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New Traditions

New Traditions

By Tanja Grubnic

The whole world is “filtered” on and through social media, we might say, ironically following Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s famous 1944 rumblings about popular culture. The pioneers of critical theory argued that the “world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry.” That is, through magazines, music, movies, and other mass-produced cultural forms. They suggest that movie-goers, for example, view the screen as a straightforward continuation of the outside world, for producers aim to duplicate everyday life as intensely and flawlessly as possible. While the screen still reflects what appears to be a “continuation of the outside world,” today’s definition of “screens” has expanded.

Mobile phones are arguably the most prevalent screens through which the world is “filtered” today. Instagram, an app released in 2010 for various forms of creative visual expression, introduced the concept of applying “filters” to image and video–based media that would make their appearance more aesthetically pleasing, or even appear vintage—a ritual that has now become ubiquitous. Besides these overlays, we know that there are algorithmic “filters” that organize, censor, and delimit the millions of uploads to social media each day. What remains true is that mobile phone screens present the world in a way that makes it appear as though it is indeed an extension of the real world—the straightforward continuation of reality as presented on social media.

One element that has changed, however, is that the line between the “movie-goer” and the “producer” has lost distinguishability. The “movie-goer,” or the consumer, has also gained access to produce content on social media. Virtually anyone can participate in the culture industry as a producer of cultural artefacts, radically disrupting the flow of information and conventional hierarchies of knowledge—and cultural—production. Platforms such as Instagram and TikTok have created not only novel networks of communication, but new forms of participatory cultural production and consumption too. From instapoetry to memes, Twitter essays and TikTok challenges, a proliferation of new popular cultural forms are pervading the contemporary digital scene. 

While social media research is booming in the social sciences and even health related fields, the humanities have been slower to engage with cultural production on social media as legitimate or valuable work. Social media forms and modes of dissemination have not received the wide scholarly attention they warrant in some sectors of the humanities—but they matter, and humanists should consider incorporating these modalities into their respective fields in a lasting, meaningful way.

Why? For starters, COVID is reshaping the world. The reliance on digital technology, social media, and the internet to stay connected, keep businesses afloat, and network professionally has ballooned and is becoming more and more entrenched. The creative arts are increasingly being filtered through social media. Glossing over social media works, especially during these Covidian times—when traditional formats are being compromised due to closures, social distancing measures, economic disruptions, and more—is no longer feasible. Theatre and dance, for instance, cannot currently draw in-person crowds. Musicians cannot perform in concert halls, nor can actors attend open, in-person casting calls or hope to network in illustrious locations. Traditional galleries are closed and, in some places, illegal. Virtual spaces have been dubbed the “new normal.” 

A cultural period is a time marked by a particular way of understanding the world through technology and culture. COVID has been a massive catalyst for change. We have seen the wide expansion of digital media trumping traditional formats. We have seen many businesses close due to devastating economic repercussions. We have seen a growing tension between science and conspiracy, too; on the one hand, science has never been so developed, so novel, so concrete, and yet, on the other hand, scepticism and misinformation has never been so rampant. Humanities scholars who wish to study the age of COVID no doubt have to engage with and be knowledgeable of how technologies are restructuring creative cultural production—and the world. 

Even as creative expression becomes increasingly digital, however, new forms of specifically digital cultural production are often not granted academic attention or respect equivalent to other cultural forms. Many bright graduate students researching digital culture whose projects are, at their hearts, humanities projects, have been misunderstood and redirected to programs like media studies or information studies. But social media is not just a mode of dissemination: platform affordances are ultimately changing forms of expression. That is, word limits, participatory functions such as liking and commenting, the visual orientation of platforms, and more are transforming theatreart, literature and narrative possibilities. There is no shortage of opportunities to study popular cultural forms on social media or to consider the increased visibility of previously marginalized voices.

The digital turn has cemented itself. Welcome to the age of technologically enabled participatory cultural production. Much like the early modern period began with the invention of the printing press, we might say that the times today are marked by the rise of micro “platform presses” that are in fact influencing factors such as length, visuality, content, structure, presentation, and more. The arts have transformed—humanities departments must be innovative and forward-looking in light of sweeping historical, cultural, and technological changes. This moment presents an opportunity for humanities scholars to build more research bridges with media studies and to develop new methodologies for studying arts created and shared across social media.

There are many urgent questions to ask. How are platforms reshaping the arts and disrupting institutions like the publishing, film, and art gallery industries? What does 21st century, technologically enabled art look, read, sound, or feel like? How are these specifically digital art forms challenging the spatial, sensorial experiences of art? Indeed, social media is changing how art is or can be produced as well as consumed. New relations of production have enabled previously marginalized voices to gain national and international attention, redefining who can be an artist or what it even means to be one. By that same token, there are growing concerns related to algorithms, authenticity, plagiarism, and creative license. Along these lines, there are also logistical concerns: how will we archive inherently ephemeral forms such as Instagram or Snapchat stories to study and understand them in the future? These are just some of the topics Instasociety will raise and explore, with the hope to inspire the next generation of students, researchers, and scholars to take up these critical questions in their research.

The whole world is “filtered” on and through social media, we might say, ironically following Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s famous 1944 rumblings about popular culture. The pioneers of critical theory argued that the “world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry.” That is, through magazines, music, movies, and other mass-produced cultural forms. They suggest that movie-goers, for example, view the screen as a straightforward continuation of the outside world, for producers aim to duplicate everyday life as intensely and flawlessly as possible. While the screen still reflects what appears to be a “continuation of the outside world,” today’s definition of “screens” has expanded.

Mobile phones are arguably the most prevalent screens through which the world is “filtered” today. Instagram, an app released in 2010 for various forms of creative visual expression, introduced the concept of applying “filters” to image and video–based media that would make their appearance more aesthetically pleasing, or even appear vintage—a ritual that has now become ubiquitous. Besides these overlays, we know that there are algorithmic “filters” that organize, censor, and delimit the millions of uploads to social media each day. What remains true is that mobile phone screens present the world in a way that makes it appear as though it is indeed an extension of the real world—the straightforward continuation of reality as presented on social media.

One element that has changed, however, is that the line between the “movie-goer” and the “producer” has lost distinguishability. The “movie-goer,” or the consumer, has also gained access to produce content on social media. Virtually anyone can participate in the culture industry as a producer of cultural artefacts, radically disrupting the flow of information and conventional hierarchies of knowledge—and cultural—production. Platforms such as Instagram and TikTok have created not only novel networks of communication, but new forms of participatory cultural production and consumption. From instapoetry to memes, Twitter essays and TikTok challenges, a proliferation of new popular cultural forms are pervading the contemporary digital scene.

While social media research is booming in the social sciences and even health related fields, the humanities have been slower to engage with cultural production on social media as legitimate or valuable work. Social media forms and modes of dissemination have not received the wide scholarly attention they warrant in some sectors of the humanities—but they matter, and humanists should consider incorporating these modalities into their respective fields in a lasting, meaningful way.

Why? For starters, COVID is reshaping the world. The reliance on digital technology, social media, and the internet to stay connected, keep businesses afloat, and network professionally has ballooned and is becoming more and more entrenched. The creative arts are increasingly being filtered through social media. Glossing over social media works, especially during these Covidian times—when traditional formats are being compromised due to closures, social distancing measures, economic disruptions, and more—is no longer feasible. Theatre and dance, for instance, cannot currently draw in-person crowds. Musicians cannot perform in concert halls, nor can actors attend open, in-person casting calls or hope to network in illustrious locations. Traditional galleries are closed and, in some places, illegal. Virtual spaces have been dubbed the “new normal.”

A cultural period is a time marked by a particular way of understanding the world through technology and culture. COVID has been a massive catalyst for change. We have seen the wide expansion of digital media trumping traditional formats. We have seen many businesses close due to devastating economic repercussions. We have seen a growing tension between science and conspiracy, too; on the one hand, science has never been so developed, so novel, so concrete, and yet, on the other hand, scepticism and misinformation has never been so rampant. Humanities scholars who wish to study the age of COVID no doubt have to engage with and be knowledgeable of how technologies are restructuring creative cultural production—and the world.

Even as creative expression becomes increasingly digital, however, new forms of specifically digital cultural production are often not granted academic attention or respect equivalent to other cultural forms. Many bright graduate students researching digital culture whose projects are, at their hearts, humanities projects, have been misunderstood and redirected to programs like media studies or information studies. But social media is not just a mode of dissemination: platform affordances are ultimately changing forms of expression. That is, word limits, participatory functions such as liking and commenting, the visual orientation of platforms, and more are transforming theatreart, literature and narrative possibilities. There is no shortage of opportunities to study popular cultural forms on social media or to consider the increased visibility of previously marginalized voices.

The digital turn has cemented itself. Welcome to the age of technologically enabled participatory cultural production. Much like the early modern period began with the invention of the printing press, we might say that the times today are marked by the rise of micro “platform presses” that are in fact influencing factors such as length, visuality, content, structure, presentation, and more. The arts have transformed—humanities departments must be innovative and forward-looking in light of sweeping historical, cultural, and technological changes. This moment presents an opportunity for humanities scholars to build more research bridges with media studies and to develop new methodologies for studying arts created and shared across social media.

There are many urgent questions to ask. How are platforms reshaping the arts and disrupting institutions like the publishing, film, and art gallery industries? What does 21st century, technologically enabled art look, read, sound, or feel like? How are these specifically digital art forms challenging the spatial, sensorial experiences of art? Indeed, social media is changing how art is or can be produced as well as consumed. New relations of production have enabled previously marginalized voices to gain national and international attention, redefining who can be an artist or what it even means to be one. By that same token, there are growing concerns related to algorithms, authenticity, plagiarism, and creative license. Along these lines, there are also logistical concerns: how will we archive inherently ephemeral forms such as Instagram or Snapchat stories to study and understand them in the future? These are just some of the topics Instasociety will raise and explore, with the hope to inspire the next generation of students, researchers, and scholars to take up these critical questions in their research.

“1.6 Cultural Periods.” Understanding Media and Culture, University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing edition, 2016. This edition adapted from a work originally produced in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that it not receive attribution., 22 Mar. 2016, open.lib.umn.edu/mediaandculture/chapter/1-6-cultural-periods/.

Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. “Frankfurt School: The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by John Cumming, New York, Verso, 1997, pp. 120–167, .