Social Media & Society 2014 wrap up, part 2: cultural acceptance and activism

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.

Click to see Oakley's slides in full.
Click to see Oakley’s slides in full.

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.

Image courtesy of AK Rockefeller
Image courtesy of AK Rockefeller

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!

Social Media & Society 2014 wrap up, part 1: gender and moments of grunching

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.

Click on the image for more Kate Beaton/awful velocipedestrienne excellence!
Click on the image for more Kate Beaton/awful velocipedestrienne excellence!

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!