This fall, American University School of Communication (AU SOC) welcomes Associate Professor Adrienne Massanari to its Communication Studies division. Massanari comes to SOC from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Prior to joining UIC, she was at Loyola University Chicago, and served as the Director for the School of Communication’s Center for Digital Ethics and Policy. She has a PhD and MA from the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, Seattle, and more than 10 years of experience as a user researcher, information architect, usability specialist, and consultant in both corporate and educational settings. Her research interests include new media, gaming, digital cultures, design, gender, and ethics. Massanari’s work has appeared in New Media & Society, Feminist Media Studies, Social Media + Society, First Monday, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, and Journal of Information Technology & Politics. SOC recently sat down with Massanari to learn more about her work.
SOC: What drew you to SOC?
AM: You have great people here. I knew (Professor)Aram (Sinnreich) from the Association of Internet Researchers and (University Professor) Pat (Aufderheide) and (Assistant Professor)Saif (Shahin) and (Associate Professor) Filippo (Trevisan) and several other people from SOC from various conferences. I really like the combination of media, technology, and democracy. I think it's incredibly timely and important and worthwhile to be engaging with how technology impacts these conversations we’re having on a very large scale.
I also appreciate the collaboration that can happen across disciplines and being around people who are doing journalism, making films, and designing games. I think it creates a space that is good for both teaching and scholarship.
SOC: What excites you about teaching in the PhD program?
AM: In my previous position at UIC I was able to focus heavily on new media, and so I'm excited to see that American is on the forefront [of that]. Sometimes at the PhD level your students come in and they're more in touch with what's happening because academia moves at a slightly different pace, and I really am excited about exploring with the students. What I see as being one of the best parts about being faculty anywhere, is you learn a lot from both graduate and undergraduate students, and that's great because I love school.
SOC: What are some of the critical issues that are facing society that you are able to address through your research and work?
AM: I'm very interested in this intersection of the way in which platforms are designed and their policies, and the communities that coalesce on them. I’m working on a book about the far-right and alt-right and the ways in which spaces like Facebook and Reddit, for example, contributed to sort of mainstreaming of these ideas. In the book I argue that the values that Silicon Valley prizes such as “meritocracy” and the very broad definition of “free speech” get reflected on those platforms and you can see dangerously extremist communities game those platforms in particular ways to get their message out.
There are threats to democratic institutions and we're seeing in real time what those threats are doing and the ways in which technology is enabling them. There is also positive organizing such as Black Lives Matter that have been enabled by social media, but you also have the counterpoint to that which is misinformation, disinformation and you know attempts to re-engineer the conversation in very destructive ways and promote racism, sexism, and other extremism. I think that these are really core concerns, and not just about technology, they're about society. How do we talk about “What is democracy?” We're being forced to rethink what we want community [and democracy] to look like.
One of my goals with students is always to sort of demystify technology, and media in general and to suggest that they have a lot more ownership of it than they think and to give them the tools to be critical consumers. These are not technologies that just come down from on high, I mean the people who are creating them reflect certain values. Understandably, a lot of times people feel like intimidated by the technology. They don't really understand what an algorithm is or they don't really get what it means to be designing these Apps or digital spaces. They are complex but they're not impossible to understand. I think giving people a sense that they have a right to participate in a conversation about what is it that we want from the technology and media, which is, ultimately, I would hope what participatory democracy is about.
SOC: What research projects are you working on right now ?
AM: So as I said, I am working on a book called Gaming Democracy and its sub-title is How Silicon Valley Leveled Up the Alt-Right. It looks at sort of exactly these questions at the intersection of platforms and politics. The insurrection that happened on January 6 was, I think, for many people, a wakeup call. But for those of us who had been studying the fringes of these (alt-right) communities, it was entirely predictable, I'm sad to say. It was something that had been in the works for a while, but also reflective of a very real set of communities that are increasingly active online. It’s not like far-right extremism just showed up one day. Some of these tools that we use, as I mentioned earlier are perfectly set up to also amplify the speech of the alt-right. The book is based on three different case studies. First, looking back at what was, I think, a very important event that seemingly at the time kind of restricted to the game community – Gamergate. It was a harassment campaign that was then used by some of the major players within Trump's campaign to kind of mobilize the sort of disaffected people, primarily young straight white men, into what has now become the alt-right or far-right. Second, it looks at a memo that one of the Google engineers, James Damore, released that was an anti-diversity screed critical of Google’s inclusion policies. He was subsequently fired from Google. The third last case study is actually looking at the Reddit forum The_Donald, which has now been banned, but for years had been a source of racism, conspiracy theories, and harassment campaigns.
On the lighter side, I do have another project that I'm working on with a co-author about slow gaming and the ways in which games, like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley can restructure the ways in which we think about time and leisure. So that's a nicer, more fun project.