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TracingTheAestheticsOf
OnlineGentrification
Alyce Currier

INFO-601, Fall 2021

Pratt Institute
About m
Information experience design (IXD)
MS student at Pratt Institut
Sociology & media studies undergrad
at T
ufts Universit
Was in tech content & product
marketing for about 10 year
DJ/writer/organizer involved in
electronic music communit
Interested in building a more
supportive, sustainable internet for art
and culture
...and I’m also kind of nostalgic
for “the old internet”
Whatcanwelearnaboutshiftsin
onlinevisualculturefromtrendsand
patternsofurbangentrification?
Themes
Homogenizatio
Transienc
Professionalizatio
“Authenticity”
Context
Existing literatur
The “online
vernacular
aesthetic”
Impact
Who produces vs.
consumes online
content
How does this
impact broader
taste and culture?
“Restorativenostalgiamanifestsitselfintotal
reconstructionsofmonumentsofthepast,while
reflectivenostalgialingersonruins,thepatinaof
timeandhistory,inthedreamsofanotherplace
andanothertime.”

—SvetlanaBoym,TheFutureofNostalgia,95.
Notanattempttoreconstructthepast,buttoreflecton
andlearnfromthewaysthataestheticsandvisualculture
haveshapedthewaysweconnectandcommunicateand
letthatshapethewaywebuildtheinternetofthefuture.
Context
Existing Literatur
Gentrificationin“meatspace”
(urbangentrification
Aestheticsofgentrificatio
Internetgentrifyingphysical
spac
Gentrification&
commercializationofthe
interne
Thedigitaldivide&digital
capital
In summary, literature has covered..
The gentrification of physical space and its aesthetic
The evolution of the internet itself as a process of gentrification


What this work is adding

An examination of the aesthetics and visual culture of online space through
the lens of gentrification (tying it all together).
“Visual culture-oriented analyses of digital culture
concern themselves with HCI (human-computer
interaction) rather than CMC (computer-
mediated communication).”

—Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet, 9
Digitizing Race was written in 2007, but this still rings true
today. Let’s take a moment to think about user experience
in terms of social implications rather than usability.
TheOnlineVernacularAesthetic:
DigitalPlaygrounds
“Itwasaperiodofcastle-building
ratherthancompetingoverscarce
territories.Theopenweboffereda
diversityofviewpoints,becauseit
waseasytobuildwebsites;
companieslikeGeoCitiesand
Tripodmadeiteveneasier.”

—JoanneMcNeil,Lurking:HowaPersonBecameaUser,39.
Theonlinevernacularaestheti
Draganddropbuilders-nostrictgrids,no
responsivedesig
Disparatefonts,colors,andtypeface
Heavilyadornedtext:sparklybling,outerglows,
innergradients,dropshadows,gaudytypeface
Tiledbackgroundimages,sometimesatthe
costoflegibilit
Auto-playingbackgroundmusi
AnimatedGIFsgalor
“Siteloading...”banners,splashpages,“under
construction”
Somethingsusersloved..
Personalsitebuilders:easilycustomizablesites
andtemplate
Remixcultureandsharing/tweakingeach
other’sHTML/CS
Tumblr:havenformarginalizedgroups,NSFW
content,fando
MySpace,Livejournal,Xanga:Customizable
pages,layouts,profileimage
Forums:Customizableavatars,signatures
AestheticsofOnlineGentrification:
Seduction&Exclusion
“Culturally,theaestheticsofgentrificationtransformthemilieu
ofaplacebyaddingtothedisplacementoflow-income
populations,raciallymarginalizedgroups,andothervulnerable
populationspricedoutoftheirneighborhood.

Materially,thetransformationsarephysicalviainvestmentsin
infrastructure,theredesigningofpublicspaces,andthe
rebuildingorrehabilitationofhousing.

Whetherculturallyormaterially,theserapidlytransforming
spacesareonesofseductionandexclusion.”

—ChristophLindnerandGerardF.Sandoval,AestheticsofGentrification,20
TimesSquare
TheHighLine
Image:WikimediaCommons
“OldSchoolVernacularSignage”

vs.“Distinction-MakingSignage”
Images:Trinch&Snajdr,“Whatthesignssay:Gentrificationandthe
disappearanceofcapitalismwithoutdistinctioninBrooklyn”
“Gleams of Affluence”:

Content Homogenization
LiketheHighLineParkinNew
YorkCity,aseminaldriverof
urbangentrification,Instagram
“emphasizesform,style,and
passivespectatorship,”1all
whileofferingproximityto
luxuryshoppingand
conspicuousconsumption.


1RothenbergandLang,“RepurposingtheHighLine,”7.
The“Insta-gaze”1can
shapehowweviewphysical
destinations,andeven
whichplacesbecome
destinationsatall.

1YoujeongOh,“Insta-Gaze”
“ThehumanbodyisanunusualsortofInstagramsubject:
itcanbeadjusted,withtherightkindofeffort,toperform
betterandbetterovertime.”

—JiaTolentino,“TheAgeofInstagramFace”
Contenthomogenizationcanbeeithertacitorenforcedbyplatforms. 

InternaldocumentsfromTikTokrevealedthatthecompany“instructedmoderators
tosuppresspostscreatedbyusersdeemedtoougly,poor,ordisabledforthe
platform,”aswellascertainkindsofpoliticaldissent.

—SamBiddle,PauloVictorRibeiro,andTatianaDias,“InvisibleCensorship:TikTokToldModeratorstoSuppress
Postsby‘Ugly’PeopleandthePoortoAttractNewUsers,”TheIntercept
Mediadiscourse“formsoursocialimaginaryofthe‘authentic
city,’includingthekindsofspacesandsocialgroupsthat
belongthere.”1

Algorithms,contentmoderation,andbusinessobjectivesare
limitingthewayswecanexpressourselves,therangeof
imagesandideaswecaneasilyaccess,andconsequently,
thespacesandfutureswecanimagine.


1SharonZukin,NakedCity,27
DestabilizingHabit:

Transience&Hyperoptimization
T
ransience and displacement

= key drivers and signifiers of urban gentrification.
“Habitenablesstability,whichinturngivesusthe
timeandspaceneededtobetrulycreative,for
withouthabittherecouldbenothinking,no
creativity,andnofreedom.”

—WendyHuiKyongChu,UpdatingtoRemaintheSame,6+10
“EngineeredinterfaceshaveledtoaDarwinistdevolutionof
aesthetics,whereonlythedesignelementsthatyieldprofits
survive,leadingtoanaestheticofrisk-aversionandsameness.”

—RubenPater,CAPSLOCK,386
Platformsperformthesetestsnotonlyontheirdesigns,
butonthecontentofthefeed.

OnesuchexperimentatFacebookexposedonegroupto
“mostlypositivemessages”andanotherto“mostly
negativemessages”andfoundthat“thetoneofusers
changedtoreflecttheirnewsfeed.”1 

1ShoshanaZuboff,TheAgeofSurveillanceCapitalism,301
Which content is deleted or moderated?

Where does content go when platforms disappear?

How do we archive content that lives behind a login
screen and is inaccessible to tools like the Wayback
Machine?

When is ephemeral content preferable? (i.e. Snapchat)
TheProfessionalization

ofWebDesign
UX certifications, bootcamps, and degrees promise
access to lucrative job opportunities and focus on
churning out “job-ready professionals” (at a cost)
The homogenized aesthetics of web design today are
shaped by certifications and bootcamps designed to
serve industry and uphold the status quo.
Professionalizationalsoleads
tostandardization.

:) Increasedaccessibility

:( Flattened,commercialaesthetics
“Oncethings‘look’finished,weacceptthemasreal:
instantlogos,templatedwebsites,thecasualsketch
seenasanimmediatesolution.Alltoosoon,thefacility
withwhichvisuallegitimacyissoswiftlyachievable
makesitseemaseasytoproduceanelegantteacup
asaconvincingterroristvideo.”

—JessicaHelfand,Design:TheInventionofDesire,151
Illusions of Authenticity
When we’re accustomed to and comforted by a certain
kind of clean, standardized design, aesthetic in itself can
become a value proposition for a company or brand.
“IntheUS,the21stcenturyisanagethathungersfor
anythingthatfeelsauthentic,justaswelamentmore
andmorethatitisaworldofinauthenticity,thatweare
governedbysuperficiality.”

—SarahBanet-Weiser,Authentic™,3
“Authentic”brands..
Hand-drawnaesthetic
Conversational,“human”copywritin
Imageryimitatingamateursocialmedia
conten
Edginess-avantgardeenough,butpalatableto
theaverageconsume
Nostalgia-scapes
Underneoliberalism, 

brandsarepeopletoo!
Founded in 2015 for online gamers to talk to one
anothe
“No gamification systems, no follower counts, no
algorithmic timelines.
White male founder(s) suddenly find themselves
“building the future of communication”
Many of Discord’s markers of authenticity are vestiges of its
history as a smaller tool designed for a niche audience.
DoesthatimagerynowobscurethefactthatDiscordhas
becomeawell-resourced companyfacingmanyofthesame
issuesasothersocialmediaplatforms?
WhatCanWeDoAboutIt?
“Ignoringtherealitythatourcitiescannotproduce
liberatingideasforthefuturefromaplaceof
homogeneitykeepsusfrombeingtruthfulaboutour
inherentresponsibilitiestoeachother.

Forintheend,allthisself-deceptionandreplacing,this
prioritizingandmarginalizing,thissmoothingover
andpushingout,allofthisprofoundlyaffectshow
wethink.Thatthencreateswhatwethinkwefeel.”

—SarahSchulman,TheGentrificationoftheMind,52
FromHomogenizationtoSerendipity:

Decreaseourrelianceonalgorithmstoserveuscontent
BuildRootstoCounterTransience:

Weneednetworksandplatformsthatarebuiltandmanaged
cooperativelybythecommunitiestheyaremeanttoserve.
Encourage Amateur Creation:

Find ways to encourage amateur creation online that doesn’t
serve commercial ends.
TrulyHumanConnections:


Pushagainstdeceptively“friendly”brandaestheticsandfight
fortransparentandpragmaticbusinesspractices.


+


Worktocollaborativelycreatetrulyreciprocalrelationshipsand
systemsofsupportthatextendbeyondthepublicposturingof
socialmedia.
While the gentrified internet of today cannot bring
back what has been lost, we can still look ahead to a
more playful, nurturing, and transparent future. 



Questions?

hi@alyce.io or @lycheefrut

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