Mary L. Gray is Associate Professor of Communication and Culture at Indiana University. Her research looks at how everyday uses of media shape people’s understandings and expressions of their social identities and sense of place in the world. She is the author of In Your Face: Stories from the Lives of Queer Youth (1999). Her most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America(2009), based on fieldwork in rural Kentucky and its border states, examines how rural youth use local support agencies, peer networks, and digital media to fashion gendered and sexual identities. Her next ethnographic project draws on how young people use mobile media to think about what social mobility means to youth living at the margins of information access and social visibility.
What one insight from your field, approach, method, findings etc. do you think is most important for scholars working in this topical area?
I hope the following insight from my ethnographic work with rural queer and questioning young people sticks: digital media do not possess inherent properties able to transform contemporary experiences of identity, visibility, and voice. But digital media, whether physically present or an aspiration, do play a pivotal, deeply social role in buttressing and disrupting the norms and boundaries that structure our everyday lives.
At its best, ethnography mines and interprets the quotidian moments and mundane archives that pile up around us. Ethnographic approaches to cultural production in a digital age don’t discover something in front of us; they challenge us to up-end any stability or clean lines separating words like “production,” “digital,” and “cultural” from the contexts and politics that make those words meaningful. My work, for example, maps the margins of digital access by refusing to let “the digital” rest as a static noun or object. Rather than assess the impact of its presence or absence, I aim to question when, how, and under what conditions “the digital” comes to matter. Doing that led me to question how rural youth might be using digital media to redraw the boundaries of their public visibility as queer folks; juggle their desires for a sense of queer difference that marked them as urban with a material need to maintain identities as locals and familiar in their towns; and how particular strategies of creating visibility and voice through digital networks spoke to broader histories and national politics that set the terms for what they should look like and say as LGBT-identifying youth.
What are two issues that are not adequately treated within current work on cultural production in the digital age in your field or in others?
I’m consumed these days with what folks, particularly Paul DiMaggio and Eszter Hargittai, describe as “digital inequalities” (2001; 2004)—the myriad conditions and cultural parameters that shape the individual experiences and social consequences of digital information and media access. Because popular culture imagines that technologies come with inherent affordances waiting to be activated (for good or evil), technophilic and technophobic policies, from “One Laptop, One Child” to the recent spate of sexting and cyberbullying laws, become the singular solutions rather than the beginning (or culmination) of a broader systemic or institutional analysis of power differentials or social inequity. We have some good stories that help us understand why these “techno fix-it” policies persist (several workshop participants have written such compelling stories). But I feel like we still have painfully few stories about the lives of those on the short end of the technostick and the range of workarounds they collectively produce when confronted with disparities in technological access and its social dimensions.
This is not my area at all but I sure would love to see someone tell us more about podcasts and what it means that so many folks produce audio programming that’s seemingly kept a broadcasted radio/dj format or platform alive.
Also not my area: but I’m really glad to see the growth of work on griefers, trolls, and spammers.
Ok, one more: with notable exceptions (Paasonen; Hillis), we still don’t have much research on sex and its relationship to digital media.
Are humanistic values such as justice, equality, democracy or (insert preferred humanistic value here) currently served by cultural production in a digital networked environment?
Yes and No. I don’t think humanistic values are well-served by cultural production in a digital networked environment at the moment. They illustrate some exciting expressions of/new venues for these values but we’re still too stubborn about insisting that there’s a good reason to separate out the digital from the analog/non-digital instantiations of humanistic values.
I think a range of humanistic values could be better-served if we stopped banking on the network to deliver the goods while at the same time committed ourselves to extending these networks, as key infrastructure for social engagement, to every being on the planet. In this case, I think the energy put into the process of expanding these networks is more important than the links themselves. So network expansion could (could) be a helpful heuristic of sorts.
Humanistic values are ideals. They necessarily produce power relations as we all bang out our version of what we think justice, equality, democracy, etc. should look like. Digital networks reproduce as much as they circulate and transform these humanistic values and the power relations they manifest. And digital networked environments are plugged into terra firm even as they snap and sing through what seem like new wires high above the ground. So, I think we are on our way to recognizing that networked environments can serve humanistic values as we realize that can’t solve human problems all on their own.