ICA18 Day 2: narrating voice, digital media and the body, feminist theorisation beyond western cultures, collective memory, and voices of freedom and constraint
May 26, 2018 § Leave a comment
Narrating Voice and Building Self on Digital and Social Media
‘This is Lebanon’: Narrating Migrant Labor to Resistive Public. Rayya El Zein, University of Pennsylvania. This research looks at the calling into being of an ideal political subject through social media. ‘This is Lebanon’ is a platform run by a Nepalese immigrant, Dipendra Upetry, where migrant workers have been sharing stories of labour abuses. The Lebanese system for migrant work is particularly conducive to labour abuses, as workers often have a ‘sponsor’ who they may also live with. El Zein is looking at how the voices of labourers affect the political imagination around what it means to be Lebanese. ‘This is Lebanon’ inverts a popular tourism hashtag, #thisislebanon, and when Lebanese citizens complain that “this isn’t Lebanon”, Upetry invites them to change working conditions if they want that to be true. The Kafa campaign, run by a Lebanon NGO in coordination with the International Labour Union, shared a series of ads about a young couple trying to decide what the right thing to do is regarding the person doing domestic work with them, imagining change as coming from educated middle class people who just need guidance. These are ideologically-inflected ideas of politics that position the individual as the mechanism of change.
Instagramming Persian Identity: Ritual Identity Negotiations of Iranians and Persians in/out of Iran. Samira Rajabi, University of Pennsylvania. This research came out of trying to understand why some people refer to themselves as Persians, and others as Iranians. Rajabi looked at how identity is being negotiated on social media, particularly Instagram, which led to exploring particularly the ways in which identity are written on women’s bodies. Many women were part of the Iranian revolution, but they were the first losers after the revolution. Trauma has had a huge impact on how identity is negotiated, and tactical media can be one way to respond to the deep symbolic trauma many people from Iran have experienced.
Hijacking Religion on Facebook. Mona Abdel-Fadil, University of Oslo. This focuses on the Norwegian Cross-Case – a newsreader tried to wear a cross while reading the news, and was told she was in breach of guidelines. There’s a Facebook group: “Yes to wearing the cross whenever I choose”. This is a good case study for understanding identity politics, the role of social media users in amplifying conflicts about religion, modes of performing conflict (and understanding who they are performing to), and the politics of affect. The Facebook group is dominated by conservative Christians who are worried about losing Norway’s Christian heritage; nationalists who see Norwegian identity as inextricably tied to Christianity; humanists (predominantly women) who try to bridge differences; fortified secularists, who argue ferociously, particularly against the nationalists; ardent atheists (predominantly men), who tend to be fan the flames by abusing religious people, then step back. The group is shaped by master narratives that require engagement: that wearing the cross is an act of defiance (often against Muslim attack); that Norwegian cultural heritage is under threat (with compliance from politicians). There’s an intensification and amplification of conflict, including distorting and adding to the original conflict. We need to understand that for some people this is entertainment – an attraction to the tension in the group, and how easy it is to inflame emotions.
Discussion session: Lilie Chouliaraki, in responding, noted the role of trauma and victimhood, inviting speakers to reflect on the role of victimhood and self-victimhood in constituting subjects and identities here. Rajabi noted that trauma requires a different level of response – the stakes are different. But trauma is medicalised, we treat it as something to be dealt with individually rather than politically. Abdel-Fadil is trying to work out how to write from a place of vulnerability about this: how to take the sense of suffering expressed by these people who feel like Christianity or Norwegian identity is under threat seriously, while not necessarily accepting that they are actually victims.
Towards a theory of projectilic media: Notes on Islamic State’s Deployment of Fire. Marwan M. Kraidy, Annenberg, University of Pennsylvania. Kraidy asks why ISIS uses the symbolism of fire so frequently. There’s a distinction between digital images, operative images (for example, drone footages) that are part of an image; projectilic images (images as weapons); and prophylactic images (which build a sense of safety and security). In ISIS’s symbolism, fire becomes a metaphor for sudden birth and sudden death, for the war machine, and for flames of justice. Speed is essential to the war machine, and to fire. A one-hour ISIS video would have about half an hour of projectilic sequences. ISIS uses a torch as a metaphor for the war machine, and the hearth as a a metaphor for the utopian homeland. Fire activates new connections between words and images. Immolation confuses the customary chronology (for example, of beheading videos).
You Have Been Tagged: Incanting Names and Incarnating Bodies on Social Media. Paul Frosh, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Tagging has become a prevalent technique for circulating images on social media, and serves various purposes for social media platforms (for example, adding more data). Naming and figuration are linked to the life of the self. Names aren’t just linguistic designators – they’re also signifiers of power. Names perform the entanglement of the social subject. Tagging requires a systematic circulation of the name (you must join the platform). Tagging interpolates us as subjects of a particular system, and revitalises the ancient magical power of action at a distance through naming. Tagging is a magical act of germination. Being tagged carries a social weight, prompting us to respond. Tagging sends social signals through others’ images, as opposed to selfies. Tagging goes against the grain of networked selfhood in digital culture, re-centring the body. Tagging is the fleshing out of informational networks.
Selfies as Testimonies of the Flesh. Lilie Chouliaraki, London School of Economics and Political Science. Aesthetic corporeality becomes important when we think about vulnerable bodies. Digital testimonies produced in conflict zones are elements of a broader landscape of violence and suffering. How does the selfie mediate the faces of refugees? What does the remediation of these faces in Western news sites tell us? Three types of images: refugees being photographed to take selfies; refugee selfies with global leaders; celebrities taking photos as if they were refugees. Chouliaraki notes that refugees taking selfies in Lesbos are celebrating not just having arrived, but also having survived the deadliest sea crossing. Refugee selfies are remediated through a series of disembodiments; their faces are, at best, an absent presence, or, at worst, fully absent.
Feminist Theorizations Beyond Western Cultures
Orientalism, Gender, and Media Representation: A Textual Analysis of Afghan Women in US, Afghan, and Chinese Media. Azeta Hatef, Pennsylvania State University and Luwei Rose Luqui, Hong Kong Baptist University. This study looks at media representations of women in Afghanistan, thinking about the purposes these images serve in relation the war on Afghanistan. Media coverage in China is controlled by the government, but soft news is offered a bit more leeway than hard news outlets. Nevertheless, in China mainstream media conveys the same theme: Afghan women oppressed by brown men. Both US and Chinese media portrays Afghanistan as backwards, with women’s freedoms entirely limited. While violence against women in Afghanistan is worthy of attention, but these media representations operate to amplify distinctions between “us” and “them”, justifying intervention (and failing to recognise the violence done by that intervention).
Production of subject of politics through social media: a practice of Iranian women activists. Gilda Seddighi, University of Bergen. This research looked at an Iranian online network of mourning mothers, drawing on Butler’s conceptualization of politicization. There was a group, “Supporters of Mourning Mothers Harstad”, composed mainly of asylum seekers, connected by Facebook and other mechanisms. Motherhood can be seen here as a source of recognition of political subjects across national border. The notion of motherhood was expanded to include children beyond their own. Nevertheless, many women interviewed spoke of their activism as apolitical, and belonging to a particular nation-state was taken for granted.
Subject Transformations: New Media, New Feminist Discourses. Nithila Kanagasabai, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. This research attempts to look at new strands of feminism in India, particularly in smaller towns in Tamil Nadu. Work from urban areas has tended to position Women’s Studies as urban, upper-caste, middle-class, English-speaking, online, and speaking for marginalised groups. Students who Kanagasabai interviewed drew on ‘the feminist canon’ (for example, Virginia Woolf, Shulamith Firestone), but also on little magazines – small local literary magazines in regional dialects of Tamil, which previously circulated predominantly among unemployed, educated men. These magazines have shifted to allow women, Dalits, and people from scheduled tribes to express themselves. Little magazines open space for subjectivity, offering a critique of seemingly universal social norms, including casteism and gender roles. Students interviewed mention these magazines alongside sources like Jstor and Economic and Political Weekly, which speaks to the development of new methodologies. Publishing in little magazines (as opposed to mainstream feminist journals) is seen not just as convenient, but also as a political decision. Moving online did not mean that little magazines transcended the local or temporal – readership remains limited and local, but they are still important spaces. Following feminists online has lead to a deeper everyday engagement with feminist literature. Lurking needs to be viewed within the framework of collaborative learning, and engagement can happen during key moments. Most students didn’t relate to the title of feminism (which they felt required a particular kind of academic competence), but instead related to women’s studies.
Collective Identities and Memories
Collective Memory Matters: Mobilizing Activist Memory in Autonomous Media. Kamilla Petrick, Sandra Jeppesen, Ellen Craig, Cassidy Croft, & Sharmeen Khan, Lakehead University. Unpaid labour within collectives means that institutional memory isn’t actively shared, but instead embodied within long-term members (who may leave).
Emergent Voices in Material Memories: Conceptualizing Public Voices of Segregated Memories in Detroit. Scott Mitchell, Wayne State University. An eight-mile wall remains as a visible reminder of the history of segregation in Detroit, also serving as a space of education and hope. The wall was constructed by developers to raise property values for the White area by separating it from Black communities. Grassroots efforts to add a mural have shifted its meaning.
Repertoires, Identities, and Issues of Collective Actions of the Candlelight Movements in S. Korea. Young-Gil Chae, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and Inho Cho, Hanyang UJaehee Cho, Chung-Ang University.
The Mnemonic Black Hole at Guantánamo: Memory and Counter-Memory Digital Practices on Twitter. Muira McCammon, Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Guantánamo is often left off maps: Johann Stein has called it a “legal black hole”. McCammon tried to go to the library at Guantánamo for detainees – being unsuccessful, she tried following the Joint Task Force for Guantánamo on Twitter. McCammon asks what some of the mnemonic strategies used on the Twitter feed are. Only images of higher-up command and celebrities are posted. Traces of Guantánamo as a ‘space of exception’ have been deleted (for example, tweets noting the lack of Internet connection). The official ‘memory maker’, when posting on Twitter, can’t escape others’ memory-making (for example, responses to an official tweet about sexual harassment training at Guantánamo which pointed out the tremendous irony). When studying these issues, there are few systematic ways to track and trace digital military memory makers.
The Voice of Silence: Practices of Participation Among East Jerusalem Palestinians. Maya de Vries, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This research focuses on participation avoidance, for example the boycotting of Facebook over the ways in which it censors Palestinian content, as an active form of resistance. de Vries notes the complexity of power relations in working with Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Interviewees choose not to engage in anything political on Facebook, knowing that it is monitored by the Israeli state. This state monitoring affects their choices around Facebook. There is also kinship monitoring – knowing that family are reading. Self-monitoring also plays a role. One interviewee notes that when she had to put her location down, there was no option for “East Jerusalem, Palestine”. These layers of monitoring mean that Palestinians negotiate their engagement with Facebook cautiously, frequently choosing non-participation.
Voices of Freedom, Voices of Constraint: Race, Citizenship and Public Memory – Then and Now
Selected Research: “The Fire Next Time in the Civil Sphere: Literary Journalism and Justice in America 1963. Kathy Roberts Forde, Associate Professor, Journalism Department, University of Massachusetts-Amherst. After the end of slavery, new systems were put in place to control Black people, and exploit their labour. Black resistance continued, building a vibrant Black public sphere and paving the way for the civil rights movement. James Baldwin wrote that the only thing that White people had that Black people needed was power. White people should not be a model for how to live. White people destroyed, and were destroying, thousands of lives, and did not know it, and did not want to know it. Baldwin’s writing was hugely influential.
Selected Research: Newspaper Wars: Civil Rights and White Resistance in South Carolina, 1935-1965, 2017. Sid Bedingfield, Assistant Professor, Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Talks about NAACP leader Roy Wilkins’ 1964 opinion piece complaining about Black youth crime. This had parallels with segregationists’ narratives, and Wilkins’ had cordial communications with some segregationists. These narratives stripped away historical context and ongoing oppression when covering Black protests and expressions of anger and frustration.
Selected Research: Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon, 2017, 2nd edition; Rebel Media: Adventures in the History of the Black Public Sphere, In Progress; Jane Rhodes, Professor and Department Head, African American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago. Almost everything Rhodes finds in the discourses of the 1960s is still relevant today in discourses of nationalism and race. Stuart Hall argues that each surge of social anxiety finds a temporary respite in the projection of fears onto compellingly anxiety-laden themes – like moral panics about Black people and other racialised others. US coverage of Britain in the 1960s tended to frame Britain as having issues with race, but an unwillingness to deal with it. Meanwhile, British press seemed to have almost a lurid fascination with racial violence in the US (with an undercurrent of fear for white safety in the US, and subsequently in Britain). Deep-seated anxieties around race and social change aren’t subtle. As Enoch Powell came to power, media seemed to be tangled in debates about whether US or UK racism was worse.
May 25, 2018 § Leave a comment
My rough and very incomplete notes from the first day of ICA. There were a bunch of interesting points that I haven’t noted because I was distracted or tired or too busy listening, and great papers that I sadly missed. I mostly use these notes to follow up on work later, but if they’re useful to you too, that’s great!
Understanding Kurdish Media and Communications: Space, Place and Materiality
Theaters of Inhibition and Cinemas of Strategy: Censorship, Space, and Struggle at a Film Festival in Turkey. Josh Carney, American University of Beirut, spoke about Bakur (North), a film about the everyday life of PKK guerrillas. When the Turkish government banned screenings of Bakur, people met at the theatres anyway to discuss the censorship. The directors of Bakur will go on trial in a few days for ‘terrorist propaganda’. Struggles over censorship were tied to struggles over the city space of Istanbul, perhaps in response to the Turkish government’s attempts to erase ideas and spaces that it finds disagreeable. The government wanted to erase Bakur because it was a testament to the peace process, and to the government’s withdrawal from it. This censorship can be seen as an attempt to erase the promise and possibility of peace.
Cinematic Spaces of Solitude, Exile, and Resistance: Telling Kurdish Stories from Norway, Iran, and Turkey. Suncem Koçer, Kadir Has University, spoke on Kurdish filmmaking as a transnational platform for identity politics. Bahman Ghobadi talks about Kurds as a people on the move, and says that cinema as the art of movement is therefore the most suitable medium for documenting Kurdish stories.
Infrastructures, Colonialism and Struggle. Burce Celik, Loughborough University, argues that Kurdish transnational media is still embedded in historical, political, and territorial contexts. Technical and economic concerns, as well as national borders, also shape networks. State interventions can take place at multiple levels. For example, while the Turkish government may not be able to stop television transmissions from Europe, there are reports of police smashing satellite antennas in Kurdish villages. While there are no country-wide Internet shut-downs, there have been region-wide shut-downs in Kurdish provinces of Turkey. We need to consider the materiality of media infrastructures.
Questions: I asked if there were attempts to shift film screenings and other spaces that had been shut down online. Carney noted that film-makers were very resistant to doing this, as film screenings and movie festivals were seen as important. Bakur was leaked online, and the directors asked that people didn’t share or watch it. Koçer affirmed this, and said that censorship in a way also served a generative purpose for film-makers.
Racism in the Hybrid Media System: Analyzing the Finnish ‘Immigration Debate’Gavan Titley, University of Helsinki. Mervi Pantti, U of Helsinki and Kaarina Nikunen, U of Tampere. Pantti opens by noting that even naming racism as racism is often contentious. ‘Hybra’ project – looking at understandings of racism shaped and contested in the interactive everyday cultures of digital media. This paper looks particularly at Suomi24, ‘Finland 24’, one of the largest non-English-language commenting site online. Anti-racist activism in the 1990s helped to fix racism in the public imagination as a result of movements of people, rather than deeper structures. ‘Racism’ is used broadly in Finnish public discourse to mean ‘discrimination’ (for example, ‘obesity racism’), which removes it from it’s particular context. Conservatives talk about “opinion racism”: claims that journalists and others with a ‘multicultural agenda’ are intolerant of other viewpoints. Politically, it’s very difficult to mobilise in terms of racism and anti-racism because of the ways in which this language works.
More Than Meets the Eye: Understanding Networks of Images in Controversies Around Racism on Social Media. Tim Highfield, Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology, and Ariadna Matamoros-Fernandez, Queensland University of Technology. This research, focused on everyday visual representations of racism and counter-racism practices, comes out of the wider literature on racism online that have largely focused on text. It draws on Matamoros-Fernandez’s conceptual work around platform racism. This article looks at the online responses to Adam Goodes’ war cry, many of which used images as a way to push the boundaries for racist viewpoints (often via homophobia). Indigenous social media users frequently added their own images to push back against the racism expressed against Goodes. Mainstream media, though, frequently reinforced hegemonic discourses of racism, rather than giving space to Indigenous voices. There were salient practices on Twitter that are interesting when thinking about platform racism: visual call-outs of racism, often of which were a way of performing distance from Australian racism, which had the effect of amplifying racism. Rather than performing ‘white solidarity’ by amplifying racism, it would be useful to do more to share Indigenous voices and critiques of racism, and link this particular incident to broader structures of racism in Australian society. Visual cultures are an opportunity to understand cover and everyday racism on social media platforms. Even with changes introduced by various platforms to combat racism (after user pressure), there is a lack of consistency and transparency in responses to platformed racism.
Theorising Online Racism: The Stream, Affect and Power Laws. Sanjay Sharma, Brunel University. Racialism isn’t an individual act, it’s embedded in material techno-social relations. Ambient racism creates an atmosphere of background hostility. Microaggressions may seem isolated and minor, but they can be all-pervasive.
Working it Out: Emergent Forms of Labor in the Global Digital Economy
Nothing left to lose: bureaucrats in Googleland: Vicki Mayer, Tulane. Stories about Google’s centrality to the economy are highly mediated, even for those working within the organisation. Bureaucrats aren’t meant to sell Google, but they have been pushed to ‘samenwerking’ (planned collaboration) to ‘solve problems’ individually with little structural support. Interviewees used the word “innovative” most often to describe how workers were trying to do more varied tasks with less time and money, while also trying to publicise their achievements. New companies come in all the time saying that they’ll create thousands of jobs, but with limited real results.
Developing a Farmworker Low-Power Radio Station in Southern California. Carlos Jimenez, University of Denver. Local Indigenous workers speak Mixteco and Zapotec (sp?) (which is very different from English and Spanish), and listen to Chilena songs – no radio stations in Oxnard catered to this language or musical tastes. The Mexteco Indigena Community Organizing Project partnered with the community. When there was an application made for Radio Indígena for a relatively low-powered antenna, another station fifty miles away, KDB93.7PM, registered a complaint. At first Radio Indígena organisers called to ask them to remove their complaint, but they refused until they received a letter from farmworkers in the area. After a while, the radio community wanted to try shifting towards online transmissions rather than through the radio antenna. But they found that farmworkers’ typical data plans would stop them from listening in. The cost of new media technologies place a greater burden on individual listeners, rather than on the broadcaster.
Production, moderation, representation: three ways of seeing women of color labor in digital culture, Lisa Nakamura, University of Michigan. The lower you go in the chain of production, the more people who aren’t white men you see. It is useful to ask whose labour we misattribute to white men, or even algorithms, on digital platforms. US digital work has been both outsourced and insourced, including to women on reservations. Fairchild ‘invaded’ reservations, and was one of the largest employers in the Navajo Nation until resistance to firings from the American Indian Movement, and unionisation, lead to them leaving. The plant there had produced “high reliability” components, which needed very low failure rates. Employing Navajo workers allowed Fairchild to pay less than the minimum wage. Workers were told that they were building parts for televisions, radios, calculators, and so on (with military applications not mentioned). In a current analogue, moderation work on sites like Facebook is outsourced, sometimes to volunteers. We might also look at the ways in which people like Alexis Ohanian (of Reddit) took credit for the work of teenager Rayouf Alhumedhi in the creation of a hijab emoji.
Riot Practices: Immaterial Labor and the Prison-Industrial Complex. Li Cornfeld, Amherst College. There’s a ‘mock prison riot’ at the former state penitentiary in Moundsville yearly, which is a combination of a trade show and a training exercise for ‘correctional officers’. This isn’t what we think of when we consider ‘tech events’, but we should take its claims to be a tech event seriously. It’s a private event, with global attendees. This is one of the ways in which the US exports its technologies of control and norms. It’s also a space to incorporate participants in the tech development process (for example, adding cords to radios for places where batteries are scarce). Technologies of control aren’t just weapons, they include phones, wristbands, and other tracking technologies – many of these are marketed as being not just for prisons, but also for other settings, such as hospitals.
Moving Broadband From Sea to Land: Internet Infrastructure and Labor in Tanzania. Lisa Parks, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Parks wanted to understand how internet moves from sea to land, and what kinds of digital labor exist in Tanzania to help carry out these operations. She spoke to people who are both formal and informal IT workers, often carrying out risky forms of labour to make the internet more widely available. Drawing on Vicki Mayer, and Labato and Thomas’ The Informal Media Economy. IT ‘development’ projects often lead to unused infrastructure – technology that’s in place, but left unpowered, disconnected, in need of assembly or repair. In Bunda, there are people working in vital jobs like repairing or charging phones. The cost of charging phones is scaled by income. Mobile phone repair workers have designed their own phone which they are going to ask Foxconn to manufacture.
This was a panel discussion, with Amy Adele Hasinoff, University of Colorado Denver; Charlton McIlwain, New York University; Jean Burgess, Queensland University of Technology; Victor W. Pickard and Maria Repnikova, Georgia State University.
The benefits of media engagement aren’t always direct and obvious – sometimes, for example, they connect unexpected groups and help build alliances. Framing material for a public audience with interventions from editors can be useful in thinking about how we communicate our research, including to other academics outside our own disciplines. Speakers were unsure about the benefits of engaging in hostile spaces – are there useful ways to engage with right-wing media, for example?
There was a lot of interest in the potential issues with engaging with the media. People’s experiences with engaging has differed – some speakers had been discouraged for engaging too much, others felt it was seen as a fundamental part of their job. However, there can be a problem keeping a balance between public scholarship (including dealing with hostile responses) and more traditional academic outputs. It’s important to discriminate between ‘high value’ engagement opportunities and junk.
University support for academics under attack can vary – sometimes they’ll provide legal support, but this isn’t necessarily reliable (or publicised). You’ll often only find out what the university responses to these issues are when a problem comes up. Many of the attacks academics face when speaking publicly aren’t necessarily overt: they might include subtle red-baiting, or questioning about how your background (for example, noting Maria Repnikova’s Russian surname) impacts on your ideas.
There were suggestions for those starting out with media engagement and not yet inundated with media requests:
- Make sure your colleagues know that you’re interested in media engagement: they should be passing on relevant media queries;
- Actively contact media when you have research that’s relevant and important – this might involve proposing stories to journalists/editors, or tweeting at journalists.
- Have useful research to share (especially quantitative data).
How not to get fired? You can’t avoid making any controversial statements – if the press decide to go after you, they will. But aim to have evidence to back your point up, and hopefully aim to also have solidarity networks. (I’d add: maybe join your union!)
When engaging with the media, consider the formats that work for you: text, radio, or television?
Activism, Social Justice and the Role of Contemporary Scholarship
Sasha Costanza-Chock, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Out of the Shadows, into the Streets! was the result of hands-on, participatory media processes. There isn’t a divide between scholarship and working with social justice organisations: it makes the work more accountable to the people working on the ground, and to their needs. Work with Out for Change led Costanza-Chock to shift their theoretical framework to one of transformative media: it’s about media-making as a healing and identity-forming process.
Kevin Michael Carragee, Suffolk University, began by making a distinction between activist scholarship and scholarship on activism. The former requires establishing partnerships with organisations and movements – there are more calls for this than actual examples. Carragee talked about his work with the Media Research and Action Project. One of the lessons of MRAP is that you want to try to increase the resources available to the group you’re working with. We need to recognise activists as lay scholars. Activists and scholars don’t share the same goals, discourses, and practices – we need to remember that.
Rosemary Clark-Parsons, The Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Clark-Parsons draws on feminist standpoint theory: all knowledge is contextually situated; marginalised communities are situated in ways that give them a broader view of power relations; research on those power relations should begin with and centre marginalised communities. To do participatory research, we must position ourselves with activists, but we have to be reflexive about what solidarity means and what power relationships are involved. It’s important to ground theory in practitioners’ perspectives.
Jack Linchuan Qiu, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, talked about the problems with the ‘engagement and impact’ framework, which doesn’t consider how our work has an impact, and to what ends. We need to have hope. As academics we have the luxury of finding hope, and using our classrooms and publications to share that hope.
Chenjerai Kumanyika, Rutgers University – School of Communication and Information. This kind of research offers a corrective to some of the tendencies that exist in our field. Everything Kumanyika has done that’s had an impact has been an “irresponsible job decision”. We have to push back against the priorities of the university, which are about extending empire. We have to push back against understanding class just as an identity parameter, as opposed to a relation between struggles. We need to sneak into the university, be in but not of it.
It was a wrench leaving this final panel of the day, but I had to go meet my partner and Nonsense Baby, so sadly I left before the end.
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!