Sample: Social Media Freaks
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Table of Contents
1. Social Media, Art, and the Network Society
2. The Social Structure of Social Media
3. Leave Britney Alone: Sexuality Perspectives on Social Media
4. Disabling a Meme: Disability Perspectives on Social Media
5. GamerGate: Gender Perspectives on Social Media
6. Occupy Wall Street: Class Perspectives on Social Media
7. Black Lives Matter: Racial Perspectives on Social Media
8. Social Media Toolbox
9. Conclusion: A Social Media Revolution?
Appendix: Digital Media Literacy
What is the relationship between social media and social inequality? This is the question that drives this book. Since the advent of social networking platforms, we have heard a great deal about how social media is changing how we live, learn, do business, and relate to one another. But is this change for the good? And if social media is achieving something positive, who exactly is benefiting, and who is being left out?
This book focuses on people who are marginalized by existing social inequalities, but especially those who embrace this experience as a source of identity, empowerment, and connection to others. I use the word “freaks” to describe those folks. Freaks might seem like a rude or controversial word to use, but I am following the lead of popular culture, in which artists have been telling us to let our freak flags fly high and to get our freak on.
Freaky things are happening in social media. People are connecting to like-minded others across the globe to practice social activism and create social movements. In social media, the core of this experience is rooted in creative expression: making images, memes, videos, music, and powerful texts that offer a new way to imagine the world, including imagining a world without social inequality.
But in using social media as a tool, these artists and activists are contending with the massive corporations that are behind our major social media platforms. Those corporations are run by a small handful of executives and board members who are overwhelmingly male, white, cisgender, American, heterosexual, nondisabled, and wealthy. In other words, social media is controlled by a handful of corporations whose leadership reflects the height of privilege.
This book is a field guide for scholars who are studying social media with a focus on identity, inequality, and social movements. It offers a broad survey of the literature on social media from across the social sciences and even the humanities, but centering on sociology. It also introduces readers to a range of theoretical perspectives and research methods—which I highlight through sidebars titled “Methodological Moments”—that can guide us in our study of social media.
In chapter 1 I offer a set of theoretical tools for understanding the relationship between social media and social inequality, drawing on concepts from classical sociology, cultural sociology, the sociology of identities (including gender, race, sexuality, disability, and class), and media studies. In chapter 2 I focus on the history and structure of the social media industry. I draw from my own posting history to construct a history of social media. I look at the issue of power in the industry through an analysis of the leadership teams and boards of the major social media companies.
Chapters 3 through 7 examine a series of case studies that explore how various social activists and social movements have engaged social media. In chapter 3 I start with queer social media celebrities and focus on the story of Chris Crocker, famous as the leave-Britney-alone guy who had a YouTube meltdown when he felt Britney Spears was being maligned in the media. In chapter 4 I examine disability activism in social media, focusing on a unique moment when the actor George Takei posted a meme on Facebook that many interpreted as mocking disability. Chapter 5 examines the case of GamerGate, a gender-centered controversy in the world of video games that played out across social media channels including Twitter, YouTube, 4chan, 8chan, and many others. By GamerGate’s end, at least three women had gone into hiding in response to vicious threats on social media, but no charges had been filed.
Chapter 6 turns to the social movement Occupy Wall Street, one of the first major social movements in the United States to embrace social media as a core movement tool. I examine how social media relates to other tools used by Occupy, particularly the central tool of occupying public space. Chapter 7 turns to the more recent social movement Black Lives Matter, another movement that blends online political coordination with the occupation of public spaces. While many, including one of its founders, view Occupy as a failure, Black Lives Matter seems to be having a more lasting influence on public discourse.
Chapter 8 is a very different kind of chapter. Presuming some readers find social media to be a compelling tool for the pursuit of social change, it offers a toolkit for that practice. Drawing on my own work in social media, I provide a series of best practices for sharing creative content on social media and engaging a range of audiences.
In chapter 9 I conclude with the difficult philosophical question of whether social media can really live up to its hype and whether it will ever be truly revolutionary. To preview, my answer is no, but I provide the caveat that a restructuring of who controls social media technology might lead to more positive possibilities for social movements.
I love social media. I post often on a wide range of platforms. My social media projects have helped me to embrace an identity as an artist, even as they also help me advance my career as a scholar. I love the possibilities that social media has created for artists and activists, but I hope to see those possibilities one day become a reality of social transformation.
Social Media, Art, and the Network Society
An alarm on my phone wakes me up. I reach for the phone to silence the alarm, but doing so puts the whole world in my hands. Instead of going back to sleep, I open my phone and begin tapping through apps. I always check Facebook first. The number in the red circle under notifications makes me anxious. I click through each notification to see who has liked or commented on my posts. I also have three friend requests. One I confirm, one I delete, and one I decide to let sit for a few days while I think about it. Closing Facebook, I open Snapchat. Most of the stories on Snapchat I simply click past, but I slow down when I get to my favorite Snapchatter, Chelsea Handler. Between her improvised rapping and her adorable dogs, I can’t get enough of her snaps. I break to play a game on my phone for a few minutes, usually a round of an escape-the-room game. I scroll through my timehop and pick out a photo from this day three years ago that I decide to share on Facebook. Once the photo starts getting likes and comments, I’ll end up having to open Facebook again. For now, I turn to Twitter. This is a more involved app-check, as I have three Twitter accounts. I check to see who has added me on each one, as well as the responses to my latest tweets. The last Twitter account I check is my work account. This awakens my work brain, and I realize I should check my e-mail. Twenty messages since I set my phone aside at midnight. Most are spam, which I open and delete. Another message from the struggling social media platform Ello, urging me to log back on. I am amazed at how many colleagues have sent messages at four in the morning. I answer the ones that just need a quick reply and leave the rest in my in-box to be answered when I get to my desk. I tap through Pinterest, Tumblr, and Blogger, though the only traction I get from those platforms happens when I post links to them on Twitter and Facebook. Instagram is next. There are fourteen likes of various photos, almost all of my cat. I scroll down the feed and click the little heart on photos I like of my friends and their pets. I note some good posts from celebrities like Matt McGorry (How to Get Away with Murder) and Tracee Ellis Ross (Black-ish). Closing Instagram, my thoughts turn to the news, so I open the Huffington Post app. I read a story about the lack of diversity in Hollywood that I think I should share with my audience, so I click the share button and post it to Facebook. I read a few more stories and realize I should get back to Facebook to check my new notifications. I click through to see who has liked my timehop and HuffPost shares. Then I start scrolling the newsfeed. Several items seem relevant to my work, so I click the option to save them. I will use the saved list later in the week when I am scheduling daily Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn posts using Hootsuite. Finally, I check LinkedIn and accept a connection invitation from a colleague. It’s now at least an hour since my alarm went off. I move to the kitchen, where I plug my phone into my speakers and open a Spotify playlist so I have some music to listen to while I make my coffee and breakfast.
I’m such a freak. A social media freak. But many people reading this will identify with my morning routine. The combination of social media and smartphones has changed the way that we interact with technology, each other, work, and the world. Social media has turned us into freaks by infiltrating our lives and making us addicted to mediated communication. But we are not passive dupes of the social media hegemony. Many of us have embraced the new possibilities presented by social media, and we have created opportunities for connection and change that exceed the vision of those who built this technology.
In my previous book, Pop Culture Freaks, I argued that popular culture turns all of us into freaks by telling us that we are never good enough. We are too fat or too skinny, too old or too young, too rich or too poor, too brown or too pale, too masculine or too feminine. Popular culture presents us with an image of beauty that has been touched up, Photoshopped, and surgically enhanced. We can never attain that level of beauty. But the industries of popular culture promise us that if we keep buying what they are pedaling, we might get there one day.
Rather than feel shame for being freaks, many of us—the consumers of popular culture—have embraced our freak sides and flown our freak flags. The R&B artist Janelle Monae asks, “Am I a freak for dancing around? Am I a freak for getting down?” in a song called “Q.U.E.E.N.,” which seems to equate being a freak with being a queen, in a wonderful rhetorical inversion. In an interview, Monae explains the Q.U.E.E.N. acronym as Queer Untouchable Emigrant Excommunicated Negroid (Benjamin 2013). The artists of popular culture have defied their corporate overlords and called for us to wear our freak flags as a badge of honor.
Social media is the new kid on the pop culture block, and it too makes us feel like freaks. We are worn down with daily messages critiquing in painstaking detail our bodies, our homes, our careers, our families, and our romantic lives. But in the case of social media, those hurtful negative messages are coming from both the entertainment industry and our peers, and that just makes them hurt even more.
However, social media is also a tool that we can use to push back against these negative messages. It can give us a voice and a chance to participate in ways that are missing in other forms of popular culture like television or radio. Many social media users are seizing the megaphone provided by these platforms and using it to create new stories about what it means to be human that disrupt old stereotypes and challenge the many dimensions of social inequality.
Bullying, harassment, surveillance, and stalking are just a few of the terrible things that can happen to people who use social media, and they happen most to those who have the least power: women, racial minorities, disabled persons, sexual minorities, trans people, and the poor. Yet for all of the harm that can happen on social media, marginalized and minority groups continue to embrace it. Why is that?
In this book I use a series of case studies to examine the ways that various groups in society experience oppression and harassment in social media and the ways they use social media to push back against that oppression. I propose a new lens for understanding the value of social media in the lives of those who are marginalized and oppressed or who feel they do not conform to the norms of mainstream society. I attempt to shift the discourse around social media from being a discussion about media and communication to a discussion about art. This shift allows us to examine the creative aspects of social media making and not just the productive aspects. It also gives us a better way to understand how social media has become sacred in the lives of many young people and adults.
Art versus Media
In order to claim that social media should be understood as art, not just as media or communication, I need to clarify what it is that I mean by art and what it is that I think is lost when we refer to social media as media or communication and not as art.
Obviously, all art involves media, whether canvas, camera, choreography, or any of a number of widely recognized art forms. However, we do not treat all types of media as art. What distinguishes artistic media from nonartistic media? Option one is quality. In some cases, quality is a useful way of understanding how the word “art” is deployed. Great examples of film or music and other genres are said to be elevated to the status of art. But many people would also agree that a great deal of “bad art” is nonetheless art. A bad painting is still seen as art simply because it is a painting, and paintings are a recognized genre of art. A second option for explaining the distinction between art and nonart is to say that art refers to a set of genres or media formats. Paintings, photographs, and ballet are all art. Pop music, newspaper articles, and line dancing are nonart. This approach highlights a legitimate arbitrariness in the distinction of art, but it doesn’t tell us what the social value is of treating some things as art and others as nonart. A third option is to suggest that art distinguishes sacred objects from mundane ones. The things we call art often end up in museums that have the grandeur of temples. When an object shows up in these sacred spaces, we are more confident in recognizing it as art. However, while a great deal of art has been sacralized, there is also certainly a wealth of mundane and even profane art from across the centuries. Andy Warhol made this strikingly clear with his famous works inspired by everyday objects such as Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes. Robert Mapplethorpe took the point even further with his controversial photographs of kinky gay sexual interactions. After Warhol and Mapplethorpe, and so many others who have pushed the boundaries of art, we cannot make the argument that art is simply a matter of distinguishing sacred objects from mundane and profane ones.
I would like to suggest a very different way of understanding what art means and to offer an approach that makes it easier to think of social media as art. I argue that “art” refers to the creative dimension of all human action. I reject the approach that says humans make a lot of media and only designate some of it as art. Instead, I argue that humans make a lot of art, but then reduce a great deal of that art to just media. Instead of asking why some things are counted as art, I ask why more things are not. Trained, disciplined creativity goes into the design of all the objects that humans make—from food to architecture—and into all the ritual processes in which humans engage—from sports to fashion—yet we only allow a fraction of those objects and actions to count as art.
In line with the sociologist of art Janet Wolff (1984), I argue that one consequence of industrial capitalism is that the productive and creative dimensions of human activity were divided from each other. Most humans, the mass of laborers, were alienated from the creative dimensions of their labor, which took on a wholly productive value, making profits for the factory or corporation. Creativity then became the monopoly of an artistic elite, blessed by an intellectual elite of art critics, curators, and historians. As a consequence, most people today do not feel they have the right to call their creative work “art.”
If this is the case, if my argument is correct, then the shift from an industrial age to a network society (or information age) may present the opportunity for a new formulation of the role of art in social life. But before moving on, I still need to address the question of just what I mean by art. It is this: Art refers to disciplined, creative work that may be performed by both artistic professionals and outsiders or amateurs. Art is distinguished not by its sacredness, but rather by a sense of the integrity of the process. This is a deliberately broad approach to art that is meant to recognize that the creative work performed by canonized artists is the same kind of creative work that all humans perform daily.
Freaks and Misfits
Social media is a form of art, but in this book I am not interested in all artists. I am focusing here on the artistry of people whom I refer to as freaks. For me, this term encompasses a wide range of social media users. It includes the queer social media celebrities who are using it to offer new ways of thinking about sexuality and gender, as well as new ways to express their creativity. It includes the activist leaders of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, who have demonstrated that images and poetry are just as important to social movements as protests and policy. It includes the gamers who colluded on Reddit and other platforms to launch the GamerGate controversy, as well as the women game developers who used Twitter and blogs to fight back. When I call these people freaks, I am not using the term as a slur. I am referencing both the ways that society has marginalized them and the ways that they have found empowerment through embracing their identities.
My use of the term “freak” derives in part from the work of the early sociologist Georg Simmel. Simmel’s discussion of the stranger in his 1908 essay introduces us to a sociological type (Simmel 2010). The stranger is the social outsider who lives within the social unit, a traveling merchant who decides to stay. The stranger never becomes a part of the social unit, but is always an outsider within. As Simmel says: “The stranger is an element of the group itself, not unlike the poor and sundry ‘inner enemies’—an element whose membership within the group involves both being outside it and confronting it” (2010, 303). The stranger serves a particular social role in reminding the other members of the social unit of the completeness of their membership. If the stranger is the outsider within, then the bulk of the other members of society are the insiders within.
But notice a little extra phrase in Simmel’s prose; he refers to the “poor and sundry ‘inner enemies’.” Who are they? They are not strangers. They are not outsiders who visit and decide to stay. They are members of society who were pushed—not out of society, but to its margins. They are insiders pushed to the side.
For years, my reading of Simmel’s “The Stranger” led me to think of minority groups and marginalized groups as variations of the stranger type. But Simmel is very specific. The stranger is one who comes from elsewhere, visits, and decides to stay. His social role is spatial in nature: “The distance within this relation indicates that one who is close by is remote, but his strangeness indicates that one who is remote is near” (2010, 302). In other words, our attempts to find a trope to understand how and why members of society are pushed to the margins will have to look elsewhere besides the stranger. Simmel at least gives us a lead in his phrase about poor and sundry inner enemies.
So I propose the trope of the freak as the lens for understanding these marginalized insiders. “Freak” is an ascribed condition, in that social institutions deem certain types of bodies and behaviors to be abnormal. No one is inherently a freak—we simply are who we are—but cultural forces deem some to be freaks. But freak is also an achievement, in that many marginalized people choose to embrace precisely that which makes them different as a source of pride and empowerment and as a tool for organization. To return to the Janelle Monae song referenced previously, embracing our freak is a way of finding our inner queens and kings.
The term “freak” is from the language of the sideshow, in which marginalized bodies—many of which would now be deemed disabled—were pushed out of the mainstream of society and forced to work in the circus. These freaks are wonderfully and fearfully portrayed in Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks. Many modern disability communities continue to embrace the word “freak” as a term of empowerment, along with reclaiming other words like “cripple” (or just “crip”). Other marginalized groups have also invested in reclaiming derogatory language, from feminist embraces of “bitch,” to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) uses of “queer,” to the widely debated N-word. “Freak” also references decades of youth culture and the idea of “letting your freak flag fly.”
In sociology, the term has been used in various ways, but perhaps most notably by Joshua Gamson in Freaks Talk Back (1998), his study of daytime talk shows. Explaining why he loves the “trash” of these shows, he says: “I identify with the misfits, monsters, trash, and perverts. . . . If you are lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transgendered, watching daytime TV talk shows is pretty spooky. . . . Almost everywhere else in media culture you are either unwelcome, written by someone else, or heavily edited. On television talk shows, you are more than welcome” (2010, 4). In Gamson’s analysis, the TV talk shows of the 1990s were a platform for acknowledging, debating, and dissecting the lives of freaks and misfits. His focus is largely on sexual misfits, but class, gender, and race also play significant roles in his analysis.
Those shows persist today, and they continue to offer a space for freaks to talk back to society and media. But technological developments have also created a new set of participatory media outlets, peppered across the Internet and social media. Freaks are no longer just invited guests. Now they are hosts of their own channels, found on YouTube, Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan. They are honing their social media craft, training their voices, and building massive audiences. In their hands, social media technologies are not just communication tools, but also artistic tools, as they craft powerful messages couched in narrative and entertainment delivered to responsive audiences.
From Industrial Capitalism to Informational Capitalism
Before I turn to an examination of how freaks are using social media as an artistic medium, I want to say more about the economic and social changes that ground this development, as they impact both technological progress and artistic change. Of the stranger, Simmel says that his appearance can be understood in terms of economic history because the stranger has most often been the trader. The freak also can be understood in economic terms. To paraphrase Simmel, in the history of economic activity, the freak makes her appearance everywhere as a niche market. No economic era has ever relied so heavily on dividing consumers into niche groups.
The last several decades have been marked by transformations in the labor force and the rise of computerization. These changes are typically referred to as the dawn of the information age, a new stage of global capitalism that functionally replaces the industrial age (even as industrial capitalism continues to persist). Here, I rely primarily on the work of Manuel Castells in his three-volume set The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture, which has provided the dominant theoretical account of the information age, or what Castells calls the network society. “This new social structure is associated with the emergence of a new mode of development, informationalism, historically shaped by the restructuring of the capitalist mode of production towards the end of the twentieth century” (Castells 1996, 14). According to Castells, the transformation from industrial capitalism to informational capitalism has been characterized by flexible production models; increasingly horizontal systems (replacing corporate hierarchies); and most important, a growing reliance on networks by both individuals and firms.
Capitalist production is increasingly marked by corporate cooperation rather than corporate competition. We see this across fields, but media provides an excellent example. Seemingly competing corporate entities are increasingly linked through co-ownership of major properties (like the ownership of the CW network by both CBS and Warner Brothers), cooperation on major endeavors (such as the collaboration of NBC, Fox, and ABC on the platform Hulu), and contractual relationships that are mutually beneficial (as when television shows made by one network’s studio are then aired on another network). The reliance on networks characterizes not only corporate production, but also individual labor force participation. A growing number of workers function as consultants or contractors and rely on professional networks to produce new income-producing contractual relationships.
Castells has a great deal to say about how identity functions in the network society. The second volume of his opus, The Power of Identity, is devoted to the topic. Castells begins by distinguishing three types of identity. Legitimizing identity refers to the identity systems of dominant groups, which ultimately function to justify their power. To be clear, legitimizing identity is not simply the identities of the dominant groups themselves, but rather the totality of the identity systems to which they subscribe, which are reproduced by the institutions they control. Resistance identity refers to the countermodels of identity subscribed to by oppressed or marginalized groups. Project identity refers to new identity systems introduced by social actors who are seeking social transformation. The three formations of identity might best be seen through the lens of Hegel’s notion of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. I am focused on the ways that individual actors use social media as a tool in resistance and project identities that seek to both assert artistic individuality and transform the way that society understands and responds to various marginalized collective identities.
Project identities are best understood as social movements. Castells has taken great interest in the prospects for social movements in the age of the network society, expressing hope that these movements may prevail in an era of flattened hierarchies and expansive networks. Occupy Wall Street is perhaps the best known example of these flattened social movements, in which the cause became a household name and yet no specific leader owned the spotlight.
Castells has essentially nothing to say about how art functions in the network society. However, I think it is useful to extrapolate from Castells a theory of the social role of art. Industrial capitalism alienated the workers from the fruits of their labors and even from themselves, even as it reduced their existence to their roles in economic production. The workers, which is to say the masses of individuals, were further alienated from their creative characters as creativity became the monopoly of an institutionalized artistic elite. Art became upper class in a middle-class society, intellectual in an anti-intellectual society, feminine in a masculinist society, and counterproductive in a society consumed by production.
In a network society, is there now the potential for these divisions to diminish? In the production of information, is there now an opportunity to recognize the creative dimension of all human work? In a world of horizontal production, might the worker no longer produce in a state of alienation?
I think the answers to these questions remain to be seen. But I do think that there are many who are working to find positive answers to these questions, and I think they are at least seizing opportunities created by new relations of production that are appearing now in the information age.
More specifically, I think there are many who are now engaging social media as an artistic tool, and they are no longer waiting to be recognized as artists by traditional arts institutions. They are not preoccupied with traditional art worlds. They are using technology and networks to achieve their artistic goals and rejecting the conception of art that restricts it to the domain of a formal elite. And they are succeeding because social media allows them to find and reach their audiences without relying on traditional artistic gatekeepers such as museums, galleries, or critics.
The role that social media may now be playing in undermining the alienation caused by industrial capitalism was anticipated in many ways by an early visionary of computerization and the information age, Theodor H. Nelson. Nelson published the double book Computer Lib/Dream Machines in 1974 and a revised edition in 1987. Computer Lib opened from one cover of the book, while Dream Machines opened from the other. These twin books examine the liberatory potential of computers. “Lib” stands for liberation, as in its comparable use in “women’s lib.” The subtitle is “You Can and Must Understand Computers Now.” The books were initially written and self-published as tracts and have been compared to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. They are meant to not only explain computers to a lay audience, but also motivate that audience to demand that computers be made accessible in design. This was a call for personal computers before they existed. Nelson called for a revolution that was both technical and cultural, as indicated in this opening passage from Computer Lib:
You hear more and more about computers, but to most people it’s just one big blur. The people who know about computers often seem unwilling to explain things or answer your questions. . . . The chasm between laymen and computer people widens fast and dangerously. (Nelson 1987, 4)
What Nelson is describing is yet another form of alienation in the era of industrial capitalism: alienation from technology. The idea that technology may seem like the domain of a technical elite may appear logical, and yet today most of us use elaborate technology quite frequently, and most professionals are expected to possess some level of technological expertise, typically involving computer programs, the Internet, and social media. Nelson insisted that his readers assert their right and their capacity to understand computers. He saw computers as more analogous to “show biz and writing” (1987, DM3) than to science and said of the development of this new creative tool that “we must create our brave new worlds with art, zest, intelligence, and the highest possible ideals” (1987, DM3). Nelson clearly anticipated that computers were introducing a new era in human history, and he even called it “a revolution in the way information is handled . . . come from some sort of merging of electronic screen presentation and audio-visual technology with branching, interactive computer systems” (1987, DM74). Computer Lib/Dream Machines is chock-full of suggestions for the emerging design of computer technologies, with a heavy emphasis on hypertext and the use of visual iconography to generate a mass computer literacy. Ultimately, Nelson called for computers to be a tool in the hands of artists and changemakers rather than scientists and technical professionals.
Promises or Pitfalls
The possible impacts of social media are numerous and include a lot of good and a lot bad. At the positive end, social media is a useful tool that helps us accomplish social and occupational tasks more efficiently. At the negative end, we have bullying, surveillance, and the loss of privacy. Social media, like the Internet before it, makes big promises of community: more connections and interconnections and a greater capacity to activate our networks. But opinions on how well this promise has been delivered are strongly divided. In the next few pages I examine the social science literature on the promises and pitfalls of social media.
Bullying and Drama
Does social media create a heightened level of drama and contention in our lives? Education scholar Kathleen Allen (2014) presents a case study of a dramatic event involving a fifteen-year-old girl and her mother. “Drama is defined as a series of interactions characterized by overreaction, exaggeration, excessive emotionality, prolongation, inclusion of extraneous individuals, inflated importance, and temporary relevance” (2). In the case study, one teenage girl named Vanessa found herself in two such “drama” events. The first resulted from tweets between two groups of girls. When Vanessa wanted to back off of the Twitter exchange, one of her friends became angry with her, and she found herself distanced from her entire friend group. Eventually her friends apologized and welcomed her back. Soon after, she and her friends experienced more drama when they became angry that one girl’s ex had been unfaithful during their relationship. They decided to share their feelings, not about the boy who cheated but about the girl he cheated with, by sending a series of tweets. Their classmates began responding to the tweets and sending mean or angry tweets back. They quickly deleted their Twitter accounts, but the drama continued on Facebook. It even extended offline, particularly when some of the girls received messages in the mail attached to printouts of their tweets. Allen observes, “[M]ediated communication has been woven, almost seamlessly into the lives and interactions of these girls” (2014, 15). Social media gave a broad public audience to a private conflict. Allen discusses the roles that “stirring the pot”—resurrecting the drama after it has started to simmer—and “baiting”—pressing participants’ buttons in hopes of ramping up the drama—play in the development of a dramatic event.
Communications scholar Daniel Trottier (2012) views social media through a lens of surveillance studies and outlines four main types of surveillance that occur using social media: interpersonal, institutional, market, and police. Interpersonal surveillance includes stalking as the most extreme example but can take lighter forms as well. Two friends discussing a third acquaintance might use social media to see what their friend has been up to. Estranged lovers often do the same, sometimes for nefarious purposes and sometimes just to fulfill some curiosity. Institutional surveillance takes many forms, but the most common is for organizations to keep tabs on their employees. People have lost their jobs over content posted on social media, whether that content is a critique of the employer or simply proof that a sick day was taken inappropriately. Market surveillance primarily involves keeping track of what we buy or search for, then delivering targeted ads to us. We have all had that experience of doing a simple Google search for something, only to immediately notice related ads appearing on Facebook and other websites that we frequent. Finally, police surveillance is performed by state forces to detect criminal or otherwise targeted activity, with a focus on circumventing that activity and/or apprehending the person targeted. In recent years police surveillance has been exposed at multiple levels by citizen activists like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Anonymous. Surveillance by citizens constitutes a fifth type of surveillance not covered by Trottier. In addition to surveilling each other and being surveilled by corporations and states, we can also surveil the powerful using the tools of social media.
Communications scholar Jan Fernback (2013) studies communities of sousveillance, or surveillance from below. These are Facebook communities that use Facebook to study and report on its own tactics of surveillance: its strategies for collecting and utilizing seemingly private information from its members. Fernback finds that these groups can actually impact the corporate surveillant and persuade it to adjust, however incrementally, its practices of surveillance.
Media scholar and Microsoft researcher danah boyd (2011) reminds us that many social media users sign up specifically so that they can be seen, which is a way of saying that they sign up to be surveilled. They also sign up for social media in hopes of doing some surveillance themselves. She argues that social media makes all its users into both voyeurs (watchers/surveillants) and flaneurs (the watched/the surveilled). But signing up to watch and be watched does not mean we sign up to give up our own agency. “What is at stake in any conversation about privacy or surveillance is not simply power but agency. When and to what degree can individuals assert agency over a situation?” (2011, 507). boyd’s ethnographic work provides examples of social media users engaging in various strategies to control what their audiences see and how they interpret what they see. She gives the example of Carmen, who posted song lyrics that would signal to her friends that she was having a rough day while also being largely inscrutable to her mother. For boyd, surveillance studies need to keep in mind our embeddedness in networks. “People aren’t simply individuals or in groups; they are members of social networks, connected by information, time, and space, and they must navigate life as a series of relationships” (boyd 2011, 507). Protecting ourselves from surveillance is less about hiding all information from all eyes and more about knowing who the surveillants are and managing the kind of information they can access.
Jan Fernback (2007a) analyzed the community sections of four retail websites—Amazon, Hanes, Weight Watchers, and eBay—over an eight-month period to examine what she calls the “myth of empowerment” implied by the Internet: the sense that we can use these technologies to have a greater voice and more agency. She finds that the structure of these online retail communities invites users to volunteer a wealth of personal information, seemingly as entrée into the community. She also notes a curious relationship between stated privacy policies and the terms of the community, whereby participation effectively minimizes the consumer’s right to privacy. Fernback argues that most consumers are unaware of how much privacy they are giving up when they participate in online communities. She argues that “online retailers capitalize on prevailing notions of empowerment through interactivity while increasing the use of online communication technologies to serve their own commercial ends as opposed to their customers’ communicative needs” (2007a, 312). For Fernback, community itself is a potential commodity “that can be cultivated, mined, or sold like other capital commodities” (2007a, 316). She concludes: “We must realize that an unfettered marketplace does not mean that companies can intrude on our fundamental rights to privacy by exploiting our fundamental social institutions for monetary gain” (2007a, 326–327).
Communications scholar Angela Cirucci (2013) argues that scholars should study social media as a kind of video game. She identifies four themes in video game scholarship that should provide fruitful analysis when applied to social media. First, she argues that social media platforms function like mirrors that reflect back to users their own identities in ways that likely impact their identity formation and the perception of their identities. Second, social media is flooded with representational stereotypes of a sort that has been thoroughly studied in video games research but not so much in social media research. Third, social media creates a kind of immersion, much like video games, wherein users invest large amounts of time either participating in social media or thinking about it, and it increasingly frames how they experience other aspects of life. Fourth, social media creates opportunities for studying how definitions of life categories (friend, connection, like, etc.) are changing and under constant negotiation. Cirucci is simply speculating and making some suggestions for further research, but her themes suggest that social media provides a valuable course of action for its users, perhaps giving them a sense of agency. In a world where we feel we have little control, social media provides a way to respond and to act.
In their relatively early analysis of how and why people were using Twitter, communications scholars Java and colleagues (2007) found that the chief uses were (1) daily chatter about routines, (2) conversations (@ replies), (3) sharing information and URLs, and (4) sharing news. They divided Twitter users into three overlapping categories: (1) information sources, (2) friends, and (3) information seekers. These empirical data confirm some of Cirucci’s suspicions. Social media is an immersive environment in which millions of posts and interactions can slowly create some shifts in our beliefs and assumptions, or at least lead us to believe that such shifts are possible. We post news items in hopes of both informing our network and nudging some of our connections toward thinking and acting differently. This sense of agency is not unique to social media, but social media is one more tool by which we can achieve some level of agency.
Sociologist Sherry Turkle (2011) examines two major strands in technological development that are impacting social life: robotics and the social web. The social web is transforming our ways of connecting to each other by making those connections increasingly impersonal and mediated by technology. We connect to our friends, family, and colleagues via online networks rather than in-person meetings. This leaves us with a need for bodily companionship that is increasingly fulfilled by robots—from robotic pets to give us comfort to robotic sexual partners to get us off. The end result is indicated by the title of the book itself, Alone Together. We are ultimately left alone in our homes with just our technology for company, while we remain deeply engrained in social networks that exist almost entirely online. The book reads as a jeremiad, longing for a return to the days when we wrote letters and connected in person. It references a wealth of social science experiments and ethnographic research, but ultimately uses these to provide only anecdotes and illustrations. There is very little reference to any conclusions drawn from the decades of social psychological research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology investigating the sociability of robots and the impact of computer-mediated social interactions. Despite this lack of conclusions, Turkle is deeply concerned by the patterns she sees emerging. “Technology has corrupted us; robots will heal our wounds. We come full circle. Robots, which enchant us into increasingly intense relationships with the inanimate, are here proposed as a cure for our too intense immersion in digital connectivity. Robots . . . will pull us back toward the physical real and thus each other” (2011, 147). Turkle believes we are at a key moment when an intervention is needed to rescue us, which is to say, Turkle still has hope:
I believe we have reached a point of inflection, where we can see the costs and start to take action. We will begin with very simple things. Some will seem like just reclaiming good manners. . . . [I]t is time to look again toward the virtues of solitude, deliberateness, and living full in the moment. (2011, 296)
In another study, Jan Fernback (2007b) examines the promise of online communities through a mix of online and in-person interviews with people who participate in them. She finds that most are ambivalent about the level and kind of community they find online. Online communities have some value to them, but it always seems to be a mixed blessing. She also finds that her interviewees have heavily internalized a stereotype of online community participants as computer geeks with no social lives, and they mostly seem to want to distance themselves from that stereotype. Using symbolic interactionism, Fernback argues that participants in online communities enact varying types of community, depending on the kinds of meanings that they have associated with the concept. She argues against allowing community to be the dominant metaphor through which we conceive of social interactions online. She suggests shifting the focus from the togetherness of communities to the formation of actual relational commitments.
Social Media and Social Movements
Does social media help or hinder social movements? Can the technology of social networking help activists achieve their goals? If so, is it just one of many tools they may use, or is the technology so powerful that the right use will actually tip the scales in favor of the social movement?
The possibilities and pitfalls that social media creates for individuals are well documented (Chayko 2014; Trottier 2012; boyd 2014; Fernback 2007b; Hargittai and Litt 2011; Fuchs 2011), but a robust and empirically driven conversation about the value of social media for social movements is only starting to emerge now, after years of hyperbolic claims. The basic question that guides most of the scholarly research on the relationship between social media and social movements is this: Can social media create the tipping point that leads to a movement’s success? Those who make claims about this central question divide into camps of optimism, pessimism, and ambivalence. Optimistic approaches argue either that the revolution can be tweeted or that it already has been. These writers and scholars show great faith in the revolutionary power of social media. Pessimistic approaches argue either that social media is incapable of ushering in a social revolution or even that social media hinders positive social change. Ambivalent approaches weigh the evidence on balance and recognize that change is both difficult and possible. However, social media is an unfolding terrain in terms of both the technology it relies on and the ways that citizens, corporations, and states make use of it.
On June 13, 2009, journalist and blogger Andrew Sullivan made a bold declaration in his blog for the Atlantic: “The Revolution Will Be Twittered.” Technically, he should have said “The revolution will be tweeted,” but it’s the substance of the claim I want to examine.
Sullivan was writing near the start of the Iranian presidential election protests of 2009. On June 12 of that year, following the announcement that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won a second term as president of Iran despite strong indications from polls that voters had turned against him, Iranians in Tehran took to their roofs and began chanting “Allah O Akbar!” as a sign of solidarity against the election results. This was not a spontaneous or uncoordinated action. A supporter of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi had sent a tweet announcing: “ALL internet & mobile networks are cut. We ask everyone in Tehran to go onto their rooftops and shout ALAHO AKBAR in protest #IranElection.” Note the use of the hashtag as an important mechanism for tacking an individual tweet onto a larger conversation. To Sullivan, the fact that a simple tweet could channel such coordinated action seemed to be a strong sign that social media, and the millennial generation that embraces it so faithfully, would indeed topple authoritarian regimes.
Of course it did not work. Ahmadinejad claimed election victory and enjoyed a full second term that ended in 2013. So Sullivan’s claim that a June 12 tweet signaled a revolution was premature and overstated. But certainly something of significance came about on that night as a tweet sent Iranians to their rooftops. Coordinated social action was taking place. Disillusioned Iranians may not have claimed power, but they surely claimed the agency not just to act, but to act together.
Andrew Sullivan’s declaration that the revolution would be tweeted places him, or at least that opinion piece, squarely in the camp of techno-optimist. Techno-optimism is one end of a continuum of positions on the social power of the Internet and social media. That continuum looks something like the following graphic.
Debates about the social power and revolutionary potential of technology date back at least to the printing press. I won’t try to summarize the whole history of those debates here, but rather focus on the current era of the debate, specifically on the social and networking aspects of new media technologies.
One of the strongest statements in favor of the power of social media for social movements is found in Manuel Castells’s Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (2012). For Castells, the use of Twitter and Facebook as tools for political upheaval serves as confirmation of theoretical principles that he presented in his earlier works, The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture (1996, 1997, 1998) and Communication Power (2009). Castells argues that as the information age develops, the real power is now in the hands of programmers and switchers (those who make connections). He is referring to both technology professionals and those who metaphorically act as programmers and switchers for social institutions and social movements. Castells’s theory of the network society in The Information Age predates the advent of social media but also predicts it. In a society based on information and networking, social media is the logical form of communication. However, even Castells insists on the need for real-world connection and collaboration for social movements, particularly in the form of what he calls “occupied space,” referring to the squares and parks in which protesters gather, organize, and take action. Nevertheless, Castells is an optimist about the transformational power that social movements have when cyber activism leads to and complements street activism. Castells connects the dots among a series of social movements that occurred roughly between 2008 and 2011: Iceland’s Kitchenware revolution; Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution, Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests, and actions in many other countries as part of the Arab Spring; the Spanish Indignados movement (also known as acampanadas); and Occupy Wall Street and related actions in many cities that comprised the Occupy movement. Later protests claimed to be inspired by earlier ones and also claimed to learn from their most successful techniques. Castells argues that these movements share a set of characteristics that help to explain their success. He says they have a kind of multimodal networking, which encompasses online and offline networks. They consistently choose to occupy urban space, but in a way that is deeply connected to cyberspatial networking. He calls the connection between urban space and cyberspace a space of autonomy. He claims that these new social movements spontaneously generate in moments of indignation and spread virally, both online and off. Perhaps most important, Castells says that these new network society social movements are leaderless because of both the distrust that the movements have for power and the ways that network society has flattened organizational hierarchies.
In their analysis of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Lotan and colleagues (2011) examine information flows on Twitter—tweets and retweets that pass on information from initial source posters—during the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings that were part of the Arab Spring. They examine the role of different types of information actors, including media organizations, journalists, bloggers, and activists. “In both datasets [Egypt and Tunisia], journalists and activists serve primarily as key information sources, while bloggers and activists are more likely to retweet content and, thus, serve as key information routers” (2011, 1390). They find that individuals (including journalists and bloggers) are more successful in seeding information—starting a flow—than are organizations, perhaps because individuals are more trusted than the organizations they work for. But they also found important differences in the information flows of Egypt and Tunisia, suggesting that culture and context also shape the pattern of these flows. Their main conclusion is that social media really has transformed journalism into a conversation among different types of actors, and that activists and bloggers are significant producers of information, in addition to journalists.
Sociologist and communications professor Philip N. Howard (2015) takes a decidedly cyber-utopian stance, hopeful that the “Internet of things” will usher in a new world-historical period of stability that he calls the pax technica, referencing comparable eras like the pax Romana and the pax Britannica. Howard recognizes, with other scholars, that social media and other technologies allow for greater surveillance, but he believes this tool will work in service to citizens and level the playing field against state and corporate powers. Howard acknowledges that the technology may in fact be harnessed for less democratic possibilities, but his prediction is that it will actually foster peace and stability. “The internet of things could be the most effective mass surveillance infrastructure we’ve ever built. It is also a final chance to purposefully integrate new devices into institutional arrangements we might all like” (2015, xv). Howard calls this new period an “empire of connected things” (2015, 1). He argues that social media offers three important tools during periods of upheaval: (1) allowing us to check on our loved ones, (2) giving us a space to deliberate and take positions, and (3) letting us document social and political events. Regarding the political use of social media, Howard argues:
Politics used to be what happened whenever one person or organization tried to represent another person or organization. Devices will be doing much of that representative work in the years ahead, and social scientists need to stay relevant by expanding their tool kits and amending their analytical frames. From now on, politics is what happens when your devices represent you in the pax technica. (2015, 257)
Comparing how various states have handled the rise of the information age, Howard argues that the states that have most invested in information infrastructures have had the most prosperity, although he acknowledges China as a special case that has built its own infrastructure that it can more easily monitor and censor.
Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008) is one of the strongest proponents of the power and potential of the Internet and social media. Shirky is most excited about the power of new technology to foster speedy assembly around causes and concerns. He argues that the key issue is not the technology itself, but the change in human behavior the technology enables. Using a mixture of sociology and psychology, Shirky claims that humans avoid collective action because of the fear that others will freeload off their altruism. But that fear of action shifts when the speed, costs, and risks are reduced and when there are trustworthy safeguards in place that govern the actions of others and reduce the risk of freeloading. Shirky describes collective action as the top rung of a three-rung ladder of group activity, with each successive rung harder to reach than the last. The rungs, in order, are “sharing, cooperation, and collective action” (2008, 49). Social media effectively brings the rungs closer and makes the ladder easier to climb. Shirky opens with a story about a woman and her friend who used technology to find her lost phone and then to shame the thief, who refused to return it. They attracted supporters, media attention, and Internet sleuths as their cause went viral. Eventually the phone was returned and the young woman who stole it was arrested, all thanks to social media. That kind of success story would not have been possible prior to the advent of social media. But again, it isn’t simply the power of the tools but rather the change in human social behavior that has taught us to believe that we can act and make a difference.
Proponents of social media often claim that it can change the world. In their book The Dragonfly Effect, Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith (2010), a social psychologist at Stanford Business School and marketing consultant, respectively, argue that social media offers a powerful set of tools that can help users—especially businesses—effect social change. Their book is full of anecdotes from the business world, as well as a mix of data from both marketing and social psychology—what we might call decision neuroscience or the science of how people decide how they will spend their money and buy products—but it also reads like a motivational self-help text. Aaker and Smith present what they call the dragonfly model, based on the fact that dragonflies are able to fly in any direction through the coordinated action of four wings. In their model, the four wings of social action through social media are focus, grabbing attention, engagement, and taking action.
Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist known for his emphasis on social science perspectives, reviewed The Dragonfly Effect for the New Yorker (Gladwell 2010), taking the stance that Aaker and Smith are naïve and overly optimistic. He compares social media–based social movements to the lunch counter protests of the 1960s civil rights movement. The civil rights movement succeeded because of what Gladwell calls “high-risk activism” motivated by close relationships. Groups of people who were deeply connected to each other made great sacrifices in the interest of the cause. By comparison, he calls social media activism “small change.”
Another author discussed in Gladwell’s review is Evgeny Morozov, whose later book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2011) argues that the world has been overwhelmed by “cyber-utopians” who ignore or exaggerate the benefits of new technology with little use of evidence and a blind eye to history. To be sure, Morozov acknowledges that the Internet, social media, and social networking can be a powerful set of tools, but he raises important questions about who makes the tools, who controls them, and who has the most access to them. Morozov tells a rich set of stories from his own travels around the world and his studies of world history to demonstrate that powerful new tools are usually most effective in the hands of authoritarian regimes. The Internet, he points out, offers excellent tools for authoritarian governments—including ones that claim to be democratic—to track, infiltrate, and undermine political movements. “Technologies that were supposed to empower the individual strengthened the dominance of giant corporations, while technologies that were supposed to boost democratic participation produced a population of couch potatoes” (2011, 276). The technologies that he is referring to range from the printing press to television, and from the Internet to social media. His conclusion: “[T]he only way to make the internet deliver on its emancipatory potential is to embrace both cyber-realism and cyber-agnosticism” (2011, 339).
Navid Hassanpour (2014) finds that media disruptions during political protests, including blackouts of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, can actually increase participation as people seek alternative sources of information. That doesn’t mean that social media doesn’t have revolutionary potential. The issue is not the lack of information, but rather the disruption of information. The more access people have to the flow of information, the more they will be disgruntled by its disruption. Christian Christensen (2011) highlights the fact that social media can be just as useful for the powerful political leaders who are being protested against as it is for the protestors themselves. He cites the use of social media policing by leaders in Iran during the protests of 2009 as an example. He concludes that we should not place too much stock in the virtues of social media.
Such cyber-realist approaches strike Gladwell as the best lens for understanding the relationship between technology and activism. Gladwell’s review invokes the work of sociologist Mark Granovetter, who has demonstrated the important role that “weak ties” can play in getting a job (Granovetter 1973, 1974). Gladwell argues that the same principle does not apply to social movements, because “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” In response to Aaker and Smith’s claim that social media can increase motivation for activism, Gladwell says, “that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires” (2010). In other words, social media encourages people to participate by posting and liking, not by going into the streets or sitting down at the lunch counter.
Dhiraj Murthy’s book Twitter: Social Communication in the Digital Age (2013) also invokes the work of Granovetter but looks more favorably on the role of weak ties in social movements. Although he begins with a discussion of Occupy Wall Street, the real focus of his examination of social media’s role in activism is the Arab Spring, specifically activism in Cairo, Egypt, in 2011. Murthy argues against taking too strict or too binary a position on the power of Twitter. Twitter was neither irrelevant nor did it cause the revolution. Rather, it played several practical roles:
Twitter served three purposes for Egyptian activists: 1) a real-time information stream maintained by Egyptian citizen journalists (for Egyptian consumption); 2) a means for local information and updates to reach an international audience (including international journalists); and 3) a means to organize disparate activist groups on the ground. Perhaps its greatest impact was in the second purpose and its least in the third purpose. (2013, 112)
Although Murthy argues that Twitter played important roles in the Cairo protests, which resulted in the resignation and eventual trial of President Hosni Mubarak, he nevertheless asserts that the activity on the streets of Cairo is what truly drove the revolution, while Twitter functioned more as a useful resource.
Similarly, in a qualitative ethnographic analysis of how political movements use social media, Pablo Gerbaudo’s Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism (2012) argues for a modest approach to the power of social media in social movements. Gerbaudo uses case studies of the Cairo uprisings, the Spanish Indignados movement, and Occupy Wall Street to examine what he calls a “choreography of collective action” (2012, 4), particularly a choreography of organizing and mobilizing. He attempts to provide a middle ground between techno-optimism and techno-pessimism. Against Castells’s notion that the information age is driven by leaderless networks, Gerbaudo focuses instead on how technology can be used by leaders to choreograph action. Regarding the political movement in Egypt, he concludes: “Social media played a crucial role in the Egyptian revolution, but not an exhaustive one” (2012, 74). He also sees social media as crucial to the Spanish Indignados. However, in comparison to Egypt and Spain, he argues that the Occupy movement shows an underuse of social media for choreographic purposes, and he suggests that the failure to choreograph action may explain the comparative lack of success of Occupy.
Throughout this book I rely on an emerging research method that has been referred to variably as virtual ethnography (Hine 2000), netnography (Kozinets 2010), digital ethnography (Underberg and Zorn 2013), and online ethnography (Tuncalp and Le 2014). A close reading of these and other sources shows that the scholars behind the various labels do not fully agree on what exactly the method is and how it should be practiced, but they are not in so much disagreement that the various terms can be thought of as fully separate methods. Rather, the terms and scholars constitute a conversation with multiple perspectives on this emerging method. I use the term “virtual ethnography” not because of an ideological alignment with the users of that label, but rather because it is the one that I see used most often by other scholars. Throughout the book I present short methodological moments that offer insight into some of the unique aspects of this method. Here I present a broad overview of the method and how I used it in the research for this book.
Christine Hine introduced the concept of “virtual ethnography” in her 2000 book of the same name, though she acknowledges that the book is explicitly not a how-to guide:[E]thnography is strengthened by the lack of recipes for doing it. From the first, ethnographers have resisted giving guidelines for how it should be done. . . . The methodology of an ethnography is inseparable from the contexts in which it is employed and it is an adaptive approach which thrives on reflexivity about method. (2000, 13)
Virtual ethnography is simply the utilization of ethnographic methods in the context of the Internet and social media, as well as other related digital spaces such as e-mail and text messaging. Ethnography is the disciplined practice of making observations within a quasi-bounded space. Adding the term “virtual” is not meant to suggest a contrast between “real” and “virtual” spaces for ethnographic research, but rather to connote a particular context among others. Virtual ethnography is a relatively new addition to a list that includes urban ethnography, political ethnography, prison ethnography, and others. Each ethnographic context demands attention to the unique combination of features of that context. With the Internet and social media, we have to pay particular attention to both the ways that technology structures social experiences and the ways that users construct cultural practices that shape those social experiences.
I began using the Internet in 1996, as I was finishing college. When I moved to London a year later, I embraced e-mail as a way to stay in communication with my friends and family. When I started graduate school in 1998, pursuing an MA in English, the director of the concentration in American studies required all of us to learn HTML coding, and the traditional seminar paper was replaced with a web project. It seems simplistic in retrospect, but at the time we were excited about the idea that hyperlinks allow academic projects to take on more dimensions than the linear academic paper that is simply read from start to finish. I created a project on the paintings of Thomas Eakins in which the user could zoom in on some of the paintings to see the richness of detail that is so easily missed in his work.
As I moved from an MA in English to a PhD in sociology, I continued my interest in the Internet, working as a web developer part time to supplement my stipend as a teaching assistant. Eventually I began teaching short courses at the University of Virginia on editing software such as FrontPage, Dreamweaver, and Fireworks. Throughout graduate school I continued making websites for academic projects (for myself and for others), and I also took up blogging. I began teaching a course on popular culture in fall 2001, and that seemed like a logical place to incorporate consideration of the Internet and to discuss questions of culture and community online.
Although I dabbled in social media for many years, my consolidated focus on social media began in late 2013 as I began preparing for the release of my 2014 book Pop Culture Freaks. I wanted to use social media to try to reach my audience in new ways, but I wasn’t quite sure how to do it or where to start. I hired a social media marketing firm called ChatterBlast to work with me on creating a social media strategy. At that time surprisingly few academics were highly active on social media for professional purposes. That has changed dramatically in the years since, but in that moment I felt like I was exploring new academic terrain. Since that time I have been an active user on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Spotify, YouTube, and many other platforms.
I share this autobiographical information here as a foreground for my research methods in this book. Although I am not a digital native—no one is born into technology—I have been immersed in new communications media for many years, and I have a strong understanding of the many different contexts within social media and the Internet. That means that I enter this research with a lot of familiarity with the context, and I am not likely to miss cultural signals along the way. But it also means that I do not have the distance that is typically pursued by social scientists. The ethnographic method does not accommodate that distance well. Ethnography is so focused on culture and the process of meaning making that it requires a high degree of intimacy with the context being studied.
I began this research immediately after the release of Pop Culture Freaks. I spent approximately ten hours per week, sometimes much more, examining the issues discussed in this book. The themes of each chapter were mostly in place at the start of the research, so those themes directed much of the research. This will surprise and perhaps disappoint many academic readers, but I relied on Wikipedia entries as a starting point for the case studies. Entries there for Occupy, Black Lives Matter, GamerGate, and other issues are heavily detailed, and the participants in those events also actively review the entries for accuracy. From Wikipedia I linked to a long list of sites, primarily media coverage. I reviewed websites of central organizations whenever available and searched for archived copies of earlier versions of those sites. I followed Twitter accounts for all organizations involved and for all of the names that came up in the course of the research. Every time a new name was added to the story, I searched that name on all of my social media platforms and then explored their accounts to gain a better perspective on that person’s participation in these stories. The primary data for my case studies come from these social media accounts and from related websites, although the types of data vary widely from one chapter to the next.
Throughout the book I explore some of the dilemmas that arise in the course of virtual ethnography through methodological moments, which appear in several chapters. This method has allowed me to find narratives of social activism and its relationship with the tools of social media. In turn, these narratives have allowed me to examine the complicated relationship between corporate-owned media platforms and grassroots activism.
“The revolution will be tweeted” is a rhetorically forceful phrase, to borrow a concept from the media sociologist Michael Schudson (1989). The phrase invokes Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 track “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which took the strong stance that commercial corporate culture cannot be the source of powerful social change. Technically, that’s an open research question. Can commercial corporate culture trigger social change or even a social revolution? Scott-Heron’s take is that systems of inequality are inextricably linked to the capitalist mode of production in which television is embedded. Can it be any different for social media? Twitter, Facebook, Google, and most other social media platforms are the assets of large corporations run by homogeneous executives and boards. Can the products of such capitalist enterprise produce the seeds of change? The notion that the revolution can be tweeted took hold in media debates about the role of Twitter and Facebook in uprisings around the world. A 2011 book by the journalist Chris Stokel-Walker asked “The Revolution Will Be Tweeted?” The magazine Foreign Policy took an optimistic stance with a June 20, 2011, headline “The Revolution Will Be Tweeted” (Hounshell 2011). And Reuters declared triumphantly: “In 2011, The Revolution Was Tweeted” (Freeland 2011).
The best empirical evidence is that revolutionary movements today will certainly include social media, and may even need it, but will also need much more than that. Protests in the streets are no less important today than they have been for movements in the past, and it may actually be harder to get people into the streets in an age of social media. Moreover, the targets of the revolutionary movements—governments, military, police, and corporations—are also on social media and using it very effectively as a tool for surveillance.
I am interested in how social activists have adopted the tools of social media to build awareness, recruit participants, and coordinate social action. But can these tools work for more than just organizational purposes? Can an organization that uses the tools of social media actually achieve social change when those tools are the inventions of a handful of elite engineers and entrepreneurs and the property of massive corporations that are deeply interconnected and governed by small, homogeneous boards and leadership teams? Audre Lorde famously declared: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984, 112). Whose tools are social media? Do they belong to their inventors? The corporations? Or to the actual users who decide when and how to deploy them and what kind of meaning they can have? These are difficult questions that I cannot fully answer, but we need to continue to ask them as our world becomes ever more transformed by social media practices.
To sum up, in this book I examine freaks—individuals and groups who are both marginalized by society and who embrace their marginalized identities as a form of empowerment, what Castells calls resistance and project identities—as both artists and activists who are using the creative tools of social media to challenge and transform the world around them. Throughout the book, I return to the following questions:
- How do artist/activists engage with the idea of art in their social and political activism?
- How do they bring artistic practices to their use of social media?
- What opportunities does social media offer them that they might not find with other tools?
- How do they—and how can we—assess the effectiveness of social media as a creative tool for social and political activism?
- How do groups within project identities negotiate the tension between being marginalized peoples and using a tool that is effectively owned and controlled by those with the most social power: economic elites who are overwhelmingly male, cisgender, white, nondisabled, and heterosexual?
I think each of the case studies I pursue in this book offers us insight into the different ways that marginalized groups can engage with social media. Using these questions throughout the book allows me to cultivate some insights into the relationship between social media and activism, which I summarize and analyze in the final chapter.
 Terms in boldface are defined in the glossary.
 Page references with the initials DM refer to the Dream Machines side of this double book, as the pages start from 1 at both covers. Page numbers without initials are from the Computer Lib side of the book.
 Much of this section is derived from my contributions to an article that I coauthored with Keith McIntosh (Kidd and McIntosh 2016).