AoIR2016: on not finding home

A lot of people attending talk about having found their academic ‘home’, or about having found their ‘people’. This is understandable: AoIR is an eclectic space, full of amazing, interesting people who are tackling important new problems (and often having to create new methodologies in order to do so).

mosaic.jpgIt’s not my home, though. Except insofar, perhaps, as there’s often a significant gap between idealised images of home and many places in which I’ve actually lived. I’ve gone to quite a few different conferences, across a number of different fields, and I’ve never found ‘home’. I’ve always felt a little out of place, a little unsure about where my work fits in, a little like everyone else seems to know each other and I’m the one standing awkwardly at the edge of groups at social events wondering if I should just give up and go home.

Conferences are a challenge because of this, but still valuable. I’ve met a lot of good people, heard about interesting work that is mostly a few steps away from my own, and occasionally prodded other people’s ideas in the direction of new approaches that I think are important. I think a lot about cross-pollination.

AoIR felt especially hard this year. Part of that was the fact that I’m at a low ebb in terms of energy. In the last few months I’ve moved house, had a rather intense teaching semester, and had some health issues that left me feeling more exhausted than I can ever remember being before. The couple of years before that already depleted my reserves: they’ve been tremendously difficult on a personal level. But part of it was also the strangeness of feeling out of place amidst this narrative of AoIR as home, as ‘our people’. It’s especially jarring to feel my usual awkwardness as so many other people are talking about their sense of belonging.

And in academia, belonging is important. I’ve helped build some collaborations with other early-career scholars that I’ve found tremendously valuable, but I haven’t found mentors to help with some of the tougher aspects of navigating academia. I do okay at publishing, I think, but grants are hard to navigate when you don’t have more established scholars to include you on their projects so you can get your own track record.

I’ve had some very generous advice provided by older academics, but because they’re not quite in my area, it’s not always easy to implement: ‘Believe in your work!’ (I do!) ‘Try applying for grants x and y, they’re low-hanging fruit!’ (Their terms specifically prohibit the kind of research I’m most excited about.) I’m still trying to make these connections, but it’s hard to continually approach more senior academics with a lot of demands on their time and ask: can you help me?

glassI don’t know if there’s a place in academia that would fit me in the way that AoIR seems to fit others. Much of the work at AoIR is very close: there’s a significant concern with critiquing power structures and creating change in the world, albeit often coming with a different set of assumptions to my own. I met many wonderful people who I hope to stay in touch with, even if I often felt like I was getting in the way of them talking to people more important for their work. I also missed a few chances to meet and talk with others working in similar areas – perhaps in other, less exhausted years, I will be better at finding these connections.

But for others who might have felt the same way as I did at AoIR, worried that we weren’t belonging in the ways that others seem to, I wanted to write this. To remind myself, too, that it’s okay if there isn’t already a perfect home for me in academia. To remind myself that it’s okay to be at the margins. That sometimes even though it would be good to have a place already waiting to accept me, I just have to keep working at building communities where I can fit. Finding people, stitching networks, helping others who also feel out of place, questioning the assumptions that other people are working within. Sometimes, perhaps even often, remaining awkward, and doing my best to make the most of that space on the edge.

AoIR2016: Bending

This was a fascinating session run by The Fourchettes collective, with a focus on un-block-boxing, thinking about it through axes of power, and by recognising spaces of invisibility (and the importance of preparing them). It was facilitated by Alison Harvey (University of Leicester, United Kingdom), Mary Elizabeth Luka (York University, Canada), Jessalynn Keller (University of Calgary, Canada), Tamara Shepherd (University of Calgary, Canada), and Mélanie Millette (Université de Québec à Montréal, Canada).

I’m afraid my notes are rather partial here, as I’m not always good at balancing participation with note-taking in the enlarged-fishbowl-more-of-a-pond format.

Tamara Shepherd’s introduction was very effective in setting the context for the discussion, noting the need for critical approaches to methodology, and the complications and ambiguities in developing those approaches.

forkMary Elizabeth Luka talking about some of the ways in which an ethics of care is useful for thinking more deeply about methods. The ethics of care approach allows us to think about how ethics protocols obfuscate and manage different bodies of research. Building communities and networks is important, but this is often actually used with reference to ‘impact’ (in the ways it’s measured for academic work).

Mélanie Millette spoke on the paradoxes of balancing her personal experiences of research and the limitations of the formal ethics approach.

Jessalynn Keller talked about research pollination. Her research looks as how girls and women use digital technologies to challenge rape culture online, including their experiences and feelings around this kind of practice. This involves collecting a wide variety of materials across platforms. In constructing an archive of this material, it’s challenging to balance different priorities (including requirements as a junior researcher, and the desire to centre young women’s voices).

Alison Harvey talked about the obsession that develops in academia with typologies, and the benefits of taking individual words and thinking more deeply about them. Words that are very normalised in everyday practice, like, ‘data’ are beginning to feel uncomfortable. Her participants are experts sharing their stories, and talking to them doesn’t feel like, ‘data collection’. But we can’t just change these words, because we’re working within particular contexts. We also need to remember that no methodology is necessarily feminist. Feminist research approaches need to engage critically with the epistemological underpinnings of the process of research.

To give a very rough overview of some of the discussions that came up (perhaps more as a reminder to myself than anything else), with apologies for not being able to keep track of speakers:

  • Citation practices: who do we cite? Do we try to take texts that aren’t overtly feminist and try to read them against themselves? When we’re citing important contributions, including conference papers, how do we also protect people who may have been obfuscating their arguments for reasons like safety?
  • How do we support alternate citing practices as journal reviewers?
  • How do we find sources beyond the cannon? Especially when most of the tools we use (like Google Scholar and our internal library research) embed the existing status quo?
  • Open Humanities Press is a useful place to look for resources, in particular Photomediations.
  • How do we escape marginal spaces within academia? (For example, not getting stuck within ‘work on queer issues’, ‘work on country x’.) How do we as readers help in this (remembering that an article or conference presentation on India or Poland may still be relevant)?
  • Emma Lawson? ‘Publish and perish’ talks about the challenges of making research more open.
  • We need to think about how industries surrounding academia (like publishing) can also be engaged in this work.
  • How do we use our privilege, including our privilege as researchers, to create change?
  • When we think about what communities we work with want, we need to keep asking what will be useful. The answers are surprising: sometimes it is to publish academic articles. How do we ask what communities want at scale? Or when we’re bringing communities into being through our research?
  • When we’re working with ‘unlikeable’ movements, often we don’t want to point the ethics of care in their direction: we might be researching movements that we know don’t want to be researched, but their desires aren’t the most ethically pressing.
  • How do we use a feminist ethics of care when doing larger-scale research?
  • How do we use teaching to create change? Whose texts do we foreground? How do we make students pay attention to the authors of texts (many students assume that authors are white men)? What teaching practices create change?



AoIR2016: Forced migration and digital connectivity in(to) Europe – communicative infrastructures, regulations and media discourses

Mark Latonero (USC Annenberg School) spoke on they ways in which data is being collected around forced migration flows. Latonera is interested in the technologies that are being used to track and managed refugees’ movements across borders. People were stopping at the short border between Serbia and Croatia for a variety of reasons, including to get medical treatment, food, money transfers, and wireless access.

wifiAs we research these infrastructures, we also need to examine which actors are inserting themselves into these flows (or being drawn into them). Platforms like Facebook, Whatsapp, and Viber are being used to organise travel, while others, including Google and IBM, are developing responses aimed at supporting refugees or managing refugee flows. Coursera is offering online study for refugees, and there are also other edutech responses.

Aid agencies like UNHCR are teaming up with technology companies to try to develop support infrastructures: the World Food Program, for example, is coordinating with Mastercard. The ‘tech for good’ area, including techfugees, is also getting involved. Latonera is deeply doubtful that a lot of the hackathons in the West are going to produce systems that can help in meaningful ways.

We need to think about the social, political, and ethical consequences of the ways in which these technological structures of support, management, and surveillance are emerging.

Paula H. Kift (New York University, NY) In search of safe harbors: privacy and surveillance of refugees at the borders of Europe

There are two important EU regulations: Eurosur (drone and satellite surveillance of the Mediterranean sea), and Eurodac (which governs biometric data).

At the moment, the EU engages in drone and satellite surveillance of boats arriving, arguing that this doesn’t impinge on privacy because it tracks boats, not individuals. However, Kift argues that the right to privacy should impact on non-identifiability as well, and the data currently being gathered does have the ability to identify individuals in aggregate.

There are claims that data on boats may be used for humanitarian reasons, to respond to boats in distress, but the actual regulations don’t specify anything about how this might happen, or who would be responsible, which suggests that humanitarian claims are tacked on, rather than central to Eurosur.

4639Similarly, biometric data is being collected for indefinite storage and collection, and this is justified with claims that it will be used to help deal with crime. This is clearly discriminatory, as refugees are no more likely to be involved in crime that citizens. Extensive biometric data is now being collected on children as young as six. This is particularly worrying for people who are fleeing government persecution.

The right to privacy should apply to refugees: blanket surveillance is discriminatory, has the potential to create serious threats to refugee safety, and is frequently being used for surveillance and control rather than any humanitarian purposes.

Kift suggests that the refusal to collect personally identifiable information can also be seen as problematic: states are refusing to process refugee claims, which creates further flow-on effects in terms of a lack of support and access to services.

Emerging coordination with tech firms creates further concerns: one organisation suggested creating an app that offered to give information on crossing borders and resettlement, but actually tracked refugee flows.

Çiğdem Bozdağ (Kadir Has University, Turkey) and Kevin Smets (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium and Universiteit Antwerpen, Belgium). Discourses about refugees and #AylanKurdi on Social Media

After the image of Aylan Kurdi was shared, research showed huge peaks in online discussions of refugees, and searches for information on refugees and Syria. However, these findings also raise further questions. Did this actually alter the debate on refugees? How did different actors use the impact of the image? And how did this take shape in different local and national contexts?

This research focused on Turkey and Belgium (and specifically on Flanders). Belgium has taken much fewer refugees than Turkey, but nevertheless there are significant debates about refugee issues in Belgium. In Maximiliaanpark, a refugee camp was set up outside the immigration offices in response to slow processing times.

In the tweets studied, there were a lot of ironic/cynical/sarcastic tweets, which would be hard to code quantitatively: qualitative methods were more appropriate to understanding these practices.

6748738-1x1-340x340Among the citizen tweets studied, the two dominant narratives were refugees as victims, or refugees as threats. In Turkey, anti-government tweeters blame the government for victimising refugees, pro-government tweets blame the opposition, Assad, or humanity as a whole. In Belgium, refugees were mostly seen as victims of a lack of political action, or as the victims of instrumentalisation (by politicians, media, and NGOs). When refugees were seen as a threat, in Turkey this focused on Aylan’s Kurdish ethnicity, whereas in Belgium this drew on far-right frames.

Research also looked at reasons given for the refugee ‘crisis’: those who are against migration tended to focus on economic pull factors, those in favour tended to give more vague reasons (‘failure of humanity’). When solutions were provided, those employing a victim representation called for action and solidarity, whereas those seeing refugees as threats called for measures like closing borders.

When the image of Aylan emerged, it was usually incorporated into existing narratives, rather than changing them. The exception was ‘one-time tweeters’: people who had affective responses (a single tweet about their sadness about Aylan, and then returning to their non-refugee tweets). Both Belgium and Turkish users tended to see Gulf countries as bad ‘others’ who do not take refugees. There was little focus on Daesh.

Twitter users who were opposed to immigration tended to employ the clearest vocabulary and framework: there were very strong in oppressing what they saw as the problem, and the solutions.

Unfortunately, the conclusion is pessimistic: the power of this image (on Twitter) is limited: it didn’t disrupt existing discourses, and there were also great similarities with how refugees and refugee issues are portrayed in the mainstream media.

Eugenia Siapera (Dublin City University, Ireland) and Moses Boudourides’ (University of Patras, Greece) work looks at the representation of refugee issues on Twitter.

There are two important theoretical frameworks: digital storytelling (Nick Coludry) and affective publics (Zizi Papacharissi). Affective publics both reflect and reorganise structures of feeling: the culture, mood, and feel of given historical moments. The refugee issue is a polymedia event, but this research focuses specifically on Twitter.

What are the affective publics around the ‘refugee issue’? There wasn’t one debate, but overlapping rhythms. Here, there were four key events: the Paris attacks, the Cologne station sexual assaults, the Idomeni crisis, and the Brussels bombing.

This research used large-scale capture of relevant tweets across many different languages. The overall story is about crisis, about European countries and their response, about chilrden and human rights told in many languages. It concerns political institutions ad politicians, as well as about terrorist attacks and US right-wig politics. Canada and Australia are also very much involved.

Incidents in particular countries rapidly become entangled with narratives elsewhere, as they were incorporated into national debates. There’s a tendency for discussions on Twitter to fit into existing narratives and discourses.

Kaarina Nikunen, University of Tampere. Embodied solidarities: online participation of refugees and migrants as a political struggle

By drawing together the public and private, campaigns build affective engagement that can be thought of as media solidarities. This research looks at ‘Once I was a refugee’, where refugees use their own voice and bodies to embody solidarity.

In Finland, the refugee population is very low: since 1973, the country has only 42,000 people with refugee status. In 2015, 30,000 refugees came, which was a significant change. The refugee presence in the public debate is very small. Debates are really between politicians, and some NGOs. Refugees are silent in the mainstream media.

‘Once I was a refugee’ was initiated by two journalists, following from examples in other European countries. It began in June 2015, which was crucial timing: August and September saw attacks on several reception centres, and anti-refugee rallies calling for borders to be closed. Public debates focused on the economic cost on Finland’s welfare state. The campaign tried to build a counter-narrative to these claims.

11951262_1648702685410427_3715380495121936746_nWithin a few days, many young Finns shared their photos on the site: there are now 172 stories on the Facebook site. The format for stories is the same: “Once I was a refugee, now I’m a …” The site gained national attention, including in the mainstream press. It provided alternative images of labour, education, and value. The narratives are united by optimism: while they may have a sense of struggle, they highlight successful integration.

Most end with gratitude: “thank you, Finland”. This highlights the sense that refugees had (and have) of having to earn their citizenship. Uniforms are used to signal order and belonging. In particular, there are many images of people wearing army uniforms – these also gain the most shares. This can be seen as an attempt to counter claims of ‘dangerous’ refugee bodies.

Responses sometimes drew divisions between these ‘acceptable’ refugees and the need to refuse others. We should also recognise that the campaign requires former refugees to become vulnerable and visible: this is clear from the ways in which images become the focus of discussion for those against immigration. The campaign didn’t disrupt the narrative of refugees as primarily an economic burden which needed to be dealt with (merely promising

However, ‘Once I was a refugee’ did open space where refugees spoke up in their defence (when others weren’t), emphasising their value and agency, and engaging in the national political debate.

AoIR2016: Laws

Cyberlaw 3.0 – Global Law of Internet Governance?
Thomas Streinz  New York University School of Law, United States of America

streinzStreinz talked about the cyberlaw debate as frequently polarised between ‘anarchists’ like Barlow and those arguing for state regulation, like Goldsmith and Wu. Streinz argues for a position somewhere in the middle (which he says is possibly where Lessig can be placed). Cyberlaw is one potential approach to this, but is often thought of with reference to treaties and custom. But this is a very slow approach to building law. Free trade agreements also increasingly touch on data flows.

The global administrative space includes a wide variety of institutions, from international organisations and treaties through to private governance institutions. Global administrative law brings many of the principles behind national governance to the international level: this is something Streinz has been trying to bring to ICANN over the last couple of years. How can ICANN become more transparent and participatory?

There’s an interesting tension emerging between multistakeholder governance and other models. Barlow’s ‘anarchist’ idea that governments should not be involved in Internet governance still lives on with many people, even if the actual system works quite differently. Global administrative law principles – transparency, participation, and review – can be applied to help build legitimacy.

The responsibilities of platforms: a new constitutionalism to promote the legitimacy of decentralized governance 
Nicolas Suzor  Queensland University of Technology, Australia

This presentation focuses on three key points:
1. Internet governance is decentralised.
2. We know very little about how that’s done.
3. We need better theory to understand it.


Governance, broadly defined, is “the management of the course of events in a social system” (Burris et al. 2008) – this allows us to move beyond understanding governance as only enacted by the state. Suzor refers to ‘nodal governance’ (Burris, Drahos, & Shearing) in particular, which focuses on the interrelationship of actors.

In practice, a very wide range of intermediaries govern online behaviour. Almost everything we know about the internal governance of platforms, and how they’re relating to other organisations, comes from anecdotes, leaked evidence, and lobbying documents. Platforms themselves are engaging in multiple regulatory games around the world.

There’s also increasing pressure from civil society groups for intermediaries to resist state pressure and become more independent. At the same time, many civil society groups (sometimes the same groups) are putting pressure on platforms to take more responsibility for governing the content on their sites.

The liberal division between public and private spheres makes it hard to talk about ‘rights’ in this context. So how do we apply the rule of law when governance is decentralised? There are four core values to start articulating key tensions:
1. Meaningful consent,
2. Transparency,
3. Equality and predictability,
4. Due process.

Terms of service are not good constitutional documents. They’re not designed to govern communities. Increased pressure on platforms has lead to more readable terms of service, but there’s little other improvement: no commitment to meaningful consent and transparency around terms of service changes, and all terms of service have some kind of allowance for the platform’s absolute discretion in making decisions.

There’s a range of research being undertaken by others in the research team to start understanding existing governance processes more deeply (sadly I didn’t catch all the names here). There’s still more work that needs to be done on theorising and regulating power. This is a genuinely complex issue, and there isn’t consensus around what constitutes legitimate governance. Even once ideas emerge about what constitutes legitimate governance, we have very little idea about how to get platforms to follow principles.

Free trade agreements and internet rules: new actors, new agendas 
Christopher Foster (University of Sheffield, United Kingdom), Shamel Azmeh (London School of Economics, United Kingdom)

TTIP, TTP, and other less-known global trade deals are multinational, multilateral agreements, often with a regional dimension. They’re often characterised as ’21st century trade deals’, with some focus on digital data.

tppThere’s been significant critique and protest around these trade deals from grassroots movement, often focusing on the lack of transparency involved in shaping them and the ways in which they benefit particular economic interests. There have also been critiques of their intellectual property components from a FOSS perspective, as well as of other digital issues.

However, these critiques often have quite a narrow focus: rather than focusing only on specific clauses, we need to think about them in a more holistic way. We also need to develop a less Western-centric, nationalistic perspective to evaluate them from a broader perspective that considers the global public good. Recently, a number of rounds of WTO negotiations have failed, in part because poorer nations have been pushing back against unfair proposals.

Trade deals have frequently been seen within frameworks that conceive them as negotiations between rational actors that represent the national good. But we need to understand the broader power structures, where weaker countries feel like they need to agree to unfavourable trade terms to avoid being excluded from trading blocks. Multinational companies also have an impact on the negotiations.

Foster and Azmeh’s research focuses on the TPP. This agreement focuses in part on ‘digital barriers’ to free trade. National policymakers frequently emphasise economic impact of laws managing digital content, including localised digital content (not just issues around censorship and surveillance). The US has a fear of ‘digital protectionism’, and are using the TTP as a way to push their position.

Silicon valley tech firms are also having an impact on international trade policy. Tech business alliances are also influencing policy through reports and lobbying. This is being reflected in the TPP draft.

More attention needs to be paid to the ways in which digital issues are being addressed in international trade agreements, and by the power structures that are shaping these agreements.

AoIR2016: Cultures

I opened the panel by discussing some of the ways in which solidarity is being built online around the Kurdish struggle for autonomy. You can find my slides here:


I found it interesting that one of the questions I got was basically, “but which methodological box does your presentation fit within?” (and, perhaps, the unspoken “and does it fit in that box properly?”) It was quite striking, particularly given Kumar’s later discussion of the ways in which knowledge is constructed as (il)legitimate. Methodological rigour, particularly as constructed through very set processes with their own canon, can be useful, but I think one of the strengths of Internet research for me is the experimentation with more eclectic methods, and the openness to critical perspectives on different methodological traditions. (Some thoughts that I’m sure I’ll end up working through in more depth elsewhere, although I did touch on them in my book.)

Digital Dublin: the Water Protests and Social Media in Ireland
Christian Ritter,  Kadir Has University, Turkey

Ritter discussed the use of Facebook and Twitter in resisting water privatisation in Ireland, drawing on critical discourse analysis. There are three different levels to attend to in discourse analysis: discursive practices, textual analysis, and social practices. There were a number of different narratives that emerged out of the campaign, including attempts to resist the government’s claims that

gangaWikipedia and the postcolonial politics of naming: The case of an Indian river
Sangeet Kumar,  Denison University, United States of America

English-language Wikipedia acts as a default: many other Wikipedia versions translate articles from the English. This presentation explores questions around the construction of power and knowledge, focusing on the debate around the naming of the Ganga river in the English-language Wikipedia, which is called the ‘Ganges’ on the site.

There are four broad themes in this discussion:

  • What counts as proof, or as a ‘reliable source’?
  • How are different versions of English prioritised?
  • Colonial history.
  • Whether or not voting on controversial issues is the best method for resolving disputes.

Conflicting rules and sub-rules can make it difficult to come to a final discussion, leading to the necessity of a vote. In the discussion around the Ganga, there were conflicts around whether Google Scholar or news reports are better sources for the most widely-used terms. There are also debates around the rule that non-English sources can’t be used for the English-language Wikipedia: this is especially important given that the English-language Wikipedia shapes other Wikipedias.

This also leads into discussions of whether drawing on the local variety of English (spoken in India in this case) should be prioritised: some contributors argued this was ‘balkanization’ of English, while others saw localisation as supporting a more inclusive and open Wikipedia. Naming is a political issue, particularly given the history of colonialism.

Discussion afterwards was lively, bringing up some great questions about how we research networks in their full complexity, how we manage the construction of knowledge in a more participatory way, the extent to which activism on social media influences policy, and the role of agency.

AoIR2016: Censorship online, and the challenges of studying what’s no longer there

Tarleton Gillespie (Microsoft Research), Jillian York (Electronic Frontier Foundation), Sarah Myers West (University of Southern California), José van Dijck (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences), Sarah Roberts (UCLA).

cufxf52waaazmemTarleton Gillespie opened, noting that most users never run into content moderation rules: they never confront what gets deleted or suspended, particularly not the details. Other users run into those rules again and again. It’s also important to recognise that there’s a whole apparatus: not just the rules, but also people who evaluate content, complaints, and policy changes. This apparatus is largely opaque to users, even when users do interact with parts of it. It’s also opaque to scholars. How do we begin to open this up?

Sarah Roberts talked about the shift from our online presence being confined to a server in someone’s closet to being hosted by these multinational entities. Firms have outgrown any policy dimensions they (or others) can come up with, and they really seek outside assistance in developing their policy. Content moderation is often outsourced: what’s the experience of those working with this content? We also need to recognise that one person’s censorship is another’s security. Total automation of these processes, some suggest, would fix these concerns, but this wouldn’t solve issues with the opacity of moderation processes, and it wouldn’t prevent the production of problematic content.

Sarah Myers West voiced her frustration with the limits of research on moderation policies. Platforms are meant to be giving us greater voice, but in practice it can be incredibly difficult for marginalised users to get their content back up when it’s taken down – doing so usually requires getting help from an NGO. At-risk users tend not to find transparency reports and policy statements helpful, as they’re often lacking in necessary detail (especially when translated) and not adequately localised.


Jillian York discussed, which came out of conversations she had with Palestinian activists discussing the kinds of content they were seeing censored. This project tries to track terms of service takedowns, which are much murkier than government censorship practices. There are very different contexts here, for example, when content is taken off a platform, it still exists elsewhere. This might not matter for some users, and some kinds of content. But some users’ Internet use is heavily (or exclusively) focused on particular platforms, and as platforms like Facebook encourage users to stay within the bounds of the site it can mean that content doesn’t exist elsewhere.


José van Dijck reiterated some of her ideas from her keynote, talking about the shift from having companies and institutions that (for example) specialised in news, to companies like Google and Facebook that are data companies…even when they’re clearly incredibly important sources of news. We need to discuss this discrepancy.

vandijckAfter the initial provocations, the discussion opened up, with contributions from the audience as well. Some great points came out of this, including around the ability of users to create change, and whether news organisations and journalists should be treated differently to ordinary users.

AoIR2016: Representation, presentation, embodiment/emplacement

Crystal Abidin (Anthropology & sociology, communication & media studies, University of Western Australia) talked about her research on ‘Gross is the new like: allure, visceral camp, and carnivalesque commerce in grotesque microcelebrity’. Turner (2004) discusses celebrity’s cultural shift towards the momentary, visual, and sensational. Marhsall (2010) argues that we’re moving from representational media (where others manage our identity) to self-managed media.

yukaWhile some microcelebrities have highly-curated, fashionable and conventionally attractive online presences, others do things like livestreaming themselves brushing their teeth. Kinoshita Yuka is a very tiny lady who can eat a lot of food. She gets away with this because she’s a pretty young woman: she’s not grotesque in the moments she’s not actually eating. Upsetting the existing economy of microcelebrity opens it up to new participants.

Natalie Hendry (School of Education, Deakin University School of Media & Communication, RMIT Univerity) spoke about ‘The visual blog as a body’. She noted that Australia has significant funding for ‘solving’ youth suicide, often through technological approaches, but the resources for this don’t always connect well with people’s needs on the ground. This research focused on white girls aged 14 to 17 years old at a specific hospital.

Visibility in this sector is often framed as either a risk, or a solution, as survivors are positioned as taking a role in showing their linear progress from mental illness to health. Connection is pushed as a way of fixing mental illness: young people are seen as needing to connect to the ‘right’ people (a healthy community, mental health services) and separated from other ‘unhealthy’ communities (for example, people sharing images of self harm online).

Hendry focuses on one research participant, Beatrix, who collected a huge number of images. For her, anxiety is linked to the need to avoid the risk of negative affect. The curation of her identity differs significantly between Facebook (which she sees as more authentic) and Tumblr (which is more of an art gallery, but still represents her sense of self).

glitchKatie Margaret Warfield’s (Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Canada) research focuses on selfies, with this paper looking particular at young women’s experiences. Galit Wellner’s post-phenomenological work is useful, but brackets out power structures, which leaves a clear gap when it comes to understanding selfie practices.

The cellphone serves numerous roles, including as a mirror (as women arrange themselves for a photo), and as a camera (as a sense of a ‘real’ image was sought). Glitch feminism (from Legacy Russell) can be used to understand this: “the irruption of desire that happens online and between body-technology intimate/sexual encounters”.


kendallJill Walker Rettberg (Department of Linguistic, Literary and Aesthetic Studies, University of Bergen, Norway) started by saying that she was only partially going to support the argument she’s making in ‘An image is an Image, even if it’s on Instagram: Why we need to study social media images as representations’. While it is important to understand the context in which images are created and read, it’s also important to read them as symbols.For example, Jenner’s image can be read in the context of celebrity, but it can also be read as a deeply symbolic image that evokes others.

300px-john_everett_millais_-_ophelia_-_google_art_projectThis means we also need to remember that Western art history is not the only lens through which to read images. The most widely shared images of Alan Kurdi were different in the West and in Arabic countries, perhaps in part because of a different artistic, and therefore symbolic, tradition.

Kat Tiidenberg (Institue of Social Studies, Tallinn University, Estonia) discussed her attempts to find a useful theoretical framework for her work on ‘Socially-mediated bodies as practice: studying selfies in situ‘. Drawing on practice approaches is a useful way to think about selfies. It means that you need to think about a very broad range of practices that precede and surround the taking of a selfie. We also need to think about how the selfie as an object functions: how, and why, is it shared? What about selfies that are deleted, or sit waiting to be edited?