My Digital Selves (or the lack thereof)

Upon completing my Online Identity Analysis paper, I have realized that I do not have much of a “professional” online persona. Yes, I do have a LinkedIn but this seems like the bare minimum after following seniors in the field for a few weeks. Even thought I have a professional website from my undergrad, I now realize the importance of having an up-to-date site, which makes me want to make one very badly. This is one of my many moments where I think to myself, “Jeez, I need to listen to my adviser more!”



Lacking the Ability to Control our Online Identities

Although many people would agree that we dictate the content of our online profiles through the information that we reveal on our bios, the friends we add, and the statuses that we post, “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics” by danah boyd brings our attention to the reality that we do not have full rein on our online profiles, such as Facebook.

Putting aside technicalities, it is difficult and tedious to control and tailor our profiles to make them appropriate to all of our “friends” let alone our secondary, unintended, and invisible audiences. We also cannot control the wall posts and pictures that we are tagged in, even though we can delete posts and ask the original poster to remove tags. If we have high privacy settings and require all tags to be approved, these pictures are still available on the Internet without our permission and can be traced back to us.

We also cannot always control who sees our profile and its contents. Even with high privacy settings, friends of friends can see our posts, tags, and pictures. Disabling this feature in a way defeats a major purpose of social networking– sharing our lives with an audience. Future employers also have access to our “private” information, which many of us forget.

The lack of social, spatial, and temporal boundaries make way for collapsed texts, which makes it easy for people, such as employers, to take information out of context. This can be detrimental in many ways as messages and comments can be misinterpreted in unintended ways. Anachronistic communication also contributes to this problem as conversations can be drawn out for extended periods of time, which makes it likely that the audience, intended or not, only sees pieces of an ongoing conversation, which can result in them “seeing the wrong things at the wrong time.”

Overall, this article brought my attention to the extent of which our friends and peers contribute to our overall digital identities. This combined with the blurring of the public and private makes it necessary for us to be hyper aware of potential contributors to our online identities, and conversely, think of the various groups of audiences of our social profiles so that we are not caught off guard in crucial moments, such as during our job hunt.

On Hating Apple, and Other Technological Musings

In a previous post, I was asked by a reader why I revile apple products. There is indeed a story behind it (or at least a long-winded justification), and I shall share it with anyone who wants to know.

First of all, I will acknowledge that Apple is one of the most popular companies in terms of customer satisfaction. There is no doubt, from survey data and the hordes or cult-like followers, that Mac inspires adulation, obsession, and hyper brand loyalty. In multiple studies of communities that form around brand loyalty, Mac-lovers are a common case study.

But the list of things that annoy me about Apple products continues to grow with every interaction I have with its uber-sleek interfaces. The reasons that others sing the praises of Mac’s design are the same reason I detest Mac. For starters, Mac intentionally designs its products to be a highly mediated, controlled experience. Users are not encouraged to know /how/ the product works– they are just encouraged to use, enjoy, and worship the Apple Aesthetic. Apple controls what apps can and cannot be installed on its products and it controls the functionality of user interfaces. When a Mac breaks, it’s nearly impossible to fix it yourself, because Apple keeps the “guts” of the device on lockdown. Mac creates dependence on the Apple stores, and is helping to raise a generation of people who don’t know how computers work and don’t know how to make computers work for them.

Every button, box, or app on a Mac is designed to do one (and only one) thing. It isn’t versatile, and does not accommodate for the unique needs of the user. Instead, it demands that the user learn the function and then perform it. I don’t like being trained by my machine– I want to customize my machine so that it works for me. It’s important to me that I have an array of tools at my disposal, and having a PC and an Android phone allows me to have options.

Apple products and software are only compatible with each other. It is incredibly annoying to me that I can’t have my iTunes account linked to my Android phone, that Apple forces me to buy their products in order to have access to the music/software/apps that I purchased through them. But Apple is obsessed with having control over not just the users’ experience but, indirectly, their content. Apple is so focused on protecting its company image that it sacrifices users’ freedoms and functionality.

I think that Apple feeds into a postmodern aesthetic, too, (as has been noted by Sherry Turkle in Life on the Screen, among others) that consists of surface and pastiche. Apple, in denying users the ability to access the hardware and the code underlying the software, forces users to interact only with the surface, interface level of the machine. The iconography of Apple focuses on reproduction of certain logos and other images that the user comes to associate with the brand. I don’t like to admit defeat, I guess, and like to think I’m not a slave to the machine and not a slave to a culture of reproduction and corporate over-lord-ness. I want the user to have as much freedom as possible.

To quote Tron: I fight for the user.

Search Return

So you know (my ex says) they have this new search function on Facebook.

Yeah, I say sage to the phone.

So! he says. I wonder. Will people start living their lives so that they match the search norms on Facebook? Like, would you go to the beach just so that you can write a post about it and then show up in the search results for “beach trip”? Would you tailor your life so that you appeared at the top of certain searches, so that you were the most visible person planning a BBQ or choosing a preschool or going skiing or whatever?

Wow, I say. There’s a short story there. Or even a novel. Huh. I may have to quote you on that. But if I do, I’ll give you credit.

Ok, he says, uncertain. How would you cite me? As your ex?

There’s a pause, filled for me by the little cat gnawing on my knee.

Actually, he says, yeah. That’d be good. ‘Wisdom from my ex.’

It’s a very cool idea, I say. You should write a poem about it.

Eh, he says, breezy. Maybe. We’ll see.

The power of apps

Why death is not the end of your social media life introduces an app that allows “you” to update your Twitter from beyond the grave. This app uses algorithms to extract your writing style and interests and essentially creates a primitive rendition your thought process;  then, this app Tweets and posts from your account, which is supposed to help loved ones cope with your passing. Interesting, yet freaky and unnatural.

The next article, Sealed with a Thumb-Kiss? introduces social networking apps on the market that exist to give your technology-mediated relationships a personal touch, to help kindle your love life, or even connect with friends. Some of the apps mentioned include Avocado (for sharing calendars and agendas, compiling photos, and sharing thumb “hugs”),  Duet (for proposing activities to your lover and friends– more personal than a chat because you make requests using video. This app claims to store your cherished memories forever), and Couple (a combo of Snapchat and texting). All of the descriptions for the apps on iTunes emphasize their ability to help you connect with your loved ones on a deeper level, through your phone.

Although it is nice that, with these apps, couples can show affection to one another without encroaching on public spaces of the online world, such as Facebook and Instagram. Allowing users to incorporate visuals may even help them feel closer to the ones they are communicating with, but I am not completely sold on the effectiveness of these apps. Simultaneously, I can see their appeal, especially for couples in long distance relationships.

Overall, these apps are all attempting to fill voids created by physical space, large or small. They really make you realize how important it is to enjoy and cherish the face-to-face time with your significant other because no technology can recreate the “real thing.” At the same time, because we’re not joined at the hip with our loved ones, these apps may make the technology-mediated interactions more personal and meaningful.


The Genre of Suck


I’m struggling to revise an academic essay right now, a fanwank-y piece about the American TV show Supernatural [what else?]. However, unlike my usual SPN stuff, this essay centers not on feminist readings of fan practice but on the narrative tic-tock of the show itself.

That is, I’m struggling to say something useful (gods please) or even interesting about the canon side of things; specifically, about the angel Castiel’s shenanigans in season six and brief foray into godhood–via a postmodern critical lens, no less.

Sigh. And it sounded so cool as an abstract.

But man! do I suck at it, this kind of writing.

It’s not the mechanics of revision that are troubling me now. To the contrary, the editors of the maybe-collection in which said essay would appear have been kind, providing very thoughtful comments, suggestions, exhortations on the first drafty-as-fuck draft. So I know how to hack the thing into some kind of shape.


But re-reading [foundational rhetorical critic] Carolyn Miller this week has helped me to nail this sucker down, the thing that’s driven my confusion about the essay from the get-go: I don’t understand what the thing is supposed to do, in the end.

Miller argues that a genre is defined in large part by the “action it is used [by writers and readers] to accomplish” (151). So, ok, who cares if I can talk about a fictional avenging angel in terms of contemporary rhetorical theory and a Foucaultian analysis of power? Fundamentally, what action might such an essay be used to accomplish? And by whom?

Right! I don’t know!

That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, that there’s no action in play here. No. I just have no fucking clue what it might be because–when you get down to it–canon-centered fandom essays are not a genre I tend to hang out with, frankly.

Here’s Miller again:

A genre [she asserts] is a rhetorical means for mediating private intentions and social exigence; it motivates by connecting the private with the public, the singular with the recurrent (163).

That is, a genre offers a socially acceptable way for a writer/speaker to publicly express an individual intention in a manner that can be recognized by others.

So slash fic, for example–you know, just for instance–offers a genre through which writers can express a private intention to revel in, uh–

–within a generic form that’s socially acceptable [at least within particular communities of readers]. And the genre also provides sufficient constraints as to make an individual writer’s public expression recognizable to an audience, to someone other than the writer herself.

I suppose what I’ve discovered, then, in the process of battling with this essay is that I’m lacking a goddamn private intention here: I’m crafting a public expression that’s not grounded in me, necessarily, in a burning recognition of exigence to which I feel my scholarship must speak.

Maybe it’s the rhetorician in me talking [duh], but this experience has reminded me that I’m much more interested in what texts do, or what we do with texts, than in the content of the texts themselves. I mean, the content matters, dude; indeed, it was the content of one particular SPN episode [that I will be hatefucking in perpetuity, as my ex puts it] that put me on the road to fandom-centered scholarship.

Which is all well and good. But given that I agreed to play in a generic sandbox of another color, it might have behooved me to get a little dirty first.

Some Things Will Never Change

I am obsessed with cute notebooks, and just discovered this site. I realize that the digital world has conquered paper for the most part, but could a computer ever be this cool?

ALSO: for other people obsessed with cute paper, read this article.

The Life and Times of Kelly Holler (The Setup)

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Kelly, and I am a M.A. student in Rhetoric and Writing. To pay for tuition and get experience working in my field, I am a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the school I attend.

Two words that best describe how you work: Methodical madness

What hardware do you use?

Current mobile device: Samsung Galaxy SIII. This is the first smartphone I’ve had, and I have no complaints.

Current computer: Lenovo IdeaPad, U400 series. I am not one to “love” my technology (I mostly just use it), but I LOVE this computer. The keyboard is perfect, the computer is light and sleek…it is aesthetically pleasing.

Besides your phone and your computer, what gadget can’t you live without?

I can live without all of my gadgets. While technology makes my life easier and constantly stimulating, I make it a point to know how to detach from it. I don’t like to be dependent on things.

And what software?

What apps/software/tools you can’t live without?

Again, I take issue with  the “can’t live without” phrasing. But that aside, I use the Microsoft Office Suite, wordpress, many google apps (google play/talk/drive/mail/docs, etc.), occasionally iTunes (although I revile most things Mac), Amazon MP3, YouTube, kindle apps, FlipBoard, online banking, Fruit Ninja (really aids the productivity),  and a little app that helps me track what I’ve eaten and other fitness info. While I am competent with technology and learn any new system very quickly, I am not a big power user. At least, not yet.

What’s your workplace setup look like?

My desk is a horrific mess of paper and book stacks that rival those of a hoarder. At least from an outsider’s point of view, it looks like I have few organizational skills. In fact, I generally know where everything is (or know where to look). (My older sister once said of my bedroom: “well, I guess this is what genius looks like.”) I have a desk in my office on campus, which is where I do most of my hard-core work. At the far right of my desk is an hp LaserJet 1300 printer which connect by USB to my laptop. I have my personal laptop and a laptop provided by the program for which I work. My work computer is a Samsung-something-or-other. It does the trick in a pinch, but has a lower screen resolution than my personal laptop. Generally, I keep the work laptop in my office in case I forget my personal laptop at home.

So I always have my computer and printer, and then usually at least three piles of papers, divided by class/topic. I try to print out anything in hardcopy that actually matters, because I like to mark up my readings and have not found kindle’s app or any other digital commentary system to be preferable to handwriting. (That’s not to say the kindle is bad. It just isn’t better.)

I also usually have about three coffee cups on my desk, in various states of cleanliness. If it were the 1950′s, I’d probably have an ashtray with tons of cigarette butts. But I don’t actually smoke in real life, just in my 50′s fantasy version of myself.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?

Hmm, I’ll get back to you on this one. I’m not sure I can think of any.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

I usually maintain a weekly to-do list that I revise throughout the week as I complete tasks or acquire more. The list blends both school and home responsibilities, and helps me to visually plan my days around errands, meetings, and school work. I’ve tried google calendars and other systems, but none of them have stuck.

What would be your dream setup?

I’d love to have two monitors and a PC in my office so I could look at articles/sites on the right and have a document I’m creating open on the left. I hate flipping between tabs and feel that it wastes a lot of time and mental energy. Call me old fashioned, but I also wish I had a landline telephone at home so I didn’t have to keep track of my cell phone constantly.

What do you listen to while you work? 

I always have Google Play open and listen to either instrumental but awesome music (like The Piano Guys or Lindsay Sterling [who combines violin with dubstep....yes please]) or dance music (like Britney Spears’ latest stuff or Lady Gaga) because it wakes me up, and I generally type to the speed of the music I’m listening to.

What’s your sleep routine like?

Erratic, I guess, but I generally sleep 7-8 hours. Usually I go to bed between 11 and 1…What can I say, it’s grad school!

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?

Not sure I can claim I’m better than everyone else at anything. But my talents include: baking, writing, test taking, political intrigue, etc.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

I’ve been resisting this reality for a long time, but I’m an extrovert. I’ve very withdrawn in brand new situations while I get the lay of the land, and then after I’m comfortable, I don’t shut up.

Is there anyone you’d kill to see answer these same questions?

Uh, no.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Oh man, check out my grandma’s blog…

Is there anything you’d like to add that might be of interest to others?

I think I often get excited about new apps (like the fitness app I have), thinking that having the technology will get me to do the work/stay on the diet/go to the gym. But the technology doesn’t do the work…I still have to do that. The technology just helps to make sense of things, record things, or process things. But the inputs come from us.

Upset with the setup? Get up. Make a change.

Who are you, and what do you do?

I’m Josette. I work as an instructor in the Department of Political Science, and I’m also a non-degree graduate student. I graduated from Tech’s creative writing MFA program in 2010. I also work part-time for an arts & cultural nonprofit organization off-campus.

What I really do is spend my days surrounded by computers (I’m a departmental IT person) and the written word (I’m a poet).

What hardware do you use?

My daily driver on campus is a 15″ MacBook Pro (FDI machine!) hooked up to a late-model Apple Cinema Display I pulled from a retired faculty member’s office as I was cleaning it out last summer. Next to that setup is a 27″ iMac I use for editing/problemsolving purposes. I have a number of laptops and netbooks in the office that are in various states of usability; a white MacBook and Dell Inspiron Duo are the ones I use most. All the laptops, for the most part, stay in the office unless needed. Through my department I have a 64GB “the new” iPad, which goes with me wherever I go and is my go-to writing machine away from the office.

I own a black MacBook, bought during my last year of undergrad, that I used to get through the MFA. It’s sitting on a shelf in the office, wiped and unused. I also have a PowerBook G4 at home, hooked up to an HDTV, that occasionally gets called into duty as a media server.

My smartphone is a BlackBerry Bold 9780 on T-Mobile. I previously used the T-Mobile Sidekick line of devices, and switched to a BlackBerry when the phone was discontinued in the summer of 2011. My BlackBerry is set up to retrieve all my important emails immediately if not sooner, since I need always-on connectivity for my job. I consider it my primary device.

For music: a red iPod nano, bought during an emotional shopping moment last October. Totally worth it. Even has a FM radio built in.

And what software?

I use multiple web browsers on my desktop/laptop machines (Firefox, Safari, Opera, Chrome, Internet Explorer). Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, and LibreOffice do word and number crunching when necessary. My calendar is kept straight with iCal (exported to VT’s Exchange Server). iTunes for music and backing up the iPad. I also have an FM radio in my office to listen to the on-campus station. Dropbox and Google Drive for file storage. Fitbit for fitness tracking; I wear the device on my person and a USB dongle transfers that data to the Web. Time Machine to back up the MacBook Pro; BlackBerry Desktop Software to back up the BlackBerry. I have a bunch of other software installed on various machines that I rarely use (HTML editor, FTP clients, audio/video editing software, etc). iChat is turned on rarely and has a plug-in that allows me to access multiple instant messaging services.

Approximately 34509345034985430985348 apps on the iPad, but the ones I use most: Mail, Elements, Twitter, iBooks, Chrome, Safari, Google Drive, Facebook, Zinio, Fitbit, OKCupid, Flipboard, LiveJournal.

App I use on the BlackBerry: Email, SMS, UberSocial with the A.Plus theme, Twitter, Facebook, MyFitnessPal, Foursquare, Google Voice, BlackBerry’s web browser, Opera Mini, Google Talk, AIM, BlackBerry Messenger, WeatherBug. I occasionally use the built-in camera to take photos.

What would be your dream setup?

Replace the MacBook Pro with a MacBook Air, and the BlackBerry with an iPhone, and I’d be set.

My Workflow

About me

My name is Sanglin Lee and I am a first year masters student in English at Virginia Tech. Although my academic background is in English, which many people seem to associate with being technologically challenged, my personal relationships and academic interests in professional writing have exposed me to a wide array of technologies. This has led me to change my digital identity from a tech-savvy digital immigrant to a born again digital native.


My MacBook, iPad, and iPhone are at the center of my life. I use them to do everything from getting news and watching TV to doing homework and creating lesson plans for my freshman composition class. I have at least one of these devices within reach at any given moment in the day. This gives me the power to stay connected with my networks and allows me to access any information and entertainment I need, wherever I go.


Prezies are the main teaching tool I use as a freshman composition instructor. I consider them to be a more engaging and effective teaching tool than PowerPoint, solely based on my personal experiences. Prezi has also showed me the convenience of cloud technology as it allowed me to access and project my teaching materials using another computer when I left my the VGA adapter at home.

I also use programs in Adobe Creative Suite (PhotoShop, InDesign, and Illustrator) and Microsoft Office regularly as a writer for Virginia Tech’s Department of Building Construction. Microsoft Publisher is on my list of programs I hope to master in the future.

My limited knowledge of HTML and CSS allowed me to format and publish an article online called ‘Trees and Water’ that I wrote for print during my internship at the Virginia Water Resources Center. My knowledge of HTML and CSS was also enough to create my own personal website as an undergrad. I hope to continue honing and expanding my computer skills during my free time.

Dream set up

Although my 3G network has been a lifesaver on the road and in my own home, during the many internet outages, I would like to have a constant, reliable, and fast connection to the web everywhere I go. I would also love a device that is small enough to carry around everywhere, like my phone, but is as convenient to work on as my laptop.

I have tried taking notes on my phone and have experimented with many reminder and list making apps but have not found one that works with my lifestyle of organized chaos. Many days, I wish that one of my devices could read my mind, take notes, and organize them rather than me scribbling them down on random scraps of paper.

Is Privacy…History?

Research for The Digital Self Online Identity Analysis project brings concreteness to the warning, “everything you post online lasts forever.”  Having the ability to trace back multiple years worth of Tweets to see who said what, when, and to whom with a single click is fascinating, yet terrifying.

Tools such as All My Tweets and Twitter Archiving Google Spreadsheet, aka TAGS has allowed me to locate and analyze the Twitter activity of two professionals in the rhetoric and writing field for the last three years. These programs have given me information on each person’s top Tweeters and virtually link me to everyone in each of the two professional’s Twitter networks. The programs have expedited my data mining process, yet, it is disconcerting that everyone has such easy access to this information. Moreover, it is a bit disturbing that the people whose activities we track and examine have no idea of what is going on.

This leads to the question, whose privacy is more important: the person publishing the information, often for a private audience, or those who are seeking out and surveying other people’s online activities? Is there a mutual understanding between the two parties that those posting things online accept that everything they post can fall into the hands of an unintended audience and those who mine agree not to use the information maliciously? Then, what happens when there is a breach in trust?

I do not think there is much harm in people having access to online information that is posted on the web. Simultaneously, the reality that our privacy and the absence of separation between our private and professional lives are at stake is unsettling. Are people entitled to knowing what and how much other people know about them or is ignorance bliss in this situation?

Online Community, or the Ephemerality Thereof

Two online communities disappeared into the digital afterlife with little to no warning recently: hyperlocal news site EveryBlock and video livestreaming site Stickam.

Stickam’s users are able to access the site for the next few weeks in order to retrieve saved videos, messages, and contact information, but EveryBlock was shut down completely without warning, removing all forms of access and content, and apparently irrevocably severing connections made by users on the site. EveryBlock facilitated connections between neighbors and served as a source of neighborhood news in major US cities which may be underserved by existing mainstream media organizations (newspapers, radio, etc.) EveryBlock will be missed.

Lawrence Lessig comments on Aaron Swartz trial and death

In this video, Harvard Law Professor (and professional Intellectual Property Law bad-ass) Lawrence Lessig comments on the death of his friend, Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in January. Many, including Lessig, contend that it was the stress of an on-going lawsuit by the federal government against Swartz that led to his eventual suicide. Swartz was charged with 13 felonies for downloading most of the JSTOR database without MIT’s permission (JSTOR and, to a lesser extent, MIT, both concluded that they would not pursue legal action because he didn’t technically violate any policies or terms of use).

Swartz was an advocate for open source tools and freedom of information, as well as a tech innovator whose thumbprint graces the webpages of reddit,, and a slew of other sites. More info about Swartz can be seen here, here, and here.

Questions remain about why exactly Swartz killed himself and how his death may send shockwaves through American law. It’s a good time to evaluate the state of IP law in this newly digital world, the rights we have as Americans to enact social change, and the importance of working towards a justice system that consistently lives up to its name.

Reshaping our identities

A question that has been lingering on my mind since last week is, how great of an influence do our networks have on our personal identities? Although I have not come to a definitive conclusion, it seems that my networks have a stronger impact my identity than I initially envisioned. The influence of my networks is also magnified by the internet and social media.

At this point in my life, the network that shapes my identity the most is the Hokie Nation. Most of the significant figures in my life are Hokies. My sister is a Hokie. My younger brother is waiting to be a Hokie. And by default, my parents are Hokies. Then, there is my boyfriend, many of my close friends from high school and college, and the professors who have significantly impacted my life. We are all Hokies and we are all a part of Hokie Nation.

Since coming to orientation freshman year, I have been trained to respond to the question, “What is a Hokie?” with “I am!” Even then, I mostly associated this identity with football and extreme school pride. It wasn’t until my experience with networking through LinkedIn that I really understood the magnitude of the connections and solidarity within this community.

As a freshman composition instructor, I recognized the value in my students understanding the importance and necessity for strong writing and communication skills. For a major assignment, I assigned them to interview professionals in their fields to discover the significance of writing and communication in professions they were interested in. Feeling partially responsible for helping them find people to interview, I posted a request on a few of the Virginia Tech Alumni groups on LinkedIn seeking volunteers to be interviewed. To my surprise, sixteen more-than-willing alumni messaged me within the next few days. The amount of support and feedback I received and everyone’s willingness to take time out of their busy lives to help in any way the could was so inspirational as a young alum.

Just through this one network, I was able to connect with people across all age groups and disciplines. This network provides us with the opportunity to share our experiences for my freshmen as they learn from the experiences of their elders. Through this experience, I witnessed first hand that the significance of brotherhood and Ut Prosim, principle ideas within our network and community, lasts a lifetime and that traditions and legacies are enough to overcome the limits of physical space.

Cats Doing Funny Things, Fragmentation of Culture, and Other Jamesonian Thoughts

Last semester, I read Frederic Jameson’s “Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” which argues (among other things) that we live now in an economic and cultural era defined by reproduction. While the industrial age was marked by a capitalism rooted in factory and artistic production, our postmodern epoch is fragmented and shallow, a culture that produces nothing new but rather reproduces, in various forms, things that have already been done.

If this is true, the internet is the ultimate example of reproduction. Most of what I’ve written in this blog is an accumulation and analysis of various links. (I try to sprinkle original thought in here and there, but existential question of the day: what is original thought, anyway?) I am presenting, in a new form, something that someone else wrote (that is, itself, a commentary on something else). Links break up my narrative, resulting in a fragmented reading experience. My ideas are understood to be not my own, per se, but my voice emerging within a set context: the blogging genre, the topic of technological developments and society, the modes of writing learned by graduate students, the various influences of academics who came before me, whose work I weave into my own through allusion, summary, and straight-up links.

I don’t buy postmodern theory as a whole (the idea that we are subject to inescapable forces and that there’s not much we can do about it seems a little dreary) but it can be useful in describing the changing technological, cultural, and social landscape. There is no doubt that companies, popular artists, government, and other structures of authority are operating under a common cultural paradigm, defined currently by nostalgia, pastiche, depthlessness, and fragmentation  We as individuals are in turn fragmented, caught in a dizzying array of information being reproduced in various forms. Jameson calls for new ways of thinking within the culture to make meaning out of the fragments and work within the system to use it to achieve positive ends.

The internet is both an example of postmodern culture and possibly an avenue towards of new way of thinking. Youtube videos of cats doing funny things  or more cats doing funny things is all the evidence one needs that our culture has reached a new level of depthlessness. The reproduction that defines pastiche is evident in countless online memes, but an example is Sesame Street’s cover of a popular, agonizingly-catchy pop song. Nostalgia is present in everything from politics to coke commercials, as we constantly try to recapture the make-believe feelings of safety and security that we attribute to times-gone-by.

That being said, the internet brings order to what might otherwise be a shapeless mess of information. Links are presented within a context, and there is underlying cohesion between one webpage and the next. The book Networked allows us to imagine ourselves at the center of our own social networks, linked to other people like websites are linked online. The internet allows us to imagine that fragments of ourselves and other cultures shaping together into a messy, complicated, but ultimately unified whole. This may not be the type of “cognitive map” that Jameson imagined, but it certainly is a start in the right direction to frame our existence in a way that is comprehensible and potentially useful.

(P.S. Apologies for my oversimplified [dare I say fragmented] review of Jameson’s theory….someday I will give it more description.)

The frustrations of unreliable internet

I was impatiently waiting for responses from my students. I assumed that at least a few of them would reply to my emails answering their questions and providing feedback on their first major assignment. Being on Prezi, a site that apparently allows me to edit my presentations without being connected, and having my computer on mute kept me from noticing, for a long time, that the internet service had crashed, again.

In a digital age where the internet is somewhat of an umbilical cord for digital natives and immigrants alike, it is unacceptable that the internet goes out as often as a few times a day, especially in a college town. My frustrations with my internet provider has been growing as losing internet inhibits me from completing homework assignments for my own classes as well as preparing lesson plans for the class that I teach.

This experience makes me wonder, in a world where we expect people to be connected at all times, is “sorry my Internet was down” an acceptable excuse for anyone? If it is not, is it fair to give unreliable internet providers a monopoly over an area? I am sitting here, in front of my computer, reminiscing the few late-night phone calls I have made to the company in the past few years and the absurdity of the conversations make me laugh.

I wonder, does this happen because we are in a relatively rural area? How would people in NYC or Northern Virginia respond if this should happen to them? Am I exaggerating when I say that I feel like my world stops spinning once the internet shuts off? Am I an ingrate and a brat for feeling this way? I am trying to think of simpler time where I couldn’t get on the web whenever I needed to and I can’t, probably because that memory does not exist.

I am eager to see whether this experience is something that I will cherish as a piece of history that others will fantasize about in a few years or whether it is  a nuisance that I will never have to think about in the future.

In moments like this, I am beyond grateful that my phone has the capability of connecting me to the web, which leads me to the epiphany of why it is desirable for phones to have big screens.

Webb of Love, Webb of Lies

I’m the first to admit that I love myself some serious gossip…Not in a snide, “mean girls” way, but more in an “interested in stories, human psychology, and people” way. (That, at least, is how I rationalize my hours of micro-analyzing the trials and tribulations of the love lives of all my friends, family, acquaintances  and night-time soap operas).

In my hours of furtively leaning over coffee listening to friends spill about their latest, bad first dates, I’ve noticed some changes that texting, online dating, and the infamous “Facebook stalking” have wrought in the world of courtship. People’s networks have expanded beyond the local church or family friends (for more info about social trends expanding our circles of acquaintances  check out Networked) to include friends of friends via Facebook and Google+ and a slew of dating websites that promise the feed your personal information into a scientifically-proven love-finding algorithm. Technology has changed the game of romantic relationships, making it easier to meet large volumes of people without making it easier to find the elusive One. As one of my friends put it, “online dating just means I get twice as many dates with crazy people.” Meanwhile, the internet also allows for an initial intimacy (via text, email, and other online media) that doesn’t always translate to real-life intimacy.

Amy Webb’s new book Data: A Love Story explores the CEO and generally type-A author’s personal quest to sift through the millions of duds online to attract the attention of the few studs looking for a mate. The book, on the surface, is a story of the extreme measure Webb goes to in order to discover the patterns of behavior underlying online dating behavior and to modify her own self-presentation and behavior to attract a suitable mate. In a larger sense, the book explores modern dating dynamics, the immense impact of word and photo choice in impacting first impressions online, and the plight of finding love if you’re a high-powered professional woman. Excerpts and articles about the book are blowing up the internet (see this long but fascinating excerpt or this short but succinct article by the author).

The author has come under some criticism for the utilitarian perspective she takes on online dating. She lies about her height, for example, and represents herself in what some would call a dishonest way in order to attract more page views. She resists the urge to post detailed information about her incredible career and downplays her success in order to be intimidating  And in doing so, she lands a husband. So is that what it takes to find love– you have to lie in order to find The One? Or do Webb’s omissions and little white lies constitute dishonesty?

Data at least opens the door for more conversation about online dating behavior patterns, the role of advertising strategies in attracting online suitors, and the shifting social plan in this data-driven society.

Networks Revolutionary, In More Ways Than One

In the book Networked, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman explore the role digital technology has played in shaping social dynamics and modes of self-expression. The first third of the book examines a transition in society, beginning with the industrial revolution, that resulted in a shift from groups of people cemented in geographically static communities to networks of people with a decreasing reliance on proximity. As people began moving to cities, driving in cars, traveling by airplane for work-related events, and going away to college, relationships could be formed far away from the communities in which people grew up, and people can stay in touch by many forms of communication that had not existed before. People’s circles of friends, families, and acquaintances are wider than ever before, especially with the advent of internet communications. Networks rely on individuals who are connected in varying degrees to different combinations of people. Social networks like Facebook exemplify this phenomenon, as do professional networking sites like LinkedIn and websites shaped around common interests. From the impact digital technology has on driving to how events are planned to advertising methods to online fundraisers, there is no doubt that networks are nothing short of revolutionary.

But social networks are more than just a game-changing tech innovation– they have also allowed citizens of oppressed nations to organize and protest in revolutionary ways. Back in 2009, Iranians planned their rebellion using the particularly useful medium of twitter. In 2011, Egyptians were helped by people around the world when the government tried to shut down the internet. Because the internet allows individuals to reach an enormous audience, the power of individuals to organize around a cause and stand against oppressive powers is unprecedented. The internet allows for both anonymity and publicity, a valuable combination when it comes to dodging secret police while plotting social change. The internet is laying the groundwork for democratic change, and that is a wonder to behold.



As I Write This

Note: I wrote this at the end of last semester as I worked on a final paper for my Critical Theory class. It is not exactly a typical “workflow” essay, but it describes my work on a specific task and I thought I’d share it.

As I write this, I should be working on a 20-page final paper for my Critical Theory[1] class. As a graduate student in English, I spend a lot of time reading and writing in front of the computer, poised between notes, books, and laptop, cobbling together semi-coherent ideas and then revising the shit out of them. But frequently, in my efforts to finish a particular writing task, I am distracted.

The essay you’re reading now came about after I wrote a status update on Facebook, one of those updates that is, in Walt Whitman’s terms, a “barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.” In the throes of paper writing agony and ecstasy, I needed to be heard:

Typical morning: Wake up, ask Joe to wake me up again in another half hour, go to school, get bagels, drink coffee, start writing a paper (yep, you guessed it, about post-postmodernism), drink more coffee, read more of the book I’m writing a paper about, go on Facebook, look sadly into my now-empty coffee cup, write a little more paper, login to my email, think more about post-postmodernism, write another sentence and then delete it, ask lots of existential questions about the meaning of everything, put on mascara in an effort to boost confidence and re-establish my connection to the world outside my head, write status update, go back to staring at Word document….

A friend of mine commented that she was both amused and interested by my writing process descriptions, and that she’d like to hear more. In her work developing word processing software, insight into the writing process of “real people” was particularly intriguing and professionally informative. What might have been an innocuous comment on Facebook burst the inspiration-dams of my mind and unleashed a creative flurry about the relationships between the writing process, identity, and the internet that instigated the writing of this essay.

As I opened another Word document and began to write this, I was amused by how meta things were getting—I worked on a paper, and then after describing the writing of that paper on Facebook, another friend became interested in my commentary on the writing of the paper and I decided to elaborate on the writing of my writing by writing a new essay which ultimately applies the themes I was exploring academically in the initial paper. It’s dizzying. It’s fragmented. It’s exciting and beautiful.

It’s also appropriate that as I chisel away at my paper about the disjunctive formation of identity in a postmodern, digital world[2], I find myself and my writing style fragmented and informed by comments elicited on the internet. Not fragmented as in broken, but fragmented as in split into pieces that I must arrange in a semblance of order.[3] For me, there is a very thin, grey line between academic and creative work, and just as I am composed of many personality traits, desires, fears, and passions that form a single “self,” my writing exists in an array of scribblings on many different themes that always, somehow, come together into a coherent whole. To quote poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines…Till he with Order mingles and combines.”

Writing is a process of continuous discovery and sharing. Writing is a solitary act turned social, even more so since the internet became my silent partner in the writing process. Here is what a typical day in the life of this writer looks like:

I start by grabbing a cup of coffee, because coffee is the precious elixir of creative life for those of us who opt not to drink two bottles of wine every night[4]. Today, I open my Word document that contains only a heading and a placeholder title that I wrote yesterday in an effort to amuse and inspire myself enough to keep writing: “I Meta Friend: Postmodern Identity Formation and Social Communities in a Digital World.” I have about 19.9 more pages to write, plus a bibliography. I click on my browser and sift through library databases to fill in my cadre of sources on which I’ve already taken notes. The three general themes I’m exploring in my paper are the connections between identity formation and digital media as they relate to social networking sites, digital writing, and digital marketplaces. I need a couple more sources for each topic, so I use google scholar to find sources cited by the sources I already have (again: so meta). I also dabble in the library databases. Within 20 minutes, I have more sources than I need printed out and ready to review.

I can’t help but think how different the research process is for me than it must have been when my mother was going through graduate school. I remember her describing card catalogues, long hours hunched in the stacks at her university library, and the all-consuming process of digging up obscure sources in print. The nuts and bolts of scholarship—researching thoroughly, reading closely, writing elegantly—have not changed, but the nature of each element has fundamentally shifted. My research is expansive, as I am connected instantly to any source I could possibly need. What is more, some of the legwork has already been done, in that tools on the internet help me to understand the relevance of various sources. While the library is still important, it is no longer the epicenter of the researching process. Reading, for me, still involves a hard copy and a pen, but I also take notes on my computer, utilize online dictionaries, and even sometimes use an e-reader. And writing. Writing is still a curious alchemy of turning uncertainty into argument, hashing out meaning through an explication of unknowns, starting with a question and discovering the answer as you write it down. But the manner in which I write, as I’ve already begun to demonstrate, has been influenced by the digital environment at my fingertips.

I think these things, but I still have a mostly unwritten paper and pile of untouched sources, so I write.[5] I start by writing down the titles of the sources I’m working with. I write the sources in the rough order I’ll present them in the paper, and then beneath the titles, I write key words and phrases from the notes I’ve already written up. I tackle my outline one source at a time. I turn my fragmented notes into sentences. Bullet points become softened by transitions. As I fill in my outline, I see connections that don’t fit in to the neatly divided sections, and so I create new topic sentences to follow up on later. At the bottom of my document are several sentences that say things like, “Something about Jameson’s view of digital spaces as they relate to global cultural identity…see Davidson Ch. 3.” The paper is raw and untamed, but coming together. The ideas are making their way into a shape and form I recognize.

I work like this for a while. I have three or four pages, and then I sputter to a halt. The sentences stop flowing, and anyway, the facebook itch has been nagging. My inspiration is flagging and failing. So I log in, scan through my news feed, and “like” the updates of classmates in the throes of similar paper-writing miseries. It’s funny, because we love to write—analyzing writing is our chosen field, that for which we have succumbed to lives as starving graduate students—but you wouldn’t know it from our colorful descriptions of the nine circles of hell that seem to be visited upon us by our final papers. I feel like I’ve adequately commiserated with my peers, and so I Alt+Tab back to my document, delete an erroneous comma, toy with completing one of my unfinished topic sentences, and then give up and check my email.

It is that point in the morning where I begin to fear I will never make adequate progress on my paper. I know it’s a matter of sitting down and working through, but at the moment, the email from Amazon promising Gift Recommendations for My Whole Family is so enticing, I follow the link to a shaving kit that looks like something my dad might be vaguely interested in. As I reach the third user review, I panic that I am wasting precious time. It crosses my mind that I have developed ADD, and so I promise myself to get back to my paper, but not before I go on WebMD and check my own symptoms against the clinical diagnostic criteria for hyperactivity.

I get back to business, but only about another half-page gets written before a friend shows up. She takes one look at my desk, which is horrifyingly cluttered with the sprawl of sources, notes, and empty Starbucks cups.

“It looks like postmodernism puked all over your desk,” she says.

“Postmodernism actually puked in my brain, and it was a chain reaction,” I respond. We talk for a bit about existential things, and then I get back to my paper. With the iron-clad will of a gladiator, I poke away some more. I slow down, stare blankly at the screen, read back through everything I’ve written, smooth out a few sentences, copy and paste an entire paragraph that would fit better in a different place…I read part out to my office mate, ask her if she thinks it works, and she says it does.

It strikes me, as I shift bits around, that writing is kind of like identity. We are constantly influenced, mediated, and informed by those around us…but ultimately it is me putting words on paper[6], me sharing my experience in an effort to connect, me learning and struggling to arrive at a version of the truth that I’m willing to put my name on. All semester, I have read about how humans are shaped by the various ideologies and power structures that produce our realities. These theories would have us believe we live in the Matrix, that we are pantomiming lives that are coded and embedded in our environment, our relationships, and our selves. But like Neo, we have the option to take the red pill[7] rather than the blue pill. We can develop a consciousness about the forces of influence in our lives and then assert our freedom, our agency, our voices in writing and engaging the consciousness of others. Language is meaningful, and matters. Writing is the force of change—the agent of revolution inside and outside ourselves—that opens our eyes and our hearts to what is real and terrifying and beautiful.

My writing starts in fragments—a host of free-floating signifiers seeking their referents.[8] But as I write (and do all the other things I do while I write), I figure out what it is those fragments are trying to say. All the resources available to me increase the subtlety with which I approach my topics, and they help me understand the audience with which I am trying to connect. My writing is my way out and my way in—I am simultaneously defining myself and my ideas, expressing a way of thinking and seeing that is entirely my own, while inviting others to share it, to relate to it, to understand it.

I have written this essay because I understood that I had things to say about identity and the writing process and Critical Theory that I couldn’t say in an academic paper on that topic. Writing outside of academia (and, who knows, maybe in it, too) must be confessional. It must bend non-existent spoons[9], recognize the distinction between the true and the untrue, push through the noise and articulate with new certainty those things that mean something. As I write this, I have a paper I need to finish. It is still in pieces, and I need to arrange them in a way that speaks the truth as I see it. But it’s nice that through that writing has come this writing, and this will inform that, and ultimately I will have two works that tell a story.

[1] Critical Theory is a particular form of torture that involves reading long treatises by French or French-influenced philosophers who purport, in endlessly verbose terminology, the ways in which human society and culture is created by ominous forces (like capitalism, or man’s innate, aggressive desire to kill his father and marry his mother). In this universe, humans have no free choices or voice of their own; language is meaningless; authorship means nothing; and literature is dead. All of this study, of course, is supposed to spark a passion for committing out careers to the very same literature we would spend our days tearing apart. So it goes.

[2] Weird, I know….just go with it.

[3] I think to myself, as I write this, “Look up etymology of “fragmented” to see if there is a thematic tie-in.”

[4] Shout outs to Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway…!

[5] One thing that will never change, no matter how advanced technology becomes: When it comes to writing, you can plan, research, chat, interact all you want. But ultimately, you must sit down and write. And write more. And then revise. And then rethink. And then write, and so on, until you have said what needs to be said.

[6] Or, er, screen…

[7] If you haven’t seen The Matrix, do your Popular Culture duty and see it. In addition to being visually stunning, it is a fascinating exploration of free will that will leave you with more analogies for philosophical paradigms than you know what to do with.

[8] If you really want to know what the hell I’m talking about, look up “semiotics” on Wikipedia. It’s basically the theory of how words take on meaning.

[9] Seriously, go see The Matrix.