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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Blogging: The Case Against Immediacy

In our New Media Writing class this week, we are preparing to enter the blogosphere. Part of that preparation involves considering the genre of a blog. As an introduction, we read Andrew Sullivan’s essay, “Why I Blog?”. When I first read this piece nearly a decade ago, I felt the wave of techno-optimism as a true public sphere emerged online where everyone could have a voice. Today, I feel less optimistic reading about the power of free expression, as we have become inundated with perspectives and have begun to treat all perspectives as valid, even those that perpetuate the oppression and the suffering of others. It’s become difficult for many to differentiate between fact and opinion, between well-reasoned analysis and false causality. Because of this, I believe we need to abandon our goal of speed when it comes to posting, commenting on, and sharing information online.

In his essay, Sullivan writes, “We bloggers have scant opportunity to collect our thoughts, to wait until events have settled and a clear pattern emerges. We blog now—as news reaches us, as facts emerge.” Having access to information at all times has created a world that is constantly being fed bits of stories, not just online, but on our 24/7 cable news stations. We do not need more truths that are likely to changes as details emerge. We do not need more cherry picked facts with commentary instead of context. What we need to do is redirect our attention to the longview, to the aggregated facts. Our attention drives the media cycle.

Our blogs can still be expressive and written in one sitting (ala Doogie Howser-style). However, when facts are involved, verify them. Proceed cautiously with emerging stories and new studies. Speed is not the ultimate value. Let’s approach blogging as an endurance sport.

Curating New(s) Literacies

When I first began researching social media, I picked up Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart, which covers the skills needed in order to communicate, network, and cultivate an identity online. One of my favorite terms he uses is the word curate— essentially the act of choosing and presenting information discovered online. I’m returning to this term in order to consider how to teach news literacy in the upcoming semester. While the class could go through the usual process of evaluating credibility and verifying facts, I want to make this lesson more applicable to the ways in which we share information every day, which is not in academic research papers. I want us to become more critical curators.

Twenty years ago, trusted print and broadcast journalists curated content for us, not only at the national level, but also at the community level. Increasingly, those small papers have shrunk and merged. In Michigan, the distinct identities of many news organizations have morphed into the large networked space of Mlive. If you follow them on social media, you are as likely to see a national news story on some salacious story in another state (children in cages, gruesome murders, etc.) as a local story. We have filled this dwindling of community news with other filters we identify with, such as media personalities and particular civic and political organizations/groups.

It’s important to distinguish between media personalities and news reporters, which is one part of critical consumption. While all news stories are filtered by the sources selected, the use of quotes, and the arrangement of information, reputable reporters seek out those closest to the story and who have the highest level of expertise and work to portray those viewpoints fully and accurately. A good news story also is balanced and told without revealing the reporter’s individual stance.

One of my stronger students this past semester chose to write a paper on fake and misleading news. In one of his examples, he mentions news coverage by Nancy Grace. At this point I stumbled and questioned him, as Nancy Grace does not deliver news coverage as a journalist, but gives opinions on news events as a commentator. Commentary is not news reporting, even if it is on CNN. In newspapers, opinion pieces are easily identified in their own sections. On cable news stations, the lines between factual, impartial news and commentary are often blurred. Even more dangerous is the fact that these news stories are tailored to audiences of a particular viewpoint, who are unlikely to question information that mirrors their beliefs.

On a smaller, but perhaps more influential level, our news is also being filtered by our social media circles. Each of our friends and liked pages and groups perform curation. While we are most familiar with how individuals curate their statuses and photos to present the most attractive aspects of their life, the non-personal information they share is also a form of curation. In fact, even liking and clicking a story drives the attention information receives. We make stories go viral, we make fake news profitable, and we shape how search engines rank information sources. Maria Popova argues that we have become moderators, sifting through the heaps of information and choosing which ones to shine a spotlight on. It’s a weighty role we have all unknowingly taken on and most of us do not have the skills needed to do it well.

In the composition classroom, we spend most of our time preparing students to enter the conversations of their discipline. However, we do not spend enough time preparing them to ethically drive the attention economy and critically consume and curate information. Here are the resources I am drawing from as I move towards making a paradigm shift:

Truth, truthiness, triangulation: A news literacy toolkit for a “post-truth” world

Verification Handbook

Stony Brook Center for News Literacy

Fake Or Real? How To Self-Check The News And Get The Facts

Different Media, Different Reality

When as a young adult I pursued the field of journalism, I did so with the feeling that I would be positively changing the world through what I felt I did best, writing. The program at Michigan State University was highly regarded and tough. Much like in other journalistic programs, we were expected to report with a hundred percent accuracy. An error resulted in a failing grade automatically. No sources were unnamed, and our personal opinions were set aside. Tomorrow in my composition class, I am showing a movie set in this time period, Spotlight.

This our movie serves as a bridge as we shift from our problem-solution essay to a pop culture analysis. Right now, our news media landscape is being put under the microscope, or more accurately the relationship and distinction between news and partisan propaganda, which has become blurred in the world of social media. From Hillary taking out hits on people to Donald Trump winning the popular vote, conjecture, conspiracy, and misinformation have populated my Facebook feed from conservative friends and family who are sick of “mainstream media.”

We do still have factual media that strives to give full accounts without bias. However, unless you take the time to examine their sources, understand how to evaluate data, and confirm the facts, you will not be able to tell a partial story from a complete one. Informational literacy is a must-have for all citizens. I try only to read long form journalism on complex stories, such as Benghazi, because I need the full scope, not a blurb about some recent finding or one individual’s opinion or account. These deep investigative pieces still exist; however, less and less newspapers have the funding for them and more and more people are seeking out “fake news” that makes money off of their confirmation bias.

Why is this a problem? Without a common foundation of news, civil discourse is impossible. We do not have the same frame of reference. Many times, when I am having discussions, I simply have to stop them and ask that individuals send me links to where they have gotten their information. Without that, I do not even know how to participate in the conversation.

Right now, these different realities created by different news media have created a dangerous world for a number of minority groups. When local news reports on hate crimes, in the comment sections, people claim they are staged or agenda-pushing propaganda. Somewhere, a rumor has taken hold that anything bad that happened at a Trump rally or in the name of Trump was “planted by a Democrat.” The people protesting are not just concerned citizens, but “professional protesters.” Where does this come from and why to people assume this is real? Is it simply more convenient to believe this? I want to see factual evidence. If you are turning a blind eye on a hate crime, you better have some solid proof.

The effect of fake news and partisan opinion masking itself as news means we can no longer have a productive discussion about politics and social issues. We need the type of work provided by investigative journalism teams. This is why I am showing Spotlight, so we can return our attention to those who are doing good, ethical work for our public sphere and turn our attention away from those who are simply making money off our clicks and shares.