Aesthetics, Authorship, and GIFs

What is the theoretical value of a short clip of Tina Fey “high-fiving a million angels”? What does a GIF say about new media aesthetics and how we conceive of authorship/ownership? The now ubiquitous GIFs and memes are what Henry Jenkins defines as spreadable media. The prototypical word used for media that moves virally through an online network is meme, a term that was coined by Richard Dawkins to explain how cultural ideas, practices, and symbols are transmitted “by leaping brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation” (Dawkins 189). Unlike the cultural memes Dawkins theorized, Internet memes do not maintain fidelity or an unaltered state as they pass from “brain to brain.” In their study of online memes, Michael Knobel and Colin Lankshear discovered that many were altered, “the meme ‘vehicle’ was changed, modified, mixed with other referential and expressive resources, and regularly given idiosyncratic spins by participants” (208).

A recent example of an online meme that has propagated due to modifications is the “Ryan Gosling says Hey Girl” meme. The meme began on a Tumblr feed entitled Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling when a captioned picture was posted that stated, “Hey girl, No Shoes, Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Wait to Kiss You” (Jezebel). This led to a circulation of a whole series of captioned Ryan Gosling photos that began with the words “Hey girl.” It spawned a derivative blog entitled, Feminist Ryan Gosling, where after the opening of “Hey girl,” the captioned Ryan Gosling delivers musings/statements related to feminist theory and literature, such as “Derrida thinks language is fluid enough to break the gender divide, but nothing will split us apart” (Henderson). At the point of this most recent iteration, who is the creator of this text? Tumblr user Jezebel wrote a caption on a photo she did not take and uploaded it to a site that she did not create. Danielle Henderson parodied the original meme to promote a feminist agenda and perhaps promote herself as an academic and writer, as her feminist Ryan Gosling Tumblr led to a book contract. Analysis of her usage led me to create my own Ryan Gosling meme, which I used in my dissertation defense, which was the final step to earning my doctorate.

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If we consider aesthetics as a way of judging the value of art, then the aesthetics of online media/art involves how easily and likely a text is to be “appropriated and reworked by a range of different communities” (Jenkins et al 2). Because viral media and memes rely on the audience to transform and repurpose the original text, the value of a piece is co-determined by the audience. To reach an audience and elicit their participation, pathos is needed. According to Jenkins, Ford, and Green, spreadable media most commonly contain: “absurd humor or parody,” “puzzles or enigmas which encourage us to seek out other information,” a need for audience participation to be complete, and “themes of community and nostalgia” (6). As Micciche argued, emotions bind a social body together. Online, emotions are the catalyst behind likes, shares, and posts. We are not only circulating images and information, but emotions.

Understanding the aesthetics of new media texts should be recognized as a form of literacy. “Literacies call us to generate and communicate meanings and to invite others to make meaning from our texts in turn,” explain Lankshear and Knobel, “This, however, can only be done by having something to make meaning from—namely, a kind of content that is carried as ‘potential’ by the text and that is actualized through interaction with the text by its recipients” (4). Whether this type of literacy should be referred to as digital literacy, electracy, aesthetic literacy, or critical literacy is up for grabs. What is clear is that we must reconceptualize literacy, authorship/ownership, and aesthetics to glean the most from the affordances of new media.

Works Cited:

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Henderson, Danielle. Feminist Ryan Gosling. Tumblr, 2013.

Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. NYU Press, 2013.

Jezebel. “Hey girl, No Shoes, Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Wait to Kiss You.” Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling. Tumblr, 2012.

Knobel, Michael and Colin Lankshear. A New Literacies Sampler. Peter Lang, 2007.

Micciche, Laura. Doing Emotion: Rhetoric, Writing, Teaching. Heinemann, 2007.

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Make a Good Impression in my Inbox: Writing Emails for Your Rhetorical Purpose

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For my upcoming students 

Last year, one student’s email became famous online, not because he wrote the most beautiful note of gratitude or delivered the most persuasive request for a paper extension, but because he wrote a drunken, profanity laced message to let his professor know: 1. He is sorry that he is bald, 2. He can “hook him up,” and 3. He will need an extension on a paper due to his upcoming hangover. If you are curious to learn more, all you need to do is Google “drunk student email.” I mention this because in an English class we would refer to this as a failure to meet the rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation refers to how our purpose, audience, stance, genre, and medium shape the construction of our texts.

Most commonly, students will email their professor when life interferes with their ability to complete their work or if they have questions about an upcoming assignment. In either case, the student should remember their purpose is to solicit help, whether that help is to be given more direction or more time. To best achieve your purpose, you must consider your audience.

Your audience is your professor, who is (despite any rumors) human. Humans respond best to polite requests, not frustration-driven demands. Accusations or negative comments usually result in feelings of defensiveness, so be careful of the stance you present. Also, remember you have a professional relationship with your professor. This means you do not address them as “Hey” and write a collection of fragments, typos, and LOLs.

Remember the medium. With emails there are no take backs when you hit send, unlike on social media when better judgment may cause you to delete a post or Tweet. It is good to remember an email message is a particular genre. It may even be an unfamiliar genre. Do not treat it like a text message or social media chat. It is more akin to a writing a letter. The example below fails to meet the expectations of the genre, utilize the features of the medium, or consider the audience.

badexample

Lately I have been reading how periods should not be used in text messages, as recipients perceive this as less sincere. This is not the case with emails. It is actually good to think of text messages and emails comparatively. Text messages to friends tend to be an informal form of communication. Email messages to professors and professional contacts are written formally. Like letters, emails usually include salutations and closings, at least when beginning a formal thread of conversation. Like business memos, they include a subject line, letting the reader immediately know what the email is about. This allows individuals to prioritize messages in their inbox.

The example below meets the expectations of the genre, utilizes the features of the medium, and is written in a manner that fulfills the purpose and considers the audience.

goodexample

The example above has all the proper formatting and information. The subject line succinctly tells the recipient what the email is about. It begins with a formal, respectful salutation. The content is polite, succinct, and grammatical.

TIP: You may not know whether or not your professor holds a Ph.D. If you do not know, it is best to use the honorific “Professor” rather than “Dr.” Often in higher education, we avoid gendered honorifics (Mr., Ms., and Mrs.).

Remix – The Art of Juxtaposition

One of the featured assignments in my dissertation was the Remix Video. The Remix best illustrates what it means to be a new media writer. We gather, we curate, we link, we comment, and we create. Our social media identities are remixes of shares, posts, retweets, likes, etc. As we move forward in our digital era, we are leaving behind the myth of the self-contained author, who extracts brilliance from his own mind in isolation.

As Thomas Rickert in his book Ambient Rhetoric explains:

“The writer writing is not so much in the middle as extended into the very dynamics of ambience. The ‘writer’ writing cannot be understood as a discrete, individualized entity bounded by skin and self-image, wielding external tools and thoughts (which, by being external, can ‘alienate’ us), for in writing we can entwine ourselves with the accouterment of writing—pen, paper, keyboard, typewriter, computer, books, ideas, sounds, furniture, food, beverage, interruption, serendipity, the things dotting the local environment and the environment itself, the larger infrastructure, other people, even our own bodies—and lose ourselves in this immersion. Ideas emerge in the complexity of interaction beyond our individual control, since the ambient situation worlds us. We contribute, of course, but as catalyst and site of disclosure, not as sole producer and controller.”

What he is saying is that when we write and create we are synthesizing a collection of influences to respond to a certain rhetoric situation. Essentially we are remixing.

Remix and Fair Use

Now how do you deal with copyright in a world of remix? I imagine copyright lawyers will always wrangle with this issue. However, as of now, Fair Use offers new media writers a good deal of protection, especially in educational settings.

There are many great resources online discussing what the four statutory factors of Fair Use are, such as this one from University of Minnesota Library: https://www.lib.umn.edu/copyright/fairuse. Our remixes will most likely contain commentary and criticism of published media clips/shows. We won’t be stealing the main argument or heart of another work or taking a large portion of the original. All the clips we take will be transformed into our own creation. Hence, what we do will fall under the umbrella of Fair Use.