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Introduction: Literary Past, Digital Present

Dr. Gideon Burton

Our present day feels like a storm of constant novelty, but we are actually repeating a parallel period of rapid societal change. Sure, our computers and media seem a quantum leap beyond whatever happened before, but this is not humanity’s first experience being reconfigured by a new medium, nor the first time western society has experienced widespread innovation and a flourishing of culture.

That prior period of amazing change and cultural development known as the European Renaissance is a lens on our own day. That is the pretext for this book. Collected here are 14 essays on contemporary issues in digital culture, each viewed through the historical lens of the Renaissance period and its literature.

As seen in the table of contents, we have grouped our essays under four heads: Digital Passports to Material Worlds; Building a More Creative Commons; the (De)Humanizing Web; and The Powers That Be Not. Threading through all of these are six themes from the historical Renaissance that we believe inform our present one. These have been our historical lenses upon our digital present:

Back to the Sources

One of the regenerative forces of the European Renaissance was the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts by humanist scholars like Petrarch. The old became new. History’s backlist was front loaded, fueled by the printing press’s hunger for new content.

The internet has exhumed the past en masse, giving billions access to the accumulated ideas and artifacts of the centuries. And as in the Renaissance, this delightful and daunting deluge of content has done more than produced more things to read and discuss; it is spurring us to return with new eyes and an experimental spirit to the material world. It turns out that the increased content and connectivity of the internet doesn’t trap people within electronic experience; it inspires them to go back to the physical sources of human activity with new perspectives and motivations.

Brave New worlds

Renaissance voyages of discovery traversed the world. Explorers found new continents, new resources, new dangers and new promises of riches and renewal. In similar fashion we cybernavigate our way to new kinds of works, ideas, and platforms that are as full of promise and threat as any wild island uncovered by a Columbus or Cortez.

Today we are awash in a wilderness of new things – new devices and access to media; new fields of action and domains of thought; new modes of human cooperation; even new modes of criminal activity. We are on par with those Renaissance-era explorers who sailed oceans and breached the brave new worlds that brought Europe both potatoes and syphilis; spices and slaves; colonies and calamities.

Figuring centrally among our brave new worlds are those social environments that appear to be an extension of the familiar, but which confound our morality and upset customary ways.

What a Piece of Work is Man

Our new media require us to rethink who we are – partly because (willingly or not) we have front row seats on other humans and their activities as never before. It isn’t the mass media or the intelligentsia that tell us who we are; we represent ourselves through text, image, and video in a neverending stream of profiles, selfies, and self-reflection. And we are increasingly convinced that our tools give us personal agency on a level unimagined before. The Renaissance was a period of similar self-revelation and also self-fashioning, full of posturing and progress in a more full display of human character(s) and what we are capable of. We are dazzled by our new views of who we are, alternately inspired and aghast at what we see and do online.

Plough Boys and Bibles

A major force animating change in the European Renaissance was the Protestant Reformation. We see in it a model for radical reform. As Luther stood up to the monolithic institution of Catholic Christianity, so today we see disruptive innovation, a ratification of the radical, similarly fueled by a democratic ideology. Anyone is an everyman, and everyone is their audience.

Our digital age is not experiencing a religious reformation, but the Protestant Reformation offers to today a potent pattern: the idea of access. Just as Bible translator John Tyndale sought to get God’s word into the hands of commoners like ploughboys, so the modern media reach out toward the masses. There is an egalitarian impulse that underlies the world wide web, a sense of entitlement regarding rights to participate, to seek and to say as one will. This right of engagement invites us toward collaboration, but it also warrants constant questioning of the powers that be.

The Printing Press

All of today’s changes are being fueled by the new medium. Just as print upset the Renaissance, forever reconfiguring the way the Western world thought, bought, and acted in society, so the internet and world wide web have begun a comparable radical reformatting of culture. It is an accelerant for change – especially on the social plane.

Sprezzatura and the Renaissance Man

A Renaissance courtly ideal confirmed the idea of a social self projected to others. People have always performed for one another in society, but today’s social media have created special conditions for culture today, as our virtual networks are present to us in ways that compete with flesh and blood physical presence. With social media come profiles and self-presentation, much in the way of posing. Ideals of behavior and performance circulate widely, and we are made aware of the accomplishments and experiences of others. The idea of a Renaissance man, a courtier well prepared and experienced, is being revived, in fact, if not in name, as we perform for others constantly in a fashion show of presenting our diverse, interesting selves.

Across the chapters of this ebook you will find these themes informing our understanding of today’s digital realities. Much is at risk as we redefine who we are while traveling together to brave new worlds. The European Renaissance took centuries to sort itself out and to leave to us its legacy. Perhaps the eRenaissance can be more smoothly navigated with the benefit of hindsight.

After all, one good renaissance deserves another.

About the Editor

Gideon Burton
Gideon Burton

Dr. Gideon Burton is Asst. Professor of English at Brigham Young Unviversity where he researches and teaches issues in digital culture and the rhetoric of online communication. He is the author of Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric

Digital Passports to Material Worlds

In the age of the Internet, digital realities are now translatable to physical realities. A recent surge of how-to videos and DIY communities are enabling people to access resources and knowledge made available online, allowing their digital aspirations to become physical realities. Knowledge and skills that might have been lost in obscurity years ago are revivied and shared with a mouse click; virtual realities take physical, tangible shape; online chat rooms lead to lifelong friendships.

Commonly considered socially disengaging or detrimental to skill development, the internet is instead being used to physically experience what people have only ever seen online, and to allow for engagement in social and creative pursuits which were previously inaccessible. For those who lack the resources to physically do things themselves, they now find they are able to experience the authentic through proxy. In the following section we discuss the recent revival of traditions of the metallurgical arts, the spread of human survivalism, and the discovery of new worlds via digital tools.

Contemporary Crafts in a Digital Culture

Kurt Anderson

Tom Timbrell, Artist Blacksmith.
Tom Timbrell, Artist Blacksmith.

Modern Day Blacksmith

I watched a blacksmith pound red-hot, glowing iron in a rainy drizzle in England, and I was transfixed. I was studying abroad for two months in the spring of 2015, and we had come to the farm of Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother. Among the various Renaissance recreations of the farm was a forge, and at the forge was a man. His name is Thomas Beynon Timbrell, and he is a modern blacksmith.

After I watched him for a while, I struck up a conversation and learned much more than I had ever considered about the art of blacksmithing. And that is what it has become; an art. Previously, it was a pragmatic necessity, for soldiers needed armor and farmers needed plows, but today we use machines to create these items. The time and effort that it takes for a man to forge an axe versus the time and effort that it takes for a machine to forge an axe are practically not even comparable; what would take the smith weeks can be achieved in hours.

But there is something about the creation of beauty out of raw materials that is entrancing. And because of this, there has been a marked resurgence in modern crafting techniques. Take, for example, the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America, or ABANA. They began in 1973 with twenty seven members, and have now grown to over four thousand members. In their mission statement, they state

“We understand that a blacksmith is one who shapes and forges iron with hammer and anvil. The artist-blacksmith does this so as to unite the functional with the aesthetic, realizing that the two are inseparable…We will preserve a meaningful bond with the past. We will serve the needs of the present, and we will forge a bridge to the future. Function and creativity is our purpose.”

The bonds of the past and the present are there, and the bridge between them may be found through the possibilities of a digital age.

Immaterial Vs. Material Satisfactions

Blacksmithing is just one of the various physically creative arts that are enjoying a boost in this digital age. Others include clothing and jewelry crafting, woodworking, and instrument building. However, in a world where you can simply go buy any of these object for a fraction of the cost and time, why would you want to create it yourself? An article by Suzanne Brown interviews Mark Montano, a sort of Do-It-Yourself guru who has broken away from the conventional fashion industry. He supports creating your own material things because he believes that “people need to feel a sense of accomplishment and not just press a button on the Internet.” In a sense, it is not the object that counts, it’s the making of the object that really makes us feel good.

In a modern world, how often can we actually enjoy seeing or touching a physical representation of our efforts? So many of our occupations are concerned with the immaterial, the transient information on the internet or through digitized data on computers, that it can be difficult to feel that satisfaction. If you are a banker, you no longer handle bags of golden coins. If you are a store owner, most of your merchandise will never pass through your own hands. In contrast, the creative arts such as textiles, forging, woodwork and stonework are hands-on and physically solid.

The concept of material creation bringing great satisfaction has featured in Utopian literature from the Renaissance. In Thomas More’s Utopia, he imagines a perfect society that lives on a large crescent island, undiscovered or tainted by man. He describes what their life is like, including their trades. He says, “Aside from agriculture (which, as I have said, is common to all), each person according to choice takes up a particular art, the manufacture of wool or flax, masonry, blacksmithing, or carpentry. And there are no other trades that are in great repute among them.” (More, 95) The only trades that these people engage in are those that directly create a physical product, not those that only create immaterial wealth. There are no bankers, traders, lawyers, or tax collectors. Also, it is because of choice and desire that these people engage in these creative activities, not to make money. There is no capitalistic economic system in Utopia; everyone works in the fields for food and then they simply provide each other with the things that they create. Because physical creation is satisfying, there is no need to charge for the final product. This viewpoint of physical creation for the sake of physical creation may be experiencing a great revival in our digital atmosphere, because we can use the immaterial connections that we have with others to get there.

Using the Immaterial to Achieve the Material

Ironically, it is generally only through the connections that we experience immaterially that these material arts have resurged. Since the ABANA has been established and was able to connect as a national group over electronical means, that is was has allowed them to flourish. Similarly, if I wanted to learn how to craft my own weapons or sew my own shirts, I would not have to necessarily seek out a blacksmith or a tailor myself, but rather I could learn how to do so from the Internet. The resources that allow us to return to the physical are not physical themselves.

Another issue is that of having the physical resources to create material products. I don’t happen to have a lot of iron lying around to forge with, nor do I have a forge, anvil, or hammers. However, it would be easier to do so now rather than before, since I could contact a seller of iron and forging tools via the Internet. Still, if I lack the time or possibility to do so, I can still experience some of the satisfaction of material creations by proxy. I haven’t actually crafted any swords, but I found that watching someone do so is almost as good.

Proxy Production

A video series of a man forging fictional weapons in real life, Man-at-Arms is a part of Awe Me on Youtube. It is a series which has garnered over twenty million views of the complete series. Taken separately, each of their videos has generally around one million views, with some at five to ten million. Three and a half million subscribe the channel, so the question is why is the idea of watching someone else hammer metal so attractive? I think that it is because it is a visible example of the previously only imagined becoming a physical reality.

The subjects of the videos can come from many different sources, such as television shows, anime, video games, computer games, and movies. As the popularity of a certain series or game grows, the blacksmiths will decide to forge one of the weapons a character uses or a piece of armor that a character wears. Popular examples include weapons from books, like Lord of the Rings, and games like Skyrim or Assassin’s Creed.

The enjoyment of these videos is the feeling of participation in the creation of something tangible. Although I am using the immaterial internet to view it, because I see the whole forging process from the point of view of the smith himself, I can feel like I am crafting something as well. Also, because the pieces that he creates are made from fictional sources, it adds a real sense of creations, something that had never before existed physically being pounded out on the anvil. As much as this may also be a certain form of escapism for those who are fans of these franchises, it is also a connection between real life people and fictional characters forged by the beat of a blacksmith’s hammer.

Time-honored Techniques

This rebirth of interest in the forging of weapons and armor may have appeared odd to someone from the Renaissance. After all, for them the blacksmith was a common part of everyday life. If you needed something made out of metal, you went to a blacksmith. Period. For hundreds of years prior to the Renaissance, there was no other option to get the work done. This elevated the blacksmith to a fairly high position in the Medieval village dynamic. As two contemporary metallurgists put it, “Blacksmiths and astronomers were among the elite occupations of ancient times because their work led to an understanding of the nature of earthly and extraterrestrial aspects of life.” (Wadsworth and Sherby) If you had no tools, how could you do your work? If you had no blacksmith, how could you have tools? The importance of the blacksmith did not dwindle significantly until the Industrial era, so the blacksmith was as essential to the Renaissance village as the internet is to a college dorm.

Even more interestingly, there were different levels of quality forging that blacksmiths aspired to. An example of this is Damascus steel, a hot topic among blacksmiths and metallurgists of today. Damascus steel, so named by Europeans because they first encountered it in the markets of Damascus, is a steel that is incredibly durable, sharp, and flexible. In fact, its quality is equal to that of the finest steels we can produce today. And the kicker? It was produced as anciently as 500 BC. Although at times we may believe that we have achieved technological heights never before seen through modern technologies like electricity and the Internet, in all reality there are many things we can still learn from techniques of the past, physical inheritances that we can discuss and share through digital means.

Continuing Discoveries

The rediscovery of these ancient techniques allows modern artists, scientists, and creators to synthesize new and innovative materials and techniques today. Recently, modern science has discovered that the secret to this steel lies in the nano-level carbon configurations in the steel atomic lattice. Scientists and metallurgist across the world are now trying to replicate the properties of Damascus steel to create ultra-strong wires. There is utility in the techniques of the past as well as the beauty of seeing the physical product of our physical efforts.

Tom Timbrell, the blacksmith who I met at the farm that day, explained to me what it is like to work as a blacksmith in a modern world. In regards to how modern technologies have affected his work, he said “I use the internet but rarely to connect with other blacksmiths,” explaining that to truly learn the craft one must meet with a Master Blacksmith. However, he also told me “When forging, if there is a technique I am struggling with, or can’t quite remember, I can find information that will refresh my memory via the internet. What is most useful today however, is the ability to look up an equation or heat treatment chart or even a data sheet for a particular metal in a matter of seconds due to mobile phone technology.”

When asked about the future of blacksmithing in the modern worlds, he was very optimistic.

I can very confidently say that blacksmithing is growing very healthily…many start it off as a hobby and teach themselves, eventually developing it into something more. The internet, with sites like Facebook, is connecting blacksmiths and in its way, does help many come into the craft via these interactions. It is, of course, only one side of the coin but it cannot be denied how useful for many the internet has been in getting involved with blacksmithing.”

Whether through blacksmithing, farming, or some other material creation, people of the digital age are finding new ways to work with the physical objects in their lives. As we pool our resources through the communities created through the Internet, we will be able to learn old techniques, create new ones, and feel the thrill of creating something physical again. Working through the immaterial, we will find a solid satisfaction in our different spheres.

Works Cited

ABANA, Mission Statement Web. Oct 26, 2015

Brown, Suzanne S. “DIY Guru : Creativity Results in Satisfaction.” Denver Post, sec. FEATURES: 1C. June 16 2012. Print http://www.lexisnexis. com/hottopics/lnacademic/?verb=sr&csi= 144565&sr=HEADLINE(DIY +guru%3A+Creativity+ results+in+satisfaction) %2BAND%2BDAT E%2BIS%2B2012

Man-at-Arms. Awe Me Media. /user/AweMeChannel Web, 26 Oct 2015.

More, Thomas. Utopia, Library of Congress, Web. Oct 30, 2015

Sherby, Oleg D., and Jeffrey Wadsworth. “Ancient Blacksmiths, the Iron Age, Damascus Steels, and Modern Metallurgy.” Journal of Materials Processing Technology 117.3 (2001): 347-53. Print. Timbrell, Tom. Personal Interview. November 21, 2015.

Image Credits

About the Author

Kurt Anderson
Kurt Anderson

Kurt Anderson is a Senior who feels like a Sophomore at Brigham Young University. He is an English major who is probably going to end up as an English professor. He lives in Provo, Utah for the foreseeable future.

From the InterWeb to the Bunker

Ahnasariah Larsen

A year and a half ago, Elaine Brickly got married - started a new life - and, almost at the same time, her father discovered the apocalypse. He read a book called Visions of Glory, by John Pontius. The book recounts a man’s apocalyptic vision at the time of a near death experience, and correlates closely with Biblical accounts of the End Times. EMP wipeouts, tent cities populated by the chosen elect, food storage, the destruction of specific cities, encounters with authorities beyond the grave: the book says it all. And for Elaine’s father, it convinced of all.

Almost overnight, Elaine’s father was a prepper.

Preppers, or Survivalists, believe that mankind has been effectually crippled by modern technology. Our lives have gone soft, they say. We don’t know how to survive anymore. When everything collapses – and they insist it will – our biggest killers will be starvation. Dehydration. The weather. And in extreme desperation, our neighbors (who might be zombies).

Said one YouTube prepper, “Many ‘survivalists’ are preparing [for] a global or regional chaos, and a lack of resources, while today’s world is totally dependent on a constant supply of various resources” (Cachet).

So they’re getting ready. The Preppers are stocking food, building bunkers, and arming themselves with everything from semi-automatic rifles to stone-age dart throwers. In extensive communities, they’re “brainstorming grid-down scenarios and strategizing to overcome obstacles therein” (Canadian Prepper). Elaine’s father bought two years’ worth of food storage, a small moving truck, and a ten-thousand dollar tent. He equipped each household member with three guns apiece: one long-range hunting rifle, one pistol, one shotgun. And he joined a paid-membership website, just for preppers.

But not all preppers are extremists. From Chicago, O’Connor declared, “the prepper movement has climbed out of the bunker and established itself, quietly, along affluent streets in Chicago, its suburbs, and beyond.” Once upon a time, the image of a prepper was that of a man far removed from civilization, unshaven and unwashed, a gunman, out to prove his self-reliance. That was last generation. The new generation of preppers encompass a wide spectrum of individuals, ranging from the urban to the rural, from the family who shelves a few extra pounds of rice against hard times to the father who buries a bunker and four years’ worth of food in his backyard. They’re our neighbors, teachers, cousins and - in Elaine’s case - our parents.

The Prepper Apocalypse

For the most part, Americans are not under immediate threat. Foreign terrorists haven’t caused anything close to a crisis since 2001. The last military attack on our shores, organized under a legal government, was December of 1941 - some 74 years ago. The economy is relatively stable; immunizations protect us from most epidemics; we rank 127th in poverty levels (meaning 126 countries have higher poverty than we do; and our percentage is hanging out at a fairly low 15%); we enjoy first world technology. We live in comparative comfort and security. For most of us - particularly those with the means to invest in a prepper’s lifestyle - there isn’t much cause for concern.

It begs an obvious question: why are we prepping?

A few, like Cat, began prepping after a personal experience. “A loss of income,” she says, “kicked our interests in preparedness, homesteading, and modern survivalism into high gear.” She’s one of the more moderate preppers, focusing on more realistic situations - like natural disasters, such as earthquakes or severe storms.

Some, like Jessica Bennett, point to an increased awareness of global peril as the cause. “A decade later, “preppers” are what you might call survivalism’s Third Wave: regular people with jobs and homes who are increasingly fearful about the future—their paranoia compounded by 24-hour cable news,” she writes. Her theory aligns with the prepper rhetoric: a big disaster is coming, civilization is going to collapse, and only the prepared will survive. Big disasters are what we see in the news now - earthquakes, civil wars, hurricanes and terrorists. It’s a bombardment of fear.

But there’s more to it than that.

The Magic of Digital Friendship

In the past decade, social communication has become almost synonymous with the internet. “In recent years,” wrote Richard Sherman in 2001, when the Internet was still wobbling on its first baby legs, “the Internet has greatly expanded the ways in which we communicate and interact with others. Email, instant messaging, chat rooms, newsgroups, listservs, world wide web home pages, and online interactive games are becoming important venues for developing and maintaining social relationships, and our perceptions in these contexts have increasing importance to our daily lives” (54).

That was fourteen years ago; when Sherman wrote of an emergent revolution in communication, I was seven and still eating my neighbor’s lilacs. Now, at twenty-one, I eat recipes from Pinterest.

Everyone I know communicates online. And that’s no exaggeration. I remember when MySpace was big (and then Facebook appeared, and overran everything). Heck, I inherited my sister’s old iPhone July of 2015 - my third smartphone in just as many months - and found half a dozen apps for social media sites, several of which I hadn’t even heard of. There’s Tumblr, Flicker, Snapchat - I can communicate with friends around the globe because online social media makes it happen.

All this communication means the formation of new, extensive communities. Just as I can chat, in real time, with friends in another hemisphere, there is the potential for meeting and befriending strangers from anywhere. I have, actually. Mostly with people I would never recognize in real life, because they used aliases and usernames and strange mashes of letters and numbers to identify themselves. I’ve participated in big communities like Facebook and Tumblr, and I’ve participated in smaller online communities for fandoms, artists, fantasy writing, photography, and more. There’s a community for every interest - including prepping.

So while news channels and terrifying apocalyptic books and brief encounters with hard times spark an interest in preparedness, massive digital networks feed the flame, encouraging and enabling us to take it a step further.

The Siren’s Song through a Megaphone

Let’s say I get an idea, something like: poetry should be about plants, not people. So I start writing poetry about plants, and I start telling friends about it. I say, “hey, guess what? The best poetry is about plants. You should write about plants instead.”

If that’s all I do - write poetry and talk to people - my poetry-plant movement isn’t going to get very far. My parents, my siblings, my friends, maybe a few cousins will know about it; of those people, maybe two are poets like I am; of those two poets, maybe one will try it out. So now there’s me and one other person writing poetry about plants. Big whoop-de-doo.

But if I can contact more people about it, find more poets and convince them to write about plants with me - why, then I’ve created an entire literary movement. And how? By networking. The power of networking is increased communication; the more people you can contact, the more individuals you can bring to your cause.

Martin Luther used that fact to take on a world power - and win.

By the time Luther was born in 1483, the Catholic church had been in power for roughly a thousand years. There was no such thing as not being Catholic. Every now and then dissenters rose from the ranks, solitary weeds in a rose garden, like John Wycliffe and William Sawtrey. Wycliffe translated the New Testament into English; Sawtrey, his follower, rejected the worship of Catholic saints.

He was burned.

Luther probably would have met a similar fate if it weren’t for a propitious invention. Late in the fifteenth century, a man named Gutenberg invented one of the most revolutionizing technologies in all of human history: the printing press. Said one scholar, the printing press “affected events as well as ideas and actually presided over the initial act of revolt.” (Eisenstein 306).

Luther recognized in the press its ability to communicate ideas to a wide audience. He began printing pamphlets and distributing them throughout the countryside, spreading his dogma of religious reform to the layfolk. Those who could read took the pamphlets to the marketplace and the dinner table, where they would read it aloud to an attentive audience (Waugh, Part Two). More and more people dissented, until even the German princes were on Luther’s side; and for the first time, a protestant movement was actually successful.

Luther wasn’t the only one who caught on to the power of the press. Around the same time, a book was published called The Acts and Monuments, by John Foxe. Today it’s known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Foxe collected the histories of several religious martyrs, gathered them into a single book, and let it loose on the public.

Foxe’s book was hugely successful, but not because of what he wrote. “It can be generally stated that there were two types of printed materials,” notes Barry Waugh, “each of which targeted different segments of the culture. The first type of printed material was illustrated simple publications designed to reach those who could not read; the second type of publication was the text dense books and pamphlets for the literate.” (Waugh, Part One)

The Acts and Monuments included several woodcuts - you carve a picture in a block of wood, then use it like a stamp - of the martyrs and their deaths. The images were gruesome, violent, and blunt. Men burning at the stake. Men being tortured. Men being hung. “The Acts and Monuments was… illustrated on a scale and with a technical finesse unmatched in previous English printed books” (Evenden 1).

Woodcut from the 1563 Edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Woodcut from the 1563 Edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

A lot of the martyrs Foxe depicted were his contemporaries, men the public knew. Seeing their deaths brought home a difficult and terrible truth to the people, pushing them further away from Catholicism and closer to Protestantism. The book had a huge influence in how people in England and other parts of Europe viewed the Catholic church - opinions that, nearly five hundred years later, still linger.

Four-Eyed Society: The Glasses We Wear

Sometimes, in today’s overly individualistic world, we underestimate the power of communities. Talk to anyone, any random stranger on the street, and you will probably hear the sentiment of, “I am not a sheep. I’m not dumb. I’m not someone who follows the crowd; I’m different.” And we often think that those who do adhere to culturally dictated practices have been somehow brainwashed.

Case in point: the Preppers. It’s far too easy for us to point and laugh at the extremes they’ll go to, like installing underground bunkers in the backyard, or growing poisonous plants in the garden, or buying a million and one guns to shoot those zombie neighbors with. I mean, really. What sort of psychedelic trip are they on?

Except, they’re not.

It’s not a case of living in a hallucination; Preppers aren’t insane. They, like the rest of us, are responding to the social groups they belong to. Digital communities attract and create certain kinds of people and certain kinds of behaviors. In other words: I become like the people I hang out with.

Said Sherman, “If we interpret a situation as calling for a certain kind of behavior, our actions will set the norms for others to behave in a similar way. Note that the other people are responding to what they perceive to be the norm governing the situation, not in their mind to our behavior.” (59).

In simple terms: we follow the example of our peers, often without even realizing it. We use their behavior to interpret and understand a situation or an unspoken expectation, like the need to whisper in a library; and then we change our behavior to match. We fit in; we relate; we merge ourselves with a social group and satisfy our human desire to belong.

Dancing to a Tune

But communities and social groups don’t just set standards for behavior within the group; they have a serious say in how we perceive the rest of the world, too. We learn to interpret the world in part from personal experience, but mostly from our community.

In childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, we lay the foundation for our outlook on the world; that outlook is either reinforced or challenged by the social groups we associate with. A diversity of friends and associates keeps us moderate, and relatively well grounded. With the advent of digital communities, though, we become entrenched in niche communities that feed our interests and perspectives until they evolve into absolutes and obsessions.

Logic would say that the thousands of differing voices online would keep us more moderate, but it’s just the opposite; we’ve become more selective in what communities we participate in, and those carefully selected communities preach an equally selected and limited point of view.

Consider. In a forum for preppers, there are lots of arguments and baseline assumptions in favor of an impending apocalypse. Not one consideration for the contrary exists. A newcomer enters - out of curiosity, or because s/he is truly concerned about the possibility of a disaster or collapse. S/he gets involved in the community. And instead of the members considering the validity of their apocalyptic claim, they simply assume it - no one offers a counterpoint, because that’s how the social behavior has been defined - so it must be true - their enthusiasm sweeps you down the rabbit hole - and BAM, you’re a prepper.

Before the Reformation, in another example, everyone was Catholic. Every now and then dissenters popped up, but without the printing press and its mass-media, their dissensions fizzled out. Their voices went unheard by the main community; Catholicism went uncontested, and existed as an absolute. It wasn’t until Luther, Foxe, and other reformers used the press to build a strong public following that dissention was really feasible.

But the creation of opposing communities - Protestant versus Catholic - opened the way for a new problem: splinter groups.

The Problem of Many Siblings

So long as Catholicism was the world power, Europe enjoyed religious unity, a reality where everyone was on the same page. Life was ordered, organized, and stable. You went to mass, you said your prayers, your hero was the Pope. Simple.

Then the Reformation happened.

Protestantism opened the door not for the simple binary distinction between Catholic and not-Catholic, but for a multitude of churches, an entire rainbow of definition. Elizabeth Eisenstein put it this way:

”Sixteenth-century heresy and schism shattered Christendom so completely that even after religious warfare had ended, ecumenical movements led by men of good will could not put all the pieces together again. Not only were there too many splinter groups, separatists, and independent sects who regarded a central Church government as incompatible with true faith; but the main lines of cleavage had been extended across continents and carried overseas along with Bibles and breviaries.” (Eisenstein 312)

Lutherans. Calvinists. Anglican. Puritan. Jesuit. Each church professed a different doctrine, and it wasn’t long before they set to brawling. Their disagreements led to wars, severe persecution, emigration, and exile. The Puritans, for instance, fled the Anglican church twice: once to Holland, where they worried the Dutch would corrupt their youth; then to America, where hundreds died from starvation and disease (Delbanco).

Religious violence between Christians abated slowly, and martyrs date from as recently as the nineteenth century. Even now, we bicker and quarrel over countless points of doctrine; at times it’s hard to tell we lay claim to the same God. “Long after theology had ceased to provoke wars,” said Eisenstein, “Christians on both continents were separated from each other by invisible barriers that are still with us today.” (Eisenstein 312-313).

Lucidly Insane

Our ability to communicate widely, and find people around the world who share the same interests, is wonderful. It’s amazing. It’s opened the door for the revival of old skills, like blacksmithing and cooking; it creates awareness of global issues; it allows us to experience culture and humanity in an infinite number of ways. To some extent, we are more aware of each other than ever before.

But then we pick up social cues from the people we associate with; and we use those cues to guide our behavior. This is a subconscious process, and happens naturally - but it has a huge impact on our approach to life. The phenomenon extends to the digital communities we participate in online; this fosters cultures and social movements on a global scale. More often than not we find ourselves immersed in niche communities, with very specific and sometimes limited worldviews; when those worldviews are translated and materialized into the real world through our behavior, through our lifestyle and life choices, things happen. Good things, like learning new skills. Strange things, like prepper extremists and their backyard bunkers. Sometimes bad things, like prejudice.

Our physical world is evolving. Every day it becomes a more accurate reflection of our digital existence, making the line from the intangible to the real ever more direct. That line has the potential to either strengthen society, by extending and interconnecting communities, or splinter us into a thousand thousand factions. It’ll probably do both.

Works Cited

“About The Backwoods Resistance.” BackwoodsResistance. N.d. Web. 8 November 2015.

Canadian Prepper. “Description.” YouTube. 7 May 2014. Web. 8 November 2015.

Cachet, Marie. A myth in survivalism: hunger. YouTube. 19 January 2015. Web. 8 November 2015.

Cat. “About Cat.” HerbalPrepper. Herbal Prepper. n.d. Web. 8 November 2015.

Brickly, Elaine, anonymized. Telephone Interview. 3 November 2015.

O’Connor, Rod. “These Suburban Preppers Are Ready for Anything.” Chicago. Chicago Magazine. 27 April 2015. Web. 14 October 2015.

Bennett, Jessica. “Rise of the Preppers: America’s New Survivalists.” Newsweek. Newsweek. 27 December 2009. Web. 14 October 2015.

Delbanco, Andrew. “Puritanism.” The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1991. Web. 3 December 2015.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980. Print.

Evenden, Elizabeth, and Freeman, Thomas S. Religion and the Book in Early Modern England: The Making of John Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs.’ Cambridge University Press, 2011. eBook.

Jussim, Lee. “Social perception and social reality: A reflection-construction model.” Psychological Review 98:1 (1991): 54-73. Web. http://web.b. /detail/detail?sid=a52d9468-b1f2-4bb6-8153-30e3c2242f0f %40sessionmgr113&vid=0&hid=124&bdata =JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3 QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1 zaXRl#db=pdh &AN=1991-12530-001

“Population below Poverty Line.” indexmundi. 1 January 2014. Web. 9 November 2015.

Sherman, Richard C. “The Mind’s Eye in Cyberspace: Online Perceptions of Self and Others.” Towards Cyberpsychology: Mind, Cognition, and Society in the Internet Age. Ed. G. Rive and C. Galimberti. IOS Press, 2001. 53-70. Web.

Waugh, Barry. “The Importance of the Printing Press for the Protestant Reformation, Part Two.” Reformation 21. Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. October 2013. Web. 8 November 2015.

—. “The Importance of the Printing Press for the Protestant Reformation, Part One.” Reformation 21. Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. October 2013. Web. 8 November 2015.

Image Credits

  • Graphic by Chris Potter, stockmonkey’ / CC BY
  • Martyr by John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. 1563.

About the Author

Ahnasariah Larsen
Ahnasariah Larsen

Addicted to reading and storytelling alike from a young age, Ahnasariah Larsen enjoys a thriving love affair with all things literature. She spent her adolescence in Minnesota and considers herself a native, lives for a good thunderstorm, and is absolutely convinced that true happiness lies in a hot shower.

Responsible Wanderlust

Nikkita Walker

The journey is the adventure.
The journey is the adventure.

Knapsack Skills

I travelled by myself for the first time when I was twenty years old. I remember standing in the Suvarnabhumi Airport with my absurdly overweight backpack, looking outside at the pouring rain with newly exchanged baht in my hand and wondering how I was possibly going to handle Thailand. I didn’t speak any Thai, didn’t know that a cab would cost 400 THB when I could easily take the metro downstairs for 30 THB, didn’t know that even though it was late I could still find stalls open selling steaming, heaping plates of pad see ew or bowls of khao soi. I had bought the backpacker’s bible, Lonely Planet, and from everything I’d read on blogs I decided that the best place to start my trip would be Khao San Road, the tourist mecca folded into the older part of Bangkok, tucked between temples and palaces. Over time I abandoned the travel guide almost completely and started to rely on ex-pat blogs, recommendations from Thai friends, or responses on the ThornTree Forum. I stopped paying American rates for hotels and instead found myself getting tips from the girls in my hostel dorm, and then eventually started staying with Thai families that friends introduced me to. I learned how to use to get between cities and that renting rooms on was cheaper than but safer than I never did get to relax on a resort beach, but by the end of my trip I knew how to order food and the fastest way to get around a city at rush hour. I shared breakfast on Mother’s day with a group of kathoeys (lady-men) and was adopted by the Hmong family I stayed with through a hug plix. That same summer my stepdad stayed in a Hilton down south in Phuket. For two glorious weeks he ate shrimp cocktails and lounged on a beach where elephants charged the surf. Now, more than two years later, he can’t tell me anything more about it than the bad shrimp, the white hotel room, and the elephants on the beach.

Today, there is a massive community of travellers communicating online in order to share tips and advice to enable others to experience a country as authentically as possible. Internet resources empower people to navigate foreign, physical worlds for themselves rather than blindly and faithfully relying on tour services to mediate foreign environments for them. The idea is not to take a vacation, not to take a break from the world, but rather to experience it as immersively and authentically as possible. The travel mantra of the modern digital age goes as follows: the journey is the adventure.

Renaissance Backpackers

Travel narratives serve as an inspiration, like a call to adventure, a beckoning to experience life beyond the patterns of the familiar. During the Renaissance, travel literature became popular after the surge of colonization and the advent of the printing press, which increased the literate population and the availability of reading material. The accounts of recent excursions from adventurers like Montaigne and Columbus acted like a red herring, drawing the European gaze outward, across the Atlantic or beyond the Mediterranean.

It was travel literature written in the style of artists-philosophers like Petrarch, which glorified the change and internal growth of self learned from travel, that motivated readers to consume the travel accounts of John Smith, Cabeza de Vaca, and Vespucci. Any hardships read about in these accounts were a part of the adventure, an uncomfortable difficulty but endurable and a part of the novelty of travelling. In a letter Petrarch wrote describing his ascent of Mont Ventoux he spends most of his account of the hike detailing the hardships he and his brother faced. Despite his frustration and exhaustion, and of course because Petrarch could not stop being a philosopher even when grumbling about all the prickly bushes, he reflects on how his journey is representative of his inner self. Despite the locals that advised him against the trip, Petrarch felt even more determined to accomplish the journey, and he remarks that “while he [a local shepherd] was shouting these words at us, our desire increased just because of his warnings; for young people’s minds do not give credence to advisers”(Petrarch 38).”

Petrarch relishes in the struggle, and his determination is proof to him of the strength of his iron will; he believes that traveling is something that only those with a fervent passion can truly and authentically experience. You cannot “merely want; you have a longing unless you are decieving yourself in this respect as in so many others. What is it, then, that keeps you back?”(Petrarch 40). Removed from society he feels free enough to breathe and fully understand himself without the buzzing interference of external interruptions. And of course, the view when he finally reaches the peak of Mont Venoux makes the struggle all worthwile: “I stood there almost benumbed, overwhelmed by a gale such as I had never felt before and by the unusually open and wide view”(Petrarch 41). Literary scholar Nathalie Hester argues that Petrarch is the original “noble traveler,” a “wandering poet” who “writes while navigating the river Po, who despises sea travel, longs for otium, but continues to wander”(Hester 129), and that Petrarch’s influential writing during the Renaissance created a style imitated by other writers in pursuit of “truth” and “authenticity” as Petrarch had been.

Petrarch’s narrative focuses on the spiritual change evoked by travel, John Smith’s narrative of his “adventures” around New England include more detailed accounts of the landscape and the mechanics of survival. Smith writes that “this coast is all mountainous and Iles of huge Rocks but ouergrowen with all sortsd of excellent good woodes for building houses, boats, barks or shippes; with an incredible abundance of most sorts of fish much fowle, and sundry sorts of good fruites for mans vse”(Smith 23), enticing other travelers to journey to the Americas. Smith’s hardships are similar to Petrarch’s: glorious. Only by negotiating with “terrifying” Natives or navigating the rocky landscape are people truly experiencing the Americas, these struggles are as much a part of the journey as is enjoying the beauty of the land. Where Petrarch was seen as the “noble wanderer” Captain John Smith reigned in the social consciousness as “stalwart adventurer.” Petrarch travelled in pursuit of self-awareness, Smith travelled in pursuit of a new experience, both boasted of their discovery of the authentic. During today’s digital renaissance, the reading population has access to a much larger body of travel literature and information than those during the earlier Renaissance, and yet the pursuit of the authentic remains the same.

“Admirable” Adventures and Endeavors

Anthropologist Daniel Carey hypothesizes that the entire field of anthropological study derived from the observation that travel has been considered a factor of changing identity for years. That, in interacting with different cultures in foreign environments, in many ways travel has been undertaken mainly with “the return” in mind, when the world-weary traveler comes back from their adventures a changed person(Carey 108). The greater the adventure, the more magnificent the return, and what was possible for a fearless few in proto-internet days is now available for anyone with a will and a familiarity with the right websites.

Because of the accessibility of adventure, there exists a subtle requirement that travel must be undertaken, and undertaken the right way, to prove individual authenticity. In a recent article published in The Atlantic travel writer Amanda Machado writes that there’s a rapidly growing percentage of “young travelers [who] are not as interested in “the traditional sun, sea and sand holidays” as previous generations are. They are spending less time in “major gateway cities” and instead exploring more remote destinations”(Machado). This desire to travel, and moreover to discover the road least travelled, is representative of what literary scholar Tom van Nuenen dubs “existential authenticity,” that this rising community of “authentic” travelers “are arguing that their journeys accommodate a state in which one can be true to oneself, contrary to the frustrating limitations of their former lives in Western society”(Nuenen 2). Like Petrarch wrote five hundred years earlier, this new community of travelers journey with the belief that the harder the trip the more authentic, and the more authentic the closer they come to understanding and declaring themselves. Nuenen writes that the very word “authentic” is the greatest appeal to travel today, that “its allure remains, an anchor point in the language of tourism, used in advertisements and travel writing alike”(Nuenen 2).

Authentic travel, like a right of passage, is something that needs to be undertaken on the power of the individual. At eighteen, just out of high school, my parents made me an offer. Pick a place, they said, anywhere you want. Where would you like to go? After literally being offered the world, I started researching through the Lonely Planet website - just a superficial Google search quickly revealed that Lonely Planet was the travel authority - and found a two-week tour that promised an adventure through Peru, complete with a village homestay and a four-day hike to Machu Picchu. I arrived and spent the trip in the company of a group of rowdy Australians who had been traveling months longer than I had. Do your research, they told me, don’t let other people decide your trip for you.

Millions of travel blogs across the internet ring with this same “call to adventure,” emphasizing that travel, and that enduring struggle while traveling, is the only way to develop your authentic self.

The digital age has enabled two things: the first, a community of people able to share their experiences and relate to readers helpful advice as well as an affirmation that they can travel too. The second, websites that enable travellers to network with other people outside of the tourism business. For example, The New York Times “Frugal Traveler” section includes, in addition to descriptions of delicious street food or adventures taken on the cheap, links to helpful websites that enable travelers to network directly among themselves. One criticism of the digital age is that it reduces humanity’s interaction with the world beyond the computer screen, but the recent rise in “authentic travelers” over the last decade suggests otherwise.

Works Cited

Petrarch, Francis. “The Ascent of Mont Ventoux.”The Renaissance Philosophy of Man.Ed. Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, John Herman Randall Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.

Hester, Nathalie. “Mapping Petrarch in seventeenth-century Italian Travel Writing.” Humanist Studies and the Digital Age 1.1(2011).

Smith, John. A Description of New England.Ed. Paul Royster. DigitalCommons at University of Nebraska - Lincoln, 1616. eBook.

Carey, Daniel. “Anthropology’s Inheritance: Renaissance Travel, Romanticism and the Discourse of Identity.” _History and Anthropology_14.2(2003):107-123

Machado, Amanda. “How Millennials Are Changing Travel.” The Atlantic 18 June 2014. Web.

van Nuenen, Tom. “Here I Am: Authenticity and Self-Branding on Travel Blogs.” Tourist Studies(July 2015).

Image Credits

Meme by Frontierofficial / CC BY

About the Author

Nikkita Walker
Nikkita Walker

Nikkita Walker is a California native who uprooted herself to study literature in Utah, which should be a testament to how much she loves storytelling. She is currently a senior at Brigham Young University finishing a degree in English and upon graduation plans to never be cold again.

Building a More Creative Commons

Everyone wants to build something bigger than themselves. The Internet, for better or for worse, provides that opportunity. It’s a sort of commons: a public space where like-minded people can organize, where anyone can showcase their abilities, where diversity and cross-pollination are frankly inevitable.

The opportunities for community-building and group interaction here are unprecedented. Copyright laws and earthly credentials don’t hinder creativity when everyone is a string of ones and zeroes. Ideas and intellectual property fly free, gathering thousands of distinct yet untraceable fingerprints. Incredible new things are invented every day.

Ahead, we explore the phenomenon of fanfiction, the plagiaristic (yet unpunishable) impulse of daydreaming superfans. We examine the way that members of online communities earn their reputations, forming a group identity that is as welcoming as it is impenetrable. Finally, we take a look at the open source movement, wherein millions of programmers share and borrow each other’s code freely. In every case, we discover a public realm of uncommon creativity and expertise.

Crowd Sourcing Fiction

Nikkita Walker

Fandom, you okay?
Fandom, you okay?

I like to imagine how the Author Gods of the past might react to fan stories like Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies - a reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice - being made into novels. “Outrageous!” Mark Twain might say with an angry twitch of his mustache. “Make it new,” Ezra Pound would say with a haughty sniff. “Well,” Shakespeare would say, “people like it.” The Author Gods would turn to him in disbelief. “What?” He would say defensively, “They like it. Who cares if it’s been done before?”

This is one of the biggest criticisms directed toward the massive world that is contemporary fan fiction; artistic theft. Numerous websites like offer thousands of reimagined stories from every genre, using preexisting television shows, books, and movies as a basis for their own retellings. There are even whole websites dedicated to specific stories, like and which cater exclusively to Harry Potter and Firefly writers and readers. Beyond the writing, there are visual art websites like DeviantArt which allow visual artists to collaborate with fan fiction writers to illustrate their writing. The argument for fanfiction today is the same as it was in the Renaissance of the past, that imitation leads to preservation and more importantly new creation. The depth of this artistic development poses a vital question: How much does the story truly belong to the original writer?

Petrarchan Snark and Renaissance Fan Fiction

The tradition of fan fiction has existed since the Renaissance. The imitation of exhumed artistic styles and writing from early Grecian and Roman times was called “ad fontes”- a return to the sources. Literary scholar Brian Vickers writes that “Where we tend to think that every literary work worthy of the name is unique, a testimony to its author’s creative originality, Renaissance theorists expected that not just beginning writers but all authors would achieve originality through the process of imitation”(Vickers 1). Francis Petrarch, the creator of the Petrarchan sonnet which has ironically been imitated to the point that it has become its own literary style, developed his talent by copying down the works of older writers like Cicero. He describes the importance of imitation and the difference between artistic interpretation of an original work and copying in a letter to a friend: “An imitator must take care to write something similar yet not identical to the original, and that similarity must not be like the image to its original in painting where the greater the similarity the greater the praise for the artist, but rather like that of a son to his father”(Bolland 481). Critic Andrea Bolland further explains that “what is sought in an artistic or poetic imitation is not the exact appearance of the model but rather the artistic “ethos” that governs the appearance”(482), pointing out that imitation during the Renaissance was less about artistic theft and plagiarism, instead focusing on the emulation of style and aesthetic beauty. Imitation was undertaken as a method of education.

Renaissance writers weren’t just borrowing from the dusty works of long-dead artists, either. For example, the name Shakespeare is still spoken in reverent tones. Yet the great playwright himself often borrowed from the works of his contemporaries. Arguably Shakespeare’s most well-known play, Romeo and Juliet, is based on the poem “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet” which had only been written a few years earlier by Arthur Brooke. Literary critic Robert Adger Law analyzes how although the originality of Shakespeare’s play is questionable, his authorial voice and scripting is all his own, and to create the play within a pre-existing and popular poem requires a certain level of genius. Law writes that “The borrowing [of Brooke’s work] is apparent in every scene and in almost every long speech of the play”(Law 86). Arguably it was a more difficult task for Shakespeare to write his story following the plot elements of Brooke’s work than it would have been for him to write an original romance.

Any reader or aspiring writer who has encountered plagiarism issues today might be asking, How? How could this possibly be allowed to happen? What about copyright infringement? What’s important to remember is that the “ad fontes” environment was so pervasive at the time that imitation wasn’t the heinous trespass that it might be considered today, and it could perhaps be argued that because of the ungoverned creative commons shared by artists in the 1500’s, they were able to enter a fertile period of art that we call a “Renaissance” today. New modes of communication, enabled by a dramatic increase in literacy and the innovations of the printing press created a new era of communication at the time much like the digital one experienced in the present. It’s apparent from the material generated now, as it was in the past, that the source of widespread creativity comes from free communication.

Expanding the Commons

For myself, the thousands of free fan fiction stories available online saved my little fan girl life when Fox Network made the greatest mistake in the history of television and cancelled Joss Whedon’s series Firefly. But fan fiction enables readers and fans to expound on stories that they love, even after their completion. The world of the story is fleshed out to universal proportions because of the communal creativity enabled by fan fiction websites. The story becomes a kind of commons that enables storytellers to take part and shape it as they will, or answer plot holes left by the previous writer. Since Firefly’s premature cancellation it has gained a cult following that has left fans howling about unanswered questions and thankfully there are thousands of fan fiction stories about the continued adventures of the characters, proving that while the original author might have intended for an end, the matter is entirely out of his hands.

Some people consider fan fiction to be a less reputable form of storytelling, perhaps considered more childish because it is a retelling of someone else’s stories according to the whims of the fan fic writer. Writer maliciouspixie5 states that, “I would love to see someone bring fan fiction away from the ‘joke’ that some people consider it. I’ve told family friends that I just write ‘kids stories’ because to tell them the truth would be embarrassing…we aren’t all chubby little teens doing this when our parents aren’t watching. Most of the people I know writing this stuff are highly intelligent, articulate, and outrageously funny folk.” But if websites like and DeviantArt allow a free space for writers and artists to make their own creations inspired by another’s stories, there is a degree of management held by the community itself. Some users dub fan fiction websites “guerilla publishing,” because it is the community of fan fiction readers and writers that determine what works are good enough to be preserved. It’s because of this community-editing ability that many people prefer more user-empowered websites like to the flashier Wattpad because, as user MasterFeign points out, “Wattpad also has more lax rules, but that also means the quality of fics will be a little… terrible over there, I think.”

Fan fiction has created a whole slew of new literary devices and developed its own vocabulary; headcannons, shipping, and genderbending being among them. But just as there are rules and styles associated with writing traditional literary fiction - Slash those adverbs! Develop backstory! - so are there rules associated with writing quality fan fiction, including how a writer can interact with the original material. Headcannons and genderbending can be acceptable and even fun storytelling devices, but the most stressed aspect of fan fiction - the quality that separates it from traditional fiction - is believability. Many fan fiction readers come to the table with a great love for the original work and are driven to fan fiction because they want more of it. Fan fiction is then a self-sustaining community, writers and readers freely giving and taking stories, but with absolute respect for the original work.

DeviantArt user zoni writes that, “Personally, I have absolutely no regard for authors who sell their fan fiction to a company to be reworked as original fiction…You can’t take a piece of fan fiction and turn it into an original novel if it’s well written, for a very simple reason: fan fiction is created because people want more of something. More of that television show, that band, that manga, whatever it is. Good fan fiction is that more. It’s more Harry Potter. More Star Wars. More SHINee. And if any publisher feels A-OK with taking Star Wars, name replacing it and then publishing it, you have a problem on your hands.” Like the “ad fontes” fan fiction of the Renaissance past, the fan fiction of the digital Renaissance present represents another artistic medium, something that scholar Maria Leavenworth describes as representing “an intermediary stage between print literature and complex, often multimodal, contemporary hypertexts which to a greater extent utilize the affordances of the online environment”(Leavenworth 40).

Shipping and Genderbending

Fan fiction allows for writers to reinterpret the original work based on their own preferences. One example of this is “shipping,” creating a relationship between two characters that might not exist in the original, and “genderbending,” changing the genders of the original characters. These two techniques occur frequently in many different fan fiction interpretations, but one well-known example would be Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock series. In the original work, the relationship between Sherlock and his partner Watson is already very close. Contemporary adaptations of the story reflect recent feminist changes or social acceptance of openly gay behavior. In the fan fiction short story “His Pilgrim Soul Day” by user maliciouspixie5, Watson and Sherlock are partners in addition to being committed romantic partners:

“John stops him with “And WE have three years invested in US!” He is angry, so very angry now. “We were supposed to have a night for us, sans the surgery and the lab. Just us!” He takes a deep breath and tries to calm himself. His heart feels like it has a leak, one that Sherlock’s sorry just can’t fix this time. “Three years ago we said on our third year we would start looking for a surrogate. We would start our family. You were hesitant about it but said by now you would be ready” (maliciouspixie5).

Literary critic Ann McClellan writes that the BBC adaptation of Sherlock is popular in fan fiction interpretations because of the already dependent relationship, although heteronormative, between the characters. She writes that “as single men in the 20th century, the BBC Sherlock’s John and Sherlock would have to take on the reproductive labor role in their household; living together as roommates also facilitates the approximation of a heteronormative relationship whereby one person–John Watson–becomes culturally feminized by assuming these responsibilities”(McClellan). Different fan fictions take the same preexisting power dynamic from the original storyline and reinterpret it “genderbending” the characters. Often even when Sherlock is rewritten as a woman, he/she still possesses the assertiveness traditionally ascribed to male characters,whereas John possesses “homemaker” characteristics ascribed to maternal characters.

“His Pilgrim Soul Day” is an example of what most fan fiction does, which is to take the characters or situation of the original story and put them in a new context. Fan fiction writer Icarus says there is a clearly distinguished line between plagiarism and fan fiction, and that fan fiction enables “more “subversive” or “transformative” stories [to] make up the bulk of fanfiction and while they begin with the main characters and world, by the end, so much has changed they no longer “click” into the main source”(Icarus).

Rewriting the Known World

Becky Barnicoat, writer for The Guardian, says that she believes that fan fiction represents a new, democratized future of publishing which puts power in the hands of the readers rather than the publishers. She writes that the “wonderful thing about fanfic is that people just go for it - firing off chapters at school, at work, on the loo, often written on an iPhone and published for a potential audience of millions, spelling mistakes and all. This is the democratic modern publishing industry where readers decide what they like, and snooty editors with their red pens are the stuff of a really boring fanfic set in the olden days”(Barnicoat).

Fan fiction enables storytellers to take recognized stories, those that perhaps have the most impact on the social majority, and reinvent them according to the storyteller’s own conceived perception of reality. As Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Mirandola would’ve happily applauded, fan fiction is an example of using another’s work to express a new kind of “ethos.” The original story material used in fanfiction is no longer just the property of the original creator, it is the building block of a whole new social environment.

Works Cited

McClellan, Ann. “Redefining Genderswap in fan fiction:A sherlock Case study.” Transformative Works & Cultures. 17(2014)

Barnicoat, Becky. “Do Something: Creative: Seven things you need to know to write fan fiction It’s a brave new world online, says Becky Barnicoat.”The Guardian. (2014).

Bolland, Andrea.“Art and Humanism in Early Renaissance Padua: Cenini, Vergerio, and Petrarch on Imitation.” Renaissance Quarterly, 49.3(1996):469.

Vickers, Brian. English Renaissance Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Law, Robert Adger. “On Shakespeare’s Changes of His Source Material in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”Studies in English 9.(1929):86-102.

Leavenworth, Maria Lindgren.“The Paratext of Fan Fiction.” Narrative, 23.1(2015).

Image Credits

Photo by Yarl / CC BY

About the Author

Nikkita Walker
Nikkita Walker

Nikkita Walker is a California native who uprooted herself to study literature in Utah, which should be a testament to how much she loves storytelling. She is currently a senior at Brigham Young University finishing a degree in English and upon graduation plans to never be cold again.

The Unspoken Caste System in Social Media

Doridé Uvaldo-Nelson

Person 1: Are you sure about this decision? There’s a lot of adjustments that come with a switch like this.

Person 2: Yes, I’ve done my research and I think I’m ready.

Person 1: But we’ve always been a united family on this matter. You’re willing to disrupt that completely?

Person 2: You realize we’re talking about a phone, right?

Person 1: Right, but…

On the surface the above conversation seems like an excerpt from an overtly dramatic comedy when you consider that Person 1’s life altering decision is simply a phone change. Yet, it’s also very realistic. Recently I had a professor tell me that after years of being an iPhone user he had decided to switch over to an Android device. I immediately gasped, my jaw dropped, my eyes widened, and I replied, “But why?”

In retrospect, what I really should’ve asked was, why is this a shocking statement anyway? It’s not like he was confessing to me that he was planning on failing the whole class or that he’d eaten a can of worms for lunch, because in all reality my reaction was better suited for scenarios such as these.

The fact that a person switching from an iPhone to an Android device—or vice versa—can trigger an excess of opinions and emotions means that at some point in the history of technology users began to identify and bond according to their device or platform of choice. There’s a sense of camaraderie that comes from knowing you are #TeamApple or #TeamDroid. And while these preferences are sometimes just indicators of interface preferences, it’s worth considering why, even in technology, humans seem to form communities and identities that define them as similar or different from others.

Techtopia, a Modern Tale

Had Thomas More been alive to see a smart phone and all of its apps today, the title of his renowned work Utopia might have been named something like Techtopia, Utopia literally means “no place” when translated from the Greek ou “not” + topos “place,” but for a long time it was believed to mean “good place” deriving from the Greek eu or good. This is an important distinction to make when you consider that for hundreds of years, scholars have debated the purpose of More’s Utopia. If Utopia does not mean a good place, but rather a “no place” then maybe More is not describing an ideal and perfect society.

Because of the way More structures the narrative of his narrator it’s unclear whether he sees this as an ideal society or total nonsense, and perhaps that was his point. It’s often the case that as humans we feel uncomfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, and yet we must figure out how to live and thrive in it.

With the technological advances of our time there is a lot of debate on how social media outlets create communities that bring out the best or the worst in people. And depending on who it is that you speak with, they will tell you that social media is great or of the devil, and sometimes even both. But what is it that makes both of these observations valid? Perhaps by examining the types of communities that social media fosters we can better understand the great ambiguity of social media platforms.

The community of Utopia is described by More as harmonious and peaceful society, that is ruled by a representative government. There are many customs that are particular to the Utopian community at the time, one being the lack of a national religion and a belief that pleasure was the key to prosperity and joy. Everyone works together and there is no such thing as private property or currency, and even crazier is the fact that people were happy and willing participants of this type of communal living. More tells us, “Nobody owns anything but everyone is rich—for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?” In other words, a sense of richness does not come from physical, tangible things, but rather from the knowledge that you have a cheerful, stress-free life.

We can take this statement at face value, or remind ourselves that More didn’t intend to create a “good place” but rather a “no place” when he wrote Utopia. So while the idea that because people don’t own their space or their property inherently leads to a happier life may sound great, it does not mean that it is good, maybe it just means that the belief is only possible in a nowhere made up land. All you have to do is take a good look at the wild and lawless plains of current social media.

Sharing is Caring?

The Internet does not physically exist in the way we think of countries and cities existing, it is like the air: we can access it most everywhere but we cannot touch it, see it, or taste it. In fact, we could say that it exists nowhere, like Utopia. So if there was any place where we could truly test the communal living patterns of the Utopian people it would through online communities. Since people of all economic, social, and political backgrounds with access to the Internet can take to social media, blogs, and other platforms to share their opinions/thoughts/stances it has been said that the Internet is the great equalizer of the masses. But a study conducted by the University of Georgia found that a communal sharing of platforms does not necessarily translate as an egalitarian. Himelboim looked at the discussions of over 200,000 participants on 35 different newsgroups over the span of six years. He found that 2% of those who started the discussions received about 50% of the responses. Despite the Internet’s user diversity, a social hierarchy emerged in a digital space that does not physically exist and that defies all ownership.

Digital Hierarchy

They say that birds of a feather flock together, and never has it been more true than when we look at online communities. According to Himelboim people create something called preferential attachment which is a fancy way to say that the more popular you are, the more popular you get. People prefer responding and interacting with a person who has an established network and credibility. And the larger a group/community gets, the more “skewed the network of interaction becomes.” For example, Twitter. A Pew Research study found that although an immense number of tweets are tweeted on a day to day basis, about 70% of tweets get ignored, which means they receive no likes, retweets, or replies.

Identity Through Community

There’s a saying in Spanish that says: tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are. My mother used to say this to encourage me to hang out with good people, but let’s think about it in terms of social media platforms. If someone told you that their preferred platform was Pinterest, would you immediately make assumptions about who they are and what they care for? It’s highly likely, and you wouldn’t be alone in that. Stereotypes about platforms have emerged because in the Techtopia of our day, self expression and identity are inevitably connected to our digital communal sharing.

Of course, most people use more than just one type of social media platform, but the classifications of the individual platforms beg another interesting question: What came first, the community or the mold? Was Instagram initially designed for the selfie, or did it become Instagram because of the selfie? Was Pinterest intended mainly for women who care for DIY projects or did women who care for DIY projects make Pinterest what it is today?

While marketing and tech-savvy CEOs may argue that the their platforms were all along intended to work in the way they work right now, therefore proving their success, the massive amount of updates these apps go through to meet their consumer’s needs may indicate otherwise. Because although a platform may have started out as, say, a college student networking site (in the case of Facebook), as the social media community’s identity developed the platform adjusted to better fit the mold of its users. This ultimately proves that users have the final say when it comes to community building.

Works Cited

Bennet, Shea. “Social Media Stereotypes, Statistics, Facts And Figures 2012 [INFOGRAPHIC].” SocialTimes. AdWeek, 14 Nov. 2012. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.

Caudle, Mildred Witt. “Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia:” Origins and Purposes.” Social Science 45.3 (1970): 163-69. JSTOR. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

Himelboim, I. “Civil Society and Online Political Discourse: The Network Structure of Unrestricted Discussions.” Communication Research 38.5 (2010): 634-59. SAGE. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

Himelboim, I. “Civil Society and Online Political Discourse: The Network Structure of Unrestricted Discussions.” Communication Research 38.5 (2010): 634-59. SAGE. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

“Mobile Messaging and Social Media 2015.” Pew Research Center Internet Science Tech RSS. The Pew Charitable Trusts, 19 Aug. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015. More, Thomas. “Utopia.” Project Gutenberg. IBiblio, 22 Apr. 2005. Web. Nov. 2015.

Image Credits

  • Pixaby Public Domain Photo
  • ⓒ 2015 Doridé Uvaldo-Nelson

About the Author

Doridé Uvaldo-Nelson
Doridé Uvaldo-Nelson

Doridé is a student at Brigham Young University. She is majoring in English and minoring in Women’s Studies and plans on graduating December 2015. Her work has previously appeared in Salt Lake Magazine and Insight, the BYU Honors magazine.

Free Code and Renaissance Plagiarism

Isaac Lyman

Octocat works for free.
Octocat works for free.

It’s a Bird. It’s a Plane. It’s…Sysadmin?

I’ve got an alter ego.

By day I’m a web developer: I write code that powers Internet applications for large businesses. When I was hired I signed my name to a several-pages-long contract promising to treat all the code I read and write at work as a secret I will take to my grave. I keep that promise.

On some evenings and weekends, though, I don the user name “isaaclyman” (creative, I know), a Muppet avatar (used without permission), and a perfectionist attitude, and I. . .write code. But this time for free. And this time, the only people I’m working for are myself and Octocat.

GitHub and Free Labor

Octocat is the geeky mascot of the world’s largest pile of free, no-strings-attached virtual stuff: GitHub. GitHub launched in 2008 as a place for computer programmers to upload their own code—with the understanding that this code would be public, accessible by anyone, and unprotected by copyright laws. In other words, if you were a programmer, people all over the world would use your intellectual property, legally, without paying you a single cent. Sounds like a hard sell, right? It turned out to be such a hard sell that in a few short years, no less than 11,300,000 programmers have signed up for the service, creating a total of more than 28,100,000 repositories (packages of code). This means that, on average, each programmer on GitHub has created two and a half software packages which he or she is willing to share freely.

This is part of a larger phenomenon that began in the late 90s, known generally as the open source movement. To outsiders, it appears that programmers (uniquely) enjoy their work so much that they’re willing to do it for free on their own time—and this is partially true, but doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon. Others suspect that the prestige afforded a programmer by being the curator of a popular software package is part of the appeal. This also carries some truth, though if you’ve never heard of Kris Kowal or Victor Savkin, you may have reason to doubt this argument (you’ve almost certainly used their software). Some have a philanthropic view of open source: as Richard Stallman says, “I consider that the Golden Rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it.” Perhaps the most popular theory attempting to explain open source programming is that it invites public collaboration—on GitHub, anyone who wants to fix or improve your code can submit a patch. The next person to fix a bug in your code could be a manager at Google or a teenager in Africa. Nobody is excluded, and good code is a virtue in itself, no matter who it comes from. And it tends to come quickly, from a variety of sources.

Justin Garrison, a programmer for Disney Animation, sums up the effect of this type of collaboration: “Open source is awesome because of community.” People who work on open source code are famously helpful. They enthusiastically promote community participation, welcome public debate about their software, incorporate suggestions from many sources, and spend a lot of time guiding newcomers. And the influence of community shows. Open-source projects work well, improve quickly, and power large percentages of the Internet.

I asked Gustavo Muslera, a Linux systems administrator, why he participates in open source. His response was, “I see diversity above all.” In his view, the open-source methodology allows software to grow into several different variations, providing options for every kind of user. Many people “fork” (make a personal copy of) open-source code in order to translate it into another language, port it to another operating system, or fix a security loophole, and then share the result. Enthusiasts cite this behavior as the top benefit of open-source code: with so many eyes on a single piece of software, so many people playing with it and modifying it and using it, it’s much more difficult for security issues or errors to persist.

I’ve personally published nine software packages on GitHub–all in varying stages of completion–and contributed to four others. Yes, there are some bragging rights involved–for example, Google is using a few lines of code that I wrote–but for the most part, I’m just happy to do it because it means better software for everyone.

What if this philosophy were applied to other realms? What if engineers around the world contributed their time and talent to build better bridges and vacuums? What if architects gave away their blueprints online? What if J. K. Rowling had co-authored Harry Potter with hundreds of other authors, all making contributions and improvements during their time off?

Hold that question for just a moment.

Free Beer and the MIT License

Programmers traditionally speak of two meanings of the word “free”: free as in free beer, and free as in freedom. The first meaning refers only to the price tag of a software package (i.e. it doesn’t cost anything). The second refers to what other people are allowed to do with it: modify it, copy it, use pieces of it in their own software, sell it, and so forth.

In 1985, a computer programmer named Richard Stallman created the GNU Public License, a legal statement that could be included with code to make it free (as in freedom). It was a “copyleft” statement, meaning that anyone who used the code had to include the GPL as well. This was followed by the Creative Commons License, which was slightly more customizable, and finally by the MIT License.

The MIT License is a brief legal statement that accompanies almost half of all the licensed code on GitHub (it’s the most popular license by far). This license is the most permissive form of copyright that can possibly exist. It begins:

Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining a copy of this software. . .to deal in the Software without restriction. . .including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software. . .THE SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED “AS IS”, WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND. . . (The MIT License)

In human terms, this means that you can do anything you want with the code (anything!), as long as you don’t sue the creator when (or if) the code breaks.

The result of this has been what a biologist might call “an incredibly sexy decade of cross-pollination.” A hobbyist can take code written by Google and use it on his personal website; Google can take code written by a cosplayer in San Francisco and use it in a multi-million dollar product; international bands of basement coders can work together on intensely sophisticated software that breaks Chinese firewalls and inspires Ivy League graduate theses. All of these things happen because of a whole lot of free, free stuff.

Most programmers agree: open-source coding has accelerated the development of software packages (and code in general) by an impressive amount. In fact, open source is a big part of the reason why the Internet is so much prettier today than it was in 1998–back then, coders were usually solitary beings, coding by themselves; today, programmers work with a strong international community.

So what happens when other things are created this way? We return to that question you were holding. And to answer it, we’ll use a very old example: an open-source play from the Renaissance.

Octocat, open source, MIT and free beer have combined their powers to bring us a field where unprecedented amounts of source material are up for grabs. It’s a surprising phenomenon in many respects. But one person who might look at this situation with some familiarity is William Shakespeare, everyone’s favorite Elizabethan playwright.

It’s well-known that Shakespeare took some of his best lines from contemporary authors. For example, his description of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra (“on either side of her, pretty, fair boys. . .”) resembles some lines by Plutarch far too closely to be a coincidence (Posner). Some scholars play these off as “replications” or “echoes,” characteristic of young writers, but the fact remains that they’re very close copies (Bodunde). He didn’t copy verbatim, of course; he rearranged the diction and meter of the original lines to fit his needs, and most would agree that the changes are an improvement. In this way, he engaged in a pattern that coders will recognize well: he took the best work of his fellow authors and reshaped it. Shakespeare, then, was a prototypical open-source coder, though not the first: Ovid, Milton, and later, Thomas Mann and T.S. Eliot were all guilty of the same kind of literary borrowing (Posner). Nevertheless, if Shakespeare had turned in Antony and Cleopatra to your college English teacher, he would have faced academic discipline (certainly an F on the assignment, and possibly suspension from school). So why didn’t Plutarch sue him?

Well, for one thing, it’s hard to sue people when the law doesn’t have anything to say about their crimes. There was no generalized copyright law in the 16th century–in fact, society at that time “lack[ed] a concept of authorial/intellectual property” entirely (Thomas). So Plutarch would have been fighting an uphill battle had he tried to sue Shakespeare over intellectual property theft. It probably didn’t even occur to him to do so. He’d done a little borrowing himself.

For another thing, imitation, known then as imitatio, was honored as an essential part of learning and writing. Students routinely memorized and rewrote well-respected texts as part of their schooling, and this was thought to be the foundation for good writing. Even though a modern perspective sees plagiarism in a lot of Shakespeare’s works, back then it was seen more as “transformation. . .not mechanical but organic, creative rather than repetitive” (Maguire & Smith). In other words, taking someone else’s work and improving it, changing words here and there, modifying the rhythm, was seen as a high form of artistic originality. Shakespeare was doing exactly the same thing modern programmers do: incorporating the work of others in order to improve his product. Shakespeare was, unknowingly, an open-source playwright.

Of course, Shakespeare’s plays weren’t put together a piece at a time by a worldwide collaborative community. The technology wasn’t there. But the influence of a community shows through–not just in the copied-and-pasted bits, but in the plots, the characters, the jokes and puns. Nearly all of them were taken from the pages of history, the current royalty, or the street. Each play was a community effort, even if Shakespeare’s hand was the only one holding the pen.

And his plays are awesome. Four hundred years later, they’re still the most popular plays in the world. Is open source great or what?

To be fair, Shakespeare was a genius. Not all open-source projects are as successful as his. But free access to the best materials in the world is a rising tide that lifts everyone: in a true open-source environment, even failed projects are better than they would have been otherwise.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Shakespeare had to learn to dish it out as well as he took it: his plays were often plagiarized wholesale. People printed his plays without permission and without paying royalties; rivals would even buy tickets to his plays, memorize them, and then transcribe and print them for public sale, detracting from Shakespeare’s market share (Mabillard). Make no mistake: open source theater had its downsides.

Open-source software occasionally makes enemies, too. Imagine that the company you work for has spent three years building an enormously useful piece of software and is starting to get traction in the market. Then a group of students at Stanford University releases an open-source software package that does the same thing. Their project might not be as polished as yours, but chances are that it will be soon. And given the prospect of free software, community-driven innovation, and endless customizability that the open-source package offers, who is going to sign a hundred-thousand-dollar contract with your company? Somebody might, but now the burden of proof is on you. Your niche has been cracked wide open.

This isn’t just a hypothetical situation. Hundreds of companies, small and large, have felt the pain of losing their mojo to a community-produced competitor. The programmers who worked to build those companies often lose their jobs. And even though they can get new jobs (programmers are never unemployed for long), the process tends to make them bitter.

So there are some anti-open-source advocates out there. But generally, people feel the same way about open-source software as they feel about Shakespearean theater: good. And both of them are here to stay, both in their original form and as echoes in modern works.

A Community of Classical Allusions

Any English professor will tell you that the most popular sources of literary allusion are the Christian Bible, the Iliad and Odyssey, and Shakespearean plays (usually in that order). Anyone who writes fine literature is expected to be familiar with these works and allude to them frequently as a way of enriching their writing and building their authority as a writer. Even though it’s not considered kosher to try to pass Hamlet off as your own work, it’s totally cool to use one of Claudius’s turns of phrase or one of the play’s major ideas in your own book. People will respect you for it.

And that’s the spirit of open-source code, in a small way. If you want to write good software, you need to know about the great works available on GitHub. And even if you don’t copy large portions of them for your own purposes, you should imitate their style, their architecture, and a couple of choice lines, standing on the shoulders of giants to improve your own work. In order to produce your best work, you have to be a part of the community. Even if you never return the favor by open-sourcing your own best work, you can count the benefits you’ll receive by drawing on the community: hundreds of hours of time saved, thousands of bugs avoided before they happen, and software that looks like it was designed by a very large team of specialists (because it was).

It’s been a long trail, but at least in one part of modern society–programming–we’ve managed to achieve the open-source culture that made Shakespeare and his students so excellent. Will other fields open up in the same way? It’s hard to imagine engineers and architects giving away their work for free, but who knows? The appeal of strong communities and common ideas is growing daily.

Works Cited

Bodunde, Charles Agboola. “Sources, Influences and Originality: Issues in Critical Controversies.” Kola 21.1 (2009): 138+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

Garrison, Justin Lee (rothgar). “Open source is awesome because of community. When a core dev helps you fix a PEBKAC error and is still nice about it! thanks @Lukasaoz”. 15 Oct 2015, 11:04 a.m. Tweet.

Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare in Print. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2004. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

Maguire, Laurie, and Emma Smith. “Shakespeare Was a Plagiarist.” 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare. Wiley Online Library, 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

The MIT License (MIT). Software License. Open Source Initiative. Web. 07 Nov. 2015.

Muslera, Gustavo. “Why do you participate in open source?” Quora. 3 Nov. 2015. 7 Nov. 2015.

Posner, Richard A. “On Plagiarism.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 01 Apr. 2002. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

Stallman, Richard. “The GNU Manifesto.” GNU Operating System. Free Software Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.

Thomas, Max W.. “Eschewing Credit: Heywood, Shakespeare, and Plagiarism Before Copyright”. New Literary History 31.2 (2000): 277–293. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Image Credits

  • “Octocat” by GitHub, Inc. is licensed for use in in a blog post or news article about GitHub.
  • “Isaac Lyman” portrait © 2015 Lauren Michelle Parker.

About the Author

Isaac Lyman
Isaac Lyman

Isaac Lyman is a senior-year English student at Brigham Young University and an avid computer programmer. He and his wife live in Utah in between vacations to New York City.

The (De)Humanizing Web

Does the digital world make us more connected to our humanity and other humans? Or, does it destroy our relationships and dehumanize our identity? Now, more than ever, the digital world has allowed us to become more aware of our humanity. Popular websites like Humans of New York show us real people in a variety of different situations that reveal a communal sense of identity. Seeing so many interesting lives portrayed through photos, we can develop an increased sense of humanity both as individuals as well as community. A popular phenomena like “selfies,” has placed an emphasis on the self, perhaps highlighting the value of humanity. However, this same phenomena #filters out the humanistic qualities by trying to match the “ideal selfie.”

Similarly, Second Life and other virtual worlds provide an open area where humanity can anonymously create and interact with a wide range of interests and sub-cultures that may otherwise not exist in the physical world. As members of the digital age, we are encouraged to deal with two worlds that create a web of humanity—a web that both links and separates us from ourselves and others.

Humanism of New York

Katie Bowman

Brandon Stanton, bond trader turned photographer, started a photography blog in 2010 depicting portraits of New Yorkers he met on the street. A lovely concept made viral by the addition of a few words from the subject attached to each photograph. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were the fuel to Stanton’s creative fire and today Humans of New York, or HONY, has over 15.6 million Facebook followers and about 3.9 follower on Instagram. I will tell you now that I am a follower. I like Humans of New York and I think that will show throughout this chapter. There is definitely value in critically examining something so frequently praised, but I can’t help it. I like what he does. Stanton has obviously tapped into something powerful to garner such a loyal and participatory following. I think he has tapped into a need for humanistic connection in an Internet community largely focused on glorification of the most important human, me.

The Intimacy of Humans of New York

With the boom of celebrity worship, YouTube stars, blogs, and social media we are increasingly interested in humans. Pictures of humans power the Internet. At the core of Facebook’s invention was the idea that you would provide a picture of yourself to share with friends. Istagram has become a platform for self-promotion where you can be followed by hundreds of strangers, each looking to see pictures that providing a window into your life.

The Humans of New York project associates itself with this boom in human interest but achieves a level of intimacy with its subjects that allows it to be a conduit for a deeper representation of humanity. The artistic form of choice for Stanton is a combination of brief engaging text and a vibrant photo. As an aspiring photographer, Stanton gravitated to New York. You would be hard pressed to find a city culture better build for street photography. Stanton’s eye for photography drove him, day in and day out, to approach strangers for a photograph. The blog had been in existence for quite some time before it started to get significant attention. While participating in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) a fan asked if there was one picture that “blew up HONY?” He replied:

“What blew up HONY was the captions, I think. It’s when I really started telling the stories of these random people. For the first several months, HONY was pure photography. I really believe that mixing in the stories was the tipping point”(AMA).

The evolutions in Stanton’s posts highlight a connection between popularity and intimacy. From the perspective of my mother, a major Humans of New York fan, though early posts were engaging, she sees herself in Stanton’s current work. Even if she doesn’t directly relate to the experiences of the subjects, she connects with their vulnerability, and fears, their hopes and accomplishments. Essentially she connects with their humanity. Particularly as his interviews become more intimate, his photography becomes more intimate. An excellent example would be a photo, posted in July of 2015, that received a great deal of controversial attention depicting a boy experiencing deep emotion as he expresses his fear that people won’t like him because he is gay. “These people aren’t looking to have their picture taken,” Brandon said in one of the countless interviews that pepper the Internet. The intimacy generated by combining a photograph and a caption sets HONY apart in a sea of selfies and shows a significant connection to Renaissance Humanists’ obsession with use of language.

The Intimacy of Petrarch

Let me take a moment to better explain what I mean when I say humanism. Humanism was a movement started by several renaissance scholars interested in humanity and the power of man. A man named Pico della Mirandola was one of the scholars that articulated the thoughts driving this movement that shifted man to center stage. Essentially he lays out that the greatness of man lies in his position in the Great Chain of Being (a hierarchy ranging from earthworms to God and his angels), his unique ability to progress or regress on this chain by his own choice, and his position to see and appreciate God’s work (Mirandola). So man started celebrating humanity and exploring our ability to communicate, relate, and improve ourselves. Communication was of particular interest to one of the very first humanists, Francisco Petrarch.

Latin was the language of the intellectuals and its rediscovery became the purpose of Petrarch’s life. In the course of his study he came across some ancient Latin texts written by a philosopher named Cicero that changed rhetoric forever. One element of this change came from several letters written by Cicero. The letters were written in a language of intimacy entirely new to Petrarch. The letters expressed feeling, “relatedness or intimacy that overcomes distance… It is the loss of feeling, especially loss of the feeling of closeness or intimacy itself, that accounts for the letter’s development”(Eden 336). Reading Cicero’s personal mail inspired Petrarch to write intimate letters himself and he sent them to the long dead philosopher Cicero. Cicero’s letters must have been so personal that Petrarch felt like Cicero was talking to him. So he responded and he names this collection the Familiar Letters. In these letters he expresses feelings of frustration, and love. The rediscovery of Cicero’s letters was the rediscovery of intimacy, which opened up the minds of Renaissance linguists to emotional writing. The emotional connection aspired to on Humans of New York focuses the audience in on the specific experiences of an individual within a community. The humanity highlighted in one post then says something about the community that person comes from.

Individuality vs. Community

Humans of New York stories function in one very important way, as empathetic connection. Of the positive comments made on Stanton’s posts, the majority are statements of understanding. People who have similar experiences share their support. In a moment there is a personal connection between the audience and stranger and this is the primary reason I’m so into this site. I am fascinated by the subjects and it makes me feel something real for people would never have known otherwise. It’s all made possible by the intimate conversation had by Stanton and his subjects. Each post is focused on the particular views and experiences of the individuals, yet despite its focus on the individual on a micro scale, its effects are community centric when observing the project as a whole.

There is a phrase used by early humanists, Studia humanitatis, meaning the study of humanity “which sought to define what it is to be human”(Rundle). This study of humanity later became the Humanities. You may be familiar, but the Humanities is a field of academic study of human culture. Within that discipline is anthropology, philosophy, history, literature, art. This renewed interest in humans we are talking about began to take its shape in stories. Literature, anthropology and history all attempt to communicate what life’s really like for us; how we feel, how we think and how we relate to one another. Humans of New York meets the same goal. Post after post after post, I slowly become addicted to Stanton’s instagram and after hours of reading I am emotionally drained. I’m a fairly emotional person, but I don’t think I’m the only one crying over these snapshots of life. The range of experience blows me away every time.

The project’s range is one of its key features and one that gets particular attention. Diversity is a hot topic connected to Humans of New York. Coincidentally the renaissance humanists were markedly diverse. The movement included different regions, social ranks, genders, faiths, and professions reflecting the humanists open considerations of, well, all humans (King 353). Many have complained that Stanton’s portraits are prejudice and white centric. Some complain that he depicts people of race in a way that promote stereotyping. Some say he is too concerned with depicting diversity and over emphasizes a feeling of racial and economic acceptance. Obviously there is no pleasing the comment section, but Stanton once pointed out that the answer to these concerns lies in the project’s scope. You can’t judge the whole project off of one post. It is bigger than that. Many interviewers have asked Stanton if he has a favorite story or one person that affected him more than the rest. One answer to such a question has profound implications for the value of Humans of New York and profound implications for the nature of community.

“I honestly don’t think that any four or five… Humans of New York pictures are that impressive if just taken in isolation. It’s just the scope… It’s the whole range of emotion and socioeconomics… They are trying to get me to make a calendar, but how are you going to choose 12 people to represent humanity in New York?”

Representing humanity seems to be at the heart of what Stanton is trying to accomplish. He has found a way to do this by representing the micro as authentically as he can, then piling up all of those unique and private stories to give a macro view of a community. Mirandola, our renaissance humanist, opens our eyes to how humanists viewed the individual. So much of the humanist movement celebrates the power we have as humans to choose our fate and become a higher being based entirely off of our individual choices. Mirandola and his fellow humanists were becoming as fascinated with humans as we are. “The emphasis on man is one of the few ideas— perhaps the only philosophical idea— contained in the program of the early Humanists”(Cassirer 221). They wanted to explore what we could do and glorify what we have done. With new interest in personal writing people’s lives were starting to open to the public showing their “emphasis on man” to be more that just interest in accomplishments, but interest in feelings and stories. Stanton’s collection of stories begins to build a representation of a community. His thoughts on representation, however, differ from mainstream media in an interesting way.

Representing Normalcy: Columbia Thesis

In 2013 Stanton addressed a group of students at Columbia University in a speaking series sponsored by TED talks. The ideas he presented were founded in personal experience as a guy that talks to a lot of strangers. As a photographer he notices that at a public event, reporters are gathered around the most extreme representations of that gathering of people. This means that they are gathered around the most violent or the most upset or the most flamboyant. This creates an exciting story but it doesn’t accurately represent the whole. He notices how this affects our perception of the world. If all we hear about are violent crimes, we eventually start to think that all there is on the other side of our door are violent crimes (Stanton).

Similar to Petrarch’s discovery that his philosopher hero Cicero was emotional and relatable, HONY shows relatability in strangers you live with. Stanton asserts that normalcy is prevalent and that the people on the other side of our door are probably living lives quite similar to ours. He backs up his claims with his project. Humans of New York is about fathers and pet owners and struggling real-estate agents and high school dropouts and little girls who love their mothers. It gives a broader scope of society. It looks for stories in the place where we never thought to look and gives us the information we need to ‘restore our faith in humanity’. Social media, though largely self-promotional, has a similar effect as mainstream media. Facebook and Instagram are platforms to promote the most exciting moments of our lives. If an alien came to earth without interacting with a single human being and browsed through my Facebook newsfeed they would surmise that all humans do is marry, have babies, travel, and get hired. Though these things do happen, they are the most extreme moments representing the whole of someone’s life. These are the stories we think people want to hear. Actually these are the stories we know people want to hear. If there is one thing a social media user learns, it’s how to get ‘likes’. Since the massive growth in popularity, Stanton has tested his representative power to influence perception and understanding of a community.

Humanizing Demonized Societies

In July 2015 Tim Dowling from the Guardian noticed the storytelling power Stanton had tapped into with the combination of picture and caption. “It only takes a few words to turn a stranger into a human being,” he remarked. This observation encapsulates the humanizing power of Humans of New York. Mirandolla, as he philosophized about man’s place in the universe concluded that reason is what makes us like God and reason is what brings us closer to His throne (Mirandolla). As Stanton observed in his Columbia address, modern media tends to deny humanity for the sake of a good story. He observed that media tends to gravitate towards images of violence, sexuality, and conflict (Stanton). If a society is conveyed with the intention of telling a story that will sell, we begin to believe that this society consists entirely of people without reason, at the mercy of their base urges. This portrayal can be problematic to our worldview because it alienates entire groups of people based on the choices of a few. An article written in 2004 on the media’s influence on our perceptions of foreign countries made an important observation. Through a national poll and content analysis of network newscasts they found that “the more negative coverage a nation received, the more likely respondents were to think negatively about the nation… Positive coverage of a nation had no influence in public perceptions.” The article goes on the argue something quite similar to Stanton, that the media has an agenda and filters their coverage to appease a third party and does not intending to depict reality (Wayne 1). In 2015 Stanton traveled to Pakistan and Iran, two countries where violence and conflict is prevalent, to photograph the people. A Pakistani woman interviewed by Stanton on August 11, 2015, saw how the media’s focus on the violence was effected her society.

“It seems that violence is the only lens through which ordinary people in Pakistan are viewed in the media. Even if it’s a story about a Pakistani rock band, it will be set in the context of a violent society. There’s nothing false about the perspective. Pakistan has a problem with violence. Violence is used to silence journalists, and judges, and moderate religious scholars. And it seems to be getting worse. Every time I see somebody on television speaking out in anger against extremism or corruption—I’ll say a prayer for them. And every time one of those people is murdered, those of us who aspire to be like them grow a little more afraid. So it’s not that the reports of violence are false. But they are only a small part of the truth. There’s so much other life being lived here. But there’s only so much space in international newspapers. And there’s so much news in the world. So only the most jarring stories make the cut”(Karachi).

This woman’s sentiment is echoed by geopolitical scholars. It is clear to them that Middle Eastern countries are being depicted by mainstream media “trapped in the same global system of finance, marketing images for sale to the highest bidders… perpetuating rather than challenging conventional stereotypes.” The media’s concentration on violence, the Iranian woman spoke personally about, have the power to perpetuate violence. “Images of conflict, violence, and terror, presented without historical perspective and balance, evoke irrational fears and fuel fires of vengeance and repression, further exacerbating the invisible crisis upon us” (Yahya XIV).

Stanton doesn’t seem to be on a mission to prove that Pakistan or Iran are whole societies of normal people without serious problems, simply misrepresented by the media. He does; however, seem to be on a mission to de-vilify a society by giving voice to a broader spectrum of citizens not just the violent few who make for a good story. This move to highlight the personal brings a group of people, so long portrayed as other, into a relatable light, thus rectifying the alienation. With a mindset of common humanity and stronger understanding we can deal with global issues in a more healthy way. A more human way.

Works Cited

“AMA.” Interview by Brandon Stanton. REDDIT. N.p., 2013. Web.

Eden, Kathy. “Petrarchan Hermeneutics and the Rediscovery of Intimacy.” Petrarch and the Textual Origins of Interpretation. Boston: Leiden, 2007. 232-40. Print. /books?hl =en&lr =&id=pfyvCQAAQBAJ&oi =fnd&pg=PA231&dq =familiarity+in+petrarch %27s+familiar+letters &ots=Z2D0aVKOpE&sig=g9UL32zdgxCAfjF9NkM -V3UwsuE#v=onepage &q=familiarity%20in %20petrarch’s%20familiar %20letters&f=false.

Ernst Cassirer et al., ed., The Renaissance philosophy of man: Selections in translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

Kamalipour, Yahya R. The U.S. Media and the Middle East: Image and Perception. London: Praeger, 1997. Print. .com/books ?id=f7Z_kOGlnVYC&lpg =PR11&ots=ZzG6FbWijk &dq= media% 20portrayals %20of% 20pakistan&lr &pg=PR11#v =onepage &q=media %20portrayals% 20of% 20pakistan&f=false.

“Karachi, Pakistan.” Interview by Brandon Stanton. Humans of New York. N.p., 11 Aug. 2015. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.

King, Margaret L., ed. Renaissance Humanism : An Anthology of Sources. Indianapolis, IN, USA: Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2014. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 3 December 2015.

Mirandolla, Pico Della. Oration on the Dignity of Man. 2000. MS, Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. The History Guide. 13 Apr. 2012. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

Rundle, David. “Before the Humanities, the Humanists.” History Today, Sept. 2014. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.

Stanton, Brandon. “On Portraying People in an Honest Moment | Humans of New York (HONY) Creator Brandon Stanton.” YouTube. University Collage Dublin, 24 Apr. 2014. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Stanton, Brandon. “On the Scope of His Photoblog | Humans of New York Creator Brandon Stanton.” YouTube. University Collage Dublin, 24 Apr. 2014. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Stanton, Brandon. “Brandon Stanton: The Good Story.” TEDx Columbia Collage. Columbia University, New York City. Nov. 2012. YouTube. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.

Wanta, Wayne, Guy Golan, and Cheolhan Lee. “Agenda Setting and International News: Media Influence on Public Perception of Foreign Nations.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 81.2 (2004): 364-77. SAGE Journals. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

Image Credits

  • “Friends at Lunch” @2015 Christelle Xu
  • Katie Bowman portrait @2014 Kiefer Hickman

About the Author

Katie Bowman
Katie Bowman

Katie Bowman split her adolescence between Kansas City and Toronto. She currently lives in Utah attending Brigham Young University. She is studying English and enjoys jazz, theatre, and good food.

Dehumanizing with the Swipe of a Finger

Jazmine Emerson

The Ancient Search for Perfect Traits

The renaissance court culture has many digital parallels in our culture today. One of my favorite quotes from Book of the Courtier is:

“Outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness. This loveliness, indeed, is impressed upon the body in varying degrees as a token by which the soul can be recognized for what it is, just as with trees the beauty of the blossom testifies to the goodness of the fruit.”

Only because we know how false this statement is. Someone can be beautiful on the outside, while harsh and ugly on the inside. Members of the court, the “courtiers,” were expected to be well-rounded in a variety of topics in order to contribute to the image of the monarch and political authority. This collection of “good” traits and looks parallel that of the traits that are electronically matched through dating sites. On one hand, this collection of traits was an asset to the court and is an asset to our online in relationships. However, sometimes it was and is a front. In the Renaissance, often times it was an “ideal” that was “supposedly achieved through the reputation and prestige the Courtier acquires by the display of his qualities,” much like the online display of compatible traits and good looks (Bonadeo 37). Although much of our time spent online can be good, in reaching out to people and developing healthy relationships, we risk the danger of dehumanizing ourselves and others through the superficial view of the outward appearance.


When I think of artificial appearances, I think of online profiles and some dating apps. At the beginning of the year, one of my friends recently started using Tinder, a dating app that shows a series of pictures of the opposite sex from within your area. You can anonymously “like” or “pass” on each of these pictures. Once someone you “like” likes your picture, too, then you can immediately start chatting with each other on the app.

My friend was able to score a series of dates from this app. I guess you could call it successful because one of those dates lead to a serious relationship, which eventually led to an engagement. However, many people think that Tinder is a highly superficial way of finding a partner. I mean, you connect to a person based on one picture. How reliable can that be? The ability to “like” or “pass” a person on social media has created complexity in human, physical relationships. The physical ability to interact with others has slowly declined in this age where online interaction has only increased. It seems that our reliance upon the digital world has taken away a lot of our physical capabilities in relationships.

Relationships Through a Computer

Dating sites like eHarmony, Match, etc. use a series of questions to match up singles based on their compatibility and the questions they answer on their profile. The founder of eHarmony, Dr. Neil Clark, asks members of the program 436 questions that are supposed to reveal and define your personality, traits, and characteristics. Evan Marc Katz, founder of e-Cyrano, an online profile that provides dating coaching says, “It’s about giving up control to a higher power. You’re losing freedom of choice and gaining a more focused search … It’s like being set up by your parents.”

However, being set up by parents is very different from being set up by a computer. Should we rely on a chunk of machine to find matches based on a mathematical formula? This idea inclines me to question if users of online dating are being judged and paired based on their characteristics they put online, rather than the person they really are inside. Does using an online dating method dehumanize another by degrading them to scientific compatibility? Online dating bases a match on a series of questions, on a picture, or on mathematical compatibility, which might cause us to forget the human element behind those online features.

Because of this scientific compatibility, users of social media and networking sites have caused many users to treat others as a “disposable good.” Mantel says, “[…] those same characteristics have led some to wonder whether online dating is becoming too much like online shopping, with potential dates treated as disposable goods, with an even better prospect a few mouse clicks or phone swipes away” (267). Since online dating and online interaction has made it so easy to interact with others, it has also made it easy to treat each other like another person to swipe through or another profile to look at. This digital reduction has proved to have detrimental consequences.

The Physical Disconnect

The digital reduction of a person has made it more difficult for us to develop personal and physical relationships. Research by Jesse Fox and Katie M. Warber, both PhD’s in Communication at Ohio State University and Wittenberg University (respectively), suggest that the publicity of social media take away the personal face-to-face communication. In their research they begin by saying, that “the public nature [of social media] makes it easier for individuals to share information about their romantic relationships to a wider network of people” (3). In many instances, a relationship is not established until it is “Facebook official.” However, I don’t think that a relationship and its progression should be based on a public status. A public, online status, in part, takes away the value of a relationship and its intimacy because it, in part, looks to be established through online approval. This is just one example of how a physical relationship is reduced and defined by social media and online public approval.

Similarly, continuous online or digital interaction has hindered our ability to communicate physically. There have been countless commercials expressing the idea that we need to put down our phones and enjoy the moment. Too often I find a couple at a restaurant with one or both of them on their phones instead of engaging in a deep conversation with each other. It seems that we are too preoccupied with the advances in our digital technology that we are forgetting to advance in our connection with each other.

Successful Online Relationships

Although it is true that online dating and relationships has hindered our ability to interact physically, there is also strong evidence that it is connecting us to each other more than ever before. Online dating, for example, is a successful part of modern-day courtship and has been successful in building lasting romantic relationships. Barbara Mantel, writer for CQ Researcher says experts found many positive aspects of online dating, including: “expanded pool” of potential dates, “the ability to screen for desired traits,” and, of course, the convenience of electronic communication. In fact, there has been an increase in the amount of people that use online dating and an increase in the amount of people that say online is good way to meet people (“Dating Sites Reviews”). This data suggests that not only does online interaction introduce us to new people everyday, it is also increasing our ability to appreciate other human beings by broadening our view and circle of people. Online dating is just one example of how online tools have become a viable way of finding potential partners and developing long lasting relationships. Online dating and other forms of online communication continue to be successful and show an increase in popularity.

Even Tinder, which has the most negative reputation for shallow relationships, has had success in helping others find long lasting relationships. For one instance, my friend that was mentioned in the beginning, will be marrying a girl he met on Tinder in a few months. In another example, a colleague of mine found her now long-term boyfriend on Tinder. She says,

“There are a lot of opinions floating around about online dating and I get that. It has a reputation for a reason. I try not be sensitive or defensive when people find out about the origins of my relationship. I get where they are coming from. I do know that Tinder and other such sights aren’t subverting some magical process of ‘meeting people the old-fashioned way.’ It’s an extension of that and involves the exact same elements. There are two people looking at each other, talking, deciding compatibility. It’s a tool. If you use it, it can be for your benefit. If you let it use you it will have all the negative effects people talk about”

My friend’s and my colleague’s relationships are just a few examples of how these online dating tools have worked to their benefit. Their stories show that despite its negative reputation, online dating can lead to something real and implies that other online relationships can be developed as well.

The Web of Relationships

We can make connections with people that we would have otherwise never met, reconnect with distant friends and family, and get a glimpse of someone’s personal life through their posts. Access to social media and online dating apps, has allowed us to branch out to a variety of people in unparalleled ways. Indeed, “social media provide[s] a fertile ground for the growth and maintenance of relationships, because constant interactions and dialogue are cornerstones of building any satisfying relationship” (Park and Lee 265). So, believe it or not, keeping up with that person who posts every hour on your feed is a constant interaction and stimulates growth for your relationship. Through our posts, our pictures, events, etc, we are keeping an online relationship (whether we know it or not) with other people. In that way, we maintain the value of humanity in our relationships and see the good in each others lives.

Other social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., has allowed family members to connect with distant family members, friends to connect with old friends, and get to know people they would have never met before. My grandpa has a physical disability that makes it hard for him to walk and get out of the house. So, he relies on Facebook and news sites to stay connected with family activities and the world. Every day, he checks the news in Utah, Hawaii, and Samoa so that he can get a sense of what is going on in areas that is difficult for him to travel to. In addition, he is the first to “like” every post that a family member makes, keeping him updated and informed of our social lives through social media. Although this online interaction seems secondary to physical interaction, it is a viable way to stay connected to other human beings and creates a way for us to see and value the humanism in each other.

Renaissance Connection

Despite the superficiality of the courtier culture in the Renaissance period, there is evidence that the courtier culture developed deeper connections like that of our modern day digital culture. The importance of the outward appearance of a courtier was emphasized to make relations and connections for the court. It was important for the courtier to not only look good, but be good so that they can serve the court in any way they can. Castiglione says,

“You ask me then to write what is to my thinking the form of Courtiership most befitting a gentleman who lives at the court of princes, by which he may have the ability and knowledge perfectly to serve them in every reasonable thing, winning from them favour, and praise from other men; in short, what manner of man he ought to be who may deserve to be called a perfect Courtier without flaw […]”

Through this quote we can see that the emphasis on outward appearance was focused on serving the court and winning praise from other men. In this respect, the courtiers did not just have superficial reasons for focusing on their looks. Similarly, I think that we do not just have superficial reasons for focusing on our public profile and social media pictures. Indeed there is an aspect of “winning from them favour,” but perhaps there is some elements that suggest we are trying to “serve them in every reasonable thing.”

Online dating, social media and other forms of online communication has changed our way of connecting with each other and the world. In one respect, it has hindered our ability to communicate and connect physically because we get so occupied with our mobile devices. However, we can also click and connect to places we are unable to travel to, talk to people we have not been able to reach, and meet people from halfway across the world in a few seconds. Just like the courtiers during the Renaissance, the surface level of their culture shows a superficial motive for their actions. But if we dig past the superficiality, we can see that there are deeper and more authentic reasons for their culture, and that there are deeper motives to our online culture.

Works Cited

Colleague. “Tinder Relationships.” E-mail interview. 16 Nov. 2015.

Baertlein, Lisa. “ - Dating Site EHarmony Has 436 Questions for You.” - Dating Site EHarmony Has 436 Questions for You. USA Today, 02 June 2004. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.

Bonadeo, Alfredo. “The Function and Purpose of the Courtier in The Book of the Courtier by Castiglione.” Philological Quarterly 50.1 (1971): 36-46. MLA International Biography. Web.

Castiglione, Baldassarre. The Courtier. Ed. George Bull. London: Penguin, 1976. Print.

“Dating Sites Reviews.” RSS. ESilverStrike Consulting Inc., 2013-2015. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Mantel, Barbara. “Online Dating.” CQ Researcher 25.12 (2015): n. pag. 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.

Park, Hyojung, and Hyunmin Lee. “Show Us You Are Real: The Effect of Human-Versus-Organizational Presence on Online Relationship Building Through Social Networking Sites.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 16 (2013): 265-71. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.

Image Credits

  • Tinder ⓒ2014 Brid-Aine Parnell
  • Portrait of Jazmine Emerson ⓒ2015 Jazmine Emerson

About the Author

Jazmine Emerson
Jazmine Emerson

Jazmine Emerson is a Senior at Brigham Young University studying English. She loves reading, eating, and dancing.

Virtually New Worlds

Kurt Anderson

Virtual Buildings in a Brave New World
Virtual Buildings in a Brave New World

The virtual world has grown at an astonishing rate over the past 20 years. With the advent of the internet and its widespread use, our definition of traditional communities has shifted. While this shift has many consequences, one of these is the creation of virtual worlds, whether in the context of a fantasy/sci-fi alternate reality or a life-like imitation of the Earth. Virtual worlds they may be, but the people who inhabit them are as real as you and me…the only difference being that they are equipped with the freedom to present themselves however they choose.

New Virtual Explorers

Second Life is a contemporary virtual world created by Linden Labs, first launched in 2003. The creator, Phillip Rosedale, thought in 1994 “You could simulate a world and then we could all go in there.” This was impossible with the technology of the 90’s, but at the turn of the century it became a reality, and a fascinating one at that. Initially, the business was moderately successful, but by turning over intellectual and creative copyright to the participants, it skyrocketed. People started investing a lot of time and money into their alternate lives on the internet. Companies began investing millions into virtual businesses, hoping to sell homes and commodities to the online community.

Tom Boellstorf, a social anthropologist, decided to explore this world by creating an avatar and experiencing the phenomenon first hand. He demonstrates that in a few hours he met some new friends, bought a shirt with electronic money at a shop that he flew to, then attended a wedding of an acquaintance before going to a party at a nearby club. (Boellstorf, 13-15) This all occurred within two hours of real time with people who were spread across the globe, people who had no idea who each other really were. This idea of such anonymous social gatherings may seem like a very modern concept, but its roots extend back to the Renaissance.

Masquerading Machinations

Masques and pageants were novelties reserved to the upper class in the Renaissance, usually only involving the royal court or visiting dignitaries. The concept of the pageant is that of a themed party with elaborate costumes; a masque simply adds more story, complicated dances, and anonymity. These pageants and masques combined theatrics with politics and blended lines between social and human identities. Henry VIII was especially fond of these events, throwing them for various visiting nobility or ambassadors during the English Renaissance. He himself would be the center of most of these pageants.
In May of 1515, to entertain the visiting Venetian ambassadors, Henry VIII put on a pageant based on Robin Hood and his Merry Men, with the King as Robin and the dancers as his followers (Weir, 91). There were caged birds hidden in the trees, an archery competition, and quite a lot of food. Later, masques became more vogue with the element of surprise that accompanied the anonymity of the dancers, Henry VIII or his nobles being frequent participants. This kind of interactive performance “blurs the line between performance and reality, making allegory and symbolism significantly more suggestive.” (Hull et al.) Masques were confined to the nobility, but the idea spread to the common man through many channels. Shakespeare wrote multiple plays in a sort of masque style, especially The Tempest. Frank Kermode explains that The Tempest

“has also a more general resemblance to the masque. Prospero is a masque-like presenter, …Prospero’s famous lament ‘our revels are now ended’ echoes the regret conventionally expressed at the ephemeral nature of the incredibly costly furnishings of courte masque.” (Demaray, 39)

Shakespeare also included masques in his play Henry VIII, a connection between the noble privilege of the pageantry and the universality of the common play.
Two of the most famous creators of masques, Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, were often at odds about the productions of these spectacles of pageantry. Jonson believed that the masque was an opportunity for literary expression; Jones saw it as a show of wealth and power in a political and aesthetic display. Jonson satirically attacks the opulence of Jones in his poem, “An Expostulation of Inigo Jones”:

O Showes! Showes! Mighty Showes! The Eloquence of Masques! What need of prose Or verse, or Sense t’express Immortall you? You are the Spectacles of State!

The question of decadent displays and hollow affectations carried over into the heir of the masque, the masquerade ball. Beginning in Italy (specifically, Venice) and spreading all over Europe, the masquerade ball was a public event. In these elaborate pageants, attendees wore elaborate and costly costumes, each vying to outdo the other guests, and there were often games tied into the guessing of each other’s’ identities. Although this was a pastime only for the rich nobility who could afford elegant gowns and suits of clothing, it was a sort of precursor to modern virtual realities, in that the idea of anonymous social interaction in a competitive manner was an enticing and exciting possibility. If you removed the constraints of time, money, or space, how would humanity react to form a society?

The element of anonymity in these societies is very important because it allows a person to recreate themselves. The people at these masquerade balls were generally well known, but with this new masque they could act with impunity. They could finally act however they pleased, so long as no one found out who they were. Then, they would be bound again by the rules of the society in which they lived.

Digital Masques

Today, I can go onto a site like Second Life and re-imagine myself completely. Do I want to be a skinny man, or a bulky one? Tall, dark, and handsome, or blue-eyed and blond-haired? I could even change my gender if I wanted to. I could even be a fantastical creature like a minotaur or an elf with all of the customized personalization that I want. I could be a dog or a cat or something in-between, so the definitions of humanity can start to seem a bit slippery. If I am chatting with a male dog online that is really a female woman in her 60’s, is that somehow inhuman? The possibility to redefine myself is something that far exceeds that of the masquerade ball, and that power can be inviting and frightening.

The changes I can make are somewhat limited by the size of my wallet. These games are not free, often involving a fairly small monthly fee, and furthermore many of the most visually attractive or powerful outfits or equipment cost extra. However, almost anyone can afford at least some kind of costume. The virtual interactions that we have are something like a highly advanced masquerade, where all of the participants are creating new selves. Often this leads to a competition between these avatars as to which can become the strongest, best, or most beautiful. It is a sort of social gathering where those who spend more time in the virtual world are more powerful, beautiful, and influential.

This competition may seem off-putting at first, but the rewards are tempting. While the realities of life are such that even those who deserve acclaim rarely receive it, it is easy to imagine the allure of virtual worlds. In these worlds, it does not matter how you begin your story, you can always end it as whatever you would like to be. This is not the case in the real world, although it is what some envision as the ultimate goal of humanity. Humanism in particular focuses on the idea that we are able to redefine ourselves as whatever we desire due to our free will. However, the lack of resources, opportunities, or ability often boxes people into certain roles in life. Is the freedom granted by living in a virtual world something that makes us more human or less human? Is the constant vying for attention and prestige the natural course of human events, something that is only demonstrated through these virtual worlds, or are these cravings created by the virtual worlds?

With all of the positive and negative possibilities of virtual worlds, millions upon millions of people are experimenting with this concept of virtual self creation. They are building communities composed of entirely virtual avatars in an entirely virtual world to live out the dream of what they cannot achieve in reality. Some may find it hard to understand why people would devote so much time to create a self that is ultimately only a string of data in a machine. The reason behind this may be a drive to create something aesthetically pleasing for many of these people.

In her book “My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft”, Bonnie Nardi explores the reasons that millions make characters and live in virtual worlds. She views the play of the game as an “active aesthetic experience” (Nardi, 41) that engages communities in mutual creation and recreation. This provides them with a reason to sacrifice real time to participate in something that may seem frivolous or useless in the material world. She points out that “Aesthetic experience is, then, a subjective disposition toward activity” and therefore, the participation of players in WoW or any other virtual world is what determines the aesthetic experience and pleasure of the world.

Each person in a virtual world has a different definition of what is aesthetically pleasing, and so having the freedom to create their own experience is essential to creating a virtual world. However, because some prefer virtual fighting to virtual shopping, or virtual mining to virtual dancing, there has been a drifting apart of the different communities of humanity in the arena of the virtual world.

Death of the Virtual World?

Currently, some see the virtual world as having moved on. Edward Castronova, a noted scholar of virtual worlds and their economies, was part of a blog called Terra Nova that was devoted to the topic of virtual worlds. However, in 2014 he declared its demise. He stated “We’ve seen an unbundling of the parts of virtual worlds…Perhaps virtual world designers were the latest incarnation of the utopian community builders of the 19th and earlier centuries.” He does recognize that the virtual world is not dead, only in the sense of an all-inclusive virtual world. Mark Hay, a writer for GOOD Magazine, concludes “It just wasn’t the world we thought it was half a dozen years ago. Rather than a place that would reinvent everyday life for the masses, it became a place for the gathering, manifestation, and expression of societies and ideas that might not otherwise get to exist” In this sense, the masquerade become a sort of carnival, a free-for-all place for otherwise unacceptable or marginalized societal groups. However, this is not to say that there are only a smattering of strange inhabitants in these worlds. More accurately, the worlds have fractured into different spheres catering specifically to the needs and desires of their players.

Edward Castronova summarizes this splintering of the virtual world, saying “Sociality went to Facebook. Complex heroic stories went to single-player games. Multiplayer combat went to places like DOTA and Clash of Clans. Economy games went to Farmville and the F2P clones. Virtual currency went to Bitcoin.” Although these different platforms and games have seemed to fulfill the needs of society in a variety of ways without being a completely immersive world, there is a sort of patchwork virtual world formed of the interactions of all of these worlds.

The virtual world is not dead, it is just evolved, fractured into many different shards and changing every day. New developments in technologies such as the Oculus Rift may bring us a union of these disparate factions, overlaying a new virtual mindscape over our current physical reality. The internet is currently nebulous, accessed by many but visible to few. When we create the technology that allows us to embed our digital lives into our everyday existence, a new kind of virtual world will be born. And we will be the explorers of this brave new world.

Works Cited

Bergeron, David Moore. English Civic Pageantry, 1558-1642. 1st ed. ed. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 1971. Print.

Boellstorff, Tom. “Coming of Age in Second Life.” Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2008. Web. 11/13/2015 http://press.princeton. edu/chapters /s8647.pdf

Bonnie A. Nardi. “My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft.”, 2009. Web. 11/13/2015

Ecastronova [Edward Castronova] “Making it official: RIP Terra Nova” Terra Nova. Terra Nova, Sept 25, 2014. Web. 11/13/2015

Demaray, John G. Shakespeare and the Spectacles of Strangeness. Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pa., 1998. Print.

Fitzgerald, Michael. “How I Did It: Philip Rosedale, CEO, Linden Lab” Inc. Magazine. Inc. Feb. 1, 2007. Web. 11/13/2015 .com/magazine /20070201/hidi -rosedale. html

Hay, Mark. “Second Life is Staying Alive” GOOD: A magazine for the global citizen. GOOD Worldwide Inc., March 26, 2015. Web. 11/13/2015

Image Credits

About the Author

Kurt Anderson
Kurt Anderson

Kurt Anderson is a Senior who feels like a Sophomore at Brigham Young University. He is an English major who plans to become a professor of English in some capacity. He lives in Provo, Utah for the foreseeable future.

Selfies: Is it Really Ourselves?

Jazmine Emerson

During the Renaissance period, the court played an extremely significant role in the image of the Queen. The image, in fact, seemed to supersede the inner traits of a person. In The Book of the Courtier, written by Baldassare Castiglione and published in 1528 discusses what it means to be the perfect courtier and the perfect lady. Part of being the perfect courtier, had to do with having the perfect outward appearance. He says, “Outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness. This loveliness, indeed, is impressed upon the body in varying degrees as a token by which the soul can be recognized for what it is, just as with trees the beauty of the blossom testifies to the goodness of the fruit.” This suggests that outward beauty was held at an extremely high standard, one that defines all other characteristics of a person.

However, I’m sure this wasn’t always the case during the Renaissance period, and it most certainly is not always the case now. With new technologies and advanced ways of editing our selfies and pictures, we can change the way we appear in the digital world. This new phenomenon has created a negative impact on the way we view ourselves and others in the physical world. Through editing and filtering our pictures, we are also filtering out key human aspects and creating a superficial world where image is everything.

What is a Selfie?

A popular phenomena comes to mind when I think of filtering and self image: selfies. A selfie is a picture of yourself, taken by yourself. It seems like it is just a simple picture, but it has a complex culture and language behind it. Selfies are often taken on a mobile device and can vary in angles, range, and subject. Recent inventions like the selfie stick, have made it easier to take selfies of more than one person. It is a stick that extends about 3 feet out with a secure place for your phone to be fastened at the end. There is usually a button to press while the stick is extended to take the selfie at a better angle, and therefore includes more people and a better image.

Selfies can be taken through a popular app called Instagram, where there are a variety filters to choose from. Filters are automatic adjustments that try to enhance the picture itself, either through different lighting, different colors, or a different border. There are advanced editing apps developed for the purpose of posting and editing pictures, especially selfies that make it possible for you to remove blemishes, crop pictures, and make a picture brighter in a few minutes.

These are just some of the logistics of the selfie culture, but these elements can mean a variety of things. For example, under a selfie, one can put hashtags that group pictures of the same hashtags together so that you can view them in one collection. Some popular hashtags for selfies and other images are #filter and #nofilter. Usually, pictures that are #nofilter are put on a higher pedestal because it is so beautiful, that it doesn’t need to be #filtered out to enhance its beauty. I took a picture of one of the prettiest sunsets I had ever seen in my hometown in Hawaii, and I felt inclined to say #nofilter in my post on Facebook. I felt that the beauty should be appreciated on its own merit and that it should be known that no filter was needed for the beauty of this image. My motives behind my post and use of hashtags reveal an important cultural aspect of the filtered vs. no filter selfie. Are pictures with no filter better than pictures with filters?


I saw a meme on Facebook that was making fun of filtering and photoshopping selfies. Here it is:

Aside from its comedic value, I thought about this meme for a while. What do we really look like? Are we editing and filtering so much that we can barely recognize who we really are? The complexity of having an online identity and a physical identity has created tension in our society. “Through creating and updating their profiles, teens and pre-teens conform to socially shared rules of self-presentation,” (Mascheroni et al.). Teens, pre-teens, or even those whom are actively involved in social media and social media posts are confined to “shared rules” of their online community. These rules factor into which filter we use, how much we use, and how much photoshopping we need to use on our face and thighs. We conform to these rules that take away from our real #nofilter life and turn us into a project to edit on a screen.

Changing the way we look in an image inevitably implies a dissatisfaction with our reality. A study done by Sian A. McLean et al., found that young girls who “regularly shared self-images on social media […] reported significantly higher overvaluation of shape and weight, body dissatisfaction, dietary restraint, [etc].” McLean et al. studies suggest that young girls are self conscious of the way they appear online and, therefore, feel pressured to edit themselves to feel presentable on their online profiles and for other people. For example, in the picture of my sunset, I didn’t feel inclined to edit it because it was already beautiful. In another picture, perhaps of myself, I would definitely feel inclined to use a filter because I felt that a picture of myself (that would be seen by many people) should not include blemishes. Using a filter makes me feel like the image is a little bit more presentable to my friends and followers.

Obsession with Beauty

This obsession with beauty and motive to look good for other people is not anything new. As mentioned before, in the Renaissance culture, outward beauty was seen as having an equivalent or even greater importance than inner beauty (Courtier). Like the Courtiers, we have to put on a face that will match the value of society, our culture, and their “shared rules.” McLean et al. explains it well:

“As it is well known, in his “dramaturgical” account of social interaction and its rituals, Goffman (1959) shows how, while in the presence of others, individuals engage in an
ongoing, selective self-presentation aimed at controlling the definition of the situation and the impressions made on co-present actors. Self-presentation, then, is about social rituals of “impression management” and involves learning how to deal with others’ responses and maintain expressive control by putting on a ‘face’” (McLean)

The danger of always have to put on a face, or rather to change and distort our face and appearance creates a problem of dehumanizing ourselves. Our self-presentation is reduced to an edit or a filter and we compare physical selves with an unrealistic filter. That meme has a point; if we don’t have a true idea of who we are, then how are we going to appreciate each other for their true identity? Obsession with the “perfect” image detracts from our true value and teaches us to value other things that are often idealistic and unattainable.


Although we can see the negative consequences of filters, there is an element of filtering that is good and should be sought out for. It would be wrong to think that members of the court during the Renaissance were completely superficial, just as it would be wrong to think that everyone who uses a filter is dissatisfied with themselves and use it purely to look good for other people. Members of the court were expected to look good on the outside, but for the purpose of becoming a well-rounded individual. In becoming a well-rounded individual, indeed, pushing themselves to be their best selves, they not only served the court, but they served themselves and others. Castiglione describes this situation using the knowledge of painting,

“So let it be enough to say that it is fitting for our Courtier to have knowledge of painting also, as being honourable and useful and highly prized in those times when men were of far greater worth than now they are. And if he should never derive from it other use or pleasure than the help it affords in judging the merit of statues ancient and modern, of vases, buildings, medals, cameos, intaglios, and the like, –it also enables him to appreciate the beauty of living bodies, not only as to delicacy of face but as to symmetry of all the other parts, both in men and in every other creature. Thus you see how a knowledge of painting is a source of great pleasure”

Painting (and other traits that courtiers were trained to know), made the person look good and well-rounded, but also gave him the knowledge to “appreciate the beauty of living bodies,” in other words, to appreciate other human beings and to serve them. Being learned and knowledgeable in a variety of things was not just for a superficial show in the court, but it was for personal gain and pleasure. It was a way for individuals to become their best selves and reach for a higher view.

Our Best Selfie

Like the Renaissance culture of courtiers, the selfie and filter culture is not a complete superficial show for social media. In many ways, it is a way where we, too, can reach for a higher view of ourselves and to see a better image. Filters do change the way we look, but sometimes it just enhances the picture to show a different side of a person. In many instances, a filter takes away blemishes and bad lighting so that you can focus on the person in the picture and see their value in a different light.

When I take a selfie I don’t think that I am dissatisfied with myself, but rather, that I want a good picture of myself up on social media. I want to put my best self online for all to see. Similarly, members of the court tried to be well-rounded and knowledgeable in many things to put forth their best selves and to better serve their court. Putting a filter on a picture changes the way you look, but perhaps it is for the better of yourself and others. A picture attracts attention from other people, and good-looking pictures can make them think highly of you. This positive attention can be translated into the amount of likes and positive comments you get on a picture, which in turn boosts self-esteem of the person in the picture. In a study done by Camilla During and Donna C. Jessop, they found that “participants with low self-esteem, the self-affirmation manipulation resulted in more positive attitude and intentions towards exercise.” These results show that positive self-affirmation helps boost self-esteem, and suggests that positive affirmation by others can also help boost self-esteem of others.

Show your Best Self

Of course, there are two sides (sometimes more) in the issue of the image in both selfies and the court during the Renaissance period. While we can be superficial in our obsession with beauty, there is a deeper purpose for filtering our photos and posting pictures of ourselves. In showing our best self, we attract positive attention and gain self confidence through positive comments. Although some would argue that filtered pictures look better, who’s to say that a non-filtered picture doesn’t look good, too? Sometimes the value of humanity can not be enhanced through a filter, and sometimes it can. I’ve come to the conclusion that the purpose of a selfie is to show our best selves on social media. Whether it be with a filter or not, let’s try to show that.

Works Cited

Bonadeo, Alfredo. “The Function and Purpose of the Courtier in The Book of the Courtier by Castiglione.” Philological Quarterly 50.1 (1971): 36-46. MLA International Biography. Web.

Castiglione, Baldassarre. The Courtier. Ed. George Bull. London: Penguin, 1976. Print.

During, Camilla, and Donna C. Jessop. “The Moderating Impact of Self-esteem on Self-affirmation Effects.” British Journal of Health Psychology 20.2 (2014): 274-89. PsycINFO [EBSCO]. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

Mascheroni, Giovanna, Jane Vincent, and Estefania Jimenez. “‘Girls Are Addicted to Likes so They Post Semi-naked Selfies’: Peer Mediation, Normativity and the Construction of Identity Online.” Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspaces 5th ser. 9.1 (2015): n. pag. MLA International Bibliography [EBSCO]. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

McLean, Sian A., Susan J. Paxton, Eleanor H. Wertheim, and Jennifer Masters. “Photoshopping the Selfie: Self Photo Editing and Photo Investment Are Associated with Body Dissatisfaction in Adolescent Girls.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 0th ser. 0.0 (2015): 1-9. MLA International Bibliography [EBSCO]. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Qiu, Lin, Jiahui Lu, Shanshan Yang, Weina Qu, and Tingshao Zhu. “What Does Your Selfie Say about You?” Computers in Human Behavior 52 (2015): 443-49. MLA International Bibliography [EBSCO]. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

Image Credits

  • Editing your pictures ⓒDavid Gonzales
  • Portrait of Jazmine Emerson ⓒ 2015 Jazmine Emerson

About the Author

Jazmine Emerson
Jazmine Emerson

Jazmine Emerson is a Senior at Brigham Young University studying English. She loves reading, eating, and dancing.

The Deleted Body

Ahnasariah Larsen

Deleting Bodies: Online Censorship

Iris is Jennifer Foede’s eighth child, and could probably take on Shirley Temple in contests of cuteness and popularity. Bright, sharply red-orange hair blazes in contrast to big blues eyes, and at six months old she’s already bewitching others with her smile and the way she stares through the camera, through the photo, and into your soul. Her mother, Jen, is understandably eager to share photos of Iris online; and Iris’ fans are understandably eager to see them.

Once, Jen snapped a quick shot of Iris breastfeeding. It was the look of a baby studying her mother: upturned, soul-searching eyes, blank innocence mixed with adoration, the sunlight hitting just right and lighting her red hair in a bright, burning halo. As usual, her gaze pierces; and for a moment, you catch an echo of what a mother sees, perhaps feels, as she feeds her baby.

The picture Jen shared of Iris.
The picture Jen shared of Iris.

The photo went on Facebook and gained a lot of attention from the fanbase. But to Jen’s surprise, one viewer, identity unknown, took offense and reported the picture as indecent. Jen received a notice from Facebook about the report; a day later, Facebook sent another message letting her know the picture was well within company policy. In her own words, “I tend to have thick skin, so I wasn’t hurt that it was reported. I’d say my reaction was one of incredulity because it was so clearly within the guidelines of Facebook that it was actually laughable.”

Jen is not the first to face online censorship over questions of indecency. As participants in online communities, it’s an issue we all live with. Every day.

Censorship of the Body

Most social media sites have guidelines and regulations for what is and is not appropriate to share. Images, videos, words - they have limits. Standards. Rules set in place out of consideration for the general public. The general rule is No Lewdness, which usually translates into No Sexual Language; No Pornography; Nothing meant to be Sexually Provocative; No Nudity; No Genitals. If you look up Public Indecency laws for various states in the U.S., you’ll find much the same.

I think most of us are in agreement on this one: there are certain things we really don’t want to see. Or hear. Or think about. There are aspects of life we would rather keep private, and not publicize. How often my parents sleep together? That’s their business, thank you very much.

In those cases, censorship makes sense. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the line isn’t as clear as we think it is.

The public is caught in a weird tension, at once marveling at the raw beauty of the human form and also avoiding its sexuality. The body - my body - is an integral part of my personal identity. It is a symbol of my humanity and of my beauty. That belief has sparked countless arguments over the centuries: questions of modesty and dress, questions of its representations in art, questions of its purpose, questions of abortion, questions of moral responsibility in cases of rape, questions of tattoos and piercings and cosmetics, questions of homosexual and transgender identities, questions of me. Because while my identity and my body are sacred, personal, and private elements of my existence, because while my body is mine, I am not the only one who experiences it. Throughout my life, other people will see it. They will hear it. They will touch it. They will be affected by it. It will be a part of their lives as much as it is a part of mine, and there are some parts of it they don’t want to consider.

The Body 500 Years Ago: Renaissance Humanism

But why the body? What, in this lump of carbon and water and hormones and bone and all-else, is so wonderful?

About five hundred years ago, new discoveries in technology and language fed into massive transformations and social revolutions throughout Europe. This era, the Renaissance, was an era of change: change in language, change in religion, change in politics, change in perception, change in everything. Perhaps the most pervasive change was humanism, the celebration of man.

During Medieval times, man was seen as degenerate and filthy, a maggot squirming in a rotting corpse. He was the unhappy byproduct of Adam and Eve and the Original Sin. Late in the fifteenth century, however, views began to change. Thinkers and writers, and then leaders and commoners, began to see not a maggot, but a butterfly in the making.

They saw Man as a creature of potential, someone who starts neutral, then steadily evolves toward divinity (or devolves toward beast-hood). Said John Calvin in 1536, “it is of importance to know that we were endued with reason and intelligence, in order that we might cultivate a holy and honourable life, and regard a blessed immortality as our destined aim” (211). He, and many others, firmly believed in Man’s capacity to better himself; other humanists went a step further, and argued that man was inherently noble.

These humanistic values were related both to the soul and the body: the beauty of the soul was reflected by the physical. Celebrations of beauty became celebrations of goodness and virtue. Wrote Shakespeare in regards to a handsome man, “There’s nothing ill can dwell in such a temple” (The Tempest 1.2 ln 457). He wasn’t alone in that mindset: many believed that a person’s appearance reflected their character; a beautiful person, therefore, was beautiful through and through.

The body was the vehicle and symbol of human divinity – and, thanks to social responsibility, it belonged to everyone who saw it.

Noblesse Oblige: Sharing is Caring

During the Renaissance, governments became highly competitive, both between nations and within the court. The standard they measured by? Humanism (Knecht). People of influence were expected to be morally and humanly excellent. They were gurus. Poetry, sports, music, philosophy, literature, languages, diplomacy, fashion - the best leaders were simply good at everything.

So good, in fact, that their excellence spread to those around them, like a happy infection. New courtiers were supposed to use that to their advantage: they became excellent by watching and imitating excellent people. Said Castiglione, “even as the bee in the green meadows flieth always about the grass choosing out flowers, so shall our Courtier steal this grace from them that to his seeming have it, and from each one that parcel that shall be most worthy praise” (646).

In modern language: they were like fancy sponges in tights. They absorbed the humanistic greatness of their peers, seemingly without effort, quietly, subtly, but very deliberately.

Once a courtier learned a skill, he was expected to share it - spread the love, so to speak. It was a moral obligation of their status, known as noblesse oblige. In theory, the courtier’s example would inspire and uplift others - his greatness would rub off on them - and both parties would live happier lives.

So in a sense, noblemen and courtiers did not belong entirely to themselves. They were public figures, and therefore under consideration of how their actions influenced their followers. They belonged to that influence in the sense that it governed their behavior; by extension, they belonged to the public they served.

The idea was to effect a general improvement within society. Noted Margaret King, “…they… are examining the city as a social system, in which actions taken by some groups will impact others and so affect the future of the whole organism. Social institutions and interactions, they implicitly argue, matter as much for the welfare of human society as do the political ones….” (King 70).

In short, Renaissance leaders needed not only political cunning and wit, but to also stand as epitomes of humanism; because as leaders, they were responsible for the happiness of their people.

Body Language

So let’s do some quick, simple math.

In a culture adopting humanism, what you look like is a measurement of how noble or virtuous you are. And as a leader in such a culture you’re expected to be the humanistic ideal. Which means that, as a public figure, you are also expected to look a certain way. In the Renaissance, they took this so seriously that there were bonafide laws dictating who could and could not wear what. I can’t help but think they would have loved a show like What Not To Wear.

An Italian prince of the Renaissance, Machiavelli, noted that “one change always leaves a dovetail into which another will fit” (2). The Renaissance laid the foundation for what we still believe today, especially when it comes to human value. As one scholar summarized it, “the argument for the dignity of man is… the central contribution of humanism, leading to a modern concept of human dynamism and capacity” (King 37).

Which means that today, we still have this idea that a person’s appearance matters. We’re a lot more individualistic than the Renaissance thinkers were; we believe more in self-expression and uniqueness. If I want to wear a neon-yellow banana suit, no one’s going to arrest me for it. But heaven forbid I wear my banana suit to a funeral, or a wedding. Oh the scandal.

That’s because, even though we believe in letting people have free reign with their bodies, we also believe that our appearance makes a statement. And whether we want to admit it or not, we do have rules about what outfit belongs where.

The great artist Michelangelo, who painted cathedral ceilings during the Renaissance, created one of the most familiar statues to us today: David. But when Michelangelo’s David was presented in Florence – in all his nude glory – poor David was stoned. More recently Meghan Tonjes presented an image of her clothed derriere on Instagram; it was deleted. Amber Hinds had a similar experience: while nursing her child poolside, a lifeguard asked her to relocate.

I’m not going to argue who was right, or whether these public reactions were justified. I want to draw your attention, rather, to the nature of each party’s argument.

Sensuality was not Michelangelo’s goal. He was drawing on Greek tradition and rhetoric (small genitals equal self-control) to make a statement about David’s character. But since the public didn’t see it that way – didn’t have that basis of interpretation – David was clothed in a garland.

Meghan Tonjes was making a statement on her fitness goals. “I used to be 320 pounds, so it’s important for me to share the changes my body has gone through and show other women that it’s okay to feel comfortable with themselves,” she noted. She didn’t see it as a sexual statement at all, but that’s not how it was interpreted.

Amber Hinds was being a mom. Said she, “I was caring for my baby in the best way that I know how and I was setting an example of motherhood not just for my daughters, but for every girl and young woman there. Which, when it comes down to it, that is perhaps the best reason for nursing in public in the first place.” Again, her intent was not sexual - it was maternal - but because of public conceptions, she was asked to move.

In each case, the conflict was generated by two conflicting values: the body as publicly owned, and the body as personal, private property - a conflict manifested by censorship.

Censorship Fail

On the surface, censorship is used for culling the things that might influence the community in a negative way. The very fact that it responds to those things is an acknowledgement of their influence; if they didn’t threaten the status quo, they wouldn’t be deleted from the conversation (Hartmann 7).

In reality, history has shown us that censorship is largely ineffective in that regard. Declared Milton in 1644, “this order [of censorship] avails nothing to the suppressing of scandalous, seditious, and libelious books, which were mainly intended to be suppressed;” (Milton 340). To be sure, which media we choose to experience has a profound effect on how we interpret the world. But forbidding something will not prevent its existence.

Censorship, at its true heart, is what we say about something, a declaration of our ways of thought and understanding, of the meaning we impose upon it. It’s our thesis statement responding to a public idea.

Censorship Truth

Censorship is how a person says, “I don’t like that” or “I don’t believe that” or “I don’t want to think about that, but this thing - this book, this painting, this movie, this photograph - evokes those thoughts. Make it go away.” That’s censorship on a personal level. That’s censorship in the form of putting a book down forever, or choosing not to watch horror movies.

Then there’s authoritarian censorship, when you decide, for other people, what they can and cannot experience through media. That’s where you limit profanity and nudity for your kids, and when governments write up a set of public indecency laws with fixed punishments. Or - if you’re the Catholic church a thousand years ago - you burn things.

But authoritarian censorship is always wrestling with the other big boss of the game, community censorship - when media is limited not by a fixed point of authority, but by the masses. When enough people get together with the same idea, or values, or beliefs, they have the manpower to say no to what they don’t like. There are no laws prohibiting me from wearing my neon banana suit to a wedding. But a lot of people would sure get mad at me for it - or just laugh, like my sister - or even ask me to leave; and that’s also censorship.

In all cases, censorship is a response. You present a message, and then I either let it be or remove it. In doing so, I send you a message about what I think of it.

To censor something, I must also make a claim of authority and ownership. By telling another what is and is not decent, or appropriate, or expected, I lay claim to your body and your appearance; I declare my right to decide how you can present yourself.

A Heart to Heart Conversation

And where do we present ourselves most, but online? In profile pictures and blog posts, in tweets and video-sharing, we develop a map of who we are as human beings. The internet is a goldmine of communication; communication means connection. And “…people are motivated to develop social relationships in any communication context… and in the service of this motivation they form impressions of each other on the basis of whatever information is available” (Sherman 56). That ‘available information’ amounts, more or less, to what we put on places like Facebook and Instagram.

With so much self-presentation, it’s no surprise that censorship is one of the first questions asked. In our online communities, what am I allowed to say about myself? How am I allowed to say it? I can post to Facebook that “I’m a sexy beast today!” but I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed to post a photo in the nude. The community has decided that the former is acceptable, and the picture isn’t - because they have slightly different meanings.

In simple terms, things have cultural meaning. This is partly why bodies have a visual rhetoric: we associate certain appearances with certain values or definitions.

For example, Gunter reminds us that “a thin body shape is associated with success personally, professionally and socially” (Gunter 7). And that “explanations for these different perceptions have increasingly pointed to the media” (Gunter 8). Those explanations usually point to stereotypes, too, which are widely broadcasted through the media - as though it were something out of our control. Like a brainwashing.

But our experience with widely disseminated media is not so simple. Media is not some independent entity with which we argue over rhetoric; media is what we, ourselves, produce as a community - media is a conversation between people. And censoring it is part of how we talk. It is the wrestle between the very private nature of human identity, and the simultaneous ownership of it by the community. Especially online.

Censorship: What the Eye Hath Not Heard

I know of no place more public than the internet. As a public space, who I am online is subject to community ownership - and censorship. The more public a space is, the more public my identity; the more public my identity, the more other people have a say in how I behave and present myself; the more say other people have, the more censorship is going to happen. Because censorship isn’t about morality; it’s about the conversation happening between the lines.

Works Cited

Badahur, Nina. “Why Instagram Removed This Woman’s Picture.” The Huffington Post. 20 May 2014. Web. 20 Oct 2015. http://www -instagram_n_5353804.html

Fig Leaf: The Biggest Cover-Up In History. Dir. Rosie Schellenberg. Pres. Stephen Smith. BBC, 2011. Film.

Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans. Henry Beveridge. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1845. Print.

Castiglione. “The Courtier.” Trans. Sir Thomas Hoby. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th Ed. Vol. 1. Ed. Logan and Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. Print. 646-661.

Foede, Jennifer. Email Interview. 20 November 2015.

Gunter, Barrie and Wykes, Maggie. The Media & Body Image: If Looks Could Kill. London: Sage Publications, 2005. Print.

Hinds, Amber. “Why I’m Glad Someone Told Me To Stop Breastfeeding In Public.” The Huffington Post. 14 September 2013. Web. 20 Oct 2015.

Hartmann, Johanna and Zapf, Hubert, eds. Censorship and Exile. Germany: V&R unipress, 2015. Print.

King, Margaret L. Renaissance Humanism: An Anthology of Sources. Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2014. eBook. http://site. docID=10843865

Knecht, Robert J. “The French Renaissance Court.” History Today 57.7 (July 2007): n.pag. History Today. Web. 4 October 2015.

Kuzmic, Kristina. 4 Reasons Women Should NEVER Breastfeed in Public. YouTube. 24 June 2015. Web. 24 October 2015. https://www. LURZqBig734

Löser, Freimut. “Resisting Censorship: Cases of the Early Fourteenth Century.” Censorship and Exile. Ed. Hartmann, Johanna and Zapf, Hubert. Germany: V&R unipress, 2015. Print.

Machiavelli, Niccoló. The Prince. Trans. N. H. Thomson. Ed. Philip Smith. Dover Publications, Inc.: New York (1992). Print.

Milton, John. “Areopagitica.” Milton’s Selected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jason P. Rosenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. Print. 333-380

Roche, Andrea T., MS, RD; Owen, Kimberly B., MS; and Fung, Teresa T., ScD, RD. “Opinions Toward Breastfeeding in Public and Appropriate Duration.” ICAN: Infant, Child & Adolescent Nutrition. 7.1 (2015): 44-53. SAGE journals. Web. 20 October 2015.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan. Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare: London (2014). Print.

Sherman, Richard C. “The Mind’s Eye in Cyberspace: Online Perceptions of Self and Others.” Towards Cyberpsychology: Mind, Cognition, and Society in the Internet Age. Ed. G. Rive and C. Galimberti. IOS Press, 2001. 53-70. Web.

Thye, Shane R. and Lawler, Edward J. Social Identification in Groups. Amsterdam: Elsevier JAI, 2005. eBook.

Image Credits

  • Iris by Jennifer Foede, © Jennifer Foede. Used with permission.
  • “Woman” by Geralt. Taken from Pixabay. / CC BY

About the Author

This is my face.
This is my face.

Currently studying English at Brigham Young University, Ahnasariah Larsen aspires to a career in creative writing and someday learning to bake. She loves making difficult arguments, playing devil’s advocate and watching toddlers use logic.

The Powers That Be Not

Rivaling the social disruption of the Black Plague, our digital renaissance is changing the fundamentals of our society. Though not lethal, it is indifferent to hierarchy and can wipe out social structures that seem inseparable from our worldview. The ‘powers that be’ like the government, the educational system, and our major food corporations are being affected by the open flow of information. Disruptive innovation is the anthem of our times. These major establishments are discovering that they can’t stop the change. Our values are changing, our communication is changing, our minds are changing, and society must adapt or die. The effects of this push to create and to rejuvenate are both positive and negative depending on if you are the powers that be, or the powers that be no longer.

Behind Government Reformation in the Age of WikiLeaks

Doridé Uvaldo-Nelson

Often, as I’ve written essays or articles for classes, I’ve wondered how anyone ever wrote anything educated and well researched before the Internet. I know it required a lot of actual physical access to a library, and possibly a lot of manual copy and paste (AKA handwritten transcription). But, the Internet has only existed for as long as I’ve been alive ( staff), and in this short span of time it has revolutionized the most traditional and trusted sources of information, such as academia, encyclopedias and the media, but most specifically journalism.

Journalism has often branded itself as a sort of “watchdog” for society, the source that keeps its eyes and ears open for the public’s sake. Yet, defining who and what constitutes a journalist is often a question of heated debate. Anyone who investigates and writes about an issue could be considered a journalist, but there seems to be “prerequisites,” if you will, in order to truly be worthy of the title. At least this used to be the case until the Internet came around.

As our access to information and technology has increased, journalism—or perhaps the press—as an institution has been met with an interesting challenge of power. Whereas the press has often sought to challenge and keep a check on the power of government and political entities (earning itself the label of the “fourth branch of government”), citizen journalism, blogs, and major sites like WikiLeaks are now challenging the challenger.

Looking at the phenomena of WikiLeaks specifically can help us to better understand the complicated relationship between old journalism, new journalism, and the government.

Wiki What??

If you’re anything like me, the first time you heard of WikiLeaks you probably thought it was a sister site of Wikipedia, maybe some sort of top secret encyclopedia judging by the media’s headlines. However, the word “wiki” isn’t a brand or a trademark name, it’s simply a digital term used to describe a website that allows others to edit, contribute, and collaborate through a web browser. It’s not uncommon to find “fandoms” that use the wiki medium as a way to create a communal source for background and history on characters, episodes, or events related to their interest.

Indeed, the wiki medium is often a great way to find leads to do academic research and inquiry because, similar to Wikipedia, most wikis encourage their users to include citations and links back to their sources of information.

So if wikis are open to all and understood to be informational, what is it about WikiLeaks in particular that has made it so notoriously famous?

A Quick WikiLeak Tutorial

Before we can explore the implications and purposes of WikiLeaks in our modern day society, it’s essential to have some background on the history of WikiLeaks and have a basic understanding of how WikiLeaks works.

WikiLeaks was created in 2006 but their site claims it was launched in 2007. The site considers itself a not-for-profit organization and runs primarily on donations and it was first created on a volunteer basis. It’s founder and head is Julian Assange, an Australian journalist who full-heartedly believes in informational transparency, particularly when it comes to government. This means that he believes government should make the most sensitive and/or benign documents on political affairs open to the public.

Historically, information has often been withheld from the average citizens under the premise that due to the sensitivity of the subject or event, things must be kept under wraps until the time is right. While this is sometimes justifiable, such as dire war times, it’s also been used questionably to hide dishonest or illegal political moves. For Assange this is highly problematic and hence WikiLeaks was born.

The way WikiLeaks works can be compared to an anonymous mailing system. Journalists, reporters, or any anonymous source, can deposit information into the site’s dropbox with the promise that their identity will never be revealed. Which is an interesting paradox considering Assange’s deep-rooted belief in informational transparency.

However, the documents aren’t just made available in a Project Gutenberg format; they aren’t merely filed away without providing context or significance. The process of the WikiLeak is described as follows: “When information comes in, our journalists analyse the material, verify it and write a news piece about it describing its significance to society. We then publish both the news story and the original material in order to enable readers to analyse the story in the context of the original source material themselves.” Often, these journalists are crowd sourced and any person willing to review the site’s dropbox can contribute to the publication. There is neither an interview process nor a resume required to join in on the interpretation and presentation of these leaked documents.

There is a demand for thought and accountability that WikiLeaks wants the public to engage in—and it’s working. This perhaps is what’s made WikiLeaks such a formidable and fascinating source of information. After all, isn’t notorious just another word for the formidable and fascinating in society?

A Difference of Expression

There’s an unspoken word in the WikiLeaks mission that is left for the public and readers to guess at, but I would say it’s fair to assume that word is reformation, which isn’t a new or revolutionary idea if you consider that reformations have existed since human beings had their own agency. Yet, in many ways this movement is specifically reminiscent of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century that began when Martin Luther nailed his manifesto, The 95 Theses, to the door of the Catholic Church.

The opening lines to Luther’s Theses read, “Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther… intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place” (Luther). It was out of love for truth that Luther dared to dispute the practices of the Catholic Church at the time, likewise most journalists would agree that they share a similar sentiment when it comes to investigating corporations, governments, or politicians: they do it for the love of the truth.

For Assange, a similar love for truth—and I would add transparency—fuels his WikiLeaks platform, but despite this common interest, well-known news outlets have disavowed the site under the allegation that it lacks responsibility in its conduct. In a study conducted by Hindman and Thomas that analyzed traditional newspapers’ initial reaction to WikiLeaks, it was found that:

US newspaper editorials reinforced the distinction between old and new media by emphasizing the lack of discretion on the part of WikiLeaks. The contrast drawn here was between traditional journalism’s emphasis on discretion, responsibility, and good judgment and WikiLeaks’ aggressive, devil-may-care approach to the mass communication of information. In drawing such a contrast, the editorials positioned old media as the true stewards of the public interest, with WikiLeaks and its operatives lacking the values and ethics necessary to belong in the journalistic community.

The rejection of WikiLeaks by traditional journalism for doing what could be described as airing dirty laundry comes from a difference of opinion on how much the public really wants and deserves to know.

The total accessibility and transparency WikiLeaks has imposed on international governments by exposing original documents and sources to the public, has been compared to The Pentagon Papers before, but old journalism has opposed this comparison claiming that those documents were carefully vetted by journalists to give the public the right amount of information without placing an entire nation under any security threat. This is perhaps is the most powerful criticism old journalism has against WikiLeaks, that by failing to filter its documents and promising anonymity to the source, it has the potential to carelessly endanger nations as well as its people.

And while it may seem unlikely that old journalism will join WikiLeaks in nailing private information to the government’s front door a la Martin Luther in the 16th century, Hindman and Thomas found that old journalism nevertheless defends its right to republish the information disclosed to the public while still questioning WikiLeaks’ methodology. Which begs the question: If it’s not a matter of national security or confidentiality, then what makes WikiLeaks so… troublesome to traditional journalism?

Checks and Balances 2.0

In April 2011 Julian Assange wrote an essay for the NewStatesman where he compared his work with WikiLeaks to the mission of the printing presses of the 1600s in Civil War torn England. The essay was titled “What’s New About WikiLeaks?” which was an artful and intentional misnomer of a title because the point really was that there is nothing overtly new about the platform.

For Assange, WikiLeaks simply follows the tradition of the media and the printing press: “In the long view of history, WikiLeaks is part of an honourable tradition that expands the scope of freedom by trying to lay “all the mysteries and secrets of government” before the public” (Assange, np). This idea of laying out “all the mysteries and secrets of the government” comes from a man named Clement Walker who opposed the New Model Army during the English Civil War for what he believed to be radical tactics. These radical tactics or beliefs were founded in a questioning of the aristocratic society of England as a ruling class. It was during this time that the Crown was overthrown and the commonwealth established in England.

Just like printing presses would publish authors who questioned the authority of the time and defied the tactics of government, likewise WikiLeaks attempts to do the same with their publication of the government’s “mysteries” and “secrets.” However, because print media was still barely developing there wasn’t an established tradition of journalism or reporting when it came to covering stories about the government’s “mysteries and secrets.”

Yet in an earlier essay written in April 2008 for Guernica magazine, Assange expressed disapproval for what the modern press has become: an economic entity that publishes based on profit rather than interest and truth. Assange believes that, “Print media, including Internet media, should not be looked at as a content production industry, but rather, as a lobby-selection industry, which balances production subsidies with reader interest.” Over time, journalism became an established institution full of rules and at times exclusive, and currently WikiLeaks’ democratization of political information calls into question if maybe the “watchdog” needs a watchdog of its own. It’s a classic example of the checks and balance system that’s at the core of American democracy.

A Watchdog Tradition

WikiLeaks continues to promotes itself as a flag-bearer of truth in media, in fact their own page states that, “A healthy, vibrant and inquisitive journalistic media” is essential to creating a better society for people, a stronger democracy, and a reduction of corruption in government and journalistic entities. The press has been revolutionized by WikiLeaks and it will continue to do so, and who knows, a lineage of watchdogs may emerge over the next few years because if there’s anything traditional media and the government are learning in this digital age is that the truth cannot be monopolized.

Works Cited

Assange, Julian. “What’s New about WikiLeaks?” New Statesman New Statesman, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

Hindman, E. B., and R. J. Thomas. “When Old and New Media Collide: The Case of WikiLeaks.” New Media & Society 16.4 (2013): 541-58. SAGE. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

Luther, Martin. “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Internet Christian Library. Project Wittenberg, n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

McNair, Brian. “Wikileaks, Journalism and the Consequences Of Chaos.” Media International Australia (8/1/07-Current.144 (2012): 77-86. EBSCO. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

“Submit Documents to WikiLeaks.” About. Sunshine Press, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2015. Werrell, R. S. “William Tyndale.” The Expository Times 126.5 (2015): 209-20. SAGE. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.

Zajacz, R. “WikiLeaks and the Problem of Anonymity: A Network Control Perspective.” Media, Culture & Society 35.4 (2013): 489-505. SAGE. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

“WikiLeaks.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

Image Credits

  • Pixaby Public Domain Photo
  • ⓒ 2015 Doridé Uvaldo-Nelson

About the Author

Doridé Uvaldo-Nelson
Doridé Uvaldo-Nelson

Doridé is a student at Brigham Young University. She is majoring in English and minoring in Women’s Studies and plans on graduating December 2015. Her work has previously appeared in Salt Lake Magazine and Insight, the BYU Honors magazine.

K-12: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic … and Coding?

Isaac Lyman

Mayor Bloomberg of NY makes his pledge.
Mayor Bloomberg of NY makes his pledge.

What’s Your URL?

In the mid-2000s, when my wife was in middle school, her friend Bryan asked her a really odd question: “Don’t you have a website?” He might as well have been asking if she had a television. She was embarrassed to answer that she didn’t. He graciously took her under his wing and made her a website (the URL was something like with a picture of a dinosaur and the declaration that she was awesome. He firmly believed that anybody who was anybody had their own website.

Fast forward a decade and it seems like Bryan was a teenaged prophet. The following types of people are expected to have personal websites: fiction authors, journalists, web developers, CEOs, fashion designers, painters, public relations agents, and many others. If a business doesn’t have a website, it might as well not exist as far as this generation is concerned. And the land-grab for domains has had an effect: when I bought the domain in 2011, I was still ahead of the curve, but now, getting a domain with your own name on it can be difficult.

If you’re lucky enough to find a good domain name, the hardest part is still ahead. What are you going to put on it? You have three choices: you can spend upwards of $1,000 on a web designer, you can use a template (if you don’t mind being a brick in the wall) or you can hack a site together yourself. The last option is a rabbit hole down which many of us have crawled, and we’ve found that the Internet is a sprawling metropolis of free web programming tutorials. Everything you could possibly learn about the subject in college, plus a little, is available to anyone with a web browser and some basic Google-fu.

I built the first version of my website in a couple of months during my down-time at work. I started from scratch; I had done a little coding in high school, but I quickly discovered that it didn’t amount to much. I had to learn everything on the spot. Luckily, I found two excellent websites that explained everything really well and didn’t even ask me for my email address in return, let alone a subscription fee. Fast-forward five years and I have a career in web development, all because of a curious hobby I started as a college freshman. My salary and benefits are competitive, job security is rock-solid, technical recruiters from around the country are desperate to talk to me, and I don’t even have a degree in computer science. You could say it worked out.


Computer programmers (also known as “software developers”) are among the most highly sought-after and highly paid professionals in the world right now. In 2012, out of a US population of about 314 million, there were over one million software development jobs to go around as well as another half a million in closely related fields–and the demand has skyrocketed since then (“U.S. and World Population,” “Software Developers”). A quick look at your local job board will reveal that anyone with experience in Java or Swift can live wherever they want and command a decent salary.

Unemployment among programmers is practically nonexistent. And the trend is drawing attention. Companies like Google, Microsoft and Adobe are joining heads to figure out how to persuade society to produce more programmers. One effort is called “Hour of Code,” an annual event hosted in over 180 countries where tens of millions of kids, teens, and adults–even Presidents of the United States–gather to take a free one-hour coding tutorial (“The Hour of Code”). The objective: drag and drop a few blocks of code in the right order so that Elsa from the movie Frozen can skate in a circle, or so an Angry Bird can squash a nefarious pig, or so a dungeon-crawling warrior will slash a monster.

These tutorials tend to get people excited. Programming seems so easy. Many of them take it up as a lifelong hobby, and some end up doing it as a career. Among the hordes of people drawn in by this event are Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, and Barack Obama, President of the United States. Yes, you read that right: President Obama himself visited an Hour of Code, accepted a branded baseball cap, sat in front of a computer and typed the code “moveForward(100);” to help Elsa to finish drawing a square (Partovi). Then he gave a fist bump to the little girl helping him with the tutorial and went on his way.

Meanwhile, the Internet’s collective brow began to furl. With so many important people making token gestures toward the importance of code, people couldn’t help but start thinking of the wider possibilities. Social media influencers began to posit a revolutionary idea: that everyone should learn to code. Plumbers, doctors, kindergarten children, liberal arts majors, and, of course, politicians included.

Programming skills, some say, are the new literacy.

Coding is the New Latin

Renaissance gurus should hear echoes of something familiar in this trend. No, there was no computer programming in the Renaissance. Electricity was still a long way off. But there were a few forgotten texts in obscure languages going around, languages that were as strange and difficult for 16th-century Italians as the C++ programming language is to us. Some of them were intrigued by these texts and nurtured an obsession. Scholars like Petrarch and Lorenzo Valla turned Italian libraries upside down to find Latin texts, and began to proclaim that learning Latin was essential to a modern education. Academics throughout Europe taught themselves Latin as a way to develop self-discipline and rhetorical skills, and encouraged others to do the same.

The Western world complied. By the time Shakespeare was a boy, Latin memorization and recitation were part of the common core: “To know Latin was essential for a university education and major effort was devoted to learning it,” and Latin memorization and recitation were staples of earlier education as well (Perreiah 127). Students would spend days memorizing, translating and reciting passages from Cicero and Virgil, and this skill commanded an excellent price: the most sought-after and highly-paid teachers in Italian schools were those that taught Latin (Black 35). Scholars refer to the generation produced by this practice as a “Latin-reading public” (Van der Poel 472). Did anyone speak Latin on the street? No. Were Latin translators in high demand on the job market? Probably not. But anyone who considered themselves “literate” had to be able to read Latin, and this trend continued for centuries. In fact, though the practice seems to be dying out, a small percentage of British schools still present their students for Latin examinations (“History in the Media”).

Why the excitement? Classical Latin had been dead for hundreds of years by the time Valla arrived on the scene. But Latin presented something he thought was worthwhile. It wasn’t just a language; it was a more perfect way of expressing oneself, a way of thinking, a set of values. Latin had flexibility and rhetorical possibilities that Italian, despite being a close descendant, didn’t have. It was emphatic and beautiful.

This is the way programmers think about code. It’s expressive and even poetic. It teaches the values of cleanliness and logic. It requires the author to think on a different level.

Transferable Skills

The programming trend carries “computational thinking”–methodical, compartmentalized, step-by-step problem solving–as its banner. Most kids won’t grow up to write code as a profession or a hobby, yet society is beginning to understand that programming offers essential, universal skills: the ability to speak a strange language that few understand, to think in a different way, to put biases aside and solve the world’s problems.

Some have taken up arms against the coding-as-literacy trend: “if the mayor of New York City actually needs to sling JavaScript code to do his job, something is deeply, horribly, terribly wrong with politics in the state of New York” (Atwood). He’s got a point. Mayor Bloomberg is obviously paid too much and has too many responsibilities to be hacking his evenings away on a laptop in the basement. Atwood mocks the movement by imagining a world where the trendiest skill is plumbing: would we suggest that surgeons, paramedics, and even kindergarten kids learn how to run pipes?

There’s another way to look at it: “This [a programmer’s] kind of thinking helps me in everything I do in life” (Stein). Logical thinking, problem solving, failure prediction and other skills are inherent in programming, Stein indicates. It’s not about knowing how to write “moveForward(100)”. It’s about knowing how to solve problems methodically.

It’s true that thinking like a programmer grants a number of unique insights. Maybe you can teach your dog to roll over, but can you program a robot dog to roll over? Once you understand all the commands and algorithms involved, that’s when you truly understand the process. Can you write a program that organizes activists or tests a product? Maybe you don’t need to, but you do need to know how to think through the details, which is the first step in writing a software application. Whether or not they know C++, people who can accurately name all the steps between an idea and a product are valuable to every organization.

America is going ahead with the effort to teach coding. Several schools are promoting computer science courses in a big way. The programmer’s method can’t help but spread as people talk and grow together, and its influence will be widely felt. Just as Renaissance students became a nation of Latin-speakers (even though few could speak Latin), we are poised to become a nation of programmers (even if few actually write code). What will this yield?

I imagine a future where neurons run like circuits, a world where each of us thinks through problems the way a coder thinks through software architecture. Computers will have taught us many things: how to say what we mean, how to think logically, how to see everyone as equals. The coding-as-literacy movement may not lead to Utopia, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Works Cited

Atwood, Jeff. “Please Don’t Learn to Code.” Coding Horror: Programming and Human Factors. Coding Horror, 15 May 2012. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.

Black, Robert. Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy: Tradition and Innovation in Latin Schools from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century. Port Chester, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2001. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 November 2015.

“History in the Media.” History Today 57.3 (2007): 9. Points of View Reference Center. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

“The Hour of Code Is Coming.” Hour of Code., n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.

Partovi, Hadi. “What Program Did Obama Write To Kick Off Hour Of Code 2014?” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 10 Dec. 2014. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.

Perreiah, Alan R. Renaissance Truths: Humanism Scholasticism and the Search for a Perfect Language. Farnham, GBR: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2014. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 November 2015.

“Software Developers.” Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8 Jan. 2014. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.

Stein, Benjamin. “Look, I Love Programming. I Also Believe…” Benjamin Pro. Benjamin Stein, n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.

“U.S. and World Population Clock.” U.S. Department of Commerce, n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.

Van der Poel, Marc. “The Latin Declamatio in Renaissance Humanism”. The Sixteenth Century Journal 20.3 (1989): 471–478. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

Image Credits

About the Author

Isaac Lyman
Isaac Lyman

Isaac Lyman is a senior-year English student at Brigham Young University and an avid computer programmer. He and his wife live in Utah in between vacations to New York City.

Agricultural Regression, Food Revolution

Katie Bowman

Industrial agriculture born from the Industrial Revolution changed one of the most fundamental elements of existence, food! If you are anything like me it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that without food… we would die. There are two domestic fields that have always interested me, cooking and gardening. Cooking appeals because I like to eat good food and it’s cheaper and more impressive if I can make it myself. Gardening appeals to me as a sign of power and competence. I had a childhood friend who was required to work in the family garden each weekend. I would visit and watch his mother kneeling between rows of squash plants as she grew her family’s food. It was special to eat what came from that garden. I had so much respect for that woman and her ability to command nature into the perfect loaf of zucchini bread. My interests have yet to turned to skills. I am still determined to master the garden and the kitchen, but for now the grocery store and its pasta aisle is just too convenient. Industrial agriculture and its conveniences are hard to pass up. The joy of industrial agriculture is the boom in quantity and accessibility of produce. Thanks to these agriculturalists I can have strawberries in the winter, spaghetti squash in the spring and tuna sushi for days. The implications of this freedom however, began to dawn on a group of people in the 70’s and the sustainable agriculture movement was born.

Petrarch and Dan Barber

Dan Barber is a man with a passion for food. He was raised on a family farm and spent his childhood working closely with nature. As a young man he slowly became disinterested in his studies and more and more interested cuisine. With a focus and passion some might term obsession, he fought his way into prestigious kitchens and ultimately established a prestigious kitchen of his own.

Over 600 years before Barber was even eating solid food, a man with very different interests, but very similar philosophies, took to the library. Petrarch was a scholar with an unusual passion for ancient scholarly texts. In his study he began to read the forgotten texts of Cicero, an ancient roman philosopher, and made a monumental discovery. He was reading all of this ancient Latin and realized he and his society were barely speaking Latin at all. Latin had changed so much they were practically speaking what we would recognize as modern Italian. Though it took a lot of study and deciphering, Petrarch started to make sense of the old Latin and saw its superiority. “Classical Latin was saturated with a different outlook: it was logical, tough, muscular, laconic” in a way the current Latin was not. It was more powerful. You could simply say more and say it more persuasively. Petrarch and his fellow humanists rejected the flexible and often abstract Latin of their predecessors as “barbaric and paid little attention to the ideas that [they] conveyed. Instead, they drank in the linguistic vapors of the classical age”(King 2). This rediscovery of Latin and a growing group of passionate linguists started an important movement for the Renaissance known as Ad Fontes, or return to the fountain.

As Barber immersed himself more and more in the science of food he began to see more clearly the state of the world’s agricultural system. The discoveries he was making on his own farm, a symbiotic space where each life form contributes and sustains its fellow life forms to reach a utopian stasis of sustainability, were revolutionary in comparison to his society’s accepted mode of agriculture that was slowly weakening itself. In a speech Barber gave for Ted Talks he made a call to return to the fountain.

“We need to adopt a new conception of agriculture. One in which we stop treating the planet as if it were some kind of business in liquidation. And stop degrading resources under the guise of cheap food… Mega farms, feedlots, chemical amendments, long distance travel, food processing is an insult to history. It’s an insult to the basic laws of nature and biology. It is rooted in extraction. Take more, sell more, waste more. And for the future it won’t serve us”(Barber).

His vision for the future of agriculture is a vision of the past. In a letter by Petrarch written to his ancient partner in classical Latin, Cicero, he writes of his frustration with the current state of Language, “Trust me, Cicero, if you were to hear of our condition to-day you would be moved to tears, in whatever circle of heaven above, or Erebus below, you may be dwelling”(Petrarch). Barber similarly laments, “The motivation of modern agriculture- more people more cheaply – the justification, the business plan. A business plan that is eroding the ecological capital that makes its very production possible”(Barber). Both men see the power in their antiquated practices and desire to change the status quo. Their ideas, however, disrupt society in a way that makes the realization of their visions practically impossible. One major reason for this is education. For Petrarch, this is obvious. He, as a member of the educated elite, had great difficulty deciphering and mastering the classical Latin (King). Asking others to get on his level would have been a matter of specific education and training. Barber’s thoughts, though simpler to grasp also require a level of commitment and education that cuts against a few core elements of society, most importantly economy, making his vision deeply problematic to realize.

Food Fad

For anyone who has ever heard of a Whole Foods or patronized a local boutique restaurant you might think I am behind the times. Information on sustainability is everywhere; in fact the idea is quite popular. Today, almost 80 percent of Americans say sustainability is a priority when purchasing food (Barber). Obviously the word has gotten out and passion for environmentally friendly food is hot.

Awareness of the sustainable food advocates plight is growing and it is growing faster than ever before. This is largely due to the boom in digitally accessible information organic food activists of the 70s could only dream of. As users of the Internet and social media, we know how efficiently we are communicating these days. Actually, if you are reading this book, we are all experiencing the digital miracle of virtually unlimited information due to online publishing. The word is getting out and people are caring. The nature in which the sustainable foodies message is getting out there, however, doesn’t necessarily guarantee that all those caring people are going know what to do with their new passion for farmers markets.

The process by which farm-to-table values have become widely recognized, even viral, had physical beginnings. Whole Foods, and stores like it, opened up the enjoyment of and dedication to local produce from its small beginnings in Co-ops and farmers markets (Clark 149). With a store offering city dwellers access to farm fresh veggies, ideas caught on and interest grew. With interest inspired by a righteous cause for social responsibility the ideas of an elite, educated few spread to inspire 80 percent of America. This kind of information is akin to the viral events we experience every day. The idea of something going ‘viral’ is not new. With newspapers and word of mouth events like the arrest of Rosa Parks reached the majority of Black Americans within three days (Nehon). The Internet, however, turned that three days into three hours. We call it viral because the information catches like a virus. One informant spreading it to a host of others who then inform a host of others until we are all brought up to speed on the latest cat video.

Viral events are a naturally occurring, emergent phenomenon facilitated by the interwoven collection of websites that allow users to host and share content (YouTube, Instagram, Flickr), connect with friends and people with similar interests (Facebook, Twitter), and share their knowledge (Wikipedia, blogs)… In this new information ecosystem, an individual can share information that can flash across our digitally supported social networks with a speed and reach never before available to the vast majority of people. It can go viral (Nehon).

So farm-to-table has experienced rapid growth as Internet facilitated conversation spreads. My friend started Instagramming photos of fruit from a local produce stand. These gorgeous photos gave me peach envy and boom I started frequenting the local produce stand as well. I watched a Netflix documentary. I read an article. I watched another Netflix documentary and now I’m interested. That is, however, where my education has stopped. I am like Petrarch’s marginally intelligent neighbor that came to a dinner party and left slightly more aware of my ignorance and wishing I could speak Latin like that guy. If someone asked me if sustainability were important to me when I buy my food I would say, absolutely! I want to buy beautiful, locally grown peaches. I want to buy humanely raised animal byproducts, but changing the way I shop and eat is another story entirely and I am not alone.

I was talking with my father, an accomplished businessman with a knack for marketing, about this idea and he made a useful observation. Proofs that this movement towards sustainable eating has truly caught hold lies in marketing. It’s a simple enough idea. Places like Whole Foods and Chipotle saw a need. People want to eat well and eat responsibly (it makes you feel good on so many levels). So they built their business and succeeded by filling that need. Meanwhile the rest of the world is losing business to these people. They do market research that shows them the statistic that 80 percent of Americans say sustainability is a priority when purchasing food and realize that their products are losing value. So they start playing the game too. McDonald launches their “Farm-to-Fork” campaign (Kummer). Regional grocery store chains like Smiths start supplying organic and local produce. Restaurants provide the history of their ingredients to attract and appease thoughtful eaters. Business follows the money and people are clearly spending their money on sustainable whole foods.

The Problem

Thus it begs the question, why isn’t the Farm-to-table love changing anything about American agriculture? In an article for the New York Times, Barber lays out the issue.

“More than a decade into the movement, the promise has fallen short. For all its successes, farm-to-table has not, in any fundamental way, reworked the economic and political forces that dictate how our food is grown and raised. Big Food is getting bigger, not smaller. In the last five years, we’ve lost nearly 100,000 farms (mostly midsize ones). Today, 1.1 percent of farms in the United States account for nearly 45 percent of farm revenues. Despite being farm-to-table’s favorite targets, corn and soy account for more than 50 percent of our harvested acres for the first time ever. Between 2006 and 2011, over a million acres of native prairie were plowed up in the so-called Western Corn Belt to make way for these two crops, the most rapid loss of grasslands since we started using tractors to bust sod on the Great Plains in the 1920s… How do we make sense of this odd duality: a food revolution on one hand, an entrenched status quo on the other?”(Barber)

Like Petrarch, I think he is facing an issue of education and the reality of viral information. “They say that in most situations, viral events “do not succeed because of a few highly influential individuals influencing everyone else but rather on account of a critical mass of easily influenced individuals influencing other easy-to-influence people”(Nehon). I do not mean to call us sheep. Maybe we are and maybe we are just busy people who don’t have degrees in biology or spend much time on farms, but it is obvious that we can’t treat sustainable agriculture like industrial agriculture. The heart of the Farm-to-table movement isn’t in the heirloom tomatoes; it’s in the farming. Serious, fundamental changes to our economy and culture will have to happen to make a dent in the power behind industrial agriculture. That means I need lot more education before I save the world with my impassioned dinner party speech built from second hand information. We can’t focus on the product of returning to the fountain of family farms, we have to focus on the process of returning to that fountain. We all have to go back to the source in order for the food revolution to take lasting hold.

Works Cited

Barber, Dan. “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong.” The New York Times. N.p., 17 May 2014. Web.

Barber, Dan. “Dan Barber’s Foie Gras Parable.” TEDTalks: Chew On This. Netflix. Web. 3 Sept. 2015.

Clark, L.F.. Changing Politics of Organic Food in North America. Cheltenham, Glos, GBR: Edward Elgar, 2015. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 3 December 2015.

Kummer, Corby. “Is It Time to Table Farm-to-Table?” Vanity Fair. N.p., 31 May 2015. Web. 04 Nov. 2015.

Nahon, Karine, and Jeff Hemsley. Going Viral. Cambridge: Polity, 2013. Print.

Petrarch, Francis. To Homer. 1895. MS, Familiar Letters. Putnam. Hanover Historical Texts Project. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.

Petrarch, Francis. “To Marcus Tullius Cicero.” 1898. MS, Familiar Letters. Putnam. Hanover Historical Texts Project. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.

Image Credits

  • “Turnip” @ Imagebasket Public Domain Photo
  • Katie Bowman portrait @ Kiefer Hickman

About the Author

Katie Bowman
Katie Bowman

Katie Bowman split her adolescence between Kansas City and Toronto. She currently lives in Utah attending Brigham Young University. She is studying English and enjoys jazz, theatre, and good food.