The Heterogeneous Contexts of Digital Production

I was inspired by Nick Couldry’s recent post of his excellent book chapter (I am looking forward to the book), and the subsequent comments, especially Tarleton’s question as to  “what a practice-based attention to media production and distribution might look like,” to write a bit about some very in-progress work which brings me close to issues of media practice and contexts of production.  I very much welcome comments on this first-draft take!

Over the last six months, Laura Meadows (a Ph.D. student in our School) and I conducted ethnographic research with Protect All NC Families, the campaign to defeat North Carolina’s constitutional amendment barring gay marriage. We were initially embedded with New Kind, a consultancy hired by the campaign to coordinate its social media outreach and graphic design, although we quickly ended up spending considerable time across the entire campaign.

One of the challenges we unexpectedly faced was figuring out what the campaign was organizationally and understanding the contexts of its media production.  The answers to these questions were not immediately clear.  Protect All NC Families was organizationally complex as an electoral effort coordinated by a social movement.  For example, Protect All NC Families was not so much a bounded organizational entity as an extraordinary array of social movement, civil society, and political organizations, religious and Democratic Party groups, and even commercial firms – over 100 different national, regional, and NC-based organizations in all.  The steering committee alone consisted of movement actors, including national, regional, and state LGBTQ organizations, the ACLU, and even a commercial firm – which in turn hired a host of electoral actors: a campaign manager, pollsters, direct mail firms, television advertising producers, field and communications staffers, etc.

After spending our initial months with the campaign, we came to see ourselves conducting what we call an “ethnography of an assemblage.”  As Rasmus Nielsen noted in his excellent book Ground Wars, Deleuze and DeLanda’s concept of the assemblage fits campaigns well given that they are premised on leveraging the resources of many autonomous actors (such as unions, party and civil society groups, etc) to carry out routine electoral functions.   In DeLanda’s work, assemblages are made up of heterogenous components acting in concert.  Components can be individuals, organizations, technologies, biological forms, or materials such as pebbles.  The important point that DeLanda makes is that these components are characterized by relations of exteriority.  Any component part of an assemblage can be plugged into a new assemblage.  They are independent, autonomous entities that work as parts of assemblages, where they have certain capacities that are realized through interaction in the course of concerted action. Graham Harman uses the example of football players who move between clubs; this movement does not change the nature of the footballer, but in joining a new club may perform new capacities (in encountering new, more skilled teammates, for instance).  Even more, the club itself, as an assemblage, performs more or less well on the basis of these interactions of component parts.

What do media practices in the context of this particular assemblage, marked by a concerted effort among many autonomous actors to defeat NC’s constitutional amendment, look like?  For one, the contexts within which each component of the assemblage acted were different.  While there was a broad messaging strategy for the campaign, social movement organizations such as Equality NC and civil social organizations such as the NAACP used networked media, direct mail, radio spots, and personal communication to engage their supporters, members, and communities in different ways, according different values, goals, and interests, and with qualitatively different messages – even though they were acting in concert.  Each component of the assemblage acts in its own context, although does so in concert with others against the general backdrop of the campaign.

I do not have enough space to go into more detail here, but I did want to briefly discuss the fundamental uncertainty that pervades campaigns and the possibility of experimental practice – both of which we observed in the course of studying media production across the assemblage.

In Acting in an Uncertain World, Callon, Lascoumes, and Barthe define ‘uncertainty’ as conditions where the current state of affairs and possible courses of action and their consequence is imperfectly known.  As they argue:

“This amounts to saying that we cannot anticipate the consequences of the decisions that are likely to be made; we do not have a sufficiently precise knowledge of the conceivable options, the description of the constitution of the possible worlds comes up against resistant cores of ignorance, and the behavior and interactions of the entities making them up remain enigmatic….. We know that we do not know, but that is almost all that we know: there is no better definition of uncertainty. In such situations the only option is questioning and debate, notably on the investigations to be launched. What do we know? What do we want to know?” (21)

While Callon, Lascoumes, and Barthe were writing about decision-making in the context of sociotechnical controversies, conditions of uncertainty describes the routine state of affairs for campaigns quite well.  Conditions of uncertainty are especially radical for many statewide campaigns, which are characterized by limited resources, low and highly variable voter turnout, inconsistent resource flows, local political affiliations overlapping with partisan identities, low information among voters, and in the case of the marriage amendment, no ready partisan cues.  In these cases, uncertainty permeates every decision-making context, and is the standard operating context for campaigns.

Uncertainty can result in many non-routine media production practices.  In the classic, ideal type model of a campaign, consultants conduct polling, identify target demographics, and then craft persuasive messages designed to appeal to them.  In this case, the campaign did so months in advance of the election, but lacked the financial wherewithal to routinely commission polls – the important feedback that helps staffers and consultants recalibrate message and targeting.  Staffers were aware, and often cited, the fact that polling was not ongoing, and that the race may have been changing dynamically as the electorate became more knowledgable and as the respective campaigns made their arguments.   Even more, however, was the knowledge that all polls, especially in issue campaigns and in states with little history of them, involve significant assumptions that are, in the end, uncertain.  They involve assumptions as to overall turnout, the partisan composition of the electorate, the potentials of expanding the electorate and mobilizing supporters, and the effects of knowledge-based interventions.

All of which is to say that in these conditions the consequences of campaign decisions are unclear, the universe of options are not known, and the range of possible actors and their actions – from the opposing side and in-state parties to the national movements and the resources they can potentially bring – are uncertain.  It is in these circumstances that actors creatively draw on their experiences in other contexts, metaphorically connect disparate contexts, and muster many sources of authority (from data to historical examples) to create alternative courses of media practice.

The challenge then is how to think about practice in this context?  And, even more, to conceptualize experimental practices that are not stable or fully routinized, but may become so over the course of a campaign or in future campaigns that individuals and organizations work on. As Couldry notes, practice accounts generally focus on regularity and order.  But what happens when this cannot be realized (although the actors themselves try to achieve this regularity)?

Karin Knorr Cetina’s notion of “object oriented practice” detailed in Epistemic Cultures and “Objectual Practice” is useful here.  Knorr Cetina argues that actors convene around particular knowledge objects and in a process of relational engagement continually constitute what that object is. Objects are not permanently fixed, but unfold in a variety of forms – from representations to technologies – through the ways actors articulate and construct them. Knorr Cetina’s approach departs from the wider literature on practice, especially in a move away from emphasizing stability and recurrent patterns in social action to accounting for creativity and innovation. In other words, by focusing on the multiple and fragmentary epistemic practices that hold together through the shaping of particular knowledge objects, Knorr Cetina offers an alternative to habitual and largely unconscious actions in the face of routine challenges.  Her approach allows for dynamism and innovation among actors who bring things into being.

I will conclude this overly long post by quickly looking at the social media production practices of the campaign which illustrates this dynamism.  The campaign’s staffers and consultants certainly deployed many now codified best practices of digital campaigning that had taken shape over the last decade – from field staffers setting up Facebook groups for NC universities to staffers using emails as a fundraising vehicle.  But, this was not the whole story.  The consultants cobbled together their new media practice from a heterogenous amalgam of understandings of the Obama campaign in 2008, such as placing an emphasis on creating a personalizable online brand system, as well as the branding and marketing around the open source software Fedora, such as investing in graphic design and digital videos (New Kind was founded by a number of former Red Hat employees).  In short, there was no established set of new media practices for the campaign; innovation lay in bringing a diverse set of models and experiences to the campaign, and engaging in experimental recombinations of practice derived from multiple domains.

Even more, there were production contexts that themselves were hybrid spaces.  The staffer in charge of social media hosted a conference call on Sunday nights to coordinate messaging with a number of prominent bloggers writing for sites such as AmericaBlog and DailyKos.  The goal was to coordinate online messaging and create the perception of momentum for the campaign.  Why?  The primary target was national LGBTQ movement donors, in order to convince them to devote resources to the campaign in North Carolina.  In this sense, new media practice was directed internally to the movement, but coordinated through a new set of autonomous actors (bloggers) acting in concert with elements of the campaign.