Research<!-- --> | <!-- -->Ben Pettis
Ben Pettis


It has become a well-established truism that the Internet serves an integral role in contemporary life. In recent years, there has also been much discourse about the dominance of major platforms owned by large corporations. Many media and cultural studies scholars examining these issues have shown how the idealistic promises of the Internet as an equalizing technology have failed to materialize. Situated within the traditions of platform and software studies, my research focuses on everyday encounters with online spaces to critique the current relations of power to advocate for a more positive and equitable future for the Internet. In my work, I attend to multiple communities and experiences of online spaces to counter the dominant and monolithic perspectives of the Internet.

Reddit Blackout

social media

June 12, 2023

Modified version of the reddit logo - a white cartoon alien stands with a red blindfold over its eyes. The word 'reddit' appears next to the alien

Starting June 12, 2023, many Reddit communities (subreddits) will be "going dark" - or changing to private mode - as a protest in response to Reddit's plans to change its API access policies and fee structure. I have come up with some ways to preserve content related to the blackout. These scripts will pull the list of participating subreddits that has been collated in the /r/ModCoord subreddit. Then, using that list, another script looks in those subreddits for stickied announcement posts - e.g. how a subreddit's moderators are explaining their decision to their community.


reCAPTCHA challenges and the production of the ideal web user


December 13, 2022

A blank reCAPTCHA challenge. There is an empty checkbox next to the label "I'm not a robot." A logo of three arrows in a circle is toward the right.

In my dissertation, I consider how individual people are constructed as "Users" as they interact with the internet and access the Web. One of the case studies I use in my dissertation is the reCAPTCHA, a type of CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) challenge found frequently throughout the Web as a method to minimize automated spam submissions and other so-called non-genuine interactions. This article emerged from some of my earlier thinking about reCAPTCHAs and the stakes of separating the people who use the internet into different categories of User. Google's development goals for reCAPTCHA, namely the collection of AI/ML training data, shapes how the category of "authentic user" is defined, which then creates barriers to access.


Tracking the HTTP 451 Response Code

web infrastructure

May 15, 2022

A cartoon image of a server icon with a flame and cloud in the background

This project automatically tracks use of the HTTP 451 (Not Available for Legal Reasons) code, how frequently it's used, and archiving error pages. Geoblocking is a reality of the modern Web, and the code could be appropriate to use in some of these situations. We know that gov censorship is a reality in many places, but despite all the restrictions on the full flow of content online, this specific HTTP response code is actually not used all that frequently!


Know Your Meme and the Homogenization of Internet History


August 19, 2021

A screenshot of the Know Your Meme website entry for the Pepe the Frog meme

As memes circulate and spread throughout different Web communities, their meanings are continually changing. In the last decade, the website Know Your Meme (KYM) has become popular among researchers, educators, and day-to-day Web users to understand memes and their meanings. KYM is a frequently cited resource among Web researchers, and as a result it has become instrumental in establishing dominant histories of memes on the Web. Though KYM remains an invaluable resource, it is often cited with minimal context, and an uncritical reliance on KYM’s definitions may overlook the polysemy of many memes. Accordingly, this paper uses a discursive interface analysis of the KYM website along with examples of incomplete meme definitions to demonstrate how the website constructs itself as a cultural authority to define and classify memes. Given that memes themselves are artifacts of Web history, I argue the overreliance on KYM as an authority on memes and their history can contribute to the homogenization of Web histories. However, this paper acknowledges that KYM can still be a useful resource and to that end, offers recommendations for how researchers might better introduce and contextualize KYM within their own work.


The Tumblr Porn Ban

social media

May 1, 2020

A photo of Ben Pettis standing in front of a blank wall with a confused look on his face. There is photo over the image which reads 'Female-Presenting Nipples'

This thesis considers social media platforms and the fluid nature of online spaces. Specifically, I examine the social network site (SNS) Tumblr and the controversy that surrounded its recently amended community guidelines and adult content policy. Tumblr had previously had somewhat of an 'alternative' identity as compared to mainstream SNSs such as Facebook or Twitter. This identity had largely resulted from its previously lax policy toward pornography and other adult content. Such content had previously been allowed on the website, which enabled a wide degree of personal freedom and expression.


Finstas, Young Adults, and Stardom

social media

November 1, 2019

A photo of Ben Pettis standing in front of a lectern while holding a certificate from the National Communication Association

Instagram is a popular social network site (SNS) that individuals use to share photos and videos with their friends, networks, and publicly with the world. However, as compared to other SNSs such as Facebook or Twitter, Instagram has not received as much research attention. This survey study opens new opportunities and avenues for further research on Instagram by quantifying the phenomenon in which a single individual uses multiple Instagram accounts to construct and present their online identities in a way that is entirely distinct and separate from their physical-world persona. The study specifically examines how the number of Instagram user profiles that an individual uses is related to their attitudes and behaviors on the Instagram platform. An online Qualtrics survey of Instagram users aged 18-24 (N=82) found that 64.6% of the population uses online one account and 35.4% used two or more accounts. The study demonstrate that there is a difference in attitude toward Instagram as well as social media more generally between users with one account and those with multiple. Whereas much work in the realm of SNSs has emphasized the Facebook platform, I have provided an initial study that considers Instagram, and the ways that young adults use this platform to construct and understand their identities. There remains significant opportunity to understand how these different attitudes are reflected in specific behaviors. This study has made an important first step to shift the study of SNSs toward Instagram, and perhaps other SNSs as well.


Pepe the Frog


February 1, 2018

A black slide with a cartoon frog at the top-center. The frog has a speech bubble saying 'feels good man.' The title on the slide reads 'Pepe the Frog. A case study of the internt meme and its potential subversive power to challenge cultural hegemonies'

This thesis examines Internet memes, a unique medium that has the capability to easily and seamlessly transfer ideologies between groups. It argues that these media can potentially enable subcultures to challenge, and possibly overthrow, hegemonic power structures that maintain the dominance of a mainstream culture. I trace the meme from its creation by Matt Furie in 2005 to its appearance in the 2016 US Presidential Election and examine how its meaning has changed throughout its history. I define the difference between a meme instance and the meme as a whole, and conclude that the meaning of the overall meme is formed by the sum of its numerous meme instances. This structure is unique to the medium of Internet memes and is what enables subcultures to use them to easily transfer ideologies in order to challenge the hegemony of dominant cultures.