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Frankentheory, Your Time is Now_Final Case Study

Welcome, my dear readers, to my final case study, known as Frankentheory.  Shall we begin?

You don't have to answer that question.

You don’t have to answer that.

And Away We Roll

As I have discussed in my previous case studies, World of Warcraft (WoW) is a massive, complex, global network composed of nodes functioning on different levels inside and outside of the gamespace. Attention to this Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game has been directed towards its ability to offer teachers and students a virtual environment in which to learn, while other studies have looked at MMOs in terms of what observers see as the game’s ability to fulfill player needs (social needs) and side effects (like addiction and escapism). But what are other aspects of the game and gamespace that would be of interest to someone in the field of English Studies? It is with this question that guilds and what is happening amongst their members become of interest. Since WoW’s guilds and their activities have been my focus this semester, I have been looking for a theory that would allow me to better explore guilds and their members’ positions within and outside of (though still related to) the gamespace. However, for each of the theories I have applied so far, they usually do not focus both on what is occurring in the gamespace at large as a network and what nuances are occurring on the local level within the guilds. It tends to be one or the other, especially since the players are heavily dependent on game software and hardware and on communication technology to be part of and help shape the network in which they play. So, what do we do when our theories cannot completely cover our objects of study and have blind spots? Theoretical synthesis, which is better known among my peers as Frankentheory. But how will this Frankentheory help us decide how studying WoW can be useful to English Studies?

First, let’s list my theories on the field:

Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s Networked Individualism

Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory (ANT)

Bitzer’s Rhetorical Situation Theory and Vatz’s “Myth of the Rhetorical Situation”

Networked Individualism and MMOs, But What Could Be Missing?

To begin the rise of Frankentheory, I have to start with a strand: Networked Individualism. Rainie and Wellman’s theory looks at how the three revolutions of Social, Internet, and Mobile are reshaping the fabric of social groups, what they call the “social operating system” (6). It is now normal for people to exist outside of close-knit communities and instead primarily operate within a variety of more loosely connected groups, with different groups fulfilling specialized needs that often have nothing to do with proximity. These new social groups, generally mediated by advancing communication technologies, allow people to enter into a number of networks that are more connected and have greater access not only to information but also to virtual spaces in which they can create and share media of their own. People become the nodes of the network, constantly exchanging information with one another: “When people walk down the street texting on their phones, they are obviously communicating. Yet things are different now. In incorporating gadgets into their lives, people have changed the ways they interact with each other. They have become networked as individuals, rather than embedded in groups. In the world of networked individuals, it is the person who is the focus: not the family, not the work unit, not the neighborhood, and not the social group” (Rainie and Wellman 6). In the changing landscape of social relationships that Rainie and Wellman find is occurring as more people are turning towards their communication devices (cell phones, tablets, computers) to center their everyday communications, information gathering and producing, and their relationships within a group, online games have become part of the “new neighborhoods” that are popping up as the social operating system shifts gears towards networked individuals rather than physical communities of people (13).

People as nodes in the network. Image hosted on VectorStock.

For gamers, this reshaping of the social operating system allows them to craft social groups for themselves (inside and outside of the game) that fulfill needs prompted by their experiences within the gamespace and, more specifically, by being members of the same guild. There is no longer the need to play games with the people who are physically close (though that does still occur) as players can now log on to servers with others from around the country or around the world, creating communities of people who may only ever meet through text chat, in-game voice chat, discussion forums, Facebook, YouTube, and Skype. Here, we have groups of people whose main connection is their interest in a computer game, though they may have other interests, characteristics, and connections that could then bind them closer together during their interactions in the game, but this depends on how much information they are willing to provide and how closely they bond with their teammates. To be in an active member of the gamespace (as opposed to a casual gamer) and to be an active member of a guild, takes work and effort, just as it does to be part of any virtual group (Rainie and Wellman 9). There is no physical presence to say “I’m here,” so the player must renew his/her account, take time to level up, and take time to talk and quest with guild members. The gamespace and the guilds let these players from all different backgrounds come together for a few hours or so a day to engage in group raids or role-playing scenarios, to talk with others who share common interests that extend beyond their daily physical lives, and to play specialized roles in a group (which is another point Rainie and Wellman point out that is happening to networked individuals).

WoW Guild. Image hosted on PC Gamer.

PC Gamer’s WoW Guild. Image hosted on PC Gamer.

WoW brings together gamers from all walks of life and gives them common ground, with fan culture emerging. Image hosted on website Intense Gamers.

WoW brings together gamers from all walks of life around the world and gives them common ground, with fan culture emerging. Image hosted on website Intense Gamers.

Rainie and Wellman’s theory acknowledges that communication technologies and people’s desires to be continuously connected are reshaping the ways in which we interact with one another and how we (re)align with social groups. By looking at the form and function of this new social operating system, application of this theory takes a look at the fabric of guild members’ interactions with one another in-game and how they keep connected even when they are outside of the game. Questions can be raised about players’ empowerment within new social, virtual dynamics as they access a wide variety of resources: Since WoW players do have access to many more resources than those found within the gamespace (official and unofficial forums, guild websites, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, guild ranking websites, and Wiki pages for the game), how does this empower players as players in the gamespace but also as members in their guild? Players are, essentially, not alone in the challenges they face in raids, on quests, and within social guild dynamics the way they would be if communication technology was not as far along as it is, but how does a player harnessing the “information at his/her fingertips” change the dynamics of the group? If the players are nodes in various networks and WoW and their guilds are only a small part of the network that the players themselves have become, where and how do players gain their agency?

Within the scope of Networked Individualism, players gain agency by doing something with all of the information accessible through their devices and making the effort to be part of the groups they have joined. Just like within physically close-knit communities, players have to reach out and engage one another, because if they do not, they will eventually lose their places within the group, even more so than if they were dealing with their teammates in person. Let’s take an example, for a guild member, there can be several forms of the group within which to stay active and to have agency. By having an interest in WoW and signing up to play, the player is taking the first step and putting in the initial effort that will lead to guild membership. The player then has options: he/she can just play the game and either stumble upon or be recruited into a guild he/she comes into contact with over the course of gameplay, or the player can look through guild rankings, explore guild websites and forums, and talk to other players about guilds and potentially joining. There are options as to how a player chooses to operate within the gamespace network and how much agency he/she takes for him/herself. Once a player has joined a guild, a new set of social dynamics occurs that does not usually happen for a player going solo through the gamespace. Most guilds set up a mentor-mentee relationship among new and veteran players in order to ease the new players into the game, into how the guild works socially, and also to train them for the specialized they will take on during quests and raids. This new player again has options to how much agency he/she has within this guild. The player can research his/her role, profession, and class in order to better acquaint him/herself with his/her character’s potential but also to become a more effective teammate. A player who does not know how to do something like add-ons for battles has a steeper learning curve than someone who actively sought out the knowledge and used his/her place in the network to better understand the gamespace and his/her group. Information is out there, across a multitude of websites, discussion posts, and player-player interaction.

This sounds like a great theory for looking at guild members playing in World of Warcraft as we are looking at players not just as nodes, but as focal points of networks themselves. By being a node in many loosely connected networks, the players become networks in themselves and has agency in how he/she uses that connectivity. So what could be missing from this theory?

Add the Second Strand as ANT Comes Marching in

While Rainie and Wellman’s theory of Networked Individualism looks at the ways in which communication technologies are allowing people to reshape their social communities (branching away from solely functioning within local groups to take part in a variety of networks in which they often play specialized roles), Actor-Network-Theory fills in the gaps of Networked Individualism in that it allows the very non-human entities of hardware and software being used by people to have just as much agency as the people themselves. For my study, this applies to the hardware and software guild members use and interact with when playing WoW. The programming code that makes everything work is not pushed off to the side; it is allowed into the discourse, becoming a major (and acknowledged) part of the network. With ANT, the actors are the nodes, but who are the actors? Gamers, of course, are on the list of actors, but so are representations of the code through non-playable characters (NPCs), loot from raids, quests logs, monsters, characters’ pets, parts of the environment, and other objects that can be handled in the game. But our list is still incomplete. We have to step outside of the game and look at what allows gamers to actually play: keyboards, CPUs with monitors or laptops, mouse, and headphones, as well as additional technologies that can now be used to access the game (thank you, add-ons from Blizzard) like cellphones. In Networked Individualism, the emphasis is on people using these technologies, but with ANT, the technologies are just as important as mediators as other people. By linking ANT to Networked Individualism, we are broadening out the scope of who/what should be studied when looking at WoW. So, is this a more complete list? Sort of. Guild activities do not only take place in the gamespace, but outside of it as well in forums, through software like Google Hangouts and Skype, through social media like Facebook, and through unofficial game websites. There could be other actors involved, especially if the guild members know each other in person, but this will be okay for now as our list is more robust than simply just listing humans. This is what a WoW ANT network for a guild would like.

Normally, when a guild is mentioned, people imagine this:

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

When really, with our newly constructed list in mind, the mental image should include these two:

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Now that we have our larger (if not totally exhaustive list) and our handy-dandy new mental image, we must deal with a new way of conceiving how the nodes in our guild network have agency and are situated within the network. Why would I choose to list these actors? According to Latour, “If we stick to our decision to start from the controversies about actors and agencies, then any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor– or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant. Thus, the questions to ask about any agent are simply the following: Does it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not? Is there some trial that allows someone to detect this difference?” (71). Let’s see if we can tease out how this works within an MMORPG in a way that Networked Individualism Theory cannot. What do all of these actors even do for the network? The gamers, their hardware, and the game’s software have one major collective goal. They are all working towards the creation and maintenance of the gameworld in which the guild exists. Sounds odd that gamers are part of this, doesn’t it? But, that’s how games work. The developers design the code that then puts the gameworld into existence on the chosen platform(s) players will then access through their chosen hardware. If the gamers choose not to play, eventually the designers will have to shut the game down or the game remains in its plastic casing on a shelf. In order for the gameworld to be activated and maintained, it needs someone to be playing. But if the designers do not actively work to maintain their game and add new content, players will have no incentive to spend their money and continue populating the gamespace. A great deal of effort needs to be expended on both sides if this gamespace network is to remain active and be successful.

But, we need to narrow this down further. Our target network is not the game as a whole, but individual guilds. What gamers, the software, and the hardware do for the game at large works the same way for the guild on a more microscopic level. The guild’s boundaries must be defined and redefined constantly (which aligns with Rainie and Wellman’s discussion of the effort it takes to keep in touch with the various networks people engage in), which Latour mentions when discussing the creation and maintenance of groups: “all need some people defining who they are, what they should be, what they have been. These are constantly at work, justifying the group’s existence, invoking rules and precedents and, as we shall see, measuring up one definition against all others. Groups are not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what” (31). In this sense, the guild is a network node inside a much larger, far more extensive network. And, the gamers, who would have been just one node among (literally) millions of other player nodes, and those are just talking about the human elements of the game. What being part of a guild does then is offer players greater agency in their own gameplay experience of WoW by making them a node in a network that is comprised of a more manageable (usually) number of human players.

However, if those guild members stop redefining the boundaries of their group, against the world, other guilds, and against players with no guilds at all, the guild itself will dissolve. The code and gamers’ hardware is not enough to maintain a guild. The guild may have an archive of some kind as having once existed, but the players are the core nodes who meet and interact in a way that makes a guild what it is. That being said, the guild would not exist without the code that is always underlining the game. There would be no reason for a guild unless the environment of the gamespace provided dungeons to conquer, raids to take on, a world to explore, cities to visit, and servers where players can face off against one another or players (PvP) face off against the environment (PvE). And, without the hardware of the computer and the headphones, players would not have access to the gamespace and to each other. All of the actors are necessary, especially with digital games.

What Ant can do that Networked Individualism cannot is allow me to follow the threads (or trace the associations) of players’ activities through the technology they are using and with one another to define what a guild is within and outside of the gamespace. What do players do with the technology of the game, their own hardware, and other communication devices, as well as resources found on the internet, to maintain the guild as a group? This complements Networked Individualism because it is adding in and granting agency to the non-human entities that help networked people to network. Actor Network Theory and Networked Individualism are similar in that they are looking at society with technology in mind: ANT as humans and non-human actants working together to create the boundaries and maintain the group (guild, in this case), and Networked Individualism as people (gamers) using technology to create diverse and yet loosely collected social groups that fulfill needs that traditional social groups (those once limited more so by proximity) cannot. For both of these theories, technology and the social are focal points in the sense that they are looking at how actors (human and non-human, though the agency is emphasized differently between the theories) are working together.

But what does Networked Individualism do/offer for ANT in regards to WoW and guilds? If the two strands are going to come together, they must each offer something to the other. Actor Network Theory takes a pretty broad view of human and non-human actors working together to define what is social (and, in this case, what is a guild). Networked Individualism narrows this focus to the needs being met for or sought by the humans within these social networks, and how these humans are using communication technology that is in turn reshaping how they interact with one another. ANT brings technology as an actant into the discourse, while Networked Individualism provides a framework for what people are doing within social groups and how they are defining the groups of which they are members. For my case study on WoW, these two theories combined will give me a macro and micro view of technology at play alongside humans, ensuring that the communication technology and game software are receiving as much attention and agency in developing and maintaining the networks within which the humans (physically, in some senses, and through their avatars) are operating.

Friends until the technological end: ANT & Networked Individualism. Image hosted on We Know Memes.

Friends until the technological end: ANT & Networked Individualism. Image hosted on We Know Memes.

Final Strand, or What is Moving through the Network

If ANT can give us a macrolevel view of how groups (in this case, guilds) are expending effort to define and redefine their boundaries in order to remain a group, and Networked Individualism is looking at how people are changing their relationships with one another by using communication technologies to have membership in different guilds that are not usually defined by physical proximity, we are still missing something.What is moving between these nodes (both human and non-human)? Rhetorical Situation Theory adds to the discourse between ANT and Networked Individualism because rhetoric is moving through the networks being defined by the human and non-human actors and shaping the kinds of experiences being had by the guild members using the technology. In a gamespace, codes in the forms of zeroes and ones are the not the only things moving within a network. In a guild, code helps to relay the rhetoric moving between players during situations (both formal, such as raid planning, and informal, such as conversations between players about the dividing up of loot). By threading Rhetorical Situation Theory in with ANT and Networked Individualism, we can explore how players in the guild are using rhetoric to define the boundaries of the group, while at the same time, the hardware, software, and players are working together simultaneously within a network defined by the relay of code and commands.

Rhetorical Situation Theory may seem to be the odd theory as it looks mainly at humans and human activity, but rhetoric is something being passed within a Networked Society (such as when networked individuals create content on the internet, read news articles, or communicate with friends and family) and may be part of the associations that ANT researchers trace through actors as defining and maintaining a group (such as the activities taking place within a labor union). All three of these theories are about the social (however each defines it) and about what happens within that social (to different degrees and outlooks). WoW may be an online game, but what is occurring between people, especially guild members, is what is happening among other networked societies. People still have to deal with one another, even if it is at a distance through technology with avatars in the place of human faces. By adding Rhetorical Situation Theory into the mixture, we are filling in the microlevel relay that is happening between the various nodes across the different servers that compose the WoW gamespace.

ANT diverges away from theories like Rhetorical Situation Theory because it complicates how we see interactions in a network, which is something we need now that people are producing rhetorical discourse in non-traditional spaces between people who are, often, only loosely connected to each other about social dynamics that are happening even during gameplay. So, what exactly can be moving through a guild network when we must take into account the software and hardware? How does it move among the different nodes? One of the major things moving through the network is code, zeroes and ones that render the visuals, relay information  about characters’ statuses, allow for environmental sounds and pre-established soundtrack selections, and initiate reactions from the environment, NPCs, and monsters in which the guild members interact. There are also the zeroes and ones that allow players to have their avatars do physical gestures towards one another and allow relay their textual conversations. But, that’s not all. The hardware players may opt to use like headphones and mics allow for verbal communications. Rhetorical discourse may be part of what is being conveyed, but, in this more inclusive list of network nodes, the code is central to all transmissions.

Who/what are the mediators and what are the intermediaries making all of this possible? “Every time a connection has to be established, a new conduit has to be laid down and some new type of entity has to be transported through it. What circulates, so to speak, ‘inside’ the conduits are the very acts of giving something a dimension. Whenever a locus wishes to act on another locus, it has to go through some medium, transporting something all the way; to go on acting, it has to maintain some sort of more or less durable connection. Conversely, every locus is now the target of many such activities, the crossroads of many such tracks, the provisional repository of many such vehicles. Sites, now transformed into actor-networks for good, are moved to the background; connectors, vehicles, and attachments are brought into the foreground” (Latour 220). We are looking to ANT to understand how guild members are using the technology but also how the technology is taking an active role in transforming actors who come into contact with the code (through visual representations) and through the rhetorical discourse that is being relayed through the code. So, let’s talk Rhetorical Situations (myth or otherwise) and the discourse initiated in those moments by guild members acting as rhetors.

Within WoW, Rhetoric is everywhere as players move as network nodes between interactions, joining and leaving guilds as well as joining and leaving raiding parties. Within guilds, players must convince one another of battle strategies as raids can often be difficult undertakings, requiring hours of planning and hours of execution, sometimes with little success; in player-player conflicts, with some players defending themselves and their potential virtual property against other players; when player-player conflicts cannot be resolved, there are ruptures within guilds, leading to the creation of separate guilds; and within the creation of new guilds, the recruitment of players into the guilds, especially when the gamer is new to the server or has been relatively isolated prior to creating a guild charter.

Guild social dynamics are essentially playing out in a microcosm of social and political (usually within the guild, not in the gamespace at large) tensions, mediated through character avatars over Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and textual messages. But rhetorical situations do not only occur in-game for guilds, but also outside of games: in forums (official and unofficial), on guild websites, through YouTube videos, and in personal communications. Much of this discourse is written by guild members for guild members, creating a circular audience, though gamers outside of the guild and even non-players (depending on the medium) can have access to out-of-game texts about in-game activities. So, through Networked Individualism, if players gain agency by accessing information and creating media in order to make their presence known in the networked social groups they have joined, rhetorical discourse is what those players are creating and using the technology (ANT) to relay.

Rhetorical discourse always has a human agent, what Bitzer calls “mediators of change”: “Rhetorical  discourse produces changes by influencing the decision and action of persons who function as mediators of change” (7). Biesecker mentions that, for Bitzer and his Rhetorical Situation, rhetoric is the name given to “those utterances which serve as instruments for adjusting thè environment in accordance to thè interests of its inhabitants,” which occur in response to some event that “invites utterance” (113). Agency is taken by those who are willing to take charge and produce rhetorical discourse as a situation arises, and then agency is taken by others who hear this rhetorical discourse and do something with it, whether it is to add to what they have heard or in resistance to it as new situations arise and call for rhetorical discourse. This raises the questions of who would constitute the rhetors, the mediators of change, and the audience of those moments of discourse? The answer to these questions will always be guild members, but there are different kinds of guild members. There are differences between guild officers, raid leaders, guild leader, power players versus non-power players, and veteran players versus rookie players. The differences in-game are not based on outside elements like age, profession, race, financial status, or social class, but are based on experience and skill in-game. While the ideal is that every member of the group be given fair and equal treatment within the guild, there are often moments where players’ agency depends on their perceived level of commitment to the group and what level of guild hierarchy they have reached. It all depends on the rules established by the guild for how the guild operates in gameplay. And, by thinking about rhetoric as a way for speakers and potential mediators of change to adjust their environments to better align with their interests, this would (ideally) allow guild leaders to work within rhetorical situations (such as raid strategizing, conflicts between players over loot, other leadership roles) as they emerge to strengthen the group’s cohesiveness. Members who are active within the group’s activities are the mediators of change who will take what the guild leader says and apply it to the communal experiences within the game. If a guild leader is not successful at managing the rhetorical discourse happening within the group, then members of the group tend to splinter off to create new guilds in the hopes that someone else as guild leader may provide better group environments. The guild leader is not alone in managing the quality of the group’s interactions (as this is based on voluntary membership), but the guild leader is the rhetor in the group, one whose opinions hold the most weight in taking charge and offering solutions to problems. A guild leader who cannot successfully navigate situations that call for rhetorical discourse cause players to lose faith and find or found a new group.

Oftentimes, a guild’s success at continuing to exist is based on the quality of guild management and how much agency each member (as a node in the network) has in the relationships formed through rhetorical discourse. The conversations that arise during the whole process of raids (from the pre-planning, the decisions as to who will play what role, the instructions and conversations that crop up as the raid is taking place, and the distribution of loot after the raid has been successfully completed) reflect the quality of leadership and companionship of the guild to its members, even if to no one else. If there is a break down in communication, if the leader (or rhetor) has no responsibility placed upon him/her for the rhetorical situation he/she has decided to take advantage of or ignore, the group may become fragmented as the members (who are more than “mere hearers and readers”) become mediators of change in a way that can ultimately dissolve the guild. Players may leave the guild (alone or with others) if they feel they are being treated unfairly (such as them feeling cheated if they are not allowed loot they have requested, if they feel the loot is being hoarded by guild officers, and so on), if they feel they have outgrown what the guild can offer their character, or if the guild is not operating efficiently enough (too many members missing raid meeting times). If the rhetorical discourse require for a situation is ineffective or absent when most needed, the guild as a whole may be left at a severe disadvantage if the best players leave. Even a player who feels he/she has no agency in the group, still has enough agency to leave the group and find a new guild.

Vatz complicates Bitzer’s idea of agency for rhetors, putting more responsibility on the speaker and the moments in which the speaker decides to speak. The speaker, essentially, privileges the moments and subjects within, and chooses to discard or ignore others: “This very choice of what facts or events are relevant is a matter of pure arbitration. Once the choice is communicated, the event is imbued with salience, or what Haim Perelman calls ‘presence,’ when describing this phenomenon from the framework of argumentation” (Vatz 157). For Vatz, it is not solely that situations call for rhetoric, but that rhetoric can shape and define the character of a situation when the speaker chooses to give meaning to that situation and the rhetorical discourse happening within it. This is where the author/speaker of the rhetor gains agency, by being the person who takes the information selected for the situation and gives it meaning, especially since audience members only see an event as “meaningful only through their linguistic depictions” (Vatz 157). In this theory, agency is granted to the guild leader when he or she chooses moments in which he or she deems suitable or necessary for rhetorical discourse. This would be a guild leader finding “the right moment” to address something like player-player conflicts so as to manage the problem before it gets out of control, rather than just waiting for problems to arise and then speaking about it. There are dangers to this for the guild leader who is not at least semi-conscious about what he or she is privileging, what moments are deemed best (or better timed) and what rhetorical discourse is produced (what information is given meaning). This sense of agency for the guild leader allows him or her to establish the level of quality of the team’s work and play during raids and just as a cohesive (or otherwise) group.

From the angle of rhetorical discourse, what is moving through the network are the rules and guidelines that the members are continually establishing and putting into effect (or neglecting) for the experience they are seeking as a collective. Vatz states, “To the audience, events become meaningful only through their linguistic depiction” (157). Guild members could play the game alone (whether that gameplay would be successful or not would be another story), but it is the rhetorical exchange that underlies the guild activities that gives the events meaning for the players. A raid would be just hack-and-slash and magic-casting except that the players are using language to persuade themselves and each other that this raid, this dungeon, this boss fight means something for all of them. The raid leader may need to persuade others that a certain strategy is the correct one, but that explanation and the resulting discourse makes it a lived experience. Even a breakdown in communication or a consistent lack of quality guild management is a rhetorical discourse that can lead players to become mediators of change through guild dissolution. Rhetorical discourse is necessary for the networked individuals to stay together as a group, but they are the ones who must harness the technology and that which it affords them and actively work to maintain their boundaries. Rhetorical Situation Theory and the discourse that happens within those moments also draw attention to the networked individuals and their places within groups, drawing attention to the changes in the social landscape (social operating system) because players are aware that are meeting in non-traditional spaces and forming groups with people they would never have interacted with had the game not provided such a social space. For gamers, though, this rhetorical discourse also (often) acknowledges the technology that they are using, makings its agency and effect upon them part of their discourse.

So, why is studying World of Warcraft useful to English Studies?

Outside of pedagogy and player habits, MMOs like World of Warcraft are useful to the field of English Studies because it is, as Rainie and Wellman would say, a “new neighborhood” in the social operating system that is emerging through advancements in communication technologies and people’s reliance and implementation of those technologies. Within the gamespace and outside of it, guild members are employing rhetorical discourse to define their roles within their groups but also to define the boundaries of those groups. By studying WoW and games like it, and by studying how gamers are using the space and interactions with one another to fulfill social needs that had been filled (and are still being filled) by traditional groups, we can understand how the reshaping of our society around our virtual presences is granting us new avenues to gain agency. We are not just members of groups now, but nodes in a variety of networks, and we rely on technology to make ourselves present within those groups, reach out to new groups, and how to access and create media that engage us in the world at large. By crafting a Frankentheory from Actor-Network-Theory, Networked Individualism, and Rhetorical Situation Theory, we can start to understand how online gamespaces afford their players with spaces in which a microcosm of social dynamics can play out, but can be more inclusive in the study by understanding how technology acts upon us and changes our discourse as much as we act upon it and can change its code. For these networked societies and as networked individuals, we need the technology in order to have agency in the new landscape, and English Studies can benefit from taking the time to explore how rhetoric and interactions among people are adapting to the needs and demands being placed upon us by one another as start to navigate a more virtual society.

So long and thanks for all the network. Image hosted on tumblr, #whatshouldwecallgradschool

So long and thanks for all the networks. Image hosted on the tumblr #whatshouldwecallgradschool

References

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 25 (Selections from Volume 1) (1992): 1-14. PDF.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Raine, Lee and Barry Wellman. Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. PDF.

Vatz, Richard E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 6.3 (1973): 154-161. PDF.

And Now I Bow Out

Bowing out or sinking down? Dean from Supernatural does it best.

Bowing out or sinking down? Dean from Supernatural does it best.

 


Assignment: Object of Study Week 16, Synthesis

Describing the Object of Study:

The Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) was an organization operating from 1966 to 1973 that collected content - including text, cartoons, and photographs - from individual underground newspaper titles and disseminated that content nationally to be freely reprinted by other newspapers with syndicate membership. UPS also attempted to secure advertisements, especially from record companies, to help financially support members. Additionally, archival attempts were a part of the mission with microfilming submitted issues and creating directories for sale to libraries.

Robert Glessing, arguably the first to scholarly address the underground press in his seminal 1970 text The Underground Press in America, speaks to the idea that the UPS helped the movement grow. He writes, “[T]he significance of the new left press is that it is a movement. The string that ties the movement together has been the Underground Press Syndicate, the Liberation News Service, and other cooperative agencies” (79). David Armstrong reiterates, “With the birth of UPS, the underground press became a true network, growing synergistically instead of in fits and starts” (59). Then again in 2011, John McMillian summarizes, “Most of these papers were interconnected - whether through a loose confederation called the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) or a radical news agency called Liberation News Service (LNS) - they also became the Movement’s primary means of internal communication. Absent such newspapers and organizations, the New Left could not have circulated its news, ideas, trends, opinions, and strategies” (6). Ken Wachsberger argues that the redistribution of newspapers through the UPS helped “to plug [one] radical community into radical communities around the country” (qtd. in McMillian 46). Unfortunately, others see this unification as having an overall negative effect on the underground press.

This criticism centers on the way in which news sharing services gave “the underground papers a collective identity” (Armstrong 59). The “consistency of vision” made possible by content sharing through the UPS was problematic (Kornbluth 96). Kornbluth explains, “Most of the papers are printing the same ritualized reports…and cater to an increasingly ingrown audience” (93). Ridgeway agrees that news sharing services like the UPS can “also have an unfortunate effect. The papers…imitate one another much as the daily papers repeat themselves in relying on wire services. There is little local reporting, one of the major reasons for beginning underground papers” (590-1). This homogenization of the underground is a negative consequence for some of the emergence of news sharing services.

Other scholars also note the role of the UPS in breaking media boundaries. The UPS is credited with initiating a conversation about copyright. Ridgeway explains that “members of UPS promise not to copyright articles. Copyright is a form of property and UPS members are opposed to it” (586-7). Glessing also argues for the importance of this mission, adding, “The first rule of UPS [all members agree to free exchange of materials] is perhaps its most significant and served to break down the concept of copyright among underground papers from the start” (70).

Accordingly, these views situate the UPS as a significant actant in the underground press movement with both positive and negative effects on its growth. However, understanding of the UPS as a network reveals significances not outlined by these writers.

Application of Network Theories:
What works from each theory? What parts of the theoretical lenses lets you look at something interesting?
There are four network theories that can be applied to the UPS to help bring about greater scholarly recognition for the work of the UPS and the underground movement in general: Charles Bazerman’s work with genres; Lloyd Bitzer’s description of the rhetorical situation; James Gibson’s explanation of affordances, with development by Don Norman and Gregory Bateson; and Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) as undertaken by Paul Prior et al.

Genre Theory: Charles Bazerman argues in “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems” that all human activity is comprised of hierarchical, embedded categories. Human activity is comprised of genre systems, which are in turn made up of genre sets. These sets contain within them what we understand as genres. Genres contain speech acts, and speech acts hold within them the smallest, indivisible category, social facts. The relationship between these categories functions much in the same way as do the various elements in networks.

With this understanding, it is possible to define the UPS as a genre system within the network of human activity. All human activity begins with social facts, “those things that people believe to be true” (Bazerman 312). In the late-1960s, some of the social facts appearing to the counterculture were the truths of segregation, the draft, and President Nixon. These elicited responses that when compiled made up a network of speech acts; typically these speech acts expressed various concerns for equality, personal freedom, and political reform. Underground journalists articulated these speech acts in recognizable patterns, or genres, such as the editorial, satirical cartoon, or even a creative poem - each type of document a node in a network of genres. Writers and illustrators collected these generic examples, as genre sets, into publishable newspapers and magazines. Each title, or set, a network connecting people and content, but also a node in a genre system. The UPS and other organizations like Liberation News Service (LNS) and Alternative Press Syndicate (APS) collected these genre sets, as genre systems, in order to redistribute their content to members or archive it. These genre systems produced social actions including disseminating information, creating a connected and informed public, and inciting protest activity. These social actions exist as nodes of human action in the network of human activity. This speaks well to the purpose in beginning an underground movement as responsorial in nature and ultimately producing social action.

The UPS as situated in Bazerman's Theory of Human Activity

Genre theory also allows for a discussion of social action. Miller explains that genres help “communities do their work and carry out their purposes” (“Rhetorical”). Blumer quoted in Miller also argues that “social action exists in the form of recurrent patterns [genres] of joint action [collaboration across a network]” (158 "Genre as Social"). When the underground press publications gained visibility and readership, the ideas expressed in recognizeable patterns (poem, editorial, news article) within the pages inspired and informed communities and became a platform for activism - the very effect of genre noted by the theorists.

Genre theory also allows for a discussion of collaboration. The relationship between the nodes is collaborative as they build unilaterally toward human activity; however, it could be argued that the activity produced at the culmination of the network would then bring about new social facts. In that regard, the direction of the relationships between nodes can also be understood as cyclical. This also plays out in the UPS as the co-constructed newspapers then created new social facts for the readers, perhaps encouraging them to also make utterances.

This theory also helps explain how the UPS grew and eventually failed. Genres and genre-based networks grow as a response to social facts as Bazerman explains, but he also suggests, through his ideas about multiple intentions and interpretations, that the network will emerge and move in new offshoots as nodes are utilized differently by different people. The UPS grew as a result of the available technology and emerged in new directions with each selection made by UPS editors or member papers in the exchange process. Bazerman also can be applied to explain how the network dissolved. As the social facts that once inspired responses changed—passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 for example—the kind of speech act responses also changed and no longer found the need for radical expression in underground publications.

Rhetorical Situation: Bitzer argues that there first exists a rhetorical situation, a “complex of persons, events, objects, and relations [constraints] presenting an actual or potential exigence” (6). The exigence invites a response from the rhetor in the form of discourse, which can mediate the situation if presented to an audience capable of enacting the change. He argues that “these three constituents—exigence, audience, constraints—comprise everything relevant in a rhetorical situation. When the orator, invited by the situation, enters it and creates and presents discourse, then both he and his speech are additional constituents” (8). These constituents are nodes in a network that produces discourse, but is one firmly centered on the rhetorical situation. The discourse is caused by the situation, and everything emanates from its existence.

Therefore, Bitzer helps explain why the UPS was formed, again as a response. The founding members were invited to respond to the exigence of the mainstream media’s failure to reflect counterculture values. There was also the problematic situation of an uncoordinated movement scattered across the country with many newspapers operating in locales more isolated from the broader radical community. This response is rhetorical because the audience, other underground press papers, were able to mediate the situation upon receiving the discourse UPS created. The UPS cannot be extracted from the counterculture movement, and this theory allows the network to be closely linked to a social context. The exigencies that Bitzer discusses speak to the urgency that many in the movement experienced, the sense that the situation could not be ignored.

Bitzer's Network of Rhetorical Situation

Bitzer argues that the audience is in a position to mediate the situation. This model would see the readers and member papers as having the most agency because they were in a position to engage in activism and political pursuits that could alter the problems being written about, which often occurred when a newspaper would advertise a protest or instructions on how to avoid the draft.

CHAT: Like Bazerman’s situation of human activity as a collection of connected people and objects, CHAT theorizes that all human activity is “situated in concrete interactions.” The interactions “over time and space and among people, artifacts, and environments” create a kind of network that produces human activity (Prior et al “What is CHAT”). Some of these interactions can be termed literate activity. This activity is a network that “enables and constrains” other functions: production (how the text is formed by tools and practices), representation (textualization through style, arrangement, and semiotic media), distribution (how the text is disseminated), reception (how the audience makes meaning from the text), socialization (how the text constructs society), and activity (goal-oriented projects) (Prior et al “Mapping Literate”).

CHAT Network of Literate Activity

The production node of the UPS includes the “collective invention” of texts, which was facilitated by the UPS as member newspapers eventually became a collaborative artifact through reprinting. It also contains the historically provided tools like light boards, cutting knives, and mimeograph machines common in the arrangement and production of newsprint in the pre-digital era. The representation node encompasses genre; the UPS genre is information dissemination service. The node of distribution is particularly relevant to the UPS as its primary role was to actively collect and widely disseminate underground papers. Reception is a node often “shaped by writers and distributors”. The UPS as a distributor shaped meaning for the members, especially those located in communities otherwise disconnected from the movement. It brought the ideals, news, art, and culture of the counterculture to the disenfranchised, helping them to form their own identities, politics, and activism. In this way, the UPS also embodied the node of socialization, the creation of society with a unified purpose. Lastly, the node of activity involves “goal-oriented” projects that bring people together in cooperation. The UPS project had the goal of disseminating and preserving the underground press. The number of people needing to come together in cooperation to ensure this goal is impressive particularly for the sustained success the syndicate enjoyed in a time when the nature of action tended toward the ephemeral.

With a focus on delivery as distribution and mediation, CHAT lets the UPS be discussed in terms of its primary purpose: to collect and distribute newspapers for the free reprinting of shared content. On the other side of distribution though, reminiscent of Bazerman’s constraints, the staff at the UPS mediated content; decisions were made as to which elements of which papers would be included in the packets. The production node made up of the tools, containing the member papers that contributed the raw materials for building packets, could exert agency over whether or not they joined UPS, over what to submit, and over what to reprint in their collective texts. In the activity node, writers, artists, editors and UPS staff had agency over participation in the goal-oriented project. At its core, the UPS relied on individual contributions of time, creativity, and work (assembling packets, administrative tasks). Without drawing any salaries, these individuals controlled the UPS functions, and it was their conscious choices to take part that kept it going. The reception node allows for some audience agency; the UPS audience being member papers, content selection allows for some freedom of choice. This seems to be at the heart of how CHAT remaps the canon, with Prior et al explaining, “audiences are constantly active, co-producers of the configuration of footings and the discourse itself” (Prior et al “The Rhetorical Scene”). Member papers contributed, UPS editors selected and distributed, member papers reprinted. Building on that, this theory offers a new way perhaps to understand the effects of delivery, the kind of community building that occurred as a result, not just on one rhetorical product, but on an entire discourse community.

The various contributing papers as production nodes and the UPS editors in shaping the representation, distribution, and reception nodes work together in the activity node toward that goal-oriented project. In this way, the relationship between the nodes is collaborative. Therefore, this allows us to understand that the discourse of the counterculture movement was co-produced by the texts and the audiences and nodes are not positioned in a particular order or hierarchy. Here, the production tools can be as important as the audience and as important as the distribution methods. This allows for a discussion that elevates the UPS from a simple "appliance" or addendum to the "real" work of the underground, to something equal in its significance to the movement overall.

Like the two previous theories, CHAT also explains network growth as a response. This time to poor rhetoric. “A ‘good’ rhetoric neglected by the press obviously cannot be so ‘communicative’ as a poor rhetoric backed nation-wide by headlines” (Burke qtd. in Prior et al “The Rhetorical Scene”). This seems to speak to the movement's purpose for being. The power of the mainstream media to spread unreliable or unrepresentative rhetoric needed to counteracted by an alternative media that would focus on "good rhetoric".

Lastly, this theory positions the UPS as a significant source of human transformation. The CHAT authors explain this phenomenon as psychagogia. They explain, “Plato (1989) defined (true) rhetoric as a psychagogia—the leading or formation of people's souls through discourse (public and private)” (Prior et al “Society and Socialization”). However successful or unsuccessful the paper might have been, the genuine desire to effect positive change as suggested by the quote was always there. The participants in the movement often risked harassment by local authorities or other negative consequences, yet the belief in the cause was strong enough to overcome those drawbacks. It was a sincere hope that readers and communities would be altered by the contents, that social and political change would occur as the souls of people were touched and shaped.

Affordances: Affordances are the allowable actions for a given object (Gibson). The term implies a relationship between object and actor (person, animal, other object) based on the properties of one and the needs and abilities of the other. Affordances, actors, and objects comprise a network within the larger environment. Additionally, the affordances that are not perceived are still part of the network. In that case, there are nodes of affordances that may be connected to an object without the conduit of the actor.

Theory of Affordances Network

In this theory, the UPS is the environment in which the actors engage with objects based on their perceived affordances. The object nodes would be the newspapers, content packets, microfilm, collective advertisements, and membership directories. The actor nodes would be the writers, illustrators, photographers, and editors at the member papers (content-producers). Other actor nodes would include the UPS staff members who compiled and mailed the packets, maintained the membership roles, obtained revenue by securing advertisements, created the microfilm, and wrote and distributed the library directories. The affordance nodes would be based on two things: the affordances perceived by the actors and the affordances possible but not perceived. Some of the more significant affordances for the main object nodes are reading, spreading alternative news and culture, cutting (to facilitate the reprinting of only selected content), reprinting, generating income through sales, offering an outlet for expression, and inspiring activism and social change.

Most interestingly, this theory allows for the UPS to be analyzed in the present. Some of the affordances possible, like the microfilm and directories of the UPS facilitating future research, are likely not affordances that were seen at the time by many, yet it is now one of the lasting and most significant contributions. For some papers, being listed in a directory is the only evidence available to the researcher that the title ever existed. This extends then network beyond the participants from the past. I myself can be included in the network because I have perceived affordances of the objects therein.

Because the nodes are situated in the network without hierarchy like Chat, there is strong undercurrent of interdependence that suits the UPS. Bateson sees the actors’ minds, responsible for perceiving affordances, as itself belonging to “the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology” (467). This is the concept of immanence; all things are connected and dependent upon one another for survival. With immanence in mind, the nodes in the UPS network are dispersed equally but dependently. The newspapers need the actors to produce and distribute them, but the actors need the newspapers as well for their affordances of self-expression and community building. The objects are no more or less important than the people, which elevates the role of the UPS “machinery” to something as important as the text.

This egalitarian positioning between the nodes in especially applicable to the UPS. When content was collected and distributed, there was an attempt to be inclusive regardless of the paper’s circulation. Smaller papers could be included alongside the larger papers (like a Twitter feed - before the latest updates - where all tweets are seen, none hidden or given priority, regardless of the number of followers for that tweeter). This application brings the value of equality and significance of every voice, that was so much a part of the movement, to the forefront.

Another interesting point is made by Don Norman, which is that affordances are constrained by cultural conventions. Norman argues, “Cultural constraints are learned conventions that are shared by a cultural group,” and these constraints can influence the affordances one attaches to a particular object. Consider how the UPS resembles the Associated Press (AP). Both organizations emerged from similar situations where information for print media sources was not readily available beyond the region in which the paper worked. The UPS learned from the precedent set by the AP, and the AP based itself on the rapid information sharing system used by the Pony Express that came before it (“AP’s History”). Therefore, the theory would also define the UPS as an example of the convention of information dissemination practices.

In this network, growth and dissolution are two sides of the same coin: diversity. Bateson argues that heterogeneity is necessary for survival: "The artificially homogenized populations...are scarcely fit for survival" (457). This is also true in application to the UPS. Growth was encouraged by the diversity of new papers becoming members; however, as sharing led to homogeneity, the underground began to lose relevance and papers rapidly collapsed, noted by Kornbluth. Importantly, affordances theory makes room for the theory that the underground was killed by sameness.

This theory also emphasizes that objects can have more than one affordance, or an affordance can be shared by more than one object. This allows for an analysis of network redundancies, like the multiple ways the UPS attempted archiving and income generation. We can then ask if this hindered efficiency or ensured it? Would centralizing the income generation efforts at the national level have freed up the creative efforts of those at the local level, or would this have caused bureaucratic bogging down of cash flows? These questions have ramifications for understanding the system’s ultimate collapse.

Theory Gaps:
What are the problems with applying any one theory?

The UPS was a complex interaction of people, objects, society, and rhetoric. No single theory can adequately account for all the network participants and produced activity. Here is an accounting of the theory gaps:

Genre: Bazerman is most closely associated with a discussion of how action is produced and the relationships between different types of activities, collating them into sets and larger systems. The focus is less on what kinds of activities can occur and why one particular action does or does not lead to another. For example, why would the same social facts that existed in one community results in the collection of utterances into a newspaper where in other communities they would not? Also, why would some genres sets be more effective at producing activity than others? Bazerman does not seem to offer an explanation for how some papers increased in circulation and impact while others folded after only. This theory explains how the UPS belongs to the larger network of human activity, but cannot as readily address why that was the response over another.

Rhetorical Situation: Under Bitzer’s model, the rhetor has little agency because the exigence is so strong that it compels a response. Then that response is shaped by a set of constraints and audience considerations. The UPS and member papers then are simply responding to the exigencies rather than acting with internal motivation; it is just a byproduct of situations needing mediation. Yet the underground was full of passionate participants who mediated content and produced it. Is their role simply as a conduit for the discourse without any effect on the content? This model discounts the collaborative remediation that often occurs in the underground networks as information is shared, altered, subverted, emulated, shared again, debated, and compiled in a system that actively worked to eliminate leaders or concentrate powers.

Bitzer also has less dynamic explanations for content. After initially being shaped by the situation, exigencies, and/or constraints, the message moves unchanged through the audience. Content may be shaped by certain forces like constraints or interpretation, but these changes are controlled and limited and do not persist after the discourse is created. Again, this understanding is limited in its application to the UPS because its work was discursive. Many people created, shared, recreated, and reshared the information until there was a collaborative, unified invention.

Lastly, the rhetorical situation restricts discourse to specific nodes in a specific order. The process of making meaning is far less of a collaboration than it is a guided response. This approach does not allow for an explanation of the collaboration that was so integral to the UPS.

CHAT: CHAT seems limited in how it allows for growth and dissolution. We see growth as a response, but this speaks mainly to why content was produced as mediation of poor rhetoric. However, the UPS also grew as due to the simple celebrations of self-expression. This is also a problem for Bitzer and Bazerman. Some art is a spontaneous expression and not in direct response to a social fact or situation. I suppose one could argue that there is simply the situation of being human, but this is thin and does not account then for why some are compelled to create and others not. If we are simply reacting to powerful social facts, then why would we not all produce the same text? Some greater accounting for human individuality and agency is needed.

Affordances: Affordances is primarily a theory about human interaction with objects. Gibson does allow for affordances that arise from human to human interactions as well, but remarks that the theory does not apply as evenly there. However, there does not seem to be a recognition of how perceived abstract truths can also afford activity. The UPS produced as much invisible content as it did tangible objects. The UPS spread a sense of connectivity. This afforded greater feelings of inclusion, possibly the encouragement to continue publication, or even the shaping of personal values. The invisible concept of connection, without any perceptible surfaces, is not a part of this theory, but is certainly an integral part of what the UPS afforded.

This theory has an emphasis on action: what can be done, what is being produced between the actors, objects, and affordances. However, there is less on the content of the papers and the community building. Affordances theory does not seem to have a way to see one affordance of an object as more or less significant. Each affordance is just one more way to utilize the object, which may diminish some of the cultural work that UPS did as it focuses more on the processes of making and shaping the organization itself.

Theory Synthesis Rationale:
Why can these theories be made to work well with each other?

One main connecting thread through these theories is that of action. Genre theory and rhetorical situation both argue that the discourse produced by the network leads to mediation of the facts/situation. CHAT also speaks to this in the reception and socialization nodes where the audience constructs meaning and that meaning shapes society. CHAT’s production and distribution nodes, along with affordances, speak more to action on a mesoscopic level. These theories explain how the UPS was made, by what means and with what materials and tools.

Another connection is through the responsorial nature of action. Genre, rhetorical situation, and CHAT all have an explanation for how rhetoric is produced: as a response to social facts or problems. Affordances require the subject to perceive them, but we respond to objects based on what we need. We seek out the affordances that will help us successfully respond to a stimulus.

The first two theories are more conceptual and theoretical, dealing with why and how actions are produced in society. The latter two theories are more practical and concrete, dealing with what actions are produced. However different these approaches, it is clear that the four theories are all concerned with accomplishing something or purpose. In this way, the theories fill gaps the other presents. Where genre and rhetorical theory may not explain why some facts elicit responses while others do not, affordances can answer that we react to objects (or perhaps situations) with autonomous perception. What I perceive to be a meaningful affordance, will not necessarily be one for another. Where affordances may diminish the context out of which the underground grew, Bitzer and Bazerman emphasize the social constructs that catalyzed the movement. Where CHAT struggles to speak to growth and dissolution, the changing of social facts and situations can provide an answer.

Constraints are also at play in each theory. Genre constrains form through social convention. The discourse is shaped by the consideration of audience, to name just one of Bitzer’s constraints. CHAT has constraints dependent upon the available tools of production, and affordances has Norman’s cultural conventions that shape what we see as potential affordances.

Object of Study as English Scholarship:
How does it function in a way that is useful/meaningful to English scholars?

The UPS provides several opportunities for further meaningful examinations in the discipline.

It would also be interesting to view the object as seated in the intersection of delivery and memory. The work to archive the magazines and distribute these archives was a novel approach to publishing and for libraries. It would be useful to think of how dissemination and preservation are linked rhetorical activities. The UPS perhaps took this to a new level, seeing the role of distributing texts only part of the essential work of building a community. It was also necessary to document and archive the texts. Rhetoricians would find fertile ground in examining how these two functions are intertwined.

Cultural theorists could analyze the UPS as early crowd sourcing. This highlights its later efforts to obtain advertising that could be reprinted across its members raised funds to help sustain the literary work. But these efforts often distracted from other more creative endeavors, but ignoring the financial needs of operating, licensing, printing, and distributing the newspapers often forced smaller publications to fold. One question worth exploring is how economic networks support (or restrict) the production of literature?

New Historicists could examine the UPS as a historical artifact. The assembly of newspaper articles, political cartoons, poems, editorials, and photographs therein collectively capture the complex and often abstract counterculture movement of a particularly turbulent time in American history. The rhetorical discourse of that social and political movement is vividly preserved by the UPS.

Those interested in the transformative effects of literature could understand the UPS as a literary network responsible for social change by the sense of belonging it can create among participants, the support that can be channeled between the nodes, and the power of knowledge that it allows participants to access.

If we can understand the motivations, successes, connections, and weaknesses of the UPS network, perhaps we can understand the processes and contexts needed to engage in current and future activism for alternative social, cultural, and political views. We can begin to answer the questions this analysis poses: Why are we motivated to speak (Bitzer)? How does our speech make a difference (Bazerman)? How do we communicate our speech (CHAT)? How can our speech be used (Affordances)? And if those conclusions about action and activity can be useful, then the research has a practical and beneficial purpose.

Works Cited:

"AP's History." Associated Press. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

Armstrong, David. A Trumpet to Arms: Alternative Media in America. Los Angeles, Boston: J.P. Tarcher, 1981. Print.

Bazerman, Charles. “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People”. What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices. Eds. Charles Bazerman and Paul Prior. Taylor and Francis e-library, 2008. 309-340. Print.

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1987. Print.

Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.”

Gibson, James. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1986. Print.

Glessing, James. The Underground Press in America. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984. Print.

Kornbluth, Jesse. “This Place of Entertainment Has No Fire Exit: The Underground Press and How it Went.” The Antioch Review 29.1 (Spring 1969). 91-99. Print.

McMillian, John. Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Miller, Carolyn R.. “Genre as Social Action”. Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (1984): 151-167. Print.

---. “Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre”. Genre and the New Rhetoric. Eds. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. London: Taylor and Francis, 1994. 23-42. Print.

Norman, Donald A.. "Affordances and Design." Don Norman: Designing for People. 2004. Web. 15 Mar. 2014

Prior, Paul, et al. “Mapping Literate Activity.” Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (Summer 2007). Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

---. “The Rhetorical Scene.” Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (Summer 2007). Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

---. “Society and Socialization.” Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (Summer 2007). Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

---. “What is CHAT." Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (Summer 2007). Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Ridgeway, James. “The New Journalism.” American Libraries 2.6 (June 1971). 585-592. Print.

Case Study #4: FrankenTheory

Boundaries in My Analysis of Google Analytics

I am limiting my analysis of Google Analytics as an object of study by focusing on its activities and its data model as reported in terms of dimensions and metrics.

  • Google defines Analytics activity as collection, collation, processing, and reporting.
  • Google describes its data model as consisting of user, session, and interaction.
  • Google collects and reports data in terms of dimensions (“descriptive attribute or characteristic of an object”) and metrics (“Individual elements of a dimension that can be measured as a sum or ratio”) (Google, 2014).

These limits and terms are described in detail in my earlier Re/Proposed Object of Study: Google Analytics blog post.

I chose GA as my object of study because it’s a tool with which I work on a daily basis. I proposed GA as my object of study to my boss, the director of our school’s marketing and communications team, before formally proposing it in class because I wanted approval to use our school’s GA account in my study. I also expected my study to contribute to my understanding and use of GA in web development and management. A deeper understanding of GA as a network has provided both a tool for theoretical exploration and practical application.

Here’s an example of how applied this theoretical study has become. On April 16, with little fanfare, Google announced that it was replacing the term “visit” with the term “session” in its reports. I missed the announcement entirely, so I was surprised while measuring the result of online advertising efforts in our campus newspapers to discover that the “unique visits” metric that I had been using was no longer available; instead, it had been replaced by the “sessions” metric, without the “unique” modifier. I was also surprised to discover that the “unique visits” metric I had been using did not match the “sessions” metric when I re-ran prior reports to test data accuracy reports; “sessions” reported higher numbers than “unique visits” had reported. As we reached the first of May, when I normally complete April reports, I realized the full extent of the terminology change: “unique visits” were no longer being measured. Two plus years of reporting data were potentially compromised as inaccurate, since we report data for month on month and year on year comparisons (e.g. does April 2014 look better than April 2013 in terms of overall unique web visits, and does the calendar year-to-date period of January-April 2014 look better than the previous January-April 2013 period?).

As a result of my study of the structure and function of Google Analytics, I had learned how GA counts session data. Critical inquiries had questioned whether GA’s reporting of unique visits could be accurate given the browsing patterns of today’s web visitors. Visits (now sessions) are defined as individual browsing sessions on a given website on a given browser and platform. A visitor (now user) who visits the same website using two different browsers (Chrome and Firefox, for instance) would be calculated as two unique visits (when unique visits were provided) because the session is browser specific. Furthermore, a visitor who visits the same website on a desktop platform browser, then revisits the same website on a mobile device, would be calculated as two unique visits, because the session is platform specific. In short, “unique visit” is really a calculation of “individual session” without a distinction of uniqueness of the visitor. Using the term “unique visit” suggested (and my marketing team and I took it to mean) visits by unique users, a measurement we considered superior because it suggested the actual number of visitors. What we should have been measuring, however, was visits, regardless of their “uniqueness,” because there was no unique quality to the visit in terms of the visitor. The end result is that I will need to re-record our historical data in terms of sessions rather than unique visits, potentially revealing visit patterns we had not before seen or understood.

Without this study of GA as a network, I would not have understood why reporting data did not match, and I would have struggled to find documentation of the issue. There remains little documentation from Google itself about the disappearance of unique visit as a reported metric as of this date. In short, the application of my theoretical exploration directly benefited my and my team, and ultimately our school and our understanding of our data within the framework of industry benchmarks.

Theories of Networks and Google Analytics

I’m using two theories — Castells’ network society and Deleuze & Guattari’s rhizome — to flesh out my understanding of Google Analytics and sketch out my Frankentheory of a network.

First, here’s a review of some familiar territory: My application of Castells’ network society to GA from Case Study #2. I’ve brought this in as a piece rather than linking to it because I’d like to make departures from specific aspects of this application in discussing Deleuze & Guattari and in sketching out a Frankentheory.

Defining Google Analytics

Castells (2010) considers technology to be society (p. 5). As a result, GA can be considered social. As an information technology, GA creates active connections between websites (data collection), Google data centers (data configuring and processing) including aggregated tables (processing), and GA administrator accounts (configuring and reporting). These active connections collect, mediate (configure and process), and report on the three aspects of the GA data model consisting of users, sessions, and interactions. These connections represent social actions. So Castells (2010) might define GA as a global informational network (p. 77) that collects data from and reports data to local nodes (websites). Google servers where data are configured and processed might be considered mega-nodes (xxxviii) that, through the iterative process of increasing user visits and interaction by improving website design and content based on GA reported results, impose global logic on the local (xxxix).

Nodes in Google Analytics

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Google Data Center Locations: Image from Google Data Centers.

Individual websites, GA account administrators, and website visitors are local nodes in the global informational network. Google data center servers are mega-nodes in the network. Google employees who program GA and maintain Google servers and centers are localized nodes in the global network. Google’s data centers are located in a variety of locations that include North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. Several are found in Castells’ (2010) “milieux of innovation” (p. 419) including Taiwan, Singapore, and Chile. Others are found in what appear to be unlikely global spaces, including Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Mayes County, Oklahoma. These locations reiterate Castells’ insistence that local and global are not mutually exclusive polar opposites; rather, the new industrial system is neither global or local, but a new way of constructing local and global dynamics (p. 423). Websites, administrators, visitors, servers, and employees are simultaneously localized nodes (even the the mega-nodes are situated in space and time) in the global informational network.

Agency among Google Analytics Nodes

GA account administrators and website visitors have the greatest level of agency in the network, while Google employees exert limited agency within the confines of their labor relationships and conditions. Account administrators would likely be considered among Castells’ (2010) “managerial elites” (p. 445), while Google employees who maintain and program the servers might be part of Castells’ disposable labor force (p. 295). Account administrators have the authority to configure GA data, including the ability to filter out results, narrow data collection according to metrics and dimensions, and even integrate external digital metrics in GA. This authority is not, of course, the authority of Google’s corporate structure and hierarchy, but within the boundaries of GA data model and activities, account administrators exude authority. Website visitors may choose to visit, or not visit, any given website, once or more than once (meaning a single session or multiple sessions). This agency includes the power to intentionally separate themselves from the network, meaning that, for users, they only enter into the network as a node when they visit the tracked website. Interestingly, only the GA administrator has authority to eliminate users from the network; account configurations may filter out visitors along several dimensions.

Nodal Situation and Relation

Nodes are locally situated. While simultaneously part of the global informational economy, all of the nodes in the GA network are situated in a space and time. This simultaneous here/there compression of space and time is the origin of Castells’ (2010) “space of flows” (p. 408) and “timeless time” (p. 460). Websites are simultaneously hosted on physical servers around the world and locally viewed on specific platforms and media. Users are simultaneously accessing global data in territorial space on hardware. GA administrators are situated while configuring accounts and loading reports from the cloud. Google data centers are situated in specific locations, but they collect and process global data from local spaces and times. Google employees are culturally and territorially situated in the global Google labor pool.

Data rarely travels along parallel paths in the GA data model or GA activities. Website visit data are collected in the data modeluser, session, and interaction data — and sent to Google data centers for processing and configuration. Other than writing unique user identification data onto cookies on users’ browsers or apps, little data travels from GA to users. Website content is indirectly affected by GA reports configured and read by GA administrators, but within the GA activity network, websites are unaffected by GA activity on the data model. Beyond the boundaries of the OoS, of course, Google serves plenty of data, in the form of ads, back to users. But that’s now beyond the scope of this study.

Movement in the Network

Framework for Movement: Wires in The Dalles, Oregon, Google Data Center. Photo from the Google Data Center Gallery.

Data moves in GA. More specifically, data in the GA data model moves in GA. Data are initiated by users visiting tracked websites. Specific frameworks must be in place for connections to occur and data in the data model to be collected. Namely, websites must contain GA tracking code, embedded in the website code through the agency of the GA administrator. The embedded GA tracking code enables, and the web browser and hardware afford (Norman, n.d.), the user to initiate a tracking pixel (gif) and generate data to be collected in the GA data model. Once collected, the data are configured (by the account administrator and by the GA algorithms), processed (in a largely opaque manner) and collated in aggregated data tables, and reported in visual and tabular representations. In Castells’ (2010) terms, data represent flow in the GA network (p. 442). That data is both spatial and temporal (it comes from and is attached to a specific territory and represents a specific, chronological activity), but it is also entirely global and digital.

Content in the Network

Data are collected and packaged — literally, in a gif image pixel — in parameters relating to user, session, and interaction. The GA tracking code encodes data and sends it to Google data centers where the data are decoded, configured based on administrator preferences, processed and repackaged in aggregated data tables, and made available to the account administrators. The reporting function remediates the data in visual and tabular formats for ease of reading and use. While the data reported are considered authoritative and authentic, the actual processing function remains largely proprietary, with only end results available to extrapolate what processing actually occurs. This black boxed processing function seems unlikely to represent Latour’s (2005) intermediary; as Fomitchev (2010) claims, there are probably processing functions that result in highly mediated, possibly even inaccurate, results. Castells (2010) would likely measure GA performance based on “its connectedness, that is, its structural ability to facilitate noise-free communication between its components” (p. 187). I hope we will see increased academic scrutiny focused on this perceived intermediary function in GA, even as we scholars rely on its results.

Birth and Death of a Network

Killing the Network: Failed Google data hard drives to be destroyed at the St. Ghislain, Belgium, Google Data Center. Photo from the Google Data Center Gallery.

Castells (2010) indicates that global informational networks emerge within milieux of innovation. These main centers of innovation are generally the largest metropolitan areas of the industrial age (p. 66), able to “generate synergy on the basis of knowledge and information, directly related to industrial production and commercial applications” (p. 67), and combine the efforts of the state and entrepreneurs (p. 69). Nodes on the network get ignored (and therefore cease to be part of the network) when they are perceived, by either the network or by its managerial elites, to have little value to the network itself (p. 134). The GA network grows as more nodes are added, either as users or as web pages with tracking code. GA administrators have agency to kill network nodes by removing tracking code from pages, or by directing IT managers to remove poorly performing web pages. Users have agency to quit visiting a website, thereby removing its value to the person. While many other actions by agents outside the GA network may affect the growth or dissolution of the network, they are outside the boundaries of the GA activity and data model.

And Now, the Rhizome

First a note about using Deleuze & Guattari. I did not enjoy or particularly “get” this reading the first time around. I grasped the broad strokes of the argument, but this is a chapter that requires close, multiple readings. What I discovered as I re-read the chapter in light of this analysis was that it addresses a significant aspect of networks that Castells does not — namely, a rhizomatic approach to networks problematizes the very definition of GA I established during my Re/Proposal. In short, applying Castells profited from the boundaries I placed on the OoS; applying Deleuze & Guattari requires eliminating the boundaries, preferring instead a situated, chronological cross-section as a set of boundaries enabling analysis.

Second, a note about this cross-sectional approach. In my scaffolding outline, I referred to a “flattened, rhizomatic” approach to composing and networks. Placing these two concepts together elicited useful feedback and discussion during the following class, as a result of which I realized that rhizomes are not naturally flattened. While Deleuze & Guattari (1980/1987) refer to flattened multiplicities, they do so in the context of many dimensions: “All multiplicities are flat, in the sense that they fill or occupy all of their dimensions” (p. 9). In fact, rhizomes are unpredictably dimensional; connections can and must occur along all dimensions: “any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be” (p. 7). Since the boundaries of such a “network” can’t really be established, one way to analyze the rhizome is to take a cross-sectional slice, situated in space and time, of the rhizome and examine the relationships among points in the rhizome in this “flattened” slice. The rhizome is a multidimensional assemblage, not a flattened network.

These two notes represent realizations that complicate and problematize the restrictive perspective I offered of GA as a network. Limiting the network to GA activities and data model resulted in limits to what I could discuss in my application of Castells. For example, in discussing the birth and death of the network, I cut short my analysis with this limiter: “While many other actions by agents outside the GA network may affect the growth or dissolution of the network, they are outside the boundaries of the GA activity and data model.” Similarly, when addressing nodal situation and relations, I wrote this limiting statement: “Beyond the boundaries of the OoS, of course, Google serves plenty of data, in the form of ads, back to users. But that’s now beyond the scope of this study.” These limits were real — the boundaries I established for describing GA as a network did, in fact, prevent addressing aspects of the network — but they do not reflect an accurate mapping of GA network activity. Deleuze & Guattari (1980/1987) point out that “the rhizome is altogether different, a map and not a tracing” (p. 12, emphasis original). Tracing is the role of centralized control, of perspectives limited by binaries and “tree logic”: “What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real” (p. 12). A mapped understanding of GA must address its real complexity, its nodes and connections in terms of real experiences, not centrally-defined boundaries.

A mapped, cross-sectional perspective on GA as a network was, to my surprise, the goal of my first case study. In fact, the first visualization of the network I provided was a portion of a Popplet titled “Visualizing a Partial Google Analytics Data Set.”

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Figure 1: Visualizing a sample Google Analytics data set from Case Study #1Popplet

My original attempt to visualize and define GA as a network was more chaotically rhizomatic than any other depiction I’ve attempted since. In fact, for much of the rest of the semester, I’ve been struggling to trace my understanding of GA as a network, when in fact Deleuze & Guattari would have me do precisely the opposite: map the multiplicity of GA as assemblage, depicted as a cross-sectional portion of the network situated in time and space.

Mapping GA as rhizome means accepting that users, servers, computers, mobile devices, browsers, operating systems, marketers, developers, programmers, designers, GA account administrators, Google data centers, Google programmers and server maintenance personnel, homes, home offices, office buildings, network cables, routers, switches, weather conditions, satellites, trans-Atlantic communications cables, seawater, signal degradation, electrons, light energy, insulators, and theorists must be included as nodes in the GA rhizome. GA collects data on some of these dimensions; other dimensions, however, are embedded as affordances and constraints to the web technologies that enable GA to measure dimensions at all, so these affordances and constraints must also be depicted in a cross-section of GA as rhizome.

There’s a reason Deleuze & Guattari did not include a visualization of the rhizome on their chapter. It’s too complex, too multi-dimensional, to capture in a 2-dimension drawing. But I’m going to give it a shot.

Popplet mind map

Figure 2: Visualizing Google Analytics as a Rhizome—Popplet

Figure 2 depicts a rhizome cross-section of a single node, User, and the connections that exist among dimensions of the GA data model, website affordances and constraints, website creators, and Google personnel. What this depicts is that a User connects from and to most of the nodes, that the nodes connected to the User are connected to one another, and that relationships proliferate exponentially if extrapolated to the entire list of dimensions. And these dimensions are themselves necessarily limited (perhaps even cross-sectioned) by the visualization technology and my own time and patience. Were I to connect all of the non-technological aspects to the User—like location and weather conditions — the rhizome could go on forever. The point is that mapping the actual rhizome, rather than tracing the limits of the network, generates the rhizome itself. Or, as Deleuze & Guattari (1980/1987) propose, “The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious. It fosters connections between fields, the removal of blockages on bodies without organs, the maximum opening of bodies without organs onto a place of consistency. It is itself a part of the rhizome” (p. 12).

Closing Gaps

Castells offers a remarkably cogent and highly matched means of analyzing GA as a network as defined by Google itself: in terms of GA activities and the GA data model. Castells addresses issues of localization and globalization in ways that make sense for GA defined as Google defines it. Here’s my conclusion from Case Study #2.

While Castells addresses the local, he tends to discuss localization in terms of groups rather than individuals. In this way, Castells more closely resembles ecological theories that apply to organism categories rather than to individual organisms. He regularly refers to groups of people and nodes: the managerial elites (rather than individual leaders), the technological revolution (rather than revolutionary technology pioneers), and the global and local economy (rather than the economic wellbeing of the individual small business owner). The result is that I can’t really address the individual user as a single agent in GA. Then again, this is hardly a hardship, in that GA aggregates data and anonymizes identities. GA, too, resembles an ecological theory rather than a rhetorical theory; it focuses on profiles of territorially localized users rather than individual users in a specific city. As a result, Castells and GA match rather nicely in defining the boundaries of the discussion. In fact, I’d argue that GA (and Google more broadly) represent precisely the network society Castells defined in his text. It’s interesting that he didn’t predict or recognize the rise of Google as I would have expected him to do in his 2010 preface. And Castells’ (2010) discussion of communication media clearly did not predict the popularity or ubiquity of Google’s YouTube on the network as a differentiated medium whose content is driven by user tastes and users-as-producers (p. 399).

Once we admit the possibility that GA is not just what Google says it is, but that GA represents a much wider and broader rhizome of connections, Castells no longer adequately describes the network. GA as rhizome requires additional theoretical application for understanding and visualizing.

Frankentheory

After a semester of theorizing, what’s my own theory of networks?

Rhizome illustration

What I think a rhizome looks like. “The Opte Project” by Barrett Lyon. Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-SA. From The Accidental Technologist‘s post The Way of the Rhizome #h817open

Networks are local. They are also global. This is not dualism, but convergence. Local and global converge in time and space, and we must be prepared to engage in both simultaneously. The global remains rooted in the local; local conditions and environments affect and influence connections to the global. In our efforts to understand global network activity, we should not lose sight of the affordances and constraints of local conditions, including available access to the internet, proximity to other nodes, and the politics of nodal connectivity.

Networks enable nodes. A collection of nodes does not a network make. Networks enable nodal activity; this means that network frameworks must be in place for networks to exist and start collecting nods. This also means that the activity of collecting nodes in networked. The network can grow well beyond its framework in unexpected and unpredictable ways, and this should be expected, anticipated, and planned to the extent possible.

Networks are rhizomes. Or at least rhizomatic. They are unlikely to require or have inherent hierarchical structures; these will have to be applied to the network. Rhizomatic structure and growth suggest unpredictability of nodal connections. As I understand rhizomes, the importance of any node being able to connect to any other node — or to anything, for that matter — cannot be overstated. It is this aspect of rhizomatic connectivity that I would consider “flat.” There are neither more nor less important nodes; there are no inherent political relationships between and among nodes. Any political power attributed to the node will either be self-contained or bestowed from outside the rhizome; within the ecology of the rhizome, all nodes are equally capable of connecting to all other nodes and to anything outside the rhizome. In this sense, I would suggest that rhizomes are politically flat.

Networks can be analyzed in cross-section; they are very difficult to analyze in real time as they exist. They are both too large to examine as a whole and too complex to analyze as active connections are “firing.” Cross-sections can be taken of specific aspects of the network or of the network as a whole. Cross-sections are frozen in time and show little activity, merely traces that can be followed and explored. Networks contains a multiplicity of simultaneous connective activity; our abilities to analyze simultaneity is limited. Instead, we must follow specific threads of connectivity through time and space to analyze them. Such analysis is made possible through cross section.

Google Analytics’ Contributions to English Studies

First, GA can and should be critically examined as a rhetorical technology. GA activity includes reporting. These reports are discursive and rely on visual and written rhetoric to communicate meaning. The “meaning” of a GA report can be manipulated like any other statistical data. Its meanings depend on local environment and conditions, comfort with standard and local meanings of GA terminology (like “session” or “user,” for example), and familiarity with the GA data collection model. Its visualizations can be analyzed for clarity and transparency, for cultural or sociological bias (related to colors used, default views, and other determined factors), and for its connectedness to other discursive elements (like websites whose visitor traffic it measures). Critical rhetorical analysis of GA reports could easily be an object of study by itself.

Second, GA can and should be critically approached as a black-boxed network whose data manipulation and configuration are largely hidden, lacking transparency. Google’s business model depends on its proprietary search results algorithms. It protects that algorithm carefully; while GA reporting is not directly dependent on the search algorithm, website visit data contribute to search results. Full disclosure of its data configuration and processing activities would likely reveal much about Google’s search algorithm; as a result, these processes are only partially disclosed. Google’s own Analytics help files and tutorials explain the order, purpose, and general procedures of data configuration and processing, but these files and tutorials do not reveal in-depth specifics on how collected data are processed into aggregate tables, nor how those tables are then indexed for rapid, near-instant on-the-fly reporting. Google’s market share in web search and advertising result in the formation of what Althusser (1971) called a repressive state apparatus; I suggest that GA is an ideological expression of that apparatus, or an ideological state apparatus. While neither Google nor GA is a state in a political sense, its size and clout suggest an industrial state-like entity with resources and influence strong enough to manipulate or evoke responses from other political entities, as it has done recently in relations with the government of Russia (Khrennikov & Ustinova, 2014).

Third, GA results themselves can and should be critically examined. Far too many otherwise critically-written journal articles use GA results as instrumental rather than mediated. That is, GA report data are accepted as unqualified and accurate reflections of website traffic rather than mediated reports of visitor activity. Little care is given to providing GA-specific definitions of terminology like “session” and “user.” This acceptance can result in significant reporting issues — I’m experiencing a particular situation as I type in which Google has revised a reporting criterion from “visits” to “sessions.” While these two terms are being used synonymously, one implication is that GA has removed the dimension of “unique visit” from its reporting matrix. GA’s definition of session doesn’t differentiate between unique or repeat visits among sessions, as each session is considered a unique event regardless of the identity (which may not be accurately known) of the visitor. Several reports I provide my dean and marketing director were based on unique visit numbers; as a result, I’m forced to rework all of my reports to reflect sessions rather than unique visits. This has implications for perceptions of “progress” and “improvement” among senior leadership, a particularly uncomfortable reality brought to bear this week. (Google changed its reporting structure without fanfare on April 16, announced in a Google+ post.)

Finally, GA’s data collection method can and should be understood as discursive. Individual GIF calls that report data back to Google servers do so in text tags attached to tracking pixels generated through data collection. For example, every GA tag begins with “utm,” a prefix whose meaning is unclear. Many data points are collected in abbreviations whose symbolic meanings would be interesting to explore. Again, GA offers few clues for more obscure abbreviations, although Google does provide a list of many (but not all) dimensions collected via tracking pixel calls. Some of these symbols are explained in the Google Developers (2014) Tracking Code Overview. While parameter abbreviations are obscure, the values themselves are even less clear. Consider the parameter/value pair “utmul=pt-br”: the utmul parameter represents “browser language” while the pt-br value represents “Brazilian Portuguese.” This symbolic communication system is itself fodder for rhetorical analysis and interpretation.

References

Althusser, L. (1971). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (Notes towards an investigation). In B. Brewster (transl.) & A. Blunden (trans.), Louis Althusser archive. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm (Original work published in Lenin philosophy and other essays)

Castells, M. (2010). The rise of the network society [2nd edition with a new preface]. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. (B. Massumi, Trans.) Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published 1980)

Google. (n.d.). Algorithms. Inside Search. Retrieved from 1 May 2014 from https://www.google.com/insidesearch/howsearchworks/algorithms.html

Google. (2014). Dimensions and metrics. Google Analytics Help. Retrieved from https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1033861?hl=en

Google Analytics. (2014, April 16). Understanding user behavior in a multi-device world (Web post). Google+. Retrieved 1 May 2014 from https://plus.google.com/+GoogleAnalytics/posts/LCLgkyCn4Zi

Google Developers. (2014, April 16). Tracking code overview. Google Developers. Retrieved from https://developers.google.com/analytics/resources/concepts/gaConceptsTrackingOverview#gifParameters

Krennikov, I., & Ustinova, A. (2014, May 1). Putin’s next invasion? The Russian web. Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-05-01/russia-moves-toward-china-style-internet-censorship

[ Feature image: Today's latte, Google Analytics. CC licensed image from Flickr user Yuko Honda ]

Assignment: Case Study Week 14, Scaffolding Synthesis

Which 2 – 4 theories are you choosing and why?

  • Genre Theory -  This theory has two main application to the UPS: social action and responding to social facts. Bazerman and Miller both argue that when rhetoric takes the shape of socially recognizable forms, things can be accomplished in the outside world. Bazerman positions these recognizable constructions within a hierarchy of activity beginning with social facts. These social facts invite utterances, which the rhetorician then channels into genres that others can understand. The UPS combines several genres including newspapers, information distribution systems, and archives. These genres are recognizable by others who can thus participate in their interpretation and meaning construction. For example, as newspapers are understood to disseminate information and reporting, the readers could accept them as sources of knowledge. The knowledge therein then shapes perceptions and ultimately leads to influencing decisions and behaviors, like activism and protesting. Bazerman’s description of social facts speaks to the reasons behind the newspapers coming into being. This is an essential part of the UPS and this theory is especially useful in allowing the network to be defined as a response. The UPS and member papers’ staff members were all responding to problems in society: the Vietnam War, the oppressive moral traditions, the inequalities for minorities, and the difficulty for local radical communities to connect with one another.    
  • Rhetorical Situation - Like Bazerman’s social facts, Bitzer argues that a rhetorical situation is a problem that invites a response. The UPS cannot be extracted from the counterculture movement, and this theory allows the network to be closely linked to a social context. The exigencies that Bitzer discusses speak to the urgency that many in the movement experienced, the sense that the situation could not be ignored. Furthermore, Bitzer argues that the audience has the power to mediate the situation. The rhetorician and the rhetoric he or she produces function as a kind of conduit between the social problem and those with the power to address it. The UPS was a network based on this premise; there was a belief that if people had the information and ideas ignored or oppressed by the mainstream media, then they would demand change.
  • CHAT - The CHAT theory is useful in understanding the network as a type of literate activity with a focus on delivery as distribution and mediation. Literate activity encompasses production (how the text is formed by tools and practices), representation (textualization through style, arrangement, and semiotic media), distribution (how the text is disseminated), reception (how the audience makes meaning from the text), socialization (how the text constructs society), and activity (goal-oriented projects). From this theory, the content produced by the member papers can be addressed on both a practical level and an epistemological one. However, the CHAT authors focus on reemphasizing delivery, which has received little attention in the transition from oratory to the written product. This allows for the UPS to be discussed in terms of its primary purpose: to collect and distribute newspapers for the free reprinting of shared content. This is the distribution and mediation that the CHAT authors argue are a better way of understanding the traditional canon of delivery. Mediation is a key in understanding this network due to the layers of selectivity involved in the network. The staff members at the member papers select content to contribute to the UPS. There further decisions are made about content to be included in packets for distribution. Then finally the member papers further mediate the information by selecting what to reprint and how.
  • Affordances - This theory speaks especially to action, making, and usefulness of the objects in the network. As the actors in the network encounter the objects, they perceive different ways to utilize them, to make use of them for the accomplishment of a task. Ultimately, the UPS had the goal of facilitating the production of underground newspapers through economic support, logistical support, content contribution, and a sort of emotional support through spreading a sense of solidarity. Like the category of reception from CHAT’s literate activity, affordances also allow for the discussion of how the audience can make use of the underground movement. In its time, the UPS afforded the audience access to information, organization of activism, connection to a radical community, and a mode of self-expression. However, this theory is focused on objects, which unlike contemporary and fleeting sentiments are tangible in the present. In this way, this theory allows the UPS network to afford research today.

How are they similar enough that you can justify getting them to work together? How do they fill each other’s gaps?

  • The main connecting thread through these theories is that of action. Genre Theory and Rhetorical Situation have an explanation for how rhetoric is produced - as a response to social facts or problems. Once produced, both theories argue that rhetoric leads to social action: genre allows community actions based on a collective recognition of form and rhetorical situation argues that an audience so moved by rhetoric will mediate the situation. CHAT and Affordances seem to speak more to the production and functioning of the UPS. Distribution and how objects can be used are also types of action. The first two theories are more conceptual and theoretical, dealing with why and how actions are produced in society. The latter two theories are more practical and concrete, dealing with what actions are produced. However different these approaches, it is clear that the four theories are all concerned with accomplishing something or purpose.
  • CHAT allows for a discussion of the newspapers’ content through literate activity where the others do not.
  • Affordances does not allow for a discussion of the cultural significance and purpose; the other three do have an application to social context.
  • Affordances and CHAT speak to the practical functioning of the network, what activities were involved in the network’s day-to-day operations. Genre Theory and Rhetorical Situation do not allow for that examination.

How do these theories align with how you position yourself as a scholar?

  • I have two general approaches to scholarship: participatory/advocacy and social constructivism. I believe that, like Latour argues, research is a laboratory, an experiment, and as such, there will be a result. Scholarship should be more than a mental exercise. Thinking and debate is a worthwhile endeavor if that thinking and debating can lead to the raising of significant questions, like Castells argues. These questions and observations should be useful in aiding our communities. This is the advocacy lens through which I want to work.  Each of these theories is aimed at understanding how and what action is produced. Applying them to the UPS reveals insights and questions into the actions of subaltern expression and activism. If we can understand the motivations, successes, connections, and weaknesses of the UPS network, perhaps we can understand the processes and contexts needed to engage in current and future activism for alternative social, cultural, and political views. And if those conclusions about action and activity can be useful, then the research has a practical and beneficial purpose.
  • Social constructivism argues that knowledge is socially constructed. These theories all have a basis in this approach. In Genre Theory, action relies on forms being socially recognizable. If everyone agrees upon a constructed form, then it facilitates action. Rhetorical Situation, as Bitzer argues, relies upon an audience capable of effecting change. The group determines the action. Also, certain constraints act upon the rhetorician as he or she makes discourse. Often these constraints are socially constructed. The rhetorician is constrained by what will be understood and effective for a particular audience. In this way, the discourse is socially constructed through accepted conventions. CHAT argues that reception is how society makes meaning from a text, recognizing that understanding is mutually agreed upon. Lastly, affordances exist in Bateson’s ecology with its immanence, the interconnectedness of all things. Norman also argues for cultural conventions, which like constraints, are socially constructed perceptions of how things work or should work. These two suggest that affordances are dependent upon society for how they are perceived. These theories align with my conviction that knowledge and meaning come from the continuous exchange of information in the public sphere.

How do these theories align with your own biases and background (the reason you came to this project in the first place)?


  • I came to this project through my larger research focus on the underground periodicals of the Civil Rights Era. It was a clear network within the  movement, but I have come to see it as more significant than my initial understanding of it as a distributive body. These theories align with my bias toward the UPS as culturally significant. The latter two theories help me discuss the object as I initially saw it, which was important to be sure. However, the first two theories position the UPS as part of human activity (Bazerman) and as a conduit between social ills and mediators (Bitzer). More than just a mailing service, the UPS participated in the movement, and these theories rationalize that view.
  • Also, the focus of all the theories on action - perceiving something and doing something, exerting the individual and collective will in order to change things - closely aligns with my own reasons for pursuing an advanced degree. It cannot be to just ruminate on interesting questions, but to pose them and, in a small way, demand answers.  I am sure I am drawn to the aspects of these theories that support activity because of that motivating desire to have my own scholarly activity be of consequence in the real-world. Why are we motivated to speak (Bitzer)? How does our speech make a difference (Bazerman)? How do we communicate our speech (CHAT)? How can our speech be used (Affordances)? I think I want to know the answers to these questions as much as the writers of the underground papers wanted to know while hoping that the answers might be useful to society to have.

MindMap: Week 14

MindMap14

I actually got confused and thought we were supposed to start revising our Mindmaps last week. So, I started re-envisioning it based on the Theory Tree my group did–thinking about the connections chronologically and by topic. It wasn’t going well. My Mindmap was big and hard to see/follow. There were too many nodes! Then I looked at the schedule again, realized I was wrong, and gave up.

This week, however, I had a little more energy and vision in my remapping. One of the stand-out moments in class for me was when Shelley explained that most new media scholars prefer Actor Network Theory because it allows for non-human objects to serve as actors or mediators. So, I decided to begin my remapped Mindmap by dividing the theories according to those that account only for human agency and those that account for non-human agency.

Off to the side in blue are the nodes that I need to revisit and add back in. Some I didn’t understand well enough to think about agency (Foucault) and some I just don’t remember as well. I plan to add them back in next week and start to think about other concepts that will be important to my OoS as well, such as boundaries, hierarchies, and complexity.

Case Study Synthesis: Outline of a Frankentheory

Frankentheory Outline

 

Which 2 – 4 theories are you choosing and why?

Ecology

  • Allows me to look at the OoS’s role within the larger network (EKU) (ecosystem and biospheres)
  • Explains how the network grows, evolves, dissolves (population diversity)
  • Explains the interrelatedness of groups and environment

Distributed Cognition

  • Acknowledges the importance of the environment for human action
  • Distinguishes between affordances and perceived affordances

CHAT

  • Acknowledges the complexity of rhetorical activity (multiple layers)
  • Considers the ideological foundations and results of rhetorical activity
  • Whereas ecology posits succession, CHAT allows that activity is intentional and rhetorical rather than natural

Actor Network Theory

  • Considers the specific connections at the individual level
  • Allows for non-human agency

How are they similar enough that you can justify getting them to work together? How do they fill each other’s gaps?

Similarities

  • They all acknowledge the difficulty in defining boundaries
  • All consider multiple influences in shaping the network

Gaps

  • Ecology, distributed cognition, and CHAT (activity theory) all center on organisms as actors. Actor Network Theory allows for the agency of non-living actors. It seems that ANT, then, fills in the gap of connecting distributed cognition and CHAT. If non-living objects can serve as mediators rather than simple tools of action, then rhetorical action is transformed by human and non-human interaction.
  • ANT’s focus on the individual makes it difficult to understand any network that is larger than the individual. By combining it with ecology and CHAT, we are able to get a more holistic understanding of the OoS while also acknowledging the importance of the individual’s network. For example, we can look at how the OoS’s approach to improving writing (CHAT) is juxtaposed with an individual’s relationship to writing (ANT).
  • Distributed cognition (what we read of it, anyway) has a very narrow focus—human interactions with the environment that focus on the environment as tools for human action. CHAT and ecology broaden that perspective to understand how those interactions operate within a larger context and their implications.

How do these theories align with how you position yourself as a scholar?

WPA scholar

 

  • Ecology: aligns with my belief that it is important to acknowledge that writing programs operate within the larger network of a university and explains the importance of having diverse groups invested in the program. It also reaffirms that changes to a program are long-lasting and, potentially, irreversible
  • CHAT: recognizes the importance of understanding how ideologies and foundational beliefs (laminated chronotopes) impact the visible structures and literate activity within a program
  • ANT: Focus on the individual’s connections aligns with the idea of writing as a process that is both personal and collaborative. Writing is shaped by the individual’s experiences, which are influenced by other individuals

Digital Media Scholar

  • CHAT: Recognizes that the traditional rhetorical canons are insufficient for mapping digital rhetorical activity (Prior et al. say that they’re insufficient—and always have been—for all rhetorical activity, but the gap seems to be revealed by digital composing)
  • ANT: Acknowledging the agency of non-human actors aligns with digital media scholarship. Changes in available media allow for remediation, influencing and shaping the design choices that people make
  • Distributed cognition: Specifically, affordances and perceived affordances help explain both the designer’s choices AND the user’s uses.

How do these theories align with your own biases and background (the reason you came to this project in the first place)?

  • My background in writing centers and teaching English has taught me to see the writing process as both a personal and a collaborative endeavor. The methods that we use to teach writing are based on a history of praxis that has evolved.
  • I took Louise’s WPA course as part of SDI last summer. While I’ve always perceived that writing programs operate within the larger system of a university, the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate offices, departments, and programs was a big focus of the class. As a result, I chose this OoS partly as a way to better understand that interconnectedness.
  • As the first multiliteracy center of its kind, the Noel Studio presents an interesting case study for examining the numerous external and internal influences on communication processes. As the Coordinator of Writing (the first one, responsible for shaping the position), I feel the pressure of trying to recognize, understand, and account for all of these influences when it comes to training consultants and dealing with student composers.
  • I’ve seen first-hand how non-useful it is to disregard the agency of communication technology when working with students on their communication projects. As Jenny Rice has explained, understanding the affordances of different media impact the invention process and disregarding those affordances limits the potential effectiveness of a text.
  • In terms of design, thinking about how others can perceive and use the affordances of a text is just as important for a student composing a digital text as it is for a student using the technology to compose.
  • I recognize that the Noel Studio is the result of the ideologies, epistemologies, and politics of diverse groups, both institutionally and disciplinary. I also believe that understanding how the Noel Studio operates in terms of networks will inform not only my work but also the work of others at EKU and others in writing, communication, and multiliteracy centers.
  • I acknowledge that each theory has become another thread/connection in my own development as a WPA and Digital Media scholar and that each connection influences my daily approach to working in the Noel Studio.
  • As a doctoral student with an emphasis in Technology and New Media studies, I’ve been examining arguments for a digital rhetorical theory to expand or replace the traditional rhetorical canons. As such, I agree with Prior et al. that the traditional canons are insufficient for mapping rhetorical activity

 

Case Study: Scaffolding Outline

OoS: Google Analytics

  • Activities addressed in my OoS: Collection, Collation, Processing, Reporting
  • GA Data Model: User (Visitor), Session (Visit), Interaction (Hits)
  • Data Model Collections and Reports: Dimensions (“descriptive attribute or characteristic of an object”) and Metrics (“Individual elements of a dimension that can be measured as a sum or ratio”) (Google, 2014).

Theories & Selection Rationale

  • Ecosystem Ecology (Bateson, 1972/1987; Gibson, 1972/1986; Guattari, 1989/2012; Spellman, 2007)
    • Boundaries are difficult to define: Mirrors struggle to define GA boundaries
    • Inter-relatedness to neighboring ecosystems: GA connects and measures incoming & outgoing links
    • Limits analysis to groups of (rather than individual) living and/or nonliving things: GA only reports aggregated behaviors, even though it collects user data
  • Neurobiology (Annenberg Learner, 2013)
    • Demonstrates interconnectedness of various nodes and frameworks: GA data model reports metrics interconnected with dimensions to reflect user behaviors; GA also enables both SPCS account and UR roll-up account
    • Uses hippocampus as server metaphor: Google data center as input/output hub for GA data collation and processing
    • Affirms difference between input and output: GA collects data via data model (input) and reports results via aggregated data tables and visualizations (output)
  • Network Society  (Castells, 2010)
    • Limits analysis to groups rather than individuals: GA only reports aggregated behaviors, even though it collects user data (cf. Ecosystem Ecology, above)
    • Addresses movement of data through the network: GA focuses on movement of data from website server (collection) to Google data centers (collation & processing) to administrative accounts (reporting), although this movement is entirely serial rather than parallel
    • Provides hierarchy of nodes: GA endows administrators with creative, destructive, and manipulative authority in relation to data; other nodes have far less agency
  • Social Network (Deleuze & Guattari, 1980/1987; Scott, 2000; Rainie & Wellman, 2012)
    • Recognizes value of social capital in network growth: GA enables measurement of increased or decreased engagement and provides help to increase engagement (social capital)
    • Reveals rhizomatic (and unpredictable) character of network connections: GA visualizes network connectivity in myriad visualizations, tables, and downloadable files (which can also be visualized)
    • Values growth and sustenance of weaker ties: GA sets up goals that seek to measure and value increased engagement on less-engaging content

Similarities

  • Focus on flattened network
  • Emphasis on rhizomatic rather than hierarchical connections
  • Address difficulties of establishing boundaries
  • Recognize value of grouping in discussing large-scale network systems
  • Focus on nodal groupings rather that individual nodal identities
  • Define network as mediator rather than intermediate (Latour, 2005)

Minding the Gaps

  • Localization: Neurobiology and Network Society affirm the value and influence of local conditions on global networks that Ecosystem Ecology and Social Network either undervalue or do not address.
  • Activity and Flow: Ecosystem Ecology, Neurobiology, and Network Society address movement of data and value across or through the network that Social Network does not directly address.
  • Agency: Social Network and Neurobiology ascribe local agency to nodes that Ecosystem Ecology (focused on instinct) and Network Society (focused on hierarchical relationships among managerial elites) do not accept or address.

My Position as Scholar

These theories align with the following statements of my theories of scholarship and pedagogy:

  • I embrace the flattened, rhizomatic character of the 21st-century classroom as a (possibly the most) valid model for preparing students for the world of the 21st-century networked workplace.
  • I embrace composition as social and situated within a larger global context, and I embrace and value local and global aspects of the composing experience as preparation for both academic scholarship and professional management.
  • I embrace scholarship as collaborative and networked, and revel in the breakthroughs made more likely and/or possible through collaborative, rather than individual, scholarship.
  • I embrace pedagogy as joining with a group of students in a flattened community of learners in which, to the extent possible, hierarchical teacher-student relationships are replaced by flattened learner-learner relationships.
  • I embrace and seek connections between scholarship and utility, between theory and praxis, and between academic and alt-academic pursuits and theorizing.
  • I embrace Yagelski’s (2006) “troublemaking collectivity” as a mantra for the disruptive role of my own and my collaborative scholarship and pedagogy in institutions entrenched in antiquated, outdated theoretical paradigms.
  • I embrace as vital the role of network activity in learning activities.
Satellite image - night

U.S Atlantic Seaboard at Night: May 23, 2011. Original image from NASA Earth Observatory.

My Biases and Background

These theories align with my own biases and background in the following ways:

  • I am now, and have been since 2000, employed in an alt-academic role as a full-time marketing web manager and part-time adjunct professor of liberal arts and scholar of English studies. This role influences the value I place on connections between theory and praxis, between research and application.
  • As former director of a summer residential governor’s school for gifted and talented high school students, I value pedagogical theory and praxis that views standards-based education as little more than a starting point for true academic excellence. This experience influences my preference for network activity in learning activities, especially over standardized assessment tools and products.
  • As a professional writer and marketer, I use academic skills like research and collaborative composing in non-academic settings. This experience influences my preference for collaborative, team-based solutions to professional challenges, including audience research.
  • As a third culture kid who grew up outside of the U.S., I embrace the global nature of communications, commerce, development, employment, and growth. This experience influences my desire to place local activities and culture within global networks.
  • As a web developer, I value and prefer platform- and system-agnostic open-source software solutions over commercial, and especially proprietary, software solutions. This influences my desire to flatten hierarchical structures, especially of proprietary commercial interests, in favor of open-source and open-access models wherever feasible.
  • I am a social media marketer. As a result, I value social networks beyond their community-building application; I value them for monetization via targeted advertising. My role as a social media marketer influences my willingness to find value in globally-accessible (but not open-access or open-source) products like Google Analytics while pushing for greater openness and access to these social networking products (see the troublemaking collectivity statement, above).
  • I measure web visit data, and my job as web manager exists because I can demonstrate value through higher visit rates, greater visibility across networks, and ultimately higher admissions and enrollment figures. In a professional and continuing studies unit, the value of individual admissions and enrollments is taken very seriously. This experience forces me to work with Google Analytics, which directly influenced by choice of Google Analytics as my object of study. I enter this study with an eye towards providing my team and my administration critical theoretical approaches to data measurement that result in better, clearer communication with prospective and current students.

References

Annenberg Learner. (2013). Neurobiology. Rediscovering biology: Molecular to global perspectives [Online textbook]. Retrieved from http://www.learner.org/courses/biology/units/neuro/index.html

Bateson, G. (1987). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc. Originally published in 1972

Castells, M. (2010). The rise of the network society [2nd edition with a new preface]. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. (B. Massumi, Trans.) Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published 1980)

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Originally published in 1979

Google. (2014). Dimensions and metrics. Google Analytics Help. Retrieved from https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1033861?hl=en

Guattari, F. (2012). The three ecologies. Trans. Ian Pindar & Paul Sutton. London, UK: Continuum International Publishing Group. Originally published in 1989

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies

Rainie, L., & Wellman, B. (2012). Networked: The new social operating system. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Scott, J. (2000). Social network analysis: A handbook (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Spellman, F. R. (2007). Ecology for nonecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes, 3-23; 61-84.

Yagelski, R. P. (2006). English education. In B. McComiskey (Ed.), English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s) (pp. 275-319). Urbana, IL: NCTE.

[ Feature image: Bamboo Scaffolding, Cambodia. CC licensed image from Flickr user Lorna ]

Case Study #3

Big Ass Fans and Noel Studio Skylights

Big Ass Fans and Noel Studio Skylights

The Noel Studio is typically identified as a multiliteracy center and discussed in terms of writing center structure, theory, and pedagogy. Because not much has been written on the Noel Studio specifically, it’s helpful to look to writing center studies.

In his seminal article, The idea of a writing center, S. North (1984) defined writing centers as far more than fix-it-shops (p. 435) where faculty send their students for remediation. He cited frequent examples of faculty misunderstanding and the frustrations of framing the writing center as a remedial service. Critical of those who misunderstand and misrepresent writing center work, North challenged the field to clarify their services and work towards educating students and faculty to the real role of the writing center: “the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction” (p. 438).

Since then, writing center scholarship has taken up the charge and sought to define the writing center in terms of praxis by investigating the politics of place and space (Nelson & Everts, 2001), the role of administrators as WPAs (Murphy and Stay, 2006), and how writing centers adapt to changes (Carpenter & Lee, 2013; Pemberton, 2003). At the foreground, however, has been a focus of the work that happens in a writing center–the pedagogical approach to both working with student writers and training consultants to do so.

In her recent book, Peripheral Visions on Writing Centers, J. G. McKinney (2013) critiques the narrative of writing centers that has emerged from these examinations. Three themes, she argues, arise as the tropes of the narrative:

  1. Writing centers are cozy homes
  2. Writing centers are iconoclastic
  3. Writing centers tutor (all students)

These themes, she argues are reductive and neglect the complexity of the work that happens within writing center spaces. Similarly, in their chapter in Cases in higher education spaces,  Carpenter, Valley, Apostel, and Napier (2013) challenge the typical narrative of writing center work by examining approaches to working with multimodal and digital compositions. More specifically, they examine what they call “a studio pedagogy,” arguing for the importance of space design in writing center work. They propose five criteria for a Studio pedagogy:

1)    Critical and Creative Thinking: Consultants encourage students to engage in convergent (critical) and divergent (creative) thinking regarding audience, purpose, context, and mode.

2)    Information Fluency: Consultants encourage students to think divergently and convergently about the ways in which students gather, evaluate, interpret, and integrate information into their communication products and practices.

3)    Integrative Collaboration: Consultants encourage students to see their communication from multiple perspectives through the feedback process while incorporating insights offered from interactions within the space.

4)    Interactive: Consultants encourage students to think about the dynamics in their collaborative groups and how communication is enhanced through this social process. Consultants promote interaction by allowing students to project ideas in high-and-low tech ways.

5)    Visual: Consultants encourage students to think visually, embracing a design approach that allows students to actively participate with manipulatives and interactive resources.

6)    Dynamic: Consultations change with students’ needs and expectations. That is, consultants adapt their methods of consulting.

These six criteria are directly connected to the physical environment in which students collaborate and compose. As such, it seems appropriate to apply ecology and distributed cognition to the Noel Studio as an object of study to better understand how the individuals interact with their environment to enhance the collaboration and composing processes.

 

Ecology of the Noel Studio

Spellman’s definition of ecology as “the science that deals with the specific interactions that exist between organisms and their living and nonliving environments” (p. 5) offers the foundational lens for understanding how the Noel Studio operates as an ecosystem. The physical space of the Noel Studio was designed to afford the collaboration and the composing process and includes

  • The Greenhouse: the primary, large open space, equipped with large green tables on wheels that, combined with the tuffets for seats, force individuals to face each other when they talk.
Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

Madison Middle visits the Media Wall in the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

  • The Medial Wall: 3 stations, each with a large, touch-screen monitor attached to a PC, a dual screen monitor, and another screen with cables to attach additional devices. Each station also offers chairs on wheels and mushroom tables with integrated power sources. Individuals or groups can use these stations to work with potentially three documents at once. For example, students could be constructing a Prezi on the large, touch-screen monitor, looking at the outline on the dual screen monitor, and researching on the laptop attached to the third monitor.
  • Breakout Spaces and Practice Rooms: Intended for small-group (the Breakout Spaces) or one-on-one (the Practice Rooms) interactions, each of these rooms is equipped with a large-screen monitor attached to a computer work station, video and audio-recording technology, whiteboards, and mobile chairs and half-round tables. In these rooms, students can plan and rehearse presentations.
  • The Invention Space: Equipped with wall-to-wall whiteboards, a CopyCam, rocking chairs and stationary seating, and manipulatives (Playdoh, Legos, Jenga, crayons, etc.), the Invention Space affords play and creativity for brainstorming and visualization activities.
  • The Discovery Classroom: a large, informal classroom with 3 projectors and drop-down screens, a massive whiteboard, comfortable and mobile chairs, 24 laptops, a lectern, and a media center (VHS and DVD player) with a control panel.

Additionally, the Noel Studio also contains 5 offices for administrators and consultants, public computer work stations, mobile whiteboards, and a break room. Throughout the space, there are floor outlets and Ethernet ports that allow individuals to charge and connect mobile devices necessary for new media composing.

Spellman explains that ecology is typically categorized according to complexity (p. 5), which results in levels of organization (p.14):

Organs–>Organism–>Population–>Communities–>Ecosystem–>Biosphere

As organisms are living things, the organisms existing in the Noel Studio are all humans. Having distinguished that, we can define the resulting levels of organization:

Biosphere: The biosphere that encompasses the Noel Studio is Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), which is comprised of many other ecosystems (colleges, departments, offices, and organizations)

Ecosystem: The Noel Studio is an ecosystem–it is a complete system on its own but is also a component of biosphere. Complex systems, Syverson explains, are simultaneously spontaneous, self-organizing, adaptive, dynamic, unpredictable, disordered, and structured, coherent, and purposeful (p. 6). The components of the Noel Studio work together with the purpose of developing effective communication skills.

Communities: The communities within the Noel Studio are administrators, consultants, consultees, collaborators, and donors.

Populations: Even though all of the organisms in the Noel Studio are human, they constitute different populations: students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members. These populations create communities. Although all of the organisms in the biosphere have the option of being a component of the Noel Studio, only a small percentage of those populations choose to be.

Spellman emphasizes that each organism in an ecosystem has a specific role, or niche, to fill. As such “in order for the ecosystem to exist, a dynamic balance must be maintained among all biotic and abiotic factors–a concept known as homeostasis” (p. 15). As such, organisms and the environmental components all serve as nodes within the system, though the organisms have agency whereas the non-living environmental components do not. Rather, nonliving environmental factors serve as affordances or constraints for the activities of the organisms. Thus, homeostasis, or balance, is dependent on each organism’s ability to perceive the positive and negative affordances of the physical environment.

Relationships and Movement

To understand what moves in the ecosystem of the Noel Studio, let’s turn to the Cary Institute’s expanded definition of ecology: “The scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy and matter.” In the case of the Noel Studio, the “transformation and flux of energy and matter” is actually the transformation of student’s ideas into texts. Consultants and students interact with the physical environment to create visible representations of ideas.

This movement, then is reliant on not only the affordances (Gibson) of the physical environment but also what Norman identifies as perceived affordances. The more the student and consultant are able to take advantage of the affordances of the physical environment, the more effective their textual representation.

For example, when a student comes in to work with a consultant, the consultant typically first chooses a spot in the Greenhouse–with no permanent technology in the open space of the Greenhouse, the student and consultant can engage in conversation with little technological distraction. For this example, we’ll say that the student has not yet started writing the paper–she has a prompt and an idea of a topic, but she doesn’t know how to narrow it down or start to organize it. Once the student has explained this, the consultant will ask to see the prompt–the construction of which affords direction for the student’s paper.

20100920noel-studio-scenes0042After coming to an agreement about what the student is supposed to do in the paper and that their consultation will focus on brainstorming, the consultant will take the student to the Invention Space. As the consultant is already familiar with the spaces and technology, she recognizes that the Invention Space affords brainstorming activities. The large whiteboards, CopyCam, and multicolored dry erase markers allow both the student and consultant to contribute and organize ideas as they become represented on the dry erase board. Additionally, the revision of ideas is afforded as the representations are easily erased as they no longer signify the evolving ideas. Once the student is happy with the ideas that are represented, she and the consultant would use the CopyCam to create an outline–a visible representation of the logical structure of the student’s intended communication.

If time or in follow-up consultations, the student and consultant would use the spaces and technology to proceed through the revision process (sometimes students will do so in the space without a consultant, too). Together, they might use the Media Wall to conduct research, draft, review, and revise. If it’s a presentation, the student might also use a Practice Room to practice the presentation, then move to another space to work through the writing process again.

In each situation, the interactions between the student, consultant, and the tools of the environment transform the student’s ideas as they become represented in the various texts she composes throughout the process. Her (and the consultant’s) ability to perceive the various affordances of the technology that she uses shapes what the final text will look like. Similarly, the constraints of the technology also force her to make decisions, shaping the final product. For instance, if the student’s final project is a video that she will share with the class, her video is reliant not only on her technical skill but also on her ability to perceive what she can and cannot do with the video editing software that she chooses. She knows that she wants to lay a music track over the video–a choice that Movie Maker, iMovie, and most other video editing software afford–but if she can’t perceive the function of the software that affords that design choice, she will have to revise her plan. In this ecosystem, then, the ideas are transformed as the move throughout the nodes (both organisms and environment) of the network.

How the Network Grows and Dissolves

In an ecosystem, growth and balance depend on population diversity (Spellman) and the abundance of resources. This is true of the Noel Studio as well. Considering different groups of students and faculty as the different populations in the Noel Studio, the ecosystem only grows when there is representation from the different disciplines, social groups, and demographic groups. Before the Noel Studio opened in 2010, the EKU Writing Center operated in a basement in Case Annex–a dorm that has been converted to office and classroom space. Isolated to one department (the English Department) in terms of staffing, funding, and use, the Writing Center did not grow. When the Writing Center Director reached out to a new population (EKU Libraries) to discuss collaboration, the idea of the Noel Studio formed. Discussions between the Writing Center Director and the then-Dean of Libraries prompted further outreach to representatives from various populations–the Department of Communication, Information Technology, Institutional Effectiveness, and the Office of the Provost. As ideas for what the space could be expanded, these representatives realized the increasing diversity of the populations and their interests would require a new physical space.

The increased diversity also increased access to resources as the English Department would no longer be responsible for the full funding (although it does still contribute to staffing). Working with the Library Advancement office, this newly formed group was able to secure funding from donors, EKU Libraries, the Provost’s office, and University Programs. Since opening in September 2010, the Noel Studio has continued to increase the population diversity–expanding the Noel Studio Advisory Committee to include representatives from additional offices, such as the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Teaching and Learning Center. Additionally, there has been an increase in population diversity among student use and faculty collaborations as we now see every college, social group, and demographic group that constitute the EKU biosphere represented in the Noel Studio ecosystem.

The distribution of population diversity, however, is still imbalanced as many groups are under-represented. While the ecosystem does include representatives from the College of Justice and Safety, for instance, they are few and far between. If we cannot increase the Justice and Safety student population in the Noel Studio, that population may die out as students graduate. As populations die out, the distribution of resources becomes less spread out and decrease the potential sources of funding. As funding decreases, the ability to support diverse populations also decreases. In this case, the ecosystem would not be able to revert to the previous situation of the Writing Center, as the resources and space have already been reallocated within the English Department. As such, the continued existence of the Noel Studio is reliant on increasing and maintaining population diversity.

Affordances and Constraints of Ecology as a Theory

More so than previous theories, ecology helped me think through the consequences of having a homogenous population of student and faculty participants in the Noel Studio. While diversity of students is typically something we think about at the staffing level and do, to a degree, look at population diversity in end-of-semester reporting, thinking about how that diversity potentially affects the growth, decline, and future of the Noel Studio forces me to re-evaluate the amount of outreach we currently do. We offer services for distance students, but we could definitely do more marketing. The colleges “across the bypass” (there is a bypass that literally divides campus) house the disciplines that we contain the Noel Studio’s lowest population of users, indicating a need for more outreach which could lead to more resources. Too often, I think, we consider the resources we have before trying to increase our population diversity rather than the resources that we can gain.

In terms of constraints, one of the frustrations of this theory was trying to think about the environment and technology as only tools that afford action. Thinking about agency as limited to the living organisms made it difficult to talk about the affordances of the technology without assigning agency to the environment. As a result, agency in this theory relies on the organism’s ability to perceive its agency. This is a gap I plan to consider in my final synthesis as it seems important to consider whether the technology can help shape the representation of ideas (as a mediator) or if it really is just reliant on what humans can perceive as capable wherein technology continues to be only a tool.

References

Carpenter, Valley, Apostel, & Napier. (2013). Studio Pedagogy: A Model for Collaboration, Innovation, and Space Design, (pp. 313-329) In Cases on higher education spaces: innovation, collaboration, and technology, (R. Carpenter, Ed.). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Carpenter, R. & Lee, S. (2013). Introduction: Navigating literacies in multimodal spaces. The Routlege reader on writing centers and new media, (xiv-xxvi). New York: Routlege.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McKinney, J. G. (2103). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Boulder, CO: Utah State University P.

Murphy, C. & Stay, B.L. (2006). The writing center director’s resource guide. New York: Routlege.

Nelson, J. & Everts, K. (2001). The Politics of Writing Centers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BzIskzHsjKsRN0NRRktncjBGb1U/edit

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46(5), 433-436. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/377047

Pemberton, M. (2003). The center will hold. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Spellman, F. R. (2008). Ecology for nonecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes.

Syverston, M. A. (1999). Introduction: What is an ecology of composition? The wealth of reality: An ecology of composition. Carbondale: S Illinois University Press.

Assignment: Object of Study Week 13, Application of One Theory

Literature Review:

In the second case study assignment, a more detailed account of the scholarship surrounding the UPS (more on that here as well) is given. There are two main arguments in the literature that I am terming the growth and death responsibility arguments. The growth responsibility argument is first, and more dominant, asserting that UPS is significant for its role in bringing together the various newspapers and communities of the counterculture. However, the death responsibility argument is that the wide dissemination of materials led to a homogenization of the underground, a “mainstreaming,” that played a role in the eventual perceived irrelevance of the underground press. Some scholarship treats the UPS as neither responsible for encouraging or dissolving the movement, but rather as a supporting player, a mere distributive pathway. Yet others note more minor contributions ascribed to the UPS include its role in generating revenue for the underground press, archiving the member papers, undermining notions of copyright.

Glessing, Peck, McMillian (arguably the current authority), Peck, Wachsberger, and Ridgeway are on the side of growth. Kornbluth, Armstrong, and Ridgeway (taking on both sides) offer arguments for the side of death.

In this case study, I am adding Michael L. Johnson’s The New Journalism, published in 1971. The reason for this addition is that he brings a slightly new angle to the discussion. Johnson is primarily interested in journalism, where previous writers have taken historical and cultural approaches. While still firmly in the growth responsibility paradigm, he argues that the UPS founding credo was a “condensation of the psychedelic, sexual, and political character of the papers” (16). This notion of the UPS structure as reflective of the counterculture ideals is probably first recorded in print here, and not seen as pointedly referenced elsewhere. He also sees the UPS as related to the Supreme Court ruling in 1966 relaxing laws concerning printed “pornography” in terms of encouraging proliferation (15). In this way, Johnson positions the UPS in familiar journalistic territory aside First Amendment rights.

Theory as a Network:

Affordances are the allowable actions for a given object. The term implies a relationship between object and actor (person, animal, other object) based on the properties of one and the needs and abilities of the other. Affordance theory grows from the field of Ecology studies. It is a term James Gibson first used to describe what an environment offers to its inhabitants, the possibilities for use embedded within the environment. Deeply intertwined in this sub-theory of Ecologies is the concept of perception. Before an object can be used in a particular fashion, the ability for that use must be perceived or imagined by the actor. Extrapolating from this, it is also true that there are affordances of objects that are never realized or known, and affordances that are known but perceived to be of little value. Furthermore, affordances can be shared by disparate objects across diverse traditional categories of classification.

Affordances, actors, and objects comprise a network within the larger environment. Objects become nodes in this network, connected to nodes representing their affordances. However, these connections must pass through the actors who engage with the objects and perceive the affordance. Additionally, the affordances that are not perceived are still part of the network. In that case, there are nodes of affordances that may be connected to an object without the conduit of the actor.

Affordance-as-Network. Click here for Google Drawing.

Definition and Nodes:
How does the theory define the object of study? What are network nodes? 
How are they situated in the network?

According to the understanding of the theory as a network described above, the UPS is the environment in which the actors engage with objects based on their perceived affordances. Gibson simplistically explains the environment as separating surfaces. Like the photo below, the UPS is the bottle, the surface structure that contains the living, changing network within. It defines the environment’s boundaries because the membership process determines which newspapers and content-producers will be part of the network. 

Image from Daily Mail article online. The sealed bottle has contained a thriving garden since 1960.

The object nodes would be the newspapers, content packets, microfilm, collective advertisements, and membership directories. The actor nodes would be the writers, illustrators, photographers, and editors at the member papers (content-producers). Other actor nodes would include the UPS staff members who compiled and mailed the packets, maintained the membership roles, obtained revenue by securing advertisements, created the microfilm, and wrote and distributed the library directories. The affordance nodes would be based on two things: the affordances perceived by the actors and the affordances possible but not perceived. An exhaustive list of these affordances would not be possible, as by definition the later category is rather limitless. However, some of the more significant affordances for the main object nodes can be seen in the table below.

Object:
Perceived Affordances:
Newspapers
reading, spreading alternative news and culture, cutting (to facilitate the reprinting of only selected content), reprinting, generate income through sales, outlet for expression, inspire activism and social change
Content Packets
introducing localized communities to one another, provide access to additional content, create unified message, spread common style and design options, create underground “celebrities” by popularizing their work nationally, the opportunity to consciously reject contemporary understanding of copyright by permitting free reuse
Microfilm
archive and preserve content, compress large amounts of data into more compact space, being technologically current at the time, an increased professionalism like mainstream papers also stored that way, increased potential for inclusion in libraries equipped with microfilm readers, facilitate future research
Advertisements (typically record companies)
generate income, take up page space (could be negative), professionalize the appearance (also possibly negative), create an association between the paper and something mainstream (often seen as negative)
Directories
archive newspaper titles and locations, an increase in title awareness/gravitas in and out of the community, possible increase in readership/subscription, facilitate future research

Some of the affordances above, like facilitating future research is likely not an affordance that was seen at the time by many, yet it is now one of the lasting and most significant contributions. For some papers, being listed in a directory is the only evidence available to the researcher that the title ever existed. Also, several affordances are attached to more than one object, like generating income. These two observations in application align with Gibson’s theoretical work.

The nodes are situated in the network without hierarchy, but there is strong undercurrent of interdependence. Affordances and their objects and the actors interacting with them for survival are part of an ecology. Bateson sees the actors’ minds, responsible for perceiving affordances, as itself belonging to “the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology” (467). This is the concept of immanence; all things are connected and dependent upon one another for survival. With immanence in mind, the nodes in the UPS network are dispersed equally but dependent. The newspapers need the actors to produce and distribute them, but the actors need the newspapers as well for their affordances of self-expression and community building. The objects are no more or less important than the people. Even the affordances seem to exist in this co-constructed space. They need the actor to be perceived and brought into reality; however, they also exist infinitely in the abstract needing only an object to be attached to in potentiality. Then again, because affordances can be shared by many objects, they are independent of any one thing and rather function as invisible links between all the nodes - realized affordances, actors, and objects.

Node Agency
What types of agency are articulated for various types of nodes?

In this network, the actor nodes appear to have the most control and autonomy. The actors can decide which objects to make use of and how and which affordances are significant; so much depends on what the actor perceives about the objects. The object nodes for their part are rather inert; they may sit silently in the network with helpful affordances going completely unperceived and thus unutilized. They have no way to communicate the full range of their affordances, but must wait for an actor to bring them into existence. 

Like a prop waiting to be given significance by the actor, affordances must be rendered by the object's user. Image from The Guardian online article.


However, the actors are not fully independent; they are operating within cultural constraints. Norman argues, “Cultural constraints are learned conventions that are shared by a cultural group,” and these constraints can influence the affordances one attaches to a particular object. Constraints are a kind of training that occurs over time as repetitive experiences enhance our ability to see certain uses and obscures others. Just like the baby in the video below (and just as easily), we are conditioned to expect certain responses or functionality from our objects. Yet the question becomes, what are we not seeing?



The founding staff members for example, one of the actor nodes, based the structure of the UPS on the AP, another news-sharing service. This cultural constraint of how to gather and distribute news was helpful in providing a proven structure, yet what affordances were possible but not perceived? How did exposure to the culture, limit the agency the founders exerted? How did the past patterns of use restrict their creativity and decision-making? Was there some equivalent at the UPS to the tossing aside of the print magazine by the baby in the video in favor of the “one that works”?

Network Action
What are the types and directions of relationships between nodes? What is moving in a network?

Two ways to categorize the relationship types between nodes in this network are egalitarian and coordinated. Similar to the way nodes are situated with Bateson’s interconnected immanence, Bateson and Gibson encourage thinking about affordances as a series of patterns rather than individual objects. Bateson argues that we need "inquiry into pattern rather than inquiry into substance" (455). Gibson discusses the "niche," or how something lives and uniquely occupies space, as a "set of affordances" (128). It suggests that the individual object is not as important as how it fits into a pattern of use(s) or a set of behavior(s). Nothing stands alone; there are patterns and sets to which things necessarily belong. Furthermore, meaning is derived from the examination of patterns and sets, not individual affordances.

For the UPS, the nodes are certainly equal. When content was collected and distributed, there was an attempt to be inclusive regardless of the paper’s circulation. Smaller papers could be included alongside the larger papers (like a Twitter feed - before the latest updates - where all tweets are seen, none hidden or given priority, regardless of the number of followers for that tweeter). It is also true that the nodes should be understand as belonging to sets in coordinated relationships. No single papers constituted the movement, and examining a single title would not reveal the full scope of the underground press. The object nodes of the newspapers can be gathered into different sets like region, circulation, dates of publication, and purpose (more politics/news or more art/culture), but in whichever way they are organized, they are more meaningful as a group.

Within the UPS network, what is moving under this theory can easily be purpose. As objects and actors are added to the network, new affordances are perceived and emphasized. Advertising, directories, and microfilm were all added after the initial founding and fluctuated in importance to the staff and members over time. This can perhaps be attributed to Gibson, who explains that thinking in terms of an object's affordances allows for greater fluidity in understanding it. Rather than thinking of something rigidly in terms of a classification system, we can understand how an object is used or could possibly be used. He notes that classification systems (like giving Latin names to biological objects) often make no reference to what the objects can do or how they can be used; the names are arbitrary (134). Then these labels force us into thinking about that object as only belonging to that one place in the system. However, if we think in terms of affordances, the object can belong to many different categories of thought. The newspapers can belong to the set of affordances for spreading information, but also preserving it. They can be platforms for expression, but also for generating income. Being able to slide between these classifications allows for the purpose to expand and shift.

Network Content 
What happens to content or meaning as it travels through a network? 

In light of the discussions above, meaning(ful) affordances can be understood as being appropriated by various actors as it moved through the network. For the actor nodes interested in sustaining the newspapers through financial support (a real concern with the real costs of printing, licenses, and distribution but seen as a mainstream bummer by many), the affordances of newspapers to be sold and print ads was emphasized. However, the message of the movement contained within the pages was seen by others as the most significant affordance, and so they were likely to take advantage of the newspaper’s affordance of portability and transferability by just handing them out without collecting a fee. Meaning was assigned and erased by the actors in control of the objects at any given time.

Network Growth

How do networks emerge, grow, and/or dissolve?

In this network, growth and dissolution are two sides of the same coin: diversity. Bateson argues that heterogeneity is necessary for survival, and that "potentiality and readiness for change is already built into the survival unit" (457). He continues, "The artificially homogenized populations...are scarcely fit for survival" (457). This is also true in application to the UPS. Growth was encouraged by the diversity of new papers becoming members; however, as sharing led to homogeneity, the underground began to lose relevance and papers rapidly collapsed, noted by Kornbluth.

Cultural conventions would also shape the network, which speaks to growth. Constraints can be limiting and work to herd and corral a network into a certain space. The UPS network grew in particular directions using cultural conventions recognized among the member papers, such as traditional advertisements printed in the papers and library periodical directories. Because these forms of awareness-building already existed in mainstream journalism forms, they constrained the way the UPS spread its organization through recognizable tools for gaining members.

Conclusion

What does the particular theory allows you to discuss, or not, when analyzing your object of study?

This theory has an emphasis on action: what can be done, what is being produced between the actors, objects, and affordances (see the chart above). However, there is less on the content of the papers and the community building. Affordances theory does not seem to have a way to see one affordance of an object as more or less significant. Each affordance is just one more way to utilize the object, which may diminish some of the cultural work that UPS did as it focuses more on the processes of making and shaping the organization itself.

One new addition to the thinking came from making the chart, which helped me see redundancies in the network I had not seen before - like the multiple ways archiving and income generation were afforded. I find myself asking if this hindered efficiency or ensured it? Would centralizing the income generation efforts at the national level have freed up the creative efforts of those at the local level, or would this have caused bureaucratic bogging down of cash flows? I would be interested to think about that in greater detail.

My favorite part of this analysis though is that I can discuss myself as an actor node (future researcher) in the network. I had not yet seen a place where I am part of the network, but I can with this theory because I make use of the affordances of its objects.

Works Cited:

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1987. Print.

Gibson, James. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1986. Print.

Johnson, Michael L.. The New Journalism.  Lawrence, KS: UP of Kansas, 1971. Print.

Norman, Donald A.. "Affordances and Design." Don Norman: Designing for People. 2004. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.

Assignment: Object of Study Week 13, Application of One Theory

Literature Review:

In the second case study assignment, a more detailed account of the scholarship surrounding the UPS (more on that here as well) is given. There are two main arguments in the literature that I am terming the growth and death responsibility arguments. The growth responsibility argument is first, and more dominant, asserting that UPS is significant for its role in bringing together the various newspapers and communities of the counterculture. However, the death responsibility argument is that the wide dissemination of materials led to a homogenization of the underground, a “mainstreaming,” that played a role in the eventual perceived irrelevance of the underground press. Some scholarship treats the UPS as neither responsible for encouraging or dissolving the movement, but rather as a supporting player, a mere distributive pathway. Yet others note more minor contributions ascribed to the UPS include its role in generating revenue for the underground press, archiving the member papers, undermining notions of copyright.

Glessing, Peck, McMillian (arguably the current authority), Peck, Wachsberger, and Ridgeway are on the side of growth. Kornbluth, Armstrong, and Ridgeway (taking on both sides) offer arguments for the side of death.

In this case study, I am adding Michael L. Johnson’s The New Journalism, published in 1971. The reason for this addition is that he brings a slightly new angle to the discussion. Johnson is primarily interested in journalism, where previous writers have taken historical and cultural approaches. While still firmly in the growth responsibility paradigm, he argues that the UPS founding credo was a “condensation of the psychedelic, sexual, and political character of the papers” (16). This notion of the UPS structure as reflective of the counterculture ideals is probably first recorded in print here, and not seen as pointedly referenced elsewhere. He also sees the UPS as related to the Supreme Court ruling in 1966 relaxing laws concerning printed “pornography” in terms of encouraging proliferation (15). In this way, Johnson positions the UPS in familiar journalistic territory aside First Amendment rights.

Theory as a Network:

Affordances are the allowable actions for a given object. The term implies a relationship between object and actor (person, animal, other object) based on the properties of one and the needs and abilities of the other. Affordance theory grows from the field of Ecology studies. It is a term James Gibson first used to describe what an environment offers to its inhabitants, the possibilities for use embedded within the environment. Deeply intertwined in this sub-theory of Ecologies is the concept of perception. Before an object can be used in a particular fashion, the ability for that use must be perceived or imagined by the actor. Extrapolating from this, it is also true that there are affordances of objects that are never realized or known, and affordances that are known but perceived to be of little value. Furthermore, affordances can be shared by disparate objects across diverse traditional categories of classification.

Affordances, actors, and objects comprise a network within the larger environment. Objects become nodes in this network, connected to nodes representing their affordances. However, these connections must pass through the actors who engage with the objects and perceive the affordance. Additionally, the affordances that are not perceived are still part of the network. In that case, there are nodes of affordances that may be connected to an object without the conduit of the actor.

Affordance-as-Network. Click here for Google Drawing.

Definition and Nodes:
How does the theory define the object of study? What are network nodes? 
How are they situated in the network?

According to the understanding of the theory as a network described above, the UPS is the environment in which the actors engage with objects based on their perceived affordances. Gibson simplistically explains the environment as separating surfaces. Like the photo below, the UPS is the bottle, the surface structure that contains the living, changing network within. It defines the environment’s boundaries because the membership process determines which newspapers and content-producers will be part of the network. 

Image from Daily Mail article online. The sealed bottle has contained a thriving garden since 1960.

The object nodes would be the newspapers, content packets, microfilm, collective advertisements, and membership directories. The actor nodes would be the writers, illustrators, photographers, and editors at the member papers (content-producers). Other actor nodes would include the UPS staff members who compiled and mailed the packets, maintained the membership roles, obtained revenue by securing advertisements, created the microfilm, and wrote and distributed the library directories. The affordance nodes would be based on two things: the affordances perceived by the actors and the affordances possible but not perceived. An exhaustive list of these affordances would not be possible, as by definition the later category is rather limitless. However, some of the more significant affordances for the main object nodes can be seen in the table below.

Object:
Perceived Affordances:
Newspapers
reading, spreading alternative news and culture, cutting (to facilitate the reprinting of only selected content), reprinting, generate income through sales, outlet for expression, inspire activism and social change
Content Packets
introducing localized communities to one another, provide access to additional content, create unified message, spread common style and design options, create underground “celebrities” by popularizing their work nationally, the opportunity to consciously reject contemporary understanding of copyright by permitting free reuse
Microfilm
archive and preserve content, compress large amounts of data into more compact space, being technologically current at the time, an increased professionalism like mainstream papers also stored that way, increased potential for inclusion in libraries equipped with microfilm readers, facilitate future research
Advertisements (typically record companies)
generate income, take up page space (could be negative), professionalize the appearance (also possibly negative), create an association between the paper and something mainstream (often seen as negative)
Directories
archive newspaper titles and locations, an increase in title awareness/gravitas in and out of the community, possible increase in readership/subscription, facilitate future research

Some of the affordances above, like facilitating future research is likely not an affordance that was seen at the time by many, yet it is now one of the lasting and most significant contributions. For some papers, being listed in a directory is the only evidence available to the researcher that the title ever existed. Also, several affordances are attached to more than one object, like generating income. These two observations in application align with Gibson’s theoretical work.

The nodes are situated in the network without hierarchy, but there is strong undercurrent of interdependence. Affordances and their objects and the actors interacting with them for survival are part of an ecology. Bateson sees the actors’ minds, responsible for perceiving affordances, as itself belonging to “the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology” (467). This is the concept of immanence; all things are connected and dependent upon one another for survival. With immanence in mind, the nodes in the UPS network are dispersed equally but dependent. The newspapers need the actors to produce and distribute them, but the actors need the newspapers as well for their affordances of self-expression and community building. The objects are no more or less important than the people. Even the affordances seem to exist in this co-constructed space. They need the actor to be perceived and brought into reality; however, they also exist infinitely in the abstract needing only an object to be attached to in potentiality. Then again, because affordances can be shared by many objects, they are independent of any one thing and rather function as invisible links between all the nodes - realized affordances, actors, and objects.

Node Agency
What types of agency are articulated for various types of nodes?

In this network, the actor nodes appear to have the most control and autonomy. The actors can decide which objects to make use of and how and which affordances are significant; so much depends on what the actor perceives about the objects. The object nodes for their part are rather inert; they may sit silently in the network with helpful affordances going completely unperceived and thus unutilized. They have no way to communicate the full range of their affordances, but must wait for an actor to bring them into existence. 

Like a prop waiting to be given significance by the actor, affordances must be rendered by the object's user. Image from The Guardian online article.


However, the actors are not fully independent; they are operating within cultural constraints. Norman argues, “Cultural constraints are learned conventions that are shared by a cultural group,” and these constraints can influence the affordances one attaches to a particular object. Constraints are a kind of training that occurs over time as repetitive experiences enhance our ability to see certain uses and obscures others. Just like the baby in the video below (and just as easily), we are conditioned to expect certain responses or functionality from our objects. Yet the question becomes, what are we not seeing?


Assignment: Re-proposing the Object of Study

What is your object of study? Define and describe it.

For the remaining assignments in the case study, I will continue to examine the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS). This organization operated between 1966 and 1973, allowing underground newspapers to become members. Member papers would submit their issues to the UPS where they would then be disseminated nationally. Content could be freely reprinted by other newspapers with syndicate membership without copyright restrictions. UPS began with with five founding periodicals - New York’s East Village Other, California’s Los Angeles Free Press and Berkeley Barb, Michigan’s The Paper, and Chicago’s Fifth Estate - then quickly grew to include over 150 members. UPS also attempted to secure advertisements, especially from record companies, to help financially support members. Additionally, archival attempts were a part of the mission with microfilming submitted issues and creating directories for sale to libraries.

Microfilm - a preservation attempt by the UPS. Perhaps now nearly irrelevant in the digital age and more cause for the push to digitize underground archives. Image posted by Family History Detective, labeled for reuse.

Thus far, I have focused on the collection and distribution aspects of the UPS, but I hope to research the archival aspects more fully going forward. How successful were these endeavors? How many papers were preserved in microfilm? Where were the microfilms stored, and are they still stored somewhere today?


How/why is this object of study important/useful to English studies?

Growth through connection. This could have been the motto of the underground press after the emergence of the UPS. It is obvious that the UPS helped “to plug [one] radical community into radical communities around the country” (Wachsberger qtd. in McMillian 46). The result of that plugging in was an increase in underground publications. Connecting subaltern voices proved to inspire new local papers to emerge. The UPS can help us to understand the role distribution has on creativity and production. The CHAT authors highlighted for me the role of delivery as mediation and distribution and how these dual purposes need to be re-instituted in the rhetorical canon. Building on that, this object of study offers a new way perhaps to understand the effects of delivery not just on one rhetorical product, but on an entire discourse community.

It would also be interesting to view the object as seated in the intersection of delivery and memory. The work to archive the magazines and distribute these archives was a novel approach to publishing and for libraries. Could it be useful to think of how dissemination and preservation are linked rhetorical activities? The UPS perhaps took this to a new level, seeing the role of distributing texts only part of the essential work of building a community. It was also necessary to document and archive the texts. How and why are these two functions related or dependent upon each other?


How/why is it important/useful to think of this object in terms of/as a “network”?

My first new thought here is about crowd sourcing. The idea that pooling resources to achieve common and worthwhile goals is certainly not new, but the way in which the internet has facilitated this kind of fundraising is a new and more highly efficient way to do it. Where we have Kickstarter today, the underground press had the UPS. Its later efforts to obtain advertising that could be reprinted across its members raised funds to help sustain the literary work. How do economic networks support (or restrict) the production of literature? The expense of operating, licensing, printing, and distributing the newspapers often forced smaller publications to fold. Thinking of the UPS as a network of economic support, builds on the earlier work of the organization as a network that transmitted unifying ideas.

UPS information about library subscription posted in Inquisition 1.6 (1969). Image from personal collection.
As an archival network and not just a network of member papers, the UPS disseminated newspapers on microfilm (or at least membership directories) to libraries. Libraries are repositories of knowledge, and the UPS was often responsible for placing the underground into these places of preservation. This shift in thinking allows for the UPS to be seen as responsible not just for helping radical communities share in a common movement with a unified voice, but for having the forethought to create the stable archive necessary for future generations to connect to the same ideas.

Thinking of the UPS as advertising and archiving networks raises questions that are more difficult to answer than the previous focus on its more primary purpose, but I think they push the case study work in new and more interesting directions.

Re/Proposed Object of Study: Google Analytics

I’m sticking with Google Analytics as my object of study. I’m too invested in the object, and it remains an important part of my professional responsibilities and therefore an object that I need to study, whether for this class or for professional development. In fact, this month I earned another certificate of completion for a Google Analytics Academy program, “Google Analytics Platform Principles.” The outcomes benefit me academically and professionally: the course contributed to my understanding of the underlying data structure and collection principles for the assignment’s ongoing case study, and it provided me some intriguing ideas for importing data into GA beyond those data collected by the tracking code to help my team measure our marketing effort success.

The GA platform consists of four activities based on dimensions (user characteristics) and metrics (quantitative interaction information): collecting, configuration, processing, and reporting. The Google Developers guide provides the following helpful visualization to describe the platform’s activity.

Google Analytics Platform Components visualization

Google Analytics Platform Components. Original image on the Google Developers Guide.

Collection: User-interaction data are collected through either the embedded code snippet or through the measurement protocol, an alternative system for manually submitting user-interaction data from mobile apps and other internet-connected appliances.

Configuration: Data are configured by the GA account manager(s) through the GA web interface or management API. Configuration settings permanently delimit data collections; as a result, at least one configuration is required to be unfiltered to ensure all possible data are accessible in at least one configuration, or, as GA refers to these configurations, Views.

Processing: Based on configuration settings (filters, groupings, etc.), raw data are processed and stored in aggregated data tables and in configured raw forms. Data tables organize data in pre-determined collections for quick access, but queries can be constructed to pull data from configured raw forms. Often such queries will sample data rather than pull all values, once again to speed the presentation of results.

Reporting: Data are reported via the GA web interface or via the Core Reporting API or Multi-Channel Funnel Reporting API. Reports can be constructed that will not provide meaningful results; not all dimensions are compatible or reportable with all metrics. As a result, GA account managers must construct views carefully and develop reporting goals and practices that yield meaningful and accurate results.

The GA data model consists of three levels that help collect and organize dimensions and metrics: user (visitor), session (visit), and interaction (hit). Lesson 1.3 in the GA Academy Platform Principles course offers the following visualization of this model.

Google Analytics data model visualization

Overview of the Google Analytics data model. Original image from the GA Academy Platform Principles Lesson 1.3.

User (visitor): The user is identified by the browser or mobile device the visitor used to access the site.

Session (visit): The session is defined as the time the user (browser or device) was active on the website.

Interaction (hit): Interactions are individual actions taken by a user that sends hit data to GA servers. These may be pageviews (loading the page), events (clicking on a movie button), a transaction (checking out of an online store), or a social interaction (sharing content on a social device).

As this chart reveals, the GA data model breaks engagement into a hierarchy. Interactions occur within sessions, and sessions are associated with a user. A user may have multiple sessions, and each session may have multiple interactions and interaction types. The GA account manager must determine measurement scope using this hierarchy. Is the goal to measure and report on interaction-level activity (number of pageviews regardless of user or session); session-level activity (common entrance or exit pages for sessions regardless of user); or user-level activity (number of unique users who completed a specific task, regardless of session)? The measurement goal determines the reporting scope.

So far, I’ve struggled to define the scope of GA as I’ve applied theories to it.

I’ve described GA as the reporting “arm” of a web development and visitor ecology in which nodes include web marketers and web developers, web services technicians and coders, database managers, marketing writers, content managers, website visitors, browsers and platforms, Internet hardware and software, and GA servers. In this model, GA collects traces of the active relationships that occur among these nodes.

I’ve also described GA as a mediating technology that directly and indirectly limits and controls the data collected from website interactions. Specific, delimited data points are the target of data collection and reporting. Those data points, and only those data points, are available to GA end users who seek information about user behavior on a website.

Defining Google Analytics

While neither of these descriptions is inaccurate, neither quite achieves the focus I’d like to apply to my case studies. I propose a description that focuses more directly on the GA platform’s four activities and the GA data model. Specifically, GA is a digital tool that collects user interaction data at three levels — user, session, and interaction — in the form of dimensions and metrics. Data collected are configured based on specific, targeted, goal-oriented decisions by GA administrative users, processed in accordance with those decisions, and output through aggregated data tables to GA users, both administrative and standard or limited-access users. This description focuses specifically on agency of GA administrators; in the case of my GA account for the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies, that agency resides primarily in me and indirectly in our marketing team.

Application to English Studies

GA focuses on assessing outcomes. GA administrators configure data collected in GA to assess the results of specific marketing efforts. For example, in order to examine general and specific browsing patterns of external (non-UR) visitors, I need to configure our GA account with a view that filters out internal (UR-based) web traffic by IP address. Examining these browsing patterns enables our marketing team to determine whether the information we’re providing is attracting prospective students in ways that our strategic marketing plan requires or expects. In short, we are using configured data reports to assess the extent of success of our web-based marketing efforts. Such assessments offer English studies models for assessment that can and should be incorporated into writing assessment, writing program assessment, perhaps even departmental assessments. Data-driven assessments can and should include both user characteristics and metrics; that is, they should be based on user profiles intentionally constructed to include or reflect contemporary, lived experience. For English studies, this means our data collection efforts must be based in localized environments and configured to process and report on specific objectives and outcomes.

GA collects metrics, but its ability to collect dimensions (user characteristics) means that its reporting is verbal and numerical. As such, its reports are rhetorical. They can and should be problematized as rhetoric. Specific decisions to collect or not collect demographic data, for example, could be problematized using cultural studies or gender studies. Specific ways of reporting demographic data, including terms used to describe or define those demographic qualities, are also areas to be analyzed and problematized. From its use of colors to its data processing strategies (which remain obscure), GA is fair game for rhetorical analysis and critique, and scholars in English studies should focus more critical attention on analyzing GA rather than using GA to measure the success of web-based instructional or informational efforts.

GA as Network

GA is free and remarkably powerful. Google appears to be working to make it even more broadly applicable as a digital analytics platform, not simply a web analytics platform. The distinction is important to its role as a network. Web analytics are useful and meaningful, but they are limited in scope to websites and web interactions. Digital analytics, on the other hand, encompass a much broader category of data, like digital advertising (including web-based and localized advertising efforts, like digital billboards and online display ads), appliance function (including communications between digital devices like wifi-connected refrigerators or cell-connected washer/dryer sets), and mobile phone uses beyond calling. As GA broadens its applicability as a digital analytics platform, its reach and scope become global, both in location and function. GA can begin to measure global network functions; its ability to measure those functions is dependent on its own flexible network structure. Its collection, configuration, processing, and reporting functions are network-based and network-focused. Its internal structure, to the extent Google allows us to view it, is based on related aggregated data tables. And its objects of measurement are related digital nodes on networks. The result is that GA is both network reporter and networked reporter.

[Top image: Screen capture of Google Analytics homepage: google.com/analytics]