Report: Theorizing the Web 2018

Nicola Bozzi
May 10, 2018 · 6 min read

I haven’t been posting for the better part of last year, but I guess that’s how it goes with research blogs — sometimes they go silent as the actual research gets deeper. While I wasn’t reading or working on drafts, I did put out some PhD-related stuff: most significantly, my presentation at the Exploring Identity conference in Liverpool last October allowed me to develop the core structural points of my Gangsta chapter, while I’ve been exploring the figure of the Digital Nomad in this other article that just came out on NeroOnTheory (Italian readers only though, sorry). I’ve also started to interview people, which is part of the reason I’ve embarked on a US tour that includes a couple relevant conferences as well. The first was Theorizing the Web, a yearly event organized by the RealLife people and hosted by the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. TtW is the type of conference where academics, journalists and practitioners come together outside of the confines of university halls, a sweet balance that I always appreciate. Given the comprehensiveness of the program — two-days, three rooms — I am only mentioning a few highlights that most closely intersect my usual topics.

Tagging / Addressability

While there has always been lots of talk about the affordances of tagging as a bottom-up categorisation tool, the issue of addressability is less debated. In a compelling presentation about the strategies of visibility that rape survivors adopt on social media, Kristen Barta specifically addressed the practice during one of the earlier panels of the second day. To summarize, survivors may want to provide useful information to those in need of support, but they do not necessarily want to be plugged-in too deep in public conversation. For this reason, in these cases Barta posits tags should work as beacons rather than bridges — a very fitting and clear metaphor that highlights the material double-edgedness of tagging.

An example Barta made in her presentation was the #oktoshare tag on Tumblr, a simple tactical solution to negotiate visibility that reminds me of a super interesting article by Avery Dame about trans folksonomies within the same platform. In the article, the author outlines how the specific ontological needs of the trans community sometimes clash with the website’s infrastructure, which becomes an ideological battleground where users attempt to establish normative tag definition by policing their use. Dame also recounts tricks trans users deploy in order to fine-grain their target audience and avoid mainstream exposure: using multiple tags, using more trans-specific spellings, create new codes altogether.

Barta’s presentation did not specifically focus on Tumblr, however, and in fact highlighted different approaches on different social media: the word “rape”, for example, is untaggable on Instagram, and sex-trafficking related tags apparently lead to more content moderation on Facebook.

Algorithmic Accountability

Nasma Ahmed and Sarah Aoun gave another compelling take on visibility, this time more specifically algorithmic. The presenters started by discussing the now established and quite awkward difficulty that face recognition algorithms seem to have with non-white faces, then moving on to machine bias in another algorithmic field — predictive policing. While I had been reading about both topics, their thought-provoking question came as refreshingly counter-intuitive: do we really need more equality in facial recognition?

The theme of the presentation tied perfectly with the closing panel of day 2, which was mostly focused on algorithmic accountability. All the presenters were adamant in recognising the importance of both social science and political action in the debate, but one point made by Kate Crawford was in my view particularly useful in terms of equality and data infrastructures: fairness is usually understood as parity, but justice should be the main goal. Just like per Ahmed and Aoun, then, it is important to emphasise the flattening efficiency of these infrastructures needs to have difference wired into it, requiring (Crawford again) much more granular local political conversation.

Identity Labels

Still from Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

A couple of the closing sessions were especially interesting to me because they tackled two identity labels that have become as controversial as they are vague: the nerd and (plural) millennials. Both figures were discussed from a pop cultural and political standpoint, with a few refreshing arguments.

Most panelists agreed about the mainstream status and the dangerous, neoliberal nature of the nerd. Maya Binyam synthetically defined it as valuing facts over people, a notion Vicky Osterweil (author of an excellent piece on RealLife) fleshed out a bit more as the central liberal form of truth weaponized by the alt-right. A question from the audience about alternative nerdisms, for example the technicity of hip-hop (a technocultural classic) or the black nerd, did not spark as much debate as I would have hoped — the panelists mainly focused on the organisational patterns and the neoliberal ethos of the nerd, and while not entirely dismissing its mythical outcast status they did not seem to believe too much in its intersectional potential. As someone who has written about the figure in counter-stereotypical terms, I was a little disappointed it wasn’t discussed in more depth, but unfortunately the question came when the clock was already ticking.

The millennial panel was mostly focused on the political potential of reclaiming the label as a political subject. Among the panelists was Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, who while skeptical of marketing labels like iGen nonetheless sees this usually frivolous and patronizing term as potentially useful in terms of triggering political consciousness. I haven’t read his book yet, but the concept seems at the very least interesting to think about.

Tactics

While I did not catch anybody referencing De Certeau’s tactics, on day 2 Tim Cowlishaw gave an interesting situationist reading of several everyday social media experiences. Starting from the debordian critique of leisure as work, Cowlishaw listed a series of examples of constructed situations as revolutionary actions: memes and Twitter bots, but also and most interestingly the uber-Situationist GPS doodles.
Similarly, the work of Max Hawkins — whom I met during one of the breaks — adds a Dada twist to the Situationist formula: the artist in fact relies on self-designed apps and algorithms to randomise several aspects of his daily life. While algorithms are more and more driven by affinity and projected intentionality, ridding embodied life of direction may well be a revolutionary act.


To be fair, there were too many cool presentations to list — plus, because of the three-panel scheme, I missed most of them. However, I think most of it is online for people to catch up on, or will be soon. If I had to give an overall judgement on the event, I’d say it struck me for both its political urgency and enthusiastic character. Again, a good combination.

schizocities

Schizocities is a research project about globalized identities and the way they circulate. The focus is on the delicate balance between creativity and conformity, imagination and optimization. It is a cultural critique of tagging.

Nicola Bozzi

Written by

Afternoon person, eternal beginner. PhDing on #tagging + theory. Writing about arts, media & cities. Serious about comedy.

schizocities

Schizocities is a research project about globalized identities and the way they circulate. The focus is on the delicate balance between creativity and conformity, imagination and optimization. It is a cultural critique of tagging.

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