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This essay introduces some of the ways in which Ego Media’s researchers have addressed issues of situation, place, and geography. Not so long ago, cyberspace was framed as a strange new land located somewhere on the other side of the screen. By opening their web browsers and firing up their modems, users were assuming the mantle of intrepid internet explorers venturing into uncharted territory, where the rules of “meatspace” no longer applied. In 2019, by contrast, many of us feel thoroughly at home online, and the idea of distinguishing the internet from the real world no longer makes much sense.


The questions that underpinned our approach to situation, place, and geography included

  • Does it still make sense to distinguish between online and offline life, or public and private space?
  • How have familiar situations – from face-to-face conversations and commutes, to shopping trips and family outings – been changed by the omnipresence of networked devices?
  • How do individual web users – often framed as proprietors of their own content, data, and personal brands – attempt to strike a balance between the desire to share and the desire to keep certain information private? And is it fair to put the onus on individuals?
  • Can computer-mediated communication ever be more than a stand-in for face-to-face interaction? How do relationships formed in online spaces translate into other contexts?
  • What role can digital technologies play for geographically dispersed communities and isolated individuals, particularly those managing medical conditions that motivate them to seek support, advice, and understanding?
  • Why do people behave differently on sites like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, and what makes them feel like distinct spaces?
  • Can we still speak of a single internet when language, local etiquette, infrastructure, law, and policy all play a part in determining how particular people in particular places act online?
  • Why do technologies meant to bring us together seem to have bred anomie and factionalism? Can firsthand accounts of illness, armed conflict, and economic turmoil spread via the web play a role in fostering understanding and lessening inequality?
  • How might cultural history and media archaeology help us to put the changing relationship between “here” and “there” in context?
  • How has the internet changed the terms on which cultural works – no longer as anchored or bounded as they used to be – circulate?

Changing the dynamics of space and situation

WiFi has untethered us from the ethernet port, while smartphones have made it (hypothetically) possible to get online anywhere, at any time. Services like Skype put us face-to-face us with contacts in other time zones; GPS-powered maps help us to navigate unfamiliar environments; augmented reality apps interpose layers of dynamic data between us and our surroundings; videogames project us into immersive virtual worlds; social media provide platforms for geotagged messages, images, and videos; online retailers chart the progress of our purchases from fulfillment center to door.

These developments have profoundly changed the dynamics of space and situation, reorienting our relationships, identities, and biographies. In many cases, they have made it harder to place our experiences. If I’m checking my inbox on the sofa at home, is this a work situation or a domestic situation? If I’m browsing Twitter during office hours am I skiving – or doing unpaid labor on behalf of the site’s shareholders? Where is the Pikachu that appears to be balancing on somebody’s knee in the Pokémon Go screengrab this player has uploaded to Instagram? Of course, not everyone grapples with these quandaries because not everyone has access to these apps and amenities. For those of us who do, that access usually entails having our journeys through digital and physical space tracked by the likes of Google, Apple, Amazon, and the US National Security Agency. If going online once felt like escaping, in the post-Snowden epoch this is no longer the case. And where 1990s cyberutopians dreamed of a world where geographical barriers would no longer prevent communities of the like-minded from forming,1 few today assume that greater connectivity will bring us closer together or allow an enlightened international consensus to emerge.

For while the web has, to be sure, fostered communication, collaboration, and solidarity, it has also become a vector for xenophobia, conspiracy-mongering, and hate speech. Journalists like to point to the role of online misinformation campaigns and politically divisive clickbait (like the torrent of fabricated stories about the 2016 US election famously found to originate from a single town in Macedonia2) in stoking a rise in anti-globalist sentiment. But this phenomenon also bespeaks a paralyzing sense of “infoglut”3 and a growing dissatisfaction with networked capitalism, which is dividing the web into a patchwork of corporate fiefdoms while using Big Data to pioneer new forms of exploitation.4,5 Digital technologies may have made ideas, commodities, and cultural works more mobile, but they have also been used to restrict the movement of (certain) people – witness the threat of sacking hovering over Amazon workers held to take too many toilet breaks,6 stories of Uber drivers camping on the outskirts of cities gentrified by tech workers so that they’re optimally placed for “surge’ time,”7 or, even worse, the rise of biometric border control systems that reduce individuals to data using techniques that are both inhumane and error-prone.8,9,10

As these stories attest, geography still matters. If the Internet had truly made physical distance irrelevant, data centers would not be offering “expensive colocation services that [place] a trading firm’s servers closer to the exchange servers to improve latency,” securing millisecond-level headstarts for their automated trading algorithms;11 nor would Google be patenting plans for offshore data centers cooled by seawater and (ideally) powered by the tides.12 Such schemes speak to the way that airy abstractions like Apple’s iCloud are literally changing the weather and raising temperatures and sea levels. Optimists assure us that smart homes and cities developed by digital megacorporations will help us to avert ecological catastrophe and live greener lives; others worry that this rhetoric is little more than an alibi for integrating data-generating sensors ever deeper into the fabric of our surroundings.13 As Margaret Wertheim argued two decades ago, drawing on the work of Ziauddin Sardar, there has always been something decidedly unsavory about the fondness of “cyberspace champions” for “the language of colonization” – pioneers, frontiers, homesteads, and so on.14 Today we can see that, as with the (mis)adventures of the explorers and pioneers of yore, the domestication of cyberspace has been a decidedly mixed blessing, lucrative and liberating as it has undoubtedly proven for some.

Faced with the global scope and historical significance of the changes outlined above, it can be hard to work out what they mean at the level of individuals’ everyday lives. Lauren Berlant uses the term situation to refer to a “state of animated suspension,” a condition where “something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amid the usual activity of life.”15 If situation comedies center on hapless subjects who somehow manage to maintain equilibrium despite (or because of) their blunders, Berlant traces the emergence of “the situation tragedy,” a genre where “the subject’s world is fragile beyond repair, one gesture away from... utter, abject unraveling.”16 She argues that this genre reflects the character of a world where crises have become ordinary, and it is all many of us can do to muddle through day by day.17 Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues that digital technologies exacerbate this sense of the state of things, habituating us to constant updates that promise to forestall the next looming catastrophe – or, on a more banal level, help us stave off the next bout of boredom.18 How did we get here? And how do individuals forge identities and relationships, express themselves, and structure their life stories in such a context? This is just what Ego Media’s research has tried to illuminate.

Addressing the issues

Members of the Ego Media team have approached these questions from various angles. Rachael Kent’s work explores the habits and attitudes of fitness enthusiasts who use self-tracking technologies to quantify their attempts at self-optimization and social media to share them. Showing that the fallibility of “quantified self” technologies doesn’t necessarily make them less compelling, Rachael foregrounds our increasingly intimate relationship with biometric sensors, which are currently integrated into smartphones and wearables like the Fitbit wristband, but may soon be incorporated into our bodies. She also provides examples of how everyday spaces are becoming “mediatized”19 as increasing numbers of web users share images of environments like the gym, the park, and the kitchen in the course of keeping their friends and followers updated.

Similar issues are addressed in Alexandra Georgakopoulou’s analyses of social media as vehicles for “small stories” and Mikka Lene Pers’s research on “mommy vlogging.” Broadcasting parenthood, mommy vloggers go against the tendency to understand the family home as a private realm. Opening their households up to networked publics, they turn domestic space into a site of digital content production – while also taking measures to maintain a degree of privacy (and safety) for their families.

As this suggests, we have found it less useful to think in terms of clearly delineated public and private spaces than we have strategies: how users of particular technologies exert control over what they are sharing and with whom, and how they situate potential audiences in relation to the events and environments they are representing. Some strategies involve restricting access to information or offering false information, say by taping over a laptop webcam, blurring a face in a video, posting pseudonymously, or employing a virtual private network to render activity less traceable. Other strategies involve deploying in-jokes, irony, ambiguity, and “social steganography”20 to render posts’ meanings unavailable to outsiders. As Max Saunders’s analysis of responses to our Mass Observation questionnaire shows, conceptions of what it is safe, sensible, or appropriate to share in different online spaces vary wildly, as do approaches to deflecting unwanted attention. We should acknowledge, moreover, that while platforms and legislators have responded to privacy concerns by granting web users more control over what is shared with whom, the drive to acquire personal information remains central to the forms of “platform capitalism” practiced by the likes of Google, Facebook, Uber, and Spotify.21 Calls to give more choice and control to individual users fail to address this issue; as Clare Birchall phrases it, such demands, couched as they are in terms of the “rights of a fully self-present liberal citizen,” fail to acknowledge that we already “live in what our digital conjuncture has essentially rendered a postprivacy paradigm.”22

Nevertheless, the ability to exercise at least some control over what we share remains important, especially in a world where phishing, hacking, and doxxing (publishing personal information such as home addresses and financial details online) are increasingly rife. The #gamergate movement's doxxing of feminists and “social justice warriors” proved how easily the kinds of personal data we habitually provide to retailers can be appropriated and repurposed to make subjects feel unsafe in their own homes and workplaces.23 Projecting a vision of gamer culture being overrun by foreign elements, gamergate’s extreme approach to online gatekeeping prefigured the rise of the so-called alt-right and the kinds of racist, nationalist, and heteromasculinist demagoguery that have flourished online in recent years. Its claims were amplified by Breitbart under Steve Bannon’s editorship, and in 2018 one of the YouTubers most visibly associated with the movement was recruited by the UK Independence Party. A case study in how social platforms can become vehicles for harassment, abuse, and misinformation, Stijn Peeters has shown how gamergaters used anonymous message boards and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels to coordinate campaigns carried out on more widely visible platforms like Twitter. Rob Gallagher’s work on gaming and identity, meanwhile, has investigated the deeper dynamics from which the movement arose, while Clare Brant has looked at how Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether (2013) riffs on popular fears regarding virtual worlds as spaces where gamers give free rein to sociopathic fantasies.

Such fears notwithstanding, networked gameworlds have increasingly become spaces where all sorts of people build and maintain relationships with friends, family members, and partners. This role is addressed in texts like Nina Freeman’s autobiographical desktop simulator Cibele and Keith Stuart’s A Boy Made of Blocks, a 2016 novel inspired by Stuart’s experiences of playing Minecraft with his autistic son (see Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity on the King’s College, London website24). Such texts challenge our tendency to see online interaction as an inferior substitute for face-to-face conversation, showing how, for individuals dealing with autism or acute social anxiety, the limitations of digital technologies can in fact be liberating and enabling.

These perspectives resonate with Ego Media’s research into how migraine sufferers and people with epilepsy use the internet,25 research that testifies to the importance of online sources of advice and emotional support for geographically isolated individuals managing health conditions. Such conditions often inform how users present themselves on different digital platforms; a particular individual might, for example, be willing to discuss their epilepsy on an e-health site but choose not to talk about it on Facebook. These findings reflect a wider tendency to present different aspects of our identities on different platforms, depending on those platforms’ affordances and to whom we imagine posts will be visible, a tendency acknowledged by many of the respondees to our Mass Observation directive. They also chime with Charlotte Wu’s research into AIDS narratives in South African culture.26 Her work suggests that new technologies could have a role to play in countering misconceptions and challenging stigma, providing a platform for hitherto silenced individuals and communities. In practice, however, not enough has been done to bridge digital divides that reflect, and may even be exacerbating, existing power disparities, both within the country and between the first world and territories it considers peripheral.

In her work on the South African writer (and erstwhile coder) J.M. Coetzee Rebecca Roach emphasizes the extent to which such divides are legacies of cold war geopolitics, while Alisa Miller’s study of online war writing also stresses the potential for digital technologies to facilitate cross-cultural connections, highlighting instances of Iraqi civilians and US military personnel reading each other’s accounts of the conflict. Here too, however, technology’s connective potential largely goes unrealized, thanks to factors that range from telecommunications infrastructure damaged by airstrikes to a reluctance to listen to foreign perspectives. In a similar vein, Stijn Peeters documents how services like IRC have long been used to aggregate and share war reporting and political news, while suggesting that the rhetoric of web users becoming “citizen journalists” may have been overly idealistic. Alexandra Georgakopoulou’s research offers another view of how web users articulate perspectives on complex geopolitical issues, addressing memes that use images of erstwhile Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis to convey stances on issues of national sovereignty, debt, welfare, and free market economics. Clare Brant, meanwhile, makes the case that emojis gave become a kind of “global visual language.”

Another vein of Ego Media’s research has taken a historical view on the entanglement of technology, self-presentation, and geographical situation. Rebecca Roach’s work on figures like Coetzee and Margaret Masterman harks back to a time when there were only a handful of mainframes worldwide, addressing experiments with computer-generated poetry and innovations in natural language processing that anticipate the computer’s (far from inevitable) development into a medium of creative expression. Max Saunders’s excavation of the history of futurology shows how the authors of the To-Day and To-Morrow series (1923–1931) envisaged technology developing and asks why, for all their perspicacity, these thinkers were unable to imagine anything quite like the computer – a blindspot that seems all the more surprising given their awareness of the potential for developments in networking via cable and radio, not to mention the fact that the arrival of the first operational computer at Bletchley Park was only two decades away. These authors understood that a new form of information-processing technology was required. But recent advances in analog devices such as punched card readers and antiaircraft gun aiming 'Predictors' convinced them that the form it would take would be as a “mechanical brain” or a “chemical robot,” rather than one using the electronics that were even then becoming widespread. Clare Brant’s work on hot air balloons as symbols of imaginative possibility looks still further back, addressing the new meanings these icons of eighteenth-century progress have assumed in the emoji era.

Such histories show that supposedly “new” media often have long and complex genealogies. For every surprising failure of foresight, we find equally striking evidence of continuity. Today’s fiber-optic cables, for example, follow the same transatlantic tracks as the gutta-percha-insulated telegraph lines of the Victorian age, while WiFi technology traces its lineage to the experiments with radio transmission that the Marconi Company was conducting a century ago on the Strand, just along the road from Ego Media’s headquarters. In such instances there is value in considering the role of particular sites and places in the historical development of technologies sold on the promise of “conquering... distance” and transcending the “locatedness of place.”27

Here Ego Media’s relationship with Strandlines – a digital community documenting “lives on the Strand, past present and creative”28 – has been key. This relationship was central to the project Moving Past Present,29 which used the lives of two 1890s “Gaiety Girls” as a lens on histories of mediated intimacy and self-branding, showing how London theater stars used the new media of their day to forge relationships with adoring fans in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. On a similar tack, Animating Sight and Song30 looked at the online afterlives of Michael Field (aka Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley), and at the pre-digital networks, media, and archives these Victorian poets mobilized as queer cosmopolitan artists.

Where Michael Field looked to myth, religion, and Renaissance art history for their poetic avatars, twenty-first century grime musicians turned to Japanese videogames,31 working gaming references into autobiographical tracks whose stylistic hybridity testifies to histories of migration, colonialism, and globalization. Recontextualizng familiar sounds, samples, and imagery for new situations, these artists exemplify the kind of “imaginative agency” that Clare Brant has been theorizing in her research for the project. Looking beyond the language of “creativity” (a term too often used these days to legitimize exploitation and artwashing), Brant offers a different language for discussing the effects of global connectivity on culture. She also attests to the persistence of fantasies of digital disembodiment and re-embodiment, suggesting that while the digital situation may have changed drastically in recent years, the dream of escaping into the screen has yet to lose its luster.

Where to now?


  1. Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). 3.
  2. Samanth Subramanian, “Meet the Macedonian Teens Who Mastered Fake News and Corrupted the US Election,” Wired, February 15, 2017,
  3. Mark Andrejevic, Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know (New York: Routledge, 2013).
  4. Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017). 96.
  5. See Phoebe V. Moore, The Quantified Self in Precarity: Work, Technology and What Counts (Abindgdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2018).
  6. Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, “Field Guide to the Future of Work: Essay Collection,” accessed June 26, 2019, 28.
  7. Eric Newcomer and Olivia Zaleski, “When Their Shifts End, Uber Drivers Set Up Camp in Parking Lots across the U.S.,” Bloomberg, January 23, 2017,
  8. See Btihaj Ajana, Governing through Biometrics: The Biopolitics of Identity (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
  9. See also Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015).
  10. And also Lawrence Abu Hamdan, “Aural Contract: Forensic Listening and the Reorganization of the Speaking Subject,” in Torque: Mind, Language, Technology, ed. Nathan Jones and Sam Skinner (Brescia: Link Editions, 2014), 109–22.
  11. Ingrid Burrington, Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House, 2016). 45.
  12. Benjamin H Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016). 113.
  13. Orit Halpern and Gökçe Günel, “Demoing unto Death: Smart Cities, Environment, and Preemptive Hope,” Fibreculture Journal 29, accessed July 25, 2019,
  14. Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet (New York: Norton, 2010). 294.
  15. Lauren Gail Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011). 5.
  16. Ibid. 6.
  17. Ibid. 9.
  18. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016).
  19. On mediatization see Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp, “Conceptualizing Mediatization: Contexts, Traditions, Arguments,” Communication Theory 23 (2013): 191–202,
  20. danah m. boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). 65-6.
  21. Srnicek, Platform Capitalism. 101.
  22. Clare Birchall, Shareveillance: The Dangers of Openly Sharing and Covertly Collecting Data (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
  23. For a fuller account of gamergate see Rob Gallagher, Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity (New York; London: Routledge, 2017). 57-8.
  24. Rob Gallagher, “Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  25. Charlotte Wu, “Against Negative Interpretation: HIV/AIDS Narratives in Post-Apartheid South Africa” (PhD diss., King’s College London, 2019), British Library,
  26. Alison McKinlay, Leone Ridsdale, and Rebecca Roach, “Interactions with Health-Related Information Online in People with Migraine and Epilepsy,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  27. Doreen B. Massey, For Space (London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE, 2005). 93, 95.
  28. Strand Lines, n.d.,
  29. Rob Gallagher, “Moving Past Present,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  30. Rob Gallagher, “Animating Sight and Song,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  31. Rob Gallagher, “Grime and Gaming,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,


  • Abu Hamdan, Lawrence. “Aural Contract: Forensic Listening and the Reorganization of the Speaking Subject.” In Torque: Mind, Language, Technology, edited by Nathan Jones and Sam Skinner, 109–22. Brescia: Link Editions, 2014.
  • Ajana, Btihaj. Governing through Biometrics: The Biopolitics of Identity. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
  • Andrejevic, Mark. Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know. New York: Routledge, 2013.
  • Berlant, Lauren Gail. Cruel Optimism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Birchall, Clare. Shareveillance: The Dangers of Openly Sharing and Covertly Collecting Data. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
  • boyd, danah m. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
  • Bratton, Benjamin H. The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016.
  • Browne, Simone. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015.
  • Burrington, Ingrid. Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House, 2016.
  • Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016.
  • Couldry, Nick, and Andreas Hepp. “Conceptualizing Mediatization: Contexts, Traditions, Arguments.” Communication Theory 23 (2013): 191–202.
  • Gallagher, Rob. Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity. New York; London: Routledge, 2017.
  • Gallagher, Rob. “Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Gallagher, Rob. “Moving Past Present.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Gallagher, Rob. “Animating Sight and Song.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Gallagher, Rob. “Grime and Gaming.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Halpern, Orit, and Gökçe Günel. “Demoing unto Death: Smart Cities, Environment, and Preemptive Hope.” Fibreculture Journal 29. Accessed July 25, 2019.
  • Massey, Doreen B. For Space. London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE, 2005.
  • McKinlay, Alison, Leone Ridsdale, and Rebecca Roach. “Interactions with Health-Related Information Online in People with Migraine and Epilepsy.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Moore, Phoebe V. The Quantified Self in Precarity: Work, Technology and What Counts. Abindgdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2018.
  • Newcomer, Eric, and Olivia Zaleski. “When Their Shifts End, Uber Drivers Set Up Camp in Parking Lots across the U.S.” Bloomberg, January 23, 2017.
  • Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. “Field Guide to the Future of Work: Essay Collection.” Accessed June 26, 2019.
  • Srnicek, Nick. Platform Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017.
  • Subramanian, Samanth. “Meet the Macedonian Teens Who Mastered Fake News and Corrupted the US Election.” Wired, February 15, 2017.
  • Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  • Wertheim, Margaret. The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. New York: Norton, 2010.
  • Wu, Charlotte. “Against Negative Interpretation: HIV/AIDS Narratives in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” PhD diss., King’s College London, 2019. British Library.
  • Strand Lines, n.d.