I love talking about ideas. It’s a huge part of what makes academia a good place to be. There are so many demands on our time in the neoliberal university, from meeting increasingly strict publishing standards to rising class sizes, that the very thing we love gets pushed to the sidelines. I have long wanted more space for ideas, outside the formality of the conference, and what better way than to build a conversation around reading?
In academia, our writing is always part of a conversation, built on a longer trajectory of scholarship, and extending that work outwards, to new contexts, new ideas, and including new voices. This year, I’ve found a new way in to those conversations by starting a reading group in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University, where I work as a lecturer in social media. I’ve called it Red Group—as in, the past tense of ‘read’.
In Red Group, there isn’t a set text to read and discuss each month. Instead, people come along to answer one question: What’s the best academic thing you’ve read lately? It’s the kind of question that’s designed to be generative, as it leads to other questions: what did you enjoy about reading it? What does it have to say? How did it help with what you’re researching? Who here has read something else that addresses that topic? Red Group also has the potential to be organised by themes: from ‘tell us about something you read that brought you joy’ to ‘what’s the best piece of writing about surveillance?’
Once someone in Red Group begins the conversation, connections emerge, like playing dominoes: putting down one book leads to another on the same topic, or another work by the same author, or another position in the debate.
I’ve recently read a book from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series: Driver’s License, by Meredith Castile https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/drivers-license-9781628929133/. The series promises sharp, incisive commentary about the lives of ordinary things, and this entry in particular appealed to me as someone who thinks a lot about identity, and how we as messy, complicated people are turned into fixed categories through media. The book also delves into how car culture is tied up with American ideals about youth and freedom, but most importantly, how the license went from being a driving document to an identity document, a tool of mass surveillance and social control.
One example of this is requiring a driver’s license to function as identification when voting; this further disenfranchises those who can’t afford to drive or don’t have a fixed address. Another is the author’s musing on whether driver’s licenses could leave off gender, and instead rely on physical identity markers like the photo, eye colour, and height. ‘Race was once as reified and as essentialized a biological category as gender is now’, Castile reminds us, giving an example of the 1938 licence of a woman from California that included a thumb print instead of photograph and a category for her race.
As someone who researches social media identity, these insights into the history and social context of such a ubiquitous official identification document appealed. I write about online anonymity a lot, challenging the idea that the social media profile adequately represents us as human beings. I’m always interested in the names we choose for ourselves, and how we find ways to keep things private and secret within a network of platforms that want us communicating publicly, through one profile.
Driver’s License and the way it challenges the idea that we’re adequately represented by the data presented on this document reminds me of media sociologist Nick Couldry’s latest book Media: Why It Matters https://politybooks.com/bookdetail/?isbn=9781509515141. In it, Couldry argues that while algorithms are increasingly determining what we see on social media and in the news, algorithms are also involved in the broader project of imagining the world as made up of stable categories and finite pieces of data that are able to be counted. This data then means algorithms present us with a particular version of reality.
Another domino falls into place: that our very identities are made up of data is digital culture scholar John Cheney-Lippold’s argument in We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves https://nyupress.org/9781479857593/we-are-data/. Personal data, like search histories, sort people into temporary emergent categories, measurable types like ‘female’, ‘in a relationship’, ‘interested in movies’. The way large platforms categorise us flattens the nuance of our lived experience and the complexities of our lives, Cheney-Lippold says. It also influences the way platforms make certain information or relationships visible to us.
The way I interpret We Are Data is by finding connections to my own research into social media profiles, identities, and potential anonymities: reading oneself and one’s research into all kinds of different texts becomes a crucial part of the research and writing process. If I’m categorised as a Greens voter by an algorithm, I start thinking, Facebook might infer that I’ll stay on its platform longer if I’m shown posts by other Greens voters, and in that way, I could end up with information that becomes more politically skewed the more I search, click, and scroll.
But are we really all being algorithmically separated into our own filter bubbles? Digital media scholar Axel Bruns wrote Are Filter Bubbles Real? https://politybooks.com/bookdetail/?isbn=9781509536443 as a corrective to this theory: we may be polarised, but we are not disconnected from the world’s information as long as we keep navigating through a variety of channels and platforms every day.
Reading is never really solitary. Even when we’re alone in a quiet room, digital distractions gone, turning the paper pages of a physical book, we’re always drawing from what we know about ourselves and others to make the author’s voice come to life for us. And as I’m constantly reminding my students when we’re studying the media, making and negotiating meaning is hardly a passive endeavour.
When I make links between driver’s licenses, identity categories, data, algorithms, filter bubbles, and social media platforms, I’m playing dominoes by myself. But the connections between texts and ideas become ever more vibrant when others join in. I’m sure that starting Red Group with the idea that data is becoming a foundation of our very selfhood will generate discussion, disagreement, and probably recommendations of more things to read on the subject.
Finding time to read isn’t easy, especially in a time when we’re all facing so much uncertainty and upheaval. In a busy academic job, reading is often the first thing to go when other responsibilities mount. But that doesn’t detract from Red Group. In fact, I’m already anticipating a time when nobody else can make the monthly meet-up, and I’m alone for an hour and a half. It’s no problem. I’ll get some reading done.
Dr Emily van der Nagel is a Lecturer in Social Media in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University. Her first book, co-authored with Dr Katrin Tiidenberg, Sex and Social Media, will be published by Emerald in July 2020. Emily researches social media identities, practices, platforms, and cultures. She tweets at @emvdn.