Do humans make technologies, or do technologies make humans? My research attempts to understand how humans and technologies shape each other, particularly in digital environments. My own contention is that humans and technologies are co-constitutive, and that one is impossible without the other. Today, humans and digital technologies are inextricable, and in some cases, indistinguishable.
Drawing on technology studies in rhetoric and media, I argue that technology is best understood as a networked social phenomenon. What technology means is subject to contestation, and how technologies are used changes over time and space. I thus tend to oppose any essentialist arguments about technology, rejecting any claims to “inherent” qualities.
Key words: digital media, posthumanism, agency, power, algorithms, publics
My dissertation focuses on the role of algorithms in technological systems. I am interested in understanding how the structures of digital media shape rhetorical events and agency in the information age. My advisor is Dr. Rosa Eberly, while my committee consists of Dr. Stephen Browne, Dr. Michele Kennerly, Dr. Anne Demo, and Dr. Stuart Selber.
My project seeks to understand how algorithms shape democratic engagement. In short, my argument is that algorithmic power comes from arrangement. Arrangement, in my view, is the prevailing rhetorical canon in the Attention Economy (Lanham) of networked media. Digging into ancient Greek theory and philosophy, I argue that the term kosmos best encapsulates how socio-material order flows in networked systems. Combining kosmos with posthuman views of agency, I analyze three case studies in algorithmic power and democracy:
- The Google bombing of Rick Santorum, a campaign designed to defame the former Senator by offering an explicit alternative definition of Santorum. In this case, Google’s algorithms are central to the distribution of the alternative definition, suggesting that search engines have immense power in shaping political engagement.
- “Copywronging Rand Paul”: YouTube’s ContentID algorithms matched a brief snippet of audio in Rand Paul’s 2016 candidacy announcement video. By matching the audio to copyrighted work, ContentID flagged the video, which was automatically taken down according to the content owner’s wishes. Though the content fell under fair use, YouTube’s automated algorithms made a surprisingly political intervention by failing to understand the context of matched audio.
- Facebook’s deployment of “ethnic affinity advertisement,” which allowed the site to push different advertisements for Straight Outta Compton, and which came under fire for creating methods to channel racist content or to discriminate against certain audience members (for example, targeting ads for housing to certain ethnic groups would be illegal). This development heightens what I call “personalized publics,” wherein people gather together only inside homogeneous groups.
Master’s & Undergraduate Work
As an undergraduate at Ripon College, I was trained in the tradition of public address criticism. My advisors, Jody Roy and Steve Martin, were both advised by Dr. J. Michael Hogan, now Professor Emeritus at Penn State, who was a member of my MA thesis committee.
My earliest projects as an undergraduate engaged political rhetoric on social networking sites, online media coverage of gay teens’ suicides, Internet policy (net neutrality), and the online social movement Anonymous.
As a graduate student, I’ve continued along the digital path, writing papers on Internet culture, video games, and the rhetoric of search engine algorithms. Some of my projects include:
- A project analyzing Facebook memorials for Nelson Mandela, analyzing how social networking structures and algorithms shape public memory
- A large research project on the rhetorical dimensions of BioShock; I performed textual criticism on the game, focusing on items such as religious metaphors and the element of control in the game
- An analysis of Reddit discourse about ViolentAcrez, a man described as Reddit’s “creepy uncle,” whose offline identity was revealed to the world by Adrien Chen at Gawker; the man, Michael Brutsch, was later fired from his job as a result of his online behavior as ViolentAcrez, and brought on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN. I wrote about Brutsch for a co-authored essay in the forthcoming volume Ancient Rhetorics <–> Digital Networks.
- A comparative analysis of the rhetoric of Pirate Parties across the world, examining social media posts by various groups experiencing various material and symbolic struggles
- An analysis of the Google bombing of Rick Santorum; I focus on how rhetoric is shaped at the search engine level (by algorithms, designed by humans and executing human priorities) and by those who seek to manipulate search engine results (in this case, followers of Dan Savage, who galvanized people to offer an alternative definition of “Santorum” using graphic language)
My Master’s thesis tackled the rhetorical negotiations of online identities, examining how virtual selves (avatars, user names, handles) are used and discussed in political scenarios. I defended my thesis in April 2014. My three case studies include:
- Discussion about Colleen Lachowicz, nicknamed the “World of Warcraft candidate” because she was attacked by the Maine GOP for her WoW character, Santiaga, in the midst of a State Senate election in 2012
- Community mourning of Sean Smith, a US diplomat killed in Benghazi and an avid player of EVE Online, under the name Vile Rat
- Deliberation about the propriety of two Ars Technica articles (here and here) focusing on Edward Snowden’s forum user name, TheTrueHOOHA