Socio-cultural dynamics online

Carrie Karsgaard, Michael Hockenhull, and Maggie MacDonald – University of Alberta – Mapping (Anti)Colonial Issue Publics on Instagram

As a settler colonial state (Tuck, McKenzie, & McCoy, 2014), settler centrality and superiority is naturalized in Canada through policy, law, and ideology, at the expense of Indigenous peoples who continue to be displaced from the land, which is conceptualized as a “resource.” Despite the seemingly static nature of settler-colonial structures, however, these are tested through the participatory social space of Instagram, which enables the formation of counterpublics and resistant discourses around specific controversies, such as Canada’s currently contentious Trans Mountain pipeline. Using large-scale digital social data available on Instagram, this project maps social life of this colonial and environmental controversy, its issues and its publics, as it develops according to medium-specific affordances.

Grounded in an understanding of society as performative rather than pre-given (see Latour, 2005), issue mapping (Marres & Moats, 2015; Marres & Weltevrede, 2013) draws on controversy mapping (Venturini 2010a & 2010b) to focus on issues and the publics that form around them, being “concerned with the social and unstable life of the matters on which we do not agree and with how the actors involved are connected to each other” (Rogers, Sánchez-Querubín, & Kil, 2015, p. 9). This study operationalizes issue mapping through digital methods (Rogers, 2013), engaging with the multiple grammars of Instagram, including hashtagging, text, and imagery, to explore how platform dynamics allow (or disallow) various means of expressing issue alignment by various publics according to colonial lines. The medium specificity of Instagram creates an arena for what Fraser (1990) names interpublic relations, wherein competing counterpublics are networked around the controversy rather than being obscured by the gatekeepers and agenda setters that dominate traditional modes of public discourse (Elmer, Langlois & McKelvey, 2012). This project will visualize this social issue using multiple network counter-maps in order to explore how publics “[unsettle] the very categories that constitute the intelligibility of modern power relations” (Crampton, 2010, p. 125) in Canada’s colonial context, remapping the social themselves through their online expressions.

Nadine I. Kozak – University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – ‘We won’t allow politicians to speak for us anymore’: Sex workers, social media, and protest

In the 1990s, discourse abound concerning the dangers lurking on the internet, a discourse resurrected by supporters of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which became law on 11 April 2018 in the United States. The law intends to curb illegal prostitution and sex trafficking by holding websites that “knowingly” facilitate either activity both criminally and civilly responsible. Seeking to protect themselves from liability, websites closed adult services listings in response. The Department of Justice and groups supporting sex trafficking victims find it more difficult to stop sex trafficking absent digital traces. Furthermore, the closure of websites that enabled sex workers to vet potential clients makes their work lives less safe.

This study analyses how sex workers and sex trafficking victims are using social media to protest FOSTA, organise offline actions, and share their experiences, thus challenging the dominant discourse. French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that it is through subjugated knowledges—local and popular knowledges that are ignored and disqualified—that “criticism performs its work.” I employ a Foucauldian lens to investigate the subjugated knowledges of sex workers and sex trafficking victims and their criticisms of FOSTA. To do this, the study uses qualitative and quantitative content analysis of the Twitter hashtag #letussurvive and the blog “Survivors against SESTA.” It also analyses the inclusion of sex workers’ and sex trafficking victims’ perspectives on FOSTA in the popular press. I argue that the case reveals the power of subjugated knowledges to reframe debate and the ability of social media to disseminate discourses often omitted from the public sphere. The study illuminates, in Foucault’s terms, “an insurrection of subjugated knowledges.”

Ysabel Gerrard, Helen Thornham – University of Sheffield – The gendering of social media’s algorithmic recommendations

Social media content partly circulates through platforms’ algorithmic recommendation systems; that is, users might search for keywords and view the ‘top’ results, and some platforms suggest new content to users while they browse. Recommendation systems are responsible for showing users what they likely want to see (Gerrard, 2018), but platforms’ methods of ascertaining which posts have similarities to others are notoriously opaque (Gillespie, 2012). In this paper, we argue that recommendation systems are having material effects on how social phenomena – specifically content related to eating disorders (EDs) – are seen and understood by social media users. We used in-platform searches on Instagram, Pinterest on Tumblr to collect a dataset of 975 unique posts, and our content analysis revealed an algorithmic conflation between posts related to eating disorders and those associated with other feminised phenomena, such as fitness, healthy eating, diet plans, cosmetics, and fashion. Although these associations are not necessarily unexpected, they reveal platforms’ complicity in the gendering of social phenomena and a misguided alignment of eating disorders with vanity and thinness (Bordo, 2003). Our findings also provoke new discussions about the social costs of recommendation systems, particularly for vulnerable publics. For example, although searching is a ‘symbiotic process that both informs and is informed in part by users’ (Noble, 2018, p.25), our concern is that search results could be viewed as a window of truth into how an ED ‘should’ be experienced: thin, hyper-feminised, white, consumerist/middle-class, and young.

This paper adds to a longstanding body of feminist scholarship concerned with the gendering of technological systems (amongst others, Wajcman (1991), Cockburn (1992), Bassett (2013)), as well as more recent scholarly and popular writing about the politics of recommendation systems (amongst others, Hallinan and Striphas (2016); Noble (2018); Tufekci (2018)), a fundamental yet under-studied communicative dimension of social media.

Laurie Waller – University of East Anglia – Du Bois’s maps as devices: Changing digital social research with early social data experiments

Digital mapping practices – practices involving digital network cartography and visualisation – today occupy a central place in the work of many empirical social researchers. The introduction of digital mapping into social research has been widely claimed by proponents to unsettle disciplinary ontologies of the social, highlighting entanglements of social data with media and technology. In this paper, I ask to what extent digital mapping practices might not only upset disciplinary conventions but also contribute to a broader revaluing of data-intensive approaches to empirical sociology.

Taking the occasion of recent debates about the sociological contribution of W.E.B Du
Bois’s early experiments in social mapping, this paper aims to both (1) explore precedents for digital mapping in sociology today and (2) to examine the role Du Bois’s data visualisations played as devices that could problematise social ontology. A range of recent accounts have foregrounded Du Bois’s data-intensive survey research in the The Philadelphia Negro as the locus of the study’s originality in empirical sociology. These accounts suggest that Du Bois’s maps of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward emerged principally through analytical techniques of “triangulating” results from surveys, observations and census data and projecting the findings onto physical urban space. Such accounts, I suggest, largely overlook the role played by other kinds of ‘secondary’ data that enabled Du Bois to systematically trace heterogeneous racist constructions of the “negro problem” and visually demonstrate the “color line” as it had materialised within multiple facets of urban life. Through a re-reading of The Philadelphia Negro this paper proposes to examine Du Bois’s maps as devices designed to experimentally problematise Philadelphia’s racist “social atmosphere”, showing how the problems of the Seventh Ward were distributed across networks of Philadelphia’s social fabric from corrupt practices of the life insurance industry to the racialisation of crime by the criminal justice system.

Relating the concept of the ‘map as device’ to my own attempts to work with digital mapping practices, I suggest the value of such practices for empirical social research may not lie principally in their localised analytical value so much as their experimental capacities to engage with distributed social problems.