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.

The Influencer Industry

Emily Hund

This project tracks the influencer phenomenon from a haphazard group of people scrambling for work in the face of the Great Recession to a multibillion-dollar industry that has completely reshaped flows of culture and information. Drawing on interviews, participant observation, and analysis of press articles on the subject, the book shows how early participants focused on constructing and monetizing personal brands as a means of exerting control over their professional destinies in a time of acute economic precarity. Yet over time, their activities congealed into an industry whose impact has reached far beyond the dreams of its progenitors. Indeed, the logics and tools they created for creating, monetizing, and marketing social media content have permeated our communication environment. Now, more economically and culturally powerful than ever but also facing widespread cynicism, the industry—and its adherents—must grapple with its impact.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Journalism: Eyewitnessing, Transparency and Trauma in the Digital Age

Natacha Yazbeck

This is a book-length study of coverage of war in the 21st century. An ethnography of journalism from Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, this book argues that digital newsroom cultures enable and mask selective normalizations, structural inequalities and a troubling legacy of racism in the press. These normalizations and legacies are nowhere more apparent than in the cases this book documents: the work of stringers, the “local” journalists who report from the frontlines when news organizations cannot or will not send their staff. Through fieldwork, interviews with stringers, foreign correspondents and editors, and critical textual analysis, this book places coverage of conflict today within a longer history of marginalization of newsmakers among leading northern-western news organizations. It rethinks the unexamined foundational myths of journalism, myths entangled in questions of race, rights and representation, to argue for a critical rethinking of three core components of journalism studies: eyewitnessing, transparency and trauma.


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.


#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.


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.