Logistics and/of Communication

radar1A few years ago, I picked up a paper at a conference poster session written Judd Case, from Manchester College. He was making an argument for radar as a branch of communication theory.  One of his observations really resonated with me – the attention to the concept of logistics.  Drawing on the work of earlier social scientists such as Harold Innis, Lewis Mumford, and Marshall McCluhan and the concept of technic as well as Virilio’s observation of the camera ensuring “logistics of perception,” Case argues that radar is a logistic because it first orders and then represents.  Thus, he argues, there is also a politics of logistics.

If logistics is about ordering and coordinating first, then there is a clear connection to what I call configuration, or the ordering of what exists into something new. Such as a mashup. Logistics seems to go beyond just coordinating or configuring.  It implies an ordering, a perception of relations or how thing (should) relate. Therefore, meaning is strategically built into the structure.  Which then itself structures further action.

Logistics may indeed be different than structuring and ordering by offering a stronger connection to materiality.  In the event of logistical failure some part of the system — some material mechanism — literally breaks. Logistics imply terms such as system capacity, throughput, movement. So failure creates a standstill until the part is fixed or a work around is built.

Case argues there is a politics of logistics. And I think, certainly, interesting potential for new ways of theorizing the politics of systems and of technology.

For an abstract of the dissertation that was the source of this paper, see http://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/474/

2010 Dissertations IV: Activism

Researchers in social movements or social activism face something of a crossroads in the face of the Internet.  Movements are an area of empirical communication research that — at least in traditional research — seem to have effectively identified recurring and successful dynamics and patterns, and to have developed a fairly straightforward agenda for building on research in this area.

One part of that agenda is identifying and documenting cases of movement or activist strategies and tactics, and articulating what is effective, or less so, within these cases. What part, then does the Internet play? I’ve written elsewhere how online communication is opening new questions about what constitutes activism  (“Case Study: Internet and Political Activism”).  Two 2010 dissertations take up this question in different ways.

Amy Pason (PhD University of Minnesota, faculty at U Nevada-Reno) conducted a rhetorical analysis of Cindy Sheehan’s protest of the US involvement in the Iraq War.  Pason examined a wide range of texts, including Sheehan’s online writings. In this sense, Pason has naturalized online communication, as it becomes simply another source of texts.  What is interesting, however, is the way in which Pason uses an online-based metaphor to identify the emergence of (and to advocate for) a new activist strategy. From the abstract of Cindy Sheehan and the peace movement: Networks of care and rhetorical exploits:

“…resistance is defined through the concept of exploit, where, like computer viruses, movements use rhetorical forms to exploit norms of dominant systems to gain access, “recode” norms, or disrupt systems. Movements, employing distributed structures, work to “write code” or build new systems through a politics of the act .”

Activists as hackers? An interesting upending of the formula, though I look forward to future work to really explore the robustness of this idea.

A second part of the agenda of social movement research is to delve deeper into the motivations and identifications of activists. If we accept that there is such a thing as an “activist” identity, what are the communication processes that recruit individuals to that identity, and that keep them engaged and motivated?

Donjin Lim (PhD SUNY-Buffalo) conducted experiments to analyze how processes and practices typically associate with successful activism translated into online social networking contexts. Not surprisingly, Jin found that reciprocity and contact frequency were positively related to enacted support.  Jin measured the extent to which participants engaged in acts of altruism–i.e., completing requested tasks–which could be taken as an indicator of social mobilization.  Interestingly, the extent to which participants held to local social norms was a key factor.  Which raises an interesting paradox — one strength of the Internet is mass mobilization, yet the effectiveness of this mobilization might depend on provincialism.  Further large-scale investigation of “internet activists” might explore this question.

2010 Dissertations III: Celebrity

What is celebrity in the age of social media?  How do those two achieve the status of “celebrity” through other media use online social media to maintain and cultivate celebrity?  Alice Marwick (PhD, NYU, now at Microsoft Research) traces the connection between social media and the drive for celebrity and status, even among ordinary folks.  Which raises an interesting question–if we grant that social media makes interpersonal connection less personal, then what does connection look like?  It is easy to find voices that say that we will be more isolated, less connected.  Yet if we indeed need to connect to one another, a better question is to ask how communication evolves to fulfill that craving.  Perhaps achieving celebrity and status can meet that need.

Those who are already cultural celebrities rely on a strong base of followers to maintain that celebrity.  Clearly, the Internet provides a more accessible space for fans to feed celebrity. But what are the elements that make this more or less successful?  Erin Meyers (PhD, U of Mass., now post doc at Northeastern U) examines blogs to trace how stardom as a cultural phenomenon is changing, particularly allowing ordinary individuals to challenge the industry’s control over creating celebrities.

2010 Dissertations II: Communities Online

For several years, communication scholars debated whether or not a community could exist online. Could something really be a community if there is no physically embodied interaction? What happens to elements we typically associate with community, like accountability, identity, and responsibility?  Communication dissertations defended in 2010 suggest that this question may be turning. These are less interested in the question of defining or characterizing “online community.”  Instead, the overall question seems to have shifted to understanding communities , when they are online.  This might signal a willingness to presume that a community may exist, independent of knowing if it is “virtual” or not.

Once we accept that online communities are simply communities online, this opens the field to a range of rehearsed research questions.  For example, does interacting with a community improves the effectiveness of an intervention? Hua Wang (PhD University of Southern California, faculty at SUNY-Buffalo)  examined the contribution of the social game Wellness Partners (think social media mixed with play) for improvement of participants’ overall wellness. Wang’s results are not conclusive, suggesting that there are different levels of effectiveness (as we might expect in any diverse community of users).

Another standard question is what are the interactional mechanisms that allow a community to sustain itself? Similarly, what communication is harmful to community? Li Wang (PhD Ohio University) uses a structurational perspective to try to explain the mechanisms that allow an dispersed online community- the Communication Initiative— to sustain itself as a community of practice.

A last example here is the question of how participation in a community can help to empower the individuals within it. Kittie Grace (PhD University of Nebraska, faculty at Hastings College) uses Habermas’ theory of the public sphere to trace how women in a health support group came to change their sense of their own authority and confidence in speaking with medical experts about their condition.

As our research continues to move in this direction, we should be careful so that we don’t go too far into taking online community as natural, because this may cause us to miss the opportunity to recognize and interrogate our basic assumptions of what community is, how we theorize it,  and what it might be.

  • Grace, Kittie E.  “Contesting sphere boundaries online: Private/technical/public discourses in polycystic ovarian syndrome discussion groups.” PhD Diss., University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2010. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/dissertations/AAI3412862
  • Wang, Li. “Online communities of practice: A case study of the CI network from a communicative perspective.” Ph.D. Diss., Ohio University, 2010. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=ohiou1273170599
  • Wang, Hua. “Building personal wellness communities: Meaningful play in the everyday life of a network society.” PhD Diss., University of Southern California, 2010. http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~hwang23/Research/JournalArticles/HelenDissertationFinalPubDec2010.pdf

2010 Dissertations I: Blogging

Blog posts offer an interesting new source of text for communication scholars.  They are our modern day equivalent of the soapbox, without needing a public square — and sometimes in contexts where a physical site for open discourse is an impossibility. Online, they sit side-by-side with traditional media, easily consulted and possibly just as likely to influence opinion.

Two communication dissertations examine the influence of blogs on political discourse.  Daniel Munksgaard (University of Iowa) argues that blogs show us “backstage” discourse  — what people really think when social roles and norms hold less sway.  He analyzes three blogging sites and shows “a steady integration of anti-Islamic perspectives within the American Left.”   Sharon Shaojung Wang (SUNY at Buffalo) argues that the openness of blogging is important in post-socialist China. She examines how this type of internet discourse might support a “networked public sphere and nascent civil society.”

Each dissertation is available from UMI.

  • Munksgaard, Daniel Carl. “Warblog without end: online anti-Islamic discourses as persuadables.” PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2010.  http://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/715/
  • Wang, Sharon Shaojung. “The Internet battle between the authorities and the public: The power and the limits of social control and informational capitalism in China’s blogosphere.” PhD diss., State University of New York at Buffalo, 2010. http://gradworks.umi.com/34/23/3423543.html