Information Technology

Pulse podcast features interview about AEFIS, assessment management platform


This month's episode of the Pulse podcast features an Interview with Mustafa Sualp, CEO and founder of AEFIS, an assessment management platform.

In the discussion with Pulse host Rodney B. Murray, Sualp describes AEFIS's tools -- syllabus management and course evaluations, among others -- and the problems they are designed to solve for institutions.

The Pulse is Inside Higher Ed’s monthly technology podcast. Murray is executive director of the office of academic technology at University of the Sciences.

Ways to operate more thoughtfully in cyberspace (essay)


Maria Shine Stewart gives advice on how to avoid imploding on the Net.

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Colleges voice concern over planned net neutrality rollback

The creation of internet fast lanes could come at a high cost to higher education, experts on technology and learning warn.

Essay on how coding boot camps are an add-on to a college degree

So-called “coding boot camps” are often pitched as an alternative to four-year degree programs. Yet new research suggests this is more often not the case and that such boot camp programs are increasingly acting as an auxiliary to college degrees.

Coding schools have seen tremendous growth over the past three years (up by 64 percent according to the 2016 analysis by Course Report). The schools offer brief (10-14 week), intense curricula and promise considerable salaries for their graduates (ranging from $50,000 to over $100,000), while often advertising that no prior coding experience is required for admission.

Certainly, a 10-14 week program represents a fraction of the coursework associated with a four-year computer science undergraduate degree. However, some criticism of the sector seems to operate upon the inherent assumption that going to college or going to a boot camp is an “either/or” scenario for students interested in learning software development.

This is hardly the case.

For the past year, we have been examining the learning opportunities, admission criteria and learner profiles of various coding boot camps nationally. Funded through a pair of National Science Foundation Core Research and Development Grants, our research suggests that while coding boot camps are hardly learning environments equivalent to an alternative to a four-year degree, neither are they the egalitarian learning environments open to all comers that many purport to be in their advertising.

What do we mean? From August through December 2016, we conducted a series of nine national focus groups and six interviews with computer science faculty, coding boot camp instructors and administrators, as well as hiring managers from a range of software development companies. Participants were from over 20 different states, ranging from cities as large as Chicago and New York to smaller towns in North Carolina, California and throughout the Midwest. Perhaps contrary to expectations, coding boot camps are hardly exclusive to the U.S. coasts.

The discussions showed that the country’s top coding boot camps are not so much an alternative to a college degree as a supplement to one. Camps are filled with highly-motivated students committed to making themselves more marketable and economically successful than what their college degrees provided.

That surprised us. And in some cases, the code camp developers we talked to were equally surprised. According to the director of growth and operations at a Colorado boot camp, “(G)oing into this, we had assumptions that a lot of people were going to be doing this boot camp instead of college, and that's actually not the case. When we were looking at the data, we saw that most of our students actually had a college degree, so I would say around 80 percent.” A director of curriculum and instruction at a Chicago-based boot camp was quick to add that it in addition to bachelor degrees, many students had master’s degrees, including one with a master’s in computer science from Yale University. The student was taking the boot camp course to brush up his coding skills.

Based on our early research, it appears that the top coding boot camp programs are as competitive (if not even more competitive) than national undergraduate and post-graduate programs in computer science.

Rich Kochman of the Washington D.C.-based Adaptive Consulting has been monitoring the growth of boot camps for the past three years and sees their future as highly tied to ever-more competitive admission criteria. “Frankly,” he said, “a limited amount of the population has the requisite mathematical and critical thinking skills to be trained as a successful coder in a time period of 12 weeks. This is a tight time frame, and ultimately each boot camp is judged by its success in delivering on their implicit promise to place students in jobs upon program completion; thus, they can't afford to let in too many ‘low potentials’ through the door."

The solution? Advertise widely and vet thoroughly. Camps we spoke to reported having online applications that took up to 12 hours to complete, evaluating applicants with multiple coding puzzles as part of the pre-assessment packet and conducting candidate interviews for up to three hours.

Within our focus groups, one theme of discussion that ran through both camp and university groups was the requisite software development skills each environment offered their students. This question of necessary skills came up 383 times among the code camp participants, while among computer science faculty members it came up 323 times -- commensurate numbers given that we spoke with two more boot camp administrators than computer science faculty members. Here, both code camp participants and college faculty members explained that they offered their students a range of cognitive skills (algorithms and data structures) as well as interpersonal skills through internships and team-based projects. However, while colleges provided those types of opportunities in capstone courses, the majority of code camps expected their students to engage in team-based, cooperative learning environments by the second week of their 10- to 12-week programs.

As any good teacher knows, effective group work is neither easy to teach nor naturally occurring, so code camps’ expectations of their student admits are significant, particularly given the short timeline.

To the extent that coding camps expect such collaborative aplomb from their students almost immediately offers some insight as to why participating code camps were four times more likely than colleges and universities to focus on student recruitment and admission (165 mentions versus 35 mentions in the focus group transcripts and, remarkably, nearly seven times more likely to focus on the learning profiles of their students (136 versus 20). Of course, some of this wide discrepancy stems from the fact that undergraduate computer science programs largely rely on external admission departments who recruit from the same pool of high school students. These entering college students, while diverse across certain measures (race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background), are largely homogenous in terms of age and educational background. Code camps have no such homogeneity in their applicant pool. Based on our focus groups, code camp applicants range in age from 19 to 74 and in education from high school credential to master’s and doctoral degrees.

What is the leading common denominator among this diverse group of code-camp applicants? It may be a college degree. The camps we spoke with self-reported between 66 percent (on the low end) to 80 percent (on the high end) of their students having college degrees. Not surprisingly, some of the top colleges and universities in the country recently figured this out. As an August 2016 Inside Higher Ed article noted, Northeastern University in Boston has developed its own boot camp, while other institutions such as Northwestern University, Bellevue College and the wider University of Texas system all have partnered with external coding boot camps to offer their own version of intense, practically-minded coding coursework. Top providers such as General Assembly, Revature and Trilogy are actively recruiting college and universities they can partner with, working directly with their students to add on software development certifications and thus producing graduates who earn more upon graduation. Just this past June, the boot camp Trilogy, a six-month long program, reported raising $30 million in venture capital financing to continue to grow its list of 25 university partners.

What is clear from our research on industry expectations for new hires is that college degrees very much matter. All of the 14 hiring managers and directors we interviewed this past fall through the same series of national focus groups reiterated the importance of teamwork, clear communication and timeliness -- so called “soft” skills. Where do these skills come from? Hiring managers ultimately had different answers here, but they were collectively uniform on the necessity of requiring a college degree for entry-level software development positions to ensure such soft skills are already in place. While the debate around the merit of a four-year college degree continues, in the field of software engineering, a bachelor degree still matters -- a lot.

Working with the analytics software company Burning Glass, we found that the top skills companies were looking for from entry level software developers in 2016 were programming language-specific. (Java, Microsoft C#, C++, SQL and JMS were the top in advertised positions nationally.) However, simply having proficiency in one such programming language was not sufficient. Over the past three months, software developer job postings overwhelmingly required a bachelor’s degree (98 percent). And 23 percent of software developer positions required a graduate or professional degree, while only 3 percent listed an associate degree as a minimum educational requirement. Yet of the 38,000 postings tagged “software developer” nationally over the past three months, only half (49 percent) likewise posted a minimal educational requirement, which may suggest that companies may be more flexible with degree requirements. Nonetheless, the current data is clear: If software development companies are explicitly weighing educational attainment as part of the hiring process, even among junior level developer positions, associate and high school degrees simply do not cut it.

With all the discussion of alternative educational environments, it is easy to casually dismiss the importance of a college degree. A recent New York Times article states, “At the nation’s coding boot camps, the pitch has nothing to do with a liberal arts education. This thriving niche of the for-profit education business tightly links courses to the job market.” And yet this is not the case. While coding boot camps may not be pitching a liberal arts education, they are certainly pitching their services to liberal arts graduates.

Quinn Burke is an assistant professor of education at the College of Charleston. Louise Ann Lyon is a senior research associate at Education, Training and Research (ETR). James Bowring is an associate professor in computer science at the College of Charleston.

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IT productivity paradox in higher education ‘overstated,’ study suggests

Study finds that technology spending spurs gains in colleges’ outputs -- but they vary depending on the institution.

UT Austin launches Stampede2, the fastest U.S. university supercomputer


The University of Texas at Austin has unveiled Stampede2, said to be the most powerful supercomputer at any campus in the U.S.

The intellectual value of texting (essay)

Literacy experts have for decades recognized that periodic hysteria over so-called literacy crises in the United States is based largely on myths. Nevertheless, the most recent crisis framed in the media names millennials’ overdependence on technology as somehow to blame, with texting especially suspect.

We can’t deny our SMS language (our “textese” or “txt-speak”) varies considerably from the sentences we write for work or school. Portmanteau words, ellipses, abbreviations, neologisms and emoticons aside, texts frequently carry what many academics would deem errors -- slips in punctuation and spelling that texters may overlook for the sake of quick communication. But while instructors may have by now wrapped their heads around the inevitability of texting and its role in evolving the English language, relatively few have acknowledged that texting is neither ruining English nor hindering individuals’ literacy or academic writing practices and abilities.

As we embarked upon a small-scale study of 10 multilingual undergraduate students’ everyday literacy practices at CUNY’s City College, we expected texting to come up as a regular practice of undergraduate students. What we had not anticipated was the range of valuable uses and substantive gains afforded by texting. We came to realize that we as educators are long overdue in exploring some of the advantages afforded by SMS language, although, of course, many of us already have. Texting, for instance, is proving to be a useful tool in higher education and for communicating in the classroom.

Preliminary results from our study, however, show that beyond offering opportunities to communicate quickly with friends, family, classmates and even teachers, texting also provides some intellectual benefits. Participants used texting to process feelings and ideas, and their texting practices seem to foster both an open-mindedness to language differences and a willingness to more actively negotiate communicative obstacles like unfamiliar language uses and errors.

A few examples from millennial texters themselves (whom we refer to throughout this article with pseudonyms) will help illustrate. When asked about her home literacy practices, Anne, 18, admits most of her daily reading and writing revolves around one mode: “I text. That’s all I do.” A freshman at City College, Anne sends texts to her friends and three sisters about her day, her observations on the commute to school and whatever pops into her head. There is often no response, but that is OK. She just wants to get her thoughts and intentions out there. Anne’s texting serves as her journal.

Contrary to perceptions that view virtual social interactions as inherently transient, Jessica, also 18, feels differently. “If I were to send a text, they [friends] would read and understand. But later on if they feel bad, they could look at it again, and be like, let me calm down again. It’s like reading writing later and having it to look back on. They are there with you,” she says. Jessica and her texter friends take advantage of texting as a written mode of communication to negotiate their gut responses to information with the more tempered interpretations that they come to with time and further reflection.

Nearly all students we interviewed expressed a preference for texting over speaking in person because, as Cindy, 25, puts it, “I can stop and think; how can I say this better, more correctly?” Text messages are not as spontaneous or heedless as we might assume. As an act, texting provides opportunities to process experiences, as well as communicate and maintain relationships. In addition, texting offers communicators regular practice with brainstorming, drafting, revising and editing. For instructors who emphasize treating writing as a process involving critical thinking and reflection, this is welcome news.

Nardin Sarkis, a student writer at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explains here that texting may call for increased attention to grammar and punctuation, not less: “When a simple period can mean the difference between an aggressive or inviting tone, more and more users will be punctuation conscious. This delicate focus on punctuation enriches communication and celebrates its intricacies.” Sarkis reminds us of the focus needed to switch effectively between registers and languages, as all speakers and writers do at one level or another.

Being multilingual calls for code-switching and, at times, a more hybridized language. Linguistic processes like these are becoming publicly known for enhancing cognition and social relations. And we can understand SMS language as one “code” to which writers switch. With this in mind, we instructors could be encouraging students to see value in texting and, yes, to enhance those communicative acts. The more students are cognizant of their own literacy practices, the more equipped they’ll be to build on their linguistic repertoires and the better they’ll be at navigating discursive expectations, including those of edited standardized English.

Of course, it is also the case that conventional spelling and punctuation errors are commonly overlooked in text messages and social media posts, a communicative norm that may not sit well with fellow teachers. But our participants help frame this practice as a benefit. Brooklynn, 18, explains that her texts to friends sometimes “… don’t even look like words … [but] random letters inserted into words where they shouldn’t be, with letters missing.” She attributes this brevity to typing too fast or to excitement. But, of interest, the errors do not matter all that much to her since people will get what she is trying to say.

Linguist and compositionist Suresh Canagarajah has emphasized the value of communicative approaches like Brooklynn’s in his discussion of strategies multilingual writers draw on when negotiating English in conversation and writing. One relative feature of multilingual communication, he explains, is that it is typically consensus oriented and supportive: “Multilinguals devise strategies to help each other achieve their interests by working with each other positively to achieve intelligibility.” This means that “if an interlocutor comes across an item that she feels is incorrect or unintelligible, she moves on with the conversation rather than attempting to correct, judge or walk away from the interaction.”

Texters like Brooklynn apply this conversational quality of open-minded negotiation of meaning to written communication. That is remarkable, at least in part because a movement toward more accommodating and concerted communication styles seems necessary to ensuring effective communication in increasingly diverse contexts, like that of our classrooms, the workplace, our neighborhoods and far beyond. Brooklynn’s perspectives on texting suggest there’s much hope for more widespread approaches to consensus-orientated communication.

Meaning and Openness

All that said, it is important to note here that Brooklynn’s openness to errors does not transfer into the formal classroom. Referring to participating in peer-review activities in her second-year composition course, Brooklynn admits to being a “mean person” about other students’ writing: “I’m like, this is wrong and this doesn’t make any sense and this is terrible … I had this long list of what was wrong with it.” Brooklynn is willing to negotiate and work through errors and omissions in texting contexts, and the norms guiding interactions over text and social media invite such a collaborative approach to receiving and interpreting communication. But her response to receiving information in an academic setting is one of dismissal and judgment.

As a reader in academic contexts, Brooklynn’s expectation is that the responsibility for effective communication lies solely on the shoulders of the author; thus, her willingness to work through communication, as an equal collaborator, disappears. Academic discourse offers its participants a variety of cognitive and rhetorical skills, but Brooklynn’s attitudinal shift from one context to the other reflects how expectations in academic discourse may foster closed-mindedness to language differences, nonstandardized communication practices and the presence of errors.

Of course, students should be aware of the values placed on “correctness” in academic discourse, and Brooklynn’s experience suggests that students are already privy to the demand for edited standardized English prose. But in this globalized era when students are bound to engage in intercultural communication, shouldn’t instructors and students alike be privileging making meaning over grammatical correctness? Openness over intolerance to difference? Collaborative negotiation of communication over idle reception of information? We say yes.

As educators, disavowing the red pen ourselves would be the first step toward teaching students to focus on meaning and accept differences. A second challenge lies in figuring out how to bring into our classrooms the openness our students already exercise in their everyday communication practices. We see promise in going beyond merely tolerating the inevitability of widespread texting. We should be celebrating the affordances of SMS language and treating texting as one of many ways to work with students to enhance their abilities to communicate effectively across different registers, languages and discourses.

Missy Watson is assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the City College of New York. Her research lies at the intersection of composition and second-language writing and revolves around seeking social and racial justice. Madhuri Karak is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her dissertation explores issues of resource extraction and development in central India's indigenous corridor.

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Essay: Looking back at predictions about MOOCs

After thinking that interest in and excitement about massive open online courses had faded to the background of the higher education landscape, I was surprised to see a recent flurry of news media coverage of MOOCs. Even more surprising, I found myself impressed -- the work seems markedly different from the wave of stories that flooded the popular and higher ed trade press in 2012, with less hype and longer evidence-based studies. For example, recent coverage included a report from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that analyzes characteristics and behaviors of their own MOOC students, and a study by Stanford University and MIT researchers that addresses the persistence of international students who have enrolled in MOOCs.

Having written and spoken about MOOCs many times in the past, this recent resurgence prompted me to look back to my own articles, research studies and blog posts from the MOOC heyday to see if some of my own claims and predictions have come to pass.

The term “MOOC” will go away. I am somewhat surprised the moniker has stuck around as long as it has, because what exists today is quite different than what we were discussing five years ago. In “A MOOC by Any Other Name? An Online Course,” I suggested that we would stop talking about MOOCs because they were another variation of an online course, with too much variety in the term’s application. I was not entirely accurate, since we’re still using the term -- however, I stand by my assertion that we’d do better to move away from it. There still is no one thing that exemplifies what, exactly, makes an online course a MOOC. Since there are even more permutations of MOOCs these days, I’d be curious how the academy and general public perceives and understands the name.

A viable business model will emerge. The original MOOCs lived up to the first O: open. They were entirely free for the massive numbers of students who enrolled -- over 100,000 students in some courses. The courses were largely self-paced and included minimal or no faculty interaction. Completion rates hovered below 10 percent and the courses provided no transferrable college credit from the institutions that sponsored them. Course content was provided by reputable U.S. universities through various partnership agreements with the three major MOOC platforms, Coursera, Udacity and edX, which were mostly funded by venture capital. Free courses equaled no discernible revenue stream.

This has changed. Free and open is no longer completely true. Emphasis on personal enrichment is no longer the value proposition.

The three original MOOC platforms still exist but have been joined by others like Open University’s FutureLearn. In addition, institutions host their own MOOCs on local learning management systems.

All of the major platforms now charge fees for certifying completion. The original three MOOC platforms appear to have found their niche by migrating to the nondegree professional development and contract-training sphere, taking advantage of the growth of alternative credentials (e.g., nondegree certificates and microcredentials) that are recognized by industries and employers. Many offer and charge for badges or other credentials that can be displayed on social media platforms like LinkedIn. For example, Udacity offers nanodegrees, edX offers MicroMasters and Coursera offers specializations. Some of these credentials also include university credit through university or alternative credit providers. Computer and data science, programming, and software development dominate the offerings. Students pay to earn these various credentials and certifications, and some platforms offer need-based financial support.

Reputation, not revenue drives investment. Early on I studied institutional leaders’ motivations for investing in MOOCs. Important motivators included increasing institutional and individual faculty reputation, expanding international reach, and exploring innovative and more effective ways to teach. Generating revenue was not a principal motivation.

This, too, has changed somewhat. While general reputational enhancement and the exploration of online teaching innovation no doubt result from an institution’s involvement in MOOCs, generating revenue (at least covering costs) and integrating MOOCs into degree-granting programs appear more common.

Georgia Tech continues to offer a low-cost, high-enrollment master’s degree in computer science on the Udacity platform with support from AT&T. Well over 3,000 students have enrolled in the program. The university has recently added a second high-enrollment, low-cost master’s in analytics on the edX platform.

Arizona State University offers the Global Freshman Academy on the edX platform, providing credit-bearing, self-paced lower-division courses to a domestic and global audience. ASU also offers individual self-paced and instructor-led credit-bearing courses with edX. Though the courses and programs are not free, the relatively low cost of these programs, combined with the robust online platform, seem to contribute to the access missions of these large public institutions.

MOOCs can be vehicles for continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Yes and no. The recent reports from Harvard, MIT and Stanford illustrate this. The Harvard/MIT report explored the background of students, time on task, paid certificate completion rates and the relationship between certification rates and the Human Development Index (World Bank composite index of a country’s life expectancy, education and income indicators). Researchers at Stanford and MIT focused on interventions to increase persistence and completion among international MOOC enrollees. These sophisticated studies increase our knowledge of MOOC student behaviors, but findings are not applicable to other academic settings.

Higher ed will be firmly entrenched in the MOOC 3.0 era. In a 2013 post, I applied the Gartner technology hype cycle to MOOCs and predicted, “we will enter a plateau of productivity and the various permutations of MOOCs will become part of the higher education mainstream.” I do believe we are in the plateau of productivity with MOOCs, but not within the higher education mainstream.

Both the MOOC platforms and universities emphasize using MOOCs and alternative credentials to support professional development for working professionals, mainly in technology fields where employers are willing to provide ample financial support. The exception would be institutions like ASU that focus on providing access to their regular undergraduate curriculum. But the push is overwhelmingly toward professional development markets.

Adoption of other technologies that support improved pedagogy, access and affordability -- such as open educational resources, learning analytics and personalized learning -- is growing, but not dependent on the development of or contribution from MOOCs.

MOOCs can play an important role in postsecondary attainment. In 2013, I optimistically wrote, “MOOCs and their derivatives, and the accelerated experimentation and wide-ranging conversations they have sparked, have played an important and energizing role in our quest to help more students along the path to postsecondary attainment.” I admit this was an overstatement, especially now that I am chancellor of an access-oriented institution.

With some exceptions noted previously, MOOCs are mainly a technology business, focused on providing a return on investment (even for nonprofits like edX) by targeting the large nondegree professional development and technology training market. Though the MOOC experiment over the past five years has resulted in many positives, this era also reminds us that when it comes to degree attainment, there really is no magic bullet. The hard, in-the-trenches work of helping the students of today get and remain focused, learn, and stick it out to degree completion remains the province of mainstream higher education -- MOOCs or no MOOCs.

Cathy Sandeen

Cathy Sandeen is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin Extension. She previously served as vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education.

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Apple app curriculum offered at six community college systems

Apple selects six community colleges to receive curriculum on creating apps. One president took the course and said it was easy to learn -- even though she hadn't taken a programming course in 30 years.

Review of Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner, "The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online"

With the highest office in the land occupied by a troll (and through no fluke: trolling constitutes the form, substance and sole consistent principle of the man’s entire political career), it certainly feels as if things are now on the other side of a tipping point.

The casual, habitual acting-out of grandiosity or malice has always been among the possibilities afforded to anyone with a modem -- but as an indulgence, not a norm. The Web 2.0 as an emancipatory supplement to the public sphere probably deserves its own floor in some Museum of Countercultural Visions. The idea of anonymity or pseudonymity giving voice to the powerless once sounded full of democratic potential, although it proves difficult to credit after scanning YouTube comments for half an hour.

The promise of liberation gave way at some point to disinhibition, mostly. Disinhibition combined with great power is dangerous mixture, volatile at best, and, as with dynamite, unlikely to grow more stable over time.

A number of scholarly books on memes, tweeting, comments-field commentary and other modes of contemporary digital communication have come out. And given the circumstances, I’ve tried to read them -- only to be reminded from time to time of Jackie Gleason’s complaint about reviews of TV shows in the newspapers: he said they were like describing an automobile accident to the eyewitnesses. The prospect of the description running to full monographic length is enough to make the brain and eyeballs itch. With most of the recent volumes on digital discourse, I found it hard to resume reading. An exception worth mentioning is Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner’s The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online (Polity Press).

Phillips, an assistant professor of literary studies and writing at Mercer University, approaches the routines and artifacts of online communities as a folklorist. Milner is an assistant professor of communication at the College of Charleston. The authors, who identify themselves as millennials, acknowledge having been shaped by the culture they analyze. Converging on the study of memes, trolling, creepypasta and other practices from their different disciplinary backgrounds, they find sharp distinctions between on- and off-line life to be, at this late date, analytically dubious at best. We cross the line too often to pay all that much attention to it. And the forms of humor, storytelling and the like now constantly generated and circulated online are best understood as examples of the “vernacular creativity” typical of folklore.

In this, Phillips and Milner take their cue from Alan Dundes, one of major American folklore scholars of recent decades, who expanded the definition of “the folk” to cover “any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor.” Whatever a group may share to begin with, it almost inevitably accumulates a stock of common experiences, lingo, habits, symbols and so forth. The Amish have their folklore, and the guys in Cell Block D have theirs, no less exacting in its traditions but less appealing to tourists.

Easy to see, then, why many items of online folklore -- memes and jokes especially -- seem to be the culture of specific in-groups and incomprehensible or off-putting to outsiders. But that’s only part of the story. The power to cut, paste, blend, spoof or otherwise transform all that’s available in a digital format (imagery, audio, texts, etc.) renders just about everything into potential grist for expressive experimentation. At the same time, the audience for any given digital artifact is impossible to predict with any confidence.

Even communication between two people who know each other well can be ambiguous, of course, and the finer shades of nuance don’t stand a chance. Hence Poe’s Law, which the authors define as “postulates that sincere extremism online (manifesting as bigotry, conspiracy theorizing or simply being wrong about something) is often indistinguishable from satirical extremism.”

Like earlier manifestations of folk culture, then, the forms that Phillips and Milner discuss are prone to “blurring the lines between structure and play, formal and folk, commercial and populist.” But the newer kinds constantly run the risk of generating more than confusion or distaste among those not in the group. What has emerged is a culture of extreme ambiguity or, in the authors’ preferred expression, ambivalence -- “that which is difficult to classify or is otherwise strange, creepy or some combination of funny and offensive ….” They note:

“Apparently straightforward demarcations between author and audience, between this text and that text, between universal meaning and audience-specific meaning, don’t need much jostling before they start to crumble.”

Which can, of course, be a good thing: the conditions for creative experimentation, for the sort of activity the authors celebrate in passages that sound much like cultural-studies celebrations of agency from not so long ago:

“Women, queer people, trans people, people of color, people with disabilities and members of economically disenfranchised populations -- whose voices have historically been undervalued or muted -- can [using digital culture] push back against regressive hegemonic forces, and engage in assertive, confrontational and empowering expression.”

But they have also seen “how community formation, cultural exchange and generally having a fun and funny time -- presumably good things, pro-social things -- can simultaneously serve to police community boundaries, encourage cultural myopia and generally make outsiders miserable.”

I expect to have occasion to return to this topic in the future, as developments may warrant. But for now, I will end with a link to something I wrote about the research of one of the authors a couple of years ago and forgot until about halfway through The Ambivalent Internet, one of the more interesting books I’ve read so far this year.

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