Representing the Complexities of War Online: Dyana (Wing) So, C’16 and her summer in Israel

dyanaLast summer,  Dyana (Wing) So, a college junior majoring in Visual Studies, visited Israel to work on an IIP summer internship sponsored by Penn. In an interview with Blake Cole and Manda McElrath from SAS Frontiers, she talks about her experience there. She discusses her interest in comparisons between virtuality and virtual reality, and shares how being on social media shaped and reshaped her world view.

While she was in Israel, and as part of her internship duties, she wrote for an online news website, NoCamels.com, focusing on technology. She has continued writing for them upon her return, and her latest two pieces are on cyber security and green gardening.

In her video interview, Dyana said that one of the most valuable lessons she learned in the process of her internship is actually how quickly research moves along. In order to further her understanding of virtuality, she read philosophical texts on the definition of virtual. But the virtual itself in the form of social media was moving and changing so rapidly that Dyana observes that research happened much faster than she had expected or was prepared for. She was doing the primary reading for her research, while also monitoring social media, and she discovered much more than she bargained for: the hostilities between Hamas and Israel worsened quickly while Dyana was there. Of the experience, she says:

“being in a foreign place shaped the text I was reading.”

So, apparently, did being on social media during the struggle that happened last summer. The combination of both doing the background reading and seeing things unfold on social media locally led Dyana to her main research question for the summer: How does social media sharing shape the impact of war?

Dyana cites Betaworks’ Girard Lotan as a current practitioner of the social media research model which interests her. Logan wrote a piece about his work in the Huffington Post in July. In “Israel, Gaza, War & Data: Social Networks and the Art of Personalizing Propaganda,” he says of social media:

“Not only is there much more media produced, but it is coming at us at a faster pace, from many more sources. As we construct our online profiles based on what we already know, what we’re interested in, and what we’re recommended, social networks are perfectly designed to reinforce our existing beliefs. Personalized spaces, optimized for engagement, prioritize content that is likely to generate more traffic; the more we click, share, like, the higher engagement tracked on the service. Content that makes us uncomfortable, is filtered out.”

Dyana sums up what she learned from Lotan nicely in her video interview:

“Facebook is a reality space that filters all of our interests.”

Back at Penn in mid-January, Dyana will spend time time puzzling over her experiences in Israel and how it connects with her major. To help her along the way will be skills she learned in our Hoesley Digital Media Literacy Fellowship. Through this fellowship, in coordination with Penn Libraries staff, Dyana designed a personal website. She uses her website to bring together more traditional media pieces with her writing and digital art. She also uses it to blog and connect with the “digital reality” which she’s dedicated herself to studying. My email interview with Dyana follows:

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JME: Could you talk more about what virtuality and virtual reality mean in the context of your work?

Dyana: It’s difficult to define virtuality and virtual reality because, as I found in my research, it varies across disciplines. But for the purposes of comparing them, I did have to define the terms. Virtuality is defined as “the state of being enough, relative to reality.” Virtual reality refers specifically to the common conception of games played and human-to-human interactions/exchanges carried out through a digital platform — specifically social media. I consider social media to be a kind of virtual reality because it acts as an extension of real social experiences, as inspired from and in constant reference to real events. It’s the way we communicate and interact; it’s ‘real enough’ that it suffices and thus, it also becomes part of our reality. I used Gaza and Hamas conflict as a case study because it was in this particular conflict where social media interactions not only became part of the real-time war narrative, they were impacting the war experience (the latter was inspired largely from my own experience abroad in Israel while the conflict was taking place).

JME: Why are you interested in digital media in particular?

Dyana:  I am interested in digital media because its dynamism as crowdsourced, manipulated, interactive, rapidly reproduced, and highly adaptive visual content raises interesting questions about the capacity of human digital literacy and what seeing/knowing really means. My major, visual studies, constantly asks these questions and I am personally interested in the ‘cultural’ aspect of vision — how does what we see shape who we are? I was brought up in the digital age, but it was in having worked first in traditional media then transitioning into digital (in design, photography, and video) that I realized how my experience has informed how I read our largely digital world.

JME: Why do you continue to write for NoCamels.com even though your internship has ended?

Dyana: I continue to write after NoCamels because I realized how much I enjoy articulating my thoughts and informing others. Writing for NoCamels taught me to be more direct and to write for an audience that wants to learn more. That was very inspiring and it empowered me to polish my areas of interest further and exercise the power of the pen/keyboard — of research and opinion — more. Since NoCamels, my writing (outside of school work) is housed in a currently-private blog where I type up my thoughts and literary reviews of sources and news articles I read. I blog occasionally on my own website but that kind of writing is more personal and reflective towards my own life.

JME: How do you see your major informing your continuing work on social media and virtual reality?

Dyana: Visual Studies informs my work in helping me study areas of interest through a specific lens. On the surface, the sense of sight appears so commonplace and inevitable to the human daily experience that it’s almost negligible. But it’s in the differences of the human mind and how it develops that so many varied perceptions are gleaned from a common viewing experience — whether that is ten people looking at Van Gogh’s Starry Night in person, or whether it’s 100 people responding to a photograph about the conflict between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces.

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