Interests and Projects


Research Overview

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

Algorithmic Architects

My book project, based on 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 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:

  1. "Google Bombing in the Information Wars": This chapter studies how Google search results become sites for political contestation through Google bombing. I study the Google bombing of Rick Santorum, a campaign designed to defame the former Senator by offering an explicit alternative definition of Santorum. I also analyze the alt-right's use of Google bombing to spread white nationalism, including anti-Semitism.
  2. "YouTube's Algorithmic Agora": This chapter analyzes how YouTube's algorithms decide who can take part in the platform. I first focus on copyright algorithms, which in 2015 blocked Rand Paul's presidential campaign announcement video when it matched copyrighted audio. I also investigate how YouTube's moderation systems falsely flagged LGBTQ+ videos, cut off their revenue, and blocked them from young viewers in restricted mode.
  3. "Personalized Publics and Racializing Algorithms": This chapter examines how Facebook infers race and harms minority users. I first trace 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 allowing advertisers to illegally restrict minority users from viewing housing ads. I next assess Facebook's algorithmic moderation system and its tendency to protect white users while restricting black voices on the platform.

In each case, algorithms create a world that reflects the human biases of the "offline" world. Algorithms are not inherently objective, unbiased, fair, or just. Rather, we must recognize their tendencies to harm minority users, reify privilege, and prioritize profit. I offer in the conclusion a few strategies for creating better algorithms, starting with a simple notion: to improve our algorithms, we must improve ourselves.

Graduate & 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 continued along the digital path, writing papers on Internet culture, video games, and the rhetoric of search engine algorithms. Some of my projects included:

  • 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 and 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 focused 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