Media Distortions

Understanding the Power Behind Spam, Noise, and Other Deviant Media

by Elinor Carmi (Author)
©2020 Monographs XX, 272 Pages
Open Access
Series: Digital Formations, Volume 121


Media Distortions is about the power behind the production of deviant media categories. It shows the politics behind categories we take for granted such as spam and noise, and what it means to our broader understanding of, and engagement with media. The book synthesizes media theory, sound studies, science and technology studies (STS), feminist technoscience, and software studies into a new composition to explore media power. Media Distortions argues that using sound as a conceptual framework is more useful due to its ability to cross boundaries and strategically move between multiple spaces—which is essential for multi-layered mediated spaces.
Drawing on repositories of legal, technical and archival sources, the book amplifies three stories about the construction and negotiation of the ‘deviant’ in media. The book starts in the early 20th century with Bell Telephone’s production of noise, tuning into the training of their telephone operators and their involvement with the Noise Abatement Commission in New York City. The next story jumps several decades to the early 2000s focusing on web metric standardization in the European Union and shows how the digital advertising industry constructed web-cookies as legitimate communication while making spam illegal. The final story focuses on the recent decade and the way Facebook filters out antisocial behaviors to engineer a sociality that produces more value. These stories show how deviant categories re-draw boundaries between human and non-human, public and private spaces, and importantly, social and antisocial.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Series
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • 1 Introduction: Listen Closely
  • Don’t Be Evil! But I’m Not!
  • Conducting Processes
  • Three Distortion Stories
  • Structure of the Book
  • 2 Orchestrating Media Power through Sound
  • Re-processing Foucault
  • Sound as a Conceptual Framework
  • Processed Listening: Producing Knowledge in Mediated Spaces
  • Rhythmedia, or Orchestrating Sociality
  • Mediated Territories
  • Mediating Bodies
  • Come to the Dark Side, We Have Cookies
  • Conclusion: What’s in the Mix?
  • 3 Noisy Behaviors on the Line
  • The Noise Abatement Commission in Early 20th Century New York City
  • Mapping City Noise
  • No Deal on the Street
  • Selling (the) Telephone
  • Shutting Street Noise
  • Controlling (the Other) Street Rhythm
  • Quieting Noisy Women
  • Connecting Bodies
  • Designing the Communication Line Model
  • Personal Immediacy
  • The Human Information Processors
  • A Design for Living
  • Silencing Dissent
  • Conclusion: Noise Against the Machine
  • 4 Fabricating the European Union Safety Net
  • Opening the ‘Back-End’
  • Governing Softly
  • Baking Cookies into the Ecosystem
  • Inventing Private and Public Spaces
  • Lobbying to Spam
  • Composing the Data Subject
  • Standardizing Metrics
  • Bodies that Count
  • Bidding for Real-Time
  • User Control to Control Users
  • Keep Your Body Safe
  • Conclusion: Brave New Web?
  • 5 Engineering the (anti)social
  • Filtering the Unwanted Using Four Mechanisms
  • Modulating Architecture
  • Who Listens to You?
  • Channeling through Your Friends
  • Amplified Listening Capacities
  • Every Breath You Take I’ll Be Listening to You
  • Ordering Algorithms
  • Money, Sorted
  • Standardizing the Digital Advertising Industry
  • Naturalizing Organic Feed
  • Maintaining the Immune System
  • You Better Work
  • Clicking Machine
  • Excessive Behaviors
  • Asking As If It Matters
  • Listening: The Silent Actions that Count
  • Majority Report
  • The Human Processors
  • Filtering the Rubbish
  • Feed the Panel
  • Conclusion: Fileting the Rhythms of Anti-Sociality
  • 6 Conclusion: Transducing the Deviant
  • The Power of Sound
  • Creating a Dynamic Database with Processed Listening
  • Deviant Order: How Rhythmedia Orchestrates Sociality
  • Series Index


Wow, is this the end? This book was a looong journey that I could not have done alone. I am fortunate to be blessed with a loving family, amazing friends and inspiring people that accompanied me in various parts and ways of writing this book; and I could not have done this without their emotional, mental, and social support. Writing is tough. Writing for academia is even more of a challenge for someone like me, who has been a journalist. Some days you feel like you wrote the best paragraph and can go on a break for a week. Some days you just stare at your computer, talking to it and begging for inspiration. It’s never a linear or clear path, and you never really feel it’s finished. Luckily there is a deadline, and I decided to consider my books as tools to develop my thoughts rather than these perfect pieces of work. Below you can find the various people (and a special dog) that were part of my journey, but if I forgot you, know that it was because I drank a lot of alcohol to celebrate the end of this book, so it was for a good cause.

I would like to thank both of my Ph.D. supervisors—Sean Cubitt and Marianne Franklin. Sean is such a rare species in academia, always happy and smiling, curious about everything without pretentions—what I call a walking Wikipedia. Sean has always supported, encouraged and given me productive inputs, both on content and writing. As a non-native English speaker the first few years have been a challenge. Sean’s generosity and patience will never be forgotten; ←xiii | xiv→thank you for believing in my project and always being kind to me. Marianne is a badass genius who gave me the focus I needed. She was always critical and went straight to the point; ‘tachles’ as we say in Hebrew. She provided poignant and constructive criticism, pushing me to achieve my best with the highest standards. Both Sean and Marianne’s transdisciplinary knowledge and openness to create a different approach that mixes several elements in a non-traditional way has helped me in breaking more boundaries. Thank you for your guidance while amplifying my own voice.

I would like to thank the people who I have interviewed for this book, who informed and contributed to the collection and analysis of the data. I want to thank Rosa Barcello, Head of Unit Digital Privacy and Data Protection DG CNECT—European Commission, and Raffaello Di Giovanni Bezzi, Policy Officer—European Commission. I also want to thank journalist and activist Glyn Moody and Javier Ruiz from the Open Rights Group UK at its offices in London.

Throughout my academic journey I met several scholars who I felt a special connection with and helped shape my thought and writing. I’ve met Aram Sinnreich through Twitter because he seemed to share the same passion I have to music. I ended up co-organizing a panel with him—Sonic Publics—at AoIR 2017 in Tartu, Estonia and co-editing a special issue with the same title for the International Journal of Communication. Aram has been my mentor on many occasions and his kind soul and awesome musical skills have inspired and helped me immensely. Another dear friend is Robert W. Gehl who I first met through his amazing writing, thinking “that’s exactly what I think, but why does he have to write so damn good?” We ended up co-organizing a panel—Network Standards and Culture—at AoIR 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Robert also gave fantastic feedback to this book and was super supportive along the whole way.

I also want to thank people I’ve worked with and learned from greatly, specifically Jennifer Pybus and Ben O’Loughlin. Both are great scholars, teachers and collaborators, and I hope to continue working with them in the future. I want to thank the sound studies women I’ve met throughout the years in conferences and events who have influenced my work—Hillegonda Rietveld, Mara Mills and Marie Thompson. A special thanks goes to Carolyn Birdsall, who on top of being a brilliant scholar is also an amazing friend who makes me feel like we have known each other forever. In addition, I have met people through different academic events with whom I later kept in contact because, well, they’re wonderful—Britt Paris, Joan Pedro, Becky Kazansky, and Ellen Simpson.

Yes, the rumours are true about Israelis—we tend to find each other wherever we go. Throughout my journey I’ve met amazing people from my homeland that ←xiv | xv→made me want to go back just so I can work with them. Thank you Eran Fisher, Carmel Vaisman, Dan Kotliar, Nicholas John, and Noam Tirosh. There are also scholars whose work you’ve read and thought was brilliant, whom you later manage to connect with. Thank you Jussi Parikka, David Beer, Nancy Baym, Ben Grosser, Tiziana Terranova, Sarah T. Roberts, Anna Jobin, David Parisi, and Lina Dencik. I have found these people through the various communities, conferences, and events I went to or organized, but I want to emphasize the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) as a hub for people who do great things on and in the internet, and also just funny geeks.

I would like to thank all the Media and Communications Department at Goldsmiths, University of London where I completed my Ph.D. This unique department enabled my ideas to go in directions which might not have been allowed at other institutions. I want to thank my current workplace, the Communication and Media Department at Liverpool University, and particularly my boss Professor Simeon Yates. Sim showed me that you can be smart and kind, supportive and challenging at the same time. Sim provides a work environment where you are excited to come and share ideas with your colleagues. He makes connections between people he thinks will work well together and never forgets to give credit and gratitude where needed. In a super competitive and isolated industry like academia, I cherish these qualities everyday—Thank you Sim.

Writing a book is an emotional roller-coaster. You go up and down, and sometimes lose a sense of time, space and self. I want to thank my friends for helping me keep my sanity throughout the years, each in their own special way. I am extremely grateful to have met Helen Pritchard, who has provided wonderful feedback, debates and inspiration to many sections of this book. I am incredibly thankful to have met Lee Weinberg, who has been my soul sister, listening, supporting, cooking, laughing and always being there for me wherever she was in the world. I am also lucky to have met Nathalie Dobrzan, who made me laugh and reminded me that there is (!) a world outside academia and it is full of great (and sometimes less great) films (mostly Marvel, but we sinned with DC), Gin & Tonics, PIZZA (only VoodooRay’s, of course, because the crunch factor is the most important one in food) and Dale Cooper drinking a damn fine coffee. I could not have survived this journey without Daria Ihlov and Tali Avron whom I travelled with across Europe to hike, go to concerts or party in festivals and clubs. I am thankful to other friends who contributed, each in their own way, to my mental stability: Andrea Nunez Casal, Nerea Calvillo, Naila Vázquez Tantiñá, Adi Shalev, Rotem Leshem, Merce Al Ca, Noga Alon-Stein, Madison Alexander Moore, Shiri Levi, Wessel Van Rensburg, Phaedra Shanbaum, and Frederike ←xv | xvi→Kaltheuner. And I thank, of course, the best writing companion that walked me in the park whenever I needed to breathe, think or curse the air—Thelma.

Another big thank you goes to Twitter and all the people (and bots) I have debated, discussed, bitched and laughed with along the way, about politics, music, films, food and why Halt and Catch Fire is better than Mr. Robot. I know many academics think and say that Twitter is a distraction but seriously this book would not be published without it. Beyond entertainment and making me feel connected to what’s happening I also got a lot of inspiration, met people, heard about conferences, new books, new music, conferences, grants, news and managed to acquire my new addiction to gifs (I mean, it is a much superior way to communicate!). Twitter is the best spam out there and I can’t stop eating it.

Love it or hate it, but peer review process really helps improve your work, even if you sometimes want to kill reviewer 2. Segments of this book were published in other places, and I’m grateful for the feedback I received from the people who reviewed them. Segments of Chapter 3 appeared in an article published on Media History in 2015. In addition, segments of Chapter 4 appeared in the International Review of Law, Computers and Technology Journal in 2017, as well as an article published on Open Democracy in 2018, as part of the series Human Rights and the Internet. Segments of Chapter 5 have appeared in an article published on the International Journal of Communication.

Finally, I would like to thank my loving family, the Carmi’s: my dad Amnon and my brother Amir who have always supported and gave me unconditional encouragements throughout this whole process. My brother Amir works in cyber-security, so throughout the whole process he always gave me the ‘industry’ point of view and of course many important memes and gifs to keep me amused. Most of all, I want to thank my mother—Ingrid—who has always been there for me, being my rock in the highs and lows, listening, pushing, inspiring and believing in me. I couldn’t have done this without you.

A final-final thanks goes to Liverpool University Open Access fund who made it possible for this book to be open access for all.

London, 2019

1 Introduction: Listen Closely

I just want to make it clear from the beginning that I am not going to fix your spam problem. Part of the perks of doing research on spam is having to explain it, and then getting people to want you to fix their email spam. “Oh really? I have so much spam in my inbox you have to help me!” Every. Single. Time. But then, after a while, I realized how deeply rooted people’s understanding of this media phenomena is—that it is that thing that should be shoved into a folder to be forgotten forever. This was one of the strongest indications of how much this topic was neglected, but at the same time brought to the fore how spam elicited very strong, disgusted emotions from people. But it was not only overlooked by my family, friends, and those people who start to talk to you in the tube at 8 A.M. before you had your coffee, but academics as well.

Despite being an inseparable part of our lives, we actually know very little about this media phenomenon. Spam is a ‘thing’ that computer scientists should deal with to make our lives easier and more efficient. But what exactly is spam? Is it a format? Is it a software? Is it a Nigerian prince? Or is it Monty Python’s excellent sketch? It is all of these and none of these altogether. Like most social sciences scholars, I am not going to give you a short and simple answer; this is why this book is here. But what I am going to do throughout the following pages is show you the politics of making spam, well, spam. I am going to show you how ←1 | 2→spam has always existed, received different names in different periods, and in fact is extremely important to the way we understand ourselves and our surroundings.

So how does spam relate to our everyday lives? Think about it this way - We process things every day. We process different kinds of information to make sense of the world: the experiences we had on our last vacation, the last conversation we had with our broadband supplier (although, we wish we could forget that one), and the details of that media course we took at the university. These processing procedures are driven by our background, standards, experience, emotions, level of (good) coffee in our blood and other factors. But these procedures also give meaning and order to people, things, and events; which in turn affect the way we form our identity, make decisions, behave, and feel. For example, in January 2016, I watched the new X-Men film, Apocalypse, and after processing it, I realized I was bored with superhero films and would probably not watch another one any time soon. That changed after watching Deadpool a few months later.


XX, 272
ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2020 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XX, 272 pp., 2 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Elinor Carmi (Author)

Dr. @Elinor_Carmi is a feminist, researcher, journalist and digital rights advocate, who has been working on deviant media, internet standards, sound studies, and internet governance for the past decade. Elinor is a Postdoc Research Associate at the Communication and Media Department at Liverpool University in the United Kingdom, working on the project "Me and My Big Data: Understanding Citizens Data Literacies". Before academia, Elinor worked in the EDM industry, edited music television channels and was a radio broadcaster. In 2013, she published her first book TranceMission.


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