Lisa Nakamura is the Gwendolyn Calvert Baker Collegiate Professor in the Department of American Cultures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She serves as the coordinator of Michigan’s Digital Studies program, on the steering committee of FemTechNet, and is on HASTAC’s council of advisors. She co-edited Race After the Internet with Peter Chow-White in 2011, and published Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet in 2010. More recently, she’s published numerous smaller articles, which can be found found here.
We spoke for an hour on her beginnings studying the Internet, what has motivated her work in the past and today, and where Digital Humanities finds itself needed: including digital spaces in a critical analysis of our culture, and engaging students’ interests and people’s everyday digital lives. Along the way, we met on some common ground: connections at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and our love of gaming.
What was it like when you first started working with digital media and race?
There’s a lot of backlash against anonymous conversation now, when it was totally normal [before]. There’s an attitude of stranger danger, yet a huge tolerance for racist conversations, sexist behavior.
But the first book I edited were with two people I met in a chatroom. We met in real life, we were all academics, but we decided to do this book together because we all knew each other, though we knew each other as people who were role playing, and we [just] happened to be academics. We started having conversations about what it was like to interact and not know people, what gender they were, what race they were, and we decided to co-edit this book together. I don’t even remember how this happened over, I think it was almost 20 years ago. But the idea that you would have long enough conversations with strangers that you could feel like you knew them, that’s still something that I think mostly gamers do.
Or hobbyists, people interested in something niche online.
People who are really into, like, I would use the example of dogs because I have some friends who are really obsessed about dogs. So you know, on the poodle bulletin board, you get to know people. People who are on health, pregnancy websites, you get to know who they are. Because sometimes those relationships can last for years.
Who do you think still has these kinds of experiences today?
I think it’s the gamers. It’s probably been that way for 10 years now. Social networking and Facebook became a thing in probably 2006, so the people who I feel can understand the 90s, or rather, the kind of environment in which I came up as a person in digital media, are the gamers. Because they spend a lot of time on bulletin boards, or, for anyone that does multiplayer, they see the kind of harassment or the culture and they also understand why it matters.
What were some early barriers to working in race and digital media when you got started?
One barrier early on was the idea that this isn’t real. This [HASTAC, or FemTechNet] isn’t a real organization, not a real relationship, not a real friendship, and so it doesn’t count. And what you say doesn’t matter either for better or for worse. You can say whatever you want, you’re not responsible, and anything good that comes out of it, so affective ties or shared passions, or even shared work, isn’t real either.
So I think we who have been doing gaming for a long time know that it’s not true, your body tells you that it’s not true! When your team is doing well, you know something is happening, you can feel it.
How do you think social networking has changed that?
Well it’s been easier for people to see online friendships as real relationships, because now they are real relationships too. So, usually people don’t meet friends online without having known them a little bit first at school, or through friends or work.
I think one place where this isn’t happening is Twitter. That’s why, I think, people distrust it and condemn its toxic nature, and why it’s where #BlackLivesMatter and all this social activism is happening right now. It can happen there, because it’s really open.
What about Twitter makes it like those earlier forms of digital connection?
I think it’s anonymous, so you don’t follow someone because they went to school, or know someone you know, but it is that interest driven thing again. And because its short form, you don’t get stuck in case you don’t like what someone’s posting, you just move on. Even though it’s not doing very well right now. One challenge for things like Twitter is, is it easier to learn or rehearse resistance to bullying online or in person? Because people are going to get bullied as long as we have a sexist racist culture, which we do, but it’s a big question to create platforms that let people have real, online connections.
So as you’re seeing and encountering so many things, on Twitter or otherwise, how do you decide what to write about?
The first thing I ever wrote on digital media, which was in 1995, Race in Cyberspace, was about white men pretending to be Asian women, geishas, to get sex on the Internet, It was just so obvious to me that this was more interesting than Rudyard Kipling, which I was writing my dissertation on. That’s such a crazy thing that happened, and it still sounds interesting today, so how could you not write about that? I honestly don’t think that people would have imagined that these things would have happened.
Then I wrote about gold farmers, and I’m still writing about them, those workers farming money digitally in World of Warcraft to sell to people who were too busy to play. That’s such an interesting idea, that you can buy game time from someone else, and the way that Chinese workers have done such creative things - like body spam, where these players would kill themselves in a way to spell the name of their company. In Warcraft you can’t make anything, you only have your body.
That HAS to be written about, it’s so interesting! Picking objects has never been hard, the Internet always throws out some fascinating practice that people often create themselves to even the playing field a little bit. For example if you’re a Chinese gold farmer, everyone hates you. No one respects you, you have no personhood, and you’re probably living a kind of emiserated environment. So it’s interesting when they find a way to make something so beautiful or interesting given almost no agency.
It’s the same reason Ethnic Studies is so interesting - history is filled with these things. What was that like in real life?
Think about people who hire Chinese people to write their papers for them, or design their buildings for less money. There’s an exploitation of really skilled people stuck in these very awful economies and oppressive countries, and the Internet lets their labor flow back and forth. That’s something gold farmers were doing a long time ago, though it could never be known because it was illegal in Warcraft.
Everytime I see people in a tourist city like Miami riding in a bicycle rickshaw, they’re basically paying someone to walk for them. We see this kind of thing all the time, so I think gaming is a laboratory where you see all these new relationships being tested out. So there’s this encounter happening that could be really good for people in the U.S. to see how their stuff is made in a bigger way. It brings into light that these are such uneven relationships.
What about your work, especially because it’s so obvious for you that these things have to be written about, matter the most to you?
This was a really good thing to think about because it’s been almost 20 years since I started writing about the Internet, and I had almost no training to do it except being interested in post-colonial theory and feminism - I had a PhD in Literature.
The reason I’m interested in digital media still is that I still see the way people talk about the internet as often assuming that inequality doesn’t exist there. Or, as inequality being something people choose to experience on the internet, because they don’t have to use it. I think it’s been really obvious the last couple of years, it's not optional to use the Internet.
That was an objection 20 years ago when I was writing about racism in digital media, in chat rooms, no one has to use those. If you don’t want to experience that just don’t log on, and if you don't like it just log off, though no one really says that anymore.
What worries me is that the opposite happens. It’s become so everyday and taken for granted that people will troll bulletin boards, and that you can’t reveal who you are online without being harassed. That should not be accepted. It quickly went from being “it's not real” to being “that’s just the way things are” without anything in between.
So the one position is, it doesn't matter it’s not real, the other position is that it can’t be changed. So I think that persistent pushing out of uncomfortable truths about inequality is not just about the internet, generally people don’t want to talk about that.
But I think seeing active push against seeing women and people of color in digital media both as makers of it and as people who are experiencing very uneven relationships really bothers me. That bothered me then, and it still bothers me now. So when I first started writing about this 20 years ago, very few people were online, and now everybody, or almost everybody is.
How have you found that active push in your research lately?
Lately it’s been about how the not seeing of people of color and women has made me feel unable to see them. Because there’s now a sedimented practice of how to talk about digital media, so things like file formats, or things like political economy, what company owns what companies, what are the rules and policies, those things have been talked about for a long time. So my research recently has been going to Navajo country to interview women who built semiconductors in the ‘70s, because that’s not even part of the history. That was absolutely not included in anybody’s books except for Navajo historians. So, to me, trying to create a better archive of what people of color were doing to build that industry is really important.
It still really bothers me when I watch shows like Halt and Catch Fire, or Mr. Robot, and there aren’t more Asians. That’s impossible - you cannot write about Silicon Valley without having a ton of East Asian people. It’s like watching a medical drama, and there aren’t any Filipinos in the hospital. That doesn’t make any sense.
Where do you see women and people of color making themselves known in digital media, in spite of their erasure or invisibility?
Well, one of the best things I saw online this year was a letter that an Asian women had written to her parents about why black lives matter. So she was trying to explain to her Asian immigrant parents why it was an important movement for them, not just for black people, but for everyone.
That was a really good example of people who are not in academia doing really valuable work, intersectional, to kind of solve the problem that we have multiple kinds of oppression and multiple movements, and we don’t know how to get the most value out of working together.
That’s why I’m interested in Tumblr! I think that Tumblr’s done a lot to model that for people and to encourage them. It’s easy to make fun of because people see it as a social justice warrior behavior, and that’s true I think in a good way.
I think that Tumblr is doing, to my mind, a way better job of reaching people than the university is. It’s free, and it’s giving people, not a watered down version, but a very truncated version of the theory that excites them. The problem sometimes is that the rest of the theory is not as exciting, so you have to wade through a whole article to get to the piece that moves you. That part can be a let down, but it’s great that people are going through these major works and finding the parts that move them, and sharing those parts. Because it’s introducing people to the parts that matter to them, that’s exciting.
It really validates doing this research, when you see that it matters to people who have no interest in going to college, or if they want to go to college, they want to go very specifically, to solve very specific kinds of social problems, but they can’t afford it. College is too expensive, their parents make them major in engineering, there's such a drive to be profitable and practical that that’s not often what people’s passions are, so you see them on Tumblr and they have great conversations.
It sounds like you care about your students a lot - what things are you seeing with students today, especially those who are interested in digital media, in race and feminism? What means most to you about your work, and what role do students play in that?
I think when students climb towards what they care about, school isn’t hard, it becomes really easy and really fun. So it’s painful to me to see them struggle through school and not find their thing.
I think the thing that means the most to me is to reach students by talking about the place where they live and where their lives are. Because that’s what social media spaces are for them, that’s where their life is. Helping them understand concepts like inequality or what is gender by looking at the things they’re actually doing now, is what’s exciting to me. It’s way easier to teach it that way, because everyone has something to add from their personal experience. When you see a student who gets interested in writing because this is something that is about their life, then it makes you want to teach more. It makes the job a lot more interesting.
At the same time though, my students are afraid to talk about race in class. I did this exercise where I asked whether students were comfortable talking about race and write down what was worrying them about doing it. A lot of the white students were worried about getting in trouble, that they would say something wrong, not mean it, and they would embarrass themselves and be humiliated and people would hate them. A lot of students of color were worried they would be attacked by people, and told that what they were saying wasn’t important. That they would have to speak for everyone, that they would be the only one going and everyone would have to listen and take the job against 28 other students.
No one really had any racist beliefs or sentiments that I could tell, it was really more about anxiety of not being given a chance and a feeling that you won’t be forgiven if you made a mistake, and that it was not possible to fail because you would basically ruin your reputation or standing in front of these people who were your peers, that was too high a price and you were better off to do nothing than to risk this massive social disaster which could happen. When you think about that way, there’s lots of reasons for them not to do it.
But, they would have welcomed critical vocabulary to use because it would help them feel more scholarly. They can say it’s not my idea, it’s someone else’s. It lets them have some distance from it, and they can argue about the idea, and not about their own personal status or position. It kind of clarifies why it’s worth it to learn these terms. They could really make an uncomfortable conversation more comfortable.
I sometimes wonder if we didn’t have the race ethnicity requirements, whether students would engage with it. I taught a videogame course that does not meet those requirements, but people still take it. I think because they want the gaming part, but that’s another reason why it’s important to address these things in our classes, because students are willing to do a lot of things they aren’t willing to do if they get to talk about games.
They’re willing to learn and kind of immerse themselves with ideas that they find really uncomfortable as long as they get to play games too.
I took a, sort of, gaming class at Illinois, and met someone you know, Veronica Paredes. Both of you are involved in FemTechNet.
That’s why FemTechNet and HASTAC are good- it gives us a way to meet across generations and different locations, it kind of facilitates helping each other. So she [Veronica] can tell you where to go, and I know her through this organization, even though it’s sort of just a fantasy organization. It doesn’t have any money and it doesn’t really exist anywhere except in people’s minds, but that’s what gaming has been doing for all of time! So it’s leveraging this investment you get in people you connect with around shared interest, passion, or hobby.
I think that HASTAC tries to impact that as well. To break that barrier between students and scholars, because when people graduate from school, they still care about ideas. They still want to think about these questions, which are so important and hard to solve, but you can chip away at them. So letting anybody write an expert is really what HASTAC and FemTechNet are trying to do. So if you write a great article for your class about something that happens in League of Legends or voice chat, and you can connect them kind of to history or theory in some great way, people will teach it in our class. Someone can submit something good and they’ll get good feedback on it no matter who they are. So that’s one part of it.
Is that somewhere you think the Digital Humanities is going?
Yeah, I think a lot of the best writing today is not happening in academia anyway. It’s happening on Medium or places like that. I’m not saying it’s the best and most elaborated research, but some of the most interesting ideas are happening in those kind of open access places where anybody can write. So, I think digital media is always more willing, it’s teaching to include popular writing.
So some extraordinary writers were journalists and still are, because they’re the ones willing to delve into this new thing. So there’s this brand new thing that no one understands and someone has to write about it, who will go and do that? Usually not professors, usually grad students and undergrads, or journalists.
What can we, as students and scholars, do as digital media needs people delving in new things?
At Michigan we have this new digital studies program, we placed quite a few people in good companies because they have thought critically. They’re not just number crunchers or coders, but they've thought critically about what the future of these platform are, who they affect, how they’re likely to matter to groups, which might be small groups now, but you don’t need more than a few devoted followers to go viral.
Jodi Byrd’s an example of the kind of researchers that would be important to have in Digital Humanities. Someone who is deeply knowledgeable and well trained in culture and identity, which goes across all, or many many fields, but is also really a gamer and really understands that culture.
We need people who are scholarly people, concerned about bigger questions, but willing to include games in their bigger picture analysis of what our culture’s doing, where the conflicts are around these things. So it’s really rare to find someone like Jodi who’s invested equally in both.
Equally in the theory that mainly happens in the academy, and in the things that people care about.
Yes, this is how I think the academy can become more relevant to students. If it can package some of this great thinking that’s happening around persistence of race and gender and inequality or how the economy is complicit with culture and how keeping people both permanently unequal, you’re going to have to do it by talking about things people care about. And those are things like games, and those are great examples. I worry sometimes that what we’re teaching in classes is out of step with what students are doing in their lives, and if that’s speaking to them.
There’s never been a time when we need people to think about the implications of what technology is doing and to whom it is being done than now. So, a lot of people have to be on that as a job. But I don’t know if, for people in the humanities, that can be their job.
A good example is Tanner Higgin, I was on a dissertation committee a long time ago, he was a PhD at UCR and wrote his dissertation on Warcraft and got a job where he was helping his company to understand trends of content in games. That is so interesting to me. Because that’s something that’s actually affecting people through everyday life, that’s very applied.
That’s what humanities can do. I’m not saying everyone needs to work in industry, his job is at a non-profit, but there are these possibilities that humanists don't think about themselves.