December 7, 2015 § 1 Comment
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which we are hurt by the world, and about the ways in which we might heal from those hurts. We are hurt by the effects of racism, inequality, political disenfranchisement, sexism, rigid gender and sexual identities, the displacements of migration, ableism, and structures which often prioritise competition over cooperation, among others.
These are structural problems, but they affect us in deeply personal ways. Legacies of hurt come down to us through our families, at the same time as our experiences add new layers. For many people, involvement in activism can be deeply damaging, in part because sexism, racism, homophobia, and other structural inequalities don’t magically disappear within movements.
Our movements need to be spaces of healing. Because we are up against vast forces, and we need to be as strong as possible. Because when we damage each other further people burn out and groups split and our work is undone. Because we need to show that there are alternatives, and they are viable and more beautiful than what currently exists.
For us to heal, for us to be strong, it takes work. While I was in Athens, I facilitated a short workshop on emotional labour. “Emotional labour” is often used to refer to the requirement that workers manage their feelings in particular ways while on the job (for example, smiling and looking happy even if they’re tired or annoyed), but emotional labour is also common in activism.
This takes a variety of forms, most of them hidden, and unequally shared. It might include smoothing over disagreements during a meeting; checking up on members of a group who miss events; welcoming newcomers; and meeting with people outside of events to negotiate tensions. Often, women take on more of this work, in the same way that women are still often expected to do more of other ‘caring work’ – cooking, cleaning, childcare, and so on – even when in movement spaces. In many spaces, race and class differences will also contribute to the inequality in who is expected to do emotional labour.
Several people at the workshop asked for more material on emotional labour, so I’ve gathered a few useful links here, in no particular order. This is far from a definitive collection! It’s just a starting point, with a mix of deeper theoretical discussion, specific suggestions, and different perspectives. (I also don’t necessarily agree with every single point in each of these sources.) Please feel free to add helpful sources in the comments, or to let me know if you have any questions.
- Silvia Federici: Capitalism Destroys Us, Movements Heal Us – This post links to the recording of a talk by Silvia Federici on “Our Struggles, Ourselves: Rethinking Healing Work”, as well as sharing notes and highlights. If you don’t want to listen to audio, you might prefer reading Occupations and The Struggle Over Reproduction: An Interview with Silvia Federici.
- Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable – “What happens when thousands of people who all “get it” come together and everyone knows something about “the work”? We lose all compassion for each other. All of it.”
- An owie to one is an owie to all: A six-step plan for helping your parent-friends remain activists.
- Aftershock, particularly the chapter on ‘Action against fracture’, sounds really interesting, but I haven’t had a chance to read it.
- Emotional Labor: What It Is and How To Do It – this is mostly framed with reference to relationships, but the examples are very helpful in understanding what emotional labour is, and much of this is transferrable to movement spaces. [Edit, an edited version of the metafilter thread this article mentions is also available for download here.]
- 35 Practical Steps Men Can Take To Support Feminism – again, this is not overtly activist, but much of the advice is transferrable to activist spaces. For male activists involved in heterosexual relationships, being a good partner should also be an important part of your activism.
- Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements – an important discussion about the deep harm caused by failing to deal with gendered violence and misogyny in our communities.
- The Importance of Support: Building Foundations, Creating Community, Sustaining Movements – “it makes us more effective activists and makes our communities more inviting when we take care of ourselves and those close to us.”
- 9 Ways We Can Make Social Justice Movements Less Elitist and More Accessible – concrete ideas for creating more open, caring spaces.
- [Edit: and another addition!] Johanna Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory is a beautiful and important discussing of caring work, disability, and activism.
I hope this is helpful, and I look forward to learning more from the ways in which other people are approaching the challenge of building stronger movement spaces.
October 23, 2015 § Leave a comment
micha cárdenas‘ plenary, Trans of colour poetics: imagining futures of survival, began with the room collaboratively playing redshift & portal. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking game, and I was a little surprised by how affecting the collective experience was (“What do you mean leave? NO! STAY AND HELP!“).
cárdenas used this as a way of exploring ideas around shifting one’s location and form, and about survival. She reminded us that the conference is taking place on land stolen from Diné and other peoples*, and that Keisha Jenkins is the 21st trans woman of colour to be murdered in the US so far this year: this sets the context for thinking about the need to build spaces where people of colour, and particularly trans women of colour, can survive.
This work understands trans women of colour’s knowledge, including their experiences of and responses to violence and surveillance, as central. Trans women need to shift their visibility across contexts: passing as cis women in some spaces in order to remain safe, then becoming more visible in order to resist transphobic violence.
Stitching, as a metaphor, provides one way of thinking about cárdenas’ work: it’s a historically feminised practice, but also one currently practiced by those in sweatshops in the South. So using stitching as a practice is in part about learning from those who are oppressed, finding means to connect people who have formerly been separated.
This can, in part, be explored through wearable technologies. Some of these, like Adam Harvey’s anti-drone Stealth Wear garments, are developed to comment on technologies of violence, but without consultation with those who experience this violence, and without an expectation that the garments will be used.
cárdenas, similarly, doesn’t attempt to market garments like the mesh network-enabled Local Autonomous Networks, in part because there’s already a significant market in expensive ‘safety garments’. Instead, she focuses on exploring ideas that others might pick up on, creating new stitches to connect people and tactics. One of these projects, Transborder Immigration Tool, was described by Glen Beck as containing poetry with “the potential to destroy the nation”.
The first panel I went to for the day was on #BlackLivesMatter. Catherine Knight Steele opened with ‘When the Black lives that matter are not our own’, discussing the emergence of Black digital feminism. Steele’s work draws on Squires‘ work on counterpublics, enclaves, and satellite communities to look at the ways in which Black women’s blogging practices preserve and extend practices of Black orality, establishing spaces that are open, but at the same time limited to those who understand particularly contexts.
A number of issues are continuing themes for Black digital feminism, including:
- Agency: as was seen in discussions about Beyonce’s 2014 album release – the blogosphere was less concerned about whether or not Beyonce is a feminist than about her right to claim the title for herself.
- The right to self-identification: the politics involved in owning and operating in blackness, especially for those who have the option not to. By talking about blackness online, people can claim blackness offline.This is important for those dissociated from spaces of blackness geographically.
- Non-gender binary spaces: thinking about how Black women’s lives are articulated differently when it comes to gender, and decentralising notions of fertility, and maternal instincts. This also means being critical about discourses of ‘worthy victims’, and calling out Black men and others within the movement who aren’t paying attention to the violence Black women, including Black trans women, and non-binary Black people, face.
- Complicated allegiances: to religiousity, and to white feminists.
- Dialectic of self and community needs: many Black digital feminists are aware of the contradictions between one’s own needs and those of others. In large part, this comes back to capitalism, and the need to survive within it while also pushing back against it.
- Praxis: this is embodied in the discourse of blogging. bell hooks talks about ‘teaching to transgress’: Black digital feminists are blogging to transgress. Not just striving to understand the world, but to change it.
Next up, Kishonna L. Gray talked about Gaming for Change. Gray talked about the potential that video games offer to explore different approaches to activism, and at the same time the challenges of attempting this when video games are so embedded in mainstream culture.
To really use games to create change, we need to see not only games for change, but also gamers for change, and a gaming culture for change. This was made clear when #Spawn4Good emerged as a response to that Online Hate Mob That Is Totally Not About Ethics in Games Journalism and Ferguson: gamers used Twitch to collect funds for Eric Gardner’s burial costs. In doing so, they faced a significant backlash from some gamers. This also happened when people attempted to create links between #BlackLivesMatter and the Ethics in Games Journalism jerks: both gamers and mainstream feminists rejected the idea that these were connected.
The foundation of gaming technology reflects intersecting and overlapping racist structures that are hard for activist communities to disrupt. For this to happen effectively, acts of racial violence must be framed as something for the community to deal with, not just those affected. Blizzard, Microsoft, and other companies that run major gaming platforms need to be actively disrupting structures of racism, and at the moment they’re just not interested in doing that.
In ‘Toward Social Justice, Against Media Bias, Creating Tumblr Content with Purpose Through #iftheygunnedmedown’, Jenny Korn talked about the respectability politics inherent in #iftheygunnedmedown. This response to the mainstream media’s framing of Mike Brown’s murder highlighted the racialised representation of Black people in the US. Black people are portrayed as dangerous and deviant, and therefore as suitable targets of violence. #iftheygunnedmedown pushed back at that, demonstrating that the same Black people who were shown throwing ‘gang signs’ (any hand gesture), smoking, drinking, or wearing sports wear, were also parents, graduates, responsible employees, and in other ways upright citizens.
While this provides a vital critique of the racism of mainstream media, Jenny Korn also emphasises that respectability politics has its limits. It requires that Black people demonstrate their ‘value’ within the structures of whiteness before they can be excluded from racialised violence. It also privileges white comfort, trying to show that Black people are well-behaved, unthreatening.
A more complete resistance to the mainstream media’s racist portrayals of Black people murdered or otherwise harmed by structures of white supremacy wouldn’t aim for respectability, but would rather value the whole of Black experience.
Finally, Sarah Florini talk about This Week in Blackness and Leveraging Journalism. TWiB was created by Elon James White as an online video series, but now has a significant digital media presence, including seven podcasts, Twitter accounts, and an online TV show. TWiB has reconfigured the relationship between content creations and the audience: the audience is not distant, but much more visible and participatory. The people running TWiB are using social media not just to promote their content, but to have interactions with their audience, and build a sense of social connection. This means TWiB functions as a network in the old sense of the world – both a broadcast network, and a network of people and technology.
When Ferguson happened, mainstream reporting was atrocious: at times, CNN were saying that everything was quiet, while people on the ground were reporting being attacked by police with tear gas. TWiB’s audience requested that they provide coverage, and provided donations to help. By being there on the ground, Elon James White and other people were able to get better information out, and to disrupt the mainstream media narrative: it’s hard to claim ‘all is quiet’ when someone has live video in which they’re being tear-gassed.
The panel ended with a comment from the audience, which several people picked up, that we should be paying attention to #FeesMustFall protests in South Africa. I’ve been heartened to see the international attention that this is getting, and hope that this will be helpful in preventing further violence against the students.
* I’ve used terms here that are most appropriate as far as I’m aware, but coming from Australia there’s a different context and background, so I may have messed up.
Also I am horribly jetlagged, so please excuse any incoherence in the post – hopefully I’ll fix it up later when I have time for edits.
Theorizing the Web Day 2: here comes every body + h8 + lockscreen + algorithms + technologies and pathologies
April 19, 2015 § 1 Comment
The second day of Theorizing the Web was as intense as the first, and many of the presentations discussed potentially-distressing issues, including anti-fat prejudice, online harassment and abuse, police violence against people of colour, suicide, and transmisogyny. This post will only give a short overview of the presentations (and conversations) that happened. My notes from day one are here – I also recommend checking out the TtW15 website and hashtag for more information.
Day two began with Here comes every body, and Apryl Williams‘ discussion of fat activism online. Like most movements, fat activism is fractured: ‘body positivity’ is often still very much about healthiness, with strong moral undercurrents (for example, attempts to counter the idea that fat people are lazy by showing fat people exercising). ‘Fat acceptance’ rejects the idea that fat people have to prove their worth through performances of health, instead insisting that fat people (whether healthy or not) are valuable and retain autonomy over their own bodies. Williams notes, however, that fat activist spaces reproduce hegemonic ideology: fat activism often continues to frame women within the male gaze (“fat women are sexy too!”), and fat positive spaces are often dominated by white women. The Fat People of Colour tumblr provides an alternative space that includes men and genderqueer people, resists the fetishising of fat people, and invokes intersectional approaches (including considering class and disability).
Legacy Russell followed with a presentation on feminism and glitch body politic, asking how experimentations with sex and gender in the digital arena can act to undermine the discourse of sex and gender. Art by glitch feminists like Amalia Ulman, AK Burns, Ann Hirsch, Mykki Blanco, and Fannie Sosa, creates cracks in the glossy narrative of the patriarchal gaze and invites us to consider ways of disrupting platforms at the same time as we use them. Glitch feminism not just about individual projects, but about the connections and spaces in between them.
Mariam Naziripour‘s ‘Craft of Beauty: Make-up after the Internet’ tracked some of the ways in which technology (including older technologies like photography and black and white film) have changed our approach to make-up. Jenna Marbles’ early vlogs demonstrate the strange tensions in how modern Western society views make-up: women are meant to ‘look natural’ at the same time as we’re expected not to look like ourselves. We’re pushed to engage in constant attempts to meet particular (unachievable) standards of beauty, at the same time as we’re criticised for artifice and deception. This also reveals tensions in many people’s relationship to make-up, which is in some ways an imposition (to look a certain way, often at significant economic and personal cost), but also a source of creativity and experimentation. Online communities like Makeup Alley have created one of the richest archives of make-up practices ever to exist, documented by the people who use make-up (rather than poets or essayists writing misogynistic critiques of makeup, as was often the case in the past).
Finally, Emily Bick talked about the ways in which ‘virtual agents’ (virtual assistants, custometr support bots, and so on) reproduce and enforce gender roles. These programs are often gendered, shifting from the more gender-neutral agents of previous decades (like Microsoft’s infamous Clippy), and are subservient and obedient. They represent-and help reinforce-an ideology of a feminised support worker who is constantly available and deferential. Thinking about this now, I’m curious about ways in which this is additionally racialised (with the idealised Western virtual agent usually presented as white, at the same time as a significant proportion of caring work in Western countries is undertaken by women of colour), and about the ways in which glitches or limitations of these programs might be understood as acts of resistance by virtual agents.
The h8 session opened with Alison Annunziata’s discussion of Love and Terror in the Digital Age. She outlined two central problems with dealing with cyberstalking and digital harassment: firstly, that technology shifts more rapidly than the law, and secondly, that both the law and police as individuals are often not capable of understanding the language of threat (and of terror). Antistalking laws, for example, often have a requirements of ‘credible threat’ – would a ‘reasonable person’ see this as genuinely dangerous? Victims are often the only ones with the right intelligence to understand why a particular action is threatening or violating, and they bear a heavy burden of proof.
Caroline Sinders extended this by talking about Twitter’s UX problem, starting with the very real impact of this: her mother was recently swatted, which lead to a painful discussion in which Sinders was asked by her mother, and local police, what gg is and why they’re mad at her…which is kind of hard to explain, when the answer is “I tweet about feminism sometimes”. (This reminds me about some of the discussions at AdaCamp around resources to give to therapists: for people experiencing online harassment and abuse, it can be useful – and even necessary – to have an information pack to give therapists and other support people to explain the background and kinds of abuse that are happening. Sinders mentioned abusive tweets, doxxing, swatting, sealioning, and dog piling as particular issues.) Sinders notes that Twitter has a very specific problem with harassment, in part because it was never designed from a perspective that recognised and aimed to prevent harassment. Legal frameworks (as Annunziata explained) don’t deal well with misogynistic stalking and harassment, and particularly haven’t kept up with online abuse, but Sinders argues that there’s a lot that Twitter could do to become safer, including rewriting community guidelines to recognise and ban emerging uses of the platform for abuse, look at and learn from Block Together, redesign their interface, allowing more user agency, and using algorithms and data better (for example, enacting the PGP Web of Trust, recognising that often friends of friends are safe to interact with), and allowing batched submissions of abusive tweets. They should also be drawing on the knowledge of people who have experienced these forms of abuse in developing their responses.
Thomas Rousse explored two case studies in implementing moderation systems for online communities using peer judgements: Wikipedia and League of Legends. He notes that this isn’t an issue of free speech: it’s about the management of bounded online communities, and not about the forms of speech that the state controls or represses. Rouse outlined two major models of community management: moderation, and ‘online vigilantism’. Many communities start without clear rules for behaviour, and end up defaulting to a vigilante approach as users try to find their own solutions: often these are incredibly inventive, and really terrible. Moderation offers better possibilities, but often requires a lot of work from community managers. Peer-judgement systems offer one alternative. However, democracy is not an inherent good, and majoritarian spaces can less to ‘a majority of assholes’. Neither Wikipedia nor League of Legend’s systems are without problems; in fact, the Wikipedia requests for comment system ended during Rousse’s research. League of Legends’ system has been more successful: it allows players to look at transcripts when players are reported, and decide if they should be punished or pardoned. 94% of those who were reported were punished. But using human adjudicators isn’t fast enough, so they took the body of data accumulated and used machine learning to create a machine judge. This opens up lots of interesting (and worrying) questions about the ways in which peer judgement processes and machine learning might be deployed in other spaces.
I closed the session by exploring some of the ways in which geek feminist activism is challenging the predominantly liberal and libertarian politics of the digital liberties movement (which I’ve written more about here and here). This was a very brief sketch of a complex movement that I’ll be writing about in more detail later, but I hope it brought up some useful reflections on the ways in which we approach-or might approach-issues around online harassment. While Rousse referred back to liberal democratic frameworks (talking about being judged by ‘juries of our peers’ and noting that Wikipedia’s system looked more like a ‘kangaroo court than the Supreme Court’), women, trans people, and people of colour are often very aware that existing liberal democratic frameworks do not work for us. Anarchafeminist praxis offers an alternative source of experience to draw on in considering how we might deal with abuse and harassment, silencing, and structural inequality, within communities that are frequently male-dominated, and in spaces shaped by the broader context of the capitalist system.
The Lockscreen: Control and Resistance extended the discussion on many of these themes. Harry Halpin kicked off arguing that ‘only cryptography can save us’. With the failure of the liberal state and the capitalist order, he says, we’ll be seeing hundreds of revolutions still to come. Technology won’t determine the shape or outcome of these, but it will affect the possibilities available, and if technologies of communication are open to surveillance then states will be able to crush resistance before it can grow. Snowden has argued that we can’t trust liberal mechanisms of governance, so we have to find ways of inscribing the values of the society we want into technology. I’m rather dubious about this idea, however. Sinders’ talk on Twitter’s UX problem described the problems that arise from building a platform based around the life experiences and priorities of a relatively homogenous set of designers (mostly white, relatively privileged, men). There are some excellent women and people of colour involved in crypto communities (as there are at Twitter), but even just within TtW there were many mentions of the problems with crypto culture. So it seems like before ‘we’ ‘inscribe our values’, more work needs to go into working out who the ‘we’ is here, and giving attention and hard work to the culture within crypto communities (and looking at the ways in which these communities overlap – or fail to overlap – with those of users for whom this technology might be a life-or-death issue).
Ted Perlmutter continued the discussion of ‘Twitter revolutions’, but also noted that while people have been very enthusiastic about the platform when it seemed to be supporting progressive revolutions, it becomes more worrying when it’s used by groups like ISIS or gg as a recruitment tool (I’d also add that the US state apparatus is far less enthusiastic about movements organising on Twitter when it’s happening within the US). How should we be disrupting violent hate movements using Twitter? And if we isolate participants, are we sticking them in an echo chamber that will only radicalise them further? This was an interesting talk, but it seemed strange to me to discuss gg primarily through the lens of other male theorists, and without drawing on the experience or analysis of women and other marginalised groups that have been attacked by them.
Raven Rakia wrapped up the session with a critique of the anti-police movement’s dependency on visual images. As activists have been bringing attention to police killings of people of colour, there has been a focus on images of police in riot gear, police killings, and police brutality. These images are powerful, but they implicitly rewrite history, and support a politics of respectability. Photographs of riot police with armoured vehicles suggest that the US police have become militarised, hiding the fact that police have always been militarised, and from the beginning played a role in enforcing racist structures of control (including slavery and lynchings). These images also build a politics of respectability: they rely on an opposition between violent police and pacifist protesters, on telling us that victims of violence were going to college or parents (which implies that those who aren’t ‘respectable’ are suitable targets for violence). These images also focus our attention on visible forms of violence while other structures are hidden, including the prison and legal system that disproportionately affects black lives. Some of these structures are also taking new forms online: for example, if children talk to each other about trying to organise resistance to police or violence experienced from others, they can be charged under ‘gang laws’ and given much harsher sentences. Rakia argues that instead of focusing on images of police violence, we need to work to abolish the police and dismantle systems of incarceration and control.
The second keynote of TtW15, Algorithms as Social Control, brought together Zeynep Tufekci, Kate Crawford, Gilad Lotan, Amy O’Leary, and Frank Pasquale. I won’t try to summarise all of the discussion on this panel, but you can catch the Twitter feed here. There were some important points raised about the ways in which algorithms can act as architectures of control, and potentially also work in liberatory ways. There were also questions raised about appropriate points of focus: should we be examining algorithms, or are they just tools (“just like the process you use for tying your shoelaces”, as two data scientists told Amy O’Leary)? If we are interrogating algorithms, how do we actually do this using the tools and data available to us?
I enjoyed Kate Crawford’s discussion about what the history of the deodand can tell us about algorithms: this legal structure was a way of dealing with death or injury caused by animals or inanimate objects, and was finally replaced by negligence laws in large part due to the political power of the railway industry. Looking at that history reminds us that we have a long history to draw on in working out responsibility in complex systems, and that we can make creative solutions, but but also that the forces of capital shape the ways in which we develop structures for accountability and responsibility.
Tweets about the final keynote, In Sickness and in Health: Technologies and Pathologies, can be found at the #TtW15 #k3 hashtags, with participants Jason Wilson, merritt kopas, Ayesha Siddiqi, Gabriella Coleman, and Alondra Nelson. Nelson’s overview of her work on the Black Panther’s grassroots genetic screening program was amazing, and laid out a six-point theory of health and technology for the social media age which set up the frame for the panel well:
- Information does not want to be free, but demand it is because your life might depend on it. We need access to advanced medical and technical information.
- DIY is self-care.
- Technology needs to be for and by the people.
- Bringing attention to neglected or rare diseases requires an activated network. The Black Panthers had two types of network: one based on homophily (sameness), and another with well-connected nodes that could bring in celebrity (around the campaign on sickle cell anaemia).
- Access to and strategic use of tech must be coupled with vigilance about its excesses. For example, the Black Panthers actively challenged racist assumptions about genetic difference and built a multifaceted understanding of the politics of genetics and race.
- Disruptive innovation can move the state: one outcome of the Black Panther’s campaign was increased funding for sickle cell anaemia.
merritt kopas followed this with a discussion of games as a site for exploring complex ideas around interiority, mental health, gender, and sexuality. Online games can be produced and distributed easily, and the format allows for non-linear narratives. Games like Depression Quest that explore these issues are getting more attention, and much of this work done is being done by women, and especially trans women. Previously, trans people have mainly been allowed to occupy the literary space of the memoir (specifically around transition), which makes trans lives consumable for cis audiences. New games formats allow space for trans women to explore and share their experiences in ways that are more challenging, and frequently are made for other trans people rather than for a broader cis audience. This is important, particularly when being trans online means hearing about suicides (but being told not to talk about them in case you spread suicide), hearing about the murder of trans people (and realising that most of society doesn’t care), being purposefully and continually misgendered, and harassed and doxxed. Even when in queer or feminist spaces, trans people cannot assume they are safe. merritt also notes that while gg has received a lot of attention, this attention usually centres on the experience of cis white women. However, trans people (and especially trans women) have been experiencing these forms of harassment by trans-exclusionary radical feminists for years.
Ayesha Siddiqi talked about the ways in which marginalised people are building narratives of self care. Posts and tweets sharing tips for self care, or even telling others that they deserve self care, can be seen as a way of sharing amateur mental health resources. We need to be asking why people are turning to these to try to survive: what is it about our communities that create this need for self care, and why do are people forced to look after themselves (rather than being looked after by those around them)?
Finally, Biella Coleman talked about a question that’s come out of her previous project on Anonymous: how did those, and do those, who are deemed ‘crazy’, gain a voice when the very category of being ‘mad’ makes you ‘irrational’? She notes that disability marks the past and present of hacking in dramatic ways. While this has many negative impacts, it also creates spaces where people with disabilities (or people who identify with different neurodiversities) are able to find a place where they are accepted (although I would argue that this space is far more welcoming for some people than others).
The discussion that followed emphasised the ways in which ‘madness’ is socially-constructed: Siddiqi pointed out that traits that would mark others as ‘crazy’…are sentimentalized when they occur in white bodies, Coleman argued that in order to resist categorisations of madness you need strong communities of mutual aid, and Nelson noted that the Black Panthers knew you can’t be healthy in a pathological society, and there’s been a pathologization of anyone who poses a threat to the state and the market.
I’ll do one more post about Theorizing the Web, but I want to end this one with Alondra Nelson’s words (or as close as I could get to them while typing frantically):
I don’t feel optimistic at all, but people make do and keep going. But we can find a glimmer of hope in spaces and moments, not fully autonomous, of community, and of gathering.
September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
This was my first attendance at Social Media and Society Conference, and sadly I could only participate in the first day, being keen to get back to Montreal to help Claire prepare for the oncoming arrival of BabyClaire. Despite feeling a little anxiety that BabyClaire might decide to make an early appearance, I enjoyed the opportunity to catch up on some of the latest research around social media use, particularly given the heavy focus on issues around social justice, race, and gender.
The morning opened with a keynote from Keith Hampton, which began with an amusing overview of some of the moral panics that have accompanied previous technological developments (including the horror of women on bicycles). After a discussion of ways in which social media facilitates increasing connection and other benefits, Hampton turned to addressing some of the costs of social media. Drawing on work by Noelle-Neuman on ‘The Spiral of Silence’, Hampton discussed recent research he’s carried out with others around the potential of social media to facilitate more lively online discourse. Surprisingly, research on Americans’ discussions of Snowden showed that only 0.3% of people were willing to the topic online but not offline. Twitter and Facebook users who felt their online connections didn’t agree with their opinions were also less willing to talk about those opinions offline, across contexts. Overall, this undermines claims that people will turn to online forums to voice opinions that might be unpopular or controversial offline.
The second potential cost of social media that Hampton discussed was the increased stress that comes from learning more about bad news experienced by close connections. Results here were highly gendered, beginning with the base measures of stress: women are, on average, more stressed than men. (Race also plays a role, unsurprisingly – Jenny Korn noted the need for more discussion on this.) Men, on the whole, experience no changes in stress levels associated with increasing social media use, while women generally experienced lessened stress with more social media use. However, the contagion effects of bad news for close connections were significantly higher for women than for men.
This was interesting research (which my short summary does little justice to), but I did experience an odd moment of grunching during this talk – a sudden sensation of being othered. In discussing women’s higher levels of awareness of stressful events in close connections lives, Hampton made a throwaway joke about his wife having ‘some theories as to why this might be’. This is not, obviously, a glaring instance of sexism, but the smattering of polite laughter did, suddenly, throw me out of my sense of ease and curiosity about research. Some of the tweets that followed helped to catalyse the source of my unease: the expectation that we could all laugh along at the disproportionate burden of emotional labour that women bear, and the lack of interrogation about why we bear that burden, or how we might shift it.
I experienced a few other moments of this sudden grunching throughout the conference (including when a participant well above forty joked on the conference hashtag about the difficulty of verifying age of consent in singles bars). I’ve decided to start writing about them despite my anxiety that, as an early career researcher, such reflections will have negative impacts on my work, because I think it’s important to name and discuss these small moments of alienation and otherness, as well as the big ones.
After the keynote presentation, I presented Tim and my research in the ‘Politics’ stream (we’re currently working on writing this up, so hopefully we’ll be able to share more soon). Next up, Mapping Iran’s Online Public‘, by Xiaoyi Ma and Emad Khazraee, laid out a useful methodology for capturing and automatically categorising tweets in Farsi. While this research does tend to support the common assumption that Twitter in Iran is dominated by young progressives (probably because Twitter is banned in Iran), Khazraee noted that the Iranian blogosphere is much more evenly divided.
Catherine Dumas’ presentation on Political mobilisation of online communities through e-petitioning behaviour in WeThePeople focused on the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, demonstrating signs of organised counter-mobilisation against gun control, including several e-petitions attempting to shift the focus to mental health services and armed guards in schools.
The final presentation of the session focused on issues of archiving and trust related to government use of social media, particularly around the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools. Elizabeth Shaffer spoke about the importance of archives to those trying to prove their experiences at residential schools and seek redress, and noted that records will continue to be important as we look back on the Commission over coming years. She suggested that social media is likely to play a key role in the discussions around the Commission, and has the potential to be used for more horizontal engagement and information sharing. This research is still at an early stage, albeit a fascinating one, bringing together literature on social media, archiving, and governance: I’m very curious to learn more about how the process of archiving social media around the Commission progresses, and whose voices are (and aren’t) included.
The next panel addressed Twitter and Privacy, with all three panelists noting that this issue is inherently gendered. Siobhan O’Flynn addressed the ways in which Twitter’s terms of service create a legal grey zone. O’Flynn argued, in part, that the existence of hashtags as a means of joining a broader conversation sets up an implicit expectation of privateness for non-hashtagged content – I’m curious about the empirical data around this, and whether users base their actions on this expectation. Nehal ElHadi, like O’Flynn, discussed the appropriation of tweets in response to Christine Fox‘s question to her followers about what they were wearing when they were assaulted, using this as a starting-point for exploring what it means for Twitter content to be ‘public’. ElHadi’s theoretical framework draws on a range of literature, including postcolonial work on the politicisation of space, bringing in vital attention to race and power online, which is often neglected in academia.
Finally, Ramona Pringle spoke briefly on some of her transmedia storytelling projects (including Avatar Secrets, which looks like a super-cool exploration of what it means to live in a wired world, told through a personal lens). Pringle emphasised that Twitter, like other social media, isn’t just a device like a VCR; it’s not a tool we read the manual for, operate, and then put down. Instead, it’s a space we hang out in – we may not understand all of the implications and potential consequences of being there, in much the same way that we may not understand all of the laws governing public spaces like a library or coffee shop. She also spoke about the inherent messiness of human relationships, which includes human relationships online, and why this means that it’s not reasonable to draw lines like, ‘adults just shouldn’t sext’, or ‘if you don’t want people to see naked images of you, don’t ever take them’.
In tomorrow’s installment of the SMSociety14 wrap up: cultural acceptance, social media use by unions, and Idle No More!
April 24, 2013 § 1 Comment
There’s been a significant push in Internet Studies over the last few years towards ‘big data’ studies, which aggregate huge volumes of information (such as tweets or website linking patterns) and subject them to analysis, often quantitative analysis. Much of this research provides valuable insights into how people are using the Internet and its impacts on society, politics, and economics. At IR13 last year there were plenty of projects which took a ‘big data’ approach to the study of social movements, particularly the Arab Spring and Occupy, and provided important analysis about how they organise and communicate. And, of course, my collaborator on the Mapping Movements project, Tim Highfield, is doing excellent work in the area.
However, I do think that there are important aspects of this shift towards big data that we need to maintain a critical approach towards. Part of the reason why ‘big data’ is so appealing is that it looks like Science: there are numbers! and statistical analysis! There have been claims that it will allow us to ‘do away with the need for hypothesis and theory’ (presumably ridding ourselves of the biases contained in these processes). It fits within our perceptions of what ‘proper’ science should be: more objective, less reliant on qualitative methods like participant observation and interviews. This notion of science has, of course, been critiqued from a number of perspectives. Emily Martin’s ‘The Egg and the Sperm‘, for example, provided an excellent demonstration of how profoundly even ‘hard’, supposedly objective, science, is shaped by cultural assumptions, including those surrounding gender.
The shift towards ‘big data’ is not only linked to the uptake of new analytical tools, it is also linked to our (gendered) ideas of what science should look like. As more funding becomes available for big data research, it is important to bear in mind the ways in which our assumptions structure the value we place on different research, and the ways in which access to different research fields is gendered. While many women provide vital contributions in STEM fields, there continue to be significant structural barriers to participation by women and minority groups in these areas. Devaluing qualitative research in favour of quantitative big data not only builds on misplaced assumptions about the value of ‘hard sciences’, it also adds to the factors excluding marginalised perspectives from academia.
This is not to say that we should abandon big data approaches. As I said, I believe that they provide many helpful insights. There’s also some fascinating work out there that uses big data in ways that undermine the assumptions that this research must be ‘objective’ – Zizi Papacharissi and Maria de Fatime Oliviera’s work on affective publics springs to mind here. Tim and I are approaching the use of big data by drawing together big data approaches and participant observation, interviews, and other qualitative methods. So the issue is not so much whether we use big data, as whether we remain aware of the ways in which its use is structured by our assumptions about what constitutes ‘science’, and of ways in which this may privilege some groups’ participation over others.