Culture Digitally // Examining Contemporary Cultural Production

Culture Digitally // Examining Contemporary Cultural Production

  • With the generous support of the National Science Foundation we have developed Culture Digitally. The blog is meant to be a gathering point for scholars and others who study cultural production and information technologies. Welcome and please join our conversation.


    • Book Announcement and Excerpt from “Developer’s Dilemma” Dec 18, 2014

      Below is an excerpt from Casey O’Donnell’s book, Developer’s Dilemma: The Secret World of Videogame Creators (MIT Press, 2014).

      Developer's Dilemma

      - How to Play (Use) This Game (Book) -

      The structure of this book is performative. It imitates the level structure of the Nintendo Entertainment System game Super Mario Bros. (SMB) to highlight the importance that games and how an understanding of games does work in game developer culture. This sense of a shared history and experience provides foundations for how videogame developers talk about their occupations. This is not really any different from any other discipline or environment of cultural production where experiences and language become entangled in ways that prevent broader accessibility. To make the work experiences of developers decipherable, the book is structured in a way that provides readers with the tools to help debug game developer culture.

      • WORLD X—Each World in this book is a “chapter” in the traditional sense.
      • WORLD X-1–X-4—Each World is a collection of four levels, much like SMB. Each level advances material that culminates in the Boss Fights found at the end of each world.
      • BOSS FIGHT—Boss Fights, in games, require that players draw on new skills, lessons, or mechanics in order to progress to the next World. Think of it like a test. Bonus: I get to take the academic gloves off.
      • #: SET DEBUG_MODE = 1—Most games have, lying underneath, a host of tools/options/data used during development that is invisible to the player. By turning “DEBUG_MODE” on (to 1 or TRUE), I am offering up some of the empirical data that lies behind the text.
      • AUTHOR_DEV_DILEMMA—I use these sections, contained only in DEBUG_MODEs, to delineate my reflective comments. It is interpretation that b after the gathering of the data being presented. Time, experience, and analytic perspective offer something absent in just the transcripts.
      • CASEY—My voice in interview transcripts contained only in DEBUG_ MODEs.
      • TITLE_Project—Informant’s words in DEBUG_MODEs appear in a fashion that indicates their relative position within a company and the name or codename of the project they were working on at the time.
      • #: SET DEMO Switch_MODE = 0—Turn DEMO Switch_MODE off (to 0 or FALSE)

      - World 1-1: The Text’s Software Development Kit (SDK) -

      While grounded in these different approaches to work practice, game theory, and new economy studies, this book differs from most other media that has covered the videogame industry. A small number of publications and online websites cater to game developers, offering new methods or reviews of development tools. Occasionally magazines like Wired, Newsweek, or Time will engage with the game industry, but infrequently with game studios. Journalists will swarm the most well-known executives or game designers, but never rank-and-file developers. Entire magazines are devoted to the latest videogames in development or recently released, and perhaps interview the games producer. The online enthusiast press observes all the meanderings of videogame corporations but offers very little analysis. Each of these perspectives is useful, and can frequently access information and people that I cannot. In this respect they have been invaluable resources.

      However, this text is different in that the focal point remains on “typical” developers and work practice—the people who devote the majority of their time to bringing videogames into reality. This text is also executed with an eye to better understanding why they work in the ways they do. It is about observing the activities of everyday developers, who have largely disappeared behind the names of publishers or console manufacturers, and to better comprehending why things go right or wrong.

      - World 1-2: The Characters—My Gorillas -

      I never had any intention of studying the game industry. I just wanted to study how software development unfolds in practice. Then I stepped into the offices of Vicarious Visions (VV) in September 2004. For the most part, I was open to studying any software company. I had come expecting to study the lived reality of work practice in the context of the so-called new economy. And for my purposes, VV was ideal: a medium-sized, independent game development studio employing roughly seventy-five employees, a mixture largely of artists, engineers, designers, various managers, and support staff.

      Throughout my fieldwork at VV, my informants did not know how to define my position. The inability to place me within existing understandings of what and who counted as legitimate members of the videogame development community was problematic for many of my informants. Often, this manifested in humorous ways, discussions of tribes, gorillas (silverbacks in particular), pith helmets, and mating rituals were common, representing their assumptions about cultural anthropology. Thinking of them this way is not intended to be derogatory, but is a means of expressing how the developers I spent so much time with came to understand the place of an anthropologist and fieldworker among them. It is also an expression of a continual kind of self-jesting that occurs among game developers. A tools engineer from VV actually presented me with a pith helmet at the conclusion of my dissertation defense, an object that now occupies a special place in my office. It, too, is indicative of the kind of creative and satirical humor entrenched in the game industry.

      Other developers in the company feared I represented someone determining just how much time they were wasting or whether they were expendable. For such people I was a threat and was kept at arm’s length. A few simply could not comprehend what value might be found in observing their communities. Despite my best attempts to explain, they felt speaking with me would simply not be useful. To the remaining people, frequently those who became key informants, I represented a break or schism in a system they felt they could not critique. Somehow I had been authorized to ask the questions that they could not. I represented an opportunity to explicitly reconnect work experience to the political economy within which game development is nestled.

      The timing of my arrival at VV was just right, because at the time, development had just begun on a game for Sony’s as-yet-unreleased handheld console videogaming system, PlayStation Portable (PSP). The game was based on a forthcoming movie from a major movie studio in partnership with one of the largest comic book companies (among other companies) and VV had been contracted for the project by one of the larger game publishing companies. It was presumed that the title would be developed and released simultaneously with the June 2005 release of the movie and shortly after the March release of the new game system. The project, code-named “Asylum,” was tasked with producing a series of prototypes and levels that would then be reviewed to determine if the rest of the development work would be entrusted to VV. Many small game studios that have proven their ability to bring a game to market will take on jobs like these either as the mainstay of their work or to fund other internal projects.

      In January 2005, five months after I had begun my pilot research, Activision, Inc. (ATVI), one of the largest videogame publishers and a direct competitor of the publisher that had contracted the development of Asylum, bought VV. Most of my informants learned of the acquisition just hours prior to the press release; I was informed by the release itself.

      I asked the lead designer on Asylum, who had aided me in getting access to VV, “What’s happening with Asylum and what’s happening with all of you?” The answers came back within hours: the acquisition by ATVI and the looming release of the PSP had convinced someone somewhere that Asylum would likely be unsuccessful, and the project had been shut down. ATVI was assigning everyone to a new project.

      This text lays bare the work, rules, and other unspoken realities of the videogame industry in order to ask questions about those systems. Games are made by a wide ranging group of people, who at their core are driven by asking questions about and attempting to better understand underlying systems; and yet, they rarely do it of their own industry. Most disturbingly, these systems are becoming more opaque and reinforced in ways that most game developers ought to find abhorrent, given their proclivity and desire to get at these sorts of underlying systems. For so many, this is an activity that they are passionate about, and as such, all game developers need to ask if these rules and systems are functioning as they ought to and if they might rather see a different set of rules and systems in place.

      There is a temptation, on the part of both cultural analysts and the general public to understand or equate videogame development with software development. Many educational programs even call themselves “game development” programs and focus only on the software development (often referred to as “software engineering” or “programming”) aspects of game development. Young people interested in videogames are often instructed by those unfamiliar with game development to enroll in computer science programs, where often they fail to find themselves at home. Game developers come in many flavors. Artists now constitute one of the largest segments of videogame development work. Game designers, while a smaller population than engineering teams, focus on issues very different from software development. Game development has always been a “strange mix” of artists, game designers, and engineers. To equate this milieu to software does a disservice to the work of the activity as well as the very particular technological, global, and political-economic context within which this labor occurs.

      - World 1 Boss Fight: Ready? Fight! -

      Burrowing into work practices within game development, this text will also explore how rising levels of interactivity go hand in hand with the decreasingly hierarchical or “flat” organization that has been touted as a distinguishing aspect of work in the new economy. Interactivity allows workers to experiment with the systems they both work within and create. Interactivity goes hand in hand with the connections between disciplines and cuts to the heart of what makes workers able to produce. This interactivity can also push too far, resulting in “infinite” meetings, emails, instant messages, and other forms of feedback and response. Interactivity can supplant the work, which then only gets done after hours.

      This book hacks many of the disciplines that birthed it. Numerous disciplines—communications, social psychology, psychology, and media studies—have begun to stake out videogames as their new territories. Often, a single-minded approach on game spaces and content prevail. Games are seen simply as virtual environments to study within or for new media to study. The newly emerging discipline of game studies most explicitly suffers from this myopia, not stopping to wonder about the broader networks within which its newfound demand is being produced. This project proceeds with the assumption that videogames are media and technology, both of which are constructed within extensive networks that have largely been ignored. The secondary task of the project is to place work practice in a contextualized setting, such that it comes into connection with the structures that affect and shape it so dramatically.

      -Contributed by ,  Michigan State University Department of Media and Information-

      Posted in announcement, Book Chapter Sneak Peak, Video Games | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

      Book Announcement and Excerpt from “Gaming at the Edge” Dec 15, 2014

      Below is the preface to Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2015)

      BookCoverIn the late the 1980s, my mother, sister, and I lived in Japan for four years. Stationed on a military base, we received a steady stream of U.S. programming via the military broadcasting network and stateside relatives sending us VHS recordings of shows. Still, my earliest memories are of living in a place where the majority of people and media were not “like” me. Indeed, I spent a great deal of my childhood moving, always being out of place. Adding to that, growing up as a queer woman meant I rarely had mediated narratives to which I could fully relate.

      One Christmas in Japan, my mother bought us a Nintendo Entertainment System console and a handful of games. All three of us played it regularly for many years. At the time and, indeed, for most of my childhood, video games were something everyone did. My mother played everything from the board game simulation Othello to the vampire hunting game Castlevania.[1] My sister and I fought over California Games, stayed up late playing Tiny Toon Adventures, and blew off the steam of adolescence on Doom.[2] My sister still plays with her husband and daughter, though as more of a spectator now (or so she claims).

      Growing up, most of our friends played regardless of gender, race, or class, even though not everyone had a console in their own home. Because of all this, it never really occurred to me that gaming was something only a certain type of person did. In fact, it was only in my adult life that I heard people talking about the heterosexual, white, male gamer as the norm. That is not to say such stereotypes did not exist also during my childhood and adolescence. Ads and popular representation did often construct a “boy” player as the main game audience. There was, however, a disjuncture between the audience hailed by these constructions and the lived experience of game play with which I grew up. I am fascinated with the way the male (white and middle class) image of the digital game player has become enshrined as common sense to the extent that it has eclipsed a much more diverse picture of the medium’s history. One need only compare a 1982 feature in Electronic Games Magazine proclaiming that “women have officially arrived in the world of electronic gaming”[3] to numerous twenty-first-century articles that announce with surprise that “nearly half of all video-gamers are women”[4] to see that there is a disjuncture between how players are imagined and who actually plays games.

      The stereotype persists despite the constant reaffirmation that players exist outside the common gamer construction. There has been a shift, however, in how this “unexpected female audience” is courted via representation. In 1982 Midway spokesman Stan Jarocki described how representation was shaped in honor of an already existing market: “Pac-man was the first commercial game to involve large numbers of women as players. . . . Now we’re producing this new game, Ms. Pac-Man, as our way of thanking all those lady arcaders.”[5] In the 1990s and early twenty-first century, most discussions of representation in games were focused on pulling those who do not play into games by way of representation. Before, it was a problem of texts not responding to the existing audience, and now, it is a problem of people needing to be convinced to try this medium. Throughout this book I question some of the easy assumptions made about which groups are particularly concerned with representation and why representation matters to audiences.

      There are many ways in which this book grew out of those early formative experiences. I grew up taking what I could from media and my surroundings, even when they didn’t exactly represent me. Sure, it was hard to find people exactly like me, but I could still find aspects of myself reflected somewhere in the mediated world around me. Sure, I wanted representation. At the same time, I remember cringing while watching movies and television shows that were supposedly about people “like me.” In addition, game play has always been something much more omnipresent in my life than most definitions of gamer culture reflect. I am sympathetic to the project of making game spaces more open, but I also have spent my entire life playing a medium that never marketed to me directly. I have found my place in the many spaces that were supposed to be closed off to me. For these reasons, it comes as no surprise that my research has always focused on questioning the commonsense logics of representation.

      I care about representation (a lot). At the start of my graduate research, I was committed to cracking open the underexamined area of representation in games. My first project was a virtual ethnography of a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender gamers.[6] And it turned out . . . many of them did not really care about representation. This was a shock to me at first, but the more I dug into that project, the more it made sense. Homophobia in gaming communities was much more important to these players than was textual representation because many of my interviewees played games online. When it came to textual representation, they found and shared queer representations or queer readings as they found them, in games as well as other media. They figured that in time the industry would find a way to tap into the gay gamer niche the way other industries had. My studies of gaming in the Middle East, Finland, and India generated similar themes.[7] Over and over again, people kept telling me that they just did not care that much about having their group, whatever that group may be, represented in games even if they cared about representation in other media. Teaching classes on minority representation in games, I heard this refrain repeated yet again by my students. Video games are a niche medium; they are fantasy environments; and they are designed for a narrow market. Of course games are not diverse—so what?

      I could have easily dismissed these responses as a desirability effect, cognitive dissonance, or false consciousness. But such a dismissal seemed both uninteresting and unethical. Instead, I adopted a position I had learned from feminist ethnographic media scholarship: I took my interviewees at their word. I set out to reconcile scholars’ compelling research demonstrating the importance of representation with marginalized audiences’ ambivalence about representation. What does a call for representation look like when we take both seriously?

      In exploring this question, I realized that I recognized myself in my participants’ responses. After all, I too grew up playing a medium for which I was not the primary market and media in which only certain aspects of my identity were ever shown. I recognized my interviewees’ ambivalence as a coping mechanism of sorts, which pushed back against discourses that sought to make them responsible for their own exclusion. If the logic goes that I need to make myself knowable as a market in order to be represented in a medium I wish to consume, it is easier to not care than it is to articulate what I want, particularly when I have never had the experience of getting what I want from representation. Beginning there, this book explores how media scholars, within and outside game studies, might talk about the politics of representation in new ways. How do we talk about representation in a way that can embrace intersectionality and hybrid identities? How do we demand representation without raising the specter of niche marketing? How do we talk about representation from an audience-centric position? What new things can we learn about media consumption when we start at the edges?


      [1] Othello (Kawada, 1986), video game; Castlevania, (Konami, 1987), video game.

      [2] California Games (Epyx, 1987), video game; Tiny Toon Adventures (Konami, 1991), video game; Doom (Sega, 1994), video game.

      [3] Worley, “Women Join Arcade Revolution,” 30.

      [4] Frum, “ Half of All Video-Gamers Are Women.”

      [5] Worley, “Women Join Arcade Revolution,” 32.

      [6] Shaw, “In-Gayme Representation?”

      [7] Shaw, “Peliharrastaja”; Shaw, “Beyond Comparison”; Shaw, “Gamer in Hindi.”

      -Contributed by ,  Assistant Professor, Department of Media Studies and Production, Temple University-

      Posted in announcement, Book Chapter Sneak Peak, Video Games | Leave a comment

      Book Announcement : Folklore, Horror Stories, and the Slender Man: The Development of an Internet Mythology Dec 13, 2014

      Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 9.31.50 PMSince 2009, the Slender Man has been growing in popularity as an emergent, groundbreaking Internet horror myth. It entered the broader popular consciousness in May 2014, when two twelve year old girls led a third girl into a wooded area and stabbed her numerous times. The Slender Man takes on important cultural meanings in the age of the Internet – meanings often neglected when the crime version of the story went reported in the media. The revisions that they made to it helps to suggest an iterative folk telling tradition.

      Folklore, Horror Stories, and the Slender Man: The Development of an Internet Mythology provides an in-depth analysis of the birth, iterations, implications, and interpretations of the Slender Man mythos. Because the Slender Man storytelling process is both crowd-sourced and participatory, interpretations are not static. Instead, the book acknowledges the shifting nature of Internet mythologies and how some versions become more privileged as primary even though the story lacks clear cannon. The book covers a range of important, interconnected topics that demystify the Slender Man: how the mythos was created, how meanings of the mythos reflect anxieties both old and new, how iterations reflect an open-source ethos, how the storytelling style varies by the specific “Digital Campfire” telling the story, and how the mythos both confirms and disrupts our understandings of fandom and fan fiction. The book is intended both to introduce new readers to the Slender Man and as contextualization of the importance of that myth to those who are already aware of it.

      Shira Chess and Newsom

      -Contributed by ,  Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication-

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      Journalism in an era of big data: Cases, concepts, and critiques Dec 11, 2014

      wdigitaljournalismnewI’m excited to announce the publication of a special issue of Digital Journalism that I guest-edited around the theme “Journalism in an Era of Big Data: Cases, Concepts, and Critiques.” I was fortunate to work with a terrific set of contributors. Their work sheds important light on the implications of data and algorithms, computation and quantification, for journalism as practice and profession. They address questions such as: What does automated journalism mean for journalistic authority? What kind of social, occupational and epistemological tensions—past and present—are associated with the development of quantitative journalism? How might journalists use reverse-engineering techniques to investigate algorithms? What sorts of critiques and cautionary tales, from within and beyond the newsroom, should give us pause? Overall, what does big data, as a broad sociotechnical phenomenon, mean for journalism’s ways of knowing (epistemology) and doing (expertise), as well as its negotiation of value (economics) and values (ethics)?

      These papers, while awaiting eventual print publication in mid-2015, are online now and may be found via the links below. Further down is the full text of my introduction to the special issue.

      • • •

      My introduction to the special issue has been given free access (thanks to Taylor & Francis):

      Journalism in an era of big data: Cases, concepts, and critiques

      Seth C. Lewis

      This special issue examines the changing nature of journalism amid data abundance, computational exploration, and algorithmic emphasis—developments with wide meaning in technology and society at large, and with growing significance for the media industry and for journalism as practice and profession. These data-centric phenomena, by some accounts, are poised to greatly influence, if not transform over time, some of the most fundamental aspects of news and its production and distribution by humans and machines. While such expectations may be overblown, the trend lines are nevertheless clear: large-scale datasets and their collection, analysis, and interpretation are becoming increasingly salient for making sense of and deriving value from digital information, writ large. What such changes actually mean for news, democracy, and public life, however, is far from certain. As such, this calls for scholarly scrutiny, as well as a dose of critique to temper much celebration about the promise of reinventing news through the potential of “big data.” This special issue thus explores a range of phenomena at the junction between journalism and the social, computer, and information sciences. These phenomena are organized around the contexts of digital information technologies being used in contemporary newswork—such as algorithms and analytics, applications and automation—that rely on harnessing data and managing it effectively. What are the implications of such developments for journalism’s professional norms, routines, and ethics? For its organizations, institutions, and economics? For its authority and expertise? And for the epistemology that undergirds journalism’s role as knowledge-producer and sense-maker in society?

      Before getting to those questions, however, let us begin more prosaically: What is the big deal about big data? That may be a curious way to open a special issue on the subject, but the question is an important starting point for at least three reasons. First, it is the question being asked, whether directly or indirectly, in many policy, scholarly, and professional circles, on many a panel at academic and trade conferences, and across the pages of journals and forums in seemingly every discipline. This is especially true in the social sciences and humanities generally and in communication, media, and journalism specifically. While exploring the methods of computational social science (Lazer et al. 2009; see also Busch 2014; Lewis, Zamith, and Hermida 2013; Mahrt and Scharkow 2013; Oboler, Welsh, and Cruz 2012), scholars are also wrestling with the conceptual implications of digital datasets and dynamics that, in sheer size and scope, may challenge how we think about the nature of mediated communication (Boellstorff 2013; Bruns 2013; Couldry and Turow 2014; Driscoll and Walker 2014; Karpf 2012). Second, this opening query calls up the skepticism that is quite needed, for there is good reason to question not only whether big data is a “thing,” but also in whose interests, toward what purposes, and with what consequences the very term is being promulgated as a “solution” to unlocking various social problems (Crawford, Miltner, and Gray 2014; cf. Morozov 2013). Finally, to open with such an audacious question is to acknowledge at the outset that the processes and philosophies associated with big data, in the broadest sense, are very much in flux: an indeterminate set of leading-edge activities and approaches that may prove to be innovative, inconsequential, or something else entirely. What, then, is the big deal?

      It is for this reason that I emphasize the deliberate naming of this special issue: “Journalism in an era of big data.” While historical hindsight can make any naming of an “era” a fool’s game, there also seems to be broad agreement that, in the developed world of digital information technologies, we are situated in a moment of data deluge. This moment, however loosely bounded, is noted for at least two major developments that have accelerated in recent years. The first is the overwhelming volume and variety of digital information produced by and about human (and natural) activity, made possible by the growing ubiquity of mobile devices, tracking tools, always-on sensors, and cheap computing storage, among other things. As one report described it: “In a digitized world, consumers going about their day—communicating, browsing, buying, sharing, searching—create their own enormous trails of data” (Manyika et al. 2011, 1). “This data layer,” noted another observer, “is a shadow. It’s part of how we live. It is always there but seldom observed” (quoted in Bell 2012, 48). The second major development involves rapid advances in and diffusion of computing processing, machine learning, algorithms, and data science (Manovich 2012; Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier 2013; O’Neil and Schutt 2013; Provost and Fawcett 2013). Put together, these developments have enabled corporations, governments, and researchers to more readily navigate and analyze this shadow layer of public life, for better or worse, and much to the chagrin of critics concerned about consumer privacy and data ethics (boyd and Crawford 2012; Oboler, Welsh, and Cruz 2012). Thus, whether dubbed “big” or otherwise, this moment is one in which data—its collection, analysis, and representation, as well as associated data-driven techniques of computation and quantification—bears particular resonance for understanding the intersection of media, technology, and society (González-Bailón 2013).

      Computation and Quantification in Journalism

      What is the big deal, then, for journalism? By now, there is no shortage of accounts about the implications of technology change for the most fundamental aspects of gathering, filtering, and disseminating news; similarly, much has been written about such changes and their implications for journalistic institutions, business models, distribution channels, and audiences (for an overview of recent scholarly work in this broad terrain, see Franklin 2014; see also Anderson, Bell, and Shirky 2012; Lewis 2012; Ryfe 2012; Usher 2014). Yet, in comparison to the large body of literature, for instance, on the role of Twitter in journalism (Hermida 2013), the particular role of data in journalism—as well as interrelated notions of algorithms, computer code, and programming in the context of news—is only beginning to receive major attention in the scholarly and professional discourse. Among scholars, there is a rapidly growing body of work focused on unpacking the nature of computation and quantification in news. The scholarly approaches include case studies of journalists within and across news organizations (e.g., Appelgren and Nygren 2014; Fink and Anderson 2014; Karlsen and Stavelin 2014; Parasie and Dagiral 2013), theoretical undertakings that often articulate concepts of computer science and programming in the framework of journalism (e.g., Anderson 2013; Hamilton and Turner 2009; Flew et al. 2012; Gynnild 2014; Lewis and Usher 2013), and analyses that take a more historical perspective in comparing present developments with computer-assisted reporting (e.g., Parasie and Dagiral 2013; Powers 2012). More oriented to journalism professionals, there are a growing number of handbooks on data journalism (Gray, Bounegru, and Chambers 2012), industry-facing reports on the likes of data (Howard 2014), algorithms (Diakopoulos 2014), and sensors (Pitt 2014), and conferences on “quantifying journalism” via data, metrics, and computation.

      Data journalism, as Fink and Anderson (2014, 1) note bluntly, is seemingly “everywhere,” based on the industry buzz and accelerating scholarly interest. “[W]hether and how data journalism actually exists as a thing in the world, on the other hand, is a different and less understood question.” This special issue is a systematic effort to address that issue. It aims to outline the state of research in this emerging domain, bringing together some of the most current and critical scholarship on what is becoming of journalism—from its reporting practices to its organizational arrangements to its discursive interpretation as a professional community—in a moment of experimentation with digital data, computational techniques, and algorithmic forms of representing and interpreting the world.

      “Journalism in an era of big data” is thus a way of seeing journalism as interpolated through the conceptual and methodological approaches of computation and quantification. It is about both the ideation and implementation of computational and mathematical mindsets and skill sets in newswork—as well as the necessary deconstruction and critique of such approaches. Taking such a wide-angle view of this phenomenon, including both practice and philosophy within this conversation, means attending to the social/cultural dynamics of computation and quantification—such as the grassroots groups that are seeking to bring pro-social “hacking” into journalism (Lewis and Usher 20132014)—as well as the material/technological characteristics of these developments. It means recognizing that algorithms and related computational tools and techniques “are neither entirely material, nor are they entirely human—they are hybrid, composed of both human intentionality and material obduracy” (Anderson 2013, 1016). As such, we need a set of perspectives that highlight the distinct and interrelated roles of social actors and technological actants at this emerging intersection of journalism (Lewis and Westlund 2014a).

      To trace the broad outline of journalism in an era of big data, we need (1) empirical cases that describe and explain such developments, whether at the micro (local) or macro (institutional) levels of analysis; (2) conceptual frameworks for organizing, interpreting, and ultimately theorizing about such developments; and (3) critical perspectives that call into question taken-for-granted norms and assumptions. This special issue takes up this three-part emphasis on casesconcepts, and critiques. Such categories are not mutually exclusive nor exhaustively reflective of what is covered in this issue; indeed, various elements of case study, conceptual development, and critical inquiry are evident in all of the articles here. In that way, these studies provide a blended set of theory, practice, and criticism upon which scholars may develop future research in this important and growing area of journalism, media, and communication.

      Cases, Concepts, and Critiques

      For a set of phenomena as uncertain as journalism in an era of big data, conceptual clarity is the first order of business. What used to be a coherent notion of computer-assisted reporting (CAR) in the 1990s “has splintered into a set of ambiguously related practices” that are variously described in terms such as computational journalism, data journalism, programmer-journalism, and so on (Coddington 2014). Reviewing the state of the field thus far, Mark Coddington finds “a cacophony of overlapping and indistinct definitions that forms a shaky foundation for deeper research into these practices.” As data-driven forms of journalism become more central to the profession, “it is imperative that scholars do not treat them as simple synonyms but think carefully about the significant differences between the forms they take and their implications for changing journalistic practice as a whole.” Against that backdrop, Coddington opens this special issue by clarifying this “quantitative turn” in journalism, offering a typology of three dominant approaches: computer-assisted reporting, data journalism, and computational journalism. While there are overlaps in practice among these forms of quantitative journalism, there are also key distinctions: “CAR is rooted in social science methods and the deliberate style and public-affairs orientation of investigative journalism, data journalism is characterized by its participatory openness and cross-field hybridity, and computational journalism is focused on the application of the processes of abstraction and automation to information.”

      Having classified them as such, Coddington differentiates them further according to their orientation on four dimensions: (1) professional expertise or networked participation, (2) transparency or opacity, (3) big data or targeted sampling, and (4) a vision of an active or passive public. His typology points to “a significant gap between the professional and epistemological orientations of CAR, on the one hand, and both data journalism and computational journalism, on the other.” Open-source culture, he suggests, is a continuum through which to see distinctions among these forms: CAR reflecting a professional, less “open” approach to journalism, on one end, with data journalism being situated as a professional–open hybrid in the middle, and computational journalism hewing most closely to the networked, participatory values of open source (cf. Lewis and Usher 2013).

      Building on Coddington’s conceptualization of quantitative journalism, C. W. Anderson (2014) offers a historically based critique that reveals, at least in the US context, how “the underlying ideas of data journalism are not new, but rather can be traced back in history and align with larger questions about the role of quantification in journalistic practice.” He takes what he calls an “objects of journalism-oriented” approach to studying data and news, one that pays attention (in this case historically) to how data is embodied in material “objects” such as databases, survey reports, and paper documents as well as how journalists situate their fact-building enterprise in relation to those objects of evidence. This object orientation is connected with actor-network theory (ANT) and its way of seeing news and knowledge work as an “assemblage” of material, cultural, and practice-based elements. It allows Anderson to take “a longer historical trajectory that grapples with the very meaning of ‘the quantitative’ for the production of knowledge,” with a particular emphasis on “the epistemological dimensions of these quantitative practices” (emphasis original). By examining several historical tensions underlying journalists’ use of data—such as the document-oriented shift from thinking about news products as “records” to thinking about them as “reports” that occurred in the early nineteenth century—Anderson offers an important critique. He challenges prevailing wisdom about the orderly progression of data and visualization, showing instead that “the story of quantitative journalism in the United States is less one of sanguine continuity than it is one of rupture, a tale of transformed techniques and objects of evidence existing under old familiar names.” The ultimate payoff in this approach, he argues, is both a backward-looking reappraisal of history and a forward-looking lens for examining the quantitative journalism of the future: not merely in how it embraces big data, but “rather the ways in which it reminds us of other forms of information that are not data, other types of evidence that are not quantitative, and other conceptions of what counts as legitimate public knowledge” (original emphasis).

      With its emphasis on epistemology and materiality, Anderson’s historical account sets up the contemporary case study by Sylvain Parasie (2014). He examines the San Francisco-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) to explore the question: To what extent does big-data processing influence how journalists produce knowledge in investigative reporting? Parasie extends (and critiques) previous research on journalistic epistemologies in two ways, firstly by more fully taking into account “how journalists rely on the material environment of their organization to decide whether their knowledge claims are justified or not.” These material factors include databases and algorithms, which “are not black boxes providing unquestionable results, and [thus] we need to examine the material basis on which they collectively hold a specific output as being justified.” Secondly, Parasie sheds light on “the often tortuous history of how justified beliefs are collectively produced in relation to artifacts,” following the lead of Latour and Woolgar (1979) in their study of how science is produced in the laboratory. In studying a 19-month investigation by CIR, Parasie shows how a heterogeneous team of investigative reporters, computer-assisted reporters, and programmer-journalists works through epistemological tensions to develop a shared epistemic culture, one connected with the material artifacts of data-oriented technologies. In all, Parasie makes key distinctions between “hypothesis-driven” and “data-driven” paths to journalistic revelations, in line with Coddington’s conceptual mapping; he also highlights the interplay of materiality, culture, and practice, much as Anderson prescribes.

      These articles are followed by three that take up algorithms and automation, pointing to matters of “autonomous decision-making” (Diakopoulos 2014) and the journalistic consequences of such developments for organizational and professional norms and routines. In the first article, Mary Lynn Young and Alfred Hermida (2014) examine the emergence of computationally based crime news at The Los Angeles Times. Following Boczkowski’s (2004) theorizing about technological adaptation in news media organizations, they find that “computational thinking and techniques emerged in a (dis)continuous evolution of organizational norms, practices, content, identities, and technologies that interdependently led to new products.” Among these products was a series of automatically generated crime stories, or “robo-posts,” to a blog tracking local homicides. This concept of “algorithm as journalist,” they argue, raises questions about “how decisions of inclusion and exclusion are made, what styles of reasoning are employed, whose values are embedded into the technology, and how they affect public understanding of complex issues.”

      This interest in interrogating the algorithm is further developed in Nicholas Diakopoulos’ (2014) provocative notion of “algorithmic accountability reporting,” which he defines as “a mechanism for elucidating and articulating the power structures, biases, and influences that computational artifacts exercise in society.” In effect, he argues for flipping the computational journalism paradigm on its head, at least in this instance: instead of building another computational tool to enable news storytelling, technologists and journalists instead can use reverse engineering to investigate the algorithms that govern our digital world and unpack the crux of their power: autonomous decision-making. Understanding algorithmic power, in this sense, means analyzing “the atomic decisions that algorithms make, including prioritizationclassificationassociation, and filtering” (original emphasis). Furthermore, Diakopoulos uses five case studies to consider the opportunities and challenges associated with doing algorithm-focused accountability journalism. He thus contributes to the literature both a theoretical lens through which to scrutinize the relative transparency of public-facing algorithms as well as an empirical starting point for understanding the potential for and limitations of such an approach, including questions of human resources, law, and ethics.

      Lastly among these three, Matt Carlson (2014) explains what begins to happen as “the role of big data in journalism shifts from reporting tool to the generation of news content” in the form of what he calls “automated journalism.” The term refers to “algorithmic processes that convert data into narrative news texts with limited to no human intervention beyond the initial programming.” Among the data-oriented practices emerging in journalism, he says, “none appear to be as potentially disruptive as automated journalism,” insofar as it calls up concerns about the future of journalistic labor, news compositional forms, and the very foundation of journalistic authority. By analyzing Narrative Science and journalists’ reactions to its automated news services, Carlson shows how this “technological drama” (cf. Pfaffenberger 1992) reveals fundamental tensions not only about the work practices of human journalists but also what a future of automated journalism may portend for “larger understandings of what journalism is and how it ought to operate.” Among other issues going forward, he says, “questions need to be asked regarding whether an increase in algorithmic judgment will lead to a decline in the authority of human judgment.”

      Before rushing headlong into robot journalism, however, quantitative journalism in its most basic form is still searching for institutional footing in many parts of the world. In exploring the difficulties for data journalism in French-speaking Belgium, Juliette de Maeyer et al. (2014) offer a much-needed reminder that the take-up of such journalism is neither consistent nor complete. Moreover, they argue that journalism (and hence data journalism) must be understood “as a socio-discursive practice: it is not only the production of (data-driven) journalistic artefacts that shapes the notion of (data) journalism, but also the discursive efforts of all the actors involved, in and out of the newsrooms.” By mapping the discourse within this small media system, they uncover “a cartography of who and what counts as data journalism,” within which they find divisions around the duality of “data” and “journalism” and between “ordinary” versus “thorough” forms of data journalism. These discourses disclose the various obstacles, many of them structural and organizational, that hinder the development of data journalism in that region. Among their respondents who have engaged in the actual practice of data journalism, “there seems to be an overall feeling of resignation. There might have been a brief euphoric phase after the first encounter with the concept of data journalism, but journalists who return from trainings full of ideas and ambitious projects are quickly caught again in the constraints of routinized news production.”

      Like Anderson and Parasie in this issue, the authors draw upon Bruno Latour (2005), in this case to suggest that data journalism is clearly a “matter of concern” in French-speaking Belgium even while there is a relative absence of data journalism artifacts, or “matters of fact” that can be displayed as evidence. Overall, de Maeyer and colleagues demonstrate how data journalism may “exist as a discourse (re)appropriated by a range of actors, originating from different—and sometimes overlapping—social worlds,” allowing us to understand the uneven and sometimes incoherent path through which experimentation may lead to implementation (or not).

      Finally, and befitting the opening discussion about the big deal of big data, the concluding article takes up this question: If big data is a wide-scale social, cultural, and technological phenomenon, what are its particular implications for journalism? Seth Lewis and Oscar Westlund (2014b) suggest four conceptual lenses—epistemology, expertise, economics, and ethics—through which to understand the present and potential applications of big data for journalism’s professional logic and its industrial production. These conceptual approaches, distinct yet interrelated, show “how journalists and news media organizations are seeking to make sense of, act upon, and derive value from big data.” Ultimately, the developments of big data, Lewis and Westlund posit, may have transformative meaning for “journalism’s ways of knowing (epistemology) and doing (expertise), as well as its negotiation of value (economics) and values (ethics).” As quantitative journalism becomes more central to journalism’s professional core, and as computational and algorithmic techniques likewise become intertwined with the business models on which journalism is supported, critical questions will continually emerge about the socio-material relationship of big data, journalism, and media work broadly. To what extent are journalism’s cultural authority and technological practices changing in the context of (though not necessarily because of) big data? And how might such changes be connected with news audiences, story forms, organizational arrangements, distribution channels, and news values and ethics, among many other things? The articles in this issue—their cases, concepts, and critiques—offer a starting point for exploring such questions in the future.


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      -Contributed by ,  University of Minnesota School of Journalism & Mass Communication-

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      Low Power to the People! Sneak Peek Dec 3, 2014

      At the invitation of Culture Digitally and with the permission of my publisher, MIT Press, I am thrilled to provide the introduction of my just-out book, Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism(With bonus pictures not in the book!) Though the book is centered on FM radio activism, issues of digitality loom large. Technologically-savvy activists clamored for small-scale broadcasting as a platform for community media (while cautiously embracing Internet-based technologies they could link to their broader political project). This suggests a rich interplay between old and new media, of interest to anyone concerned with the politics and social life of technology.


      On October 4, 1998, a raucous group of protesters assembled in front of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) building in Washington, DC. Seeking legal access to the airwaves for small-scale broadcasting by citizens and community groups, they engaged in established street theater tactics, including puppetry, chants, and speeches. In a less traditional move, they also flouted the regulators by broadcasting their protest into the building using a portable transmitter (it goes without saying, sans license). Of course this transmission was symbolic; the activists did not so much wish to instrumentally broadcast to the commission as to declare their presence on the airwaves and demand regulators’ attention.

      By 2000, their efforts had borne fruit. The FCC slowly began to issue licenses for new low-power FM (LPFM) stations; this was the first time in more than twenty years that would-be micro-broadcasters had a legal option for getting on the air. Several hundred new stations were broadcasting by the late 2000s. In the decade following the protest, a burgeoning movement for media democracy regarded LPFM licensing as a victory and mounted efforts along a number of other lines, including Internet governance, combating media consolidation, and securing support for public and independent media, to name only a few.

      Rallying in celebration of LPFM. Florence, MA, 2005. Author photo.

      Rallying in celebration of LPFM. Florence, MA, 2005. Author photo.

      Yet low-power radio remained a primary concern for some. Many who had pressured the FCC to license “microradio” broadcasters continued to work to expand LPFM, albeit from a different position vis-à-vis the regulatory framework: with the possibility of legal broadcasting, efforts shifted to getting licenses into the hands of community groups, building new stations, and shoring up LPFM’s status within telecommunications policy. The latter goal was attained in 2011, when President Obama signed into law the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, authorizing the FCC to grant licenses to additional new LPFM stations.

      In the book, I examine the practices of a small activist organization focused on LPFM during the early period of the institutionalization of LPFM, from approximately 2003 to 2007. The group had its origins in the mid-1990s as a pirate broadcasting outfit. But by the early 2000s, they had morphed into a non-profit organization to promote LPFM. The group engaged in a combination of advocacy to expand community media and hands-on technical work to build new stations (having ceased broadcasting themselves after being shut down by the FCC in 1998). I trace their activities with an eye to the intersection of technical practice and political engagement.

      I specifically investigate how the radio activists imputed emancipatory politics to radio technology—notably, an “old” medium—against a shifting technical and political landscape that included increasing attention to Internet-based technologies. What is meant by “emancipatory politics”? Activists claimed that FM radio tinkering and broadcasting held the potential to empower everyday people through increasing democratic participation, autonomy, and self-determination at the community level. Their notion that expertise was accessible to all contrasted with more common conceptions of expertise; technology is more often constructed as the province of elite experts, and wider political, moral, and social issues are collapsed into seemingly narrow technical ones.

      The politics of technology in media activism is a topic of more than academic interest. These radio activists are important because of their mediating position, situated between “upstream” regulators or policy makers and “downstream” user communities; they are not mere Luddites nor nostalgic hobbyists. Often, they attempted to exert influence in both directions, and their work to interpret, define, and propagate technologies has the potential to affect how ordinary users might understand, access, and make use of the technologies in question. Advocacy work to construct radio as highly local, noncommercial, and accessible to ordinary people had an impact on how policy shaped low-power radio. But the radio activists also exhibited a strong commitment to hands-on technical practice and work with radio hardware.

      Volunteers unwrap a transmitter board. Florence, MA, 2005

      Volunteers unwrap a transmitter board. Florence, MA, 2005. Author photo.

      At the core of their technical practice was a commitment to a participatory politics, with attendant challenges and contradictions. In essence, though the radio activists claimed to favor radio as a medium for expression in part because of the ostensibly low barrier to access, attaching an emancipatory politics to tinkering and hands-on work was fraught. Though they valued technical practice as a means to demystify technology and create a political awakening in users, they struggled with the fact that patterns of inclusion and exclusion had already formed around electronics; historically practiced by elites, whites, and men, tinkering was not equally appealing to members of other groups. This tension between participatory ideals and expert forms of knowledge recurs throughout much of the book.

      Anthropologist Jeffrey Juris, writing of anticorporate globalization movements, contends that “activists increasingly express their utopian imaginaries directly through concrete organizational and technological practice.”[1] This is a useful starting point for understanding the practices of these radio activists, who were uniquely focused on technology and technical practice as the foundation for their vision of social change. In this book, I conceptualize the radio activists as “propagators” of technology. I draw on the meaning of propagation as reproduction and replication and also its sense of creating an effect at a distance (and of course the entendre with radio wave propagation suits this group especially well).

      Although it is not unusual for activists to orient themselves around technologies as a part of a more extensive agenda for social change, there are features that make these propagators unique. Propagators are special in how they combine mediation or interpretive work with a commitment to material engagement with an artifact. The radio activists hoped to place radio and their prescription for its use into as many hands as possible. Their goal was to set into motion social dynamics through the diffusion of radio technology and associated practices and then step back; they did not seek to oversee the these dynamics on an ongoing basis, instead believing that idealized social relations (including idealized media content) would flow from the act of propagation alone. Propagation was an act of knowledge production; in the radio activists’ imagination, it produced not only hardware but also social relations. Propagation is thus articulating artifacts to politics and vice versa: while the radio activists were building technical artifacts, they were simultaneously building a politics of what might be called “participatory expertise.” They strove to open up technical practice to people who were not technical experts. They understood this form of expertise to extend even beyond the domain of technology itself.

      Put differently, activists turned to technology to express their political beliefs. At a typical technical workshop, people would spend hours in a basement soldering cables, then move to a rooftop to measure an RF (radio frequency) signal, before returning to the basement to try to fix a faulty connection or recalibrate equipment. One summer evening, radio activists and I moved from an electronics repair project in a basement to a scavenging project at a university engineering building slated for demolition. Having deemed it late enough to roam around the bowels of the building undisturbed, we spent hours digging through equipment that was being cast off. Cables, ammeters, and a horn antenna were among the haul. It was unclear what uses this gear would be put to, but its acquisition represented the values of reuse and repair, sharing, preparedness, and, of course, the requisite technical expertise to identify and imagine uses for the various pieces of equipment we uncovered.

      Reading a draft of this book, one activist commented to me that I “had written an anthropology of the basement.” Her remark has a double meaning: the radio activists’ office was literally in a church basement, a fact they made much of (and that served to distinguish them in their minds from more established nonprofit organizations). But she also marked the basement as a symbolic space of activism activism, which was not the halls or streets of Washington, DC, but the ubiquitous, grimy spaces of do-it-yourself (DIY) work and leisure. Radio activism was everywhere, and you didn’t need more to participate in it than a soldering iron, your neighbors, and a basement. It was separate from but contiguous with everyday life, and accessible to everyday people. It challenged the separation of technical expertise from lay know-how, and technical practice itself was held to be transformative at the individual and societal levels.

      Electronics tinkering in a home. Philadelphia, PA, early 2000s. Volunteer photo.

      Electronics tinkering in a home. Philadelphia, PA, early 2000s. Volunteer photo.

      Radio activists are not alone in tying their work with technology to politics. Internet governance geeks and free software developers can also be understood to engage in activism and deeply technical projects.[2] However, in spite of their similar technical commitments and normative claims, they largely differ from the radio activists: they usually achieve a consensus in which technical participation is limited to technical experts, which means they can focus more exclusively on debating and solving technical problems. They frequently leave the job of articulating the meaning of their technical work to mediating groups; mediators, rather than “techies,” tend to translate technical projects and engage in advocacy. (The division of labor between Debian developers and the nonprofit organization Creative Commons within the free culture movement is one such example.) Propagators (who engage in technical practice and ongoing advocacy and mediation) are distinct.

      Although a commitment to egalitarianism is not a criterion for the category of propagator, this commitment, however elusive in practice, further marks contrast between some other forms of activist technical projects and the radio activists. Plenty of activist projects around technology simply are not concerned with issues of unequal expertise. In many free and open source software projects, participation may be “open” in the sense that anyone who can contribute to a project is welcome to contribute. But a uniformly expert status among participants is unquestioned. By contrast, the radio activists were highly committed to drawing novices and laypeople into technical practice. However, they routinely found themselves confounded by the potential for conflict between engineers and laypeople, as well as by patterns of exclusion that ran against the egalitarian values they hoped to tie to technical practice.

      Simultaneously, the radio activists were attuned to the fact that their project seemed anachronistic to some; their concentration on an “old,” “dinosaur” technology seemed to belie their relative technological competence and sophistication. And yet “new media” were in many ways deeply and self-consciously implicated in the activists’ propagation of radio. Radio activists—many of whom were well-versed in digital politics and activism—were concerned with alternatives to digital utopianism, resisting Internet-based communication as an analog (no pun intended) for what they understood to be salient and desirable about radio. This led to a situation in which they were, in some ways, defining radio in contrast to dominant ideas about digital media. They were especially interested in propagating an understanding of electronic media that emphasized local- or community-scale purposes, which stood in relief to the ostensible global reach of Internet-based technologies.

      Though centered on radio, the dynamics the book explores are much broader. If we listen, articulation of values and political agendas to artifacts becomes audible. This radio case study is a model for other studies of technology. Too often claims about what the Internet is or does unquestioningly locate values and politics “inside” the artifact. Breathless exultations such as, “Digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony” (as stated by Wired magazine’s Nicholas Negroponte in 1995) are ubiquitous across punditry.[3] The unbridled enthusiasm for “the digital” is not the only reason we should not accept these statements at face value. We need to recontextualize such declarations as part of a dynamic of articulation; they are rhetorical claims whose effect is to crystallize particular notions about what the Internet is. Radio activists’ evangelism exemplifies how links are actively forged between politics and the technologies they engage. This phenomenon is as relevant to “the digital” as to older technologies such as radio. Indeed, it is only hype-driven Internet mythology that causes us to think of anything associated with the Internet as new and anything analog-related (like radio) as old.


      [1] Jeffrey Juris, Networking Futures: The Movements against Corporate Globalization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008, 17.

      [2] See Gabriella Coleman, Coding Freedom, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012; Laura DeNardis, Protocol Politics: The Globalization of Internet Governance, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009; Christopher Kelty, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Culture, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

      [3] Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, New York: Vintage Books, 1995, 230. Scholars, too, have advanced such claims: Yochai Benkler writes that “the networked information environment offers us a more attractive cultural production system in two distinct ways: (1) it makes culture more transparent, and (2) it makes culture more malleable” (The Wealth of Networks: How Production Networks Transform Markets and Freedom, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006, 15); see also Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture; The Rise of the Network Society. Vol. 1. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. Thanks to Lucas Graves and Tom Streeter for comments and conversations about these issues.

      -Contributed by ,  Journalism & Media Studies in the School of Communication & Information at Rutgers University-

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