New Course: Social Media and Participatory Culture — Spring 2018

I’m excited to be teaching a new COM Options Course in Spring 2018, “Social Media and Participatory Culture.” It meets T/TH 2:00 – 3:15.


In Social Media and Participatory Culture, we will consider how people have used social media to subvert civil and corporate institutions and protest against perceived injustices. We will see how those same institutions have tried to leverage social media to engage in surveillance and manipulation. And we will see how people are using participatory culture to persist against those attempts.

We begin in the 1980s and 90s with fanzines and remix/mashup culture, specifically looking at, for example, the feminist punk zine, Riot grrrl, “which called for the liberation of young women . . . [and] to revivify feminism . . . [in] direct response to the dominance of straight while men in the punk scene” (Darms, 2013, p. 1). We then move through the supposedly idyllic first years of the web and Web 2.0 to look at how people were participating with the hope of building community. From there, we come to our present social media moment, dominated by Twitter and Facebook. On Twitter, we will analyze protest hashtags and subnetworks, like Black Twitter, that call attention to and fight injustice. On Facebook, we will look at the proliferation of fake news, which is designed to confuse, deceive, and manipulate. We will consider the implications of our current moment where bots swarm social media feeds and our data can be used against us. In doing so, we will critically examine how social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, afford (and encourage) certain user behaviors through their interface architecture, algorithms, and advertising systems.

Though the course has a significant theoretical component, we will engage directly in participatory practices by creating our own subversive media objects (such as, zines, mashups, archives, and bots)—the whole time considering how those objects exist within a powerful media ecology that extends from our creative spaces to corporate servers to the halls of Congress.

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A Statement from the Dept of Communication and Digital Media on Recent Post-Election Events

A week after the 2016 Presidential Election, my department got together in an emergency meeting to discuss a possible response to the events on our campus and across the country. Here is our response.

I am so proud to be a member of this department and have such fine colleagues committed to social justice.

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My Email to Delaware County PA Elector, Andrew J. Reilly

This evening I wrote Andrew J. Reilly, Chair of the Delaware County, PA, GOP, and Electoral College Elector representing my county. If you are interested in emailing your elector, you can find yours, though you will have to locate contact info, which is not listed (even though it is public information). Here is my letter (with some minor typo corrections). Feel feel to borrow from and expand on it in your email:

Dear Mr. Reilly,

First, let me apologize for emailing you at your work account. I searched for some time for a Delaware County GOP-related email, but was not able to find one.

I am writing as a Delaware County resident. My wife and 2 sons (3 and 6 years old) live in Nether Providence. Ever since the election, we have lived in a state of increasing dread and fear—fear for what will happen to our country with Donald Trump as President. Please know that this has nothing to do with party; though I am a life-long Democrat, I did not fear for the sake of our Democracy when Bush was elected twice, nor do I fear for the state of PA, in general, when Republicans are elected.

Donald Trump is, however, a completely different story—as I’m sure you know. The foreign policies he is thinking of enacting and the people with whom he is surrounding himself are an affront to the decency of the republic. His behavior since the election has shown him to be vitally unprepared for the presidency, disinterested in national security briefings, and only interested in furthering what is best for himself. The fact that he reached out to one business to convince them to keep jobs in the US seems to go against the very core of free market conservatism—and is doubly problematic since he owns shares in the Carrier parent company. The fact that he has called and talked with foreign leaders on a private cell phone without briefing or oversight is absolutely frightening. The fact that he invited his daughter into a meeting with the leader of Japan is breath-taking in its utter contempt for ethical practices. Further, his praise of Putin, his call to weaken NATO, his disregard for necessary political protocols, put us, as Americas, is real danger.

In a recent article in the Daily Local News, you are quoted as saying, “No one has advanced an argument yet that would overcome the argument that I should vote the will of the people.” Your county, Delaware County, voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton: 59.60% to 37.18%. Hillary Clinton has over 2.5 million more votes than Trump nationally. When you state, “the will of the people,” which people’s will do you have in mind? The people of your county? The majority of people who voted for Clinton nationally? Or, the fewer than 100,000 people (a number that is shrinking by the day) who voted for Trump in 3 states that handed him the Electoral College?

I have no doubt you have studied deeply Hamilton’s Federalist No. 68, which outlines the reasons for the creation of the Electoral College:

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one querter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the [constitutional] convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention.

The Electoral College was initially created to guard against candidates who may have been co-opted by foreign governments or are dangerous to the continued existence of the republic.

Even beyond your statement that you would abide by “the will of the people,” Donald Trump is the exact kind of man that Hamilton and the other members of the constitutional convention had in mind when creating the Electoral College. There is the very real possibility that Russia influenced the outcome of this election and, indeed, colluded with Trump. His business ties oversees (and large debts to Chinese and Russian banks) make him susceptible to foreign interference.

You have an awesome responsibility, sir. The next 50 – 100 years of American policies, freedoms, and place in the world will be decided in your vote on December 19. We have moved beyond party to a place where the future of our Republic is at stake.

I strongly encourage you to uphold the traditional intentions of the Electoral College and the will of the people of Delaware County by not voting for Donald Trump.

All my best,

Bill Wolff

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Some Thoughts On Life, Hate, and Action in the Post-Normal

I began writing this post several days ago. Since then several people have written and spoken about similar issues, some with more international experience, others with more journalism experience, others through Twitter threads, and others with more emotion. There have also been many “letters to my child” articles. And now John Oliver has weighed in, as well. This post is a combination of sorts with some additional storytelling and indignation. Thanks for reading.

* * *

She says, in this house it’s so easy
To set a world on fire, all you need is a name, the money
And a soul full of reckless desire
Now upstairs the landlord is dining with all of his very close friends
Don’t worry they’ll have their bags packed and be long gone
Before the real fucking begins
—Bruce Springsteen, “Hey Blue Eyes”

Around 1:30 on Wednesday morning, when it became clear what the outcome of the election would be, I said to my wife, “This is it. It’s over. There was yesterday. There was today. But there is no tomorrow. Not in the way we imagined it. Everything we believe in will be taken away overnight. Voting rights. Marriage rights. Medical rights. Social programs. Education funding. Environmental funding. Abortion rights. It’s all gone. We’ll be in a recession before we wake up. Russia will invade the Ukraine and we’ll be at war by summer.”

I had just come from my boys’ rooms where I knelt next to each as he slept, kissed each on his forehead, and apologized for what was about to become. I apologized because they had no idea about the significance of the events. That the world they were growing up in would not be as progressive, open, tolerant, and caring as the one we had imagined. I apologized because I lied when I told them that Hillary Clinton would be the next president (oh, I had taken great pride in knowing that the only presidents they would know in their lifetimes thus far would be a black man and woman). I apologized because I knew hatred would move from hidden to overt and would start that very day. When I left my younger son’s room I burst into tears in the hallway because one day they will understand. One day they will ask us how this happened, how America’s presidency went from moving toward greater equality for all citizens to one run by a con man, a misogynist, a bald-faced liar who makes fun of people with disabilities and surrounds himself with racists, anti-Semites, and bigots. How people chose to overlook hate in so many forms.

I slept maybe an hour that night. The next day I was supposed to go to Chicago for a conference, but cancelled those plans. It was important to be with family instead. The day went by in a fog. On the way to dropping my boys off at school we decided we’d write a letter to Hillary Clinton “because she must be so sad.” I folded laundry and watched Hillary’s concession speech and Obama’s speech on transitions of power—and I screamed at the TV because their calls to move on contribute to normalizing Trump’s hate. I went to the supermarket and walked down the aisles of fruit and cereal and milk wondering how these products were still here, in this place where nothing was the same; I wondered how long they would still appear on the shelves; I looked at the other shoppers, tried to gauge their level of fogginess, wondered if they thought I was a threat, tried to judge if they were. I picked my boys up early from school so we could make caramel apples. I made a healthy dinner for my family. That’s what needed to happen. I needed to make sure they had a healthy meal with such sadness in the house. I was in an alternate reality, trying to assuage the fact that we were post-normal with tufu and veggies and green pasta. I was Gregor Samsa waking up like a bug; Josef K. confronted with a menacing government; Neo seeing the Matrix for the first time; third-grade Philip in The Plot Against America who had been living his typical life in a suburb of Bayonne, NJ, when in June 1940 “the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed.”

That night I drank some Robitussin and slept most of Thursday. In the few hours I was awake, I started singing the closing verse of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” over and again:

Now Tom said, “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry new born baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me mom I’ll be there.
Wherever somebody’s fightin’ for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helpin’ hand.
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free,
Look in their eyes ma you’ll see me.”

I tweeted. A lot. More than I have in years, which is something because I tweet nearly every day. Lots of RTs and favs. I needed an outlet for my anger and a way to work through what I was feeling. Read others who were feeling the same way: Pissed off and ready to act. At some point I tweeted:

And that’s the crux of it for me: Millions of people chose to ignore (or embrace) outright hatred for one reason or another. And there is no excuse for that. Ever.

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