence, frame individual representations to signify visual collectives, and creatively contextualize their political participation. Their selfies suggest how representational rituals can reflect and reconstitute citizenship models.
Read "'If You Didn’t Take a Selfie, Did You Even Vote?': Embodied Mass Communication and Citizenship Models in 'I Voted' Selfies"
Columbia University Press, 2022
Author: Guobin Yang
A metropolis with a population of about 11 million, Wuhan sits at the crossroads of China. It was here that in the last days of 2019, the first reports of a mysterious new form of pneumonia emerged. Before long, an abrupt and unprecedented lockdown was declared—the first of many such responses to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world.
This book tells the dramatic story of the Wuhan lockdown in the voices of the city’s own people. Using a vast archive of more than 6,000 diaries, the sociologist Guobin Yang vividly depicts how the city coped during the crisis. He analyzes how the state managed—or mismanaged—the lockdown and explores how Wuhan’s residents responded by taking on increasingly active roles. Yang demonstrates that citizen engagement—whether public action or the civic inaction of staying at home—was essential in the effort to fight the pandemic. The book features compelling stories of citizens and civic groups in their struggle against COVID-19: physicians, patients, volunteers, government officials, feminist organizers, social media commentators, and even aunties loudly swearing at party officials. These snapshots from the lockdown capture China at a critical moment, revealing the intricacies of politics, citizenship, morality, community, and digital technology. Presenting the extraordinary experiences of ordinary people, The Wuhan Lockdown is an unparalleled account of the first moments of the crisis that would define the age.
AI & SOCIETY (2021)
Author: Guobin Yang
When the city of Wuhan was severely locked down on January 23, 2020 for 76 days due to the coronavirus outbreak, many residents started writing “lockdown diaries.” This article argues these diaries constitute a kind of performance art for their authors, specifically, an 'art of endurance' as described by Shalson (2018). Keeping a diary requires a plan, but the following through of the plan is a contingent process requiring efforts and endurance. The challenges become particularly daunting for authors of online diaries in pandemic times. The article analyzes multiple types of endurance associated with the Wuhan lockdown diarists, showing that in digitally-driven environments, where potential collective responses are a key context, the lockdown diaries of Wuhan, like works of endurance art, engage with meanings that reach far beyond their original experience and context. Their stories of endurance are an allegory of the endurance of the entire city of Wuhan.
MIT Press, 2020
Authors: Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles
How marginalized groups use Twitter to advance counter-narratives, preempt political spin, and build diverse networks of dissent. The power of hashtag activism became clear in 2011, when #IranElection served as an organizing tool for Iranians protesting a disputed election and offered a global audience a front-row seat to a nascent revolution. Since then, activists have used a variety of hashtags, including #JusticeForTrayvon, #BlackLivesMatter, #YesAllWomen, and #MeToo to advocate, mobilize, and communicate. In this book, Sarah Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles explore how and why Twitter has become an important platform for historically disenfranchised populations, including African Americans, women, and transgender people. They show how marginalized groups, long excluded from elite media spaces, have used Twitter hashtags to advance counternarratives, preempt political spin, and build diverse networks of dissent. The authors describe how such hashtags as #MeToo, #SurvivorPrivilege, and #WhyIStayed have challenged the conventional understanding of gendered violence; examine the voices and narratives of Black feminism enabled by #FasttailedGirls, #YouOKSis, and #SayHerName; and explore the creation and use of #GirlsLikeUs, a network of transgender women. They investigate the digital signatures of the “new civil rights movement”—the online activism, storytelling, and strategy-building that set the stage for #BlackLivesMatter—and recount the spread of racial justice hashtags after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and other high-profile incidents of killings by police. Finally, they consider hashtag created by allies, including #AllMenCan and #CrimingWhileWhite.
Read "#HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice"
Feminist Media Studies, 2019
Author: Rosemary Clark-Parsons
Hashtag feminism, a form of activism that appropriates Twitter’s metadata tags for organizing posts to draw visibility to a cause, has become a central component of the feminist media repertoire. Much discourse about hashtag feminism revolves around whether or not Twitter is an effective tool for activism. This instrumentalist approach leaves activists’ strategies for juggling both the affordances and limitations of hashtag feminism under-theorized. Taking up a case study of the #MeToo movement, I consider practitioners’ perspectives on hashtag feminism and highlight the processes through which activists develop tactics while working within particular sociotechnical constraints. Through an analysis of meta-tweets, or tweets about the campaign, I argue that hashtag feminism is a contentious performance in which activists make the personal political by making it visible, bridging the individual with the collective and illustrating the systemic nature of social injustice. As #MeToo demonstrates, however, making the personal visible on a globally networked stage opens activists up to a variety of risks. To address these limitations, #MeToo participants developed performance maintenance strategies, through which they evaluated the campaign’s shortcomings and advanced solutions. Their reflexivity points toward hashtag feminism as a complex, recursive process aimed at achieving a transformative politics of visibility.
Read "I SEE YOU, I BELIEVE YOU, I STAND WITH YOU: #MeToo and the Performance of Networked Feminist Visibility"
Surveillance & Society, 2019
Author: Jessa Lingel
Surveillance is an increasingly common feature of online life, with user activity logged and tracked in order to sell advertising. Rather than focusing on platforms that have consistently violated user privacy, this paper uses Craigslist as a model of a widely used and profitable online platform with policies that emphasize user privacy. By focusing on its monetization strategies (which are straightforward rather than obfuscated) and its defense of anonymity, this paper argues that Craigslist successfully maintains Web 1.0 ethics around user surveillance that are worth remembering in a contemporary digital landscape.
Read "Notes from the Web that Was: The Platform Politics of Craigslist"
International Journal of Communication, 2018
Author: Guobin Yang
With the declining number of Internet protest events in recent years, online activism in China has suffered a setback. This is due significantly to the implementation of new forms of governing online expression. At the center of these new forms is a set of discourses of wenming, the Chinese characters for which can be translated as both “civilization” and “civility.” As civilization, wenming operates as an ideological discourse of legitimation, whereas as civility, wenming functions as a strategic technology for Internet governance. After tracing the evolution of the ideological discourse of wenming, this article analyzes the technologies of civility used for managing online speech in China. Two case studies illustrate how the technologies of civility are used to demobilize the emotions of online protest.
Read "Demobilizing the Emotions of Online Activism in China: A Civilizing Process"
Media, Culture & Society, 2018
Author: Elisabetta Ferrari
In 2014, the Hungarian government announced the introduction of a tax on internet usage. The proposal generated large protests, which led to its eventual withdrawal. In this article, I investigate the puzzling success of the ‘internet tax’ protests: how could a small tax on internet consumption generate so much contestation? I argue that the internet tax was able to give way to a broader mobilization against the government, because of the symbolic power of the idea of ‘the internet’, to which different political meanings can be attached. Through interviews with Hungarian activists, I reconstruct how the internet was associated with a mobilizing discourse that I term ‘mundane modernity’, which reproduces tropes of Western modernity about the equalizing properties of technology, progress, and rationality, while grounding them in the everyday practices of internet use. I then discuss the types of freedom embedded in mundane modernity and assess its political limitations.
Read "Free Country, Free Internet: The Symbolic Power of Technology in the Hungarian Internet Tax Protests"
New Media & Society, 2017
Author: Guobin Yang, Shiwen Wu
Disappeared websites are the missing pages of web history. We examine over 140 memory narratives of disappeared websites in China, in which 176 disappeared websites are remembered. We find that memories of disappeared websites rarely treat websites as dead objects, machines, or even as media, but more often as people whose death is mourned and memories cherished. They not only narrate the biographies of the websites but also the autobiographies of the story-tellers. The main biographical plot in these narratives of disappeared websites is a lovely life that was tragically cut short. Disappeared websites are most remembered for the passion, community, and sense of youthful idealism which they had inspired. Remembrances of disappeared websites are both retrospective and prospective. They resuscitate a lost golden age while expressing voices of protest at Internet censorship. They both highlight and repair a web history marked by disruption and disappearance.
Read "Remembering Disappeared Websites in China: Passion, Community, and Youth"
The Digital Radical
From the activist deploying technology for political causes to the individual who consciously disengages with online life, CDCS is building a collection of stories about ordinary people with radical relationships to digital technologies.