Twitter and the Politics of Citation
Sarah Florini / Arizona State University

Researchers Twitter

Researchers have increasingly turned to Twitter for social media analysis.

In recent years, as more scholars have begun turning their attention to social media, quoting and citing material from social media sites, particularly Twitter, has become a source of great controversy. Traditionally academics have considered anything publicly available online as “published.” Therefore, no permissions are required to cite this material with proper attribution. While this is an established standard among researchers, it is not universally agreed upon by social media users, many of whom feel citing their tweets is equivalent to eavesdropping on a personal conversation or even intellectual property theft. This has emerged as an ongoing debate with little consensus.

Because social media blurs the lines between public and private, producer and audience, and mass and interpersonal communication, users have complicated and often contradictory beliefs about how their social media timelines should be viewed and potentially used by researchers.[ ((Nancy K. Baym, “Fans or Friends?: Seeing Social Media Audiences as Musicians Do,” Particpations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 9, no. 2 (2012); Manuel Castells, “Communication, Power and Counter-Power in the Network Society,” International Journal of Communcation 1 (2007); Alice Marwick and danah boyd, “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience,” New Media and Society 13, no. 1 (2010); Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Patrick O’Sullivan and Caleb T Carr, “Masspersonal Communication” a Model Bridging the Mass-Interpersonal Divide,” New Media and Society 20, no. 3 (2017).))] Twitter is a particular challenge because it so commonly functions as both mass media, a one-to-many style of communication, and interpersonal comunication. Politicians and celebrities rarely hold official press conferences anymore. They instead make statements via Twitter and other social media. Many Twitter users see their tweets as contributions to a larger public discourse and will often describe them in terms of intellectual labor and/or property. At the same time, Twitter is social media and retains some of the expectations of social interaction. Users have conversations and interactions that they see as sociality, not mass communication, and consequently, quoting or referencing these tweets is viewed as similar to quoting a conversation that was overheard. Users in the same networks, sometimes even the exact same users, interpret Twitter in both of these contradictory ways.

Twitter's Terms of Service Page

Twitter’s Terms of Service Page

Unlike many social media platforms, Twitter’s Terms of Service does not grant the platform copyright of users’ content. According to Twitter, “You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. What’s yours is yours…”[ ((Twitter, Terms of Service, .n.d. accessed November 10, 2017, ))] The the rights and regulations of intellectual property have been governed by a set of federal laws that outline who can use ideas, how, and under what circumstances. Section 107 of the Copyright Act allows for unlicensed use of copyrighted material for commentary and criticism, parody, news and reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.[ ((, “More information on Fair Use,” n.d. accessed November 10, 2017,] Academics are covered under several of these categories, making direct citation permissible with proper attribution.

However, though that is the legal standard, in the age of massive media conglomerates the de facto standard for Fair Use has been based on which entities have the resources for legal action. For example, academics are routinely forced to pay licensing fees to cite song lyrics in their work. Under fair use, quotation of song lyrics should be permissible as commentary, criticism, or scholarship. However, after the music industry began aggressively pursuing peer-to-peer file sharing and other intellectual property issues in the early 2000s, fair use seems null and void when it comes to materials owned by this industry. Publishers of academic books and journals simply can’t afford to be embroiled in a legal conflict with large media corporations and will instead require authors get permission for quotes. Obtaining this permission generally involves the author paying a licensing fee that can be several hundred dollars per line of lyrics. This phenomenon is not confined to academia. Stephen Colbert did several segments on The Colbert Report where he joked about his inability to use footage of NFL games or even use the trademarked phrase “Super Bowl” because Comedy Central’s parent company Viacom was unwilling to take the legal risk. Thus, while there are legal standards, ultimately copyright and usage is a matter of power, not legality.

Stephen Colbert jokes about his inability to use the trademarked phrase “Super Bowl”

Some Twitter users express attitudes about intellectual property and quotation that are in line with fair use, merely wanting their ideas attributed to them. However, some users express a belief that on the surface is more in line with the licensing model embraced by the music industry or NFL, that they should be compensated when their words are used regardless of the context. In part this is grounded in the ways that marginalized people, particularly Black women, are systematically denied the opportunity to benefit from their intellectual contributions. Outlets often seem eager to quote marginalized people’s ideas while rarely giving them opportunities to write professionally. This licensing-style approach to quotation seems to grow out of this inequality. These users are often chided for claiming intellectual property rights that far exceed those granted by law or norm. But, given that the enforcement of intellectual property rights have largely become about power, rather than legal standing, demanding compensation for quotation can be understood not only as an attempt to rectify an economic imbalance, but as an attempt to reclaim power. Users from marginalized groups have long had little say in how they were written about and how their ideas were used. Demands for remuneration when they are quoted are both an amelioration of inequitable material circumstances and an assertion of agency.

These power dynamics require researchers to be particularly attentive to the ethics of their citational practices. The days of codified, agreed-upon field-wide practices are gone. To be ethical in our research, scholars must be attentive to the complex, nuanced, and fluctuating contours of power in Twitter networks. Our approaches to citation of social media sources must be contextual, adaptable, grounded in cultural competencies, and created in conversation with those we cite.

Image Credits:
1. Researchers Have Increasingly Turned to Twitter for Social Media Analysis
2. Screengrab of Twitter’s Terms of Service Page
3. No consensus among Twitter users about fair use and copyright.

Please feel free to comment.

Community Guidelines and the Language of Eating Disorders on Social Media
Ysabel Gerrard / The University of Sheffield

Content Warning: This post contains an in-depth discussion of eating disorders and includes difficult imagery.

All social media platforms have a set of community guidelines which lay out, in ‘plainspoken’ terms, how they want their users to behave and what kinds of content they think are (and are not) acceptable. [ (( Gillespie, T. (2018). Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media. Yale: Yale University Press, p.76. ))] They have rules against supporting terrorism, crime and hate groups; sharing sexual content involving minors; malicious speech, amongst other acts that aim to threaten or damage certain parties, to use Tumblr’s words in the quote above. But some of these rules are harder to justify and enforce than others.

For example, in 2012, and in response to a Huffington Post exposé about the ‘secret world of teenage “thinspiration”’ on social media, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr released new guidelines about content related to eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia. They said they would draw lines between accounts and posts that ‘promote’ eating disorders and those aiming to ‘build community’ or facilitate ‘supportive conversation’ about the issue.

Yet this promotion/support dialectic indicates a misunderstanding of online eating disorder communities, and in what follows I present a series of examples to provoke a discussion about the language used in social media’s community guidelines.

Locating the ‘Pro’ in ‘Pro-Eating Disorder’

The language of promotion used in community guidelines was likely influenced by the online pro-eating disorder (pro-ED) movement, formerly found in the homepages, forums and chat rooms of a pre-social media Web. The term ‘pro’ is commonly (and insufficiently) understood to denote the promotion of eating disorders, but internet users have always varied in how they operationalise this term. For example, some adopt it as an identity to break away from the medicalisation of eating disorders; some use it to embrace eating disorders and break away from stigma; some use it to create spaces of support for others; some want to find likeminded people; and yet others – though these people are said to be in a minority – use it to promote and encourage harmful behaviours in others.

While some posts do straightforwardly promote eating disorders – like ‘meanspo’ agreements, short for ‘mean inspiration’, where users agree to post cruel comments to one another to encourage starvation and weight loss – a lot of it blurs the line.

The ‘What Ifs’ of Reading Images

Several internet researchers, myself included, have shown how social media users savvily work around platforms’ rules. For example, after the Huffington Post exposé, Instagram stopped returning results for ED-related hashtag searches like #proana, but users coined lexical variants to evade moderation (e.g.,#proana became #proanaa). In a recent paper I showed how users now avoid using hashtags or other textual clues to align their content with pro-ED discourses, meaning the work of deciding whether a post promotes eating disorders has become even harder.

For example, in its community guidelines, Pinterest gives users an example of an image that does not, in its view, promote eating disorders. They claim this image is acceptable because ‘the focus is on nutrition and fitness’:

But what if Pinterest removed the text overlay – ‘it’s not a diet, it’s a way of life. FIT meals’ – and simply depicted a slender female body, perhaps in black and white, a common visual aesthetic in online eating disorder communities? Why is this level of thinness acceptable? And how do we decide if it’s ok to promote certain diets and meal plans and ‘way[s] of life’ above others?

Here are some more examples, taken from Instagram: [ (( These images are taken from the same dataset used in my latest paper: Gerrard, Y. (2018). Beyond the hashtag: circumventing content moderation on social media. New Media and Society. 1-20.))]

Would you say the above images promote eating disorders? Yes, the people’s bones are outlined and emphasised in the framing of the images, but when do they become too bony, to the point where these images are read as the promotion of anorexia or similar? Does the act of posting these images alone constitute promotion? And what might happen if these were male bodies? These are just some of the many questions that could be asked about the challenges of drawing the line between harmlessness and promotion.

‘Things You Might Love’: The Gender Politics of Recommendation Systems

Another way content circulates on social media is through algorithmic recommendation systems. In short, platforms show you what they think you want to see. This is especially true of Pinterest, which arguably functions as more of a search engine than a place to make deep connections with other users. But what we don’t know is how Pinterest and other platforms decide which posts have similarities to others.

Take the below screenshot of Pinterest recommendations as an example. I found these images by searching for ‘thinspo’ on Pinterest (a term that has long been linked to eating disorders) and selected the first image, which had a black background and read ‘need to be skinnier for summer’ in large white letters. Pinterest listed other ‘ideas’ I ‘might love’ underneath the post:

Different kinds of content are being conflated here, as images about athleticism and getting ‘healthy’ sit alongside suggestions for ‘skinny bones disorders’. Some of these images have ‘no specific connection’ to eating disorders and yet they have been re-contextualised within a new environment that makes them seem problematic. [ (( Vellar, A. (2018). #anawarrior identities and the stigmatization process: an ethnography in Italian networked publics. First Monday. 23(6), n.p.))] So which of these posts would you say promote eating disorders, which don’t, and why?

I then selected a different image – the ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ quote shown in the post above – and these were my recommendations:

Again, which of these posts do you think promote eating disorders? Are any of them bad enough to be removed from Pinterest?

What’s interesting to me is that Pinterest’s suggestions for ‘fitness motivation’, ‘get[ting] healthy’ and spotting the signs of anorexia are mixed in with posts urging readers not to eat, and meanspo quotes like ‘not skinny enough’ and ‘you’re a slut’. Pinterest is thus conflating content related to eating disorders with posts about thinness (health, fitness, nutrition, diet plans, weight loss, and so on), reinforcing a longstanding and narrow view of what an eating disorder is (hint: anorexia isn’t the only one, and not everyone wants to lose lots of weight).

Algorithmic personalisation is making it even more challenging to draw the line between posts that promote EDs and those which promote other aspects of female body control, potentially having material effects on how people find content related to eating disorders and learn about what they are.

Getting It Right

Only a minority of users in pro-ED spaces actually promote eating disorders, yet platforms borrow this language and use it to justify their decisions about content moderation. This is precisely why we need more insight into platforms’ decision-making processes: how do rule-makers define ‘promotion’, and how is this kind of language operationalised by those whose job it is to scrub objectionable content from social media (the commercial content moderators (CCMs))?

Sometimes social media content moderation is necessary and I respect the difficulties companies face as they grapple with their desire to provide spaces for self-expression while needing to set some limits. But if platforms are going to take on the moral work of deciding what content should stay or go, especially when it comes to users’ health, they need to make sure they get it right.

Image Credits
1. Tumblr’s Community Guidelines
2. Pinterest’s Community Guidelines
3. Author’s screenshot of an anonymised user’s Instagram post
4. Author’s screenshot of an anonymised user’s Instagram post
5. Author’s screenshot of an anonymised user’s Instagram post
6. Author’s screenshot of Pinterest recommendations
7. Author’s screenshot of Pinterest recommendations

Please feel free to comment.

#Save: NBC’s The Voice and Live Social Television
Maggie Steinhauer / University of Texas at Austin

Image 1
NBC The Voice season 13 promotional poster

In recent years, Twitter has noticeably intertwined itself with live television as an interactive tool through its clever integrated hashtags and corresponding custom emojis. Live performance-based reality competition shows such as America’s Got Talent (NBC), The Voice (NBC), American Idol (ABC, and the former FOX series), and So You Think You Can Dance (FOX) all utilize some form of Twitter voting, either as an alternative to calling in your vote or through a #Save promotion. Social media integration is typically hailed as an exciting, interactive feature for audiences, yet the real beneficiaries of these Twitter tactics, from an industry studies perspective, are the producers and networks. Twitter integration, in that respect, is a producer-fueled trend to encourage live viewing and boost advertising revenue by incorporating viewer and fan labor into the process of production. The ways that these features are marketed to audiences and the implications of their standardization warrant further academic attention, and The Voice ‘s success with social media integration makes it a prime example.

Time-shifted television and online streaming can spell disaster for live reality programs like The Voice, as both viewing methods allow for commercial skipping. Event television, which Idol ‘s original run used to qualify as, can be a deterrent against non-linear viewing as it creates an impetus to watch live. But as the dominant scheduling conventions of these kinds of reality programs become ingrained for viewers, the necessity to even turn on the television before the final moments’ reveal begin to fade. For example, the fixed format of FOX’s Idol eventually became unnecessary and amid falling ratings, it eliminated the results-only episode in 2014. With popularity waning all around, there was less impulse to watch live rather than catch up on DVR. Or better yet, just browse headlines on social media without ever watching.

In 2013, The Voice (and Twitter) introduced their “Instant Save,” or #VoiceSave, during season five and ushered in a new live interactive component to the genre, reminiscent of the QUBE TV in the late 70s, as discussed by Amanda Lotz. [ ((Lotz, Amanda D. “Interactive TV Too Early: The False Start of QUBE.” Velvet Light Trap. no. 64 (Fall 2009):106-107. As Lotz links to in her article, check out this unofficial “nostalgia website” for QUBE TV. ))] Previous iterations of Twitter voting on reality competition shows were surely entertaining, but they failed to achieve interactivity in the same manner as The Voice ’s #VoiceSave. With the #Save feature, viewers were “in control” for a small portion of the episode, and as a key component, they had to follow along with the live broadcast in order to participate and likely stay tuned through those commercial breaks.

Image 2
Graphic from @NBCTheVoice during the #VoiceSave window on the November 28, 2017 episode

Two years prior to The Voice ‘s version, Simon Cowell’s cancelled X-Factor became “the first-ever TV series to allow voting by Twitter,” but instead of using hashtags as the other current programs do, X-Factor asked viewers to vote by private Direct Messages to the show’s official Twitter account. [ (( Hibberd, James. “‘X-Factor’ to allow voting by Twitter.” Entertainment Weekly. October 25, 2011. ))] And although not performance-based, it is noteworthy that Big Brother on CBS also experimented with Twitter as early as 2012. AGT may not have been the first reality competition program to use Twitter voting, but they were the first in this wave of Twitter-integrated programs that allowed audiences to vote by hashtag in order to save a contestant. Essentially, this method was the next logical step in television voting’s evolution, from calling in, to texting, to web votes, and then to Twitter, but without the live component. The following year after The Voice began using the #VoiceSave, Idol (on FOX) and SYTYCD instituted similar measures.

With the addition of the #VoiceSave, The Voice ‘s results segments now invite the audience to determine which contestants will be eliminated in real time. During the last minutes of the live broadcast, host Carson Daly bring ups the bottom two or three contestants previously determined by conventional overnight voting methods. He proclaims the #VoiceSave open for five minutes only and cuts to commercial. The power, supposedly, rests solely in the hands of live viewers and they are only able to take part in the decision-making on Twitter. In The Voice ‘s recent seasons, the #VoiceSave has become more streamlined through their official Twitter account, @NBCTheVoice. Daly still reminds the viewing audience about the #VoiceSave throughout the broadcast, but the instructions are relayed through Twitter simultaneously to the point where Twitter users (and non-east coast viewers) can follow the live broadcast without actually tuning in. I’ve compiled several screenshots of and links to the @NBCTheVoice account from the November 28, 2017 episode (all on EST) to illustrate how the #VoiceSave functions. Around the halfway point of the episode, before the bottom two contestants are announced, @NBCTheVoice tweets:

Image 3
8:29 PM Screenshot of @NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017

Ten minutes later, @NBCTheVoice announces the bottom two contestants. In this episode, contestants Janice Freeman and Adam Cunningham are up for elimination and will give final performances before the live Twitter vote. After the first performance, a second reminder goes out:

Image 4
8:45 PM Screenshot of @NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017

At 8:50 P.M., twenty-one minutes after the process was initiated online, the five-minute voting window is officially opened via Twitter. @NBCTheVoice tweets out identical messages using the hashtags #VoiceSaveAdam and #VoiceSaveJanice that quickly begin to rack up retweets which Twitter adds up live. By 8:55 P.M., @NBCTheVoice tweets “The #VoiceSave window is now CLOSED!” and at 8:58 P.M., it announces, “YOUR TWEETS just sent @adam_cunningham to the #VoiceTop10.”

Compared to previous voting methods, The Voice ‘s iteration was a shift because it capitalized on the second screen experience and in doing so found a means to motivate viewers to watch live TV. Where the other programs had developed a “feature,” The Voice had gone interactive, in a move noted by Variety editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein as the “gamification” of reality TV. [ (( Wallenstein, Andrew. “‘Gamification’: The Way to Revive Reality TV.” Variety. January 30, 2014. ))] Wallenstein posits that such practices directly involve audiences in the action of the live programming, essentially turning segments of the program into a game for audiences, and that process may be the key to “revive” reality TV. The term is also associated with video game design researcher and scholar Sebastian Deterding. As part of a conference presentation in 2011, Deterding, et al. defined the concept as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.” [ ((Sebastian Detering, et al., “From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining ‘Gamification,'” (paper presented at MindTrek. Tampere, Finland, September 28-30 2011, 13. ))] In the case of #VoiceSave and other #Save’s, the closer these processes are to games through their structure, rules, and real-time effects, the more they represent an interactivity as opposed to participation enabled by convergence culture.

Image 5
2013 Graphic from Nielsen on the connection between ratings and Twitter

There is still debate as to the effectiveness of social TV, as Todd Spangler writes. Although, Spangler does offer that the Nielsen’s social television ratings are “designed to show the total Twitter activity relating to specific shows, to help networks and advertisers figure out how to better use the social service to drive awareness and tune-in,” not necessarily to increase ratings. [ ((Todd Spangler, “Nielsen and Twitter Unveil Social TV Metrics, Showing How Little Tweets Line Up with Ratings” Variety. October 7, 2013. ))] Yet, Twitter and Nielsen released various reports detailing increased ratings, higher audience engagement, and better brand retention. For example, the first night AGT enabled Twitter voting in 2013, the show witnessed an “8x increase in overall tweets” during that episode compared to the previous week, with a total of 117,000 tweets. [ ((Liz Myers (@thisbeliz), “America’s Got Talent Viewers Vote via Twitter,” Twitter Blog. July 26, 2013. ))] And approximately a year after The Voice instituted their #Save, it aired the “most-tweeted about TV series episode since Nielsen Social began measuring Twitter TV conversation in 2011” with 1.92 million tweets reported during the May 13, 2014 episode. [ ((Adam Flomenbaum. “How Telescope-Powered Voting Helps ‘The Voice’ Set Twitter Records.” Lost Remote. May 21, 2014, “ ))] And Nielsen Social data shows that in 29% of programs, a spike in tweets influenced changes in ratings, and the effect rose to a 44% increase in ratings for competitive reality programs, specifically. [ ((The Nielsen Company. “The Follow-Back: Understanding the Two-Way Causal Influence Between Twitter Activity and TV Viewership.” Newswire. August 6, 2013. “–understanding-the-two-way-causal-influence-betw.html. ))]

Whether viewed as the last-ditch strategic maneuver of a fading industry or rather as a shrewd reflexive adaptation to existing user behaviors, interactive Twitter voting in live performance based reality competitions is becoming a norm for the genre. It opens up worthy discussions of the rise of TV’s gameificiation, interactivity, fan labor, and the connection between social TV and liveness. The specific use of Twitter for live voting in its various iterations has ushered in noticeable format changes in primetime reality tv. All this increases the stickiness of results-only episodes, and remodels the audience’s viewing labor. To these mass ephemeral programs dependent on high viewership and advertising, their ability to promote liveness and engagement remains paramount, but is continually challenged by the current post-network era. In this post-network moment, a portion of programming power shifts toward audiences as part of a larger initiative to combat a less engaged mass audience. The central question for contemporary broadcasters, especially for their prime-time reality tentpoles, is how to continue providing their product, that highly engaged mass audience, to their advertisers.

Image Credits:
1. NBC The Voice season 13 promotional poster
2. Graphic from @NBCTheVoice during the #VoiceSave window on the November 28, 2017 episode
3. 8:29 PM Screenshot of@NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017
4. 8:45 PM Screenshot of @NBCTheVoice’s tweet during the live broadcast on November 28, 2017
5. 2013 Graphic from Nielsen on the connection between ratings and Twitter

Please feel free to comment.

They’re Just Like Us: Celebrity Civilianizing on Social Media
Elizabeth Affuso / Pitzer College

Taylor Swift posing with her cat
Taylor Swift posing with her cat Doctor Meredith Grey named after the character on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy

With the proliferation of new media, stars are expected to engage with their fans on a near 24/7 basis via social media spaces like Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. These spaces provide a perceived access never before seen in the fan/star relationship. Using social media, stars—or their anonymous assistants—showcase the day-to-day aspects of their lives. These spaces are used to post pictures of their pets, their breakfast, their friends, and their opinions about current events. All of this material is designed to make stars seem relatable to the public, while maintaining the rarified nature of celebrity. This desire for relatability is especially pervasive for young female celebrities who utilize their social media to position themselves within girl culture to emphasize the “stars are just like us” narrative of contemporary celebrity. This column will be invested in interrogating how female stars use iconographies of girlhood to emphasize how normal, and by extension relatable, they are on Instagram. For the sake of space, it will focus on Taylor Swift’s Instagram primarily in the era immediately after the release of her album 1989 (2014).

Many of the images circulating Instagram fall into the category that Yasmin Ibrahim has termed “banal imaging.”[ ((Yasmin Ibrahim, “Instagramming life: banal imaging and the poetics of the everyday,” Journal of Media Practice 16:1 (2015): 42-54, 43.))] The images are what might previously have been termed candids and represent new forms of digital recording of the banal or quotidian enabled by the pervasiveness of cameras and the quantities of memory on smartphones. These forms of “banal imaging” have been codified around images of healthy meals, vacations, bathroom mirror selfies, cute pets, fun nails, throwback Thursdays, and inspirational quotes as the aspirational goals of a certain specific form of girlfriendship in post-recession era digital culture. Stars utilize these same tropes in order to play into the language of girly-ness and make themselves seem relatable to their followers, while at the same time maintaining a rarefied star-like quality to their images. Of this symbiotic relationship, Alice Marwick has noted, “’regular’ selfies often emulate celebrity-related media.”[ ((Alice Marwick. “Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy.” Public Culture 27:1 (2015): 137-160, 142.))] This idea can be extended to say that celebrity selfies often also emulate regular selfies. The visual and technological language of these images works from the same vein enabled by the shared functionalities of technology across smartphones.

Childhood photo of Taylor Swift dressed as a Teletubby
Throwback to Taylor Swift dressed up as a teletubby before they were cool

In recent years, Taylor Swift has been strongly associated with girl fandom and with the popularization of the idea of the girl squad—and its related hashtag #squadgoals. Of Swift, Megan Garber has written, “Swift is a performer not just of music, but of friendship. She takes the clichés of female camaraderie … and commercializes them.”[ ((Megan Garber, “The Summer of the #Squad,” The Atlantic, July 23, 2015.] The move toward girl friendship relates to Swift’s own shift in branding away from the hapless, heartbroken romantic into a star who uses feminism and girl friendship as a tool of branding. This shift was centered on the launch of Swift’s well-received 1989 album with its anti-shaming anthem “Shake it off.” At the time, her social media was structured to mimic this shift in branding, positioning her best friendships with women such as Karlie Kloss and Selena Gomez front and center. This move towards girl friendship reflects a certain brand of celebrity feminism that is currently popular, with Beyoncé blaring feminism in lights and stars walking around in t-shirts proclaiming “The Future is Female.”

Taylor Swift and other celebrities on the beach
Happy 4th of July from Taylor Swift and her squad

This performance of friendship is not just depicted in images of friendship—though there are plenty of those—but also in the types of images that she chooses to share with her followers. The mixture of celebrity images of Swift performing and doing other labor coded as professional with banal images allows for Swift’s photos to circulate seamlessly with those of “regular” users. In the temporality and structure of the Instagram feed, Swift’s images integrate seamlessly with those of real friends and give off the impression of Taylor Swift as regular girl, sharing videos of her cats—the ultimate embodiment of the “stars are just like us” discourse of celebrity circa 2018.

We know that cats drive the Internet and Swift’s cats are no exception, maintaining their position as stalwarts on her Instagram through her wipe and rebrand in advance of the release of 2017’s Reputation. Swift’s cats, Det. Olivia Benson and Dr. Meredith Grey, position Swift herself as a fan with the cat’s names as references to the female protagonists of Law and Order: SVU and Grey’s Anatomy respectively. Swift is deliberately branding herself as a fan or even a super fan, but what sets Swift apart is that her fandom does not require the same distance from the actual object as regular fans are subject to. When regular fans encounter celebrities like Swift, it’s primarily at events designed for fan engagement such as concerts or talk shows, but Swift now counts Mariska Hargitay, the actress who plays Det. Olivia Benson, as a member of her girl squad. Images of the feline Olivia Benson and Meredith Grey embody the limitations of the “stars are just like us” narrative in that “stars are just like us,” they have cats named after characters that they love, except that their cats fly private and use MTV awards as chew toys.

Taylor Swift's cat sleeps on a private jet

Taylor Swift’s cats Doctor Meredith Grey lounging while flying private (top) and Detective Olivia Benson chewing on the real Mariska Hargitay’s MTV award (bottom)

This alignment with fandom is something that Swift does again and again in her Instagram and it speaks to the cultural position of fandom in contemporary culture. No longer the province of nerds or geeks, fandom is mainstream enough that the queen bee of the ultimate girl clique, Swift’s squad, is happy to identify herself with it and to use it as a tool of relatability and the sanctioning of a certain kind of life. One that includes the markers of a luxurious version of girlhood complete with foodie 4th of July BBQs, Caribbean vacations, nail art, and boutique workouts. These forms of aspirational images pervade Instagram, driving the staging of images to meet these goals and encouraging the aestheticization of everyday life not just for celebrities, but for everyone.

This interest in banal imaging speaks to larger questions about labor and participation in digital culture. As with many banal images, these candids are not positioned as part of Swift’s work life, but rather as leisure images. This divide is complicated by Swift’s position as a celebrity where every part of public self is essentially work, including the images that are designed to explicitly not seem like work. Contemporary celebrity culture is full of images of celebrities seemingly living their real lives, from the paparazzi images of stars at Starbucks and the gym that fill up tabloids and gossip blogs, to the pet photos, domestic still lifes, and selfies shared on Instagram. Of these social media images, Alice Marwick has written that stars, “provide snapshots of their lives and interactions with followers that give the impression of candid, unfettered access.”[ ((Marwick. “Instafame,” 139.))] Thus, the appeal of these images is that they seem to be not part of public life, but rather a glimpse into the private lives of stars in their off work time, as if they are ever off work. And indeed, in the 24/7 affective network of contemporary culture, it raises questions about whether anyone is ever off work, celebrity or otherwise. As critic Rebecca Solnit has written, like TV shows, “life now had ratings.”[ ((Rebecca Solnit, “We’re Breaking Up: Noncommunications in the Silicon Age.” in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, (Hartford, CT: Trinity University Press, 2014): 256-263, 257.))] The tools of celebrity are no more rarefied, but rather ordinary tools of making and consumption.

Image Credits:
1. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)
2. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)
3. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)
4. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)
5. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)

Please feel free to comment.

Friction Points in Influencer Marketing
Cynthia Meyers / College of Mount Saint Vincent

Logan Paul Instagram Post Promoting Mercedes Benz

Recently the YouTube star Logan Paul’s vlog featured a dead body; in the resulting public outrage Paul (15 million YouTube followers) lost some lucrative advertising and production deals. Last year anti-Semitic jokes similarly affected YouTube star PewDiePie (59 million followers). Logan Paul and PewDiePie are two of the most successful “influencers,” social media stars who are paid to promote brands to their fans. Fearing that traditional celebrities who endorse products may be dismissed as “inherently inauthentic,” advertisers have turned to these influencers instead. Their seeming authenticity is, as Faris Yakob points out, “predicated on the idea that what they are saying is something they believe, an expression of who they are, because that’s what we want to imitate.” The public outrage they excite, which might seem to pose a risk to advertisers, is in fact a feature, not a bug: such outrage is more likely to cement these YouTubers’ bonds with young fans than to weaken them. This is one of many ways in which the new “influencer” system departs from traditional advertising. A few of the resulting issues or “friction points,” in industry jargon, are the subject of this article.

Influencers provide content that attracts audience attention, which they sell directly to advertisers, without involving the media companies such as networks that once mediated such transactions. To find and manage influencers, advertisers have turned instead to new agencies and platforms that are springing up for the purpose (Famebit, Niche, Collective Bias, Revfluence). Some allow would-be influencers to seek brand deals through automated platforms. The evolution of these new supply chains of audience attention is difficult to predict: many assume a shake-out looms, and though it seems likely that such matters as pay rates and content control decisions will become more standardized, it remains to be seen to what extent such standardization is possible or desirable in a system which invented itself in conscious opposition to the advertising conventions of the past.

Famebit Connects YouTubers with Brands

Traditionally, in most culture industries, a talented few at the top of the pyramid get almost all the money and fame. In the influencer industry, however, some advertisers have turned away from those with vast followings and are instead cultivating “microinfluencers” (with 10,000 to 100,000 followers) whom they believe more credible and relatable. The “friction point” for brands, however, is having to manage hundreds of “brand ambassadors” instead of one celebrity endorser or one ad agency. Many brands cycle through hundreds of microinfluencers, who must themselves must constantly contract with new brands for new deals (Juliette Borghesan, personal interview, Dec. 14, 2016). Is this churn a transitional phase in influencer marketing or a sign of structural precarity?

Media metrics for negotiating the price of media time and space, such as audience size and demographics, are not clearly settled for the influencer market. Brands, of course, want proof of “return on investment” (ROI). Initially brands evaluated the effectiveness of influencers by measuring numbers of followers, clicks, likes, shares, and other easily gathered data. But inflated metrics, fake influencers, and bots undermined the trustworthiness of such data. Furthermore, advertisers in this new market seek not just exposure but “engagement,” which is even harder to define or measure. Influencers, advertisers assume, can provide this engagement because of their intense parasocial bonds with their fans, who see them as peers speaking the truth about products. Some advertisers provide promotional codes to influencers so that when their fans purchase with the code, they can measure sales and calculate influencer commissions.

AaliyahJay’s “My Morning Routine” with Promo Code

Accountability, that is, who is responsible for the brand message in the content, is another major “friction point.” Ad agencies had always been accountable to clients for aligning advertising with the brand’s image. The first loyalty of influencers, however, is to their own content “brand” because that is what attracts their fans. They must be careful to integrate the product in an “organic” way within their own content—in, for example, their tips on cosmetics, fashion, healthy living, cooking, or athletic achievement. The amount of content control exercised by the brand depends on both the brand and the influencer. Certain brands, such as Coca-Cola, send specific instructions to influencers (Borghesan); others are entirely hands off. Some influencers, such as Casey Neistat, insist that they must have complete content control when integrating brands; others, especially microinfluencers, simply post what is sent them by the brand. On the one hand, advertisers want to control their brand image; on the other, influencers want to seem independent and authentic, and, in fact, must succeed in this if they are to sell products. The matter is further complicated by the blurring of the once-sharp line between content and ad. While both brands and influencers assume they have much to gain by such blurring, they also have much at risk—control on the one side, credibility on the other.

Both brands and influencers have a motive to hide their transactional relationship from consumers. In the 1920s the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on advertising “testimonials” for deceptiveness when an endorser did not actually use the product. Likewise, recently the FTC has been issuing guidelines that paid social media posts be tagged or labeled as ads. Yet brands employ influencers to circumvent audiences’ avoidance of traditional advertising; labeling an influencer’s content as “ad” may undermine that goal. Viewers who skip a Taco Bell commercial may happily watch Tyler Oakley vlogging about eating a Taco Bell product, so long as it’s not labeled a Taco Bell commercial. And yet many fans value the influencer precisely because she is earning revenue from brands. As one Jake Paul fan explained, “He makes a lot of money off YouTube!” For those fans, their influencers model an aspirational vision of a life of creativity, passion, and wealth, of which extensive product consumption is a necessary and desirable part.

Tyler Oakley: “My First Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco”

To reduce their dependence on advertisers, some influencers have developed their own “merch”: t-shirts, shoes, athletic wear, cosmetics, jewelry, nutritional supplements and other products made cheaply and sold for a high price resulting from artificial scarcity and exclusivity. The influencer’s pop-up shop or one-time online “drop” may be a fan’s only opportunity to buy this merch. Some influencers, then, are not only disintermediating the media business by being their own content producers, distributors, and media agencies, but are also exploiting direct-to-consumer retail strategies to distintermediate traditional retailers. If advertisers are driven off by daring, “authentic” content, these merch empires provide a good hedge for influencers.

Jake Paul Merch

Advertisers have always searched for ways to overcome consumer cynicism. In the 1920s and 1930s, they cultivated “sincerity” to convince cynical consumers that their ads were not like fraudulent patent medicine ads. In the 1960s, the Creative Revolution’s emotional appeals, humor, and irony grew up in contrast to the dubiously factual “hard sell” of which consumers had grown suspicious. Today, when audiences can avoid altogether the traditional ads they suspect, the simplest solution for advertisers seems to be integrating their brands into the most authentic-seeming content, content that looks user-generated. The YouTube aesthetics of shaky hand-held camera work, jump cuts, and bad shot compositions signal authenticity. If the definition of “content” is what audiences want to see and “advertising” is what brands want audiences to see, then influencer content seems to marry these categories. The marriage may not last. Audiences may become jaded by the constant pitching and promoting, and brands may come to doubt the efficacy of influencers. At present, however, it seems to be working beautifully. Audiences may be revising their definition of “content” so as to expect it to include advertising: as one observer notes, “entertainment for adolescents currently consists of unvarnished requests for money and devotion.” We may in fact be returning to the type of branded sponsored content common from the 1930s through the 1950s, when audiences eagerly tuned in to watch Arthur Godfrey sip and joke about Lipton Soup.

Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts Lipton Commercial

Image Credits:
1. Author’s screen grab
2. Author’s screen grab
3. Author’s screen grab
4. Tyler Oakley: “My First Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco”
5. Author’s screen grab
6. Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts Lipton Commercial

Please feel free to comment.

I Am Woman, See Me Bleed: from Tampon Taboo to the Pro-Period Movement
Alexis Carreiro / Queens University of Charlotte


Steph Gongora’s Instagram post regarding her ‘leak’ during her yoga class

People Magazine isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of feminist sub-culture. In fact, it’s usually the opposite.[ ((They, like many celebrity publications, often use the words “flaunt” and “showing off” when describing women who are simply in public. Running errands. Going to wok. Playing at the beach with their children. That language perpetuates the idea that women exist to be looked at — and dress as objects for other people rather than subjects in their own lives.))] However, on February 14, 2017 it ran this story online (“Yoga Instructor Practices in White Pants While Free-Bleeding to Make a Point About Period Shame”) and posted the image above. Perhaps more shocking than the image itself is that, according to the homepage, it was the third most popular story that day.

People‘s website showing the ‘Free-Bleeding’ article among its most popular pieces

The story features Steph Gongora’s Instagram video of her yoga practice while having her period. However, contrary to People’s headline, Gongora claims that she wasn’t free-bleeding and that it was “just a leak.” [ ((You can see the full video and text here. ))]

Free-bleeding refers to women who don’t use any menstrual products during their periods. Gongora, on the other hand, seems to imply that her product leaked during yoga. For some women, free-bleeding is a choice while for others, it’s not. In her original Instagram post, she highlights how millions of women around the world lack access to (or can’t afford) menstrual products and the negative impact it has on their lives. She directly relates that to her decision to post the video and encourages women to break free from the shame and embarrassment they feel about their bodies during menstruation. For Gongora, she posted the video of herself in solidarity with women who free-bleed—not by choice but—by necessity.

To date, the post has over 520,000 views and (almost) 8,000 comments that, not surprisingly, are not all positive. They range from supportive and celebratory to callous and contemptible. To put it mildly, the comment section, like the history of the tampon itself (and its history in popular culture), is a bit… messy.



The lead image in The Atlantic‘s article on the history of this particular menstrual product

In her article for The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters charts the history of the tampon from its origins in the late 18th and 19th century, and examines the various materials used over the years (like plants, paper, wool, gauze, and glycerin) to aid in absorption. [ ((] Over the last several hundred years, companies have improved the basic design and are now offering eco-friendly alternatives like “period proof underwear” (Thinx) and various menstrual cups designed to catch the flow, [ ((It seems fitting to discuss this topic in a journal called Flow.))] but menstrual blood is still taboo to talk about and, even more so, to show or display on film or TV. For such an ordinary and daily occurrence, it’s largely and—more specifically—visibly absent within mainstream, American media. Or, when it is present, it’s traditionally seen as horrific, comical, or shameful. [ ((For a quick overview of film and TV shows from the last 25 years that feature menstruation, see this and this. And, for a great satirical sketch about men’s role during women’s menstruation, see Key & Peele’s Menstruation Orientation.))] According to Fetters, “the commercial tampon as we know it has been shaped and re-shaped by a myriad of invisible forces—like genuine concern for women’s wellness, certainly, but also sexism, panic, feminism, capitalism, and secrecy.” Part of what the pro-period movement attempts to do it remove that panic and secrecy. [ ((This pro-period movement, of course, isn’t new. This 2015 Bustle article explains the recent history of the movement which most people seem to date back to a 2004 blog post and then chart through 4chan’s 2014 “Operation freebleeding” hoax.))]

Over the last several years, all-things-menstruation have gained momentum and visibility outside of broadcast media. [ ((Some of the most popular hashtags related to this are: #padsagainstsexim #freebleeding #notaxontampons #justatampon #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult #realmensupportwomen. ))] People across the world have used social media to protest the “tampon tax” that categorizes menstrual products as luxury items. [ ((Larimer, Sarah. “The Tampon Tax, Explained.” Washington Post. January 8, 2016. ))] Some people (women and men) have used social media to de-stigmatize the natural phenomenon. [ (( See Jose Garcia, Instagram, 2015. ))] For example, artist Rupi Kaur posted a photo of herself during her period on Instagram.


Artist Rupi Kaur’s interpretation of a woman’s monthly menstrual situation

It was part of a larger photography project her visual rhetoric college course. Instagram originally banned it but later reversed their decision after the outcry on social media. It was in 2015, however, when former M.I.A. drummer Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon without a tampon that the movement really gained legs. [ ((Here is her first-hand account of the experience. ))]


Former M.I.A. drummer Kiran Gandhi and friends after they ran the London Marathon in 2015

She did it for several reasons—one of which was physical comfort and the second was to raise awareness about the relationship between economic oppression and period stigma. According to Gandhi, “My run was about using shock factor to create dialogue around menstrual health and comfort, so that women can start to own the narrative of their own bodies. Speaking about an issue is the only way to combat its silence, and dialogue is the only way for innovative solutions to occur.” [ (( Madame Gandhi Blog. Sisterhood, Blood, and Boobs at the London Marathon 2015. ))] And create dialogue, she did. This story was picked up and covered by Buzzfeed, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Mashable and more. In fact, it helped push the movement so far forward that National Public Radio called 2015 “the year of the period” [ ((Gharib, Malaka. December 31, 2015. According to this article, “But social media’s been awash with the p-word, and when we checked the number of times the word “menstruation” was mentioned in five national news outlets, it more than tripled from 2010 to 2015, from 47 to 167.”))] and Cosmopolitan referred to it as “the year the period went public.” [ ((The 8 Greatest Menstrual Moments of 2015. October 13, 2015.))]

Women, however, aren’t the only ones contributing to the movement. Two teenage girls created a video game called Tampon Run that also went viral and eventually landed them a book deal. In the game, the player has to “collect tampons, shoot them at your enemies, and don’t run out of them before your moon cycle is over.” [ (( Brownstone, Sydney. Fast Company. September 5, 2014. The game creators are not the only females to fling tampons or sanitary products as a form of protest. See A Brief History of Tampon Throwing and A Short History of Women Throwing Their Tampons at You for more information.))]


A screenshot from the Tampon Run game

Of those whose bodies who are capable, roughly 25% of the female population are menstruating at any given time; that means approximately half the population are bleeding from their vaginas about a quarter of the time. Therefore, there is nothing inherently strange or weird about the biological process. Yet, culturally, it is shrouded in mystery, largely invisible in mainstream media, and remains taboo. This is exactly what Tampon Run is trying to resist. According to the developers, the goal of the game is to “normalize tampons in video games where guns would have been acceptable otherwise.” [ (( Brownstone, 2014. ))]

And this, to me, highlights the central problem; we live in an era where it is more acceptable to see dead victims of police brutality (on TV or in the news) than it is to see menstrual blood; the menses is more shocking than the murder—and the blood more shocking than the bodies. It is a striking example of how something so ordinary and mundane is actually shocking—and how something so shocking has become so ordinary. [ (( International artist Elone is also tackling this concept in her work. ))]

The pro-period movement, with its diverse members from across the world, is only working to solve one part of that problem and, more likely than not (similar to the debate about breast-feeding in public), it will never completely go away. So the question we need to ask ourselves is: whose blood, and in what circumstances, is the most difficult to look at? And, what does that reveal about us as a culture?

Image Credits:
1. Image for “Steph Gongora Free Bleeding Yoga,”
2. Author’s screenshot;, February 14, 2017
3. Image for “The History of the Tampon,” The Atlantic, June 1, 2015, credited to “ SASIMOTO / Shutterstock / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic.”
4. Rupi Kaur, Artist’s Website.
5. From Kiran’s “modern period piece” on
6. Screen shot from Tampon Run, Fast Company, September 5, 2014.

Please feel free to comment.

Of Bhakts, Deplorables and More: Posthuman Communities Performing Political Partisanship in the Age of Social Media
Sushant Kishore / BITS Pilani


The 2014 General elections in India and the 2016 Presidential elections in the USA shared a list of attributes, from two-terms of incumbent liberal governments to the rise of the extreme right to power. Both elections laid bare the complex virtual/real helix that constitutes the digital sensorium that is the contemporary world. Large numbers of netizens were called upon in both constituencies to join ranks with the candidates. In the case of India these groups appropriately called themselves, “Modi’s army”. Neither internet, nor politics has been the same since the 2014 elections. The internet emerged as a political tool where false truths, rumors, sentimentality and sensationalism could explode with a click and eclipse all opposition and politics became more internet marketing than polity. Campaign rhetoric and name-calling became hashtags and hashtags became social media communities.

Theoretically, at the intersection of the digital, the political and the performative, this column attempts to explore the changing terrains of politics with respect to the digital media and the performatives of communitas and political partisanship in the context of the 2014 General Election in India and the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States. The objects of interest are the posthuman social media communities that extensively participated, through multiple social media platforms, blogs, micro-blogs, etc., in the aforementioned election campaigns and continue to shower uncritical and absolute loyalty on the candidates for the highest administrative post in the two largest democracies of the world: India and United Sates of America.

The Digital-Political


Graph of Internet Penetration

Articulating, the mid-20th Century techno-human condition, Marshall McLuhan wrote –

During the mechanical age we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both time and space as far as our planet is concerned. (( McLuhan, M. (1964). “Introduction.” In M. McLuhan, Understanding Media : The Extension of Man. London: The MIT Press. ))

This was in the 1960s when the electronic medium had started gaining traction in the west, the television and radio had become common household furnishing. The computer had just reached its adolescence and internet was yet to be conceived. In the contingent milieu McLuhan foresaw what the future of technology had in store for humans. With the internet boom, the McLuhanian the digital sensorium expands to envelope all aspects of quotidian life. The internet is growing exponentially and covers over forty-six per cent of the world population. If technology was the extension of the central nervous system in 1960s, the internet embodies the prosthetization of consciousness itself (another Mcluhanian prophecy). A consciousness that is rhizomorphic – networked and hyperlinked with infinite others, virtual and built/stored on inconspicuous corporate servers yet personal and quantifiable with a cornucopia of information – facts, fictions, news, rumors, data, memory – easily retrievable through keyword searches. (( Lyman, Peter and Hal R. Varian, “How Much Information”, 2003. Retrieved from on 07 December 9, 2016 )) These attributes that make the silicon consciousness remarkably seductive and widely accessible to all, also evoke an impression of democratic rapture where a user has the luxury of disembodied presence and disembodied unreasoned voice. Any individual can set up a blog or a website at minimal cost and with minimal skills and social media removes even these hurdles. Social media allows and encourages (with Twitter’s 140 words microblogs) instant, knee-jerk reactions to be posted to the world without any inhibition and/or fear of intellectual confrontation. The episode of the first presidential debate best illustrates what I mean by the “luxury of disembodied presence.” Donald Trump confessed he refrained from bringing up Bill-Lewinsky because he saw Chelsea Clinton in the audience but he could uninhibitedly do so, about Hillary and several other women, on Twitter.


Trump’s Uninhibited Online Sexism

Very often the social media does indeed give “legions of imbeciles the right to speak, when they once only spoke at a bar after a wine, without harming the community.” (( Il Messaggero. (2015, June 12). Umberto Eco attacca i social: «Internet ha dato diritto di parola agli imbecilli». Retrieved December 7, 2016, from Il Messaggero: )) Within seconds the post snowballs with likes, comments, retweets, shares, reposts of like-minded individuals until the unreasoned impulsive argument/opinion starts to “#trend”. Manufacturing consent becomes easier in this digital prosthetization of the consciousness where users, through their Twitter feeds, Whatsapp, Facebook walls, and more, are constantly bombarded with information/misinformation and search engines literally froth with content manipulated with keywords, backlinks and shock-value. This is the picture – this constant wrestle of attention and distraction – that informs politics in the age of social media. Our ability to assess political candidates and make political decisions has become impetuous, conforming to the configurations of the digital milieu. “Once scuba diver[s]…. Now… [we] zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” (( Carr, N. (2008, July). “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic ))

2014/2016 – Performing Political Partisanship

Performativity in this disembodied virtual space is reduced to profile pictures, tweets, retweets, blogs, posts, likes and shares. Political assemblies transform into social media communities, and political rhetoric transforms into hashtags. “Bhakts” and “deplorables” became the highest trending ‘tag’ that were used against any candidate in both constituencies. Bhakt is a Sanskrit word which means devotee. In the context of the 2014 General Elections in India, it connoted the apotheosis of Narendra Modi – the Prime ministerial candidate for the Hindu Right party, Bharatiya Janta Party (Indian People’s Party). His campaign team had mobilized an army of Twitter accounts (mostly fake) to campaign for their candidate and slander and heckle politicians and/or supporters of other parties. In a snowball effect, many supporters took the cue and took to social media to glorify their leader and bracket every other alternative as traitor, Muslim-appeaser, pseudo-secular and/or anti-national. The trend has continued even after the elections and dissenters are subjected to frequent online abuse. In November 2015, BJP’s Twitter army launched a campaign against a popular Bollywood actor who expressed his views on rising religio-cultural intolerance in India. The campaign asked people to boycott his films and the products that he endorses. Being a Muslim made his situation worse. It led to the termination of his advertising contract. Several others who have disagreed with governments policies or questioned its objectives have faced similar flak at the hands of these swarms of devotees. The situation would be reiterated with every activity. (( Pal, J. (2015). “Banalities Turned Viral: Narendra Modi and the Political Tweet.” Television and New Media, 16(4), 377-386. )) On 16th May 2014, Modi posted what would be the Golden Tweet of the year and the most retweeted tweet ever in India.


Top five tweeters during 2014 Election Campaigns


Modi’s Victory Tweet, “India has won! India’s Victory. Good times are coming.”

While the keyboard wars were largely tilted in one direction in India, the Presidential Elections in the US witnessed widespread digital campaigns. Although Donald Trump was unbeatable in his bullying and name-calling (despite a limited vocabulary), Clinton’s prognosis of Trump’s followers as “a basket of deplorables”. shocked people but quickly started trending. After a long campaign that Trump ran on lies, fear and hate, no other word could describe the people who continued to support him as one after another skeleton popped out of his closet.


Popularity Trend for #Deplorables

Filtering through claims of sexual harassment, misogynist statements, unfounded theories on migration-crime, blatant generalization of ethnic groups as criminals and terrorists, of women as sexual objects who “should be treated like shit”, the only sections of the demography Trump did not abuse in his campaign were uneducated working class/middle class white men. There were pro-Trump automated Twitter handles consistently tweeting false news and to their advantage there were groups of teenage content writers with absolutely no interest in the U.S. elections accept the attention economy it was generating. (( Tynan, D. (2016, August 24). How Facebook powers money machines for obscure political ‘news’ sites. Retrieved December 8, 2016, from The Guardian: )) Thus, Macedonian teens would spin and publish scandalous and sensational stories that would be picked up by Trump supporters and extensively retweeted or shared.


Sample Stories from Macedonian content writers

It appears in both cases that in an abundance of information and a decadence of research or critical thinking, people filter information based not on ideology or interest but on a certain kind of inertia that this information highway affects. More than creating bubbles of self-interest or self-preservation the propaganda creates communities and cults of a leader. The two years since the General Elections in India have witnessed a number of radical policy changes, some quite progressive and others outright blunders of management. The notion of dissent as akin to anti-nationalism still dominates social media discourse and the fickle nature of the medium prevents any intellectual debunking of these views. What turn will politics take once Donald Trump assumes office is still unpredictable. Unlike India, partisanship might dwindle once he starts backing out of his poll promises. On a lighter note as a cyborg completely incorporated within the Twitter ecosystem, his quips on China don’t bode well for diplomacy.

Image Credits:
1. Modi Trump
2. Internet Penetration
3. Trump’s Sexism
4. Top 5 Tweeters
5. Modi’s Victory Tweet
6. #deplorables
7. Macedonian Content Writers

Please feel free to comment.

The Rhetoric of the Loop: Animated GIFs and Documentary Film
Colin Beckett / Independent Critic


It’s Pronounced Shut Up Nerd, via WiffleGif

If the question of the loop, as such, is an urgent and central one in considering contemporary moving image documentary, it is because of the animated GIF. The animated GIF has become one of the most significant forms of media in our present moment. And while the nature and extent of that significance is open to debate, we can definitively say they are the type of visual media that we most frequently see looping.


Grmpy Cat GIF, on a loop

An animated GIF does not, by definition, have to loop, but almost all of them we encounter online do. Designed to present digital, color images with a remarkably efficient kind of lossless compression, the Graphics Interchange Format quickly became a pervasive component of the World Wide Web after they were introduced by CompuServe in 1987 — and, for a little while, after a second, enhanced version of the file format was released in 1989, the only common source of moving images on the web.

Early animated GIFs were mostly composed of primitive, clip-art style drawings that, from the vantage of the present, only underline the early web’s comparative technological austerity. As computing speeds have increased, bandwidth become cheaper, and the internet transformed into a major venue of accumulation, animated GIFs have grown far more elaborate, coming to more closely resemble video. We now even see “full movie” GIFs.


Example of an early, animated GIF

The affinity between animated GIFs and cinema is obvious, if somewhat complicated in its details, and they have already begun to exert an influence on the way that movies and television shows are made and used. But while the great majority of animated GIFs function as non-fiction of one kind or another, deployed to directly describe or intervene in the world shared by audience and maker, they bear no obvious relevance to the tradition of documentary. To consider the animated GIF in this context, then, we must find our coordinates with three related points of reference: news journalism and online media; early cinema; and the visual art world.


GIF’s designed to intervene in the world

Animated GIFs have been widely adopted by journalists and other internet media professionals, not unselfconsciously. We can turn to them for news bites, sports highlights, and human interest micro-stories. They are used to illustrate scientific phenomena, and to teach simple tasks. Beyond the online editions of more traditional news sources, the animated GIF has been a central tool by which sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed have fabricated a new set of quasi-journalistic practices and clichés.


GIF’s as news bites

The GIFs produced or deployed by major media organizations are only responsible for a small percentage of the ones we see — and GIFs that serve primarily informational purposes not a much larger one. There is only a limited range of human activity about which animated GIFs can effectively inform us. And even when an individual GIF does depict some noteworthy thing in the world, it only does so for a short period of time before passing into other uses, suggesting that even at their most instructive, GIFs are consumed primarily as diverting spectacle — a sort of worst-case scenario from the perspective of sober documentary.

The animated GIFf’s tendency toward the spectacular calls to mind, like much else in postcinematic moving image culture, the pre-1906 mode of filmmaking that Tom Gunning called the “cinema of attractions”. Like the early cinema that Gunning surveys, many animated GIFs bombastically perform simple technological tricks that, while somewhat flimsy in illusion, carry the immense power of the young medium’s exhilarating possibilities — offering, as Gunning wrote, “exhibitionistic confrontation rather than diegetic absorption.”


The spectacular and the “cinema of attractions” in GIF’s and early cinema

“It was,” Gunning writes, “precisely the exhibitionist quality of early cinema that made it attractive to the avant-garde — its freedom from the creation of a diegesis, its its accent on direct stimulation.” And we find something similar with the animated GIF, which was picked up and celebrated by visual artists for its affective immediacy and its vulgar populism long before it became a fixture of mainstream cultural expression.

Like informational GIFs, artist’s GIFs typically to operate on the terms of the spectacular — here in the service, theoretically at least, of novel modes of seeing and feeling. Owing partly to this tendency, and partly to trends in media studies, this affective dimension of GIFs has been seized upon by an ever-growing number of commentators on GIF art.


GIF by artist Lorna Mills, 2015

Whether uploaded anonymously to imgur or produced by a media team at a major newspaper, popular animated GIFs travel across spaces that are heterogenous in both form and social composition, like the vaudeville houses that were the most common home for the cinema of attractions. Their meaning is made in circulation rather than in their construction; it is a medium to be deployed rather than consumed. The effort to reverse this process and fix authorship and context is what distinguishes an artist’s GIF from the rest.


Dolly Parton GIF

References to early cinema, however, quickly confront their own limitations in explaining the animated GIF. Gunning argued that the cinema of attractions was rooted in a celebration of film’s then-awesome “ability to show something.” Circulating in an ecology overrun with moving images, the animated GIF draws no charge from its ability to simulate the world in motion.

Rather, the force from which animated GIFs take their power is the explosion of communicative styles made possible on the social web. Mostly shared between individuals against the backdrop of some larger audience, the kind of animated GIFs that have drawn the most attention are reaction GIFs, those used conversationally, or in direct response to some other image or text. The essential innovation the medium represents happens not on the level of information or aesthetics, but on that of rhetoric.


Example of a “happy” reaction GIF

With limited power to persuade or demonstrate, the animated GIF’s rhetoric is primarily epideictic. GIFs form the primary figures for the encomia of signal boosting and the vituperations of call-out culture. Reaction GIFs and their relatives overwhelmingly function as glib dismissals, enthusiastic assents, or loud expressions of incomprehension, designed to appeal to audience presumed to already agree with the GIF user’s premises and prejudices.

In this light, the emphasis commentators have placed on the affect of animated GIFs obscures more than it reveals. Affect is understood as precognitive and non-discursive. As Brian Massumi has put it: “the primacy of the affective is marked by a gap between content and effect.” But the most frequently used animated GIFs are those whose content and effect are almost perfectly contiguous, the form doggedly telegraphing its discursive content. More often than not, the affect of the animated GIF is an unmysterious, instrumentalized one.

The loop is the primary source of both the animated GIF’s affective power and its rhetorical limitations. With the exception of artisanal elaborations on the form, like seamless GIFs and so-called cinemagrams, the animated GIF loops in a crude, jerky manner, foregrounding the act of repetition itself, producing an insistent, stupefying effect. This type of ceaseless repetition is not intended to produce the transcendent states we associate with other kinds of minimalist aesthetic repetition, but acts as a cudgel, underlining and infinitely extending the already straightforward message the GIF carries. It is no accident that many of the most recognizable reaction GIFs enact a kind of self-demonstrating nihilism.


Nihilism in GIF’s

This kind of tribal, snarky, and renunciatory rhetoric predominates throughout a great deal of the web’s discursive spheres, in countless forms, both visual and textual. The reasons for this are complex and contested, but one worth dwelling on here is the “theory of pundit war” sketched by Gavin Mueller in a recent blog post, which locates some of the character of social media feuding in the ongoing deprofessionalization of journalism.

A 2013 New York Times profile gives us a particularly extreme portrait of the demands made by the effort to maintain some kind of career in online media, in the form of a full-time GIF producer: Deadspin contributor Tim Burke:

He works from home here, in what his colleagues call the “Burke-puter,” for its seamless integration of man and machine. It is less an office than an organism: a flashing, beeping, glowing, thrumming assault of screens, wires, remotes, tuners, phones, receivers, computers and general electronic effluvia wrapped around a person (“the monitor situation up there is insane,” said Burke’s wife, Lynn Hurtak.). Burke sits here alone in the dark day after day, for about 100 hours a week, watching dozens of sports events simultaneously…“I am not able to do many other things,” Burke said of his life in general.

Burke is something of an oddity as a GIF professional. Most GIFs, even the ones generating profit (or at least investment) for Giphy and Buzzfeed, are the vernacular creations of hobbyists. But most of those hobbyists have jobs too, many of which increasingly make the kinds of practical and psychic demands of Burke’s and offer far less compensatory satisfaction or acclaim.

The situation that Mueller describes does not apply only to those who have or seek careers in media, but to anyone who uses the social networks where discourses and information flows are guided by such people. As quotidian self-presentation becomes more widely public — searchable and permanent — people come more and more to comport themselves like media professionals. After all, their self-fashioning is creating surplus value for the owners of media networks.

More than a singular medium, the animated GIF is one of the tools by which social media users seek tribes and distinguish themselves. It loops endlessly because of a series of contingent technological decisions made at different corporations in the 1980s and 90s. But it is not technology that made the signal medium of our time one that repeats endlessly, never changing, telling us the same thing again and again and demanding a response it will neither heed nor acknowledge.


Lenin says “Deal with it,” endlessly

*This article originated as a paper presented at “Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture,” a conference held at Hunter College, City University of New York, November 7-9, 2014.

Image Credits:
1. Shut Up Nerd
2. Grumpy Cat
3. Early Animated gif
4. Intervene Racist
5. News Bite
6. Early Cinema
7. Lorna Mills
8. Infinite Dolly
9. Reaction: Happy
10. LOL Nothing Matters
11. Lenin says Deal with It

Teach-Ins and Twitter
Michael Newman / University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

teach-in against the Vietnam War, 1965

Vietnam War era Teach-in, March 1965.

The first teach-in was held at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1965, and the -in came from the sit-ins at lunch counters and other segregated public places in the 1950s and 60s where African-Americans demanded equality. It was organized by professors who gathered up members of the campus community to protest the Vietnam War by teaching about the conflict, an alternative to a work stoppage. A teach-in was to be “a shrewd means of energizing the university without disrupting it.” (( Charles DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1990), 108. )) The overnight event was attended by thousands of students and hundreds of professors. It was covered in the national news.

Many more teach-ins were staged on college campuses during these tumultuous years when universities were at the center of movements for social justice and New Left politics. They were thought to make many students who had not been paying much attention to foreign affairs conscious of America’s involvement in Vietnam. A teach-in at Berkeley attracted as many as 30,000 participants (such estimates being contentious) and was a bona fide media event, with folk singers and well-known figures like Dr. Benjamin Spock and Norman Mailer. It was broadcast on the radio. There were also pro-war teach-ins, but whatever ideas were conveyed, the key purpose of a teach-in was nonviolent demonstration through pedagogy, building a platform for public intellectual discourse. Faculty and students along with members of the public could engage politically within the space of the university, and the university gave legitimacy to dissent over the war.

One statement at a 1965 teach-in provoked a huge controversy over academic freedom and political speech. Eugene D. Genovese, a history professor at Rutgers University, spoke these words at a teach-in on his campus: “Those of you who know me know that I am a Marxist and a Socialist. Therefore, unlike most of my distinguished colleagues here this morning, I do not fear or regret the impending Viet Cong victory in Vietnam. I welcome it.” This was quoted in the papers, and became an issue in the New Jersey gubernatorial race when the challenger called on the sitting governor to fire Prof. Genovese. In this instance, the academic freedom of an outspoken critic was protected when Rutgers’ president and Board of Governors took no action against him.

Teach-ins have not been common for several generations, but the engagement of university students and faculty in political debate perseveres, and in some ways it has a more public presence than it ever did. As they have for years, critical scholars speak publicly, appear on television and radio, and write for mainstream media outlets. But few platforms have the real-time immediacy of twitter, or its potential to become the grounds for controversy. Twitter is a polarizing medium. Its ardent users really get it, and use it in ways that outsiders find irritating, confounding, or nonsensical. Twitter is many things for many people, but one way it is being used is very similar to the teach-ins of the 1960s. It is a platform for academics’ social and political criticism, with an often broader potential for spreading dissent than can be contained in a campus auditorium. But the same public soapbox that twitter represents as a place for critical opinion, commentary, and information is also a bright potential target for the outrage machines seeking offending statements to call out.

The most famous case of this is Steven Salaita, and the tweets at the middle of his ordeal are, like the statements of the Vietnam protests, about a war that should be of concern to all Americans. The Israel-Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014 may have shed no American blood, but our government’s policies in the Middle East mean that we are never disinterested bystanders to clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. Salaita, who was hired to teach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign beginning in Fall 2014, tweeted passionately and with great urgency and anger about a catastrophic Israeli military assault. (( Some of these tweets are collected here. )) Salaita was “unhired” during the summer of 2014 as a consequence of his tweets on the war and Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and his legal action against the university is ongoing.

He is not the only scholar whose tweeted statements on matters of public concern have drawn chilling responses from right-wing media as well as campus leaders. Saida Grundy, recently hired to teach at Boston University, faced conservative outrage over tweets she wrote about racial politics and American history, particularly for calling out white people. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was similarly targeted for a tweet describing a conversation with her grandfather, who saw similarities between our Governor Walker and Adolph Hitler, and calling Walker and Republican lawmakers fascists, as well as tweets at undergraduates about the situation in the UW System suffering cuts and changes to tenure and shared governance. It can hardly be random that those singled out for their critical, so-called offensive views are often women and people of color.

Twitter seems to invite clashes of contexts, and as a platform for dissent and public pedagogy, it has clear virtues and limitations. To members of a community within the world of twitter, who engage with one another on a regular basis and share each other’s codes and references, twitter can sustain remarkably vigorous discussion and debate. The short character limit is a constraint (though it also makes for succinct writing), but detractors often miss the crucial point that you can tweet more than once. Twitter is a constant flow of ideas among communities just as much as it is a collection of very brief expressions by individuals. It’s also a medium typically used for conversation rather than polished, edited prose. To outsiders, however, tweets are easily excerpted from the flow, abstracted from their context, and run up the flagpole as banners of transgression. They said WHAT!? Because twitter is so public, and tweets are so easy to quote and embed in stories, the public intellectuals using it are taking huge risks. This isn’t always good for movements critical of the current power structures, and yet it does help to spread a message. The potential for public pedagogy in scholarly tweets is promising but there can be unreasonable costs.

And these costs can only be managed if our universities rededicate themselves to the fundamental values of shared governance and academic freedom. If only the leadership of the University of Illinois in 2014 had shown the same judgment as the Rutgers administrators and Governors in 1965. Much has changed since then, but one undeniable factor has to be the shrinking investment of the state in public education, and the privatization and corporatization of academe. The influence of pro-Israel donors on the UIUC administration and the Board of Trustees was undoubtedly a cause of Salaita’s unhiring.

My own University of Wisconsin System — where I earned two degrees and have taught for 18 years — has been one prominent example of a public institution weakening its academic freedom protections as its transforms from a thriving public trust into a corporatized and privatized shadow of itself. To be nimble, flexible, efficient, etc., our masters in state government, abetted by a friendly Board of Regents appointed by a very conservative governor, have dramatically diminished the faculty’s rights. In place of the nation’s strongest tenure and shared governance protections enshrined in state statute we have new conditions wherein layoffs can be made in the event of academic program changes imposed from on high. This weakening of our position might seem disconnected from the contemporaneous outrages over Salaita and other outspoken tweeting profs. They are actually part of the same political process of curtailment of the freedom to do critical or controversial work in higher education. Who on a UW System campus will feel free to speak out against an Israeli (or American) war, or will sustain research programs on stem cells or climate change, or will have confidence to criticize an administration’s complicity in shifting the costs of education from the public to the individual? Why would we feel confident that administrators will protect us?

Under current conditions, all kinds of pedagogy are under threat — our work in the traditional classroom as well as the public discourse of blogs, tweets, Facebook updates, Chronicle columns, and whatever else we do to share our knowledge and insight online or off. A real university needs not just to tolerate but to incubate critical, unpopular, and controversial ideas. The teach-ins of the 21st Century, whatever forms they assume, will need the freedom even to outrage.

Image Credits:
1. Vietnam War era Teach-in, March 1965.

Please feel free to comment.

Your Tumblr Makes Me Want To Study: Thoughts about the studyblr community Jacqueline Ryan Vickery / University of North Texas

photo from my study spot

Photo from “My Study Spot”

Crafty images. Elaborately color-coded notes. Artistic mindmaps. Enticing mugs of coffee. Dreamy scenes of picnic blankets, laptops, and books. Image after image of Pinterest-worthy study spaces, notes, office supplies, and books. Welcome to the world of “studyblr” – a genre of Tumblr blogs dedicated to publicly sharing your private study habits and techniques. The blogs appear to be mostly authored by high school girls and college-aged women. It is clear that a lot of effort goes into making notes and study spaces look pretty, as well as the photos themselves, which often have a creative and artistic aspect to them. These blogs have propelled the art of studying to an interesting space and found community in the process. At a time when young people’s online practices continue to attract panic, judgment, and concern, it is refreshing to pay attention to the positive ways young people – and particularly girls and young women – also use online tools and spaces.

Admittedly, I have only begun to scratch the surface of the study blog world. In conjunction with Flow’s mission of generating “think pieces”, I want to offer some initial reactions to the practice of “studyblr” blogs and attempt to contextualize them with other online and youth spaces and discourses. These observations are intended to be conversation starters and hopefully open up spaces for deeper critical and empirical areas of research.

1. Feminized Space

The studyblrs are both feminized and feminist. The creative Pinterest-worthy craftiness of the photos, study notes, and study spaces, serve to feminize the look and feel of the blogs. And indeed, many of the blog names indicate they are authored by female bloggers (i.e. they include words like “girl” and “queen” or include female names in the title). There is a certain aesthetic that is recognized across many of the blogs. As one young woman explained it to me, “I don’t believe there is a pressure to post pretty pictures…but I feel there is a self-motivated, unspoken standard for those that post.” The photos, as well as the notes and study guides themselves are decorative, creative, and artistic. There are tips on organizing – and decorating – your notes.

planner from Let's Study XOXO guide to illustrating study notes

L: Planner from “Let’s Study XO” R: Guide to illustrating your study notes by 18 year-old Emily at “Revise or Die”

In fact, it may be surprising the extent to which the bloggers tend to rely on hand-written paper notes, highlighters, physical books, and tangible day planners as opposed to typed notes, digital calendars, and virtual sticky notes. I’m merely speculating here, but much of the appeal of the blogs lies in the tangibility, and therefore craftiness, of their organizational skills. Crafty and tangible notes, planners, and systems afford opportunities for creative photos, which is the basis of the blog posts. While I have no doubt many young people prefer digital organizers and e-books etc., this particular community seemingly attracts crafty and artistic (and talented) individuals. The medium is visual and that becomes part of the appeal and feminization of the space itself.

2. Feminist Space

The questions, advice, and answers are overwhelmingly supportive. When I first started exploring the space, I was concerned that the performative nature of “showing off” your study habits and techniques might be self-serving, rather than function as part of a participatory and motivational community. However, as is often the nature of Tumblr, the space provides a community for support and motivation. As writer Katie Welsh speculated, “Studyblrs are one of the few places online that teenage girls and young women aren’t being judged on their appearance. Spend enough time scrolling through the tag and you’ll find a community that cares less about grades and more about working hard for an uncertain future.” I would add, in addition, the “uncertain future” is about what a young woman can achieve, rather than who a young woman can attain. There exist a plethora of online forums, blogs, magazines, etc. dedicated to helping girls “improve themselves” in order to be “more desirable”. However, studyblrs are not about physical appearance, sexuality, or bettering oneself to gain entry into “appropriate” dating rituals and spaces, but about enhancing academic and intellectual goals.

Aim for the A+

Bella from Aim for the A+ encourages working out even when busy studying

The blogs include tips and advice about studying, planning, and organizing, but are also interspersed with information about self-care – such as getting enough sleep, hotlines for depression and self-harm, tips for combatting insomnia, ways to manage stress, and information about fitness and nutrition. In other words, while the focus is on studying (and hopefully by extension achieving good grades), the blogs provide a space that support students’ academic life alongside their overall well-being.

caffeinated files

Photo from “The Caffeinated Files”

3. Private/Public Accountability

Studyblrs exist in a networked public that blurs boundaries of public and private. Typically studying is considered a rather private behavior and habit. However, by sharing tips, strategies, and advice online (accompanied with a pretty picture), private practices are made more visible. In a world where girls’ selfies are often dismissed or even pathologized as “narcissist” and “vain” and “psychopathic” (as is just about anything made popular by a teenage girl), studyblrs make visible other private aspects of teens’ – and more specifically girls’ – lives. Studyblrs are agentive spaces in which private practices are made visible and young people find a supportive community and motivation for studying. While the blogs look really pretty, they are also full of actual study advice and tips intended to be helpful.

seizing the day and enjoying the trip

Photo from “Seizing the Day and Enjoying the Trip”. The caption reads: “Studying for my physics quiz tomorrow. Physics isn’t my best subject, but I will do my best!”

For example, the 21 year-old college student of the studyblr “Student Juggler” shares tools such as the ClearFocus app that helps structure study time and breaks (e.g. work for 20 min, take a 10 minute break, repeat 5 times). She writes, “Working this way helps me keep track of my time…It helped me finish my work quicker than I’m used to. Something to do with a 25 minute countdown timer, and my screen looking down upon me for not doing my work.” She encourages others to check it out.

studious brunette

Annotations of the Kite Runner from Rose’s studyblr “Studious Brunette”

The visibility of the space provides motivation and accountability for studying, as well as setting and accomplishing goals. As Cindy, a college freshman, explained it to me:

I think it’s similar to the idea of telling your friends you want to lose weight or stop smoking before you embark on the challenge so they can keep you accountable. If they announce it to the world, perhaps that serves as a motivation for them to get those grades or work hard on their applications since there is proof out there that they are actively trying. While when you’re working towards something without telling others, it’s easier to save face when you fail, and as a result, you may fear failing less and may not try as hard.

4. Learning to Learn

Research indicates that out-of-school and informal learning is often out of sync with traditional, formal, in-school learning. This gap can lead to frustration (from teachers, students, and parents), as well as missed opportunities. There is a lot of focus right now on the ways that schools and educational institutions should and can validate and incorporate students’ out-of-school interests, identities, and practices into more formal schooling. Research has found that interest-driven and peer-to-peer mentoring can be valuable opportunities for young people to learn. What I find fascinating about this genre of Tumblr, is the extent to which young people are not just “showing off” their study skills as a mechanism for validation (which is certainly part of it), but are actually helping each other foster creative and effective study habits.

printable study guides

Printable study guides designed by “The Organized Student”

One studyblr, “The Organized Student” run by 20 year-old Ellen, even includes downloadable printable study organizers that she has developed for herself. She shares them on her site as a way to help others get organized. The printables include templates for organizing your day or week, as well as templates for outlining essays and mapping out larger study goals. She has a long Q&A section in which others ask her for tips and her advice is sound. For example, someone asked her how to find motivation to complete homework while on holiday. Ellen responded:

how about setting yourself a schedule? having something to follow will help with your motivation? also, try and study in a new space, because if you’re at home and you don’t usually associate that place with studying then it will be much harder to do homework there xo.

She also has detailed tips for annotating books, organizing a schedule, revising notes, ways to manage time, and practical tips such as “make sure you know where your professor’s office is, just in case you want to have a face-to-face discussion on something you need further help in.” She encourages her readers to ask for feedback when they do not get the grade they wanted and reminds them that learning, studying, and organizing are all processes and take time. The advice focuses on organization, study spaces, stress, and practical tips such as, “Don’t waste your time making flash cards for something you already know, focus on what you still need to learn.”

black coffee and highlighters

Photo from 17 year-old’s studyblr “Black Coffee and Highlighters”

Going back to the point that studying is often considered a private behavior, the publicness helps students teach each other to study – something students need help with. It is often taken for granted that students know how to learn, when in fact, it is a skill (art, craft?) that must be practiced and honed continually. I really appreciate this space for not focusing on particular topics (although those exist), but that the focus is on learning how to learn and study. While schools experiment and struggle to find ways to incorporate peer-to-peer collaborative learning, this community exemplifies the advantages to informal, peer-driven, and out-of-school learning that is facilitated via networked publics. I think there is a lot of potential here for parents and educators to learn from this organic, ground-up, student-driven learning space that bridges formal and informal education in some very interesting and intriguing ways. Informal learning spaces have been studied a lot (and continue to be), but what stands out here is that this practice is both interest-driven and academic/school-driven. It requires us to further question presumed boundaries between in and out of school learning and collaboration.

As noted, I am barely scratching the surface of these spaces, but they offer interesting insight into communities of practice, pedagogy, and discourse of learning. As I continue to read and critically analyze the practice and spaces, I would appreciate insight and thoughts from Flow readers.

Beyond Privacy: Concerns about social surveillance
Jacqueline Ryan Vickery / University of North Texas

You're Fired

When is it okay to fire someone because of social media?

Each semester I teach courses on digital media, which means each semester I discuss issues of online privacy with college students. While their concerns and practices have evolved over the course of these conversations, one privacy issue keeps emerging as increasingly concerning to them: (future) employers’ use of the internet to find information about them. While the internet can be a great tool for networking and promoting one’s work etc., it can also lead to unwanted discoveries and misinterpretations. It seems almost every week I read yet another news story about someone being fired for something they said online. To a certain extent, some of these firings seem justified, as might be the case if an employee discusses something that explicitly violates company policies of disclosure or conduct. However, in far too many instances, the firings bring up questions of ethics, privacy, identity expression, and work-life boundaries that make me, and my students, increasingly uncomfortable.

Take for example, the Ohio elementary school teacher who posted pictures of live animals in crates on his Facebook account. He is a vegan and was trying to raise awareness about the inhumane treatment of many farm animals. This is quite clearly a personal value that does not disgrace the school, nor present him as an unacceptable role model for students. Yet, he was fired for expressing his vegan values. The reason? His school was in a rural area of Ohio, one in which many of his students’ families earned their income from farming. He was told he, “might offend the community and the economic interests of the community…if [he] wanted to be a strong vegan advocate, [he] might want to look into something other than teaching.” Nevermind that he was offended by the unethical treatment of animals, his potential to offend others (and threaten their economic interests) was deemed more important that his right to express himself online. To me, the school infringed upon the teacher’s right to his own beliefs and the right to freely express those beliefs in a personal space. What this example highlights (and it is only one of many, many, more like it) is that the ways in which employers are surveilling employees’ online profiles is just as much about identity and speech as It is privacy. Really, it’s about constructing particular subjectivities that are valued in the workforce, even at the cost of other subject positions and identities.

teacher fired for facebook photo

A teacher/girls’ basketball coach in Idaho posted this photo of her fiancé (the school’s football coach) and herself on summer vacation. She was fired (three months after posting the photo), he was only reprimanded.

Far too often, conversations about employers’ use of digital media to monitor employees get thrown into the camp of “well, just be careful about what you put online.” In other words, don’t be stupid about what you share with your employer and you’ll be fine. Similar to my earlier Flow column regarding sexting and Snapchat, I believe this rhetoric falsely presumes that we are the only ones responsible for our own privacy and that we have complete control over privacy. It reduces a complicated issue – identity expression and speech – to an issue of mere individual responsibility, and thus dismisses the questions of ethics and boundaries all together. What the Ohio teacher example reveals is the extent to which we are being disciplined to think of our online identities – and therefore our subjectivities – first and foremost in terms of workers. Arguably the Ohio teacher did not do anything patently offensive, did not bring shame or harm upon the school or his students, and in all likelihood thought he was “being smart” about what he posted. Yet, in essence what the school fired him for was for expressing beliefs that were in contrast to those of his work environment. That’s it. And that’s scary.

Computers and internet-enabled technologies have been constructed as “boundary-crossing” technologies (( Abril, P.S., Levin, A., and Del Riego, A. (2012). Blurred boundaries: social media privacy and the twenty-first-century employee. American Business Law Journal, 49(1), pp. 63-124. )) that permeate and blur the boundaries of personal and work life. Such technologies have led to a variety of legal issues, such as, when can an employer view files on a company-owned laptop that the employee also takes home? Can an employer access text messages sent outside of work hours if the employee’s mobile service is paid for by the employer? Can employees have any expectations of privacy when accessing personal email at work? Such issues have been addressed in court to varying degrees. At the heart of the issues is the fact that telecommunication technologies allow for our personal lives to be increasingly visible and accessible at work, and of course that means it is increasingly possible for work to invade our personal spaces and time as well (e.g. how many of us check work email from home and “off the clock” on a daily basis?).

social media survey infographic

Findings from a survey conducted by the social network monitoring company, Reppler. Note the frequency that online information is used to hurt the employer’s perception of the employee.

Thus, the use of social media becomes just the latest iteration of slippery legal and ethical questions we must consider, questions that require us to re-think boundaries between personal and work life. Certainly a lot of employees create and maintain accounts on social media prior to being hired, they use them to connect with individuals outside of work, and often think of them as personal and private spaces. Even though employees may know their employers may have some access to the accounts, that doesn’t negate the fact that we still tend to think of our social media profiles as personal spaces for expression and connections. Research demonstrates that social networking sites are useful in helping us maintain latent and weak ties, and to acquire emotional and social capital. (( Ellison, N.B., Steinfield, C., and Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook ‘friends’: social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12(4), pp. 1143-1168. )) There are a lot of uses, motivations, and benefits of participating in social media that have little to nothing to do with our roles as workers in the marketplace.

Likewise, the internet has been heralded as a tool for democracy that allows underrepresented or misrepresented populations to express their opinions and experiences. (( See Rheingold, H. (2002). Smart Mobs. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books; Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody. New York: Penguin Press. )) While we know that there are limitations and deep-seeded systematic inequalities that cannot be easily eradicated via the internet, it does nonetheless provide spaces for marginalized populations to potentially network, build community, organize, and foster change. (( See Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture. Digital Media & Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.; McChesney, R. (2012). Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism turned the Internet against Democracy. New York: The New Press. )) However, such opportunities are likely to be stifled when we are disciplined to first and foremost think of ourselves in terms of (potential) employees. Within a neoliberal context, we are being disciplined to use online spaces as sites to invest in our “human capital”. (( Foucault, M. (2008). The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. )) Thus, I think it is imperative we ask: what are we sacrificing and what is the cost (to ourselves and to society) when we must not only police what we share and say in online spaces out of fear of being fired for personal activities, but when we must also think about how our personal values could potentially hurt our reputation in the workforce (even when they do not intersect with our job descriptions)?

Furthermore, the extent to which individuals must invest in their “good worker” identities (i.e. ability to capitalize on their skills, qualifications, qualities, etc.) becomes even more problematic when we take into consideration the literacies and skillsets necessary to intentionally construct positive online identities (as are interpreted by the marketplace). Research reveals that some individuals are better prepared and equipped to participate in such ways, as compared to others. Knowingly constructing an “acceptable” online identity involves not only technical access and competencies, but also an understanding of social and network literacies that some individuals have not developed, (( See Arthur, J. and Davinson, J. (2000). Social Literacy and Citizenship Education in the School Curriculum. The Curriculum Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 9-23.; Miles, A. (2007). Network Literacy: The New Path to Knowledge. Screen Education Autumn.45, pp. 24-30. )) nor do employees and employers necessarily share the same culturally contextualized understandings of these spaces and identities.

social media preferences survey infographic

Findings from a survey conducted by the social network monitoring company, Reppler. Notice employers tend to prefer personal/social sites over LinkedIn (a space intended for professional networking and use).

To return to the concerns expressed by the college students in my classroom, here’s what I’m seeing – to a certain degree they are hyper aware of online privacy concerns; they know not to post pictures of red Solo cups, they know that even a cigarette might be mistaken for a joint, they know better than to be blatantly racist or homophobic. In other words, they’re trying to do all the “right” things online so they can get jobs. But what I’m hearing is that they are so afraid of something being taken out of context – an offhand joke between friends – or that their sexual or religious or political identities might be used against them, that some are opting out of online social networking almost all together. There’s a reason they are using private Instagram accounts, ephemeral Snapcaht apps, and anonymous Tumblrs – these sites are disconnected from any sort of public online profile or community. On the one hand, these are effective strategies that afford greater privacy and therefore more freedom of expression. But, we also know that social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are good at maintaining weak ties with those who aren’t in our immediate social circles. (( Steinfield, C., Ellison, N.B., and Lampe, C. (2008). Social capital, self-esteem, and use of online social network sites: a longitudinal analysis. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(6), pp. 434-445. )) Weak ties are valuable for exposure to diverse ideas, for getting jobs, and expanding opportunities. When students opt out of the more diverse and open “networked publics” for the more insular and private forms of interpersonal communication, what is lost?

Lastly, I’ve been primarily discussing this in the context of middle-class jobs and middle class employees. But how do these issues become even more important when we think about minimum wage jobs and nondominant populations? Low-income workers are often subjected to greater surveillance, (( Gilliom, J. (2001). Overseers of the Poor. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. )) for example, as evidenced by drug testing for minimum wage jobs (but not white-collar jobs). Additionally, many nondominant populations may not have the digital and social literacies required to protect their privacy and construct “good” online identities. We should be concerned that employee surveillance further exasperates inequalities. Who is being monitored, in what ways, for what purposes? How much transparency is there? To what extent should employers at the very least inform employees that they are being searched and monitored? What about individuals who opt out of online networks all together? Or those who have really common names that can lead to mistaken identities or guilt by algorithmic association? Or those who have adolescent mistakes in their past they would like to cover up and move on from? Or what about nondominant expressions of cultural capital that are ripe for misinterpretation from those who benefit from and maintain the status quo? (( See Carter, Prudence. (2007). Keepin’ It Real: School Success Beyond Black and White. New York: Oxford University Press. )) And, of course we can’t overlook the opportunities for blatant discrimination based on age, sex, ethnicity, and religion. While these are legally protected categories, we know that in practice it is all too easy for an employer to ascertain this information online. And we cannot forget that there are still 29 states in the U.S. in which it is legal to fire someone for being gay (an identity no one should have to hide, and yet social media often renders visible and thus open to discrimination).

2012 Gartner study

Suggested policies for employee monitoring (Gartner Inc.).

These are all legitimate privacy concerns, and thankfully some are starting to be addressed in legal literature. (( See Abril, P.S., Levin, A., and Del Riego, A. (2012). Blurred boundaries: social media privacy and the twenty-first-century employee. American Business Law Journal, 49(1), pp. 63-124.; Kane, B. (2010). Balancing anonymity, popularity and micro-celebrity: the crossroads of social networking & privacy. 20 Alb. L.J. Sci. & Tech. 327. ; Strutin, K. (2011). Social media and the vanishing points of ethical and Constitutional boundaries. Pace Law Review, 31(1), article 6. )) But what I’m also increasingly concerned about are the unintended consequences that extend beyond explicit questions of privacy in and of itself. I worry that these modes of surveillance have the potential to chill speech, further silence marginalized identities and experiences, and hinder opportunities for individuals to invest in and acquire other kinds of capital (such as social, emotional, and political). The effects of employee monitoring serve to discipline individuals into modes of self-regulation that have potentially detrimental effects and consequences that far exceed blatant discriminatory hiring/firing practices. Thus, we need to think deeply and critically about how privacy laws and norms must evolve to take into consideration not only expectations of privacy, but also the detrimental consequences surveillance has on other areas of online and offline life and society. And lastly, we need to know who is most likely to be harmed by these practices. My concern is that not all populations are equally affected by increasing modes of online surveillance, thus as researchers we must continue to conduct in-depth, empirical, critical, and diverse research into such questions.

*Author’s note: This article is very much a work-in-progress as I am beginning a much larger empirical study into these questions. I would greatly appreciate any advice and feedback about the direction the research should take.