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You may be awakening to a new reality.twelve cutting-edge activists, scholars, and change-makers probe the deep roots of our current predicament while reflecting on the social DNA for a post-capitalist future. We learn about seed-sharing in agriculture, blockchain technologies for networked collaboration, cosmolocal peer production of houses and vehicles, creative hacks on law, and new[...]

Open access article processing charges 2011 – 2021

by: Heather Morrison, Luan Borges, Xuan Zhao, Tanoh Laurent Kakou & Amit Nataraj Shanbhoug

Abstract

This study examines trends in open access article processing charges (APCs) from 2011 – 2021, building on a 2011 study by Solomon & Björk (2012). Two methods are employed, a modified replica and a status update of the 2011 journals. Data is drawn from multiple sources and datasets are available as open data (Morrison et al, 2021). Most journals do not charge APCs; this has not changed. The global average per-journal APC increased slightly, from 906 USD to 958 USD, while the per-article average increased from 904 USD to 1,626 USD, indicating that authors choose to publish in more expensive journals. Publisher size, type, impact metrics and subject affect charging tendencies, average APC and pricing trends. About half the journals from the 2011 sample are no longer listed in DOAJ in 2021, due to ceased publication or publisher de-listing. Conclusions include a caution about the potential of the APC model to increase costs beyond inflation, and a suggestion that support for the university sector, responsible for the majority of journals, nearly half the articles, with a tendency not to charge and very low average APCs, may be the most promising approach to achieve economically sustainable no-fee OA journal publishing.

A preprint of the full article is available here: https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/42327

The two base datasets and their documentation are available as open data:

Morrison, Heather et al., 2021, “2011 – 2021 OA APCs”, https://doi.org/10.5683/SP2/84PNSG, Scholars Portal Dataverse, V1

Citation: cite the original URL rather than this blogpost URL (article); if citing data, use the citation above.

Morrison, H., Borges, L., Zhao, X., Kakou, T.L., Shanbhoug, A.M. (2021). Open access article processing charges 2020 – 2021. Preprint. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons. https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/42327

CODE NL-D over het terugwinnen van onze digital agency

Graag nodigen we iedereen uit voor het symposium CODE NL-D, over het terugwinnen van onze digital agency: https://impakt.nl/code-nld/
Het symposium vindt online plaats op zaterdag middag 26 juni 2021 van 14:00 – 17:30 uur.

Connected Digital Europe (CODE) NL-D is een samenwerking tussen IMPAKT [Centrum voor Mediacultuur], (NL) en School of Machines, Making & Make-believe in Berlijn, (DE). CODE NL-D brengt kunstenaars, bezorgde burgers, politici en beleidsmakers samen om de dialoog en kritische discussie aan te gaan op het gebied van digital agency.

Het eerste symposium draait om de vragen ‘Wat voor soort verandering willen we?’ en ‘Hoe kunnen we bijdragen aan deze verandering?’ We zullen elk onderwerp afzonderlijk behandelen door middel van twee paneldiscussies, waarbij we de confrontatie aangaan met kwesties betreffende huidige en nieuwe technologieën en hun maatschappelijke impact. Met een focus op het wetgevingslandschap in Duitsland en Nederland, willen we het potentieel begrijpen van interdisciplinaire samenwerkingen en artistieke interventies om systeemverandering tot stand te brengen.

Sprekers zijn:

• Evelyn Austin (Bits of Freedom);
• Leonieke Verhoog (Public Spaces);
• Queeny Rajkowski (Comissie digitale zaken tweede kamer en tweede kamerlid voor de VVD);
• Jillian York (Auteur en directeur internationale vrijheid van meningsuiting bij de Electronic Frontier Foundation);
• Marek Tuszynski (Creatief directeur en mede-oprichter van Tactical Tech);
• Sarah Grant (Oprichter van de interactieve mediastudio Cosmic.Berlin).

Meer informatie, programma en tickets: https://impakt.nl/code-nld/

One Scream is All it Takes: Voice Activated Personal Safety, Audio Surveillance, and Gender Violence

Just a few days ago,  London Metro Police Officer Wayne Couzens pled guilty to the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by, a 33-year-old woman he abducted while she walked home from a friend’s house.  Since the news broke of her disappearance in March 2021, the UK has been going through a moment of national “soul-searching.” The national reckoning has included a range of discussions–about casual and spectacular misogynistic violence, about a victim-blaming criminal justice system that fails to address said violence–and responses, including a vigil in south London that was met with aggressive policing, that has itself entered into and furthered the UK’s soul-searching. There has also been a surge in the installation of personal safety apps on mobile phones; One Scream (OS), “voice activated personal safety,” is one of them.

Available for Android and iOS devices, OS claims to detect and be triggered by a woman’s (true) “panic scream,” and, after 20 seconds and unless the alarm is cancelled, it will send both a text message to the user’s chosen contacts and an automated call with the location to a nominated contact. The app is meant to help women in situations where dialing 999, (assumed to be the natural and preferred response to danger), is not viable for the user and, in the ideal embodiment, this nominated contact, “the helper,” is the police. OS did automatically contact police (and required a paid subscription) in 2016, but it did not work out well and by 2018, was declared a work in progress: “What we really want is for the app to dial 999 when it detects a panic scream, but first, we need to prove how accurate it is. That’s where you come in. . .” OS is currently in beta and free (while in beta). It is unclear whether the developers have given up with that utmost expression of OS

OS is based on the premise that men fight and women scream —“It is an innate response for females in danger to scream for help”—and its correct functioning requires its users to be ready to do so, even if such an innate and instinctive response doesn’t come naturally to them: “If you do not scream, the app will not be able to detect you.” However, there are two discriminations in terms of scream analysis, in how the app discriminates while listening for and to screams, and in failing to detect or respond to them. The first has to do with who can use the app (i.e., whose panicked screams are able to trigger it) in the first place. This is presented in terms of gender and age—for the moment, OS can listen to “girls aged 14+ and women under 60,” where cisgender, as in anything OS, is taken for granted.   It is, however, a matter of acoustic parameters set by the developers (notably, of reaching a certain high pitch and loudness threshold). Which is why the app was implemented to include a “screamometer” for potential users to scream, hard, figure out, and see whether they can reach “the intensity that is needed to set it off” (confetti means they do). The second one discriminates true panicked screams from other types of screams (e.g., happiness, untrue panic). As presented by the developers, both discriminations are problematic and misleading, and so is “the science behind screaming” One Scream‘s website boasts of. 

The app does not quite distinguish true from fake screams, nor joy from panic for that matter.  Instead, One Scream listens for “roughness,” which a team of scream researchers—it truly is a “tiny science lesson” —has identified as scream’s “privileged acoustic niche” for communicating alarm.  According to this 2015 study in Current Biology,  “roughness” is the distinctive quality of effective, compelling human screams (and of artificial alarms) in terms of their ability to trigger listeners and in terms of perceived urgency. Abrupt increases in loudness and pitch are not unique to screams. The rougher the scream, then, the greater its perceived “alarmess” and its alarming effect. That’s why developers say OS “hears real distress,” essentially “just as your own ear.” However, other studies suggest your own ears might not be so great at distinguishing happiness from fear and scream research, and particularly the specific “bit” OS builds on, by and large assumes, relies on, and furthers the irrelevance of “real” on the scream vocalizer end.  

In OS’s pledge to its users, the app’s fine-tuning to its scream niche—i.e., to rough temporal modulations between 30 and 150Hz—is as important, as is the developers (flawed) insistence on the irredeemably uniqueness of true panic’s scream vocalizations, which they posit are instinctive and can’t be plotted or counterfeit: “Experience has shown that it is difficult for women to fake their scream.” Yet, current scream analysis and research primarily and largely relies on screams delivered by human research subjects (often university students, ideally drama students) in response to prompts for the purposes of studying them as well as, especially, on screams extracted from commercial movies and sound effect libraries. The same applies to the other types of vocalizations (e.g., neutral and valenced speech, screamed sentences, laughter, etc.) produced or retrieved for the purposes of figuring out what it is that makes a scream a scream, and how to translate that into a set of quantifiable parameters to capitalize on that knowledge, regardless of the agenda. 

Because of their interest for audio surveillance applications, screams are currently a contested object and a hot commodity. Much as is the case with other scream distinction/detection enterprises, the initial training of OS most likely involved that vast and available bank of crafted scream renditions—by professional actors, machines, combinations of those, by and for an industry otherwise partial to female non-speech sounds—conveniently the exact type of “thick with body” female voicings OS is also invested in. For some readers, myself included, this might come across as creepy and, science-wise, flimsy. 

Screencap of ad for Chilla, a scream alert app developed in India

Scream research often relies on how human listeners recruited for the cause respond to audio samples. Apparently, whether the scream is “real,” acted, or post-produced is neither something study subjects necessarily distinguish nor a determining factor in how they rate and react. In terms of machines learning to scream-mine audio data, it is what it is: “natural corpora with extreme emotional manifestation and atypical sounds events for surveillance applications” are scarce, unreliable, and largely unavailable because of their private character. That is no longer the case for OS, which has been accruing, and machine-learning from, its beta-user screams as well as how users themselves monitor/rate their screams and the app’s sensibility. OS users’ screams might not be exactly ad lib, as users/vocalizers first practice with the “screamometer” to learn to scream for and as a means to interface with OS, but it’s as natural a corpora as it gets, and it’s free for the users of the screams. OS not only echoes “voice stress analysis” technologies invested in distinguishing true from fake or in ranking urgency, but, as part and parcel of a larger scream surveillance enterprise, also public surveillance technologies such as ShotSpotter, all of which Lawrence Abu Hamdan has brilliantly dissected in his essay on the recording of the police gunshots that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

Chilla is a strikingly similar app developed and available in India—although there’s a nuanced difference in the developer’s rationale for Chilla, which in its pursuance of scream-activated personal safety also aims to compensate for the fact that many girls and women don’t call “parents or police” for help when harassed or in danger. As presented, Chilla responds both to assaults and to women’s ambivalence towards their guardians. The latter is, too, a manifestation of the breadth of gender-based violence as a socio-cultural problem, one that Chilla is trained to fail to listen to and one that, because of OS’s particular niche user market, is simply out of the purview of its UK counterpart.

That problem–and that failure–is neither exclusive to India nor to scream-activated personal safety apps. Calling 999 in the UK, 911 in the US, or 091 in Spain, where I am writing, doesn’t come naturally to many targets of sexual and gender-based violence because they don’t conceive police as a help or because, directly, they see it as a risk—to themselves and/or to others. As Angela Ritchie has copiously documented in Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, women of color and Black women in particular are at extremely high risk for rape and sexual abuse by police officers, as high as 1 in 5 women in New York City alone.

OS, then,  is framed as a pragmatic, partial answer to a problem it doesn’t solve: “We should never have to dress in a certain way…but we do.” The specifics of how OS would actually “save” or even has saved its users in particular scenarios go unexplained, because OS is meant to help with feeling safe; getting into the details, and the what ifs, compromises that service. This sense of safety has two components and is based on two promises: one, that OS will listen to your (panic) scream, and, two, as of now via the intermediacy of your contacts, the police will go save you. The second component and its assumed self-evidence speaks to the app’s whiteness and of its target market of white, securitized, cisgender female subjects. 

Image of woman walking alone, entitled “Can You Hear Me Screaming?” by Flickr User Stefano Corso (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Over and above its acoustic profiling, the app is simply not designed with every woman in mind. OS’s branding is about a certain lifestyle—of going for early runs and dates with cis-men, of taking time for yourself because you’re super busy at your white-collar job and going for night runs, of taking inspiration from “world” women and skipping if running isn’t for you.  This lifestyle is also sold: sold as always under the threat of rape–despite its “rightfulness”–sold in a way that animates the feelings of insecurity and disempowerment that One Scream advertizes itself as capable of reversing.  Safety, then, is sold as retrievable with OS

Wearable or otherwise portable technologies to keep women “safe,” specifically from sexual assaults, are not new and are varied. These have been vigorously protested, particularly from feminist standpoints other than the white, securitized, capitalist brand OS professes—because, in (partly) delegating safety on technologies women then become personally responsible for, these technologies  further “blame” women.  For authorities and the patriarchy, this shift in blame is a relief. In discussing the racialized securitization of US university campuses, Kwame Holmes notes how despite “reactionary attacks” on campus feminism (e.g., so-called “snowflakes” complaining about bad sex) and authorities’ effective reluctance to acknowledge and challenge rape culture, anti-sexual assault technologies tend to be welcomed and accepted. As Holmes also notes, there’s no paradox in that. Those technologies flatten the discussion, deactivate more radical feminist critiques and potential strategies, and protect the status quo—not so much women and not those who, whenever an alarm sounds and especially when security forces respond, readily become insecure.  

For some readers, OS might have a dystopian sci-fi movie feel. Filmmakers have come up with more radical, yet low-tech, “solutions” and uses of high-pitched triggers. In Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983), blowing whistles, the Women’s Army bicycle brigade confronts rapists and sexual assaulters. The WA members, too, confront sexual harassers on the New York City subway, which wasn’t imagined to be equipped with CCTV.

It is not a stretch to think that OS could potentially amplify the insecurities of Bblack and brown people subject to white panic (screams) and to its violence, something other audio surveillance technologies are already contributing to, at least it’s not a greater stretch than to entertain situations in which police would show up and save an OS user before it’s too late. Even if it’s never triggered, as developers seem to assume will be the case for the majority of installed units—”Many people have never faced a situation where they have had to panic scream”—it’s trapped in a securitization logic that ultimately relies on masculine authority, one that calls for the expansion of CCTV cameras, wherein women are never quite secure (see Sarah Everard’s vigil). 

One Scream’s FAQs cover selected worries that users have or OS anticipates they might have. Among these, there are privacy concerns (i.e., does it listen to your conversations?) and the fear the alarm will activate “when it shouldn’t.” In the Apple Store user reviews, there’s a more popular type of concern: OS not responding to users’ screams. In other words, there’s simultaneously a worry about OS listening and detecting too much and about OS failing to listen “when it matters.” These anxieties around OS’s listening excesses and insufficiencies touch on (audio) surveillance paradoxical workings: does OS encroach on the everyday life of those within users’ cell phones’ earshot while not necessarily delivering on an otherwise modest promise of safety in highly specific scenarios? There’s a unified developer response to these concerns: OS “is trained to detect panic screams only.”

Featured Image: By Flicker User Dirk Haun. Image appears to be a woman screaming on a street corner, but is actually an advertisement on the window of a T-Mobile cell phone shop (CC BY 2.0)

María Edurne Zuazu works in music, sound, and media studies, and researches the intersections of material culture and sonic practices in relation to questions of cultural memory, social and environmental justice, and the production of knowledge (and of ignorance) in the West during the 20th and 21st centuries. María has presented on topics ranging from sound and multimedia art and obsolete musical instruments, to aircraft sound and popular music, and published articles on telenovela, weaponized uses of sound, music and historical memory, and music videos. She received her PhD in Music from The CUNY Graduate Center, and has been the recipient of Fulbright and Fundación La Caixa fellowships. She is a 2021-2022 Fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities. 

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How To Read Russian Literature Backwards

How To Read Russian Literature Backwards

By Muireann Maguire

In June 2018, three years ago to the day as I write, a conference called ‘Plagiarizing Posterity: Reading the Nineteenth Century Backwards’ took place at the University of Exeter with financial support from the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Study Groups of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES), and the College of Humanities at the University of Exeter. The keynote speakers were Ilya Vinitsky (Princeton University) and Timothy Langen (University of Missouri). Delegates attended from Cambridge, Leeds, London, and St Andrews, joining many curious students and colleagues from Exeter. We were united by our diligent, often erudite, and unfailingly humorous exploration of an idea first limned by the French Oulipo: that past writers might have stolen ideas, topics, and even characters from their literary posterity. Pierre Bayard calls this idea ‘anticipatory plagiarism’, and his monograph on the topic identifies several distinguished precedents. Did you know that Voltaire plagiarized Conan Doyle? Or that Maupassant anticipated Proust, or that Shakespeare nicked T.S. Eliot’s best ideas? Plagiarism by anticipation is both quaintly ludicrous and unexpectedly fecund, overturning familiar notions of literary adaptation (and anxiety of influence). As a character in David Lodge’s novel Small World points out, ‘“…[W]ho can read Hamlet today without thinking of Prufrock? [Or]… Ferdinand in The Tempest without being reminded of ‘The Fire Sermon’ section of The Waste Land?”’

Taking a leaf out of Lodge (or possibly taking back notions he anticipated from us in the first place), we dedicated our day to re-reading the Russian nineteenth-century classics through a reverse prism. When the Universities of Exeter and Missouri later allowed Tim Langen and me funding to publish selected ‘Plagiarizing Posterity’ conference proceedings as an Open Access volume with OBP, we jumped at the opportunity. That was how Reading Backwards: An Advance Retrospective on Russian Literature took shape. To cohere our approach, we asked our contributors to focus on just three canonical authors, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, to be analysed as alternately (or, sometimes, simultaneously) perpetrators and victims of advance plagiarism. How would we read Gogol differently, Tim Langen speculated, if we knew he had appropriated his ontology of absurdity from early twentieth-century author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, who snaffled his own aesthetic from Irish satirist Flann O’Brien? What if Dostoevsky had borrowed the ethical tensions of The Brothers Karamazov from both J.M. Coetzee’s prose and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, as Michael Bowden suggested? Or if Tolstoy’s Andrei Bolkonskii, one of the troubled heroes of War and Peace, was stolen by Homer to serve as a prototype for the Iliad’s Achilles, as Svetlana Yefimenko plausibly contends?

As playful as anticipatory plagiarism may seem, it is also strikingly useful. As Eric Naiman writes (in his wry and wise Afterword to our volume, ranging from Pushkin to Proust), anticipatory plagiarism works best as ‘a heuristic conceit’, rebuffing the rigid systematism of many contemporary academic methodologies, while lending scholars the confidence to develop unexpected yet richly revealing comparisons between genres, eras, authors and artists. What if, Ilya Vinitsky asks, Gogol had recognized his own image in Raphael’s Transfiguration? Ilya’s essay argues for the interdependence of Gogol’s inspirations (including the famous mute scene from The Government Inspector, and his much-reviled Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends) with famous Russian and European artworks. Steven Shankman makes the case that the ‘philosophical poet’ Tolstoy anticipated the teachings of the ‘poetic philosopher’ Levinas. Two of the essays in Reading Backwards explore the Bayardian notion of ‘reciprocal’, or two-way, plagiarism. Inna Tigountsova’s essay explores the self-plagiarism committed by a composite being called Petroevsky (a mix of Dostoevsky and contemporary author Liudmila Petrushevskaia), which perpetuates and feminizes the frustration experienced by Dostoevsky’s iconic Underground Man. My own contribution reveals the history of reciprocal theft (as well as sadly one-sided admiration) between Tolstoy and the now-neglected Victorian novelist Hall Caine. None of our contributors ever suggest that anticipatory plagiarism is ever other than logically impossible. David Gillespie and Marina Korneeva do not seriously allege that Dostoevsky stole the material for Notes from the House of the Dead from Guzel’ Yakhina’s contemporary bestseller Zuleikha, a novel set in Stalin’s camps for political exiles. But by juxtaposing these books and throwing their common elements into sharp relief, they show us something new about Dostoevsky and Yakhina – and their writings. As Svetlana Yefimenko argues, anticipatory plagiarism ‘serves to illuminate latent tendencies’ in plagiarist and plagiarized alike, tendencies which help us to understand both authors better – demonstrating the underlying continuity of fictional themes, and the undying relevance of great writing.

Childhood’s End, a 1953 science fiction classic by Arthur C. Clarke, provides a useful allegory for conceptualizing anticipatory plagiarism (between Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians and Flann O’Brien’s omnium, Reading Backwards is already fertile ground for scientific fantasy). In Clarke’s narrative, Earth is visited by a technologically superior alien species, the so-called Overlords. At first reluctant to appear in person, they eventually reveal their true form: tall, winged, and horned beings long-familiar from the global iconography of demons. One befuddled human character asks, logically enough, whether the aliens had made a previous, unfortunate visit to our planet – thus leaving their image in our race memory. But, as the Overlords explain, ‘“[…] that memory was not of the past, but of the future”’ (a phrase, no doubt coincidentally, appropriated more than twenty years earlier by one of the writers discussed in our volume, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, for the title of his 1929 novella, ‘Memories of the Future’). Because these aliens are destined to be present at the end of the human race, humanity has somehow retained an advance impression of their appearance – long before they ever physically appeared. ‘“It was as if a distorted echo had reverberated round the closed circle of time, from the future to the past. Call it not a memory, but a premonition.”’[1] Whether or not we can remember our future, the concept of literature as an achronological continuum – where ideas can migrate backwards and forwards between authors long-dead and not-yet-born – is at the heart of our book. Each of the essays in the present volume can be read independently, but taken together, they sparkle with the creative energy and originality unlocked by scholarly ‘reading backwards’.

Muireann Maguire, University of Exeter
June 2021



[1]Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (London and Sydney: Pan Books, 1974), p. 180.

All Incomplete

All Incomplete Stefano Harney and Fred Moten Building on the ideas Harney and Moten developed in The Undercommons, All Incompleteextends the critical investigation of logistics, individuation and sovereignty. It reflects their chances to travel, listen and deepen their commitment to and claim upon partiality. All Incomplete studies thehistory of a preference for the force and ground and underground of social … Continue reading →

The genealogy of LiveLeak

In early May 2021, the internet lost a controversial yet vital part of its history. Seemingly out of the blue, video hosting platform LiveLeak shut down. It was a staple website for gore content, especially among millennials or other early internet users, and for its information transparency and unrestricted censorship to citizen journalists, whistleblowers and hacktivists. The seemingly disparate demographic of LiveLeak is intertwined by neoliberal ideals foundational to the internet: information wants to be free, individual freedom of expression and free-market capitalism.

In the current digital climate, however, these neoliberal ideals require habituation. Numerous alt-tech platforms premised on unrestricted censorship rise and fall through the co-optation by those groups subjected by the consequences of free information and individual freedom: (right-wing) extremist, racists or conspiracists. In recent years, this form of habituating irresponsible behavior, immoralization and the disciplining of subjects is enclosed in the term digital hygiene. This euphemism for the developing field of digital biopolitics not only disciplines users, but extends to a broader context of controlling information freedom as well. LiveLeak now redirects to the new, more sanitized ItemFix.com: a website where visitors are encouraged to engage with uploaded content by remixing and re-uploading it, emphasizing participatory culture and memetics. More importantly, ItemFix has a strict content policy, something both Ogrish and LiveLeak firmly opposed. Tracing the maturity of LiveLeak from Ogrish to ItemFix creates an allegorical umbilical cord connected to the internet’s coming of age.

Childhood

During LiveLeak’s infancy as Ogrish, the website was related to the Shock blog or gore porn discourse (you might remember rotten.com or Goatse). The website hosted videos of atrocities such as executions, suicides, beheadings, rape, general mutilation. It can also be labeled as dark tourism by providing fetishized sight. Gore porn is used metaphorically to instill some form of morality in the viewer’s mind. This is reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s theories on metaphors but did not resist Ogrish and its visitors to become a market that fetishized unethical video content. The spectatorship of body horrors, as Tait calls it, was the main characteristic of the website, where context and significance seemed to be shed as excess skin on a snake.

As Orgish became a pre-teen between ’05 and ’06, Tait recognized that it wished to reposition its views on the spectatorship of body horror in a way that’d become more political. The shift of making body horrors more ethical was positively embraced, as legacy media used (edited) content from the website in news items on US invasion in Iraq (such as the beheading of Nick Berg). These changes, its newsworthiness appeal and moralization of gore content became the culmination that leads Ogrish to the high school and college stage of its life: LiveLeak.

Transgressive teen or ambitious adolescent?

While LiveLeak was the result of the domestication and moralization of gore porn, its fetishizing sight still remained under the hood. This led to a dichotomy in how the same content is perceived. CCTV footage leaked information or just straightforward captures of unethical activity: LiveLeak offered a platform for all types of content in name of redefining the media, as their tagline goes. Closing in their relationship to news, the platform and its content providers purposefully tried to establish itself as the cousin of the news who, by sifting through horrendous content, were destined to show what’s really going on. [I]mages of atrocity are understood to make a call to conscience, to enable the viewer to bear witness to scenes cleansed from mainstream media through repressive standards of taste and decency,’ as Sue Tait puts it.  

[I]mages of atrocity are understood to make a call to conscience, to enable the viewer to bear witness to scenes cleansed from mainstream media through repressive standards of taste and decency.

But because of its participatory nature and the increased interest in the platform–stemming from the moralized sight on gore content for the sake of newsworthiness– content of everyday life in non-Western countries started to form a genre, coinciding with citizen journalism. A significant amount of videos, for example, featured the working environments of Chinese construction or factory workers. The CCTV documented not only their poor and hazardous labor environments, which could be used by journalists but also recorded immanent disasters such as breaking pipelines, leaking liquid metals, explosions and so on. This narrative became so well-known on LiveLeak, it even made it into a TikTok meme. 

Gore content was domesticated and conceptualized as ethical, new usage of the platform affordances made the demographics more heterogeneous and content could be recontextualized for political or activist means. Has LiveLeak reached the phase of adolescence? It did seem more mature in the sense that it was taken more seriously and value. Yet, it still balanced on the fissure between citizen journalism and this gore-induced fetishized gaze of body horror.

Being an alternative for news, featuring graphic content and having a supply and demand relationship of such circulating content, LiveLeak is easily wedged together with fringe networks such as 4chan and 8kun–which are not seen as mature, to say the least. In reality, it was more similar to Reddit, in that the platform held a significant position in the media landscape as an underdog. Along with the tolerant moderation, this unique position enabled LiveLeak to spread both graphic and extremist content far wider than imageboards. Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders utilized these affordances to broadcast his anti-Islam film Fitna. During the Christchurch shootings in New Zealand, telecom company Telstra denied access to LiveLeak (stitching it together with the imageboard) as means of minimizing the spread of the manifesto of ethnonationalist and terrorist Tarrant. 

Gore, citizen journalism and hacktivism

Of course, the liberating element here is that news becomes democratized. Legacy news media’s censorship of gore content and even events that weren’t deemed newsworthy found a new platform to circulate through. Citizen journalism attempts to report the reality after the news media’s camera lens stopped rolling. They were the dirty or the explicit version of a song, where legacy news media signify the clean version without foul language. Saddam Hussein’s execution, the imagery of transgressive military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan and journalist James Foley’s beheading were all popular videos hosted and extensively viewed on LiveLeak. It also played an important role during the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War in 2011.

If LiveLeak had been around during the Gulf War, Baudrillard wouldn’t have claimed that it didn’t happen.

Around the same period, after anonymous users shared videos about war crimes in Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called LiveLeak a “pro-terrorist manipulating web site.” Similarly, in 2007, the former White House Press Secretary mentioned LiveLeak in his speech and underlined its “mass manipulating” characteristic. While these indicate the ‘reality’ behind global news events, street journalism was also a prime narrative. On-site reports and everyday captures hinged between journalist intent, lulz and graphic imagery. If LiveLeak had been around during the Gulf War, Baudrillard wouldn’t have claimed that it didn’t happen.

Screenshot of LiveLeak. Source: Internet Archive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this case, LiveLeak is the embodiment of fringe networks disseminating information to wider audiences beyond traditional discourse. It could therefore well be named among the endeavors of WikiLeaks. After the release of Collateral Murder, Wikileaks cemented the internet as an important participant of public political debate, often crossing over and grabbing headlines in legacy media. Milan’s chapter in the book Beyond WikiLeaks elaborates further on this. Similarly, LiveLeak played an equally important role during the Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War, as it allowed the information flow to reverse, from non-Western to the West, something Çömlekçi and Güney argue is a unique potential of the platform. Citizen journalism thus also closely relates to hacktivism. Which is another way LiveLeak was utilized.

Whistleblowers used LiveLeak as an intermediary to securely share their information anonymously while also increasing their audience and reach, operating behind the smokescreen of gore and citizen journalist content.

LiveLeak is not often mentioned in the discourse of information communication. It’s privy to the logics of citizen journalism, but that does not fully entail its relevancy when it comes to the digital dissemination of information. Its aim to provide an alternative flow of information thus also attracts those who utilize this for activist reasons: whistle-blowers and free information activists. Where WikiLeaks is founded upon the ideals of these information transparency activists, LiveLeak was not but did share some similar logics. This is why Whistleblowers used LiveLeak as an intermediary to securely share their information anonymously while also increasing their audience and reach. Whistleblower networks could operate behind the smokescreen of gore and citizen journalist content. The usability of LiveLeak thus is found in the midst of this trilateral demographic. 

Both platforms contain a disruptive element to the flow and control of information. But while WikiLeaks maintained a close and contested relationship to journalism, the platform logics situated LiveLeak more in a social context. Metrics decided the popularity and thus visibility of videos, which allows for elements of memetics. Videos on animals could very well reach the home page, categorized in either ‘Must See’, ‘In The News’, or ‘Featured Items’. To overcome this dialectic between memetic videos and journalist content, features such as ‘Channels’ and ‘Current Events’ are introduced, indicating that the platform knows users come to LiveLeak for various reasons and want to adhere to both. LiveLeak is the intermediary, serving its purpose as a repository or additional source for journalism. Its relationship with journalism is similar to its relationship with whistleblowers: distant cousins who use their kinship only instrumentally.

Screenshot of LiveLeak (May 20th 2016). Source: Internet Archive

 

Whereas tax havens such as the Cayman Islands are utilized to avoid paying your monthly dues, LiveLeak functioned as an information haven where whistleblowers and citizen journalists could redirect their information through it to avoid possible tracing and thus prosecution. While YouTube is a year older, puberty hit LiveLeak earlier during their formative years. The latter can be seen as the transgressive teenager trying to provoke, either by suppressed information, shock-inducing content from places far away. 

But why didn’t LiveLeak manage to hold more political?

The activism of WikiLeaks (and the transparency movement it ushered in) is not quite prevalent in the demographic of LiveLeak. Both have made legacy news as sources for information, albeit in a disproportionate matter. But while the content might be crossposted from the former to the latter to widen the scope, LiveLeak tends to lean on the fact that it’s reporting on spectacle. It’s the (graphic) images and not the context that get the clicks. Debord prophetically saw the ocularcentrist emphasis of images as the degradation of meaning in the society of the spectacle. LiveLeak provided the millennial generation with the explicit version of the spectacles we were served by legacy news media. The unauthorized video of Saddam Hussein’s execution, one might argue, serves as a more spectacular closure to the war in Iraq than the symbolic representations: presidential speeches, troops marching with flags or Saddam Hussein’s statue being torn down. Content on LiveLeak thus operates in two parallel (and somewhat contrasting) dimensions. On the one hand, the content relates as an explicit version to the spectacular horrors, maintaining its context. Simultaneously, the content is deconstructed of meaning and recontextualized akin to the spectacular or shock value the platform is known for. It illustrates once more how the moralization of gore content is problematized.

[The] emphasis on rendering spectatorship of graphic imagery as an antidote to the hygiene of mainstream press coverage potentially has significant consequences, as it enables viewers to avoid the moralizing frameworks [news media retain]. Tait, 2008

Middle Child Syndrome

Two groups congregating on a platform to both consume and circulate information positioned LiveLeak as a middle child in some ways. On the one hand, it was the transgressive and edgy older brother to YouTube. He guided you to more obscure content your parents didn’t want you to see. That same rebellious attitude is juxtaposed by his politically conscious and hacker-savvy older sibling WikiLeaks. Too indoctrinated by his own gore fetishization during his childhood as Ogrish, LiveLeak was not able to comply with the political strides of WikiLeaks, although the two did interact. This idea of middle child syndrome can be elaborated by the fact that LiveLeak followed various internet logics. Due to its inception in a specific transitional time from web 1.0 to 2.0, the platform was grounded on logics such as sociality, sharing, transparency, hacktivism, participatory culture and so on.

On the one hand, LiveLeak was the transgressive and edgy older brother to YouTube. He guided you to more obscure content your parents didn’t want you to see. That same rebellious attitude is juxtaposed by his politically conscious and hacker-savvy older sbiling WikiLeaks, too indoctrinated by his own gore fetishization during his childhood as Ogrish.

Like Wikileaks, LiveLeak’s aspects of citizen journalism share similarities to hacktivism, but with notions of alternative countercultural and digital citizen media models which had introduced easy participatory content production (Brevini et al 4). In addition to these notions, LiveLeak contained logics of social media and memetics. Virality plays an important role which was endorsed by a like and viewing system to categorize videos, emphasizing the sociality of the platform. Metrics decided the popularity and thus visibility of videos, which allows for elements of memetics. Videos on animals could very well reach the home page, categorized in either ‘Must See’, ‘In The News’, or ‘Featured Items’. To overcome this dialectic between memetic videos and journalist content, features such as ‘Channels’ and ‘Current Events’ are introduced, indicating that the platform knows users come to LiveLeak for various reasons and want to adhere to both. 

For the dissemination of information, content was decontextualized by the platform’s hacker ethos, which holds an agnostic stance towards information. The journalist ethos requires contextualization, which WikiLeaks did actively adopted and LiveLeak attempted. Where citizen journalism might be the intention, in a McLuhan-esque way the platform appropriates the gore content for the demand present on LiveLeak, making it harder to be politically disruptive. Poe’s law learns us that without clear indication, it is impossible to read an author’s intention. The content is stripped of its context as soon as it circulates on LiveLeak. The genetic code LiveLeak adopted from Ogrish seemed to influence its ability to become more activist. The lack of collective activism (collactivism) stems from the fact that the platform serves the visitor, the viewer, the subject of the spectacle. Activism was never intently built into the design of LiveLeak. Its technological affordances, in terms of Helmond and Bucher, did allow for the whistleblower demographic to adopt the platform and use it instrumentally.

ItemFix, the disciplined adult

The growth spurt of LiveLeak spanned 15 years, eventually reaching the ceiling in early May 2021. Not because of dizzying heights in its success, but because the waves of fake news, misinformation, (rightwing) extremism, polarisation and online conspiracism made the sea levels of the digital climate rise. It requires an increase in content moderation and policies, which LiveLeak actively opposed. ItemFix tries to disband its politicization by appealing to the participatory nature of the internet. It calls itself a social video factory, where users can fix or remix videos as they see fit. The core USP of ItemFix is underscored in the first seconds of their introductory video: ‘you can create videos and gifs to share on your social media account’. This is done by using the ‘easy to use in-browser editing software.

 

While users are still encouraged to upload content, similar to LiveLeak and Ogrish, this time there are strict content policies. Accordingly, all ‘accidents’ are now sanitized and bear no visual fatalities. Social media logics on LiveLeak are extrapolated and magnified as primary features on ItemFix. Popular channels include Viral, Memes, News, Fail, WTF, Crashes and Cool. The algorithmic sorting system is split between ‘Virality’ and ‘Newest’. And lastly, upvotes, scores and views determine the content’s popularity, similar to Reddit.

Content policy on ItemFix.

 

ItemFix represents the adult phase, as it’s working as (or in) a self-proclaimed factory now. Together with its employees, it promotes an economy where memetics and virality become the dominant mode of production, consumption and distribution. It subjects its employees to the neoliberal tendency of entrepreneuralization, to gain and compete in the market for cultural capital. It should be said that the platform is still quite young, so it might be adopted to a group with other ideals.

Home page of ItemFix.

 

The participatory mechanisms, the emphasis on the individual and strict content policies are like gene replacement therapy for the gore strand which was present in its DNA. Or even activist activity for that matter. One glance at the main page or the news channel illustrates an emphasis on humor, but not in any sadistic form reflective in Ogrish. In the image below, however, you can still the demand for gore or shock content. The video with the most upvotes, views and comments is a CCTV capture of a cable car accident, killing 14 people. The characteristics of Ogrish and LiveLeak are still present in the audience of ItemFix, demanding content they know the site(s) for.

Different times, different manners

Earlier, I wrote about the emerging phenomenon of digital hygiene, a socio-technical aim to reform to control individual’s internet usage. In addition to appealing to cybersecurity, immoral content consumption is also immoralized and discouraged. The termination of LiveLeak–and the transition into ItemFix–signifies the pervasiveness of digital hygiene on a macro-level. Beyond the control of digital citizens’ information consumption through the disciplinary nature of labeling certain practices immoral, identified as the micro-level, this macro-level instance of digital hygiene illustrates that non-hegemonic platforms with less care for information or content moderation require to adapt or face consequences. Platform capitalist-endorsed digital hygiene and the accompanying rules of living apply pressure on fringe platforms that are not self-sustaining or anonymous (such as imageboards). LiveLeak is not included in the impending hygienic internet environment where there is no space for limited content moderation, graphic content and extremism.

While it might seem like a single case, the termination of LiveLeak represents something bigger than itself. Where there was hierarchical intervention during the Christchurch shootings and the Capitol Raid by ISPs, app providers and hosting services, the termination of LiveLeak can be seen as an occurrence of preemptive self-censorship. It is not enforced by other actors, but rather an internal decision by Hayden Hewitt and other owners of LiveLeak as a response to the growing pressure on platforms with lenient content moderation. It seems to be a conscious decision to turn away from the politicized debate around information freedom, content moderation and the platform’s responsibility to conform to a wider trend of compliance.

Where there was hierarchical intervention during the Christchurch shootings and the Capitol Raid by ISPs, app providers and hosting services, the termination of LiveLeak can be seen as an occurrence of preemptive self-censorship.

With no official statement around the reasoning for LiveLeak’s sudden termination, the argument for preventive self-censorship is just educated speculation. But tracing the trend of sanitizing oneself of immoral digital behavior, this also applies to LiveLeak. From the everything-goes mentality of the shock blog era Ogrish emerged from, to the relative political nature of citizen journalism and its relation to hacktivism on LiveLeak, the transition to ItemFix symbolizes the stronghold digital hygiene has– both on individuals as on platforms.

A normative argument can be extrapolated from this genealogy. It can be analogous to the changing phases of the internet, where information is once again centralized, restricted in its flow and increasingly moderated to maintain control, implicitly increasing the dominant platform’s hegemony. 

Open Letter: Belarus and the Need for a New European University for Eastern Europe

Dear colleagues,
Together with Ellen Rutten (University of Amsterdam) and colleagues from Italy and Germany I co-wrote the open letter below, signed by Olga Tokarczuk, Judith Butler, Boris Groys, Saskia Sassen, Eva Illouz, Slavoj Zizek and many others:

 

Ben Grosser: Why Instagram’s Like Hiding Saga is a PR Stunt

Instagram’s Like Hiding Saga is a PR Stunt:

What Facebook’s Darling Hopes You’ll Forget About Social Media Metrics

By Ben Grosser

In the spring of 2019 Instagram announced to the world that it was going to test the hiding of visible “like” counts within its interface. In the words of Instagram Head Adam Mosseri, he hoped it would make the platform feel “much less pressurized” and less “like a competition.” This announcement came at a time when the social media companies were enduring significant scrutiny for their roles in the amplification and virality of disinformation, the erosion of democracy and civic debate, and the destruction of individual self-esteem that was so widely evident that the New York Times wrote: “that Instagram can feel ‘pressurized’ and trigger status anxiety is hard to dispute.”

So, when Instagram made its announcement that spring, not only did it make big headlines, but many publications took it as a given that the decision had been made: likes were going away. The tests to come were merely a formality, many presumed—most without asking what those tests might be testing for, or what different outcomes might mean for the future of visible like counts.

In other words, the media was duped. Despite their stories from the time heralding Instagram’s tests as evidence of the company’s newfound concern for user well-being, it was always inevitably going to lead to either no actual change, or, at best, an anemic one. This is because Instagram is a corporation whose profit depends on continued growth, fueled by the extraction of user data and the production of ever-rising platform engagement. Visible metrics have been, for its entire history, a key component of this production—I would argue they are the central mechanism responsible for Instagram’s success.

So, it should come as no surprise when, after two years of testing, Instagram’s Head reports that their “research” turned up no particular effects from hiding likes. One can hardly help but recall in response other moments from corporate history, such as when the tobacco companies said smoking wasn’t addictive, or when the energy sector says fracking isn’t bad for the environment. Apparently, if we’re to believe Instagram, it turns out that likes just don’t matter much. Nothing to see here!

My own research strongly contradicts Instagram’s findings. I originated the concept of social media “demetrication” in 2012 when I launched the artwork Facebook Demetricator, a free and open-source browser extension that hides all quantifications across the Facebook interface. In 2014 I published a peer-reviewed article about my findings. In 2017 I launched a Demetricator for Twitter, and in 2018 one for Instagram. After a decade of activity investigating, working to erase, and listening to users report about the effects of hiding likes (and other visible counts), it is abundantly clear that social media metrics have profound effects on users. When like/follower/share/etc. counts are hidden, users report feeling, for example, less anxious, less competitive, and less addicted to the platforms. They talk about feeling less compulsive in response to them, less manipulated by metrics to continually like, share, and post. And perhaps most importantly, when visible interface metrics are hidden, users learn and feel for themselves just how significantly their actions had been driven—almost automated—by the presence of the number.

Caption: The author’s original video from 2012 demonstrating and describing Facebook Demetricator, a browser extension that hides visible metrics across the Facebook interface

So what’s really happening with “like” counts? And why might Instagram’s findings be different from my own? Setting aside (for the moment) their vested interest in the perpetuation of platform metrics and their vague assertions without evidence or peer review, I would point to the company’s anemic implementation of metric erasure.

First, Instagram’s like hiding options are laborious to use. To hide others’ metrics takes 6 taps through menus to find the toggle for it, which is buried in “Privacy” settings. Burying that option behind so many steps discourages experimentation and individual testing, leaving the default option (showing likes) as the one most will stick with.

Second, hiding one’s own like counts is not only repeatedly laborious, but incomplete. If I want to hide my like counts on my own posts, I have to tap 3 more times to turn it on every time I post. I can’t just change that setting once and have it affect all posts in the future. More importantly, even when I turn off like counts for a specific post I’ve made, the interface continues to report that metric back to me in several ways. For example, it accumulates the counts into a red and white metric popup every time I load the app—and periodically thereafter (far left in the image below). Instagram also continues to show these counts whenever I look at my notifications tab (far right). In other words, one can’t really hide their own like counts.

Image: Visible like counts on my own posts after enabling Instagram’s option to hide them. On left, the counts as shown in the standard notifications popup that appears every time I load the app and periodically thereafter. In the middle is the count shown when I click “others” from the feed. On the right are the like counts as shown in the notifications tab.

Third is that Instagram has chosen to show all metrics by default. Interface defaults are powerful. They set the conditions upon which any adjustment is evaluated. And most users won’t ever change the defaults anyway. Mosseri reveals his hopes here when he suggests that even those who hide likes might “want to switch back” “after a couple weeks.”

Fourth is that Instagram leaves all other non-like metrics in place. So even if a user hides others’ like counts and (partially) hides their own, they’re still faced with an interface full of metrics. Comment counts, view counts, follower counts, notification metrics, etc. All of these influence the user, and will serve as a ready substitute for metric evaluation when navigating the feed (e.g., it’s easy enough to focus on comment counts if like counts are hidden).

In other words, Instagram’s like hiding test: 1) made it hard to toggle like count hiding on and off, 2) made it impossible to truly hide one’s own like counts, 3) split like metrics into different categories controlled from different parts of the interface, 4) set the default as showing like counts, and 5) left in place all other interface metrics. If a social media company wanted to create a user interface test designed to conclude that hiding like counts doesn’t change much, this would be it. And lo and behold, the outcome from their findings will be continued platform growth—at the continued expense of human anxiety, compulsion, addiction, and diminished well-being.

Ironically, Mosseri confirms some of these effects with his recent statements. For example, he said (as quoted by the BBC):

‘“The spirit of this is to give people a choice,” using the example of going through a break-up in a relationship or switching schools.’

So, Instagram found no particular effect on user well-being, but Mosseri uses moments of extreme life stress as the example for why one might want to hide likes?

Another example Mosseri gave was:

“Maybe you want to be a little bit less worried about how many likes everyone’s getting for a couple weeks or a couple of months, and then maybe you want to switch back.”

So, if you want less worry, you turn off likes? Sounds as if like counts do in fact affect user well-being.

I appreciate Instagram’s decision to enable the hiding of others’ likes. This change will help users blunt the competitive feelings those metrics produce. But the anemic half-implementation of hiding one’s own likes reveals they don’t really want the idea to catch on. Instagram has spent more than a decade conditioning users to focus on the numbers. Any transition away from metrics was thus going to require substantial rethinking of what the platform is and how it works. Tests and experiments would need care and rigor; instead, Instagram came back with small clunky tweaks. A real test would make possible complete erasure of all visible metrics: no like, comment, view, or follower counts anywhere in the interface. This would be accompanied by a one-tap toggle so that users already dependent on the numbers could feel comfortable experimenting with hiding/showing the metrics at any time.

In a statement, Instagram said they consulted with experts during the testing period. Experts in what?, I would ask. Though I’ve worked on this topic for ten years—and released Instagram Demetricator a year before Mosseri started talking about their idea of hiding likes—Instagram never reached out to me for any discussion. Yet, tellingly, I did hear from the company during this period when their legal arm acted to force Instagram Demetricator off the Chrome web store in 2020. Unsurprisingly, this mirrors the actions of their parent company, Facebook, who did the same thing against Facebook Demetricator in 2016. Thankfully, the Electronic Frontier Foundation worked pro bono on my behalf to get the Facebook version reinstated. Given the company’s now repeated attempts to knock my Demetricators off the web, I haven’t worked too hard to reverse this latest move.

This whole saga is a public relations stunt. Instagram announced to the world in 2019 that they were testing the hiding of likes. They gained tremendous positive press from this move, with many lauding how much Instagram cares about user well-being. They then proceeded not to hide likes for everyone but instead to test the feature for two years—an eternity given their resources and capacity—only to come back later and proclaim that hiding likes doesn’t matter much? Not only does this assertion contradict my own research and the experience of countless users, but Instagram has a vested interest in this finding.

Visible metrics are key to the production of user engagement. Engagement is essential for user growth and profit generation. Their hiding tests were incomplete, leaving a user’s own like counts visible in multiple places. They didn’t reach out to some (all?) of us with a long research history on the topic. And along the way they acted to block users from fully hiding metrics via my projects, and even added new metrics to their interface with the addition of Reels. I find their conclusions and statements difficult to trust and would encourage others to be skeptical as well. Always remember: Instagram is a Mark Zuckerberg property. When Mosseri says something, it should be treated with the same level of trust that Zuckerberg has earned.

As a coda, one final comment on timing. Why now? After two years of testing and all the positive press, why come back now and say they’re done? I would point to the strongly negative reaction to the recently floated idea of Instagram for Kids. Many of the concerns expressed thus far have centered on fears around what a platform like Instagram, with all of its negative effects on user well-being, would do to children. What better antidote than to come out in response and say hey, it turns out our research shows that like counts don’t have much effect on anyone, so don’t worry about it! When companies release PR disguised as research, the media should hold them accountable for it.

Listening in Plain Sight: The Enduring Influence of U.S. Air Guitar

The mention of “air guitar” might conjure images of the Bill and Ted series. Or Risky Business. Or maybe even Joe Cocker at Woodstock. You might think of air guitar as an embarrassing fan gesture. So when you hear there’s an annual U.S. Air Guitar competition, you might imagine an entirely superficial practice without any artistic merit. Maybe you just think of it as gimmicky. Or a celebration of the worst aspects of classic rock fandom and the white male guitar heroes that often populate its pantheon. In all honesty, I thought all of these things at first, until I began to take the competition seriously. 

The title of this clipping from the Washington Post on November 28, 1983 reads: “Music to Their Airs!” Text appears alongside a large image of a man flying through the air with an invisible guitar in his arms.

I did not realize, for example, that air guitar competitions have an enduring history since the late 1970s, existing as an incredibly influential popular music pantomime practice that informs platforms like TikTok. I did not realize how invested contemporary competitors could be—dedicating years to learning the craft. And I did not realize how these reconstructions of guitar solos could creatively rupture the relationship between guitar virtuosity and privileged identities in popular music’s past.

The U.S. Air Guitar Championships began in 2003 as the national branch of the Air Guitar World Championships, which began in 1996 in Oulu, Finland. The competition emerged as a bit of a joke alongside the Oulu Music Video Festival. Eventually, two people—Cedric Devitt and Kriston Rucker—founded U.S. Air Guitar, which expanded across the country (thanks, in part, to the influential documentary Air Guitar Nation). Today, folks compete in order to advance from local to regional to the national competition, ultimately hoping to be crowned the best air guitarist in the nation and sent to Finland to represent the United States (think: Eurovision but air guitar). United States air guitarists do incredibly well in the international competition, although they face formidable air guitarists from Japan, France, Canada, Australia, Russia, and Germany (as well as less-formidable air guitarists from elsewhere).

In each competition, competitors perform as personas, such as Rockness Monster, AIRistotle, Agnes Young, and Mom Jeans Jeanie. They don elaborate costumes. They painstakingly practice elaborate choreographies and compete in some of the most famous musical venues in the country—from Bowery Ballroom to the Black Cat. Competitors stage routines that bring a particular 60-second rock solo to life, using their bodies to simulate playing the real guitar (what air guitarists call “there guitar”). Think of these as gestural interpretations of the affective power of guitar solos, rather than a mechanical reproduction of particular chords, frets, and licks. They use their bodies to draw out timbre, rhythm, and pitch, and they also play with the juxtaposition of their own identities and those of the original artists. Judges evaluate performances based on three criteria:

· Technical merit (does the pantomime more or less correspond to the guitar playing in the music?)

· Stage presence (is it entertaining?)

· ‘Airness’ (does the performance transcend the imitation of the real guitar to become an art form in and of itself?)

Scores are given on a figure skating scale, from 4 to 6. So a perfect score is 666 from the three judges. Winners in the first round advance to the second round, where they must improvise an air guitar routine to a surprise song selection. 

As part of my ethnographic work on air guitar, I competed in a local competition, where I was crowned third best air guitarist in Boston in the year 2017 (a distinction that will likely never appear on my CV). I have also conducted fieldwork in Finland twice and attended countless competitions in the U.S. I judged the 2019 U.S. Air Guitar Championships in Nashville alongside Edward Snowden’s lawyer, which resulted in a three-way air off to crown a winner. 

Competitions depend on recruiting new competitors, celebrity judges, and large crowds, all of which can be at odds with creating an inclusive community. Organizers have worked hard to eliminate racist, sexist, ableist, and other forms of discriminatory language from judges’ comments. Women within U.S. air guitar have formed advocacy groups. The proceeds of the most recent competitions have been donated to Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which took up the case of a disabled Black veteran named Sean Worsley who was incarcerated for playing air guitar to music at a gas station. Both organizing bodies at the national and international level emphasize world peace as central to their mission. 

Air guitar routines are themselves political statements too. These acts of musical interpretation enable women, BIPOC, and disabled performers to author sounds credited to guitar idols, like Eddie Van Halen or Slash. Performers make arguments about their access to popular music, using only their bodies. Sydney Hutchinson’s work  examines how air guitar can challenge Asian American stereotypes and gendered conceptions of dance

My current work revolves around disabled air guitarists. Andres SevogiAIR drew me in, as a result of his expressive flamenco-inspired seated style he called “chair guitar.” He passed away but left me with an enduring appreciation for air guitar’s ability to challenge conventional virtuosity, a term that can often reproduce an ableist link between physical ability and musical virtue. I came to appreciate how air guitarists could invent imaginary instruments that serve their particular bodies. I witnessed competitors coupling chronic illness and impairments with air guitar routines, as well as competitors using air guitar to fully amplify their struggles with cancer.

I also came to appreciate how air guitarists embrace stigma (e.g., madness, craziness, and gendered forms of listening), turning taboo into a source of creativity. This led to academic writing that traces the history of madness in relation to air guitar, showing how imaginary instrument playing has often been pathologized, and yet contemporary disabled air guitarists reclaim these accusations of insanity as a source of power. 

* * *

A few weeks ago, I received a request from Lieutenant Facemelter to judge the Midwestern Online Regional U.S. Air Guitar Competition. I accepted. As with many things these days, the contemporary competition has morphed into a Twitch-hosted online spectacle, featuring combinations of live and pre-recorded elements. One woman gave birth between first- and second-round performances (made possible by a multi-day filming period for an asynchronous part of the online competition). One man’s air guitar performance evoked an exorcism in his basement. Another middle-aged competitor competed while suffering the side effects of his second shot of coronavirus vaccine, ultimately winning the competition with a pro-vaccination message. His parents appeared in the livestream when he accepted the award, and the host of the show–the Master of Airimonies–jokingly said to them: “You two must be so proud.” 

I think of U.S. Air Guitar as a stained-glass window, through which prisms of popular music history shine through. The competition can bring troubling facets of that history to light, but the competition can also revise that history (or, at least, reimagine how that history can influence the future). Either way, performers celebrate the idea that rock solos live most powerfully in the embodied listening practices of everyday people. Listening becomes the subject of these performances–the source material for these persuasive displays of music reception. Indeed, air guitar can be one of the strangest things you’ll never see. 

The competition continues this summer

Featured Image: US Air Guitar National Finals, The Midland Theater, Kansas City, MO, August 9, 2014, by Flickr user Amber, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Byrd McDaniel | Byrd is a scholar who researches disability, digital cultures, and popular music. He currently works as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University. His forthcoming book–Spectacular Listening— traces the rise of contemporary practices that treat listening as a performance, including air guitar, podcasts, reaction videos, and lip syncing apps. Byrd is enthusiastic about work that addresses any facet of air guitar, including global and historical approaches. He welcomes outreach from those who want to research these topics.

tape-reel

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