Five more points

Culture Digitally is now a year old, and we are extremely grateful to the initial cadre of participants, the guest bloggers, and all of the readers that have helped make it a vibrant place for the circulation of ideas and research around digital cultural production. As part of the NSF award that supports Culture Digitally, we committed to two workshops; the first, in March 2011, brought together the core group of scholars to think through the issues we found most pressing. The discussion produced a number of fruitful lines of inquiry, which we tried to encapsulate here in ‘five points.’ We just held our second workshop, April 2012, in Philadelphia. At this second workshop the returning core participants were asked to present work in progress that had emerged from or benefited from the Culture Digitally discussions at the first workshop and online, to receive criticism and comment from their colleagues.

As we discussed our individual and collaborative projects together, we also aimed to identify the cross-cutting questions and themes that animate us now, to which we will commit to as research topics going forth. Some are progressions of the original themes; others have sprung anew from the interactions since list year.

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Professional imaginaries and the social worlds of the producers of digital goods: Several of us are endeavoring to look inside the institutions and productive practices of digital content producers, to recognize those technologies, organizations, and social forms that are fundamentally important structures and processes, shaping what constitutes “goods produced,” seeing goods as both alienable products and complex social terrains in their own right. The idea of “professional imaginaries” has been fruitful in our discussions: how do actors, whether they’re game developers, online community managers, health tech operators, or network hobbyists, come to understand their institutional roles (professional or otherwise), the character of their expertise, their place amidst other roles? From which social worlds do these imaginaries emerge from or migrate to? These ideas, to us, seem to productively complicate the concerns about participation and production within digital networks, by giving life to the ways in which participatory practices do and do not fit into that categories of labor, hobby, community, and work. This interest extends to a number of sites that illustrate the interplay of the institutions/technologies/people involved, from the most visible networked platforms (YouTube, FaceBook, video games), to the more invisible intermediaries that facilitate the seemingly frictionless flow of digital content from maker to user and back again.  [tag: social_imaginaries]

The intersection of technical expertise and epistemologies with other forms of legitimated knowledge: Technical expertise has a kind of authority in our modern world, yet it has often been categorically separated from epistemology. Expertise as a toolset is often framed as an outcome of epistemology. Whether that is because expertise is associated with “mere” technical capability, or constructed as related to “frivolous” enterprises and products, obscures the fact that, increasingly, technical practice is a way of knowing the world. For some, play, hacking, design and other practices are coming to frame an underlying understanding of the world. Is there a language or theoretical lens that configures these practices as epistemologies instrumental to knowledge making? How are people like game designers or hacker journalists establishing their own specific forms of expertise, their epistemologies, among competing forms of authority? When these actors endeavor to collaborate, what interactions are possible, and what conceptual and professional barriers remain? In this intersection of competing forms of expertise, how is knowledge production itself being reconfigured? [tag: technical_epistemologies]

Justice, access, and the nature of information rights: Many of us are struck by the sense that, despite the increasingly complex ways in which digital culture is understood, the classic concerns about inequity and public participation continue to have difficulty being heard over the persistent echo of Internet enthusiasm. Deep inequities and injustices remain, are reproduced and continue to emerge within and through digital networks/technologies. An effort to forge a vocabulary for and careful attention to a new terrain of digitally reproduced or mediated injustice requires, first, a clear sense of the many things we might mean by “digital rights”: access to the technology and resources? visibility online? the potential to gain a voice in digital spaces? substantive avenues for participation? Mapping these many levels of digital rights should allow for a more grounded and subtle attention to the persistent and emergent disparities and inertias in digital culture and society writ-large. [tag: digital_rights]

Micro-practices as they migrate to the platform: In the past, commercial entities providing for and hoping to capitalize on sociocultural activities — be it movie watching or role playing games or sharing information with friends — could, at best, sell users the resources to do it. TSR could sell players Dungeons and Dragons books, figures, and dice. But the activity that occurred with them was beyond their reach. Sports associations could broadcast American football games, soccer matches, or the Olympics, but what people did together while they watched was for the most part outside of the calculus of mass communication markets. Today micro-practices elemental to social relations and meaning-making (leisure entertainment, friendship and ritual) move through a configuration of platforms that transcend offline/online divides. This means that, though the platform provider is not obliged to structure or commodify those micro-practices, the possibility and lure to do so is always available. In these ways, the social dynamics of “togetherness” are subtly structured by the platform and its designs (material layout and financial ambition). At the same time, users are encouraged by architectures of invitation and persuasion to make their micro-practices legible to the platform, in exchange for various forms of benefit, be it financial rewards or social capital. And, they may also turn the platforms against themselves, for the benefit of political expression or critique. [tag: micro_practices]

A cultural studies of a roster of new social, institutional, and technical actors: Together, these ideas seem to point to a new way of conducting cultural studies, one that does not remain content with the traditional focus on “the producers” and “the consumers” of culture, but instead acknowledges a complex ecology of new actors, shifting institutions, and middleware technologies. It is a cultural studies that can see the material artifact not just as en element of the story, not just as an “actor” in a network, but as constantly renegotiated artifacts that change in time. And crucially, it is a cultural studies that recognizes the many sites of policy and governance that populate this space: from the state-sanctioned imposition of law and regulations, be they global, national, or local, to the rules and guidelines imposed by specific sites or platforms, to the norms that emerge inside online communities or within the production space of a single artifact or service. [tag: new_actors]

Finally, a methodological note. We find it important to pair rigorous scholarship with something like playfulness. Our workshop itself felt like an example of this, as does the blog. In all spaces of scholarship we hope to identify the “gamefulness” of our endeavors, both as a means of better recognizing the playfulness of the actors and institutions we study, as well as to reinvigorate the strictures and routines of academic publication and collaboration. [tag: gamefulness]

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Though the schedule of workshops first imagined in the NSF award are now complete, the Culture Digitally project will continue. This site will continue, and we have several plans to expand both its offerings and its membership. In addition, the initial participants are all committed to continuing the conversations begun here and some of the research that has grown from our collaboration. Culture Digitally sponsored projects, conference panels, colloquia, and online goodies will appear soon.