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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.


    • Transformative Re-Use: The Re-Circulation of Fair Use Materials Aug 19, 2014

      In 2011 I opened an account on Critical Commons in order to upload a series of film clips I was analyzing for a journal article on films about the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder in New York City. I uploaded several clips from a number of films, many of which were obscure, difficult to find and hard to obtain. The special journal issue of Urban History for which I wrote the article was being published in Scalar, USC’s digital publishing platform (the issue is forthcoming later this year).  Scalar enables authors to link directly to materials in established archives, such as Critical Commons and the Shoah Foundation (also at USC), without having to re-publish them.  In light of the increasing timidity around copyright among many academic publishers, Critical Commons provides an important space in which academic researchers can assert their rights to fair use of otherwise copyrighted material.

      On their About page, Critical Commons describes their mission in the following terms:

      Critical Commons is a public media archive and fair use advocacy network that supports the transformative reuse of media in scholarly and creative contexts. Critical Commons is also part of the technical and conceptual architecture for numerous electronic publishing efforts [such as Scalar] that directly engage media as objects of analysis, curation and critique. At the heart of Critical Commons is an online platform for viewing, tagging, sharing, annotating, curating and spreading media. Our goal is to build open, informed communities around media-based research, teaching, learning and creativity.

      By uploading my film clips to their site, accompanied by commentary and an invitation to others to provide additional commentary, Critical Commons provides me with crucial support for my assertion of a fair use claim for these film examples.  It also sees the function of collecting and circulating media materials as a process of “transformatively reusing” media, suggesting that there is a larger creative and analytic process at stake here.

      Something interesting happened after I uploaded two particular films to Critical Commons. One film was Alex Proyas and Salik Silverstein’s 1980 short (8 minute) student film “Groping,” which the two created while studying at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney. “Groping” re-enacts the situation of the 1964 Genovese murder: a woman is raped and murdered within view and hearing distance of her neighbours in a nearby apartment building and only one witness calls the police. The film taps into one increasingly popular interpretation of the Genovese case that blames the police for not responding to calls from citizens who saw or heard her being assaulted.

      The other was the hard-to-find 1964 TV documentary “The Detached Americans,” which I bought in a rather scratched up 16 mm format and had transferred to DVD. The film features CBS newscaster Harry Reasoner, who provides moral narration on the ills of social apathy in the wake of the Genovese case. Both films have been exhibited in recent years at local film festivals and art events, but are otherwise unavailable to most viewers-until I posted them to Critical Commons.

      “In the eyes of the public,” as archivist Rick Prelinger argues, “YouTube ha[s] become the default online moving-image archive” (2009, 269). “Groping” now appears on YouTube, uploaded by a few different users/fans, along with my commentary from Critical Commons. So it is not only the film that is circulating, but so is my interpretation of it. And, because of the Comments function on YouTube, we can see what viewers and fans are now saying about the film. This in itself is interesting, save for some of the (expectedly) inane commentary. Some commenters provide useful contextual information on 1980s Sydney, Australia and the school where Proyas and Silverstein produced their film. Another reported that early broadcasts of the film cut out the gruesome rape and murder scene. These are crucial bits of information that I would not have become aware of had I not shared  “Groping” on Critical Commons. I am sure, too, that Proyas fans will continue to revel in their access to the short he made with Silverstein.

      Then a producer for Discovery TV working on an episode about the Kitty Genovese murder emailed to thank me for submitting “The Detached Americans” to Critical Commons. Until I posted the film, “The Detached Americans” was not otherwise available as historical footage for producers, though the fact that the film is not a good copy presents them with a problem of broadcast-quality reproducibility.  The producer asked if I might help her locate who she should talk to in order to license the use of clips from the film. While I was not able to help her, I find it useful to see how a corporate broadcaster plans to incorporate this material into another story about the Genovese case.  A week later, a reporter for the non-profit documentary group Retro Report based in New York also contacted me in hopes of locating a better print of the film.

      I expect that more requests for access to “The Detached Americans” will continue.  This year marks the 50-year anniversary of the Genovese murder, and media and academic interest is very high. Two new books on the murder by Kevin Cook and Catherine Pelonero have appeared and both were reviewed by Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker. Several radio and TV news segments have been broadcast, and in March 2014, Fordham University held a 50th anniversary memorial conference dedicated to research on the Genovese case that also featured the authors of the two new books.

      So what can we learn from this? A few things, I think. One is that the re-circulation of materials like these hard-to-find films beyond the contexts of fair use in Critical Commons provides additional information about how these materials matter in a contemporary context.  In this way, Critical Commons is not only a means for collecting materials in the context of fair use; it also enables their spread. While I cannot fully know how these materials are circulating, the evidence I do have on their re-circulation enables me to analyze their “transformative reuse.” Examining how fans on YouTube comment on “Groping” and how media producers use these films provides some modicum of information on the cultural work the films, and multi-modal forms of circulation, do.  It is possible, too, that the re-circulation of these films may spur additional interest in them in ways that could bring money, or at least attention, back to the people who made them.


      Cook, Kevin. Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, the Story that Changed America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014).

      Lemann, Nicholas. “A Call for Help: What the Kitty Genovese Story Really Means,” New Yorker (March 10, 2014).

      Pelonero, Catherine. Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and its Private Consequences (New York: Sky Horse Publishing, 2014).

      Prelinger, Rick. “The Appearance of Archives,” in The YouTube Reader, ed. Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vondereau (Sweden: National Library of Sweden, 2009).

      -Contributed by ,  Associate Professor of Feminist Media Studies in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies-

      Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

      Announcement and Sample Chapter: New Book by Robert Gehl “Reverse Engineering Social Media Software, Culture, and Political Economy in New Media Capitalism” Aug 11, 2014

      RE_smallIt’s our pleasure to announce Robert Gehl’s new book titled “Reverse Engineering Social Media Software, Culture, and Political Economy in New Media Capitalism” (Amazon link). This book is a welcome contribution from a friend and colleague of this community to the growing critical perspectives that question the artifice of digital communication technologies, practices and social structure.  Robert’s is a unique perspective in that he posits alternatives to our increasingly digitally-platformed social life.  It’s a great read.  Temple University Press has been kind enough to release the introduction for your reading here.  Thank you to Robert and to all of our colleagues who enrich our thinking with their contributions.  If any of our readers/contributors have publications that you’d like us to showcase here on Culture Digitally, please get in touch.

      -Contributed by ,  With the generous support from the National Science Foundation-

      Posted in announcement, Book Chapter Sneak Peak, Platforms | Comments Off

      Kate Crawford and Tarleton Gillespie “What is a Flag For? Social Media Reporting Tools and the Vocabulary of Complaints” Aug 7, 2014

      YouTube_flagIt’s now my pleasure to fill our readers in on a great recently published piece by my fellow Culture Digitally co-founder Tarleton Gillespie and our community’s friend and colleague Kate Crawford, from  Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective. Their article is titled, “What is a Flag For? Social Media Reporting Tools and the Vocabulary of Complaint” in New Media & Society (2014).  The journal version is here (subscription to New Media and Society is required) and a pre-print version is here (no access barrier).  It’s a timely and thoughtful contribution at a moment when social media platforms solidify their place as arenas for public discourse and civil society. The article’s abstract is below:

      The flag is now a common mechanism for reporting offensive content to an online platform, and is used widely across most popular social media sites. It serves both as a solution to the problem of curating massive collections of user-generated content and as a rhetorical justification for platform owners when they decide to remove content. Flags are becoming a ubiquitous mechanism of governance—yet their meaning is anything but straightforward. In practice, the interactions between users, flags, algorithms, content moderators, and platforms are complex and highly strategic. Significantly, flags are asked to bear a great deal of weight, arbitrating both the relationship between users and platforms, and the negotiation around contentious public issues. In this essay, we unpack the working of the flag, consider alternatives that give greater emphasis to public deliberation, and consider the implications for online public discourse of this now commonplace yet rarely studied sociotechnical mechanism.

      -Contributed by ,  Temple Dept. of Department of Media Studies & Production-

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      Hector Postigo, on the “architectures of digital labor” on YouTube Aug 6, 2014

      Glad to circulate a new essay from Culture Digitally co-founder Hector Postigo, it’s an excellent read. It is now available in the “online first” section of New Media & Society.

      Hector Postigo, “The socio-technical architecture of digital labor: Converting play into YouTube money.” New Media & Society (2014)


      This article uses the case of video game commentators and examples from research to highlight implications for conceptualizing the concept of “architectures of digital labor.” The concept draws attention not only to the social practices that position activities straddling labor/leisure into a commercial framework but also to the technological platforms that make that possible in a seemingly invisible fashion. The main analytical lens is that of “affordances.” It is used to map how technological features designed into YouTube create a set of probable uses/meanings/practices for users while serving YouTube’s business interests. The analysis is transferable to other social web platforms whose central business model focuses on user-generated content (UGC).


      -Contributed by ,  Cornell University Department of Communication-

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      The History of the Pirate Bay through its Home Page Jul 28, 2014

      The Pirate Bay as much as it tries to decentralize depends on attention concentrated on its home page. My latest article, We Like Copies, But Don’t Let the Others Fool You, explores the implications of this tension to the group and to Hacktivism. The group struggles to realized the political potential of decentralized networks while faced with the demands of contemporary politics.

      I created a video of the history of The Pirate Bay through its front page to show its production of what J. Macgregor Wise calls an attention assemblage. The home page stays remarkably the same despite police raids, trials, new protocols and changes in leadership. Instead, the home page changes to mark these events and mobilize its audience. I thought I would share the video with Culture Digitally since I can’t embed it in my article.

      Richard Rogers inspired me to create this video. His movie Google and the Politics of Tabs offers a history of Google using snapshots from the Internet Archive. The Digital Methods Initiative released a script for others to create videos using the Internet Archive snapshots. I created this video using 833 images collected from each of the Archive’s monthly snapshots.

      -Contributed by ,  Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia University-

      Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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