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Book focuses on how people of color, women use internet, digital media

LIsa Nakamura
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
In her latest work, Lisa Nakamura focuses on the online visual cultures that people of color and women – relative newcomers to the Net – have created.


Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Scholars who study visual culture on the Internet always see more than meets the eye, but one professor has widened her scope even more, trying to adjust the ways the rest of us look at race and gender on the Web – and off.

In her latest work, Lisa Nakamura focuses on the online visual cultures that people of color and women – relative newcomers to the Net – have created. She argues in her new book, “Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet,” that instead of being passive audiences or merely consumers of digital media – as they generally have been portrayed – the newcomers are heavily involved in “grass-roots media production.”

In fact, Nakamura, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Illinois, argues that non-whites and non-males now use the Internet to “vigorously articulate their own types of virtual community, avatar bodies and racial politics.”

“The premise of my book,” she wrote, “is that women and racial and ethnic minorities create visual cultures on the popular Internet that speak to and against existing graphical environments and interfaces online.”

By examining a range of new digital production practices created by minority popular visual cultures on the Web, Nakamura has tried to “give a sense of how this group of users sees, rather than merely how they are seen or represented, what they are making as well as what they are using, what they are doing as well as what they are being.”

Surveys of race and the “digital divide” that fail to measure digital production in favor of access or consumption “cannot tell the whole story, or even part of it,” she wrote.

Nakamura examined racial and gender identity as expressed in contemporary, popular and “under examined” digital media such as pregnancy support Web sites, Instant Messenger avatars, online petitions, music videos and millennial science-fiction films.

pregnant avatars
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Pregnant avatars are used to “adorn” and supplement posts to women’s bulletin boards.
In her book, she offers a method for analyzing the Internet’s visual culture in relation not only to older media forms, “but also to a matrix of live cultural practices, identities, geopolitics, and postcolonial, racial and political positions.”

With its emphasis on user-produced digital media by women and people of color, Nakamura’s study is the first to explore a new type of visual culture critique based on close and rigorous readings of the images created by Internet users. For example, she explores:

• Veiled Muslim AIM buddies that are deployed in Instant Messenger and “created by users who participate in a vital youth culture that coalesces around online chat.”

“These avatars kitted out in chadors and DKNY sweaters fill a gap in the available forms of bodily representation that AIM users can find circulating in the world of avatar sharing,” Nakamura wrote. “The tension between the representation of the veil, a sign of privacy and a controversial symbol of female subordination under Islam, and its positioning on a hyperfeminized and overtly displayed cartoon body creates a visual body that works to negotiate the notion of the nation-state in the world of IM embodiment.”

• Pregnant avatars that are used to “adorn” and supplement posts to women’s bulletin boards. These are “collaboratively produced artifacts” of the popular culture of the Internet that address pregnant women’s “socially invisible bodies” in the context of scientific and medical representation.

• Recent online Asian-American petitions to protest retail and media racism, such as those that surrounded Details magazine’s “Gay or Asian” article and Abercrombie and Fitch’s “Two Wongs Don’t Make It White” T-shirt promotion.

Asian-American activists, she wrote, launched online petitions that served to polarize the Asian-American community at least as much as they did to unite it.

“The sites themselves functioned as highly ambivalent responses to issues around the visual culture of race in the United States. The anonymity afforded the petition signers, the persistence of their replies on the site, and the opportunity for users to view them all simultaneously create a space for online discursive play that challenges the notion of race- and ethnicity-based community in the act of creating it.”

Click photo to enlarge
Muslim AIM buddy.

The cases Nakamura examined exemplify the efforts of “previously new and previously unexpressive” groups of users who are using the Internet to “actively visualize themselves, their differing races, their complicated genders, their generative and bereft bodies.”

“Yet at the same time, they are performing this cultural work while living in a post-neoliberal age in which race ‘doesn’t matter’; and it has become profoundly unfashionable to be one thing or another, and actively dangerous to signify race or ethnicity in the public sphere.”

According to Nakamura, people of color and women are not as well represented in biennials, zines, independent film and other “expressive forums, much less in mainstream film and media. And all told, their cultural production on the Internet is far from dominant.”

However, she said, a key difference between the Internet and other media forms is that on the Web, the production of a visual culture “expressive of racial and ethnic identity” is potentially available to a much broader group of people.

“We should celebrate the creative interventions of teenage Muslim girls, pregnant women and other users who have appropriated the Internet to create visual images that represent themselves in their bodily particularities such as chadors, pregnant bellies and ultrasound photographs,” said Nakamura, a professor in the Institute of Communications Research.

People of color and women care greatly about how they’re visualized on the Internet.

“They care enough to sign protests about media racism, and when they don’t like what they see, they care enough to sign online petitions and perhaps even to sit down and create new templates, new images of themselves, new databodies that talk back to the dominant.”

While the new activity on the Net is encouraging, it comes with a caveat, Nakamura wrote, because as it evolves, the more it comes to resemble the visual culture of other media and the more it becomes subject to the same issues that “plague the study of minority discourse in all visual cultures.”

“Brave young Arab American women hacking their AIM buddies in their bedrooms are a sentimentally attractive image that fits into a classic narrative of rebellion and resistance against dominant new media cultures,” she wrote.

But the “pesky problem of protest within a system that one is nonetheless employing to frame the protest continues to haunt the study of minority new media cultures.”

“While avatars wearing chadors and DKNY sweaters certainly look different from more mainstream images of American femininity, and in fact contain a wealth of fascinating information that scholars and fans of hybrid cultures will greatly enjoy, they contain exactly the same number of pixels, are formatted in the same file type, and occupy the same amount of space in an IM screen as do all the others.

“Any deviation from this strict industrial norm simply does not work within the program owing to the file protocols of Instant Messenger, protocols that are immutably exacting and resistant to modification owing to technological lock-in and are the direct result of a mature Internet economy and broad user base.”

Put another way, the changes that are possible using the “culture-jamming or hacking” model of new media resistance and critique are “necessarily constrained and limited by the form or ‘system’ that enables them. The continuing monetization of the Internet’s forms and technological apparatuses practically guarantees that this issue will remain a thorny one.”