Just the bare necessities of life(stream) – Week 5 summary

My lifestream this week is focused on community. This was partly in response to my reading of the chapter by Lister whom, I felt, took a fairly traditional stance on what we might understand by ‘community’. While Lister stopped short of othering online communities, and while he helpfully argued against the binary of ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ (p. 209), there was still a sense of assessing the new as part of the continuum of the old. Old wine in new wineskins, rather than the other way around.

This week I’ve looked at the make up of MOOC participants, and included a couple of screenshots based on the survey conducted on entry to the course. I started to explore the nature of the community, focusing on the stated motivations of participants to join this MOOC. The variety of explanations might be expected, but I found an interesting mix of fairly passive responses and some which strongly mirrored the expectation of socially constructed knowledge, to which Knox (2015) refers.

Following from this, but sticking with the theme of community, I had great fun attempting to bring a critical perspective to the use of gifs and memes. I even tried creating a few of my own, but found it much harder than expected; there’s a message there about the roles of consumer and producer. I wrote about the impact that memes and gifs might have on community development, and the implications of their ability to be both the object of a community and its vocabulary. There are critical considerations around their currency, their political influence (for example, see here), their relationship to text, the effects of their de/re-contextualisation, and – librarian hat on, sorry – their ownership.


Knox, J. (2015). Critical education and digital cultures. Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory. Singapore: Springer, 1–6.
Lister, M. (2009). Networks, users and economics. In M. Lister (Ed.), New media: a critical introduction (2nd ed, pp. 163–236). Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, N.Y: Routledge.

MOOC motivations

I’m a little overwhelmed by the number of participants on the course – there are hundreds of participant introduction posts, and though there’s very little conversation, I thought I’d do a micro-micro-ethnography on their motivations for taking the MOOC. I haven’t read all of the posts because it’d take hours, but there’s definitely a convergence in terms of the reasons why students admit to signing up for the MOOC.

Here they are. Not in any particular order.

1. I’m a lifelong learner: the phrase comes up fairly frequently, but it’s pretty clear that there are some people on the course who just like learning, and identify as a learner. They haven’t expressed the reason why they chose this particular MOOC, but their principal motivation is learning.

2. I wanted to try out an online course: “Warren Buffet [sic] likes online courses”, writes one person. These are people who are not necessarily confirmed learners, but they’re just testing the waters. It’ll be interesting to see if any of them assess their experiences later on.

3. I work in another industry, but I’m interested in investigative journalism: some people are just interested in the subject, though they’re in other professions or are happily employed in other areas; from what I can tell, they’re not nursing any ambition to switch professions, but journalism is a hobby or something that they find particularly fascinating.

4. I work in another industry, but something is happening in my country and I want to know how to report it: some participants are enrolled in the course in response to a particular problem in their communities, and they want to understand it, to learn how to write about it, and to disseminate what they’ve written.

5. I work in another industry, but I’m interested in becoming an investigative journalist: for some people, this is the first step in their career change to investigative journalism; some are ‘testing the water’, as it were; others are committed to this change, and would like the experience and knowledge.

6. I’m a journalist, and I want to enrich my understanding of my career: wanting to get better at investigative journalism is probably the most commonly cited reason on the introduction boards, and it’s probably the most simple to understand.

7. I’m a journalist, and I want to promote my work and writing: there are a few people openly promoting themselves, their blogs, their businesses; it’ll be interesting to see how (or if) they contribute to discussion where it is less appropriate to mention their twitter handle or link to their LinkedIn page.

8. I’m a journalist, and I’m looking for new collaborative projects: again, these people are openly there for the community, rather than for the content of the learning that they might do.

Gifs and memes

We have tried to demonstrate how human creativity, technological affordance and economic advantage each contribute to shaping our own individual networked media experiences – as both producers and consumers (Lister, p. 231)

When I read Lister last weekend, I added a comment to my notes which said, simply, “GIFS AND MEMES”. I’ve been thinking about gifs and memes a lot lately – a colleague and I share responsibility for a Twitter account for an inanimate metal box (best not to ask, honestly), which posts mainly bad song lyrics, gifs and memes.

Parks And Recreation GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Lister’s chapter, I thought, exhibited an understandable bias toward textual communication, and the development of community through discursive practice. He mentions emoticons but in the context of belonging: the correct deployment of an emoticon is, for Lister, a way for a participant to demonstrate their understanding of the cultural and behavioural norms of that community (p. 214).

Tv GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

There are studies on exclusively visual media (see Highfield and Leaver, 2016, for a short literature review) – on selfies, Instagram, and how these contribute to culture and generate communities. Gifs and memes are almost exclusively visual too, and they have a communicative currency of their own. Tolins and Samermit explore how gifs depict affect and action, and argue persuasively that they’re:

used to reproduce actions that in face-to-face conversation do not require demonstration (2016, p. 77)

So while they’re visual, they have a specific and maybe even symbiotic relationship to text. They’re used, for example, on Twitter, to reiterate a textual point, to indicate humour, to underline a particular emotion or clarify that sarcasm is intended. Or they’re used on their own, in lieu of text, in response to its absence. Highfield and Leaver describe how the visual can sit ‘in concert’ with the textual (2016, p. 49); I think this is a pretty good example of it.

Gilmore Girls GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

One of the things that interests me most about gifs and memes is how they’re decontextualised from their origin – the TV show or news clip or image. One does not simply have to have seen The Fellowship of the Ring to understand that Boromir meme. They don’t have to have heard of Tolkien, let alone read the book. Identity and belonging very much play a part here, but perhaps not in the way that Lister intended.

Star Wars GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

There’s a Facebook site called ‘Memebridge‘, where students at Cambridge can submit memes which are then posted anonymously. There’s one for Oxford and Manchester Universities too, and maybe more – I’m not sure. It’d be interesting to do a mini-ethnography of these pages to explore how the memes are being used and how they generate community and reflect culture. There’s probably room too for some critical thought on the ownership of memes, and the network created by repetition of message and mediation. Memebridge is mostly in-jokes, gentle digs at people or things, and self-deprecation, but I wonder if community here requires a different form of literacy. I haven’t read this yet, but it looks as though Kanai (2016) draws some interesting conclusions after considering socio-cultural approaches to reaction-gifs.

I think there’s still much that could be explored in relation to the themes of this block and the deployment of gifs and memes. I’m wondering now if any of my fellow #mscedc students have created any…



All gifs from Giphy

Highfield, T., & Leaver, T. (2016). Instagrammatics and digital methods: studying visual social media, from selfies and GIFs to memes and emoji. Communication Research and Practice, 2(1), 47–62. https://doi.org/10.1080/22041451.2016.1155332
Kanai, A. (2016). Sociality and Classification: Reading Gender, Race, and Class in a Humorous Meme. Social Media + Society, 2(4). https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305116672884
Lister, M. (2009). Networks, users and economics. In M. Lister (Ed.), New media: a critical introduction (2nd ed, pp. 163–236). Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, N.Y: Routledge.
Tolins, J., & Samermit, P. (2016). GIFs as Embodied Enactments in Text-Mediated Conversation. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 49(2), 75–91. https://doi.org/10.1080/08351813.2016.1164391

On clickbait

This is a nice short talk about online ‘ugliness’ and ‘changing the way you click’. Clicking is a public act, Sally Kohn argues; it’s no longer the case that the media is produced just by big corporations. Now everything we blog, tweet or click is a public act, and this makes us the media editors. That means we decide what gets attention based on what we give our attention to, and this shapes our whole culture.

The tyranny of the loud, she argues, encourages the tyranny of the nasty. And we need to change the incentive before our whole culture gets burned. What gets the most clicks wins – and so we need to change what we click, to stop engaging in the things we don’t like.

I disagree with Kohn on a few things: I think it’s a little naive to consider the public consumers of media as the ‘new media editors’: I believe there are far more insidious forces at work determining what we see and learn about. Some of her advice about dealing with online ‘ugliness’ too makes me pause – I’m not sure it’s a simple as she makes out. But what I do really like is that Kohn does a really good job of finding and calling out the visible implications of algorithmic culture in our media consumption and in the way information is presented to us.

Slowing down?

I had another email from the course leader of the MOOC I’m doing, urging me to get cracking with the ethnography. She writes:

Am assuming the discussion boards will slow down so you may as well go for it now.

It doesn’t appear to be slowing in terms of content or chat, but it’ll be interesting to see if the course leader’s assumption comes true…

Busy, busy

Islands in the Lifestream – Week 4 summary

The anthropologist, Nancy Fried Foster, gave a presentation a couple of years ago to a small group at my institution. She talked about a variety of things but, as a manager, one of the things that stuck with me the most was about helping people cope with change. Her key message was that you need to allow and acknowledge a period of mourning. This pretty much reflects the main theme of my lifestream this week: a definite absence of content, ensuing from the transition from cybercultures to community cultures.

This transitory, momentary grief – a result of this change in focus – accounts for the lack of a richness of detailed, conscientious grappling with key ideas in this theme, or those revealed in the core readings. It also accounts for the attempt at preparedness exhibited in the lifestream, tempered by a general sense of disorientation. I put together, for example, a short and desirous wishlist of things I’d like to read; I’ll add to this throughout the theme. I spent time picking a MOOC, and wrote up my reasons for my choice: something interesting enough for me, but with a clear eye on the ethnographic project which would be based on it. This resulted in me looking for something that I perceived might be emotive and evocative enough to generate cool and engaging ethnographic observations and conclusions. But there’s also been a sense of connectivism about what I’ve written: in a post about MOOCs and folksonomy, for example, I tried to orient some of the new ideas I’d encountered in the article by Stewart with another topic with which I was already familiar.

So it feels as though my lifestream this week has been a set of islands. The topography is the same, and the climate comparable. But the ferry schedule between the islands could do with improvement.

Queen Charlotte Sound New Zealand



Stewart, B. (2013). Massiveness+ openness= new literacies of participation? Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2), 228.
Image credit
CC-BY. Queen Charlotte Sound New Zealand, by Patarika, on Flickr.