Home / Events / Liz Losh, "The Metadata is the Message: Understanding the Rhetoric of Social Movements Online"

Liz Losh, "The Metadata is the Message: Understanding the Rhetoric of Social Movements Online"

Rhetoric@Davis Research Cluster Event
When Jan 20, 2015
from 04:00 PM to 06:00 PM
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Abstract: #Tahrir, #Zuccotti, #IndiaGate, #Taksim, #Ferguson. All of these hashtags index a particular informational thread of protest within the larger cultural conversation. Such hashtags simultaneously mark the importance of a specific geographical location in which the body is at risk – of being jailed, deported, beaten, tortured, or executed – and in which the body becomes part of a political crowd that agitates for a more direct and less representative form of democracy.  Online communities form and congregate around particularly charged keywords, and often political conversations appear to be energized by this access to a shared lexicon. Although “hashtag activism” often tags content with particular slogans, such as #yesallwomen or #handsupdontshoot, it is noteworthy that trending topics on Twitter are also likely to reference proper names and thus to tether the language of social movements to stable and specific informational tags. In addition to referencing geographical locations that can serve as sites of gathering, they may also name specific individuals who are commemorated as victims of violence (#Neda, #MikeBrown, #TrayvonMartin, etc.) This desire to name the victim with a hashtag can be problematic if the consciousness-raising effort involves awareness campaigns about rape or sexual assault, as was the case for those agitating for change in response to the Delhi Rape Case.

In Networks of Outrage and Hope Manuel Castells asserts that political power is expressed both through violence to the body and through knowledge systems. First, the relationship between the body that can be counted and the body that can be harmed is central to the cultural imaginaries of digital revolution. The presence of the body can be signaled in a number of ways, including through genres such as selfies in the square. Second, activism represents procedural logics that have taken a computational turn as protocols of political organization and disruption not only agitate for radical change but also perform informational labor that creates new sorting systems in the political order, so that the metadata is increasingly the message.  This presentation complicates Castells’ analysis of social movements by emphasizing the fact that participants rarely behave like idealized netizens or citizen journalists.  Thus narratives about “tweeting the revolution” should reflect the messiness of existing practices and how norms from digital culture may actually be transposed to the sites of social movements. Thus protesters may bring techniques and tactics for building community or agitating for disruption learned from participating in game worlds, fan sites, hacker hubs, troll havens, showcases for microcelebrity, or other online environments.

Liz Losh studies media history, institutions as digital content-creators, the discourses of the "virtual state," the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, online political activism for human rights, electronic art that uses hacktivism, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday digital practices. She has published articles about digital literacy, citizen journalism, videogames for the military and emergency first-responders, government websites and YouTube channels, state-funded distance learning efforts, national digital libraries, political blogging, congressional hearings on the Internet, and the role of gender and sexuality in technoculture.

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