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Dissertation presentation: slides and full talk online

Last Wednesday I presented some of my research from my dissertation at the UC Berkeley School of Information.

Video  (YouTube) |  Slides (pdf, 2 mb)

The talk was about 50 minutes, followed by Q&A. The material in the talk comes mainly from chapter 7 of the dissertation, which focused on the topics of sharing and theft on deviantART. Towards the end, I point to themes from some of the other chapters.


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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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


I don’t blog much (repeated tries and fails). But I am an occasional tweeter: @dperkel. When I do post to Twitter, the part I enjoy the most is forcing myself to the 140 character limit (I think this is a common feeling). Those who have been exposed to my verbose writing might appreciate this bit of self-reflection and the challenge it entails for me.

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.

Cool Little Cluster

On the way to the gym today, I think I discovered my theme song. At least as I work on my dissertation. KCRW’s Today’s Top Tune from March 12 featured Mose Allison’s “My Brain,” a perfect little blues song. I considered posting the lyrics, but I think that part of the delight of the song is in their simple surprises. But I’ll just say that my brain is always ticking and working, and well, what happens later seems inevitable.

So if you’re so inclined, go listen to it for free here (KCRW) or here (Spinner).

Q: Who’s Mose Allison?

A: “Dubbed the “William Faulkner of Jazz,” Mose Allison  is one of the wittiest songwriters around,” says the producer of Today’s Top Tune here. “His music has been covered by a diverse line-up of musicians including The Clash, Leon Russell, Elvis Costello and Van Morrison. At 80 years old, his self-analysis and humor is captured with the help of producer Joe Henry and a bevy of some of L.A.’s finest session players,”

Q: And what’s this song really about?

A: “This track, which should probably be subtitled Old Man Blues, dealing as it does with mind deterioration, is from the wry opener of the Joe Henry-produced The Way of the World…,” explains Jerry Shriver at USA Today.

Yikes. Maybe I should re-think this.

Updates from Pew on content creation and sharing online

The Pew Internet and American Life Project released results from a new round of surveys last week on teenagers and young adults use of social media. What I appreciate in this particular report is that it is one of the first (perhaps the first?) in which we can see “young adults” compared to teenagers. It a welcome change from the 12-17 studies that seemed really isolated from the 18+ ones in a way that seemed to make teenagers just look so different than everyone else rather than pointing out differences by age cohort that were a bit more nuanced.

Given my research interests in media production, distribution, and re-use, I am glad to see updated numbers on what Pew describes as “Content creation and sharing.”According to Pew:

Recent data suggests that some online content creating activities have remained constant over time, while others have shown slight or even significant declines since 2006. Adults, however, have shown some increases in content creating over the past few years, with most of the increases found among adults older than 30. (p 22)

Teens’ numbers, they argue, has held steady when it comes to posting “self-created content,” like “photos, videos, artwork, or stories.” 38% of teen internet users report engaging in these activities without variation, as of 2009, by sex, age, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. This is a difference from 2006 when the overall number was at 39%, but older female teenagers were more likely to post original content.

More adults also do this stuff since 2006 (from 21% to 30% of online adults), but none of the growth has come from young adults under 30 (the numbers are steady, like for teenagers). Among adults, there are no differences by gender or ethnicity, though there might be by education.

Numbers for “remixing” content haven’t changed much either, at least no statistically significant changes since 2006 (21% in 2009, 26% in 2006). Girls remix more, says the survey (26% of girls, compared to 15% for boys). No variations reported by age, race, or socio-economic status. The numbers for the 18-29 year olds are similar, also unchanged since 2006, while overall there are now more adult remixers than there had been in 2007, due to a increase from 8% to 13% by adults over 30. Little variation in this group by any of the demographic categories.

See pages 22-24 for fun bar charts and a few more details.

Pew’s headliner, and what I’ve seen on a few other blogs, is the stat that teenage blogging is down, down substantially, as is teenage commenting on blogs and on social network sites. According to the report:

14% of online teens now say they blog, down from 28% of teen internet users in 2006. This decline is also reflected in the lower incidence of teen commenting on blogs within social networking websites; 52% of teen social network users report commenting on friends’ blogs, down from the 76% who did so in 2006. By comparison, the prevalence of blogging within the overall adult internet population has remained steady in recent years. (p 2)

In December 2007, 24% of online 18‐29 year olds reported blogging, compared with 7% of those thirty and older. By 2009, just 15% of internet users ages 18‐29 maintain a blog—a nine percentage point drop in two years. However, 11% of internet users ages thirty and older now maintain a personal blog. (p 2)

I’m not sure what to make of that just yet. I have to do more thinking.

I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to take a look at the survey questions, even though Pew has posted a link to them. I don’t want to say much more until I see them. But I felt the numbers were worth posting, and it might even help me remember them.

If anyone can get to the survey questions and wants to email them to me, that would be much appreciated. Never mind.

Thoughts shook up from an unlikely source

I don’t read Wired that much but this article by Daniel Roth was kind of provocative. It presents a few schools where some reforms have been implemented that would try to make kids all “geeks.” Okay, so that’s not particularly provocative. The interesting part to me is how the means to this end is to break down youth culture in the school and to surround them by adults throughout the day:

But more important, Rosenstock keeps the students surrounded by adults. There are no teachers’ bathrooms or lounges. Parents roam the halls. And the students are required to present their work to outsiders. This, it turns out, is the key to geekifying education. “A big chunk of the school experience is having them hang out with the adults they could imagine becoming,” says private-equity manager Tom Vander Ark, former head of education investments for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a onetime school superintendent. “A big high school has a youth-owned culture. You’ve got to break that.”

Huh. Rather than see schools as being the proxy for a particular style of “adult culture” with many  kids getting the shaft, it turns it completely around and sees that youth culture pervades schools. That’s reminiscent of Paul Willis’ argument in Learning to Labour (Put rather poorly: Youth have some agency in their path to the class reproduction that is a product of schooling). I don’t know who Daniel Roth is or if the schools that he’s talking about are as rosy as he presents them, but this really is getting my brain going.

As an aside, perhaps the school referred to above might also break down typical “adult culture” in the school as well and perhaps that makes as big a difference as the break down in youth culture? After all, the adults lose their bathrooms, lounges, and have to be around kids all day. A study of the adults at that kind of school would be really interesting to compliment a study of where “youth culture” get relocated.

Understanding the Creative Conversation – Call for Participation

I am one of the co-organizers of a workshop being held at the ACM Conference on Creativity & Cognition in Berkeley at the end of October: Understanding the Creative Conversation – From Modeling to Engagement.

We particularly looking for ways to increase the conversation between technologists, social scientists, and those in the humanities. Creativity is a rather ambiguous concept and it opens up a space for conversation from people in a lot of different disciplines, so don’t let the “cognition” scare you if you prefer other approaches.

Key dates:
– submission of position statements deadline: August 12, 2009
– notification of acceptance: August 19, 2009
– workshop date: October 27, 2009

Please let me know if you have any questions (dperkel (@) ischool (.) berkeley (.) edu). And please forward along to faculty, students, practitioners, or others who might be interested.

The History of Information – First day starts today

Today, Megan Finn and I will be kicking off the first class of a six-week course on the History of Information. We have adapted the syllabus from the class taught annually by Professors Paul Duguid and Geoff Nunberg in order to accommodate teaching a 17 week class in only six weeks. As of right now, we have 49 students enrolled plus more on the waiting list. Let’s hope we don’t scare anyone off today…

Here is the class website

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