Interview with Mike Ananny

© Mike Ananny and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Ananny was interviewed by Justin Dowdall. January 25th, 2013.

Mike Ananny is an Assistant Professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he researches the public significance of systems for networked journalism.  Specifically, he studies how institutional, social, technological, and normative forces both shape and reflect the design of the online press and a public right to hear.  He is also a Faculty Associate with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, holds a PhD from Stanford University’s Department of Communication (advised by Theodore L. Glasser), a Masters from the MIT Media Laboratory (advised by Justine Cassell and Hiroshi Ishii), and a Bachelors from the University of Toronto (double major in Computer Science and Human Biology, advised by Ronald Baecker). He has published in a variety of journals, edited volumes, and conferences, including Critical Studies in Media Communication, International Journal of Communication, American Behavioral Scientist, Television & New Media, the Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics, and the Association for Computing Machinery’s conferences on Computer-Human Interaction and Computer Supported Collaborative Learning.  He is currently writing a book on the public right to hear in networked journalism.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

I don’t remember consciously deciding to become a university professor.  At each step in my career I tried to make decisions that led me to do work that I thought was interesting and important, with people I respected.  Sometimes this has meant working in private, industrial research labs and other times in more traditional educational settings – and sometimes a combination of the two. I’ve always tried to follow interests and ideas wherever they might lead, and to prioritize having colleagues who inspire and teach me (I’ve been fortunate to have many).  I knew that, most broadly, I liked developing and debating ideas, learning how to be precise in my thinking.  And, more specifically, I wanted to make an impact on the world by thoughtfully creating and critiquing sociotechnical systems that support public communication.  For me, this led to being a university professor, but I don’t think I consciously set out to be one.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors, and who are the thinkers today that you believe young scholars should be reading?

A few things come to mind.  First, make sure you always surround yourself with people you respect, who you can learn from and who’ll support and challenge you. I think universities should be places where we take risks with new ideas and ways of understanding the world; for that to happen, everyone who works in universities (staff, faculty, students, everyone) needs both freedom to try things that might not succeed, and support from those around them while they’re trying.  If you have this community, you can do a lot.

Second, and related, get comfortable with sharing your ideas earlier than you might want to, with collaborators and constructive critics you truly enjoy working with.  Research and academia can sometimes seem like a lonely enterprise in which you’re puzzling away on your own until you have some breakthrough or a-ha moment (sadly, I think some people valorize it that way).  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Carve out time for yourself and your own reflections, for sure; but also know that some of the best breakthroughs come from articulating your thoughts with good listeners.  The flip side of this, of course, is to be a generous listener yourself for others.  Take thoughtful care with their ideas and understand the risks they’re taking sharing nascent work with you.

Finally, make sure that you’re working on projects or issues that you find meaningful and engaging, and don’t ever compromise on the quality of your work, producing something that you aren’t proud of. Not everything you produce is going to be stellar, but you should know what contribution you think it’s making.  Write down somewhere why you think your work is important, practicing saying it out loud in short phrases, and tailor your descriptions to different audiences who can provide different perspectives on your work.  Revise these reasons as you go.

As for Communication scholars I’d recommend reading, this is a huge list because it’s such an exciting time to be working in this field (a field with wonderfully porous borders).  In no particular order, I’ll name a few who stand out for me personally.  Some of these scholars are no longer alive, but I return to all of them, for different reasons, for both historical inspiration and contemporary direction: John Durham Peters, Michael Schudson, Tom Streeter, John Dewey, William James, Richard Rorty, Craig Calhoun, Charles Taylor, Iris Marion Young, Edwin Baker, Owen Fiss, Henry Jenkins, Sonia Livingstone, Roger Silverstone, Susan Leigh Star, Paul Starr, Woody Powell, Mark Deuze, Larry Gross, Helen Nissenbaum, Judy Wajcman, C.W. Anderson, Pablo Boczkowski, David Ryfe, Batya Friedman, Tarleton Gillespie, Geoff Bowker, Gina Neff, Zizi Papacharissi, Christian Sandvig, Lance Bennett, Manuel Castells.  I’ll stop there – I could go on.

In your opinion, what are some of the important communication lessons that you believe that media scholars will take away from the 2012 United States presidential election?

U.S. presidential elections are weird and wonderful events.  They’re weird because the press, sources, and audiences all seem to be existing in these little petri dishes of drama, when one or two seemingly small events or messages can have huge impacts on public communication.  But they’re also wonderful because it’s a time when people are paying attention a little more, and differently, purposefully become engaged in discussions they might not otherwise have.  I think media scholars are still digesting the 2012 U.S. presidential election but, to me, two things stand out.

First, as NYT statistician and columnist Nate Silver gained prominence with his analyses and predictions, there seemed to be a new engagement with the role that polls and pundits play in elections (something we haven’t seen since George Gallup’s original foray into a presidential election).  This is still an ongoing conversation, but it seemed to me like this election made possible: a robust and constructive critique of the disproportionally powerful role pundits have traditionally played in the news media; an attempt to grapple with the details of polling and predictive models; and, most broadly, what I’d (perhaps too grandly) call an epistemological moment in which people had a chance to pause and think “how do I know what I think I know about how the election is going?”  The more people can do to reflect upon the role that stories and statistics play in telling us about ourselves, the better.

Second, and related, this election saw a new kind of fact-checking to journalism.  As some people, for example, watched the presidential debates while embedded in Twitter streams, they had a chance to compare what the candidates and moderators were saying, in real-time, against what their Twitter networks were telling them.  Organizations like and the Sunlight Foundation gained, I think, increased prominence in this election as they attempted to vet what candidates were saying – but so, too, did people’s social media networks.  The big—and incredibly important—caveat, though, is that Twitter networks can get things wrong, too.  As we saw in some of the #Sandy coverage, false information can spread quickly in these new hybrid social/news networks, and we’re only just getting a sense of how these dynamics work.  (The analytics company SocialFlow is doing some nice work in this area.)

My hope is that these developments continue: that we get even more thoughtful in considering how we know things to be true, and even more expert in creating networks that spread and curate information carefully and responsibly.

Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

I was so fortunate to have many mentors in graduate school who continue to be friends, colleagues, and advisors.  At the MIT Media Laboratory, my first advisor Justine Cassell taught me the merits of studying people and technology simultaneously, something that my second advisor there, Professor Hiroshi Ishii, continued to do through constructive and thoughtful design critiques.  I then had the great fortune to work with Dr. Carol Strohecker at Media Lab Europe (MLE), who helped me think deeply about how people learn with and about new technologies.  At both MIT and MLE, Dr. Bakhtiar Mikhak was a fantastic mentor who consistently asked me super hard questions in gentle ways that resonate with me today.  When I shifted to Stanford to do my Ph.D. I found a new community of wonderful advisors.  Professor Fred Turner essentially introduced me to the field of Science, Technology, and Society – and taught me how to be a good teacher.  Professors Woody Powell, Rob Reich, and Debra Meyerson (and all the folks at Stanford’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society) taught me how to think about institutions and networks in new ways.  And my supervisor, Professor Ted Glasser, was an outstanding advisor who taught me the value of asking seemingly simple questions that cut to the heart of any idea or proposal.  He taught me to think deeply and critically both about what I was studying and why it mattered, showing me how to mistrust assumptions and question explanations that rested on appeals to common sense.  I’ve also had many mentors outside of graduate programs, in industry and other professional settings.  I think that great mentors understand better than you do what you might need at a given moment – and then they give you the freedom, support, and push for you to get it for yourself.

Dr. Mark Deuze said, “Media are to us as water is to fish” Do you agree with his statement? Furthermore, in what ways, if any, does this concept of “living in media” relate to your work?

I certainly think that networked media are so present in many people’s lives that they might not even see media as separate objects or systems anymore.  Mobile media like tablets and smart phones (but also recall Walkmans) make it possible to be immersed in media spaces that both compete with and complement physical spaces.  I’m struck by the observation that people with smart phones, broadband, a host of other mobile devices don’t seem to talk about “going online” anymore, perhaps because being connected to digital networks is no longer seen as a separate, distinct action or state.  Media historians like Carolyn Marvin and John Peters have pointed out how media have always been immersive and structuring but I think Deuze is right to call out contemporary networked media (both devices as content) as particularly omnipresent.

In my own work, I think a lot about how publics hear – and how this public right to hear is distinct from an individual right to speak.  I think media immersion of the kind that Deuze describes surfaces new challenges for hearing and listening.  Essentially, I think we don’t yet understand how sociotechnical systems allocate and direct individual and group attention, what kind of agency people have to listen in targeted and focused ways within surfeits of media, and how to understand the value of non-participation, listening, and solitude in an era that seems to valorize and celebrate visible participation as an end in itself. (See scholars like Kate Lacey, Kate Crawford, Mack Hagood, Jonathan Sterne for some great thinking on media and listening.)

In your experience, how was the role of university professor evolved since you were an undergraduate student?

I did my undergraduate at the University of Toronto – a world-class and truly special place, but also an absolutely massive school where we were often addressed by our student numbers and not names.  (I routinely took classes with 800-1000 students in my earlier years, and I still have my number memorized.)  Back then, it seemed to me, from the perspective of being an undergrad, that the university professor’s role was to manage large numbers of students, to administer learning at a scale that often felt impersonal and alienating.  Class sizes shrunk (and my grades improved) as I got into upper-level classes and started to get to know my professors as people.  Since I was at Toronto, they and many other large universities have created ways for students to learn in smaller, more intimate and personal settings.  I hope this kind of personalization and small-scale mentorship continues, and stays a priority as universities of all sizes around the world develop their online education programs.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how young media scholars should be thinking about questions pertaining to the biological and technological intersect? Perhaps, more to the point, how has your own background in the sciences helped inform your work?

My undergraduate background in biology and technology was a bit of an accident: I did a bad job taking the pre-requisites and courses my major required and fell through the administrative cracks for a couple years of my undergrad career (see above comment about my school’s size).  I just took classes I was interested in, which turned out to include courses from computer science, biology, cognitive science, philosophy, psychology, and linguistics.  When it came time to graduate I had to reconcile all these courses and find out what major they all added up to (which is why I have the double-major in Computer Science and Human Biology).  Looking back (because it wasn’t conscious at the time), I think I was interested in how and why systems were designed – and how different kinds of system design either accounted for or created human behaviors and relationships.  I loved biology because it taught me about functional, physiological structures underlying cognition.  I loved linguistics because I was, and am, fascinated with how people create and share meaning.  I loved psychology for its ability to describe, operationalize, and measure complex human phenomena.  I loved computer science for its ability to break the world into manageable, problem-sized chunks that could be worked on in a structured and collaborative way.  And I loved philosophy for asking why it all mattered, and how we truly know what we think we know.  My background in the sciences (sometimes to my detriment) taught me how to think structurally, rationally, and systematically – to break problems down into manageable pieces, to be skeptical, and to ask for evidence and rationales.  Other fields can teach you this, too, but, for me, the sciences gave me a foundation I’m grateful for today.

In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline. In a short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. Do you agree with the author? What are your arguments for and/or against academic tenure?

I don’t hear the young, untenured professors I know saying that they’re afraid of taking intellectual risks or speaking to broad audiences.  On the contrary, I more often hear a different kind of pressure – an expectation that they take risks, try new lines of research, push the limits of fields and ideas, and communicate their work to the general public in clear and accessible language. Indeed, many young scholars I know are often trying to structure their time so that they can both publish in high-quality, peer-reviewed venues and write for popular venues that show how and why their work is relevant beyond the academy.

I think tenure means different things, at different places, for different people.  For some, it’s a chance to pivot to a new field, to take their experience and apply it to a different focus or area.  For others, it’s an opportunity to take on newer and broader leadership roles within their fields or universities.  For still others, it’s a chance to focus on mentoring junior colleagues and graduate students, to develop new courses and novel connections among disciplines they’ve worked within.  It’s hard for me to provide arguments for/against tenure since I think the very concept of tenure is understood and experienced so differently.  I’ve watched many people make the transition from junior to tenured professors and, by and large, I don’t see significant differences in how they behave: they continue to be engaged in projects they care about, do world-class work, respect and earn the respect of their colleagues, and (much like most senior professionals in other fields) work in ways that are ethical, productive, and rigorous.  To be sure, tenure is an extremely valuable goal and a marker of professional success, but I don’t share Fukuyama’s blunt assessment of its universal meaning or merit.

What are you currently working on?

I have a few different projects on the go (some solo and some with colleagues) but they’re all focused on understanding what kind of public values are embedded within—and revealed by—the networked technologies of news production. I’m working on book (under contract with MIT Press) on this topic and look forward to finishing it up in the next few months.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mike Ananny and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Dowdall, J. (2013). “Interview with Mike Ananny,” Figure/Ground. January, 25th.
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