UDC2015 Circuits of Struggle, Day 1: the World Forum of Free Media, community media in Oaxaca, Activating bodies, State violence, and an early night
May 2, 2015 § Leave a comment
The first session, with Stéphane Couture, Gretchen King, and Sophie Toupin of McGill University, looked at the World Forum of Free Media (WFFM) and the Charter of Free Media. This discussion touched on some of the issues I’ve felt myself around the World Social Forum, including its institutionalisation. However, the panellists noted that their experience of the 2015 Forum was that there was space (often outside of official scheduling) for important collaborations. Gretchen talked about some of the debates that informed the development of the Charter, and I particularly liked her point that ‘hegemonic’ media is a better term than ‘mainstream’ media: we want alternatives that challenge existing power structures and narratives, and that means that we do want some independent media to become mainstream, in the sense of being broadly accessible and reaching a wide audience. On a related point, both Sophie and Gretchen spoke about the need to create bridges between different communities: hackers, media activists, feminists, queer activists, and others. Often, the cultures within these groups may be different (even when they overlap), but there’s a need to find ways to collaborate (and, as Stephane says, there’s also a need for this to be fun). As the 2016 WSF approaches, there’s a hope that activists in Montreal can work to set up autonomous infrastructures, including mesh networks, that will not only be a resource for the forum but also continue afterwards, and be a space for people to learn how to set these up themselves.
The lunchtime talk, by Loreto Bravo and Peter Bloom, looked at community radio stations and cellphone networks in Oaxaca, Mexico. The growth of indigenous media in Oaxaca comes out of the specific history of the area, and a form of community governance and social reproduction that Floriberto Díaz, Jaime Martínez Luna, and others have called comunalidad. Comunalidad includes a concept of communities linked to specific territories; structures of community governance rooted in traditional law and community assemblies rather than representative politics; community work (tequio) which all community members must contribute to, even if overseas; and festivals that build connections and allow people to build their organising skills.
Loreto talked about the ways in which women have lead community media initiatives since the 2006 protests in Oaxaca, when a group of women took over the mainstream TV station, Channel 9, living inside the station for a month, as well as 12 radio stations. After 2006, many local radio stations have started in the area, with people talking about their own issues in their languages, but the challenge is to provide education in relevant technology-especially free software-to allow them to appropriate it. This means not just how to use computers and mixers, but also how to fix radio transmitters and other hardware problems.
Peter’s talk focused on Rhizomatica‘s work setting up autonomous GSM networks, at first working with people from community radios and extending those networks and then building cellular networks for communities from scratch. Rhizomatica can do this much more cheaply than major cellular providers, at a cost that communities can fund themselves, which also makes it much cheaper to make and receive calls. However, all of this was done illegally at first: only .14% of the spectrum is available to freely use without permission, and Rhizomatica set up community networks before getting permission. Usually, all of the spectrum is sold off to the highest bidder often for billions of dollars). Rhizomatica was lucky in that the Mexican government had a portion of unused spectrum, and gave retrospective permission for it to be used. It’s important to think about how to set up networks that can be defended from attacks by the state or capital: in the case of these cellular networks, there are 19 different networks, one in each community, and they network but would have to be shut down individually. If the government tried it then communities wouldn’t cooperate, and the government would then also need to answer questions about their failure to provide coverage.
There were also some hints at the challenges involved in how these networks are run and might reproduce existing structural inequalities. Hosting communications data (such as records of calls) within the community may allow people to escape external surveillance. However, it can also expose at-risk groups to surveillance within the community: Peter noted that men had asked him, “what if someone calls my wife while I’m out? How will I know?” Loreto also talked about the ways in which women’s work with community radio might strain their financial resources, create problems with childcare, and expose them to the risk of paramilitary attack.
The panel on Activating Bodies In/to Digital Media Networks: Materiality, Narratives and Molotov Cocktails began with Marusya Bociurkiw’s work on feminist involvement in the Euromaidan movement. She talked about the absolute necessity of combining digital research with embodied research (which we’ve also argued for here and here). Marusya said that her initial ideas about the importance of social media in the protests were challenged once she travelled to Ukraine: Facebook and Twitter mattered, but it was the massed bodies on the ground, people’s willingness to face risks for their beliefs, that made the real difference. Her documentary focused on the Women’s Battalion, which started on Facebook but was used to organise actions on the ground.
I liked Laura Forlano’s discussion of the ways in which her diabetes diagnosis prompted her reflections on ‘Hacking the Feminist Body: Media, Materiality and Things’. Laura critiqued the ways in which hacker/maker identities are constructed, and suggested that a feminist hacker ethic would be built on a deeply personal reflective practice. Rather than making sweeping revolutionary calls for openness based on false discourses of meritocracy, feminist hacker ethics would be based on our own hybrid modes of existence. This also needs to create interventions into the capitalist cycle of consumption.
Mél Hogan’s ‘Electromagnetic Soup: EMFs, Bodies, and Surveillance’ built on these themes, opening with a discussion of the invisibility of how wireless data transfers and is stored. Cell phones become an extension of our bodies, our brains, and also our privacies, and this is an embodied process: we hold phones carry, them, expose our voices to them, and the hardware we use is produced and discarded in processes which are often tremendously environmentally damaging. This opens up questions of ownership and responsibility that are rarely addressed, including issues about how our bodies might interact with the electromagnetic fields that increasingly surround us.
The final presentation in the panel, from Mary Elizabeth Luka, looked at the CRTC consultation process around ‘Let’s talk TV’ and the ways in which rhetorics of consultation and collaboration are frequently undermined by an emphasis on the ‘citizen-consumer’. There’s an assumption that a more “competitive” television model will automatically benefit consumers, but this is often in opposition to the idea of media as a public good that facilitates (and is facilitated by) citizen engagement.
The final panel, Policing the Populace: Corporate Media, Social Media and the Mobilization of State Violence against Racialized Minorities, is topical at the moment. I’m glad that many of the presenters addressed their own personal standpoints with regard to state violence: it feels surreal, sometimes, for presentations on such deep issues to be presented at such a distance from our lives. I can understand the impulse, though, both for those privileged enough not to be personally affected and for those whose lives are shaped by the threat or actuality of violence, and of course do it myself (since it’s often hard to overcome this academic training in a pretence at ‘objectivity’).
Derek Antoine and Miranda J. Brady talked about the media discourses around the Elsipogtog struggle, contrasting mainstream media representations with those from the Halifax media co-op. Mainstream media coverage of Indigenous issues in Canada shifts between a binary of ‘noble or ignoble savages’, with Native peoples positioned as outside of the Western narrative of technology and progress. Struggles like those at Elsipogtog are presented as issues of law and order, or of well-intentioned but naive groups resisting technological progress. In contrast, the Halifax media co-op contextualised this struggle with reference to a history of colonialism, settler violence, broken treaties, and Indigenous resistance, as well as highlighting the processes of organising and deliberation happening around the Elsipogtog protests.
Chenjerai Kumanyika followed with ‘Beyond Techno-Utopianism: The Twitter Activism of @OpFerguson’. He argued that @OpFerguson, as well as being a valuable tool for organising, has also served as a key archive of the Black Lives Matter movement. Kumanyika said that while there are valid concerns around ‘Twitter activism’, these should not centre on whether it displaces on-the-ground work, but rather on the various ways in which capitalist platforms like Twitter and their media ecologies rely on systems of racial inequality and environmentally-unsustainable production and disposal. We also need to remember that while we often think of social media as authentic, what we see is mediated by algorithms and other aspects of the platforms. Nevertheless, @OpFerguson has served important important functions for organisers, providing counter-news information, promoting offline efforts, fundraising, representing and building solidarity, and also playing a role in consolidating leadership. Accounts like @OpFerguson can also help share attention for new waves of organising.
Aziz Douai and Julianne Condon spoke on ‘Police Brutality in the Age of New Media: Online Audiences and the Framing of Police Use of Force against Racial Minorities in Canada’, focusing on the 2013 police shooting of Sammy Yatim. They noted that while the Toronto Sun’s coverage of the shooting was conservative, erasing issues of structural inequality and framing the killing as a law and order issue, a significant proportion of users rejected this narrative in their comments. Instead, readers provided counter-framing, citing issues with systemic racism and police inability to deal with mental health issues.
Finally, Doug Tewksbury spoke on ‘Social Media, Shared Empathy, and Online-Offline Interconnectedness among Ferguson Protesters’. He talked about the ways in which social media can build community, interacting with offline interactions. He drew on Kirsty Robertson’s work on tear gas epiphanies: moments of embodied togetherness and a shared rejection of the disciplinary system (unevenly) imposed on them. (Which for me also suggests moments in which relatively-privileged protesters become aware of state violence that’s a part of others’ everyday experiences.) Social media can bolster the togetherness that comes out of these moments, allowing people to share ideas, knowledge, narratives, and also feelings that are necessary to create movements.
Sadly, I’ve missed the night’s keynote from Astra Taylor – it looks amazing, but 9am-9pm is too many hours of conference for me, so I’ll console myself with reading a little more of her excellent book tonight.
Theorizing the Web, Day 1: cache flow & code queering & racial standpoints & magic & music & concrete dust
April 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
Theorizing the Web has been fascinating, but a bit of a shock to the system after AdaCamp. TtW is gloriously DIY, which has a lot of benefits: it’s particularly great to see an academic(ish) conference that’s open to activists and artists, and not hideously expensive to attend. I did miss the efforts AdaCamp went to in building a safe and inclusive space (including having a clear photo policy, pronouns on badges, and marked walkways for accessibility) – TtW has an anti-harassment policy, which is a great start, but I’d love to see a few more active steps around publicising and extending this policy.
As usual with events like this, I’ve tried to summarise a few of my notes for those who couldn’t make it (and Future Me), but I strongly suggest you check out the program, tweets, and livestream for the conference: there were so many great sessions I couldn’t go to, and of course my notes have been edited down (and tend to get shorter and shorter as the conference progresses).
The first session I went to, Cache Flow, kicked off with Zac Zimmer’s historical perspective on Bitcoin, linking the economic, environmental, and social impacts of sixteenth-century silver mining in the South American region of Potosí with Bitcoin. Zimmer pointed out that the ideology behind Bitcoin reveals a very particular (and circular) understanding of currency: Bitcoin is modelled on gold (and therefore scarce, and increasingly difficult to mine) because gold is seen as an archetypical currency, and gold is seen as an archetypical currency because it is scarce and increasingly difficult to mine. At the same time, this model demonstrates a lack of awareness of the environmental and social externalities involved in mining, which was horrifically destructive in Potosí.
Trebor Scholz lightened the mood briefly by opening his talk, “Okay, tardigrades”, and pointing out that these microscopic animals are much more well-suited to the rigours of capitalism than us unsteady, exhausted humans. Scholz outlined some of the ways in which digital technologies are allowing for increasing surveillance and atomisation of workers, from Amazon warehouse workers fired for spending a few minutes standing ‘inactive’ to the Mechanical Turk. Online platforms become digital bottlenecks for insecure and precarious workers. Scholz ended by outlining some of the ways in which we might “rip out the algorithmic model” at the heart of the ‘sharing economy’ and make something different, taking the corporate mediation out of the picture and using apps or other digital technologies to build worker-run and/or unionised alternatives. Examples to check out include: Turkopticon and the Transunion car service in NYC.
Next up, Andrea Hunter talked about crowdfunding, Crackstarter, and changing journalistic norms. She argued that while many journalists are trying out crowdfunding, this isn’t a sustainable alternative to funding problems in the long term. Crowdfunding requires negotiating new ways of engaging with funders/audiences, and new ways of trying to preserve autonomy while building this engagement. Many journalists currently using crowdfunding are hoping to use it as a step towards setting up new arrangements with advertisers (based on crowdfunding as evidence of a substantial audience).
Finally, Reubenn Binns explored the idea of selling our own data as the answer to our privacy concerns. This talk raised some thought-provoking ideas about how we respond to and resist the incredible levels of data-gathering taking place today, often with the goal of more effectively marketing at us. He argued that while selling our data ourselves can be tempting, doing so undermines our autonomy (as it gives marketers tools with which to more effectively manipulate our desires). However, in doing so he referred to a set of goods and services which it is ‘inherently morally problematic’ to exchange, citing sex work along with voting, indentured labour, selling organs, and other examples – this reference to sex work as inherently problematic (and particularly the reference to sex work as ‘prostitution’) wasn’t necessary for the argument, and has many fierce critics.
The second session, Code Queering, open with Dorian Adams and Steven Losco‘s discussion of ‘Viral Martyrs: Gender Identity, Race, and the Digital Construction of Victimhood’. They argued that allies and media brought attention to the 2014 suicide of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn while violence against so many trans people of colour is largely ignored in part because she was white, young, middle-class, and from the suburbs, and her parents could afford conversion therapy. This mean coverage and support for Alcorn “did not require acknowledging existing networks of domination beyond a bounded notion of transphobia”. In contrast, despite the fact that trans people of colour (and particularly Black women) make up 70% of LGBT-related murders in the US, public attention to these victims limited, with media coverage frequently misgendered them, and either implying or explicitly referring to a real or imagined history of sex work.
Max Thorntorn continued the discussion of trans issues, beginning by noting that Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note talked about being isolated from her online communities by her parents’ confiscation of her devices. The Web, Thornton argues, can become a prosthesis for trans people, not just in the sense of extending or supplementing the self, but also in a more transformative way. Social media accounts and online communities can offer trans people who are not able to safely come out a space in which they can explore their identity, and be recognised by others. The web doesn’t just extend the borders of the self, it dissipates them (we are all cyborgs now). This encourages us to divest ourselves of the fallacy of the discrete, atomised, individual self. Thornton argues that this isn’t just theoretical: we need to take trans people’s gender identities seriously, which means recognising that a laptop and wifi can keep people alive.
Next, Chelsea Summers (standing in for Fuck Theory) talked about gay cruising apps. She/they argued that while common understandings of cruising apps tend to create a binary between cruising online and cruising in person, the actual shift is from a mode of cruising in specific times and places to constantly and ever-presently cruising.
Finally, Dorothy Howard talked about gynoids and geminoid: falling in love with machines. She asked why, when we think about robots and AI, we’re usually asking questions about whether we’ll lose our humanity, rather than about the new forms of intimacy we might be creating? How do algorithms change love? And how, when we think about loving machines, might we explore issue of intimacy, social function, and alienation. (For those interested in these issues, I also recommend my colleague Eleanor Sandry’s Robots and Communication.)
The Racial Standpoints panel was in one of the upper rooms with pretty poor acoustics, so please excuse brevity/errors in my notes. Kyra Gaunt opened by dedicating her work on ‘The Bottomlines Project: YouTube, Segregation and Black Girls’ to Jaime Adedro Moore, who was involved in one of the original YouTube twerk teams and was murdered in 2014. Gaunt and her students have found and watched over 800 hours of twerking videos by black girls on YouTube. She notes that as twerking (which comes out of a number of different African-American and African dance traditions) has become more popular, there are more white girls sharing twerking videos online. Videos by white girls tend to get more views, and more supportive comments, than those by black girls. Perhaps most worryingly, videos by black girls are often posted by older white male users, and/or might share identifying information or receive comments from men trying to make contact with the dancers. Gaunt notes that there are some important ethical issues with this research, including how to present it without revealing information about the girls themselves.
In the next presentation Julia Michiko Hori discussed the ways in which TripAdvisor reveals (or conceals) the relationship between tourism and traumatic histories. Reviews on the site unmask both an anxiety about, and the banality of, systemic historical erasure. Even those who are engaging in ‘cultural heritage tourism’ often post about their experiences within a colonialist framework, in which they are explorers overcoming the challenges of mosquito bites, uncovered food, and overpriced gift shops. These reviews reveal a desire for all places to be welcoming to (Western) tourists, no matter how historically hunted they are.
Louis Philippe Römer‘s Caribbean Visions of Digital Dystopia looked at Facebook demons and trickster prostitutes. He opened by reviewing the history of the Caribbean as the ground-zero of european colonisation, and talking about the ways in which this has shaped ICT infrastructures in the Caribbean today: telegraph networks integral to colonial trade have been replaced by internet cable networks. This
has enabled rapid adoption of internet and other ICTs in the Caribbean. However, at the same time there’s often little support for, or recognition of, a local manifestation of Web communities: Facebook, for example, doesn’t even recognise Curaçao as a location.
Mikhel Proulx closed the session talking about ‘Digital Natives: Indigenous Cultures on the Early Web’. He opened with an acknowledgement of the Native history of Manhattan (the only acknowledgement of country I’ve heard at a North American conference, as far as I can remember). Proulx spoke both about the colonialism embedded in many Internet spaces (such as the resonances in browsers ‘Explorer’ and ‘Navigator’), and of early attempts by Native artists in particular to make room for indigenous perspectives online, including on CyberPowWow and the Zapatista’s Internet presence.
I was quite curious to see what Magic, Machines, and Metaphors would be about, and it turned out to be a fascinating exploration of the overlaps and disjunctures between how we think about (and practice?) magic and technology. I really can’t do justice to the beautiful, rambling, conversation here, and I recommend checking out the tweets from the session. Participants Ingrid Burrington, Melissa Gira Grant, Karen Gregory, Damien Williams, and Deb Chachra invoked magic as a metaphor for structures of power, but also for resistance. Williams spoke of both magic and technology as systems that are unknown to us, unworkable to us, unless we take the time to become initiated, and Chachra pointed out that for technology, that process of initiation is often made pointlessly difficult in ways that exclude many people.
Chachra has no interest in making technology seem like magic, making it more arcane and inaccessible than it already is. Burrington talked about how this technology-as-magic frame is simultaneously criticised by the crypto community (“crypto’s not magic, why don’t people use it properly?”) at the same time as many people imply that they’re wizards in the area. She also did a cool project looking at the NSA and the occult after seeing an astrology magazine doing star charts for Snowden and the NSA as a lens to talk about surveillance. “What does it mean to make a star chart for an institution? You have to give it a birthday for a start.” That might seem ridiculous, she says, but at the same time it makes about as much sense as killing people based on metadata.
I also liked the efforts to think through relationships between magic and capitalism. Karen Gregory’s work on Tarot practitioners tracked ways in which this was often a response to being pushed out of a precarious economy, with Tarot becoming a means of survival. Magic as a means of survival and resistance can take many forms – Burrington’s mention of bots as a way of conjuring familiars made me think of this recent anti-troll campaign, or heartbot. At the same time, we can’t forget that capital is always seeking expansion and enclosure, so talking about magic (or otherwise exposing our spaces of resistance) is always risking their commodification.
This linked in with discussions about anglocentrism and appropriation: what does it mean that many of the magical traditions that we draw on are so Western? What does it mean that when tech culture draws on other spiritual traditions, it often does it in ways that are appropriative, or about turning them into tools for productivity?
The keynote to wrap day one focused on Music and the Web. I admit I was a little exhausted at this stage and so I’m not going to try to draw on my rather-incoherent notes too much: again, I highly recommend checking out tweets from the session. Participants Sasha Geffen, Gavin Mueller, Robin James, Reggie Ugwu, and Naomi Zeichner brought up some great points about the changing nature of celebrity and fan labour, and about how social media is shifting practices around not just the sharing of music, but also how it’s composed and produced.
March 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
I’ve been trying, lately, to fill the terrible holes in my knowledge that were left by my degree. I studied political science and international relations at a pretty conservative department. This has given me a strong grounding in stuff like, ‘classical liberal thinkers who happen to be mostly white men (and Mary Wollestonecraft for ‘diversity’) who I find deeply unsatisfying’, and a very poor grounding in more radical theories.
I’ve been reading bell hooks, and Sandra Harding, and anarchafeminist authors, and trying to find theories and frameworks that both mesh with my experiences of the world and challenge me to think more deeply about structures of oppression, and possibilities for liberation.
The problem is, I’m still reading within the framework I’ve been trained in. I was reading bell hooks’ Where we stand: class matters, and taking notes for a paper I’m working on. Then I realised there was a pattern to my note-taking. I was marking, for example, passages like this:
From the onset, there has been a struggle within feminist movement between the reformist model of liberation, which basically demands equal rights for women within the existing class struggle, and more radical and/or revolutionary models, which call for fundamental change in the existing structure so that models of mutuality and equality can replace old paradigms. (101)
Passages that are abstract and theoretical, that I can take and apply neatly to the writing I’m currently doing, bolstering the argument I want to make about the need for something beyond liberal feminism.
At the same time, I caught myself skimming over hooks’ descriptions of her own experiences as a Black woman within the feminist movement. I skipped over her descriptions of having white women talk over her in women’s studies classes or feminist spaces, being patronised, and being shouted over during discussions. I took the parts of her argument that felt like they fit (the need to talk about class, the need to mention race at least in passing, the need to call for more revolutionary forms of feminism) and discarded the parts that didn’t seem relevant (most importantly, hooks’ centering of her experiences as a Black woman as a grounding for her theory).
This is just what I was taught to do at university: to discard the personal in favour of abstract theory, and in particular to marginalise the perspectives of women and people of colour. Of course, this was never done overtly: we would take about race and class, but then get back to reading the works of white men who wrote ‘objectively’, as if their own experiences were irrelevant (and, at the same time, universal).
At times, this tendency towards taking parts of a theory while discarding others has been a form of resistance. In a space where most of the theoretical frameworks I was provided with felt terribly broken, I learned to cobble together the bits and pieces that seemed least broken to try to make something I could live with and use. That strategy has been important to me in the past, and will continue to be when I’m dealing with theory built on the experiences of privileged people. But it’s a form of erasure when it means sidelining racism and other forms of oppression I don’t experience.
It will take work to undo this. It will take work to find theorists who shift me in new directions. It will take work to notice, and undo, habits of reading and writing and research that reinforce the status quo. I’m noticing, more, how often white feminist academic and activist writing seems to mention intersectionality without acknowleding the foundational work by Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, the Combahee River Collective. I’m noting how often white feminists talk about ‘intersectionality’ while continuing to centre the experiences of white, middle-class (or elite) women, sometimes not even mentioning race at all. I am noticing more the ways in which I do this myself.
I am, of course, not the only person noticing these issues. Bell hooks’ writing makes it very clear that she has been seeing this process of erasure for decades; Sirma Bilge has published on the depoliticization of intersectionality; Black, Afroindigenous and women of colour have challenged the ways their theorising and organising are attacked online; and frankly I am probably missing a whole bunch of excellent writing on this topic because I am still working to find it.
This process of realisation I’m going through has happened in large part because of social media. I’m learning from the frequently-unwaged labour referred to in #thistweetcalledmyback, work by women of colour who engage in debates that are often incredibly wearing and destructive for them. And, in writing about this here, I’m hoping to make a small contribution to other people’s (particularly white, university-educated people’s) process of learning also: to notice our research processes, to do better, to try to centre experiences beyond our own.
October 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
For part one of my SMSociety wrap up, look here!
The first day of SMSociety 2014 continued with a panel on cultural acceptance. Irfan Chaudhry opened by discussing the Twitter Racism Project, which explores different ways of tracking and analysing expressions of racism online. Twitter, he notes, is interesting because it’s highly-visible and easily tracked, although there are still plenty of challenges, including the ways in which racism takes on news forms and expressions with changing social conditions, and the necessity of telling the difference between a racist tweet and an affectionate self-identification. The first round of research has focused an particular racist terms in the Canadian cities with the highest number of reported race-hate attacks (I found it interesting that one of the terms, ‘white trash’, is more classist than racist).
Tweets were then categorised to see whether they were a casual slur, a discussion of racism, an expression of a negative stereotype, and so on, with about 50 per cent of tweets being real-time responses to an event (such as a racist response to being seated next to someone of a different ethnicity on a plane). Chaudhry’s hypothesis that these tweets represent the externalisation of thoughts which were not able to be expressed in person present an interesting contrast to Hampton’s work showing that only 0.3% of people were willing to discuss potentially-controversial perspectives online, but not offline: this might be due to a different sample set, but this connection might also suggest that those expressing their racism online are also comfortable expressing it in person. Chaudry finished by noting that there’s also a need to track racism that’s expressed in more subtly coded ways, such as through the #whiteresistance tag used by white supremacists.
The next presentation was from Abigail Oakley, looking at the online discourse around plus-sized women (and, to a lesser extent, the fat acceptance movement). Oakley noted that much of the abuse faced by plus-sized women sharing images of themselves online came from other plus-sized women. By exploring this through public sphere theory, Oakley proposed that factors such as strength of social ties and emotional involvement play significant roles in the participation of this type of negative online discourse. I’d be curious to see whether this research could connect with some of the practical work around online abuse, including efforts to use moderation to create healthier online communities.
The session wrapped up with Daria Dayter’s work on the ways in which complaints are used to build rapport online, focusing particularly on tweets about ballet. This research is grounded in linguistics, drawing on debates about whether language on Twitter is standard or in the intimate register. Dayter discussed the ways in which language can also be action, so, for example, “I will be there tomorrow” is doing promise, “My foot hurts” is doing complaint. Some of the results include the prevalance of complaint as a form of self praise; the tweet “Iced two ankles 9:07AM 31 DEC 2013” implies dedication both through the timestamp, and through the minimal information and emotional content (which indicates that the poster experiences this often, and doesn’t consider it a big deal). Dayter also noted that gender was not a factor: male dancers complained as much as women. This research really highlighted the benefit of in-depth qualitative analysis of online content.
The final session of the day looked at social media and activism, opening with Brett Caraway‘s discussion of the ways in which Canadian labour unions are using social media. This work draws on Bennett and Segerberg‘s distinction between ‘collective’ and ‘connective’ action, the former being linked to more hierarchical, professionalised movement organising, as opposed to the more individualised, complex, and horizontal forms of connective action. Caraway argues that while connective and collective approaches to organising overlap, in general unions with higher levels of membership, established histories, and emphasising servicing unionism are likely to have organisationally-brokered networks (in which social media is more cenrally controlled). In contrast, unions focusing on recruitment, activism, and issue awareness are likely to have organisationally-enabled networks (which are more open and horizontal). Unions in either of the above contexts may benefit from the integration of social media platforms with their campaigns, however the logic of action is fundamentally different in the contexts of self-organizing networks and organizationally-enabled networks.
Finally, Alfred Hermida discussed recent research with Candis Callison on Idle No More’s use of social media, focused on the period between December 2012 and January 2013, which included several big peaks in Twitter activity around national days of action. Hermida and Callison’s research show that much of the content on Twitter was directed at others within the Idle No More network, rather than being appeals to the mainstream media. This is in large part because Idle No More protesters are aware of the terrible mainstream coverage of Indigenous issues in Canada: journalists will only cover these issues if Indigenous people are ‘dead, drunk, drumming, or dancing’, as thus easily incorporated within dominant racist narratives.
Hermida and Callison used two different methods for measuring influence within the #idlenomore network. The first was similar to the Topsy algorithm, and showed the highest influence to be from institutional elites (such as mainstream news journalists). However, using a different measure that prioritised retweets told a different story, with far higher visibility for ‘alternative voices’, including visible Indigenous Twitter users such as @âpihtawikosisân and @deejayNDN. Retweets were not only a way of sharing information, but also a form of contestation, affirmation, and identity-building, a way of reaffirming (for example) the Indigenous character and leadership of the movement. This research shows social media as a ‘contested middle ground’, which is both affected by other power structures and open to people’s efforts to reshape the network around the hashtag. (This has some interesting connections with the Mapping Movements project I’m doing with Tim Highfield).
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the second day of SMSociety, but you can check out the schedule on the SMSociety website (I’m particularly curious about James Cook’s work on The Bear Club). I also wasn’t able to bring promotional materials for my book, Global Justice and the Politics of Information: The struggle over knowledge, which is now out with Routledge – please do check it out!
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 22, 2013 § Leave a comment
Into the Fire came out yesterday, and the creators are asking people to embed it and distribute it widely. The documentary looks at the impacts of austerity on migrants in Greece, who are facing not only dire economic circumstances but also widespread racism.