Disentangling From Research

When I began browsing Reddit in 2008, or so, I never knew it would become such an important part of my academic career. What was once a hobby and a source of information quickly became a vital site of analysis for my PhD work, and eventually the primary source material for my dissertation. However, as often happens after one spends several years researching and writing on a single topic, my fascination with Reddit quickly turned into disillusionment and, often, annoyance. This was no more apparent than during the 2016 presidential campaign when r/The_Donald began plugging up the front page and more of the content began to feel like regurgitated propaganda from the alt-right. Instead of interesting insights and compelling stories, I now saw various results of my dissertation reproduced in different ways; memes now seemed like neoliberal diatribes and potentially altruistic acts seemed cynical and manipulative. Ultimately, after the 2016 election, I decided to leave Reddit for good.

Coincidentally (I believe), my website was hacked around the same time and my domain-name service insisted I remove and replace all of my content to make sure nothing malicious had been left on my site. I obliged, and after several months, I have re-established my site and blog, and I hope to being populating it with new, interesting posts and conversations about digital culture and politics. In addition, having landed a job in acquisitions at the MIT Press, I now find myself outside of the world of professional academic research and in the land of publishing. Thus, I have no official research agenda that demands my attention, and I am free to try explore new approaches to writing and blogging.

Despite my newfound freedom to investigate whatever regions of the internet that I want, Reddit always seems to be a hub for the discourse and content that interests me. Maybe this is the result of Reddit becoming one of the largest websites in the world during the period in which I wrote my dissertation; maybe this is the result of me spending most of my time on the site for nearly six years; maybe this is a psychological disorder. I’m not sure. But, I can say that it has been difficult to disentangle myself from my dissertation research and try a fresh approach to analyzing digital culture and politics. I think this must be a problem for anybody emerging from an extensive research project that requires an extremely narrow focus. By the time one has finished a project, everything continues to relate to what has already been discovered.

So, the question for me becomes: how can I broaden my research agenda after spending so many years narrowing it? Certainly, my position at the MIT Press has helped broaden my research agenda. As an assistant to Doug Sery, senior acquisitions editor for new media, design, digital humanities and HCI, I am in contact with some of the leading scholars of digital culture, and I regularly encounter new research that inspires me; and as a member of the MIT community, I have a tremendous opportunity to attend lectures and symposia by industry and cultural leaders. In fact, I recently attended the symposium, Diversifying Barbie and Mortal Kombat: a series of panel discussions on diversification in gaming led by MIT’s MLK professor, Dr. Kishonna Gray. While I greatly enjoyed the panels and conversation, I inevitably began revisiting a variety of aspects in my dissertation. With an entire chapter of my dissertation focused on GamerGate, how could I not be thinking about Reddit during discussions of diversity in gaming?

But, I don’t want to solely consider Reddit anymore; I want to focus on theorizing digital cultures and politics, at large, rather than focus on a single, specific platform. How are the contemporary cultural practices, political economic formations, and modes of information distribution always-already formed? How do we understand “new” media that is foundationally situated within traditional societal institutions, and how do we critically engage with it while avoiding the pitfalls of the utopian/dystopian discourse that perennially pops up as a new platform gains traction?

So, consider this my blog’s new mission statement. While I will be discussing Reddit on occasion (although I’m seriously going to avoid it as much as possible), I hope to start writing more broadly about digital culture, in addition to exploring a wide variety of different models of digital culture while unpacking their historical underpinnings and grappling with their political implications. Following the lead of Henry Jenkins, my work will be, in many ways, the writings of an “aca-fan.” I’m approaching digital culture as both a critic, as well as a member of the community, deeply immersed in the cultures that have developed across digital networks. However, I also hope to avoid what Evgeny Morozov terms “internet-centric” thinking by exploring the historical roots that are implicit within the digital networks that connect contemporary cultures, while interrogating a wider range of cultural products that interest me, such as chess, hip hop, television and film. I intend to avoid the moral panics that often surround emergent media forms, but at the same time, maintain a critical eye towards innovation, digitization and digital discourse.

Nevertheless, I’m still more than willing to talk about my dissertation findings and research if it applies to recent events. So, when Ken Cagne approached me a couple weeks ago to appear on an upcoming episode of his podcast, Polygamer, to discuss my findings on GamerGate and Reddit, I gladly agreed. Who am I to say no when some lets me ramble on for an hour?

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