Faculty Profile: Professor Jessa Lingel

Jessa Lingel

Annenberg’s newest faculty member talks about digital culture, library activism, sad bikes, and more.

When it comes to research subjects, it’s fair to say Jessa Lingel’s tastes run eclectic: drag queens, homeless women, craftspeople, punk rockers, transnational migrants, and people who like to fork their tongues, just to name a few.  

What draws Lingel to study countercultural groups?

“That’s a real activist question right there,” she says smiling. “Do you study the margins or do you study the center? For me personally, I like the convergence of studying the everydayness of people who are countercultural.”

A specialist in digital culture, Lingel explores the technological practices of many different types of people, seeking to understand how technologies reveal the distribution of power in our society. 

Countercultural groups, she explains, often reveal the fascinating gaps between how engineers and designers intended a technology to be used, and how individuals actually use them to mediate their lives.

“User interface designers traditionally imagine the different ‘personas’ who are going to be using their technologies,” says Lingel. “Of course in their research, they never say, ‘Let’s ask a punk rocker!’ or ‘Let’s ask a homeless person!’ But when you actually do look at these people’s relationships to the internet, you see all these radical possibilities for how technologies can be used.”

We sat down with Annenberg’s newest faculty member to talk about those radical possibilities, along with her background, research interests, and why she’s so enthusiastic about broken bicycles.

The Path to Annenberg

Originally from the Bay Area, Lingel got her bachelor’s degree in Literature from the University of California, San Diego followed by a masters degree in gender studies and literary theory from New York University. After an interlude as a secretary in a law firm, she got a second masters degree in library science and landed what sounds like the ultimate nerdy cool job: a media librarian at MTV.

In 2009, she began her Ph.D. in Library and Information Science at Rutgers University, with a goal of eventually teaching library science. But it was there that she discovered social science research, and began pursuing the work that would become her dissertation.

“I had been teaching English as a second language for years in New York,” says Lingel, “and I started thinking about how immigrants become familiar with city space.”

Lingel interviewed 40 newly-minted New Yorkers recently arrived from 22 countries and asked them to draw maps of their neighborhoods. She was interested to see how the city looks to newcomers, and understand how people make sense of a vast city.

After graduation, a postdoctoral fellowship at Microsoft Research New England gave her incredible freedom to study technology in everyday life. Through the application process, Lingel intended to continue her work on urban space and mapping.

But when she arrived three months later, she proposed another direction: she wanted to study drag queens and how they use Facebook. And also she wanted to do a project on bookmobiles in Haiti and what technological infrastructure looks like through the lens of a library.

Microsoft’s answer? Sure!

For more on Lingel’s Haiti bookmobile research, watch her 2014 TEDx talk.

Empowering the community through mobile libraries: Jessa Lingel at TEDxBendSalon


Activist… Librarians?

The bookmobile project, which has since expanded to look at a similar endeavor in Palestine, reflects Lingel’s passion for library activism.

Since her time in New York, she has been involved with Radical Reference, a group of “activist librarians” — a term so familiar to Lingel that she forgets that most people react to it with confusion.

Through Radical Reference, Lingel has done work to build up prison libraries, found an archival home for the “Audre Lorde to Howard Zinn library” from Occupy Boston, and helped staff a reference site (currently on hiatus) catering to activists and independent journalists. Activist librarians also organize book drives, run literacy programs, and hold fundraisers for libraries and archives — the group encourages just about any project around information technology and activism.

Following Hurricane Sandy, Lingel volunteered with a non-profit environmental group to ride a bike-powered cell phone charging station. (Photo credit: Eric Goldhagen)

“Philadelphia has a huge library scene,” says Lingel. “The first library in the country was right here. I would love to get a collective going in Philadelphia.”

Welcome to Annenberg

Library scene aside, one of the main reasons Lingel was drawn to Annenberg? The graduate students.

“They asked so many great questions about social justice and technology,” she says. “They want to figure out the way power works in this world through a lens of the media and in how people communicate through technology. I want to be in a place where these kinds of questions are supported and the faculty find this exploration interesting.”

This fall, she is teaching a graduate course called Ethnography and the Internet, which teaches students to conduct qualitative and interpretive research on online phenomena. In the spring, she’ll teach an undergraduate class called “Urban Ethnography: Social Justice and the Street,” in which students will use the whole of Philadelphia as their classroom. As a final project, teams of students will produce 15 to 30-minute video documentaries or podcasts that tell empirically grounded stories using the voices and sounds of Philadelphia.

Uncommon People

Meanwhile, Lingel is immersed in the production of her first book, tentatively titled Uncommon People: Digital Technologies and the Struggle for Community. In it, she explores three counterculture groups and how they interact with and represent themselves in online space, often changing the very systems themselves in the process.

The first of the book’s three sections come out of her research at Microsoft and looks at how drag queens in Brooklyn use social media to negotiate both their queerness and the dual nature of their identities.

In 2013, Lingel and Adam Golub won a grant from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation to study social media practices in Brooklyn's drag commmunity (Photo credit: Adam Golub).

Until recent years, Facebook’s profile policy grew out of its early days at Harvard, where every user had to be authenticated by a Harvard email. But drag queens, who often move through the world under two separate identities, successfully challenged that one-person-one-profile policy.

That change, Lingel points out, also had benefits to other groups who may want to alter how they present themselves online, such as such as police informants, people trying to escape abusive relationships, and people who had survived sexual assault.

The second section of the book deals with the underground music scene in New Brunswick, NJ, a college town of 40,000 people with only a single live music venue. During her time at Rutgers, friends exposed Lingel to a thriving but hidden music scene taking place in basements and warehouses (and in a legal gray area). It engaged in a continual cat-and-mouse game to spread the word about shows without the police finding out.

A basement punk concert with the band Screaming Females. (Photo credit: Nathan Graham).

After authorities began shutting down shows that were advertised on Facebook, concert promoters turned to message boards.

“That’s a technology to which most 20-year-olds today have never been exposed,” says Lingel. “But it’s a clever solution in how to manage the flow of information in a ‘share everything’ economy.”  

Her final section looks back at an outsider group that was early to the idea of online community: body modification enthusiasts whose interests ranged from tattoos and piercings all the way to radical changes like voluntary amputation of limbs.

“For a community built on alterity and otherness, there has been an interesting tension as both body modification and social media became increasingly mainstream,” says Lingel. “Ultimately I don’t think they found a good way to address the tension, which is why the site is all but defunct now.”

Her Own Digital Culture

As for her own digital culture, Lingel admits she’s made definite choices about how to spend her time online. She doesn’t use Facebook (“I have concerns about privacy and corporatization and commercialization of data”) or Twitter (“I don’t relate to that mode of communication.”).

But she’s gone all in on Tumblr. Just weeks ago, she had five Tumblrs, but it recently jumped to six after she started one for her new “bodies and data” reading group. Another Tumblr is her professional website — tagline: “I’m a social science researcher and an information activist” — while others have been for classes she taught.

One is just for fun: Sadsadbikes.tumblr.com, an homage to abandoned bicycles, and parts thereof. (“It has a tenth of the followers of my other blogs, but oh man. I love that blog.”)

In her own digital life, Lingel aims for the happy medium between publicity and privacy, though recognizes that for many people, the value of connecting to far flung friends and family online — say, through posting photos on Facebook — is a perfectly valid priority.

“I like to think that there isn’t really one internet — there are many internets,” she says. “And that’s because of the different uses that people develop to make online technologies fit their needs. When you start looking at the internet that way, you see all of these decisions and possibilities, not just for individuals but for entire communities. That’s what I love about studying digital culture.”

On December 3, Professor Lingel will be leading a preconference to the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication Symposium on Digital Culture. Click here to learn more.