Research<!-- --> | <!-- -->Ben Pettis
Ben Pettis


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.

Tracking the HTTP 451 Response Code

web infrastructure

May 15, 2022

A cartoon image of a server icon with a flame and cloud in the background

This project automatically tracks use of the HTTP 451 (Not Available for Legal Reasons) code, how frequently it's used, and archiving error pages. Geoblocking is a reality of the modern Web, and the code could be appropriate to use in some of these situations. We know that gov censorship is a reality in many places, but despite all the restrictions on the full flow of content online, this specific HTTP response code is actually not used all that frequently!


Know Your Meme and the Homogenization of Internet History


August 19, 2021

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.


The Tumblr Porn Ban

social media

May 1, 2020

A photo of Ben Pettis standing in front of a blank wall with a confused look on his face. There is photo over the image which reads 'Female-Presenting Nipples'

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.


Finstas, Young Adults, and Stardom

social media

November 1, 2019

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.


Pepe the Frog


February 1, 2018

A black slide with a cartoon frog at the top-center. The frog has a speech bubble saying 'feels good man.' The title on the slide reads 'Pepe the Frog. A case study of the internt meme and its potential subversive power to challenge cultural hegemonies'

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.