This joint book project with Susanna Paasonen and Kylie Jarrett will be released with MIT Press in October 2019. You can get copies here, just in time for xmas! https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/nsfw


Sex, Humor, and Risk in Social Media

An exploration of how and why social media content is tagged as “not safe for work” and an argument against conflating sexual content with risk.

The hashtag #NSFW (not safe for work) acts as both a warning and an invitation. NSFW tells users, “We dare you to click on this link! And by the way, don’t do it until after work!” Unlike the specificity of movie and television advisories (“suggestive dialogue,” “sexual content”), NSFW signals, nonspecifically, sexually explicit content that ranges from nude selfies to pornography. NSFW looks at how and why social media content is tagged “not safe” and shows how this serves to conflate sexual content and risk. The authors argue that the notion of “unsafety” extends beyond the risk of losing one’s job or being embarrassed at work to an unspecified sense of risk attached to sexually explicit media content and sexual communication in general. The authors examine NSFW practices of tagging and flagging on a range of social media platforms; online pornography and its dependence on technology; user-generated NSFW content—in particular, the dick pic and associated issues of consent, desire, agency, and social power; the deployment of risqué humor in the workplace; and sexist and misogynist online harassment that functions as an enforcer of inequalities. They argue against the categorical effacement of sexual content by means of an all-purpose hashtag and urge us to shift considerations of safety from pictorial properties to issues of context and consent.

different views of dick pics

The dick pic : harassment, curation, and desire

The combined rise of digital photography and social media has expanded what might be considered photo worthy. Among the pouting selfies and food stuffs of the day exists the ubiquitous dick pic. The mainstream media generally focuses on dick pics of the unsolicited kind, which, negatively positioned, are commonly associated with heterosexual harassment. Considering the ubiquity of dick pics across apps and platforms, research on the topic nevertheless remains scarce. Working with Susanna Paasonen and Kylie Jarrett, in this paper, we examine the dick pic as an online communicative form, first considering how it manifests the ability to harass and then moving beyond this dominant framing to analysis of contexts where such images are collated, expected, and sought after. Through this analysis of dick pics as figures and actors of harassment, curation, and desire, we demonstrate the simultaneous tenacity and flexibility of their meanings in connection with the dynamics of consent and non-consent, intimacy and distance, and complex circuits of desire. We further address the role of platforms, apps, and app stores, via their community standards and terms of use, in shaping the nature, and presence, of dick pics, and discuss the affective and communicative functions that these affordances serve (or fail to serve). Our analysis of three key modes of engagement with dick pics demonstrates the ambiguity and multiple valences of the phenomenon addressed.  This paper is part of our overall recent project on the phenomena of the tag NSFW.

You can down load our dick pics paper here: http://usir.salford.ac.uk/id/eprint/50984/

a link to work on ashley madison and speculative devices

speculative devices: the bots of Ashley Madison

welcome page for ashley madison

Speculation has been engaged in a number of ways in research and practice, particularly in a methodological context. Whilst there is much research on the effects of speculation in markets of various kinds, this is not quite the kind of actor I am working on. Instead, I am finding it more helpful to turn to how speculation is engaged in terms of design and method.

Speculative design is concerned with deploying artefacts, probes and prototypes that have oblique and ambiguous functions in order to allow designers and users to open up what is at stake in particular events. This approach has been positioned as a way to engage with design to generate alternative visions of being, inspire, and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely. The assumption here is that humans are free agents and that speculative approaches can increase the the probability of a more desirable future whilst limiting those that are undesirable.

Speculative method refers to forms of research method that have the capacity to act themselves as well as be enacted by a researcher. Such approaches refer to discussions of mess and the liveness of method and can be linked with a broader agenda of digital methods research . Kane Race for example introduces speculative pragmatism, defining it as “concerned not only with what happens, but also what might happen, the possible – that is, what might come into being” . Further, in the work of Wilkie, Michael et al. (2015), bots inscribed with particular characters (idiot, parasite and diplomat) are deployed with Twitter as a method of generating of discussion with and amongst humans about climate change.

Building upon this work, I am seeking to extend the possibilities for speculative design and method via the attendance to a particular version of speculative devices. From design I am borrowing the principle of things such as artefacts, probes and prototypes that have oblique and ambiguous functions as holding the potential to shape and interact with human agency to produce sets of associations. However, in contrast to speculative design, I do not necessarily associate their deployment with positive or well meaning outcomes. From speculative methods, I am using the idea of devices as part of methods resulting in unexpected and unknowable outcomes. By device, I mean a thing for affecting a purpose, recognizing that objects contribute to the processes of making events that constitute society. In the case of digital networks, these may include algorithms, bots, fake profiles or GPS for example. Speculative devices are those things that are set in place based on a conjecture of an outcome. The extent and quality of data and information upon which the conjecture inscribed into speculative devices is variable.

Through a case study of the dating app, Ashley Madison, I am interrogating the operation of speculative devices, in this case bots, as a contemporary consideration in a digitally networked context.

An open access write up of this work can be found here: http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6426

Scamming in Habbo Hotel

Screenshot 2016-04-29 14.34.52

This study, undertaken in conjunction with Marie Griffiths at the University of Salford, concerned the appropriation of an online play space known as Habbo Hotel. Habbo Hotel, as a site of media convergence, incorporates social networking and digital gaming functionality. Our research highlighted the ethical problems such a dual classification of technology may bring. We focus upon a particular set of activities undertaken within and facilitated by the space – scamming. Scammers dupe members with respect to their ‘Furni’, virtual objects that have online and offline economic value. Through our analysis we show that sometimes, online activities are bracketed off from those defined as offline and that this can be related to how the technology is classified by members – as a social networking site and/or a digital game. In turn, this may affect members’ beliefs about rights and wrongs. We conclude that given increasing media convergence, the way forward is to continue the project of educating people regarding the difficulties of determining rights and wrongs, and how rights and wrongs may be acted out with respect to new technologies of play online and offline.

A copy of the paper associated with this work can be found here.

public sexual cultures


This work is ongoing and has a number of strands, some work is done alone
and some in collaboration with Patrik Wikstrom and Peta Mitchell (QUT)

Producing Sexual Cultures and Pseudonymous Publics with Digital Networks – Ben Light
Since the release of the Grindr app in 2009, interest in digitally mediated public sexual cultures concerning men who have sex with men has increased. Yet, digital mediation of such public sexual cultures through apps had begun more than a decade before Grindr was released. For example, Squirt, a desktop and mobile hook up site for men who have sex with men, was launched in 1998 and has always functioned to facilitate public hook ups. Using Squirt as a case study, I build on the work of Mowlabocus (2008) in relation to our understandings of digitally mediated public sex, employing a version of networked publics (boyd, 2008a; boyd, 2008b) and thinking regarding the real name web (Hogan, 2013). Through an actor-network theory (ANT) informed analysis of Squirt, I demonstrate how, in a U.K. context, networked digital media inform and allow for the co-existence of a spectrum of gender and sexual politics, sexual preferences and sexual practices. Such an analysis encourages further explorations of the theoretical potentials of networked publics, and in doing so, I present the concept of pseudonymous publics.

This work is available as: Light, B. (2016). Producing sexual cultures and pseudonymous publics with digital networks. In R. Lind (Ed), Race and Gender in Electronic Media:  Challenges and Opportunities. London, UK: Routledge. (Copy available via this link: http://usir.salford.ac.uk/40537/)

Public Sexual Cultures and Big Data Ethics – w Peta Mitchell and Patrick Wikstrom

With Peta Mitchell and Patrick Wikstrom, I have interrogated the ethics of big data, where location is concerned, in a public sexual cultures context. With the rise of geo-social media, location is emerging as a particularly sensitive data point for digital media research where big data are concerned. In order to explore this area, we are reflecting on our ethics for a study where we analysed an app that facilitates public sex amongst men who have sex with men. The ethical sensitivities around location are further heightened in the context of research into such digital sexual cultures. Public sexual cultures involving men who have sex with men pre-date the apps, and the Internet, and operate in those spaces ‘not meant’ for public sex (such as parks, public toilets and truck rest stops) and those that are ‘meant’ for public sex (such as gay saunas/bath houses or dark rooms in certain bars). The app in question facilitates this activity in a number of ways. We have developed a web scraper that has allowed us to carefully collect selected data from the app and we have analysed it via content analysis using python scripts, geovisualisation software and manual qualitative coding techniques. Our findings centre on the ethics associated with generating, processing, presenting, archiving and deleting big data in a highly sensitive context where harassment, imprisonment, physical harm and even death occur. Overall, we find a tension in normal standards of ethical conduct where human beings are involved in research. In our study we have found that location over individuals or groups, becomes a key, though not the only, actor requiring attention when thinking about ethics in a big data context.

See: Light, B., Mitchell, P. and Wikström, P. (2018) Big Data Ethics and Location: A Case Study of an App for Public Sex Amongst Men Who Have Sex with Men, Social Media + Society, 4 (2): 1-10.

disconnecting with social networking sites


Light, B. (2014). Disconnecting with Social Networking Sites. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

This is a book length study of how we navigate digital media with disconnection. Here I do not mean taking time out from technology, I refer instead to how we engage in disconnection whilst using digital media – by unfriending, back channelling, hiding, pseudonymity and selective platform use for example.  Below is an outline of the book and a chapter listing.  You can find the full introduction here  and buy a copy of the text here.

Part I of this text, in which this chapter is situated, is concerned with laying out how one might think of SNSs and their appropriation. In Chapter 2, I provide insights into how I am more broadly framing my understanding of the appropriation of SNSs and the role that disconnection plays. Within this chapter, I argue that the Internet, and the applications associated with it, are subject to interpretation by various social groups, with varying agendas. As a consequence of the Internet arrangements being subject to a variety of narrations, it is perhaps most helpful to work with this dialectical position. I also advocate for the interpretation of the Internet as just another space of our everyday life rather than another world. This chapter also lays out the social shaping of technology as a way to understand a hybrid view of technological development and appropriation where we have varying possibilities to shape technology, but we are also shaped by it. I also provide an outline of my conceptions of power, as I see this as integral to notions of connection and disconnection. Chapter 3 pays particular attention to the extent and nature of the engagements we have with things beyond the human in our everyday appropriation of SNSs. Here, I discuss contexts of appropriation in terms of geography, time and situated use – “the where”, “the when” and “the with” of use. I also examine the work of applications and apps, the functions they have, the interfaces they present themselves to us through, the devices we engage with them via and the infrastructures upon which they and we engage. The point of this chapter is to clearly demonstrate how non-human mediators are implicated with us in our use of SNSs, and disconnective practice in particular.

In part II, I emphasise disconnection in relation to publics, which is not to say that the matters contained within part III regarding personal disconnection do not bleed into this arena, and vice versa. Of course they can. The division I make here is one of emphasis. Chapter 4 explores how we might participate with SNSs in the mediation of public life where it goes beyond the boundaries of work and home. Here I consider SNSs in terms of how they and we are implicated in the construction of further public spaces and the extent to which these reflect more general interpretations of decent behaviour. I am interested here, in how disconnective practice is implicated. How is disconnective practice played out in our navigation of public spaces with and within SNSs both in terms of what we do and what we are allowed to do? Chapter 5 focuses upon disconnection as it relates to our engagement with work. A greater number of people are now engaging with SNSs and for many these activities are becoming intertwined with their occupation irrespective of whether they are gainfully employed, engaged in voluntary work, unemployed or retired. This chapter addresses how people navigate SNSs through the enrolment of selective connectivity and more specifically disconnective practice. It highlights disconnective practice as holding potential to be a retrospective act, to be engaged in relation to work talk, as linguistic cover and as related to the nature and structure of a person’s role. I also highlight the roles of institutions with respect to disconnection.

Part III emphasises personal levels of disconnection. Chapter 6 concentrates upon how we personalise the use of SNSs by engaging with disconnective practice. This chapter examines how disconnection is present in the navigation of relationships in areas such as gossip, how we deal with boring people and of friend culling, for instance. Disconnective practice is also shown to be integral to identity work where the desire for anonymity and multiple disconnected accounts may play a part. Importantly, this analysis demonstrates how disconnective practice need not be read as resistance, and rather as something positive and necessary that adds value to our engagements with SNSs. This chapter also discusses the role of ethics and judgement in shaping acts of disconnection, drawing upon ideas of editorial ethics and notions of respect for others. It also highlights the sometimesnegotiable nature of disconnection. The affects of agency and structure on the personalisation of use with disconnective practice are considered within this chapter too. This discussion engages with the potentials for disconnection in terms of failures in the affective associations with SNS features, rejections of SNS philosophies, apathy regarding the commercial imperatives of SNSs and the limits of disconnective practice as a mode of commercial resistance. The chapter also reveals that disconnective practice is something that may itself have commercial interest and value. Chapter 7 gives attention to how disconnective practice might figure in peoples’ engagements with SNSs as related to health and wellbeing. It considers issues associated with users accessing health information, sharing health information and receiving health information. Through this analysis, psychological elements of disconnective practice are revealed asSNS Book Final August 2014 related to conceptions of how we conceive of SNS space, the content we share in such spaces, the people we are connected with, or not, and the relevance of the things we share or might receive. This chapter also engages with ideas of the materiality of SNSs in health contexts whether this is through formal education programmes, political acts of posting made by those with health conditions and the affects of SNSs on health. The ethical tensions of engaging with SNSs in relation to health are also discussed and two case studies are enrolled to consider culture as a mediator of disconnection.

Part IV contains the conclusions of this study. In Chapter 8 I bring together the various threads of preceding chapters to elaborate on what a theory of disconnective practice might contain. A theory of disconnective practice, I argue, incorporates attention to geographies of disconnection, disconnectors, disconnection modes, disconnective power and the ethics of disconnection.


A lInk to work with the state library of queensland

libraries as creative spaces

image of robot bootcamp
Robot Bootcamp, Victoria Point Library, Queensland

Ready access to information challenges our traditional notions of information storage and retrieval, and to some it challenges the role that books and public libraries might have in our society. Since the mid 1990s, libraries have oriented themselves towards public participation beyond lending and reading. Libraries now offer an increasing range community focused creative activities.  Spaces in libraries are transforming, becoming flexible and activity oriented in addition to housing archival and loan materials, desks and reading spaces. Understanding and demonstrating the impact and contribution of public libraries to communities given these transformations is critical.

As the manner and nature of the information storage and retrieval evolves in our digital age, there is a strong trend developing within public libraries to extend the range and scope of their programmed activities and services to support the communities they serve.  There is an increase in making space in libraries for creative activity of different forms because less space is needed for hard copy stock as digitisation advances. It is in this context that this project researched the impact of public libraries as creative spaces in the communities they serve.

Working on behalf of the State Library of Queensland, the objectives of this project were to:

  • investigate the community impact of creative spaces in public libraries;
  • provide clear evidence of this impact;
  • and articulate the opportunities to further embed creative spaces in public libraries or community spaces.

The results of this project can be found here: http://www.plconnect.slq.qld.gov.au/manage/research/libraries-as-creative-spaces

a link to the walkthrough method

the walkthrough method

This is joint work building upon my prior work of bringing science and technology studies to the analysis of web based applications (see my work on Gaydar here and Facebook here). This work is undertaken with Jean Burgess and Stefanie Duguay (QUT).

In summary, apps for mobile devices have become significant in the digital media landscape in the past decade. This work is developing a systematic approach towards the generation of data about, and analysis of, mobile apps and their appropriation – the walkthrough.

The walkthrough interrogates an app to develop a network of associations amongst a variety of human and non-human actors, spanning its political economy, the app itself and the formal and informal points of innovation of which it is a part.  A copy of the paper detailing this method can be found here: http://usir.salford.ac.uk/40327/.



a link to work on classical music audiences

class, apps and classical music audiences

This was a year-long collaborative research project focusing on the London Symphony Orchestra’s (LSO) development, implementation and testing of a mobile ticketing and information system. This ticketing system was developed in association with the LSO’s technical partners, Kodime Limited and in collaboration with the Aurora Orchestra.

The project report can be found here.

Journal papers published from the project include:

Crawford, G., Gosling, V., Bagnall, G., and Light, B. (2016). Branded app implementation at the London symphony orchestra. Arts and the Market (Forthcoming).

Crawford, G., Gosling, V., Bagnall, G., and Light, B. (2014). An orchestral audience: classical music and continued patterns of distinction. Cultural Sociology, 8(4): 483-500. (Access here)

Crawford, G., Gosling, V.K., Bagnall, G. and Light, B. (2014). Is there an app for that? a case study of the potentials and limitations of the participatory turn and networked publics for classical music audience engagement. Information, Communication and Society, 17(9): 1072-1085. (Access here)

a link to work on the imperial war museum's digital media engagement project

social interpretation at the Imperial War Museums


The final project report can be found here.

The Imperial War Museum (IWM) is a national museum whose aim is to enrich people’s understanding of the causes, course and consequences of modern war. Based across five branches their mission is to enable people to have informed understandings of modern war and its impact on individuals and society.

This was a 12-month collaborative research project conducted by the University of Salford and MTM into IWM’s development and implementation of the Social Interpretation (SI) project at two of its branches: IWM London, and IWM North in Manchester. Working with its technical partners Knowledge Integration (KI), Gooii, and The Centre for Digital Humanities, University College London (UCL), IWM’s aim was to apply social media models to the interpretation of museum collections to provide new frameworks for audience engagement and ‘social interpretation’. In the project IWM defined social Interpretation as the representation of, discussions about, and the sharing of, their objects by audiences. The idea was to enable this social interpretation across all of the IWM digital platforms and outputs, in-gallery, on-mobile and on-line, in order to encourage and facilitate the type of social interaction that is more usually associated with social media, such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The SI project aimed to use social media models, that is to say the ability to like, comment, discuss, collect, and share things on and across digital platforms. The aspiration was to create a service that encouraged audiences to respond to IWM’s themes and collections through several forms of digital interaction and participation both in the gallery and via mobile and online platforms.

Specifically, the SI project explored whether:

  • Applying social media models to cultural collections has the potential to increase audience engagement and reach
  • Social moderation is an effective response to the challenges posed by representing public comment and discussions in physical and digital cultural spaces.