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Sharing, Theft, and Creativity: April 25th talk on my research

Rather than having a dissertation “defense,” the School of Information asks its graduating doctoral students to give a public talk during business hours (getting the signatures was the defense…). I’ll be presenting a portion of my research on April 25 from noon to 2pm at South Hall on UC Berkeley’s Campus.

What: “Sharing, Theft, and Creativity: deviantART’s Share Wars and the Production of the Web” (abstract below)

When: April 25, 2012, 12-2pm
12-12:30: Bring your own lunch; Snacks and drinks provided
12:30-2:00: Talk and discussion

Where: Room 205, South Hall, UC Berkeley

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Abstract

The debate about the latest round of anti-piracy legislation (SOPA, PIPA) revealed sharp differences in how people conceptualized the Internet, creative work, and the relationship between the two. Much of the debate was framed as old vs. new: an older generation of people, technologies, media institutions, and notions of creativity clashing with the Internet, youth, and a revolution that they have brought about. Indeed, the web and social media help constitute new infrastructures for the distribution of media products and the social recognition of people—younger and older—as creators and artists. Conventional features of the contemporary web provide new means for the display of artistic products, tools for social commentary and interaction around these products, and means of enhancing existing artistic communities or forming new ones.

Over the past decade a Web 2.0 “creativity consensus” has emerged that envisions creative and artistic production via new Internet platforms as universal, democratic, communal, non-commercial, and revolutionary. The avant-garde of Web 2.0 creativity are said to be young, web-savvy media makers: a digital generation that has embraced new technology and is upending old notions of creativity and related cultural practices. In this talk, however, I argue that a critical aspect of what is new about the web is in how it resurfaces old tensions in art and creativity and brings them into contact with ideals of the Internet. The consequences are the generation of new tensions in practice that in turn propels the ongoing production of the web.

I draw from a four year ethnographic investigation of deviantART, a web site that describes itself as “the world’s largest online art community” with the tagline “where art meets application.” In this talk I will examine the consequences of deviantART’s introduction of a seemingly conventional set of features for sharing content on the web. These new share tools sparked a six week conflict among site members and designers that conflated technical and moral arguments about how art and the web work. The conflict surfaced new tensions among ideas about property, theft, sharing, and marketing and, in turn, the nature of the web. Rather than seeing young, web-savvy artists as the avant-garde of new forms of creativity tied to the inherent nature of web technologies, I argue that participants in deviantART play active roles in seeking new balances between historical tensions in art and the web. These young creators are thus important participants in producing deviantART and the web more generally.

Dissertation abstract – Making Art, Creating Infrastructure…

I officially filed my dissertation in December. It will be available through the UC Berkeley library and ProQuest soon enough, and I plan on having a nice web-formatted version up at some point in the near future. But in the meantime, the abstract is below and here is a link to the full dissertation (warning: large PDF…).

Making Art, Creating Infrastructure: deviantART and the Production of the Web

The development and widespread use of Internet technologies and platforms that are grouped under the labels “Web 2.0” and “social media” have led to celebratory accounts of their potential as tools to unleash human creativity. A “creativity consensus” has emerged that describes a vision of creative production via these new platforms as universal, democratic, communal, non-commercial, and revolutionary. The avant-garde of Web 2.0 creativity are said to be young, web-savvy media makers: a new generation that has embraced new technology and is upending old notions of creativity and related cultural practices.

This dissertation challenges these views through an ethnographic investigation of deviantART, the self-described “world’s largest online art community.” The dissertation demonstrates how conflicting ideals of art, creativity, and the web, when put into practice, shaped the site as ideological and technical infrastructure for creative practice and the formation of members’ creative identities.

In their use of the site, participants in deviantART actively, and at times contentiously, engaged with historical tensions concerning both art and the web. The dissertation explores tensions emerging around three sets of concerns: (1) gaining artistic recognition through visibility, popularity, or quality; (2) demonstrating artistic “seriousness” in relation to ways of improving at art; and (3) controlling and circulating work through the concepts of property, “sharing,” and “theft.” The dissertation argues that rather than upending Romantic conceptions of art and creativity, the web uneasily accommodates multiple conflicting ideologies.

Intersecting with tensions in art are tensions around the web and its overlapping corporate, commercial, and communal uses. deviantART brought together a diverse set of art worlds and creative practices via a seemingly conventional set of interfaces, features, and functionality. In turn, participants on the site helped manifest, reproduce, and transform these tensions in art practice and web use.

These findings illustrate flaws in conventional accounts of creativity in a world with the web—accounts that fail to recognize the active, contested, and ongoing work underlying the mutual production of creative practice and the web.

Read the full dissertation

Updates on the Art of Theft

The Art of Theft: Creativity and Property on deviantART. Background: In my dissertation research, I have spent quite a bit of time investigating with participants in my research refer to as “art theft.” In late 2008, I presented a talk at the American Anthropological Association that were some of my early thoughts on the topic. This past summer, I was lucky enough to be asked to write a short piece on the topic for the edited blog Material World, out of New York University. So here it is: The Art of Theft: Creativity and Property on deviantART.

Corrupted-Files.com – So entrepreneurial

On today’s Inside Higher Ed we get some of the backstory on a service that offers students variable length corrupted files to turn into professors as they scramble to finish papers late.

Some quotes I enjoyed:

“Cheating is not the answer to procrastination! – Corrupted-Files.com is!” — The point is that somehow students face a simple choice when faced with a deadline they haven’t planned for: either turn in a ripped off paper or buy time with excuses. This site gives you better excuses. Obviously those are the only choices the site’s creator wants people to think about. Sadly, all of students’ other options aren’t even mentioned in the article. I guess I could list a few, but maybe I’ll let people think for themselves on this one.

“I used the corrupted file excuse back in my college days (I’m 25) as I started my first business at 19 so I didn’t have much time to do my schoolwork. When I couldn’t get an extension, I sent my professors a corrupted file to buy me time. I know this was not the most ethical thing but as a young entrepreneur, I did not have much of a choice as I valued my employees well above my academics.”  Well, this is America. Who can argue with that logic? The phrase “young entrepreneur” just warms the heart.

“Who are the best customers? “Not to anyone’s surprise, but my best clients are from Ivy and top tier schools. I guess the more perfect people think you are, the more likely in life you are to cheat to keep that perception.”” Hmmm… wonder if Berkeley students would do something like this? I’m teaching this summer and I better get my corrupted file detector working.

The Digital Youth Project Final Report

The Digital Youth Final Report has been launched. Apparently, the press has made it’s move on this (NYT, SFGate). More to come…

http://digitalyouth.ischool.berkeley.edu/report-announcement

Peer pedagogy in an interest-driven community: The practices and problems of online tutorials

I am off to London to attend the Fifth Anniversary Conference of Media@lse, which is the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics.

I’ll be presenting a paper that is part of ongoing dissertation research. It’s called Peer pedagogy in an interest-driven community: The practices and problems of online tutorials. I co-authored the paper with Becky Herr-Stephenson who has been a colleague of mine on the Digital Youth project for the past three years (and a current collaborator on the MacArthur Foundation’s efforts to create a Digital Media and Learning Networked Studio).

Here is the abstract of the paper:

While many have celebrated youth participation in online activities as an empowering opportunity for socialization, creative expression, and learning, how this participation plays out in practice is not well understood. In this paper, we consider the ways in which peers teach and learn through the creation and posting of tutorials within a self-described online community of artists and media producers. We describe the practices associated with the production of tutorials in terms of genres of participation, modes of engagement with new media. Within the genres of participation framework, creating tutorials can be seen as a way to earn reputation and demonstrate expertise within the alternative status economy of a specific interest-driven community. However, we also show that tutorials can be a source of tension between participants in such a community, as members may view tutorials and their relationships to learning and improving one’s craft in contradictory ways.

The talk that I am going to give on Monday will mainly cover the second half of the paper–the point about tensions over the value of tutorials. While it seems that tutorials on deviantART are generally fairly popular and valuable to members of the site, it was interesting to hear that not everyone feels that way. We are still trying to figure out what it all means. Therefore the paper is still a work-in-progress in many ways and we welcome any feedback.

Kids (and adults too!) Talk to Many at Once

This past week, NPR has been doing a series on The E-mail age. I haven’t listened to all of them. In fact, I found the series serendipitously because of a story I was looking for that I heard on the radio this morning on Chinese Fans of American TV Shows, which I may try to come back to in a later post.

I listened to a few of the email stories that struck me because of their relevance to Digital Youth research.

First up: Connected Kids Talk to Many at Once. That seemed to be an old topic, but maybe there’s something new here based on the provocative abstract:

Beyond e-mail, there are ever more ways to connect and communicate: text messages, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, IM and, for the old fashioned, phone calls. Help! How many connections can one person manage? How do people decide what is the best way to keep in touch?

The piece is rather strange. It’s four minutes long and there are two people featured by the journalist, Laura Sydell. The first person is actually not a kid at all, but an adult, Lenny who is 35 and is a marketer at a “Silicon Valley tech firm.” From Lenny, we hear a bit about all of the different technologies for communication that he uses and how he segments those he uses depending on situation. He describes how he can have “multiple layers of conversation” as a part of his job (Skype calls with clients, while text messaging colleagues at work, etc.). Sydell reports that when she arrived he had three IM windows open at the same time. Apparently, he used six different technologies of communication in the forty five minutes that Sydell spent with him.

This is actually quite interesting, but so far, nothing to do with kids.

Almost a minute and a half into the story the voice of Stanford Communications professor Clifford Nass comes in and talks about how at one point psychologists would have said that these kinds of multiple conversations shouldn’t be able to happen–due to “interference” which can lead to “mixed up” and “chaotic conversation” for the brain to process–but they are. Okay, sounds reasonable: theories of communication and psychology need to be refined and reconsidered (besides, sometimes I feel like my head is exploding when I have too many conversations going at the same time).

But here’s the funny transition, about halfway through, and where kids finally come into the story:

Nass says he and other social scientists suspect that many of us are walking around a little mixed up. But, it may be different for people who adapt to it versus those who are growing up with it.

Enter 16 year old Sonia (or Sonja?). Sonia is ending an IM conversation when Sydell walks into the room and, like Lenny, has a few up on the screen of her computer at the same time. She’ll talk to up to six people at once, we learn from Sonia. We also hear that she uses different communications for difference purposes, depending on the context. So far, sounds a lot like Lenny.

Lydell says that even Sonia can get overwhelmed. Going back to the point of the story, though, we didn’t hear Lenny getting overwhelmed. Not that he doesn’t, but we didn’t hear about it. (I should add that I’m not sure Sonia’s quote really supports the interpretation of “overwhelmed.” Decide for yourself around the 3:20 mark.)

The piece ends with Nass making some good points about how, historically, communication media, for the most part, don’t replace each other when they are invented. Though that point has been made before it’s worth repeating over and over again until people stop claiming otherwise. Thus, it seems like that all of us will have to deal with more and more choices of media going forward.

Okay. I am still trying to figure out how this story ended up with the title that it did and what it says about any differences between kids and adults.

To recap: here’s what I heard, at a little more abstract level.

1. 35 year old marketing guy is using many different communications media, has reasons for using different ones with different people, and often has many conversations at the same time.
2. Researchers once thought this not possible. In fact, maybe adult brains are still a little mixed up by all of it (implication: Lenny is an outlier). Ah, but what about those “growing up” (different than “adapting”) with all of this?
3. Answer: 16 year old Sonia is is using many different communications media, has reasons for using different ones with different people, and often has many conversations at the same time.
4. Conclusion? We will continue to have lots of choices in communication technologies going forward and, well, we’ll learn to deal with them.

I think I know what Sydell (or is she paraphrasing Nass and the other social scientists?) are trying to say when they differentiate “adapt” vs. “growing up with” but I’m not sure that this distinction would really hold up as we unravel what “growing up with” really means. Superficially, sounds like “adapt” just a younger age, but adult brains, as I keep hearing more and more, don’t just stop developing. I can’t really get into this here and now, but it’s worth thinking about some more.

Even though I really enjoyed the responses that Lydell elicited from her interviewees and even liked the little concluding points offered by Nass, what bothers me about this story, is that it seems to be designed to fit into the larger narrative of how adults and kids are so different from one another when it comes to technology. I won’t say more on my thoughts on that now (mainly because they are largely incoherent and I’m still working through them). But, titling this story “Connected Kids Talk to Many at Once” and then trying to turn the story on a difference between those who adapt vs. those who grow up with seems kind of sloppy considering how what Sydell reported on doesn’t seem to fit at all.

An obvious alternative framing might have been: given all that we have heard about kids and adults being so different when it comes to technology, how are Sonia and Lenny so similar? In what other ways might they be different?

Copy, Paste, Remix: Profile Codes on MySpace (Talk from ICA 2007)

Back in May I attended the annual conference for the International Communications Association for the first time. It was held in San Francisco, which made it quite convenient. danah boyd and I presented a talk based on some of our research on looking at home kids put together their MySpace profiles. The context for the talk was a panel entitled “The Rise of Remix Culture: Identity, Power, and Imagination.” I wasn’t really a part of the panel organization process, and so going into the preparations for the talk, I found myself wondering what “remix culture” really meant. While I have used the term “remix” in the past as a way of describing some specific practices on MySpace, I wasn’t (and still am not) a big fan of it as an adjective a specific form of culture or as a new form of cultural expression. As it turned out, my co-panelists, Mark Latonero, Aram Sinnreich, and Marissa Gluck, also offered some of their own criticisms of the term, which made me feel a bit less like an outsider.

Here is the text from the talk. It’s not that long, but to make it even shorter here is the basic gist: With respect to the teenagers that danah and I have talked to on our separate efforts, we have noticed a few patterns in how teenagers describe how they first learned to make their profiles and how they put them together. A MySpace profile isn’t really “mine.” That’s not just a cynical way of saying it’s Rupert Murdoch’s, either. Rather, a profile is the product of collective effort and collective technical resources that is ongoing. When teenagers (and adults as well) copy and paste code to create their profiles, they are not really remixing media, at least not in the way many people use the term “remix.” Rather, they are mixing code. This is not a trivial difference.

The result is that they are mixing pointers to other people’s materials, or at least materials that are technical managed and perhaps even “owned” by others. And this leads to some interesting tensions when savvy, snarky, and irritated media hosters have to deal with those who are stealing their bandwidth (see this guy and this guy though both contain some not so pretty pictures including a quite disturbing one in the second). Presidential hopeful John McCain ran into some trouble on his MySpace page this past March.

Given the nature of the practices and the tensions that come as a result, I don’t feel that comfortable simply lumping what teenagers are up to on MySpace and the resulting network of media into some unknown concept of “Remix Culture.” Rather, I’d like to understand what is different about MySpace profile customization than other cultural practices, such as remixing music or video.

Text from the talk.

Creativity and gaps in participation

I wrote up a “Stories from the Field” for the Digital Youth Research website regarding my recent interactions with two teenagers. One came from a couple of hours interviewing in his home. The other from participant observation, which involved many hours of interaction and discussion. Here’s the teaser:

Michael and James. Two teenage boys in the Bay Area, James from a poor area of San Francisco, Michael from a wealthier home in Oakland. Each uses the Interent and other digital technologies as a part of their social lives and their interest in art and technology. Like most of their friends, each has a MySpace profile, though their use of the site differs dramatically and can only be understood in light of their other hobbies. Their differing levels of access to social and technical resources is in line with what some call a “participation gap,” but as I describe in detail below, this might run the risk of, at best, an over-simplification of their digitally-enhanced creative interests, and at worst, a privileging of the value of one of the boy’s interests and activities over the other’s.

And, here’s the story.

As I’m not much of a blogger, I didn’t know if it was bad form to post the same thing in two places or to even point this post over to that one. Maybe it depends on the genre of the blog or even the subject matter?

Anyhow, if anyone is out there reading this and wants to comment, it would be great to hear your thoughts and would be even better to see them on the Digital Youth site rather than here. I am much more into the idea of contributing more regularly to a group blog than this one.

UPDATE: Turns out the comments are turned off on the Digital Youth site, so for now, if you do have any comments, post them here!

What 21st century debates regarding literacy could learn from 19th century ones

I recently read Jenny Cook-Gumperz’s historical account of the relationship between schooling and literacy (“Literacy and Schooling” in The Social Construction of Literacy*). Drawing on the work of other historians of literacy, Cook-Gumperz argues that history shows that widespread reading and writing in Europe and the U.S. occurred prior to the advent of schooling and formal institutions to teach them. There are two components to this account that I found particularly surprising and compelling because they directly speak to some of the contemporary debate and discussions–both in academia and in school policy makers’ offices–concerning the role of new media, schooling, and what might be meant by “new literacies.”

The first has to do with the scope of the term “literacy.” There are a number of research traditions concerning literacy, such as information literacy, media literacy, and others. Researchers over the past few decades have started to take note of the emergence of multiple forms of literacy, rather than just one. Furthermore, even outside of research people have started to talk about “visual literacy,” “media literacy,” “math literacy” (or numeracy), “computer literacy,” “web literacy,” and others. So today we have a sense that literacy should be always thought of as literacies, in the plural. There are multiple forms of literacy and depending on local contexts, the skills, knowledge, and tools that people bring to the practice of literacy are also multiple. What Cook-Gumperz shows in her work is that prior to “professional schooling,” almost 200 years ago, there was also a sense that “literacy” meant many things. In other words, it was schooling, or “schooled literacy,” that prior to the last couple of decades that gave us the sense that literacy was just about the abstract ability to read and write, a unitary thing.

So what were people reading and writing in the centuries prior to schooling? This question of form and content of reading and writing practices leads me to the second part of Cook-Gumperz’s overall argument that is key in light of today’s discussion of new media and literacy. Widespread literacy in Europe and America centered around multiple forms of popular culture: “broadsheets, ballads, and political tracts provided a key means for political discussion and recreation…” (p. 24). In fact it was the perceived fear of dangerous effects of popular culture by the elite coupled with the perceived liberating and empowering effects of reading and writing by others that paradoxically came together to fuel the movement towards the establishment of schools that would teach literacy.

In contemporary debate, especially regarding the internet, media production software, and other tools in the hands of public, many have noted the relationship between these new forms of media and popular culture and have hoped to find a way to harness the enthusiasm for popular culture and somehow institutionalize it through schools. The goal: find a way to incorporate what motivates young people outside of the classroom into the classroom, both in terms of the kind of subject matter and the technologies that young people today are interested in.

My point here is not to comment on whether or not this mission can be successful or not, or even if it’s a good approach to thinking about learning. Rather, the point is to raise the question of whether or not we are a semblance of repetition of history. Certainly, many are concerned and afraid of what negative effects new media and technologies are having on today’s youth. And others laud the possibility that new technologies and popular culture can and will unlock their creative imaginations. Finally, there are others that will see the use of these new media as critical to the skills required to compete in the so-called “new economy” workforce. I can’t help read Cook-Gumperz’s account of the Western history of literacy and wonder: if these interests all align and particular uses of new media become validated by society through institutionalization and schooling will we see a return to a more singular view of literacy, one that broadens the acceptable tools of literacy but not the acceptable social practices, that some scholars have been fighting for decades?

*Note, I read the chapter in the first edition. Apparently, she has spent some time re-writing the version for this second edition, but my understanding is that the basic argument is the same.

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