Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Gender & (Anti)Social Media

gamergate

I’m an English PhD and so when I was in grad school, the Modern Languages Association Conference (MLA) was THE annual event to attend – not only to get a teaching job, but to take the pulse of humanities scholarship from around 10,000 specialists in the most obscure sub- sub- sub-niches of academia. Attendance has declined about 40% since those heady days, but, at the 2016 convention last week in Austin, where I gave a talk on Gender & (Anti)Social Media, I still felt that anyone I met was the only person in the world doing the particular kind of work they were doing. Every presentation was like an exotic hybrid flower, a specimen brought to life through years of laborious research and experimentation in the hothouse climes of the academy.

This specialization is both inspiring and tragic as you encounter lonely scholars who have been toiling in their own very narrow silos, hoping that perhaps 10 people will show up to a talk that took them five years to prepare.

It is one of the main reasons that I departed from the typical English PhD path, casting my lot with a web startup and a giant computer games company. But it was a pleasure to return to the esoteric world of MLA, where new media is now something that cannot be ignored. I was especially keen to join the roundtable on Gender & (Anti)Social Media, which focused on recent bouts of social media–based harassment (e.g., Gamergate) but also on the potential for social media to create change for the better through cyber activism and coalition building.

Ever since I gave my TED talk on gender and social media, which was optimistic about the benefits that social media offer to women all around the world, I’ve been keeping an eye peeled for convincing case studies that demonstrate the potential for social media engagement to result in real-world change – things like increased awareness, attitudinal change, civic engagement, and the coup de grâce of civic intervention strategies, policy change.

I wanted to know what evidence we have that activism on social media is not simply self-congratulatory “slacktivism.”

It’s often unclear whether things like Twitter hashtag campaigns accomplish much more than increased awareness (which is nothing to sniff at). A tragic example is the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which, despite its high profile supporters, appeared to have absolutely no impact on the situation on the ground.

bringbackourgirls

However, here are three examples that should give us some faith in social media-based efforts to address gender equality:

2015 Saudi Election

girlsofriyadh

I first became aware of how social media was being used by women in Saudi Arabia from a novel I bought in a bookstore in Japan. Girls of Riyadh was a real page-turner, set up as an anonymous epistolary serial, issued on email, that galvanized the attention of the singles scene (male and female) in ultra-traditional Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Because of strict physical gender segregation, social media platforms offer a radical new channel for social interactions between males and females, and Girls of Riyadh paints a portrait of the profound pleasures and dangers to be found there for women who have been effectively locked out of the public sphere.

Of course romances in Saudi Arabia are blossoming on Facebook, but we can also see that political campaigns are triggering unprecedented conversations between men and women. Just last month, women were allowed for the first time to vote and run for political office – which meant that candidates needed to reach voters of all genders. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest Twitter penetration rates in the world and so it’s not surprising that women voters used Twitter to testify to their participation in the public sphere. In the picture below, this Saudi woman took her children with her to the poll so that they could see first-hand that she had the power to vote.

saudivoter

I’d argue that much of the activity on social media platforms is driven by a desire to testify – to one’s beliefs, interests, affiliations, desires, achievements . . . the list goes on and on. Twitter, in particular, is positioned as a kind of digital public sphere, where participants who do not often have access to physical public places, can test their voice before a global audience and respond to the call of communities that they may never have known existed.

#DelhiGangRape

DelhiProtests

Delhi protests-India Raped, says one young woman’s sign” by Nilroy (Nilanjana Roy). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

 

I went to India last year to give a talk on the social impact of social media in India. I was absolutely blown away by the adoption rates among women, and the near constant use of platforms like WhatsApp among the college students I got to know. There are currently 70 million WhatsApp users per month in India, and India has the fastest rate of growth in Internet access in the world. According to a UN Women’s report on cyber violence and gender, Indians also have a greater optimism about using the Internet for freedom of expression – compared to the French, Canadians, Americans, Spaniards, and Germans.

The infamous #DelhiGangRape had already happened in 2012, and people had already seen the political impact of the story’s dissemination on social media. Not only were massive protests coordinated, but rape reports proceeded to double and anti-rape legislation was passed that criminalized stalking, included a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years for gang rape and required the creation of six new fast-track courts created solely for rape prosecutions. Experts on the ground emphasize that this is just the beginning of the process, but making an open secret the subject of public conversation is a very important step toward broader social change.

And the ramifications go beyond gender rights. According to the Nieman Lab at Harvard, the protests were a “watershed” moment for the use of social media in news gathering and reporting in India.

Cosby

cosby

Is it true, as this headline from vocativ asserts, that Cosby was brought to his knees by social media? If you’ll recall, it was a YouTube video of a bit by the comedian Hannibal Buress that renewed interested in the long-forgotten accusations. Often the most powerful campaigns on social media are either triggered by mainstream media reporting, or amplified by it. In this case,  the very low-quality video of Buress’ rant only caught fire when it was posted by Philadelphia magazine.

 

Cosby made the mistake of ignoring the firestorm. In fact, he seemed so confident that no one would pursue these allegations again that he invited his fans to generate memes about him on Twitter: The result was a user-generated public relations disaster for Cosby, and a huge victory for his accusers.

cosbymeme

All of this public interest evidenced on social media platforms led to serious investigative news reporting. The New York magazine’s cover story, which featured pictures of 35 of his accusers, along with an empty chair, ended up triggering another unplanned, user-generated social media campaign. #TheEmptyChair signaled tweets from people who had been raped, but did not come forward publicly.

nymagemptychair

There are many more examples to explore, such as the #NoMorePage3 campaign which convinced the Sun to eliminate its regular topless babe spread. But it’s definitely the exception and not the rule to find a social media campaign that plays a key role in triggering obvious real-world action and shifts in the status-quo. As with all media, social media platforms provide the opportunity to put an issue on the public agenda: translating growing awareness, however, into a massive protest or policy change, is still quite rare.

When it comes to gender equality, it’s clear that an epic battle is being fought in the digital public sphere: some are using new media platforms to punish and chastise women; others are using it to empower them. But what encourages me is the fact that there’s a battle being fought at all. And I think it’s telling that in a 17-country survey, 85% of women said the Internet provides them with more freedom. If you happen to be one of those people who poo-poos the revolutionary potential of social media, I would suggest you contemplate just how transformative these communication technologies can be in the hands of people who have been shamed, bullied or otherwise discouraged from participation in any kind of public dialogue. For them, registering their existence, let alone their political opinions, can be a revolutionary act.

Re-Imagining Memoir: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

FunHome

Even though it had been highly recommended to me repeatedly, I didn’t get around to reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home until after I saw the musical at the Circle in the Square on Broadway. It’s rare that I retain enough interest in something to read the book after having seen the movie or the play, but I knew I would this time. The musical, which grabbed five Tonys, was such a fresh, original take on memoir, with subject matter so foreign to the Broadway stage, that I knew I would enjoy, at the very least, mulling over the differences between book and play.

I was especially eager to dig into the book after I read a fantastic interview with Lisa Kron by Laurie Winer in the LA Review of Books. Kron was the playwright for Fun Home and I was really intrigued when she claimed that about 75% of the play doesn’t appear in the memoir (what?!) and that the book didn’t contain any scenes:

“There are no scenes in the book. There are no scenes! There is no dramatic action, there are no sustained scenes. There aren’t even really characters. There’s Alison at this age, at this age, and at this age. There are fragment[s] of scenes in different locations.”

I just couldn’t fathom what that meant, and I must, say, after having read the memoir, I’m still not sure what she’s talking about. Either her notion of what qualifies as a “scene” or a “character” completely diverges from mine, or (and this possibility entrances me) her play so deeply informed my reading of the memoir, that I was unable to recognize the lack of scenes or character. Had Kron baked into my mind the material I needed to bridge the gaps between plot fragments and character revelations? It seems like I would need a time machine to know (or a device like the one in the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

But then I remembered Scott McCloud’s brilliant graphic book, Understanding Comics.

comicscenes

Read the rest of this entry »

Mad Max & the Aesthetics of the Hack

I’d never seen an earlier installment in the Mad Max franchise when I went to see Fury Road at Grauman’s Chinese IMAX Theatre. I felt it was a movie I needed to see because so many people were asking me whether it succeeded in its effort to be a feminist action flick. But what really captured my imagination – and inspired me to watch all three of the previous films – was its singular vision and its relentless originality.

I often judge the sci fi I read by its ability to avoid exposition – to simply immerse me a world that is completely unfamiliar. This is a standard feature of cyberpunk style, which Bruce Sterling recently summarized at a terrific conference I attended at USC called Cyberpunk: Past and Future (videos are available).

Turns out that Sterling’s description fits Mad Max to a T. Read the rest of this entry »

Mobilizing News

ONAMIP

The degree of personalization and algorithmic curation used in the delivery of mobile news was a key theme at ONA Mobile, which brought together an international array of digital-savvy journalists in the organization’s first convening outside the U.S. The Lear Center’s Media Impact Project sponsored the conference, in part, because we see mobile fast-becoming the primary platform for news delivery. And, although mobile is still very much in a Wild West phase, where accepted standards are few and far between, the opportunities to measure real impact on people’s lives is simply unprecedented.

As many speakers acknowledged, mobile is “very hard” but the pay-offs are definitely worth the pain. Between the rigors of submitting to Apple, maintaining mobile-responsive websites, reformatting for Snapchat, and navigating the ever-changing rules at Facebook, mobile news providers are constantly challenged to make it pithier and make it relevant. In many ways, I’d argue that mobile pushes journalists to achieve a new level of rigor in reporting. Read the rest of this entry »

Fashioning the Future

Peripheral

When I saw a recent piece about success implanting a worm’s brain into a Lego robot, I immediately thought of William Gibson’s most recent novel, The Peripheral.  Placed simultaneously in the near future and another one 70 years further away, characters traverse the time gap dropping into low-fi or high-fi versions of that Lego robot.

I’ve always enjoyed Gibson’s obvious interest in the ironies that emerge when physical bodies blend into virtual realities. Gibson’s brand of virtual reality is never disengaged from a suffering body. A common complaint among characters in The Peripheral, and his earlier novel Pattern Recognition, is jet lag. One of the many clever conceits in The Peripheral is that traveling back or forward in time, to another point on the space/time continuum, can only be done in real time, in different time zones, in a persistent world ticking its way to different versions of the future.

In Gibson’s cyberpunk extrapolations, technologies that seem miraculous in our present moment always reflect the inconvenient limits of human capacity. In the distant future of The Peripheral, the supercomputer that allows the wealthiest hobbyists to fiddle with people’s real lives in the past is of unknown provenance. No one seems to know how it works or who created it, though everyone presumes it’s Chinese.

Likewise no one knows how an extremely powerful predictive algorithm that aids police in preventing crimes works – apparently because it’s self-taught and no one kept track of its accumulation of datasets. When “the Aunties,” as the system is called, makes a prediction, it has the taint of mindless unscientific human gossip. It’s the gut instinct gone hyperdigital. Read the rest of this entry »

New Media & the Holocaust

As we recognize the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we can’t help but consider what’s changed … and what hasn’t. After the recent attacks in Paris there are renewed worries about how we communicate the Holocaust to new generations, especially as the ranks of survivors and witnesses dwindle away.

Media and technology are always leveraged in one way or another for educating, historicizing and memorializing, but with subject matter like the Holocaust, the stakes seem even higher that we get it “right.”

Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s landmark film that introduced the Holocaust in all its murderous horror to an entire generation. The Shoah Foundation invited me to participate in a conference that reflected on the film’s impact while looking at new media and other new technologies that can be used for testimony and memorialization.

Much of my recent research has been on the social impact of social media and so I was excited to explore how these new technologies, and the valuable data they produce, can be leveraged by Holocaust scholars.

As with all new technology, there’s a great deal of anxiety about its social repercussions, and particularly how it should be used to tell stories about something as highly charged as the Holocaust.

Recently, I’ve been focused on measuring the impact of media, which I regard as a tremendously powerful educational tool, particularly when it’s embedded within compelling stories. I believe that films like Schindler’s List play a very important role in our culture, introducing people to topics that most would prefer to avoid, and triggering conversations – around dinner tables, beside office coolers, and in the media – that give us an opportunity to face history and decide what we will learn from it.

Having worked in the entertainment-education video game industry, I have first-hand experience developing and evaluating the effects of interactive media. It seems abundantly clear to me that multiple media forms can be – and should be – mobilized to help people develop a more nuanced understanding of complex subjects such as the Holocaust.

Not everyone agrees. There have been decidedly mixed responses to a project at USC that creates full-body, interactive holograms of Holocaust survivors. Unlike the Tupac Shakur hologram at Coachella, the Pinchas Gutter hologram responds in real time to questions posed by a live audience. Read the rest of this entry »

New Tools for Measuring Cultural Engagement

NEA_Art_Works_logo

I was very pleased to be invited by the National Endowment for the Arts to participate in a lively symposium addressing perhaps the most important issue in the arts these days: how do we justify public funding for the arts?

For those of us who frequently attend arts and culture events, the question seems silly. Doesn’t everyone realize that humans are hard-wired to respond to compelling stories and visuals, whether they manifest themselves as sculpture, video games, concerts or novels? Isn’t it clear that music and movies can bridge the most profound political divides and move hearts and minds?

As we see arts programming melt away in cash-strapped public schools, we have to acknowledge the awful truth — that arts and culture is considered a luxury, not a necessity, and justifications for their value must be proven rather than assumed.

Both the NEA and the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, which co-sponsored the symposium, position themselves as agencies harnessing the power of art, culture and leisure to improve the lives of citizens and invigorate and strengthen communities. The problem, of course, is proving that their funding strategies actually achieve these often hard-to-measure goals.

Measuring Cultural Engagement: A Quest for New Terms, Tools, and Techniques summarizes a two-day session that brought together a wide range of researchers, using both traditional and new-fangled techniques, to describe and measure the myriad forms of cultural engagement that take place in all types of physical and virtual spaces. I’m hoping that this report will jump-start an international effort to revisit our presumptions about what counts as cultural engagement (Instagramming a photo from a museum, for instance) and taking advantage of new technology to better measure that engagement. Arts and culture organizations should feel more confident about the possibility of measuring the impact of their work, not only to fundraise but also to make the crucial course-corrections that all creative enterprises must make when they are committed to achieving complex goals.

You can read another blog of mine about the Symposium and watch the video. Follow the conversation on Twitter: #NEACVP

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