Defining phenomena

We have a lot planned for today, including getting you into your panels to begin to explore and define the topics or phenomena for your projects. Before we do, two quick announcements:

  1. Self Publishing! — new class offered this fall taught by Yours Truly.
  2. Truth-o-meter posts — any last minute questions?


Panel members and schedules are listed in the Unit 3 menu above so let’s take a minute to get together. Try to remember to sit with each other when you come in and for the remainder of the course.

Take 5-10 minutes to meet your panel and talk with them about what the preferences you shared with me last week. We’ll be making progress toward your specific phenomena today so don’t worry about that just yet.

Sample phenomena: web brigades

For homework I asked you to read about web brigades. This is an exemplary phenomenon for a panel to choose during this unit, so let’s talk about how a group might arrive at such a choice.

Let’s first say I encountered the video below one day as I was reading the NY Times online. Borrowing from our holistic annotation techniques from Unit 1, generate a list of keywords as your review this video; these are words or phrases that we might use to map the subject for fully — to understand its relationship to other concepts or ideas.

What were the keywords you generated? Let’s list them. Once we have these keywords we might begin to use them to get a sense of how this news is an instance of a larger phenomenon.

From there, some Googling on these terms might lead us to a Wikipedia page on web brigades where we can see how the term is an instance a broader concepts (trolls, bots, cyberwarfare, fake news, demagoguery) but can also be broken down into smaller ones (including different factions, methods, and examples).

From here I might synthesize and extend my knowledge by searching for more current and credible articles about web brigades using Google News. Try searching Google News with some of the keywords and synonyms from both the New York Times and Wikipedia entries. As you find articles, add them to this Google Doc.

What did you find? Did any of these articles suggest a counter-technology? How about the Hamilton 68, a tool created by The Alliance for Securing Democracy, for instance?

Brainstorming phenomena 

Web brigades, of course, is only one phenomenon among many you could choose from for general post-truth-related ideas like “demagoguery” or “algorithms.”

You are currently in groups and within those you should work to better understand the interests that brought you together in the first place. Each of the five terms I introduced in the first unit bring a constellation of other possible phenomena and counter-technologies worth studying. For example:

  • Clickbait could lead you to terms or concepts like social media addiction, attention merchants, virality, net neutrality…
  • Demagoguery could lead you to doxing/doxxing, hacktivism, hashtag activism, cyberbullying, trolling, online harassment, the digital divide…
  • Algorithms could lead you to big data, cookies, surveillance, the internet of things…
  • Conspiracy theories could lead you to Truthers, Antivaxers, Flat Earthers, InfoWars, #Falseflag culture, crowdsourcing, astroturfing, the Dark Web …

Again, these are just some examples. This will be much more interesting as you begin to explore how these terms are currently being discussed in the media and how they expand, contract, and come into sharp relief as you begin to understand their scope via research. Many of these overlap and interact, so there’s no need to cleanly define your topic right now. You are also welcome to suggest a starting point that is different from above.

On a shared Google Doc, work with your group on exploring your shared interests. Divvy up tasks by having each member search the following list. As you read these, think about other phenomena that are related to this one. Keep track of additional keywords or search terms as you read. And don’t forget you will ultimately need to share a counter-technology, so you’ll need to think about the “so what?” or your phenomenon for the rest of us.

  • Google News to see how what’s current about your term. If you look up conspiracy theories for example, you might encounter a WashPo article about a Pittsburgh doctor’s office exposing coordinated attacks by Antivax groups in Australia. Perhaps there are some phenomena discussed in there about technology that is worth exploring further.
  • Wikipedia to see how your terms are both being discussed today and relate to other terms. For example, if you search “conspiracy theories,” you might be led to a list of different theories and subcultures on Wikipedia. You might also note the associated terms.
  • Google Scholar and Campbell Library for books and other scholarly materials on the subject. These sources are a bit too specific to explore deeply this early on, but by reading titles and abstracts you will get a sense of what’s out there.


  • Use Wikipedia to evaluate the scope of a phenomenon — especially how it is defined, structured, and linked to other phenomenon. By reading the Wikipedia entry for clickbait, for example, I see that “listicles,” “Buzzfeed,” or even “yellow journalism” might be good search terms. More importantly, I notice that “viral marketing” is listed as a “See Also,” which means perhaps my phenomenon is actually more broad than just “clickbait.”
  • As you search also be on the lookout for counter-technologies — again defined as tools, strategies, or literacies that help us manage, expose, disrupt, or otherwise limit the malfeasance these phenomena cause us online and IRL.

Homework for Thursday, 4/4

  • Have each member of the group continue to add a links to potential readings that help narrow the scope of your shared interests.
  • Use the commenting feature in Google Docs to respond to at least one member of your panel’s contribution before class.