Order of Multitudes

Dreaming of Equality: Abigail De Kosnik on Media Piracy and Internet Democracy

Abigail De Kosnik is an associate professor in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and the director of the Berkeley Center for New Media, also at UC Berkeley. She researches the intersection of popular digital media and identity, and is the author of Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom (MIT Press, 2016). In addition to her research, she is one of the co-organizers and founders of The Color of New Media. In this interview, Dr. De Kosnik and I discuss some of the problems and affordances of digital media with a particular attention to the organization of social media.

Allison Chu: I’d like to start by introducing you to the community of the Sawyer Seminar. Would you mind giving a quick overview of your background and your research interests for our audience?

Abigail De Kosnik: My research and teaching interests are in the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and nationality with popular digital culture. For me, this includes contemporary TV, film, and digital forums like Internet communities. Through convergence culture, mass media has also become a set of digital tools, so I’m interested in the popular and in histories and contemporary practices of communities of color, women’s communities, queer communities, and global South communities.

Allison Chu: Your first book, Rogue Archives, discusses the capacity of the Internet to function as an archive, which is one of the themes that runs throughout “The Order of Multitudes.” We’ve been thinking about the problems of digital archiving and the relationship of archives to communities who have been historically marginalized. Would you say that the Internet is a good place to be archiving our information?

Abigail De Kosnik: As I say in the book, the idea that the Internet is an archive is a myth that was perpetuated from the very beginnings of the US even speculating about making an Internet. The originating document of this myth is Vannevar Bush’s 1945 piece “As We May Think” in The Atlantic, and Bush posits the “memex,” which was ARPANET [Advanced Research Projects Agency Network ] by DARPA and then became the Internet as a public network, as a magical memory machine. He dreamt of it as a way to record and store and make accessible all of human knowledge and learning. He wanted to include everything that we’d been able to document to that point, and that’s a beautiful dream. One way that I read that essay is as Bush’s apology for the atomic bomb. Bush is the father of nuclear weaponry and headed the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II. At the time that The Atlantic published his essay—July, 1945—he was a month out from inflicting the most horrible weapon of mass destruction that the world has ever seen. So a month in advance of that, he’s proposing a kind of world-saving or world-preserving technology. I’m not saying Bush is necessarily expressing his guilt or trying to make reparations in this essay, but in the essay, you could see this kind of relationship between the idea of a massive, all-encompassing, perfect archival machine and the idea that everything might end really soon because of something he made. 

Yet, it completely fails. The fact is, we live in a highly corporatized Internet. The Internet is concentrated in the hands of five companies. They don’t care about preserving anything, except for our data that they can sell. Even then, they only care about that as long as it takes them to store it and sell it. They don’t care about what culture we make, co-create, and share. They don’t make any promises to anyone that there is any kind of infinite horizon for the data that they store. And the day that any one of those companies shuts down, all that data will disappear, unless we the users suck it down onto our own servers. There are no corporate actors on the Internet that promise an infinite horizon, and even state actors like the Library of Congress would have a very hard time committing to that because of all the migration and all the maintenance that would take. I don’t think the Internet is an archive at all. Library and Information Science professionals often talk about the potential for this whole era, from at least 1990 onward, the digital age, to be a digital dark age. It’s a way of thinking from a future perspective looking back; the historians from 2500 will have no idea what happened between 1990 and whenever, because there will be so little information. There is a huge fear of loss on the part of the Library and Information Specialists. We’ve already lost millions of web pages. If you look at the Internet Archive Project and the Wayback machine, you can see that there are lots of broken links. So much of this information has failed to be archived for 25 years. 

The Internet is a terrible archive, but at the same time, it has archive-like functions. It’s so easy to share information and to have information persist at least for a few years. As a result, archives are being built on the Internet and lots of user communities have used the ordinances of this network to do archival practices and to make community archives.

Allison Chu: I want to ask you about hashtagging, because hashtagging is a form of ordering and organizing information on digital media platforms. How does this organizing function contribute to or dismantle the myth that the Internet is a democratic space?

Abigail De Kosnik: Hashtagging is a form of indicating that something should function as metadata. It’s performative. You could search on Twitter for any term as metadata, and any way you define the metadata, it will give you search results. But when people use hashtags on Twitter, tumblr, or other spaces, they mean for this term to be a reference point to be a way that you should search. #Blacklivesmatter – you should be referencing that as a kind of overarching, ontological category, not just a statement of personal belief. Saying something is metadata is also saying that you believe in it, so it’s the performance of personal belief that extends beyond one person. 

In terms of the democratizing aspect of Internet storage or cultural preservation, hashtagging is a way that all of us function as archivists. All of us assign metadata to our most important terms. All of us take that onus of authority and responsibility upon ourselves, and it is counter to the print era idea of how archives are supposed to work. In the nineteenth-century mostly imperialist state, where archives served the state, only the state had the authority to make the metadata and the mechanisms to make something we would call hashtags. But now hashtagging is a possible tool in anyone’s hands, and in that sense, information science becomes more democratized via social media. By saying that we should all be searching for information using for instance, #sandrabland, then it calls attention to what we should be looking for, how we should be organizing information in our minds, and even how should we be reconstructing the history of the police.

Allison Chu: You’ve already touched on my next question then – social movements have mobilized through hashtags, for example with #BLM or #MeToo. What are the social and political effects of using metadata to organize social movements?

Abigail De Kosnik: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi founded the phrase Black Lives Matter on Twitter. They conceived of the movement and the hashtag at the same time. Social movements born on social media use the labels, expressive formats, and kinds of grammar that the social media platform calls for. They understand how language and communication work on the platform. Today, social movement founders and organizers understand what platforms they’re going to use and design their movements to happen through those platforms. They want their movements to spread, reach, and to recruit millions of people. There are community organizers who are working on the ground, without thinking a lot about the digital. My former student Jen Schradie has researched how leftist organizations especially are on the ground and don’t think about the digital as compared to rightist social movements, who think heavily about social media. The right wing is so excited to use social media and the left wing thinks of themselves as organizing in physical space. In terms of social media, the left is behind the right, but some of the more successful leftist social movements online have conceived of themselves as a social media movement from the very beginning. A lot of leftist ideas ideas like defunding the police have arisen on social media through hashtags at the moment almost synchronously with how they emerge on the streets. A lot of left-leaning social community movement groups on the ground are just not as proficient with using social media as right wing groups.

Allison Chu: There’s a common thread throughout your work to focus on the people behind the screens, and their agency. Could you talk about your working group, the Color of New Media, and how you think new media can be mobilized to represent identity positively and productively?

Monique Scott: The Color of New Media was founded several years ago by myself and then graduate student—and now assistant professor at Barnard College—Paige Johnson. Paige and I were talking about whether the color of new media studies is white. So much of the history of technology is seemingly told through the histories of white male inventors and scientists, and we asked ourselves if we could form a loose structure that would center the histories and theories of new media on users of color, women, trans, queer users and communities, and anyone outside of the United States of America. I co-lead Color of New Media with Professor Keith Feldman in Ethnic Studies, and the majority of our members are students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students who come from the global South. 

We published our first book #identity, which is about Twitter, the Trump era, and race, gender, sexuality, and nationality. Lots of our researchers have found lots of positive uses for the Internet, especially for justice and equity: everything from the way that individual users, people, organizations can clap back at racist claims and turn the story, to challenge beliefs. It’s the power of individuals to not let dominant narrative stand. There is an opportunity for counter narrative or to ask other questions. It’s also a way to reach other people, to reinforce each other and signal boost. Most basically, it’s a way of self expression; individuals have the capability to put out into the world whatever they want to. However, we’re also seeing really dangerous uses by individuals and groups. Social media in 2021 can very often feel like there’s a war; there are people who are trying to put out a certain line of thinking which has to do with racial, gender, and sexual forms of equity, and there are people out there who are trying to do the opposite by proposing narratives of white supremacy, fascism, oppression, dominance of the wealthy. It becomes a space of high conflict.

Allison Chu: What’s next for you? Could you give us a sneak peek of some of your upcoming work?

Abigail De Kosnik: My next single-authored book is going to be on media piracy. Media pirates are Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, women users of media, and I’m thinking of piracy as the twin of fandom. Fandom is an affect-driven form of engagement with media and technology, where there’s agency and creativity at the technical, cultural, distribution, and reception levels from primarily not white guys. These fans are interested in using mass media as sources to transform into more legible and more operational kinds of cultural works. They take raw materials that are often quite empty and make them culture that’s exciting to them, for example taking the two main guy characters in a TV show and slashing them. I’m interested in this seizing of property and tailoring it for the collective of fans. Piracy works very similarly because it’s interested in the sharing and redistributing of cultural resources to whoever wants it. A lot of people use piracy just for information access. Piracy can be so useful just from an educational perspective, but I don’t want to legitimate piracy for education so much as examine its purpose in looking for pleasure, entertainment, and culture however and wherever you can. The idea of not letting culture be behind gates, even if it’s a manageable ticket price to a movie, is liberating. A lot of piracy isn’t free either; a lot of it is either subscription-based or donation supported. But piracy can be a better media service than these institutions.

Allison Chu: I would imagine that piracy complicates the archive you work with—especially with the copying and downloading. It seems like you have the potential of a scattered archive. How does piracy interact with this concept of archive?

Abigail De Kosnik: First of all, there are piracy archives that are extremely well designed. There are tremendous art film piracy archives, the best art film and video collections in the world, which are better than any single art institution. Some piracy archives are really complete. But on a conceptual level, there’s a way that we understand something like film or TV where maybe the archive would be held by the production company or group, like the Academy of Motion Pictures, to be the archive of the canon, and then pirates create an alternative archive. I conceive of the archive as encompassing all the copies everywhere, including all the transformed and fan-made alternative versions. I think of cultural archives today as being enormous and encompassing far beyond what any person could imagine, because we could never track down every pirate or fan copy. A lot of fan versions aren’t even shared; they live on individual devices. But the archive can encompass those versions. For example, the archive of “Cinderella” for me encompasses every little kid that imagines being Cinderella in their own way, making the archive far too vast to ever get a hold of. 

I’m also really interested in working on Indigenous Technologies, a lectures series that Berkeley Center for New Media has hosted over the past year. We’ve had great Indigenous artists, activists, organizers, and scholars come in and speak about indigenous technologies, including ways of thinking beyond the digital and machines. This included what it means to hold onto pre-colonial histories and histories of colonization from the indigenous perspective, but also in some cases it also means working against STEM culture. 

The other big thing is a website I would love to launch around diversity in media and around piracy ratings. I’m working on evaluating the contemporary media-scape on two aspects. One is to score diversity in TV and film inspired by the Bechdel test. I’m devising a way of scoring any media test on multiple axes of diversity and presenting that in a number and a letter score. The other half is based on work that my husband and I have developed. We created a patented technological suite of tools that allows us to sample peer-to-peer traffic for any media title in the world. For any film or media text, we can track everywhere it is downloaded. My interest with these tools is to introduce a way of talking about diversity that a streaming platform could understand really easily, through the verbiage of a motion picture association rating. The piracy rating side came about because platforms like Netflix and Hulu don’t release their ratings, so we have no idea about the popularity of streaming. We’re told that something was the most streamed TV show ever, but we don’t really know what that means. I think I’m just trying to blow open this idea that we can actually assess the relative popularity of the contemporary media landscape just by looking at piracy.