What relationship does the digital humanities/academy have to social media activist movements?
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The Media Commons Front Page Collective welcomes responses to the following Field Guide Survey (FGS): What relationship does the digital humanities/academy have to social media activist movements?
This Field Guide Survey seeks to explore the ways in which the academy, and Digital Humanities in particular, has interacted, interacts, and could interact with social media activist movements. Some approaches to responding to this question might include, but are not limited to:
What role does the academy play in determining whether it is our place to theorize social media activist movements? Is it even our place to theorize these movements?
How might digital humanities work with social justice movements such as #blacklivesmatter?
How could the digital humanities translate the rhetoric of such movements into our scholarly conversations while preserving their core ethos of activism and social justice?
What lessons about technology use can digital humanists learn from movements such as #blacklivesmatter?
How can scholars rethink their own roles as academics in digital spaces in order to become more involved with activist movements?
The project will run from approximately March 14th through March 25th. Responses are 400-600 words and typically focus on introducing concepts for larger discussion, with the idea that interested individuals will read and respond daily to engage authors in digital conversation. Proposals may be brief (a few sentences) and should state your topic and approach. You may submit as an individual or offer up a special cluster of responses with others. Please submit confirmation of participation to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org by March 10th and posts two days prior to the FGS start date.
I frame my answer with the argument that the academy and social movements have enjoyed a recursive relationship with one another for a very long time, and Black scholars have played a vital role in fostering this process. Knowledge they have produced in the academy has often been informed by cultural realities, events, and movements, which are, in turn, influenced by praxises developed in academic spaces. I think a particularly revealing example of how powerful the relationship between social activist movements, the academy, and Black scholars can be is found in the Students’ Right to Their own Language (STROL) resolution. Crafted in part by Black writing scholars, this 1974 declaration was a direct response to our society’s changing relationship with race, a shift primarily brought about by the work of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Scholar-Activists such as Geneva Smitherman used the rhetoric of equality and Black autonomy posited by such movements to articulate the objectives undergirding STROL and forever changed our conversations about teaching writing in and out of the academy.
While we rightfully laud such work, I would like to discourage any naiveté about the nature of the relationship(s) among the academy, social movements, and Black scholars. I believe it’s important to recognize the courage any scholar must have to incorporate activism into her work, but specifically a Black scholar whose very presence in the university serves as an act of resistance to White Supremacy. Once inside academia, she, at times, faces opposition to her work (overt and covert), patronizing attitudes, isolation, and double standards. Hence, the struggle to just “be” in academic spaces can be difficult enough without adding an activist to component one’s work.
In a post questioning whether or not Black lives matter in academia, Eric Grollmanechoes my observation that Black scholars are routinely “…downplayed, contained, silenced, or erased”-especially when it is perceived that too much of their Blackness is showing. In this post, he speaks cogently about the very real fear these scholars face when choosing between job security and adding their voice to activist movements. Detailing his own initial hesitance to discuss the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement in academic settings, Grollman demonstrates just how inhibiting the threat of displacement can be on a Black scholar’s voice. Ultimately, he encourages Black scholars to ignore the stipulations surrounding their academic existence and to boldly, albeit strategically, incorporate social media movements such as #Blacklivesmatter into their scholarship.
Given the complicated relationship we have with the academy, I think a Black scholar’s answer to my question is going to be different than a White one. Furthermore, just because the medium of protest is now largely digital does not eradicate the obstacles Black scholars face; we still have to possess a substantial dose of bravery to become active in social media movements like Black Lives Matter. On the other hand, I think adding our scholarly voices to these movements is almost unavoidable because they are seeking the same sort of racial equity and justice that Black scholars long for within the academy. If put together, movements like BLM and Black scholars can affect the type of powerful change Smitherman accomplished with SRTOL.
As the inaugural postdoctoral fellow in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) and the Northeastern Lab for Digital Humanities (DH), I have crafted a research agenda that explores the intersections of digital humanities and social justice social media activism. My article “Redefining Representation: Black Women’s Digital Media Production” describes the ways that Twitter hashtags, YouTube videos, and digital zines produced by Black queer and trans women transform the platforms that carry their content and provide communities with resources outside of institutional infrastructure. In “#transform(ing)DH Writing and Research: An Autoethnography of Digital Humanities and Feminist Ethics,” (Digital Humanities Quarterly) I analyze my feminist praxis of eschewing the category of research subjects in favor of building relationships with collaborators. I am also collaborating with Northeastern professors Sarah Jackson and Brooke Foucault-Wells on a book about hashtag activism. Suffice it to say, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the intersections of DH and social justice media.
I believe that digital humanists should follow the lead of social justice social media activists as their work is often creating new conversations and real world consequences that exceed academic limitations. It is often the case that the work of social media activists is under appreciated and co-opted by academics. While we use institutional review boards to gauge the potential harm of our research on others, we can miss potential harms that fall outside the purview of academic concerns. For example, a recent initiative by the city of Boston and students from MIT attempted to address sex trafficking with a day longing hacking initiativethat was not created in collaboration with sex workers. #hacktrafficking4socialgoodendeavored to make surveillance tools that would “disrupt” the online sale of sex and make it easier for law enforcement to intervene. Sex workers found the project both patronizing and dangerous, saying that the initiative actually makes it less safe to do their work and drives traffickers further underground.
As I say in my DHQ artictle, I have been shaped by the Allied Media Project’smission to "cultivate media strategies for a more just and creative world" (n.d.). The annual Allied Media Conference that highlights work from activists, artists, and organizers in service of this mission, highlights the words create, connect, and transform in their advertising for the event. I see these three components of connection, creation, and transformation as the template for the types of questions we should be asking about our digital research. I have identified the questions these verbs raise for me in my own research which may be a good starting place for others who are interested in the same.
1. Who are your collaborators?
1. What community is your research accountable to beyond your academic community?
2. How will you demonstrate your desire to be accountable to them?
3. Are there people you can talk to about the impact of your research beyond the IRB?
2. How does everyone benefit from the research?
1. What questions does the community want answered?
2. Can people be compensated in ways that honor their time and skills?
1. What tools and or methods encourage multidirectional collaboration?
1. What mechanism of accountability can you create?
2. Are there ways that collaborators can use the research process to their own ends?
2. What kind of process can you create for your research?
1. Is there room for collaborators to give and rescind consent at different times during the research process?
2. Does the pace of the project meet your needs and your collaborators needs?
1. How will you take care of yourself in the research process?
1. What do you and your collaborators need to stay sustained while conducting the research?
2. What happens after the research product is complete?
2. How will you be transformed?
1. Will the research strengthen your connection to your collaborators?
2. Did you and your collaborators come to new understandings?
I offer these questions as a starting place for conducting digital research within a social justice frame and in a way that honors the communities outside the academy with whom we work. I am reminded of Octavia Butler’s aphorism "all you touch you change; all you change, changes you.” With this tenant in mind, I think that the important take away here is that the very process of conduct research creates shifts in the landscape. These shifts have incredible potential to be both helpful and harmful, depending on how we frame our projects and interactions with our collaborators.
There is a relationship and kinship between the academy and social justice movements, especially when we think about feminist and progressive interventions and the myriad ways academics and activists, and academic activists have historically worked together to instigate and sustain change in our local, regional and global communities. The relationship, however, needs to be egalitarian and not hierarchical. Oftentimes the ivory tower heralds itself as “above it all” and situates itself as a place that stands above the everyday issues that plague the lives of everyday people. For those of us who are truly committed to social justice, we need not be invested in the labels and limitations that assume formalized education trumps formalized movement work, or that the academy cannot be used to foster and bridge movement work.
As a formal educator, who also identifies as a scholar-activist, I see the opportunities available for digital humanities work to intervene and assist with movement work, but as a reciprocal dialogue not a one-sided or top-down exchange. When I participate in movement work I don’t center my credentials because they are not relevant. I believe the digital humanities should aspire to work with social justice or hashtag movements as participants. We learn by doing and in the digital humanities there needs to be clear distinctions between scholarly work and community work, which I believe will ensure ethical engagement and accountability so that an academic’s perspective is not privileged over the point of view of someone who is on the ground (or on the internet) doing “the work.” We can all work together to help create, curate and disseminate information.
It is imperative that we don’t get caught up on theorizing movements so much that we don’t impact them. Scholars have particular privileges and platforms that can be used to help forward movements, including social media activist movements, but it is important to understand that not everything needs to be theorized, and if theorizing prevents you from engaging in the movement in the moment, it becomes a hindrance, not a help.
In this survey, I hope we can discuss how digital humanists are poised to contribute to studies of social media activism through research, teaching, and community outreach. For the last eight years, I have been developing and testing a digital research method called iconographic tracking, which I designed to trace the ongoing circulation and rhetorical activities of new media images (See Gries 2015). This method has proved to be especially useful in identifying the actor-networks that assemble and reassemble to enact change through various protests and social movements. In tracing Shepard Fairey’s now iconic Obama Hope image, for example, I was able to learn how this image became involved in the Obama Art movement that emerged in 2008 as a distributed network of artists, craftspeople, graphic designers, and public relations gurus leveraged visual rhetoric, social media, and public events to help Barack Obama become the first African American president in the history of the United States. In addition, I was able to trace Obama Hope’s involvement in Greenpeace’s transnational environmental campaign, the Occupy movement, and the Arab Spring, all of which came together via people on the ground intra-acting with various communicative resources and social media to achieve their interrelated campaign goals. One important use value of this method, then, is its ability to enhance our studies of how social media activist movements emerge, generate collective power, and work toward change in digitally saturated, globalized world.
Besides enhancing digital research of transnational phenomena, iconographic tracking can be useful for generating large amounts of data to help build theories about social media activism, especially for humanities scholars invested in studies of how communities unite, fight against structural injustices, and become politically engaged throughout grassroots organization. More so, such research can be useful for teaching our own students how to use social media and other rhetorical tactics to produce and implement their own activist campaigns. In a course I regularly teach called Writing, (Viral) Circulation, and Publics, for instance, I draw on my research findings with Obama Hope to teach students how to use visual rhetoric, social media, and image events—staged acts of protest intended for media dissemination (See Delicath and Deluca)—to accomplish their own individual campaign missions. Through engaged activism, students come to learn how their own rhetorical actions can address local problems, attract public attention, and accomplish social goals. As digital humanists, we ought be more invested in using our social media research to educate and activate a productive citizen base.
While certainly promising in academic contexts, however, I can’t help but wonder how our digital humanities research might be useful to broader communities. If desired, for instance, our research could also help already-existing organizations better achieve their own social media activism goals. For the last couple of years, for instance, I have had the opportunity to travel to India for both pleasure and work. On my last visit, I met a community organizer in Dharamsala who works with educators from the U.S. and Europe to design service-learning courses to assist local women’s organizations in achieving their unique goals. I told her about my research and my viral circulation course described above in which students design and implement their own semester-long social campaigns. Community organizers, she says, would be very interested in collaborating because many local organizations, especially underserviced ones with little funding, have yet to figure out how visual campaigns and social media technologies can help them spread their messages and services. As a visual rhetoric and digital humanities scholar, I think we ought to expend more energy reaching out to such groups so we can learn together how social media might help activist organizations fight for change in ways that are meaningful to and appropriate for their communities.
We might even go so far as to begin working with such groups to develop social media apps to help accomplish their unique goals. Arts-based research, or what is called research-creation in Canada, is an emergent methodology in which research projects typically entail a creative process involving an experimental aesthetic component and artistic practice, such as the production of a video, performance, film, sound work, blog, or multimedia text. This methodology, which is becoming more and more popular in the humanities as well as the social sciences, ought not be limited to the production of creative arts. Working in conjunction with local community organizations, digital humanists might design, produce, and test social media for activist purposes. In creating such apps as part of our research agendas, digital humanists can harness social media experimentation to both further humanistic inquiry within the academy and address community-driven needs beyond.
It has been said that the digital humanities is about using computational tools for transformative purposes, namely to “transform the content, scope, methodologies, and audience of humanistic inquiry” (Burdick et al). As we continue in such efforts, how might we direct such transformation to benefit not only the humanities and our students but also our local communities? And in regards to social media activism, in particular, how might we design new social media technologies and practices alongside our community partners to work for a more just and humane world?
Burdick, Anne et al. Digital Humanities. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012.
Chapman, Owen and Kim Sawchuk. “Research-Creation: Intervention, Analysis, and ‘Family Resemblances.’” Canadian Journal of Communication 37 (2012): 5-26.
Delicath, John W. and Kevin Michael Deluca. “Image Events, The Public Sphere, and Argumentative Practice: The Case of Radical Environmental Groups.” Argumentation 17 (2003): 315-333.
Gries, Laurie E. Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2015.
It’s my belief that the academy is the vanguard of social change and that professors must work continually to support that change. Today that means understanding social media— a central forum for new ideas, activism, and social movement.
I’ve been writing and teaching about rhetoric and racism for almost twenty years, and through these experiences I’ve come to realize that if universities are going to produce and circulate knowledge, then they must also know when to let others lead. And nowhere is this more important than in movements such as #blacklivesmatter.
Outside of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), white men and women (mostly men) dominate the highest academic ranks at universities in the U.S., and in the not-so-distant past, most colleges and universities denied racial minorities admission. When I was recruiting participants for focus groups at the University of Georgia for a project about genetics and racism, our team hosted the discussion at a hotel, knowing that we would attract fewer African American participants if we had the event on campus. The academy is still a place where too many people do not feel welcome. When it comes to social media activism like #blacklivesmatter, then, universities need to support activists, while being mindful that when you represent a majority group, often times the best strategy is to listen and to follow.
For me, the hard questions about how to support activism boil down to questions about style— the attitudes, understanding, and outward rhetorical choices we make when we engage a broad public.
In her book about the rhetorical styles of public intellectuals, communication scholar Anna M. Young argues that we need to shed the idea that engaging communities beyond the university is an “obligation.” Young takes us back to Aristotle’s term, Eudemonia, and reframes participation in common public life as a strategy or activity of “flourishing.” Young argues that “public intellectuals flourish and help enable society to flourish by moving away from ethics-as-obligation to ethics-as-invigoration.” We need to be “conversational partners” in the world. A public intellectual does not only write and think about the world, but is already placed in a shared world. The scholar’s job is to flourish and invigorate so that others may flourish and invigorate.
One of the things I like about Young’s discussion of Eudemonia is that the term shifts our thinking to words such as energy, effort, and passion in place of neoliberal terms that treat the university as a factory and students as its products. Eudemonia positions the scholar as a thriving peer in a reflective exchange with students and community partners.
I live and work in the former capital of the Confederacy. Monuments to Confederate “heroes” line a major street in my city. My students —a quarter of whom come from underrepresented groups—have watched a black president insulted and disrespected by his opponents in a way that is as unprecedented as his election and re-election. They have seen videos of young black men and women gun downed by police officers who paid little price, or no price at all. They have watched one major party, a party some of them love, throw its support behind a white man who has not bothered to hide his racism and xenophobia.
To say we are “obligated” to #blacklivesmatter risks defining scholars as something outside of social movement, when in fact, universities need to hear these message and make changes just as much as everyone else. “Obligation” risks making us think about ourselves more than our students and the wider world of which we are all a part.
The wider world is screaming for attention, and the academy is not free to step away from the challenge. We need to flourish so that others may flourish.
Young, Anna M. Prophets, Gurus, and Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Public Engagement, Southern Illinois University Press, 2014: 16-17