Ben Pettis

Research

My research interests have developed around the seemingly banal aspects of internet culture. While headlines about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, NSA surveillance, or major data breaches often receive significant attention, the seemingly less serious parts of the Internet can be equally important. Things such as online FCC indecency complaints, the debate over pornography on a once-popular SNS platform, or the spread of a new meme can provide avenues to pinpoint the Internet’s place in everyday life. In my work, I consider the quotidian components of online life, as well as how corporate interests intersect with these user practices. What types of groups, communities, and cultures exist in online spaces? How do users connect with one another? And what is the relationship between users and their platforms? By asking these types of questions, I aim to dispel myths of the “online world” as being somehow wholly separate and mystical, and instead situating it firmly within people’s actual lived experiences.


(2021) -

Know Your Meme and the Homogenization of Internet History

    A screenshot of the Know Your Meme website entry for the Pepe the Frog meme
  • As memes circulate and spread throughout different Web communities, their meanings are continually changing. In the last decade, the website Know Your Meme (KYM) has become popular among researchers, educators, and day-to-day Web users to understand memes and their meanings. KYM is a frequently cited resource among Web researchers, and as a result it has become instrumental in establishing dominant histories of memes on the Web. Though KYM remains an invaluable resource, it is often cited with minimal context, and an uncritical reliance on KYM’s definitions may overlook the polysemy of many memes. Accordingly, this paper uses a discursive interface analysis of the KYM website along with examples of incomplete meme definitions to demonstrate how the website constructs itself as a cultural authority to define and classify memes. Given that memes themselves are artifacts of Web history, I argue the overreliance on KYM as an authority on memes and their history can contribute to the homogenization of Web histories. However, this paper acknowledges that KYM can still be a useful resource and to that end, offers recommendations for how researchers might better introduce and contextualize KYM within their own work.
  • AoIR Video:
  • AoIR Conference Paper: https://spir.aoir.org/ojs/index.php/spir/article/view/12009
  • Full article: https://doi.org/10.1080/24701475.2021.1968657
  • Postprint PDF

(2020) -

Needs More JPEG

    A highly pixelated image of a man. There is text overlaid that says 'y'all got any more of them pixels?'
  • Across different forms of media, subsequent copies of a particular text are marked by the introduction of noise and the reduction of fidelity. The physical decay of magnetic tape or the general signal degradation in repeated copies of analog texts represent the materiality of copying. Material traces of copying are not limited analog formats and digital texts still contain such artifacts. Each time a digital file is copied, transmitted, and remixed, there are opportunities for traces of that copying and sharing process to become inscribed within the text itself. This materiality is particularly apparent in one of the most frequently copied digital text, internet memes. This aesthetic analysis of internet memes demonstrates how technical characteristics along with user practices of sharing and remixing create visual traces of the copying process. I describe these visual traces in internet memes as the aesthetic of haste and the aesthetic of copying. The aesthetic of haste arises from incentives to quickly produce and share remixed meme instances, which appears in characteristics such as sloppily overlaid text and painted-over image elements. The aesthetic of copying stems from the replication process itself and includes characteristics such as watermarks and compression artifacts. In this paper, I show how these aesthetics are present in several internet memes in a variety of forms. The presence of these aesthetics suggests that the overall visual quality of a meme instance and fidelity of subsequent copies is less significant than the ability of an online community to identify with and relate to the cultural references of a particular meme.
  • Listen to me discuss this project in a podcast format:

(2020) -

The Tumblr Porn Ban

  • Abstract

    This thesis considers social media platforms and the fluid nature of online spaces. Specifically, I examine the social network site (SNS) Tumblr and the controversy that surrounded its recently amended community guidelines and adult content policy. Tumblr had previously had somewhat of an “alternative” identity as compared to mainstream SNSs such as Facebook or Twitter. This identity had largely resulted from its previously lax policy toward pornography and other adult content. Such content had previously been allowed on the website, which enabled a wide degree of personal freedom and expression.

    This policy, along with the platform’s specific affordances, had contributed to Tumblr’s characteristic as an online queer space. Many LGBTQ+ individuals and groups had once used the platform to share pornography and adult content, but also just to form a sense of community and express their identities in ways that were not always possible on other SNSs or within the physical world. But in December 2018, Tumblr Staff announced significant changes to the website’s community guidelines, and that after December 17, 2018 any such content would no longer be allowed on the platform. This policy announcement, which became colloquially known as the Tumblr porn ban, represented a divergence in how the platform’s users and its corporate owners envisioned the online space. For Tumblr users, the platform had been an online queer space characterized by a significant degree of individual autonomy and expression. But for Tumblr Inc., the platform could only be an online queer space until it was no longer profitable, and thus adjusted the content policy in response to various political economic pressures.

    In this thesis, I use digital discourse and political economic analyses of Tumblr Staff’s announcement as well as Tumblr users’ responses. I argue that the controversy that emerged surrounding the Tumblr Porn Ban represents the fluid and co-construction of platforms and online spaces. The negative response to the Tumblr Porn Ban was not necessarily directly in response to the loss of pornography and adult content, but rather a loss of what such contented had once represented—individual freedom and autonomy for users. Removing the adult content was significant because it changed what the online space had once been. By studying the Tumblr Porn Ban, this thesis demonstrates that online platforms are not static or monolithic entities. Instead, they are fluid online spaces that are constructed, shaped, and continually redefined by a platform triad of users, corporations, and state power.

  • Click here to read the full thesis. (Institutional Log-in may be required)

(2019) -

Finstas, Young Adults, and Stardom

    A photo of Ben Pettis standing in front of a lectern while holding a certificate from the National Communication Association
  • Instagram is a popular social network site (SNS) that individuals use to share photos and videos with their friends, networks, and publicly with the world. However, as compared to other SNSs such as Facebook or Twitter, Instagram has not received as much research attention. This survey study opens new opportunities and avenues for further research on Instagram by quantifying the phenomenon in which a single individual uses multiple Instagram accounts to construct and present their online identities in a way that is entirely distinct and separate from their physical-world persona. The study specifically examines how the number of Instagram user profiles that an individual uses is related to their attitudes and behaviors on the Instagram platform. An online Qualtrics survey of Instagram users aged 18-24 (N=82) found that 64.6% of the population uses online one account and 35.4% used two or more accounts. The study demonstrate that there is a difference in attitude toward Instagram as well as social media more generally between users with one account and those with multiple. Whereas much work in the realm of SNSs has emphasized the Facebook platform, I have provided an initial study that considers Instagram, and the ways that young adults use this platform to construct and understand their identities. There remains significant opportunity to understand how these different attitudes are reflected in specific behaviors. This study has made an important first step to shift the study of SNSs toward Instagram, and perhaps other SNSs as well.
  • Download PDF of this Paper

(2018) -

Pepe the Frog

  • Abstract
    This thesis examines Internet memes, a unique medium that has the capability to easily and seamlessly transfer ideologies between groups. It argues that these media can potentially enable subcultures to challenge, and possibly overthrow, hegemonic power structures that maintain the dominance of a mainstream culture. I trace the meme from its creation by Matt Furie in 2005 to its appearance in the 2016 US Presidential Election and examine how its meaning has changed throughout its history. I define the difference between a meme instance and the meme as a whole, and conclude that the meaning of the overall meme is formed by the sum of its numerous meme instances. This structure is unique to the medium of Internet memes and is what enables subcultures to use them to easily transfer ideologies in order to challenge the hegemony of dominant cultures.
  • Read the full thesis on UO Scholars' Bank.