Utopian Optimisms

Social Text Online

• June 2019

The following edited conversation reflects on the web interventions of the Social Text journal and collective since 2009. Social Text Online is now about ten years old, and we have recently been reflecting on the direction of the website, its role in how we approach publishing more generally, and how the external changes in the way the internet operates affect how we think of the site. The site started with a web committee that formed in 2007, and it went live in 2009. Anna McCarthy has been involved since the beginning, first as coeditor of Social Text and a member of the web committee, and now as the editor of the website. Social Text collective members Brian Larkin and Michael Mandiberg and managing editor Livia Tenzer were involved in the initial crafting of the site. Tavia Nyong’o later edited the site as well as the journal. Marie Buck came on as managing editor of Social Text and Social Text Online in 2015 and guided the site’s redesign that year; she also edits the site’s literary sections.

Tavia Nyong’o (coeditor of Social Text, former editor of Social Text Online): As a collective, we have thought a lot about speed, and speed-up, over the past years, in relation to both the print journal and online. Our initial position was simply that the internet was a social text, and that Social Text should be an active presence on it. We even had to compete for “social text” domain space with a commercial vendor of software for business enterprises. Obviously we had very different conceptions regarding what the intersection of textual analysis and social dynamics could enable.

In our original 2008 design for “Social Text Periscope (our dossier section of the website, where we host five to eight or so essays on a given topic), we set ourselves a double, perhaps contradictory, task: slowing down the internet but speeding up academia. Although the term “middle-state publishing” was just then coming into vogue, we saw ourselves as enabling our contributors to write in media res but without the pressures of commercial journalism or the strict conventions and topicality of the op-ed industry.

We have also deliberately kept ourselves at a remove from the more interactive, search-engine optimized, comment-strewn clickbait that now dominates the web. Digital self-publishing is currently dominated by Twitter, but this present state of affairs was not predetermined. The future, our present, could have been otherwise. One of our experiments, “The Skim,” was meant to be a hybrid of then-nascent Twitter and the “Omnivore” column at Book Forum: curated links to the web with intelligent commentary. For a while it worked really well, but browsing and posting patterns have changed. Now people come to the site from social media, and the equivalent of “The Skim” is the Twitter feed that appears on our front page.

Marie Buck (managing editor of Social Text and Social Text Online, literary editor of Social Text Online): The internet has changed considerably even since the beginning of Social Text Online in 2008. When I first started at Social Text, in 2015, we were beginning a redesign of the website. My impulse was to tidy up the site and our workflows around it. We got rid of “The Skim,” since it had fallen out of use; we got rid of the comments feature, since monitoring it seemed unwieldy; I started copyediting everything we put up to adhere to Chicago Manual of Style conventions, with the same rigor that Duke University Press uses when copyediting articles for the journal. But as we’ve worked on the site, it’s become clear that the priority of the collective is actually just to get things up quickly. That is, our mission, so to speak, is the messy back-and-forth more than the polished “content.” And I think all of us kind of miss the old-ish, pre–smart phone internet and that moment in the mid-aughts and very early teens when more of the internet, and people’s use of it, was based on blogs and individual webpages versus a few apps—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. (Anna recently passed along to me the article “404 Page Not Found: The Internet Feeds on Its Own Dying Dreams,” which only increased my nostalgia.) There’s also the problem of audience: if you’re going to have a website now, you should definitely promote it, get the word out there, do right by your writers’ work. But instead of the productively anarchic world of website-checking and blogrolls, we have the big social media apps, where, for instance, the alt-right is present and somehow in the same conversation. To publish and share something with the community of academics, leftists, arts-people, and so on that we envision, we also have to put it on platforms that are full of Nazis. And ads. And professionalized Twitter accounts.

That seems like kind of a loss, and like something that generally makes for less creative, productive weirdness online. I’m reading the new collected Mark Fisher book right now, which is mostly his stuff from the K-Punk blog, which was a part of that mid-aughts moment—and I keep remembering procrastinating on my grad school work by reading poetry blogs, Gawker, and various other sites. It definitely just felt like aimless internet surfing at the time, but it’s clear a decade-plus later that some really important discursive shifts were happening then. Also, I remember a friend in poetry MFA school, around 2006 or so, sending all the poems he wasn’t so sure about to little online mags and all the poems he felt confident in to the older, more-established print mags. And he was realizing that this might have been a mistake, since the online things were getting out there way more. The funny thing about this, though, is that the work this friend published online was weird, risky, and interesting as hell, and people very much liked it. Online was once a good space for risk taking. We aim to preserve that sensibility with our site now, despite the structural changes to the web.

Anna McCarthy (editor of Social Text Online, former editor of Social Text): Thinking about Gawker reminds me that when I started editing Social Text Online, I wanted to explore classic internet formats: the listicle, the how-to, and so on. This is partly because I was researching the economic and historical implications of “content,” at once a new substance of value produced for online consumption and something similar to “copy” in the advertising world—a stock form of writing guided by certain commercial imperatives. I’ve followed through on this, a bit, in the editor’s blog, but haven’t tried hard enough to encourage general submissions that take on the vulgate forms of the internet. Interestingly, as a side note, I’ve started to include these formats in my teaching more and more. For example, I’m compiling a list of “twenty questions to ask yourself about your dissertation” and will use it in my department’s dissertation-proposal writing seminar.

I read somewhere (i.e., on the internet) that people love to click on articles with titles generated according to the Search Engine Optimized formula, “What It’s Like to (Be an X; Do Y; etc.).” It strikes me that this is a format we could make interesting use of in Social Text Online. It would be great, for example, if we could ask someone to write, “What It’s Like to Teach at a US University Outpost in the United Arab Emirates.” Or, “What It’s Like to Hold a Post-Doctoral Diversity Fellowship.” We wouldn’t have to limit ourselves to subjects in academia. I have long wanted to hold forth on the theme, “What It’s Like to Not Be on Facebook.”

Such a piece would certainly have to pay tribute to the old internet, the way it shuttled information back and forth at a stately steamship pace. If Social Text Online were suddenly to acquire the capacity to deliver dopamine hits in the form of continually updated content, our workflow might look like the following fantasy of leftist cultural production:

0500 hrs. Anna wakes up, piddles around on her own ridiculous work for an hour or two, reads the news, political sites, looks at cute animals on Reddit.

0900 hrs. Marie and Anna check in via text and come up with two or three “prompts” for the site that day.

0930 hrs. Marie and Anna send these prompts out to the collective and to other authors who want to be on the STO list, including writers who approach the site from its literary side. They ask for five hundred words.

1600 hrs. At the end of the day, if they have a submission, and if they think it’s all right, Marie and Anna tidy it up and put it on the site.

Marie: Relatedly, just thinking more about audience: one thing that’s interesting to me is that, because of the totally awful and exploitative circumstances of the academic job market, the boundary between academia and not-academia is a lot more porous. All the structural conditions around this are entirely fucked up, but the fact of there being a lot of people with some academic training who do all sorts of nonacademic or alt-academic things means that there’s an expanded intellectual sphere that takes part in conversations that have also flowed through academia.

When we were redesigning the website and talking about audience, we decided we wanted the site to be a platform for activists, for artists of various sorts, and for others who might or might not be strictly in the academic world, for the larger group of people who might share interests with the Social Text collective. And the internet really dictates that in some ways. Just from a logistics perspective: footnotes, for instance, are really unwieldy in WordPress, which means that the site doesn’t lend itself to super specialized, research-heavy work. It lends itself to topics that are already on people’s minds, to public discourse rather than to longform deep-dives. I personally love a longform deep-dive, the nerdier and more obscure the better, but for the site I’m particularly excited by essays that might bring, say, a particularly relevant kernel from such work into the larger discourse—so that you find yourself reading about an anarchist college at SUNY Buffalo in the 1970s amid public education cuts elsewhere in your newsfeed, for instance.

Anna: I think the literary material we publish is the most successful and dynamic. Marie has done some amazing work building up that audience, and I need to follow her example and find ways to expand the types of material we feature in the “Periscope” section. One possibility is to solicit more work on particular themes and debates, and to organize a spectrum of contributors that includes not only academics but also activists and artists. Neferti X. M. Tadiar and Sunaina Maira exemplify such possibilities in their dossier on the academic boycott movement.

I’d also like to see more cultural critique in the “Periscope” section. So, to give an example, we’ve recently published some contributions from a conference I attended at Goethe University Frankfurt this year. The theme was “The Airport,” and the graduate student participants gave amazing presentations on topics ranging from the neck pillow as embodiment of ideas about self-care, vulnerability, and legitimacy, to the way promotional films address the use of slave labor in the construction of one of Frankfurt Airport’s runways during World War II.

So if anyone reading this is interested, here is a partial list of some “Periscope” topics I’d love to see addressed: Data Science in Everyday Life; Small Plastic Things; Elsagate; Reddit; Maker Culture; Quora.

Tavia: In 2010, just as the second iteration of Social Text Online was disseminating, the late great Prince declared that “the internet’s completely over.”1 I scoffed at the time, but now I wonder, especially when I read an artist and theorist like Hito Steyerl ask in 2013, “Is the internet dead?”2 Over and dead at least is my own blinkered optimism regarding the utopian possibilities of cyberspace. (I’m very much Gen X in this respect.) A decade ago I recall wondering aloud, Could the internet be a social text? In other words, could we find in this medium the true realization of the critical aspirations for which the print journal would turn out to have been, in retrospect, but a prequel? I’m less sanguine now of course, even though I am immensely proud of all we have managed to accomplish. Our literary turn has been a welcome respite from the attempt to continue “updating to remain the same,” as Wendy Chun has so well put it.3 I hope this tendency continues and that we can find, through such means, more occasions for convening salons, symposia, and other opportunities to reflect in real time upon the pressing questions of our time.

 

 

Anna McCarthy is the editor of Social Text Online and a former coeditor of Social Text. Her books include Ambient Television (Duke University Press, 2001) and The Citizen Machine (NYU Press, 2010). She is a professor and chair of the Cinema Studies Department at New York University.

Tavia Nyong’o is a long-serving member of the Social Text collective, where he has been both web editor and print editor. He is a scholar of American studies, and his work considers black performance in historical and contemporary perspective. His most recent book is Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (NYU Press, 2018).

Marie Buck is managing editor of Social Text and of Social Text Online, where she also edits the literary section. She is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul (Roof Books, 2017), and her scholarly work focuses on literary elements in the newspapers, zines, and small press publications of 1960s and 1970s social movements.

 

1 Peter Willis, “Inside Prince’s Bizarre Life at Paisley Park,” Daily Mirror (UK), 21 April 2016.

2 Hito Steyerl, “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?,” e-flux, Journal #49, November 2013.

3 See Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016).

 

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