Rear Left


Posted in DigiCult, Dog Food, Media & Movements, Personal/Meta by rearleft on January 15, 2012

My very first academic journal article has been published. Yeah!

The paper was first written as an in-class assignment for a class in my Master’s called Digital Research & Publishing, led by Dr Morgan Richards. I presented some similar ideas at the Making Links conference in Perth, November of 2011. I’ve excerpted parts of it in these pages before.

This was one of the first pieces of writing I did after coming back to study. I don’t think it’s earth-shattering stuff by any means, but for me it helps frame some of the basic questions on the role of new media in social movements that I plan on exploring in much greater depth in the coming years.

It was also very cool to originally write this for a course on academic publishing in digital culture and then actually taken what I’d written there through a real peer review process and see it published on an open access journal.

DigiPopEd: Popular Education and Digital Culture (link)

OReillyRowe_DigiPopEd_JoCI (pdf)


I have scarcely begun to make you understand that I don’t intend to play the game.” – Guy Debord, Critique of Separation (1961: film)

It’s been about six weeks since I submitted my dissertation, and I think I’m almost ready to read through it and begin thinking about making revisions to spruce it up for submission to publications.

Writing this piece was difficult for a number of reasons. I work. I have a young child. I also don’t find the act of writing easy. The ideas are there, and I enjoy research, but putting sentences together is hard. Let alone 5-figure word counts. I blame television. And videogames. So I write about videogames as television.

From the outset I was pretty sure that I’d be writing something about machinima, but it took me a good 6 months to nail down a topic. Just when I thought I had a pretty good idea of where I was going, the academic-publishing complex went and dropped a bunch of new publications on machinima in the last month I was writing. In the end I settled on using one video as a case study of the form’s potential to disrupt the immersive spectator-position of videogames.

Paolo Pedercini(of Molleindustria)’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real is far from representative. Not of machinima. Not of Molleindustria’s other work. That said, I argue that this piece demonstrates the capacity of machinima to promote a critical spectatorship position by disrupting the immersive characteristics of its videogame source, America’s Army.

The thrust of my argument is that machinima can be read in film/video studies terms, but that the spectator mode triggered in a game-literate audience by the low grade 3D animation of videogames and other visual cues demands a syncretic analysis that incorporates both film and videogame studies. Moreover, this piece speaks to both Alexander Galloway‘s notion of countergaming, and the concept to which it refers, Peter Wollen‘s description of Jean-Luc Godard‘s later work as countercinema. Amidst clamour for the gamification of everything, this instance of machinima offers the possibility of speaking within games against the dominant and oppressive logic of gaming.

I’m going to revise it and send it out to some journals. If it’s not accepted anywhere I’ll post it here and elsewhere. Hit me if you really want a look.


Posted in Dog Food, Media & Movements by rearleft on October 1, 2010


Malcolm Gladwell‘s recent piece for the New Yorker is getting a lot of play, ironically, on Twitter and Facebook. As much as I’d prefer not to be yet another (late) addition to what has already become a tired conversation over a short few days, the fact that I’m currently studying network theory and attempting to apply it to social movements means that this is one meme that this node can’t help but percolate.

While there is much that I agree with in the piece, and much that I don’t, what struck me most was his overly simplistic application of network analysis to a set of extremely diverse and complex situations. Granovetter‘s The Strength of Weak Ties (1973) introduced the theory that the transmission of innovation in networks occurs when bridges are made via weak ties between clusters of nodes (actors, people) that share strong ties. Among these strongly tied cliques, innovation is stifled by the very similarity of the group members, and it takes the input of information from other areas of a network, accessed through a weak tie bridge to facilitate the spread of innovation.

Gladwell’s hypothesis, as I read it, is that digital social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook are comprised only of weak ties, and that what he terms as “high risk activism”, such as direct action in the face of violent, oppressive regimes, is performed by groups of actors with strong ties. Therefore, social networking sites cannot facilitate system-challenging activism. Furthermore, he argues that networks are heterarchies, and that only hierarchies produce effective political organisations.

There is no way that I can write a fully thought out and articulated response to Gladwell’s argument here, but here are a few points that serve as a starting place for why I think that his piece contains a kernel of truth (Twitter alone is not revolutionary) surrounded by poorly applied network theory and a limited understanding of social movements.

  1. It is an oversimplification to say that “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties”. Social networking sites, especially Facebook, have grown to such a scale that in some communities the social graphs that they represent are approaching representation of the offline, “real world” social graph. Users of these sites are developing complex modes of differentiating between their relationships with one another in ways that reflect and maintain the nuanced gradation of types and degrees of relations that make up their social networks both on- and offline.
  2. “High risk activism” by small groups with strong ties does not lead to social change without prior and post support by networks supported by weak ties. To only look at the “action” phase of social movement organising is to ignore the majority of work and forces that go into bringing about that action, and the follow-through on then using that action as a catalyst for change. It is true that when involved in high-stakes, potentially violent confrontations with organised institutions of power, it is preferable to do so in clusters that have a high degree of trust facilitated by strong ties, but it is wrong to suggest that the social relations of such clusters permeate the entire organising networks from which the tactical and strategic formulation of coordinated action arises. And after the action, it is not the strong ties of the group involved in the action that promote percolation of change through a broader social network, potentially leading to a cascade effect that precipitates a phase transition in the system as a whole, it is the dissemination of new possibilities from node to node, cluster to cluster, with significant leaps across distances in the network made possible by bridging weak ties.
  3. Gladwell seems to ignore the role of communications technologies in the civil rights movement. His account of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins are told as if the growth of the protest (and counter-protest) over the days that followed the initial action, and the spread of similar protests throughout the South in the following weeks were all the result of face-to-face contacts. The role of various media – telephones, telegraph, newspapers, radio, and television is absent. Surely in a discussion of how contemporary media support or inhibit social activism the comparison with communications media of previous struggles is relevant.

As the language of network theory becomes popularised through the work of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Chris Anderson, and Clay Shirky, we can expect to see discussions of all sorts of phenomena being discussed in the jargon of ties and flows, cliques and cascades. It will be important for people who have engaged deeply with these models and the social and technical subjects to which they are applied to keep their rampant misapplication in check.

Cute Cats in the Age of Digital Reproduction

The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism (Ethan Zuckerman) goes something like this:

  1. Web 1.0 was designed for the exchange of scholarly research papers. Web 2.0 is designed for the exchange of pictures of cute kitty-cats.
  2. Repressive governments face massive backlash from broad segments of their population if attempts to control online activism impinge on access to pictures of cute kitty-cats.
  3. Therefore, platforms that facilitate the publishing and access to cute kitty-cats on the web are highly suitable sites for digital activism.

Of the many famous cats in the internet cat star system, the work of Maru is perhaps the most nuanced, disciplined, and as a result, enduring contribution. Maru’s latest video, A big box and Maru. Super Slow ver.- pushes the audience to consider the value of cute cat videos in their own right, rather than simply as a cover for more other more clandestine or didactic online art and activism.

In seeing Maru spring from the box, seemingly hang in the air if only for an instant, and land with the grace of … a cat, the viewer is presented with a powerful prompt for the contemplation of the nature of art and culture in the era of digital reproduction. The cat is in the box. A computer box, no less. And the cat is alive.

Walter Benjamin, referencing the work of master Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, pointed to the filmic-mechanical technique of slow motion as one of a number of ways in which the newly developed technology of motion pictures and the evolving conventions of cinema opened opportunities for a radically new perspective on existence. Vertov described his films as employing two distinct modes: “life as it is”, and “life caught unawares”. Maru’s latest offering is a pure slab of life caught unawares, a videographic manipulation of time and space that invites the viewer to see with new eyes the world around them. Since the video’s upload to YouTube on August 8, 2010 (one week ago at time of writing), nearly 400,000 views have been recorded, although it should be noted that many viewers (like myself) are responsible for many multiple views. The sheer magnitude of this ability for images to simultaneously reach audiences in every corner of the world suggests a need to revisit Benjamin’s work on the effect of mechanical reproduction and to consider the effects of networked digital communications on our very perception of existence.

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Media In Action

Posted in Media & Movements, Personal/Meta by rearleft on July 23, 2010

Global Action Project (GAP) have launched Media In Action, a set of workshops designed to promote critical media literacy and production skills for young people.

Work on this curriculum was a significant part of my work at GAP, and I am very happy to see it made available for use by folks outside that organisation. Its content is US-focused, but is built on an analysis of the role of media in social power relations that could easily be adapted to a range of local/national/community contexts. Beyond its value as a tool for educators and activists who are looking to integrate media work and political education into their work with youth, this document can be seen as emblematic of an emerging current that connects the work of youth development, community media, and political organising. As an insider to the process of authoring this work I can attest that GAP is an organisation that truly walks its talk. This is not the work of an author putting forward a pedagogy abstracted from practice. It is born of years of collaboration and struggle among passionate educator/activists, developed in the crucible of many actual media production processes and grassroots political campaigns, tested and developed with scores of youths whose bullshit sensors are finely calibrated machines. Through the very process of creating this curriculum, the organisation, and the wider practice of youth media that it works within, has been affected. This work is pushing youth media beyond the inadequate paradigms of voice and representation and into the realm of demanding creating real change.

This incredible resource is available online for FREE, so go get it, use it, modify it, and send them some feedback on how it lives in your own work.