Researching Hackathons

EcoHack Sketch

a sketch of one of the hackathons where we did participant observation

Well, this past semester was incredibly busy. Although I haven’t been working as much with Youth Rights Media, I did start a research project that I will be pursuing as a master’s thesis this coming year. For awhile now, I’ve been interested in the idea of digital activism and “hacktivism” as it’s been termed. There’s a lot of confused discussion over the use of the term “hack” and how it applies to hackers, hacktivism, and hackathons. Public perceptions and use of the term hacking and hackers leads to some very odd policy decisions, as Molly Sauter points out in this MIT CMS lecture. But digital activism/hacktivism is a much larger barrel of monkeys. When I started working on this subject, I was highly influenced by Joss Hands book, @ is for Activism. I also have been following the discussions and trends around slacktivism/”clicktivism” as Earl and Kimport describe in “Digitally Enabled Social Change” and their “theory 2.0” ideas about how we conceptualize collective identity when dealing with disparate political actors in a digital environment.

These inspirations combined with the last year’s worth of news and events from Occupy and Anonymous and other forms of digital activism, led me to some new questions and ideas. First, is digital activism/hacktivism a collectivizing endeavor? Or is it purely an individualist activity where people wind up working together? As many know, there are difficulties of researching actions and subjects in digital localities. For the past twenty years people have been developing a methodology of netnography, and now we have a trend of combining quantitative analysis with a previously anthropological approach through the use of data mining and fancy coding tools. I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do though.

At the New School, there was no shortage of talk about Occupy – there were even hackathons organized for projects geared towards Occupy-related issues. At the urging of my advisor, I started looking at hackathons as field sites where this sort of digital activism happened in a physical space as well, as a sort of hybrid environment where we could do more traditional participant observation into not just the physical space, but also the “information space” – all the cloud and internet based environments where data was being shared, stored, and drawn from to make these projects happen.

I’m really happy to say it was a great experience. I worked with a fellow grad student (Danny Kim) as a research partner and together we did participant observation at three hackathons  – OccupyResearch at CUNY, EcoHack, and Hack N’Jill, all of which had some sort of identifiable pro-social or political agenda or theme. It was great as a pilot study, and I’m eager to get more into the work this spring. Some of the things we discovered felt like new ideas – unless we’re reinventing the wheel, our findings so far helpful to understanding hackathons and their potential for social or political activism.


Participants working at one of the hackathons

The best TL;DR summary I can give is probably this: it seemed as though hackathons are about solving technology problems, rather than social problems. The time/skill-driven agenda really creates a disconnect between any policy issues that the projects are meant to address and focuses participants on rolling them out in a working and deployable format without a lot of concern towards longevity or application. This isn’t always the case, but what we really saw was an environment where people came to casually demonstrate and practice skills with others, to collaborate and learn, and generally have fun doing something they loved doing. I think this is all very different from the action-driven agenda of activism, although the two are not incompatible.

This sort of work will hopefully lead to our bigger questions, about how individual identity informs a group and helps to create a collective identity, and how a collective identity helps to inform the individual on their role within the group, particularly when dealing with horizontal networks of politically motivated individuals facilitated by technology. I believe this is a recursive sort of relationship, and I’d use the drosde effect as an illustration.

I’ve also submitted our abstract for Critical Themes In Media Studies and Theorizing The Web 2013. I’d love to present on this work or find some new opportunities for study. This semester I’ll be making a stronger effort to blog more frequently about updates to this project.

Encouragement for the New Semester

Classes at the New School started again today. Some of my courses will be online this semester, including Projects In Media Advocacy, a practices course which takes us through the process of creating advocacy messages and learning strategies for dealing with news outlets.

Media studies is one of those things which is commonly dismissed by others as a worthless degree, a shortsighted and somewhat arrogant assertion that grows increasingly weak as the influence and pervasiveness media technologies  extends to every part of our life. In going through one of the readings for the advocacy media course, I found great reason for studying media I’d like to share with everyone who doesn’t think media studies is important (admittedly, those people shouldn’t be listened to in the first place, but let’s be kind):

Today, the mass media… are among the most important institutions maintaining, reinforcing, and reproducing existing inequities in power. Since media controls the range of views to which audiences are exposed, media coverage can obscure – and can even reverse- public opinion towards repressive social policies. Mainstream media promote visions of society that endorse the status quo while silencing, marginalizing and/or absorbing alternative and opposition voices. 1

This reason is 20 years old. As we’ve seen media’s democratization and the political implications of participatory culture have global repercussions, media studies should be recognized as one of the most important areas of scholarship and work for today’s world.

1. Ryan, Charlotte. Prime Time Activism. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1991. 7

The Power of Narratives: Can One Story Survive?

This week, I received an invitation to join Cowbird, a fantastic site that defines itself as “a simple tool for telling stories, and a public library of human experience.” On a more basic level one can see it as an “audio-visual diary” of your life, but the site goal is more to catalogue experiential knowledge through a multimodal narrative format that overarches the “sagas” of its users.

Me, photographed by some installation at the Activist Demo Day at Eyebeam last spring.

The first time I remember hearing about Cowbird was during an Occupy-related event at Eyebeam – I was telling a colleague of mine about my interest in these ideological, mythological forms of information embedded in media, what Barthes would have explained as the “third order signification.” This reminded him of Storify, and Cowbird. Storify was popular at the time because of the way that citizen journalists had used it to help craft the narrative of OccupyWallStreet, but I hadn’t heard of Cowbird. Over the past year I checked into the site occasionally, reading stories and enjoying some of the things that had been shared. Continue reading

Totally Alone in the Universe

I saw this tonight, which highlights an insignificant something that has been bugging me for awhile:

While we wait to establish contact, one technique we can use back on Earth is an equation that American astronomer Frank Drake formulated in the 1960s to calculate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations may exist in the Milky Way galaxy.

It is not a rigorous equation, offering a wide range of possible answers. Instead it is more a tool used to help understand how many worlds might be out there and how those estimates change as missions like Kepler, a telescope that is currently searching for Earth-like planets, begin to discover more about our universe.

Drake Equation infographic

This brought back to mind something I had written in my personal journal a few weeks ago:

On some podcast, someone said that in the case of an alien invasion, they would rather be killed by an alien rather than in the panic of people, because then they would know that humanity is not alone in the universe.

First of all, if there were alien life in the universe, I think the point most people miss is how fundamentally different their form of intelligence is likely to be. I doubt communication is even possible. Continue reading

Preserving Our Junk Culture bzzzt

On the heels of my last post about retaining critical theory with digital applications to the humanities, I saw this pretty interesting thing:

The Long Now Foundation is a group that is concerned with the idea of digital obsolescence.  The thought of our everyday culture being lost though, is a little amusing—

ATTN: In writing this post, I accidentally refreshed all my safari tabs and lost two hours worth of work. I was going to post something really snarky referencing the way we perceive time, Adam Frank’s thoughts on transit of Venus, the tyranny of permanence, typographic culture and Neil Postman’s citing of Michael Welfare’s unintentional attack on the epistemology of the written word, eschatology in modern times and the fear of a digital dark age, and how myth is a form of memory we don’t need digital technology or analog objects for.

Unfortunately all that was lost, and now I’m a bit frustrated. Which is ironic considering the subject matter. But perhaps all that thought being lost proves my point, more than a few thousand words most people won’t remember.


The Critical Theory of Amusements

Last Thursday I went with Youth Rights Media to Lake Compounce, an amusement park in Connecticut – we took the youth there to close out the Summer Institute program.

I have never cared for amusement parks. Everything about them bothers me – the giant parking lots, the lines, the prices, food stands. On top of that, I don’t like the rides themselves. All the feelings of anxiety, excitement, and g-force pressure just don’t make me happy! Perhaps this makes me stuffy. I’ve just never been able to understand why so many people enjoy theme parks, and this is similar to my feelings about sports, pop music,  most television and blockbuster films.

Scholars have found rationale for critiquing these institutions in ways that range from “very stuffy fuddy-duddy” to “brilliant and insightful” that appeal to the like minded, but tend to be ignored by the public. I actually used Noam Chomsky‘s argument about sports being “training in irrational jingoism” to bash the athletic programs at the university where I got my BA. But these sorts of arguments stem from the influence of critical theory. Amusement parks themselves seem to be an embodiment of Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of culture industry, or maybe they just strike me that way as someone who doesn’t like roller coasters.

Continue reading

Youth Media and Organizing

I’ve been busy with, what is it, week three? of Youth Right’s Media’s Summer Institute, which has been going really well. Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to lead a workshop in research skills for a group of about twenty six youth. As anyone who’s worked with teenagers knows, the mere mention of the word “research” can cause one’s eyes to glaze over and induce a slumber so severe, you think they’d been doing relay races all day. But the following day, the interns presented a creative media project we had them do to showcase what they’d found out. I was genuinely surprised by the means by which they presented, as well as the depth of work they’d done. All of them used video projects, but they included different techniques found in other PSAs and advocacy shorts. There was an intuitive knowledge gained during the research by seeing other examples, and it translated very well to the youth emulating that type of product and presenting it to each other.

I’ve also been busy writing a working paper for the Berkman Center’s CFP on “Youth Movements for Social Change / Youth Organizations.” I just submitted my work earlier, which I’m proud of because it drew from my experience at YRM and synthesized it with some foundational and cutting edge work on the subject of media literacy and participatory politics. I’m referring to Henry Jenkins’s White Paper from 2006 and Cohen and Kahne’s recently released Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action. Continue reading