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Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet

Author: Lisa Nakamura
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007
Review Published: July 2009

 REVIEW 1: Yuya Kiuchi
 REVIEW 2: Nicholas Knouf
 REVIEW 3: Koen Leurs
 REVIEW 4: Andrea L. Volpe

It's an honor to have my book so carefully read by four cyberculture scholars, and I greatly appreciate all of the work that the reviewers put in to their reviews. I also thank David Silver for making this all possible, for making and maintaining a space for cyberculture studies to thrive and for us to gather in community with each other, a space with the "right on!" spirit that characterizes everything that he does. They all raise excellent points, and have helped me to rethink my methodology for a future project.

Leurs makes an excellent point that my analysis of media texts, such as films, advertisements, and art projects interspersed with case studies of online interaction like avatar creation, bulletin board use by pregnant women, and petition sites can make for sometimes difficult argumentation, and can imply that the cases aren't strong or interesting enough to stand on their own. I appreciated this feedback, and have noticed that while there are plenty of academic books and journal articles that do close readings of films and other media texts, there are relatively less books that do compelling readings of online interaction, a far less extensively explored phenomenon and one that is of greater interest to social researchers. Media texts hold up a mirror to society, revealing the more affective stakes in topics like technology, identity, and the social life. I'm glad to see that I more or less successfully wove them together with my accounts of online phenomena. Another of my goals in working in this way, aside from enjoyment, is to give user-generated media like pregnant women's avatars the same level of close attention and careful analysis that textual works routinely get when scholars write about them. So it is more my intention to treat these objects seriously, despite their non-professional origins, using the scholarly apparatus and methods most frequently devoted to "art." It was an attempt to give them the respect I did not see them getting in other accounts, which tended to record mostly quantitative data and did not look at them closely, with an eye towards the subjectivity of the creator and her cultural and social context and constraints. At times, this strategy did not work as planned -- I agree with Knouf that at times I overstated the need to look at the visual cultures of user-generated media at the expense of artist-made objects. And including interviews with digital producers would have done a great deal to honor the works I discussed by giving them an opportunity to speak in their own voices.

I wanted to oppose "popular" Internet cultures with artist's digital production because it seemed to me that the latter were getting all of the attention from some outstanding scholars -- Mark Hansen, David Rodowick, and Matthew Fuller had just written some very popular and well-respected books that took this tack, and that I feared were beginning to define visual approaches to digital media at the expense of the popular (and the raced, gendered, and classed). Instead, what should have been contrasting with user-generated media by people of color and women is not artists' digital media, but corporate digital content.

As Knouf writes, "I would argue, pace Nakamura, that the reconfiguration of these images signify less the development of unfettered minority cultural production online, and reflect more the awareness by corporate actors of the need to pay attention to different races, cultures, ethnicities, and genders in an age of globalization." The exploitation of user-generated content such as veiled AIM buddies for the benefit of media corporations exemplifies perfectly what Henry Jenkins has described as Web 2.0's essential dynamic: "we make the content, they keep the money." While AIM buddies are part of a gift economy between users, it's clear that Microsoft and other makers of IM software are getting brand visibility as a result of user-generated content helping to diversify and serve ever larger groups of users. Veiled AIM buddies are both expressions of woman of color youth identity and they produce a wider range of docile bodies for Instant messaging applications. This is the mixed scenario characterized by Web 2.0 -- not either/or, but rather and/yet. I agree with Knouf's and others' point that there is no such thing as a pure space without capital on or outside of the Internet, but I did choose that example because it did seem to be less about overtly capitalizing on the audience than, say, Hulu, Google, or Facebook, which embed advertising within their interfaces. I agree with Knouf that there is no such thing as "unfettered minority cultural production online," but neither is there no possibility for agency within these immensely generative spaces of online interaction and community. Again, not either/or, but rather and/yet.

I just loved this piece from Volpe, who also noted the importance of looking at ownership and control of digital media when we seek to evaluate the possibilities for people of color to assert their identities online: "So the problem for the study of internet cultures, not unlike the pre-digital study of media and popular culture, is that any attempts at appropriation are complicated by top-down control of the means of expression. The pixel is the measure of the dominant culture and the language of resistance at the same time; corporations, not users, set media protocols and control software programs." I wish that I had written this last sentence, and it describes exactly what I was trying to get at throughout the book.

Two out of four reviewers mentioned how much they would have liked to see more ethnographic work interviewing users. I did try to contact the makers of the AIM buddies I analyzed to obtain copyright, but my emails were never answered. The anonymity of much user-generated content production makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to contact producers. People tend to be transient users of youth and pregnancy websites in particular -- I know that after my daughter was born in 2001, I was effectively off of pregnant websites and on to baby websites, never to return (except for research purposes). I would be surprised if quiz and petition websites got many repeat visitors either, given that users often view these as one-off experiences, and some petition websites may not permit users to post more than once. However, Knouf and Leurs make a convincing case that this would have helped my arguments in many ways, comments that I have heard in other forms for quite a while, and I have already begun to add interviewing to my methodology for future projects.

Kiuchi has an excellent point in his review: Youtube and Facebook are two very important locations where "race is taking place in 2009" and they are not mentioned in this book. Neither are blogs, Twitter, digital games, Flickr, or Cute Overload (well, the latter isn't very important in terms of digital racial formation, I must admit, but it so deserves a book chapter!). There are many other things that I wished I had written about, such as the social movements created online by fans of color intervening in media franchises and games (see the lively debate within LiveJournal fan communities that came to be called Race Fail 2009, in my opinion an excellent title for a future academic article or book). Henry Jenkins' wonderful book Convergence Culture had just come out a month or two before I turned in the final manuscript for this book, and I didn't have time to incorporate many useful paradigms from it into my work. All of my examples are from 2004 and earlier, which reflects both the timeline of academic publishing and the slowness of my thinking. Sometimes it seems like paper publishing is not the right medium for writing on digital media, an insight that is becoming commonplace among readers, publishers, and authors alike.

However, when I think of the cyberculture scholarship that has influenced me the most and that I continue to teach, I realize that much of it is about "dead" or outdated digital media. Julian Dibbell's "A Rape in Cyberspace" and My Tiny Life are not only important documents that richly archive and preserve an intensely ephemeral medium and social milieu, but also create theories of identity, emotional investment, and authorship that travel into other disciplines, and into the world outside of academe. For cyberculture studies to matter to anyone other than us, it needs to mine specific examples for insights that transcend topicality, at least somewhat. Though MUDs are long gone, or, as I believe, have gotten better graphics and turned into Second Life, Dibbell's insights on griefing and identity crossing describe a robust phenomenon found in every virtual community since. Furry-bashing in Second Life, gold farmer assassinations in World of Warcraft, and Scientologist sabotage for the LULZ organized on sites like 4chan: as the cyborg oracle on Battlestar Galactica put it better than I could, "it has all happened before, and it will all happen again."

I am happy indeed that, as Knouf writes that Digitizing Race is an attempt to "'rematerialize the Internet,' loosening it from its roots in a discourse of the ephemeral or the colorblind." This is exactly what I was trying to do.

Lisa Nakamura


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