What Does Lurking Have To Do with Literary Studies?

What does lurking have to do with literary studies?1 In simple terms, literary studies is concerned with texts, reading, and writing. Lurking is a way of thinking about a common mode of reading networked texts that is defined in relation to the absence of writing. As Lutz Koepnick observes, “no age has written and read more than the one nursed on text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook.”2 We are living in a moment where there is more reading and writing than at any other moment in history. Under the guise of social media, we are invited to imagine our lives as bobbing along an endless current of text authored by a wider range of writers than under any previous media regime. This phase of mass media calls us to act as readers at every turn. Isn’t the premise of “user-generated content” that every ounce of content–text, video, audio, whatever–is only a trigger meant to provoke more text? In simplest terms, if this isn’t the concern of literary studies, I don’t know what is. Continue reading


Blogging Anonymity

Once upon a time, I did some work on the ethics of networked reading.  I argued that new media impose a new set of obligations on readers that crystallizes in the click: clicking is an ethical act because it represents a user’s willingness to invite the unknown into his or her world.  When a web page loads or reloads, we cannot know what will appear and must confront the truth of our virtual others’ independence of us.  They may have written something new–and they may just as well not have done so.  The everyday act of surfing the web is an endless series of ethical moments, opportunities to embrace the unpredictability, unknowability, and unfinishedness of other people in the face of an insistently polished screen that projects the image of completeness.

The trigger for that essay was Armando, a prominent US political blogger who disappeared when his cover was blown.  (Let’s be honest: that was the first time; it was something else the second time).  “I was not truly cloaked,” he admitted.  I’m not either, but I’ve deliberately worn a party mask here so far since it somehow seemed simpler to avoid any obvious quick Google hits.  Just in case, you know?

Today, I’ll decloak a bit.  Continue reading

You’d Like Each Other….

Michael Cobb, meet Rob Gehl. You’ve both written recently on Facebook’s Like button, and I think you should talk. (Michael’s essay is behind a paywall, so click from on campus.)

As I read your essays, it occurs to me that you each fill a hole for the other. Michael, I like the way you evoke the ephemerality of liking, the ways the “the disjunction of ideas, the brevity of their expressions, and the lack of deep elaboration (or helpful illustration) combine to make thinking light. Make thinking like.” You bring to the surface some of the social valences that liking provokes, the ways it acts as a kind of light reading together. In your hands, there’s more to Facebook than shareholder value.

This dimension is missing from Rob’s treatment of Like. But, Rob, that isn’t to say that I am not deeply appreciative of the work you’ve done on Web 2.0, here and elsewhere (indeed, see other posts down below). What you do that could add some extra depth to Michael’s piece is show that Like is no accident, that it is precisely rooted in the science of branding and the long history of market research. I like the way you do this by way of complicating liking’s populist sheen: “Facebook’s Like button has been lauded as a radically democratic tool allowing users to finally make their opinions heard, but the marketing field has always regarded the sovereign consumer’s opinions the most important element in the circuit of production. After all, sovereign consumers realize the value locked away in commodities: when they buy, the corporation gets paid.” And you even answer Michael’s question about the missing Hate button.

It seems to me that the Like button is part of a long history of reading, a part of the chapter about lurking that I’m writing here.  What’s new here is the way this type of reading, the sort that conditions us to voice our microapproval as we thumb along, is linked to the aggressive work of sorting ourselves for industry. What is liking if not a carefully constructed way of absentmindedly profiling ourselves as we crawl through a textual social life?  The Like button is a ploy, a way to tempt us out of our lurking crouches, a gateway drug by which reading can be transformed into writing.  But, like lurking, it’s also a social act that exceeds the relationship with Facebook or its client-advertisers.

All of this has been running through my mind as I’ve been reading the PMLA section on digital reading that’s just landed in my mailbox. In the coming weeks, I’ll be wrestling with what lurking has to do with literary studies (hint: everything), doing a little more writing on stillness (in the wake of #mobilities13), and probably working up another chunk on the everyday. I hope you (all) like it.

Anyhow, Rob and Michael: you guys should hang out.

Strange Stillness

For Mark Poster, the internet is underdetermined because it is “open to practice” and because it “solicit[s]… social construction and cultural practice.”1  The specificity of new media lies in its incompleteness and the demand that users participate in its creation.  New media’s meanings, Poster argues, are not fully determined by any initial authorial act.  Writing a few years before the widespread uptake of today’s familiar social media platforms, Poster captures a sense of change and difference that marks the internet as a medium: the encounter it enables is one of observing, participating in, and feeling movement as the virtual ground shifts with each click.

This analysis is insightful but incomplete: this underdetermination is itself underdetermined because there is no guarantee that users will cooperate.  If Poster’s culture of underdetermination is meant to account for the internet’s unpredictable shiftiness, then what I call the double underdetermination of Web 2.0 is about a certain type of stillness and inactivity.  This strange stillness is not ontological but phenomenological and ethical, a stillness-for-the-other.

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The Language of Lurking

Like the English verb “to lurk,” most languages use terms that impute some degree of morally suspect behavior when describing Internet users who log in, look around, and keep quiet. However, different words have different histories, different connotations, and different linguistic baggage. The English term, “to lurk,” has a complex and contradictory history that leads to the familiar contemporary meanings: to lie in wait, to persist in staying, to constitute a latent threat. To speak of lurking online is thus to ascribe violent intention to those who remain “inactive” in digital environments. The implication is that a fully-vested user is always participating, always writing, always moving about and leaving traces on the digital terrain. To remain still, to read where writing is expected of users, offends both the logics of Web 2.0 and the language that defines it. To illustrate how different languages make sense of this behavior, let’s take a linguistic tour.

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Goofing Off

When television viewers started using DVRs to fast forward through ads, one exec charged his audience with grand theft sitcom.1 What would make Mark Zuckerberg cry, “Thief”?

Web 2.0 users are generally called upon to do two things: read and write, broadly understood.  An increasing number of subtle thinkers are these days treading similar ground. Ted Striphas‘s notion of algorithmic culture2 imagines that this process replaces the elite culture of previous media regimes.  So the user is expected to help sort cultural production into different categories and provide the raw data to “produce a statistical determination of what’s culturally relevant.”  Along similar lines, Robert Gehl speaks of “affective processing“: users “are expected to process digital objects by sharing content, making connections, ranking cultural artifacts, and producing digital content” (1229).  For sites like Facebook, affective processing is the crucial step that allows for the construction of “an ever more precise and extensive archive” (1239).  As this archive becomes more detailed, a Web 2.0 site can more precisely target advertising and charge higher rates.

The Web 2.0 user is thus presented with a new mass media job description.   Continue reading

The Work of Writing

Some 35 years since Dallas Smythe argued that watching was working, it’s taken more or less as gospel that media companies extract surplus value from television viewers.  Like all good gospels, there are some detractors1 and there are competing versions.  The general claim is that television viewers perform work by watching advertisements.  Networks pay production costs directly or indirectly to produce programming (which Smythe memorably calls “free lunch”).  They then broadcast the programs and intersperse advertising spots, collecting fees tied to the number and kind of viewers that the programming can be shown to attract. If the question is, “What do TV networks make?” then Smythe’s reply is “audiences.” But how does–and doesn’t–this logic extend to new media?  This post explores the media shift, paying special attention to the structure of Web 2.0.   Continue reading

Lurking What?

Does a blog need a raison d’être?  Perhaps not, but there were a couple of triggers that led me finally to de-lurk.

First, and most important, is my current research project, which argues that an essential part of everyday internet use is lurking.  This is a fancy way of saying that users aren’t always “active,” but also a fancy way of questioning just what it means to be an “active” user in the first place.  The project explores how this claim links up with, among other things, the blindspot debate in communication studies, theories of Web 2.0, notions of the everyday, and the history of reading.

Second, as an “independent scholar,” I’m part of that wave of recent (and not so recent) humanities PhDs who are lukring in the shadows of academia.  Some of us teach contingently.  Some of us work in alt-ac positions.  Some of us leave the field entirely.  Personally, my tolerance for contingency was lower than that of my braver colleagues, so I’m currently hanging out in an office somewhere, playing administrator at a major North American institution.  (Needless to say, the opinions expressed here are my own and in no way represent any official position of that institution. There, I said it.)

Third, and on a related note, while much of what will appear here will be working drafts for upcoming conference talks and journal articles, I’m ready to find some additional colleagues off of whom I might bounce ideas. The days of administration have been more satisfying than I might have expected: my colleagues are fantastic and the work is stimulating.  But the nights of scholarly labor have been lonely.  Putting these ideas out in the public sphere is the first step to joining that virtual seminar.

More later, as it happens.