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Virtual agents, visual culture, varied methods

Virtual agents, visual culture, varied methods

Hello Everyone,

I'm so excited to be back with HASTAC in the 2013 scholars cohort. I wanted to introduce my project and myself as well as give you all an idea of some conversations I would be exploring in this space.

Currently I am a doctoral candidate and Information in Society fellow at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.  My research explores anthropomorphized virtual agents (AVAs), computer programs designed with human features, characteristics, or personality traits, from a feminist critical informatics perspective.  This framework fuses social informatics (Day, 2007), critical information studies (Vaidhyanathan, 2006), and feminist theories of technology (Wajcman, 2010) to explore the digital intermediation of gender, race, and culture.  My aims of this research are to denaturalize anthropomorphization as a design strategy, map representations of race and gender in virtual agents against broader social and cultural contexts, and explore the consequences and implications of racializing and gendering information artifacts.

In my dissertation, Servants of Cyberspace: A Critical Analysis of Microsoft’s Ms. Dewey, I investigate "Ms. Dewey", the anthropomorphized virtual agent featured as the search interface for Microsoft’s Live Search search-engine from 2006-2009. I use historical methods, content analysis, critical discourse analysis, and visual methods to analyze both the representation of the virtual agent as well as the critical reception of the interface from technical commentators, librarians, women, and people of color. This project demonstrates that stereotypes about information work, women and people of color remain central to the virtual representation of information workers, and explores broader implications for using gendered/sexualized/raced agents as information science artifacts.

My methodological approach borrows from Brock’s (2011) articulation of Critical Technocultural Discourse Analysis (CTDA), which blends critical discourse analysis and cyberculture studies.  This is helpful for allowing me to examine the material aspects, associated practices, and discourses of those who use AVAs. The bricolage approach to methods is useful in pushing scholars to look at their objects of study from multiple angles.  I would be very interested to hear how those of you who study cultural and socio-political aspects of technology approach your work, especially those of you who integrate critical theory and visual methodologies into your projects. 

I look forward to the conversations that we will be having around our work, methods, and emerging issues in digital humanities. 

All Best,


Works Cited:

Brock, A. (2011). Beyond the pale: The Blackbird web browser’s critical reception. New Media & Society, 1–19.

Day, R. (2007) Kling and the “critical”: Social informatics and critical informatics.  Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 58(4), 575.

Vaidhyanathan, S. (2006). Afterward: Critical Information Studies. Cultural Studies, 20(2-3), 292–315.

Wajcman, J. (2010). Feminist theories of technology. Cambridge journal of economics, 34(1), 143.


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