Follow their interests: the theory and ethnography of microblogging as a protest practice
Paper to the #IR13 Conference, Salford University, UK
Session 050: Ethnographies of Online and Mobile Media Today
21 October 2012
Dr John Postill, RMIT University
Slide notes [see also PDF]
Twitter’s 2011 tagline “Follow your interests” captured how this platform allows its users to keep track of people and issues that matter to them. This key affordance (mediated through devices such as hashtags, tweets or lists) mirrors an old ethnographic maxim: “Follow their interests”, i.e. the interests of your research participants (and see what happens next).
In this paper I draw from fieldwork on social media and activism in Spain to explore the possibilities and challenges of doing ethnographic research on microblogging. I build on my previous work on practice theory and field theory to consider microblogging as an ‘inter-field practice’ – in this case a protest practice. To keep it concise, I discuss only three sub-practices or ‘games’ activists play, which I call ‘playing the algorithm’, ‘gathering the #facts’ and ‘tweeting the nation’.
In my co-edited volume Theorising Media and Practice (2010), the media scholar Nick Couldry wonders whether certain powerful media practices can be said to ‘anchor’ other social practices. If so, he adds, how can we go about finding out?
This metaphor of some practices anchoring others is intriguing, but I don’t think it travels well to the forward-looking world of activism. Looking back at the trajectory of Spain’s leading activists over the past two years, I see microblogging for activism as a cutting-edge, disruptive boundary practice rather than as an anchor.
Anchor, of course, suggests immobility. Instead, what we need is more dynamic metaphors for this kind of research. I would therefore suggest that microblogging spearheads socio-political change, it doesn’t merely report it. Or to use a similar metaphor, a protest field resembles an arrow, not a body of water.
A bit of background to my argument. In the summer of 2010 I took up a research post at Manuel Castells’ internet research institute IN3, in Barcelona. My aim was to find out what local activists were doing with social media, if anything. I didn’t expect the #SpanishRevolution, certainly not in Catalonia (of all places).
By October I was immersed in Barcelona’s thriving internet freedom scene. Just before Christmas, net freedom fighters organized a massive online mobilization against a digital piracy bill that the Spanish government was trying to pass on the quiet under US pressure, as revealed by WikiLeaks.
The protestors managed to delay the bill, but when it was finally passed, this led to the birth of #nolesvotes (meaning: don’t vote for them, that is, for any of the major political parties), which soon joined other platforms, including Anonymous, to become the Indignados or 15-M movement.
There are two intersecting frameworks of analysis to the approach that I’m proposing here:
First, we must find some way of modelling the social media landscape, as well as the broader communicative landscape where it is embedded at a particular time and place, for example, Spain in 2010 and 2011 (this basic diagram gives some idea of the complexity involved).
Again we want to add dynamism to our model, so a diachronic ethnography is required. It’s also important to disaggregate the various platforms into their main technologies, practices, agents and so on. Here a plural approach to practices is useful, as it allows the ethnographer to identify specific practices both within and across sites as fieldwork unfolds, but without assuming any prior taxonomy of practices.
The second intersecting framework that I’m using here is the notion of protest field. Contrary to received wisdom, the concept of field is not a Bourdieu exclusive (Postill forthcoming). In my monograph Localizing the Internet (Postill 2011) I develop the concept of field by drawing not only from Bourdieu but also from earlier work by the Manchester School of anthropology whose members applied this notion not to fields of cultural production but rather to volatile and migratory political conflicts.
Adapting Crossley (2003), I define Spain’s Indignados movement as a protest field in which unequally positioned human agents (including geeks, hackers, bloggers, celebrities, politicians, and the police) compete, cooperate and clash across an array of shifting arenas – often via Twitter and other web platforms.
Social theorists have compared fields to games. Yet unlike a game of chess with its fixed rules, powerful field ‘players’ will also struggle over the definition of what counts as ‘the stakes in the field’ (Prior 2008: 305).
I now turn to three of the numerous field games that I played with research participants. They all involve microblogging.
First, let me introduce a game we could call ‘playing the algorithm’. A crucial element of the strategy during the build-up to the 15 May protests against Spain’s ruling class was to make the campaign a regular occurrence on Twitter’s ‘trending’ topics. Knowing that Twitter’s trending algorithm favours novelty over sheer volume (Cullum 2010), the field’s unofficial leaders succeeded by frequently changing the campaign keywords and encouraging followers to retweet the newly agreed hashtag (keyword) so that it would ‘trend’, thereby reaching a much wider audience.
This was a game played on Twitter, but prepared on less visible platforms as well as offline, for example, at face-to-face meetings organised via Facebook.
A second game played by Spanish activists and other field agents is ‘gathering the #facts’. This newish Twitter game is a modification of the now classic internet game that grew around the actor Chuck Norris, under the rubric ‘Chuck Norris facts’. As most of you will know, the game consists of sharing made-up ‘facts’ portraying Norris as ‘a tough, all-powerful super-being’ (Wikipedia 2012). Since 2005, this subgenre has spawned countless variants around the world and been applied to many other celebrities and public figures.
The Twitter version of the game turns the phrase into a hashtag. For instance, in late December 2010, the Spanish pop star Alejandro Sanz tweeted: “Spanish politicians are such cowards, they’re not going to vote for the new bill safeguarding intellectual property” (my translation). This single tweet triggered a huge wave of indignation channelled through the Spanglish hashtag #alejandrosanzfacts, with tweets ranging from the humorous to the factual via the outright insulting.
The point to be made here is that the protest field can instantly expand to swallow up an unsuspecting microblogger who is then hurled into a turbulent sphere of discursive action over which they can have little or no control. (By the same token, the field can contract equally as fast).
My third and final example of a field subpractice or game is ‘tweeting the nation’.
Taking the game metaphor one step further, highly participatory protest fields such as the Indignados (or its spin-off, the Occupy movement) can be likened to real-time strategy computer games. James Gee (2005) argues that the notion of ‘communities of practice‘ (Wenger 1998) can’t help us with new forms of digital sociality that do not entail group membership or a sense of belonging. Instead of communities of practice he proposes the notion of ‘affinity spaces’.
These are spaces in which people from a variety of backgrounds come together to pursue a common endeavour. Gee’s epitome of an affinity space is the strategy game Age of Mythology (AoM) – a plural world in which the common endeavour of playing and transforming the game takes precedence over questions of racial, class or gender identity; a world with various routes to participation, leadership and status and where different kinds of knowledge are fostered and valued.
Within the vast Indignados affinity space, microblogging about the state of the nation is but one social game participants play. The topics can range widely from ‘serious’ discussions about political corruption to more light-hearted threads on the King of Spain’s elephant hunting escapades in Botswana, but the net effect is to reinforce the country’s political and cultural boundaries. Spain is no ‘imagined community’, oh no – it is very much a lived-in world, a world inhabited and updated in real time.
At this point in the discussion, you may think that I have fallen into the old urban anthropology trap of searching for a cozy ‘urban village’ to seek refuge from an ever expanding, hopelessly complex social landscape.
My response is as follows. Yes, there is always the temptation when working in a complex internet or urban environment to head for the safety of a single platform or neighbourhood and call it your adopted ‘community’ (Postill 2008). However, what I’m advocating here is rather different. I am suggesting that we track the practice of microblogging as it enters the contact zone where different fields of practice and action overlap and collide. Adapting Panofsky (2011) who’s conducted research on the ‘inter-field’ of behaviour genetics, we could define microblogging as an ‘inter-field practice’ that takes place at the intersection of different public fields but can also help to redraw their boundaries under certain field conditions.
To recap, I started by saying that Twitter’s former tagline “Follow your interests” captures how this platform allows its users to keep track of people and issues that matter to them. This key affordance (mediated through devices such as hashtags, tweets or lists) mirrors an old ethnographic maxim: “Follow their interests”, i.e. the interests of your research participants.
In this paper I have drawn from fieldwork on social media and activism in Spain to explore some of the challenges of doing ethnographic research on microblogging. To keep things manageable, I limited the discussion to three sub-practices or ‘games’, which I called ‘playing the algorithm’, ‘gathering the #facts’ and ‘tweeting the nation’.
Couldry, N. 2010. ‘Theorising Media as Practice’ in B. Bräuchler and J. Postill (eds), Theorising Media and Practice, Oxford: Berghahn.
Crossley, N. 2002. `Global Anti-Corporate Struggle: A Preliminary Analysis’, British Journal of Sociology 53(4): 667—91.
Cullum, B. 2010. What makes a Twitter hashtag successful? Movements.org, 17 December 2010, http://www.movements.org/blog/entry/what-makes-a-twitter-hashtag-successful/
Gee, J. 2005. Semiotic social spaces and affinity spaces. In D. Barton and K. Tusting (eds)Beyond Communities of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Panofsky, Aaron 2011. Field Analysis and Interdisciplinary Science: Scientific Capital Exchange in Behavior Genetics. Minerva 49 (3):295-316.
Postill, John. 2008. ‘Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks’. New Media & Society, 10:413-431.
Postill, John. 2011. Localizing the Internet: An Anthropological Account, Oxford and New York, Berghahn.
Postill, J. forthcoming. Fields as dynamic clusters of practices, games, and socialities. In V. Amit (ed.) Sociality: An Anthropological Interrogation. Oxford: Berghahn.
Prior, N. 2008. ‘Putting a Glitch in the Field: Bourdieu, Actor Network Theory and Contemporary Music”, Cultural Sociology, 2: 3, pp 301–319.
Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.