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.

If you have questions or comments about any of my work, please don't hesitate to reach out and get in touch with me! I'm always happy to discuss my work and help out others with their own work as much as I am able to.


For a full picture of the projects that I have worked on, please take a look at my CV, the individual projects listed in the site menu, or see short descriptions of some of my work below:

2020

  • Needs More JPEG - Seminar Paper
  • 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:

  • The Tumblr Porn Ban - M.A. Thesis
  • Read more details about my M.A. thesis on this page.
  • Click here to read the full thesis. (Institutional Log-in may be required)

2019

  • Rhetoric of Silence - Seminar Paper
  • If we accept Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as seeing all the available means of persuasion, we must also accept that in some cases the means of persuasion may come from unexpected sources. Though much rhetorical theory has emphasized kairos, or the opportune moment to speak and engage in argument, there has been significantly less attention paid to its opposite—those moments when a speaker chooses to remain silent. This paper examines how silence has been treated and discussed within much of classical rhetorical theory. By drawing comparisons between the classical Greco-Roman tradition and ancient Chinese rhetorical theory, I demonstrate that silence can be a rhetorical strategy in and of itself. Confucius’ Analects, for instance, greatly value silence and downplay the important of eloquence. Though this is a vastly different approach to rhetoric than most classical theory, there is great opportunity for overlap between these seemingly disparate schools of thought. To underscore the potential scholarship enabled by crossing temporal, geographic, and cultural distances through rhetorical theory, I briefly consider the modern practice of so-called “internet trolling” and what a rhetorical theory of silence might tell us about such online interactions.

  • Finstas, Young Adults, and Stardom - Seminar Paper
  • 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.
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2018