meMedia or iRobot?: Constructing Identity(s) in the Online World

Here is the second meLecture for ALC201 Exploring New Media: Users, Settings, Implications, which focuses on the theme of online identity:

A number of interesting points have come up already in this week’s seminars. The construction of About.Me profiles – which I intended to be primarily a warm-up exercise as a lead-in to more extensive digital media produsage – has turned out to offer considerable insight into how we portray ourselves online. The sheer variety of profiles illustrates many similarities and differences between people’s self-concepts and their approaches to depicting these. What does this variety in self-presentation reveal? Do the relatively restricted generic conventions and possibilities of the About.Me site limit individuality or is there enough space for one to express oneself freely? Can individuality be expressed by refusing to upload a profile picture (in effect, subverting the template)? This is an useful example to think through in relation to the argument made by Jaron Lanier that we are all becoming ‘nonpersons’.

Most users will have looked at several other profiles before constructing their own. What does this suggest about how we learn? As I’ve been emphasising, people don’t know how to use Facebook or play an Xbox game because they’ve listened to a lecture about it or read a book on it (not that these are redundant ways to learn things by the way!). Rather, people quickly become skilled at using Facebook and other digital media because they – knowingly or not – observe how others are using it, teach themselves how to do things by both repetition and trial-and-error, and, when needed, consult the Help menus or demo videos uploaded by the site’s designers or other users. Whenever it was that you started Twitter, were you as adept at using hashtags as you are now? And how did you get better at it…?.

An interesting concept in relation to this topic is that of ‘exposure’. While the majority of students were comfortable depicting themselves on a public About.Me page that can be accessed by anyone in the world with the requisite hardware and digital literacy, the same people were not generally as comfortable having a room of 20-25 people observing and discussing their profile in front of them. Without implying a negative judgement here (just making an observation), this would – at least in part – seem to point to a certain ‘disconnect’ between our physical selves and our virtual presence(s). While general shyness (of the kind I myself was partial to myself during my undergraduate studies) might have played a role in this, this unease in seminars still underlined the crucial importance of carefully, creatively, and critically thinking through how we construct our online persona(s). Lots of interesting questions arise here: If we’re often more comfortable communicating certain things about ourselves online, does this also entail a risk that we might be at times more ‘carefree’ – and when does this become ‘careless’? On the flip side, do we judge people online differently than we do in person? How much time and thought do we put into how we are communicating when using instantaneous social media? Are we more willing to ‘expose’ ourselves to the world than to those right in front of us?.

Many thanks to everyone who helped in putting together some of the footage for this meLecture, and to those who have been actively engaging with the material and each other via Twitter, YouTube, and the CloudDeakin discussion forums – this is great to see! Keep it up!

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Multiple Me(s): Thinking Through My Online Self…

(ALC201 Module 1 Exercise Example)

Popular understandings of digital identities continue to rely on relatively stable notions of the (true) ‘self’; however, postmodern themes of multiplicity and incoherence are often more useful in forming a self-impression of my digital identity(s). Indeed, postmodernists’ emphasis on human identity being underpinned by a ‘fragmented, disjointed, and discontinuous mode of experience’ (Kellner 1995, p. 233) gestures to the radical shifts between, to take one example, sending formal emails as a university lecturer one moment and self-reflexively creating (often very personal) video clips the next. My Twitter profile allows me to make this self-presentational shift even more rapidly – even in a matter of seconds. In this context, I can move from a tweet that is primarily aimed to promote myself professionally to a more ‘social’ tweet on another profile that appears to reveal more of my ‘private’ side, as in the respective examples below:

Tweets embedded from my @textualworld and @virtualtiff Twitter profiles respectively.

In terms of Kim Barbour and David Marshall’s (2012) categorisation of the different kinds of academic personae, my online activity places me further from the ‘formal’ and fixed broadcast-style self and more in the ‘comprehensive self’ category, which blurs the professional and the private across a number of platforms. This discontinuity allows a high degree of flexibility, providing a means of navigating and contributing to diverse online communities for the purposes of my disparate teaching and research areas, which span digital media innovation, the Holocaust, board game culture, and animal/human rights. However, there are potential limitations to my approach, particularly in terms of needing to find the right balance in order to maintain a following when appealing to often niche and disconnected target communities. Utilising the app JustUnfollow over the past several months has proven an immensely useful way of tracking when anyone stops following me, thus possibly allowing me to determine why this might be and, if I think something needs to change, alter my practices accordingly.

The Easel.ly infographic below symbolically represents some of the ways in which I depict myself across several online media applications:

‘Myonlinepersona’ at Easel.ly

This visual representation makes a clear distinction between those sites I am generally compelled to put forward a more ‘serious’ and ‘professional’ persona on, such as Academia.edu and LinkedIn, and those on which I construct a more ‘impersonal’ self, such as Twitter and YouTube. I have intentionally distanced myself from Facebook over the past few years, which means that it has been a somewhat isolated element of my online identity. In future years, I plan to make more frequent use of this site – as well as the major gaming community site BoardGameGeek – to further develop my research into board game culture through more intense online community engagement.

One must always bear in mind the primary reason for engaging in online forums: connectivity – or what C. Waite (2013, p. 16) identifies as an individual’s dependency on ‘virtual copresence’. Thinking critically about how one is situated within online communities is crucial to establishing an effective online presence. Attempting to balance the personal and professional, I endeavour to build what might be termed a ‘coherent incoherent’ identity. Reflecting the postmodern conception of the self outlined above, recent research has pointed to frequently updated profile pictures ‘becom[ing] a short hand for changing, up-to-the-minute performances of self’ (Hills 2010, p. 118). However, I don’t tend to change my profile picture often, rather using a consistent ‘formal’ image of myself across most platforms. Metaphorically, my profile picture might (as suggested in the infographic above) be viewed as an anchor around which I construct a multiplicity of often contradictory, if not at times ‘incoherent’, public online selves. By appearing – or ‘performing’ – as a serious professional in my profile picture, this will hopefully counter-balance any negative impression garnered by my more fluid, often self-deprecating, depictions in other forms. For instance, I self-reflexively and critically think through my presentation of self as if playing a series of characters, no matter what medium I am using.

Screenshot of meLecture 10 (2013)

Screenshot of ’2013 meLecture 10 for Exploring New Media: Users, Settings, Implications’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vq2GopuJnWo, retrieved 18 July 2014.

My use of a multiplicity of selves can be found in my fragmented appearances in previous video ‘meLectures’ (as in the image above), in which I intend to disrupt the still widely commonplace notion of a ‘true self’ with performances that are at once compellingly authentic and entirely artificial.

Addressing the notion of the ‘intercommunicative self’, Marshall writes of the ‘necessity of linking one’s own identities into some sort of pattern’ (2010, p. 42). This underlines the importance of ensuring one’s various profiles are consistent and linked when and where useful. My About.Me profile, for example, serves as a useful ‘hub’ for these links, which are also contained in some way on other media. Yet no matter how careful one is in depicting oneself online, it is crucial to acknowledge that the self is as much ‘an effect of representation’ as it is something that is ‘expressed through online practices’ (Poletti and Rak 2014, p. 4). Just as I influence perceptions of myself in the non-virtual world through my online behaviour, so too do my virtual personae impact on my own understanding of who I am.

An awareness of this issue is particularly important at a time when photographs of oneself can be uploaded to any number of sites with impunity, highlighting that one ultimately lacks control over one’s self in significant ways. For example, in one of the first seminars of ALC201 for 2014, I sat awkwardly under a table in an attempt to highlight the need to break down the traditionally conceived power relations between students and teacher. One student in the room took a photograph of me and sent it into the Twittersphere (which I only discovered once the seminar had concluded). This great example serves to highlight the point I was making in the seminar perfectly: the rise of digital media and the surveillance society that comes with it has already provided the means to disrupt conventional power relations, whether we like it or not…

Picture of Twitter

Photograph by Adam Brown, 18 July 2014. Image of retweet on https://twitter.com/textualworld.

 (956 words, not including citations and captions)

References

Barbour, K and Marshall, D 2012, ‘The academic online: constructing persona through the World Wide Web’, First Monday: Peer-reviewed Journal of the Internet, vol. 17, no. 9, 3 September, retrieved 18 July 2013, http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3969/3292#p3.

Hills, M 2009, ‘Case study: social networking and self-identity’, in Creeber, G and Martin, R (eds.), Digital Cultures: Understanding New Media, Open University Press, Maidenhead, pp. 117-21.

Kellner, D 1995, Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity, and Politics Between the Modern and the Postmodern, Routledge, London and New York.

Marshall, P D 2010, ‘The promotion and presentation of the self: celebrity as marker of presentational media’, Celebrity Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 35-48.

Poletti, A and Rak, J 2014, ‘Introduction: digital dialogues’, in Poletti, A and Rak, J, Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, pp. 3-11.

Waite, C 2013, The Digital Evolution of an American Identity, Routledge, New York.

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meLecture the First: Introducting Media Studies 2.0: Making, Sharing, Learning

Below you’ll find the first ALC201 ‘meLecture’, which explains some crucial unit resources and maps out some key issues for discussion throughout the first week…

I’m hoping these weekly videos will become less about me and more about some of you (directly or otherwise) in subsequent weeks. I considered calling the videos ‘usLectures’, which just sounds stupid, or ‘weLectures’, but that seemed a bit Nintendo-ish and these days I’m an ‘Xbox boy’… Nonetheless, I hope that these meLectures will not always live up to their name – it will be great to put the intersection of creativity, participation, collaboration, and digital production into practice! I’m open to suggestions, so feel free to get in touch should you have any ideas for certain weeks (whether you are in my classes or not) – I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to incorporate any or all suggestions, of course, particularly when I film a conversation or two with people, but any thoughts are most welcome and appreciated!

Even though this meLecture is longer than it will usually be in future weeks, I still had to omit some material and wanted to spend some time here making some preliminary points on how ‘new media’ has been conceptualised. Setting aside the problematic elements of the terminology of the ‘new’, the most important point I would make is that our interest in this unit goes beyond merely the devices or programs people make use of. To draw on the second edition of New Media: A Critical Introduction (2009, pp. 12-13), Martin Lister et al. emphasise that ‘new media’ should be seen to refer to the following categories:

  • New textual experiences
  • New ways of representing the world
  • New relationships between users and technologies
  • New formations of identity and community
  • New conceptions of the body’s relationship to technology
  • New patterns of organisation and production

One need only reflect on the immersive virtual environment of Second Life, for example, in which users explore and experience a world with its own currency (Linden Dollars) and various educational, business, shopping, and entertainment opportunities, to begin to perceive the implications of digital worlds for the construction of identity and ‘reality’. The increasing reliance on ever-present mobile devices that serve as ‘attachments’ to the physical body, allowing people to be constantly ‘plugged in’, further blur conceptual divides that seemed to be clear-cut not so long ago, such as the distinction between the human and the artificial.

These and other developments raise fundamental issues for cyberculture scholars (and numerous science-fiction filmmakers) over the very nature of humanity. You might like to list some ‘new media’ examples of your own underneath the above categories to confirm for yourself the incredibly wide scope of what we can look at as part of ALC201. You will have considerable flexibility in the unit to create media in relation to subjects of specific interest, so brainstorming areas and issues that are particularly important to you early in the trimester would be a valuable exercise. In the spirit of Media Studies 2.0, you might even like to use the online platform bubble.us to throw together some ideas…

Go forth, live (online, a bit), and prosper! :)

 

Reference

Lister, M, Dovey, J, Giddings, S, Grant I and Kelly, K 2009, New Media: A Critical Introduction, 2nd edition, Routledge, London.

 

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Welcome to ALC201!

A quick welcome video for students of the Deakin undergraduate unit ALC201 Exploring New Media: Users, Settings, Implications…

 

Subscribing to this blog is one way to obtain updates about the unit (if you check email often, this will be a useful strategy for you). I’ll also post some further ALC201-related reflections here throughout the weeks ahead also. I recommend you subscribe to my YouTube channel itself as well (particularly if you’ve never done this before), and I’ll be very active on Twitter (both via @textualworld and @virtualtiff) throughout the trimester. Whatever you choose to do, make sure you check CloudDeakin on a regular basis.

Please note that I may post some tweets/messages/videos that are not specifically related to ALC201 from time to time. Feel free to share useful links and engage in discussion in any forum you wish and, as noted in the video, please ensure that you behave in a considerate and ethical manner at all times – and contact me at any stage if you have any concerns.

Good luck, and as Dolph Lundgren said in a 1987 classic that was a bit of a Star Wars rip-off but nonetheless had its merits: ‘Good journey’!

Adam

P.S. – If you haven’t seen Masters of the Universe, get some culture!! :)

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Board Games, Digital Media, and Public ‘Participation’

Has digital media innovation brought about a revolution in the board gaming industry? Has the crowdfunding site Kickstartr (previously called ‘Kickstarter’ until they forgot how to spell) fundamentally changed the way in which tabletop games are designed and produced? Has the distinction between ‘designers’ or ‘producers’ and the gamers who consume and play their products been obliterated?

These are some of the questions that I’ve been grappling with in a recent research project with Dr Deb Waterhouse-Watson, another Lecturer in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. Of course, the changing relationship between designers and players is a broader issue than only something that relates to the impact of digital media culture, as episode 69 of The Game Design Round Table recently revealed in its excellent discussion of house rules, modding, and optional rules. But the seemingly ‘participatory’ nature of the online world is worth thinking through in relation to this debate too…

What follows is a conference video snapshot I put together while experimenting with iMovie for the iPad. Our presentation, ‘Playful Publics as “Game-Makers”?: Digital Media, Producers, and the (R)evolution of Board Gaming’, was delivered at the Contemporary Publics International Symposium, held at Deakin University, Melbourne, on 24 February 2014. I’ve included the abstract below, and we’re currently writing the full paper up for publication, but sadly, that’s a much slower process… so enjoy the teaser!

 

Abstract:

On first appearance, board games would seem to epitomise the ‘old’ media of yesteryear; however, the rise of digital media has seen an already substantial subculture undergo fundamental transformations. The impact of crowdfunding sites and online forums like those of boardgamegeek on the production, reception, and use of games reveals the internet to be at the very centre of the (r)evolution in board game culture. Distinctions between the categories of ‘designers’ and ‘players’ seem to be increasingly breaking down, with numerous crowdfunding projects increasingly involving direct appeals for contributions from online supporters. Significantly, game designer Justin Gary’s reflection on the initial anxiety about the future of board gaming, which many feared might dissipate with the rise of tablets and smartphones, notes that ‘the reverse has happened. Now board game sales are better than ever.’ This raises crucial questions: has gamers’ online engagement with designers resulted in a more ‘participatory’ process in which players are more deeply involved in the making of games before the products reach their table top? Has the digital arena – particularly the surge of board game projects on Kickstartr – afforded gamers the genuine power that is often implied or has it only ensured that, to use Gary’s turn of phrase, ‘sales are better than ever’? Through a close analysis of recent board game case studies, we examine the industrial logics, intertextualities, and user behaviours (re)forming through the intersection of the virtual and the non-virtual, thus contributing to ongoing debates over the relevance of the term ‘producer’ and the broader issue of digital media’s ‘democratising’ potential.

 

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Judging ‘Privileged’ Jews: Origins of a Book on the Holocaust

The evolution of my book, Judging ‘Privileged’ Jews: Holocaust Ethics, Representation and the ‘Grey Zone’, was – like most books no doubt – somewhat long and complex. To take the long-term view, the project began when I heard the moving personal stories spoken by survivor guides on a high school trip to the Jewish Holocaust Centre in 1999. ABerghahn Book Covers a non-Jewish teenager with next to no background knowledge of the event, the visit to the JHC inspired a lasting curiosity and sense of obligation to find out more. A shorter-term perspective might see the book as beginning when a friend emailed me the program for the annual Jewish Film Festival at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image some ten years ago. On that program was a film called The Grey Zone, written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson and first released in 2001. The film depicts the traumatic experiences of the twelfth Sonderkommando (‘special squad’) forced to work in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and offers a complex, unsentimental engagement with the extreme ethical dilemmas that many Holocaust victims confronted.

On the train journey to the screening, I read Primo Levi’s highly influential essay entitled ‘The Grey Zone,’ which influenced Nelson to delve into the same issues of moral ambiguity and ‘compromise’ in his film. Both of these texts, some of the few to focus explicitly and centrally on the taboo issue of ‘privilege’, have stayed with me to this day. In this context, the term ‘privileged’ Jews refers to those prisoners in the Nazi-controlled camps and ghettos who held positions that gave them access to material and other benefits beyond those available to other Jews, particularly the members of the Judenräte (Jewish councils), Ordnungsdienst (Jewish police), Kapos (chiefs) of labour squads, and other prisoner-functionaries. These victims have often been seen to have acted at the expense of fellow prisoners in various ways, for various reasons, and under varying levels of coercion. Meditating on their unprecedented circumstances, Levi provocatively argued that victims who were forced to cooperate with their Nazi persecutors in order to prolong their own or their families’ lives should not be judged for their behaviour.

As Levi highlighted while writing in the 1980s, judgements of ‘privileged’ Jews are frequently problematic, and such judgements continue to permeate society and culture to this day. Yet whether or not moral evaluations are appropriate, they are also inevitable (the very nature of language makes them so), and Levi himself could not suspend judgement of those he argued should not be judged. Taking Levi’s ‘grey zone’ as a point of departure, Judging ‘Privileged’ Jews explores the portrayal of the Sonderkommandos and other categories of so-called ‘privileged’ prisoners in survivor testimony, historical writing, and documentary and fiction films. More specifically, I analyse the ways in which moral judgements are passed in various representations, from Raul Hilberg’s influential writings to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993).

The book does not claim to provide a comprehensive picture of this subject – far from it, as many new writings and films depicting ‘privileged’ prisoners have been and continue to be released. But I hope it serves as one first step of many in addressing issues that have been left unexamined for too long; issues both fundamental to present-day attempts to understand the Holocaust and deeply relevant to reflections on human nature more generally. Judging ‘Privileged’ Jews was the product of several years of research as part of my PhD undertaken at Deakin University, though it has also been invaluably informed by my close contact with local Holocaust survivors, particularly my dear friend Phillip Maisel OAM, to whom the book is dedicated. My work in general also owes a great deal to the many conversations I have had with friends, family, and volunteers and visitors at the Jewish Holocaust Centre, particularly at the Centre’s public film screenings, which continue to reiterate the crucial importance of viewing and discussing films about the Holocaust. One film started it all for me (or nearly, anyway)…

Judging ‘Privileged’ Jews will be launched from 2pm at the Jewish Holocaust Centre on Sunday, 16 March 2014.

Please contact me if you would like to know more about the JHC Film Club screenings.

(This blog post was originally written for the Berghahn Books Blog).

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Research Profile Video of Me (with Tiffany)

This video was made for a presentation at Deakin University’s School of Communication and Creative Arts Research Forum on 25 October 2013. I was supposed to talk for 10 minutes…

Pressing ‘Play’ is easier.

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