Affect, Anonymity and Awareness: Learning in a Digital Environment

Matthew (@yyiiii) 8 years, 11 months ago

The following a statement of intent for a book that I’ve been writing for the past year, I thought this community in particular might be interested in hearing about it.

My doctoral research project will explore the historical relations between perception, consciousness, agency and volition as experienced through digital communications technology and multimedia. A process akin to the explosion of ontological and metaphysical awareness as a result of the development of the written word in Ancient Greece, and the subsequent development of the printing press and dissemination of printed matter in the Enlightenment era in the West is presently unfolding globally, through digital representations of thought encoded and shared in online multimedia. Individual identities, subjectivities and perspectives remain hidden in plain sight and cybertext ‘speaks for itself’ amid vast postindustrial networks accessed by individuals living in cities around the globe, twenty-four hours a day. In what I conceive as the ‘anonymous mode,’ interstices that have always existed in and between the omnipresent evaluative, social, political, economic and academic systems and structures governing everyday life are becoming visible, accessible, usable–and exploitable, in confounding new ways. My investigation will begin by tracing and characterizing how the subjective anonymous perspective has been mediated through language and literature throughout history, in early ancient Greek primary texts, in the post-print era literature and culture and today, with accelerating intensity and visibility in cybercultural conjunctures like, and

Bruno Latour’s actor-network approach will inform my examination of how relations in semiotic networks affect meaning in and between domains of discourse, consciousness and the physical world. How are these relations specifically performed? Which ideas gain traction with the majority, which decay? In the 2013 book/digital project An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence, Latour enacts the very perspective that my work focuses on analyzing with his appeal to the reader to work with him on his inquiry. By describing the forces and intensities affectively exchanged between human and non-human actors in conscious and unconscious relations, we may trace their multiple becomings and fluid performances and make new meaning. This affective semantic data mediates every experience of being in the world, and is what Latour describes in his first book We Have Never Been Modern, simultaneously “real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society” (6). These traditionally ephemeral, difficult to perceive relations can be interrogated by following their affects across the various domains of experience in which they appear. For the first time in history, these abstract critical relations are achieving stability and visibility, suspended in the digital economy opened up by the Internet protocol suite, through the mechanical organization of cybertext and multimedia circulating in online, constituting cybercultural discourse. Affect generated by the constant, fluid relations of anonymous users online can even be found at times sticking in and between the domains of personal experience, discourse and even moving through the social life of users away from the keyboard.

Rolan Barthes initially described ‘myth’ as a second-order system of signification that presents itself as natural and eternal but is actually an expression of a historically specific and contingent ideological vision of the world. Barthes realized that the problem in trying to ‘demystify’ myth or construct any fully formed ‘semiological science’ is that any such project coheres tenuously around the paradoxical permeability and transparency of critique through the accessible language and critical discourse in print society. Likewise, any objective study of a social subject or phenomena using printed language is as intrinsically unstable and incoherent as social and cultural discourse itself. Culture and its producers continuously evolve and adapt regardless what critical insights or formerly invisible truths are made visible. To acknowledge and account for the inherent paradox in his own unfolding critical endeavour to construct a ‘science of signs,’ in his late work Barthes develops his concept of ‘the Neutral’ as a potential tertiary perspective from which to understand the paradoxical cultural production of Doxa or myth. Barthes’ poststructuralist work sought to better understand, analyze and use the power of self-reflexive meta-critical theoretical insight in his practical encounters with concepts like Doxa and in his local literary and cultural economy but he died in 1980 before finishing his inquiry and long before the Internet. It is my contention that the neutral perspective sought by Barthes, is presently accessible, knowingly or not, by users operating online in the anonymous mode.

Also essential to my work is the seminal 1997 study Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature by Espen J. Aarseth. In it, he traces a topology and genealogy of ergodic literature which focuses on “the consumer, or user, of the text” as an integral figure who traverses the mechanical organization and structure of a cybertext, raising the interpretive stakes in their capacity to produce various meanings and interpretations (1). In cybertext, the struggling internal tensions of interpretative insight and narrative control demand that users make crucial decisions in order to understand and experience narrative. The improvisational effort, intervening energy, and emotional investment circulating in and between users and cybertexts amplify the affective capacities of the most engaged users. In this way, ergodic literature “incarnates” cybertextual affectivity in a way traditional text cannot and increases the ability of users to intimately know and experience narrative–and each other–in new ways (4).

Since online anonymity exists on a spectrum from anonymous to authentic, my work will focus on three specific sites, which allow users access to varying degrees of anonymity. At the authentic pole of the spectrum I will analyze the social network Specifically, the protocols that allow users to create profiles, mechanisms by which users may organize themselves and interact with others, the evolving ‘Statement of Rights and Responsibilities’ document which all users are subject to, the relations between user profiles and advertisements, and the functionality of the website’s front-end network architecture. I will also conduct close textual analyses of the content generated found in my personal profile from 2004 to today to trace the development of my own anonymous awareness as a user. As a neutral site near the center of the spectrum I will examine the wiki-style content aggregator I will analyze the protocol which determines the most visible content, the ‘karma’ system as the sole means of identifying pseudonymous user accounts, the functionality of the website’s user-generated ‘subreddit’ and ‘multireddit’ content sorting systems and the ‘reddiquette’ document, as an informal expression of reddit’s community values as written by the community itself. Because of reddit’s unique user friendly functionality and accessibility, I will also conduct critical textual analyses of the most popular posts, user accounts, comments and subreddits. On the anonymous end of the spectrum my work will examine infamous and oldest, Standard English, online cybercultural aggregator on the Internet,, specifically the ‘Random’ themed sub-board ‘/b/’ . Since users on 4chan have no profile or account, the subject of my analysis will be the various ‘threads’, or dialogic strings of images and cybertext created by anonymous users themselves over various durations of time. I will also analyze 4chan’s front-end network architecture and sorting protocol which determines which posts become most visible and how long they can be used. The content on /b/ is notoriously violent, offensive and illegal, my analysis seeks to approach this problem as a symptom of extreme anonymity, rather than as the object of inquiry and analysis.

Although useful in its own right, contemporary scholarship on cyberculture (Coleman, is largely conducted by researchers limited by disciplinary institutional boundaries, protocol and assumptions. McKenzie Wark calls for an ‘antidisciplinary’ approach to cyberculture studies arguing, “critical theory that does not reflect on its own conditions of existence rapidly becomes hypocritical theory,” but I believe this resistance to disciplinary knowledge is counterproductive (69). By appropriating and practically deploying elements of traditional critical theoretical frameworks from the fields of psychology (James, Freud, Tomkins and Jung), affect studies (Sedgewick, Massumi), French poststructuralism (Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze), quantum mechanics (Russell, Schrödinger, Bohm), narratology (Genette), communication studies (McLuhan, Ong), hermeneutic/transcendental phenomenology (Husserl, Heidegger), pragmatism (Whitehead), as well as Buddhism, Taoism and Mysticism, my work seeks to engage the geographically, temporally, and institutionally boundless phenomena of cyberculture on its own terms, rhizomatically, in all directions. By bracketing what these frameworks take as their objects and why, and focusing on how their inquiries methodologically unfold, new meaning becomes visible, accessible and useful from historically limited and isolated linear print perspective texts, written by authors in isolation and read passively by readers in solitude. In this way my work will access semantic nuance that has always already existed in literature and culture, transmitted through the endless process of reading an writing across history, hidden in plain view, just beyond the grasp of the assumptions, perspectives and experiences of human beings living in a pre-digital environment.

Following Roland Barthes’ semiological analyses of both high and low, linguistic and visual material culture and Bruno Latour’s pragmatic networked approach, my work will draw critically, and gain useful vitally by learning from an adisciplinary field of theory. By keeping my work online and accessible to the public (at, my project will use any feedback or comments it receives to learn from any mistakes, assumptions or gaps and reconfigure its ideas accordingly as the theoretical research process unfolds in practice. My research calls for and enacts a new mode for cybercultural critique, a material semiotic discourse analysis, rooted in ones own intimate personal experiences online and away from the keyboard. My own experiences as an extremely active anonymous user for the last fifteen years gives me access to this inside perspective, and my academic focus on literary and critical theory, including a self-directed program of reading under the supervision of York’s Marcus Boon, ‘The Concept of Anonymity Online and in the World’ taught me how to externalize my inside perspective in an accessible and academically rigorous fashion. Under the supervision of McMaster’s Anne Savage, a SSHRC grant would give me the economic stability to continue my research and help generate useful and practical academic scholarship that benefits anyone who uses the Internet.

As Internet use steadily increases across the world, a practical new theory from the users perspective will become more necessary, valuable and useful to anyone who ventures online for an extended period of time. The vast majority of traditional critical frameworks (even the most powerful ones) are alone insufficient to interrogate the boundless experiences and phenomena encountered in the digital environment because that were conceived, written and experienced by print perspective authors– in our increasingly digital world, the rules of what a text, author or reader can do are becoming fundamentally reconfigured without regard to any such limitations. By networking elements of various frameworks, freeing them from their traditional objects and allowing inquiries to roam across domains by following the way users are affected, the traditional dissonance between theory and practice can resonate in harmony, in an effort to understand and experience the new potentials of learning possible in a digital environment.

(for a longer description of my research project scroll down to the ‘Director’s Cut’ here: )

October 20, 2013 at 12:59 pm
Anonymous (328) (@) 8 years, 11 months ago ago

Heavy stuff. I’m kind of liking these new studies that mash different kinds of academia together. I was kind of reading Post-modern Anarchism by Lewis Call, it’s pretty similar to what you are doing, he analyzed the famous philosophers, psychoanalysts, and sci-fi writers and how they correlate. Are you doing this just by yourself? Or is there a whole team behind it, or movement or whatever?

inna (95) (@paintedbeings) 8 years, 11 months ago ago

thanks so so so freaking much for posting this and for your work. When I digest it all, I will get in [email protected],

Matthew (2) (@yyiiii) 8 years, 11 months ago ago

@motorik, just me and the various anon’s online who’ve been giving me feedback and critique over the last year, mainly from where I’ve been sharing my theories. I’m coming from an English department so engagement in meatspace has been hard to come by, but I’m remaining sturdy in my aim and, if I don’t go broke first, will have a nice first book on my hands sooner than later.

Matthew (2) (@yyiiii) 8 years, 11 months ago ago

@paintedbeings, thank you for the vote of confidence! Anon’s are the reason I’m even able to do this work in the first place, so any feedback is like mana flowing from the universe. if you want to engage specifically with any of the ideas, you can comment on the blog, or if you prefer, reach me by email. cheers!

Anonymous (328) (@) 8 years, 11 months ago ago

@yyiiii, Nice. Will check it out. I’m definitely interested in reading the book once it’s done.

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