Tag Archives: Digital Media

Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

Yes.

My brilliant fellow Grady grad, Felicia Harris, recently wrote a wonderful post about her academic journey, and she’s inspired me (and I’ve finally given myself permission) to do the same.

My old cubicle. Such great memories at GMOA!
My old cubicle. Such great memories at GMOA!

A year ago at this time, I was in my final days of working as a bus operator/trainer for UGA’s Campus Transit System and working as a PR intern for the Georgia Museum of Art. I had a plan – I was entering my final year of my Master’s program in Mass Media Studies, and I was going to move to Atlanta when I graduated to practice PR. I knew I wanted a Ph.D., but I thought that was still several years away.

But as that Fall semester began, other things began to chip away at that plan. After working on a conference paper with my adviser, the wonderful Elli Lester Roushanzamir, and taking a class that introduced me to WJT Mitchell and image theory, I knew my plans had changed. Then, one week in January 2015 confirmed that – I had been accepted in the PhD program at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and that conference paper had been accepted for presentation at the 2015 International Communication Association Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

That spring semester flew by. I wrote, edited, edited, edited some more, and then finally successfully defended my master’s thesis (with the help of my brilliant committee, Elli Lester Roushanzamir, Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, and Valerie Boyd). I came to learn myself just as I came to learn the theories of dramaturgy, digital literacy, and the social media phenomenon I dub “identity bending.” I got a tattoo as my present for these accomplishments. The quote “love the questions themselves” is forever marked on my left wrist as a reminder to the excitement I felt that week in January (those words are from Rainer Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” – be still with all that’s unresolved in your heart, and learn to love the questions themselves).

And then, I was off to Puerto Rico. I had never traveled alone, flown alone, booked a hotel alone, hailed a cab, etc. etc. I didn’t just step out of my comfort zone. I zoomed out of it, 500 mph across on ocean on a Boeing 757.

View from my balcony, San Juan, Puerto Rico
View from my balcony, San Juan, Puerto Rico

There, I presented original research entitled “Fear and Selfie-Loathing in America: Intersections of Image Theory, Feminist Theory, and Arm’s Length Self-Portraits,” and was awarded Top Student Paper, Popular Communication Division. I had the privilege to speak on a panel entitled Theorizing Digital Media’s Visual Imagery: Aesthetics, Abilities, and Motivations with brilliant scholars from Brigham Young, Annenberg Pennsylvania, the Queensland University of Technology, and Hebrew University-Jerusalem.

So what’s next?

In August, I begin my PhD at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, as well as my journey into my becoming a “Triple Dawg” (I’ve earned a Bachelors and a Masters from UGA). Broadly, I call myself a digital imagery scholar, as I’m fascinated by things such as selfies and memes. The paper I’m currently working on to submit to a conference early next year is about Slender Man and the feminization of digital spaces. After that, I already know another selfie paper is in the works. Memes and selfies have already evolved and changed so much just in the year since I began researching them, which makes it such an intriguing field. IMG_1499The way we visually represent society says so much about ideological norms and values. Images are never innocent, and they are never silent. They are screaming a thousand things, demanding to be studied, looked at, revered. They sit amidst a rocky terrain of gender, race, class, politics, religion, history, popular culture, and current events, not just in their content, but in their production.

Those who know me know that I view the academic and the personal as inextricably linked. As I came to learn theories, I came to learn myself. James Carey pushed me into the swimming pool. Stuart Hall encouraged me to think boldly. W.J.T. Mitchell showed me the world. bell hooks inspired me to roar.

I used to never believe I could be here. This was one of the best things I ever gave myself permission to do.

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The Most Important Part of a Selfie? The Face

Take your belfies (butt selfies), feet-at-the-beach-selfies, and back of the head selfies and move over. Those pictures are valid and worth documentation of course, but they’re not selfies.

While the Oxford English Dictionary defines a selfie as “an image that one has taken of oneself…etc.” It doesn’t specifically say it has to be a picture of one’s face, but I still think the face is a crucial part of the selfie. Why? Because of a concept in media studies called face-ism.

Face-ism came from a 1980s study that found in media images, men are more frequently portrayed from the shoulders up, while full-body shots of women are almost always used. But the implications of that were more striking. In a headshot, the individual shown is described as being more dominant, assertive, and intelligent, while the full-body shot was viewed as passive, less intelligent, submissive.

Subsequent studies found that when even the same individual was depicted in a head shot and a full-body shot, viewers rated the head shot as “better.” Because media frequently use head shots for men and full-body shots for women, it’s no wonder these gender stereotypes and inherent misogyny persist. In other words (as said in a study by Konrath et al., 2012): “It is not surprising that two groups of people who are conceptually seen as different would be literally seen (visually) as different.”

My desire to study selfies came out of this concept – because what does a selfie show? A head shot, from the shoulders up, but selfies (and those who take them) are deemed silly, aimless, dumb, and narcissistic. Why the chasm? Why, when the picture is taken by someone else, is it respectable, but when it is taken by oneself, it isn’t? Why does face-ism not apply to the selfie?

In a previous post, I said I used the selfie as the intersection to study media, culture, and society. How the selfie (and those who take) them are represented through language says a lot about what we value as a society, and what we’re afraid of. In that same earlier post, I mentioned that the early adopters of the selfie were women, minorities, and homosexual men, and this set the tone for how the selfie would be talked about in culture. These are three groups that have historically been stereotypes, marginalized, and misrepresented in the mass media, and selfies are a way for them to talk back to the status quo and say, “No, that’s wrong, this is actually me.”

Face-ism doesn’t apply to the selfie because society does not want it to. The finding inherently privileges men and “masculine” qualities. When a group that has historically been marginalized is featured in the exact same style, rejection of it says more about society’s feelings towards that group than it does the level of facial prominence in a picture. The backlash suggests that historically marginalized groups shouldn’t be viewed in an empowering light. They need to remain subordinate, even in images. This is a classic “Othering” move – make the subordinate group feel like second class citizens through any means possible.

The selfie adheres to all concepts of the head shot except for one – the removal of the outside photographer. And while this is quickly labeled as narcissistic, it is actually empowering and an act of protest. It says “if you value the norm for taking a picture like this, you will value me, too.” Selfographers (my term for those who take selfies) are saying, “Look me in the eye. I am worth more than my body, which has typically been viewed as an object to be consumed by the dominant class. Look me in the eye. I’m important, too.”

From Duck Face to Kylie Jenner: Selfie Standards of Beauty

A few months ago, my best friend sent me a link to an article: “NTSB: Selfies Led to Fatal Colorado Plane Crash.”

And I texted back: False. Stupidity Led to Fatal Colorado Plane Crash.

Framing strikes again.

There is a fine line between the desire to document and sheer stupidity, but there shouldn’t have to be. In theory, common sense should be more common, but it’s as one of my professors once said: Everyone assumes common sense is an equal playing field, where we all have equal and similar stocks of meaning.  And for some, the stock of meaning is apparently one of doing whatever it takes to look like a celebrity.

Lately, the biggest selfie fad blowing up social media is one shrouded in idiocy (along with complex societal constructions): The Kylie Jenner Challenge.

downloadIf you’re not familiar, the Kylie Jenner Challenge involves sucking as hard and long as you can on a shot glass, water bottle, etc., to temporarily augment one’s lips and mimic Kylie Jenner’s recently, permanently plumped, pouty mouth. Jenner’s new look took the internet and tabloid spheres by storm a few weeks ago, and now, the #KylieJennerChallenge has gone viral.

I’m not going to pretend what these teens are doing isn’t idiotic. It is. But the reason that this hashtag has taken off isn’t necessarily because these girls succeed in looking like Kim Kardashian’s little sister. But the medium of the selfie is once again taking the flack with articles saying, “No surprise selfies are causing teens to want to look perfect as well” (ABC Action News). It’s not the selfie causing teens to want to look perfect. It’s unrealistic standards of Western beauty. CC_mbWlUUAAOxeW

American culture is obsessed with celebrities, and with the development of social media we have all become micro-celebrities in our own right. We are the star of our own lives, constantly putting on performances on social media to appear a certain way. We even fuel the fire of rumors and gossip that way – case and point, last weekend, I ran into an old ex from years ago (it did not end well), and later, he posted a FB status that inevitably stirred up interest among old acquaintances. My cell phone immediately started blowing up with texts: “Did you run into So-and-So? What happened?”

Mirco-celebrity. In our own right. Even when we don’t want it.

That’s what the Kylie Jenner Challenge does. Not only does it play on our culture’s obsessions with actual models, actors, rappers, etc., it inspires individuals to be the celebrity at the center of their own network. By mimicking a celebrity, one becomes a (small) celebrity themselves. Young girls are so obsessed with Jenner’s unrealistic standards of beauty that they’re willing to permanently harm their own bodies to temporarily achieve such status. Yes, the selfie is the way they join the conversation, but the selfie is not to blame. I would point the finger at unrealistic body standards, celebrity-obsessed culture, and teenager stupidity (which we’ve all done in high school) before blaming the medium of the selfie.

CDEQlbRUMAAfhZZBut as I mentioned, these teens really aren’t succeeding with emulating Jenner’s look. If anything, the reason the challenge has become such a craze is because of how badly it has gone. Instead of touting their newly inflated lips, teens are posting pictures of their faces and chins covered in bruises. They’ve become micro-celebrities because of their distress – a concept that makes a lot of sense when you think about tabloids and shows like TMZ.

In mirco-celebrity culture, even failures are celebrated. Instead of achieving Jenner’s look, the conversation is really more about how impossible it is to do so. These teens are posting pictures of their bruised and bloodied faces and laughing at themselves. I’m not saying that makes it better; I’m saying it’s a fascinating look into what we value in celebrities and what we value in ourselves. Idealized (and unrealistic) versions of celebrity bodies promote others to try to look that way, even when it’s impossible.

The Kylie Jenner Challenge is just the latest mold of beauty standards in our digital culture. The one that has prevailed the longest is arguably the Duck Face, which has been frequently hailed as “stupid” and “attention seeking.” However, instead of thinking about what Duck Face is, we should think about what Duck Face does (same with the #KylieJennerChallenge). It narrows the face, makes the lips appear fuller, the eyes wider, the cheekbones more prominent. It temporarily molds the face to adhere to American standards of beauty, the standards frequently put forth by celebrities. We fetishize macro-celebrities for that look, but as soon as a micro-celebrity joins in, the sexist discourse surrounding the selfie rears its head once more.duck-face

From the duck face to the #KylieJennerChallenge, all these facial expressions and experiments are the result of feminine control. Girls are constantly bombarded with unrealistic images and told to look a certain way, but as soon as they try to achieve it, they are criticized.

That being said, girls, please stop being stupid and put down the shot glasses. Even Kylie Jenner didn’t achieve that look naturally. Take all the selfies you’d like, but leave the shot glasses alone. I promise you’re beautiful just the way you are.

Your Facebook Self and “Real” Self Are the Same

Forget my cup of exceptionally strong coffee. Nothing riles me up on Monday morning quite like the chance to debate the internet life, “real” life (or as I call it, physical life), and the convergence of the two. Thank you, Wired and Jessi Hempel.

Hempel begins posing a scenario she had previously posted to her Facebook friends: How do you handle running into an online friend in “real” life?  What’s the etiquette in regards to bringing up something you saw on their Facebook page? The answers Hempel’s friends provided her are actually chuckle-worthy: Wallflowering. Facial(book) recognition. Friendenfreude. A Facebookship. And stalking.

But Hempel, who struggles with coming to terms with these digital relationships, continues to call them awkward. She taps into our inner Foucaultian tendencies with terms to like “surveillance” and “watching.” She talks about liking posts from old acquaintances who are doing arguably really interesting things with their lives, such as working on reindeer villages in the arctic tundra and celebrating and supporting their endeavors. But then, she says “What I’m describing is the digital equivalent of looking into your windows on a dark night. You’re the one who left the curtains open. You live on a busy street. But if we happen to make eye contact…we both feel slightly violated.”

Oh, I love nothing more than writers pretend to be liberal with their ideas about the digital era when really, it’s just a frayed tourniquet on the phobias and disgust that are bleeding through. She negotiates this disgust with all things social-digital by saying “she is not friends with the woman she saw on the street; She is friends with her digital avatar.”

I couldn’t disagree more with Hempel. The digital avatar and the person behind it are the same person.

In my master’s thesis on this very subject, I coined the term “identity bending,” which I defined as this: The online person and the offline person are facets of the same individual. Online presentation is a highly selected, highly thought out version of one’s life. We may not present ourselves as the same person online as we are offline, but we are also not the same people across online platforms. This has to do with the audience of that site, performance norms that date back to sociologist Erving Goffman’s first ever discussion of dramaturgy in 1959 (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). Online and offline, public and private, we are always two sides of the same coin. You wouldn’t consider the tails side of a coin any less real or valid than the head’s side. You need both sides for the coin to be worth anything, to mean anything. Our digital lives and “real” lives are the same.

Facebook (and social media in general) have redefined relationships, specifically friendships.  Hempel’s repeated use of “surveillance” and similar words invoke the idea of the panopticon, and that we are always on display, even when we don’t want to be.

But that’s just the thing –we want to be. People are free to post to social media what they want. They can post how much, and whatever, they would like to. It’s not creeping. It’s not stalking. It’s viewing information and updates that have been made readily available, fueled by that poster’s individual agency.

Agency is something I think that gets incredibly overlooked in digital media studies, and especially in the way digital and social media are talked about by the news media and blogospheres. Someone made the choice to post that selfie, that link, that video. No one forced them. Social media aren’t holding guns to our heads, forcing us, and we are not trapped.

If someone posts something interesting online, and I see them later that day, or within the next couple of days, I may mention it, especially if it’s something noteworthy. Hey, I saw on Facebook you got that promotion! Congratulations! Oh my goodness, that picture of your dog you posted was adorable. How’s she doing? Our dogs should have a play date!

Hempel worries too much about something that frankly, doesn’t warrant much worrying. It’s thought-provoking, sure. But I think her article reveals more about how we as a technology-fueled society still don’t quite know what to do with everything digital. It shows that we still privilege “real,” physical interaction over anything that happens online when they’re both equally valid, equally legitimate circumstances. The binaries strike again.

I’m saying that if someone posts something online, they did so out of their own free will, and out of their desire to have that information publicly known. Don’t feel bad about acknowledging something someone else willingly put out there. Honestly, they might actually be glad you did.

What People Say To You As a Selfie Researcher

The scene: A small party at my friend’s house. It’s Saturday night, everybody’s drinking a few beers, and she grabs my arm. Hey, everyone this is Jess!

A resounding, tipsy chorus follows: Hi Jess!

My friend nudges me forward. Jess is in grad school. She studies selfies.

 Wait, what? Seflies? SELFIES?

Yes, selfies. My paper, “Fear and Selfie-Loathing in America: Intersections of Image Theory, Feminist Theory, and Arm’s Length Self-Portraits” will be presented this May at the 2015 International Communication Association conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I think selfies are an excellent way to study interstices of inequalities and fears of the digital era.

Okay. What can you tell me about selfies?

Everybody needs to calm down. The Guardian just recently published this article claiming the death of the selfie, which is disturbing for a lot of reasons. My research presents, and supports previous research and articles (Huffington Post), which states that typically, the most common groups of people to take selfies are women, minorities, and homosexual men. If images do in fact stand for what they represent, clamoring for the death or destruction of the image essentially argues for the death or destruction of the person depicted.

 Huh. My ex-boyfriend used to take a lot of selfies. *grabs my arm* DOES THAT MEAN HE’S GAY? I KNEW IT!

I don’t know. My research was not about your ex-boyfriend. Just because a man takes a selfie does not mean he’s gay or bisexual or asexual or polyamorous anything or the like.  My research suggests that criticisms about selfies abound because of the demographics who were the initial adopters of the movement (women, racial minorities, and homosexual men). These are groups who have historically been misrepresented in the mass media through narrow-minded stereotypes, ridiculous tropes, and unrealistic standards. The selfie is a way for these groups to talk back and say, “Hey, this is me.”

 But isn’t it narcissistic?

Everything is fine in moderation.  If someone is blowing up your social media feeds every hour with selfies, that might be narcissism. I’m not going to pretend that people don’t do some stupid things with selfies. But people also do stupid things with cars, phones, bikes, toaster ovens, etc. But there’s nothing wrong with someone posting the occasional selfie. If anything, it’s empowering. They’re taking control of their own image production instead of relying on someone or something else. Three hundred years ago, if you were a noble, you would pay someone oodles of gold and jewels to paint you surrounded by your possessions. Variations of the selfie have been around for centuries.

The media likes to over sensationalize this. Some of my favorites include: “What did Narcissus Say to Instagram? Selfie Time!” (The USA Today 2013); “Selfie Addiction is No Laughing Matter” (The Huffington Post, 2014); “Get Over Your Selfie” (The Wall Street Journal, 2014) . These are all blistering critiques in some of the nation’s biggest agenda-setting newspapers – because meaning comes from how something is represented through language, it is no wonder the selfie is largely considered to be a digital era joke.

 Oh. Well, yeah, I guess. What about duckface?

If someone thinks they look good doing that, let them be.  In the meantime, read this. It explains it better than I could.

 Selfie sticks…?

Are excellent for reaching that spider that’s crawled up into the corner of your ceiling that you can’t get to on your own. On a personal note, I’m not a fan. On a scholarly note, I’m perplexed by them. Based on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a selfie, if you use a selfie stick, it is no longer a selfie. The dictionary definition explicitly states it is an “arm’s –length photo.” Not a stick’s-length photo.

 What do you think of that God-awful song?

You mean that God-amazing song? Just kidding (sort of). It’s fascinating. I don’t believe any song sums up the millennial generation more so than The Chainsmoker’s ballad. The backlash against it, like the selfie, says more about society than the song. It’s like society doesn’t want to be reminded of their own habits and culture.

 Well what do you intend to do with this privileged book learning of yours? (this courtesy of a nice gentlemen I went on one, and only one, date with recently).

I’m working on my PhD, and I intend to keep studying selfies. A paper of mine that’s up next is a twenty-first century take on Lessing’s Laocoon, selfies, and hashtags, arguing that a crucial component to understanding the selfie and looking past narcissism is the hashtag that accompanies the image. I hope to encourage my students to think critically about the issues at play in our digital culture, and hopefully look at them with a trained eye. As I said earlier, selfies are a great way to look at these issues. They’re great to look at in terms of activism, empowerment, social movements, agency, and what matters to various cultures across the world.

 My friend and I are currently having a fight on whether the word selfie can be a verb. What do you think?

I think in our postmodern, poststructuralist world, anything can be anything. But no, seriously. “To selfie” is totally a verb. It’s shorthand for “taking a selfie.” We as a society seem to like shortening words and phrases these days, tbh.

 Why do you care so much? Isn’t it just a picture?

Nothing is ever what it initially seems, which is why I love my career path. If a picture is a worth a thousand words, the selfie is worth however many words you want to ascribe to it. In our participatory culture, individuals have more agency than ever before. It’s your world. Do with it – and document it – what you like.

Cool. Want another beer?

An IPA would be just fine, thanks.

 

Black and Blue, White, and Gold – Real or Digital?

We could easily continue to beat the dead horse – is The Dress blue and black, or white and gold? (Personally, I saw white and gold, but that’s the last I’ll touch on that here).

I’m more concerned with what happened after the question infiltrated our lives, taking on a soul of its own and “breaking” the internet.

28dress1-web-blog427

If you’reliving under a rock and somehow have no idea what I’m talking about, a band was playing a wedding in Scotland last weekend, and this member of the band was perplexed by the mother of the bride’s dress. Some called it blue and black, others, white and gold. The unsuspecting band member posted it to her personal Tumblr account, asking her followers for their sage inputs, and like what frequently happens with the most surprising things on the internet, it took on a life of its own and The Great Dress Debate was born.

Everyone from Taylor Swift, Kimye, and Mindy Kaling weighed in, and the following day, The New York Times published this article as a comprehensive summary and subsequent analysis. But what made me throw my pen across my cubicle wasn’t the fact we were still arguing about this dress (and still are – thanks, advertising of America for perpetuating this). It was what Buzzfeed editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, said:

 “This definitely felt like a special thing,” said Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith. “It sort of erased the line between web culture and real culture.” (New York Times, February 27, 2015)

And if The Dress “erased the line between web culture and real culture,” that implies there was a boundary there in the first place. And what do lines do? They section off. They divide. They privilege.

Like it or not, we’re living in a post-modernist world (well, really, we’re in post-post-modernism, but I digress). Post-modernism has frequently grappled with the fact people still cling to the idea of high brow versus low brown culture (i.e.: opera, ballet, theater, vs. reality TV). Yet, now, for some reason, people, like Ben Smith, still assume that there are (at least) two cultures – digital, and “real.”

What happens on the internet is just as real as something that happens in our physical reality. Just because you can’t physically hold the computer code in your hands doesn’t mean it’s any less legitimate than something you can reach out and touch. We, as a Western society, have real trouble wrapping our brains around that concept.

It’s a digital world, and we’re just living in it. What happens online has very real consequences and reactions to things offline. Twitter sparked revolutions in Egypt. One asinine tweet got a woman (understandably) fired from her job and made her personal life an international mockery.

By differentiating web culture and “real” culture, we enter the messy realm of dichotomies and hierarchies. When you have a duality, one is automatically privileged and valued more than the other (Male/female. White/Black). And based off of Smith’s comments, it’s clear that “real” culture (i.e.: what happens in physical reality) is more privileged than the digital world (ironic, isn’t it, especially since Mr. Smith has earned his fortune managing one of the most popular digital journalism pieces in the world?)

I’m snarky by nature, so don’t let my words fool you. I don’t fault Mr. Smith or mean to maliciously attack him. His comment is just perplexing. In a world where so much occurs online, we as a Western society still feel uncomfortable to attributing legitimacy to our digital actions.

I don’t think The Dress erased the boundary between our “real” world and our digital world. I think it finally showed there was never a line there in the first place.