There is a short video of me on YouTube that has been viewed over 1,000 times. The video is only 30 seconds or so, and I’m dancing in my college apartment. The internet is full of videos like this, some more embarrassing than others. But some of these digital records seem to stick around longer because of the ways they are circulated, and can cause damage to personal reputations and our ability to move beyond a moment in time. If someone were to distribute that link across multiple social media channels, I wouldn’t be embarrassed--indeed, the memory of that clip is even helping me frame this research statement. Still, this digital record still serves me little purpose.
How do we forget videos, tweets, or images when they are distributed across so many channels and within so many social networks? How does such digital ephemera affect identities through this distribution? My scholarship is situated at the intersection of rhetoric, communication, and media studies, providing the interdisciplinary grounding to examine questions like these. My research examines the digital structures that are in place, and the ethics for how we can respond to those systems as needs demand. I’m particularly interested in social media communication, digital preservation, and policy. I have pursued these interests both in my academic employment and in my research.
My dissertation “Technologies of Forgetting: Techniques, Ethics, and Rights of Ephemeral Media” began as an inquiry into the consequences of a digital world where memory is both privileged and built-in to the systems we use, and forgetting is an imposition on the user. This project is a current accumulation of research from my doctoral work, conference presentations, and work in my masters program at the CUNY Graduate Center. In my masters thesis, I investigated the materiality of digital ephemera and physical hardware, particularly in relation to the historical development of the computer screen. My current project also considers the physically networked systems within which information is embedded and experienced, but moves toward a social analysis that interrogates the ethics of retaining data and abstaining from data collection.
“Technologies of Forgetting: Techniques, Ethics, and Rights of Ephemeral Media”
Friedrich Nietzsche famously argues that in order to survive--in his words, “to truly live”-- humans need both memory and forgetting. But how do we proceed when the internet is a space that seems to be more hospitable to memory than forgetting? This dissertation looks to rhetoric, communication, and media studies to argue that the best way to encourage forgetting online is not by working against digitality but through it and with it. When a video is uploaded, or a tweet is copied, or an image undergoes viral transformation, sometimes we have to create more copies in order to cover up old traces, and there are a few ways of doing so. Forgetting can be simulated first through a set of specific techniques still used in crisis communication for highly visible subjects like celebrities and corporations. These techniques have been adopted by private citizens to combat viral videos, racist tweets, and controversial photos. Forgetting is also performed through ephemeral functions and apps like Snapchat, where ephemerality is emerging as a promise and a possibility for a more ethical social media. In some countries there are also legal means to forgetting online, but these rights do not always provide the kind of forgetting that we might want or need. Through a combination of actor-network theory, information ethics, and qualitative research, this project shows that forgetting can only happen by working with the networks within which we are embedded. Ultimately, this project contributes to rhetorical scholarship by offering an analysis of the reverse side of memoria and its importance to digital media.