Visual Ethics, Networked Selves

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Part of the AHRC Postdigital Intimacies series.

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Visual Ethics, Networked Selves

Postdigital intimacies are ephemeral, often visual, sometimes implicated in vulnerabilities, tensions and risks. Research on spaces between public and private raise ethical issues, creating fresh challenges for researchers.

In this symposium, the ethics and use of ethical methodologies for studying networked selves will be explored. Our speakers borrow from posthumanist, feminist, social justice, queer theory and critical race theory approaches to research. Their contributions will explore how we create knowledge in the context of postdigital intimacies above and beyond traditional ethics. Their methodological perspectives touch on issues connected to selfies, the everyday and intimate visual social media images, participatory human-technology methods, and visualising affect.

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Doing ethics when studying social media: the three Cs - context, care, critique

All research involves making choices, and most of us try to make the best possible choices we can. Yet, as research situations involve people and groups with varying goals and motivations, and we often have a limited understanding of others’ goals and motivations, a good choice is neither self-evident nor universal. I think that is the crux of research ethics. It’s complicated. Perfect solutions rarely exist, and when they do, they are rarely workable off paper. Based on a decade of trying to research multimodal and visual, often sexually explicit, often at least somewhat vulnerable social media practices well, in a way that creates valuable insights, but does not abuse people, situations or trust, I’ve come up with three Cs for doing research ethics. In this talk, I will share the three Cs, discuss how I arrived at them, what’s difficult about each of them alone, and what combining them contributes. I think research ethics should be approached as an interative, pragmatic process, trying to avoid both the limitations of procedural ethics that cast ethics as an annoying hurdle on the way towards what is actually meaningful, and the dogmatism of the idealist approaches that dreams up ethics procedures unsustainable in most lived, empirical fieldsites. I hope the three Cs do that and am looking forward to a discussion.

An Ethics of the Ordinary: Reflections on Boredom and Networked Media

Reflecting on my research into boredom and networked media, this paper rehearses some of the ethical problems that accrue in a postdigital culture around the promise that our media technologies can visualise, classify, sense and even predict our emotions. By looking at boredom-themed content on short-form video platforms Vine and TikTok, I ask what is at stake in the framing of boredom as legible, eventful, and entertaining. Like reaction GIFs, these short videos display a particular fascination with facial expression, actions, gestures, and movements, and a drive to classify, pattern, and synchronise human moods and behaviours. At play is a process of abstraction and reduction, in which lived emotions are tamed and classified, made available for use in networked exchanges, and transformed into a source of profit for social media corporations. I argue that boredom-themed media is particularly interesting because of its fundamental ambiguity, which gives it the potential to work within appropriative structures, or to resist them.

In this talk, I want to reflect on the ethical questions involved in this process of extraction and re-appropriation of human emotions. What does it mean to “feel through” other bodies in networked exchanges? What kind of ethical relations might be established through the naming and sharing of emotions online? What role do the technical affordances of social media platforms play in permitting or limiting ethical responses to the visual display of human gestures, expressions, and movements? The talk goes on to ask how media scholars can attend to such questions in their own research in a way that resists the drive to classify, name and fix their meanings. Here I reflect on what it means as a researcher to speak on behalf of the bored body, given boredom’s constitutive opacity. How can researchers restore the thickness and ambivalence of boredom without re-inscribing the violent logics of classification and surveillance that we are analysing? I conclude that what is needed is an ethics of the ordinary, which might attend to the vulnerabilities, ambiguities and desires that flow through the textures of networked life.

“I’m gonna put a computational hex on you?”

An algorithm can function like a computational hex, a love potion (or something) for the digital age. While digital sexual labors have become commonplace over the last twenty years, algorithms are increasingly important to workers and the desiring alike. One magick leads to another--performers perform in videos released online. Those videos serve to expose performers to broad audiences, and that exposure leads in turn to the production of new, more independent media, including, among much else, NSFW Twitter and OnlyFans accounts. The algorithm is an instrument, or ingredient, for lusty seduction. During COVD-19, performers have had to extend their creative witching, as key income streams, tied to mainstream productions, as well as the escorting many workers engage in, have dried up. These are not the first plague years queers have faced, nor the first instance in which collective sexual inventiveness meets the moment.

Speaker Bios

Katrin Tiidenberg (Professor of Participatory Culture at Tallinn University) is a social media, sexualities and visual cultures researcher from Estonia. Her recent books include "Selfies, why we love (and hate) them" (2018), “Sex and Social Media” (2020, with Emily van der Nagel) and the curated collection “Metaphors of the internet” (2020, with Annette Markham). Kat serves on the Executive Board of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) and is currently working on two research projects - Rethinking sexuality with Jenny Sunden and Susanna Paasonen and DigiGen. More info at

Tina Kendall is Associate Professor of Film & Media at Anglia Ruskin University. She has published in a range of journals, including New Formations: A Journal of Culture, Theory and Politics, Necsus: European Journal of Media Studies, and Journal of Film & Media Studies. Her current project, Entertained-or-Else: Boredom and the Affective Technologies of #LockdownLife analyses boredom and networked media, particularly as the relationship between the two have come to be intensified during the Coronavirus crisis.

Shaka McGlotten is Professor of Media Studies and Anthropology at Purchase College-SUNY, where they also serve as Chair of the Gender Studies and Global Black Studies Programs. Their work stages encounters between black study, queer theory, media, and art. They have written and lectured widely on networked intimacies and messy computational entanglements as they interface with qtpoc lifeworlds. They are the author of Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect, and Queer Sociality, published by SUNY Press in 2013. They are also the co-editor of two edited collections, Black Genders and Sexualities (with Dana-ain Davis) and Zombies and Sexuality (with Steve Jones). Their book Dragging: In the Drag of a Queer Life, forthcoming from Routledge, and their current project, Black Data, have been supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Akademie Schloss Solitude, and Creative Capital | The Andy Warhol Foundation.

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An AHRC research network on Postdigital Intimacies and the Netwokred Public-Private.

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