#transform(ing)DH Through Listening

Moya Bailey's picture

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.

Connect

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?

Create

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?

Transform

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.