Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.MM.12.2.11 | PDF

‘Self­ies’ Under Quar­an­tine Donatel­la Del­la Ratta

Selfies’ Under Quarantine: Exploring Networked Emotions in the Time of ‘Social Distancing’

Donatel­la Del­la Ratta

This essay focus­es on auto-ethnog­ra­phy and auto-fic­tion as USEFUL tools to reflect on the ways in which net­worked iden­ti­ties are reshaped and recon­fig­ured with­in the con­text of a glob­al pan­dem­ic where social rela­tion­ships, fam­i­ly life, work rou­tines, and learn­ing process­es are increas­ing­ly migrat­ing to the online domain. The piece builds upon the expe­ri­ence of an under­grad­u­ate class who col­lec­tive­ly con­tributed to the blog series ‘Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine’ dur­ing the first severe lock­down in March 2020. It dis­cuss­es the ques­tion of meth­ods and sug­gests look­ing at the ‘draft’ as both an aes­thet­ics and an ethics to nav­i­gate the cur­rent con­text of crisis.

Cet essai se con­cen­tre sur l’auto-ethnographie et l’auto-fiction comme out­ils de réflex­ion sur les façons dont les iden­tités en réseau sont remod­elées et recon­fig­urées dans le con­texte d’une pandémie mon­di­ale où les rela­tions sociales, la vie famil­iale, les rou­tines de tra­vail et les proces­sus d’apprentissage migrent de plus en plus vers le domaine en ligne. L’article s’appuie sur l’expérience d’une classe de pre­mier cycle qui a con­tribué col­lec­tive­ment à la série de blogs “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine” (Self­ies en quar­an­taine) pen­dant le pre­mier ver­rouil­lage sévère en mars 2020. Il abor­de la ques­tion des méth­odes et sug­gère de con­sid­ér­er le “brouil­lon” comme une esthé­tique et une éthique pour nav­iguer dans le con­texte actuel de crise.

Prologue: Once Upon a Time in a Lockdown…

Figure 1: Introduction to the blog series published by the Institute of Network Cultures (INC). “Selfies Under Quarantine: Students Report Back to Rome,” Donatella Della Ratta, April 9, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.

This is the open­ing para­graph of a series of blog posts pub­lished in 2020 by the Insti­tute of Net­work Cul­tures (INC) under the title “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine,” which I have co-authored with stu­dents from my class “Self­ies and Beyond: Explor­ing Net­worked Iden­ti­ties” at John Cabot Uni­ver­si­ty, Rome, once we were put in total lock­down for the entire Spring semes­ter1.

The ‘self­ie’ class, as the stu­dents and I infor­mal­ly call it, was first offered in 2019 with the aim of explor­ing the net­worked self in its inter­ac­tions with oth­er online sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, and of inves­ti­gat­ing how these very inter­ac­tions are ren­dered into busi­ness mod­els gen­er­at­ing finan­cial cap­i­tal and sociopo­lit­i­cal lever­age for the host­ing plat­forms. Giv­en such a goal, the course inte­grat­ed the ide­ol­o­gy cri­tique of data and sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism with autoethno­graph­ic meth­ods putting the indi­vid­ual at the cen­tre of the analy­sis, which turned out to be par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful in offer­ing an account of the emerg­ing vari­ety of com­pul­sive, some­times con­tra­dic­to­ry, dig­i­tal forms and for­mats embraced by the online self.

In this arti­cle I account for the shared expe­ri­ence between myself and my stu­dents of hav­ing to car­ry on with the teaching/learning process and keep inves­ti­gat­ing the online self dur­ing the out­break of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, which severe­ly hit Italy in March 2020, oblig­ing us to go into a very strict lock­down for three months. I draw on the col­lec­tive endeav­or under­tak­en by my stu­dents to con­tin­ue pro­duc­ing autoethno­graph­ic accounts as the course moved into full online mode, and many of them were oblig­ed to go back to their fam­i­lies on the oth­er side of the ocean. By com­par­ing some of the autoethno­graph­ic mate­r­i­al pro­duced by stu­dents from the 2019 edi­tion of the self­ie class, I shed a light on the dis­tinct out­comes gen­er­at­ed a year lat­er, and on the use of a dif­fer­ent method­olog­i­cal approach. I show how the uncer­tain­ty and volatil­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion impact­ed the way in which the stu­dents’ autoethno­graph­ic pieces were con­ceived, and even­tu­al­ly result­ed in push­ing them to move towards aut­ofic­tion (Dix 2018) as a form of styl­is­tic and lit­er­ary exper­i­men­ta­tion nar­rat­ing the expe­ri­ence of fluc­tu­at­ing sub­jec­tiv­i­ties caught in a moment of insta­bil­i­ty, uncer­tain­ty, and chaos.

I sug­gest that this shift from autoethnog­ra­phy to aut­ofic­tion, from a self-nar­ra­tion that was once dis­closed only pri­vate­ly with­in the safe con­text of the class, to the more open, con­fes­sion­al for­mat pro­vid­ed by pub­licly blog­ging the stu­dents’ pieces, might have been gen­er­at­ed from the pro­found need to find ways of self-heal­ing and recov­er­ing from a trau­ma that had hit so unex­pect­ed­ly. Aut­ofic­tion grant­ed a con­text to trans­late these process­es cen­tered on the self into a com­pelling lit­er­ary for­mat pro­vid­ing more room for styl­is­tic cre­ativ­i­ty and exper­i­men­ta­tion, and to insert these reflec­tions with­in a broad­er socio-cul­tur­al environment—as the work of Paul B Pre­ci­a­do, among oth­ers, has recent­ly shown.

Mov­ing away from the more ana­lyt­i­cal atti­tude of the autoethno­graph­ic prac­tice and from the need to offer defin­i­tive expla­na­tions, cat­e­go­riza­tions, or a the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work to read the unfold­ing of the events, towards the more lyri­cal and styl­is­ti­cal­ly exper­i­men­tal for­mat of the aut­ofic­tion, implied adopt­ing what I call the ‘aes­thet­ics of the frag­ment.’ This entailed endors­ing a sort of for­mal flex­i­bil­i­ty vis-à-vis the uncer­tain flow of the events, and giv­ing up any effort to pro­vide a coher­ent read­ing or a ful­ly-fledged analy­sis of the sit­u­a­tion. The volatil­i­ty and unpre­dictable evo­lu­tion of the lat­ter, instead, have mate­ri­al­ized into a per­ma­nent ‘draft style,’ a styl­is­tic mode—which is also a mood—allowing for incur­sions into poet­ry and a more exper­i­men­tal lan­guage, tak­ing time for paus­es and breaks, free from the con­straint of completion.

This is spelled out in the intro­duc­to­ry post to the blog series (see Fig­ure 2), which stands as a sort of ‘man­i­festo of the draft,’ a dec­la­ra­tion of intent that we will rely on frag­ments and unfin­ished thoughts rather than on analy­ses and inter­pre­ta­tions. As described in greater detail in the sec­tion “Writ­ing in a draft mode (and mood) dur­ing a pan­dem­ic,” after dis­cussing how to con­tin­ue the autoethno­graph­ic path of the class dur­ing the March 2020 lock­down, the stu­dents and I agreed that post­ing their reflec­tions on an online plat­form would be ide­al, as they were much more eager to share their thoughts in pub­lic than they had been in the past. They would ini­tial­ly post their pieces on per­son­al (but acces­si­ble to the pub­lic) blogs, and then I would curate a selec­tion of their essays togeth­er with my own reflec­tions, in dia­logue with excerpts of crit­i­cal texts, lit­er­a­ture, and poet­ry, but also with ele­ments from main­stream pop cul­ture, from video­clips to memes.

Figure 2: Introduction to the blog series. “Selfies Under Quarantine: Students Report Back to Rome,” Donatella Della Ratta, April 9, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.

Work­ing in a draft mode (and mood) has acti­vat­ed a dia­log­ic atti­tude, a readi­ness to change and be changed (by oth­ers, by the cir­cum­stances), and a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the con­text and the spe­cif­ic sit­u­a­tion it calls into being. Instead of fol­low­ing an abstract, reg­u­la­to­ry, or pre­scrip­tive code of con­duct, we have opt­ed for a “con­tex­tu­al and sit­u­a­tion­al” ethics (Markham et al. 5) which is inher­ent­ly process-ori­ent­ed and takes into greater account the col­lec­tive ener­gies and sub­jec­tiv­i­ties tra­vers­ing a giv­en his­tor­i­cal moment. If too often ethno­gra­phies are pro­duced in the inter­est of researchers and of the research goals and com­mu­ni­ties that they have in mind, the cur­rent cri­sis presents the oppor­tu­ni­ty for rethink­ing our work in the direc­tion of care and empa­thy toward oth­ers, and also toward our­selves, reliev­ing us from the marked­ly neolib­er­al imper­a­tive of hav­ing to be pro­duc­tive, effi­cient, self-behav­ing, and self-con­trol­ling in cri­sis sit­u­a­tions as if every­thing was ‘nor­mal’.

The unprece­dent­ed cir­cum­stances brought by the Coro­n­avirus have pushed me and my stu­dents to re-adjust and col­lec­tive­ly rene­go­ti­ate the method and the path agreed upon at the begin­ning of the Spring 2020 semes­ter, and to find oth­er ways to con­tin­ue the learn­ing process that would con­sid­er the shift­ed con­text, togeth­er with the urgent need for self-care and pre­serv­ing our men­tal health and well­be­ing. Thus, the aes­thet­ics of the frag­ment got trans­lat­ed into an ethics of the frag­ment. An ethics of the frag­ment implies work­ing in a sort of con­stant ‘pre­lim­i­nary ver­sion’ mode, which should allow for paus­es and breaks, and would free us from the imper­a­tive of com­ple­tion, of some­thing defin­i­tive, pol­ished, and refined, ready to be launched and announced. More than ever, the unprece­dent­ed cri­sis con­text gen­er­at­ed by the pan­dem­ic sug­gests that ethics should be under­stood not in terms of a rigid and pre­scrip­tive reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work but, rather, in con­nec­tion with care and solidarity.

This essay, pre­sent­ed here in a per­ma­nent draft mode (and mood), is an account of the jour­ney into the gar­den of fork­ing paths into which the obscure glob­al pan­dem­ic abrupt­ly put me and my stu­dents (as mil­lions of oth­ers on this plan­et) in Spring 2020. It is com­piled and nar­rat­ed using visu­al and tex­tu­al frag­ments pro­duced between April and June 2020 dur­ing the mak­ing of the blog series “Self­ies under Quar­an­tine” For­mal­ly, it relies upon the above-men­tioned aes­thet­ics of the frag­ment, and it adopts the same atti­tude at a method­olog­i­cal lev­el, build­ing on what was defined here as ethics of the fragment.

Background on the selfie class, goals, and methods

To high­light the method­olog­i­cal turn of the self­ie class dur­ing the out­break of the pan­dem­ic, and focus on the shift in the process of writ­ing autoethnog­ra­phy mov­ing toward aut­ofic­tion, it is use­ful to give a brief back­ground on how the self­ie class was orig­i­nal­ly struc­tured and what kind of mate­r­i­al was pro­duced in the past in col­lab­o­ra­tion with its students.

The self­ie class was first offered in spring 2019 as a major elec­tive course with­in the B.A. in Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Media Stud­ies at John Cabot Uni­ver­si­ty, Rome. The main idea behind the course was to look at the ways in which social net­work­ing plat­forms and their soft­ware inter­faces and algo­rithms play a role in fram­ing con­tem­po­rary iden­ti­ties, and how they shape a mod­el for social inter­ac­tions, trav­el­ling from the dig­i­tal to the phys­i­cal domain. The goal was to explore how net­worked iden­ti­ties and emo­tions gen­er­ate social cap­i­tal (e.g. rep­u­ta­tion and rec­om­men­da­tions, rank­ing sys­tems, etc.), which is then ren­dered into finan­cial cap­i­tal and new busi­ness mod­els based on the extrac­tion of eco­nom­ic val­ue from affec­tive inter­ac­tions online (e.g. lik­ing, shar­ing, com­ment­ing, etc.)2.

Polit­i­cal econ­o­my approach­es exclu­sive­ly focus­ing on unveil­ing and denounc­ing the exploita­tive mech­a­nisms of plat­form cap­i­tal­ism, data cap­i­tal­ism, sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism, and extrac­tivism3 are lim­it­ed in that they do not offer a frame­work account­ing for the viral pro­lif­er­a­tion of the mul­ti­fac­eted forms of tex­tu­al and visu­al expres­sions of net­worked iden­ti­ties and emo­tions (e.g. emo­jis, mem­o­jis, memes, streaks, self­ies, etc.) that are vol­un­tar­i­ly pro­duced and exchanged by users. While empha­siz­ing the cri­tique of big data and con­demn­ing sur­veil­lance process­es, pri­va­cy vio­la­tion, data min­ing, and the obscure algo­rith­mic regimes extract­ing val­ue from our dig­i­tal selves, these approach­es do not con­sid­er the enjoy­ment and plea­sure man­i­fest­ed in the process of pro­duc­ing and exchang­ing affec­tive forms and for­mats online. Users vol­un­tar­i­ly labour for free in order to gen­er­ate the lat­ter, being relent­less­ly engaged in process­es of self-dis­clo­sure of their own data despite the fact that, espe­cial­ly after the Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca scan­dal in 2018, the extrac­tivist busi­ness mod­el and the data min­ing process­es that social net­work­ing sites rely upon for their prof­it have been made public.

To inves­ti­gate these mul­ti-faceted aspects in a more com­pre­hen­sive way, the self­ie class pro­posed to inte­grate the polit­i­cal econ­o­my angle and the cri­tique of algo­rith­mic regimes with autoethno­graph­ic meth­ods. Because of their empha­sis on the self and its dynam­ic nature man­i­fest­ed in rela­tion­al con­texts, the lat­ter are par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful in explor­ing dig­i­tal iden­ti­ties and the ways in which they are shaped, expressed, and mod­i­fied in their online inter­ac­tions with oth­er net­worked selves4. Thus, the self­ie class struc­ture reflects this twofold aspect. On the one hand, stu­dents read and dis­cuss schol­ar­ly lit­er­a­ture from crit­i­cal the­o­ry (e.g. Ben­jamin, Žižek, etc.) and affect the­o­ries (e.g Paa­so­nen, Jar­rett, Ahmed, etc.). On the oth­er hand, they are asked to reflect upon these ideas in the con­text of their dai­ly lives through assign­ments focus­ing on autoethnog­ra­phy5.

This per­spec­tive inte­grat­ing the ide­ol­o­gy cri­tique of data and sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism with a more self-cen­tred and self-com­pas­sion­ate under­stand­ing of users’ behav­ior refers to what I have described, in a pre­vi­ous ethno­graph­ic piece account­ing for the expe­ri­ences matured in the self­ie class, as “empath­ic crit­i­cism” (Del­la Rat­ta 2021)6. Empath­ic crit­i­cism com­bines the ana­lyt­i­cal instances of crit­i­cal the­o­ry and the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of dig­i­tal media with fem­i­nist schol­ar­ship man­i­fest­ing a greater appre­ci­a­tion for con­cepts, such as empa­thy and care, that are often believed to lead to biased and emo­tion­al reflec­tions rather than objec­tive and reli­able accounts (Del­la Rat­ta 2020, 111-113). This approach reaf­firms the lega­cy of crit­i­cal the­o­ry, while at the same time upgrad­ing it with an inno­v­a­tive touch that does address, instead of ignor­ing or under­es­ti­mat­ing, the emo­tion­al and affec­tive mech­a­nisms behind con­tem­po­rary capitalism.

Crit­i­ciz­ing users for giv­ing up their pri­va­cy and data and falling prey to plat­form cap­i­tal­ism does not, in fact, account either for the enjoy­ment and plea­sure that seem to emerge with­in dynam­ics of infor­ma­tion self-dis­clo­sure, or for the rest­less pro­duc­tion of nov­el forms and for­mats of net­worked iden­ti­ties and emo­tions. Elit­ist and patron­iz­ing inter­pre­ta­tions are often offered to make sense of these prac­tices, such as the ‘gen­er­a­tional’ read­ing of social media use and its dis­rup­tive con­se­quences in terms of atten­tion and sense-mak­ing; or the gen­der-biased read­ing of self­ies as mere­ly nar­cis­sis­tic and polit­i­cal­ly dis­en­gaged forms exclu­sive­ly asso­ci­at­ed with female indi­vid­u­als. In stark con­trast with these analy­ses, which inher­it a sort of colo­nial­ist impulse to author­i­ta­tive­ly enter a cul­ture seen as ‘for­eign,’ judge it, and even­tu­al­ly exploit it, empath­ic crit­i­cism offers a per­spec­tive of care and com­pas­sion, a shared inter­pre­ta­tive ground across gen­er­a­tions, gen­der, etc., from which to look at the chal­lenges gen­er­at­ed by the dig­i­tal. Autoethnog­ra­phy strength­ens this stand­point, offer­ing an inves­ti­ga­tion of the self that starts bot­tom-up and moves, with­out prej­u­dices or pre-con­cep­tions, from the empir­i­cal obser­va­tion of its behav­iour toward for­mu­lat­ing broad­er the­o­ret­i­cal insights.

As an exam­ple of the kind of analy­sis elab­o­rat­ed using the crit­i­cal and method­olog­i­cal approach described above, a pre­vi­ous essay which I have authored draw­ing on the expe­ri­ence of my students—and on my own expe­ri­ence teach­ing the self­ie class—describes the dynam­ics of what I call “the curat­ed self” (Del­la Rat­ta 2021). Natalia, one of my for­mer stu­dents, wrote in her autoethnog­ra­phy: “The fact that the medi­um of com­mu­ni­ca­tion was mes­sag­ing allowed for a more curat­ed con­ver­sa­tion. We could each per­fect the things we said to one anoth­er to build a per­son bet­ter than our­selves.”7 For the stu­dents enrolled in my first self­ie class, cura­tion was a pre­cious pro­tec­tion from the ran­dom­ness and chaos of dig­i­tal media, the ‘weapon’ in their hands to hide them­selves as “they are con­demned to be con­stant­ly on the spot, con­stant­ly mon­i­tored, con­stant­ly ‘authen­tic’, con­stant­ly them­selves” (Del­la Rat­ta 2021). Cura­tion was “their lit­tle hide-and-seek game” (Del­la Rat­ta 2021).

Yet, far from being a gen­er­a­tional aspect, this cura­tional fea­ture is increas­ing­ly becom­ing part of the hege­mon­ic social media cul­ture, even in old­er gen­er­a­tions. As an exam­ple, in Jan­u­ary 2019, Aman­da Palmer, a singer and song­writer in her for­ties, start­ed a thread on Twit­ter on “how peo­ple feel about phone calls.” She wrote: “Wan­na change the world? Wan­na do some­thing absolute­ly fuck­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary? It’s Fri­day evening. Go to your con­tacts and call some­one up – a friend, an-ex, an old co-work­er – any­one you haven’t talked to in a while. And DON’T TEXT THEM FIRST. Just call. You’ll change the world” (Palmer, quot­ed in Del­la Rat­ta 2021). The thread became imme­di­ate­ly heat­ed, putting into stark relief how peo­ple across gen­er­a­tions would inter­pret voice calls as a sort of pri­va­cy vio­la­tion, a blunt intru­sion into indi­vid­u­als’ pri­vate life, advo­cat­ing instead for a cura­to­r­i­al approach of replac­ing voice calls with tex­ting first, so as to nego­ti­ate the time and spa­tial con­text in which the direct con­tact would even­tu­al­ly happen.

Draw­ing on my stu­dents’ and my own autoethno­gra­phies, the essay result­ing from the work car­ried on with the self­ie class in 2019 con­nects our per­son­al expe­ri­ences to a broad­er socio-cul­tur­al con­text where eschew­ing voice calls and direct con­tact is becom­ing the ‘new black’ with the excuse of defend­ing one’s pri­va­cy, being more effi­cient, and opti­miz­ing time. “Why should I spend hours on the phone when I could just send a voice mes­sage avoid­ing any waste of time?” writes Fed­er­i­ca, a stu­dent of the self­ie class (Del­la Rat­ta 2021). Effi­cien­cy and pri­va­cy are inher­ent­ly neolib­er­al val­ues that have been nur­tured by Sil­i­con Valley’s tech com­pa­nies since the ear­ly days of dig­i­tal cul­ture through work­shops, sem­i­nars, train­ings, and, late­ly, by imple­ment­ing apps and toolk­its (Del­la Rat­ta 2021).

Under the myth of pro­tect­ing these val­ues, which would alleged­ly be ruined by direct human con­tact, lies the mate­r­i­al real­i­ty of the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of con­tem­po­rary social net­works, for which more tex­tu­al­iza­tion means more data, more track­ing, more min­ing, i.e. a more prof­itable busi­ness. “Voice calls fall in the domain of the per­for­ma­tive, the ambigu­ous, the non-clas­si­fi­able, the queer. They are defin­i­tive­ly not wel­come in the age of data cap­i­tal­ism,” the essay con­cludes, with a bit­ter remark by Fed­er­i­ca: “why I feel as if when I spent hours on the phone, despite my mom’s screams, every­thing was so much eas­i­er?” (Del­la Rat­ta 2021).

This is just to give an exam­ple of how I have pre­vi­ous­ly worked, togeth­er with my stu­dents in the self­ie class of Spring 2019, using the method of empath­ic crit­i­cism to inte­grate the ide­ol­o­gy cri­tique of data cap­i­tal­ism with per­son­al lived expe­ri­ences through which the ide­o­log­i­cal aspects of the lat­ter become appar­ent.8 When the Spring 2020 semes­ter start­ed in Jan­u­ary, the orig­i­nal plan was to work with the class fol­low­ing a sim­i­lar path. At the begin­ning of the term, the stu­dents enrolled in the class (all females, com­ing from Italy, North Amer­i­ca, and South Amer­i­ca) agreed to pro­duce autoethno­graph­ic pieces based on assign­ments that would be sent exclu­sive­ly to me via email on a week­ly basis. These pieces (in anony­mous form, unless the author wished oth­er­wise) would serve as the basis for a week­ly class sem­i­nar, in which I would dis­cuss their autoethno­gra­phies in con­nec­tion with texts of crit­i­cal the­o­ry, and with visu­al media tak­en from main­stream pop cul­ture, from memes to TV series.

The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic hit a few weeks into the semes­ter, pre­cise­ly after midterm, oblig­ing us to review our plan and face the unprece­dent moment of pre­car­i­ty by find­ing new, cre­ative ways of deal­ing with the uncer­tain­ty it brought.

Discussing methods and ethics: autoethnography or autofiction, is that (really) the question?

Opting for a research method implies embrac­ing a per­spec­tive on ethics that is also a pol­i­tics of ethics, as method­olog­i­cal and eth­i­cal choic­es are close­ly inter­twined and mutu­al­ly influ­ence one anoth­er. Tra­di­tion­al­ly speak­ing, ethics has been under­stood in some­what dis­ci­pli­nary terms, as a set of “codes of con­duct, guide­lines for atti­tudes and behav­iors, rules for deal­ing with oth­ers, or for know­ing the dif­fer­ence between right and wrong, good and bad” (Markham, “Method” 37). How­ev­er, con­duct­ing research in the domain of the dig­i­tal and the net­worked dra­mat­i­cal­ly reveals the flaws and weak­ness­es of this pre­scrip­tive inter­pre­ta­tion. In this con­text, in fact, under­stand­ing ethics unique­ly as a mat­ter of data pro­tec­tion and man­age­ment, intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty, pri­va­cy, and per­son­al infor­ma­tion, or informed con­sent of par­tic­i­pants, brings to the sur­face the ambi­gu­i­ties and the dilem­mas that these notions con­ceal (Markham et al. 2-5).

Markham’s work bril­liant­ly illus­trates how the par­tic­i­pa­to­ry envi­ron­ment of the social web often gen­er­ates eth­i­cal dilem­mas that are unre­solv­able with­in the mind­set of a reg­u­la­to­ry approach to ethics, as the enlight­en­ing case stud­ies pro­vid­ed by the Swedish tech­nofem­i­nist and ethics schol­ar Eva Sved­mark under­line (quot­ed in Markham, “After­word” 2). The fluc­tu­at­ing nature of dig­i­tal and net­worked envi­ron­ments, under­stood by users—who are, at the same time, con­tent makers—as pub­lic venues and qua­si-pub­lic spheres or, alter­na­tive­ly, as per­son­al spaces whose pub­lic vis­i­bil­i­ty does not change their (per­ceived) pri­vate con­no­ta­tion, ren­ders prob­lem­at­ic the mere ideas of pri­va­cy, own­er­ship, and con­sent. The emerg­ing chal­lenges brought by dig­i­tal and net­worked envi­ron­ments require new, more flex­i­ble frame­works and inno­v­a­tive ana­lyt­i­cal and inter­pre­tive tools to under­stand meth­ods as “a mul­ti­lay­ered set of induc­tive and non-lin­ear process­es” (Markham, “Method” 46), which includes the pos­si­bil­i­ty of mak­ing mis­takes and adjust­ing the per­spec­tive of the analy­sis. In this new con­text, ethics should be the result of a “dia­log­ic process” (Markham, “Method” 50) that has to be mutu­al­ly shared and con­tex­tu­al­ly nego­ti­at­ed, rather than a fixed set of val­ues imposed top-down.

It is with­in this con­tex­tu­al, dia­log­ic, and dynam­ic under­stand­ing of ethics that the method­olog­i­cal path fol­lowed by the self­ie class in Spring 2019 was revised the year after, in agree­ment with the stu­dents, as a response to the unprece­dent­ed emer­gency sit­u­a­tion man­i­fest­ed with the out­break of the Coro­n­avirus. As we pro­gressed in the 2020 Spring semes­ter, with all sorts of anx­i­eties gen­er­at­ed by the com­bined action of the unfold­ing of the pan­dem­ic and the harsh restric­tions imposed by the lock­down, we real­ized that the rig­or and ana­lyt­i­cal dis­tance that were orig­i­nal­ly adopt­ed to treat the self as a field of obser­va­tion need­ed to be replaced with an empha­sis on per­son­al and col­lec­tive care, and on the heal­ing aspects of the self-reflec­tive practice.

With­in the schol­ar­ship a sort of “dual­is­tic approach” exists, which tends to priv­i­lege the “pub­lic (mono­graphs)” against the “pri­vate (mem­oirs),” assign­ing to the for­mer the qual­i­ty of being “objec­tive (ethno­graph­ic)” and sep­a­rat­ing it from more “sub­jec­tive (auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal)” ways of col­lect­ing and nar­rat­ing lived expe­ri­ences (Ted­lock in Markham, “Method” 40). With­in this frame­work, forms of nar­ra­tion, reflec­tion, and analy­sis that are built around the self would be con­sid­ered less impact­ful, trustable, reliable—in a word, less ‘sci­en­tif­ic.’ This rigid split between par­tic­i­pant obser­va­tion and self-reflec­tion, between pub­lic and pri­vate, between the mono­graph­ic and the auto­bi­o­graph­ic, between what would be con­sid­ered inher­ent­ly objec­tive and what would be dis­missed as (alleged­ly) sub­jec­tive, and there­fore non-sci­en­tif­ic, not only gen­er­ates a false oppo­si­tion with results detri­men­tal to autoethnog­ra­phy as a research prac­tice. It also over­looks the inher­ent qual­i­ties of an approach that is cen­tered on the self in a time when mul­ti­ple ways of man­i­fest­ing sub­jec­tiv­i­ty have gained promi­nence in con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al production.

The sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry, in fact, has brought to the fore for­mats of “con­fes­sion­al nar­ra­tives” (Dix 2018, 12), both in lit­er­ary writ­ing and in visu­al media (real­i­ty tele­vi­sion being a promi­nent exam­ple), in which self-reflec­tion and self-ref­er­en­tial­i­ty have become ways of know­ing and shap­ing (mul­ti­ple) notions of truth and real­i­ty. An intel­lec­tu­al con­text marked by the rise of post-struc­tural­ism, decon­struc­tion, and inter­tex­tu­al­i­ty has matched with a par­a­digm shift in the under­stand­ing of con­cepts such as author­ship and cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion sug­gest­ed by an abrupt tech­no­log­i­cal change and the per­va­sive dif­fu­sion of dig­i­tal devices in every­day life. The rise of the “read/write cul­ture” (Lessig 8-31) or “par­tic­i­pa­to­ry cul­ture” (Jenk­ins 290), par­al­lel­ing the new tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­ture of the “web 2.0 or social web” (O’Reilly, “Web 2.0”), has brought into stark relief an under­stand­ing of dif­fused author­ship where each user is a con­sumer and, at the same time, a cul­tur­al producer.

As Clay Shirky (“Cog­ni­tive Sur­plus”) has point­ed out, in the era of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry cul­ture even the stu­pid­est pos­si­ble cre­ative act—from lol­cats to memes, from GIFs to selfies—should still be under­stood as a cre­ative act. Late­ly, the sheer frag­men­ta­tion of sub­jec­tiv­i­ties accel­er­at­ed by social media plat­forms, togeth­er with the viral dif­fu­sion of forms of “me-media” where hyper vis­i­bil­i­ty dra­mat­i­cal­ly inter­twines with hyper vio­lence (Del­la Rat­ta 2018, 178-198), has empha­sized the cen­tral­i­ty of the par­a­digm of the self not only as a way of know­ing and under­stand­ing the world but, also, of dra­mat­i­cal­ly trans­form­ing and anni­hi­lat­ing it.

In such a cul­tur­al atmos­phere, with the self becom­ing so empow­ered and cen­tral as a pro­duc­er and spread­er of knowl­edge, a cog­ni­tive shift has tak­en place. Truth is no longer under­stood as a uni­vo­cal instance, but has been ren­dered into a mul­ti­lay­ered process result­ing from the mul­ti­ple tra­jec­to­ries tak­en by sub­jec­tiv­i­ties who are ani­mat­ed by con­tra­dic­to­ry and fluc­tu­at­ing ways of feel­ing and remem­ber­ing. This shift­ed under­stand­ing of the notion of truth has con­tributed to the appre­ci­a­tion of research prac­tices cen­tred around the self, and to mak­ing them less exposed to the old cri­tique of being too ‘sub­jec­tive’.

With­in this shift­ing con­text, the prac­tice of aut­ofic­tion in par­tic­u­lar has regained ground in a moment when dig­i­tal media cul­ture becomes hege­mon­ic, impos­ing ideas of dif­fused author­ship and own­er­ship of texts, and ren­der­ing every­body (or “nobody,” as Doubrovsky, the found­ing father of aut­ofic­tion, described him­self)9 into a poten­tial author. As Hywel Dix (2018, 72-73) has observed when dis­cussing the sus­pi­cious and unen­thu­si­as­tic reac­tion of the schol­ar­ship toward Doubrovsky’s first “aut­ofic­tion” (1977), the French writer’s work was ini­tial­ly per­ceived as a ‘genre’ of lit­er­ary writ­ing employ­ing, in the appar­ent­ly non-fic­tion­al for­mat of the auto­bi­og­ra­phy, “the styl­is­tic lit­er­ary tech­niques more com­mon­ly asso­ci­at­ed with mod­ernist fic­tion,” such as tem­po­ral exper­i­men­ta­tion and stream of con­scious­ness (Dix, 2018, 71). It is only with the par­a­digm shift that takes place toward the end of the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry and the begin­ning of the 2000s that auto-fic­tion is final­ly cred­it­ed as a valid the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tive with­in crit­i­cal theory.

Mov­ing from genre to the­o­ry, aut­ofic­tion opens up to a new under­stand­ing of cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion, dis­avow­ing “the star sta­tus of its own prac­ti­tion­ers” (Dix 2018, 75) and eschew­ing the whole idea of a pub­lic, as it does not “require a mass audi­ence or even a read­er at all” (Dix 2018, 78). Aut­ofic­tion works rather in the domain of the per­son­al, as a way of heal­ing or recov­er­ing from a trau­ma that starts with­in the closed doors of the inner self. And yet, what is incu­bat­ed with­in these closed doors can lat­er serve as a pow­er­ful gate­way to recon­nect the per­son­al with the cul­tur­al and the soci­etal. Recent­ly pub­lished work by schol­ars and writ­ers in the fields of crit­i­cal the­o­ry, queer, trans, and fem­i­nist stud­ies (Pre­ci­a­do; Nel­son; Boy­er; Dodge; Wark) has showed how aut­ofic­tion starts from the per­son­al to explore a wide range of urgent and sen­si­tive cul­tur­al and social issues relat­ed to con­tem­po­rane­ity, from in-vit­ro-fer­til­iza­tion and queer moth­er­hood to can­cer treat­ment and gen­der-affirm­ing hor­mone therapy.

The word ‘fic­tion’ in aut­ofic­tion acts as a dis­claimer, dis­tin­guish­ing this approach from autoethnog­ra­phy, which would be sup­posed to bear a thick­er sci­en­tif­ic lay­er grant­ed by the ethno­graph­ic prac­tice and result­ing from par­tic­i­pant obser­va­tion. As opposed to the prac­tice of observ­ing from a dis­tance, aut­ofic­tion would instead be more inter­est­ed in the for­mal and styl­is­tic fea­tures of the writ­ing prac­tice, allow­ing more room for lin­guis­tic exper­i­men­ta­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty, and ren­der­ing the final prod­uct into some­thing clos­er to art rather than schol­ar­ship. More­over, the word ‘fic­tion’ stands as a pow­er­ful dec­la­ra­tion, an acknowl­edge­ment that the ‘real’ truth is unknow­able and unat­tain­able, dis­solv­ing itself in a vari­ety of accounts offered by a plu­ral­i­ty of sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, ani­mat­ed by mul­ti­ple ways of feel­ings and remem­ber­ing, rather than just aim­ing at offer­ing a coher­ent ana­lyt­i­cal framework.

Writing in a draft mode (and mood) during a pandemic

The shift from the ana­lyt­i­cal approach pro­vid­ed by the auto-ethno­graph­ic prac­tice towards forms of auto-fic­tion hap­pened spon­ta­neous­ly dur­ing the Spring 2020 self­ie class. As we walked through the gar­den of fork­ing paths into which the glob­al pan­dem­ic had sud­den­ly put us, being sep­a­rat­ed geo­graph­i­cal­ly, hav­ing to teach and learn in full online mode and asyn­chro­nous­ly, due to the now dif­fer­ent time zones, the stu­dents and I start­ed dis­cussing the oppor­tu­ni­ty for trans­form­ing the autoethno­graph­ic pieces sent exclu­sive­ly to me in a pri­vate doc­u­ment into some­thing of a dif­fer­ent nature. We agreed that they would start post­ing their reflec­tions online, on per­son­al blogs which would be acces­si­ble to the gen­er­al pub­lic, where they could add videos, audios, and any oth­er forms of mul­ti­me­dia items that were exclud­ed in the pre­vi­ous text-only format.

After talk­ing to Dutch-Aus­tralian net the­o­rist Geert Lovink, a long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor and friend, founder of the Insti­tute of Net­work Cul­tures (INC), we came up with a plan for a series of blog posts host­ed on the INC web­site. I would curate the stu­dents’ autoethno­gra­phies, which they would ini­tial­ly post on their per­son­al blogs, and make them into a sort of col­lec­tive nar­ra­tion where their writ­ings would inter­twine with my own reflec­tions, and with excerpts from crit­i­cal the­o­ry and visu­al media from con­tem­po­rary pop cul­ture, fol­low­ing the lines of the class sem­i­nar dis­cus­sions we used to have ‘in pres­ence’ when we were still on campus.

The INC blog series wasn’t part of the for­mal and grad­ed assign­ments of the self­ie class and wasn’t manda­to­ry. The stu­dents could decide whether to take part in it and could opt out from the project when­ev­er they wished to. How­ev­er, all of them enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly joined the call and man­aged to take part in the project even after the class end­ed (episode num­ber five and the video episode of the blog series were in fact pub­lished after the semes­ter was over). As I dis­cuss below, prob­a­bly the blog series was under­stood as a way of deal­ing with what was hap­pen­ing, a way of heal­ing the trau­ma in pub­lic and mak­ing sense of the unprece­dent­ed cir­cum­stances, rather than a class duty. More­over, with life becom­ing all-dig­i­tal dur­ing the first lock­down, we all prob­a­bly need­ed an online plat­form mir­ror­ing what we were doing before ‘in pres­ence,’ as a venue to con­front our feel­ings, emo­tions, and reflec­tions, and as a sort of a meet­ing point.

As we start­ed this new adven­ture, the stu­dents’ writ­ing style became more exper­i­men­tal, and freer from the con­straints of fac­tu­al accounts and rigid self-obser­va­tion. Many of them start­ed to write poems, such as ele­gies to the lost free­doms or odes to new­ly dis­cov­ered feel­ings, such as bore­dom (see Fig­ure 3, “The ABC of Bore­dom”), which was once care­ful­ly avoid­ed by virtue of their busy sched­ules and the plan­ning of out­door and leisure activities.

Figure 3: The ABC of Boredom.“Selfies Under Quarantine: Students Report Back to Rome (Episode 2),” Elena Santoro, April 16, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.

Liv­ing under a very strict regime of lock­down meant hav­ing much more time avail­able to con­front one­self with one’s own feel­ings, which the stu­dents chose to deal with by employ­ing a wider vari­ety of cre­ative mul­ti­me­dia lan­guages. Some of them played with the for­mat of the video essay,10 oth­ers pro­duced cre­ative Snapchat sto­ries11 (see Fig­ure 4, “Tik Tok Screenshots”).

Figure 4: TikTok Screenshots. “Selfies Under Quarantine: Students Report Back to Rome (Episode 3),” Sophia Vivolo, April 23, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.

Feel­ing over­whelmed with lone­li­ness, a stu­dent start­ed chat­ting with a bot and report­ed about the expe­ri­ence using screen­shots of their con­ver­sa­tions12 (see Fig­ure 5, “Con­ver­sa­tion with a Chatbot”).

Fig­ure 5: Con­ver­sa­tion with a chat­bot. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome (Episode 4),” Jack­ie Mal­don­a­do, May 1, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.

Dur­ing this process of self-dis­cov­ery, which was also a dis­cov­ery of cre­ative lan­guages and new expres­sive for­mats, my role was that of a facil­i­ta­tor and a cura­tor. A facil­i­ta­tor, in that, week by week, I would throw into our e-learn­ing space onto the Moo­dle plat­form quotes and excerpts from dif­fer­ent sources—from lit­er­ary to media ones—that could trig­ger a col­lec­tive dis­cus­sion in the class forum, and there­fore inspire the stu­dents to write their own blog posts. As an exam­ple, dur­ing the first week of lock­down, when the class was read­ing excerpts from Geert Lovink’s “Sad by Design” and reflect­ing on net­worked emo­tions as the week’s main top­ic, I shared the fol­low­ing quotes:

Fig­ure 6: Inspi­ra­tional quotes. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome,” Donatel­la Del­la Rat­ta, April 9, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.

Many stu­dents react­ed by writ­ing about them­selves being torn between hav­ing to “get through it”—as Cuo­mo says13—and deal with the prac­ti­cal­i­ties brought for­ward by the cri­sis, and the rather over­whelm­ing feel­ing of numb­ness that had par­a­lyzed them since ‘social dis­tanc­ing’ had been imple­ment­ed, although that very prac­tice was not entire­ly unknown to their gen­er­a­tion, as the meme post­ed by one of the stu­dents iron­i­cal­ly sug­gest­ed (see Fig­ure 7).

Figure 7: Social distancing? “Selfies Under Quarantine: Students Report Back to Rome,” picture by Marta Masciarelli, April 9, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.

Anoth­er time, I read them an excerpt from Wal­ter Benjamin’s “The sto­ry­teller: Reflec­tions on the Works of Niko­lai Leskov” and his short sto­ry “The Hand­ker­chief” and encour­aged them to think about sto­ry­telling in the time of Insta­gram. What were the main dif­fer­ences between what Ben­jamin described as the art of sto­ry­telling, and their own expe­ri­ences of pro­duc­ing Insta­gram sto­ries? Was bore­dom still a pro­duc­tive con­cept to think through, or was its cre­ative poten­tial com­plete­ly under­mined by the urgency of hav­ing to fill all void spaces in per­pet­u­al avoid­ance of FOMO (Fear Of Miss­ing Out)? Had “what are you doing” final­ly become the new “how are you” for Gen Z, as a stu­dent wrote?

As a cura­tor, my goal was to dig into those repos­i­to­ries of cre­ativ­i­ty that their posts (whether audio­vi­su­al or writ­ten) were, and edit them togeth­er, build­ing a nar­ra­tion and a nar­ra­tive where both Ben­jamin and their thoughts on Insta­gram would be felt. I fol­lowed a path of asso­nances, of hav­ing these very dif­fer­ent sources and mate­r­i­al res­onat­ing togeth­er in terms of themes and tropes that they pushed to emerge. Some­times I would also do the oppo­site, by let­ting the dis­so­nances sur­face instead, under­lin­ing gaps and dis­cor­dances rather than har­mo­ny and con­sis­ten­cy. In both cas­es, my role was to build a sort of score—a musi­cal, audio­vi­su­al score—that would guide read­ers (and our­selves) into the mul­ti­ple pos­si­ble paths of explor­ing sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and feel­ings in a time of unprece­dent­ed distress.

Is this a work of aut­ofic­tion, involv­ing lit­er­ary exper­i­men­ta­tion and play­ing with sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, rather than a jour­ney into autoethnog­ra­phy as a sci­en­tif­ic method? Prob­a­bly. Per­haps it’s just a mat­ter of def­i­n­i­tions, which doesn’t real­ly change the sub­stance of what had hap­pened to the self­ie class in the time of a glob­al pan­dem­ic. Most like­ly the ethno­graph­ic part of the project, the dis­tance of par­tic­i­pant obser­va­tion, and the sci­en­tif­ic rig­or that had orig­i­nal­ly informed the objec­tives of the class, had been replaced by the urgent need of using aut­ofic­tion as a prac­tice of deal­ing with the unex­pect­ed trau­ma and mak­ing sense of what was hap­pen­ing in the very moment in which the dis­rup­tive event was unfolding.

As for myself, I also had to put away my ten­den­cy, as a schol­ar and class instruc­tor, of offer­ing defin­i­tive expla­na­tions and cat­e­go­riza­tions, of look­ing for a coher­ent frame­work to inter­pret the cir­cum­stances. Instead, I ful­ly embraced the aes­thet­ics of the frag­ment, which also involved a sim­i­lar approach to ethics. This implied giv­ing up an already cho­sen method­olog­i­cal path to embrace anoth­er, more apt to the cri­sis con­text, sug­gest­ing a greater pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the self and the oth­ers, and the prompt­ness of dis­re­gard­ing the orig­i­nal plan, as self-care and well­be­ing were deemed a priority.

Conclusion (in a draft mode)

This essay has account­ed for the choice of a research prac­tice, i.e. aut­ofic­tion, which has trans­lat­ed into opt­ing for a spe­cif­ic kind of aes­thet­ics and ethics, i.e. the aes­thet­ics and the ethics of the frag­ment, as a result of a dia­log­ic and sit­u­a­tion­al process that is con­stant­ly revised and rene­go­ti­at­ed with those involved, in light of an ever-chang­ing con­text. It has nar­rat­ed the col­lec­tive jour­ney of an under­grad­u­ate class that had to review its learn­ing process in the midst of an unex­pect­ed pan­dem­ic out­break. It has described the shift from autoethno­graph­ic prac­tice toward an exper­i­ment in aut­ofic­tion, and the switch from a pri­vate, research-ori­ent­ed dis­cus­sion to a debate hap­pen­ing on a pub­lic plat­form and try­ing out styl­is­tic exper­i­men­ta­tion and the use of lyri­cal language.

As a ‘con­clu­sion,’ it advo­cates for con­sid­er­ing the draft as a help­ful cat­e­go­ry to nav­i­gate the com­plex and uncer­tain cir­cum­stances we live in. As an aes­thet­ics, the draft hints at lan­guage exper­i­men­ta­tion, stream of con­scious­ness, an approach to writ­ing that trea­sures bro­ken thoughts, inter­rup­tions, laps­es, and break­downs, rather than read­ing them as fragili­ties and flaws. Draft­ing is about sketch­ing out but not nec­es­sar­i­ly devel­op­ing ideas, some­times leav­ing them fluc­tu­at­ing and blos­som­ing in the hia­tus­es of the text.

As an ethics, work­ing in drafts sug­gests look­ing at and con­fronting issues in a per­ma­nent pre­lim­i­nary mode. The ethics of the draft implies col­lab­o­ra­tion, atten­tion, and care for the spe­cif­ic con­text in which some­thing occurs, and for the sub­jec­tiv­i­ties who inhab­it it. It hints at a dia­log­ic mode of doing, and at an atti­tude of always being ready to revis­it the deci­sion tak­en and undo it.

Being in the draft mode, this essay does not draw any defin­i­tive con­clu­sion, pre­scribe, or rec­om­mend, but rather cel­e­brates indef­i­nite­ness and embraces it as a mode of being and exist­ing in the cur­rent circumstances.


I wish to whole­heart­ed­ly thank the stu­dents who con­tributed to the blog series “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome” upon which this essay is based: Danielle Como, Shaina De Michele, Bri­ana Dis­is­to, Jack­ie Mal­don­a­do, Mar­ta Mas­cia­rel­li, Gabriel­la Pra­do, Syd­ney Reynolds, Ele­na San­toro, Sophia Vivo­lo, and Natalia Stanusch. I am grate­ful to Geert Lovink for sup­port­ing and host­ing the project on the Insti­tute of Net­work Cul­tures web­site, and to my research assis­tant Mar­i­ja Rakovic for help­ing with the ref­er­ences and for­mat­ting of this essay.

Works Cited

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Atkin­son, Paul. “Nar­ra­tive Turn or Blind Alley?” Qual­i­ta­tive Health Research, vol. 7, no. 3, 1997, pp. 325-344.

Ben­jamin, Wal­ter. “The Sto­ry-Teller: Reflec­tions on the Works of Nico­lai Leskov.” Trans­lat­ed by Har­ry Zohn, Chica­go Review, vol. 16, no. 1, 1963, pp. 80-101. DOI: 10.2307/25293714.

Boy­er, Anne. The Undy­ing: A Med­i­ta­tion on Mod­ern Ill­ness. Allen Lane, 2019.

Del­la Rat­ta, Donatel­la. Shoot­ing a Rev­o­lu­tion: Visu­al Media and War­fare in Syr­ia. Plu­to Press, 2018.

–––. “Dig­i­tal Social­ism Beyond the Dig­i­tal Social: Con­fronting Com­mu­nica­tive Cap­i­tal­ism with Ethics of Care.” TripleC, vol. 18, no. 1, 2020, pp. 101-115, DOI: 10.31269/triplec.v18i1.1145.

–––. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome.Insti­tute of Net­work Cul­tures, 2020, net​work​cul​tures​.org/​b​l​o​g​/​2​0​2​0​/​0​4​/​0​9​/​s​e​l​f​i​e​s​-​u​n​d​e​r​-​q​u​a​r​a​n​t​i​ne/.

–––. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome (Episode 2).Insti­tute of Net­work Cul­tures, 2020, net​work​cul​tures​.org/​b​l​o​g​/​2​0​2​0​/​0​4​/​1​6​/​s​e​l​f​i​e​s​-​u​n​d​e​r​-​q​u​a​r​a​n​t​i​n​e​-​e​p​i​s​o​d​e​-2/.

–––. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome (Episode 3).Insti­tute of Net­work Cul­tures, 2020, net​work​cul​tures​.org/​b​l​o​g​/​2​0​2​0​/​0​4​/​2​3​/​s​e​l​f​i​e​s​-​u​n​d​e​r​-​q​u​a​r​a​n​t​i​n​e​-​s​t​u​d​e​n​t​s​-​r​e​p​o​r​t​-​b​a​c​k​-​t​o​-​r​o​m​e​-​e​p​i​s​o​d​e​-3/.

–––. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome (Episode Four).Insti­tute of Net­work Cul­tures, 2020, net​work​cul​tures​.org/​b​l​o​g​/​2​0​2​0​/​0​5​/​0​1​/​s​e​l​f​i​e​s​-​u​n​d​e​r​-​q​u​a​r​a​n​t​i​n​e​-​s​t​u​d​e​n​t​s​-​r​e​p​o​r​t​-​b​a​c​k​-​t​o​-​r​o​m​e​-​e​p​i​s​o​d​e​-4/.

–––. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome (Final Episode).Insti­tute of Net­work Cul­tures, 2020, net​work​cul​tures​.org/​b​l​o​g​/​2​0​2​0​/​0​5​/​0​8​/​s​e​l​f​i​e​s​-​u​n​d​e​r​-​q​u​a​r​a​n​t​i​n​e​-​s​t​u​d​e​n​t​s​-​r​e​p​o​r​t​-​b​a​c​k​-​t​o​-​r​o​m​e​-​f​i​n​a​l​-​e​p​i​s​o​de/.

Del­la Rat­ta, Donatel­la. “Reflect­ing on the Online Self Through the Look­ing-Glass: From Auto-Ethnog­ra­phy to Empath­ic Crit­i­cism.” The Aes­thet­ics and Pol­i­tics of the Online Self, edit­ed by Donatel­la Del­la Rat­ta et al., Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2021.

Dix, Hywel. “Aut­ofic­tion: The For­got­ten Face of French The­o­ry.” Word and Text, vol. 7, no. 1, 2017, pp. 69-85.

Dix, Hywel, edi­tor. Aut­ofic­tion in Eng­lish. Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2018.

Dodge, Har­ry. My Mete­orite, or, With­out the Ran­dom There Can Be No New Thing. Pen­guin Books, 2020.

Doubrovsky, Serge. Fils. Édi­tions Galilée, 1977.

Doubrovsky, Serge. Un amour de soi. Folio, 2001.

Ellis, Car­olyn. The Ethno­graph­ic I: A Method­olog­i­cal Nov­el about Autoethnog­ra­phy. AltaMi­ra Press, 2004.

–––. “Telling Tales on Neigh­bors: Ethics in Two Voic­es.” Inter­na­tion­al Review of Qual­i­ta­tive Research, vol. 2, no. 1, 2009, pp. 3-28.

Ellis, Car­olyn, et al. “Autoethnog­ra­phy: An Overview.” Forum Qual­i­ta­tive Social Research (FQS), 2011, www​.qual​i​ta​tive​-research​.net/​i​n​d​e​x​.​p​h​p​/​f​q​s​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​v​i​e​w​/​1​5​8​9​/​3​095.

Gans, Her­bert J. “Par­tic­i­pant Obser­va­tion in the Era of “Ethnog­ra­phy.”” Jour­nal of Con­tem­po­rary Ethnog­ra­phy, vol. 28, no. 5, 1999, pp. 540-548, DOI: 10.1177/089124199129023532.

hooks, bell. Teach­ing to Trans­gress: Edu­ca­tion as the Prac­tice of Free­dom. Rout­ledge, 1994.

Jar­rett, Kylie. “Let’s Express Our Friend­ship by Send­ing Each Oth­er Fun­ny Links Instead of Actu­al­ly Talk­ing: Gifts, Com­modi­ties and Social Repro­duc­tion in Face­book.” Net­worked Affect, edit­ed by Ken Hillis et al., MIT Press, 2015.

Jenk­ins, Hen­ry. Con­fronting the Chal­lenges of Par­tic­i­pa­to­ry Cul­ture: Media Edu­ca­tion for the 21st Cen­tu­ry. Chica­go: The MacArthur Foun­da­tion, 2006.

Karp­pi, Tero. “Hap­py Acci­dents – Face­book and the Val­ue of Affect.” Net­worked Affect, edit­ed by Ken Hillis et al., MIT Press, 2015.

Keller, Eve­lyn F. Reflec­tions on gen­der and sci­ence. Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1995.

Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Mak­ing Art and Com­merce Thrive in the Hybrid Econ­o­my. Pen­guin Press, 2008.

Lovink, Geert. Sad by Design. Plu­to Press, 2019.

Lovink, Geert. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome (Video Episode).” Insti­tute of Net­work Cul­tures, 2020, https://​net​work​cul​tures​.org/​b​l​o​g​/​2​0​2​0​/​0​6​/​2​7​/​v​i​d​e​o​-​e​p​i​s​o​de/.

Markham, Annette. Life Online: Research­ing Real Expe­ri­ences in Vir­tu­al Space. AltaMi­ra Press, 1998.

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–––. “Method as Eth­ic, Eth­ic as Method.” Jour­nal of Infor­ma­tion Ethics, vol. 15, no. 2, 2006, pp. 37-55.

Markham, Annette, et al. “Ethics as Meth­ods: Doing Ethics in the Era of Big Data Research–Introduction.” Social Media + Soci­ety, vol. 4, no. 3, 2018, SAGE, doi:10.1177/2056305118784502.

Markham, Annette. “After­word: Ethics as Impact—Moving From Error-Avoid­ance and Con­cept- Dri­ven Mod­els to a Future-Ori­ent­ed Approach.” Social Media + Soci­ety, vol. 4, no. 3, 2018, SAGE, DOI: 10.1177/2056305118784504.

May­er-Schön­berg­er, Vik­tor, and Thomas Ramge. Rein­vent­ing Cap­i­tal­ism in the Age of Big Data. Basic Books, 2018.

Nel­son, Ray­mond. “Sci­en­tif­ic Basis for Poly­graph Test­ing.” Poly­graph, vol. 44, no. 1, 2015, pp. 28-61.

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Shirky, Clay. Cog­ni­tive Sur­plus: How Tech­nol­o­gy Makes Con­sumers into Col­lab­o­ra­tors. Pen­guin Group, 2010.

Srnicek, Nick. Plat­form Cap­i­tal­ism. Cam­bridge and Malden: Poli­ty Press, 2016.

Tombro, Melis­sa. Teach­ing Autoethnog­ra­phy: Per­son­al Writ­ing in the Class­room. Open SUNY Text­books, 2016.

Wark, McKen­zie. Reverse Cow­girl. Semiotext(e), 2020.

Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Sur­veil­lance Cap­i­tal­ism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Fron­tier of Pow­er. New York: Pub­lic Affairs-Hachette Book Group, 2019.

Image Notes

All images curat­ed by Del­la Rat­ta, Donatel­la. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome.” Insti­tute of Net­work Cul­tures. net​work​cul​tures​.org/​b​l​o​g​/​2​0​2​0​/​0​4​/​0​9​/​s​e​l​f​i​e​s​-​u​n​d​e​r​-​q​u​a​r​a​n​t​i​ne/

Fig­ure 1: Intro­duc­tion to the blog series pub­lished by the Insti­tute of Net­work Cul­tures (INC). “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome,” Donatel­la Del­la Rat­ta, April 9, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.

Fig­ure 2: Intro­duc­tion to the blog series. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome,” Donatel­la Del­la Rat­ta, April 9, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.

Fig­ure 3: The ABC of Bore­dom. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome (Episode 2),” Ele­na San­toro, April 16, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.

Fig­ure 4: Tik­Tok Screen­shots. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome (Episode 3),” Sophia Vivo­lo, April 23, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.

Fig­ure 5: Con­ver­sa­tion with a chat­bot. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome (Episode 4)”, Jack­ie Mal­don­a­do, May 1, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.

Fig­ure 6: Inspi­ra­tional quotes. “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome,” April 9, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.

Fig­ure 7: Social dis­tanc­ing? “Self­ies Under Quar­an­tine: Stu­dents Report Back to Rome,” pic­ture by Mar­ta Mas­cia­rel­li, April 9, 2020, released under CC BY-NC-SA-4.0.


  1. The five episodes of the blog series and a final video episode were post­ed on the Insti­tute of Net­work Cul­tures web­site between April and June 2020. All the mate­r­i­al has been released under a Cre­ative Com­mons Attri­bu­tion-Non­Com­mer­cial-Share­Alike 4.0 Inter­na­tion­al license (CC BY NC SA 4.0) https://​net​work​cul​tures​.org/​a​b​o​ut/.

  2. As an exam­ple, see Jarrett’s piece on the ‘gift econ­o­my’ on social media, or Karppi’s essay on the val­ue of Face­book in Hillis, Ken, Paa­so­nen, Susan­na and Petit, Micheal (eds) Net­worked Affect. Cam­bridge, MA, and Lon­don: MIT Press.

  3. For exam­ple, May­er-Schön­berg­er, Vik­tor and Thomas Ramge. Rein­vent­ing Cap­i­tal­ism in the Age of Big Data. New York: Basic Books, 2018; Srnicek, Nick. Plat­form Cap­i­tal­ism. Cam­bridge and Malden: Poli­ty Press, 2016; Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Sur­veil­lance Cap­i­tal­ism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Fron­tier of Pow­er. New York: Pub­lic Affairs-Hachette Book Group, 2019.

  4. On apply­ing ethno­graph­ic meth­ods to the dig­i­tal domain see for exam­ple: Markham, Annette and Baym, Nan­cy. 2009. Inter­net Inquiry: Con­ver­sa­tions about Method. Thou­sand Oaks, CA: Sage; Markham, Annette. 2017. ‘Ethnog­ra­phy in the dig­i­tal era: From fields to flow, descrip­tions to inter­ven­tions’, in Den­zin, Nor­man, and Lin­coln, Yvon­na (eds.). The Sage Hand­book of Qual­i­ta­tive Research, 5th Edi­tion. Thou­sand Oaks, CA: Sage; Markham, Annette. 1998. Life Online: Research­ing Real Expe­ri­ences in Vir­tu­al Space. Wal­nut Creek, CA: AltaMi­ra Press.

  5. For exam­ple, after read­ing Žižek’s take on ide­ol­o­gy and watch­ing the doc­u­men­tary “The Pervert’s Guide to Ide­ol­o­gy,” they are called upon reflect­ing on what is, in their dai­ly dig­i­tal life, that ‘they do any­way’, even if aware that it will even­tu­al­ly harm them. Or, after read­ing excerpts from McLuhan’s ‘The Medi­um is the Mas­sage’, they do the auto-ethno­graph­ic exper­i­ment of scrolling down and check­ing social media for about a hour, then writ­ing down what con­tent they’ve got from the expe­ri­ence.

  6. I coined this expres­sion in a con­ver­sa­tion with Geert Lovink.

  7. In order to pro­tect the stu­dents’ pri­va­cy and, at the same time, cred­it them for the work they have done on their auto-ethno­gra­phies, I have giv­en them fic­tion­al names.

  8. At the begin­ning of the Spring 2019 semes­ter I illus­trat­ed the stu­dents my approach to the analy­sis of their auto-ethno­gra­phies, which would con­sist in hav­ing them send­ing me each week their writ­ings on a pri­vate email. Then I would curate a selec­tion of these auto-ethno­graph­ic pieces and ana­lyze them in class, always in the anony­mous form unless the author explic­it­ly wished to be men­tioned. Each week, I would dis­cuss their pieces in close dia­logue with texts of crit­i­cal the­o­ry assigned as read­ings for the class, and in con­nec­tion with visu­al media tak­en from con­tem­po­rary pop­u­lar cul­ture (e.g. memes, social media posts, TV series, etc.). I would also bring up my own auto-ethnog­ra­phy, and exam­ples tak­en from my own dai­ly social media life, as the above men­tioned Twit­ter dis­cus­sion fol­low­ing Aman­da Palmer’s post. The dis­cus­sions hap­pened once a week for the dura­tion of four­teen weeks, and they were so live­ly and inspir­ing that, at the end of the semes­ter, I asked the stu­dents how they would feel if I used excerpts of their auto-ethno­gra­phies to com­pile an essay fol­low­ing the method I had used dur­ing class sem­i­nars. They all agreed to have their mate­r­i­al fea­tured, in the anony­mous form, in an essay titled “Reflect­ing on the Online Self Through the Look­ing-Glass: From Auto-Ethnog­ra­phy to Empath­ic Crit­i­cism” (Del­la Rat­ta 2021).

  9. Serge Doubrovsky, Un amour de soi (Paris: Folio, 2001), 104. The term ‘aut­ofic­tion’ first appeared in Doub­vsky, 1977.

  10. https://​net​work​cul​tures​.org/​b​l​o​g​/​2​0​2​0​/​0​6​/​2​7​/​v​i​d​e​o​-​e​p​i​s​o​de/

  11. https://​net​work​cul​tures​.org/​b​l​o​g​/​2​0​2​0​/​0​4​/​2​3​/​s​e​l​f​i​e​s​-​u​n​d​e​r​-​q​u​a​r​a​n​t​i​n​e​-​s​t​u​d​e​n​t​s​-​r​e​p​o​r​t​-​b​a​c​k​-​t​o​-​r​o​m​e​-​e​p​i​s​o​d​e​-3/

  12. https://​net​work​cul​tures​.org/​b​l​o​g​/​2​0​2​0​/​0​5​/​0​1​/​s​e​l​f​i​e​s​-​u​n​d​e​r​-​q​u​a​r​a​n​t​i​n​e​-​s​t​u​d​e​n​t​s​-​r​e​p​o​r​t​-​b​a​c​k​-​t​o​-​r​o​m​e​-​e​p​i​s​o​d​e​-4/

  13. https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​Y​c​1​g​u​X​D​x​9Ag