— May 2013
In Archival as Memory Relay, I describe frame-crashing:
The notion of frame-crashing: every time a big event happens with a public figure of color, there will be articles about kids posting rascist slurs on the internet. Or, there are people who will find dumb tweets and retweet them – this phenomenon has to do with people used to a certain frame who are suddenly thrust into a different one (where strangers show up and call them names).
It turns out that there’s a rich well of writing already about context collapse – see Michael Wesch and Danah Boyd, among others – describing the paralysis that comes from writing (etc) online. You don’t know how to act because you don’t know who’s watching. This isn’t new, as Wesch compares it to talking to a video camera.
I think frame-crashing is the Jekyll to context collapse’s Hyde. While the latter is the current feeling of the disorientation, frame-crashing is an active act. You frame-crash when mockingly retweeting 15-year-olds who thought Cher died when seeing #nowthatchersdead. Journalists frame-crash when they quote cluelessly rascist people in stories about people of color. This isn’t a judgment about whether it’s fair (it varies), the point is that it’s done to someone.
Here are a couple of highlighted passages about that, arranged in some rough semblance of a line of thought:
That was when I realized I wanted (and needed) to get deeper into practice, into the process. Indeed process, like craft, seems fairly obvious to honor in theory and principle, but harder to embrace in practice. In-progress work is uncomfortable, it shows more open questions than answers; and “uncertainty”, as Paul Soulellis wrote in The Manual, “runs counter to how we’re trained to articulate our design values. We’re taught to express clearly and certainly”, but in-progress work is usually not clear yet, craft is messy and dirty, and sometimes you hit a dead end. Facing this is unsettling — maybe especially so for a generation of designers raised with the shiny precision of computers. We love that precision, even if deep down we know that it’s often a lie. The precise numbers of computers can make our work look like we’ve found answers when really all we have are questions, and the only truth we know is vague.
During the 1990s and early 2000s I actively maintained a collection of photos clipped from various books, magazines and newspapers and sorted into approximately one hundred different file headings. At first the photos served as source material for paintings and drawings but they quickly became a creative project of their own – a way of curating the visual world as it appeared in print. The files were a place to experiment with concepts and juxtapositions. They were a place to play with images and their intended meanings. I often used them to create new relationships between items from disparate sources and different time periods. Sometimes I’d pull images to use in my publications or projects. Other times I’d just let them accumulate within their various files. Eventually I tired of working on the files and put them in storage.
Increasingly digital humanities work is being conceived as much as event as product or project. With the rise of social media and with its ethic of transparency, digital humanities is increasingly being done in public and experienced by its audiences in real time.
The question, perhaps, is this: As the writer surrenders to these new possibilities, what will be her role in the instantaneous, feedback-driven, open world? Will there be a place for those other, slower thoughts, ideas that take time and quiet to flower, truths that cannot be crowdsourced?
The editor’s only real resource is judgement. You have to have absolute faith in it, but you must also interrogate it ceaselessly so as to keep the clearest possible distinction between the needs of the work and your own tastes or preferences.
But it seems to me that perhaps being invisible is an issue when you work in the arts, in entertainment, in media. In public. Actually, I am not sure I think it is a problem. It is just weird.
Online, we have to take all the faces we regularly wear and throw ‘em into a blender and pancake the resulting mush on like a big ol’ mud mask. And the more we live in public? The more faces get smushed into that mix. We post a status update on Facebook and there’s Aunt Myrtle chortling along with our best friend from college and the person who sits three cubicles away. And, oh yeh, that first slow-dance from seventh grade, the one who got away.
That’s context collapse.
Now, more and more, people navigate it every day. Some use privacy settings to minimize it, or try to keep worlds separate. Others of us cultivate broad public selves via social media channels, and discover along the way that our neighbour likes obscure death metal too, or that Aunt Myrtle actually has a rather raunchy sense of humour.
But every time we sit down in front of the blank screen we have to conjure up who it is we are addressing; to imagine, as Wesch puts it, “the nearly infinite contexts” we might be entering (Wesch, 2009, p. 23)
I also think the academics who don’t ‘get it’ may be grappling with – or maybe trying to fight off – context collapse. They’re clinging to a notion of professional self that circulates in professional, gatekept circles. They don’t want their ideas represented in a medium they associate with the illustrious musings of Snooki, or with litanies of what people had for lunch.
Maybe they glance our way out here and they don’t see ideas and peers and the potential for networks or connections. Maybe they glance our way and they see all that plus the rest of the infinite mirror ball of possibility and they cannot figure out who they’d ever speak as, here, and don’t want to be tossed into that paralyzing void?
It’s ‘open’ in the personal sense, where the boundaries of privacy and professionalism blur. It’s still about sharing and re-use, but from an individual node-in-network perspective. Here is my stuff, it says. My learning, best as I can sum it up or package it right now. My efforts. Here is my work, my passion, my humour, my stumbling in the dark. Here are my people, my conversations, my ideas in raw form. Maybe you can do something with it. With any of it. Go.
That’s the thing about working in the open. You can’t simply dim the lights and hush everyone. You’re part of something, and you may be guiding something, but you don’t control that thing. You’re in it with the network you’ve built. If that network includes your students, then they have public voices within it. If they mutiny, the mutiny will be active and loud and confusing unless you understand what’s going on. They’re not being insubordinate (usually). Networks are not hierarchies. And the medium encourages overt performance of discontent or questioning in a way that the classroom simply doesn’t, unless you’re in Dead Poets’ Society.
Let’s call it serial concentration: intense moments of speculation, inquiry, and explanation distributed over a period of time. This kind of serial concentration is particularly powerful because it happens in public. We are not huddled over a manuscript in private, waiting until the gatekeepers have approved our ideas before we share them, in a limited, almost circumspect way. We share our ideas before they’re ready. Because hand-in-hand with serial concentration comes serial revision. We write in public because we are willing to rewrite in public.
what I’m saying is that critiquing is a new liberal art. More of us are put in legitimate place for feedback, whether that’s the clients that commission work like design, or the reviews posted by users about books and restaurants on the internet, or the blinking cursor in the text field that encourages us to express ourselves. We need drawing classes everywhere, and who cares if the students learn to draw—we need the wall. We need to have everyone feel the vulnerability that public criticism creates, and to get better at talking about the things that other people make. We need to learn how to create in public and critique socially. Both thicker skin and more eloquent, considerate, and helpful tongues are necessary when finding the tact to evaluate the work in a useful way.
At the same time: surprise is of the essence. And for me, it’s been increasingly difficult to communicate coherently about my day-to-day writing work without either a) being intolerably vague, or b) giving away the good stuff. I just can’t quite find the balance. I’m midway through George R. R. Martin’s latest—these are books famous for their ruthless surprises—and so I’m feeling this really keenly right now. We don’t want radical transparency from George R. R. Martin. We want radical opacity. We want maximum surprise!
Work in public. Reveal nothing.
From the comments:
maybe the trick is to articulate what you’ve been thinking rather than what you’ve been doing. We can use the BERG weeknotes as a test corpus here. They are, I think, more interesting when someone in the studio writes, we have all been absolutely fascinated by X this week, and it’s been making us wonder about Y, rather than, Robin is working on A and Tim is working on B.