CCR 633: Anderson, Publics, and Simultaneity

One of the main things that struck me about this reading was the importance of simultaneity. Anderson discusses this through literature, then newspapers, and even connects it to the practice of naming places like “New Orleans” after places from the old world. Essentially this connects to the “empty time” of a situation and the sense of community, that other people–people in a community or country, in Anderson’s example–are going about their daily lives as I do.

Coupled with this, one has the printing press and newspapers. For newspapers, Anderson notes how it represents “the secular, historically clocked community” (35), and creates a daily or half-daily ritual, which again is connected to simultaneity, the paper acting as a technology of synchronizing.

For printing, Anderson stresses a few elements. “First,” he writes, “they created unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernacular” (44).  Similar to what Thorton says about print v. handwriting, printing creates a public connotation, and though it’s been a while since I’ve read Habermas, I imagine a link with his public sphere as well. Along with these “unified fields of exchange,” print technology, argues Anderson, creates fixity, much as Eisenstein notes. And third, it created “languages of power” (45), privileging some forms of language over the other.

I was thinking about how digital technologies connect to these similar qualities, i.e. how internet publics connect to their own technology.

One thing that I find most interesting about Internet communities in this respect is the blurring of public, the reduction of fixity, and the localizing of languages of power to a deeply context-specific level in some cases. In terms of public and private as McKee and Porter have pointed out in The Ethics of Internet Research, the boundary between private and public in the Internet is murky at best. Communal intentions of privacy may be present when passwords are not, like in some forums. Or users, with ease of posting, may lack a literacy or understanding of audience.

In fan communities, this often comes out as an interesting blend, in which the personal blends with the published, with author notes often noting what inspired the piece, what’s going on in the author’s life, issues they have, work they are reading, pleas to not leave mean comments, etc. Some of these A/Ns can get quite long. Or they can engage in a conversation with past chapters and user comments.

Furthermore, with hyperlinks and other practices, much like an interactive acknowledgement page, works nest themselves and communicate with fellow works, tumblr profiles, twitter accounts, translations, podcasts, etc.

And some creators, like in YouTube, frequently publish more “professional” and public content and more private content, like behind-the-scenes footage. One example that comes to mind is the evolution of The Angry Video Game Nerd, played by James Rolfe. While he was one of the first “Let’s play” YouTube creators, his persona was a character, a white-shirt wearing “nerd” who got angry at vintage games. But as time has gone on, the character is just one part of the channel, with some videos just constituting James and friends playing videogames, doing monster movie reviews, or doing more personal self-reflections about life and film. Some work is highly polished and staged; other work is live and largely unedited.

All of this is “public,” just as weird Twitter is or the YouTube channel of my nephew, age 11, which is mostly a video or two he made for school and movies of his pet lizard, Sandy. The polished and profane and amateur all coexist.

But distinctions do arise, though they are often distinctions of practice and circulation, not codification–or often, even, language. As web sphere analysis shows, politics of links often create publics, but drawing the lines between those publics can get murky. Trying to map a National Websphere, for example, Richard Rogers (2013) discusses how many people of a nationality write in English or some other language. Many are not in the country itself. Many in the country–or using the language–are not necessarily writing about the country. And then bots are also using this space.

Links have a certain pattern around hubs with high traffic, forming publics, but as danah boyd argues in It’s Complicated, in social media–and much of Web 2.0 these days–such publics are networked publics, publics laced with other publics.

Another interesting thing, in terms of fixity, is the potential ephemeral of these publics. While some elements may be more stable like a fandom, others may have a more shimmering existence. For example, though it’s a small study, considering the topic, Papacharassi and her team (2012) studied the “storytelling” and coordinating that surged through Twitter during the Egyptian revolution through the model of networked publics, calling the surges, coupling, and scattering of hashtags, retweets, and links “affective publics,” as relations shifted.

And in terms of collecting and centralizing, these networked publics, networked selves, and diffuse expressions present challenges. I think, for example of the Illuminating 2016 project here at SU: the training and calibrating of the bots to collect and sort political tweets, the collection of posts from candidate Facebook pages, deciding what to keep or what is private, etc.

But print culture has been complicated for a long time, and many similarities do exist, and I think I’d like to close on simultaneity, as this is what really drives a lot of these platforms. Take the debate, for example: tweeting during it, I was also tweeting with others, some them friends and some strangers. It was an odd feedback. Instead of the “empty time” that Anderson describes with simultaneity, it is a living network, or a newspaper that includes the mundane activities of friends alongside new research, alongside, political events, alongside Bird Activist and I know who is “online” with me.

But this is the danger of algorithmic curation, as it is not a newspaper, but an individually structured reading public. So in some ways, we are all a reading public of one, getting some elements from common streams.

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