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White Design: Engineering the Visualization of Race and Racism in Social Media

Cummings, Kelsey (2020) White Design: Engineering the Visualization of Race and Racism in Social Media. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This dissertation is a study on how social media platforms engineer whiteness as ideology and aesthetic. Where work in the field to this point has primarily emphasized the ways in which platforms reproduce ideologies like white supremacy, I demonstrate that the platform is itself a generative mechanism that has infrastructural connections to white supremacy in the form of shared mechanics, including identification, categorization, and interpellation. To advance this research, I conduct textual, visual, and design-based rhetorical analysis on three case study platforms: YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. From this work, I establish a theoretical framework combining visual culture studies, platform studies, and critical race studies.

This research contributes to the field of media studies by reframing how race and platforms correlate. Platformization as a phenomenon brings about fundamentally distinct dynamics with regard to conceptualizations of white supremacy, prompting a reassessment of how the latter is commonly defined in critical race studies. This work also contributes to the ongoing development of media studies via its public-facing nature and investment in understanding new media through anti-racist theory. Because of the growth of public knowledge on how content platforms have ideological functions that align with existing biases, my research contributes new insight into both scholarly and popular discussions of the relationships between race and social media.

The first chapter conceptualizes platform in theoretical relationship to race. Both platform and race are infrastructures that generate affect through interpellation. Belonging and loneliness are generated in the narratives that platforms produce as political power is given and denied based on the social construction of race. Chapters two, three, and four use case studies of social media platforms (YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram respectively) to demonstrate that there are always already design-based connections between platforms and the content that they host. Over the course of these chapters, I analyze media practices and objects that range across “passive” and “active” forms of engagement (from the acts of watching and searching to that of posting) and across moving and still images (from the formats of the video and GIF to the photograph).


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Cummings, Kelseykec160
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairLi, Jinying
Committee CoChairHorton, Zachary
Committee MemberAnderson, Mark Lynn
Committee MemberMalin, Brenton
Committee MemberReich, Elizabeth
Date: 8 June 2020
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 27 March 2020
Approval Date: 8 June 2020
Submission Date: 30 March 2020
Access Restriction: 2 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 2 years.
Number of Pages: 146
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Film Studies
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: social media
Date Deposited: 08 Jun 2020 16:04
Last Modified: 08 Jun 2022 05:15

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