The end!

Here are some of my reflections on my final project, as well as the class as a whole, for this final (!!!) blog post:

  • Digital mediums really make you think about how your information will be visually presented (which is a very good thing!): For my final project, I wrote an essay about the use of blogs in the undergraduate writing classroom which I ultimately presented as a WordPress blog. My decision to do this was motivated by two things: first, I was writing about blogging so it made sense to present my writing through the same format, and second, I originally wanted my project to be as readable as a webtext but I have nonexistent coding skills. Therefore, I chose a WordPress theme that is (I hope) easy to read large amounts of text on. Also, I ultimately decided to use a static home page with hyperlinks to each individual section of my essay, each of which are presented as individual blog posts. I thought this would help to present an introduction to my argument from which page a reader can choose to read any/all of my sections. A reader can see what order my essay is organized in, but they can, if they wish, read the sections out of order. Also, I liked that the blogging format allowed me to include some images/gifs throughout my essay–this helped both to break up continuous streams of text for a reader as well as contributed to a more informal and generally accessible tone. Similarly, the WordPress tagging feature allowed me to not only categorize my posts but also to insert some occasional humorous asides (well, at least humorous to me…).
  • Digital projects allow for a lot of individual creativity: As is evident by all of our projects this semester, the digital format encompasses many options beyond the text-based seminar paper and thus many options for creativity. It was really interesting to see not only what other students decided to focus on, but how they decided to present their projects. Not only were the topics of projects great, but the medium through which they were presented were extremely creative all around.
  • I want to work digital projects into my own classes in the future: After seeing the potential for creativity that a digital project can provide, I hope I’ll be able to include a digital project into future classes that I’ll teach. I think certain students would really benefit from the opportunity to present their essays in a form other than the typed paper, and I hope I can find a way to make this possible.
  • I want to better incorporate blogging into my future classes: I chose to research blogging in the undergraduate writing classroom primarily because I had been using a course blog in my WRT 102 section this semester but did not feel that I was using the platform to its full potential. Through my research for my final project, I found a lot of great ideas for using the blog to increase levels of student engagement on a week to week basis. While I didn’t talk about this specifically in my essay, one thing I really want to explore in the future is using more creative blog post prompts in order to encourage students to think outside of the box and bring in more from their own majors and personal experience.
  • Memes are pretty great!: While I was already a big fan of memes before this class, I really want to be able to work memes into future WRT classes because I think it can be a great way for students to engage with writing skills in a way that is potentially more accessible and enjoyable for many students.

 

And with that, I’m off to:

hyperbolememe

 

What Be This I Doth Not Even (or, a blog post about memes)

The meme—in its numerous iterations—points to the ability of information to replicate and mutate across the Internet. Such information can spread towards a variety of ends, be they political, informative, harmful, or simply humorous. Memes point out the extent to which ideas have the potential to spread across wide audiences and be subjected to subtle change as they are encountered by even more groups of readers/viewers. So, how does this work?

In his essay, “What Defines a Meme?,” James Gleick surveys the idea of the meme as embodied information, in the sense that information can be considered to be as “real” as the brain circuitry that they move through (Gleick). Such an idea comes from neurophysiologist Roger Sperry, who further argues:

Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet. (Gleick)

This is to say that ideas can interact and communicate, jumping from brain to brain and from context to context. Ideas compete for our attention and for staying power within the realm of our consciousness. Memes are successful when they stick around (and become subjected to further mutations and recreations). According to Gleick, memes “emerge in brains and travel outward, establishing beachheads on paper and celluloid and silicon and anywhere else information can go. They are not to be thought of as elementary particles but as organisms” (Gleick). That is, memes develop lives of their own, transferred through either ideas, tunes, catchphrases, images–or, what is most likely, some combination of each (Gleick). They are always, however, born out of a particular idea that is then capable of spreading.

Once memes have been created and spread, Gleick notes that they “have effects on the wide world beyond themselves” (Gleick). Memes can simply encourage beneficial practices (i.e. washing one’s hands before cooking), or they can be incredibly harmful (i.e. suicide bombers’ belief that they will be rewarded for their actions) (Gleick). However, memes can exist somewhere in the middle–neither beneficial nor harmful–but simply funny.

In illustration of this, I want to point out one of my favorite memes: the Bayeux Tapestry parodies meme. The meme parodies the Bayeux Tapestry, a medieval embroidered cloth that deals with events surrounding the Norman invasion of England.

For example, here’s an actual portion of the tapestry:

800px-Odo_bayeux_tapestry
Battle of Hastings!

The meme itself is a variety of parodies of the tapestry, changing the wording to appeal to a variety of senses of humor. For example, there are a string of bayeux tapestry memes that are meant to appeal specifically to the Star Wars fandom. Others relate to Doctor Who:

ApeDuckDuckVeryBeeWereSheApeVeryApeCloudSheWeEelWe.jpg

Here’s another example of the meme:

tumblr_m3zhnhQvXR1r165wlo1_1280

Here, the wording is arguably itself a meme–“I can’t even”–as it related to what is an apparently absurd situation. A man is on a stick (growing out of an ox?) while two other men look on. The humor works because it’s making fun of what is a serious document of British history by applying easily relatable text to the image. It draws upon the ridiculousness that scholars of the tapestry have to (in theory) take with a straight face and look at in terms of its historical significance. The meme encourages the audience to look this absurdity in the face, and the result is a type of humor that–I think–can have a pretty wide appeal.

I think this meme also helps to demonstrate the extent to which community can form around the meme, and memes appealing to specific audiences can develop. For example, someone who is not a fan of Doctor Who (or at least not familiar with the show) will not understand the implication of the Tardis in the above meme, but they might find the “I doth not even” meme funny. If nothing else, this shows the extent to which memes can develop in audience specific (as well as audience-general) ways.

And, of course, they are a lot of fun!

On that note…

a14

Sources:

James Gleick, “What Defines a Meme?”

Writing & Reflection in the (Digital) Classroom

In “Wiki as a Teaching Tool,” Kevin R. Parker and Joseph T. Chao offer an overview of the potential pedagogical uses of wikis within the classroom. The use of wikis for education, they suggest, encourages both collaborative and constructivist learning paradigms (Chao and Parker 58). Talking specifically about the benefits of collaboration, Chao and Parker contend that:

Collaborative learning becomes even more powerful when it takes place in the context of a community of practice. A community of practice consists of people engaged in collective learning in a shared domain. Thus, learning becomes a collaborative process of a group. Wikis can serve as a knowledge platform for a community of practice where members of the community can share their knowledge with the group, put up interesting pieces of information, work together, discuss issues, etc. (Chao and Parker 58)

Described in this way, the use of the wiki within the classroom allows for the students to work not only collaboratively but also within a “community of practice” (Chao and Parker 58). Within this community, each individual student is afforded the agency to participate in the cultivation of knowledge within an ongoing class.

The pedagogical benefits of such a system appear to be numerous, and lend themselves to brainstorming methods of how best to incorporate the use of wikis into the classroom. I think the benefits of wikis in the classroom stem primarily from their emphasis on the inclusion and active engagement of the entirety of a class of students. Students who might not otherwise feel the desire to speak up are given the opportunity to non-verbally offer a contribution to the growing knowledge base of the classroom. Also, students who may have been forced to miss class due to illness or personal obligations will still be able to participate within online conversations from home or elsewhere. In thinking about future classes I might teach, I am wondering whether or not it would be possible to create a wiki to be used not only by a single class, but all of the individual sections of a course being taught in a given semester (e.g. multiple sections of WRT 102 being taught simultaneously in a Fall/Spring semester). Students could be encouraged to create a growing database for the course, including digitized versions of everything from expanded class notes, glossaries, FAQs, and informal class discussion forums, to name a few possibilities. Such a structure would, I think, allow students to feel like they were active agents in the ongoing development of the course they are currently taking. For example, allowing students to curate an ongoing database of FAQs would allow the instructor to become aware of and address frequent student problems as they develop and within the same semester (as opposed to waiting until end-of-semester course evaluations/asking for informal student feedback during individual student conferences).

Referring specifically to wikis within the writing classroom, Chao and Parker suggest that wikis are useful for teaching composition in that the wiki “maximizes the advantages of reflection, reviewing, publication, and of observing cumulative written results as they unfold” (Chao and Parker 61). Wikis thus emphasize the process rather than the product of writing, allowing students to view the development of their writing while simultaneously able to communicate with other students and/or the instructor. This type of collaborative effort would lead to student reflection on their writing in terms of how it was able to evolve.

Kelly A. Parkes, Katie S. Dredger, and David Hicks—“ePortfolio as a Measure of Reflective Practice”—take up the issue of student reflection through examining the benefits of using ePortfolios within graduate teaching programs. The ePortfolio as it is used in these programs is not a simple collection of documents: an ePortfolio “goes beyond simply collecting and storing artifacts toward leveraging digital technologies’ potential to make unique linkages, connections, and reflections among multiple experiences and artifacts in ways that would not otherwise be possible with a traditional paper portfolio” (Parks, Dredger, and Hicks 101). Students are required not to simply select a representative collection of their best work, but rather to showcase the development of their learning (and emotional engagement with and attitude toward that learning) throughout the course of their time in the program. Such a reflective model of ePortfolio inclusion seems particularly useful for undergraduate students, though I do wonder about whether or not students would engage enthusiastically with a model that requires such consistent personal (and public) reflection.

Reflecting, according to the authors, is the act of “being intentionally thoughtful about defining an experience, explaining that experience, and determining future implications and actions” (Parks, Dredger, and Hicks 102). Students are thus required to select a textual (or audio, visual, etc.) artifact for inclusion in the ePortfolio insofar as it represents some aspect of their learning process. I think that this aspect of the ePortfolio is particularly important in helping students to self-assess their progress within the course. I would certainly like to learn more about how best to incorporate this level of reflection within the ePortfolio process (particularly as it relates to WRT 102).

Sources:

“Wiki as a Teaching Tool”

“ePortfolio as a Measure of Reflective Practice”

Sharing Economies, Fanfiction, and Diana Gabaldon

In the second section of Remix, Lawrence Lessig identifies two different economies—commercial and sharing—in relation to the exchange of digital content. A commercial economy, according to Lessig, can be defined as any economy in which “money or ‘price’ is a central term of the ordinary, or normal, exchange” (Lessig 118). Most simply, any situation in which we make a purchase through paying money for goods (i.e. going to the grocery store to buy groceries) is an exchange that takes places within a commercial economy. We expect to pay some sum of money for the goods we purchase and the companies responsible for marketing these goods are satisfied that the goods are worth the amount of money they are sold for. While we may occasionally wish to pay less, we generally understand that the monetary price is reasonably forfeited to acquire something that we need. Through paying, we expect only to receive that which we’ve paid for (we do not, Lessig humorously suggests, expect the seller to consistently express a desire to be actively involved in our personal lives). Money is both definitive of the commercial economy and seen as necessary. This is precisely where the commercial economy differs fundamentally from the sharing economy: money can have no productive place in the sharing economy. In fact, Lessig goes as far as to suggest that it can be “poisonous” (Lessig 119).

In a sharing economy, “access to culture” is regulated “not by price, but by a complex set of social relations” (Lessig 145). As with the commercial economy, the sharing economy is built upon exchange—but money does not play a role in that exchange. Lessig relates the sharing economy to the realm of gift exchange, suggesting ultimately that gifts are not related to money because they do something else—something that is particularly communal. He writes:

Gifts in particular, and the sharing economy in general, are thus devices for building connections with people. They establish relationships, and draw upon those relationships. They are the glue of community, essential to certain types of relationships, even if poison to others. It is not a gift relationship that defines your employment contract with a steel mill. Nor should it be. But it is a gift relationship, or sharing economy, that defines your life with your spouse or partner. And if it isn’t, it better become so if that relationship is to last. (Lessig 148)

Sharing economies work precisely because they are motivated by connection (and not by money). Participants in a sharing economy are thus willing to participate in exchange without the promise of monetary gain because doing so permits them to participate in and strengthen a community. Money would alter—and potentially weaken, or cheapen—relationships of this nature.

Lessig also distinguishes between “me-regarding” and “thee-regarding” sharing economies (Lessig 151). In the former economy, someone participates because it benefits him or her; in the latter economy, someone participates because it will benefit others (Lessig 151). Further, “thin” sharing economies are those with a me-regarding motivation and “thick” sharing economies are those “where the motivations are at least ambiguous between me and thee motivation” (Lessig 152). Generally, Lessig suggests that a thin sharing economy is easier to sustain over time than a thick sharing economy, because “inspiring or sustaining thee motivations is not costless” (Lessig 154). Economies in which individuals are motivated primarily by their own selves and interests are inherently easier to sustain than those that are motivated by the needs or desires of others. However, in Internet sharing economies, Lessig suggests that there are circumstances in which users feel that they “owe” the community something (Lessig 155). Participants can feel like they need to offer something in order to be considered a valued member who is participating appropriately and effectively in the sharing economy.

One sharing economy that stands out to me—and that we already spent a little time in class discussing—is that of fanfiction (and participation in fandoms, more generally). In order to write fanfiction, writers work with preexisting characters and construct new narratives for them. Fans of those characters will be eager to read these narratives for many reasons (i.e. the author finished writing the series, the readers are waiting for the author to publish a new book in the series, the series and characters are just generally well-loved, etc.). Ultimately, people write (and read) fanfiction for a variety of reasons but one thing remains constant—fanfiction authors are not paid for their efforts. In this way, the text that they share can be seen as a gift to the fandom and an attempt at building an established Internet community. Participants in this community—particularly writers—may feel that they need to contribute writing in order to consistently energize the community.

While fanfiction can be found for nearly any fandom, I want to focus a bit here on Outlander fanfiction given the series author’s avowed hatred of the medium. Diana Gabaldon,

26_gabaldon_diana_autorphoto.jpg
Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander book series. 

whose Outlander series spans many books and thousands of pages, expressed disgust with fans that write fanfiction of her novels in a series of heated posts on her book blog. While these posts have since been removed by Gabaldon, they exist in various locations through fan-taken screencaps that were then transcribed into various other mediums, such as Livejournal. Gabaldon’s stance rests on her belief that fanfiction is unethical. Put bluntly, she writes: “I think it’s immoral, I _know_ it’s illegal, and it makes me want to barf whenever I’ve inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters” (Gabaldon). While she recognizes that fanfiction authors are not achieving monetary gain through their efforts, Gabaldon’s ideas rest on copyright:

Well, see, this is where “illegal” comes in. You can’t break into somebody’s house, even if you don’t mean to steal anything. You can’t camp in someone’s backyard without permission, even if you aren’t raising a marijuana crop back there. And you can’t use someone’s copyrighted characters for your own purposes, no matter what those purposes are. Really. I’m not making it up; this is International Copyright Law. (Gabaldon)

Gabaldon sees copyright issues as pretty black and white. For her, there’s no value in fans reworking her characters for the purpose of fanfiction, and when she does encounter it she takes personal offense.

outlander-book-series
The covers of the Outlander series. 

I see a lot of problems with Gabaldon’s stance, not least because her tone is consistently both dismissive of and blatantly aggressive toward her fans. At several moments in her blog posts she dismisses Outlander fanfiction as nothing more than poorly-written fantasy that can potentially cause her to lose all rights over her own characters. Of course, much fanfiction will necessarily not be well written, but here Gabaldon is missing the point: fanfiction writers, good and bad, are contributing to a sharing economy that has room for people of various literary skills. Fanfiction seems to be a way through which fans can communicate and form closer bonds in the interim of books being published—at which point they will purchase the author’s book, not forego it for the reading of fan fiction. Gabaldon’s posts served to alienate herself from her fans, which I’m sure was not her intention. The question then remains: is it really so bad to construct new narratives for well-loved characters?

outlander-series-premiere-jamie-claire
Also, there is now a Starz TV series of the novels–a remix–that Gabaldon has sanctioned.

Sources:

Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. 

Diana Gabaldon on Outlander fanfiction

Elves and Aesthetic Experience

I. Play As Aesthetic Experience 

Bonnie A. Nardi begins her third chapter—“Play as Aesthetic Experience”—by asking what she calls an “obvious” question: what is it about World of Warcraft that people enjoy so much (39)? Inherent in this question is the reality that numerous people willingly devote a great deal of their time and mental energy to engaging in play within a virtual world. Nardi contends that WoW’s appeal is a gaming experience that is “woven of sociality, the visual beauty of the game world, and a sense of performative mastery” (40). Players are afforded the opportunity to engage in a social playing field that is both graphically beautiful and capable of being mastered with developed skills. To flesh out these ideas, Nardi turns to activity theory as understood through the philosophical work of John Dewey.

According to Dewey, aesthetic experience is “participatory” and part of “ordinary life;” it is not, for example, merely the “passive appreciation” of visual art that occurs within the separate space of an art gallery (41). Activity theorists ultimately conceive of human activity as a dynamic hierarchy, demonstrated by the following illustration:

8008655.0001.001-00000005
The hierarchical structure of human activity. 

Activity—the highest level of the hierarchy—is driven by an object (41). A motivating object “gives shape and materiality to a subject’s needs or desires,” and these needs and desires are “transformed to specific motivating objects which are a concrete instantiation of the need or desire” (41). Actions are completed to fulfill an object, and operations are “unconscious, habitual movements underlying actions” (41). Because activity is dynamic, activity may begin at the top or bottom of the hierarchy. What is most important here is that experience—particularly aesthetic experience—can be conceived of as an activity.

Experience is subjective in that it “requires an active self or subject” and no experience is “inherently aesthetic” (43). Thus aesthetic experience, according to Dewey, can be described as

a subjective disposition toward activity. Aesthetic experience incorporates the contribution of the subject as essential—aesthetic activity can never be realized purely through the structural or formal qualities of an artifact (such as a game). To understand aesthetic experience we cannot stop at analyzing an artifact as a text, or narrative or set of functions or composition of elements, but must also undertake to examine the actual activity in which the artifact is present. (43)

Aesthetic experience thus requires a subject who has the experience and acts in relation to it. This action can be conceived of in terms of means-ends relations; that is, the activity of aesthetic experience is geared towards the process of achieving some end. However, for Dewey, aesthetic activity is “a consummation and not a cessation,” for the means to the end must “satisfy in themselves” (44). In relation to World of Warcraft, the experience of playing the game—whether through questing, running dungeons, exploring, or joining a guild—is enjoyable in itself. Players are engaged in the game through the “flow of actions” that are inherent in these activities, not merely for the accumulation of points and game experience (45). Players experience consummation when game tasks are completed not since they are merely relieved that a task is completed, but rather because they are satisfied both with the way a game experience has turned out as well as the variety of steps they took to get there.

Much of the appeal of World of Warcraft is the “structure of differentiated phases” on which the game relies (45). That is, gamers engage in a variety of in-game activities requiring the use of specific skills (i.e. quests) that lead to new and different levels. The demonstration of these skills is enjoyable for players because the action is not rote and allows for the experience of pleasure and satisfaction with one’s in-game character. This satisfaction also occurs in relation to “everyday collective activity” (47). Players of the game are able to communicate with one another through guild forums and chat functions. Ultimately, this cultivates a sense of digital community and friendship around and within the game itself (with the potential for friendships to move offline) (48). This sense of community emphasizes Dewey’s point about aesthetic experience occurring in the realm of daily life, for World of Warcraft players are able to engage with the virtual reality of the game program from within the comfort of their own homes at whatever time(s) they wish to log on.

II. A New Medium

Nardi next argues that World of Warcraft constitutes a “new digital medium” insofar as the “fusion of immersive visual experience with intense, skilled performative activity, represents a significant evolution in the history of digital culture” (52). Nardi wants to emphasize that the combination of visual game appeal and performance results in an “intoxicating” game experience, for players are required to perform—or, complete activities that demand “conscious attentiveness and skill”—in a visually appealing virtual reality (53-4). The game can be likened to real-life activities that are visual performative (i.e. dance clubs, costumed stage plays), but WoW stands out because it allows users to “attain skilled performance in artistically designed spaces entered through an ordinary computer” (54). For WoW players, achieving a high level of performance is considered to be integral to the experience of game play.

35a0U.jpg
An example of the beautifully rendered playing field of World of Warcraft.

Nardi looks in detail at WoW raiding to demonstrate the importance of in-game performance. Players who participate in raids with their guilds must hone their skills for the good of the group, as one player who lacks in ability can ultimately endanger their other guild members. However, mastering in-game skills permits the player to feel a “doubled” sense of agency: “the player experiences a freedom of movement and sense of authority and mastery within the game, alongside a sense of empowerment through their skill in mastering the technology” (57). Not only does the user’s avatar manifest success through the accumulation of gear and leveling-up, but also the user behind the avatar can experience a sense of accomplishment through mastering the technological skills necessary to do so.

Next, Nardi considers World of Warcraft as a “digital entity encoded in rules” (61). As a “software artifact,” the game itself contains rules with which users necessarily need to contend (61). As the rules are encoded within the “black box” of the software itself, players cannot interact with human agents in relation to the rules (as one can, for example, in sports that utilize referees or umpires) (61-2). Therefore, the “design of the game itself” is of significant importance in relation to game play (62). Users could influence the software through in-game conversation that prompted software changes (i.e. expansion packs) as well as through mods. Through ‘The Burning Crusade’ expansion, for example,  players were encouraged to improve their skills to perform well and see new content—to “engage the visual-performative medium” (65). These software changes ultimately, however, changed guild dynamics significantly (suggesting the extent to which the software itself can influence the realm of the game). The “rules encoded in digital technology” ultimately have direct influence on the culture of game play (67).

In Nardi’s own words:

The design of a software artifact dominates experience while not completely determining it. This asymmetry of player and software shapings is desirable when good design is encapsulated in digital rules with their capacity to reliably reproduce experience. In the case of video games, invariant execution of rules constitutes a resource for preserving and propagating vision and artistic imagination. World of Warcraft, whose software encoded elegant artwork, clever game mechanics, and support for specific forms of social activity, gave rise to play experience that found appeal to millions of people from diverse national, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. I suggest that we examine outcomes of rules as situated in particular artifacts rather than as a monolithic category, conceiving rules of well-designed software artifacts as neither inflexibly totalizing nor calling out for user remedy but as nurturing, protective, caring. (76)

The intricately designed software that characterizes World of Warcraft is also compared to Second Life. In this gaming realm, according to Nardi, the “philosophy of emancipation” that permits users to create their own content has ultimately led to an emphasis on sex and shopping (77). While Nardi does not condemn these interests, she says that such an emphasis creates a limited realm of interest and experience within Second Life. Visually, the virtual world of Second Life is likened to a “junk heap” (78).

6a00d8341bf74053ef0148c7d78890970c-800wi.jpg
A landscape from Second Life. Nardi would characterize this visual field as “junk” because there does not seem to be an abiding level of coherence between the elements of design.

Such a comparison is made primarily because Second Life tends to present virtual areas that are not necessarily as well organized as those found in World of Warcraft. Nardi does not see much coherence in the ways that worlds are designed; that is, there is nothing to stop users from creating a world in which modern and medieval architecture exist–perhaps garishly–side by side.  Ultimately, then, Nardi makes the argument that gaming rules are ultimately good for the game, for digital rules “provide a special kind of resource with which good design can be preserved and protected through encapsulation in the black box” (79). Further, rules can “nurture by providing a safe haven for cultural objects of integrity and excellence” (79). Player designed modifications can thus take something away from the integrity of the game. User participation in relation to game design might, Nardi thinks, be worth steering away from.

Even if players do not directly contribute to game design, they participate in the designed game as they would in a theater production: “Players not only interpreted visual elements; their actions altered the visual world—unlike other visual media such as television or film” (90). Gamers’ relationship to WoW is always significantly more active than that with forms of media that require one to simply passively watch and absorb visual entertainment. The visual realm of WoW both allows players to “gaze appreciatively at their surroundings” and “invite[s] players to participatory activity” (92). That is, World of Warcraft players are not only entertained by beautiful graphics, they get to virtually move and act within this well-designed world.

III. Work, Play, and the Magic Circle

Nardi ends this section of her book by analyzing World of Warcraft as a form of play that can occasionally come to be considered possessing some of the qualities of work. Generally, WoW players engage in the virtual world as a break from their workplace or school; however, gameplay also took on work-like qualities under certain circumstances. Elements of work enter in two ways: either play may “manifest seriousness and dedication” that is regarded as work or play may “demand obligatory actions” necessary for larger aspects of game play (102). That is, players can feel that playing for their guild is a responsibility akin to work or the rote actions (i.e. ‘farming’) in gameplay can become more of a work-like task.

Regardless, it is still possible to conceive of play within WoW as occurring within a “magic circle,” or a “protected space defended against encroachments of everyday life such as work, school, and domestic duties” (94). Ultimately, gaming has the possibility to become a type community-based space in which people can take a break from their responsibilities and engage in the very different realm of the game. This can be both relaxing and extremely enjoyable for game players. Because this space is so enjoyable, Nardi notes that players tend to accept as necessary the aspects of the game that can sometimes resemble work more than anything else.

Overall, the experience of gameplay is so rewarding precisely because it offers players opportunities that they generally aren’t offered in work and school (both in terms of engagement with mythical worlds and the ability to exercise freedom in determining which raids to participate in and on what schedule) (100).

According to Nardi, play can be characterized in the following ways, with the last four points being most specific to virtual game play such as WoW (103):

  1. A Subjective experience of freedom

  2. An absence of social obligation and physical necessity

  3. A subjective experience that is absorbing, compelling, or pleasurable

  4. Occurrence in a separate realm sometimes referred to as the magic circle

  5. Activation through cognitive and/or physical skill

  6. Contingency

  7. Rules

  8. Opportunities for limited perfection

Players are able to engage beyond real life and pursue active aesthetic experience through their immersion in game play.

Every player, however, has had the experience of people who do not understand their fascination with the game:

From outside the magic circle, we see a person staring at a computer screen, perhaps clicking furiously. The enticements of the game are invisible. Within the magic circle, it’s a different story. A player is developing a character, interacting with guidelines, descending into difficult dungeons, exploring new landscapes, watching the (virtual) starry night sky. (116)

What this misunderstanding does in create a sense of “being ‘apart together'” within the realm of the game (116). Players who enjoy the game do not need to explain their reasons for liking it with others who also play; thus it is very easy for a sense of online community to form. Levels of in-game social coherence form such that players can grow to be aware of the culture of the game and understand how and why certain things occur. Within the magic circle, a social order can be created in the following ways: “through knowledge about structures and activities that occur inside its enclosure; in specialized discourse; and in designated spaces of play that mark and confine it” (117). Through shared knowledge of the game, players can effectively create a shared community within a virtual world.

Discussion Questions

  1. If we are to consider WoW an active aesthetic experience, what other types of games can apply to this category? Can we, for example, consider something like Second Life as offering the same level of aesthetic experience? Are the graphics as awful as Nardi suggests?
  2. Is World of Warcraft a game that can be adopted for educational purposes, and if so, how? (I ask this very general question in part because Nardi makes an offhand comment at one point that children should not be allowed to play the game.)
  3. What makes World of Warcraft a particularly appealing medium in terms of participation? Would the game be as appealing if there were less opportunities for joining guilds?
  4. At what point does WoW (or other similar platforms) become work? Can we say the same thing about about digital media platforms (i.e. blogging, Facebook, etc.)?
  5. How can we conceive of relations between the inside/outside of the magic circle? How easy is it for new players to join and feel accepted by an online community such as WoW?

 

Source:

Bonnie A. Nardi. My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft

Folksonomy & Tumblr Tagging

Towards the end of Douglas Eyman’s discussion of digital research methods, an interesting comparison is drawn between data visualization and folksonomy. According to Eyman, data visualization is an “analytic technique in its own right” because it is “a method that can be used to structure data in ways that reveal patterns” (Eyman 109-10). Representing information via data visualization results in an infographic that is both visually appealing and informative. Through studying this image, patterns and relationships inherent in texts can be more immediately determined. One example of data visualization given by Eyman is the ‘tag cloud.’ These clouds can be “generated automatically by extracting the most common phrases from a given corpus […], or they can represent the tags that individuals apply to content in folksonomic systems” (Eyman 111). Eyman refers to Derek Mueller (his dissertation is represented via tag cloud) who uses frequency analysis to find which terms appear most frequently in issues of College Composition and Communication (Eyman 111). Through this analysis, the most frequently used words per issue can be included within the visualization of a tag cloud. Such a cloud permits a reader of the journal to view, at a glance, the main topics under consideration within that particular issue’s collection of essays.

clouds-graphs-and-maps-ccc-from-a-distance-7-728
An example of one of Derek Mueller’s CCC tag clouds.

I was interested here in Eyman’s suggestion that tag clouds can refer not only to commonly used phrases within a text but also to “content in folksonomic systems” (Eyman 111). This reminded me of an essay that I read last semester: “‘Folksonomy’ and the Restructuring of Writing Space” by Jodie Nicotra. In this essay, Nicotra considers the extent to which digital composition has changed the way that writing as a process can be defined. While writing has generally been understood as constituting a “discrete textual object”—a text written by an individual for a predetermined audience—this understanding of writing fails to account for the variety of compositions that are produced online or through other digital means (Nicotra 259). Therefore, Nicotra’s essay focuses on folksonomy, or “multi-user-tagging,” as a form of digital composition that permits “multiple, collective subjectivities to ‘write’” (Nicotra 260). Through attaching tags to digital texts, multiple online users can influence the ways that texts are catalogued (and thus the ease with which they are or are not found). Nicotra ultimately suggests that online writing through folksonomy can be conceived of as “the building of a space rather than the production of a text” because multiple users contribute to the composition (Nicotra 263). Through tagging, users can create a space not only for their writing but a community in which they want to be active participants.

This understanding of folksonomy as a space-building tool is particularly interesting to me in relation to Tumblr. As a blogging platform, users can attribute tags to their posts so that they can be more easily organized and catalogued (both in relation to their own blog and the blogging community at large). For example, tagging a post as being related to #education can organize similarly themed posts on a user’s individual blog as well as potentially allow the post to appear to any Tumblr user who searches for other #education posts via the site-wide search feature. This is the type of tagging that Eyman is talking about, insofar as these tags mark the main topics of a piece of writing and can thus be included in a cloud visualization demonstrating which topics a user talks about most frequently. However, tagging on Tumblr also functions beyond cataloguing and organization as a form of narrative text in itself.

Tumblr users who tag their posts are not restricted by single words or phrases; rather, tags can be full sentences or fragments that do not necessarily relate to a single specific topic. (While I believe that other blogging platforms also allow this freedom, I’m focusing on Tumblr because that is where I’ve seen this type of tagging occur most often.)

tip-xkit-go-to-dash2 (1)
Below the Sherlock stills, you can see examples of commentary- esque tagging.

Therefore, bloggers can continue the narrative of their blog post within the text of the tags themselves. Once done, the tags will—theme permitting—appear in a smaller or lighter colored font either below or next to the original post. On themes that don’t display tags on the page, tags are only visible to users who come across the post on their dashboard or ‘like’ the post and then read the post within their on-dashboard log of liked posts. I think there is something to be said about this type of tagging as a specific rhetorical decision in that the text of tags is (at least relatively) more hidden than the main text of a post. There is a possibility that certain users (particularly readers without Tumblr accounts and access to the dashboard) might miss this aspect of the composition. In this way, tagging on Tumblr becomes somewhat akin to speaking more quietly about a topic (especially given that the type of information usually given in tags can be generally understood as commentary or additional reflections about the text written in the main post). Tagged writing can be somewhat more difficult to access, and therefore gives the writer an increased level of freedom to broach certain topics insofar as the tags are supplementary to the main text.

However, seemingly personal tags—personal insofar as they refer explicitly to a personal anecdote—sometimes get adopted and adapted by other users on their own blogs. Or, conversely, users can reblog the original text of another user’s post and add their own commentary through tagging. In this way, tagging becomes what Nicotra has called a “[tool] for invention” (Nicotra 272). While in traditional rhetoric invention is envisioned as occurring “in the mind of the rhetorical producer,” invention through tagging “results from interaction between multiple users who are unknown to one another” (272). Conversation between users can therefore occur through folksonomy, even if only through adoption of or addition to tags.

This interests me also because I wonder whether tagging—understood as an extension of narrative rather than as a means of categorization—could be incorporated into data visualization. While it certainly could be organized into a tag cloud, the effect of such a visualization would likely not permit a viewer to have a more immediate understanding of the types of topics occupying the blog. Regardless, I think that considering folksonomy as a form of writing is beneficial because it gives a great deal of agency to the online writer and contributes to the idea of online community. Studying online writing in relation to the use of tags would potentially allow for a better understanding of how writers envision (or don’t envision) themselves as entering a conversation when they create digital media.

Sources

Eyman, Douglas. “Digital Rhetoric: Method.” Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 2015. 93-111. Print.

Nicotra, Jodie. “‘Folksonomy’ and the Restructuring of Writing Space.” College Composition and Communication 61.1 (September 2009): 259-276. Web.

Web Interfaces and the Commoditization of Race

  1. The Interface & the User

Lisa Nakamura begins the third chapter of Digitizing Race by discussing the ubiquity of the interface as a feature in popular film, spanning the genres of science fiction and thriller to romantic comedy. Movie scenes in which the interface figures prominently are worth paying attention to in that they “allow insight into both the characters that use them and the ways in which information, surveillance, and visualization function in the realm of the film and in society at large” (95). As “mastery” of the interface can be understood in terms of “immediacy,” or a direct and transparent relationship with technology, Nakamura is interested in analyzing instances in which certain bodies are filmed as not having an immediate relationship to interfaces (95). Focusing primarily the “racio-visual logic of race” in The Matrix trilogy and Minority Report, Nakamura argues that representations of interface use “sets up distinct roles for particular races, and distinct ways of conceptualizing the racialized body as informational property for use in dataveillant state apparatuses” (97). In these two films, white users engage in direct, visual, and unmediated relationships with the interface; black users are depicted as “witnesses and support staff” (97).

Nakamura thus distinguishes between “‘black’ and ‘white’ interface culture” (99). In The Matrix, for example, white users engage with interfaces by means of gesture; that is, they interact with technology without forms of mediating technology (99).

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 8.21.21 PM
A white interface uses interacts with an interface via gesture (rather than mediating technology.)

Black users, in contrast, cannot access the interface without the use of mediated—and arguably antiquated—technology, such as a keyboard, computer mouse, or headset.

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 8.21.34 PM
A black interface user engages with interface only via mediating technology (i.e. headset).

The white user’s engagement with the interface is thus privileged in terms of its immediacy. Where the black user is depicted as occupying a supportive and mediated role in relation to the interface, the white user can be connected with the interface without technological help.

While the white user is able to interact with the interface through more transparent means, the interface itself is figured as white; it is clear, fluid, and visually transparent. White characters—and interfaces—in each film are linked with oppressive forms of control (surveillance, dataveillance, etc.). The presence of the white interface thus suggests the “paradox” of whiteness as the “paradox of new media” (98). Nakamura suggests that computer use “is also a privileged site for looking at the ways that black and white identities are constructed in relation to new media in this trilogy” (98). Whiteness is dangerous in terms of its “ability to reproduce itself infinitely” (101). The black user is present in The Matrix trilogy in opposition to the whiteness of the interface, particularly in relation to a perceived level of ‘coolness’ maintained by the black user. While white male characters, representative of “machine culture,” are infinitely reproduced, the black characters remain essentially stable, and more human (100). Nakamura writes:

This is how the films portray their strong critique of information society, post-Internet, as well as how they pose their solution to this problem—while machine culture is viral, oppressive, and assimilative, Afro-futurist mojo and black identity are generally depicted as singular, ‘natural,’ and, as Ebert puts it, unassimilable and ‘authentic.’ Blackness retains its identity in the face of technological change, white power and privilege, and racism. (100)

Ultimately, the black interface user—with “Afro-futurist mojo,” or ‘coolness’—is depicted as an alternative to the unnatural power and control inherent in the white interface user (and the interface itself) (100). Nakamura thus posits that blackness is “represented as a source of human agency in this techno-future” (103). Through the inclusion of a black characters in relation to a predominantly white interface, The Matrix trilogy “creates a counterdiscourse to cyberutopianism, one that comes at an especially opportune time as we exit the millennium with the knowledge that the Internet has failed to live up to its much hyped potential to liberate users from their bodies, from racism, and from inequalities of all kinds” (104). However, this ultimately problematizes race in terms of ownership and property: who, in other words, has the ‘right’ to present raced bodies in this way?

II. The Transparent Interface and “the presence of the black figure” (107)

Nakamura next considers the interface and its racial implications in terms of another film, Minority Report. Here, the “metaphor of transparency” is made literal in relation to interface as depicted in the film; it is visually transparent and clear (the viewer of the film sees through the interface itself as Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, manipulates the screen via gesture) (106). The presence of black interface users—occupying a largely secondary space only through the use of mediating technology—serves to emphasize the interface’s whiteness. Nakamura writes:

The presence of blackness in the visual field guards whites from the irresistible seduction of the perfectly transparent interface. The implication here is that black and white interface styles can coexist, with blackness legitimating the white device as a means for producing pleasure and displacing anxieties regarding the hegemonies of white interfaces. In other words, the “mojo” of blackness in the computer interface is a salable commodity in the world outside the films as well. However, the price paid is that blacks are never depicted as masters of the interface, never creators of digital images, and are never depicted manipulating the interface in this direct bodily way (109).

Ultimately, blackness in each film functions as a commodity in that the presence of black users prevent white users from becoming wholly engaged in the damaging nature of the transparent interface. Rather, the white user is somehow reminded of what exists beyond the transparency of the interface. However, as both films demonstrate: the black user does not get to possess a privileged relationship with the interface. In this way, the black body benefits only the white body and is not given the same level of subjectivity.

III. The Interface & the iPod

The transparent interface—represented as “intuitive, universal, pre- or postverbal, white, translucent, and neutral”—is made apparent in the aesthetic interface/object design of the Apple iPod. Nakamura discusses iPod advertisements in relation to their representation of whiteness/blackness; specifically, she considers the 2004 advertising campaign that depicts black (as in colorless) silhouetted bodies dancing with white iPods against colorful backgrounds.

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 8.22.00 PM

In this advertisement campaign, the bodies using the iPods are depicted as “black void[s] into which a viewer’s identity can be transported” (109). As a technological object, the iPod is so appealing for potential consumers insofar as the consumer can place their mark on an otherwise uniform interface—or, in other words, a consumer can place their own music and/or playlists into the interface and customize the tracks that are available at any given time. While each iPod looks the same, the devices are “object[s] of desire” because “they are meant to be written on, to be shared with others, to contain subjectivity in a way that clothes or furniture cannot” (110). In this way, the iPod is enmeshed with “digital privilege;” the user can engage freely with media if they know where to look (111).

fddc9da2be433bd13cf097d8280e6ad3

Nakamura discusses the media form in terms of “flatness;” however, this is “counterbalanced by the creation of extremely well-differentiated visual styles that trace out different options in terms of race and ethnicity” (111). Nakamura draws a comparison between the iPod commercials—in which the silhouetted bodies are depicted as dancing to different genres of music—to Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love” music video (111). Where the viewers of the video were given the option to click through different identities—each of which have different racial associations and implications—the potential consumer can ‘select’ a different music identity.

Part of why this campaign is so successful depends on Apple’s apparent mastery of marketing their products in terms of what is “cool” (113). They accomplish this in part by “promoting an Afro-futuristic visual culture” in order to “separate blackness from other types of identities (the punk rock iPod ad features a thin white woman dancing pogo-style to aggressive sounding music) while presenting it as a stable object that can be enjoyed as one of a range of visual and musical options” (113). The music that users can select for their iPods are, however, not random; they “produce predictable configurations of bodies, types, and images” (113).

This leads the way to critiques of the iPod, most notably the “iPod Ghraib” series by Trek Kelly.

Untitled.png

Here, the bodies are not completed blacked out; it is clear that “not just anyone can occupy that desired space of musical free volition, expression, and consumption” (115). Kelly’s critique bears similarities to The Matrix trilogy and Minority Report in terms of marginal blackness. According to Nakamura,

Whiteness is replication, blackness is singularity, but never for the black subject, always for the white subject. How best to read the particular position of the marginal black in cinematic depictions of the interface? Marginal blacks are literally in the margins of these images—witness to the digital image production that threatens to smudge the line between reality and virtuality. And for many critics, the contrast between the real and the virtual is the most important issue to consider in the films. (116)

Nakamura suggests that race functions “as a way to visualize new media image production” (116). In other words, one must consider the color of the people creating images with interfaces and the color of those who will be “taking care of the bodies” of those who will be more connected (117). In specific relation to Minority Report, Nakamura suggests that the film depicts the negative potential of racial profiling in a digital culture that prizes the white, connected body over the black and ‘marginal’ one.

Discussion Questions

 

  1. Nakamura suggests the iPod is an “object of desire” because it can be “written” on (110). How is this desire made manifest with our relationships with other digital objects (including objects that are less tangible than an iPod)?
  2. Nakamura posits in her introduction that Jennifer Lopez in “If You Had My Love” exists as both subject and object; can we say the same about the multiple bodies—all of which are differently raced/gendered—in the 2004 iPod ad campaign, particularly the commercials?
  3. Both The Matrix trilogy and Minority Report depict nearly transparent interfaces capable of being accessed by white bodies (and only white bodies). What else seems potentially dangerous about this level of transparency?
  4. Nakamura notes that the women in each film are “objects, not subjects, of interactivity” (105). What is necessary for one to maintain subjectivity in the digital age? Who has the right to produce digital images?
  5. What does this chapter have to suggest about “performing” race? How is this similar to avatar use online?

 

Sources

Nakamura, Lisa. “The Social Optics of Race and Networked Interfaces in The Matrix Trilogy and Minority Report.Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2008. 95-130. Print.