Karen Practice Led Project


Karen App,

A practice led project for the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training

Researching the Karen app, by Blast Theory

This project was an interdisciplinary research project that combines my background in media and cultural studies with the new skills I’m learning in Horizon CDT and the department of computer science. It was supervised by Stuart Reeves.


Back home in Cork there’s a famous church spire that’s affectionately known in the city as the ‘four liars’. It is called the four liars because each side of the spire has a clock face and each clock face tells a slightly different time, none of them being the actual time. I mention this because part of my project was establishing ‘what is Karen’, and from what I’ve found there are 3 façades to Karen and all of them slightly different and none of them quite right.

In my report I suggest that the 3 sides to Karen are:

  • Karen the App
  • Karen the interactive drama/ cultural text*.
  • And, ‘Karen’ the character.

Karen, the app, integrates a questionnaire that compiles a psychometric report on you at the end of the experience.

Karen the cultural text challenges its audience to be active participants in its interpretation.

While, ‘Karen’ the character is a life coach, but is also is a fragile construct waiting to break and expose the rusty wiring within.

There was however something that those three parts to Karen all have in common that, for me, pushed through ambiguity of what Karen is. And that is: Time.

One of the primary parts of the Karen user data I have been analysing are the timestamps. One of the dominating features of the delivery of Karen is time. And one of the themes (though I think I forgot to mention it explicitly in my report) that drives ‘Karen’ the character is time, or more precisely the temporal paralysis** of the character. Karen is stuck and, in a way, it is the players’ job to get her moving again.

Coming from the humanities I needed a theoretical framework to start my analysis. As there is very little research (nothing really) done yet on Karen taking a historiographic (big word to say ‘look at what everyone else has being a saying about it’) approach. I did not really have the word count to allow for a modernist (Paralysis!) or post-modernist (Micronarratives!) analysis of the text in relation to the data***.  Eventually I put a very loose cultural materialism / new historicism frame work on it and look at Karen from the cultural context of its conception and production.

So, essentially, my Practice Led Project uses Blast Theory’s digital archive for Karen, interviews with the artists and 17000+ user logs to look at whether there is any evidence to support that interruption and/or disruption are essential parts to the experience of Karen.

This chart (sort of) shows that not everyone engages with the app at the prescribed time, thus allowing users to interrupt and undermine the interruptive nature of Karen.

This report will hopefully be followed up further research by the MRL (Mixed Reality Lab, Nottingham), possibly including:

  • a user trial of the app to establish a first person experience of interaction
  • a deeper analysis of the text and user data to explore the micro-narratives created by the subtle branching videos that make up Karen
  • (a short modernist critique of disruption and paralysis in Karen)****
  • User retrospective user survey – could possibly be used to inform a participation and performativity based analysis of Karen
  • an analysis of the psychometric element of the user data





*I suppose I really should have referred to Karen as a cultural ‘object’ rather than a text, but for me text is the most suitable word. Karen the cultural object straddles the definitions of film/ game/ interactive drama etc. and yet I can easily apply a media / cultural or textual analysis to it.

** That entire semester of studying James Joyce is finally finding a purpose.

*** Who am I kidding, I abandoned post-modernism because I was scared to get into debate about ontologies with my new colleagues in computer science.

**** I may do this. Maybe.



First Post:

In September, 2016, I started a PhD.

It still feels strange writing that: I am doing a PhD. I am a PhD Candidate. I am studying… well yes, my point is made.

I set up this blog in the hopes that I could somehow find a space that would sit outside of academia, or at least far enough on the edge that I could write about my thoughts and research tangents in a discursive (i.e. rambling) and more accessible way. It is mostly a personal log to remind myself to keep moving forward.

So here I am:

Starting a multidisciplinary/ interdisciplinary PhD is both exciting and daunting.  For very similar reasons.

The scope of the digital economy is vast; allowing for multiple disciplines to look at a whole host of topics from different perspectives.

One of the biggest challenges I’m finding in working in an interdisciplinary school is the successful integration of disciplines.

Luckily the CDT I am part of is set up in such a way that you don’t have to face this challenge on your own. You have a support from the supervisory team, mentoring from people who have done similar work, and the opportunity to engage with multiple fields of study within the university.

You also get a chance to up-skill in the first year to help you develop the skills necessary to get a start on your own novel interdisciplinary research.

So where do I fit in? I come from a humanities background. I’ve a degree, and two Masters in Arts and I in the coming months I really want to learn how to apply robust methodologies to my research.

The bibliographies to my MA theses read like a Verso Books catalogue. Not only are they heavily influenced by classic cultural studies texts, they also come from a Marxist foundation.

Which isn’t a bad thing when the Frankfurt school and later French theorists like Bourdieu, Baudrillard and Lefebvre look at issues of Art in society/culture.

But it is relatively harder to start to question the digital in relation to these established discourses that predate our digital reality by 20 or more years

As the title of this blog suggests my own position within the research is going to be looking at the artistic explorations of personal data +/or digital identity.

Currently I’m at the ‘What is?’ stage. What is ‘art’? What is ‘personal data’? what is ‘digital identity’? What is my PhD about? The answer is: I don’t know yet. But, fortunately I have just over three and a half more years to find out.

What I would love is to see if I can produce a piece of art that challenges people’s perceptions of their relationship with technology and the Digital economy. And then critically explore its conception, production and reception.

My lack of experience as an artist makes me wonder if my object d’art will end up being no-more novel than a (hopefully subversive) picture book.*

However, I will persevere in my hopes of creating something engaging and novel, and, perhaps, if I remember, chronicle here the trials, tribulations and random thoughts I have along the way.

There is no guarantee on the frequency of the posts I make, I will not hold myself to a weekly word-count, as to do so may engender disappointment.





*I will reluctantly admit to studying Art for the Leaving and having studied, for 2 years, foundation level classical animation. But that was a lifetime ago and I apologise for the quality of any and all doodles I share in the future.