Research & Publications

CDCS researchers produce critical and interdisciplinary scholarship on how digital technologies shape culture, politics, and society. This page features some of our ongoing research projects and recent publications.

Current Research Projects

Disappearance: Media, Environment, and History in Contemporary China

Guobin Yang

This is a book-length study of various forms of disappearance in contemporary China. Examples include the disappearance of an old historical town because of the construction of a dam, the disappearance of websites due to censorship, the disappearance of 1990s-style internet cafes due to technological updates and government regulation, and ultimately the disappearance of a deep sense of history, time, and place due to the fast pace of development and the prevalence of social media and mobile phones. Using interviews, oral histories, internet archives, and documentary films, I analyze the causes and consequences of such disappearance and examine forms of resistance and grassroots efforts of resurrection. The book highlights stories of loss, ruins, amnesia, and disappearance in a society obsessed with appearance.

Doing it Ourselves: The Networked Practices of Feminist Media Activism

Rosemary Clark-Parsons

At the same time that emerging media platforms enable activists to quickly reach wide audiences at little or no expense, digitally networked movements face online harassment, commercial cooptation, and activist burnout. Drawing on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork, this book project demonstrates how activists are taking up networked media to pursue a do-it-ourselves-style feminism, building movements and communities from the ground up, all while juggling the affordances and limitations of their media tools.

Excavating Radical Futures: Puppets, Robots, and Technology

Jasmine Erdener

Combining ethnographic field research, qualitative analysis, and in-depth interviews with humans and robots alike, this project examines the histories, ethics, and divergent possibilities for agential performing objects. From puppetry used in political theater, to AI robots as future-companions, to cyborgs as a means to better understand nature, this book interrogates various human-material relationships to reconceptualize a more equitable vision of technology.

Imagining a better internet through collective drawing-based discussions

Elisabetta Ferrari

This project aims to develop activist, social change-oriented tools to encourage people and community groups to collectively imagine better digital technologies, more in line with people’s needs and hopes. In my research on social justice activists, I have developed an interactive research method based on collaborative drawing, the visual focus group (VFG), which incorporates a collective drawing task within the structure of a focus group. While in my research diagnostic visual focus groups were used to analyze how activists think about the current state of digital technologies, in this activist version these speculative visual focus groups are designed to bring different stakeholders together to imagine a better internet.

Appropriate, Negotiate, Challenge: How Activists Reimagine the Politics of Digital Platforms

Elisabetta Ferrari

Activists all over the world have long turned to corporate digital platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, to organize, coordinate, and communicate with the public. Building on a vibrant literature that studies this development, this book project focuses on how activists make sense of the politics of these corporate platforms and the technoutopian promises that arise from Silicon Valley. Through a multi-method qualitative analysis of contemporary leftist movements in Italy, Hungary and the United States, I develop the notion of “technological imaginary” to explain how activist appropriate, negotiate or challenge Silicon Valley’s technological discourses. Arguing that these imaginaries are shaped by the political orientations of the movements and their political contexts, the book points to the existence of multiple, situated, political internets and to the complexity of the relationship between technology and social change.

Publications

Demobilizing the Emotions of Online Activism in China:

A Civilizing Process

International Journal of Communication, 2018

Author: Guobin Yang

With the declining number of Internet protest events in recent years, online activism in China has suffered a setback. This is due significantly to the implementation of new forms of governing online expression. At the center of these new forms is a set of discourses of wenming, the Chinese characters for which can be translated as both “civilization” and “civility.” As civilization, wenming operates as an ideological discourse of legitimation, whereas as civility, wenming functions as a strategic technology for Internet governance. After tracing the evolution of the ideological discourse of wenming, this article analyzes the technologies of civility used for managing online speech in China. Two case studies illustrate how the technologies of civility are used to demobilize the emotions of online protest.

I SEE YOU, I BELIEVE YOU, I STAND WITH YOU:

#MeToo and the Performance of Networked Feminist Visibility

Feminist Media Studies, 2019

Author: Rosemary Clark-Parsons

Hashtag feminism, a form of activism that appropriates Twitter’s metadata tags for organizing posts to draw visibility to a cause, has become a central component of the feminist media repertoire. Much discourse about hashtag feminism revolves around whether or not Twitter is an effective tool for activism. This instrumentalist approach leaves activists’ strategies for juggling both the affordances and limitations of hashtag feminism under-theorized. Taking up a case study of the #MeToo movement, I consider practitioners’ perspectives on hashtag feminism and highlight the processes through which activists develop tactics while working within particular sociotechnical constraints. Through an analysis of a meta-tweets, or tweets about the campaign, I argue that hashtag feminism is a contentious performance in which activists make the personal political by making it visible, bridging the individual with the collective and illustrating the systemic nature of social injustice. As #MeToo demonstrates, however, making the personal visible on a globally networked stage opens activists up to a variety of risks. To address these limitations, #MeToo participants developed performance maintenance strategies, through which they evaluated the campaign’s shortcomings and advanced solutions. Their reflexivity points toward hashtag feminism as a complex recursive process aimed at achieving a transformative politics of visibility.

Remembering disappeared websites in China:

Passion, community, and youth

New Media & Society, 2017

Author: Guobin Yang, Shiwen Wu

Disappeared websites are the missing pages of web history. We examine over 140 memory narratives of disappeared websites in China, in which 176 disappeared websites are remembered. We find that memories of disappeared websites rarely treat websites as dead objects, machines, or even as media, but more often as people whose death is mourned and memories cherished. They not only narrate the biographies of the websites but also the autobiographies of the story-tellers. The main biographical plot in these narratives of disappeared websites is a lovely life that was tragically cut short. Disappeared websites are most remembered for the passion, community, and sense of youthful idealism which they had inspired. Remembrances of disappeared websites are both retrospective and prospective. They resuscitate a lost golden age while expressing voices of protest at Internet censorship. They both highlight and repair a web history marked by disruption and disappearance.

Free Country, Free Internet:

The Symbolic Power of Technology in the Hungarian Internet Tax Protests

Media, Culture & Society, 2018

Author: Elisabetta Ferrari

In 2014, the Hungarian government announced the introduction of a tax on internet usage. The proposal generated large protests, which led to its eventual withdrawal. In this article, I investigate the puzzling success of the ‘internet tax’ protests: how could a small tax on internet consumption generate so much contestation? I argue that the internet tax was able to give way to a broader mobilization against the government, because of the symbolic power of the idea of ‘the internet’, to which different political meanings can be attached. Through interviews with Hungarian activists, I reconstruct how the internet was associated with a mobilizing discourse that I term ‘mundane modernity’, which reproduces tropes of Western modernity about the equalizing properties of technology, progress, and rationality, while grounding them in the everyday practices of internet use. I then discuss the types of freedom embedded in mundane modernity and assess its political limitations.

Notes from the Web that Was:

The Platform Politics of Craigslist

Surveillance & Society, 2019

Author: Jessa Lingel

Surveillance is an increasingly common feature of online life, with user activity logged and tracked in order to sell advertising. Rather than focusing on platforms that have consistently violated user privacy, this paper uses Craigslist as a model of a widely used and profitable online platform with policies that emphasize user privacy. By focusing on its monetization strategies (which are straightforward rather than obfuscated) and its defense of anonymity, this paper argues that Craigslist successfully maintains Web 1.0 ethics around user surveillance that are worth remembering in a contemporary digital landscape.

#HashtagActivism:

Networks of Race and Gender Justice

MIT Press, 2020

Authors: Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles

How marginalized groups use Twitter to advance counter-narratives, preempt political spin, and build diverse networks of dissent. The power of hashtag activism became clear in 2011, when #IranElection served as an organizing tool for Iranians protesting a disputed election and offered a global audience a front-row seat to a nascent revolution. Since then, activists have used a variety of hashtags, including #JusticeForTrayvon, #BlackLivesMatter, #YesAllWomen, and #MeToo to advocate, mobilize, and communicate. In this book, Sarah Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles explore how and why Twitter has become an important platform for historically disenfranchised populations, including African Americans, women, and transgender people. They show how marginalized groups, long excluded from elite media spaces, have used Twitter hashtags to advance counternarratives, preempt political spin, and build diverse networks of dissent. The authors describe how such hashtags as #MeToo, #SurvivorPrivilege, and #WhyIStayed have challenged the conventional understanding of gendered violence; examine the voices and narratives of Black feminism enabled by #FasttailedGirls, #YouOKSis, and #SayHerName; and explore the creation and use of #GirlsLikeUs, a network of transgender women. They investigate the digital signatures of the “new civil rights movement”—the online activism, storytelling, and strategy-building that set the stage for #BlackLivesMatter—and recount the spread of racial justice hashtags after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and other high-profile incidents of killings by police. Finally, they consider hashtag created by allies, including #AllMenCan and #CrimingWhileWhite.