Knowing How to Live/The Magic of Friendship — 2014 Ray Browne Conference Abstract

Twilight's Ivory Tower
Twilight’s Ivory Tower seemed appropriate.

Hello everypony!

We’re submitting an abstract for consideration for the 2014 Ray Browne Conference on Cultural and Critical Studies, meeting February 21-23 at Bowling Green State University based on the work here at Research is Magic. If accepted, our paper will discuss our approach to this blog/study as a research method and means of critiquing current anxieties within cultural studies about the internet and other technologies  (and the conference theme). Check it out below (pardon the Academese…we did add some footnotes in this version for anybody who wants to wade through it) and feel free to post your comments and thoughts.

We’ll be sure to keep the paper/presentation updates coming.


Jason and Kurt

Proposed Abstract

Knowing How to Live/The Magic of Friendship: Ethnographic Methodology and the My Little Pony Fandom

While technologically-mediated interfaces are often understood as producing a different order of anxiety about human socialization, we wish to denaturalize the notion underscoring this view: that media interfaces are strange, foreign, and mysterious in a particular way unique to modernity. Are current media ideologies categorically different an interface than the vernacularization of biblical knowledge spearheaded by the Gutenberg Bible1, the encounter between the colonial west and the non-west2, or the Cold War promise/nightmare of atomic power3? While historical and cultural specificity must be maintained, the encounters are surprisingly similar: early-adopters integrate and mediate the interface as part of their social habitus just as others have their ideologies and ways-of-being jilted by the very same possibilities.

In this paper, we counter Henry Jenkins’ notion that “[n]one of us really know how to live in this era”4 by insisting that people are remarkably adept at living their lives, technologically mediated or otherwise. Technologies result in new ways of doing old things—expressing oneself, forming communities, and interacting with others—and while these new forms can be troubling for some, they quickly become home for others. Using our collaborative ethnographic project with fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (or more affectionately, “bronies”) as a point of departure, we argue for an ethnographic methodology that emphasizes not the strangeness of media technologies to those in online communities, but rather their mundanity and everyday-ness. Our blog, Research is Magic, represents an attempt at participant-observation5 that collapses the boundaries between academic and interlocutor based on those grounds—that we need not “do” the Internet in different ways and places than our interlocutors, and that a more productive way to interact with ethnographic subjects might be to theorize, create, and write with them, in their midsts, rather than far away and long after the ethnographic encounter.6

 Look upon my works

  1. As the first book printed in the West in any kind of major scale, the Gutenberg printing of the bible made church leaders anxious since it represented a threat to the church’s power in social life. 

  2. The colonial gaze and colonial power changed the ways people on both sides understood themselves and others. 

  3. Views of atomic power were utopian on one hand, since it meant this amazing new form of energy, and dystopian on the other, since the destructive power of the atomic bomb was scary for everyone involved. 

  4. Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture. 

  5. Participant-observation is a form of research that involves deep “hanging out” with the people you want to understand: both participating and observing. 

  6. Anthropologists have traditionally had a tendency to go to some far-flung corner of the world, live with the people there for some number of years, and then return and write books that the people they study never come into contact with. 

12 thoughts on “Knowing How to Live/The Magic of Friendship — 2014 Ray Browne Conference Abstract

  1. So this paper would be about the internet as a new paradigm in social interactions and how those interactions can become commonplace even though they are highly technical in nature?

    In many ways, I don’t see the internet as being something entirely new as much as I see it as an improvement over previous things. Let me explain.

    The internet doesn’t do anything ‘new’, rather it does old things in a more efficient way. Consider e-mail versus standard mail. The concept is the same, the purpose is the same, only the speed of transit changes. Similarly, online chat programs are basically the exact same as traditional conference calls. They connect distant people together, sometimes even in large groups, to hold a conversation. Forums allow for a very similar conversational style but with the added luxury of being temporally flexible, kinda like a voicemail. Seeing a video on youtube is really no different from watching a show on TV, the difference is that you can choose when to watch it.

    If you really boil it down, the internet just allows us to do old things with a higher degree of flexibility and rapidity than was previously possible. The only potentially ‘new’ thing I can think of is that once something is online it exists forever, so there may be a certain amount of permanence associated with internet stuff as opposed to other media.

    1. We’re actually a whole lot closer to your opinion, though our awkward academic writing styles probably don’t make that any easier to understand. Let me attempt a version of our argument in a non-douche language:

      There’s always a group of people —including some scholars—who are really anxious about new technologies like the web and social media applications, who are afraid that they change the way human beings interact with each other and that the changes are something really new or different from other moments in history. We think that’s misguided.

      There have been multiple moments throughout history where people have been confronted with giant changes in how they see the world, and there have always been some people who are comfortable going along for the ride and some who swear the apocalypse is coming.

      So, countering scholars who have suggested that the modern era is particularly confusing or that there is a special upheaval in our current moment, we choose to believe that at every interface between set ways of being and something new, there are always some communities that arise around that new thing, and those communities very quickly stop seeing that thing as new/strange and instead learn to treat it as natural–in our case, people very quickly treat the internet as home, as where they hang out, as where their friends are, etc.

      That being the case, we believe as scholars doing research into social lives and expression of bronies that our research should also exist in a space where the Internet is a little more natural—for Kurt and me, it’s how we live our daily lives anyway. We are used to the fast and high-flying culture of memes and links and references and google searches that make up the modern web and the social lives of modern web users. Especially bronies, who are so often tied together only through their online connections, anybody who sees that as bizarre or weird as opposed to human relationships just like the ones we have always cultivated isn’t seeing the community from the perspective of bronies themselves.

      1. Right, so you’re talking about when a paradigm shifts and how some people claim the apocalypse and others go along for the ride. I probably can’t offer much insight into this particular issue because I’ve been on the internet since I was about 10 years old. It’s pretty much all I’ve known and I haven’t really experienced a shift. I suppose I could talk about the switch from regular phones to smartphones, but I was ‘way’ behind the ball on that one too.

        If you wanna branch out a little though you might be able to talk about the music industry. Bear with me a little on this one. The music industry is always doomsaying about the end of music as we know it because of new technology. Back in the 80’s they actually started running an add campaign claiming that “Taping was killing music.” At the time cassette recorders were a new thing and, naturally, some people began recording their favorite songs. The music industry lost it’s shit and started a storm of legal battles to halt what they saw as the end of the music world as they knew it.

        Of course that didn’t happen. And a decade later when people started burning CDs they started the entire thing over again, complete with the add campaign and everything. We’re in modern times now and the new evil is downloading. Here again they believe that downloading is going to kill music, even though the last 2 “world ending” crises have proven to be duds.

        I think more than anything, people fear change. Especially when that change might mean the end of something they’ve grown accustomed to. With the internet, most magazines and newspapers have started to suffer. I dunno if you guys heard this or not but CNN announced they will not be funding their news network next year because they’ve lost so many viewers.

        The internet is a massive vehicle for change and it, like the television before it, is going to make some serious waves that cannot be ignored. People can bemoan the loss of the old or they can rejoice in the birth of the new, but change will come.

  2. Interesting thesis. I wonder – given the on-and-off coverage in the media over the past few months; will you be spending any time in your paper discussing the impact that mobile technology, such as smart phones and tablets, have had on the most recent generation and how it communicates via the web?

  3. Diceman you bring up a good point, which can be tailored into their project. If there are any good Brony apps that are good at connecting Bronies, Kurt and Jason might wanna get on their ethnography horse (lolz) and study those too.

    1. @Danny: The music issue is definitely something that I am tuned into: I’ve done a bit of reading about the history of recording technologies (and seen the crazy freakouts over some of those switches) and what you are saying is spot on. It is crazy how quickly people forgot about how the mix tape was going to “kill music” once people started burning CD’s, it often seems as if people forgot that “piracy” existed before Napster. Even before that, there was some fairly interesting stuff going on with sheet music for quite a long time in terms of the similar ways people would compose tunes and how those would be disseminated to people (I really need to read more about it, as it is pretty cool, but the stuff that went on with composers on Tin Pan Alley is really interesting in this regard).

      Most of our analysis will probably center on the freakouts within the scholarly community, just for the fact that the conference theme focuses quite a bit on the crises (if that is how you view them) faced by scholars and the whole call for papers basically takes these anxieties about change to be a crisis that nobody has ever experienced anything similar to before. The internet (along with other sorts of technological advances) has changed the way we are able to do things and the ways that many things (the news, the music industry, scholars, etc.) are able to work, all of which are worthy of looking at. I think this particular paper would be focusing primarily upon the scholarly crises that (while perhaps less important in terms of the number of people who actually care about them) led to this particular conference theme being what it is. Other responses to the same problems (like those of the news and music industries) are definitely worth noting as stemming from the same anxieties, but out main hope for this 20ish minute presentation (should we get it) is to provide our take on this “modern crisis” (i.e. that it isn’t necessarily new to modernity and it isn’t necessarily a crisis in the sense some scholars see it) and then show how our views on this issue influence the way we think about research and have been trying to go about using this blog.

      @diceman (and Dom too, I guess): Mobile technologies definitely play a huge role in these dynamics, and seem to play an ever-increasing role in making tenured professors (well… some of them… and nontenured professors, and nonprofessors…. anyone really) think the world is going to come to an end. To that end, we’d most likely at least touch on those issues (at least to say that they are indeed being used as a means of communication and forming communities). I think the big point is that these things have changed the ways we do things, but they haven’t necessarily changed the things we are doing in the broadest sense.

  4. Well I wish you guys good luck. I’m sure it’s not gonna be easy getting approved to go talk to a bunch of scholarly types and tell them that they’re wrong. That’s the kind of information people generally aren’t too eager to hear.

  5. Fascinating approach to this subject. You likely could have focused solely on the brony community, but using it to address the all-too common fears about the internet being the end of just about anything one could care to name is both timely and (I would guess) fairly effective. Hopefully this proposal will pass muster, and, even more hopefully, will get some play outside of academia.

    Also, I have no idea how I didn’t find this site sooner. It’s wonderful!

    Also also, it’s good to hear that academics as intelligent as the two of you are aware that the, ahem, “douche language” of academia is not exactly… helpful to people who don’t think the thesaurus is a pretty enjoyable read (I do think thesauri [oh my god, the plural of thesaurus is actually thesauri] are pretty great, but I’m abnormal).

      1. No worries! Thanks for the comments, Connor. They are always appreciated. Feel free to check out the presentation, which we posted to this blog. It’s got quite a bit of douchey language in it (we’re fluent in Academese and like to use it), but we tried to keep it light and tongue-in-cheek enough to still be a bit fun.
        Our hope has always been both to help get rid of some of the stigma surrounding the fandom/show how cool the stuff coming out of the community is and also use the research to make points applicable to academia outside of the study of the MLP fandom. It’s been a great community to work with and we feel that bronies/brony studies have a lot to offer academics.

        We also got accepted at the IU/OSU conference, although I can’t remember if we’ve posted it here or not (if we haven’t, we are really slacking and I know what our next post is going to be). Anyway, thanks for visiting and comment away!

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