Some Useful Concepts for Digital Cultural Analysis
This brief glossary is not a comprehensive list of information technology terms, nor a comprehensive list of cultural studies concepts, but rather a basic tool kit of key terms from technology studies and cultural studies that have proven useful for understanding techno-cultural issues, devices and processes.
ACA-FAN An academic student of popular culture, including digital culture products like video games, who is also a user or fan of the culture they study. Aca-fans try to avoid criticizing from some supposedly pure or higher intellectual plane above mere players of popular culture,
ADVERGAMING Following in the footsteps of product placement in Hollywood films -- the prominent display of brand name consumer items in movie scenes -- ADVERGAMING refers to the increasingly common parallel practice of brand name placement in scenes within digital games.
AGENCY; SOCIAL AGENCY In cultural studies, AGENCY refers to a given subject's ability to have social impact. One's agency is one's social power, the capacity of an individual to act independently and to make (relatively) free choices. Agency is always performed in relation to social structures that limit and shape the potential power of any individual subject. Debates about the relative power of social structure versus personal choice are at least as old as theological debates about the relation between "free will" (agency) and "determinism" (control from outside the person). Contemporary social theory has sought to get beyond simple either/or dualisms or dichotomies, and to speak of mutually constitutive or dialectical interactions between agency and structure.
APPARATGEIST A term developed by Katz and Aakhus combining the words "apparatus" (device, material product) and "geist" (spirit, mind), to characterize the ever present elements of MATERIALITY and mental construct that together make up any digital experience.
BLOG; BLOGGER; VLOG Short for web log, an online journal maintained by an individual (BLOGGER). A VLOG is a blog done in video form rather than written text. Blogs, along with personal space on social networking sites, have to a large degree supplanted the "personal homepage," a genre particularly popular in the 1990s and still used by some on the Web.
BLOGEBRITY: BLOGOSPHERE A blogger who has achieved the status of a celebrity in (and sometimes beyond) cyberspace (cf. Perez Hilton or Arianna Huffington) or the BLOGOSPHERE -- the combined space of blogs.
CONVERGENCE (of media) is a term used in media studies to note the ways in which previously separate media are converging into one digital mode. This refers both the convergence among new media in the Web 2.0 era (like accessing the web on a smart phone), but also the convergence of old media (TV, film, radio) and new (like watching a TV show on your smartphone or listening to radio over the Net or reading a book on a Kindle). The assumption is that this CONVERGENCE will continue and expand such that increasingly all media, old and new, will be accessed through a small set of digital devices and platforms. REMEDIATION is one key aspect of convergence. For the various dimensions of convergence, see Jenkins, "Convergence? I Diverge."
CONSUMERISM/TECHNO-CONSUMERISM As cyberspaces have become increasing commercialized by e-business, advertising, and other prods to greater consumption, new media have added to the excessive consumerism long a part of US culture. More particularly. TECHNO-CONSUMERISM refers to the intensely pushed consumer desire for every smaller, faster, cooler high-tech/digital toys. No business has more effectively built quick obsolescence into their marketing processes than the new media device business.
CROWDSOURCING Sending a task or problem out to be worked on by a largely undefined general population, as opposed to a specific group of people. On the Web, wikis are in effect "crowdsourced," as have been many other problems and projects. This form of mass collaboration is intended to tap hidden human resources.
CULTURAL COMPETENCY acknowledges that, while people develop a more or less automatic depth of understanding of the subject positions and cultures into which we are born and socialized, achieving something like that depth of understanding of other subject positions and other cultures is far more difficult, but not impossible. The process of gaining depth of understanding of subject positions and cultures other than your own is the process of gaining various degrees of cultural competency.
CULTURAL IMPERIALISM is hegemonic influence over cultural production (movies, TV, music, etc.) by one culture over others. The culture subject to cultural imperialism is overwhelmed and overridden by the dominant culture from outside such that local traditions are lost or transformed beyond recognition The US and to a lesser degree Europe have been accused of cultural imperialism vis-à-vis most of the rest of the world. Japan has been accused of CI with regard to the rest of Asia (and sometimes with regard to the US). Smaller scale cultural imperialism can occur within countries, between ethnically dominant and minority cultures, and between the dominant culture and subcultures.
CYBER-BALKINIZATION A notion, most associated with Cass Sunstein, that the Web leads to political Balkinization, or silo-ing, in which users seek out only news and opinion sources that echo and often intensify their already existing political views and biases.
CYBER-ETHNOGRAPHY is the close study of online communities, using techniques derived from sociology and anthropology. Unlike "textual analysis" which doesn't directly involve users, CYBER-ETHNOGRAPHY employs techniques like interviews, focus groups, and participant-observation in online communities to get a more detailed sense of how users actually interact in cyberspaces.
CYBERPUNK Genre of science fiction typically set in a dystopian near future in which digital culture is more deeply embedded in every area of a world divided between a wealthy corporate class and a poor majority. Influential on a variety of cultural phenomena, from fashion to political dissent.
CYBERSPACE(S) Term coined by sci fi author William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer that has come to be widely used to name the virtual "spaces" of interaction created by the Internet and associated techno-devices. Since the term can falsely imply a single, homogenous territory, for the purpose of analysis it is best used in the plural, cyberspaces. Like all metaphors, this one both illuminates and misleads, since it is precisely the illusion of spacelessness, or no place-ness that characterizes much wired experience.
CYBER-TERRORISM The use of computer hacking to inflict serious direct or indirect psychological or physical damage to human targets.
CYBERTYPING The appearance of social stereotypes in cyberspaces, and/or the generation of new stereotypes by and in cybercultures. (Term coined by Lisa Nakamura.)
CYBRARIAN A term noting that much of the work of librarians has come to include digital resource management, in addition to, or, alas, at times instead of, printed books and other non-virtual materials.
DATAVEILLANCE A compound word made from data and surveillance, it refers
to the surveillance of a person's activities by studying the data trail created by actions such as credit card purchases, mobile phone calls, and internet use. The term is used by critics concerned that various web spaces like Google and Facebook gather far too much information on users, and fail to protect the misuse of that material for commercial and criminal activity.
DEFAULT IDENTITY All technical devices and processes are designed and built consciously or unconsciously, with particular users in mind. Thus, technologies tend to be biased by the cultural assumptions and identities of designers. Default identity refers to this presumed user. Historically, it refers to the process by which straight, white, middleclass, Euro-American cultural assumptions, values and ideas were (mostly unintentionally) built into early hardware, software and cybercultures. Just as it is possible to change the default settings on most programs, it has been possible to move beyond this default identity to welcome more subject positions online. But just as default settings often remain invisible to most users and don't get changed, default identities have to be intentionally changed, and there are still a number of ways and a number of places where the default identity dominates cyberspaces. PARTICIPATORY DESIGN has been one approach to lessening biases, as has, more fundamentally, improving the diversity of design teams in terms of class, race/ethnicity, gender and other social markers
DIGERATI Modeled on the term literati, this new coinage refers to those deeply knowledgeable about new media culture; often used ironically or in a critical way to suggest the digerati are arrogant in their flaunting of digital hipness and/or excessive in their trendy obsession with latest digital devices.
DIGITAL DIVIDE The digital divide is a concept gaining popularity during the 1990s to describe the gap between those who had access to computers and high tech devices, verses those who did not. The term was made prominent through a series of US government reports, beginning during the Clinton Administration, laying out the statistics regarding the technological "haves" and "have nots," a discrepancy attributable largely to race/ethnicity, income bracket, and/or rural vs. urban location. Analysis of the DIGITAL DIVIDE began as a discussion of simple access to hardware, but evolved to look at a number of social and cultural factors that additionally impacted one's ability to fully utilize new technologies. More complex understands of the full nature of various digital divides has led to a multifaceted approach labeled TECHNOLOGY FOR SOCIAL INCLUSION.
DIGITAL NATIVE; DIGITAL IMMIGRANT A DIGITAL NATIVE is an individual who grew from infancy in a technology rich environment. For digital natives, high tech devices and practices seem natural and are taken for granted. In contrast, a DIGITAL IMMIGRANT is a person who began interacting with high tech devices later in life; for these generationally older individuals, or individuals introduced to ICTs later in life, comfort with and immersion in digital culture is generally less fulsome. While digital natives generally have the advantage of deeper integration of technologies into their lives, digital immigrants often have the advantage of understanding more fully the contrast between life in digital and non-digital environments.
DIGITEXTUALITY Coined by Anna Everett, this concept plays off the literary term "intertextuality" (Kristeva) and refers to the complex relationships among digital texts and among various digitized media. Everett uses the term in conjunction with the concept of media CONVERGENCE, arguing that on the one hand digital media reduce all media to certain "zeros and ones" samenesss, but on the other hand older media like TV and radio are given new life and intensity as they move through the Net onto laptops and smartphones.
DISINHIBITION means the lessening of social inhibitions and taboos. In online environments DISINHIBITION stems largely from the anonymity or invisibility provided by text-based. In some cases, this can be a good thing, allowing people to talk frankly about issues they are not comfortable addressing face-to-face. In other cases, it provides cover for those who choose to launch hate speech or other forms of denigration without identifying themselves.
DOMESTICATION (OF TECHNOLOGY) The processes by which computers and new media devices moved increasingly from work environments (businesses, schools) into the home and other personal spaces, beginning perhaps with the first "personal computers" and proceeding apace, due to both technical innovations (decreasing size, increasing speed) and cultural value changes.
ESSENTIALISM is the belief that there are certain ESSENTIAL human traits that are unchanged by history, as opposed to a "social constructionist" view that traits that seem essential were in fact created over time through social interactions that can therefore be changed. Racial essentialists argue that all members of a racial group share certain basic characteristics or qualities that mark them as inherently different from members of other racial groups. Gender essentialists believe certain inherent features of masculinity and femininity exist across all cultures and all time.
FRAMING NARRATIVE In game studies, the storyline surrounding the action in any given game, in contrast to the "in-game" narrative.
GAME GAZE Modeled on the concept of the "cinematic gaze" widely used in film studies, game gaze refers to the positioning of a game player in different types of game play. The term is useful in studying how, for example, a "first-person shooter" game shapes the experience of a user differently than a game set up in the third person. Analysis of the GAME GAZE also seeks to understand the qualitative difference between "gazing" at a digital game screen as compared to gazing at a film, painting or TV program.
GAMEWORLD; GAME PLAY The partly explicit and partly implicit environment in which a given game is enacted. Each gameworld has a structure and a logic of its own, with varying degrees of similarity to or difference from our everyday world. Often contrasted with game play, the activity going on within a game.
GOLD FARMING The practice of playing multiplayer online games to earn in-game currency that can then be sold to other players for real world currency. Gold farming is most widespread in China and other developing nations where wealthier individuals within, or more often outside the country in richer nations, effectively buy the labor of gold farmers to enhance their power in MMRPGS and other games.
HACKTIVISM Online activism that includes civil disobedience in the form of breaking into and altering websites or other digital spaces for the purpose of parody of or critical commentary on political opponents, or in support of dissenting political positions. While "hacking" or "cracking" computers is also used for personal gain or vandalism, "hactivism" refers only to breaking into and manipulating digital systems for specific political reasons, for challenging existing economic, social or political power structures.
HARDWARE-SOFTWARE-WETWARE The trio of terms denoting the main elements of any baseline digital culture device/process -- "hardware" (computers, cable networks, game consoles. cell phones, etc), "software" (the digitally coded programs that run or run on a device), and "wetware" (the humans who design, distribute and/or use the hardware and software). In digital culture studies, each of these elements is subject to historical, TECHNO-CULTURAL analysis of the economic, social and political choices that determine its technical nature and socio-cultural use.
HEGEMONY is cultural domination without overt force or coercion. Hegemony is a process by which groups with greater power lead those with lesser power to adopt their dominant ideas as common sense, even when those ideas work against fairness, justice or the self-interest of the dominated group. In ICT terms, hegemony has meant greater power to shape cyberculture in the hands of certain cultural groups & the default subject position. The concept was originally developed by the Italian marxist cultural theory, Antonio Gramsci.
ICT is shorthand for Information Communication Technology and refers to all the digital devices (computers, cell phones, pdas, smartphones, iPods, etc.) that play a role in the creation of new media modes of interaction between people. The move form the term IT to ICT exemplifies the increasing degree to which communication between people, rather than mere information storage and retrieval, has come to define the world of new media technology.
INTERACTIVE One of the most common claims about new media is that they are more INTERACTIVE than older media like film and TV. The claim is that new media like video games and Web 2.0 features allow more room for the user/player to shape the activity being engaged in. There is no doubt that this is true in certain cases, but media scholars have shown both that older media audiences are far more active than has been assumed, and that much of the interactivity in new media is more scripted than we might suppose. Thus, degrees of interactivity should be seen as existing along a spectrum, and differing kinds of interactivity should be specified, rather than simply accepting the claim (or commercial hype) that new media are a major breakthrough in interaction.
LUDOLOGY; NARRATOLOGY Ludology is the study of all kinds of games. Analysis of video and computer games has been enriched by drawing upon this wider field that looks historically at games of every type; especially relevant is the history of board games, one of the main bases of many new media variations. Much ludology looks for underlying patterns or structures found across different games and different genres and types of games. Sometimes contrasted with narratology, an approach to game studies that emphasizes storytelling over other aspects of game world activity, and places game narratives in the context of other kinds of storytelling forms like novels and fiction films. While sometimes portrayed as competing approaches, ludology and narratology each have important things to offer game studies, and can be synthesized in interesting ways.
MATERIALITY In analysis of digital cultures, MATERIALITY refers to the physical dimension often lost in discussions of virtual realities. All digital interactions take place over devices with a material basis, one linked to a long material production process, and all interactions involve the material body of the user, no matter how much the illusion of disembodiment or placelessness may take mental precedence. There are no virtual spaces not also grounded in material ones.
MEDIA MONOPOLY refers to the increasingly narrow ownership of various old and new media by a small number of very powerful media mega-corporations (Time Warner; Viacom, Disney, NewsCorp, GE, CBS.). Critics worry that monopolies lead to higher prices, more censorship of controversial issues, and less variety of media content.
MICROBLOGGING A broadcast form of blogging (i.e., Twitter) limited to a small number of characters.
NET ROOTS or NETROOTS Online political or social movement organizing, meant to parallel the term, grassroots, but applying to activism emerging or developing significantly on the Internet.
PARTICIPATORY DESIGN recognizes the limits of hardware and software design from the "default identity" position, PARTICIPATORY DESIGN involves actual users in the creation of new technologies, and aims to make sure that a culturally diverse group is part of the design process. Ideally, this process moves beyond consulting diverse users to working to increase the diversity of engineers and other technology creators. This has prove particularly important in working with users who have disabilities, and with varied ethnic groups around the world who don't share default norms of Western designers.
PERSONALIZATION The ability of users to transform digital culture processes and spaces to fit individual personality choices. Increased PERSONALIZATION is a key feature of Web 2.0.
PRIVILEGE; SOCIAL PRIVILEGE Social privileges are built in advantages based on the SUBJECT POSITION (class, gender, ethnicity, ability, etc.) you are born into or placed into by circumstances not of your own making. Privilege is typically invisible to people who have it because one key privilege is not having to think about people who don not have your privilege. Usually, privileged people believe their privilege was earned rather than conveyed upon them automatically. For a useful online discussion of privilege, see
“’Check My What’? On Privilege and What We Can Do About It.”
PROSUMER Prosumer (David Marshall) is a term used the express the idea that some consumers of techno-cultural devices and processes have become more pro-active via Web 2.0 features like PERSONALIZATION, e-reviews, dyi postings, etc.
PROTOCOLS; PROTOCOLOGY Protocols are the systematic sets of rules that act as control mechanisms in information technologies. Largely invisible to most users, protocols shape every aspect of ICTs, including such things as domain names and addresses, bandwidth and type of access, and surveillance capabilities. "Protocology" (Galloway) studies the social choices that go into the creation and implementation of IT protocols. The creation of the domain suffice "xxx," for example, reflects the social choice to attempt to isolate pornography from other web spaces.
REMEDIATION In digital culture studies this refers most often to processing one type of media through another, like watching a movie on television or television on a smartphone or a website on a television. New media have increasingly moved forms from one platform (mode of display) to another, and remediation theory seeks to understand how this changes the experience for users. See also CONVERGENCE.
RL v. VL -- real life/virtual life. These terms meant to contrast life off and online are necessary but often misleading in suggesting too much of break between our lives online and offline. We are never not offline when we are online (our bodies remain solidly present, for example), and our online lives seep into our offline lives in a myriad of ways.
RSS Shorthand for Real Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Summary. A process by which news or other time-sensitive information is conveyed automatically to online subscribers.
SCOPOPHILIA refers to the pleasure of looking at objects of desire. It has primarily been used as a term in critiques of the fact that historically and in the present so much art and media is built around the active male gaze looking upon passive women. This includes not only soft and hardcore pornography, but less overt forms of sexualizing images in TV, films and other visual media, and in the female nudes of high art painting. But old and new media also develop other forms of pleasure in looking that may be as intense as sexual desire but are more like a kind of generalized voyeurism. See Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race, for an application of these ideas to new media.
SEMIOTICS; SEMIOTIC ANALYSIS A method of cultural study that treats cultural expressions as sets of "signs" (written, verbal, visual, aural) subject to laws of interaction similar to the way words, grammar and syntax function to make sense in a language. Signs are broken down into "signifiers" and "signifieds." "Signifiers" (words, images, sounds) have only conventional or arbitrary relation to what they "signify" (meanings). A furry, four-legged domesticated feline, for example, is a cat, chat, gato or billi, depending on the signifying system (in this case a written language) in which it is located. Each variation on the word "cat" would carry with it certain particular cultural connotations that vary its signification (and a culture that does not domesticate felines would have no word for this creature at all). A more complex image, a black cat say, would have very different connotations in an American horror movie (where it might signify bad luck or witchcraft) than it would on a French banner (where it might signify sabotage). Semiotic analysis applied to digital device would, for example, look at how each of its aspects (color, shape. size, sound [i.e., ringtones], name, etc.) carry particular significance that will vary across cultural and subcultural domains and contexts. A pink cell phone, for example. signifies feminity in Anglo-American culture, but signifies trust in an non-gendered way in Korea. A cell phone would also have a very different social connotation amidst the Arab Spring uprising (where phones were often "signs" of dissent in the semiotics of revolt) than it would have in non-revolutionary contexts in other times and places where it might signify something about class, degree of connectedness, or sub-cultural consumer taste.
SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES (SNSs) Sites like MySpace and Facebook, designed to facilitate communication between and among subscribing individual members and cohorts defined by a variety of possible commonalities (professional, institutional, geographic, recreational, political, etc.).
SUBJECT POSITION refers to the social positioning -- race/ethnicity, gender, age, class, sexuality, nationality, etc.-- that plays a major role in structuring a person's view of the world. By definition, subject positions are given by society, not chosen by individuals. Whenever you view a film or website, or read a book or article, you are doing so from a particular subject position. While it is possible to get outside your subject position, it is more difficult to do so than most of us think, and it requires the development of serious new CULTURAL COMPETENCIES to truly view the world through the eyes of someone whose subject position is far different from your own.
TACTICAL MEDIA Techniques used to disrupt mainstream cultural processes, especially, cybercultural processes. These may include cyber sit-ins, electronic civil disobedience, adbusting or subvertising, meme infowar, hacking, and a host of other dissident cultural practices.
TECHNOLOGICAL DETERMINISM argues that technology has an independent, causal power in changing society; some argue that technologies are even the main force in social life, beyond economics, culture or politics. Technological determinists often see technology as a force larger than human control. Technological determinists come in both utopian versions (technology will solve all social problems) and dystopian versions (technology will doom us all). Digital culture scholars reject strong versions of technological determinism (preferring "techno-cultural" analysis), while recognizing that technologies do have impacts not fully under social control.
TECNO-CULTURAL analysis, in contrast to "technolgical deterninism," approaches argue that technologies like the Internet always have cultural assumptions built into them by culturally shaped producers. Technologies are always created by individuals and groups deeply shaped by cultural assumptions and biases. Choices about which technologies to develop are always partly economic and social. Choices about which technologies become popular are deeply social and cultural. The uses to which technologies are put are deeply social and cultural. The adoption and use of technologies is always a social process. Technologies are subsequently adapted, changed or replaced by ongoing social processes. Technologies are always therefore TECHNO-CULTURAL, always shaped by culture even as they shape culture in turn.
TECHNOLOGY FOR SOCIAL INCLUSION refers to a multi-factor approach to overcoming gaps between those with full access to new digital technologies and those who lack such access. This proactive approach stresses multiple cultural factors as well as simple access to hardware and software, and often uses PARTICIPATORY DESIGN and other interactive practices to engage underserved communities desiring greater degrees of access to the economic, political, social and cultural opportunities available through digital technologies.
TEXT/TEXTUAL ANALYSIS in the context of cultural studies argues that the social TEXT is any unit of meaning isolated for the purpose of analysis. In cyberculture analysis the “text” may be as small as one word or image on a web page, or as large as a whole community of users. Web “texts” include words, images, sounds, page layout, links and their interrelationships. When talking about "text-based" cyberspaces, however, the reference is to writing, as opposed to visual or aural representation. TEXTUAL ANALYSIS is a major technique used in digital culture studies to get at the meanings projected by web sites, online conversations and other manifestations of cyberculture.
TEXTING Use of Instant Messaging and similar programs for communication among cellphones or other message capable devices. The world record for thumbed texting is less than 22 seconds to type "The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human." A quadraplegic man named Hank Torres has the current Guinness World Record for “Fastest Hands-Free Typing.” In about 83.09, Torres typed the same phrase.
THUMBERS Another term for the digital generation (derived from usage in Asia) based upon the use of the named digits in speedy texting. One sign of the digital generation gap is the those raised before the digital revolution often text with fingers like typing, while the younger, digital native set often uses only thumbs.
WEB 2.0 refers to the more interactive dimensions developing on the World Wide Web in the 21st century, and the increasing CONVERGENCE of old and new media in digital spaces such that movies, television shows, recorded music, radio stations and other older media are being digitized and made available via the web. Key to this notion are PERSONALIZATION, DOMESTICATION, PARTICIPATORY DESIGN, CROWDSOURCING, PROSUMING and other modes of interaction by which new media productions differ from the one-way flow -- from creators to a more passive audience-- typical of older, broadcast media like radio and TV.
WIKI A website, typically informational or educational (cf. Wikipedia), that allows open, collaborative editing directly online.
WIKIDENTITIES A concept arguing that people, espeicially young people, deeply immersed SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES like MySpace and Facebook create their identities collectively with help from online friends, and with a sense that identity construction is always partly a fictional process. Part of a larger argument that Web 2.0 features like "wikis" are changing the way that people, especially young people, think about how knowledge is produced. (See Mallan & Giardina, "Wikidentities" in First Monday 14.6 (2009).)